Monthly Archives: May 2012

Director David Schweizer reconnects with Tennessee Williams

*published on May 7, 2012 in The EDGE

By his own admission, David Schweizer, who is at the helm of the newest and also the final Tennessee Williams’ play “Masks Outrageous and Austere,”grew up in a conservative, gentile, preppy household in Baltimore.

David Schweizer
David Schweizer  

“I went to a boy’s day school and I could have been a totally different person if I hadn’t been sick so much. I was a classic blue baby with a heart valve issue. So I was treated like a little princeling and spent lots of time home reading Renaissance literature and living in my own little world. I was obsessed with the pageantry of history and the gold embossed books that told the story of courtly France. I lay in my bed and had toys that I made into the court of Versailles. The lucky thing was that I was near Johns Hopkins Hospital and so that heart issue was taken care of by the time I was a teenager. But not before I developed a weird arty sensibility.”

Anyone who has seen the 40-year arch of Schweizer’s theater direction is conversant with that off center sensibility. He was famously the protégé of Robert Brustein at Yale as an undergraduate and then got a propitious early start under the auspices of Joseph Papp, during the era at the Public Theater when it was ripe with new writers, needing new directors.

Shirley Knight in “In Masks Outrageous and Austere”  

’Enfant terrible’

Schweizer says,” I was directing professional plays in New York City right out of college. That’s unheard of–so I had a little enfant terrible period. ” He directed a radical re-imaging of “Troilus & Cressida” at Lincoln Center shortly after college in 1974. In the decades since, he has helmed critically acclaimed world premiere plays, performance works, musicals, operas, and off-Broadway works. He has opened shows in London, Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo and Poland.

Schweizer was involved in the Los Angeles theatre scene in the late 1970s at the Mark Taper Forum debuting with Len Jenkins’s “Kid Twist,” which led to various staff and directing stints for LATC, The Actors’ Gang, Modern Artists, UCLA, Coast Playhouse, Geffen Playhouse and Long Beach Opera among many others. He directed musicals, mainstream and main stage works at many regional theaters across America and he even ran the follow spot for John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous. He often directs and cavorts wearing animal print trousers, or a leopard bow tie, silk scarves all topped by a well-coifed shock of silvery hair and a shocking amount of kinetic energy.

In 2001, he garnered awards simultaneously on both for works he directed. Charles Mee’s “The Berlin Circle,” was named Production of the Year by LA Weekly, and Rinde Eckert’s Obie Award winning chamber opera, “And God Created Great Whales,” at The Culture Project on Bleecker Street in New York. Since then Schweizer reprised Eckert’s work downtown to great reviews and standing room only crowds.

Robert Beitzel in “In Masks Outrageous and Austere”  

Williams’ 100th birthday

Capitalizing on the success of ” Whales,” Schweizer wrangled the Culture Project into presenting Tennessee Williams’ final full-length play “In Masks Outrageous and Austere” in time for the playwright’s 100th birthday. This play was unfinished upon Williams death in 1983 at 71, and it went through tortured rewritings, computer generated additions and a host of artistic co-creators before opening under Schweizer’s direction to very mixed reviews.

Schweizer brings the bizarre to an in your face theatrical reality. “What I try to do–and what I do do to some extent–is combine the impulse toward some kind of formal challenge in the work, some kind of questioning of the means of storytelling with, increasingly as the years have gone by, a very audience-inclusive gesture,” he says.

“In other words, I think I’ve had my share over the years of, `Fuck it–I just don’t care what they think. I’m just going to please myself.’ Some pieces I made like that were quite interesting and good and some were terrible. But I think as you stick with the work you started just for the love of it and the excitement of it, and then you were lucky enough to be given a place in that world, quite young, so you’re a little bit spoiled, the years go by, and you have to kind of prove that you’re someone who deserves to stay on, to be given work year after year at theaters.

Christopher Halladay and Pamela Shaw n “In Masks Outrageous and Austere”  

Quirky artistic vision

“Also a lot of my generation who survived the AIDS plague years and remain alive and healthy kind of grabbed hold of a preciousness of life thing, and I don’t think I fly that flag of a New Agey, blatantly spiritual person. I nonetheless was changed by that”

Schweizer has taken his belief in life and his quirky artistic vision and poured them into the final Tennessee Williams’ work. There is also a wonderful personal twist to this story. “This project feels destined for me and even gives me a haunted feeling. You see, I am, I mean, I am now, exactly the age that Tennessee was when we spent our time together.

“I went down to Key West on spring break from Yale as a 19 year old, honestly in search of drugs and high jinx. Instead I met Tennessee Williams and spent the rest of the trip with him. He invited me to go to Europe with him and I did so. I was even late coming back to college. It was very memorable and I was just at the right age. I was intelligent and conversant about the theater and it wasn’t about being with the famous Tennessee Williams, but rather being with this extraordinary man. And I had the ability to raise his spirits.”

Tennessee Williams at his Key West home in 1971  

Could not be stopped

“It was remarkable to see this unbeaten creative spark, the ceaseless creativity; Tennessee would not be stopped. He rose every single day before dawn and banged away at that typewriter. I saw that and I was tremendously moved by it. I went back to school and on with my career. But I was in casual, affectionate touch with him until he died.

“I was so honored to share unabashedly the privacy and learning with him. And so to filter back in this Proustean way, to be given this vision, this last work and to mount it, to let people see were he was. Well, on an emotional level it is enormously significant.”

There really could have been no one else to whom Tennessee Williams’ final play could have been entrusted. But audiences are also eager to see the continued arch of David Schweizer’s career, and they should be.

The remaining performance schedule for “In Masks Outrageous and Austere” is: Tuesday-Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 2 & 8pm; Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $75 for Tuesday-Friday performances and$85 for Saturday & Sunday performances. They may be obtained by calling (866) 811-4111 or by visiting www.cultureproject.org.

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Man and Superman – theatre review

*published on May 7, 2012 in The EDGE

Let me begin with an admission; I am a Shavian novice. It is an embarrassment as I am half Irish and spent decades in the theater. I dove headlong into James Joyce, delved a bit with Oscar Wilde, O’Casey, Yates, Beckett and beyond; so how did I miss Shaw?

Watching “Man and Superman,” I sat alternating between guffaws and gob smackedness at the Irish Repertory Theater, a place I have also never been, and was over-the-moon with happiness.

I felt as if my brain had been scrubbed clean of the detritus of modern fluff and in its place was the glory of word play, political humor, true class struggles, national themes, and women’s rights. All were so well wrought that at first I thought I had tumbled into Bartlett’s most beloved quotations. Was all this Shaw?

Max Gordon Moore, Jonathan Hammond, and Janie Brookshire in "Man and Superman"

Max Gordon Moore, Jonathan Hammond, and Janie Brookshire in “Man and Superman”   (Source: Irish Rep)
My seat partner, a Shavian herself, soothed me at the interval by saying that she was sure I had just been too immersed in Shakespeare and experimentalism and that was how I missed Shaw. But I was both shaken and stirred; it was a terrible oversight, but now I had a whole host of literature beckoning and awaiting my eager eyes.

But back to the play. The Irish Rep bills it as a comedy of hellish proportions because their production includes the full rendition of Don Juan in Hell as a second act opener. Often this dream sequence is extracted and performed as a stand-alone, one-act play.

This full version is produced in conjunction with the Gingold Theatrical Group, a non-profit, which runs PROJECT SHAW and is headed by David Staller, who flawlessly directed “Man and Superman.” In the notes it says that “Man and Superman” takes place “in the present.”

The present is 1905, and that time is beautifully shown in a three-quarter set by James Noone and via costumes of soft neutrals like ecru, peach, and grays, by Theresa Squire. Thanks to these visuals the audience embraces the authenticity of our peek into the early 20th century.

“Man and Superman” blends social satire and philosophy. This was the direction Shaw believed drama should take: plays animated by ideas. In fact, Shaw was awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925 “for his work, which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.”

“Man and Superman” tells the story of two rivals: John Tanner (a wealthy, politically-minded intellectual who values his freedom) and Ann Whitefield (a charming, scheming hypocritical young woman who wants Tanner as a husband). Once Tanner realizes that Miss Whitefield is hunting for a spouse (and that he is the only target), he attempts to flee, only to find out that his attraction to Ann is too overwhelming to escape.

The beautiful and artistically manipulative Janie Brookshire, who brings a wealth of classical dramatic training and experience effortlessly to the stage, plays Ann. Ann’s prey, Jack Tanner, is embodied by the slippery, silver-tongued Max Gordon Moore. It is a pleasure to watch them slip each other’s grasp and finally fall into a swoon in each other’s arms.

Of course there are the other players pulling strings and angling for opportunity. First, my favorite Brian Murray last seen on Broadway in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Here he is head of household, the blustering, sometimes blundering, but beguiling Mr. Ramsden. There is poor Octavius who pines for Ann so convincingly in the hands of Will Bradley that you’d think he was actually wounded at each performance.

There is a pack of brigands, lead by Jonathan Hammond, who attempt to rob Jack Tanner as he flees Ann in his shiny new motorcar. Hammond then shows up in the famous dream sequence playing an amazing devil in a fun-packed hell where the cast reunites as different characters.

Ann has a sister, Violet, Margaret Loesser Robinson, who is secretly married to — GASP — an American, Hector, played by Zachary Spicer. Both are wonderfully nervous, and furtive, and finally united openly in love. Of course both kids have parents: Violet’s mama is the amazing Laurie Kenney, lauded and seen nearly everywhere, and Hector’s papa is played with penny-pinching gusto by Paul O’Brien.

But knowing the plot, and that the actors are brimming with talent, that the visuals are enthralling and the direction wonderful only tells you the tip of what makes this an evening worth rushing to. The words, the cadence, the joy in dark humor, the thrust and parry of political swordplay is swoon-inducing.

I would have liked to just extract quotes and list them, the way they begin and end the show. But a review tells more than the quotable quotes. Lucky me to discover Shaw; and lucky you to get a ticket to “Man and Superman” at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

 

“Man and Superman” runs through June 17 at the Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street. For tickets or info call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org/manandsuperman.html

Leap of Faith – theatre review

*published on May 4, 2012 in The EDGE

There is currently a religious revival taking place on Broadway, with “Book of Mormon,” “Sister Act,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and now “Leap of Faith” at the aptly named St. James Theatre. Perhaps it is the liberal, artsy East Coast answer to the rise of the religious right or just a strange coincidence, but religion is everywhere and it doesn’t always make for a rollicking musical.

Raul Esparza and the ensemble of Leaf of Faith” (Source: Joan Marcus)

Case in point is “Leap of Faith.” My first confusion is why lead actor Raul Esparza’s name is above the title as if he were Sting, or Cuba Gooding, Jr.? Esparza is no great performer and the role of the Reverend Jonas Nightingale, a fire and brimstone-breathing, money-grabbing evangelical preacher, requires a star turn if this lackluster musical is ever to find a miracle.

That said, the producers spared no expense in transforming the Saint James into a revival tent with ramps and scaffolding, giant video screens, and a withering diorama of a corn field, all well wrought by veteran designer Robin Wagner.

The costumes by stage giant William Ivy Long are also alternately flashy for the revival staff and dowdy for the townies. But just because you get the visuals right doesn’t mean the book and music fall into place.

The less than wonderful music is by the prolific Alan Menken, with ho-hum lyrics by Glenn Slater. You will not leave humming anything other than “taxi please” in your haste to get home to watch a rerun of “Smash” on TV to get the taste out of your mouth. Menken also wrote “Smash” and even that show’s saccharine plot seems edgy by comparison to “Leap of Faith.”