Conscience

George Street Theatre, Conscience

On stage at George Street Playhouse is the world premiere of Tony award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro’s play Conscience—a timely examination of the political risks and imperative for elected leaders to stand up to a demagogic bully. The production, expertly directed by George Street’s artistic director David Saint, opened March 6 and runs through March 29.

DiPietro focuses his historical drama tightly on four people: Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith (played by Tony-winner Harriet Harris) and her aide William Lewis, Jr. (Mark Junek), on one side, and Senate Republican Joseph McCarthy (Lee Sellars) and his researcher—and later wife—Jean Kerr (Cathryn Wake), on the other.

As the drama begins, Smith—the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—is a political whirlwind. McCarthy, elected in 1946, clearly doesn’t take his Senatorial duties nearly as seriously as he does his flask. Their two aides effectively and efficiently stake out the opposing political positions. You dread the vicious confrontation to come, when she remarks on McCarthy’s two essential qualities: “the ability to hate and the skill to communicate it as virtue.”

McCarthy’s virulent anti-Communism crusade begins when, before a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, he waves a piece of paper that he claims contains the names of 205 Communists who work in the U.S. State Department. Fueled by alcohol and drunk on power, he rides high for the next few years, making wild accusations about Communists in government that stoke public fear.

By 1950, the appalled Smith is the only Senator brave enough to take him on. She believes her colleagues will support the Declaration of Conscience she delivers on the Senate floor. But only six senators sign on, and later disavow it. The declaration makes McCarthy her implacable enemy, and Smith and Lewis, a homosexual, become a target of his smear tactics.

The demagoguery, defamation, and mudslinging continue, until McCarthy takes on the U.S. Army, a quest that ends with the famous statement: “Have you lost all sense of decency?” It’s a comeuppance the audience savors after so much one-sided verbal violence.

Despite the unsettling resonance with the current political moment, DiPietro avoids cheap political shots, focusing instead on the intense interpersonal dynamics. Smith is a powerful, complex character—a woman with a sense of humor—in DiPietro and Harris’s hands, and Sellars’s McCarthy slowly unravels before your eyes. Junek movingly confesses his homosexuality, and Wake adds an effective touch of sanctimony to Ms Kerr/Mrs. McCarthy.

George Street Playhouse has great skill in bringing such focused biographical works to life, having previously excelled with DiPietro’s The Second Mrs. Wilson and Joanna Glass’s Trying (about aging US Attorney General Francis Biddle). Even though this important play is about politics and therefore, mostly about talking, David Saint’s lively direction never lets its momentum slow. It is mesmerizing.

Conscience is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Girl from the North Country

This Broadway production at the Belasco Theatre is a real treat for anyone at all a Bob Dylan fan. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, its slim but heartfelt story showcases more than 20 of Dylan’s songs, accompanying them with a small group of background musicians who let the words shine through. Though the eponymous tune is on the playlist, I somehow missed it, so here’s the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash version for your listening enjoyment.

The songs from the 60s and early 70s hold up well, rather evenly balanced with more recent work. This isn’t a “best of” concert, so there were some less familiar songs too. A few get a gospel treatment, which blurred the words for my ears (in the second row), and of course, it’s Dylan’s lyrics that are so powerful. He is a Nobel Prize-winner after all!

The story is set in Duluth, Minnesota, in winter 1934, “where the wind hits heavy on the border line.” There, the proprietor and residents of a down-at-heels boarding house, who seem to have been pulled straight from Dylan’s lyrics, face numerous and varied difficulties. Mostly poverty. The establishment is run by a hard-pressed Gene Laine (played by Jay O. Sanders). His wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) is in the early stages of dementia. While she may be a bit off and filter-free, she sees what’s going on better than almost anyone, and Winningham plays her beautifully. Their son Nick (Colton Ryan) is frittering away his youth and, when his girlfriend leaves him, his rendition of “I Want You” with his shyly pleading smile, is a heart-breaker.

Their unmarried daughter Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), an African American foundling the Laines raised, is pregnant, and wrongly accused prison escapee and former boxer Joe Scott (Austin Scott) wants to marry her. This plotline provides the perfect opportunity to sing a bit of “Hurricane.” (You may have seen Scott as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton on Broadway.)

There are more guests with heavy burdens, and ending with “Forever Young” provides an ironically upbeat note. All the acting is strong from the 13-member cast. The music is woven into the fabric of their daily lives, and I liked the simple set with photographic backdrops, especially a bleak Lake Superior in winter.

Photo: Pixabay

Midwives

Photo: © T Charles Erickson

George Street Playhouse’s world-premiere stage adaptation of Midwives, directed by the theater’s Artistic Director, David Saint, opened January 24 and runs through February 16. Chris Bohjalian’s 1997 suspense novel has sold more than two million copies, and at least two previous attempts have been made to take it from page to stage. For George Street’s version, Bohjalian himself takes on the writing task. That he’s more a novelist than a playwright may account for some of my difficulties with this production.

Sibyl Danforth (played by Ellen McLaughlin), a well-respected Vermont midwife, is attending the labor of Charlotte Bedford (Monique Robinson). On hand are Charlotte’s husband Asa (Ryan George) and Sibyl’s new assistant, Anne Austin (Grace Experience). It’s the middle of the night and an ice storm rages outside and the labor is not going well. Finally, the situation deteriorates to the point that she agrees Charlotte should go to the hospital.

Unfortunately, the storm has knocked out the phone lines and the roads around the Bedfords’ remote farmhouse are impassable. When Charlotte falls unconscious, Sibyl believes she’s had a stroke. She cannot detect blood pressure or pulse. CPR proves fruitless. Faced with a dead mother, Sibyl’s attention turns to saving the infant, using a kitchen knife to cut Charlotte open.

In Act Two, Sibyl is on trial for manslaughter. Anne maintains Charlotte was alive when Sibyl made the incision, and the state’s attorney (Armand Schultz) argues that Sibyl’s intervention killed her. Sibyl’s lawyer (Lee Sellars) says, on the contrary, she saved a life.

Throughout, you have the perspective of Sybil’s daughter, 14-year-old Connie (Molly Carden). The events around Charlotte’s death and her mother’s trial are vivid in Connie’s mind almost a decade later, when she is a budding OB-GYN. While skipping around in time is rather easily handled in a novel, in a play it makes for some awkward scenelets. Especially puzzling were interactions between medical student Connie and Anne.

In ancient times, a sibyl was considered a witch, and, regrettably, the pursuit of Sibyl Danforth becomes a witch-hunt, which oversimplifies many issues. The play would have had a much-needed infusion of drama had it retained the novel’s final surprise as a surprise.

Bohjalian made another important departure from the book when he made Charlotte and Asa Bedford African American. A black preacher and his wife newly arrived in northern Vermont to serve a congregation of Q-tips (Charlotte’s description) shifts the social dynamic and raises unnecessary (and unanswered) questions.

The actors do a good job with the somewhat limited emotional range provided by the script. McLaughlin is stoic, Experience is a master of “I told you so,” and George is the most sympathetic when he declares he doesn’t want Sibyl punished. This is a story that should have been dripping with drama; I don’t understand why it wasn’t.

Midwives is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Goodnight Nobody

McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J., presents a stunning new play by Rachel Bonds, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, that opened January 18 and runs through February 9. The play’s five characters have fifteen relationships among them, relationships with the power to sneak up on you and knock you out of your seat.

The play takes place in a “lovingly restored” upstate New York farmhouse, surrounded by trees—a nice metaphor for the quest for comfort in a wilderness of emotion. Its first scene reveals the inauspicious love affair between a young painter, Nan (Saamer Usmani), and a successful older sculptor, Mara (Dana Delany) who owns the farmhouse. He’s made her breakfast, and the scent of bacon wafts over the audience.

You don’t know whether this secret relationship will or can survive, when the second scene begins at some later point. Mara’s son Reggie (Nate Miller) has brought his two closest friends to the farmhouse for a getaway weekend. They are K (Ariel Woodiwiss) and, again, Nan. Nan is having some artistic success; Reggie is a comedian just coming off of a brutal national tour; and K needs a break from the demands of her infant son and recently widowed mother. They have a pretty good time of it. Nan is a fantastic cook, there’s plenty of booze and beer and a freezing lake to swim in, though Nan is the only one to take the plunge (a recurring tendency).

Unexpectedly, Mara appears with the current man in her life, the age-appropriate Bo (Ken Marks). Everyone—Mara and Nan, especially—puts on a game face, but the undercurrents the newcomers set in motion are practically visible. When the group decamps outdoors to enjoy an evening bonfire, several relationships go up in smoke. To enable this scene, Kimie Nishikawa has created a spectacular set that opens like a birthday present.

Bonds writes realistic, witty, endearing dialog. The laughs—and there are plenty of them—are a pleasing surface, though pain and disappointment gradually float into view. Though you may feel you know these characters well, Bonds has the power to surprise you.

The combination of Bonds’s writing, Rafaeli’s inspired direction, and the excellent performances of the entire company make this multi-layered, complex drama a compelling experience. Its title comes from the children’s classic, Goodnight Moon, and as K riffs on the story’s tedium, wonders aloud about its sorrowful line, “Goodnight nobody,” the line that transports a simple story from the realm of the predictable into the unknown.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s arts district, as well as two innovative restaurants in the buildings of the old train station. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Romeo and Juliet: On Stage

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

“For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opened its production of this classic tragedy, directed by Ian Belknap, runs through November 17.

You know the story. An implacable hatred has arisen between two Verona families: the Capulets and the Montagues. Prince Escalus (played by Jason C. Brown), fed up with the constant street-fighting of the two households, vows to have any future combatants executed. Romeo (Keshav Moodliar) attends a banquet hosted by the rival Capulets in disguise. He sees their daughter Juliet (Miranda Rizzolo), the two instantly fall in love, and Friar Lawrence (Matt Sullivan) secretly marries them. Meanwhile, Juliet’s father (Mark Elliot Wilson) intends her to marry wealthy Count Paris (Ryan Woods).

Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Joshua David Robinson) is slain by a goading Tybalt of the house of Capulet (Torsten Johnson), and Romeo slays him in revenge. Instead of executing Romeo, Prince Escalus banishes him. Though the sentence is merciful, Romeo regards it as a heart-breaking separation from Juliet. From there, everything goes downhill.

Over the years, seeing this play and reading David Hewson’s admirable Juliet and Romeo, I’ve come to recognize that, although Romeo is an effective swordsman, with at least two notches on his scabbard, he’s something of a weakling. He’s dreamy, falls in love too easily, and even his father laments his lack of focus. Yet he needs to be a credible lover, a person who would inspire passion and passionate acts. The weakness of this production is the lack of chemistry and connection between its two eponymous characters.

Perhaps in trying to make the play approachable for new generations, Belknap encouraged the actors to hurry along and avoid becoming ensnared by the rhythms of Shakespeare’s prose. If so, it didn’t work for me. At times, the main characters spoke so quickly I couldn’t follow (from the front row). Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful play. I want my full measure of enjoyment out of it.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

McCarter Theatre in Princeton imported the exciting new play, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. It opened October 19 and runs through the Halloween season until November 3. Written and directed by David Catlin, the play contextualizes the familiar story of Victor Frankenstein and his ill-fated creature by grounding it in the strange and tragic life of the story’s author, Mary Shelley. More than a tale of horror, it’s a tale of deep woe.

The five characters are Mary Shelley herself (played by Cordelia Dewdney), her half-sister, Claire Claremont (Amanda Raquel Martinez), her lover and, later, husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Walter Briggs), and the couple’s friends, Dr. John Polidori (Debo Balogun) and Lord Byron (Keith D. Gallagher).

During a sojourn on Lake Geneva, the ominously stormy skies fire the characters’ imaginations. Byron suggests they each pen a ghost story to see which is scariest. Only 18 when she begins writing Frankenstein, Mary’s life is already marked by terrible events, including the deaths of her mother from childbed fever and her own first baby. Mary’s real-life sorrows help shape her narrative and, as the five characters enact her gothic fantasy, reality breaks through at poignant moments.

Mary’s tale demonstrates the folly of trying to play god. Victor Frankenstein wants to be “the Modern Prometheus,” to bring the spark of life to the creature he’s assembled. Much tragedy occurs before he recognizes he hasn’t grappled with the possible unintended, bad consequences. (Is this a cautionary tale for today, with respect to artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation?)

Nor does Victor (nicely ironic choice of name) take responsibility for the monster. He viciously rejects him, yet the monster’s relentless pursuit of his creator contains an element of devotion. “I would have loved to be your son,” he laments. Thus, we are confronted with a truth Mary expresses: “Within every man there is a monster; within every monster, a man.”

The play’s emotional experience is intensified by the reconfigured theater space. McCarter undertook the massive task of removing several rows of seats and moving the stage forward, to create an “in-the round” effect. (Watch this amazing transformation here.)

Most of the company comes direct from the Lookingglass production. All strong players, they manage the dramatic aerial features and give the characters richness and three-dimensionality. Though all are excellent, Gallagher delivers an unforgettable portrayal of the monster.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Watch for These Films!

Unlike the two excellent first-run movies reviewed last week, showing widely now, it may take a little effort to seek these three out. Well worth it, in each case. To help, the hotlinks for two of them include a “where showing” button.

The Lehman Brothers Trilogy

A National Theatre Live broadcast of a London play about a family “that changed the world,” written by Stefano Massini and directed by Sam Mendes, may come to a theater near you. It’s coming to Broadway too, not sure when. Though I wasn’t sure I’d like it, with only three actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles—playing every part, it’s a stunner (trailer). And staged so cleverly. It follows the original three brothers through their earliest days as immigrants in Birmingham, Alabama, through the establishment of a foothold in New York and their dizzying success there, to the company’s inglorious end. Find a showing here.

Van Gogh & Japan

A documentary by David Bickerstaff explores how, now almost 140 years ago, Vincent Van Gogh incorporated in his art themes and ideas from Japanese art (trailer). He learned about it by studying woodblock prints available at the time. His interest took place in a France whose artists were captivated by Japonisme. Excellent commentary. The film’s a beauty, if, at 85 minutes, a bit longer than necessary. Find a showing here.

Shadow

Van Gogh had his Japonisme, I have my love of ancient-China action movies! Zhang Yimou’s 2018 film, is all in “shadowy” yet rich tones of black, gray, and white, heavy rain and fog throughout (trailer). The only color is from candle flames and people’s skin. And, when it comes, the shocking red of blood. A rival clan has occupied the hero’s city. The hero (Deng Chao), stripped of his rank, approaches the rival leader to carry out a pledge for single combat—which he has scant hope of winning. But if he does win, his clan gets its city back. And he has a ragtag army to take on the leader’s well-trained forces using an innovative weapon—umbrellas. Not like yours. Yin-Yang symbolism, excellent score, and romance (Sun Li), too. If you enjoyed Zhang’s previous movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers, you’ll love this one!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences 82% (Americans don’t like subtitles).

Topdog/Underdog

The final production of the 2019 season at Princeton Summer Theater is Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning Top Dog/Underdog, directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet. The show premiered August 8 and runs through August 18 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater.

Sibling rivalry that boils over into violence is as old as Cain and Abel, with the line between love and hate ever-shifting. African American brothers Booth (Travis Raeburn) and Lincoln (Nathaniel J. Ryan), five years older, have an uneasy relationship made more acute by their dwindling life prospects. Despite Booth’s determination to change his name to Three-Card, the brothers seem constrained by the names their father chose for them as a cruel joke.

Booth has a one-room apartment and a girlfriend whom we never see (and who may be apocryphal); Lincoln has come to live with him after his wife threw him out, and Booth would like to get rid of him too, but Lincoln has a job and income, even if paltry. In a tangle of symbolism, he works in a carnival, in whiteface and dressed up as Abraham Lincoln. People pay to come into his booth and shoot him with a gun filled with blanks. They carnival hired him because they can pay him less, but even that meager income is threatened, because management plans to replace him with a wax dummy.

In the old days, Lincoln made a good living fleecing tourists with the Three-card Monte con, but initially refuses to take up the cards again. Booth would like to develop a Three-card Monte racket of his own. In the opening scene, he’s practicing his card-handling skills and patter at the front of the stage, when his brother enters, in full Lincoln regalia. Startled by Lincoln’s entrance, Booth pulls his gun, then lies about what he was doing. Playing solitaire, he says.

Throughout the course of the play, much comes out about the brothers’ reaction to being abandoned by their parents when they were 16 and 11 and their uneasy relationship in the ensuing twenty years or so. Which of them is the top dog and which the underdog shifts back and forth many times.

Raeburn gives an energetic performance as Booth, ever the kid brother, teasing and bouncing to keep Lincoln’s attention. Much of the comedy in the production comes from his portrayal. Ryan starts out as the ghostly Lincoln, morose and beaten down not just by his bizarre job but the even more awful prospect that he may lose it. He resists Booth’s importuning to go back to his Three-card Monte days, and finally, alone in the apartment, really comes to life when he takes up the cards again.

Rakesh Potluri produced the set (the vividly floral wallcoverings were inspired by the work of artist Kehinde Wiley, who created the portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery). Music from the hip-hop duo Outkast’s 1998 album Aquemini, which like the play is thematically influenced by differences between the two principals.

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

The Rainmaker

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s new production of the N. Richard Nash hit The Rainmaker is an apt thematic fit for a summer this hot, where land and spirits are parched. STNJ’s artistic director Bonnie J. Monte directs the show, preserving all its comedy and charm, which opened August 3 and runs through August 18.

In the early 1950s, somewhere Out West, the Curry family ranch is in trouble. A severe drought imperils the cattle herd, and tempers are frayed. Father H.C. Curry (Mark Elliot Wilson), older son Noah (Benjamin Eakeley), and younger son Jim (Isaac Hickox-Young) are preoccupied not only with the lack of rain but with their clumsy attempts to interest someone—anyone?—in marrying their sister Lizzie (Monette Magrath). A visit to the office of Sheriff Thomas (Nick Plakias) to inveigle his deputy, File (Corey Sorenson), to come to dinner—a fix-up ploy File sees through immediately—fails miserably. Noah counsels Lizzie to act more like the mincing, flattering kind of woman who, though vapid and undignified in Lizzie’s view, gets her man nonetheless. His and her imitation of how she should behave provides a number of hearty audience laughs.

Just when the family’s situation seems bleakest, with their prospects as empty as the sky is empty of clouds, flamboyant Billy Starbuck (Anthony Marble) appears at their door, claiming to be a rainmaker. All he needs is $100. As ranch manager, Noah wants to run him off the property; Lizzie calls him a con man and a liar. Only Jim, naïve enough to see the world through the lens of hope and H.C., desperate enough to try anything and astute enough to see something in Starbuck that might broaden Lizzie’s horizons, want him to stay. What can be the outcome of such a reckless and costly venture?

All the Currys are well portrayed, with Magrath especially poignant and frustrated as Lizzie, facing what Noah claims is certain spinsterhood. Hickox-Young is delightful as the credulous, mercurial Jim, quick to take offense and as quick to forgive. Eakeley plays the over-practical Noah with a hard edge, while secretly yearning for relief from the burdens of the ranch and the family. And Wilson as H.C. manages to be simultaneously indulgent and strong.

In a sense it is Marble’s show when he is on stage, because his showman character is so unpredictably over-the-top, yet the actor conveys heart-warming tenderness when dealing with Lizzie, and Magrath is equally engaging in their scenes together.

The script holds up some 65 years after being written and retains its comedic as well as romantic luster. It’s easy to see why this strong and moving story has been revived on stage, made into a movie, and repackaged as a musical (110 in the Shade).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If ever a play lent itself to creative interpretation, Shakespeare’s lighthearted classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is that play. The Princeton Summer Theater production, which opened July 25 and plays Thursday to Sunday through August 4, takes full advantage of that opportunity to innovate.

The plot of confused lovers, a night in the forest, and mischievous fairies is so familiar director Maeli Goren safely pared it down to run in 75 minutes without intermission. She’s added seats to the sides and rear of the stage so that every member of the 200-person audience feels they have ringside seats. This compresses the time and space available to the cast and magnifies the production’s intensity. You aren’t watching the performance; you are in it.

Most of the action takes place within the skeleton of what might be a greenhouse. I especially liked Oberon and Titania’s crowns made of twigs, the feather capelets, and a jacket made of hundreds of translucent white vinyl gloves that mimicked feathers. Small lanterns filled with, naturally, fairy lights looked like they held captured fireflies. There’s a little cast-created music, a bit of singing—and this may be a theatrical first—Puck occasionally plays an accordion. There are even puppets, which refract the shifting relationships among the lovers in new ways. In other words, there is no shortage of things to watch and delight in.

The cast comprises current Princeton students and recent graduates, and their lack of experience with Shakespeare and his rhythms is apparent, with the result that some of the speeches are hard to follow. But every actor enters the fray with enthusiasm, and the familiarity of the story backstops them. Standouts in the eight-member cast include Michael Rosas as Theseus and Oberon, Maeve Brady as Hyppolyta and Titania, Justin Ramos as Lysander, and Allison Spann as Puck. Rosas is notable for his range of gestures and Brady for her ability to convey a sense of wonder. Ramos and Spann display remarkably entertaining athleticism.

It’s a tribute to the dedication of the participants that so much effort and attention to detail goes into a show that will run for so few performances. Though “The course of true love never did run smooth,” this production gets great joy out of the lovers’ journey!

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.