The Lion ROARS, what a great piece of theater

The Lion

by Wickham Boyle
Contributor
Wednesday Feb 11, 2015
Ben Scheuer

Ben Scheuer  (Source:www.broadwayworld.com)

A 5 p.m. matinee on a snowy Saturday seemed like a punishment, when all I wanted was tea and comfort, but two minutes into Ben Scheuer’s “The Lion” at the Culture Project, was the only place I could imagine being. What a joy, a wild unexpected ride and a heart-opening experience.

Benjamin Scheuer is tall and fit and so handsome with a shock of messy brown hair and fingers so fast on any of the seven guitars arrayed on stage that for the music and the visage alone you may be willing to surrender to his one-man show. His voice is never perfect, but so alluring, and even better than perfection is the story he has to tell. Scheuer is sharing with us, ever so generously, the tale of his coming to manhood. And we all know that voyage is full of trips, cracking voices, explosions, challenges, sadness and joys, but his is a gripping one.

Scheuer had a stern mathematician father who also harbored a desire and talent for music. He taught young Ben to play on a banjo constructed out of a pie pan with rubber bands and Ben and his dad played music on and off with his two younger brothers. The three boys comprised the lion pack inside the family’s pride. Scheuer’s father was mercurial, one day sweet and funny the next screaming and abusive. Ben caught his full wrath in the weeks leading up to his 14th birthday and then tragically his father died before there could be a denouement.

His British mother took young Ben and the other lion cubs back to England for boarding school and more strictness. Finally Ben headed back to America to be an erstwhile musician; along the way he falls in love, plays hard rock, falls ill and recovers. Well, we knew he would get better otherwise someone else would be telling the story, but knowing he ascends doesn’t in any way diminish this glorious, uplifting piece.

The stories are heartfelt and never maudlin, the music is sweet, or tangy or sad and sings and twangs to tug on our heartstrings. The piece moves with the well-paced direction of Sean Daniels and combines so seamlessly that at the end the tired, cold audience rose to its feet cheering.

The Lynn Redgrave Theater, one of the many spaces at Culture Project, is a clean theater, one that seems to accommodate many different kinds of work at varying levels of wonder and resonance. But the technical elements, the design, the sound, the lights are always so well wrought. In this instance the spare but alluring set design was by Neil Patel, light by Ben Stanton and sound, which worked so well by Leon Rosenberg. This is a great winter interlude.

“The Lion” runs through March 29 at The Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street in New York City. For information or tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://cultureproject.org/current/lion/

INSIDE EDGE

Liz Swados’ “The Nomad” at The Flea theater

The cast of 'The Nomad'

The cast of ‘The Nomad’  (Source:www.stageandcinema.com)

Winter still has us in her icy grip, but at the innovative Flea Theater on White Street downtown, the hot winds of the Sahara blow across your face and you can be transported for 70 minutes to a different time and place in a new work called “The Nomad.” It is composed and directed by Elizabeth Swados, with a book and lyrics by Swados and Erin Courtney. Swados is a composer and lyricist best known for taking epic stories and far flung cultures and translating them into musical excursions. She dives in headlong.

Swados began by composing a trio of Greek plays that rocked LaMama Theater in the early ’70s. Directed and co-conceived by Andre Serban, these seminal works went on to tour the world and be revived serially at La Mama and elsewhere, always to great acclaim. Swados is a novelist, a poet and often she find tortured souls to channel and to whom to give second life.

She has done this again with the life of Isabelle Eberhardt, whose brief life, 1877-1904 has received great attention of late. In 2012 composer Missy Mazzola mounted a full-blown opera called “Uproar” about Isabelle’s perambulations in the Algerian desert. It received a glorious production at the Kitchen.

Eberhardt convinced her mother to voyage to Algiers so she could explore and convert to Islam, a religion that fascinated her. Isabelle dressed as a man and took this purloined freedom into battles, sexual escapes, mosques and to her favorite place the dreamy desert. Her dual nature, man and woman, was also evinced in her joint ability to consort with the French Colonists and the native Berbers. She was a writer by trade and kept extensive journals, which spun stories and winsome poetry. She died tragically at 27 when a flash flood consumed her nomadic home while she was deep asleep.

“The Nomad” attempts to tell in quick vignettes, each with an accompanying song — 22 of them in total — the life and times of Isabelle Eberhardt. The set, props, costumes and puppets create simple scenes utilizing woven muslin panels, turbans, indigo fabrics, hookahs and lanterns carried by the large and talented ensemble cast.

Isabelle has two portrayers, the very young and talented Sydney Blaxill, just out of NYU’s Tisch program and her more grown self, played by Terri Madonna. On occasion the two women come together to sing the longing and passions of an equally bifurcated character.

Behind the well-lighted scrim (Daisy Long designer) there is a marvelous five-piece ensemble, a host of musicians playing the sounds of the Call to Prayer, the echoes of the souk and the songs of Isabelle’s soul. Although the music at times hits a dissonant chord for me, the overall effect does transport to a place and culture I so adore.

Especially in modern times when the conflicts within the Middle East seem to spill out constantly, it is refreshing to see a portrayal of the potential roots of resentment stemming from colonial captors and cultures not fully respected. “The Nomad” takes pains to show the history of the time as well as of Isabelle, a character so driven to live the life she yearned for that she established a way to live multiple lives in one short span.

The Flea Theater continues to turn out work that seems large scale in a small surrounding due largely, I believe, to its program of nurturing young theater artists through The Bats. This gives The Flea not only a way to help educate the next generation of great artists, but also to provide staging that fills a room, from the staircases to a rolling dancing number called the Oblivion Seekers who populate an opium den while singing in amazing harmonies.

The Nomad may not be a perfect evening, but it is a wonderful interlude nestled in a different culture and the heat of the desert. And a life of wanderlust and fearlessness as evinced by Isabelle Eberhardt is certainly something to laud in times of too much fear.

“The Nomad” runs through April 6 at The Flea, 41 White Street in New York. For information or tickets, call 212-226-0051 or visit www.theflea.org

Smart Mouth: an interview with Fran Leibowitz

*published on CBS Watch Magazine

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WHO CARES IF FRAN LEBOWITZ ISN’T WRITING, AS LONG AS SHE KEEPS TALKING?

Fran Lebowitz has been hilariously deconstructing the American landscape for decades with a signature sneer that peppers her essays, interviews andPublic Speaking, a documentary made by Martin Scorsese.

Born in 1950, Lebowitz decamped from Morristown, N.J., after being thrown out of high school for insubordination. She pursued a variety of jobs, including driving a taxi, cleaning houses and selling ads for a magazine, all the while observing the iconic world of 1970s New York. By the age of 21 she was penning a column called “I Cover the Waterfront” for Andy Warhol’sInterview magazine. Her biting tone and rapier wit won her a dedicated following and her essays were collected in two volumes, 1978’sMetropolitan Life and 1981’s Social Studies.

Since then, she has scowled and prognosticated on subjects as diverse as children, travel, insomnia, politics, her love for her 1979 pearl gray Checker Marathon automobile, and the state of the world. In 2007 Vanity Fair named Lebowitz one of the year’s most stylish women (she has her tailored suits and jackets made by Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard). But there have been no new books. Decades ago, Lebowitz sold a book proposal for a novel called Exterior Signs of Wealth. In theory, it is about artists who want to be rich and their obverse, the fabulously wealthy who yearn to be artists. In her usually self-deprecating way, Lebowitz describes her failure to write not as writer’s block but rather “writer’s blockade.”

On a rainy day at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, Lebowitz talked toWatch!, between cigarette breaks, about … well, everything.

Watch!: I checked out The Fran Lebowitz Reader from the New York University library and brought it with me, thinking it would be a fun act of insubordination for you to sign the book; like vandalism in reverse. A first edition, now signed and worth more.
Fran Lebowitz: I am not a library fanatic, but I’m glad they have a library at NYU. A library is a repository for books, and soon we may not have books. A library without books is a restaurant, and it seems to be the goal of every single institution to just be a restaurant.

Watch!: I heard a debate on National Public Radio about whether the foodie fad had replaced the love of music.
Lebowitz: I am quite gluttonous; I like to eat. But I do not think it is an art form. The reason people are so interested in food is because it is so easy to know about. Even at a high level it is still not learning Anglo-Saxon; it’s not that complicated. I don’t mean cooking, I mean eating. When people say, “Do you want to try this place? It got great reviews,” I say, “In the end, it’s dinner.” Usually cultures that are this decadent have reached a higher peak of civilization first. We didn’t. We went right from primitivism to decadence without having a culture in between.

Watch!: Rereading your work, it was interesting to think about the people who criticize it as dated, with the reference to discos and poppers.
Lebowitz: This is true about novels, too. I am not comparing myself to Jane Austen, but no one ever says that she is too much writing about her time. Even if you don’t think you are writing about your time, you are. To me what profoundly dates work is wrong ideas. Of course, all details date. But when people respond they do so, and either they ignore the details or they are interested in them. What never progresses is human nature. People still like Shakespeare, and that is not because of the details, not because people are kings, but because people’s emotions and their responses to things are unhappily never changing.

Watch!: Is it the place of the cultural observer to merely comment, or to help people make changes?
Lebowitz: I don’t think I am setting about to help people. People who actually help people are doctors. I have always wished that people would listen to me and do what I say … but they never have. So whenever people criticize me and say, “You shouldn’t do that, because you are a role model,” I say, “Are you kidding? I have been trying to get people to do what I want for my entire life and they never do.”

Watch!: You were widely seen playing a judge onLaw and Order. Now that it’s over, is there some-thing else you want to be on?
Lebowitz: I’d like to be on the actual Supreme Court. You don’t have to be a lawyer to be on the Supreme Court. I think it has probably been ages since that happened, but I feel I am qualified. I am very focused on the Supreme Court in general, probably out of envy for not having that job. It is always surprising to me when it takes them a long time to decide on something. Because I think, “Are you kidding me?” That is actually the easiest judging job, to say, “Is it constitutional or not?”

Watch!: Is it true you don’t carry a cellphone?
Lebowitz: No cellphone, no microwave oven, no computer. The reason I have no computer is that I never learned to type. When they first invented computers I thought it was a fast way to type. I thought, “I don’t need this, I don’t know how to type.” I didn’t know the whole world was going to go on this machine. I have a vacuum cleaner, but luckily I don’t use it. I don’t have a very sympathetic relationship with machinery. I am the kind of person where if something breaks, I hit it.

Watch!: But you have a wonderful car?
Lebowitz: I have had the same car since 1979, a Checker Marathon. When I first got it, I was young and I used to drive it around town; I am too old now. I would have lots of cars if I won the lottery. I have only one photograph displayed in my house, and it’s of my car.

Watch!: In the documentary Public Speaking, you say that genius comes around only once in a lifetime. Who would you consider the geniuses in your lifetime?
Lebowitz: The three greatest geniuses of the 20th century were Picasso, Balanchine and Stravinsky. We weren’t contemporaries, however.

Watch!: How about contemporaries?
Lebowitz: There may be people at that level of genius, but I’m not aware of them. One thing that seems extremely unlikely now is the undiscovered genius. Every season there is a new genius in every field, and that was never the case. It is a very rare thing to be a genius. It is so rare that Albert Einstein is still the example of genius. Until fairly recently, people didn’t get called geniuses if they got rich. I am sure Mark Zuckerberg is very smart at business, but it is my understanding that he didn’t invent anything. He reconfigured something. So did Martha Stewart, but she didn’t say, “I invented setting the table!”

Watch!: In the same documentary, you said that AIDS wiped away the most critical voices in the arts.
Lebowitz: What I was saying was there was a general acknowledgment that many very good artists died, but I also said that the audience died too, and there is no acknowledgment of that. And the level of artists dropped in some way. If Charles Ludlam had lived, the other lesser directors may not have risen up. In a dark way, it is very helpful if people better than you die. That was my point. If all the people more talented than you die, then the culture comes around to you. So many people died and that is an unusual thing, except in a war.

Watch!: What do you think Andy Warhol would have thought of the cultural shift where there are no longer powerful critics, but the power of millions of critics on the Internet?
Lebowitz: I don’t know what Andy would have thought, but I imagine he would be flabbergasted at the place he holds as an artist, which is ridiculous. But of course, he would not be holding the place he does if he had lived. And I know this from bitter personal experience, because I sold all my Warhols for nothing two weeks before he died. Prices were that low. Now they will never go down because there is so much institutional and personal financial investment in keeping those prices high.

Watch!: What do you think of the Kardashians ?
Lebowitz: Here’s what I think … and this is such a prevalent thing, that I who have never seen the Kardashians have an opinion and know who they are. I don’t know one from the other, but I know there are many of them. I do think that obviously many people in this country deserve the Kardashians, but I am not one of them. I feel the same way about them as I did about George Bush. Many people deserved him to be the president, but I am not one of them. The Kardashians deserve George Bush as the president. I am sure they will be replaced by some other group of morons. It is interesting how long this has lasted. It shows that even the very bottom of the culture is slow in changing.

Watch!: What is your idea of a perfect weekend?
Lebowitz: I make a deliberate effort to not go out of my apartment between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. The perfect weekend is one where I am alone, reading on my sofa, which is the perfect sofa. Designed by me to be read on. You lie with your head against the arm without a pillow. It is leather, which is the perfect fabric for a sofa because it doesn’t eat you. There are no pillows; it is comfortably firm, but doesn’t envelop you. The perfect sofa is like the perfect companion; you’re not aware of it. Furniture is one of my primary interests in life. My father and grandfather were upholsterers. So I grew up in a sea of upholstery samples. Certainly one of my favorite activities is looking through a Sotheby’s furniture catalog, which is almost wholly a fantasy.

Watch!: What is a trait you admire most in other artists?
Lebowitz: Productivity or a lack of sloth. I think that most people admire what they don’t have. I always admire writers who are highly productive and good, because many are productive and bad. But if they are productive and good then I admire and resent them.

Watch!: What’s on your bedside table?
Lebowitz: A telephone, two pairs of eyeglasses, a crystal cigarette box that was a gift from the San Francisco Public Library that is engraved to me, and a television remote control. But not books, because I do not read in bed. I gave up reading in bed because I can never sleep and I thought reading is too stimulating. Nothing can put me to sleep. If I were shot in the head I would still be awake. The only time I have no trouble sleeping is in the afternoon. I like to nap.

Watch!: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Lebowitz: I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I feel guilt when I do something wrong. I feel constantly guilty for not writing, but that is so constant and long term, it is just a part of being awake. But I think pleasure is good. How can pleasure be bad, unless you are a psychopath and your pleasure is being a serial killer? I don’t feel guilty for smoking. I am addicted to smoking and I do not feel equal to giving up this addiction. It is a habit, not a character trait. You are not a good person because you are a vegetarian and you are not a bad person because you eat a hamburger.

Watch!: What do you fear most?
Lebowitz: Blank paper. Writing is very difficult and I am very lazy. Writing is not the only difficult thing that I don’t like to do, but it is the only difficult thing I am supposed to be doing. And now, I’m going outside to smoke.

Mummenschanz: theatre review

*published 24 Nov 2014 on The EDGE

The wordless magic of 'Mummenschanz'

The wordless magic of ‘Mummenschanz’  (Source:nyuskirball.org)

 

Mummenschanz is a Swiss mask theater company that perform a series of skits or acts all done wordlessly and without music. It is not mime; it is so much better. In fact they are so good that they had a Broadway run from 1977 to 1980 and today the work is wonderfully fresh.

I wanted to introduce ‘Mummenschanz’ to a new generation, so I invited a 7-year-old pal to join me. This is a smart kid who on our walk over regaled me with news of her own iPad and the games she plays on it. I was a tad worried by the low-tech, OK really, no-tech aspect of our planned afternoon, I needn’t have been. She was enthralled.

This year’s show is entitled “The Musicians of Silence” and it is part dance, part puppet show and part theatrical wizardry. The skits are short and so inventive. A giant green pea slithers onto the stage to devour a stuffed animal and then detesting the flavor, attempts to wipe its tongue clean to the giggles of every kid in the packed house at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

Enormous tutus transform into seahorses and swimming fish, a day-glow ribbon dances against a black backdrop to the sound of the whipping fabric moving in increasing swirls and orbits until your eyes continue the images even after the dance is done.

There are moments when the company wisely brings up the house lights, which for the most part are very dim, so that the performers can run through the audience creating a wonderful havoc with antics. They are clad in black velvet bodysuits that even cover their faces, so they can invisibly manipulate the puzzle pieces, or puppet arms and legs, to stunning results. One loses track of the human and only sees the fun.

The company is comprised of Floriana Frassetto, one of the company’s founders, and Philipp Eglie, Raffaella Mattioli, Pietro Montandon and a duo of tech directors, Eric Sauge and Dino de Maio. These six make real magic come to life on the stage. In one skit, two performers arrive on stage wearing gray masks and they proceed to have both a fight and a competition.

One performer in a scary-looking mask attacks the other pulling his ears down into long dog-like appendages. The seemingly injured party rebounds by manipulating her face to create a sweet dog snout, thus trumping the attack. They continue back and forth, pig to owl, to fish to bull, to sheep to hedgehog, to monster and we are thrilled. All of this is done in full view of the audience with no mirrors, only hands to guide and reshape masks on the spot.

Another encounter with transformation has an enormous yellow tube similar to plumbing apparatus in which a dancer cavorts with a big red rubber ball on its base. It rolls and then tosses the ball to the audience. On our afternoon the kids in the front row tossed the ball back dutifully every time. The tube made it clear that it wanted the ball to circulate; I have seen it do that before eliciting much oohing and ahhing. Finally the tube with no face, no words, only a body language, made it clear how dejected it was, and took the big ball and went off stage.

Mummenschanz was founded in 1972 and it is a testament to the power of wordless art and theater that is remains so fresh and can still captivate audiences for the first or the umpteenth time.

Mummenschanz runs through Nov. 30 at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Pl. in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-992-8484 or visit nyuskirball.org/calendar/mummenschanz2014

“generations” At the SOHO Rep: South Africa comes downtown

The Soho Rep downtown is a place where for decades one can expect to witness many new plays, difficult works, challenging language and ideas of brutality and beauty, but never in all these years as anything like the glorious “generations” graced the entirety of the Walker Street space.

I knew nothing about this production when a wise journalist pal visiting from Jakarta tipped me to it; such is the miracle of modern global existence. From the moment the audience enters the theater, now filled with the evocative, bright orange sand of southern Africa to the tin walls painted the brightest colors available, one is in South Africa. The theater is set up with a random selection of chairs and stools all scattered willy-nilly around a cook stove and a kitchen table. The onions are simmering and the air is redolent with spices.

A troika of tall men in summer shirts was installed behind where we sat and made glib conversation with the audience as if they too were just there for the show. I think we all knew better. But nothing could prepare my soul and spirit for what happened when the first foot falls thudded to the ground and the conga blared and voices boomed in chants and clicks and undulations transforming the small space into a sacred shrine.

The miracle of a play, written by debbie tucker green (yes, all lower case, like the title) is in fact a circular tone poem. It is the same language repeated in different cadences, by different cast members, overlapping words and people on top of each other. “I was the cooker — you was the cookless — I was the cooker who coached the cookless.” It is in the same rhythm as Gertrude Steins, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” With many more iterations, prose and voices.

It is told at first by the entire three generation ensemble: grandparents who are so evocative and moving, Thuli Dumakude and Jonathan Peck; parents, Ntombikhona Diamini and Michael Rogers; and young soon-to-be lovers: the girlfriend so fierce and independent Shyko Amos, and the sweetie who woes her, the irrepressible Mamoudou Athie.

There is a junior sister, sweet and troublemaking Khail Toi Bryant and of course, the kick-ass choir featuring 13 members each better voiced and more winsome than the next. The choir makes the room vibrate and locks the piece together like musical super glue. The composition, arrangement and music direction is by Bongi Duma whose current credits, of course are musical director for “The Lion King.” But, here you get the same transportive music in what might be your back yard and it is so gob smacking.

The immersive set is by Arnulfo Maldonado and is brought to life by the genius of the duo behind Scenic Factory, George Hoffman and Greg Kozatek, who is really a sorcerer for sourcing props and set décor. Of course, none of this could make a 45-minute piece coalesce without director Leah Gardiner who understands how to move bodies and emotions and whose work is often seen at SOHO Rep.

“generations” runs through Nov. 9 at SOHO Rep Theater, 46 Walker Street, in New York. For information or tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit sohorep.org or playco.org

just shea: harvesting a new reality

*published on september 29, 2014 in ABC Home

by Julia Sweeney

Despite possessing a resume that includes experience as an editor, experimental theater producer, and Wall Street stockbroker, Wicki Boyle felt inspired to begin a new career in her late 50s — in Africa, no less. What would be seen as a daunting challenge for many is an exciting opportunity for Boyle, a woman who relishes in adventures in the unknown (her time spent writing for National Geographic is quite literally an example of this).

Boyle is the co-founder of Just Shea, a social business focused on empowering women shea collectors and harvesters in Northern Ghana through the sale of shea-based cosmetics. Just Shea products – lusciously soft salves for feet, hands, face, and lips created from Ghanaian shea butter – are now available both online and in-store in ABC Home. After discussing her life, career, and Just Shea recently, we part ways — but not before she proffers a genuine hug. An appropriate gesture, perhaps: Boyle’s ability to embrace the new with open arms is truly special.

Wickham-BoyleImage of Wicki Boyle, Ozier Muhammad / The New York Times

Boyle met Just Shea’s founder, Danielle Grace Warren, through The Op-Ed Project (a movement to increase the number of women thought leaders in key international commentary forums). They became friends – frankly, we can’t imagine not finding Boyle instantly companionable – and when Warren informed Boyle she was headed to Ghana, a deeper connection was forged.

Warren would eventually establish the One Village Planet-Women’s Development Initiative, a humanitarian organization focused on sustainable development projects for women in Haiti and Ghana (the profits of Just Shea are channeled to their shea-related activities in Ghana). Boyle, knowing very little about what Warren would actually end up doing, nevertheless felt compelled to get involved. She says, “I wrote her basically just saying, ‘I love Ghana. Can I help?’”

danielleDanielle Grace Warren, right

Eventually, Just Shea was born, a company that is capitalizing on a tremendously underutilized industry while enabling women entrepreneurs to establish true, viable businesses. In Africa, shea is known as “womenʼs gold”: Nut collection and processing are designated women’s work. More than 600,000 women collect shea nuts in Ghana, with the industry benefiting more than 2 million individuals (particularly because women tend to reinvest their profits back into their families and communities). Moreover, shea’s rising popularity – it’s seemingly laced in every single cream on the market today – makes it a sector for real growth. Yet over 25% of shea nuts harvested from Ghana’s trees are neither sold nor processed domestically; 60% of the available shea nuts go uncollected.

Just-Shea-1

This is largely due to the challenges the women shea nut collectors face, obstacles Warren witnessed firsthand. Boyle explains, “She was seeing that women collecting shea nuts – because it is a women’s job, men will not pick up anything off of the ground – are being bitten by poisonous snakes and scorpions. They don’t have any gear to protect their exposed hands, feet, or faces.” Moreover, as shea collecting often happens at night – so as to not interfere with their daytime responsibilities – they are forced to do so almost entirely in the dark, thus crippling efficiencies.

Based off of the concept of hands, feet, and faces (articulated in their products) Just Shea provides the simple tools these women need to be successful: Boots for the feet, gloves for their hands, and hats for their heads. Boyle remarks, “I like that our company very clearly tells you what we’re doing, but not in this longwinded way. You can literally see the connection.”

Just-Shea-2

Aside from this gathering gear, the profits for Just Shea help fund other critical logistical elements, such as solar-powered flashlights and silos to store the nuts, allowing collectors to aggregate the crop and sell it year-round (hitherto, many would abandon nuts that they were unable to store). Boyle and Warren have also launched an interest-free loan initiative, which enables women to take out money against a bag of collected shea nuts. This cash advance at the onset of the harvest season means they can hold onto their crop investments and sell during opportune market fluctuations.

While empowering women is rewarding for Boyle, creating a truly outstanding product is equally exciting. She comments, “We know that we have to make it twice as good as the next product, because people will not buy something just because it has a backstory — it has to be great.” Their shea butter formula, developed by a New York-based chemist, feels nothing like the heavy, often-sticky products we’ve encountered in the past. It glides on smooth and light, a refreshing — and new — articulation.

So, much like Boyle and the many women of entrepreneurs Just Shea, shea butter has taken on a new lease in life — one that feels very, very good. Shop Just Shea, below.

Just-Shea-_ just shea hand salve; $40 | just shea lip salve; $20 | just shea face salve; $55 | just shea foot salve; $40

 All images except top via Just Shea 

Scenes From a Marriage: a review

*published 30 Sept 2014 on The EDGE

The rotating cast of 'Scenes From a Marriage'

The rotating cast of ‘Scenes From a Marriage’  (Source:http://www.thewrap.com)

 

 

Ingmar Bergman made some deep, cutting and insightful movies. So whether you recall the movie,“Scenes From a Marriage” or not has no bearing on whether you are moved by this new, wild ride of a play conceived and directed by the marvelous Ivo Van Hove.

The movie portrayed one couple Johan and Marianne and we followed the vagaries and viciousness of their marriage. In the new imagining at The New York Theater Workshop on East Fourth Street there are three couples playing the original one. Yes it is complicated, but also infinitely intriguing, very much like relationships.

The small thrust theater has been divided into three distinct spaces, and the audience actually enters through a trio of doors depending on the color of your wristband. Once inside your theater, you begin to see the marriage of Johan and Marianne, either cast 1, 2 or 3. You may see them in any random order, I happened to see them 1, 2, 3 but a friend saw 3, I, 2.

This represents the couple at different stages of their lives and relationship. Happy and newly pregnant; a quarrelling and sexless marriage; and Johan leaving to marry a young student. My truncated telling condenses the facts into too tight a space because the fights, the unpeeling of the onion of the relationship are the crux of the play and of any long-term relationship. As an observer, the sadness and futility of the fights and clumsy attempts to rebuild love are heart breaking.

Although there are three different playing areas, they all share a central hub that serves as a cohesive backstage. This area has glass walls so from the get-go the audience observes the various couples exiting, gathering props or blowing off steam. All of this action is intended to be overheard in all three theaters, but to differing degrees. In fact, there is so much sound leakage that if most of the audience members didn’t inhabit New York City apartments, it might be very off putting.

However, the fretful conversation or sensuous groans so many native New Yorkers hear daily makes this layered sound juxtaposition an aural plus for those of us who delight in such confusion. Other audience members, overheard at the interval, were put off by hearing Leonard Cohen blaring twice from other rooms before actually experiencing it in the scene it was meant to illuminate.

The actors who played Johan and Marianne were as varied as the tumultuous roller coaster relationship they allow the audience voyeurs to watch. Alex Hurt and Susannah Flood were the first couple and the action and the interaction with another couple Peter, Erin Gann and Katrina played masterfully by Carmen Zilles, were by far the most compelling for this reviewer. The arch of their drama went from a perceived perfection of coupledom to ugly, angry fighting including an aborted pregnancy and the intendant despair of Marianne.

But in the next incarnation Johan 2, played by the excellent Dallas Roberts of late on “The Good Wife” and many other theatrical and televised works, and his Marianne (Roslyn Ruff) gave a great but sad portrayal of a marriage that had degraded further due to the constraints of children, work and the need to please everyone in their circle. Their intimacy had dwindled and died and so we are not surprised when the final troika of Johan and Marianne’s is preparing to divorce.

The third set of couples was the most problematic for me. Arliss Howard as the husband, throughout all the Sturm und Drang of packing and leaving, seemed never to embody the role. Rather he floated and stomped and never seemed present. His character was feckless and his wife seemed strong, yet enabling and it made for an uneasy partnering. It is difficult to parse whether one dislikes the actor or the act he is given, but in this case it might be both. In any event, the final couple parts and the curtain drops for intermission.

After a very welcome break, the entire work runs three hours plus, the audience returns and is reunited in the now open theater where the walls have all flown up and the seating is a zig-zag. They reunite on stage and proceed to repeat all their lines in a sort of cacophonic round. They then change partners quickly in reeling mode, each seamlessly moving to another husband or wife, sometimes in mid-sentence. This interaction illuminates both the similarity of every marital fight and the sameness and sharpness in our quotidian conversations. These wonderfully choreographed fights mark the high point of the play.

Finally, the couples drift off stage, clothing optional, with shoes, jeans and shirts dripping off the characters. The audience sits silently in the theater as the noisy copulating takes place in the wings. Everyone returns, redresses piece by piece and signs the divorce papers. Drama finished, correct?

Nope, it was time for a conversation with Marianne 3, Tina Benko and her mother Mia Katigbak, who had done well playing a client seeking a divorce in round two. Yes, these mother-daughter rapprochements are important, but I was exhausted from the therapeutic fighting, clanging symbols of unions gone wrong and sometimes, a play needs to end. After the mother daughter scene, with only one daughter doing the scene this time, Tina Benko and Arliss Howard reunite for yet another tryst.

Often when there is so much to take in, so many emotional highs and lows and a unique staging and casting concept, the producing team might opt for some simplification, the ‘less is more’ theory of stagecraft. The immersion and the privilege of watching wonderful acting, a great translation, by amazing Emily Mann, wonderful staging and ideas that are timeless were enough. “Scenes From A Marriage” is still an undertaking that will be seared into everyone who invests the time and emotion into watching it.

“Scenes From a Marriage” runs through Oct. 19 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street, New York. For tickets or information, call 212-780-9037 or visit www.nytw.org