Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Work of my Artist / Teacher Peers

When my mentor, Bill James, was advising me on becoming a teacher and my nose wrinkled, as if to say, “but I’m an ARTIST,” he said: "those who can, do; those who can do better, teach."

Recently, when seeing the work of my several of my fellow teacher / artist peers, I fondly remember how wise my mentor was.

I saw David Smukler, AIRE voice instructor, in The Seagull in Toronto in February. I thought he was charming, dotty, funny, vulnerable, surprisingly forceful … a wonderfully dimensional performance. Wonderfully Chekhovian, too, because he brought both HUMOR and pathos to the play. (Can't resist saying that Kate Fenton, as Masha, with whom I worked at St Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, was born to do Chekhov! So terribly funny until the last moment when her grief retched out of her on one breath.)

I saw Ted Hoerl, AIRE audition instructor, in The Weir in Chicago in March. Now, this is a play I LOVE and it is based in the area of Ireland from whence my people hoist their pints. Of the many compliments I paid Ted, one was: “I recognized you as a guy from my town sitting on the bar stool.” The other amazing thing he did was LISTEN like nobody’s business and this is no small feat, especially with the staging of this particular production. He actually made other people’s stories come to life without detracting from their telling in the least.

I saw AIRE’s scene work instructor, Steve Scott’s production of Rabbit Hole in Chicago in March. How does one recognize the work of a great director? It is nearly invisible, really, but Emi Clark & Betty Lorkowski (who saw the show with me) and I agree that there is a recognizable Steve style: careful attention to human detail. Particularly in the supporting characters, there were such amazing human quirks and foibles, little lifts of the eyebrow or tiny straightenings of the spine that told me Steve spent weeks asking questions! (Review of Steve's recent work, Frozen, is a couple of posts below.)

Although not directly Green Wood Studio / AIRE related, I saw colleague Craig Walker in Candida in Kingston, Canada, last week. Craig is a drama professor at Queen’s University, hence the relevance, & played Benedick to my Beatrice last summer in St Lawrence Shakespeare Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing (co-directed by meself & Steve Scott). Tricky thing for Craig with Candida was, he directed himself as one of the leads: Rev. James Morrell. I thought his direction of the show was excellent: clear, clean, uncluttered, no schmacting; his take on the show seemed to be to let Shaw's feckin brilliant text shine. I also liked his performance very much. He gave us a full range of human behavior: warts and all. Who the heck is crazy enough to take on a role like that and direct themselves? What was he thinking? Oops. Pots & kettles calling each other black.

(Reviews of 3 of the shows below.)

It gives me great satisfaction to say that I am blessed to work with a fistful of artist / teachers who can do better.

This summer, I get to work with two of them again: Steve Scott is directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Craig Walker is playing Bottom and I am playing Hippolyta / Titania. Craig is directing me as Nurse in Romeo & Juliet.
P.S. Want to guarantee I'll not miss a show you're in? Remind me OFTEN and give me comps. So many students & colleagues ask me to see their shows: making it easy on me will ensure I'm there. If I'm in town ....

Reviews of the above shows

David: Sorry I don’t have a review of Seagull !!

The Weir
Signal's The Weir opened last week to critics' raves and enthusiastic applause.
The Daily Herald's Barbara Vitello writes, "Prentice's discreet, graceful direction underscores a wonderfully understated production from Signal, a relative newcomer to the Chicago scene and a company that bears watching. So convincing is this well-acted, well-paced production, you might find yourself tempted to order a pint and join in the conversation that unfolds over the course of a stormy evening in this out-of-the-way pub in Northwest Ireland."
A "must see" show for's Tom Williams, the play "features some of the finest ensemble performances I’ve seen on stage in quite awhile."
Jeff Recommended
"Features a note-perfect set by Melania Lancy and subtle, unhurried performances...— Reid, Chicago Reader
"This is a brilliant production of a fantastic play with five outstanding performances that unfolds as one mesmerizing night at the theatre. This is one of the finest plays of the year!" —
"John Zinn and Ted Hoerl anchor this amazing show. " --
"There’s Jack (Ted Hoerl, expertly tempering sarcasm with regret) a mechanic who opens the dam’s floodgates with a fairy story and closes them with a bittersweet, cautionary tale." -- The Daily Herald
"Hoerl, in particular, is in fine form as the cantankerous old man of the group." -- Time Out Chicago
"The players emote with such casual competence that you almost forget that they’re acting….Hoerl’s affectionate portrayal of Jack has an edge-worn, lived-in feel that rightly owns the show." --

Rabbit Hole

Taken from the March 21, 2007 Illinois News Wire
Dan ZeffCopley News Service
Review of Rabbit Hole at the Goodman Theatre
CHICAGO - Why would anyone want to watch a play about two parents trying to deal with the grief of losing a child in an accident? If it's a play like Rabbit Hole, the rewards are considerable, thanks to sensitive and honest writing blended with humor, all presented in a flawless performance at the Goodman Theatre.
The David Lindsay-Abaire drama was a surprise hit on Broadway last year. Lindsay-Abaire made his reputation with a pair of absurdist comedy-dramas called Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo, neither of which prepared audiences and reviewers for the finely tuned realism and compassion of Rabbit Hole.
Given its off-putting subject matter, the play wasn't a candidate for a national tour. Goodman picked up the show for its subscription series, for which local theatergoers should give much thanks.
The storyline is simple. Howie and Becca are a thirty-something husband and wife living in the suburb of Larchmont, N.Y. As the play begins, it's been eight months since their only child, a 4-year-old boy named Danny, was killed by an automobile when he ran into the street to chase the family dog. The first scene is disarmingly light, with Becca bantering and bickering with her disheveled younger sister Izzy, who hasn't been able to get her life together and now finds herself pregnant.
The casual humor of the opening minutes gradually yields to a portrait of both Becca and Howie floundering emotionally as they grieve over their boy's death, each in his or her own way. Becca is tortured by reminders of the boy scattered throughout the home and even wants to sell the house. Howie treasures those reminders, whether they are a videotape of the boy just before his death or his childish paintings pasted on the refrigerator door. Becca's mother Nat adds to the emotional mix, a blunt woman still dealing with the suicide of her adult son 11 years ago.
The play is shot through with tensions among all the characters, including Izzy and Jason, the high school boy who drove the car that killed Danny. The marriage between Howie and Becca is under psychological siege. Both characters are locked in their own worlds of suffering and they often rub each other raw. Ironically, the flighty Izzy seems to grow in strength of character as her pregnancy advances.
To the playwright's credit, he offers no easy solutions or bogus happy endings to the agony of the bereaved parents. For them, a term like "closure" is psychobabble. They will never get over the death of their child, but in the play's final moment there is a hint that perhaps they can face their loss with a resolution that will preserve their marriage and their mental health.
In a play of this delicacy, the production is everything. One false note of melodrama or sentimentality would shatter the evening. The script must have been a scary project for director Steve Scott, but he rose to the challenge with a staging of sustained intensity, leavened with humor, that looks and sounds just right every moment.
The performances are beyond criticism. Each of the five characters comes across with realism, credibility and humanity. I can only speculate on the emotional toll the play must take on the cast each performance. But, they all seem born to play their roles. The obvious centerpieces of the ensemble are the actors who play the parents, yet I'll start with J├╝rgen Hooper, who makes three appearances as Jason, the young driver of the car that killed Danny. The boy is obviously suffering a misery of guilt and regret over the incident, but he speaks with an understatement that delivers more impact that any weeping or breast beating. Hooper's rendering of the boy's quiet pain is indelible.
Lia Mortensen plays Becca and Daniel Cantor plays Howie. Both capture the anger and frustration and agony of their situation without a misstep. Mortensen and Cantor create decent and intelligent people struggling to handle an appalling catastrophe, which at this time looks like a lifetime sentence of unending sorrow. They reach out for consolation but the ache and desperation are often just too much.
Mary Ann Thebus provides some welcome comic relief as Becca's outspoken mother trying to cope with her own demons in the loss of her son. Amy Warren, an actress on the rise in area theater big-time, is just right as Izzy, the disheveled sister who talks a lot of undiplomatic common sense to Becca and Howie.
Scott Bradley designed the bi-level set that authentically re-creates the kitchen and living room of the suburban home on the first level, with the bedroom of the dead child above. Birgit Rattenborg Wise designed the contemporary costumes, Robert Christen the atmospheric lighting, and Richard Woodbury provided the sound design and original music.
The show gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars.

Bernard Shaw’s State of the Union
Theatre Kingston's comedy sees two men - a poet, the husband­ - fight for Candida's love.
Madness - or rather the attri­bution of madness - appears as the lightest of comic leit­ motifs in George Bernard Shaw's Candida.
When a character's behaviour pushes beyond the borders of the conventional and the expected, he or she is quickly judged mad by those who db not comprehend it.
Prossy, the straight-laced. outspo­ken and love-struck secretary to Morell; Marchbanks, the naive, ro­mantically obsessed but surprising­ly resilient poet; Morell, the Christ­ian clergyman and pious socialist whose other god is honesty and straight speaking; and Candida her­self, Morell's eminently practical. managerial wife - none are im­mune from the allegation.
As Burgess, Candida's father, says, "Why, it must be catching! Four in the same house!"
These precipitous attributions of insanity give rise to some of the comedy in this pleasantest of Shaw's Plays Pleasant. But they also function as satiric Shavian finger­pointing at those who fail to under­stand his ideas. They serve, too, as a warning to his audiences that they must look beneath the surface to grasp the meaning of the conun­drum presented in his play.
And what is the conundrum in Candida?
How is it, Shaw asks, that we are able to do good in the world? From where does the strength, the grace to do so, come? Does it come from being in the right and wielding the power and the authority that flows from being right? Or does it arise out of the love of one human being for another?
It is somewhat more than 100 years since Shaw wrote Candida. In Theatre Kingston's production of his play, the puzzle still intrigues and the working out of the resolu­tion continues to delight.
Paula Schultz's Candida is a woman whom, in Morell's words, "Everyone loves... they can't help it." She is clear-headed, charming, tender, motherly and, when pro­voked, indignantly angry. Above all, she is sensible and practical. Schultz switches neatly from role to role and it is easy to see why she can become all things to all men. ­
However, Candida is placed on something of a pedestal. Much of the tension in the play arises from the fact that each man sees in Can­dida whatever he desires her to be.
Conflict is inevitable. and those who have the most invested in her­the parson and the poet - must do battle for her:
The Rev. James Mavor Morell is Candida's good-looking, vigorous, honey-tongued and charismatic husband. Passionately committed to the socialist cause, he thunders it from the pulpit and night after night whips up the members of var­ious social action groups to enthu­siastic applause.
Morell loves Candida; to him she is the perfect marriage partner: To Candida, however, he is "my boy... spoiled with love and worship." Craig Walker gives us both of these sides of Morell and lets us see clear­ly that he is ripe, and probably over­due, for a fall.
Naive in his way and piously cer­tain of his relationship with Candi­da, when Morell's marriage is threatened; Walker modulates nice­ly from confident laughter through doubt-filled anxiety, then genuine hurt, violent anger, to climax in child-like self-pity.
But Walker, rightly, never allows his character to become merely pitiable. Rather, Morell struggles honestly with his fears, confronts them courageously, and finally un­derstands and accepts Candida's role in their marriage.
Mr. Eugene Marchbanks, the son of an Earl, the romantically anguished 18-year-old poet is cast as the threat to the Morell's middle­class love nest.
Marchbanks is blind to how Can­dida can have fallen in love with Morell. He is appalled that Candida must slice onions and ruin her hands wielding a scrub brush.
Instead, he offers to sail her away "far from the world. where the mar­ble floors are washed by the rain and dried by the sun." Goodness and beauty don't belong in the ugly, real world.
If occasionally he appears to have an overly "shrinking manner" (Shaw's description), Adam Wray as Marchbanks creates an effective foil to Morell in which his torment­ed passion and acute sensitivity are a worthy match to the parson's ser­monizing.
Inevitably, the conflict between these two is foisted on the mother/goddess, Candida: "I am to choose, am I? ... I am up for auction it seems." And with her decision re­solving the Gordian knot that Shaw has created for us, the play ends.
Much of the laughter is provided by supporting characters.
Proserpine (Prossy) Garnet, played by Emma Hunter; is lovingly obedient to her superiors and, on the other hand, earns some fine laughs cutting down to size her over-pretentious peers, Lexy and Burgess.
David Condren as the Reverend Alexander Mill (Lexy), is delightful in his over-the-top dotage on his master; Morrell.

**** out of 5 stars

AIRE instructor Steve Scott's recent review

'Frozen' asks if evil or injury drives killer

THEATER Virginia slayings could make audience cool, even to hot performances

April 18, 2007

HEDY WEISS Theater Critic

What a difference a day makes. Until Monday's slaughter at the Virginia Institute of Technology, the ideas about violence, retribution and forgiveness in Bryony Lavery's 2004 "Frozen" -- a London and Broadway hit now in a stunningly acted Chicago area debut at Next Theatre -- might have reached receptive audiences. They might even have bought into the British playwright's neat assessment of the difference between those who act out of willful evil and those driven to do terrible things as a consequence of damage caused by physical and emotional abuse in childhood.

But now, all that research might seem like so much hogwash. True, there are thugs who kill and destroy for venal or radically political purposes. Equally true, there are those whose violent acts might well be rooted in the extreme cruelty meted out to them early in their lives. Yet when the corpses pile up -- and your own child, parent or loved one is among the innocent victims -- does it really make a difference? And is acceptance and forgiveness the best way to move on?
Lavery's play is set in a rural English town where Nancy (Laura T. Fisher), has been emotionally frozen for 20 years -- ever since her 10-year-old daughter was abducted, raped and murdered by Ralph (Joseph Wycoff), a serial killer since imprisoned.

Now, Agnetha (Jenny McKnight), an American psychiatrist with a severe case of panic disorder, has come to London to deliver a research paper written in collaboration with a married man she loved, and who was recently killed in an accident.

Agnetha's thesis is that the brain of an abused child does indeed develop differently, so the adult actions of that person cannot be condemned as evil but as the consequence of illness. Incarceration might be necessary, but compassion and forgiveness also are needed. So in a climactic scene, Nancy visits her daughter's tormentor, and both appear to find mutual catharsis, even if this takes radically different forms.

Director Steve Scott, who has a terrific flair for casting, has chosen his cast to perfection. Fisher, in a brilliant portrayal, easily suggests a 20-year gap, and McKnight, sensual and mysteriously wounded, is quite the neurotic. As for Wycoff -- head shaved, eyes like bits of coal and strangely sexy in the hypnotic, rhythmic patterns of his speech -- he will wow you. In fact, for a few days now, I've been compulsively repeating Ralph's little mantra ("Oh, yes; oh, yes").
Lavery's argument is very hard to swallow, but these actors will make you bite all the same.