October 31, 2015

The Public Continues Its Hot Streak with "Eclipsed" and "First Daughter Suite"

Is there any theater company hotter right now than the Public Theater? It started the year off with the literally revolutionary production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton that moved to Broadway in August (click here for my review). It also picked up four Tonys, including Best Musical, for Fun Home, which began its life in the Public's lab series back in 2012 and became a history maker in its own right as the first show written by an all-female team—Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron—to win the top Tony. 

And right now, the Public is running Barbecue, Robert O'Hara's cheeky satire on race, class and the media which ends its three-week run tomorrow; First Daughter Suite, a new chamber musical about the clash between the private and personal lives of five presidential families by the always-boundary pushing composer Michael John LaChiusa and Eclipsed, a moving drama about women surviving in war-ravaged Liberia that not only marks the New York stage debut of the Oscar-winning and fashion-forward actress Lupita Nyong'o but recently announced that it too is moving to Broadway in March.

These shows aren't all great but the Public has attained its heat by championing shows that dare to create theatrical experiences that speak, in one way or another, to the way we live now, bringing to center stage stories about women, gays and people of color.

LaChiusa, who created Giant, The Wild Party and Marie Christine, has always marched to his own drum, usually writing the music, book and lyrics for shows that venture into all kinds of genres. But this time out, LaChiusa has returned to the territory that first put him on the map when the Public produced his First Lady Suite in 1993.

That show, which I saw because a friend insisted that LaChiusa was the most original musicals talent since Stephen Sondheim, consisted of four unrelated fantasias about the inner lives of the mid-century first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy.

Now, LaChiusa is exploring the latter part of that century when Republicans reigned in the White House and he has focused on the mother-daughter tensions between Pat Nixon and her daughters Julie and Tricia, Betty Ford and her daughter Susan, Nancy Reagan and her wild-child daughter Patti and Barbara Bush's interactions with both the ghost of her daughter Robin who died of leukemia at age three and her daughter-in-law Laura, first lady to Barb's eldest child and the nation's 43rd president George (click here to read more about the composer's fascination with first families).

I'm a longtime LaChiusa fan but even I will admit that musical books aren't his strong suit. The scenarios in First Daughter Suite are often amusing. It's fun to see the Nixon girls snipe at one another and their mother on Tricia's wedding day; Nancy and Patti tussle over Patti's tell-all novel about her first family. 

But the jokes are too often obvious, playing to the biases of the Public's presumed liberal audiences. And some of the gibes are cheap shots, particularly Susan Ford's putdowns of her mother's drinking problem. Only Rosalynn Carter and her daughter come off well in a fantasy sequence in which Amy tries to rescue the American hostages held in Iran. 

No new insights are provided into any of the women and LaChiusa doesn't tie their stories together, although common themes are hinted at—water plays a role in each roughly half-hour vignette, reinforced by Scott Pask's set in which panels in the floor change color to reflect different bodies of water. 

Still, LaChiusa is one of the few composers who regularly creates strong roles for women and here he's been blessed with a cast of eight gifted actresses, who, under the precise direction of Kirsten Sanderson and with the expert costumes by Toni-Leslie James, turn in sensational performances. 

Barbara Walsh is particularly good at capturing the icy elusiveness with which Pat Nixon protected herself, Alison Fraser is a hoot as both Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan and Mary Testa, a frequent LaChiusa collaborator, was born to play the no-nonsense Barbara Bush (click here to listen to an interview about the creation of the characters).

LaChiusa's music is, as always, lush and gorgeous and although there's a sameness to some of the arias, there are a few glorious moments when the women join together in a harmony that evades the show, which has been extended through Nov. 22, as a whole.

Women also band together in Eclipsed, which began its life at the Yale Drama School in 2009 but had trouble getting other productions because artistic directors and commercial producers feared it was too similar to Lynn Nottage's Ruined, which chronicled the plight of women in the Congo.

But the Yale Drama-school trained Nyong'o (click here to read more about her) had understudied for the show when it was done in New Haven and when the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis invited her to do something at his theater, she said she wanted to do Eclipsed.

The play is written by Danai Gurira, the Zimbabwean actress who is probably best known for her role on TV’s “The Walking Dead” but who is also an accomplished playwright. And it's directed by Liesl Tommy, a South African who has been making a name for herself as a  rising go-to director in this country. Together, they steep this production in the unaffected authenticity and unapologetic feminism they share (click here to read more about their collaboration).

The setting is the ramshackle hut that is home to the women who are the sex slaves of a rebel commander fighting in Liberia's 14-year civil war. As the play opens two of the women are trying to hide a village girl who has wandered into the camp but she, too, soon becomes a "wife" to the commanding officer whom they refer to only as the "CO."  

They don't refer to themselves by name either, but by numbers derived from the order in which the warlord kidnapped and raped them. Gurira completes her portrait of the options open to Liberian women at the time with the additions of the former No. 2 wife who has escaped subjugation by joining the rebel fighters and becoming as heartless as they are and an affluent woman, whose own experiences with the war have lead her to join the coalition of women who eventually ended it.

The play centers around the competition for the heart and soul of the village girl played by Nyong'o. But Eclipsed is truly an ensemble piece and each woman gets a chance to shine. It's a testament to Nyong'o's belief in the play that she didn't insist on a star vehicle for her New York debut and a testament to her talent that she shines so bright amid a display of stellar performances.

Saycon Sengbloh vies for MVP honors as the No.1 wife who protectively rules over the others. Pascale Armand provides leavening comic relief as the most vain, and ultimately most pragmatic, of the group. Zainab Jah is fierce and frightening as the wife-turned-warrior. And Akousa Busia brings a quiet dignity to the role of the peacemaker.

It's no spoiler to say that there are no happy endings for any of these women and yet the play pays beautiful tribute to their struggles. It took a few seconds for the applause to start at the end of the performance I attended, not because those of there hadn't been move by what we'd seen but because we had been.

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