Rough Winds in March

Rough Winds in March

The gales of March have blown in a blistery batch of powerful and provocative plays.

The Penitent at Atlantic Theatre Company

The unstoppable David Mamet has returned with a new play – this time, an austere parable on the story of Job that plumbs the depths of human motivation, moral ambiguity, and injustice.

The Penitent (photo by Doug Hamilton)

The Penitent (photo by Doug Hamilton)

In The Penitent, Charles, a psychiatrist (Chris Bauer), is caught in a legal and moral crisis. One of his former patients has committed a mass murder, and “the boy” (as he’s called) has accused Charles of being homophobic. Moreover, there’s a media campaign against Charles, author of an article whose title has been misquoted as “Homosexuality – an Aberration” (Charles actually wrote “Adaptation”). A trial is impending, and Charles is the target.

What should Charles do? His lawyer Richard (Jordan Lage) thinks he should offer an apology. His stressed-out wife Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon) thinks he should turn the boy’s records over to the court. But Charles will do neither, nor will he testify, because a) he is not homophobic and b) he’s taken a medical oath not to reveal a patient’s records. Instead, he stands alone, as the pressure builds to an unbearable level and one by one his sources of support leave him.

The play’s 90- minute form suits its content. The set is bare (a table, two chairs), the two-character scenes are brief, and no sound is heard other than the deliberate dialogue of these characters, each locked in his/her point of view, pounding in our ears with brutal force. After a brief intermission, there’s a frightening scene between Charles and the boy’s defense lawyer (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), during which they discuss God, the Bible, and Charles’s renewed faith in Judaism. As Charles defends himself against the legal and theological thrusts and parries of the lawyer’s cruel cross-examination, we see Mamet as his best – an uncompromising moralist who is not afraid to tackle issues such as the sanctity of an oath (marital and professional), justice and truth.

Like Oleanna, Mamet’s earlier play, The Penitent is a train gathering speed and heading for a moral crash.  After a number of baits and switches, the dark revelations at the end justify Mamet’s relentless means.  Under Neil Pepe’s expert, precise direction, the production is deliberately stark and severe, serving the play well, holding us in its sway until the bitter end, where nobody loses and nobody wins.

White Guy on a Bus at 59E59 Theatre

Bruce Graham takes no prisoners in his hard-edged, hard-hitting new drama White Guy on a Bus.  With its startling twists and its shocking content, it plays like a thriller – one that will keep you in suspense for two taut hours.

White Guy on a Bus

White Guy on a Bus

The topic is racism, and Graham’s characters face it head-on.   Ray (Robert Cuccioli) is successful, white “numbers guy” who (in the words of David Byrne) finds himself “in a beautiful house/with a beautiful wife” and ultimately pays the price for how he got there, as the song prophesizes.

The scene is the suburbs of Philadelphia (from whence Graham hails).  Ray’s lovely wife Roz (Susan McKey) is a dedicated teacher in a North Philadelphia predominately all-black school, while their young friend Molly is safely sequestered in an all-white ivory tower.  As teachers, their clash of worldviews constitutes the substance of the first act – until a violent event occurs that turns all their worlds upside down.

Meanwhile Ray (the “white guy”) has met, by chance, a young black woman named Shatique (played by Danielle Lenée) while riding a bus.  Shatique’s life consists of one struggle after another– she’s a single mother working a day job in a hospital and going to nursing school at night.  Her mother is raising her son in New Jersey; on weekends, she visits her brother in prison.  Ray becomes obsessed with her and her story. What does he want from her?  Is he stalking her?  Then, the violent turn of events in Ray’s life prompts him to make a shocking offer to Shatique that unmasks his own ruthlessness, self-centeredness and not-so-subtle racism.

“What is a melting pot? You throw stuff in and eventually it overheats. Boils over…,” says Roz, prophetically.  Deftly directed by Bud Martin, White Guy on a Bus features a corps of characters who confront each other on the issue of race in a head-on explosion that you rarely hear in a theatre.  Graham doesn’t tiptoe around the topic.  Instead, he purposely rushes in where angels fear to tread, smashing the notion of political correctness, forcing us to see its hypocrisies.  It’s hard to look at oneself in the mirror on an issue like racism, and Graham – a powerful playwright who pulls no punches – is asking us to do so.

Cry Havoc! at the New Ohio Theatre

If there’s one show this season that deserves special recognition, it’s Cry Havoc! – Stephan Wolfert’s heartrending monologue at the New Ohio Theatre, about war and its terrible consequences on those who are sent into battle.  “Worthwhile” doesn’t even begin to do justice to this heroic effort.  It’s a privilege to bear witness to it, for both its unique form and urgent content.

Stephan Wolfert in Cry Havoc

Stephan Wolfert in Cry Havoc

Wolfert knows whereof he writes.  He served six years in the army from 1986 – 1993, and his experiences in pre-and post-service comprise the narrative frame of his monologue.  But what makes this piece both unique and universal is that he intersperses his personal narrative with selected Shakespearean texts to illuminate his experiences.

Wolfert explains to us how he came upon this inspired idea.  Standing barefoot on a bare stage in the tiny black box space, he instantly engages us and holds us spellbound for the next 90 minutes.  He tells how he rejected a military promotion and instead went AWOL stateside.  Hopping off the Amtrak in Montana one night, drunk and aimless, he wandered into a town and sought refuge in – of all places – a theatre, where Richard III was playing.  It was Wolfert’s first time in a theatre and it changed his life.  He had a vision of how Shakespeare’s texts – passages on war from Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Henry IV I & II, Henry V, and others – could actually serve as “therapy” for veterans. He became an actor, received an MFA at Trinity Rep, joined Bedlam Theatre’s company here in New York, began to work with other veterans on Shakespeare, and eventually wrote the story he was destined to write and perform.

“Now is the winter of our discontent”, the opening lines of Richard III, are the ones Wolfert chooses to begin his monologue, which then takes us briefly through his brutal upbringing by an alcoholic father and his traumatic military training, where he describes how he held the exploded head of his best friend killed in firing practice.  “We were wired for war, but not un-wired for our return.”  This is the point he makes over and over about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from which he and so many others suffer.  The statistics he shares are staggering, including the number of current veterans who are homeless, mentally ill, or addicted.

The surprise – and thrill – of Cry Havoc! – is that it’s as entertaining and moving as it is enlightening.  Clad in black jeans and t-shirt, Wolfert (who has had balletic training) literally dances through the monologue, telling his story, enacting numerous roles, and reciting Shakespeare’s lines about the traumas of war. He’s a charismatic actor who captivates us with his boundless energy, brilliant humor, and graceful movements (directed by Eric Tucker).  His commitment to the material is absolute, and the rollercoaster journey he takes us on is cathartic.  Following the monologue, there’s a post-performance conversation with the audience. You’ll emerge deeply moved.

Cry Havoc! is part of a growing trend of new works calling urgent attention to PTSD, including Quiara Alegria Hudes’s Elliot Trilogy (2006-13), George Brant’s Grounded (2013), Paula Vogel’s Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq (2014).  This season there’s Bill Cain’s 9 Circles now playing at the Sheen Center, and Homeland, the hit Showtime TV series on terrorism.

These works are bringing the story home – literally – in an eloquent, powerful and immediate way.  The Stephan Wolferts are on our doorsteps, appealing for compassion, asking us to share in the responsibility for what has happened to them.  We cannot turn our backs.

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips at St. Ann’s Warehouse

“In the dark times, will there be singing? Yes, and there will also be singing?  Yes, and there will also be singing about the dark times.”  So wrote playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose epic tales of traumatic historical events were set to music.

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (photo by Teddy Wolff)

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (photo by Teddy Wolff)

And now Emma Rice, founder of the wonderful Kneehigh Theatre Company, has followed suit, with 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, the magical show that she and Michael Morpurgo (of War Horse fame) have adapted from his children’s book of the same name. It’s an enchanting show about a tragic event – if such a paradox is possible.  Set in World War II, 946 American soldiers were killed during a bungled pre-Normandy-invasion military exercise on England’s Southern coast.  The American and British governments tried to keep it quiet, but thanks to Murpurgo’s 2005 book and its timely dramatic adaptation today, these secrets are being revealed under bright theatre lights.

The charm (if such a word can be used here) of the story is that it’s told through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl named Lily Tregenza, who lived in the seaside English village of Slapton where the event took place. The Tregenzas’ idyllic life on their family farm is untouched by the war, until they are told that they and 3,000 other villagers must immediately evacuate to make way for the Allies’ military exercises.

But there’s a crisis. Lily has lost her beloved cat Tips, and that’s her single-minded focus. She enlists two African-American soldiers – Harry & Adi (Adolphus) – who venture into the danger zone to fulfill their promise of finding Tips. Their determination and heroism constitute the tragedy and triumph of the story.

Known for her imaginative story-telling skills, director Emma Rice combines a Brechtian episodic structure with narrative, music, dance, and a cabaret-style concept – to create a deeply moving theatrical experience.  Lez Brotherston’s colorful set features a jazz band perched on an overhead balcony, upon which a four-member band plays familiar and original jazz tunes throughout the story.  Attached to the balcony, there’s a giant propeller that becomes an aircraft.  Sandbags buttress the sidewalls, and the stage floor extends down to the audience, where the action plays out.

The multi-talented 12-member ensemble dance, sing, play multiple roles, and manipulate scores of puppets – including Tips, farmyard chickens, dogs, sheep, and birds.  Downstage, at the audience’s feet, there are 24 metal tubs of water where the military skirmishes take place; actors hold toy soldiers and plastic boats, which they float in the water and set on fire.  It’s spellbinding story-telling, and the dozens of schoolchildren in the first row were as captivated as the rest of us older folks in the theatre bleachers at the matinee I attended.

Lily (Katy Owen) and Adi (Ncuti Gatwa) are superb dancers – as is Harry (Nandi Bhebhe) who doubles as Tip’s masterful puppeteer.  Blues Man (Akopre Uzoh) is the charismatic lead singer as well as Emcee, narrating the story to its moving conclusion.  The remainder of the ensemble is universally excellent.

Ultimately, credit goes to the vision of the amazing Emma Rice.  “Education is the noblest function that we have found for the theatre,” says Brecht.  It’s a miracle to deliver an entertaining, enlightening show about a historical tragedy – and Rice pulls it off.  At the exuberant curtain call, I kept thinking we were feeling a lot happier than we should have felt, given the story.  But historical insight through the eyes of a child (now grown old, looking back on it all) is a testimony of the triumph of the human spirit – giving us hope that we may one day learn the lessons that Brecht and Rice are teaching, after all.