Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
I do not want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket or that it’s a president or that it’s in love with another sound, I just want it to be a sound. John Cage
Chess Match No. 5 should, by all accounts, be boring. It is, after all, an entire play comprised of two people playing a game of chess and discussing their perception of the reality of music. But it is definitely not boring.
The SITI Company has created a work based on the public conversations of John Page as arranged by Jocelyn Clarke. Born in 1912, the noted and controversial composer, writer, artist and philosopher, was among the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde and is often considered one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. Taking the words of John Cage, the company has combined writing, direction, acting and the creativity of an entire ensemble to develop what can only be called a remarkable production.
Without question, the philosophy and techniques of the SITI Company are a large part of the successful outcome. SITI, founded in 1992 by Anne Bogart and Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, evolved out of two very different systems, Suzuki and Viewpoints. The mission of Suzuki is to restore the actor’s innate expressive abilities through focus on physical movement drawn from Japanese and Greek theater, ballet and martial arts. Viewpoints was developed in 1970 by choreographer Mary Overlie as a method of movement improvisation. The six basic principles of Viewpoints, later adapted for stage by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, include Space, the physical environment and relationship of objects; Shape, the contour of bodies related to space; Time, tempo, duration, reaction and repetition; Emotion, Movement and Story.
The procedures of the SITI Company serve the words of Cage well and result not in a structure that restricts, but rather in one that provides unlimited freedom. Once the boundaries of preconceived concepts are broken, choice is without limit.
Cage’s overriding philosophy, embodied in all of his works, is that music exists solely and simply for its own sake. One example, often discussed and passionately debated, is the three movement composition “4’33” which is performed in four minutes and 33 seconds. Before beginning, the musicians are requested to put down their instruments. What remains is the ambient sound, the music, of the surrounding environment. In a 1957 lecture Cage described music as “…an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.”
Chess Match No.5 was conceived and directed by Anne Bogart, co-director of the SITI Company. She has directed it with careful attention to each moment, each nuance, and each in relationship to the whole.
The performances of the production’s two actors, Will Bond as John Cage and Ellen Lauren as his long-time friend and intellectual equal, are extraordinary. They have mastered incredibly challenging roles, totally embodying their characters and never allowing the attention of the audience to waver. They also manage to transition smoothly from the intellectual repartee to jokes that are delightful in their contrivance and dances that come out of nowhere (and are very well performed).
In a world in which falsely perceived reality and inflexible and biased opinions are often the norm, anything which opens the mind and provides a stimulus for thought is to be lauded, and when it provides entertainment as well, it is something not to be missed. Go see Chess Match No. 5. You will enjoy it and you will not forget it.
Photos by Maria Baranova
Chess Match No. 5 Created by the SITI Company and Presented by the Abingdon Theatre Company Choreography, Barney O’Hanlon; Scenic and Costume Design, James Schuette; Lighting Design, Brian H. Scott; Sound Design, Darron L. West June Havoc Theatre 312 West 36th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenue) Through April 2nd Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.and Sunday at 2 p.m.
This is the time of year when many people take a moment to contemplate the things in life for which they are thankful. It may be a difficult thing for many people to do right now, what with the surplus of hate and fear that has heretofore barely been kept at bay now rearing its many ugly heads. The world seems a little darker than it was only a few weeks ago. That’s why here and now I’m thankful for Gideon Irving. His ever-evolving show, My Name is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die Eventually (now in its ninth version of the same first show) is a balm for what ails the psyche. There is magic in his work, and I don’t just mean the playing cards.
We are lucky to have people like Gideon, artists with big, wide-open hearts who can offer a respite from the dull ache of everyday life. He speaks sweetly and appears almost shy as he encourages his audience to follow him into a place warmed with fairy lights, folk songs, fresh-baked cookies, and surprises to delight and astonish. The feeling he exudes is one joyful whimsy, and the small dashes of Dadaist (non)sensibilities sprinkled liberally throughout surprise and delight. Just walking into the theater is an experience.
Nearly every square inch of the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater has been covered in mementos and props culled from Gideon’s life and previous performances. This is quite an achievement in stage design, especially considering that the stage was doubled in depth just for this show. it’s a treat for the eyes and as full of surprises as the performance itself. The attention to detail is remarkable.
Coming to his show is, as he said he hopes, like coming into his home. Gideon welcomes everyone on the stage afterward for a chat and to take a closer look at what he has going on, though I can’t really tell you much of what’s there because it would ruin the surprise. But know there are literally hundreds of interesting things to see and a handful of lovely projects you can sign up to be a part of.
As a performer, Gideon is unassuming but obviously insanely creative. He and his production team have created a lovely, intricate, wholly safe space for people to come and experience something different and quietly wonderful. He’s a talented songwriter, too, and his music is the kind that uplifts and helps you forget what you left behind on the outside. It was a breath of fresh air, a respite from the sadness and anger that some of us are feeling now like a constant ringing in the ears.
For two hours, and more if you come early to check out the décor and stay afterward to talk, there is a chance for peace and calm. He’s also subtly brilliant at inspiration and motivation. Take, for instance, how he talks about his next planned project, for which he’s only just working out the details. It seems like an extraordinary goal, but he breaks it down in a way that makes it seem like just a matter of preparation and taking the first step.
There isn’t much I can say to describe what happens in the show—again, even if it wasn’t requested I wouldn’t tell you for fear of ruining the surprise—but I can say that it was something I will remember for a long time to come. Take a chance on this unknown. You won’t regret it.
Photos by Maria Baranova
My Name Is Gideon: I’m Probably Going To Die, Eventually Rattlestick Playwrights Theater 224 Waverly Place Limited run through December 11, 2016 Tuesdays – Saturday’s at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday’s at 3 p.m., exceptions are December 3rd and 10th at 7 p.m. Dark nights are November 30 and December 7. Tickets can be purchased by visiting Ovation Tix or calling (866) 811- 4111.
Carousel was the second musical produced by the dynamic team of Rodgers and Hammerstein following their ground breaking Oklahoma! If audiences expected another feel good show, they were surprised. Carousel is based on Liliom, a somber 1909 play by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár. A failure when it was first staged in Hungary, Liliom fared better when it was produced on Broadway in 1921. Carousel, which opened on Broadway in 1945, received positive reviews and has since been revived numerous times. Carousel’s themes of forgiveness, healing, and redemption always seem to hit home. In that respect, Arena’s new production couldn’t come at a better time.
Despite the photos in Arena’s ads, there’s no actual carousel on the Fichandler circular stage. Indeed, Todd Rosenthal’s set design is rather sparse, with a floor of whitewashed wood and crates that are frequently rearranged depending upon the scene. The orchestra is housed in a gazebo, above the stage, while the music director, Paul Sportelli, waves his baton from a spot below the stage. Except for glowing stars in the second act, there are no props. The actors mime drinking coffee, playing the accordion, playing cards, digging clams, and picking up garbage. Without extraneous distractions, our attention stays focused on the players and their stories.
Billy Bigelow is a barker for a carnival in small town Maine. With his roughish good looks, Billy has no trouble attracting women, most of whom work in the local mill and come to ride the carousel for entertainment. He’s an alpha male and an irresistible draw for the shy and inexperienced Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan). Nicholas Rodriguez, his black fedora tipped at a jaunty angle, brings to mind a young Sinatra, who was originally cast as Billy in the film. Billy and Julie assess their growing attraction in one of the musical’s best known songs, “If I Loved You,” a sweet moment that, unfortunately, sets up expectations that will never be met after the two are married. Billy is caught between two women; Julie, and Mrs. Mullin (E. Faye Butler), who not only owns the carnival, but acts like she owns Billy, too. When he defies her order to leave Julie and get back to work, she fires him. Julie, too, loses her job after missing her shift at the factory, choosing to stay with Billy at the carnival.
Betsy Morgan and Kate Rockwell
Julie’s good friend, Carrie (an exuberant Kate Rockwell), also has a boyfriend (Kurt Boehm). Rockwell’s heartfelt tribute to her beau, “Mister Snow,” glosses over his shortcomings. When I marry Mister Snow/ The flowers’ll be buzzin’ with the hum of bees. Neither woman hits the romance jackpot. Billy, beset by job and financial setbacks, will take his anger out on Julie, abusing her psychologically and actually hitting her at one point. (While some productions have downplayed this aspect of domestic violence, Director Molly Smith wisely recognizes that it’s a problem that hasn’t gone away.) Enoch Snow isn’t abusive, but he’s a control freak, seething with jealously. When he catches Carrie dancing with another man, he quickly breaks off their relationship. They reunite after Carrie desperately pleads with him.
For Billy, the turning point comes when Julie tells him she’s pregnant. Contemplating fatherhood, Billy is overjoyed. Rodriguez literally stops the show, his strong baritone delivering an emotional “Soliloquy.” You can have fun with a son/But you gotta be a father to a girl. Eager to provide for his child, Billy gives in to pressure from his shiftless friend, Jigger (a very convincing Kyle Schliefer), to rob the mill’s owner, David Bascombe (Thomas Adrian Simpson). The whole town is celebrating with a clam bake, and Billy and Jigger attend, using the event as a cover for eventually leaving and staging the holdup. Billy carries a knife that he plans to use to threaten Bascombe, not kill him. But when the plan goes awry, Billy opts to kill himself rather than face the possibility of prison. Julie holds Billy as he’s dying and finally whispers what she has never told him, “I love you.” Julie is comforted by her cousin, Nettie, played by Ann Arvia, delivering a gosse-bump-inducing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Now on the other side, Billy tries in vain to gain admittance to heaven, arguing with heavenly friend (Nicole Wildy) that he wants to see “The Highest Judge of All.” His one chance is to return to earth and try to redeem himself. Fifteen years have passed. Billy’s daughter, Louise, is now a teenager, and not a happy one, bullied by classmates about her criminal father. Skye Mattox’s Louise displays her hurt and passion in a dance sequence that is both sad and beautiful. It’s an exquisite piece of choreography by Parker Esse, with a tour de force performance by Mattox. She’s now on our radar.
Everything comes together in the end. Julie somehow feels Billy’s presence and knows that he did truly love her. Louise understands that her father’s mistakes are not hers and that her life is truly her own. And Billy’s visit to earth, where he makes himself visible to Louise, comforts her, and gives her a star, is enough to gain him admittance to heaven.
Kudos to costume designer Ilona Somogyi and wig designer Anne Nesmith for creating a period look that was both aesthetically pleasing and wonderful to look at without distracting from the performances.
Rodgers and Hammerstein never shied away from tackling important and, at times, controversial issues in their musicals. Oklahoma! has upbeat songs, but also deals with political and cultural issues that erupted between farmers and cattlemen. South Pacific and The King and I confront racism. Great musicals endure because at their core they have powerful messages that encourage us to be better than we are. Carousel does that. And it’s a message we need to hear now. Go see it.
Photos by Maria Baranova Top photo Betsy Morgan and Nicholas Rodriguez
Carousel Fichlander Theater Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW Through December 24, 2016
If there’s one sure-fire way to reinvigorate a stalled conversation, it’s bringing up something about 9/11. Like the Kennedy assassination in the 60s, everyone who was old enough to remember knows exactly where they were and what they were doing that day. For many of us it’s still as clear in our minds as if it were yesterday, and the stories are vivid and full of emotion. This is why I had high hopes going into the new Isle of Shoals production, Occupation: Dragonslayer, a musical that takes place in a small diner in the Financial District on Christmas Eve, 2002. That’s also when the musical was first presented to an audience, though not in the form it takes today.
Steve Walsh and Cecilia Vaicels
Conceived and created by Bryan Williams (music, lyrics, co-author) and Lance Hewitt (co-author) shortly after the 2001 attack, the musical focuses on a disparate group of lonely souls trying to scrape by — some financially, others emotionally — after a year of trying to come to grips with the loss, the devastation, and the arduous process of picking up the pieces. The diner is soon to be demolished and so this evening is something of a last hurrah for the regulars as the staff contemplates what the future holds. When a stranger with a memory blank walks in the door dressed like Santa, he sparks off conversation with each person in the room, bringing gifts out of his Santa sack for every one and listening as they share their stories about what the holiday means to them and what it’s been like since that day when so many lost so much.
The story behind the musical is one of personal loss harnessed for the sake of catharsis. Director Stephen Ryan was a rescue and recovery worker at “The Pile.” He lost friends and colleagues who had run into the towers to rescue civilians before the buildings came down. Writing Occupation: Dragonslayer was a way to pay homage not only to the people who lived, worked and died there, but also to try to remind people of the feeling that settled over the city in the months following 9/11. “New York was indeed a kinder, gentler place…what we actually began to notice was how many of our fellow New Yorkers were in need of just a friendly word. And we began to connect.”
Theodore Errig, Ruby Spryte Balsamo, and Benjamin Errig
There are some really great voices in the cast, including Cait Kelly as Jenny, Kimberly Bello as Mara, Steffen Whorton as Chris the Dragonslayer and Steve Walsh, who received surprisingly little stage time considering the quality of his contributions as both Gil the haunted construction worker on the Pile and Duffy the churlish firefighter only in it for the government pension. The three kids who appear — Ruby Spryte Balsamo, Benjamin Erring, and Theodore Errig — are incredibly delightful and harmonious as three cheeky siblings forced to go caroling with their somewhat military-minded, tramping-for-Jesus mother.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of microphones or a misbalanced sound board, a lot of those voices had to fight to be heard. Not all succeeded. Perhaps that’s why the production never seemed to entirely come together. The characters are all familiar: the line cook who dreams of opening a great restaurant, the poor little rich girl, the serial bachelorette, the waitress who dreams of the stage, the eccentric older lady in tattered furs. It’s a lot of cast, and though the production is a full two hours long, it feels like running through a list of archetypes checking off those present rather than watching one or two really develop as characters. The overall effect was to make the story seem drawn-out and without focus.
Steffen Whorton, Kimberly Bello, and John Mervini
Similarly, among the abundant musical numbers were several that didn’t feel like they helped move the story along at all. Again, this could be chalked up to being unable to hear all of the words, but they simply didn’t land with any kind of emotional force. Those that did, however, did so well. In particular, the songs “Absence,” “The Girl in the Mirror,” “The Pile,” and “Learn to Say Goodbye” felt true and the singers emoted powerfully in their moments. Likewise, the songs that brought the entire cast onstage simultaneously contained just the kind of classic spirit-lifting Broadway harmonies that bring the applause. Where the story really faltered was when the supernatural element kicks in toward the end. By making that turn, certain elements just didn’t make sense. Certain inconsistencies became apparent and the characters’ issues may have been better dealt with on a more uniformly corporeal plane.
It’s clear that a lot of love went into putting this production together, from inception to performance, but it just misses the mark. It can be stiff at times, the characters somewhat generic, and the fact that it takes place in 2002 in the Financial District is mostly irrelevant. Yet for what it is, a labor of love by those who were there, it says a lot about what they experienced and how, even 15 years later, the memories of those we lost can haunt us.
Top photo: L to R: Steffen Whorton and John Mervini Photos by Maria Baranova