Thursday, December 24, 2009


I'm a paid, published freelancer!!! Here's my review on "Memphis"

News@Rider honored me with an interview!!!

The Rider News, too!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

“Hamlet” crosses desolation with hilarity in a production transcending time and history

Most Shakespeare productions highlight the importance of seeing of the Bard’s works for yourself and translating the confusing and multi-layered 16th century verbosity into body language, physical exchanges, moaning and groaning, high and low inflections, moving toward and away from others, cringing and wincing, crying, hitting, and reactions to others’ speeches. Michael Grandage’s “Hamlet,” enjoying a 12-week run in New York City’s Broadhurst Theatre, satisfies this call and brings the play alive.

Grandage’s production emphasizes the power of the play itself with a minimalist set. The stage, props and lighting are abstract and monochromatic. Sound effects are only mildly applied, like in the beginning as a desolate winter wind greets the audience and immediate sets the tone. As the lights come up dimly, we see the star of the show first—Jude Law as Hamlet. Curled up on the floor and draped in black, Hamlet looks pale as a ghost. He picks himself up and saunters off stage, disappearing just as the guards stride in—perhaps foreshadowing how he follows in his father’s footsteps.

Law himself is sheer genius in this legendary role. He must have perfectly crafted every exquisite gesture. Law speaks so much with his hands and his body movements that it’s abundantly clear he’s about to explode. For example, he hung his head in disgust at Claudius’ speech about fathers, and then keenly recoiled, with his hand over his mouth, when Claudius (played by Kevin McNally) asks Hamlet to call him father.

Then he shares an aesthetically and emotionally beautiful moment with the-King-his-father’s Ghost (Peter Eyre). Once the Ghost appears, Hamlet is physically restrained by three men; but even three-against-one can’t keep him from this reunion—he strikes them to get away. He follows his father into the mist and then, once they’re alone, melts under the Ghost’s intensity. While fog spills over the stage, one solitary beam of piercing white light falls upon the Ghost—barefoot, decrepit, and immensely weary. Hamlet dutifully kneels next to, not in the light of his father, with his back to the audience. In Eyre’s gorgeous bass voice, which reverberates throughout the large theatre even when he whispers, King Hamlet gives a torrid speech revealing Claudius’ treachery. When King Hamlet declares, “Remember me,” he turns remarkably timid and gentle, taking tiny steps toward his son and hesitantly kissing his hand. This, one of the few moments in the play that is heartbreaking for its unrefined tenderness, is further intensified in Law’s body language: his back is arched with misery and longing as he watches his father leave. Law continues to use his body language and his voice to keep us enthralled.

Along with the colorless set design, the actors themselves mostly convey a sense of grim disturbance and heightened tension. They stand apart at distances that were ever-so-slightly exaggerated—planting themselves just a bit further away from each other than one would expect. Moreover, Law makes his movements snap with bitter, even manic energy which could only be soothed by Horatio’s (Matt Ryan) presence. While this made for emotionally riveting theatre, the show was saved from total bleakness by moments of laughter. In one of the most ludicrously funny moments of the production, Law walks on stage, labels Polonius a fishmonger, and proceeds to grab the poor old man and hump him half a dozen times.

He has reason to torment him, though: Polonius was insufferable in this production. From seeing another production of “Hamlet” in Philadelphia with the Lantern Theatre Company, I know that this character has the potential to be likeable. Interestingly, the character is taken to a completely opposite end in the Broadway production. In Philly, Tim Moyer had funny tendencies but inspired sympathy at the same time: his Polonius acts in the attempt to protect his daughter. On the other hand, Ron Cook‘s Polonius is clearly an ambitious, “tedious old fool” who cares not a whit for Ophelia. Moyer’s Polonius tries to maintain respectability, but he is so gullible that he instantly falls into Hamlet’s trap of looking insane. Contrastingly, Cook dutifully humors Hamlet’s moods without seeming too concerned; he’s clearly only in it for the power. Also, the way in which these two actors deliver, “What do you think of me?” distinguishes them. Moyer, after a long pause, softly asks this of the ravenous royals making out while he’s trying to explain the situation between his daughter and their son. In New York, Cook demands an affirmation of his importance, completely deviating from the dire situation between Hamlet and Ophelia.

Gertrude is another character interpreted in unique ways at each theatre. In the Lantern’s Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius, played by Philadelphia theater veterans Mary Martello and Joe Guzmán, make lustful beelines for their exits. At the Broadhurst, their relationship is completely the opposite. Even in the beginning, the two maintained proper British reserve; their occasional hand-holding in public barely suggest at their sexual relationship. The difference is even more exaggerated in the second half of the Broadway production: Gertrude, played by the gorgeous and sophisticated Geraldine James—who looks like a queen even in real life—takes to heart her son’s pleas about it: “throw away the worser part of it, And live the purer with the other half, Good night—but go not to my uncle's bed.” For the rest of the play, she abstains from accepting Claudius’ touch.

The two Hamlets—Geoff Sobelle in Philadelphia—are very similar in their maniacal energy, fits of passion, playful sarcasm and crazy hand gestures. But in other ways, the two actors portray their Hamlet differently. Sobelle’s Hamlet is just a bit wackier—which makes sense considering the actor’s absurdist-comic—as is exemplified in his swinging like a monkey from the bars of the set’s scaffolding. While Law’s activity and clarity of purpose are extraordinarily honed throughout the whole play, Sobelle is impatient and intent only when he is most disturbed: at his father’s ghost’s angry prompting for vengeance and at Ophelia’s funeral. Law, then, distinguishes his character by finding a forceful energy behind his philosophy. That’s why this Broadway uncut production of Shakespeare’s longest play actually felt short. Law’s Hamlet is not simply pondering every single exchange—his mind is rapidly investigating and rallying up his courage.

The magnificent performances all the actors deliver in this production truly bring Shakespeare to life. Under Grandage’s direction, Law especially shines an inspiring light on the philosophical, touching, fatalistic play.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

West Side Story” becomes unstoppable force under writer’s direction

Arthur Laurents, aged 92, directed this Broadway revival of the show he wrote in 1957. Back then, he, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim knew they were taking a risk. Their use of contemporary music raised the bar for dance. It was so radical that some people, favoring tamer shows like The Music Man, hated it at first; but now the bravery of these three men has really paid off.

It’s amazing that Laurents directed this show at his age. It must be exhilarating, coming back to the play he wrote 52 years ago and seeing how much of a difference it has made in millions of people’s lives. And isn’t that the goal of all artists? Not to mention the difference he made in Olivo’s life, which she reveals at the Tonys in her amazing acceptance speech for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

According to the NY Times, “Joey McKneely recreates the choreography of Jerome Robbins, who conceived the idea for the show and directed it originally.” The original must have been magic: McKneely’s translation absolutely stole the show. This emphasis on choreography shone in the storytelling and character interaction, especially in the introductory scene, with the gangs hunting each other down in packs and dancing in unison; in the “Dance at the Gym” scene with Glad Hand, the administrator, shrieking about abstinence ; and in the ensemble songs, such as “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

“West Side Story,” endeared as a classic in America, appeals to universal audiences as well. The 20th century music and societal issues lend themselves well to this ancient romance story. According to an article published in the LA Times last February, “The show, powered by timeless numbers like ‘Maria,’ ‘Tonight’ and ‘Somewhere,’ changed the face of American musical theater; it introduced subjects like murder, racism, gang violence and attempted rape into a genre accustomed to more genteel subjects.”

Our class had the great honor of attending a talkback with some of the cast. We heard from Michael Mastro (Glad Hand), Eric Hatch (Action, understudy), Haley Carlucci (Maria, understudy), Matt Cavenaugh (Tony), Ryan Steele (Baby John), and George Akram (Bernardo).

Carlucci told us she’d done more than 30 shows, and you could tell that she’s had that much experience: fresh, light, and realistic, playful yet womanly, she really stood out in this production.

Mastro told us that their production once integrated much more Spanish. He joked that Yankees who don’t speak Spanish are used to hearing it often and not understanding it, but audience members from Tennessee and such places where Spanish-speakers are not as common were complaining. Now the goal is to put Spanish in where the scenes will still make sense to non-speakers while also keeping up the symbolism. For example, in the first half of the show Anita—played by the dynamic Karen Olivo, the brilliant woman whom I utterly heroine-worship now—doesn’t speak a word of Spanish because she wants to integrate into American society; by the end of the play, with her boyfriend murdered and her community falling apart, she speaks nothing but Spanish. Maria sings “I Feel Pretty” in Spanish but when speaking sticks firmly to English—now that she’s fallen in love with an American boy.

We were told that Arthur is heavily involved in many projects. He’s “got a lot of energy,” one of the actors said. Indeed, energy was the theme of our talkback. Asked if eight performances a week are draining, one actor responded that it’s such an honor to do this show that it’s okay if you go three weeks without a day off. Hatch told us that he plays a different role every time he goes on stage—and while some may find this excruciating, to him it’s stimulating. Matt then pointed out that Broadway’s a marathon, not a sprint. The actors need stamina, and they need the energy audiences bring to the show.

Speaking of energy: while the women in this play are dynamic, round characters, the men stay the same. For example, Tony doesn’t change; he only falls in love. He proves himself prone to testosterone-fueled viciousness: sorrow turns to vengeance and murder. Meanwhile, Anita gets over her sorrow, even finding a kind of sharp beauty in it because it all comes from her love.

But perhaps that’s being unfair. Perhaps if Tony had been pulled into a one-on-one situation instead of the overwhelming groupthink environment of a rumble then he would’ve made the right decision. After all, Anita isn’t infallible, either. When she went to deliver the message to Tony that Maria was waiting for him—even though she despised him for killing her beloved Bernardo, she agreed to do this in the name of love—she changes her mind and tells a lie she knows will break Tony’s heart.

Still, she demonstrates that she’s stronger than any of those men: she walks completely alone into the Jets’ den, fields their verbal insults and ignores their aggression. But then, the boys gang up on her and hold her down while one jumps on her and prepares to rape her. One of the most profound moments in the play is when, once the Doc comes and halts the gangbanging, Anita finally picks herself up and hauntingly proclaims, “Bernardo was right. If one of you was bleeding in the street, I’d walk past you and spit on you.”

Then, in another of the most poignant moments in this play, Maria proves that even as she goes wild in grief—weeping and screaming, “You ALL killed him…with hate! Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate”—she still can’t bring herself to kill. The difference between the destructive gang mentality and the individual’s liberty to choose life and love manifests in Maria’s choice. She doesn’t commit violence like the men or suicide like Juliet; she only demands of a Jet boy to bring her black shawl over to her, and then she mourns her love quietly.

Considering how much wiser the females are it’s unbelievable that the male characters still constantly dismiss them throughout the play. Anybodys, played by Sara Dobbs, provided one recurring reminder of this. She was a tough cookie but was never allowed to play with the big boys, even though they knew she was perfectly capable of their foolishness. Then, on a more obvious level, Anita’s boyfriend Bernardo shuts her down in their arguments by saying things like, “¿Vamos or no vamos?” when she’s trying to talk sense to him. Another example comes in the form of the appropriately named Hotsie, played by the striking Marina Lazzaretto. Riff tells her to get out of the pharmacy—with a slap in the rear—because she’s not welcome in the room when real business is going down.

Another inherent lesson was something one of the Jet boys declared to Office Krupke. The line stood out, despite the fast pace of the scene. It was something like, “We’re only hoodlums to you because we don’t act like you think we should.” This protestation, reinforced later with the hilarious song, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” shows how even within the same culture, different people have different values and beliefs. That’s why small communities have problems, too, even those which don’t have to worry about immigration, economic competition and racism.

The dream sequence was the only moment of happiness and gentleness in the second half of the play. The only taste of peace was an illusion: a hard-hitting realization which the beautiful chorus and brilliantly designed light sequence really brought home. Not to mention, the substitution of those pervasive purple and orange gang colors with blue and white—symbols of purity and unity—and green and brown—signifying nature and utopia—brought me to a heightened sense of aestheticism even as my heart grew heavy with sadness and empathy.

This production of “West Side Story” really did the whole legend justice. The ending was very dark: everything that came after the rumble was morbid, violent and saturated with fear. Laurents didn’t try to wrap it up with some epilogue falsely promising peace or unity. It’s all the more somber for this reason: these issues of racism, violence, misunderstanding and sexual abuse are still all too prevalent today.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Pillowman: heartfelt, horrific and fascinating

I took my seat in the Yvonne Theatre apprehending the worst and bracing myself for gut-wrenching carnage. While I was prepared to appreciate “The Pillowman” for its thoughtfulness and honesty, after all I heard about its violence and darkness I wasn’t expecting to really like it. However, I found myself walking out of the theatre realizing that Rider University’s daring production of Martin McDonagh’s six-year-old play was actually, strangely, beautiful.

Under the careful direction of Professor Miriam Mills, the production was judicious in the way it approached gruesome subjects. The heart of the play is still perfectly intact; an important lesson—the tragic consequences of abusing children—is still brutally conveyed. Any audience member with a soul walks away with this warning ringing loudly in both ears, along with the gunshot forewarned in the beginning by the overhead voice asking us to turn off our cell phones.

The play wasn’t so nightmarish in its proportions thanks to how often the tension was cut with biting, grim humor. Most of the comic relief came from the good cop/bad cop routine, where Detectives Tupolski (returning veteran Kevin Feehery) and Ariel (sophomore Justin Kelly) manipulated the prisoner’s high-strung fear for their own mirth; the intolerant egotism in each man was uncomfortably funny. It makes you wonder at the hands holding the reins of your own justice system.

This thought-provoking aspect was most important in “The Pillowman.” It engaged us in judgment of the characters, their backgrounds and their current states of being. “The Pillowman” left it up to us to decide, in spite of all the appalling things the characters did, whether they deserve forgiveness and understanding. Then again, as Detective Tupolski said, “I’m tired of everyone using their shitty childhoods to justify their shitty behavior.”

This begs the yet-unresolved question: as much as we would like to claim agency, are we just products of our childhood conditioning? Certainly this seems to be true in the case of the horrific experimental background of the protagonist, Katurian (freshman David Spadora), and his mentally shattered brother, Michal (junior Tommy Butler).

I had already formed misgivings before the play even started: I wondered how any good man could voluntarily create fiction with the worst kind of cruelty towards children. However, initial disgust gave way to immense sympathy and despair—followed closely by morbid curiosity—for Katurian as he fiercely protected his brother and took justice into his own hands.

Spadora must have been emotionally wrecked rehearsing this role these past several weeks. His performance as Katurian required grave intensity. He shook in fear and cried out constantly, not to mention his nervous, jerky body movements and wincing facial expressions. He is only strong when he is in his essence: telling transfixing, twisted—and, as Michal stated, “not so far-fetched”—stories.

While the plotline revelations were slow in coming, the play was never boring. Its pace was quite fitting, in fact: it gave the audience time to digest each tragic detail before moving on to the next. Meanwhile, the fates of the characters are foreshadowed heavily, so the audience actually becomes more engrossed with the secrets of the past.

Additionally, the mysterious set indicated the play’s tone well before the actors even took the stage. The green-gray, thick, blocked off walls of the interrogation chamber evoked a slight nausea to complement the feeling of confinement. The lonely filing cabinet shared one wall with a lonely wastepaper basket, placed beside three unyielding metal chairs. The dim, sparse yellow lights completed the stark effect.

In a pre-production discussion, Mills revealed her worry that the shock factor of seeing obscenities acted out before our eyes might overwhelm our senses so that we wouldn’t see the dynamic quality of the acting. On the contrary, I felt the viciousness and tenderness of the actors’ performances much more so than I felt disturbed by the action itself. Like in ancient Greek theater, relentless characters, not spectacle, brought these horrors home.

To illustrate: one of the most gripping parts in the play comes when Michal simply tells his brother the whole truth. Michal’s confession is innocent and remorseless; the eerie incongruity leaves you caught between disgust and pity at his wholesomeness. If the director had chosen to show these acts graphically, the already-hidden beauty in the play, exemplified through the paradoxically guilty and blameless Michal, might have been further obscured.

Michal doesn’t completely grasp the concept of guilt for others’ suffering. However, as Katurian mutters to himself over and over, “it’s not your fault, Michal.” Michal’s endearing, dreadful simplicity punches you in the gut—so much you start to wonder at yourself: dare you feel sympathy and compassion for the one who committed such atrocities?

Still, “The Pillowman” wasn’t as defined by revulsion and horror as the hype made it out to be. This enthralling, imaginative tragedy challenges the preconceptions we carry with us and even incorporates a delicate, heartbreaking twist.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

McCarter’s Twelfth Night is lively, luscious and laugh-out-loud funny

Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s comedy about gender roles, sexual identity and love, thrives as his most often-produced play today for one main reason: it is extraordinarily flexible. Unlike other plays in which staying true to the script’s message hardly allows for artistic license, “Twelfth Night” leaves so much up to interpretation. In McCarter theatre’s production of this ambiguous play, director Rebecca Taichman’s unique interpretation is of visual majesty, exaggerated drama and hilarious exchanges between the characters.

The opening scene alone demonstrates this, as it is entirely made up for this production. In the play itself, Duke Orsinos’ “If music be the food of love, play on” releases the first bit of drama. However, Taichman decides to open McCarter’s production with a short original scene linking together the two female protagonists. Viola (played by Rebecca Brooksher, who also becomes Cesario) hangs from the stage’s ceiling, slowly winding her body as if she is under the tempestuous water and struggling to not drown—a rippling blue screen and murky lights create the beautiful ocean effect. Olivia (played by Veanne Cox) slowly walks from stage right to left in a long, elaborate black gown, mourning the death of her brother and looking as if she’s struggling to not drown in her grief.

The set also perfectly manifests the nature of this unbalanced play: the back wall is actually a slope on stage right, elevating towards the center where it resolves itself into a wall with a large arch, from which actors enter and exit rooms in the households of Olivia and Orsino (Christopher Innvar). Orsino’s chambers are decorated with three hanging posters of the same obscure ancient sculptures which look as though they’re just a moment away from kissing. Besides acting as a metaphor for his state of longing, these posters help designate when the plotline switches location between scenes.

In order to ease any confusion, the production makes it immediately clear who loves whom. While soliloquies clue the audience in for every update, rose petals are also dropped on or thrown on every enamored character at the moment he or she falls in love.

Throughout the play, in fact, roses are used as motifs and as designs to give the audience hints as to the message behind it all. For example, the fourth wall is practically broken with Maria’s (played by Nancy Robinette) metacognitive command, “get behind that rose…thing,” indicating a poster hanging from the ceiling. In the next hilarious moment, the three men—Sir Toby (Rick Foucheux), Sir Andrew (Tom Story) and Fabian (J. Fred Shiffman)—eavesdropping on Malvolio (Ted van Griethuysen) take out three smaller canvas posters with the same rose photograph, which act as absurdly obvious hiding places.

In fact, this whole scene is one of the funniest in the production, and the one that could be labeled a farce. Andrew, characterized by his flamboyant attire and high-strung voice, drops Olivia’s pretend letter next to Malvolio, then screams out the answer to the riddle and hides again behind the poster. Much to the audience’s delight, these posters are ridiculous as well, since they only cover the men from the waist up.

Taichman chose to keep up the rose motif with another original, unwritten sequence right before the intermission: Olivia enters in a shockingly bright green gown, luxuriously tears the clip out of her hair and tosses her head around. As she belts out a high-pitched, wordless note, the lights suddenly explode into vivid emerald green. At that very second, three huge posters of the same rose photograph fall down and become the walls of the set. Olivia lifts up her arms and twirls around, singing all along, and thousands of glamorous red rose petals fall from the ceiling onto her hair, her arms, her dress and the floor. This stunning visual and audio spectacle is only one of many in this larger-than-life production.

Another extravaganza pulls the audience back into the play after intermission with a woman singing opera, Feste (Stephen DeRosa) playing the clarinet, and two women in red dancing a derivative of the tango. This mini-scene is also an addition by the director’s creative license, shown when the musicians and dancers flee as Cesario enters, heralding the scripted beginning of the scene.

After the intermission, all of Olivia’s attendants, who were dressed in black along with her, are now dressed in sexy, bright red gowns. Olivia herself soon changes into a light pink gown with the same enthralling, elegant design as the green one; and just like last time, at the moment she enters, the once-green lights change to the same shade of pink. They do the same thing when she changes into other identical gowns of different colors.

One particularly funny exchange between Cesario and Olivia cleverly manifests the director’s vision. As the characters rush through their dialogue, desperate just to get through to one another, they both try to get on a deeper—a lower—level. Cesario continuously prostrates himself in a pleading effort, and in response Olivia bends further, lowering herself to make eye contact with the one she adores, until finally they both lie flat on the ground in sincerity.

Another unwritten tango in between a scene displays two women as partners and two men who dance and kiss at the end of the tango, exhibiting the homosexual undertones in the play. This undertone becomes even more obvious in the very last scene: after everyone finally learns the true identities of Cesario/Viola and her twin, Sebastian (played by Kevin Isola), Orsino tries to restrain himself from embracing her. He declares “let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds,” but ultimately charges at her, and they end up making out on the ground while Viola is still dressed as Cesario.

The only gloomy element in this play comes from the part of Malvolio. During the scene of his imprisonment and at the end, when he declares he will take revenge for how he was “notoriously abus’d,” the audience is left with a choice: while some may feel pity and sense that the entire mood is brought down, other audience members just laugh, albeit darkly. Two very different acting styles are juxtaposed against each other when Feste, who pretends to be a Christian parson named Sir Topaz, plays with Malvolio. The jester frolics, laughs and sings, playfully claiming that the only darkness is ignorance. Meanwhile Malvolio, shut up in a cramped, pitch-black cage, is in a tragic circumstance: he begs for light, for a pen and paper, and ultimately for justice. Taichman left this a paradox, allowing the conscience of each audience member to decide the outcome of this strange character’s fate.

Overall, this production felt like an overwhelming, lavish, high-class buffet. Aesthetically, it was incredible: the visual effects, the orchestra, and the songs by the characters themselves were all beautiful. Finally, the characters’ antics were abundantly expressive not only for the dramatic effect—to bring Shakespeare’s lines to life—but also for comedic effect.

Here's the handy map included in the playbill.
Here's the McCarter blog, which offers hours of interesting, enlightening reading.

Friday, April 24, 2009

My unashamed love affair with Victor Hugo: Les Misérables in London

"Is there not in every human soul, and was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean, an essential spark, an element of the divine; indestructible in this world and immortal in the next, which goodness can preserve, nourish and fan into glorious flame, and which evil can never quite extinguish?" - Victor Hugo

This, one of the single most splendid events in my life, requires some preface.

It goes back to when I was a 14-year-old freshman at Overbrook High School. My English class was assigned a book report, and we could choose any book we’d like from our school library. I cannot imagine what led me to choose the thick, dense (but still abridged) Les Misérables by Victor Hugo—possibly the same masochistic impulse that led me to become an English major…

I had little experience in real literature then, and especially less in French literature. While my classmates read more familiar classics and novels less than 200 double-spaced pages, I kept my nose glued to my 700-page—abridged—tome. I fell completely in love with the book. My heart went out to each and every character, especially the ones who grow from children to adults over the course of the 20 or so years in which the book takes place: Cosette, Marius, and the Thénardier children. I also emphasized with every adult, especially because they were so pathetically human in their wretchedness.

In any case, I wolfed the book down, wrote a heartwrenching report of it, and put it away.

Fast-forward to last year. While browsing the library for the first time as a Rider University student, I found the old title sticking to the dusty, neglected books crowding the shelf of the French literature section. Again, something possessed me to pry it out of its deep rest. This time I felt compelled to absorb the full genius of Victor Hugo: I decided to read the full, unabridged 1300-page version.

It took me literally all year; I had to renew it over and over and put it away a few times for class readings and some awkward freshman social events. Still, I managed to finish it, overwhelmed but triumphant, during finals week in May 2008.

Earlier that spring, my friend Julie alerted me to the existence of not just a play, but a musical adaptation of this masterpiece. I was utterly impudent with her, insisting that there was no possible way this expansive, prolific, intellectual epic could be transformed into a 2-3 hour lyrical skirmish that would delight the masses. It’s too deep, wide-ranging, and all-encompassing. While it’s true the writers could cut Hugo’s historical and architectural tirades (by this time I was convinced I knew the sewer system of Paris better than the cleverest local street urchin), there were too many profound characters, too many riveting and suspenseful climaxes to work at all on stage, especially to an audience unfamiliar with the story.

Julie answered my defiant and fiercely loyal rambling by producing an old tape from her shelf and popping it into her VCR. It was “Les Misérables: 10th Anniversary Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall.” I sat down to watch, still skeptical.

After the first 10 minutes, I was shocked to realize: the impossible had been done!

Of course, what I originally predicted was still, in a way, true: the musical’s writers, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, take liberties to cut out some characters and change others completely. They altered the timeline of the story to shorten the wooing period between Marius and Cosette into one day (not to mention the time preceding their love, when Marius knew Cosette and thought her a plain-looking girl). Still, I was mostly thrilled, with only one or two complaints of disloyalty (for example, the Marius of the original London cast—Michael Ball—is portly and middle-aged, when Marius is supposed to be the picture of a fervent, slender youth; and Gavroche’s large part in the book is condensed to a short revelation, a heart-breaking death and a few comedic lines in a song).

I became more excited when I heard we were going to see Les Mis in London with the BHP freshmen and accompanying faculty. When the day finally came, I believe must’ve been trembling as we rounded the corner and saw the incandescent lights of Queen’s Theatre, advertising the longest-running musical in London theatre history. I’m absolutely sure I was trembling when I departed the place, at least.

When we took our seats, I asked Julie if she had tissues just in case I couldn’t control my emotions. She affirmed, well-prepared for a complete sob fest. It’s a good thing she did, too, because I completely lost my head on at least four occasions.

I could write every tiny detail happily, as they stick in my memory well, but for the sake of you, reader, I’ll limit myself to the set and the four heartbreaking moments in the play.

The set is huge, and this spectacle, for better or for worse, is unavoidable in this kind of a West End blockbuster production; after all, the first act’s set alone must encompass four different settings or cities. A rotating circular floor board moves people and props from the foreground to the dark and hazy background. The second act reveals a sprawling, realistic, similarly rotating barricade; and these are just the floor pieces! Other constructions include the garden of Valjean’s house where Marius courts Cosette, the two-tiered slums of Paris, the bridge over the River Seine, the ABC café where the student rebels meet, the sewers where Valjean carries Marius, and the infamous inn Thénardier keeps.

One astonishing thing about this play is, just as Frederick Douglass hid some details of his cruel treatment as a slave that his readers would have a hard time believing, Les Mis, in all its painful power, doesn’t convey even a fraction of the characters’ suffering in the original story—especially of Little Cosette (played by Adrianna Bertola) and Fantine (played by Joanna Ampil). This brings me to my primary breakdown moment. I got choked up over Cosette’s simple, innocent, and extraordinarily childlike wishes for the mother and safe haven she never knew. In the next scene, Fantine, who fell ill from being out in the cold as a prostitute with only one ragged dress to cover her, suffered a horrible, fear-stricken death in the book, which was conveniently left out by the musical’s writers. In the play, her illness alone leaves her dead, after she gets haunted by hallucinations of Cosette and lucidly begs Valjean (played by Drew Sarich) to care for her orphan daughter. My only complaint is that Fantine’s voice seemed more fitting for Eponine’s typically rough, reedy part, as opposed to Fantine’s deep one.

That was the only time I cried in the first act, which is largely comprised of rising action, plotting out the climax and falling action of the second act. In the second act, I initially cried over Eponine’s earnest song, “On My Own.” Eponine (Cassandra Compton) had a chilling, harsh, and bitter voice; yet when she spoke with Marius (Gary Watson), she adopted a much more tender tone. I was moved especially by the fact that I was seeing Hugo’s genius come to life, knowing the full scope of Eponine’s character (in the book she tries to impress Marius by showing him she can read, write and look after herself in the city of Paris—quite an accomplishment for a working class female in the 1830s—but only Cosette’s blooming beauty can turn his head).

The scene at night in the barricade, in which Valjean prays to God to save Marius from death, didn’t make me cry; however, I feel compelled to remark on it, as Julie told me that Sarich performed the song better than any other version she’s heard of it. As it was only the second time I’d ever heard it sung, I wouldn’t be able to confirm this superlative, but I do remember it being phenomenal.

I must also mention two more expert actors: Edward Baruwa playing Enjolras and Hans Peter Janssens playing Javert. I was at first thrown off by Baruwa, just as I was when I saw the portly Michael Ball playing Marius—after all, Hugo’s Enjolras was not a black dude with a shaven head. Luckily, Baruwa immediately won me over with his beautiful stage presence and powerful, stirring voice. Janssens is perfect for his part in looks, and his voice and facial expressions were as striking as his rigid ideologies about the law.

I broke down most blatantly over the sudden, noble and fearless self-sacrifice Gavroche (Jonathan Chabala) made for the sake of the barricade. He murmurs his song tenuously, competing with the sounds of muskets firing at him, and pilfers dead soldiers for ammo. The song, which ends in “so you better run for cover when the pup grows up!,” is cut off by a striking, lethal shot. The drama of this was (surprisingly) not overdone, though the gunshot was startling; in cruel and perfect irony, Gavroche dies before he could get out the last word. In that moment, I heard the rest of the audience catch their breath; after all, the adorable, brave, mischievous orphan is everyone’s favorite.

Finally, I wept throughout the entire final scene, after Marius realizes Valjean is his savior and goes with Cosette (by this point grown up, of course, and played by Claire-Marie Hall) to Valjean’s deathbed. They make it just in time to say goodbye and for Cosette to learn the whole sad, socially unacceptable truth of her origin. Meanwhile, those two other careworn martyrs, Fantine and Eponine, glide onstage in angelic form to light Valjean’s way into death—and presumably, heaven. (If I make the musical sound corny and super-Christian here, I apologize; it’s really not too preachy or overwhelmingly religious) The musical comes full circle as Valjean achieves redemption for his past crimes.

I must add one more thing about the comedic element of the musical: the Thenardiers, played by Chris Vincent and Melanie La Barrie, were fantastic performers. Their voices and accents were apt, of course. More importantly, the scene at the inn was excellently choreographed, with lots of entertaining banter in gestures and body language (women slapping men’s faces for slapping their behinds) while the master and madame confess the hilarious details of their swindling, poverty-driven lifestyles.

Because of my undying devotion for Victor Hugo and his epic masterpiece of social commentary, political ferocity, and historical fiction, I also fell in love with Les Misérables the musical. I found it to be a gripping, mostly loyal adaptation of this miracle work of literature.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hamlet at the Lantern

Please follow this link to the Rider News for my review of the Lantern Theatre Company's production of Hamlet, the first Shakespeare production I've ever seen (isn't that sad?).

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spring Awakenings!

This is a comparison and contrast dual review between Spring Awakening, the play in Philadelphia and the Broadway musical in New York City. (Oddly enough, I saw both productions with another Jules: the musical I saw with my friend Julie last November before it left Broadway; and the play I saw with my boyfriend, Julius, on our first date last December.)

I didn't write a plot summary of each, but if you're unfamiliar with the story, feel free to read the wikipedia page on the musical and the play.

The numbered points will correlate with their contrasting numbered point between the musical and the play. But first, the commonalities:


• Both have masturbation scenes, which are funny but still somehow wrong: the boy doesn’t have real privacy or permission to take care of a natural urge that all human beings have.

• Both productions included similar funeral scenes for Moritz: girls brought flowers and everyone paid him respects.

• Lots of dialogue from the straight play was lifted exactly as is into the musical’s lyrics.

• One surprising similarity between the two productions: Melchior reads from his diary. It seems to be the one connection between the two versions of the protagonist!


by Frank Wedekind, new translation by Douglas Langworthy

Directed by Lane Savadove

Set Design by Corey Lunchuck, Nick Lopez, and Bart Healy
Lighting Design by Matt Sharp
Costume Design by Jamie Grace-Duff
Sound Design by David Cimetta

Stage Management: Michele Woodward
Technical Direction: Dan Soule
Production Management: Eric Snell
Sound Operator: Salome Harmon
Wardrobe: Arcadea Jenkins
Backstage Manager: Devin Soule

Moritz Stiefel: Doug Greene
Wendla Bergmann, Dr. Procrustes, Straightjacket: Megan Hoke
Ilse, Ina: Brenna Geffers
Martha, Frau Bergmann: Sarah Schol
Masked Man, Otto, Herr Stiefel, Billyclub, Ruprec: Ross Beschler
Herr Gabor, Pastor Baldbelly, Robert, Diethelm, Tonguetwist: Rob Neddoff
Ernst, Dr. von Quakenseltzer, Flyswatter, Helmuth: Sean Lally
Hanschen Rilow, Frau Stiefel, Monkeyfat, Reinhold: Nathan Edmondson
Melchior Gabor: Kevin Melendez
Thea, Frau Gabor, Locksmith, Fetchit: Kelsey Malone
Georg, Sunstroke, Gaston: Andrew Gorell

This is a review of the production Philadelphia-based theatre company EgoPo did the year before their one-night-only performance that I saw on December 13, 2008. It has a few different actors, but the same vision.

Here is the facebook event for the night I saw it.

And here is EgoPo's facebook page, from which I lifted these photos. The entirety of the pictures are from the original production, rather than the one-night-only; but many of the actors also played in the latter performance.

1. The set was amazing. The first act presented itself with the entire stage floor covered by a bed of bright flowers. Not a single bit of hardwood floor or dirt was showing. There were tables and chairs brought out by the actors at certain times to serve as school desks, coffee tables at home, and the barn loft where Wendla finds Melchior alone. When Moritz dies, the flower covering gets lifted like two rugs by bars on the left and right of the stage, revealing fresh dark dirt below. The flower rugs stay hanging ominously on the sides, dirt-side facing the audience, looking exactly like the borders of a grave.

2. This production was obviously more experimental, as EgoPo tends to do. The actors were more expressive and complex as physical individuals (whereas in the musical they incorporate several over-the-top dances for motion). As a reviewer from The Philadelphia Inquirer stated about EgoPo’s play, “Choreographed with...a high-precision physical performance style.”

3. All the adults wore grotesque masks to symbolize their loss of innocence and/or their corruption and/or their perpetuating distortion of reality (depending on the character, it could be any or all of these). Even Wendla’s sister, only a few years older than Wendla but recently married, had a half-mask covering her eyes and nose.

4. When Martha confesses she is physically abused by her parents, her friends treat this revelation with shock, then confusion and disdain.

5. In the play, Melchior feels terrible for beating Wendla, but it just made him go on to become a monstrosity.

6. Melchior raped Wendla, not out of love but fury and berserk passion.

7. The abortion scene is freaky and memorable here as well, but in this production it’s very graphic. Wendla screams and writhes on the table as the suspicious doctor utilizes a terrifying, spiky, metallic machine for the abortion; meanwhile, Wendla’s mother stands by watching. Obviously, this depiction was much more terrifying and brutal, but it’s also condemning Wendla’s mother and the conventions of society more for putting an innocent child in this position and then just idly standing by while she dies horribly.

As you can see from the cast list, most of the actors also played slovenly, nasty professors (the names such as Sunstroke, Monkeyfat, and Flyswatter) but were totally unrecognizable in judge's robes and face-covering, monstrous pig masks. They not only wore twisted pig masks but also slobbered, touched themselves, snorted, grunted, wailed and carried on like the most inhuman, perverted creatures to ever walk the Earth. This was the scene in which they decided Melchior's fate, and it was actually one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Whenever the headmaster mentioned the words, "Our Institution," all the other professors raised up their arms and belted out one single high note like they were singing hallelujah in church. The headmaster preached like a reverend about upholding their high social and academic standards and gradually worked toward announcing the expulsion sentence for Melchior's daring to write an explanatory essay on sex. The rest of the professors, sitting down in chairs, were silent but overactive in the meantime, either twitching in excitement, panting, touching themselves or otherwise behaving in the most sexually perverse manner imaginable. The hypocrisy here was so shocking and bizarre that you can't help but laugh in amazement. There was also one minion named "Fetchit" who the headmaster kept summoning into the meeting to dispatch orders. Her repeated line, "At your command Headmasta!" as her jaw dropped open in mindless anticipation was actually strangely endearing. This entire scene is one of the best in the whole production and obviously conveys in physical form the director's unique vision of Wedekind's play.

9. The dinner scene with Melchior’s mother and father was one of the most interesting, suspenseful and surprising exchanges I’ve ever seen. They were arguing over whether or not Melchior should get sent to the reformatory. His mother, who did not believe he should be punished for the suicide of his best friend, was serving her husband dinner. He did intend for Melchior to be sent away, so throughout the scene his wife was yelling and throwing the food at him or pouring it on him in resistance—and he actually laughed at her and enjoyed this performance immensely. It was frustrating to watch for the mother’s sake, but it was really engrossing as a whole. In fact, I thought the audience couldn’t laugh aloud (except maybe once or twice as a nervous impulse) or even breathe during this scene, the actors were so riveting.

10. Melchior's escape from the juvenile correctional facility was prompted not by tenderness but because he wanted to come back and alleviate his guilt by taking responsibility for the child.

11. Melchior did not sob over the death of Wendla, because she was not truly his tender lover like the musical made them out to be. Still, he showed his vulnerability by being so disconcerted over the eeriness of the cemetery and the deaths. This Melchior was similar to the musical’s, however, in his disillusionment with humanity and the suffering good people go through in life.

12. The last scene in the graveyard was morbid, gruesome and brilliant. It was profound in its chilliness, with the bloody headless corpse of Moritz resurrected to speak to Melchior and try to convince him to join them. At other times, it was strangely lovely, with the exchanged glances between Melchior and Wendla when she lifted her placid mask of death. Melchior’s dance of indecisiveness with the masked man, who represented life, and his longing to rejoin his friend in peaceful rest were beautiful.

13. The ending was obscure and paradoxical. It was more realistic through its surrealism: the masked man, the headless Moritz at the back of the stage in half-light, and the bodies of the dead sitting on chairs with smooth, pure white, expressionless masks.

14. The actress who played Wendla, Megan Hoke, was perfect. She had an impish face and wide-open, bright hazel eyes constantly filled with wonder. Hoke also had a womanly, curvy figure, while her abrupt and playful motions as well as her impetuous curiosity were entirely childlike.

15. The actor who was Melchior, Kevin Melendez, is short, stocky and dark (very different from the musical's vision of the character).

• There were many mini-scenes going on at the same time on stage. One would be lit and acted out (like Frau Gabor wiring the letter to Moritz) and then the actor(s) would freeze there and the lights would come up immediately on the next scene (like Melchior stumbling upon Wendla or coming to meet Moritz) to create a solid pace and suspense.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Spring Awakenings!

This is the continuation of the comparison and contrast review between Spring Awakening, the straight play in Philadelphia and the Broadway musical in New York City.


Book & Lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik, Based on the play by Frank Wedekind

Director: Michael Mayer, Music Director: Kimberly Grigsby, Choreography: Bill T. Jones

• Melchior - Hunter Parrish
• Wendla - Alexandra Socha
• Moritz - Gerard Canonico
• Ilse - Emma Hunton
• Martha - Amanda Castaños
• Thea - Caitlin Kinnunen
• Anna - Emily Kinney
• Hanschen - Matt Doyle
• Ernst - Blake Daniel
• Georg - Andrew Durand
• Otto - Gabe Violett
• Adult Woman - Christine Estrabrook
• Adult Man - Glenn Flesher
• Ensemble - Morgan Karr, Alice Lee, Eryn Murman, Zachary Reiner-Harris
• Swings - Jesse Swenson
• Understudies- Frances Mercanti Anthony, Tony Carlin

1. The set was a hardwood floor, with bleachers on the side where the chorus sat. The barn hayloft where Melchior and Wendla have sex is lifted above the rest of the stage with cords attached by the rest of the cast. These cords are brought out in a synchronized dance by actors during a song, “I Believe.” The whole below the “loft” also doubles as Moritz’s grave, which they drop flowers into in the next scene. Additionally, paintings and odd contraptions are nailed to back wall, as well as a suspended hardwood chair that Melchior ends up sitting in as punishment when he himself is suspended from school.

2. The style was more like rock & roll—for example, using microphones like pop singers and synchronized dances—to modernize the production. This managed to make a century-old play even more relevant (even though it already is—we’re still Victorians in prudishness, competitiveness, restrictive schooling, and oppressiveness toward children)

3. The adult characters were mostly crazy to be sure, but they didn’t wear masks or act like gluttonous pigs at any point. Maybe the creators/directors of the musical wanted the distinction between the adults and the children to be more subtle and below-the-surface, or maybe they wanted the children not to seem so young. In fact, scenes were cut showing the schoolboys playing games, the girls teasing each other…perhaps this was to downplay the childishness of the youthful characters.

4. An incest/rape song, “The Dark I Know Well,” is sad but empowering in its attitude of anger.

5. Melchior beat Wendla in both, but his horror was enough to make him learn how to control himself in this production.

6. Melchior and Wendla’s initial embrace was sweet: he listened to her heartbeat, shyly lifted her skirt and slowly unbuttoned her blouse and they sang “The Word of Your Body” before they made love. Also, the song “I Believe” was totally soothing as Melchior and Wendla were swayed on the lifted board by the other kids. Only four lines are repeated: “I believe/Oh I believe/There is love in heaven/All will be forgiven.” To say the least, this is completely the opposite from the tone in the straight play where Wendla gets raped.

7. The abortion scene is freaky; it is memorable but ONLY suggestive.

8. The scene where the school headmasters decided to expel Melchior precedes the song, "Totally Fucked," which is really lively and funny. Throughout the disciplinary meeting, Melchior was standing in front and the school headmasters in back; all of them faced the audience, but Melchior's head snapped to the left or the night, depending on who addressed him, just as if he had been looking at them instead of out at the audience. This was a really suspenseful scene, and this technique effectively worked up the audience for the climactic, chaotic song that immediately followed. “Totally Fucked” uses harsh language, but it's still a lot of fun and hilariously choreographed, with every single member of the cast running, kicking, screaming, twirling, jumping and so on. There’s nothing like it in the straight play, although the purpose of this song might be to make up for the scenes cut from the play illustrating juvenile behavior.

9. The dinner scene between the Gabors was almost nonexistent in the musical: that production showed a few exchanged lines of dialogue between the parents that was tenderer, and displayed his mother giving up fairly immediately without at all condemning the school’s headmasters or their community, etc.

10. Melchior escapes from the reformatory to come back to his lover Wendla and their child. Also, Wendla’s song wrapping up her story, “Whispering,” was hopeful: for example, she says “I let him love me,” even though in play he raped her.

11. Melchior wept when he discovered Wendla’s gravestone. It was her death that prompted him to almost commit suicide, as Moritz’s ghost looked on behind him.

12. The morbid graveyard scene was sad and touching in elegance, beauty, and the clarity of Wendla and Moritz.

13. The ending is obviously hopeful—Moritz begs Melchior to stay alive and be strong, whereas in play Moritz wants Melchior to join him and Wendla does not say a word/sing to him.

14. The girl who played Wendla in the musical, Alexandra Socha, is similar to the actress in EgoPo's production because they both have curiosity and a gentleness to them. However, Socha acts and looks more like a little kid than a young adult.

15. In the musical, the actor who plays Melchior (Hunter Parrish) is tall, svelte, blonde, and graceful like a dancer.

• The musical had an overall romanticized, not so much realistic, depiction of adolescence, ignorance, rape, suicide, murder by dirty abortion and other tragedies.

• The musical entirely cut the mysterious masked man and instead lent his words to Moritz and Wendla’s song “Those You’ve Known”

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Almost, Maine" showcases interesting people, both fictional and real, living in local, small-town communities

“Almost, Maine,” written by John Cariani, is an original play that takes the language of love literally in a mostly endearing and funny way. The Bucks County/Philadelphia community theatre group called The Playmasters performed this production from Feb. 20-March 8.

Directed by community theatre veteran Heather E. MacHenry and assistant director Julius Ferraro, “Almost, Maine” consists of eight scenes demonstrating the power of love in the relationships of odd, interesting, relatable and occasionally normal people. The comedic element of the play was set up immediately by the title, which defines the small town's non-existent status. Travelers who stumble upon the town trying to navigate their way by map lose their orientation because the town in fact is not quite chartered, and therefore it does not take up space on anyone's map or in anyone’s awareness.

A lot of the comedic, surprising element of the production came from the action onstage going undefined by the actors for awhile. The audience is left to try to rationalize these literal interpretations of love, while the actors continue to make it seem like it’s nothing out of the ordinary. In the way, every scene was hilarious.

The set was simple but effective. There were three walls spaced well away from each other to create the feeling of a room, with entrances for the actors on both sides. The back wall, facing the audience, was strewn with tiny Christmas lights that turned on when needed to convey the sense of a starry night. A park bench focused the action for seven of the scenes, with the one table and chair set for a bar scene.

The play is ushered in with a prologue and concluded with an epilogue featuring characters named Pete (Elliot Simmons) and Ginette (Eileen Simmons). This funny pair, who are married in real life, set the tone of the play well by their antics. In this small bit, we see the phrase “I’d walk around the world for you” taken literally.

The first scene depicts a girl named Glory (Illiana Hubbard) whose heart was broken by a man named Wes. She meets a repairman in Almost named East (Joe Szumila) who takes her heart — she was carrying it in a brown paper bag with her — and promises to mend it.

In the scene right before intermission, a woman named Gayle (Barbara Gibson) who was tired of waiting for her longtime partner (also played by Szumila) to propose decided she wanted all the love she’d ever given him back, so she brought his love back to his apartment in big black plastic bags.

Still, many poignant moments sneak into this witty, amusing play as well. The two scenes that moved me were titled “This Hurts” and “Story of Hope.” These scenes especially act as vehicles for the directors' vision of the play. As MacHenry said, "My artistic view of the show was hope. The way the script is written it’s very real; there’s definite heartbreak. But we all make choices. Sometimes our choices are limited by other peoples’ actions, but we all make choices. It’s a matter of how you make the choices and how resilient you are and hopeful."

This first scene illustrated the plight of a young man named Steve who can't feel anything. He didn’t have anyone to care for him except his brother; he was largely ostracized by society. His head is accidentally slammed into by an ironing board and at first he doesn’t feel it; but eventually he starts to fall for the woman carrying it, signified by his ability to feel pain when she mistakenly smacks the board into his head again.

Steve is played by Daniel DeRosier, a young actor in his mid-twenties. He does a good job conveying the sense of disorientation the character must feel in a world where so much is defined by pain or pleasure. The woman, named Marvalyn, is played by newcomer Hubbard. This was Hubbard’s first play, and her talent and enthusiasm for acting shone through her vibrant and intense performances.

The most flawless part of the play, “Story of Hope,” is one of the few scenes without a cute, happy-go-lucky ending. Michael Brazil, a great actor originally from California, plays a broken down man who literally lost Hope (also played by Gibson). He had proposed to her, but she ran away the morning she was supposed to give him an answer.

Brazil pulls the audience into the pain of the man through his physical characterization: his slow-moving mannerisms, worn-out appearance and feeble voice all symbolize the wretchedness of this poor man as he listens forlornly to the woman he loved and lost. She stumbles upon his doorstep looking for the man she once knew because she finally wanted to give him her answer. Explaining to her that after so many years of waiting, he eventually married someone else, he numbly retreats back into his house. At the end of this scene, the audience is left feeling bittersweet and strangely hopeful as Hope tells the empty air that her answer had always been yes.

Although "Almost, Maine" isn't a famous literary masterpiece, the play is meaningful for its message. Moreover, The PlayMasters' production offered an exhibition of local talent: all the actors and directors devoted a lot of time and effort, which paid off in this great performance. As MacHenry testified, "This production was really easy. It came together beautifully; everyone was totally committed to it."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Our social entanglements have not changed much, despite the passing of a century

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” one of George Bernard Shaw’s most popular plays, was performed at the McCarter Theatre of Princeton University this past January and February. Written in 1893, the play carries themes of women’s rights in a patriarchal society that even today remain controversial. The playbill includes two double-page spreads with photos of the Victorian Age and quotes, one of which reads, “The truest test of a nation’s moral conditions is the sanctity or profanity of its treatment of women.” The play focuses on the strained relationship between Mrs. Warren and her daughter Vivie while also addressing the immorality of our society for abandoning poor women to wretchedness.

Women’s work rights—still being fought over these days—are outlined in this play by the struggle of lower class women, like Mrs. Warren and her sister Liz, whose only choice was to go into prostitution when they couldn’t stand backbreaking, demeaning, underpaid and filthy labor any longer. In the playbill, the director (Emily Mann) included a short narrative on the original production of the play, pointing out that its frank discussion of prostitution kept it from being performed for years after it was written, and that everyone involved in the first American public performance of the play was arrested by the New York City Police Department in 1905. Mann states, “In a nation scandalized by our politicians’ dalliances with prostitutes and an international community overwhelmed by stories of the brutal exploitation of women in the sex trade, we still fail to examine the economic and social realities that force many women into the oldest of industries.”

In Act One, we are introduced to Vivie (played by Madeleine Hutchins), a young Cambridge-educated woman who spent her whole life learning proper Victorian respectability in boarding schools. Vivie is a pragmatist, enjoying nothing more than a day of work, a hard chair and a cigar. The first scene illustrates her character in a comedic way: Mr. Praed (Edward Hibbert), an old friend of her mother’s, comes to visit and together they await the arrival of Mrs. Warren. At first glance, the two of them seem to be caricatures—his delicacy and flamboyant taste contrasts with her powerful handshake and firm mannerisms. He persists in upholding social etiquette, bringing out the ways in which she’s “unconventionally conventional.” His dizzy surprise at her impatience with frivolous gallantry, beauty and romance is reflective of our patriarchal society’s qualms with rational, tough, independent businesswomen.

By Act Two, Vivie develops affection and camaraderie for her single, well-to-do mother based on several shared qualities. These unconventional women both believe in the gospel of work as they both like to be comfortable, self-reliant and respected. Mrs. Warren (played by the dynamic Suzanne Bertish) explains her life story for the first time to her daughter and the audience in a surprisingly lengthy monologue. Vivie sits and listens intently, engaging in the discussion honestly and rationally. Mrs. Warren appears to be completely up-front about her past and here for the first time in the play the themes of prostitution and women’s work rights (which have been hinted at but never directly approached) are brought up. After seeing her two half-sisters die or be maimed by factory work, Mrs. Warren met her runaway full sister dressed lavishly and discovered that she had made a fortune as a sex worker. Forced to choose between mortal and moral peril, Mrs. Warren chose the latter, and never looked back with regret. Vivie takes this all in as a rational, educated woman, and is unable to find fault with it. “You were certainly quite justified—from the business point of view,” she says. Mrs. Warren replies to her well-off daughter, “If you took to it, you’d be a fool; but I should have been a fool if I’d taken to anything else.”

Then the insistent Vivie demands of her mother: “suppose we were both as poor as you were in those wretched old days, are you quite sure that you wouldn’t advise me to try the Waterloo bar, or marry a labourer, or even go into the factory?” Her mother answers sternly, “Of course not. What sort of mother do you take me for! How could you keep your self-respect in such starvation and slavery?” Mrs. Warren chose the lesser of two evils—which turns out to be a brothel—and in the process turns the moral world upside down. This line is directly related to Shaw’s intention as a playwright; according to a quote in the playbill, he stated, “though it is quite natural and right for Mrs. Warren to choose what is, according to her lights, the least immoral alternative, it is none the less infamous of society to offer such alternatives.” Meanwhile, this part of the play reveals Mrs. Warren’s clear-headed logic, business sense, and spirit of perseverance. In this way, Vivie is drawn to Mrs. Warren, and even starts to feel sympathy—the beginning of love—for her mother who was so often absent.

Unfortunately, Vivie’s affection doesn’t get the chance to grow into love. When she discovers Mrs. Warren continued her profession even after she had earned sufficient money, Vivie decides to shut her mother out of her life. Their differences are exposed in their last discussion, which proves to be a scene of catastrophe for Mrs. Warren, relief for Vivie, and heartbreaking intensity for the audience watching it unfold. One of the most painful moments—revealing the horrifying trap society has laid out for women—comes when Mrs. Warren laments, “Oh, the injustice of it! the injustice! the injustice! I always wanted to be a good woman. I tried honest work; and I was slave-driven until I cursed the day I ever heard of honest work. I was a good mother; and because I made my daughter a good woman she turns me out as if I were a leper. Oh, if I only had my life to live over again! I'd talk to that lying clergyman in the school. From this time forth, so help me Heaven in my last hour, I'll do wrong and nothing but wrong. And I'll prosper on it.”

I remember getting goosebumps when Mrs. Warren’s screamed at Vivie’s relentless spite. Mrs. Warren loved her daughter so much that she gave her the best the world had to offer—when she herself had no such offer at the same age—only to be rejected and literally cast out of Vivie’s life:

MRS WARREN ...But listen to this. Do you know what I would do with you if you were a baby again? aye, as sure as there's a Heaven above us.

VIVIE. Strangle me, perhaps.

MRS WARREN. No: I'd bring you up to be a real daughter to me, and not what you are now, with your pride and your prejudices and the college education you stole from me: yes, stole: deny it if you can: what was it but stealing? I'd bring you up in my own house, I would.

VIVIE [quietly] In one of your own houses.

MRS WARREN [screaming] Listen to her! listen to how she spits on her mother's grey hairs! Oh, may you live to have your own daughter tear and trample on you as you have trampled on me. And you will: you will. No woman ever had luck with a mother's curse on her.

After all the play’s grand exploration of social vices, the intimate relationship between parent and child still shines through. The end of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” hits us harder as we realize the real casualty of society’s corruption: the heartbreaking separation of a mother and her daughter.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

“Death of a Salesman” whirls through psyche with elegant dreams and ungainly reality

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is still entirely relevant and excruciating today. DeSales University’s production—exactly sixty years after the New York premiere—executes every subtle meaning, challenging technicality, and character flaw of the play with rare magnificence.

The actors who recreate this classic piece of American theatre give supreme performances, capturing the essence of our social issues through their tragic struggles as individuals. A DeSales’ theatre professor actually plays the part of the lead character, Willy Loman. Students comprise the rest of the impressive cast, but the anchor of the production is undoubtedly associate professor Wayne S. Turney.

If Turney is as extraordinary a professor as he is an actor, then his students are very lucky. Turney firmly commands the psychological turmoil of his eccentric character. Willy’s every noble ideal, trapped emotion, and slip in memory come to life through Turney’s cultivation.

Besides the off-putting unsteadiness of Willy, audiences immediately feel ill at ease upon glimpsing the set. Drawings of square apartment buildings going back farther than the eye can see cover the stage’s back wall. This use of perspective is underscored by red light illuminating the dreary concrete structures. Moreover, the interior walls and doors of the Lomans’ apartment are also dark: greens, grays and browns. The bed on the left is pink along with the one brightly painted wall of the set, which looks like clouds mixing with the sky at dusk. The roof above the set holding the construction together looks like spider legs, uncanny and frightening with its vertical jagged edges.

The play’s setting is New York City, the heart of the land of equal opportunity. The rough, hard accents of many characters—especially the Loman brothers, Happy (junior David Smith) and Biff (sophomore Jacob R. Dresch)—reflect the uncompromising struggle of the life they experience there. Biff’s disillusionment over his failure to make something of himself in the business world manifests the true nature of capitalism and in turn also sharpens the tragic circumstance of Willy’s demise.

Willy ran for so long on just “a smile and a shoeshine.” He wanted to be respected, known and well-liked. The downfall of his career, shattering his pride and his hopefulness, leads to Willy’s temper tantrums and mind lapses. While his heart is in the right place, his brain is constantly returning to the past.

These changes in Willy’s perception are ushered in fluidly: the dreary blue hues of reality gradually brighten into golden lights and the music of a gentle, peculiar flute begins to play. In Willy’s visions of the past, there are no more boundaries such as the confining walls of the present: characters expand the claustrophobic space by walking through the kitchen wall into the yard.

Willy both enters and leaves the play in his car, which is appropriate considering how many hours and how many thousands of miles he spent over the course of his life in that lonely little transit box. When he walks onto the stage for the first time, Willy’s brown suit is made blood red by the faint lights above him. Menacing music, consisting of sad trills of the flute and daunting bass chords of a piano, accompanies Willy as he walks into his house. Whether this entrance was meant to be a device to ultimately foreshadow Willy’s similarly-orchestrated departure is up to the audience’s discretion.

Unlike the final act, however, the first act is full of comedy. Sometimes bumbling, sometimes boisterous, the imbalanced discussions between Willy and his wife, Linda (senior Victoria Rose Bonito) peppered the audience’s absorption of the exposition with laughter. While subjects jumped from their children to whipped cheese to the maddeningly cramped apartment buildings, the actors’ portrayals allowed the audience to see themselves or their parents in these characters.

Enraged in the final act, Linda—the only balanced, patient character in the house—mesmerizes the audience while she confronts her sons over their ignorance and ingratitude toward their father. Bonito’s dynamic transformation from quaking and sweet-tempered to protective and fiercely loyal electrifies the production.

Dresch gives a soulful representation of Biff, propelling the story with impressive physicality. In Willy’s flashbacks he’s an eager, confident young football player with a bounce in his step and potential in his future; in the play’s present, he’s a lost adult, fighting to swallow his disgust at the flattery and falsity engulfing “civilized” society—and his father.

After the revelation in Willy’s most violent, debilitating flashback, the audience witnesses the last moments the family spends together. Biff breaks down, trying valiantly, but futilely, to force his family to see the folly of their self-deluded, self-aggrandizing existences.

Since the play is spun from Willy’s web of regrets, guilt, fallacy and undying hope, the true test of a production is how successfully his conscience is brought to life. DeSales University’s production of “Death of a Salesman” triumphs in this endeavor through its masterful lighting, set design, music, and—most importantly—immensely talented actors.


Hello everyone,

I'm starting this blog for ENG 323, but I hope to get more out of it than just the academic credit. I want to try to train myself, through practice, to be a more analytical arts lover. All my life I've been a miserable critic: I usually see the best in everything, and so I rarely have something useful to say about how this or that was appropriate or poorly done or above average. I just enjoy everything. However, here I'm going to try to get more critical, philosophical and expressive in my reviews of theatre productions. Some plays I intend to write about include: "Les Miserables" in London, "Les Miserables" at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philly, "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Walnut (both of which starred Jeffrey Coon), "Spring Awakening": the straight play and the Broadway musical, "A Long Day's Journey into Night" in Philly, "Hamlet" at the Lantern Theatre in Philly, a New York City neo-futurist creation called "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind," a Broadway production of "Waiting for Godot" starring Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, and possibly more.

For some of these reviews, I'll compare and contrast productions, actors, or venues; in others I'll focus on one theme or feeling. Sometimes I'll write a traditional review, and other times I'll write a stream-of-consciousness response. I hope you find them interesting. Thank you in advance for reading!

Julie Elizabeth Morcate