Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Evening in Prospect Heights: Xoregos Performing Company presents "Antigone" at Mount Prospect Park

This evening we had the pleasure of seeing the excellent Xoregos Performing Company's production of our favorite Greek tragedy, Antigone, in a wonderful outdoor setting, the heights of Mount Prospect Park, nestled off Eastern Parkway between the Central Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza and the Botanic Gardens and Brooklyn Museum. It's the second highest point in Brooklyn.

Director and choreographer Sheila Xoregos and her talented cast, some of whom we'd seen last year in this company's wonderful version of Medea in Tompkins Square Park, presented the last play in Sophocles' Theban trilogy with sophistication, economy and grace.

This 65-minute production featured standout performances by the versatile Amanda Elizabeth Sawyer in the title role

(she was a very different eponymous heroine in last year's Medea and David Allen Green as Creon, the king she opposes who brings disaster upon himself and his family

(he was excellent in last year's Medea in dual roles, including a very different king named Creon), as well as seven other actors, five of whom, along with Sawyer and Green, doubled as members of the chorus.

Sheila Xoregos did an amazing job in whipping up this version of Antigone; it's both dignified and exciting; thoughtful and passionate; and austere while capacious in its scope. It was easy to tune out the occasionally noisy softball game in the field behind them (there were rhubarbs over various plays not of the Greek tragedy variety) or the few passing joggers or scooter kids.

We've taught Antigone for the past five years in a dozen of our Literature and Writing classes at the wonderful School of Visual Arts, so we adore the various translations and adaptations of the text. The choral odes here are especially fine, as Sophocles uses gorgeous language to explore real dilemmas of the role of the ruler, the duties of citizen, the loyalty of a family member, and of law and justice, as well as meditations on transience and love.

We also taught Antigone in our undergraduate legal studies classes when we were a visiting professor at Fort Lauderdale's Nova Southeastern University in 2000-01, and a few years later, when we were director of the academic resource program and associate director of student services at NSU's Shepard Broad Law Center, Antigone was the subject of our first law and humanities symposium to honor our dear late colleague, Professor and Associate Dean Paul R. Joseph.

Antigone raises issues that are out of our daily newsfeeds. We often teach Sophocles' play along with that seminal documentary in American history, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which the civil rights leader explains why, for the first time, he disobeyed the law and explores the distinction between just and unjust laws, natural and unnatural laws -- all themes of Antigone.

Usually when we teach Antigone, we show scenes from the two VHS tapes we've managed to find at the SVA media center and the Brooklyn Public Library, the subtitled epic 1961 Greek film with Irene Papas (which breaks the conventions of Greek staged drama and has action sequences, with the real Greek army playing soldiers) and the very British stylized TV version from 1984, with Juliet Stevenson, Sir John Gielgud as Tiresias, and John Shrapnel as a Nixonian Creon. The Xoregos Performaing Company version would be an even better adjunct to reading the play.

The costumes, designed by Regina Cate, were all subtle variations on the same theme, blending earth tones with the royal purple, as the seven cast members seamlessly, with appropriate facial gestures and subtle body language moved from the major characters to members of the choral group. Especially effective was the way the chorus spoke as individuals and pairs, with all joining at various important points. Some verses were sung or half-sung, and that worked, as did Sheila Xoregos' vibrant choreography in the ode on the hazards of love.

Both Amanda Elizabeth Sawyer's Antigone and David Allen Green's Creon are proud and loyal, but her frustrations with her role as a woman and her fierce devotion to her late brother, despite his treachery against the city-state, and to the gods inform her every decision. Antigone's fatalism, presented in Sawyer's sometimes unyielding line readings, makes her seem a little in love with death. Her sovereign and uncle/great-uncle/fiance's father Creon, on the other hand, seems equally more unyielding, and Green shows him sure in his knowledge that the law is on his side as a tyrant (not necessarily a bad connotation in ancient Greece) -- but this Creon is extraordinarily vulnerable, and he's less steadfast and stubborn than in some productions. His adamant behavior comes less out of arrogance than a desire not to appear weak to a people hungry for strong leadership.

As Ismene, Amy Bohaker is in some sense more aware of the sufferings of their family than her strong-headed sister; she sees they've already endured so much and wonders even if Antigone's burial of their brother against the king's decree is worth the tragedies she correctly predicts it will engender. It's not entirely fear and lack of courage that motivate her, although she too knows that the laws of the gods trump those of man.

Michael Lawrence Eisenstein did an excellent job as Haemon, Creon's son and Antigone's fiance, as he sensibly tries to sort out the conflicting values and passions with a fierce but underplayed urgency. His speech telling his father to be like the trees that bend with the wind rather than the rigid ones that break, was delivered beautifully. (We liked Eisenstein last year as a feckless Jason in Medea, too.)

To the role of Eurydice, the queen whose devotion to her husband Creon and son Haemon is unquestionable, Katherine Mylenki brings a steely regal demeanor with the look of a woman who's already seen too many horrible scenes and cannot endure the one last blow. She appears only near the end of the day, but her suicide -- like those of Antigone and Haemon, played offstage as the conventions of Greek drama demanded -- is made even sadder by the actor's creating a believable human character existing apart from her formal role in the state. Bong Dizon, perhaps the sparkplug of the chorus, meticulously narrates the details of the violent central scene of the tragedy as the Theban trilogy and the doomed house of Oedipus reaches its conclusion.

If there's any comic relief in this headlong, onrushing drama, it's Reagan Porter's quirky Sentry, whose digressions and hesitations in delivering bad news to the king are a product of the kindest person in the play, the one in the lowest position in society and aware not just of the tenuousness of his own life but of his own shortcomings and those even of a king. Like the others, he also blended in with the chorus for most of the play. The actors were never "offstage."

All that is, except one speaking role. Apart from the actors/characters who make up the chorus, the blind prophet Tiresias (and his boy guide, played with quiet dignity by a very young Brennan-Pierson Wang) comes on late in the action, but the stentorian and sonorous Andrew R. Cooksey absolutely dominates the action. His dynamic voice and physical presence were so ominous and magnetic that he seemed to hypnotize a couple of little boys in the audience, who in one of those moments that make street theater so magical, stood fixed close to Cooksey as Tiresias issued his prophecy and responded to the king's insults.

There were cries of "Bravo!" and "Brava!" as the cast members did their curtain call -- something we don't recall hearing in any other play we've seen in the parks. It was well-deserved. We're grateful to the Xoregos Performing Company for bringing Antigone to Brooklyn for one night. If you can catch it at one of the Manhattan or Queens libraries or parks in its remaining performances (until August 13), you'll be doing yourself a favor.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday Evening in Brooklyn Bridge Park: Theater 2020 / Visions for a New Millennium presents "Romeo and Juliet" at Pier 1's Granite Prospect

This evening we had the joy of seeing the fantastic inaugural production of Theater 2020: Visions for a New Millennium, an innovative, swiftly-paced performance of Romeo and Juliet, from the steps of the Granite Prospect of Brooklyn Bridge Park's Pier 1, with the tragic love story set amid Hindu-Muslim conflict, with New York Harbor, the skyline of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty serving as backdrop.

It was a memorable show with first-rate acting and wonderful use of puppetry, a thrilling debut for the Brooklyn Heights professional theater company and its producing artistic directors, the married team of Judith Jarosz (choreographer here) and David Fuller (director/fight director for this production).

We've seen a lot of free outdoor productions of Romeo and Juliet in the past couple of years: the EBE Ensemble in Prospect Park; the Curious Frog Theatre Company, also in Prospect Park; Hudson Warehouse in Riverside Park; and Smith Street Stage in Carroll Park -- all of which we enjoyed immensely. But the Theater 2020 had its own special magic.

The disadvantage for us was that we were a little tired from rushing from the Carroll Gardens Brave New World Repertory show for our second dose of Shakespeare in one day, and we were more than a little hot from our long walk after taking the F and A trains.

As Judith Jarosz said at the beginning, it might have been better to begin a little later than 6 p.m. on such a hot day. We and other members of the audience held our program or hands over our eyes because of the glare of the sun, and you can see the result in our pathetic photos.

But we wouldn't have traded the experience for anything. Hey, if we weren't so cheap, we could have seen one of the previous eight performances in the air-conditioned English Gothic splendor of Saint Charles Borromeo here in the Heights on Sidney Place. But we would have missed this spectacular backdrop, the view from Brooklyn Heights that one writer called "the most gorgeous cliche in America."

The use of the four puppets was absolutely brilliant. They added an extra appeal to the many kids in attendance but also added to the mysteriously otherworldly feel of what seemed a production ripped from reality's headlines (at home, we saw the front page story in the Sunday New York Times: "Afghans Rage at Young Lovers; A Father Says Kill them Both," about a haram love between a Hazara girl and a Tajik boy).

In this production, there were extraordinary performances by Poonam Basu as a Muslim Juliet and Vanditt Bhatt as Romeo, a Hindu. The chemistry between them seemed palpable from the moment they lay eyes on each other where Romeo and his companions put on keffiyehs to go to Lady Capulet's ball in disguise.

The couple also managed to seem like teenagers, and there were especially nice line readings in the balcony scene, played so that most of us on the lower steps had to look up (and momentarily avoid the sun's glare -- of course, it was Shakespeare who said "Fear no more the heat o' the sun").

The other actors also did superb jobs in establishing their distinct characters. By eliminating the Montagues and Lord Capulet (except as puppets), Brandie Moore as Lady Capulet had to shoulder a good deal on her own. She actually was the most sympathetic Lady Capulet we've ever seen, more caring and devout than either chilly, haughty or distracted; it was a really nuanced interpretation of the role.

The Nurse is a great role, and Lynn Marie Macy resisted the temptation we've seen to ham it up; she was wonderfully quirky and loving and self-involved, but she also had a no-nonsense side that felt refreshing. We also give her props as costume coordinator, as the clothes made a big impact.

Nicholas Pollifrone made a hyperkinetic skinny bundle of energy as Mercutio. His Queen Mab speech, a highlight of the text's poetry for us, was delivered beautifully and so energetically that we thought he could propel himself from the steps into the air with the occasional helicopter above us. A good soul, he seemed either to be slightly stoned or fidgety with ADHD in his dynamic performance.

Perhaps it's our own quirky reading of the text, but we've always liked productions where the actor playing Benvolio seems like the only sensible person in Verona. (Sometimes it's the Prince, but here the Prince was a scary-looking beetled-browed, oversized puppet, an apt ruler for a city constantly on the verge of hysteria.) Marc Andrew Hem Lee didn't disappoint us in his interpretation of Benvolio; we especially caught what seemed to be his thoughts as he reacted to other characters' dialogue as he stood a little bit apart, on the periphery. (Speaking of the periphery, check out the real-life bridal couple passing by on the left in this pic. Sometimes street theater has these wonderful moments of serendipity.)

Like Lynn Marie Macy, Nicholas Pollifrone and Marc Andrew Hem Lee, Justin Bennett, who played Laurence, also worked as a puppeter. And we know that must have been much harder than the seeming effortlessness we saw. Laurence here wears a white Nehru jacket (if we're bribed, we'll show you the photo of an 18-year-old boy wearing one in 1969) with a peace symbol (ditto) as well as a cross. Justin Bennett's performance was quite interesting; to us, he came off with a touch of M*A*S*H's Father Mulcahy and a bit of cluelessness, as if it takes him a few seconds too long to figure out what's going on while he needs to take a few seconds more to think before he starts giving his advice.

Kareem M. Lucas brings muscle to the dual roles of Tybalt and Paris; with the high testosterone level of his performances, it seems like dumb beginner's luck that Romeo manages to kill both characters. As Tybalt, he looks so fierce that you think he could eat Mercutio for breakfast (if he could catch him). His Paris is subtler, but no less ruthless in his interpretation, and having the same actor play both roles (sometimes we've seen actors play both Paris and the Prince) made us think about the connections between the characters of Tybalt and Paris, both of whom are upholding the maladroit current state of affairs in Verona and relations between Hindus and Muslims.

The fight scenes, by the way, are well-staged by the production's director, David Fuller (the choreography, also seamless, was done by Judith Jarosz and Poonam Basu [Juliet]). We also liked the way Hindi and Arabic words were tossed into the dialogue naturally: "salaam alaikum," "inshallah," "karma," "pandit."

This Romeo and Juliet was an auspicious debut for Theater 2020 and its vision (we have difficulty resisting the easy and apt pun). Both Judith Jarosz and David Fuller have a great deal of experience in different aspects of theater production; both were leaders of Theater Ten Ten, the longest consecutively operating Equity theater company off-Broadway.

We're grateful we got to see this terrific show for free at Brooklyn Bridge Park this evening.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Evening and Saturday Afternoon in Windsor Terrace: Brave New World Repertory's "The Merry Wives of WIndsor (Terrace)" at Our Lady's Field

We took the G train to Windsor Terrace early Friday evening to see the always-excellent Brave New World Repertory's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (Terrace), brilliantly transporting Shakespeare's only comedy set in England to a very funny contemporary sitcom version of Brooklyn.

Unfortunately, a violent thunderstorm and downpour near the end of Act III halted the performance -- even Borough President Marty Markowitz in the audience couldn't control the weather -- so we returned in the heat of Saturday afternoon for the satisfying and wacky conclusion to this sharp production directed by John Morgan.

That we so enjoyed this production is a tribute to Brave New World Repertory, because it's definitely not one of our Shakespeare favorites. Reportedly written in just two weeks at the behest of Queen Elizabeth, who couldn't get enough of the Falstaff of Henry IV, it's got a dashed-off, kitchen-sink text that at least for us made it deadly on the page.

Onstage, however, a clever staging and a talented cast can pull off laughs if they do it right. Although there was more poetry in one scene in the Brave New World staged reading of As You Like It we saw at Prospect Park last summer than there is in the entire script of Merry Wives (literally: it's the Shakespeare play with the highest prose-to-poetry ratio), this ensemble plays it like the sitcom it was meant to be (and it's a spinoff of a sitcom, really, The Jeffersons rather than All in the Family).

Actually, this production is part The Real Housewives of Brooklyn and part the 50s sitcom of The Honeymooners, Sgt. Bilko or I Love Lucy, with the plots and subplots involving someone on the make trying to pull off a deceptive scheme, various counterplots of revenge and disguise, with the hapless antihero -- here, the track-suited, chain-wearing goombah Sir John Falstaff (Stuart Zagnit, with gusto to spare, matching his huge spare tire) -- getting his comeuppance through a series of comic humiliations just one beat ahead of making you pity him. Zagnit makes Falstaff lovable because under his bluster, he seems vulnerable, maybe even wounded in his take-charge buffoonishness.

The whole cast did a yeoman job, and it was nice to see again some of the actors from last year's As You Like It. As the two housewives who enact their revenge on this clown, Claire Beckman as Mrs. Ford (with her needlessly jealous hubby -- Kevin Hogan, whose own schemed are disarmingly dense and charming) and Christine Siracusa as Mrs. Page, are entertaining -- say, like Snooki will be in twenty years.

This play has an enormous cast of characters -- Shakespeare felt that one comic foreigner wasn't enough, apparently, so he has both a French doctor

and a Welsh priest (although Michael Kirby and Peter Zazzali play them with insouciance more as the stock vaudeville German and Irishman) -- and by the last part of the play, which we saw Saturday, an audience member's temptation is to stop trying so hard to follow everybody.

The Brooklyn accents and types on display here -- the toss-the-ball-around civil servants, the dim rich kid (Matthew Luceno, who made us laugh),

the pompous judge (William Brenner, so good in dual roles in As You Like It),

the girl everyone (and we mean almost everyone) seems to want (Catherine Mancuso makes Anne Page endearingly obnoxious), the well-meaning lowlifes and lots of others: well, when you mix everything in a blender, sometimes you get a delicious smoothie,

especially when the cast used the space of Our Lady's Field so efficiently that the movements were -- except for the thunderstorm, of course -- fairly seamless. It ain't subtle -- there's more shtick than you can shake a stickball bat with -- but it's all in service to the convoluted story rather than show-offy.

Caroline Ryburn is particularly good as a high-energy, ditzy Mistress Quickly, and the whole farcical melange worked for us in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Terrace).

Harold Bloom said that this comedy was the only play of Shakespeare's that the Bard himself seemed to hold in contempt. We think Will would have liked this production, and we're grateful to the Brave New World Repertory Theater and the Holy Name Parish (Father Jim Cunningham) for bringing it to the community.