Saturday, August 04, 2012

Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl, produced by the Circuit Theatre Company

Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl, produced by the Circuit Theatre Company, directed by Skylar Fox with music direction by Linda Bard and set design and lighting by Christopher Annas-Lee
review by Tom Daley August 4, 2012

Last night I went to see Passion Play, a play by Sarah Ruhl produced by the Circuit Theatre Company and directed by Skylar Fox. I believe this company coalesced around Fox and is largely composed of people who worked together at Newton North High School (with a few additions from Fox’s contacts at Brown). Last year I saw their production of Enron, a dazzling entertainment and a memorably professional creation. Chris Annas-Lee, Bagel Bard Pam Annas’s son, designed the lighting and sets in both productions, and he acted in Passion Play. Chris is a powerful presence. He has a strong, deep voice and his long face and sturdy jaw accommodate both the deadpan humor and the deadly serious pieces of his repertoire in this extravaganza. He was best as the young director of the last of the four incarnations of the passion play (one set in Elizabethan England, one at Oberammergau in 1934, and two in Spearfish, South Dakota —one in 1969 and one in the era of Ronald Reagan (circa 1984)).
Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of this production was the music—this is a very gifted ensemble of musicians.The harmonies on the songs (a list of which, alas, was not given in the program) were flawless, and the instrumentation bright if not exactly bold (neither the banjo and the cello always achieved, given the acoustics of the Cambridge Family Y Theater, the volume needed). And how on earth did they get that piano to work? I was told, when I rented the same theater for Every Broom and Bridget, that it was nigh near impossible to tune. Spirituals, folk tunes, rollicking ballads (one anchored by a swaggering and spunky Natalie McDonald), old hymn chestnuts—all of them were handled with astonishing savoir-faire; all made a profound impact. 

Director Fox, deft at staging and a sensational choreographer of big productions, has not yet been able to coax many of the actors in this troupe out of their earnestness (or perhaps he is coaxing them into this, but I doubt it). If at times some of them had a hard time sorting out intensity from industriousness, there were some brilliant individual moments manifesting nuance, particularly the performance of a very big, very imperious Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth I—played by Emma Johnson). The Queen, whose face had a greater thickness of white clown paint than the mug of Tammy Faye Baker had of facial powder, abruptly entered the village where the play was being produced. She delivered a monologue about how monarchs must paint their faces so that their subjects cannot see them growing old or getting ugly. She asked if there are any Catholics being hidden in the houses and then proceeded to cancel the passion play. Johnson (who later played, somewhat less innovatively, Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan) managed, as Queen Elizabeth, to be both haughty and scarily comical, to come across as caricature and character, to tower over the rest of the players (she is very tall) and seem detached and yet excruciatingly connected to the electric static emanating from the body politic of the little village.

Of his three characters, Louis Loftus managed best as a rather tamped-down VA psychiatrist—the subtleties of his acting craft emerged more completely in that role than they did when he was a hectic and passionate friar or an insufferably English aesthete/reviewer. An energetic Juliet Roll played the Village Idiot, and at times was ridiculously, hysterically little-girlish, although when the passion play’s exasperated director (Caleb Bromberg) put her in a cage at the Oberammergau production, she abandoned the screechiness and became prophetic and compelling. The female lead (Madeline Schulman, who had the female lead in Enron) was damn good, especially when she broke out of the souped-up sincerity. In the final scene from the Elizabethan section, she is carried back from drowning herself in the river and laid on the stage by a very tender John the fisherman (Sam Bell-Gurwitz), and water pours out of her mouth. She is sensually dead, an Ophelia dragged from her river, her white gown wet and revealing her comeliness. This was one of the most arresting scenes in the play.
The giant (oil?) paintings (by Nellie Robinson, Amalia Sweet, and Tess Vasiliadis) that were used for backdrop for the Elizabethan productions were quite amazing—there’s a painting of the Last Supper that was a kind of carnival version of Caravaggio, at least in the portraiture--crooked noses, balding pates, and the kind of faces you might have seen in some Jewish ghetto—stark, almost violent profiles of men as they reached middle age. Christ was dark and somberly Semitic-Mediterranean—not the blond ideal of the Renaissance. The paintings had a bluish-gray cast to them, as in Picasso’s blue period, and the profiles were almost distractingly good.

One of the most beautiful musical pieces was a rendition by four or five of the singers of the old-timey ballad “I’ll Fly Away”—sung with such touchingly sincere grace that I felt compelled to sing along. Here the subdued jubilance might have been a model for some of the overcooked talking parts of the play. The earnestness had such an authentic ring to it, such a humanity—as if the actors actually were feeling what they were singing without pumping it up to enhance their projection. There’s a young man in the ensemble (one of the carpenters) who played the banjo who was a particularly good singer. The cellist, Linda Bard, was the musical director. She did an extraordinary job

A love triangle with shifting angles between John/Eric/J (Sam Bell-Gurwitz); Pontius Pilate/FootSolider/P (Justin Phillips); and Mary 2 (Madeline Schulman) manifests in all the different productions of the passion play. By the end of Passion Play, the three actors had grown into their roles, and done so beautifully. In the final scene, after “P” returns to South Dakota after years of wandering from VA hospital to VA Hospital, the experience of rejection seems to sober both the character and the actor. His Vietnam War-induced madness blooms into a kind of seer’s glory. In the finale (brilliantly designed and choreographed), Phillips is rolled towards the front of the stage on a platform as he conjures the wind while the rest of the cast flows around him with clouds on sticks and other props, whistling like the wind. I even heard the expert effect of snatches of an instrumental version of the refrain, “Turn, turn to the wind and the rain,” from Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song.” Viola, “P”’s daughter (Juliet Roll), gyrates a large pole with a dove over her head—a most affecting touch.
The issue of the rabid anti-Jewishness of the passion plays was dealt with most successfully in a performance at Oberammergau. Hiding under the stage, the Village Idiot (Roll) prompts the Christus, who has forgotten his lines, and improvises, “And I am a Jew.” At the end of the Oberammergau production, the character Eric (Bell-Gurwitz), who was playing the Christus, sends her off on a train because she is not like the other Oberammergauans, and is presumably Jewish. I forget which song the ensemble was singing (perhaps there was none)—but that was another deeply moving scene—the two of them staring quietly for a long time at the future.

The play went on for three and a half hours, with two intermissions, and it was tough to sit through in all that barely mitigated heat and humidity (the company had brought in large portable air conditioners and fans—they moderated but did not massage away the discomfort). They are moving to air conditioned venues  for the next three performances--for tickets to their August 10 and 11 (The Gordon Chapel at the Old South Church) and August 12 (Oberon at the ART) performances, go to

All in all, a pretty amazing production, especially given the fact that this is such a young company (most of them 18-20). Director Fox and Music Director Bard are visionaries; it will be interesting to watch them as they further deepen their insight.

****Tom Daley serves on the faculty of the Online School of Poetry and leads writing workshops at the Boston Center for Adult Education and Lexington Community Education. He is the author of Every Broom and Bridget, a play about Emily Dickinson and her Irish servants, which he performs as a one-man show. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in a number of journals including Massachusetts Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Barrow Street, Prairie Schooner, Diagram, and Rhino. 

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Following Tommy: a novel Bob Hartley

Following Tommy
a novel
Bob Hartley
Cervena Bara Press
ISBN 978-0-9831041-8-6
2012   $17.00

“With a crooked scale and a brick stuffed in my pocket,
I weighed 135. still, I played the tough kid with my hair
slicked back and the cuffs of my razor-creased gray
baggies folded...”

In my thinking on dickens and what Dickens would be writing
today, this book by Bob Hartley, satisfies my on going quest
to visit the back streets, the needs, the resolutions from
self discovery, through persons met during needy times; how
a story may transform history into a personal telling:

“How come you care,” I said, forgetting for a second
who I was talking to, taking the chance of getting
smacked. He let out a little laugh, shook his head
and said that he had planned to do his last few months
sitting behind the wheel sucking on cigarettes and
listening to McGovern wisecrack, but then the thing
with Jerome happened and that messed up everything...

Throughout this novel the sentences connect without any glitches,
they run smoothly into each other, chapter after chapter, we
the reader are memorized by the writing as well as the story.
There are so many tucks and turns in the story that the
reader will be carried along without being able to stop
reading until they get to the end. This is a powerful first
novel by an accomplished writer:

“We drove back to the garage. Hippo was passed out
in the back seat, one arm over his eyes, the other at
his side, his head hanging over the end, his mouth
wide open, snoring. Tommy was banging away at
the mailbox with a hammer and chisel...”

Hopefully this novel will evolve into a movie. I'll be on
a front row seat eating popcorn with out any anticipation
of the end. This is a must read.

Irene Koronas
Ibettson Street Press

Monday, July 30, 2012

Captive Cities B.Z. Niditch

Captive Cities
B.Z. Niditch
Presa Press
2012 $8.00

“Neon passing hours
fallen out of sleep
in restless illusions
and you, Andy Warhol
waiting for the factory
to gate crash, to start rolling
the film in your cinematic
extras, even murderers
replete with manifestos
arrive on the scene
even now the Sixties
still has bitter nostalgia
when art deconstructed
in your time.”

Niditch pitches his poems into the past, bringing
the reader into the present place and time. Along
with his experiences, political and otherwise, he
relates and sculpts the poems with sensitivity.

“Off  Gloucester
with the wind sails
burning up the coast
that tomorrow's red sun
disappears at first light,
my brow beaten
into a Melville frenzy...”

Irene Koronas
Ibbetson Street Press