ART's "1984": Algorithms and the Blues

Matthew Spencer in "1984"
(photo: Manuel Harlan)

ART's current production, “1984”, based on the famous 1949 novel by George Orwell (the pen name for Eric Arthur Blair) of Animal Farm fame, is an amazing new adaptation created by Directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan and presented in association with Headlong, Almeida Theatre and Nottingham Playhouse. Faithful to its source, it's a taut one-acter that was a hit in London and, if there's any justice in this world, ought to repeat its success here. It's chilling, disturbing and powerful. It was made even more exciting when one actor, due to a family emergency, had to be replaced at the last minute, necessitating having another member of the ensemble, Stephen Fewell, play two roles (quite extraordinarily), making the play even edgier. This is especially wondrous in a work that is so focused on attentive detail, such as the clock ringing thirteen times and a running time of 101 minutes (the number which will later refer to a dreaded room of torture).

It is April 1984, and Comrade 6079, Winston Smith (Matthew Spencer), as the ART notes put it, “thinks a thought, starts a diary and falls in love”, but Big Brother (He Who Must Be Obeyed) is “always watching”. Smith is a low-ranked member of the ruling Party in London in Oceania, which, with telescreens everywhere, and headed by its omniscient and omnipresent Big Brother, controls everything about the people's lives including their history and language, and even, via the Thought Police, their innermost secrets. They lack freedom of thought, sex (“orgasm is a political act”), and any expression of individuality. There is even a newly minted language, Newspeak, eliminating any words applying to rebellion. The most serious crime, in fact, is thinking about rebellion. “Orthodoxy is not thinking”. Smith is obsessed with O'Brien (the aforementioned Fewell), a powerful Party leader, who Smith thinks is secretly a member of the Brotherhood working to overthrow the government. He is surrounded by human automatons like the Parsons (Simon Coates and Mandi Symonds), Martin (Christopher Patrick Nolan), Syme (Ben Porter), and a Child (Addison Oken at the performance attended, who alternates with Faye Giordano in the role). He meets Julia (Hara Yannas) and begins a covert affair with her, renting a flat next to an antique store owned by a Mr. Charrington (Fewell again). The Thought Police burst in on them, and they are taken to the Ministry of Love. Neither O'Brien nor Charrington turn out to be what they pretended to be. Threatened with his greatest fears, Smith cracks, and subsequently learns that Julia did the same. In the end, he is alone, having agreed that if the Party says “two and two equal five”, then it is so. He has learned to love Big Brother.

As Orwell put it, if one wanted a picture of the future, one need only imagine a boot stomping on a human face, forever. But then there's the novel's Appendix, “The Principles of Newspeak”, written in our own “Oldspeak”, referenced in a footnote: “Newspeak was the official language of Oceania. For an account of its structure and etymology, see Appendix”. It mentions the “Records Department in which Winston Smith worked.” So what are we to think (if we're allowed) of the novel and this play based upon it: is it in our past or in our future? As the playwrights ask in the program notes, “can you trust evidence? How do you ever know what's really true? And when and where are you, the reader"  (or theatergoer) “right now?” (In still more attention to detail, their notes are dated “September 2050”, the final date in the novel). This dystopian fascist regime resulted from complacency. As playwright James Graham (Finding Neverland) says: “Today we freely hand over data; our own sheer compliance is what's done privacy in for us. Orwell's warnings about the fragile nature of our freedom” lead to “the choice for mankind...between freedom and happiness, and for the greatest bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” We witness on stage an era of perpetual war, privacy invasions, public manipulation and a cult of personality. Hmmm. Sound uncomfortably familiar?

Thanks to the uniformly excellent performances by this cast of eight, we are transfixed and transported. Fewell is particularly outstanding in both of his roles, as are Spencer and Yannas, but there's not a moment that doesn't ring creepily true. On the creative end, rarely have those contributions been so precisely coordinated for maximum effect, from the complex Design by Chloe Lamford, to the brilliant Lighting Design by Natasha Chivers, sinister Sound Design by Tom Gibbons and essential Video Design by Tim Reid. This is an astonishing and compelling creation that (not to sound like the Thought Police) demands to be seen.

In the context of this marvelous adaptation, “words matter” and “sanity isn't statistical”. Orwell wrote that “with the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end.” Today, online algorithms ought to be enough to bring on the blues. Yet they don't. When we look at something to buy online, why are we not upset when days later, on a different website entirely, we are suddenly solicited by an ad for that same item? And if we are not upset, why not? We could all benefit from this play's timely and timeless reminder, and just how eerily relevant it remains.


PPAC's "Pippin": Magic to Do?

John Rubinstein and the Cast of "Pippin"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Once upon a time, there was a bittersweet little musical with a simple story, magical charm and deliciously sinister undertones, based (very loosely) on the historical Pepin, son of Charlemagne. It was 1972, and the show was “Pippin”, with Music and Lyrics by relative newcomer Stephen Schwartz (who had just the year before written the same for the off-Broadway Godspell as well as the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's Mass) and Book by Roger O. Hirson (with an assist from original director Bob Fosse). It garnered eleven Tony Award nominations, won five Tony Awards, and ran for almost 2,000 performances. The recent revival in 2013, by American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA, expanded the slight story with the inclusion of numerous circus acts, with a new extended ending (about which more later) in two acts, where the original version was written to be performed in one act without intermission. This revival went on to earn ten Tony nominations and eventually four Tony Awards. It is this longer version that is the basis for the National Tour, being presented at the Providence Performing Arts Center. Whether it's an improvement is debatable.

Pippin (Brian Flores), who could easily have settled for being prince, seeks more, specifically the meaning of life and something fulfilling. Pippin has attempted to prove his loyalty to his father King Charles (John Rubinstein) by going off to war, which he eventually sees as pointless. On his journey to understanding he meets a mysterious Leading Player (Gabrielle McClinton) who heads a performing troupe. In the song “Magic to Do”, she convinces him to fight tyranny by murdering his father the King. Meanwhile his stepmother Fastrada (Sabrina Harper) plots to put her idiot son Lewis (Erik Altemus) on the throne. Pippin begs the Leading Player to restore Charles to life, which she does. Pippin escapes into the woods where he ends up at the cottage of his exiled grandmother Berthe (Adrienne Barbeau) who encourages him to live in the rousing “No Time at All”. Pippin then meets a farm widow named Catherine (Bradley Benjamin) and her young son Theo (Ben Krieger, alternating with Jake Berman). He is urged by the troupe to finish their Finale by stepping into a fire. He decides instead to live as a simple farmer and the play, with all the theatrical trappings of sets, lighting, and costumes removed, ends. Or at least it used to. In this revision, young Theo encounters the Leading Player and her troupe and the story starts all over again, suggesting an endless cycle, which rather deflates the original choice of simplicity over spectacle.

Interestingly, the part of Pippin was originally played back in 1972 by this production's King Charles, John Rubinstein, who at 69 has lost none of his charisma and energy. Other members of that original cast included Ben Vereen, Jill Clayburgh, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking and Irene Ryan (of Beverly Hillbillies fame). The rest of the current cast, most of whom weren't even alive at the time of the original show, are competent and apparently inexhaustible. The score remains the strongest element, from the famous opening number “Magic to Do”, to such songs as “Corner of the Sky”, “With You”, “Extra-ordinary” and the aforementioned “No Time at All”. This last number has always been a real showstopper, featuring a bouncing ball for a sing-along, with lyrics such as these:

When your best days are yester,
The rest're twice as dear.....
Oh, it's time to start livin'
Time to take a little from this world we're given
Time to take time
For spring will turn to fall
In just no time at all.

This production is directed by ART Artistic Director Diane Paulus, with Choreography by Chet Walker and Circus Creation by Gypsy Snider (co-founder of Montreal's Les 7 doigts de la main), and has been both a critical and commercial hit. With Set Design by Scott Pask, Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner and Costume Design by Dominique Lemieux, the technical creativity is remarkable.

What started out as a sort of modernized medieval morality play has ended up with more of a Cirque du Soleil feel, so it's visually awe-inspiring throughout. But there are too many circus effects and a radically altered ending. The former, while expert and entertaining, is a reminder of just how weak the Book is, and the latter of how much more effective the darker, more unsettling ending of the original was. The creation of an intermission also serves to point out how little substance there exists, with very little happening in the second act. The cast does manage to help one overlook the threadbare plot. As theater, this production depends on diversions and distractions, and thus could be said to be magical after all, though, as does Pippin himself, one might long for something more fulfilling.


Underground Railway's "Convert": What's In a Name?

Adobuere Ebiama & Maurice Emmanuel Parent in "The Convert"
(photo: A. R. Sinclair Photography)

When a character is called“bafu” (“traitor”) in Underground Railway Theatre's production of The Convert by Obie Award-winning playwright Danai Gurira (In the Continuum), one doesn't need a translation (and none is given). The play was influenced by Shaw's Pygmalion, which is apparent in its content (its depiction of social stratification) and form (a welcome old-fashioned three-act work). It's the first part of a proposed cycle of plays about Zimbabwe. Gurira herself, though born in Iowa, grew up in Zimbabwe, just as her main character Jekesai (Adobuere Ebiama) does. Just how much Gurira identifies with her heroine's story is indicated by the fact that Jekesai is the playwright's middle name. It should be noted that there are scenes in the Shona language, untranslated. Not to worry, as the context makes everything reasonably clear. Gurira's themes have to do with humanity, especially the cultural structures that race, gender and religion impose upon a vanquished people, and how these affect concepts of ownership, cultural identity, right and wrong, even moral ideals. While the story she relates is specific to place and time, it's at heart a universal issue.

The play takes place in 1895 in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), in which the young Shona woman Jekesai, escaping from an arranged marriage to a man with ten wives via her conversion to Christianity, is taken in by her aunt Mai Tamba (Liana Asim), housekeeper to the Christian missionary Chilford (Maurice Emmanuel Parent). Her story involves Chilford's long-ago schoolmate Chancellor (Equiano Mosieri) and Chancellor's well-assimilated fiancee Prudence (Nehassaiu deGannes), as well as Jekesai's Uncle (Paul S. Benford Bruce) and cousin Tamba (Ricardy Charles Fabre). Jekesai is given a new name, Ester, derived from the Old Testament character of Esther (who, as Ester is reminded by her cousin, declared “I will go to the king though it is against the law...and if I perish, I perish”, words that will eventually come to haunt Ester). But it's not just the name she is given that reinvents her; with this new name comes a lot of other baggage. As Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian notes in the program: “Rhodesia was founded, and ruled for nearly a century, as a colonial white settler state”, even instituting a “hut tax”, which essentially destroyed the country's economy based on livestock ownership and made the native population dependent on the victorious British. Gurira has stated that, when researching her country's history, she “really started to notice the question, who owns the history, whose version or interpretation gets voice?”. As Winston Churchill is reputed to have said, “history is written by the victors”.

The first inkling that all's not well assimilated is when Ester has to choose whether to honor a dead relative in the Shona traditional kurova guva, in which the dead are addressed and welcomed as ancestors. Chilford vehemently opposes this, as she is considered by him to be his first true protegee. There are further chinks in the armor, with references to cement floors being better than cow dung, some malapropisms in the conversion process (Mia Timba on two occasions prays “Hail Mary, full of ghosts”, or Chilford's repeated “goodness of gracious”), and some ominous portents, such as Ester's being scolded for correcting the local white priest. There are a number of subtle gestures, such as the wearing of shoes, or not, that convey the cultural clashes that are at war here. After some dramatic incidents, ultimately Ester rediscovers her birth name, determined to reinvent herself yet again, declaring that “Jekesai” means “to illuminate”. As Chilford had earlier told Ester: “In time you will learn whom your true family it is...God giveth us that right to pick our earthly family, as Jesus did with his disciples. I picked. That is how. Are you in understanding?” But her final choice is not what he anticipated, for it's central to this character's evolution that she continue to strive to effect change in the world.

Despite the length of the work (nearly three hours including two intermissions), it's a truly compelling story, largely due to the acting of the entire ensemble. Ebiama is impressively strong and Parent continues to display seemingly endless versatility. Mosieri, Asim, Bruce and Fabre are all completely believable. And deGannes is fascinating to watch with her exquisite attention to detail (such as her pointedly extended pinky at teatime). Despite some momentary melodramatic excesses, Sandberg-Zakian has fashioned a terrifically engrossing production. The creative team excels, from the Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland-Lord, the Lighting Design by Devorah Kengmana, Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo and Sound Design by Nathan Leigh.

At the play's end, it may seem on the surface that there is no justice or even vengeance to be had. Yet one has the sense that these people will, as Sanberg-Zakian has written, “continue to live forward in profound faith, subversive dissent, righteous rage, and persistent hope”; as Gurira continues her cycle, one might be forgiven impatience to see how it all works out.


Huntington's "Milk Like Sugar": Yo, PG Rated, Right?

Shazi Raja & Carolina Sanchez in "Milk Like Sugar"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The current offering of Huntington Theatre Company is the 2011 play “Milk Like Sugar” by Kirsten Greenidge (Luck of the Irish), revised for this production and directed by Huntington Associate Producer M. Bevin O'Gara. The play's title is a bit heavily metaphorical, referring to the powdered milk offered to food stamp recipients, implying a nutrient-empty substitution. Wisely mounted in the small venue of the Roberts Studio (more like its off-Broadway version) in the Calderwood Pavilion, this is a tale of self-esteem, or the lack of it. The playwright once posed the question “where does knowledge come from?” to a variety of students, receiving radically varying answers. An under-served class responded: “from your teacher, from outside of you, so it depends on who your teacher is”. A middle class room of students answered: “from hard work”. A more privileged class pointedly offered: “from within you”. The protagonists of this play fit squarely (at least at first) into the peg of thinking esteem comes from external sources. On the surface this is a simple tale of a small group of teenaged girls and their initial promise to all become “PG” (pregnant) and their subsequent misconceptions.

Annie (Jasmine Carmichael), a sixteen year old high school sophomore, is in the process of choosing a tattoo, a birthday gift given her by her classmates Talisha (Shazi Raja) and Margie (Carolina Sanchez). All three are wrapped up with the notion of having a baby (versus actually having to raise one, not unlike being fascinated with planning a wedding as opposed to the reality of marriage, as O'Gara noted elsewhere). Annie tries to convince her astronomy-loving boyfriend Malik (Mark Pierre), his head in the stars, to conceive with her. Her born-again friend Keera (Shanae Burch) opposes it, as of course does her mother Myrna (Ramona Lisa Alexander), an aspiring writer. But tattoo artist Antwoine (Matthew J. Harris) is ever ready to assist. Annie has in mind a certain life style to which she aspires and “deserves”, echoing the mantra of modern media and culture that encourage us to believe we deserve things. She wants a baby because she wants her own family; in essence, she wants love. It's the shared desire for love that drives this story about young women and their choices, and how empowered they feel to make choices that they trust are right for them. They're considering what their options are in a manner that they haven't before. Based on a news story of a pregnancy pact in Gloucester, MA (which proved to have been a fabricated hoax), it's the sort of play that's easily described as, to coin a phrase, “ripped from the headlines”. Declaring that having a baby “isn't like real work”, they haven't a clue about what caring for it would entail.

What keeps this work from being overly metaphorical is the combination of wise playwriting, strong direction and a believable cast. One feels as though one is eavesdropping on real teenagers and their collective angst. Carmichael is superb and very natural, while Raja and Sanchez are excellent foils, with Alexander delivering a memorable turn in several chain-smoking scenes. But it's Burch who steals scenes she's in, with her complex character who's not all that she seems to be. The male characters are less developed (and Annie's father and brothers, though mentioned in passing, are never seen). The creative team work is excellent, consisting of colorful Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, apt Costume Design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, and fine Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao and Sound Design by M. L. Dogg.

What the playwright has captured with her keen ear for street patois and the rhythms of teenage speech is an entirely credible portrayal of young people who can't foresee how they are choosing a nutrient-deprived “ticket” out of their environment. As is noted more than once by these trapped teens, “What else we got?”. Finding that answer may make Greenidge, a tremendously gifted talent, the future voice of her generation of theatregoers.


New Rep's "Testament of Mary": Immaculate Conception?

Paula Langton in "The Testament of Mary"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

New Rep's current production is the controversial one-woman play “TheTestament of Mary”, by Colm Toibin, first performed in 2011 as a monologue, then the basis of his own 2012 novella. In this expanded version presented in 2013 on Broadway, it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best New Play. It remains a fictionalized account of the relationship of a woman named Mary to her deceased son Jesus, her love for him and her grieving after his death. The controversy surrounding the Broadway version centered on its all-too-human portrayal of a real person who was present at the inception of one of the world's great religions. True believers protested what they deemed to be blasphemous. Putting aside the misuse of the term, which when correctly used refers to sacrilege against God or sacred things, they seemed to be making the argument that any familiarization or humanization of Mary of Nazareth was inherently profane, despite the fact that, not coincidentally, they hadn't seen the show.

Since the playwright makes no claim to historical accuracy, this should lead one to an appreciation of the work as one of pure fabrication, the product of an author's imagination. Toibin himself acknowledges that he put aside not only the Gospels but all other potential sources (including oral tradition, which of course is itself notoriously subjective and factually undependable). He has attempted, he further states, to portray his view of “the tone and texture of this woman's voice on this particular day”. There are obvious pitfalls in so doing, when humanization supersedes dogma; the former is fluid and potentially theatrical, the latter rigid and immutable. The author's expressed intent was to “explore an icon rather than reducing” the woman at the center of the beginnings of Christianity.

As theater, then, rather than as doctrine, how effective is this portrayal? It certainly makes for a more approachable and demythologized depiction of a real person, who has been at times in the past  weighted down with the accumulated accretions of what has often been seen, especially by those not of any Christian faith system, as “Mariolatry”, that is, excessively ardent and even cult-like devotion to Mary. The nature and depth of such profound dedication is of course subjective. This production stars Paula Langton (no stranger to New Rep theatergoers, having appeared previously in the company's productions of Assassins, Bakersfield Mist, Amadeus, and On the Verge, and due to perform in its next mounting, Blackberry Winter). Langton, though encumbered by a cold, in a short ninety minutes, makes Mary real if not full of grace, in a bravura performance, Directed by Jim Petosa. She describes how two unidentified visitors (most likely the Evangelists St. Luke and undoubtedly St. John, based on the content of their Biblical attributions) arrived to question her, which forms the basis for her monologue. Perhaps the playwright oversteps a bit with his depiction of Mary as no longer attending services in the Synagogue, and of jarringly unorthodox (you should excuse the expression) dialogue (or prayer) with the goddess Artemis in the Roman Temple. And there are a few glaring anachronisms. On the whole, though, it works, as the author reveals quite a bit of empathy for Mary's expressed feeling of “heaviness”. On the creative end, the Scenic Design is by Ryan Bates (providing a truly weird entrance for Langton), the almost through-composed Music and Sound Design are by Dewey Dellay, the Costume Design is by Tyler Kinney and the effective Lighting Design is by Matthew Guminski.

At one point Mary confesses she wants “what happened not to have happened”. In the end, Mary and her visitors must face the question of whether or not the death was all worth it. Mary states that it was not. One thing for sure, though: the Book was better.


Company One/ArtsEmerson's "Octoroon": The Definite Article

Bridgette Hayes, Elle Borders, Shawna M. James, Obehi Janice, Brandon Green & Brooks Reeves in "An Octoroon"

The play An Octoroon is the definite article, even with the slightly altered title from the play on which it's based, The Octoroon, the 1859 five-act melodrama by Irish playwright Dionysius (also known as Dion) Boucicault. This revision is currently being performed as a co-production by ArtsEmerson and Company One Theatre at the Paramount Center black box theater. Revised by Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, author of Appropriate, it shared the 2014 Obie for Best New Play. The original Boucicault work was an antebellum melodrama second only to Uncle Tom's Cabin in popularity. It remains to be seen whether this version will find similar acceptance. Whatever its reception, it must be said that it is the definite article, a melodrama, with all that this classification entails.

In the playbill for this production, the question is asked, “why melodrama?”. The proposed answer to this query is that perhaps this is the only theatrical form that can hold the emotions so deeply felt in our country at present. The danger of utilizing this type of theater, with its absurd heightened reality, broad brush and intentionally exaggerated acting, is that a form that is already a parody to modern eyes doesn't lend itself easily to further satire. Thus we have a nearly three-hour marathon that, despite a few brilliant sparks, becomes more like camp, which can really be excruciatingly boring, rather like a vastly over-extended SNL skit.

Boucicault adapted his play from the novel The Quadroon, stirring up debates between pro-slavers and abolitionists, as well as controversy as to whether theater ought to have any role regarding politics. The earth is not so pretty at Plantation Terrebonne in Louisiana, even though a branch of the Mississippi still runs right through the estate. George (Brandon Green), heir to what he calls the “ruins of Terrebonne” left after his late uncle lost ownership of the estate, exclaims about the threat made by the evil overseer of the property, Jacob M'Closky (also played by Green) to sell off the estate and auction the slaves. Soon he meets and falls in love with the slave Zoe (Shawna Michelle James), who reminds him they cannot marry legally as she is an octoroon, that is, one-eighth black. Other characters include a Whanotee Indian chief (Brooks Reeves), the slave auctioneer LaFouche (also played by Reeves), The Playwright (Reeves again), and the slaves Minnie (Elle Borders) and Dido (Obehi Janice). Also in the cast are a mute Br'Er Rabbit (Kadahj Bennett, who also plays Ratts), Pete (Harsh Gagoomal, who also plays Paul), Dora (Bridgette Hayes), and Grace (Amelia Lumpkin). It may be of interest that none of the five women double in roles, but all four of the men do; seems it was then even more a man's world than it is now.

There are moments of insight, with reference in this land of cotton, to the impossibility of racial intermarriage (not legal countrywide until 1967). Late in the show, there is a brief but effective (though entirely predictable) video presentation. As helmed here by Director Summer L. Williams, most of the cast falls into the trap of lack of any restraint. While melodrama is hardly known for its subtlety, it can still be overdone. And the excessive frequency of f-bombs and the n-word are both offensive in different ways, the former losing its impact with such overuse, the latter at first shocking but soon apparent that it was just universally used. The creative team efforts include Scenic Design by Justin and Christopher Swader, Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, Lighting Design by Christopher Brusberg, Sound Design by David Wilson, and Vocal/Dialect Coaching by Karen Kopryanski.

Jacobs-Jenkins has stated that, in the past, melodramas gave audiences a sense of seeing something new and novel, but that today the theater is no longer a place of novelty. This is debatable, and, at least in this production, remains an open question.