Monthly Archives: August 2017

Oslo For these TImes

Oslo

by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday May 19, 2017
Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays.

Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays.  

The sages remind us often of George Santayana’s wisdom when he wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Often the word ‘past’ is replaced with ‘history,’ reminding us that knowing and studying the past is a mighty tool.

It seems we are roiling right now in an era where history, the rule of law, and compromise are tossed and trashed. So it is comforting, to some small degree, that through J.T. Rogers’ excellent play “Oslo” we witness, in vibrant detail, the midwifery and birth of the unlikely 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The playwright informs us in a note, that the play’s genesis came from drinks after a viewing of his play “Blood and Gifts.” Rogers sat down with a Norwegian diplomat, whose tongue I imagine was loosened by many rounds of drinks. Here at a local bar, light was shed on an unusual diplomatic saga, one that culminated in the famous photograph of Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat shaking hands with Bill Clinton beaming in between them in the rose garden. Playwright Rogers took this information and ran with it.

“Oslo” lays bare in exquisite detail and often unexpected humor, the gut-wrenching details of the endless negotiating, dining, copious drinking, and eventual camaraderie that predated and thus created the historic signing.

“Oslo” was wisely moved upstairs to the capacious Vivian Beaumont Theater with its thrust-stage jutting into the house and seats that provide a bird’s eye view for every ticket holder, albeit ones a bit tight on space.

For this production, the open set with an upstage scrim used ingeniously to project images from the brutal Arab/Isreali conflict, all add to the understanding of the times. The set design is by the very talented Michael Yeargan. It utilizes traps that open and shut, whisking furniture out of site to provide scene changes. And although there is very little décor, every piece is precise and contributes to the sense of a Norwegian diplomat’s home, or a dark forest, or a negotiating space.

It is upon is a mutable canvas that the story unfolds. Bartlett Sher’s most deft direction takes what could be a confusing morass of facts, figures, and characters and lays them bare at our feet where they entertain and enlighten.

The key to this is the extraordinary undertaking is the ineffable Jennifer Ehle, who plays Mona Juul, an official in the Norwegian foreign ministry. Mona often comes downstage and shares with us the essence of characters, and how they fit into this complicated jigsaw puzzle.

She is married to Terje Rod-Larsen, played with a wonderful rectitude capable of melting into giddy humor by the always-talented Jefferson Mays. Larsen runs a foundation for applied social sciences and the married couple’s partnership, and ability to plot and deal in back channels is what precipitates the final accord.

The initial four at the negotiating table and dining table are Abu Ala, an incredible Anthony Azizi, and his truculent partner Hassan Asfour, the actor Dariush Kashani who brings a gut-wrenching gusto and Marxist energy to the role. The Israelis are Yair Hirschfeld, an economics professor at the University of Haifa, played with a wonderful rumpled intellect and humor by Daniel Oreskes; and his junior colleague Ron Pundak, brought to life by Daniel Jenkins.

These four are simultaneously attempting to reach a written accord and also testing Larsen’s theory on the idea of “gradualism” as a tool to reach an agreement. At the initial meetings, it is stressed that when the four men leave the negotiation table, and they are in there alone with no mediator, they emerge into the salon and everyone, including the inspired chef, Toril who radiates and is played by Henny Russell, must call each other by first names. There are to be lots of storytelling, massive consumption of alcohol and piles of waffles, herring, salmon, but never roast pork. The gaggle becomes close, even though there is a multitude of issues upon which they disagree.

These meetings continue in secret, as the group is especially wary of the meddling Americans, who we are reminded always seem to grab control and tend to muck things up. Ahh, yes. So the negotiations rumble forward and we are reminded that in life, in war, in politics, “Sometimes we are the pigeon, sometimes the statue.”

At the next stage of negotiation, the Israelis send a formal government official and things start to ramp up. Uri Savir was a director-general of the foreign ministry, and as played by Michael Aronov, he is a blast of humor, energy, and explosions when he bounds on stage. There are jokes and impressions of Arafat and Peres, and the agreement lurches and careens until we are shown the final moments when it was signed.

The large cast assumes multiple roles, including hapless German tourists who blunder into the villa where talks are being held, security men, assorted diplomats and even Shimon Peres. The switching of roles is as seamless as the furniture gliding and disappearing.

This is a history play. And like Shakespeare’s plays in that genre, this play requires copious work on the part of the audience. It is nearly three hours long, it is dense with fact and fast moving action as well as moments when it slows to a crawl and we await the next scene.

“Oslo” is a work peppered with humor and constant gobsmacking acting. In times when so much of what we sift through our sieve of social media is pablum, it is crucial that we remember the lessons of history and hard work that created actual if fleeting strides.

“Oslo” runs through July 2 at The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65 Street in New York City. For information or tickets, cal 212-239-6300 or visit www.lct.org/shows/oslo-broadway

Tony-Nominated Shows

This story is part of our special report titled “Tony-Nominated Shows.” Want to read more? Here’s the full list.

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Politics Abounds, Threatens to Swamp Art

Julius Caesar

by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jun 13, 2017

Julius Caesar

It is a rite of passage to be privileged to attend Free Shakespeare in Central Park through the auspices of the Public Theater. For decades more than 5 million audience members sat under the stars and marveled at Shakespeare.

This season the offerings are “Julius Caesar” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” These two plays couldn’t be further apart in spirit, and after the political walloping we have been facing as a country, and this is evinced in the very modern, Trumpian Julius Caesar gracing the Delacorte stage, we will need the light lift brought by “Midsummer.”

The current “Julius Caesar,” is a fast-paced, uber-modern version wrought by the Public’s artistic director, Oscar Eustis. It features a diverse cast and non-gender specific casting that continues to blow the walls out of any other producer’s idea of what these concepts might be. Bravo Public.

The physical presentation also brings the audience into modern time, as there are placards and posters plastered on the walls of the set by David Rockwell. Before the show begins, the audience is welcome to sign large petitions whose headings read: I Mourn For and I Hope For.

As the play begins, the petitions are ripped off and Caesar enters as Donald Trump, blond hair blazing and a tie well below his belt. At his heels is the faithful wife, Melania, oops, I mean Calpurnia. She is dressed in an outfit seemingly plucked, by costume designer Paul Tazewell, from Ivanka Trump’s spring collection. These costume choices set the scene, so we are aware that although the language is Shakespeare’s, the political turmoil is as modern as the hearings filling our airwaves.

As Oscar Eustis tells us in his excellent director’s notes, when Caesar was killed on March 15, 44 B.C., democracy vanished and it would be two millennia before it was resurrected by colonists in the new America. “Julius Caesar is about how fragile democracy is. The institutions that we have grown up with, that we have inherited from the struggle of many generations of our ancestors, can be swept away in no time at all,” said Eustis.

So we have Caesar, played with excellent swagger (and in one scene buck-naked) by Gregg Henry, known to many as the villainous senator in TV’s “Scandal.” He is flanked by Tina Benko who does a too-exact imitation of Mrs. Trump.

The senators surrounding Caesar and plotting to overthrow him are Casca, the superlative Teagle F. Bougere, Corey Stoll as a blundering, well-intentioned Brutus, and Marc Antony played by the very Southern-sounding Elizabeth Marvel. There is a bevy of other soldiers, acolytes, and rabble rousers who cheer from the audience and swarm the stage in explosions of gunshots and fog. All of this creates the very real sense of political protests and upheavals that we have witnessed up close, or at the very least, seen nightly, hourly, daily on the news.

Director Eustis states that he began to foment this production the day after Trump was elected president and it is not a stretch to see how the underhanded, double dealings in Shakespeare play are now not metaphors, but as actualities. When we witness and weigh former FBI Director Jim Comey’s testimony as an attempt to coerce a loyalist into submission, we are watching Julius Caesar.

This is politics, and Shakespeare does it so very well. I did, however, find the constant referencing to modern times, including the insertion of the line by Caesar “I could stand in the midst of Fifth Avenue and shoot people, and I wouldn’t lose any supporters,” as a kind of artistic bludgeoning that proved unnecessary. The Trump stomping and muttering at times as well became a distraction to the excellent, complicated poetry that is the original text.

Yet all said, this is a production that deserves to be heralded and supported because perhaps after two swift hours we can take cold comfort in knowing that we should be vigilant in defending our democracy. If not, it is predestined to fail.

“Julius Caesar” runs through June 18 at the Delacorte Theater, (enter at 81st Street and Central Park West). For information on how to get free tickets, visit https://publictheater.org/Programs–Events/Shakespeare-in-the-Park/Free-Ticket-Distribution-in-the-Park/

Through June 18th

Hudson Valley escape at Summerscape

Bard Summerscape 2017

by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Aug 22, 2017

The cast of 'Dimitrij'

The cast of ‘Dimitrij’  

Summer theater and festivals abound. They take place in reconfigured barns, in parks and in small theaters up and down the coast, but only one festival is housed in a miraculous Frank Gehry building nestled in the Hudson Valley’s rolling hills. And that is the Bard Summerscape.

Summerscape in not a light hearted straw-hat kind of festival. No, since its inception in 1990, what began as a pure music festival, conceived by long time Bard president and conductor Leon Botsein, has grown to be a premier multi-arts festival. Summerscape encompasses an often intense music program dedicated to one composer, this year Chopin, as well, an opera, and theater, dance and film offerings. As a topper it offers the crazy, joyful Spiegeltent, returning for its 12th year. Under the bowers of this hand made pavilion revelers dance and dine until the wee hours.

The Gehry building, dubbed the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, houses multiple theaters. Some are best suited for intimate work, while an expansive stage was home to Antonin Dvorak’s “Dimitriji” (1882) directed by the vaunted experimentalist Anne Bogart. The house was packed and there were few deserters to this four plus hour opera sung in Czech, with well designed subtitles.

This opera was touted as “the first fully staged American production of this Dvorak opera”. And there might be good reason. The work is dense, as it depicts 17th century Russian struggles for power, leaving off where the more often seen “Boris Gudunov” by Mussorgsky begins. There are glorious uses of enormous choral passages and some disturbing interactions, which smack as wildly sexist, as the lead tenor Clay Hilley jettisons his wife for a younger model.

Even though the work was well staged and updated to modern times by Bogart’s stellar direction, the echoes to modern political climate could not undo the often sloughing pace and the incredible length when a summer afternoon or evening beckons from the hillsides.

A remarkable work by the Wooster Group called “A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique),” a world premier, provided an exciting look at the work of maestro Tadeusz Kantor. Kantor was a trail blazing visionary whose work this reviewer had the honor of working on at Lamama Theater. I know Kantor’s work very well and I found this piece with its insertion of video and repletion to shore up key elements in Kantor’s theatricals to be a very moving, short theatrical excursion. This new work disembowels memory and nostalgia and pays perfect homage to Kantor. It is directed by founding Wooster Group member Elizabeth LeCompte.

I was completely beguiled by an all Chopin program in the Sosnoff Theater. The evening was made more interesting by the preconcert talk by Jonathan Bellman a scholar in residence at the University of Northern Colorado. This talk helped place the intricacies of the works and where they fit into the history of music during Chopin’s very short life.

The piano etudes, the Polonaise, the sonata and the mazurka all swirled around the wonderful theater with its perfect acoustics creating an absolutely magical evening. Even a trip to the loo in the Fisher Center sets a visitor in front of the swirling edges of Gehry’s polished metal that undulates and catches late light and never fails to delight.

After, the concert goers were released into the dark, humid air, and a majority trekked the path lit up with colored lights, to enjoy dancing and cocktails at the Spiegeltent.

Bard Summerscape runs through August 20 at Fisher Center, 60 Manor Ave, Annandale-On-Hudson, NY 12504. For information or tickets, call 845-758-7900 or visit www.bard.edu/fishercenter