June, 2017: New and Robust Offerings

June, 2017: New and Robust Offerings

The Tony Awards have been announced, the official “season” is concluded, and summer is upon us.  But that doesn’t mean that New York theatre is “closed” for the summer.

On the contrary, new and robust openings are causing a stir.

Julius Caesar at Shakespeare in the Park

First and foremost, in terms of attention-getting and lasting impact, is the sensational production of Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.  Produced by the Public Theatre as part of their summer Shakespeare Festival, and staged by Oskar Eustis, its courageous artistic director, it’s a thrilling rendition of Shakespeare’s political tragedy that couldn’t be more timely.

Julius Caesar in the Park

Julius Caesar in the Park

Eustis has assembled an impressive cast, featuring Corey Stoll as Brutus, John Douglas Thompson as Cassius Clay, and Elizabeth Marvel (yes, it’s true!) as Mark Anthony.  He’s set it in modern times, and made the bold choice of dressing Julius Caesar (Gregg Henry) in a Donald Trump wig and directing Calpurnia (Tina Benko) to speak in a Slavic accent.  At one point, they share a bath onstage, and when Caesar emerges, stark naked, the audience roars with laughter.

No doubt you’ve already heard of the controversy that these provocative choices have provoked – resulting in withdrawal of funding by at least two major corporate sponsors and vocal protests from pro-Trumpers.  But I found these choices to be satirical and diverting, rather than offensive.

Of far greater significance is the thrilling choice that Eustis has made in planting dozens of young actors in the audience, unbeknownst to the other spectators, to represent the Roman populace.  Imagine the shock when they suddenly rise from their seats, begin to scream and jeer, and ultimately storm the stage.  It’s the most powerful representation of mob violence I’ve even witnessed in the theatre.

Truly, this is a Julius Caesar for our times – a warning against the tyranny of both the ruler and the mob – as well as a call to respect and preserve our cherished democratic process.  Kudos to Oskar Eustis for the courage of his convictions.

1984 at the Hudson Theatre

Here’s another powerful political play making a timely appearance on our stages.  George Orwell’s 1949 landmark novel has been adapted and co-directed by Robert Icke, a rising star in the British theatre, together with Duncan MacMillan, and presented at the newly renovated Hudson Theatre.

1984 at the Hudson Theatre

1984 at the Hudson Theatre

1984 is an intentionally disjointed, disorienting rendering of a frightening totalitarian state (called Oceania) ruled by an unseen “Big Brother”, where “newspeak” is the lingua franca, where “thought crime” is severely punished, and where tyranny and terror are the government’s modus operandi.    The action shifts back and forth between this nightmarish vision and the future, where members of a benign book group look back at it, trying to decipher its historical significance.

Caught in the grips of this brutal state is Winston Smith (a vulnerable Tom Sturridge), who is tasked with rewriting history for Oceania and tries to rebel instead, together with his beloved Julia (Olivia Wilde).  But he can’t escape the scrutiny of Big Brother’s emissary, played by an icy Reed Birney.  The sense of paranoia and terror that Winston feels, as the political vice tightens and ultimately crushes him, is felt by us in the audience as well.  It culminates in a horrific, graphic torture scene (accompanied by deafening sounds and blinding lights) that I keenly wish the adaptor/directors had made less literal and more metaphorical.

That unfortunate interlude notwithstanding, it’s a power political piece for our times, when “fake news” and “alternative facts” are the rule of the day.  Let’s hope that we’re not going down the road to Oceania.

Sojourners at the New York Theatre Workshop

There’s far gentler fare downtown at the New York Theatre Workshop, where the first two installments of a nine-part  series are being staged in repertory, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar.  Mfuniso Udofia is the playwright, and her story of the Nigerian immigrant experience is a deeply moving one.

Sojourners at NY Theatre Workshop

Sojourners at NY Theatre Workshop

In the first play entitled Sojourners, we meet Aba (short for Abasiama Ekpeyoung), a pregnant young Nigerian emigrée who is trying to adapt to the American way of life in Houston, Texas (c. 1970).  Sent there by her parents to get an education, Aba faces multiple challenges, including her studies (biology), her part-time job, and her irresponsible husband Ukpong, who stays home, listens to Motown records, drinks, and reads porn magazines.

Daunted by the pressures of adapting to a new culture and the responsibilities of parenthood, Ukpong deserts Aba on the eve of their daughter’s birth.   Meanwhile, Aba meets another Nigerian immigrant named Disciple.  He’s a serious-minded student at Texas Southern, and offers Aba salvation (“When one is absent, God sends another.”)

The wonder of Sojourners  is that it’s a seemingly “small play” (four characters) with a huge emotional impact, written with beauty, sensitivity and grace.  The performances (Chinasa Ogbuagu as Aba, Hubert Poinot-Du Jour as Ukpong, and Chinaza Uche as Disciple) are strong and true, and a fourth character named Moxie (Lakisha Michelle May), a prostitute befriended by Aba, completes this excellent cast.

In the surprise ending (forgive the spoiler, but it’s a segue into the next play), Aba gives her newborn daughter to Ukpong to return to Africa where he can raise her in the Nigerian tradition, while she completes her studies and pursues a career as a biologist.  It’s a powerful, unexpected, and deeply human choice – and has huge consequences in the next episode.

Her Portmanteau at the New York Theatre Workshop

Fast forward thirty years later  – and playwright Mfoniso Udofia picks up Aba’s story again.  As Jason Sherwood’s turnstile stage revolves, it brings in Iniabasi, Aba’s daughter, newly arrived in New York from Africa, bearing her mother’s suitcase and preparing to meet her for the second time.

Her Portmanteau at the NY Theatre Workshop

Her Portmanteau at the NY Theatre Workshop

Their momentous reunion takes place in the tiny Lower East Side flat belonging to Iniabasi’s half-sister, Adi.  Much has happened in thirty years – Aba has married Disciple and together they had their own children.  Meanwhile, Ukpong, Aba’s first husband, has died, and now Iniabasi has come to meet her mother with the hopes to start a new life in America.

Understandably, this triangular encounter becomes explosive.Iniabasi is angry for having been abandoned by her mother. Aba struggles defend her choices, and Adi, caught in the crossfire, tries to mediate.  It’s a stirring play about family and forgiveness, infused with humor and performed with heart (by Jenny Jules as Aba, Adepero Oduye as Iniabisi, and Chinasa Ogbuaga as Adi).

The revelation that Aba’s grandson (Adi’s son, still in Nigeria) may come to America sets the stage for the future plays in this family cycle.  Aba has named her daughter Adi (meaning “in God’s time), and Adi has named her son Kufre (meaning “to never forget”).  These names are prophesies of what is to come.  Mfoniso Udofia’s saga is a gift to American theatregoers, enriching us with an appreciation of Nigerian cultural values.   We look forward to future installments.

Venus at the Signature Theatre Center

Plays by women of color are receiving well-deserved recognition this season – beginning with Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, her powerful political Pulitzer-prize-winning play on Broadway (reviewed in my November column).  This month, we have Mfusio Udofio’s two above-mentioned plays in repertory at the New York Theatre Workshop, and at the same time there’s a revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus at the Signature Theatre Center.

 Signature Theatre Center

Signature Theatre Center

The story that Parks tells is an amazing one, all the more so because it’s true. “Venus Hottentot” is the name given to a poor young South African woman (Sarah Baartman, c. 1789 – 1815), a descendant of the Khoikhoi tribe, who was discovered by a British profiteer and lured to England to join a traveling sideshow, where her unusual physical attributes were displayed (namely, huge buttocks and breasts). It’s the shocking, disturbing story of a woman of color, and how her body becomes exploited for commercial profit as well as dispassionate medical research.

Lear deBessonet directs this revival of Parks’s 1996 play with flair and confidence, capitalizing on its numerous styles – including Brechtian story-telling, vaudeville, and surreal absurdism.  Matt Saunder’s lively set features a vaudevillian stage, upon which a company of ten plays a variety of roles, including participants in the Eight Amazing Human Wonders freak show, colorfully costumed by Emilio Sosa.

Narrated by “The Negro Resurrectionist” (Kevin Mambo), we follow the fate of Venus (a touching Zainab Jah) from Africa to England where she’s forced to perform in an infamous sideshow tour. Then, a gallant white doctor (John Ellison Conlee) swoops in and saves her, showering her with gifts, offering to take her to Paris and lead a life of luxury.

As Parks reimagines the story, they fall deeply in love. But the doctor has other designs on Venus – specifically, medical ones. He assembles a team of scientists to examine her extraordinary physical features, and plans an extensive post-mortem anatomical study. Devastated and abandoned, Venus falls mortally ill.

In the end, Venus is a unique creation by a unique playwright with an urgent voice. Women of color and how they are viewed throughout history is a theme that runs throughout Parks’s impressive oeuvre. In Venus, standards of beauty, the dignity of the female form, and a woman’s control over her body are additional themes that Parks explores with fearlessness and determination.

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