speakeasy's "pass over": but also.....

dapping up: hubens "bobby" cius & kadahj bennett in "pass over"
(photo: nile scott studio)

pass over, a new play by antoinette nwandu, is the current co-production by speakeasy stage company and the front porch arts collective. after first being performed by chicago's steppenwolf, it was then produced in new york at lincoln center, where it won the lortel award for best play (and was filmed for amazon by none other than spike lee).

described as a “mash-up” of waiting for godot (considered by some as a theatrical masterpiece and by others as like watching paint dry) and the exodus story. at a spare ninety minutes, directed by monica white ndounou, it's written all in lower case, reminiscent of the poetry of e.e.cummings, performed as though it were blank verse or rap without music. the setting is “now, right now, but also 1855, but also the thirteenth century b.c.e”. the time is “a ghetto street, a lamppost, night, but also a plantation, but also egypt, a city built by slaves”.

ossifer enters: lewis d. wheeler, hubens "bobby" cius & kadahj bennett in "pass over"
(photo: nile scott studios)

its cast is spare as well. one is a young black man named moses (kadahj bennett) “but also a slave driver, but also the prophesied leader of god's chosen people”; a second young black man is named kitch (hubens “bobby” cius) “but also a slave but also one of god's chosen”; the remaining two roles, both played by lewis d. wheeler, are mister, a seemingly wholesome chap given to expressions like “gosh golly gee”, “but also a plantation owner but also the pharoah's son” and ossifer, an officer of the law (or “po-op”), “but also a patroller but also a soldier in the pharoah's army”. as in the becket play, the two lead characters are unable to leave their street corner. there is no intermission; if moses and kitch cannot leave neither can we.

mister's picnic: lewis d. wheeler, kadahj bennett & hubens "bobby" cius in "pass over"
(photo: nile scott studios)

there are some obvious parallels to becket even in a brief synopsis of the work, but it stands on its own as an absorbing and alarming expose of contemporary black experience. kitch declares that the name “moses” portends that he will lead “deez boys right off deez streets on to dat promised land”. moses himself alludes to a land of milk and honey despite lactose intolerance and glycemic indexes, as these are the least of their troubles, truly nothing compared to the obliviousness of “mister” who cannot grasp why they get to use the “n-word” but he does not; he is clueless about his not having the right to use the word. (yet, interestingly, the playwright feels free to portray moses' use of the charged term “faggot”). moses disses those who are fixated on passing over to the promised land of heaven, where he proclaims he wants that good life now. it's telling that both young men can recall every name of those who have been killed in their hood, giving the lie to the presumption that these victims (including one of the most oppressed societal groupings, that of trans people of color) are ordinary, even forgettable. in ancient pyramidal times, in the not-so-ancient plantation era, and on the inescapable street corner, once again history repeats itself, or at least rhymes.

promised land: hubens "bobby" cius & kadahj bennett in "pass over"
(photo: nile scott studios)

attention must be paid not just to the triumph of the playwright's words on the page but also in its execution by director ndounou and her three stellar actors, each of whom seems to be thoroughly immersed in his character. the simple but effective contributions of the creative team include scenic design by baron e. pugh, costume design by chelsea kerl, lighting design by kathy a. perkins, and sound design by anna drummond.

promised land 2: hubens "bobby" cius & kadahj bennett in "pass over"
(photo: nile scott studios)

as the playwright herself puts it, an audience won't be immediately transformed or relieved of her or his baggage, but find such baggage “a little bit shifted”. the most memorable aspect of her play, as opposed to becket's, is that her characters aren't left alone, to age. just as the frequent use of the “n-word” can never be completely erased, and in fact has become for the community of color an expression of brotherhood (and sisterhood), so audience members may find this sometimes enigmatic work either an affirmation or a revelation.

what they won't feel is that it is forgettable, (extended through february 2nd), but also.....


Lyric's "Cake": More than a Mere Trifle?

Karen MacDonald, Chelsea Diehl & Kris Sidberry in "Cake"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Anytime local theatrical treasure Karen MacDonald takes to the stage, there is cause for celebration, perhaps calling for an appropriate response, which might well result, given the right vehicle, in the creation of a cake. Such is the case in the current Lyric Stage offering, the new comedy The Cake, by Bekah Brunstetter, wherein MacDonald and her three co-stars react in various ways to the gradual revelation that there is to be a wedding for which she is asked to provide the central culinary element. By the time it becomes clear what the decision to bake or not to bake will be, the audience will have been exposed to the existential crisis that this seemingly simple request will entail, and how religious and political contrasting viewpoints will be exposed as a recipe for conflict.

Karen MacDonald in "Cake"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)
You see, the ceremony is to join in matrimony Jen (Chelsea Diehl) the daughter of the late best friend of Della (MacDonald) to her bride-to-be Macy (Kris Sidberry), which causes a dilemma, since Della is the proprietress of North Carolina's Della's Sweets and is not coincidentally a far-right bigot married to another far-right bigot, Tim (Fred Sullivan, Jr.). There are other layers in the story (notably an upcoming appearance on a televised baking show contest), which seem to exist primarily to assure us that Della is still “agreeable” despite her deep-seated ideas regarding same-gender marriages. But it's somewhat equivalent to the concept of a mother-in-law recipe with something intentionally omitted.

Fred Sullivan, Jr. & Karen MacDonald in "Cake"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

That omission is the very real issue of discrimination, which is treated comically, glossing over the ugly underbelly of this ninety-minute one act treatment. It's a tribute to MacDonald's prowess as an actor that she manages to present her character in a believable way; the same could be said for the remainder of the cast, with Diehl's earnest portrayal alongside Sidberry's overt LGBTQ militancy and Sullivan's hilarious spouse with his heterosexual intimacy hangups. It's of some interest that the creative team includes an Intimacy Director (Ted Hewlett) in addition to the expert Direction by Courtney O'Connor (currently the Acting Artistic Director of the company). Despite the histrionic talent on display, the play has some half-baked elements, but this production is fortunate to have several estimable creative contributions, from the Scenic Design by Matt Whiton, to the Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Design by Aja Jackson and Original Music and Sound Design by Arshan Gailus. They're all supportive of the play's heart, with MacDonald as the frosting.

Kris Sidberry & Karen MacDonald in "Cake"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

There are some clever elements to the story (references to Noah's Ark and the dinosaurs, Chick Fil-A and the like) and a few hysterically memorable moments. This being a comedy, the end is rather baked in, so to speak, and its intentions, though often predictable, are admirable. On the whole, this production is well done.
As Della ultimately proclaims, “you need cake”, until February 9th.


BSO's "Beethoven/Tchaikovsky": Two Fifths

Marcelo Lehninger conducting the BSO
(photo: Hilary Scott)

Beethoven's Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus, Opus 43 made for a fine if relatively slight curtain raiser (only five minutes in length) for the Boston Symphony's latest program. First performed in Vienna in 1801, it was introduced to Tanglewood audiences in 1958 (and again, most recently, in 2014). It was for the youthful composer his first mature score for theatrical use, namely to support a ballet. The brevity of the piece about the fable of Prometheus and two statues brought to life makes for an uncharacteristic comparatively light composition for Beethoven, but served to set the mood for this BSO concert, under the baton of Marcelo Lehninger, former BSO Assistant Conductor, who last led the BSO in 2014.

There followed a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.5 in E-Flat, Opus 73, a substantially more impressive work (clocking in at forty-two minutes), featuring Pianist Javier Perianes, who last played with the BSO in 2016. Aptly described in the program notes as “heaven-storming”, it was Beethoven's final concerto, first heard in 1811, as part of what is generally acknowledged as the “heroic period”. Its initial BSO performance was in 1911 and at Tanglewood in 1947. It was seen by the composer himself as a real affirmation while in the midst of “terrible times” (Austria being engaged in one of several consecutive wars with France). Known in English-speaking countries as the “Emperor” (for reasons that are totally unclear) it is a deservedly beloved work that includes amongst its movements the longest he ever wrote. The audience at the matinee performance was nothing short of ecstatic for Lehninger, Perianes (who earned his encore) and the orchestra itself.

Maestro Marcelo Lehninger & Pianist Javier Perianes with the BSO
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The second half of the program consisted of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5 in E Minor Opus 64, another rousing piece at forty-seven minutes with its powerful lyrical theme of the Fates that unites all four of its movements. His Fourth had been his symphony of triumph over fate, an imitation of Beethoven’s Fifth. As noted in this concert's program, for Tchaikovsky’s own Fifth Symphony, we have an outlining for the scenario for the first movement: “Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro. Murmurs of doubt, complaints, reproaches against XXX. Shall I throw myself in the embraces of faith? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out.” The composer's reference to “XXX” is generally considered most likely an allusion to his homosexuality, which terrified him as a possible cause of scandal; others attribute this to his gambling addiction. Though he detested it when writers interpreted his musical processes too literally, the theme with which the clarinets (beautifully played and justly singled out for applause), in their lowest register, begin the symphony has a function other than its musical one: it reappears as a catastrophic interruption of the second movement’s love song, with the languid dance of the waltz, and in its majestic E major triumph. Tchaikovsky’s terrific gift of melody is shown in his delight in what he calls “strong effects” and his skill at bringing them off, with quite remarkable effect yet with great economy. After his return from a journey to Prague (where the experience of conducting the Fifth produced the most depression in him) he quickly began work on The Sleeping Beauty, and not long after that, his finest operatic score, The Queen of Spades. But once again Lehninger (conducting this time from memory) proved the Fifth Symphony itself worthy of the almost hysterical climaxes it provides. Both central movements were delights in quite different ways, and the audience for both gave enthusiastic approval. It was the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its finest.