Honoring The Spookiness of the Season At “An Evening With John Wayne Gacy Jr.”

I never harbored a particular fear of clowns, but after spending a theatrical Evening With John Wayne Gacy Jr., my predilections just might have changed. The show was produced by Infinite Abyss and staged at the Wilton Theater Factory, and Ronnie Larsen both wrote the play and stars as Gacy.

The character makes his first appearance on the circus-like set in clown garb and full face make-up, introducing himself as “Pogo The Clown.” That Gacy himself often donned similar clothing to entertain children at a local hospital is one of the many chilling biographical details expertly folded into the script.

It’s thanks to these startling particulars that I have now become inordinately curious about the life of this John Wayne Gacy Jr., the notorious serial killer who famously raped and murdered at least 33 young men and buried most of them in the crawlspace beneath his house. (A few others ended up in the river.)

My preliminary research indicates that the play doesn’t seem to have deviated too far from actual events, and turned up enough other morbidly fascinating information about Gacy that I’d actually be curious to see how the 75 minute show would fare if it were expanded into a longer, more developed piece that incorporated more of it. Then again, maybe one act of this harrowing examination is all most people can take.

In terms of structure, the show reminded me a little of “columbinus,” which also used unconventional theatrical devices to explore the whys of a seemingly unfathomable crime. The show is framed by Gacy’s impending execution, but takes place less in his cell than in his head, alternating between flashback scenes of Gacy’s life and monologues by him and other characters who were affected by his crimes. Absurdly, Gacy claims he is the “34th victim” of his actions and almost completely denies that he has done anything wrong.

In Gacy’s mind, the boys he raped all wanted it, even if they didn’t say so, and the boys he killed were all degenerates with no futures. Gacy also “didn’t” brutally choke one of his victims with his own underwear; the victim just wouldn’t shut up, and somehow the underwear just ended up stuffed down his throat.

Rather than take responsibility for his crimes, Gacy attempts to divert attention to the copious amount of volunteer work he did, or to trivialities intended to attest to his character, like the fact that he was once photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter and once named the Springfield Junior Chamber of Commerce’s Man of the Year.

While these details don’t win Gacy much sympathy, they do enhance the pathos of his situation by painting him as someone who at least had the potential for goodness. Perhaps his thirst for approval could have been channeled into something positive had he not been brought up in such an intolerant and punishing environment, one that we learn through flashbacks was dominated by an abusive and homophobic father.

As Gacy, Larsen utterly mastered his character’s bizarre psychology, which was so foreign to me that I couldn’t help but find it darkly compelling. His frantic, fast-paced dialogue betrays his disturbed and unstable thought processes along with his deep desperation to justify and deny what he has done.  Larsen also occasionally allows Gacy’s vulnerability and guilt to shine through his almost air-tight defenses, particularly when the character finally must face his execution head-on.

Most of the non-Gacy characters in the play (from what I recall, Larsen doubled just once, as Gacy’s father) were played by the actress Bridgett Haberecht and, on the night I attended, the actor Khail Duggan, who is alternating with actor Richie Stone in the role.

Both performers had a strong presence and broad emotional range, though they perhaps could have made more effort to differentiate the multiple roles they played. Then again, Gacy’s personality is so overwhelming and so alien that maybe the supporting players had to stay a little flatter and more conventional by necessity.

The two nonetheless played a part in some of the play’s most affecting moments, such as when Haberecht, playing Gacy’s ex-wife, realizes that the boys Gacy hired to dig mysterious holes on their property were “literally digging their own graves.” Another particularly harrowing sequence occurs when Duggan recounts and, with help from Larsen, partially reenacts an incident in which Gacy raped and brutally tortured his character before improbably setting him free.

The play’s double casting also lead to an interesting moment during a mournful monologue by Haberecht about the loss of her son, a son who had been such a good kid and had had so much potential. I initially assumed she was speaking as the mother of one of Gacy’s victims, but it later became clear that Haberecht was speaking as Gacy’s mother, there to remind us of the almost unfathomable fact that the demonic creature we had just witnessed tormenting Duggan’s character was, too, somebody’s son.

The play ends with Gacy’s execution, and though there’s absolutely no circumstance under which Gacy should have been let out of prison once his crimes were discovered, I’m not quite sure that he actually deserved to lose his life. To put a human face on the issue of capital punishment, even such an undeniably awful face, brings out the sheer barbarism of the practice. Given the atrocities human beings are capable of, should we really, ever, trust them to play God?

An Evening With John Wayne Gacy Jr. plays only for rest of this weekend, so feel free to check it out if you think you can handle it! Along with offering great performances, a well-crafted script, and some noteworthy theatrical innovation, it’s guaranteed to make you think, if perhaps about things you’d rather not consider!

In other news, I have finally decided I was important enough to take the “WordPress” out of this blog’s URL, and will be telling a story about something or other (theatre, probably) at the New City PlayersCity Speaks event this Thursday. Hope everyone had a good Halloween and enjoys their remaining Day Of The Dead festivities!

Dispatch From Day 1 Of The Delray Beach Playhouse’s Playwright’s Festival

For the period of slightly over a month that this blog has as of yet been in existence, I have not had the chance to report on a theatrical event that I was actively involved in. However, since the first night of the Delray Beach Playhouse’s inaugural Playwrights’ Festival was far too interesting to leave unexamined, I suppose there’s a first time for everything!

The event presented staged readings of a selection of unpublished and unproduced new short plays by local playwrights. Marianne Regan had the massive responsibility of helming the festival and directing nearly 30 actors in staged readings of eight different short plays staged across two performances. Though we convened for only a few rehearsals, I very much enjoyed getting to work with her and with the many other experienced and talented performers involved in the production.

First in the evening’s lineup was Todd Caster’s courtroom thriller Burden Of Proof, in which a young woman named Rhonda Knox is on trial for the cold-blooded murder for her boss. I played key witness Trish Aikens, whose secret relationship with the defendant throws one of many wrenches into the investigation.

I will not, of course offer any opinions on my own performance, but I will say that my castmates certainly held their own as attorneys, a judge, the defendant, and the rest of the eccentric array of witnesses called on for testimony, all of whom were Rhonda’s coworkers at futuristic startup ARTPAT.

There was plenty of humor in the engaging script as well as plenty of suspense. In Caster’s masterful set-up, at least two of the witnesses questioned have plausible motives for the crime themselves, and the slow accumulation of facts and evidence definitely seemed to keep the audience on their toes.

However, I wasn’t entirely sure whether the play’s ending comes across as a genuinely foreshadowed twist or a gimmick chosen mostly for shock value. I also doubt it was entirely realistic, but it certainly drew some big laughs from the audience!

Since I was off-duty as a performer after this first play of the night, I was allowed to retreat to the back of the house for the other three shows of the evening, which was the first time I was able to watch all three in full.

Next up was A Good Night, which was written by Bob Lind and starred John Zambito and Laurie Tanner as a “man” and a “woman” who are revealed to be Santa Claus and his wife. She wants him to retire from his yearly gift-giving duties in order to spend more time with her, and he just wants to keep doing the work he loves. This play contained a few zingers in its dialogue and explored an interesting concept, but the pair’s debate occasionally got a little repetitive and both characters seemed relatively flat.

The work may have been more dimensional if the “Santa Claus” character had been given much of a personality besides his passion for his job or the shrewish Mrs. Claus character had been a little more fleshed out and motivated by something besides her blinding selfishness. As it is, it’s hard to fathom how or why Santa put up with her for their many years of marriage!

After a brief intermission, director extraordinaire Marianne Regan briefly returned to the stage to share some somber news: that Lisa Bruna, one of the playwrights whose work was to be featured that evening, had passed away only the previous weekend. Thus, it was both fitting and a bit heartbreaking that her play, Godwise was probably the highlight of the night.

The play was set in the early 1960s and portrayed the story of a housewife named Connie, well-played by Jill Brown, who gets the shock of her life when her garden-variety dissatisfaction with her adulterous scumbag of a husband is much enlivened by some divine intervention.

Clad in a striking and shimmering black blouse, Victoria Goulet materializes as the Greek goddess Hera after Connie unthinkingly wishes for some heavenly help, and from the moment that she appeared, the charismatic actress sparkled both literally and figuratively.

Hera is uniquely equipped to advise Connie given her own experiences with her famously philandering husband Zeus. She also brings along actor Don Squire as the famous blind seer Tieresias as her sidekick. It’s he who concludes the encounter by predicting the upcoming feminist revolution and letting Connie know about the upcoming advent of no-fault divorce, which will allow her to leave her marriage without her husband’s consent and spare her many of the financial consequences of leaving the union.

The play’s dialogue was both funny and quite insightful; in only a twenty-minute play, Bruna managed to build an affecting arc for Connie and a touching relationship between her and Hera. Especially given such lamentable offstage events, I was more than happy to spend some time in a well-built world where we could count on benevolent celestial forces to have our backs.

Then, in one of those peculiar “acts of god,” the presentation of a short play colored by a real-life tragedy was followed by the performance of a play where death was front and center. Some might have called such a juxtaposition poor taste, especially considering that some of Bruna’s family members were in the audience, but there’s no way anyone involved in the production could’ve foreseen such unusual circumstances. We can’t all be as intuitive as Tiresias!

Miranda Schumes’ Pulling A Carlos takes place at a “funeral” for Rose, whose granddaughter Jesse decided to plan the ceremony in advance after hearing from her grandmother’s hospice workers that Rose would be dead in a week. Everything would have worked out perfectly, if Rose hadn’t failed to kick the bucket!

Schumes aspires to be a television writer, and the zany slapstick of her script definitely wouldn’t have been out of place on many a mainstream sitcom, though it’s hard to tell how it will fare theatrically without seeing its physical comedy enacted in a full production.

Luckily, cast members Dawn Mason and Graham Brown brought more than enough energy and verve to carry the somewhat superficial and occasionally trite script as protagonist Jesse and her best friend Chris, who got some of the biggest laughs of the night when he imitated a Rabbi to conduct this “funeral” at Jesse’s behest.

However, I’d say that the true stars of the show were Joyce Rasmussen as the “deceased” Rose, who makes a splash when she crashes the ceremony, and Victoria Goulet making her second appearance of the night as Rose’s arch-nemesis Betty. The pair’s well-orchestrated bickering was outright hilarious!

Anyhow, it was nice that the evening ended on such an amusing and high-energy note despite the somewhat unfortunate timing. After all, I suppose, when faced with such weighty matters as mortality, sometimes all we can do is joke.

The performance was followed by a short talkback with the writers of Burden of Truth, A Good Night, and Pulling A Carlos; Lisa Bruna’s son also made an appearance to answer questions about Godwise. Feel free to swing by for the second and last show of the festival this afternoon, which will feature four completely different short plays by four other promising area playwrights, though I and quite a few of the other versatile actors featured in Day 1 of the festival will return as cast members. Catch ya after the show, comrades!

Two Promising Plays-In-Process At Theatre Lab’s Playwright’s Forum

When we go to theatre, we’re used to seeing plays in their final, perfected form, so it’s somewhat easy to forget all the hard work and revisions a play goes through while its making its way towards that hallowed state. 

Fortunately, we sometimes get a rare glimpse of what happens behind the scenes thanks to programs like the Theatre Lab’s 5th annual Playwright’s Forum, which provides nationally recognized playwrights with the opportunity to develop their works-in-progress via staged readings starring experienced actors. Tickets to these readings are available for purchase to the general public, who then get the chance to offer their feedback on the work in a post-show talkback.

Each featured playwright also offers a 90 minute masterclass on the craft of playwriting. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the first two of this year’s reading-and-seminar pairs, the first of which highlighted the work of award-winning playwright Jaqueline Goldfinger

Goldfinger spoke about how she strategically works to illuminate a grand-scale theme or issue by first creating developed and compelling characters. Each of these characters must be motivated by a desire, however small, and a fleshed-out and cohesive set of interior and exterior traits. However, finding our way towards such well-constructed figures ought to be an enjoyable journey rather than an arduous one. 

“I don’t want to say you’re doing something ‘wrong,’ but if you’re not having fun, you’re doing something fucking wrong,” Goldfinger suggested about first drafts, which she also believes could include “everything but the kitchen sink” and be whittled down to something more refined later during the writing process.

Her play, Babel, which is set for a rolling world premiere in 2020, delved into the “big topic” of eugenics by zoning in on the experience of two couples who struggle with weighty ethical dilemmas in a near-future world where genetic testing can tell prospective parents a staggering amount of information about their impending offspring before they are even born. This has led to the creation of a class system reminiscent of the one found in Brave New World, in which only those who are genetically pure can get “PRE certified” and access to basic societal privileges and opportunities.

Niki Fridh and Betsy Graver star as Dani and Renee, a lesbian couple who have had trouble conceiving (with the help of a newly invented egg-melding process along with some donor sperm) but are finally expecting their first child. The play kicks into gear is Renee discovers that the child she is carrying has a genetic makeup that predisposes him or her to sociopathy.

As Renee and Dani grapple with how to proceed, we also get to know their best friends, a seemingly perfect heterosexual couple consisting of Jeanine Gangloff Levy as Ann and Alex Alvarez as Jamie, a wonderfully conflicted character with some genetic secrets of his own.

The futuristic intellectual thriller that then ensues was both hilarious and harrowing. The play’s title refers to the Biblical tower of Babel and the human propensity to screw things up once we have acquired the kind of power formerly reserved for Gods, and the script adeptly delved into the psychological and philosophical complexity of an absurd world that, as per the play’s talkback, actually might be closer to conceivable possibility than we’d like to think. 

The plot was replete with twists that were surprising but not incongruous, such as when what at first seems to be a surrealist touch is revealed to be futuristic technology and a shocking scene that suggests just where Renee and Dani’s baby may have gotten her psychotic genes. Aside from perhaps a fresh-off-the-press ending that felt a tad too conclusive, it’s hard to imagine that this superb script actually needs much rewriting.

A week later commenced masterclass 2, which was led by accomplished Miami playwright Christopher Demos Brown, whose American Son recently appeared on Broadway. Brown’s lesson focused on dialogue, which, we would learn, is an entirely different animal than conventional “speech.” Though dialogue must sound naturalistic, it should also contain “heightened language, cadence, and poetry,” and ensure that the play as a whole moves with the correct pacing and rhythm. His play, Coral Gables, is both a prequel and sequel to his “Captiva,” which appeared at Zoetic Stage in 2011, and the prequel to a TBA new play that will join the pair to form a trilogy. 

Few better examples of “heightened language” could be imagined than the gorgeous metaphysical monologues given throughout Act One of Coral Gables by the character Emily Cestar. Though she outwardly appears to be suffering from dementia, her inner world as revealed in these soliloquies is shown to be more illuminated than ever. The abstract, cosmic quality of these asides reminded me a bit of Harper’s eerie rambles in Angels in America, and actress Lourelene Snedecker dazzled both during her character’s delirious moments and her lucid ones.

Meanwhile, the dialogue of Emily’s middle-aged children, who gradually make their way towards their childhood home when they discover how much their mother’s condition has deteriorated, was sharp, fast-paced, and frequently hilarious. The act actually had a fairly light and humorous tone despite the pathos of Emily’s descent into delirium, at least in comparison to a much more dramatic second act, which, fascinatingly, took place 30 years earlier.

Whereas Act One had taken place in present day, Act Two  took us back to the 70s, when Emily was pregnant with youngest child Val and Val’s two older brothers were toddlers. This act had a higher emotional pitch as a family secret that had been cleverly hinted at during Act One was gradually and painfully revealed. Perhaps because this half of the show seemed more plot-driven, I enjoyed it a tad less than Act One, where there had been more room for the play’s complex characters to bicker and connect and Brown’s ingenuity to shine. 

I’m incredibly excited to see where Coral Gables’ revisions take it, as well as relieved that I will presumably get to spend even more time with these rich, interesting characters and learn more about their tormented history in “Captiva” and an eventual play 3.It’s only because I have theatre business elsewhere that I won’t be attending the last reading of this year’s series, which will take place this Sunday and feature the Theatre Lab’s first commissioned play, titled After All I Did For You and written by Patricia Cotter. Especially considering that Babel director Matt Stabile is returning to take charge and that Jeni Hacker, whose performance I found so amusing in Grindr Mom, is among the cast, I’m sure it won’t be one that any curious theatre-goer would want to miss!

Revisiting An Old Favorite At “The Glass Menagerie”

Before I say anything about Maplewood Playhouse’s production of The Glass Menagerie, which opened last night at the small Delray Beach theatre usually occupied by Improv U, I suppose it’s my duty to preface this review with the fact that

  1. I got approximately 2 hours of sleep last night and
  2. I am categorically incapable of being at all objective, given that The Glass Menagerie is the play I usually name as my favorite of all time.

Additionally, the fact that I’ve also performed in a production of The Glass Menagerie (as Amanda, undergrad theatre troupe, lonnnng story…) made the experience of revisiting it somewhat surreal. Fittingly enough for a play that is referred to by its narrator Tom as a “memory play” in its opening monologue, the phenomenal set by Rebecca Loveless of Tradition Tattoo instantly sent me into a tailspin of nostalgic recollections the moment I walked into the theatre.

The blue roses that framed the stage, a reference to a memorable nickname of Laura’s that gives the play one of its most touching moments, gave a nod to the play’s impressionistic nature, and to the fact that what we are seeing is not intended to be lived experience but Tom’s overly poetic recollection of that experience, an offering from his dreamy, interior world where “everything seems to happen to music.”

Because of my familiarity with the show, there were some bizarre moments where I laughed before the punchlines of some of the play’s jokes because I knew they were coming or perceived the fact that some dialogue was just a little bit off from what I remembered, though there were also a few line stumbles that were noticeable enough that even Glass Menagerie novices probably could have picked them up.

Yet there was also plenty to appreciate in this charming production of an old standard, ably directed by first-timer Alex Lohman. For those of you who don’t know (well, if any of you don’t know), The Glass Menagerie takes place in Depression-era Saint Louis. Because his telephone man father “fell in love with long distance” and left the family, 20-year-old protagonist and narrator Tom has taken on an unsatisfying job at a warehouse in order to provide for his mother Amanda and his sister Laura.

Amanda is a magnetic but fading “southern belle” who regrets marrying beneath her and who tends to be irritatingly domineering towards her children, largely due to her concerns about their uncertain futures. Meanwhile, Laura is a young woman whose insecurity about her slight limp has led her to become painfully shy and to retreat into her own private reality.

Despite her mother’s prodding her towards independence, she is unable to conquer her social anxiety long enough to make it through a course at business college or secure any other form of employment. Instead, she spends her days playing old records and polishing her glass collection.

Meanwhile, the chronically dissatisfied Tom escapes his unadventurous reality by “going to the movies” nightly; it’s implied that he is actually out drinking himself stupid. Naturally, this is a continual source of tension between him and his mother. Seeing the show in such a small theatre made the claustrophobia of Tom’s confinement in his family’s tiny, disheveled apartment newly visceral to me, and thus his overpowering desire for freedom more relatable.

Given that The Glass Menagerie is understood to be strongly autobiographical, one popular subtextual interpretation of Tom’s emotional desperation and unexplained escapades is that the character may, like Tennessee Williams himself, have been a closeted homosexual and out having secret liasons with other men. Um, in case anyone non-obsessives are actually curious about such details.

Having seen the show before, I’ve gathered that the first act usually seems to pass a tad slowly, but this may in fact be part of Tennessee William’s strategy in illuminating the Wingfields’ plight. The plot doesn’t really kick off towards until towards the end of Act One, when Amanda tells Tom that he is free to strike out on his own once he ensures that his sister is provided for by finding her a nice young man with whom she can settle down.

Since so much time and energy is spent establishing the idiosyncratic characters and their strained family dynamics before we really establish a narrative center, by the time Amanda offers Tom this escape route, we are near as desperate for something to change as the characters are.

Susan Burke Giganti, who played Amanda, well conveyed her character’s elegant southern charm and motherly obtrusiveness, but I ultimately found her performance slightly too subdued, perhaps lacking in the outsize charisma and emotional range that can really make the role shine. She did, however, have great parental chemistry with Harry Richards as Tom.

The two’s fraught relationship is painfully realistic and painfully relatable, and their constant bickering is the source of both much of the play’s pathos and much of its humor. Despite these amusing moments, though, both actors seemed to stop just short of truly inhabiting their roles. Though Richards brought an appropriate intensity to the play’s most dramatic moments, it occasionally felt more like he was going through the motions line by line than portraying a cohesive character.

On the other hand, I was quite impressed by Hannah Rosenberg’s portrayal of Laura. She maintained an impressive stage presence and energy despite the introversion of her character, and she wasn’t afraid to make her Laura as truly peculiar as the script indicates rather than merely demure.

It may also be worth noting that Laura, like A Streetcar Named Desire’s legendary Blanche Dubois, is a character who we know to be partially based on Tennessee’s Williams sister Rose, who was lobotomized in 1943 after being diagnosed with schizophrenia and who haunted her brother’s work from then on. This real-life subtext brings a whole new resonance to the use of blue roses as a key motif in Act Two, as well as to a moment where Laura imagines that a unicorn without a horn may have “had an operation” so that he would feel less “freakish” and fit in better with all the hornless horses.

 It may also be worth noting that some scholars believe that Tennessee Williams’ sister Rose probably wasn’t actually schizophrenic at all, and likely would have been instead labeled autistic if she had lived during more enlightened times. Or maybe absolutely none of this is worth noting, and I simply know far too much about The Glass Menagerie and the life of Tennessee Williams. I wrote this term paper once…

Ok, back to reviewing. The show really came alive when gentleman caller and “emissary from the world of reality” Jim O’Connor appeared on the scene early in Act 2, which may owe as much to actor Chris Cimorelli’s performance as anything else.

He ably balanced both the comedically buffoonish aspects of Jim’s character and the genuine kindness and charm that allows us to invest in him and Laura’s courtship. The two’s implausible moment of connection was by far the most engaging and enjoyable scene in the play.

Chris Cimorelli as Jim and Hannah Rosenberg as Laura

I’m going to avoid directly revealing any spoilers in case there is anyone out there who’s never seen The Glass Menagerie, but I was also struck by how sincerely Cimorellli’s Jim seemed to regret not being able to do more for the Wingfields. In fact, the impossibility of the position that Tom has put Jim in seemed so burdensome that I briefly felt almost sorrier for him than for the main characters!

Though I’ve come across plenty of Jim O’Connor haters in my day, I would argue that his one major mistake with Laura doesn’t make him a villain, much as Amanda’s nagging doesn’t make her a villain, Laura’s withdrawal doesn’t make her a villain, and, I would even argue, Tom’s questionable choice at the end of play doesn’t make him one either.

I’m going to go ahead and unrepentantly steal an insight from the director of my production here, but what makes The Glass Menagerie so heartbreaking is that it’s story without any villains. It’s only a story about people, people doing what they feel they should or what they feel they must, and somehow shattering each other in the process. The play’s lyrical and devastating concluding monologue never fails to strike me right in the heart, and the rendition I saw yesterday evening was no exception.

It may also be worth noting that I have tattoo of a blue rose on my right shoulder.

If you’ve seen The Glass Menagerie but never read it, it might be worth picking up the script sometime for the stage directions alone, which are full of impossibly poetic flourishes. However, you’d probably be far more entertained and far more moved by Maplewood’s version, which plays only until this Sunday the 27th.

If you’re interested in another 25 pages or so of me rambling on about The Glass Menagerie, I probably still have that old term paper somewhere. Meanwhile, I’m off to finish editing a post about the Theatre Lab’s Playwright’s Forum, which I have quite predictably managed to avoid completing until the latest acceptable minute, then to try and remain semi-functional enough to appease my family for a few hours, then hopefully take some semblance of a nap before I have to be conscious enough to perform at night 1 of The Delray Beach Playhouse’s Playwright’s Festival. Happy weekend and happy theatre-going, everyone!  

Ok, this one is just for fun….

Exploring Intimacy In Some Unique Black Box Productions

Like the Alice who inspired my blog’s name, I can sometimes get very, very, curious, which is why I recently ventured quite a ways off my beaten path to Wilton Manors, a city which has been officially named the “second gayest city in America,” to see a play called “Grindr Mom” by acclaimed gay playwright Ronnie Larsen. 

On a Tuesday.

It was practically a foreign land; even the Starbucks I stopped into for a pre-show coffee was decked out in flamboyant Halloween decorations and pride flags. Furthermore, while I am at this point used to occasionally being the youngest person in the audience at the productions I attend, I was less used to not only being the only female in attendance, but, from what I could tell, the only one who was even occasionally heterosexual. 

The best black box productions take advantage of their small playing area to create an intimacy with their audience, and Grindr Mom was of the breed that ran with this strategy by annihilating the fourth wall altogether. The unnamed protagonist of this one-woman show, expertly played by veteran South Florida actress Jenni Hacker, greeted us directly as she entered through the same door we had, then proceeded to welcome us to her living room and politely request that we turn off our cell phones. At one point, she also passed us around a Tupperware container of actual cookies (I didn’t try one; I was pretending to be on my diet that week.)

The premise of the show followed quite naturally from the title. An unnamed mormon woman in her mid 50s, struggling to come to terms with having one gay, Democrat, atheist son rather than the large and devout family she’d dreamed of, also became quite curious after hearing that this son had met his current significant other on Grindr and decided to make her own account. I somewhat wish she had better explained her motivations for doing this, but the show was an entertaining ride despite the slightly far-fetched premise. 

Though this “Grindr Mom” speaks to us directly and mentions that we are strangers to her, the script also lacked much of a frame story to explain why she was telling a bunch of strangers some of her deepest darkest secrets; perhaps the character might have been more logically placed at a support group of some kind, or a therapist’s office, or maybe the show could have more obviously taken place inside her head. 

Or maybe I can sometimes get a little too left-brained for my own good.

Somehow, Mrs. Grindr Mom remained an understandable and even occasionally sympathetic character throughout the play despite her many unlikable qualities: Republicanism, homophobia, and religious intolerance, to name a few. Actually, now that I’m away from the play and from Jenni Hacker’s remarkable comedic timing, it’s hard to remember how I tolerated this character for 90 minutes, much less enjoyed her company. 

Yet enjoy I did; I remember laughing out loud quite a lot. There were a few particularly amusing interludes from Siri, and as gimmicky as I found the protagonist’s habit of referring to websites as “the Facebook” and “the Grindr,” I chuckled nearly every time she did. I suppose there also may have been an element of schaudenfreude in the audience’s amusement at Grindr Mom’s dismay at the sheer number of homosexuals out there, or her distressed discovery to find that her church’s married choir director was secretly a “versatile bottom” looking to score.

However, the big twist that comes near the end of the play came across as the mere fulfillment of a cliche; if the play was going to go there, I wish it would have gone there earlier so we could see more of our “Grindr Mom’s” reaction to such an earth shattering revelation. (Nope, I’m not going to spoil it.) I also would have appreciated some more direct foreshadowing, though it’s possible that is Grindr Mom is so deeply in denial about the inner workings of her family members that any hints would have failed to register. 

All in all, despite the ambiguity of the show’s conclusion: if you happen to be free on one of the next few Tuesdays on which Grindr Mom is playing, until this Nov 12, her amusing and thought-provoking tale is worth listening to.

Later that weekend, I stumbled into a another little rabbit hole of a black box, this one belonging to the Lake Worth Playhouse’s smaller Stonzek Theatre. I was catching the second performance of a two week run of “Lungs”, which was honestly much more my speed than the musical I’d attended the previous week at the mainstage next door. 

Like Actually, another recent favorite of mine, Lungs required practically nothing in the way of set or special effects; the magic all came from the witty, incredible script by Duncan Macmillan and the magnetic performances of the two lead actors.

While Grindr Mom had been forced against her will to reckon with the existence of homosexual kind, Lungs’ dual protagonists faced the very heterosexual dilemma of whether they should perpetuate humankind; in other words, whether or not they should have a child. They contemplated their dilemma  so compellingly that it wasn’t until I looked at my playbill after the show that I realized that they were never named in the script. 

When “M” first suggests to “W” that the two of them should consider having a baby, she cannot help but go into a panic, despite the fact that motherhood is something she has always thought she wanted. The two amazingly authentic millennial characters are both intelligent, “woke,” and hyper self-aware; before they can commit to having a child, they have to assure themselves that they are good people whose genes really ought to be passed on and who won’t fuck up their kids as much as their parents fucked up them. W is also very worried about the carbon footprint having a kid will leave, but it also clearly comes across that her concerns are at least in part an emotional deflection from her more personal anxieties.

This throughline is the source of some of the play’s most memorable humor, as the two decide they will make up for their child’s carbon footprint by planting trees and W suggests that “If we really cared about the planet, we would kill ourselves.”  However, this environmental babble becomes devastating when W, tearful after a miscarriage, tries to console herself with thoughts of all the humungous carbon footprint that their lost child will now not leave. Though the tragedy briefly drives them apart, an impulsive moment ends up compelling them to stay together for good.

If I had to, I would single out Catalina De Ruiz de Gamboa as “W” as the more engaging performer, but she also had a lot more to work with given her neurotic whirlwind of a character and W’s plentiful mile a minute monologues. Russell Kerr’s M was a somewhat simpler creature, the proverbial “straight man” to her tornado. In many ways, M is also a typical man; one whose primary flaws included failing to pick up on his girlfriend’s unspoken desires and being a little too motivated by his prick; however, his willing to make sacrifices for W when push comes to shove makes him a likable character in the end.

The concluding fast-forward montage happened a little too quickly for me to register its full emotional impact, despite the poignancy of what was portrayed, but I still left the theatre spellbound, and surprised that the performance didn’t get a standing ovation. You have until this October 27th to judge for yourself.

Unpleasant Truths On Exhilarating Theatrical Display at “Falling,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,”

I’d certainly been looking forward to Falling after attending many of the New City Players’ lead up events, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The fast-paced 75-minute show never dragged or faltered, and, as promised, it offered us a rare window into the seldom represented day-to-day life of a family dealing with a severely autistic child. Timothy Mark Davis nailed the pivotal role of Josh, the 18-year old boy with severe autism around whom the play (and the characters’ lives) revolved. The endearingly childlike enthusiasm of his portrayal gave life and soul to a type of person many consider less than human. 

Davis also mastered many of the unique behaviors and emotional traits common to those on the “lower-functioning” end of the autism spectrum. These included his frequent sensory “stimming” by rocking and flapping his hands, his peculiarly blinkered speech, and his blindingly singular focus. I wasn’t surprised to learn how extensively Davis had researched his role during that night’s talkback, where he also described his performance as very intuitive and the role as a chance to follow certain impulses he might naturally suppress; a scene in which Josh unabashedly sticks his hands down his pants in front of his grandmother comes to mind.

As someone on the “higher-functioning” end of the autism spectrum and thus subject to rather different sets of problems (for one thing, being so “smart” and functional at some things that no one suspects the fact that I’m hopeless I am at others), I didn’t relate much too much to Josh. However, I will admit to recognizing a bit of my mother’s almost superhuman steadfastness when it comes to dealing with my own spectrum-related issues in the character of Tami, whose motherly devotion to Josh came through so strongly that I’d be surprised if actress Arlette Del Toro wasn’t a parent herself.

This devotion was all the more impressive given her son Josh’s truly frightening capacity for violence when he is upset or overstimulated. Davis’s performance makes it clear that Josh is lashing out due to his panic, overwhelm and inability to fully understand his surroundings rather than any innate malevolence, but when a fully grown adult male physically attacks a woman less than half his size, the potential for harm is still great.

As the person most intimately involved in Josh’s care, his mother Tami also bears the brunt of his violent tendencies, and the play features a few terrifying scenes in which she is under direct attack. Though much of Josh’s worldview and behavior is totally alien to us, Tami’s love and concern for her son’s future grabs us by the heartstrings and keeps us emotionally invested in the Martin’s plight. Her description of an institution or group home for Josh as “somewhere he that he won’t be loved” hit hard.

Elizabeth Price also excelled in the less showy role of the the bible-thumping Granny Sue, whose visit is the catalyst that brings the Martin’s latent worries about Josh’s future to the surface. Todd Bruno likewise shined in the role of Josh’s devoted father Bill. Though Josh’s issues have understandably taken their toll on Bill’s relationship with Tami,  the father’s steadiness and his own evident love for Josh show how the two have survived as couple for all these years.

Abby Nigro is occasionally a little mannered as Lisa, maybe too focused on being adequately “teenagery” or standoffish than on being naturalistic or the gravity of her character’s emotional reality, but she does rise to the occasion in one of the play’s most intense moments; when Lisa confronts her mother about her fears that Josh could easily kill either one of them in an out of control moment.

“it only takes once,” she says poignantly.

However, the biggest problems I found with Falling lay not with the adept cast but with the script itself. The tail end of the play is somewhat marred by a bizarre twist in which something seems to have occurred that would drastically alter the Martin’s lives, but the event is later revealed to have been a dream of Tami’s. I’m not saying that her anxious imaginings didn’t present an interesting scenario to explore; just that there may have been better, less melodramatic and “more earned” ways to explore it. A more obviously surrealist sequence, for instance, might have made it clearer that we were inside Tami’s head.

The play’s ending is really more of a non-ending; the Martins have now become a little more open about their dissatisfaction and the need for something to change, but that’s about it. This absence of any real resolution to the family’s story is a decent strategy given the playwright’s goal was to leave the audience thinking about the social problem of our society’s lack of accommodations for autistic adults, but it was a little less narratively effective than I suspect a clearer conclusion would have been.

Luckily, the show was followed by a talkback, which gave the evening more of a sense of cohesion than the weighty loose ends left onstage. There were no straight answers there either, but there was thoughtful consideration of and conversation on a variety of spectrum-related issues. In a way, just seeing that a whole room of people, actors and audience, both personally connected to the spectrum and not, genuinely cared about the future of autistic people of all sorts was enough to offer a smidgen of hope.

Some might think that a newly written play about autism couldn’t have less in common with the 1947 Tennessee Williams piece “A Streetcar Named Desire, ” playing until this November 3rd at esteemed company Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Don & Ann Brown theatre. Yet both plays revolve, in very different ways, around the idea of loving someone who is “hard to love”, as Falling director Jessica Schulte puts it, and around the trials and tribulations of a sensitive soul turned toxic by the harsh realities of everyday life.

Mental illness isn’t at the forefront of most discussions about A Streetcar Named Desire, but its protagonist Blanche Dubois clearly appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as some sort of mood and/or personality disorder. Playwright Tennessee Williams and actress Vivian Leigh, who memorably immortalized the part on film, both suffered from bipolar disorder, and that diagnosis would well explain Blanche’s bouts of frenetic activity interspersed with her periods of anxiety and withdrawal, as well as her apparent hypersexuality and eventual loss of contact with reality during the play’s conclusion.

The gorgeously dilapidated set and evocative period costumes were perfect for bringing us into the dreary and strangely beautiful world of the play.  As is often the case in our darkest tragedies, the bleak nature of the show is made bearable by the poetry of the dialogue, especially Blanche’s dialogue, and the skill and charisma of the performers.

As well as Davis captured Josh’s simplicity in Falling, Kathy McCafferty did an equally marvelous job at embodying one of the most complex and interesting characters in modern theatre in Blanche Dubois.  Blanche is thought to have been partially based on Williams’ sister Rose, whose forced lobotomy in her early adulthood colored much of her brother’s subsequent artistic work. I suspect she may have also been partially based on Williams himself, who also often wrote of feeling out of place in in ordinary human life and using his writing as a refuge. Blanche and Williams also share a tendency to self-medicate with alcohol, another fairly classic bipolar trait.

A Streetcar Named Desire was once explained to me as being about the “masks behind which we conceal our sexual selves,” and that element was also central to this production. McCafferty’s Blanche exuded sexual desire and energy even when the character was doing her damnedest to put forth an “innocent” persona, and even in her most fragile moments, her vulnerability itself seemed to be a seductive force. Courtesy of the phenomenal performance of Annie Grier, it was also clear that Stella’s tranquilizing “sexual addiction” to Stanley was her defining principle, and the animal charisma of Danny Gavigan’s Stanley didn’t hurt matters.

Like Falling, the 3-hour performance of A Streetcar Named Desire (which included 2 ten-minute intermissions) never dragged, but anyone who’s seen it knows that the devastating ending it comes to is a far more conclusive one. In a way, Josh’s loved ones did a better job at accepting his eccentricities than the people who surrounded Blanche did hers, given their abject disapproval and heart-breaking betrayal of her.

Whether it’s in someone as obviously neurodivergent as Josh or someone who, like Blanche, is secretly cracking behind a civilized façade, let’s hope these stories can teach us to look upon those suffering with a kinder eye.

And Now For Some Community Theatre

My last post was about, among other things, the connection between theatre and the community, and another way that theatre can transform a community is by encouraging and educating its young performers. Thus, I decided to support Sol’s Children’s Theatre by bopping over to its first production of the season, Little Shop of Horrors.

Given that these were student performers, I’m not going to say too much about the acting, besides that Celia Roberts had great stage presence and hit some impressive notes as “Mrs. Mushnik,” a role gender-bent from Mr. Mushnik in the original script. In fact, the vocal talents of some of the female ensemble members made me wonder what could have been if some other male characters had been less traditionally cast.

The show was well directed by Courtney Poston and had great production values. This was my first time seeing the stage version of Little Shop of Horrors, and it was refreshing to see a show that was relatively family-friendly and consistently amusing without being frivolous or grating. The play, which initially seemed to be a whimsically absurd story of a sweet workplace romance and a mysterious plant, also had some surprisingly dark moments and complex themes.

After all, the only happy ending to be found is for Audrey II the plant, and the way that it (He? She? Female name, male voice….Do giant plants even have gender identities?) gradually talks Seymour into committing steeper and steeper crimes so that he can keep the fame being a giant-plant-gardener has granted him is eventually revealed to be an allegory for the ways in which insidious forces of evil can gradually infect our psyches. In fact, the show’s closing edict urging us not to “feed the plants” could well be considered a similar message to the one espoused under far more serious circumstances in Gablestage’s production of Wiesenthal.

The next production on my agenda was Calendar Girls at the Delray Beach Playhouse, where I’ll be performing in a few staged readings for their Playwrights’ Festival later this month. The play Calendar Girls was inspired by the film, which was in turn inspired by the true story of Angela Baker, a British woman who lost her husband to leukemia and then sought to raise money to buy a new couch for the wing in which he had undergone chemotherapy. The twist is that she raises this money by convincing a few of her closest WI (Women’s Institute) friends, all of who are over 40, to appear with her in a special “nudie calendar.”

The grief of Annie (the character based on Angela) and this noble mission provides the heart and pathos behind what is otherwise a relatively light show. The women’s calendrical caper eventually raised over 5,000 dollars for leukemia research, and many productions of the play have taken up that mantle by making their own charitable contributions. The Delray Playhouse did so by donating to the Holy Cross Hospital’s Partners In Breast Health program.

Calendar Girls is quite the popular show over in England, the home country of its protagonists, and this production makes it easy to see why. The play boasts several meaty roles for older actresses and movingly and memorably celebrates the power of female friendship and the good that can come from baring it all for a good cause, pun only kind of intended. Helen Buttery is a heartfelt and grounding presence as protagonist Annie. Other standouts include Amy Salerno as the fun-loving Celia, Marcie Hall as the spotlight-frenzied Chris, and Forman Lauren as the young-at-heart Elaine.

The play’s highlight was most definitely the photoshoot scene, which began with the characters loosening up for the occasion by taking swigs from a large bottle of vodka and becoming fittingly raucous. The actresses appear quite scantily clad, but all of their truly naughty bits are creatively covered up by props ranging from flower wreaths to cinnamon buns.

The second act is somewhat less engaging as the focus shifts to an out of nowhere subplot about one woman’s philandering husband and an unrealistic plotline in which the women struggle against the temptation to give into their own “plants” and appear wearing only flowers in an advertisement for detergent. However, the play finishes strong as the ladies smooth over their superficial disagreements and enjoy the lovely sight of a hill covered in the sunflowers that John had requested be planted in his memory.

I then completed my latest trifecta by attending this Thursday evening’s performance of Sister Act at the Lake Worth Playhouse. Though this story is a fictional one, it did, like Calendar Girls, feature a group of traditional women who gain worldwide acclaim for their nontraditional behavior. Its action kicks off when wayward soul singer Deloris agrees to hide out in a convent in order to gain protection from her criminal ex-boyfriend Curtis.

Deloris predictably fails to fit in with her “sisters” at first, leading to few entertaining “fish-out-of-water” type gags, but things take off when she is placed in charge of the church choir. The rock and roll inspired anthems that ensue take the convent’s congregation by storm, leading to a huge spike in donations for the church, national TV appearances, and even a performance in front of the pope.

The playfully irreverent in-story musical numbers that result from this contrivance are probably the show’s highlight, featuring some impressive harmonizing and showcasing the vocal talents of Michelle Sanchez as Sister Mary Robert and the rapping abilities of Arielle Ingrassia-Smith as Sister Mary Lazarus. On the whole, the choreography was less impressive than the singing, but who expects nuns to know how to dance anyhow?

I’ve never seen the movie Sister Act, but the broad and endearingly improbable story seemed veritably built for musical comedy. As protagonist Deloris, Fednike Nozistene had great comedic timing and vocal chops, and the star power to suggest that she was as “Fabulous” as the script asserted. Unfortunately, her more frantic dialogue occasionally got too shrieky to be clearly understood. This may have been less of a problem with her and more with the sound design, which more noticeably faltered a few times during the performance.

In contrast, the exquisite set and costume design shined both literally and figuratively. A gorgeous stained-glass window served as the backdrop to the chapel scenes and eye-popping outfits appeared throughout; standouts include Deloris’s opening leopard ensemble and the nun choir’s shimmering finale habits.

Jill Williams as Mother Superior made the straight-laced character likable, and her charisma and sincerity enlivened even uptight anthems like “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got A Prayer.” Less enjoyable and a tad indecorous was “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” a song which featured some less talented male company members as Curtis’s lackeys discussing how they would hypothetically seduce unwilling nuns in order to gain access to Deloris. Finally, Joseph Gervasi lent an endearing awkwardness to his portrayal of Deloris’s protector and eventual love interest Eddie.

Otherwise, the tuneful music by veteran Alan Menken and often clever lyrics by Glenn Slater ensured a consistently enjoyable performance. So did some hilariously specific touches, such as John Carlile as the Monsignor dancing excitedly during his sisters’ first choir performance. You probably won’t come away with any great spiritual insights from this religiously inspired tale, but if a feel-good night at the theatre and the chance to enjoy some incredible local talent is what you’re after, you definitely won’t be disappointed.

You only have until this October 20th to catch all three of these productions, so time to get moving!

New City Players’ New Way Of Looking At Theatre’s Purpose

The art of theatre is about a lot more than just what happens onstage. Ideally, it’s also about creating a community and raising the consciousness of that community, and about, in the words of another favorite director, “telling stories that need to be told.”

Unfortunately, some theatre companies get so busy with the admittedly overwhelming work of putting on shows that they disregard the implicit obligation that comes with being a part of the world offstage. However, the New City Players, an up-and-coming theatre company which has been drawing attention in Fort Lauderdale since 2014, is not one of them.

Some of its community-oriented programming includes its monthly NCP Lab, which provides a platform for artists to share work in development, and City Speaks, which allows attendees to share personal stories in a theatrical atmosphere. In search of adventure, I attended their latest iteration of the Green Room, a monthly gathering for theatre enthusiasts. 

Activities included relay races featuring teams named after famous dramatists like August Wilson, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams. Actor Timothy Mark Davis, literary manager Jessica Schulte, and associate Artistic Director Ryan Maloney also spoke about the company’s upcoming production, Falling, a play by Deanna Jent based on her real-life experience of raising a son on the severe end of the autism spectrum. Thus, we also heard from autism expert Dr. Jennie Trochio and concluded the evening with some empathy-raising theatre games.

I was also in attendance at NCP’s most recent quarterly “Forum,” which they host in conjunction with their productions. These are gatherings “where people from our city witness and engage in civil discourse” and that “aim to create a space where essential issues pertinent to the human condition can be discussed and debated with a spirit of charity.” This month’s forum was on the theme of autism spectrum disorders. 

As I mentioned briefly in my intro post, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was around 10, so I found it somewhat of a curiosity that my usually disparate identities as a theatre devotee and a person on the spectrum had however briefly intertwined.

The event’s first speakers were Alexai Perez and her daughter Zofia, a young girl with both autism and Down’s Syndrome who expresses herself through her sensory creations. Next up was Cynthia Drucker, who created the Pompano Beach gallery Artists with Autism to showcase and promote the creative work of her son and other talented artists on the spectrum. Then came a Q&A led by Samantha Sweeting Davis and featuring a panel of experts including Dr. Michael Allesandri, Dr. Galen Chun, Ysela Haim, and Rev. Phil Letizia. Ms. Trochio, who had spoken at the Green Room, also returned for the occasion, and spoke memorably about her practice of meeting her autistic students where they are developmentally rather than trying to push them beyond their limits. 

The speakers also discussed how inaccessible the theatre itself can be towards people with disabilities and the importance of treating even severely autistic people as fully aware human beings, emphasizing their unique gifts rather than their deficits. They also discussed the horrific unemployment rate among autistic adults and encouraged us to make an effort to seek out entrepreneurs with autism, who often went unrecognized by the mainstream media and the general public despite their evident talents.

Next on the agenda were Boaz Minerva and his son Derek, a non-verbal autistic who, with the help of his parents and a more experienced mechanic, has founded his own bike repair business and is professionally known as “Bike Dr. Derek”. Finally, closing out the evening were Christina Sullivan, creator of inclusive homeschooling center Evolve Learning Community and her son, Austin Sullivan, who is on the more Aspergian end of the autism spectrum and memorably discussed his social anxiety.However, the conversation that NCP is trying to start doesn’t end there. Falling, which opened last night and plays until this October 27, will also feature a nightly “Act 2” consisting of a talkback with actors from the play, autism experts, and community members with a connection to the spectrum. I’ll be weighing back in with my thoughts on the play itself sometime later this weekend!

Rage and Remembrance In True West and Wiesenthal

The Southeastern Premiere of Wiesenthal seemed as good a theatrical fit as any for my “days of repentance,” the ten days between Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are meant to be a time of intense religious reflection. Presented at Gablestage’s intimate Biltmore Theatre, the show explored the life of famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

I’m not a particularly observant Jew, but I do have Jewish heritage on both sides, including a maternal grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor. I lost two great-grandparents and many more extended family members to the events sometimes referred to in Hebrew as the “Shoah,” and its shadow has always loomed large in my psyche.

The framing of the show, as Wiesenthal’s speech to the last American tour group to come through his office, allows the character to address us directly; he even has us speak to his wife over the phone and offers us cookies. Further, this device offers a convenient way to delve into Wiesenthal’s memories and backstory as he recounts them to us, including his experiences of losing most of his family to Hitler’s regime and being imprisoned and nearly starved to death in a concentration camp. Tom Dugan’s script seems to capture the very essence of Simon Wiesenthal himself, and it offers more than enough humor and buoyancy to make the play’s dark subject matter bearable.

David Kwiat’s skilled performance as Wiesenthal adeptly demonstrates the good-humored and grandfatherly aspects of his character as well as the determined rage he can direct towards the deserving. As I’m sure many in the audience did, I got an eerie feeling regarding our current head of state when Wiesenthal spoke about Hitler’s outsize charisma and excellent public speaking abilities, having written my own opinion piece comparing the two figures for Musee Magazine in early 2018.

One of the play’s most memorable moments was when Wiesenthal reads us a note that a young boy named Albert left in a Jewish prayer book shortly before being sent to a concentration camp, urging whoever found it to ensure that he was remembered. Also striking was Wiesenthal’s description of Adolf Eichmann, whom Wiesenthal had worked for years to help capture. Wiesenthal was expecting a hard-driving monster, but the infamous Nazi mastermind came off more like a meek bookkeeper. Like so many others who committed unthinkable acts during the Holocaust, Eichmann pathetically claimed to have only been following Hitler’s orders.

I may be as of yet “not guilty” of war crimes, but I, like Eichmann, am certainly complicit in complacency. I am guilty of not doing enough to counter our nation’s ungodly political atmosphere, of not speaking out more vocally about the causes I care about, and even of colluding with certain forces that I believe may be actively doing harm.

I could certainly stand to take a page out of Wiesenthal’s book; instead of being paralyzed or driven to bitterness by his past, Wiesenthal channels the traumatic events of his early adulthood into a powerful drive not for revenge but for justice. His motivation is primarily to teach future murderers that they are not going to get away with it, thus preventing tragedies like the one that killed his family and avenging the spirits of Albert and all those like him.

If we can all learn to be as wise as Wiesenthal, we will never be short of worthy opponents. Towards the end of the play, Wiesenthal’s show-long address to the audience becomes a direct call to action as he urges us to take up his mantle in remembering those lost to the Holocaust and doing our damnedest to prevent such a thing from ever happening again, as he implores us to combat the “human savage in all of us that will never go away.”

That savagery was on full display in True West by Sam Shepard, playing at the nearby-ish Main Street Theatre and produced by the Main Street Players. This two hour firecracker of a play blazed by in a flash, only blighted by some strangely placed and cliché-sounding music cues and a few oddly staged set changes.

The play begins when Austin’s retreat to his mother’s apartment for some quiet writing time is abruptly crashed by his delinquent brother Lee. Actor Christopher Milan’s outsize, chaotic energy in the part brought an immediate tension to the preceedings; you knew instantly that Lee’s presence was going to throw a wrench into Austin’s seemingly civilized existence, even before we had any inkling of why or how.

As befits Sam Shepard’s absurdist style, Lee ends up winning a game of golf against an executive who had promised to produce Austin’s script. Lee then convinces the executive to produce Lee’s own script instead. The problem with this scheme is that Lee has no writing training, so he enlists Austin’s help in getting his far-fetched Western ideas into proper screenplay format.

The chaos that then ensued probably appeared only slightly farfetched to those who have had the misfortune of encountering a writer who is deeply under the thrall of a deadline. The two characters began drinking continuously and quickly let their mother’s apartment descend into utter chaos, complete with dead plants and a floor papered with discarded pages.

Tyler Grimes is adept at playing the caring but exasperated brother and “straight man” to Lee’s wild card during the play’s first act. However, as the show goes on, Lee’s animalistic nature ends up drawing out Austin’s (and Grimes’) own “inner savagery.” This transformation results, among other things, in Austin hilariously accepting Lee’s dare to steal a couple of toasters and then trying to placate his brother with some good old-fashioned fresh toast.

However, Austin’s anger becomes less and less benign as he and Lee’s rivalry grows ever more contentious. Lee, meanwhile, does eventually manage to show a bit of humanity, if not decorum, in his apparent envy of Austin’s more conventional life and his tender longing for a woman to share the rest of his “night” with (the two have lost all sense of time in their drink-fueled delirium, and it’s actually almost dawn.)

The brothers’ bickering eventually escalates into a physical fight, and even the entrance of the boys’ mother near the end of the play is not enough to prompt either of them to remember their better natures. Neither is the threat of mortality; despite the fact that Austin goes as far as nearly choking his brother to death, the two desperate creatures can only close out the show by resuming their bloodthirsty brawl.

Sam Shepard reportedly wrote True West as an examination of the trap of contemporary masculinity and the oft-troubling duality of human nature, and viewing it in conjunction with Wiesenthal could well have been a masterclass in how to be a human being, complete with good and bad examples. True courage and true manliness is not to be found in indulging your lowest impulses as Lee does, nor in repressing or denying your pain and your rage as does Austin. If you do, that darkness will always be lurking under the surface, ready to come roaring out given the slightest opportunity. The best of us, like Wiesenthal, can channel our savagery against the true savages out there, and make the world a better place in the process.

Both plays are finishing up their respective runs this October 20th, so there’s no time to waste if you’re interested in catching either of them!

On Poets, Madmen, and The Wisdom To Know The Difference

This Saturday was another theatre-filled day in Ilana-land! First, I spent most of it at rehearsal! I’m acting again for the first time since undergrad in the upcoming Playwrights’ Festival, which plays on October 26th and 27th at the Delray Beach Playhouse. Four short plays are playing on Saturday night and four different short plays are playing on Sunday afternoon, but since I’m cast in two of them, you’ll get to catch me no matter which day you attend!

Obviously, the two hours I spent rehearsing and the four hours I spent bopping around at the playhouse between my first call time and my second one did not fulfill my insatiable appetite for theatrics. So it was straight from there to a production of Uncle Vanya at Florida Atlantic University (FAU)’s Studio One theatre. I’d never read the play or seen anything by Chekov performed in full before, but I’ve studied Three Sisters and The Seagull in depth for some of my acting and writing classes and I have a basic understanding of the playwright’s reputation as one of the fathers of modernism—and for writing real downers.

I get why Chekov is still a lot people’s jam almost a century and a quarter after his death. Dysfunctional families, broken dreams, and existential ennui just never go out of style! FAU’s production featured a pretty outstanding cast composed of graduate and undergraduate students, some of whom did quite a good job playing characters very different in age than themselves. It also had the advantage of some interesting directorial choices. A director’s note by Desmond Gallant stated his desire to “highlight the inherent comedy” in Chekov’s writing as opposed to dwelling on the characters’ anguish.

I think that this was the right approach. The situations of the characters in Uncle Vanya are so obviously unpleasant that their misery will come through whether or not it is emphasized, so we may as well get in as many laughs in as we can along the woeful ride. I certainly found myself chuckling quite a bit, even during the play’s most dramatic confrontations—actually, maybe especially during the play’s most dramatic confrontations.

Initially, I wondered if Christian Mouisset’s stiffness and nervousness as Doctor Astrov may have been awkward acting, but as the play went on, it became clearer that it was the anxiety of an alcoholic character in a sober moment. Later, Mouisset made such a believable drunk that I found myself wondering whether any of that stage vodka was real. He also had real chemistry with Kailey Jones, who played Sonya.

Their two characters were both so good-hearted and earnest that you couldn’t help but hope that they could somehow make their way to happiness with each other. But this being a Chekov play, I knew better than to expect such a thing, so Sonya’s giddiness when she thinks her affections for Astrov may be returned was tremendously devastating.

A hallmark of Chekovian tragedies is that the characters are trapped at least as much by their inertia and their self-pity as by their circumstances. Though Vanya’s crazed conviction that he could have been the next Dostoevsky if he had not spent his whole life as all but a slave to his egotistical brother-in-law Alexander, he certainly could have amounted to more than the servant he is; if he had made the effort to stand up for himself and break away!

The couple behind me talked quite a bit during the show. During one particularly desperate speech of Vanya’s, I heard them quite loudly call the character “Pathetic.” He was. They all were.
But I know that I’ve gone on plenty of rants that were just as or more pathetic as his. Chekov is an expert at portraying the familiar, circular debates that take place in an unhappy household. In a play like Uncle Vanya, we recognize ourselves onstage, and we wish we hadn’t. To borrow a quote from one of my best directors, “the most terrifying thing about these characters is how relatable they are.”

Power and status seems to be no guard against despair in a Chekovian vision; even the relatively privileged Yelena, Alexander and Doctor are still utterly miserable. It was also pretty striking that the characters who were most unfortunate were least vocal about their stations; for example, Nanny’s physical state is nearly as bad as Alexander’s and she has spent her whole life serving him and his family and listening to their complaints and drudgery. Likewise, Telegin’s wife left him on the day after they were married and his acne earned him the humiliating nickname Waffles, but he doesn’t spend the whole play moping about it!

I had some initial sympathy for Alexander after seeing him in so much pain, perhaps due in part to actor Ryan Page’s exquisitely realistic portrayal of that pain during his character’s first scene. However, this goodwill faded as the extent to which he has exploited his brother in law and his daughter became clear. As for Yelena, I actually may have had more sympathy for her if she had cheated on her husband rather than ignored the affections of two men (Astrov and Vanya) who were head over heels for her while constantly complaining about bored and unhappy she was.

But perhaps the most miserable characters are Sonia and Vanya. It seems as if they were most tortured not by their circumstances but by the thought that they had been wronged by fate, that they could have and should have transcended them. For Sonya, had she only been more beautiful, or, for Vanya, had he only not gotten caught in Alexander’s web.

Thanks to a warning posted in the lobby and a reiteration of that warning in the preshow announcement, I knew a gun would be fired at some point during the show (sort of gives “Chekov’s Gun” a new meaning, doesn’t it?), but what I didn’t expect is for no one to die! Instead, Vanya threatens to kill Alexander when he announces his plans to sell the estate he and Sonia had worked so hard preserve, then threatens to kill himself, but in the end has to courage to do neither.

By that point, it may have been a nobler end if Vanya had just cried “uncle” and done it instead of survive to continue complaining about how miserable he is; and yet isn’t the thought that the character would be somehow less pathetic if he’d had the guts to end his life a sort of sick one?

There was still a whole Act 4 to go, and I spent it half expecting some big twist, like the doctor using the morphine he takes back from Uncle Vanya (another potential suicide attempt of his) on himself. But no, besides the fact that Yelena and Alexander had escaped the morass, things were just going to go on quietly sucking as usual. That much stagnancy and disappointment is a heavy burden to carry despite the cast’s continual efforts to liven things up.

That act seemed to drag despite their best efforts, and I interpreted Sonia’s long final speech as depressingly delusional rather than genuinely transcendent. Like Sonya and Vanya, I was just ready for it all to end, though I did enjoy the funny stage business during the show’s curtain call after it did!

Really, I should’ve just been thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t them. My prospects for a happy future are not yet as entirely vanished as Sonia’s, Vanya’s, and Yelena’s seem to be….are they? Some plays really make you think twice!

Whether you want to focus on the tragic aspects of Uncle Vanya or the comedic ones, there’s no reason to miss out on this great production of a classic, which plays through this October 6th. Many of the play’s lines are positively timeless. For instance: “When real life is wanting, one must create an illusion. It is better than nothing.”

You know, the theatre could be considered just one such illusion.

Huh.

The next play at which I sought respite from my pathetic existence, on the following afternoon, also trafficked in themes of illusion and the stories we tell ourselves to survive, albeit in quite a different style. I was lucky enough to snag myself a ticket to the last performance of MNM Theatre Company’s production of Man of La Mancha!

The Tony-winning 60’s musical is not so much an adaption of 17 century masterpiece Don Quixote but an inventive play within a play inspired by aspects of the novel and aspects of the life of its author, Miguel Cervantes. I haven’t read or researched either, so I’m not one to offer any literary or historical comparisons, but judged on its own merits, the work was plenty entertaining and even more thought provoking.

It was also quite well-produced, starting with an appropriately dreary prison set and period costumes and a truly phenomenal cast. Leads Michael McKenzie as Cervantes/Quixote and Anna Lise Jensen as Aldonza probably gave the most complex and memorable performances, but other standouts included the angel-voiced Milton Mendez as Padre and expressive Gaby Tortoledo as Antonia. Rio Peterson also definitely deserves props for playing guitar as well as playing a prisoner for practically the entire show, or at least as long as his character was alive, as does fellow ensemble member Rebeca Diaz for ably picking up his character’s mantle!

The nested structure of the piece was disorienting at first but eventually fascinating, as was Quixote’s unusual philosophy, encapsulated in his iconic anthem “The Impossible Dream.” For him, an ordinary old man who insists that he is a knight and on following the rules of chivalry, even when that means calling a windmill a dragon or a shaving basin a golden helmet, meaning is found in striving to meet his lofty ideals rather than in accomplishing any particular goal. Yet Quixote’s bizarre idealistic striving and Cervantes’ telling of that striving are both shown to lead to concrete positive results. In the play within the play, these changes are largely confined to the self-image of one woman; in the fictionalized tale of Cervantes, one man’s story leads to enlightenment of an entire prison!

The show, like Shakespeare before it, reflects on the similarities between madmen and poets, as “both select from life” what pleases them. After all, you could say someone who’s spouting falsehoods is crazy, or you could say he’s putting on a show!

I think I too, in the end, would choose a delirious world in which nobility mattered and was consistently rewarded over the so often underwhelming real one, where Don Quixote’s beautiful damsel Dulcinea is only Aldonza the kitchen whore and dying men are wont to ask not “why they were dying, but why they had lived.” So far, I’ve always chosen illusion, whether that be in madness—or in art. Heck, my unwavering belief in the dying art of theatre might be just as crazy as Don Quixote’s belief in the dying art of chivalry!

I’ll certainly by keeping an eye out for MNM’s next production!