Trinity Rep's "Crime and Punishment": Theatrical Cliff Notes?

One could be forgiven for fearing that Trinity Rep’s latest production, a ninety-minute three-hander distillation of the 700 page novel “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoyevsky, might end up like a theatrical cliff notes version, or worse yet, a Classic Comic Book. Happily, it’s neither of these, but an intensely spare adaptation that effectively focuses on the main themes of its source material. The book was adapted about a decade ago by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus (Trinity Rep’s Artistic Director) while based in Chicago. From the first line of the play, “Do you believe in Lazarus, rising from the dead?”, repeated several more times during the work, it becomes clear that, in Columbus’ own description, the intention was to burn the text down to its essentials. The fundamental questions of the existence of God, and whether a supreme being is found in man, as well as the possibility of confession and redemption, are all here, in simple yet poetic form. Dostoyevsky’s protagonist Raskolnikov (stunningly played here by Stephen Thorne) lives in a world filled with anonymity, and he longs to regain his place in a life filled with few options, with growing ambivalence about his initial theory that certain “extra-ordinary” people can be above the common law.

As directed by Brian Mertes, the other two members of this small cast, Rachel Christopher as Sonia the prostitute and others (Alyona Ivanova, the greedy old moneylender; Lizareta, her innocent sister; Raskolnikov’s mother) and Dan Butler as the detective Porfiry and others (Sonia’s drunken & pitiful father; a tradesman; a client of Sonia’s) are equally terrific. Christopher can be vulnerable and pitiable one moment, evil and manipulative the next. Butler moves easily from the harsh inquisitor (he of the “free form” investigation wherein you “never know what’s going to lead you to an answer”) to the opposite end of the human spectrum, the protagonist’s conscience. Throughout, Thorne plays the sole role of Raskolnikov with all of the necessary rage and doubt at his core. One fact that is never in doubt, however, is his basic guilt as a murderer, who eventually comes to the realization that such a crime can only be redeemed by God and love. In the interim, all three cast members inhabit the length and breadth of the small stage, often breaking down the fourth wall to address and even confront the audience. It’s a compelling and courageous approach to the deeper complexities of a universal story told with such poetic simplicity.

Would that the production team had followed this lead. Instead, we are confronted, and sometimes assaulted, both visually and audibly, by what can only be described as virtually non-stop distractions that threaten to derail one’s train of thought and focus. The Set Design by Eugene Lee, in contrast to his contribution in a prior production which is described as a starkly white stage with a sole crucifix, is here a study in Early Eclectic style, filling (no, cluttering) the stage with unnecessarily busy stuff, including seemingly enough extraneous furniture to fill a warehouse and enough electronic gimmickry for a rock concert. Then there’s the Sound Design by Broken Chord, ranging from rock music to “Claire de Lune”, with many an odd blast or bleep along the way, which sounded as though audience members had neglected to silence their personal devices. (Note to sound designers: this is as distracting when planned as it is when random). The clever Costume Design by Olivera Gajic allows the cast to transition quickly from one character to another, and the Lighting Design by Dan Scully is very effectively coordinated.

This pared-down version of Dostoyevsky’s morality tale is extremely moving, as we see the initial confidence of the murderer begin to crack. As he intones, God indeed confers peace upon the dead, “but the living suffer”. At the end of the play, when asked if he believes in God, he responds with another question, “Does it matter?”, and the answer to his question is an ambiguous “It might”. Nothing is certain in this work, especially redemption, but what is certain is that writers, actors and a director, all at the top of their game, deliver a truly profound piece of theater.


SpeakEasy's "Other Desert Cities": Other Hung-up Wyeths

It’s Christmas Eve 2004, and the Wyeths (not the painterly family up in Maine, but a seemingly dysfunctional one with their own hang-ups in Palm Springs) are celebrating the holiday with an extended-family visit. Polly (Karen MacDonald) and Lyman (Munson Hicks) have opened their starkly decorated home to their children, Brooke (Anne Gottlieb) and Trip (Christopher M. Smith), as well as Polly’s sister Silda (Nancy E. Carroll). In this production of “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz (“The Substance of Fire”, “A Fair Country”), expertly directed by Scott Edmiston, Speakeasy Stage Company has a piece of theater with an impressive history; it first opened off-Broadway in a sold-out production (earning Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations and awards), moving to Broadway, where it had five Tony nominations and became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The play concerns a memoir that Brooke has written that reveals part of the family’s past, especially that of her dead older brother. All of the members of this family react to this revelation with the considerable weight of their own baggage, much of it in the form of some long-interred secret guilt that’s buried deeper than it first appears. Before the holiday passes, we are privy to numerous themes including Jewish assimilation, politics and diplomacy, the need to connect with one another, and the several kinds of gridlock. But beyond all else, this is fundamentally about truth. By the play‘s end, we discover our assumptions shattered, as do the members of the family; all of them have been living a lie, but not the one they thought they were living.

As Silda puts it, “truth is expensive”, it often comes at great cost. Brooke has come home for the first time in six years, after having been hospitalized during a period of severe depression. Silda (who wrote movie comedies with her sister in the 60’s) is coming out of rehab, again. Trip has fallen into the dead end trap of producing manufactured reality television. Polly and Lyman have escaped into their desert hideaway grasping onto the remaining scraps of their prior prominence in the world of ultraconservative politics (casually alluding to “Ronnie”, “Nancy”, or “Don Rumsfeld”). Initially, they all seem to be existing in their own separate worlds, but gradually we come to realize how interconnected they are. Despite the barbed and witty ripostes, and there are many, there is a great deal of love beneath all the verbal battling.

While the play itself is extraordinarily involving, it’s the acting on view which makes this production a terrific piece of theater. MacDonald is a wonder to behold as the aging but still controlling matriarch, and the vulnerable Gottlieb has always provided a target for her manipulative ways. Hicks, at first aloof and reserved, comes into his own as he visibly implodes as his tightly woven cocoon starts to unravel. Smith is another force of nature as the son and brother unfairly called upon to judge or referee, and Carroll is excruciatingly funny as the observer ever ready to crack wise. Each one of them gets at least one great moment in the spotlight, but, under Edmiston’s intensely focused direction, it’s as an impeccable ensemble that this cast really shines.

As do the technical contributions, beginning with the Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, frozen in time in the middle of the last century, just as the family scions are. The Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker ably reflects the varying lifestyle choices of each character, and the Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Original Music/Sound Design by Dewey Dellay add to the specificity of the work. All of their technical expertise anchors the story. It’s under this superficial level, however, that Baitz works his theatrical genius. No one is what she or he first seems, from the stereotypical neocon parents to the detached sisterly observer to the apparently interdependent siblings.

Baitz has written that the making of art (in the case of this play, a literary work) is a metaphor for the cost of truth-telling. He feels this is especially true while we are in a cultural change that demands a more strict ethical standard as well as more courageous honesty in that primal milieu we all start off in, namely the family. As in politics, movies and television (all targeted in this work), so family life in reality often depends on well-constructed fictions, as we come to discover about the Wyeths in this play. The title, as Brooke remarks, refers to a sign on Interstate 10 in California for a the freeway exit “towards Palm Springs, and other Desert Cities”. As this title further suggests, there are alternatives to Palm Springs just as there are alternatives in life to emotional deadlock; once we grow beyond our presumptions about people we think we know, there can be redemption. The play’s original title, “Love and Mercy” (also the title of the memoir Brooke has written) was perhaps less ambiguous. In the end, this family is not as dysfunctional as it may at first have seemed. There is love among them that has helped them all survive. Any serious lover of theater should definitely take that exit toward the route to the Wyeths.


Huntington's "Invisible Man" Demands To Be Seen

“I am an invisible man”, begins the renowned Ralph Ellison 1952 novel, as well as the current play adapted from it, “because people refuse to see me”. The monumental literary work about race and class in America was a groundbreaking effort that in its sixty year existence has never been out of print, and justly so. Now, in its reincarnation as a three-hour drama with a cast of ten playing more than two dozen roles, "Invisible Man" emerges as an unforgettably moving production by Huntington Theater Company (with Washington’s Studio Theater). The adaptation, word for word from its source, is by Oren Jacoby, who manages to distill all the strength of the narrative while jettisoning most of the more florid passages of the source material, with few misguided exceptions (such as the term “palaver”, which rings untrue). In this stripped-down era of intermission-less, set-less and sometimes barely scripted solos and two-handers, this three-act effort is a sight for sore derrieres.

The native son protagonist, invisible even to the extent of remaining nameless (both in this version and in the original book), first appears in his basement in a border area of Harlem; the rest of the play takes place in his memory. He relates how his grandfather, on his deathbed, exhorted him to “affirm the principle” of our nation. He receives a scholarship to attend a Negro college in the South (under humiliating hazing-like circumstances). Initially, he admits to being ashamed, not of his slave ancestry itself but of his having been ashamed about it, and speaks of the need for humility, which he dutifully displays as he drives one of the college’s Great White Founders around the college environs. He unwisely ends up at the log cabin home of a disreputable incestuous father and an equally notorious bar/brothel, causing him to be sent by the head of the college to Harlem, the “city of dreams”, with letters of introduction in hand, presumably to earn his tuition for his final year. There he encounters treachery, and all sorts of city folk, some street smart, some not, but all with pointers for him on how to live his life.

Some of the advice he is given by his fellow blacks about how to coexist with white people may seem like aphorisms out of context (“show them what we want them to see”, “play the game but don’t believe in it”, “don’t hope, make it that way”) and perhaps applicable more to the era in which they were written. The input from the white people he meets, however, sadly endures and is even intensified today, especially when one reflects on the recent national elections (“our job is to tell them what to think”, “take advantage of them…but in their own best interest”). Though he is initially embraced, at least figuratively, by a group called The Brotherhood (an obvious allusion to the Communist Party of the 50’s), he grows to discover how shallow these waters are from statements by well-meaning left-wing activists (describing him as “primitive”, and their black “Brothers and Sisters” as “some of the finest people I know”). Ultimately, it becomes clear that race relations are not high on their list of priorities at that time. Asked how it feels to be free of illusions, his answer is “painful, empty”; but he also feels “more human, less an exile”, even as he describes a Brother’s cause of death as “resisting reality”.

The play is full of many such heartrending truths, but the underlying truth of this production is the powerhouse performance of Teagle F. Bougere, a very visible, wondrous Everyman. The supporting cast, every one of them superb, includes McKinley Belcher III, Brian D. Coats, Johnny Lee Davenport, De’Lon Grant, Edward James Hyland, Joy Jones, Jeremiah Kissel, Deidra LaWan Starnes and Julia Watt. In perhaps the juiciest roles, Coats, Belcher and Davenport stand out, but individually and as an ensemble, they’re all awe-inspiring. The same could be said for the painstakingly precise direction by Christopher McElroen. The (literally and figuratively) electrifying Scenic Design by Troy Hourie is like an essential part of the ensemble, and the Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting Design by Mary Louise Geiger, Projection Design by Alex Koch and Sound Design by David Remedios (reflecting Ellison‘s love for American music, especially jazz) are all flawless.

Beyond racism, this is of course about the loss of innocence of this invisible man (as well as ours), and how he and we are manipulated and even exploited by political, religious and social activist hypocrites. When he realizes this, he is invisible no longer, acknowledging he should be true to himself within the larger community: “When I know who I am, I’ll be free”. As the play ends, he states “the end was in the beginning”, reminding us how he began this memory play by quoting his grandfather‘s deathbed words regarding affirming the principle of our nation. Facing the audience, he confronts us with these words: “It is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”


New Rep's "Marry Me a Little": Don't Assume the Missionary Position

In 1979, during rehearsals for the Broadway debut of the musical “Sweeney Todd”, a member of the chorus of that show happened to discover from Stephen Sondheim that the famed lyricist/composer had a trunkful of songs dropped from other shows as well as unperformed numbers. That chorus boy was Craig Lucas, the eventual author of such theatrical works as “Prelude to a Kiss“” and “Dying Gaul” (as well as the books for the musicals “Light in the Piazza” and the upcoming “King Kong”), who, recalling that conversation a year later when he and director Norman Rene were asked to create a revue for the off-off-Broadway Production Company, asked and was granted Sondheim’s permission to raid that trunk. Thus it was that in 1980 there resulted the performance of “Marry Me a Little”, consisting of a compilation of seventeen songs from eight of Sondheim’s works (some previously produced, some not) with no book, but a bare thread of plot about two single New Yorkers in apartments, a Man living in the apartment above a Woman, both lonely on a Saturday night. The production was successful enough to transfer to off-Broadway at the Actor’s Playhouse in 1981, revived and reworked at the off-Broadway Keen Company last season.

The current version, presented by New Rep, holds a few surprises for anyone familiar with the original. First, don’t assume the missionary position; Man no longer lives on top of Woman. Instead, there are four characters living in close proximity, and therein lie all sorts of permutations and combinations. It is the first gender-blind production to achieve Sondheim’s imprimatur, and just consider the possibilities. By changing the size and potential interactions of the cast, this has become a totally different work, and something is lost as well as gained. Formerly, there was a narrative of sorts, and a tenuous “plot” in the progression of those previously “lost” numbers.  What has been gained is all those possibilities.

The previous work began, appropriately enough, with Man and Woman bemoaning their dateless situations: “when you’re alone on a Saturday night, you might as well be dead”. This was followed by “Two Fairy Tales”, wherein a princess finds happiness, choosing multiple suitors: “and there’s probably a moral to be pointedly discussed, but it’s always been my favorite and I read it when I’m gloomy”. Next came a snipet where “everything forever all comes true”, though “the war (between the sexes) commences, the enemy awaits”. This segued into a song wherein Woman compares herself to those who risk and “have all the fun, I have nothin’ but blues…the same undamaged heart that I had at the start”, echoed by the following number about her schizoid desire to be an uptown “swell” and a downtown gal “holding hands on the El”. Then both exulted in possibly finding love that many in the world “don’t know…they’ve missed”. They lamented the reality that though it was noticed that “Your Eyes Are Blue” they “never had…spoken”. They dream of actually meeting and “in no time, by spending A Moment with You”, falling in love immediately, leading to her plea to “Marry Me a Little” and his rejoinder, “Happily Ever After (for now)” and her questioning “don’t they know, don’t they, what they want?” and exclaiming that one won’t need trumpets or the like, it “doesn’t matter just as long as he comes along”. Finally, he admits to himself that“It Wasn’t Meant to Happen…the timing was wrong, a little regret and that’s that”. Despite this, he avers “Who could be blue…knowing there’s you, somewhere nearby”. And she ends with the wistful dream of a “Little White House…with a little white fence” and “his favorite type of a girl”. And that’s that, ending pretty much where it began.

This time around, just when you thought it was safe to come out of the trunk, the order of numbers has been changed, and the songs assigned to various solos and “duets” (though none of them have actually met), resulting in no dramatic arc at all. What remains is rather like a collection of unrelated short stories, which on a stage defy classification. It’s clearly not a book musical (nor was it in its prior form), not a musical revue, and not really a song cycle. It will no doubt appeal to those who aren’t familiar with these lesser known Sondheim songs, as well as to Sondheim “freaks” (and we know who we are) eager to encounter these rarities. It will also appeal to folks with its gender-blindness (you know, boy meets boy, boy loses boy…), which is pleasant and unforced.

Much of its appeal lies in the direction and choreography by Ilyse Robbins, which are terrifically creative. The cast is pretty terrific, too, starting with Aimee Doherty as Woman 2, but including all of her co-stars, Erica Spyres as Woman 1, Phil Tayler as Man 1, and Brad Daniel Peloquin (despite periodically insufficient miking) as Man 2. Each sings, dances and acts fluidly. The technical credits are up to New Rep’s typical bar, from the complex and clever multi-unit apartment Set Design by Erik Diaz, to Costume Design by Rafael Jaen, Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom and Sound Design by David Reiffel. Special mention should be made about Musical Director David McGrory’s contribution; here and there one even hears snipets of “Lovely” from “A Funny Thing” (accompanied by Woman 1 on her violin) and the chorus waltz from “A Little Night Music”. The other sources include “Follies” (with an added number “Can That Boy Foxtrot”), “Into the Woods” (with an unfamiliar song, “Rainbows”, written for a proposed film version), “Company”, “Anyone Can Whistle”, “Saturday Night”, “Girls of Summer”, and “The Last Resorts”.

By now, most of the songs have become more familiar via recordings of “unsung Sondheim”, but it’s a pleasure to hear them even in some unintended contexts. The sum may be less than the total of its parts, and this surely isn’t great drama in the traditional sense, but anyone who appreciates great composers and lyricists will enjoy this show. After all, with a trunk like Sondheim’s, there are bound to be treasures for just about anyone.  



Lyric Stage's "33 Variations": Themes Like Old Times

“33 Variations”, the current production at Lyric Stage company, is based on an ingenious concept by playwright Moises Kaufmann (who also wrote “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and “The Laramie Project”). Kaufmann depicts the intensely focused quest by a present-day musicologist to decipher the meaning and motivation behind Beethoven’s composition of variations on a simple waltz theme composed by his contemporary, music publisher Anton Diabelli. The play was first performed by Washington’s Arena Stage in 2007 and San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2009 before making its Broadway debut, also in 2009. The New York production, in a limited run of two months, was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Play, and had the distinction of featuring Jane Fonda in her first Broadway role in almost five decades.

Lyric’s production has some distinctive casting of its own, starting with local luminary Paula Plum as Dr. Katherine Brandt, the role previously played by Ms. Fonda. Plum’s interpretation is uncannily moving and believable. The author has written her as a driven music detective fascinated by the hitherto unknown reasons why Beethoven, when asked by Diabelli to write a variation on a theme Diabelli had written, actually ended up spending years producing thirty three of them, even as his increasingly debilitating deafness and consequent suffering continued to impact his life. Not coincidentally, we discover early in the play that Brandt has her own exacerbating suffering to endure, namely amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, more commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”. Plum, at first in almost imperceptible ways, physically portrays how the disease insidiously, gradually, implacably affects her personal and professional life, from weakness to muscular atrophy to difficulty speaking, swallowing and breathing. Kaufman portrays this while alternating his own thirty-three brief scenes between Brandt’s modern-day illness progression and that of the composer’s between the years of 1819 and 1823. It is this ongoing juxtaposition of these two characters’ parallel lives that provides the play’s fascination.

There is a flip side to the play, however, with some other convenient parallels that strain credulity and weaken the effectiveness of the story; for example, the obvious coincidence that Brandt’s German colleague Dr. Ladenburger, ably played by Maureen Keiller, had an aunt who died from the same disease, or that Brandt’s daughter Clara, also well played by Dakota Shepard, takes up a relationship with her mother’s male nurse Mike Clark, engagingly portrayed by Kelby T. Akin. We are never given the reasons why the relationship between mother and daughter has such baggage that gets in the way of any meaningful contact until the disease evokes what Mike describes as one of the benefits of ALS, forced intimacy, or the side effect of what he terms emotional incontinence. Both protagonists, Beethoven and Brandt, contemplate ending their lives, though his thought is to stop his endless suffering and hers is the fear of no longer being able to communicate.

While the parallels may seem contrived at times, they are nonetheless captivating, in no small part due to the terrific company of actors. Beethoven (James Andreassi) and Diabelli (Will McGarrahan) are perfectly amusing foils for one another, and Anton Schindler (Victor L. Shopov) makes a very credible (as it actually says on his calling card) “friend of Beethoven”. Mention should also be made of the pianist Catherine Stornetta who capably provides examples of the actual variations. Keeping these various themes in harmony is Director Spiro Veloudos, (Lyric’s Producing Artistic Director), who is aided by intriguing technical contributions, especially Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and Sound Design by Brendan F. Doyle, as well as Projection Design by Shawn Boyle. Each helps to support the central idea that creation, be it musical or theatrical, is about transfiguration, change that makes what might at first seem banal eventually appear better.

At the coda of the first act, the entire cast enacts a sort of theatrical equivalent of an operatic septet; for the second act coda, it’s a minuet. The basic theme by Diabelli emerges not as a mere trifle but a typical beer hall waltz, which we hear Beethoven use to reclaim all that is fleeting with new eyes. Both Brandt and Beethoven needed time to finish their work, as well as to find meaningful and fulfilling endings. One clue is given earlier in the play when Brandt quotes her daughter at an obviously precocious seven years of age: “When you listen to music, Mom, you look like you’re talking to God”. Brandt at one point claims she is not religious. But there are many forms of faith. “33 Variations” renews one’s faith in theater.