May 13, 2015

Gutsy Women Command the Stage in the Solo Shows "Forever" and "Grounded"

Holding a stage all by one’s self takes guts.  But two very talented actors step up to the challenge and, with varying degrees of success, show how it can be done in the new one-woman shows Forever and Grounded.

Forever, which opened last week at New York Theatre Workshop, is an autobiographical piece written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith, a playwright who doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable subjects. 

Her play Yellowman, a Pulitzer finalist in 2002, dealt with color bias in the African-American community. Forever recounts the troubled relationship Orlandersmith had with her mother, an alcoholic and emotionally abusive woman who seems to have permanently damaged her sensitive only child.

A chair, a table and a record player are the only props, except for photos from Orlandersmith’s family album that are taped along the wall surrounding the stage, serving as silent witnesses to what turns out to be a harrowing tale that includes a long and graphic description of a rape Orlandersmith endured when she was 14.

The subject matter is undeniably compelling, the writing is vivid and Orlandersmith, a large and impressive woman, radiates a powerful stage presence. This is the kind of story that seems destined to end with redemption and forgiveness. But that’s not quite how this version turns out.

Orlandersmith does find salvation of sorts in the world of music (most especially the ‘60s rock group The Doors and its lead singer Jim Morrison) and literature (the writers Richard Wright and Oscar Wilde) and she imagines that they are her spiritual family, a belief she confirms with the visit to their graves at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris that opens the play.

But the rage she feels for her mother runs deep and I have to confess that I eventually found it both exhausting and off-putting, making the show seem far longer than its 80-minutes running time. 

At the end, audience members are invited to come onstage and look more closely at the photos on the wall and as I peered at those faded images from long ago, I felt very sad that Orlandersmith’s mother is being continually vilified with each performance and that Orlandersmith still feeds the need to do so. 

Grounded, which is playing at The Public Theater only through May 24, is unsettling in a different kind of way. Written by George Brant, a playwright new to me, it’s the story of an unnamed female fighter pilot. She’s a badass who loves flying an F-16 and gets a kick out of the fact that she intimidates most men. 

Her life changes when she hooks up with a guy who’s turned on by her Top Gun-bravado and becomes pregnant. After the baby is born, she’s redeployed to a command center outside Las Vegas where she sits for 12 hours a day and pilots remote-control drones. She calls her new assignment the Chair Force.

The job keeps her out of harm's way and allows her to stay home with her new family but it also eats away at her soul as the exhiliration that comes from putting her life on the line is replaced by the anomie of long-distance killing.

It’s a morality tale for our times, daring us to take responsibility for the way war is now being waged in our name and it’s beautifully realized by Anne Hathaway and Julie Taymor, who are, respectively its star and director. Both women are prodigiously talented but each has something to prove with this production. 

Hathaway has kept a fairly low profile since winning the Oscar for her performance as Fantine in the movie version of "Les Misérables" and, unaccountably, becoming such a punching bag on social media that the pile on spawned the hash tag #hathahaters. (Click here to watch her talk about it.) 

Her exquisitely calibrated performance in Grounded, which tracks the Pilot’s descent from cocky to paranoid, puts the haters in their place and shows that whatever people may think of Hathaway, she’s a helluva an actor.

The knock on Taymor, particularly after the mishegash surrounding Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, has been that’s she’s a prima donna who only knows how to stage big extravaganzas. But here she shows that she can dazzle on a small scale as well.

The production is spare but effective: an elegant sand-covered set backed by a black ice mirror by Riccardo Hernandez, nimble lighting by Christopher Akerlind and simple but eye-pleasing video projections by Peter Nigrini.

But the greatest pleasures are to be found in the clever stagecraft Taymor has devised, like the ways in which the Pilot’s pregnancy is depicted and the monotony of her daily routine is portrayed.

These 80-minutes fly by, with the women at the helm in full—and gratifying—command.  

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