September 28, 2019

The Passions of "Novenas for a Lost Hospital"

Theater began as religious ritual and playwright Cusi Cram and director Daniella Topol invoke that tradition with Novenas for a Lost Hospital, their passion play that is now running at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through Oct. 13.

The titular hospital is St. Vincent’s, which operated in Greenwich Village for 161 years, caring for cholera victims in 1849, survivors of the Titanic in 1912, AIDS victims in the 1980s and ‘90s, and survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Throughout all those years, the hospital also treated the more common ailments afflicting local residents, many of them poor and unable to pay, until its own poor finances forced it to close in 2010 (click here to read more about its demise).

The lament that Cram, herself a longtime Village resident, has written for St. Vincent’s begins in the courtyard of nearby St. John's in the Village, the Episcopal church that also served as a sanctuary for people with AIDS at the height of the epidemic. Following some singing, chanting and a ritual washing of hands, audience members who've been instructed to gather there are led around the corner to the theater.

Art work from the Visual AIDS project lines the stairway up to the theater and the playing space is initially filled with hospital screens decorated with photos and newspaper articles chronicling the life and death of the hospital.

Audience members are urged to look through all of it and are then ushered to pew-like seats and given small battery-operated votive candles by actors dressed as the 19th century Catholic nuns who founded St. Vincent’s. Once the screens are removed, the main ritual begins with the lighting of the first of nine larger candles symbolizing the novena prayers for the hospital.

Each of those candles initiate a scene in the life of St. Vincent’s. In one, nurses discuss the simultaneous exhaustion and exultation of caring for patients across the decades. In another, a young 19th century surgeon violates a religious taboo by using a corpse to practice a new life-saving procedure.

But the most poignant scenes are those centered around the hospital’s AIDS years, as administrators struggled to offer comfort, doctors to find a cure and patients to find courage as they all confront the disease.

The spirits of two prominent early American Catholics oversee and comment on all of it. Kathleen Chalfant brings her usual easy elegance to the role of Elizabeth Seton, the daughter of a prominent Revolutionary-era family who converted to Catholicism, established this country’s first community of religious sisters, founded the first Catholic school and was later canonized as the first American-born saint. 

In a more flamboyant turn, Alvin Keith plays Pierre Toussaint, a former Haitian slave who became wealthy as a society hairdresser in New York, a principal benefactor of the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which still stands on Mulberry Street, and so overall generous to Catholic charities that he was the first laymen to be buried in the crypt under the alter of the current Fifth Avenue cathedral.

Their inclusion doesn’t really have much to do with the St. Vincent’s story, although I suppose it adds some gender and racial politics to the mix. And the rest of Cram’s script is similarly patchy. Some of the scenes go on too long. Much of the dialog is clichéd. The acting is uneven too. In fact, the overall effect is like watching a church pageant in which earnest enthusiasm counts as much as, if not more than, polished expertise. 

But that’s the whole point of this show. It’s less concerned with impressing theater sophisticates than with raising consciousnesses about the role institutions like St. Vincent’s play in the life of this city and about the role we should all play in keeping them alive.

After the last candle was lit, the actors and musicians waiting outside led the congregation, for that’s what we had become, back onto the street. I worried that the music might disturb neighbors in the nearby buildings but as we made our way to the park across the street from the luxury condos that have replaced the hospital, I spotted one couple in a tenement window, waving, swaying to the music and giving their blessing to our procession.

We ended up under the canopy of the sculpture that memorializes the more than 100,000 people in the city who have died from AIDS-related illnesses. Chalfant gave a benediction, we formed our votive candles into a circle and then dispersed.

It was far from the best show I’ve ever seen. And it demanded the kind of audience participation I usually hate. But as I watched the scenes unfold I thought about how I wished the friends I’d lost to AIDS were here to see them and about how gentrification is now killing the city I love.  And as I walked away from the park, I couldn’t imagine a more spiritually uplifting evening of theater.

September 21, 2019

"Wives" is a Tale Too Sketchily Told

Falling out of love is no fun. I fell hard for Jaclyn Backhaus and her audacious play Men on Boats when I saw it four years ago.  It cleverly reimagined the real-life Powell Expedition of 1869 with an ethnically diverse cast of female actors assuming the roles of the 10 white men who set out to chart a path through the Grand Canyon. It was a smart and funny meditation on gender and a reminder that the primary beneficiaries of America’s devotion to manifest destiny have almost always been white guys (click here to see my review). Like any besotted lover, I could hardly wait to see another work by Backhaus.

Alas, I now have. Three times.  And none have lived up to that initial thrill. Her Folk Wandering, a meandering musical whose book she wrote, over zealously tried to combine the stories of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the 1934 disappearance of the southwestern artist Everett Ruess and the 1955 death of the actor James Dean.  

Inspired by the playwright’s own Indian relatives, India Pale Ale focused on the intergenerational clashes between a family of Punjabi-Americans but collapsed into little more than a sitcom. And now comes the even more frustrating Wives, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons this week.

Wives is particularly disappointing because the description on the Playwrights Horizons website promised “remarkable stories of Great Men! — and their whiny, witchy, vapid, vengeful, jealous wives.” Which suggested a return to the subversive feminist territory of Men on Boats but quickly ran aground.

As Backhaus has noted in several interviews (click here to read one of them) she has knit together four different plays that she started over the past few years. The seams show. 

The obvious mission of Wives is to illustrate how circumstances have always forced women to become rivals or background players in the chronicles written by and about men. It wants to imagine how different things might have been if the women hadn’t had to filter their ambition through the males in their lives and instead could have become allies or at least to have controlled their own narratives.

It’s an appealing premise, particularly at this time when so much discussion about toxic masculinity is in the air. But the play is more a series of sketches than a cohesive argument.

A patchwork of locales and time periods, it opens with a scene set in the 16th century court of Henri II where loyalties are divided between his wife Catherine de’ Medici and his favorite mistress Diane de Poitiers. Then it skips to the 1960s where three of the novelist Ernest Hemingway’s four wives gather after his suicide to drink, dish and diss their shared spouse.

The remaining segments are set in a maharajah's palace in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan during the early 1920s and in an Oxbridge women's studies classroom in modern-day England. That’s a lot to cram into 80 minutes. A tighter focus on any one of these tales might have been more rewarding.

The real-life women Backhaus has chosen to highlight are worthy subjects but she gives so little information about each that it’s hard to appreciate or root for them. Instead we get cartoonish versions of who they were and the imagined resolutions to their problems ring false and improbable.  

Even worse, when stuck for a laugh, Backhaus throws in some anachronistic patter and a smattering of profanity (“u fakeass bitch, I know he loved me more than you,” her Diane de Poitiers tells Queen Catherine.)  

Director Margot Bordelon and her game four-member cast, particularly the increasingly invaluable Adina Verson (great every time I’ve seen her) do what they can to keep things hopping along, with supportive backup from Valérie Thérèse Bart’s witty costumes and Reid Thompson’s malleable set.

And there are entertaining moments. The opening scene in which Verson portrays a 16th century version of Julia Child was a crowd-pleaser the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show.  But it has little to do with the overall theme of Wives

At other moments, Backhaus resorts to telling (instead of showing) the points she wants to make. “I am told by the world that I do not exist but I stand here trying to see myself,” one character orates in the final section of the play. 

I suppose all this griping is making me sound lke a jilted lover but having once been so beguiled by Backhaus, this last disappointment really has left me kind of heartbroken.  

September 14, 2019

"American Moor" Confronts the White Gaze

Just about every theater company is wrestling with the questions of how to increase the diversity of their audiences and the representation on their stages. In the meantime, though, a growing number of black and brown theater makers are grappling directly with the white gaze that results from having predominantly white audiences view their work and mostly white arts administrators vet it.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview cleverly confronted its largely white audiences and won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And now American Moor, a meditation on how to interpret Shakespeare's Othello that played at the Wild Project five years ago, has returned in a Red Bull Theater production that is running at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Oct. 5.

I recognize that as a black woman, I'm probably not the target audience for these shows but they have caused me to think yet again about how complicated it can be to have these discussions about race. American Moor is written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb, an actor whose program bio suggests that he’s been most successful doing TV but who, he makes clear in this autobiographical show, has a longstanding love for Shakespeare.

Cobb, now 57, tells us that since his early acting days, he has yearned to play Hamlet, Romeo, Richard II, even A Midsummer Night Dream’s fairy queen Titania (click here to read more about the actor). But others have seen him differently.

Cobb’s tall, impressively chiseled physique (including cannonball-sized biceps); a resonant voice that reflects his classical training at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the fact that he is black have made casting agents and directors for Shakespeare productions want to cast him almost solely as Othello. This nearly one-man show pivots around the fact that their vision of the character often conflicts with his.

American Moor simulates an audition in which Cobb nervously prowls the stage before the show actually begins. Once it starts, he performs bits of Othello’s speeches as he tries out to play the Moor in a production helmed by a white director (Josh Tyson) who is embedded in the audience and full of ideas about how the part should be played. 

But most of the action takes place inside the auditioning actor’s mind as interior monologues that, aided by Alan C. Edwards' lighting and Christian Frederickson's soundscape, he delivers to the audience, comparing Othello’s life to his own and fuming about a young white guy telling an older black guy how to portray one of the most famous black guys in the theatrical canon.

Many of Cobb’s observations are insightful. He draw parallels between Othello and contemporary African-American achievers like Colin Powell and even Barack Obama, who simultaneously recognize their own strengths and that those strengths—be they physical or intellectual—may be seen as threats to the whites who surround them and who have expectations about the behavior of black men.

Meanwhile, the director wants Othello portrayed as an insecure man whose feelings of inadequacy and a compulsion to prove his manhood eventually boil over into murderous rage. It might seem a subtle difference but it’s a significant one: the tension between the way black people see themselves and the way white people, even well-meaning ones, see them.

Some critics, all of them white men, have complained that the actor’s response is out of proportion to what the director asks him to do. Having often been in similar situations myself, I understood what the actor was feeling. I just wish that Cobb had found a way to make his point more concisely. Instead under the direction of Kim Weild, who is, ironically, a white woman, he repeats the same arguments over and over, making the show’s 85 minutes seem far longer than they are.

Not that the audience seemed to mind. More integrated than is often the case for small off-Broadway shows, the audience at the performance my husband K and I attended was still majority white. And some of them seemed to be competing with one another to show how much they were in on the message that Cobb was trying to get across. The white woman seated behind me kept uh-huhing her approval as though she were at a church revival. Others leapt out of their seats to lead the curtain call.

It seemed to me as though they hadn’t really thought through what Cobb was saying, hadn’t fully considered whether they’d ever “othered” black or brown people themselves, hadn’t realized that Cobb might be describing their behavior. But I suppose I could be accused of the same kind of pigeonholing as I write here about them. As I said, talking about race is complicated.