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