Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My original review of Sarah Ruhl's "In the Other Room," in reading at the Wilma Theatre

Just so no one makes any mistakes about this, the Wilma held a staged reading of Sarah Ruhl's new play In the Other Room during the first week of January, 2009. Berkeley Rep had commissioned Ruhl to write a play about the history of the vibrator.

The Broad Street Review ran my article about the reading, then took it down in response to complaints from the Wilma. The controversy led first to the Wilma Papers, and later to my article The Case for Cantankerous Critics.

Over two dozen Broad Street Review readers commented upon the first article. Scroll down, as their responses are here.

For the record, I was the first person to comment critically upon Ruhl's new play. And despite the controvery, and a young woman who threatened me with (admittedly, laughable) violence, that's what has always mattered to me.

Here's what I had to say:

Quick question to the Philadelphia theatre community: How does a staged reading at the Wilma offers a better night of theatre than most of the full productions I’ve seen this season?

Like reading a play at home without the intermediacy of a production, a staged reading can’t destroy my direct sense of a play by interfering with what my imagination can too often do better. (Though stage manager Patreshettarlini Adams did use the one prop to a delicious effect, and when you get to the full title of the play, you’ll know the prop.) As for the actors working under Blanka Zizka’s direction, the almost all-equity cast impressed, and personally, I would rather see Julianna Zinkel or Sarah Sanford give a staged reading than watch most other Philadelphia actresses perform.

But Sarah Ruhl’s recently penned script In the Next Room (or, The Vibrator Play), is, of course, what made the entire evening. Berkeley Repertory—where the play will receive its world premiere next month—commissioned Ruhl to write a play about the history of the vibrator, a device first used for medical purposes to release up “pent-up emotions in the womb” by inducing “paroxysms” (orgasms) in hysterical women. Taking advantage of the new age of electricity, scientists in the 1880’s invented this new marvel—as Wilma literary manager Walter Bilderback so eloquently put it—“because the doctors and nurses hands and fingers kept getting tired.”

In Ruhl’s play, the inventor is the appropriately named Dr. Givings (Ross Manson), who assisted by a former midwife (Mary McCool as Annie), operates a clinic in a prosperous spa town outside of New York. He’s visited by patients like Sabrina Daldry (Sanford), whose husband (Ben Lloyd) has brought her in to cure her “women’s problems.” Givings prescription: daily releases of nerves that result in the most number of simulated orgasms I’ve ever seen (or would want to see) on stage.

Givings wife Catherine (Zinkel) becomes jealous, initially at the bonding between their baby and the wet-nurse Elizabeth (Miriam Hyman), later at her husband’s greater interest in providing relief to these women than providing attention for her. So she attempts to seduce the young painter Leo (Luigi Sottile)—the rare case of a man having vibrator-requiring hysteria—in order to provoke some sort of emotional response from her husband. Meanwhile, Sabrina becomes attracted to Annie (even asking for the device-free “Annie method” in therapy), and it leads to a situation that the stage direction describe as “we wonder if we’re about to witness three women play with a vibrator.”

However, that line is the best joke of the play, and through most of the “treatments” (applications of the device), the audience laughter made it very difficult to hear the lines of Ruhl’s incredibly hilarious first act. The women, especially McCool’s deadpan “I’ll wash my hands now,” and Sanford’s childlike innocence about her paroxysms, diminish any suggestive quality, and keep the awkward clinical situation just uncomfortable enough that if we didn’t laugh, we’d feel grossed out.

And for a play almost entirely about women’s needs for intimacy, their jealousy, awkwardness about asking for what they want, and family neuroses, I loved it. However, these issues only provide a spring board for the richly-integrated, deeper questions about race and class, the strange patriarchy of religion (cleverly asking at one point “why does Jesus get eaten when women breastfeed”), sexual politics inside the family, and the value of love versus sex. Her play operates and engages intellectually and emotionally, and Ruhl’s brilliance explodes the hysteria surrounding these themes with humor, making all of it entertaining, and best of all, palatable to both imbibe and discuss.

But surprisingly, the conclusions Ruhl draws are reactionary in their tone (far more so than the daddy-clinging that drove the theme and plot of her recent Eurydice). Catherine’s jealousy turns her into a sexually frustrated housewife who questions her husband’s adequacy. She begs him to use the device on her (he won’t, finding it unseemly to “experiment” on his own wife), and when she breaks into his operating theatre and tries it herself (with Sabrina’s assistance), it makes her “excitable” and she begins craving the feeling like an addiction.

In fairness, Ruhl’s got plenty of evidence that back this up. Though scientists began using the vibrator-induced orgasm as a “cure-all” for hysteria, commercial applications quickly followed, as the device became a popular amenity at luxury resorts (imagine seeing one in your hotel room), and the fifth home appliance to become electrified. But Ruhl’s theme—mostly delivered through Leo, the only fully rounded male character—is clear: after showing us where this road to pleasure leads, she puts her clear stamp of judgment on the lure of easy sexual pleasure versus the fruits of relationships built on compromises.

Describing the difference between an electrified lamp and a candle that flickers, Leo tells Catherine “A light without flame isn’t divine, and like having relations with a prostitute, without love, without the heart, bodies are means to an end.” And how does Ruhl end the play? By asserting contra women’s magazines and bedroom feminism, that women really want an emotional connection, and the best way to keep your wife from becoming hysterical is simple: pay her some attention and respect, and most importantly, love her, you idiot.

Strangely enough, Ibsen made the same point in A Doll’s House, written during the same period in which Ruhl set her new play. I realize that Ruhl had to completely infantilize her female characters (except the wise, noble, African-American, which in one instance, invokes a racist stereotype still common in our time) in order to get the humor of the innocence in using a vibrator. However, Ibsen’s Nora did not evince this level of childishness in order for her to become “liberated.”

And here I’m starting to see a reactionary pattern. In her recent Eurydice, Ruhl engenders a similar effect, as Eurydice, rather than return to her tumultuous and uncertain relationship with Orpheus, clings to the safe, easy, constant love that her father (as protector) gives her in the underworld. What next, a Stepford Wives style play where the robots gain consciousness but discover they’re happier in their delusions?

Is it possible that the hottest female playwright in the country has gotten there by embracing fathers, prioritizing love, infantilizing women, and dismissing (the now passé) liberating form of feminism? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely unhappy about this development, and while I liked the similar women-centered scripts of the Wilma’s recent Age of Arousal and Eurydice better, the subject matter, themes, and wit of In the Other Room make this play far more stage worthy. I can’t think of any audience member—except perhaps the extremest of Puritans—who wouldn’t find something to enjoy in this play.

Though Ruhl’s latest play is not without its faults, the Wilma should take a chance on producing it next season. They easily could have charged money for just a staged reading.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Don Draper's Carousel Monologue

Recently, I've become a Mad Men junkie. I'll admit, I only started watching the show because someone reminded me of former Philadelphia actress Maggie Siff. Now a minor player in the AMC drama, she had brought me some of the best moments I had seen on Philadelphia stages, from her performance as Thomasina in the Wilma's (new-home) opener--Tom Stoppard's Arcadia--to her appearance in Samuel Beckett's Endgame alongisde New York actor Pearce Bunting (which is still the best show I've ever seen during the Philadelphia Fringe Festival).

And in a Winter theatre season that relies heavily on monologues (the Arden's Asher Lev, Flashpoint's Jump/Cut, and the Lantern's Sizwe Banzi is Dead), the best monologue I've watched in the month of January appeared in the Season One finale of Mad Men.

Here, the series protagonist Don Draper delivered an advertising pitch for the Kodak Carousel. Selling a product, he found value in life.

For those interested, I've attached the full text of his monologue:

Don Draper: Well, technology is a glittering lure. But, uh, there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product.

My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old-pro copywriter, a Greek named Teddy. Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is new. Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.

But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. Sweetheart. (lights switch off) (changes slide)

Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound”. (changes slide)

It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. (changes slide)

This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. (changes slide)

It goes backwards, forwards, (changes slide) takes us to a place where we ache to go again. (changes slide)

It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. (changes slide)

It lets us travel the way a child travels. (changes slide)

Round and around, and back home again. (changes slide)

To a place where we know we are loved. (changes slide) (changes slide) (changes slide)

Review of the Montreal Jazz Ballet at the Anneberg

First published at the Broad Street Review:

Both MAPA and Rossini Cards, performed at Annenberg by Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, began with a similar setting: a row of dancers at the back of the stage moving forward. The repetitive choreography of the former exhausted me; but the latter, while mostly wasting the dance talents of the ensemble, managed to leave a brief, unforgettable experience.

MAPA, aptly named after the composer—Marco Antonio Pena Araújo— opened on a staggered line of dancers. Dressed in Anne-Marie Veevaete’s black-and-white full-body costumes and kept in shadows from the waist down by the lighting of Daniel Ranger and Pedro Pederneiras, they blended hypnotically into the similarly patterned background of Fernando Velloso’s backdrop. To a soft, ethereal sound, the dancers began rhythmically dipping their hips, moving forward on the ascent like a low wave slowly rolling into the shore from a distance.

This seductive and sumptuous prologue quickly shifted into a volatile display of techniques that fused jazz, samba and meringue dancing in high-energy, lightning-quick movements across the stage. Three dancers moving in unison quickly became five, now fiery-red clad performers exploding across the stage in the same patterns. Paired dancers rolled in turns with the lifting progressions in the music, and men hoisted their partners into quick, mid-air split kicks before turning in a flash to set them down again.

To read the full review, click here.

I'd recommend reading about the five minute interlude in Rossini Cards, in which choreographer Mauro Bagonzetti showed me a human connection more beautiful than anything I've experienced in my entire life.The image shows dancers Christina Bodie and Andrew Murdock performing something so intense that I almost had to avert my eyes.

Review of Greed: A Tale of Enron at Rebecca Davis Dance

First published in the Broad Street Review:

Let me start by saying that this is one of the best new dance pieces I've seen in some time.

Now, the article:

With the dismal economy weighing down the collective psyche of the nation, Americans need an emotional bailout. In her recent dance-theater piece Greed: The Tale of Enron, choreographer Rebecca Davis is banking on finding one in art.

In 2001, Enron’s crooked executives used dubious accounting practices to kite the company’s value to more than $100 a share, promising more than $100 billion a year in revenue before its house of cards collapsed and left everyone who didn’t cash out holding worthless paper. Enron’s executives— Chairman Ken Lay (as played by a thoroughly smug Ian Dodge), CEO Jeffrey Skilling (admirably played and danced by Troy Macklin) and CFO Andy Fastow (Charles Russell), among others—gave the economy a bloody nose that’s still dripping, and tried to hide their crimes in shredded documents.

The media elevated their crimes to mythical status; after the Enron scandal, Gordon Gekko’s name was no longer invoked as the symbol of corporate greed. It took Davis, a fellow business student, entrepreneur, and choreographer, to immortalize the Enron saga in art. Anyone who missed the two performances missed a work that elevated a business case study into a mythical cautionary tale of rampant avarice.

Utilizing a pop score that included Coldplay, 311, Orbital and some public domain instrumentals, Davis begins her piece in a corporate power play, in which Skilling and Rebecca Mark (the sensational Vanessa Woods) vie for the open position of Enron’s chief operating officer. Lay arrives, waving his hands like a wizard making an incantation, and Mark sheds her blazer, hikes her skirt, and dazzles in an ensemble movement clearly playing on the potency of sex in the workplace.

To read the rest of the article, click here.

Review of Blackbird at Theatre Exile

First published in the Broad Street Review:

In my late 20s I began a relationship with a precocious and musically gifted woman in her late teens. Within a week of my ending the relationship— essentially, I abandoned her— she attempted to steal my dog, had me evicted from my condo, and tried to run me over with a car.

So I harbor some understanding of the terror that Ray— the male protagonist in David Harrower’s Blackbird— feels when confronted 15 years later by a woman whose testimony had him thrown in prison when their relationship ended. But unlike my case, the age differences in Harrower’s play are more extreme: during the summer of their sexual relationship, Una was 12 and he 40.

Happily, the usual moral recriminations that accompany adult sexual abuse of children don’t form the major focus of this play. Instead, director Joe Canuso’s superb and brutally honest rendering presents the immoral seduction— like Humbert Humbert’s in Lolita, of a weak adult by a child with “suspiciously adult yearnings”— as a way to use the moral issues in order to explore more universal themes of human love and emotion.

To read the rest of this review, click here.

Review of Hugging the Shoulder at Represented Theatre

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

When Cain told God "I am not my brother’s keeper," he set off a still unresolved moral debate about the limits of filial duty. In his tightly-written Hugging the Shoulder - now in a compelling production at Represented Theatre Company-playwright Jerrod Bogard shows the consequences of one man’s attempt to rescue his brother from the perils of drug addiction.

Thankfully, Bogard’s conflict isn’t nearly as straightforward as the Biblical clash between Cain and Abel. Derrick (Nicholas Troy) has kidnapped his brother Jeremy (Ted Powell), stuffing him in the back of a van and setting off across the country to detox the latter from his heroin addiction. With some onstage tinkering by the cast in dimmed lights, Brian Grace-Duff’s set unfolds to double as both the van’s interior and Jeremy’s apartment, and for all of its 90 minutes, Bogard’s play flashes back and forth from the road trip to the events that precipitated its necessity.

But Bogard’s script offers no easy moral hero or sympathetic victim. Derrick drinks and smokes pot with Jeremy even while the latter self-destructs and beats up his junkie girlfriend Christy (Erikka Walsh). And while both clearly grew up in a shitty family plagued by substance abuse problems, the younger brother shows no pity, saying "Hey, I grew up there too." Adding intrigue, Bogard smartly conceals Derrick’s motives. Does he want to act the part of the hero, or simply not feel guilty about his brother’s condition? Or does he secretly love Christy, and need to clean his brother up to get him out of the picture?

As a pair of rednecks who discuss the philosophical implications of NASCAR, I found it difficult to identify with either and am surprised that I wasn’t thoroughly annoyed throughout by Jeremy. But Powell’s deft, naturalistic performance and accurate evolution of his character kept me locked on his performance in every scene (especially during the excruciating withdraw scenes, in which he’s fully comprehensible while speaking fast, clipped sentences). And thanks to Bogard’s equally convincing writing that’s rife with apt metaphors, I wanted to know what happened to this pair, what drove Derrick to kidnap his brother, and how it would end. You can’t ask for much more out of theatre than that.

Still, I think I would’ve enjoyed the play more if Bill Egan’s direction wasn’t so serious. Most of Jeremy’s lines seem tailored for laughs, but he plays them straight, even when the script hands him a fantastic line calling Walt Disney World "Walt-dismal world." While Christiana Molldrem’s slick lighting design makes the passing of cars on the highway believable, Egan’s pacing lingers too long on the highway scenes which aren’t as interesting as the back-story; and I wish the transitions appeared more seamless (though this is a minor complaint). The unoriginal music selection that plays during the breaks shows Jeremy shooting up to the strains of Pink Floyd’s "Comfortably Numb," and later, playing the obvious after he flatly declares "You want things to be different. I want things to be different. You can’t always get what you want."

As for the mystery of Derrick’s motives? In one very disturbing scene, Walsh’s performance fills in the blanks; she shoots up while completely nailing a monologue comparing Disney World (the "happiest place on earth") to her heroin addiction, and making me feel slimy with a single line ("it’s better if you don’t"). Throughout, Troy (as Derrick) explores the oft-complicated bond between brothers, though he only fully convinces in his final scene.

Which is unfortunately the moment the play self-destructs. With only five minutes of stage time left, Bogard totally shifts gears, going from an engaging, well-written melodrama about filial responsibility to a stupidly wrapped-up morality play about the perils of doing nothing. The ending initially disturbs (thanks to Powell’s dead delivery), but also feels cheap and dumb. Cain could at least blame God for the sudden shift in his fortunes. But I just watched a 90-minute road trip to get to an unlikely, uninteresting, and dramatically over-visited destination.

Review of What You Will at Bristol Riverside Theatre

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

Much like today’s hip-hop artists, Shakespeare wrote his poetry for an urban audience. Bristol Riverside Theatre (BRT) looked to capitalize on this similarity in their current What You Will, a hip-hop rendering of the Bard’s comedy Twelfth Night. As Shakespeare’s most musical play (it begins with the line "if music be the food of love, play on!") I can understand the temptation that Co-directors Keith Baker and Donald Byrd felt when they conceived this project.

The stage certainly looked set more for a hip-hop concert than a theatre performance, with towers of speakers flanking a curtained recessed entrance at center stage, a disco ball hanging overhead, and a floor that lit up (a la Billy Jean and "Saturday Night Fever"). A DJ booth lords over the entire proscenium, complete with a laptop and turntables, and throughout the show players spun records and mixed beats while others recited verse. Ryan O’Gara’s lighting excites (especially in the club scenes) and Donald Byrd’s choreography and Justin Ellington’s original beats and music provide what’s no doubt the season’s best.

The cast saunters and sashays about with an urban swagger (Valerie Issembert’s hip-throwing would make Beyoncé proud), and they all look remarkable in Linda Bee Stockton’s costumes: designer suits, gorgeous pumps (on Olivia), matching sweatsuits, and sparkling green shoes (on Feste). When a storm shipwrecks Viola (Christin Sawyer Davis), she lands in front of a scrim where Gabriel "KwikStep" Dionisio breakdances and pops to a matching beat. "What country friend, is this" she asks, indeed.

With one notable exception, Baker and Byrd transplant Shakespeare’s verse and story wholesale into the "Club Twelfth Night" environment they’ve created. Knowing no one in Illyria, Viola exchanges her dress for a baggy white tee-shirt and hoodie, conceals herself as the boy Cesario, and finds employment with Orsino (RJ Foster). Before long, she’s playing pander in his romantic affairs, trying to woo Olivia (Miriam Hyman) in his stead, but thanks to the mistaken identities, Olivia falls for Cesario, who in turn falls for Orsino.

Thrown into the mix are Olivia’s cousin Toby Belch (Abe Goldfarb), the wench Maria (Issembert), and the priggish servant Malvolio (Carl Wallnau). Belch sips from a bottle of Hennessey while bumming money from the knave Aguecheek (John-Patrick Driscoll, here in stark contrast to the sharp looks the others cultivate, he dons a don’s tweed jacket and tie, looking like a lost sociologist in this Illyria). Aguecheek and Malvolio both want Olivia, and while Belch plays the former for his money, both he, Maria, and Aguecheek viciously plot against Malvolio.

Of course, they do it all in good fun, and any production can milk laughter from Shakespeare’s witty comedy. But while hip-hop often conveys a similar antagonizing, mocking humor, BRT’s production loses most of the jokes that Shakespeare stuffed into his script.

Through most of the production, I felt like I was watching Twelfth Night through a pair of glasses with a different lens over each eye, at times seeing (and hearing) the amazing production, at others, watching and laughing at a Shakespearian comedy. When Baker and Byrd left the actors alone to deliver their lines, they capably conveyed the humor (especially in Davis’ delivery). But a rubber chicken and having Maria suck a lollipop can’t supplant the wit and opportunities for pantomime and comedic turns in the script, and even Wallnau’s delicious approach to Malvolio (which I loved last summer at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival), couldn’t compete with the distracting background of electric violin and synthetic beats.

Similarly, when their production transformed Shakespeare’s verse into spoken word poetry, rap, or an R & B riff (delivered by Foster’s smooth baritone), the concept seemed so perfect that I felt amazed that I hadn’t heard of anyone attempting this before. And in those few instances where the hip-hop approach lined up with Shakespeare’s play, the production soared. Here, Trevor Vaughn (as Feste) rendered Shakespeare’s songs (written as such) with a gorgeous voice and styling that sounded like a hybrid of Justin Timberlake and Usher. (How did they audition this guy, ask him to sing R&B?)

Clearly, Baker and Byrd proved that the show can work with a hip-hop makeover, if only they had executed it solidly and capably throughout. With these actors, had BRT decided to do a straightforward staging of Twelfth Night, they would have succeeded admirably. Or if they had completely transformed Shakespeare’s script into a hip-hop musical (a la the highly successful rendering of Comedy of Errors in the rap production "Bombitty of Errors), they could have made something astonishing, breathtaking, and new.

But while their show possesses all the hip-hop accoutrements and attitude, it sells itself short on the lyrics (Shakespeare’s text). Robert and Steven Morris’s funny and enjoyable original song "What You Will" (the notable change I mentioned earlier), in which the entire cast burst onto the stage with fierce energy and rapped the beginnings of the story, showed what an amazing production this could have been.

Review of Orange Flower Water at Luna Theatre

First published at the Broad Street Review:

Since California’s Family Law Act of 1969 created the conditions for no-fault dissolutions of marriage, divorce has become one of the most common features of adult American life. The first wedding I attended ended six months after the ceremony; the engagement lasted longer. This was in 1982, and my mother— and perhaps many others— (still) considered her friend’s divorce a shameful event. Today pop psychologists regard a “first divorce” as a rite of passage like middle age, and even encourage holding “marriage wakes” to celebrate the culmination of the legal proceedings.

Likewise, few Americans seem to feel revulsion at the consequences of divorce. Indeed, when I first read Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water, a cautionary tale about the unhappy couples casting off current responsibilities in a quest for carefree happiness—I wondered, “Who would produce this?” I couldn’t believe that the same Wright who penned Luna’s 2008 spectacular hit Grace also wrote something that read like a watered-down version of the destructive effects of adultery in Patrick Marber’s much better play, Closer.

But what a world of difference a production can make. Or rather, what a world of emotional torture that Luna Theatre director Greg Campbell and four superb performances have wrought.

To continue reading, click here.

Sizwe Banzi vs. The Rant

First published at the Broad Street Review:

Last week I saw both the Lantern’s and Interact Theatre’s respective productions of Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Rant. While both were expertly directed and featured formidable performances of plots driven by moral-issues, one of them felt dated and of little consequence, while the other found continuing and universal relevance.

I saw the Lantern’s production of Athol Fugard’s play first, which portrayed the young worker Sizwe Bansi (Lawrence Stallings) imprisoned inside the machinations of South Africa’s apartheid system. The stamps in his government-issued passbook restrict him to work in Port Elizabeth, where he’s supposed to live with his wife and four children. But there’s no work there, so he has journeyed to New Brighton, where he can’t work because the local bureaucrats won’t give him a permit. While he’s out drinking with Buntu (Forrest McClendon), they stumble upon a recently murdered corpse, and the situation presents the innocent Sizwe with a rogue dilemma: either steal the dead man’s passbook and find work, or continue to live as a fugitive from the state.

Andrew Case’s The Rant appears less straightforward. Denise Reeves, an African-American woman (Kimberly S. Fairbanks), claims to have seen the white police sergeant Clark murder her autistic teenage son on her front porch, with the assistance of the black cop Simmons (Aldo Billingslea). The New York Police department buries the investigation, so Reeves turns to Lila Mahnaz (Elena Araoz), who heads a civilian review board that handles complaints and oversees internal police investigations. Mahnaz believes Reeve’s version and launches a personal crusade against Simmons, sensationalizing the case with the assistance of Alexander Stern (David Ingram), a cynical crime reporter. In a post-modern era, where truth is considered “another type of bias,” the question of “Who’s watching the watchmen?” takes on considerable moral significance.

To continue reading, click here.

Review of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Walnut Street

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

Sixty-two years ago, The Walnut Street Theatre staged the original production of Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire. Then starring a young Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, the play shows the cultural clash of wills between Stanley Kowalski and Stanley’s sister-in-law Blanche Dubois as the latter invades his household and threatens the stability of his family life.

A fading Southern Belle who hides her alcoholism and creeping neurosis, Blanche (the almost too-beautiful-for-the-role Susan Riley Stevens) arrives at the home of Stella (Sandra Struthers) and Stanley (Jeffrey Coon) for a short "vacation" after being forced out of her job as an English schoolteacher for an indiscretion involving a 17-year old student. She still revels in the upbringing she received on the family’s plantation Belle Rêve (the beautiful dream), and condemns the life that her sister has forged with an uncouth, physically abusive working-class immigrant.

Stanley grates against her gentility and clashes with her from the start, initially over the loss of the family plantation (which affects his affairs as well). He doesn’t believe her stories about needing a break to "calm her nerves," and digs into her past to keep his old Army buddy Mitch (Scott Greer) from marrying her. When Stella challenges Stanley in defense of her sister, he explodes, shattering dishes, pounding walls, and punching his wife. And what Blanche doesn’t understand-that "there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark that make everything else seem unimportant"- ultimately makes Stella side with her husband, even after Stanley has violently attacked Blanche as well.

So much has changed in American culture’s judgments about relationships that I almost expect a director to stage Streetcar as a period piece. The post-WWII period still bound men and women into rigidly defined gender roles, ones where Stanley asks his wife "since when do you give me orders" and Stella defends her husband’s drinking with "people have to tolerate each other’s habits." And while Coon’s performance deftly showed a man defending his household against a woman threatening to wreck his home, I think it’s hard for an audience to accept Stella not only tolerating his abuse (even being turned on by it), but siding with him after what he does to Blanche (which I won’t spoil here).

But while the play still carries well (even over three hours), director Malcolm Black’s production strips the dark pathos that emanates from sexual desire and almost turns the play into a work more resembling a comedy of sexual manners. If Black can turn a moment of the script into a joke, he has his actors play for laughs, even in Blanche’s attempted seduction of a newspaper boy (which should stand as one of her more disturbing moments, not made humorous as if the play resembled an episode of TV’s Family Guy).

Moreover, between each scene, Black fills the street with gypsies, wandering singers and prostitutes. However, showing the street life of the quarter only diminishes the tragedy of all-consuming desire, making the action seem more like a tryst in Vegas, something brought about by the location rather than the pathologies of the characters in the play. And rather than let the audience silently absorb Stanley’s final act of violence, Black uses these interludes to divert attention to a fistfight in the street.

Consequently, the fine performances suffer, even though Stevens almost redeems every element of the pathos that drives the play in her last scene with Mitch. Coon fills his performance with great energy and employs a likeable charm that temporarily (and wonderfully) masks his wild animal movements, and his moments of explosive anger turn Paul Wonsek’ sharp set into the cage of Stanley’s animal nature.

Struthers’ straightforward portrayal of Stella removes any contemporary doubts as to why she’d stay with such a man; sitting curled up in a chair the morning after Stanley consummates his abuse with a night of sex, she looks ready to purr. And while Stevens’ early playing makes Blanche’s complaints seem reasonable (even though they stem mostly from her deluded fantasy of her upbringing), when her last veneer falls, Stevens gives a heart-wrenching glimpse into a destitute woman’s unfathomable decline into madness.

In trying to "save" her sister from what she sees as an unhealthy relationship, Blanche argues a contemporary and now common sentiment: "Maybe we are a long way from being made in God’s image, but we’ve made some progress since then" and men should now practice gentility and treat their women as equal companions. But I’d argue that we’ve lost something as a society when we can no longer understand a relationship like Stella and Stanley’s, one whose passion is fueled out of a woman’s (now rarely spoken) desire to be pulled down and conquered by a stronger, powerful man.

Even 61 years later, the strong performances in this play still provide a potent reminder that while the payoff we get in animal pleasure sometimes compensates for the pain we suffer for "hanging back with the brutes," it’s still human desire that clouds our "better" judgment.

Review of Lantern Theatre's Sizwe Banzi is Dead

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

In the balcony scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the young heroine comes up with a simple solution to the crisis keeping them apart, and pleads with Romeo to "deny thy father and refuse thy name!" Were Romeo not a Montague, the feud that divides their families would not separate the young lovers. After all, she tells him, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Athol Fugard’s 1972 anti-apartheid play Sizwe Banzi Is Dead - now in a stirring production at the Lantern Theatre Company - begs to differ. That is, when it finally gets around to the moral dilemma that drives the second half of the play.

Unfortunately, the audience must first sit and listen to a 45 minute monologue delivered by Styles (Forrest McClendon), the black owner of a photography studio in a Nixon-era South Africa that’s deeply entrenched in the oppressive apartheid system. When he first appears, strutting onto the stage, he begins reading from the South African Herald newspaper, commenting on current events to remark on something old, something new. The former: more troubles plaguing Zimbabwe, which Styles dismisses with a shrug; the latter: tensions in America. "Let them elect a black man President," he remarks, adding, "then we’ll take notice. Same year hell freezes over."

A woman let out a hasty retort, and McClendon masterfully handled it, clearly addressing the audience while telling us stories about the six years he worked at a Ford automotive plant. Finally wanting to regain his self-respect as a man, Styles decides he needs to become his own boss, and opens the photography studio. Battling roaches (all pantomimed in an almost clowning fashion), he then tells the stories of many of the customers he’s served. "I offer a storeroom for dreams" he tells us, and is about to launch into another recollection when a knock at the door interrupts his speech.

The man who’s arrived? Rober Zwelinzima (Lawrence Stallings), formerly known as Sizwe Banzi. Dressed in Millie Hiibel’s fresh linen suit, salmon colored shirt, and derby hat wrapped in plastic, he wants to send a picture to his wife in Port Elizabeth, informing her that "Sizwe Banzi is dead." And with a cute trick of Janet Embree’s and David O’Connor’s lighting, finally, the production embraces Meghan Jones’ shantytown set of corrugated tin roofs and fences and become a play.

McClendon disappears to return as Buntu, a friend who harbors the fugitive Banzi. Banzi’s passbook (the apartheid equivalent of a National I.D. card) declares him ineligible to work anywhere but Port Elizabeth, where a drought has eliminated most jobs. He can’t feed his family, and skipped town illegally, looking for work in New Brighton, where he meets Buntu.

Though helped along by Peter DeLaurier’s sharp direction, a pair of excellent performances, and the stellar lighting, the play plods through long segments of seemingly meaningless exposition, requiring the audience to think about what’s happen "Do you have a letter from a white man who is willing to give you a job?" Buntu asks. "No? then go back to Port Elizabeth." After Buntu explains the Kafkaesque system of laws that imprisons black men in cordoned districts of the country, the pair stumble upon the recently murdered corpse of Zwelinzima. And Banzi must make a decision: steal Zwelinzima’s passbook and adopt an identity that will afford him work, or continue to live as a fugitive.

Though helped along by Peter DeLaurier’s sharp direction, a pair of excellent performances, and the stellar lighting, the play plods through long segments of seemingly meaningless exposition, requiring the audience to think about what’s happening while it’s happening. Banzi asks "does that (pass)book tell you that I am a man" before later arguing "I cannot lose my name."

But it’s Buntu who lays out the problem clearly. That name cannot feed your family, find you a job, or keep you from being arrested, he tells Banzi. So lose it. And yet, Banzi persists, as his identity as a human being seems to hold some key to his life.

The Lantern’s excellent production capitalizes on the well-played moral dilemma and analysis of all its implications, but ultimately, the first half weighs down the strength of this performance. I can imagine the implications that Styles character bears on the show: under apartheid, he sells unattainable dreams, photographing the illiterate Banzi holding a newspaper in front of a painting of the "city of the future."

But it’s a bad drama of apartheid politics, unevenly delivered. All the real action of this play could have taken 30 or 40 minutes, gravitating on what both Buntu and Banzi see as the unfortunate moral payoff: "If someone was to offer you the things in life that would make me or my family happy in exchange for a name, wouldn’t you swap?"

Though this production proves otherwise, Banzi’s dilemma ultimately seems easy. Buntu asks, "who are you to a white man...but a ghost?" And Sizwe becomes Zwelinzima. And why not? Romeo’s life would have been infinitely easier (and perhaps not ended in suicide) had he acceded to Juliet’s request.

Buntu nails it on the head when he says "there’s nothing we can leave behind except the memory of ourselves." But what kind of memory is it? Schopenhauer once wrote that "we remember our own lives a little better than we do a novel we once read, little more." Seen in that light, the decision seems easy. A man might have to die in order to live again, but it’s Fugard’s play that makes Banzi's dilemma into a hard decision.

Review of Flashpoint's Jump/Cut

First published in Edge Philadephia:

Imagine taking everything in your kitchen and trying to make a meal out of it. If you don’t think it would taste any good, then don’t go see Neena Beber’s insipid and uninteresting Jump/Cut, currently at Flashpoint Theatre.

Of course, I’m assuming a well-stocked kitchen, and one thing’s clear, that Nina Beber has an (occasionally) very interesting mental pantry to draw from. Her Philadelphia premiere at Flashpoint includes a love triangle stuffed with thoughts and anecdotes on film, hagiography, biography, manic-depression, the poetic romanticizing of illness, keeping a blood oath to a friend, the nature of creativity, sexual apathy, etc. In this case, it’s not too many cooks that spoil the broth. Too bad she doesn’t have a good friend or editor to tell her what she needed to leave out.

But surprisingly enough for a TV and film writer, she lacks a sense of dramatic structure, and took an hour to get to her first-and only-major plot point.

Admittedly, I’m a bit wary of any play that starts with the line "I don’t know where to begin." But even the convoluted mess that comprises this play must begin somewhere, in this case, a monologue (one of many) by Paul (Christopher Bohan), which then flashes back to the night of his high school graduation.

There, in an evening otherwise full of youthful promise and marijuana-obscured debauchery ("the world’s gonna be our dime bag!"), he makes a fateful promise to Dave (Keith Conallen), who begs him "you gotta keep me off the ratty couch and make sure I don’t become a bum." Flash forward a few years (it’s not clear) to Paul’s career as a filmmaker in California. "Pulling back the camera," he announces, "alters emotional distance while letting something interesting come into frame." That something: Karen (Kristy Chouiniere), a former screenwriter he once humiliated, who he reencounters at a café and now pursues romantically.

I imagine that this play excites the few firing mental neurons of twenty-something pseudo-intellectuals, who think shallowly about many subjects (usually while stoned) and feel oh so deep in the process.
Now a grad student studying the hagiography of the Countess di Castelloni, Karen reluctantly begins a relationship with Paul just as Dave-now a failed novelist-moves in to live on Paul’s couch. Suddenly we learn that Dave’s difficulty with personal hygiene (he feels too unmotivated to even fasten the buttons on his shirt) stems from his longstanding manic-depressive illness. And while Karen initially berates Dave’s laziness, and Dave condemns Paul for selling out his dreams, the three of them (after an hour) hit on a solution: make a documentary about Dave’s illness.

I told you it took a while. For Beber, however, the delay poses no problem, as she has Paul explain that we could "imagine life as a series of jump-cuts, random events connected by a theme." However, most of the second half plays out like long stretches of reality television, but without the booze the producers feed the housemates to make things interesting. Conallen supplies enough juvenile humor to provoke laughter, but despite Beber’s compelling moments of free associative writing that nonetheless shine through the sophomoric dialogue, the tension feels manufactured. And by the time Paul and Karen make the invariable sex tape (not shown), it’s beyond banal and I’m uninterested.

I can’t blame the cast or director Karen DiLossi for my disappointment. If anything, while DiLossi’s staging (on Simon Harding’s accessible setting) easily skirts the difficult time and place transitions (well played by Bohan especially), Joshua Schulman’s lighting appears overly simplistic. As the play unfolds, each of the three characters engages the audience in direct address, and Schulman’s paint-by-the-numbers approach to the lighting design gives them each a different colored ambiance. How helpful! Otherwise, I can’t imagine anyone would’ve understood that when one person’s talking, they’re talking!

But ultimately, the play’s the problem, as Beber crams every stray thought she’s ever had about mental illness and filmmaking (among MANY other subjects) into a plot that can’t sustain interest. I imagine that this play excites the few firing mental neurons of twenty-something pseudo-intellectuals, who think shallowly about many subjects (usually while stoned) and feel oh so deep in the process. And I feel for Conallen, who gets a delicious line like "where’s your bourgeois de vivre" within a script that only allows his performance to command attention (in his psychotic episode) right after the point where I’ve completely lost interest.

Otherwise, I felt like I was watching-especially in the second half-the dramatized version of "Listening to Prozac," coupled with bits of Godard and Hitchcock, and all this stuffed inside only a marginally believable love triangle. Everything in the kitchen pantry, indeed.

Review of Altar Boyz at the Media Theatre

I didn’t need to go to church this weekend to get my religious fix. Instead of hearing a dry sermon and music struggling through creaky organ pipes, the Media Theatre’s production of Gary Adler’s and Michael Patrick Walker’s concert musical Altar Boyz spread the word of God in a fist-pumping, Bible-thumping good time (that like, totally kicked it, yo!).

Often billed as a “satirical look at both boy-bands and Christian-themed music,” the show opens on the last stop of the Altar Boyz national “Raise the Praise” tour. Here, five young singers—Matthew (Phillip Drennen), Mark (Michael Jennings Mahoney), Luke (Lee Markham), Juan (Adrian Gonzalez), and Abraham (Joey Contreras)—have descended on Media, wearing “bling for the King” and pledging to save souls through the glory of pop music.

Using the technology of the Sony Soul Sensor, a multimedia screen displays the number of audience members still burdened by sin. To bring that number down to zero, this Catholic quintet sings a message of staying pure (no matter how Mary Magdilicious she may be!), becoming the person you’re supposed to be, and living your life as a shout-out to G-O-D.

Of course, it’s silly, and I don’t know how their songs or lyrics would appeal to anyone, even true believers. But while I wouldn’t listen to the Back Street Boys for more than five minutes, the music and skits of this 90 minute performance put a smile on my face from the start.

It helps that the Media cast five incredibly talented performers, who not only each sing and harmonize beautifully, but also make Samuel Reyes constantly changing music-video choreography look easy. Even if the disciples had played music (and as the Son of God, Christ would’ve sung with perfect pitch), they wouldn’t have sounded this good. Mahoney finds his praise-voice with a rousing gospel-driven number, and late in the show, Markham drives home a weirdly entertaining rap song about Jesus’ miracles.

Their clean-cut looks outdo the Jonas Brothers, and costume designer Lauren Perigard only forgot to add the promise rings when dressing the group in super-skinny jeans and cargo pants, died t-shirts and vests, with plenty of the Lord’s bling (crosses) hanging from their necks. Adam Riggar’s set looks like the interior of a metallic cathedral, with arches and faux windows peering in on the band (Samuel Heifetz’s ability to shift seamlessly from musical theatre to urban pop amazes), and Kelly Michelle Leight’s lighting accentuates the concert feel.

But don’t worry, there’s enough humor and dark elements to strip the sheen from the sugar-coated pop and Jesus-saved-my-life anecdotes. Luke munches on communion wafers while discussing his stay in a “rejuvenation center,” Mark might be gay, and Juan suffers a personal tragedy about the parent’s who abandoned him.

Peter Reynolds' direction plays every note right, maximizing enjoyment through the boys tremendous musicality, lingering just long enough on the jokes, and not heavy-handing the satire (with a skit like “Cruci-funktion,” a disco account of The Passion, he doesn’t need to). The songs are cheesy, but the performers act so sincere that when the soul meter finally counted down to zero, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. But unlike church, the relief we felt didn’t come because the sermon had ended, but because we all felt a little bit saved by the power of theatre.

Review of Mauckingbird's lesbian Hedda Gabler

Mauckingbird Theatre was launched last year by Temple professor Peter Reynolds and recent grad Lindsay Mauck as a company “committed to producing professional gay-themed theater, while also exploring classic literature.” In each of its three productions so far, fulfilling that mission has meant transforming classic works into gay-themed theater.

Those who object to these literary transformations could argue that the genre already abounds in gay playwrights and plays with homosexual themes, so why tamper with familiar straight works? But in Mauckingbird’s case, the key question is whether or not the introduction of gay issues into any particular play is justified by what it adds artistically.

In Mauckingbird’s first two productions, this approach made sense. Mauckingbird’s all-male Misanthrope nicely illustrated a mirroring of court life extending into personal lives, creating the same hierarchal power structure and consequent viciousness in relationships required of those at court. And Mauckingbird’s production of Joe Calarco’s Shakespeare’s R & J transformed Romeo’s line, “Did I love till now?” into a powerful moment of personal discovery.

An unspoken problem

But unlike those first two works, Mauckingbird’s current lesbian-themed adaptation (by Caroline Kava) of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler did little to create a different feel in the play. It’s merely a production of a famous play that, here, dares not speak its name.

To read the rest of this review, click here.

One-hundred years ago, the phrase “intimate apparel” denoted the corset, often hand sewn and treated as one of the most cherished pieces of clothing in a woman’s wardrobe. Worn by both fashionable society women and dance hall girls, they slimmed the waist, accentuated the bust, and pleased the eye. In the Player’s Club of Swarthmore’s current production of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, it’s the maker of the garment and the dreams she stitches together for herself and others that shape this sad, touching drama of women’s lives.

Nottage’s play opens on Ester (Erin Stewart), an unmarried seamstress living in a respectable boardinghouse in Manhattan. During a party to celebrate another girl’s engagement, she works the hand-wheel of a sewing machine to stitch together the wedding dress. Thirty-five and plain, she hates the happiness of young girls while disdaining the suitors proffered by her landlady Mrs. Dickson (Deborah E. Randall), snidely asking of a bellhop at a fancy hotel “is high class luggage any easier to carry?” She fancies and flirts with the Hasidic Jewish fabric merchant Mr. Marks (Edward Milliner), but despite his reciprocated feelings, his religion forbids him to even touch her.

In between bouts of advice to settle, Dickson presents a letter sent from George (Eric Lamback), a Barbadian worker on the Panama Canal who knows Ester remotely through someone at her church. He laments the dredging that transforms a “place of beauty into a morgue,” and longs for someone to make the long days of work bearable. Unsurprisingly, Ester leaps at the one opportunity for romance that her appearance and proud nature had previously denied her.

The only problem? She can’t read, and must rely on her two clients—the society woman Mrs. Van Buren (capably played by Shelli Pentimall) and the courtesan Mayme (Anjoli Santiago)—to read the letters and write replies. Despite their own problems (Van Buren’s husband spits at her because she’s barren, and Mayme fends off abusive clients), both women eagerly indulge the fantasy of reinventing Ester in letters and romantically imagining this unknown suitor from Panama.

But when George arrives to marry Ester, a harsh reality of deceit shreds the fabric of her dreams, and after twenty years of manual labor, she throws away her goal of owning a beauty parlor on the caprice of an unworthy man.

It’s always difficult to watch a story where the undeserving suffer, particularly given Stewart’s delicate portrayal that trades Ester’s pride for hopefulness, and director Bridget Dougherty’s deft handling of the timeless aspects of these women’s emotions. Never once presenting them as victims or begging for sympathy, Dougherty’s production earns a deeper emotional empathy by her honest, unsentimental rendering.

And there’s no need to dwell on the prejudices that shaped the era; Nottage’s script avoids heavy-handedness and the cast more than equals the demands of the roles. Milliner’s excellent performance turns stories about fabric into comical (though sincere) attempts at flirtation, and Santiago’s sonorous voice nearly sings the lies that hide her pain.

As always, the dreams die hard. Today, Ester might easily own a boutique on the same Fifth Avenue where her clients live, but would probably find no greater refuge from deceitful men. The real pity: that few stories of women’s lives treat their apparel with the intimate care this production shows.

Review of Ted Neely in Jesus Christ Superstar Touring Production

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

Jesus died on the cross at age 33, but that hasn’t stopped Ted Neeley from reprising the role of Christ at nearly twice that age in the touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar,a role he’s played intermittently for over 30 years now. In the current tour, Rick Belzer’s gloomy lighting and Bill Stabile’s metal-scaffolding set--a bridge spanning two balustrades--looks like a border checkpoint, offering a reason for revival in their poignant, ironic commentary on contemporary Israel, where Jews, once oppressed inside their own homeland by a foreign occupying force, have now become the "hated Romans" to the Palestinians in Gaza.

But unfortunately for the rest of the production, there’s nothing timely about a performer who can no longer sing the role he once made famous in the 1973 film version, especially not in director Dallett Norris’ horribly sung, terribly staged production.

For those unfamiliar with the story, JCS follows the last days of Christ (Neeley), from his triumphal Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, betrayal by Judas (James Delisco) in the Garden of Gethsemane, to his crucifixion and ascension into heaven. Entirely sung through, this rock-musical gives equal balance to the torments of Christ (being relied upon to simply heal the physical pain of those whose souls he would rather save), and the political concerns of Judas, who sees Christ as upsetting the fragile autonomy of the Jews under Roman rule by inspiring rebellion among his followers. In almost any production, Tim Rice’s lyrics and Webber’s music makes both stories absolutely compelling and vibrant to watch.

But not this production. Not only does guitarist Jake Langley ruin the opening lick, but Norris opens the overture by staging weird slow-motion fighting between Jewish rebels and Roman guards, set to an occasional strobe light and minimal fog that doesn’t make the faux-fighting any more interesting. Jesus and his followers arrive, Judas bursts in, and from his first song to his last, Delisco articulates his lyrics in as weird and obnoxiously arrogant a voice possible. There are aesthetic limits to wanting to make a role your own, and when Judas worries about being damned for all time, Delisco should have worried more about musical hell.

The remainder of the cast and production splits down the middle. Matthew G. Myers (as Simon) impresses, but only gets one exciting song, Peter (Adam Campbell) sounds equally solid, but he only shares half of a number, with Mary Magdalene (Cristina Sass). When she enters, she looks scrumptious in her flowing red dress, but her pleasant, too pretty voice and attitude lacks sultriness. Those who read the Bible might know better than to judge her as a reformed whore, but her performance should still exude enough seductive passion to give Judas reason to doubt.

In his performance as Annas, Caleb Shaw’s striking voice comes in to grate on Judas or Christ at the right intensity, and while the ensemble sounds wonderful (musically, they’re the best part of the evening), I’ve never seen such an out-of-shape chorus in the (allegedly) professional touring company of a musical.

Overall, there’s just no rock feel to this rock opera, and I mostly blame Neeley. He has to lumber around like an aging grandfather and slow down nearly every song in which he’s required to sing so that what’s left of his voice can still handle the music. He can still nail the screaming, but he can’t sing above a D anymore without his voice either cracking or going immediately into falsetto, and while he shows that he still possesses the chops of his lower register on "The Temple" and "Gethsemane," by the time he get to these songs, I was already disappointed by his weak first half performance.

And when Christ sings about being dead soon, the disciples should worry more that he’ll keel over from complications of his advanced age. (Why didn’t they just ask John McCain to play the role? After all, he can’t sing either.) I won’t apologize. The touring company expected Philadelphians to shell out upwards of $100 a ticket. But good theatre should pay for good art, not Ted Neeley’s retirement.

Ultimately, I can’t blame Norris’ direction entirely. He achieved a nightmarish effect in the "healing scene" where the afflicted approach Jesus as a massive body covered by a sheet, with their black-covered heads poking out to demand "heal me." And in his one moment of brilliance, Norris has Mark Baratelli play Herod like a fey send-up of the Jewish King, fawned over and fawning, eliciting enough laughter to set up a great contrast with the crucifixion scene. Unfortunately, Norris and Neeley stretch this scene out too long and Neeley overacts these dying moments, coming in and out of life to give at least three opportunities for the audience to begin their applause for the musical’s end.

Or perhaps they were just eager to go while the going was still good, a lesson that Ted Neeley apparently has yet to learn.

Review of "O Captain, My Captain: Whitman's Lincoln" at Walnut Street Studio 3

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

At its best, theatre attempts to create another universe, no matter how big or small, drawing the audience into a world fashioned entirely by the production of a play or musical. Certainly, Bill Van Horn attempts this in his 90 minute piece O Captain, My Captain: Whitman’s Lincoln, where he plays "America’s poet" Walt Whitman.

Set designer Glen Sears has done his part, transforming the entire Studio 3 space into a late 19th Century parlor in Camden, a time capsule filled with enameled paintings, Victorian furniture (and lots of it; not a single member of the audience forced to sit in anything less!), neo-classical statues, and beautiful silver serving sets. On one side of the room hangs a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln, facing him on the other wall, hangs a painting of Lincoln’s favorite actor and future assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Even the stage manager greets the patrons at the door in a high-necked gown (the more modern tattoo on her neck still visible though), an unseen "Mrs. Gilchrist" plays piano in an adjacent room, and a young serving girl (uncredited) hands out corn bread and lemonade to the audience. And when Van Horn bursts in as Whitman, costume designer Mary Folino has tailored him in a suit stolen straight out of one of the daguerreotype group "photos" adorning the walls.

We, Whitman tells the audience, are going to be part of his experiment, a preparation for an upcoming lecture tour, and the subject matter of the lecture is the same as the title: Whitman’s reflections on the life of Abraham Lincoln, from the time the former President attempted to enter politics in 1847, until his assassination in 1865. "I was there and saw everything," as they traveled the same roads and stayed in the same cities (when Whitman worked as a journalist), and later, when the poet lived in DC during the Civil War, sharing in the President’s aspirations for the fractured country.

Hopefully, everyone who grew up in America already knows some of Lincoln’s story, which Whitman punctuates with relevant sections of his poetry, intoning how he "yet shall mourn with ever returning spring" the death of a President that happened 22 years earlier and changed the spirit of the country.

But thankfully Whitman did not bring us to his brother’s house in Camden for a history lesson, either one to correct the falsehoods or lead us down familiar paths. Instead, he remarks what’s still true of today, that "All legends are basically true and America would much rather hear a good story than an accurate report."

Peppered with anecdotes, Van Horn’s play gives us a good tale, and in these little details, a new fascination for the familiar emerges. Whitman recounts the story of following the President’s corpse on its route from DC to Illinois for the burial. Making a stop in Philadelphia, thousands thronged 30th St. Station, and when the processional passed through town, a crowd hissed at the actor Edwin Forrest when he tried to apologize because one of his profession had committed the murder.

We also learn that Booth was Lincoln’s favorite actor, and that the President had earlier seen him in "The Apostate," a play in which Booth strode to the front of the stage and pointed straight at Lincoln when giving his speech denouncing a traitor. But unfortunately, these anecdotes (in which Booth prefigures heavily) provide the most interesting parts of the evening, and I wondered why I watched this piece here, at the Walnut Street, rather than slightly across town at the Constitution Center.

For while I get the story about Whitman’s love of Lincoln, very little gives me insight into Whitman himself, and hence, the play shows a speaker, but doesn’t offer a character (in a one-person performance, I can almost handle not getting a plot). Van Horn’s piece gives vague allusions about the poet, noting that he must live off the charity of family since his "latest misfortune," but those of us who don’t know the story of Whitman as well as we know Lincoln’s have to chew through this undercooked morsel of history. The piece, nonetheless, follows an interesting arc: Whitman did not initially vote for Lincoln, and didn’t vote at all in 1860, but yet came to admire the President.

As the poet, Van Horn holds the room throughout. He becomes bombastic when excited, and curls over like a wounded animal when finally mourning the President’s death, without ever dipping into the sugary waters of melodrama. Reciting several of Lincoln’s speeches verbatim, he delivers them with perhaps greater oratorical power than the President conveyed (I was certainly moved to belief).

But again, I wondered why I watched this on a stage and not in a lecture hall, classroom, or historical venue. And while it engrosses, even when Whitman meanders off topic, Van Horn’s piece isn’t so much a "stage-play" as a "staged event" or historical reenactment.

Historically, theatre finds its foundations in storytelling, one person under dim lights, assuming a variety of characters, spinning a tale to entrance an audience. I enjoyed Van Horn’s piece and performance immensely, even if by today’s standards of production and drama, it doesn’t so much create a universe of imagination, but tells a story that’s worth hearing.