Monday, April 24, 2017

Humana Festival 2017: RECENT ALIEN ABDUCTIONS Continues to Haunt

If there is one play from this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays it's hard to forget, it's Recent Alien Abductions by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, directed by Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director Les Waters.

The thing is, Recent Alien Abductions isn't about alien abductions. Instead, Cortiñas unspools a story about family secrets, betrayal, and the violent aftereffects of American Colonialism, as a Puerto Rican man named Álvaro, played beautifully by Jon Norman Schneider, concocts a conspiracy theory around a 1994 episode of The X-Files called Little Green Men. That episode supposedly took place in Puerto Rico, even though Álvaro recognizes from the beginning that the foliage isn't remotely Puerto Rican, and the character he identifies with, a boy also named Álvaro, speaks English with a Mexican accent.

Most of us are familiar with that kind of dramatic license (or dramatic laziness), but to Álvaro, the errors bespeak something deeper. He also thinks that the episode in syndication has been changed from the one he saw the first time. And when he adds that up, he finds a message just for him, straight from The X-Files.

But the story Cortiñas is laying out doesn't stick with Álvaro or his X-Files obsession. Just as Little Green Men sent Mulder to a fake Puerto Rico, Cortiñas sends the action of his play to a fake Puerto Rican house created on the stage of the Pamela Brown Theatre, where we meet Álvaro's mother, who is in poor health physically and mentally, and his brutish brother Néstor, along with Néstor's wife and a friendly neighbor. Bobby Plasencia takes Néstor, a creep and a bully, to uncomfortable places, while Mia Katigbak is sad and affecting as his mother, Carmen H. Herlihy adds warmth as neighbor Beba, and Elia Monte-Brown does her best as Néstor's wife, whose role is somewhat underwritten.

The conflict arises with the arrival of a visitor from the United States, a woman named Patria played by Ronete Levenson with competing strands of strength and naivete. Patria knew Álvaro, who we now learn is dead, and she wants permission from his family to publish the stories he wrote -- science fiction, of course -- as a way of honoring her friend and creating a legacy for him. But there was a reason Álvaro left, a reason he never came back, and a reason he immersed himself in writing far-out stories. When the truth of his past was too hard to bear, Álvaro wrapped himself in fantasy and fiction.

Recent Alien Abductions sets its own pace, with quiet moments where you really need to pay attention, and an explosive scene of violence where you'd really like to look away. Cortiñas has built his play with significant challenges and landmines as part of its structure.

First, there's the 30+-minute monologue that opens the play, with Schneider alone on stage, framed by a ghastly green light around the proscenium. That sets a heavy burden for Schneider, since he is carrying the whole story without any technical bells or whistles to help. He is a very engaging performer and there is certainly justification for setting the character of Álvaro apart from the action. Still, that's a long time to sit with one image.

Jon Norman Schneider in Recent Alien Abductions
Photo by Bill Brymer
Later in the play, Cortiñas sets up an extended scene played off-stage, where we can hear the voices of actors Herlihy, Katigbak and Monte-Brown, but we can't see any of them. That, too, is well supported by the script, as unseen -- but heard -- action from the past is a critical piece of the mystery. But again, even if the reason for the scene is clear, it's somewhat difficult to follow as executed here.

There is no denying that Recent Alien Abductions is a tricky script from beginning to end. And yet... And yet, it is compelling, intense and haunting in the end.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Humana Festival 2017: Surviving a Wedding in I NOW PRONOUNCE

When I made my living writing romance novels, I wrote a lot of books set in and around weddings. Runaway brides, runaway grooms, bridezillas, bridesmaids hooking up with groomsmen, the bride and her identical twin sister switching places before the wedding... You name it, I wrote it. I did not, however, write anybody dropping dead at the altar.

That is the premise of Tasha Gordon-Solmon's I Now Pronounce, which was the first play I saw at this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays. At Actors Theatre of Louisville, Solmon's play starts with the rabbi who is officiating, played by the adorable Ray DeMattis, all alone in the middle of the Bingham Theatre. DeMattis has the skill and charm to hold the stage with ease, even as the rabbi he's playing goes farther and farther off track. He's so cute you don't mind that he's calling the groom something different every time he mentions him -- Aaron, Abraham, Anton -- or that he's really not well. And then disaster strikes. Before the "I do" part of the proceedings, the rabbi keels over, and we've lost him.

Ray DeMattis in I Now Pronounce by Tasha Gordon Solmon
Photo by Bill Brymer.
What happens next is the aftermath. Is the wedding cursed? Does anybody really want to get married in the wake of a dead rabbi?

The bride is holed up by herself, refusing to speak to anyone, while the groom is hanging out with two groomsmen, a cynical player who thinks marriage is a horrible idea, anyway, and a sweet but sloppy guy whose own marriage is in tatters. There are two bridesmaids, as well, trying to convince the bride to come out of hiding. One is very, very drunk and saying inappropriate things, while the other is a control freak. Neither has a date for the wedding, and that's an issue, too. We also see three tiny flower girls in matching outfits, shrieking and running around the wedding venue looking for ghosts and speculating on whether the rabbi's death means everybody else is going to drop dead, too.

By the end of the play, both bride and groom have pondered what it means to be committed to somebody else and have contemplated fleeing, insults are hurled, mortality is pondered, one couple has sex under the chuppah, and everybody pretty much gets skewered by everybody else. Most of the invective seems warranted as, all in all, they're a pretty unpleasant bunch without a whole lot of coping skills. Well, except for the flower girls. They're expected to be juvenile, after all.

Gordon-Solmon's script is especially hard on Eva, the controlling bridesmaid, as she gets ripped up and down for not being able to hang onto a man. Actress Satomi Blair makes Eva appealing enough that the attacks seem excessive, and when they're coming from Jason Veasey's slick groomsman Dave, they slide right over the line into misogyny. Against the backdrop of a wacky romantic comedy, the sexist tone doesn't play well, and the fact that both bridesmaids are desperate for a man heightens the problem.

The issues Gordon-Solmon raises are messy and complicated in a world where Say Yes to the Dress may never end, but Girls, The Mindy Project and New Girl -- all shows pitched to Millennials and centered on issues of growing up and finding or rejecting love and commitment -- are winding down*. And then there's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which takes the insanity of modern relationships one step farther.

Clearly people are still getting married. Clearly people are still breaking up. Clearly people are still pinning all their hopes and dreams on a fantasy wedding that may or may not end in disaster even if the rabbi doesn't meet his maker in the middle of the ceremony. There's conflict and real emotion to be mined there. I'm just not sure how much I Now Pronounce adds to the conversation.

*Girls just ended, The Mindy Project is finished after one more season, and New Girl is probably not coming back.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Playwright Lynn Nottage Wins Her 2nd Pulitzer Prize for SWEAT

The 2017 Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday, including three awards -- for international reporting on Vladimir Putin and Russia's criminal tactics to wield influence in other countries, C. J. Chivers' feature writing about a Viet Nam vet caught up in the legal system, and freelance photographer Daniel Berehulak's breaking news photography of a Chicago mother and son -- to The New York Times; a Pulitzer in national reporting to David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post for his stories on Donald Trump's shady use of his own charities; an award to the New York Daily News and ProPublica in the public service category for Sarah Ryley's stories on eviction abuses; and an editorial writing prize to Art Cullen of the tiny Storm Lake Gazette in Storm Lake, Iowa.

Theatre critic Hilton Als of The New Yorker was also singled out for his "bold and original reviews," including his pieces on bullies and pop psychology in Dear Evan Hansen, two looks at the "maddening sexist, racist, restless, complicated, and important dramas" of Eugene O'Neill, and "Gay Reflections, Onstage" in four very different theatrical pieces.When congratulating Als on his prize, The New Yorker's twitter account linked to a beautiful musing he wrote on the movie Moonlight, showcasing the lyrical style and deft analysis that characterizes Als' writing.

On the "Letters, Drama & Music" side of the Pulitzer equation, Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Underground Railroad, "a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America." Whitehead's National Book Award winning novel creates a physical railway, with tracks and tunnels underneath American soil, taking former slave Cora from state to state, from one abomination to the next, one step ahead of dangerous slave catchers, as she tries to escape to both metaphorical and actual freedom.

And in my favorite category, Drama, Lynn Nottage, who happens to be one of my favorite playwrights, has won her second Pulitzer Prize, this time for Sweat, her "nuanced yet powerful drama that reminds audiences of the stacked deck still facing workers searching for the American dream." Nottage is the first woman playwright to receive the Pulitzer twice.

Lynn Nottage
Sweat was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its United States History Cycle. After the Oregon production and a run at Arena Stage in Washington DC, Sweat moved to New York's Public Theater, where it was popular enough to be extended three times. The accolades the play received, including the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, earned Nottage her first trip to Broadway at the same time Paula Vogel, another Pulitzer winner, made it with her play Indecent. Plays written by female playwrights on Broadway are enough of a rarity that The New York Times interviewed both Nottage and Vogel about the phenomenon.

The Public Theater production of Sweat, directed by Kate Whoriskey, moved to Broadway's Studio 54, where it opened in previews March 4, 2017. Its official opening was March 26.

For more information on all of this year's Pulitzer Prize winners, check out the Pulitzer site here.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Illinois Theatre Looks for RESISTANCE • REVOLUTION • RESURGENCE in 2017-18

Illinois Theatre, the producing arm of the University of Illinois Department of Theatre, has announced the schedule for its 50th anniversary season. Under the theme "Resistance • Revolution • Resurgence," Illinois Theatre will offer Robert Penn Warren's political cautionary tale All the King's Men; followed by Tom Stoppard's Travesties, a "cryptic-crossword of a modern classic" comedy; Sarah Ruhl's funny, sexy and quite moving play In the Next Room, or the vibrator play;the Sondheim/Weidman dark and dangerous musical Assassins, which never seems to go out of style; Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare's finest; and a provocative new play by Robert O'Hara called Barbecue.

The line-up of topical plays and the inclusion of some exciting new directors makes for a very intriguing season for Illinois Theatre.

This is what their press release has to say about the whys and the wherefores:
"Celebrating 50 years of creating excellence in performance, design, technology, management, and scholarship, Illinois Theatre invites you to join us as we examine themes timely and timeless. Theatre’s powerful exploration of human experience stands as a reminder that great difficulties have been overcome with inquiry, analysis, critique, and persistence—always persistence. Our productions will delve into issues of gender and political corruption; we consider the role of art during the Russian Revolution; we see dawning female sexual consciousness in the Victorian era; we gawk at the twisted dreams festering in a collection of presidential assassins; laugh at the confusions of love, lust and identity in a classic Shakespearean comedy; and experience the cultural difference between two families: one black, one white. This season of plays plumb the depths (and heights) of diverse human experience, and we invite you to join us for a season of laughter, love, pain, and triumph."
And here's more info on the individual plays, including directors and dates:

All the King’s Men
By Robert Penn Warren
Tom Mitchell, director
Illinois Theatre presents the quintessential American political saga of Willie Stark, a charismatic populist who rockets to the Louisiana statehouse and sets his sights on Washington. With an all-female cast, this production depicts the hyper-masculine 1930s backrooms where “good old boys” jockey for power. Robert Penn Warren adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the stage and for two film versions.
September 28 to 30 and October 4 to 8, 2017

By Tom Stoppard
Robert G. Anderson, director
Vladimir I. Lenin, James Joyce, and artist Tristan Tzara walk into a library—and the world is transformed. Tom Stoppard’s supremely literate comedy—with a wink and a nod to Oscar Wilde—imagines lively encounters between three revolutionaries who changed the world of politics, literature, and art. Presented by Illinois Theatre in association with the "1917/2017: Ten Days That Shook the World/Ten Days That Shake the Campus" initiative.
October 19 to 21 and 26 to 29, 2017

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
By Sarah Ruhl
Lisa Gaye Dixon, director
In the waning years of the 19th century, the age of electricity enlivens the possibilities for human satisfaction. A path-breaking physician treats the “hysteric” needs of his female patients while overlooking domestic discontent in his own home. Illinois Theatre examines love and marriage, artistic inspiration, and burgeoning female sexuality. Viewed through a blushing comic lens of sexual awakening and desire, audiences will surely find moments of identification, sympathy, and laugh-out-loud acknowledgement. This production is for adult audiences only.
Contains adult content
Oct 26 to 28 and November 1 to 5, 2017

Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist
John Weidman, librettist
J.W. Morrissette, director
"Murder is a tawdry little crime; it’s born of greed, or lust, or liquor. Adulterers and shopkeepers get murdered. But when a president gets killed, when Julius Caesar got killed...he was assassinated." —John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald in Assassins.
Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist John Weidman take aim at American ideals of prosperity and fortune. Illinois Theatre presents this powerful musical examination of the blood-curdling (and banal) impulses of would-be assassins who pursue their own versions of the American dream.
February 1 to 3 and 7 to 11, 2018

Twelfth Night, or What You Will
By William Shakespeare
Brenda DeVita, guest director
Featuring a shipwreck, lost siblings, false identities, gender confusion, and star-crossed love, this production from Illinois Theatre is sure to excite every aficionado of Shakespeare. Guest director Brenda DeVita, artistic director of the American Players Theatre, has her Krannert Center debut at the helm of this lively, timeless comedy.
March 1 to 3 and 8 to 11, 2018 1-3

By Robert O’Hara
Chuck Smith, guest director
The O’Mallery family gathers in a local park to confront a sibling about her substance abuse. Is it a made-for-reality-television event? Not quite. As the narrative unspools, members of the family attack and retreat. Familiar tropes from domestic dramas give way to startling new revelations as a family’s identity shape-shifts across an evolving landscape of race, class, and consciousness. Illinois Theatre welcomes playwright Robert O’Hara to our community as we produce his exciting new comedy, directed by the Goodman Theatre's Chuck Smith.
Contains adult content
Mar 29 to 31 and April 4 to 8, 2018

For more information, take a look at the Illinois Theatre website or check out their Facebook page.