hilarity: (l-r) Garrison and Stuhlbarg in WTF’s Travesties.
of Great Ulysses
Tom Stoppard, directed by Gregory Boyd
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown,
Mass., through Aug. 17
Trying to get one’s mind around this play is rather like trying
to shake hands with a hyperactive, attention-starved octopus.
I should think that directing it would be akin to establishing
order in a roomful of Marx Brothers or, given some of the
play’s wandering willow roots, a roomful of bothersome Marxists.
Audacious, playful, anarchic, overwhelming, stimulating, overstimulating,
hilarious—this is as good as theater gets.
Those parodied include: Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, Tristan
Tzara and Henry Carr, a functionary in the British consulate
in Zurich. All happened to be in Switzerland during World
War I, the war that supposedly would end all wars. While Carr
met Joyce when the former appeared in the latter’s production
of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (also
parodied), Stoppard has conflated the four lives and their
particular politics into a series of imagined encounters that
take on the structure of Wilde’s play about the vanities that
dangerously underlie all of society. To make matters crazier,
it is all filtered through the erratic memory of Carr as an
It is a linguistic feast, word salad and vegetal verbiage
spun through Stoppard’s food-for-thought processor, and it
is admirable that a director and company could digest it and
memorize the play, let alone get it staged with the limited
rehearsal time afforded summer festival productions. That
they could create such a finely delineated, imaginatively
attacked and painstakingly mounted a production is heroic.
Making a Chaplinesque entrance as Tzara, Michael Stuhlbarg
proves a delightfully defiant Dadaist as he dexterously snips
Shakespearean sonnets into new shapes. While we laugh at Tzara’s
single-mindedness and stupidity in rejecting all traditional
artistic and cultural values, Stuhlbarg rises to Tzara’s unexpected
and necessary intrepidness when attacking the self-serving
language of politicians, language that corrupts words like
patriotism, duty, love, freedom and honor. “Wars are fought
for oil wells,” he argues with stunning currency. “War is
capitalism with the gloves off.”
Similarly are our feelings for Lenin subverted. Seemingly
valorous in one moment, he becomes a subject for ridicule
in the next, and Gregor Paslawsky authoritatively plays his
contradictions with appropriate high-mindedness. Words taken
verbatim from Lenin’s actual speeches before and during the
Russian Revolution become risible, as when he argues for a
free press under party control. George Orwell would have loved
Stephen Spinella liltingly lights into Joyce, who is arguably
given the most amusing and affectionate treatment by Stoppard.
Whether deftly dancing through music-hall numbers or tripping
through limericks, Spinella proves a consummate showman, and
when the time comes for the travesty to temporarily subside,
he is elegantly assertive. When asked, “And what did you do
in the Great War?” he replies, “I wrote Ulysses. What
did you do?”
The play’s most difficult role is Carr, the narrator, who
must ramble as an old man through Beckettian memory monologues
that exceed even Joyce’s stream of consciousness in their
complexity. Having completed these navigations, which call
into question the reliability of all the information we are
presented, Carr must then transform into his younger self
as he wanders back in time to 1917. He becomes increasingly
dandified to the degree that he comes to resemble Algernon
Moncrieff, the role he was enlisted to play in The Importance
of Being Earnest. Required is an actor who can cross eras,
genres, and styles with considerable energy and panache. In
the role and all of its facets, David Garrison is brilliant.
Such delights do not cease with the major players. Lynn Collins
and Kali Rocha are gracefully and libidinously hilarious as
Gwendolyn and Cecily, respectively. Their custard-pie fight,
superbly choreographed, removes the mannered subtext from
Wilde and charges it with civilized violence, humiliation
Gregory Boyd has done a great service in giving form and focus
to this work of genius that is, understandably, rarely performed.
That his exhaustive work glides by with such seeming lack
of effort is a tribute to his own genius and the talents of
his flawless cast.
William Shakespeare, directed by Tina Packer
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox., Mass., through Aug. 30
The startling costume design by Arthur Oliver serves as well
as Edgar’s concluding epigram—“Speak what we feel, not what
we ought to say.”—as a symbolic through line for Shakespeare
& Company’s first full production of King Lear:
The opening scene’s white-on-brilliant-white doublets, bodices,
robes, and whirling-dervish skirts for the men slowly soil
to shades of gray and beige by the dirty, bloody end. Kris
Stone’s set design features a stage floor like a basketball
court, framed by two sets of bamboo curtains upstage, and
eight white, warped “windows to the soul, stretching to infinity”
above the stage. Coupled with the flashes of lightning, blue
shadows, circles of top spotlights, and sidelight angles of
Matthew E. Adelson’s lighting design and the original soundtrack
mélange of melodies from the Fellows of the Tanglewood Music
Center, the stagecraft creates a world for King Lear
as near as a dream, as intimate as a fairy tale, and as jarring
as a nightmare. Tina Packer and company create a King Lear
that combines the modern with the mythic in this play, which
is at heart about families.
The fact that scholars believe that there are two distinct
texts of Shakespeare’s King Lear gives the play a literary
context: It is literature to be studied, not a play to be
performed. And at three and a half hours, Packer and company’s
melding of the two versions taxes both audience and cast.
Yet the battle in tone and dialogue between the two versions
of Lear is quieted by the company’s aesthetic: You
can hear the words, feel the words, see the words. The strong
physicality of the troupe (what other troupe would dare to
stage Gloucester’s blinding not by the typical thumb gouging
but by having Regan’s husband suck the eye out and spit its
red, pulpy mass onto the stage floor?), their ease with physical
comedy and their daring with the spoken words makes this the
most accessible King Lear I’ve seen. With this King
Lear, you leave the theater stirred and full of questions.
This version centers on fathers and legacies: the ancient
king’s (Jonathan Epstein) dealings with his three daughters,
Goneril (Ariel Bock), Regan (Elizabeth Aspenlieder), and Cordelia
(Kristin Wold); and the parallel plot with the king’s trusted
advisor, the Earl of Gloucester (Johnny Lee Davenport), and
his dealings with his sons Edgar (Jason Asprey) and Edmund
(John Douglas Thompson). By Act IV, when Edgar tells his blinded,
suicidal father, “Ripeness is all,” that mantra seems the
only lifeline to hold in a play full of death, killing, suicide,
madness, betrayal, and more lies, half-truths, and rank bullying
than you see on an hour of Fox News.
While Epstein can rage as well as any Lear, it is in the surrounding
cast that the heart of the play beats. If Lear, as he says
in madness on the heath, is a man “more sinned against than
sinning,” it is in Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Gloucester, Edmund,
and, especially, the loyal servants Kent (Malcolm Ingram)
and Lear’s Fool (Kevin G. Coleman) that sin lives and is punished.
Coleman’s Fool is a particular delight, a loose-limbed collection
of humor who bites and pleases, who causes laughter and tears.
Dressed in rustic motley, wearing white paint on half his
face and a coxcomb headpiece like some Lakota shaman, Coleman’s
Fool is Lear’s soul, watching from above in silent horror
as Lear banishes Cordelia in the first scene, later mocking
Goneril’s duplicity, then creating Christ images at the stock
as Lear begins losing his sanity at Regan’s rejection, and
finally, silently, leaving the stage after Lear wipes the
Fool’s face of folly and removes his coxcomb. Such archetypal
moments of loss of self are reflected throughout this cast
in a production that ultimately fulfills Edgar’s “speak what
Michael Isaac Connor, directed by Barry Edelstein
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, Aug. 10
Berkshire Village—an unpre- possessing section of Lanesboro,
Mass., that fronts Route 8—is the inauspicious setting of
Michael Isaac Connor’s mostly autobiographical one-man show
in which he plays various denizens of that tiny, rustic neighborhood.
Berkshire Village Idiot interestingly follows on the
heels of the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s main stage production
of Dylan Thomas’ portrait of small-town life in Wales, Under
Milk Wood, but Connor’s poetic voice rings with far more
clarity. Credit that to Connor’s gifts for language and impersonation
and Barry Edelstein’s imaginative direction, which beautifully
exploits every square foot of Derek McLane’s authentic auto-repair-shop
setting. Aided enormously by Russell H. Champa’s clever lighting
design, the garage is effortlessly transformed into various
locales in the village and in Connor’s rapid-fire mind. With
but a few well- utilized props, Connor spins his escalating
tale, and by the climax we are more moved by his rough-hewn
prose poetry than we were by Thomas’ far more lyrical verse.
While he inhabits more than a dozen characters, including
the family dog, Connor’s main subjects are Mikey, himself
at age 15, and his father, an ex-pugilist known as the Berkshire
Bomber who temporarily forsook his family for military service
in Thailand. Mikey never forgave his father for abandoning
him in a place where he never felt he fit in with the locals,
whose chief occupations included guzzling beer and shooting
beavers in the local pond. Feeling like the village idiot,
Mikey flew into adolescence with a chip on his shoulder the
size of an Irish potato and a restless drive that could supply
power for the town’s energy grid. The return of his father,
and their subsequent fractious interactions—which culminate
in a beaver-pond dispute—is the spine of this hot-wired story.
Moving about the stage as if engaged in some extreme sport,
Connor doesn’t immediately engage our empathy. In the early
stages it is difficult to sense the sensitivity, and arrogant
Mikey is about as inviting as a well-used grease gun. The
humor feels obvious and pushy, as in that of a smart-ass standup
comic. Subject and oily setting homogenize, and one feels
the intermissionless play may be interminable. Then something
The characters become real, and Connor’s broad sketches resolve
themselves into bold oil portraits: Intoxicated Uncle Jumbo
and cathoholic Grandmother Lewis, along with the Kawasaki-driven
Donny Saldo, ex-marine Jackie Tate, Irish Father Finley and
others whose names I’ve forgotten, fill the stage—and we develop
relationships with them just as Mikey does. Most important,
Mikey/Connor becomes more poetic than glib, and the hurt that
lies beneath his swaggering becomes real. And this is how
it should be: Initially being put off by Mikey is part of
the design that forces us to acknowledge our own tendencies
for biased first impressions.
The character that impresses most is Bob Connor, the father
who wanted to play a meaningful, if belated, role in his son’s
adolescence. Bob is a gentle and misunderstood man of principles
with a profound respect and love for nature, even in its seeming
lowliest of forms. If Connor’s goal was to honor his father,
he has succeeded in a clean, unsentimental manner shot through
with honesty and bittersweetness.
of the Mark
and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, directed
by Timothy Douglas, based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr.
Berkshire Theatre Festival, the Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge,
Mass., through Aug. 29
is a musical (a play with music would be a more accurate description)
about seven men and two women who wanted to assassinate eight
presidents of the United States. I thought that there was
something daringly subversive about a mounting of Assassins
given our current administration, which has left so many intelligent
people feeling more alienated than ever. But then I read Timothy
Douglas’ director’s note with its timorous disclaimer, “So
please allow me to state for the record that I am completely
against violence of any kind as a way of resolving conflicts.”
It is a statement that follows two earlier ones. In the first,
Douglas says his frustration with the current administration
has given him a visceral understanding of an assassin’s motivation.
The second is a lulu: “My capacity for this depth of empathy
also gives me pause, for I have no idea how far away I am
from the ‘invisible line’ that separates me from a similar
or identical response.” Hmmmmm. It seems Douglas, who showed
no such equivocation last year in his Insurrection: Holding
History (with its disturbingly quasi-heroic treatment
of Nat Turner), is trying to have and eat his proverbial cake.
I quote the above only because it may explain the failure
of this show, which suffers from a lack of focus and tone.
Advertised as a black comedy, instead it comes across too
clinically contrived—as if the director were afraid of offending
anyone. Douglas also claims that the play “was originally
conceived to lend insight into individuals who’d felt sufficiently
marginalized by this country’s practices and politics.” This
may explain the oddly detached, sober and semirealistic tone
of too many of the scenes.
But I’m not buying it—there is too much black wit in Sondheim’s
lyrics. One may as well say that his Sweeney Todd was
written to give insight into the marginalized lives of frustrated
barbers and cannibals.
And Assassins is no Sweeney Todd: Apart from
some of the lyrics, it is very disappointing Sondheim. But
even at his worst, Assassins with its modest 10 songs
attains cult status as a curiosity from the master. The dull
book by John Weidman doesn’t give much to the actors; the
characters are rarely more than ciphers offering little insight,
which is why a serious take doesn’t work. There is simply
no one who invites us fully enough into his or her obsession.
Still, credit must be given to Andrew Michael Neiman’s earnest
work as Leon Czolgosz (assassin of President McKinley), Aric
Martin’s well-voiced Charles Guiteau (assassin of President
Garfield), and Eric Loscheider, who seems a dead-ringer for
Joe Jung makes a sympathetic Lee Harvey Oswald, but the climatic
scene at the Texas Book Depository lacks impact and credibility.
Jill Michael and Megan Ofsowitz come closest to finding the
right humor in their loopy portrayals of Lynette “Squeaky”
Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who both bungled their separate
attempts to shoot Gerald Ford, one of our funniest presidents.
Michael Baker lacks the panache we’d expect from John Wilkes
Booth, while Meg Wieder lacks presence as Emma Goldman (who
was not an assassin but is credited with inspiring Czolgosz).
Ah, what would dear Emma say today?