May 18, 2019

This Spin on "BLKS" May Be Too Colorful

Sometimes I think the “O” in writer-director Robert O’Hara’s name stands for “over the top.” For while red, blue and yellow may be the primary colors for most of us, his are magenta, indigo and chartreuse. The productions he creates from this palette run the gamut from extravagantly vibrant to flamboyantly garish. And yet artistic directors (and many theatergoers) love O’Hara. Over the past five years he’s written and directed three New York productions and served as director for three others, including BLKS, the first play by the young poet Aziza Barnes which is running at MCC Theater’s Robert W. Wilson space through June 2.

The simplest way to describe BLKS would be to say that it’s an African-American riff on the TV shows “Girls” and “Sex and the City.” Its protagonists are three women in their early 20s who share an apartment in Brooklyn and a taste for fabulous outfits (created with a sly sense of humor by Dede Ayite). Two of them have artsy careers and the third is an accountant. All three have relationship issues.

Filmmaker Octavia loves having sex with her girlfriend Ry but is more preoccupied with a mole she finds on her own clitoris at the beginning of the play. Genial performance artist Imani seems desperately single while also futilely trying to develop an act around some classic Eddie Murphy comedy routines. And the high-strung June is smart enough to have just landed a six-figure job with a major firm but dumb enough to be cheated on repeatedly by her boyfriend.

The play unspools in a series of short scenes in which the friends try to forget their woes with a night out on the town at a hot club. Awkward situations and supposedly lots of laughs ensue.

But O’Hara paints with broad strokes that underscore how potty-mouthed and raunchy the women are (a woman in the row in front of me climbed over six other people to walk out during one particularly vivid sex scene). And that undermines what Barnes is trying to say about the extra burdens so many young black women bear. For underneath the friends' bravado is a churning unease about how the world sees them and how that forces them to see themselves. 

Different productions at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and Baltimore’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, both helmed by the female director Nataki Garrett who was recently named artistic director of the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival, drew high critical praise for their sensitive mix of comedy and drama.

O’Hara, however, hits so hard on the humor that the challenges the women face (Imani’s encounters with a not-so-woke-as-she-thinks-she-is white woman, June’s dismay over the news of yet another incident of police brutality against an unarmed black man) get overshadowed and the intended epiphanies fall flat.

The actors, particularly the endearing Alfie Fuller as the perpetual wingman Imani and the charming Chris Myers as a nice guy the women encounter but are too obsessed with their own angst to truly appreciate, give fully committed performances. But they all engage in far too much shouting, neck rolling, butt twerking and other behaviors that, to be honest, would be called out as racist if the director weren’t black.

Even the usually-deft Clint Ramos is off his game, delivering a clunky set. To be fair, he’s given a tough assignment because the action moves from various rooms in the women’s apartment to locations inside and outside the club. Ramos' solution is to squeeze most of the locales onto a slow-moving roundtable.

Still the young people—both black and white—at the performance I attended yowled with delight at the jokes—and at the butt twerking. I always appreciate having young people in the audience and I don’t begrudge them the enjoyment BLKS gave them. I just wish they and I had seen a production directed by someone else.

May 11, 2019

The Irish Rep Lives Up to Its Name with a Tribute to Sean O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy

Repertory theater used to be the norm. A company of actors would present a revolving series of plays with cast members assuming the lede in some and supporting roles in others. Which meant audiences could see the same guy playing the fiendish Iago at one performance and taking on the role of the foolish Malvolio at the next. 

Nowadays however, few companies can afford to keep large numbers of actors on their payrolls so it’s particularly admirable that the Irish Repertory Theatre is living up to its name and giving theater lovers the chance to see the same group of actors take on various roles in the three plays that make up its tribute season to the playwright Sean O’Casey, rotating the productions at alternate performances and running all three on Saturdays through June 22.

O’Casey wrote about 20 plays in a career that stretched into the 1950s but the three the Rep has chosen—The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars—are acknowledged to be his masterpieces. 

Written over a three-year period between 1923 and 1926, the plays are known as the Dublin Trilogy. And although each stands on its own, together they form a chronicle of Ireland’s violent struggle for independence from the British in the early decades of the 20th century. 

O’Casey centers his stories around the ordinary folks who populated the margins of that civil war. Each play takes place in a tenement apartment and set designer Charlie Corcoran has transformed the entirety of the Rep’s recently-renovated theater into a replica of a working-class Dublin neighborhood, complete with brick walls, lantern lampposts and laundry hanging on lines above the heads of audience members. 

Motley assemblages of rundown furniture distinguish the different homes onstage. The appropriately shabby costumes, all by Linda Fisher and David Toser, underscore the hardscrabble lives of the people who wear them.

The three productions are staged by different directors but the core cast remains the same (click here to read an interview about the process with one of the actors) and among the many rewards of seeing all three shows is seeing what each director does with those similar ingredients.

O’Casey gives them a basic recipe that introduces a collection of stock characters, involves them in seemingly comedic situations and then slowly heats up the stakes to the level of tragedy. 

It’s a meaty acting challenge that calls for actors to bring nuance to such stereotypes as the blustery drunk, the sensitive poet, the stalwart mother of the earth or the neighborhood busybody and to deftly modify their performances as the tone changes.

I found the results to be mixed but I also found things to admire in each production. The Shadow of a Gunman centers on a young writer who is flattered when his neighbors mistakenly suspect him to be an IRA assassin but is later forced to make life-and-death choices after a radical friend killed by government forces leaves him with incriminating evidence.

Perhaps it was because I saw it first back in February but Shadow, directed by the Rep’s co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly, turned out to be my favorite. The story was compelling, the performances were convincing and, importantly, the faux Irish accents the actors adopted were easy to understand. Despite years of theatergoing, it was my first encounter with an O’Casey play and I left eager to see the next one.

That turned out to be Juno and the Paycock, named for the main characters, a long-suffering wife and her ne’er-do-well husband who can’t seem to find a job and drinks up the little money she manages to earn as a charwoman. All their troubles seem over by the end of the first act when news comes that a distant relative has left them an inheritance and their daughter falls in love with a school teacher. But those happy events also contain the seeds of the misfortunes that will destroy the family, including their son who’s accused of being an informant against the IRA.

The best known and most popular of the trilogy, Juno and the Paycock has been made into a movie, adapted three times for TV and was the basis for the short-lived 1959 musical Juno written by Marc Blitzstein and Joseph Stein. Neil Pepe, who has a day job as artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company, helmed the Rep’s production with varying success.

I don’t know if the actors were overtaxed by the strain of performing Shadow at night, while rehearsing Juno during the day but this second installment struck me as wobblier than the first. The humor in the first act seemed forced and the tragedy in the second rushed. The accents became more labored too and for stretches, neither I nor my friend Mary Anne could understand what some of the characters were saying.

The saving grace was the vanity-free performance by Maryann Plunkett, who joined the ensemble to play Juno. With just the tightening of her lips, Plunkett makes you feel the years of disappointment this woman has experienced and her determination to keep going. It’s a masterclass in stage acting and is probably the main reason the Outer Critics Circle gave the show a nomination for Best Revival.

 Last week, I saw the final installment of the cycle The Plough and the Stars, which takes its name from the flag adopted by the Irish republicans. This play, which was so controversial when it debuted at Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre that it sparked riots and caused O’Casey to leave Ireland and settle in England, is set at the time of the bloody 1916 conflict known as the Easter Rising. Nearly 500 people were killed that day, many of the rebellion’s leaders were later executed and the British sent hundreds more to internment camps, earning the enmity of Irish loyalists for decades to come.

Again, weariness seems to have gotten the best of the cast and there were stretches of overly-accented dialog that I couldn’t understand. It also took too long to figure out all the relationships between the characters. But, under the direction of the Rep’s artistic director Charlotte Moore, the show still manages to get across O’Casey’s disillusionment with all sides in the conflict.

Both the Catholic and Protestant views are represented in these plays but there are no true heroes or villains. What O’Casey is saying in a warning that carries across the centuries to our own time is that when people in a society turn on their neighbors, everyone becomes a victim.

May 4, 2019

"Entangled" is an Involving Look at Grief

There were over 300 mass shootings in the U.S. last year and we’ve already passed 100 this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks gun-related deaths in this country. The aftermath of one such shooting is the subject of Entangled, a two-hander that The Amoralists opened at A.R.T./New York Theatres this week but that is currently scheduled to run only through next weekend.  Which is a shame because it’s a truly moving meditation on grief and guilt.

Directed with elegant simplicity by Kate Moore Heaney, the story is told in a series of interlocking monologues spoken by the single mom of a little girl killed in an imagined shooting at the American Museum of Natural History and the brother of the man who shot her and 46 others.

Charly Evon Simpson wrote the dialog for the mother Greta, a black woman who has worked her way up the corporate ladder but who has still centered her life around the child she named Astrid. While Gabriel Jason Dean created the speeches for Bradley, a white gay man, six years older than the brother he affectionately called Little.

Greta and Bradley take turns standing centerstage in a bare playing space furnished only with a straight-backed chair and relate their memories of the past (the way her small daughter would snuggle in bed with her in the mornings; the way he tried to protect his little brother from their macho dad) and their struggles to deal with the present (callous inquiries from the media, awkward gestures of comfort by friends).

Each is ravaged by the incident but it’s hard not to feel most for Greta. It’s partly the situation. Dean carefully details the emotional fallout of the shame, anger and continuing love Bradley feels for his brother. And James Kautz, the founding artistic director of The Amoralists, plays the character sympathetically. But neither can explain what we most want to know: why Bradley’s brother, or anyone, would commit such an horrendous act and why the people around him didn’t see the warning signs and stop him.

Simpson has an easier job with Greta. After all, who wouldn’t empathize with a mother’s anguish over the murder of her young child?  But Simpson, who also wrote the sensitive play Behind the Sheet (you can listen to my interview with her here) doesn’t make the character one-note. Her Greta is often as funny as she is furious and Naomi Lorrain gives a smashing performance that vibrates with emotional authenticity.

This is far from the first show to confront mass shootings (click here to see a list of others) but it’s one of the most effective—and least exploitive—of the dozen or so I’ve seen over the last 10 years. And I wish there were time for more of you to see it.