Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Drama Club: Reviews of Othello, Annapurna, and Fun Home

Posted By on Wed, May 16, 2018 at 4:45 PM

click to enlarge New Moon's Othello
  • New Moon's Othello
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness.—
Hamlet's speech to players. 

130 years before #metoo, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote, fairly succinctly, that “a woman cannot be herself in modern society.” Ibsen, an artist often regarded as a father of modernism, explained that, inside a male-manufactured reality, a woman’s identity is bent, in every case, by “laws made by men with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.” This same fragile male projection is at the jealousy-twisted heart of Othello, and 274 years before Ibsen modernized the theater with A Doll’s House, Emilia, a supporting character in Shakespeare’s Venetian tragedy, appeared before audiences for the first time with a similar message.
“I do think it is their husbands' faults if wives do fall,” Emilia says, describing a toxic combination of male promiscuity followed by peevish jealousies and physical abuse (a recipe repeated in Fun Home, which is currently on stage just around the block at Playhouse on the Square). “Let husbands know their wives have sense like them," Emilia continues, asserting her basic humanness and frailty. "They see, and smell, and have their palates both for sweet and sour, as husbands have… Else let them know, the ills we do, their ills instruct us so.”

Emilia’s ability to identify her circumstance is no inoculation against a tragic end. She's as infected and wrecked as the play’s title character by her husband Iago’s deceptions and Kell Christie’s clear articulation of Emilia’s wisdom and loss elevates New Moon Theatre Company's uneven production of Othello.

John Maness threatens a similarly notable Iago. The dependable foot-soldier-turned-villain's ever-shifting motivations brilliantly dissolve into projection and petty excuse-making in the shadow of naked misogyny and the unforced homoeroticism that hangs in the close, hypermasculine air of war and sport. Trouble is, neither Maness nor anybody else is given much action to suit to their words.

Willis Green follows his driven, King Lear-like turn as Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences, with a less assured take on Shakespeare’s great general — a man whose uncommon worth is notable in racist Venice and linked to achievements in the field. A soldier's work is never done and the play affords opportunities to create business illustrating our famously jealous warrior’s journey from national asset to wild, passion-driven liability. Given none to work, Willis does the only thing he can do. He talks. And he speaks. And he pronounces, violating several rules laid down in Hamlet's famous speech to the players.

click to enlarge 31337875_175258299861596_8212613653392785408_n.jpg

Like New Moon, Cloud9 is a little company with big ambition. And like Othello, Cloud9’s current production of Annapurna is a thoughtfully produced but plodding enterprise that needs focus, better pacing, and higher stakes. On the other hand, when it comes to pale middle-aged dude-bootie, this show delivers an abundance. And that's not nothing!

I kid, but hats off to actor Gordon Ginsberg for plunging butt-first into a role that would be difficult enough fully clothed. And for doing so without a whiff of self consciousness. Or anything else for that matter — don't let those skid-marks on the set fool you. 

Sharr White’s one-act drama introduces audiences to Ulysses and his ex-wife Emma (Susan Howe). He’s a former academic and recovering alcoholic living out his last, sick, lonely, mostly naked days, in a revolting, bug-infested trailer. She had a second husband and a life but never got over the first and has come to visit with news that the former couple's adult son wants to reunite the father he doesn’t remember.

click to enlarge 32215268_10216009389526486_6140716116927840256_n.jpg
Annapurna’s a character study — the kind of  faintly grotesque show you really only want to produce as a stunt because you’ve got a pair of daredevil actors who are prepared and able to crush the material like a couple of Kaiju stomping down Tokyo. Cloud9 has two very good actors doing brave but fuzzy work with little urgency, and a severe need to reach for higher peaks, and sink (or drive each other!) into deeper, sadder valleys.

Warts and all this Annapurna's still novel, if never quite as polished or compelling as the company's terrific production of Marjorie Prime.
click to enlarge werecbox_funhome.jpg
I've got to admit, my mind wandered all over the place while watching Playhouse on the Square’s perfectly fine production of Fun Home. First, I started thinking about the last show I saw at POTS, which was Neil Simon’s comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor because, like Fun Home, Laughter also employs a narrator to set tone and lead the audience through the story. Then I thought about how sad it was that every human being working as a director today wasn’t required, at some point, to take classes in narrative theater-making with retired University of Memphis professor Gloria Baxter. She never seemed to care for isolated, inactive narrators who simply stood up and said their piece or were pushed off to the side. Narrators could engage with the action, change it, and be changed by it. So she pushed students to identify a narrator’s point of view and express that his or her physical relationship with the story being told. Laughter and Fun Home are both cases where a less-than-imaginative use of pivotal narration has made otherwise finely acted shows less dynamic than they might be.

Fun Home isn’t a place where a fun family lives. It’s the family business — a diminutive version of the “Funeral Home” where Bruce, the show’s troubled father figure, sometimes works when he’s not teaching high school English or trying to have relationships with with underaged boys. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Tony-winning memory-musical takes place in a rarely (but sweetly) fun world where death’s always near, and love is something you sift for like an archaeologist working through the rubble of generations.

A strong and convincing ensemble cast sells a production where the stage pictures can want more life than the graphic fiction that inspired them — comic book images that should always be part of the Fun Home experience, somehow. Still, the cast gets to the heart of a show that actor Stephen Huff described as being about a, “fragmented self that's searching for some kind of wholeness.” Like Huff said, in an interview with The Flyer, "At the end of the show, you finally have all three of the Alisons together, singing in unison and harmony. It's this self-integration that's so gorgeous and fulfilling.”

There’s really nothing I can add to that. It’s everything.

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