New Rep's "Whipping Man": Why Is This Play Different from All Other Plays?

Keith Mascoll, Johnny Lee Davenport, Jesse Hinson

New Rep’s current production of “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez is a stunning piece of creative theater. It originated way off Broadway in 2006 at Luna Stage in New Jersey, making its New York debut in 2010. The concept is a strikingly original one. The time is 1865, immediately after the April 9th surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, concurrent with the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Passover, in which the Exodus of liberation from bondage is commemorated. The place is Richmond, Virginia, the site of a Jewish-owned formerly grand home, now in disarray. The son of the owners of the home (who have fled) arrives severely wounded, still in his (Confederate) uniform, to find two of the family’s slaves left behind. This ownership of slaves by Jewish masters is a little-known fact of Southern life, a reality in about a quarter of Jewish homes. Despite the specific Biblical prohibition of enslavement by Jews of their own people, the slaves in their homes who embraced Judaism remained in bondage. Partly due to their being viewed, not as human beings but as property, and acceptance of slavery as a “necessary” element of the Southern economy, this contradiction continued to exist until the end of the Civil War. It was the legacy of the Founding Fathers who compromised on the subject of slavery in order to establish what would become a very imperfect union. As another play, the musical “1776”, quoted John Adams about the future of a country that did not abolish slavery from the start, “Does anybody see what I see?”. That unresolved issue was to haunt the newly formed country then, and persists today. The huge question that remained after the war had ended, which is what this play addresses, was precisely this: with emancipation as a reality, just where do we go from here?

This production begins with some terrific technical elements, from the deconstructed Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, to the realistic Sound Design and Original Music by Dewey Dellay (rain, wind, thunder, and a lot of creaking), to the Lighting Design by Scott Pinkney (atmospheric lightning and impressive use of candlelight) and the appropriate Costume Design by Molly Trainer. In stumbles the injured Caleb (Jesse Hinson) through the grand doorway (still intact, and curiously with no visible mezuzah which one would expect in an observant Jewish home), to be greeted first by the faithful elderly slave Simon (Johnny Lee Davenport), and subsequently by the far less faithful slave who was Caleb’s boyhood companion (though of course not friend), John (Keith Mascoll). Before long the question of “where do we go from here” becomes more and more apparent from the different visions of the present and future as seen by each. Whereas the formerly privileged Caleb envisions life “like it was before”, Simon observes that “it will not be like before”. When Caleb orders Simon to “get me some water”, the silent pause and withering look Simon gives him speaks volumes, and when he observes that his departed mother told Simon to take care of him if he returned, Simon answers that “she asked me to take care of you”. Simon also tells the younger John: “you living in this world now, not serving in it…(there is) more than one way you can be a slave”, and that these are the choices that make the kind of free man one will be. To Caleb whose wartime experiences have caused him to lose his faith, he declares that you “lose faith not from asking questions, but from not asking questions”. And it is Simon who prepares to celebrate the Passover seder, even as he learns of Lincoln’s assassination, with the treasured haggadah in hand, and its story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, given to him by Caleb’s grandfather long ago.

The irony of the converted former slave conducting the seder service despite the initial objections of his previous master is at the center of the work. Clearly, Simon sees the world they are beginning much more clearly than Caleb, and the parallels between their new world and the ancient lot of the Hebrews are extraordinarily moving. During the course of the service some significant (but, it must be said, easily anticipated) revelations occur, but the plot points are not as crucial as the conflicting underlying tectonic shifts among this trio of fine actors. As masterfully directed by Benny Sato Ambush, the three of them (especially Davenport, whose Simon towers over the others) are at the top of their game. Despite some very minor flaws in the writing, this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking creation.

Coming as it does so soon after New Rep’s successful run of their prior production of “Imagining Madoff” about the infamous con man who defrauded many of his fellow Jews and their philanthropic foundations, “The Whipping Man” adds another moral question difficult to answer. As this work ends with two of the characters facing their sudden forced interdependence despite their sins, one could be forgiven for feeling once again a twinge of cultural guilt. How this play portrays the ethical dilemmas then (and, implicitly, now) is what makes this outstanding work so different from all other plays. One might ask the playwright, in the words of yet another musical about the oppressed, “Please, sir, may we have some more”?


SpeakEasy's "Color Purple": Sleeping with Celie Not Like Sleeping on a Cloud

The Company of "The Color Purple"
(Glen Perry Photography) 
The rousing production by SpeakEasy Stage Company of the 2005 Broadway musical version of the “The Color Purple” is a guaranteed audience pleaser. The original earned eleven Tony Award nominations, (though ultimately winning only one, for its lead performer, LaChanze), running over nine hundred performances, in large part due to the famously generous publicity it received from one of its producers, Oprah Winfrey, on her television talk show. Based on the popular 1982 Pulitzer-winning epistolary novel by Alice Walker, it was first adapted as the 1985 film version, which was in turn nominated for eleven Academy Awards (including one for Ms. Winfrey in the supporting actress category), but won none. These statistics may not be indicative of theatrical or cinematic politics as much as they are of the pitfalls involved in adapting such a sweeping literary work to another medium, especially when that source material is as plot heavy and full of characters as Ms. Walker’s is. This musical version, with a bloated book by Marsha Norman and two dozen songs with Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, is a challenge even for those familiar with the novel and/or its film adaptation; for those who may be unfamiliar with either, following the story would be daunting to say the least. The recent trimmed-down version by British wunderkind John Doyle was reportedly a vast improvement, but unfortunately has not yet been made available. Thus it fell to SpeakEasy’s Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, who helmed this production, to make the problematic narrative comprehensible. In large part due to a truly amazing cast and a closely coordinated technical crew, he succeeded.

As anyone who is familiar with the original saga knows, the plot covers the years 1909 to 1949, centering on the evolution of Celie (Lovely Hoffman), who is fourteen and pregnant for the second time by her father (David Jiles, Jr.). In the course of the story, both of her children are taken away from her, as is her beloved sister Nettie (Aubin Wise), with whom she loses contact for some four decades. Why she loses this contact, and how she progresses from a quietly passive teenager to an assertive and successful entrepreneur, the audience will discover, as she encounters numerous characters along the way, from her husband Mister (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and his son Harpo (Jared Dixon) to Harpo’s wife Sofia (Valerie Houston) and his waitress whom he desires, Squeak (Anich D’Jae)…well, that’s just a few of them. All of them, to varying degrees, become a part of Celie’s story, not least the sultry singer Shug Avery (Crystin Gilmore), Mister’s long-time lover, whom Celie falls in love with and nurses back to health. The men are pretty much reduced to sexual predators, and the women often to mere sexual objects, although as this review’s subtitle above implies, those who have forced themselves on Celie will find their fates less than celestial. In any case, if ever the phrase “less is more” was true, it surely is here, where more is less. With so many fates to follow and musical numbers to digest (some seemingly cut off just as they are developing), it’s a wonder that this production is as moving as it is.

This is primarily due to Daigneault’s direction and casting acumen. As noted, it’s a huge cast, with so many great performances that one hardly knows where to begin. Surely, though, it should begin with the serendipitous choice of newcomer Hoffman, whose acting and singing skills are “Lovely” indeed. Add to her pivotal role the compelling work by the sympathetic Wise, the intimidating Parent, the indomitable Houston, the sexy and knowing Gilmore, the ditzy D’Jae….well, the whole lot of them, in fact. With expert Musical Direction by Nicholas James Connell and Choreography by Christian Bufford, the stage is alive with fabulous life. The simple Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord (a huge tree that comes to represent how Celie grows as a central family force) avoids the necessity of overly frequent set changes, while the Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Eric Fox enhances differing moods. The Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito is especially crucial for a work like this that covers generations, and the Sound Design by David Reiffel adds another crucial element. The craft on stage and behind it is strikingly impressive.

Lest one’s praise, and prose, be too purple, there are some problems that remain, despite the efforts of all involved in this version. There is the score, which, with some exceptions, (the title song, Shug’s down and dirty “Push Da Button”, Celie’s anthem “I’m Here” and a ballad or two) is unmemorable. There is that book, with sufficient plotting for two or three musicals; it also suffers from some sudden inexplicable transformations, not the least being the “redemption” of Mister at the finale. There are the issues of rape, incest, misogyny, servitude, wife-beating, and lesbianism (in a time when it was unspoken and unsung), that are not the typical expectations for musical theatergoers. The fact that this production is so involving, inspiring and magical is testimony to all of the professionals involved. Hoffman is a revelation in the central role, and the rest of the cast is outstanding. Of note is the fact that this reviewer unintentionally neglected to mention that this is a love story about African Americans, probably because of its universal application to the oppression of all women. As Shug suggests, the Lord becomes angry when one walks by the color purple in a field without noticing it. To avoid incurring the wrath of the theatre gods, by all means don’t overlook this one.


Huntington's "Venus in Fur": Dramatis Interruptus

Chris Kipiniak and Andrea Syglowski
in "Venus in Fur"
Ominously yet somehow fittingly, Huntington Theatre Company’s latest production, “Venus in Fur”, begins with a clap (of thunder). The 2010 play by David Ives, a Tony nominee for 2012 Best Play (after moving from Off-Broadway, where it premiered two seasons earlier), clocks in at a fast paced 100 minutes, with more stormy weather (much of it rather eerily timed) along the way. As directed by Daniel Goldstein, this work seems to suspend time, and brings to mind the fabled line from “All about Eve”: “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride”. The set-up is a simple one. Director Thomas (Chris Kipiniak) is casting the female lead for his own play, “Venus in Fur”, based on the 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name was the source for the term masochism). After an unsuccessful day of auditioning thirty-five “idiot actresses”, in blows Vanda (Andrea Syglowski) to well-timed thunder. While the playwright Thomas is ready to call it a day, her persistence wears his resistance down and they begin to enact the roles of Severin von Kushemski, and Vanda von Dunajew, engaged in ever-escalating sexual combat. Syglowski, a one-woman acting dynamo, as the modern day Vanda, describes the story as “S&M porn”, while Kipiniak (who holds his own in both the present-day plot and the play-within-a-play) opines that it’s “a great love story”. Whichever view a theatergoer holds, it becomes clear by the time Ives’ play is consummated that this is all much less about sex than it is about sexual politics.

It also becomes more and more evident that the modern-day Vanda is decidedly more than she at first seems, as are her motives. While she‘s quick with retorts (as in her line “you don’t have to tell me about sado-masochism, I’m in the theater”), it’s obvious she knows a lot more about the play and the playwright than she first reveals. Thomas asks “whatever happened to femininity?”, then proceeds to attempt to portray the power of sexual dominance (“nothing is more sensual than pain…and humiliation”), but in point of fact displays instead the power of words. Not once but twice he refers to both of them as “explicable but not extricable” (explainable but not liberated from complications?). Both characters reference the Book of Judith: “The Lord hath smitten him and delivered him into a woman’s hand”. Vanda notes: “You’re an oddity, I’m a commodity”, describing Thomas’ play as about “sex, class and gender”. For his part, Thomas is rather bound (you should excuse the expression) to agree with her that the more he submits, the more power he has; as Vanda, or both Vandas, put it, “where all this ends…that is in your power not mine”. True, but not; to risk revealing a spoiler, she’s far more diabolical than that, requiring one’s attention to some subtle clues as to her preternatural knowledge.

What is also required is what Thomas calls “operatic emotions”, and both Kipiniak, and Syglowski (in the showier, what might even be called dominant, role), deliver. Both excel at performance art and the art of performance. In the wrong hands, this could easily be viewed as overwrought, but as directed by Goldstein and enacted by these two terrific actors, it’s a sexy, thoughtful and engaging battle, and often hilarious. The technical contributions, typically for this company, are all first rate, from the Scenic Design by Matt Saunders to the Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker (right down to the kinkiest of boots), Lighting Design by M.L. Geiger and significant Sound Design by Darron L. West. The sole criticism of the production might be that it could work better in a smaller venue for this “two hander” (though one might be tempted to call it a six or seven hander, given the numerous permutations and combinations of role reversals).

As the penultimate line of Ives’ play puts it, “Hail, Aphrodite!”, and as the last line of the play sums up: “Good!”. It has been a bumpy ride indeed, an ingenious premise with a sense of both humor and history that challenges many of our most cherished presumptions. As the old adage goes, this one doesn’t comfort the afflicted so much as it afflicts the comfortable. And, as is so often the case with sex, this work was intense, exciting, passionate, and over way too quickly.


New Rep's "Imagining": What a Bad Man Is "Madoff"

When even the set of a play is a metaphor (a canopy of accumulated wisdom of the ages culminating in prison-bar-like literary columns), you know you’re about to have an intriguing theatrical experience. In New Rep’s current production of “Imagining Madoff”, a 2010 work by Obie-winning playwright Deborah Margolin, it’s a sign of significant things to come. Add three of Boston’s finest actors, Jeremiah Kissel (as Bernie Madoff), Joel Colodner (as Solomon Galkin) and Adrianne Krstansky (as Madoff’s unnamed Secretary), a perfect trifecta. Margolin (whose Obie Award was given to her for Sustained Excellence) is known for one-woman plays, as one of the founders of Split Britches, a political feminist troupe. Here, as expertly directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, she has created, as she herself puts it, “not a biography (but) an imagining”. She assumes (probably correctly) that we are all familiar with Madoff’s Ponzi-scheme crimes, which helps the audience to place the play in its historical context.

A little familiarity with Judaica wouldn’t hurt either, as this is an intensely Jewish work. Originally in part about Elie Weisel, the perceived threat of possible litigation forced Margolin to change the name of one character from Weisel to Galkin. This may have resulted in a more broadly applicable story, as Galkin now represents all of Madoff’s victims in the Jewish community who had believed him to be a true philanthropist to their charities and causes. What the author focuses on is not the well-known facts of his duplicity, but the lesser-known, possible motivations for why he did what he did. She dispenses with the usual demonization of the criminal in order to get to the “why” of his unspeakable evil. In the course of the play, the work by all three actors is painstakingly detailed, each very much in character every minute, and wonderful to experience. So is that extraordinary Scenic Design by Jon Savage, as well as the other technical contributions including the Costume Design by Leonard Augustine Choo, Lighting Design by Tyler Lambert-Perkins and Sound Design and Musical Composition by Edward Young. It’s an ensemble piece on every level.

The play starts rather disconcertedly with Madoff’s frivolous joke about how many Jews it takes to screw in a light bulb; It’s not until some ninety minutes later that we hear Galkin’s serious response. The action takes place in August 2009, just weeks after Madoff’s imprisonment. First in monologues (by all three characters), then in verbal jousting between Madoff and Galkin, the story unfolds. Since this is not a piece of history but one of “liberating imagination”, as Vaan Hogue puts it, the interplay is a series of contrasts. While Madoff claims he did what he did not for the money but “for the movement…money replicates”, Galkin loves baseball because of its slow pace where there is no clock. Where Madoff says he has no retrospect, Galkin sees trust as a sacred thing, half of which is “retrospect, to know from the past that certain things were right and good and will always be so”. As is the case with many a Talmudic scholar, Galkin is never at a loss for aphorisms that are appropriate for virtually any discussion, such as “life is for planting trees in whose shade you never expect to sit”. Madoff too has his epigrammatic moments, such as “there’s been death in my life and there’ll be life in my death”. Madoff describes the importance of words, whereas Galkin stresses the multiple possible meanings of words, as debated in the midrash (the ancient commentaries on biblical texts).

This study in contrasts is particularly revealing in the debate about Abraham and his willingness to obey God and sacrifice his son Isaac, especially if one is aware that it would be just a year later that one of Madoff’s sons was to commit suicide over the disgrace of their crimes. While Madoff confesses that he fooled his fellow Jews, and others, partly by his keeping quiet, he admits he had a nightmare in which his own silence is the worst part; Galkin believes that poems steal meaning from the silence around them. While Madoff, a self-described secular Jew views phylacteries or tefillin (containing verses from the Torah to be worn during prayers) as just so much bric-a-brac, Galkin keeps a set from his father prominently placed in his treasured library.

What becomes clear is that what Madoff was guilty of was the kind of stealing condemned in the Torah, that of deception, the stealing of someone’s mind. The playwright quotes the poet Mark Doty: “We live the stories we tell; the stories we don’t tell live us”. Margolin has created a fascinating view into the shallowness of a conman and the depths of his damaged soul. Putting judgment aside has promoted understanding (but not forgiveness), and the greatest price Madoff must pay is that he has to live with himself.


Lyric Stage's "Working": Minimum Age

When Stephen Schwartz (of “Godspell”, “Pippin” and, more recently, “Wicked” fame) decided to make a musical based on the 1974 book of oral histories by Studs Terkel, it was a bold and risky move. The source for the book of the musical (co-written by Nina Faso) was a daunting sociological work with the full title of “Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do”. Schwartz also directed the original 1978 production and wrote five songs, with other numbers composed by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rogers, and James Taylor, with lyrics by Carnelia, Grant, Taylor and Susan Birkenhead. Such an ambitious undertaking, with so many personal stories and so many creative contributors, inevitably resulted in a mixed bag of anecdotes, some very moving, some not so. In 2009 two songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) were added to update the play, referencing jobs that had not been as common in 1978 as they are today.

Almost all of the vignettes that resulted from the earlier collaboration, as well as the revised version, come across as anything but desirable options presented by a guidance counselor, but as Terkel’s subtitle states, what people do in their jobs and what feelings, if any, they have about the work they do: “This book being about work, it is, by its very nature, about violence, to the spirit as well as to the body…about daily humiliations….about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor in short for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines….common attribute here: a meaning to their work well over and beyond the reward of the paycheck”. Heady stuff for a musical, it didn’t earn much critical praise or public popularity. Yet there remained the intriguing question which Terkel quoted from the work of Bertolt Brecht: “Who built the seven towers of Thebes? The books are filled with the names of kings. Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?…In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished where did the masons go?”

It was then, and remains now, a shame that this musical wasn’t better received. True, it has little comic relief and it’s often unpleasant to acknowledge the reality so many workers endure. It starts with a chorus of cacophony, but by the end, the cast of six are singing in unison about what they share in common. Along the way, there are some very involving moments, and some not too, which is probably inevitable when so many disparate voices are heard. The cast of the current production consists of six actors, some stronger than others, but all seemingly sincere in their various roles; they are Tiffany Chen, Merle Perkins, Shannon Lee Jones, Phil Tayler, Cheeyang Ng, and Christopher Chew. They are ably directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins, a local treasure, with Musical Direction by Jonathan Goldberg, Scenic Design by Anne Sherer, Costume Design by Rafeal Jaen and Lighting Design by John Malinowski. There is a five member band of very much alive, albeit unseen, musicians. The roles, some two dozen of them, include those of cleaning ladies, community organizer, elder care worker, fast food worker, fireman, flight attendant, fundraiser, hedge fund manager, housewife, trucker, ironworker, millworker, nanny, project manager, prostitute, publicist, receptionist, student, schoolteacher, stone mason, tech supporter, UPS delivery person, and waitperson. Ironically, the most memorable and moving moment is the portrayal of a retiree by Christopher Chew.

What emerges is the realization of how much these workers all have in common: non-recognition by other people and how that gets to them, the fact that most people identify themselves by their jobs, and that what you do is who you are, not to mention the poignant cry that they “could’ve been someone”. There are some comic elements, as in the songs “It’s an Art” (by Schwartz), and “Brother Trucker” (by Taylor), and the very topical number “A Very Good Day” (by Miranda) about those who do the jobs no one else wants to do. The workers share the belief that all should have “Something to Point To” (by Carnelia). How involved a theatergoer becomes in the course of the play might depend on one’s own life experiences; perhaps there should be a minimum age to appreciate fully what the message is. This is a courageous piece of theatre which should touch us all, as there’s a lot of life up on the stage as well as behind it, and a lot of talented people at work here.