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You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry

By James Yeara

By Israel Horovitz, directed by Laura Margolis
StageWorks, through Nov. 15

Lebensraum begins with the unseen stage manager calling the three actors (Kirk McGee, Robert Ian MacKenzie, Danielle Skraastad) to the stage so they may welcome the audience. The actors dutifully comply. Lebensraum ends with the three actors standing centerstage, repeating “never again” in English, German, and French again and again, each time giving the two words a different intonation, a different inflection, a different feel. The 90 minutes in-between is full of the stuff that great theater is made on. Lebensraum is a fantastic fantasy, full of sound characters and furious actions, combining a manic glee worthy of vaudeville comedy with the occasional still moments portentous with seriousness. Lebensraum is a rare show, finding humor in the holocaust yet constantly needling the complacent and the compliant. Director Laura Margolis and StageWorks show once again that the best theater entertains as it educates.

Lebensraum teeters precariously on a fantasy: Fictional German Chancellor Rudolph Stroiber (MacKenzie) wakes from a nightmare—cast on the stage as a black-and-white video of Hitler and his patriotic rallies—to announce on a live television broadcast, “Project Homecoming: an invitation to 6 million Jews to come and live in Germany!” That the newscaster (McGee) slowly physically distances himself from the beaming Chancellor states all that is needed to know about the Germans’ reaction to the idea without saying a word.

In story-theater fashion the three actors then whirl through the reactions of the world, moving from Germany, Israel, France, the United States, Australia and points in-between. The three actors play narrator and then characters with precise vocalization and physicality. MacKenzie is in a particular frenzy as the Buchenwald camp survivors Axel Rosenweig and Maximillian Zylberstein living in Australia, creating in a split-second these distinct characters with a switch of a hat, a compression of his posture, and the ratcheting of his vocal pitch. This bit of theatricality is alone worth the price of admission.

As with previous story-theater productions at StageWorks, most notably Brutal Imagination and The Laramie Project, the excellence of the acting puts to shame the better-funded Equity companies in the area, who often rely on production values and the razzle dazzle of stage pictures to the detriment of the acting talent to hold the audience’s interest. At StageWorks, it’s the actors creating humans before your eyes and then revealing what’s at those characters’ cores—no matter how well hidden from the characters themselves—that engage the audience. That sort of talent and courage makes for great theater, and Margolis brings it out in her cast in production after production.

Director Margolis keeps the pace fast and furious where it needs to be; the scenes shift locale and time with a phrase, and the actors have to be on top of their craft to create over 50 characters and keep pace with the spectrum of accent, status, vocal rhythm, age and intention. Lebensraum surprisingly uses cartoon slapstick worthy of Looney Tunes (there is an impromptu beheading by his congregation of an Israeli rabbi, and the lethal beatings of a scholar and a bureaucrat) and Borscht-belt type jokes to generate laughs that slide into a deeper meaning, which leaves the audience suddenly silent. Set designer Ruben Arana-Downs creates an eerie stage, featuring a raked wide-plank gray wood floor that curves up to the upstage wall, and black bunks stage left and right, creating the feel of a barracks. It’s the sort of ominous underpinning that supports the surprisingly funny Lebensraum well.

Ideal theater: John Romeo and Mary Jane Hansen in Born Yesterday.

Popular Politics

Born Yesterday
By Garson Kanin, directed by Ed. Lange
New York State Theatre Institute, Schacht Fine Arts Center, through Nov. 7

Set in Washington, D.C., in 1946, Born Yesterday surprisingly echoes contemporary politics, especially during the staging of Act II: A classy Washington hotel suite, another winning New York State Theatre Institute set by designer Duke Durfee, is well lighted by John McLain to show off its white faux-marble-wall opulence and is festooned with American flags. The flags surround the greedy war-profiteer/entrepreneur Henry Brock (excellently portrayed by John Romeo with part Marlon Brando menace and part Alfred Molino gravitas). Trying to broker another barely legal deal, the bullying, blustering braggart Brock yells to his mistress Billie Dawn (a ditzy Mary Jane Hansen) and lawyer Ed Devery (a cynical Joel Aroeste), “If you aren’t with me, you’re against me,” in a flourish of Bushian logic, and leaves in a huff, slamming the door. Lawyer Devery calmly sips his scotch and responds, “Don’t mind him. He’s always lived at the top of his voice.”

A popular hit when it played on Broadway from 1946 to 1949, Born Yesterday is the most mature and relevant production NYSTI has done in years. The politically idealistic bent of the play pleases, especially in Troy, a city beholden to the whims of politicians.

The performances are dead-on steady here at NYSTI: The perfection of Romeo, Hansen and Aroeste is aided by David Bunce’s earnest journalist, Paul Verrall, and John McGuire’s Senator Norval Hedges, Brock’s bought-and-paid-for politician. The costuming by Robert Anton captures post-WWII fashionable excess and gives Born Yesterday a notable sense of time.

The play concludes with dated, idealistic, Capraesque faith in the wisdom of the people to see through the manipulation of the powerful (a faith the Fox network would seem single-handedly to have disproved). However, Born Yesterday’s take on education—journalist Verrall strives mightily to instill curiosity for knowledge in ex-chorus-girl Dawn—would make for a worthy addition to the Republican platform: No bimbo left behind. With a reprise of Miracle on 34th Street and Fiorello! following, Born Yesterday is the first in what seems to be an examination of populist politics by NYSTI this season.

—James Yeara

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