American Meltdown: A Timely Reprise of THE CRUCIBLE, at PlayMakers Rep

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Who’s lying now? The Ensemble in Court in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. October 19-November 6, 2016. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

PlayMakers Repertory Company could not have made a more apt choice for this #nastywoman voting season than Arthur Miller’s great play, The Crucible. Miller wrote it during the superheated “Red scare” days of the early 1950s, when the demagogue run amok was Joseph McCarthy, holding his “witch trials” in the House Un-American Activities Committee, but Miller cannily placed his story of fear and honor, manipulation and control, in the Salem, Massachusetts of 1692, demonstrating that mass hysteria and the totalitarian requirement to conform have been part of American life since its earliest years. Miller makes distinct parallels between the HUAC hearings, which ruined many lives, and the deadly witch trials of rigidly Puritan Salem, during which neighbor turned on neighbor, and dozens, mostly women, were sentenced to hang. False witness was taken as the truth. Yes, “Hang the bitch!” echoes all the way back to the 17th century: this play speaks as well to this moment in America as it did to the America of 1953, when it was first produced.

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The Ensemble a few minutes later in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Lies breed chaos: Chaos is the enemy of Justice, although the Law made feed on it.  Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

Miller also, brilliantly, changed focus repeatedly throughout the play, moving back and forth from the larger social picture to the intimacy of a marriage, and examining the damage done in both by rigid social expectations, lies and betrayals–and, with an even sharper pen, probing the actualities of honor, loyalty and freedom. With each new angle, and each turn of the screw, The Crucible becomes more soul-chilling.

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SARITA OCÓN as Elizabeth Proctor in PRC’s 2016 production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Guest director Desdemona Chiang has this complex four-act with its huge cast well in hand, and keeps it moving at a pace that ensures an ever-heightening sense of danger. To emphasize the heated crucible (or cauldron?) in which the story swirls, she has placed the audience on all four sides of the stage, rather than using the U-shaped thrust configuration of the Paul Green Theater. Visually and emotionally this works very well; however, that change changed the acoustics of the room, and made mush out of some of the dialogue, especially in the first two acts. After intermission, at the beginning of the third act, the wooden ceiling which has been hovering oppressively over the stage is lowered, slowly, with much creaking and clanking to become the floor of the courtroom. I found this a little self-consciously theatrical, and its symbology a little too broad-brush, but the sound quality in the room was much better after the ceiling came down.

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CHRISTINE MIRZAYAN as Mary Warren and ALEX GIVENS as Marshal Herrick in PRC’s production of The Crucible. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

If you had to reduce the message of this play to one phrase, it would be to “choose death before dishonor.” But Miller, Chiang and the cast all have sympathy for the hard truth that our very cells cry out to live, and few souls can remain pure when their bodies fear for their lives. Kathryn Hunter-Williams of PRC gives an extraordinary performance as Rebecca Nurse, the only one of the community who doesn’t even consider condemning her immortal soul by a false “confession” that would save her mortal body from the gallows. First year MFA student Christine Mirzayan does a fine job with the young woman Mary Warren, whose moral core is undeveloped, and who keeps changing her testimony in a desperate attempt to save herself and her friends, fueling the very evil she seeks to evade.

It is a great pleasure to see so many of PRC’s members on stage together, all doing excellent work. Along with Kathryn Hunter-Williams, Ray Dooley, as the pugnacious Giles Corey; David Adamson as the bewildered Francis Nurse; Julia Gibson in two roles; and Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Deputy Governor Danforth, all render powerful, vivid characterizations. This is one of Cornell’s best performances. They are joined by students ranging from undergraduates to third year MFA candidates in the Professional Actor Training Program, of whom Allison Altman, as the vengeful, trouble-causing Abigail Williams, and Schuyler Scott Mastain, as the ineffectual Rev. John Hale, stand out.

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ARIEL SHAFIR as John Proctor and SARITA OCÓN as Elizabeth Proctor in PRC’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

But guest artists Ariel Shafir and Sarita Ocón as John and Elizabeth Proctor put the fire under this crucible. John broke the Commandment on adultery and his marriage vows, betraying his wife (sick for so long after the last baby) with the beautiful, self-serving Abigail, but although he recognizes the error of his ways, neither woman can quite believe him. Abigail thinks a roll in the hay was a promise to her; Elizabeth inspects his every utterance for traces of new lies. But when the forces of the state and church together attempt to turn John and Elizabeth on each other, they will not be turned, except back toward each other, for precious moments. John almost chooses life with Elizabeth, but cannot bring himself to break the Commandment against bearing false witness, which would dishonor the name his sons carry forward. Elizabeth cannot dishonor his honorableness or her own as a “covenanted Christian woman” with a lie that could save them. Shafir and Ocón make all this pain and struggle piercingly believable. This is very fine acting, subtle, well-vocalized, and free of histrionics, and their intimate battle and detente, as the Proctors, bring the meaning of the larger story into terrifying focus. The Proctors’ sacrifice of their lives, as Miller makes clear, is not only for their own honor, but for the life and honor of their community and country.

The Crucible continues at PlayMakers Repertory Company through Nov. 6. Tickets at playmakersrep.org or 919-962-7529.

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ARIEL SHAFIR as John Proctor and SCHUYLER SCOTT MASTAIN as Reverend Hale in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. October 19-November 6, 2016. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

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Troubadour: Richard Thompson at CPA

I’m a lucky person when it comes to music. I was introduced to all sorts of sounds early in life, and never forced into a single narrow allegiance, except to quality. Some of the best listening experiences, it turns out, come when one thinks one has already heard THE definitive version, only to have it capped.

An example: the first time I heard a recording of the band Fairport Convention. I was 14, up in my friend Sheila’s room in Ithaca, New York, 1969. She had several records of the new British electric folk, recordings that included some of the marvelous ancient ballads that came to this country and took root in our mountains. But that afternoon, she put on the new Fairport Convention album Liege and Lief that included “Matty Groves,” which I thought I knew all about from the Joan Baez recording. Well! I didn’t know much. Amazing forthright singing by Sandy Denny of lyrics that varied somewhat from the version I’d heard–but it was the guitar, the muscular ringing guitar propelling and belling under the words that blew my mind. That was Richard Thompson. You can listen to that version here.

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Richard Thompson. Photo: Pamela Littky.

 

Last night, Richard Thompson, now 67, played like that, only more so. Alone on Carolina Performing Arts‘ Memorial Hall stage, he performed songs from all his decades of music-making, from the 1960s to the 2010s. He did not play “Matty Groves,” but otherwise it was a choice selection from 50+ years as a troubadour, 50 years during which he has continually strengthened and refined his crafts, and his songwriting art has grown like a wild grapevine, sending his songs through the voices of many of the era’s singers.

Thompson’s songs are marvelous, and marvelously unclassifiable, as has been said in many ways by many reviewers: trenchant, with poetical word choices and surprising phrasing–often dark, sometimes sad or bitter or nostalgic or just aghast; but there are just enough gorgeous bright ones to get by on. Don’t want the audience to expire of emotional overload.  But the guitar! There was one man on the stage, with one instrument, but he made that box sound like five or six guitars at once. And separately: Thompson has a huge range of styles, all of which he is master. The driving force in the picking and sliding is irresistible.

Thompson was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2011, but it appears to have made no difference. His show has zero flash. He’s a workingman, a craftsman, and he stood stalwart for the long, unbroken set with three extensive encores, legs sturdy in blue jeans; muscles dancing below dark shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, his trademark beret in place. Not a celebrity, not an entertainer, he was there to do a job of work, some of the best work there is, bringing music and stories to the people.

That he was at Carolina had to do with a professor named Florence Dore, who, as a Fellow at the National Humanities Center this year, is working on a multi-part project called “Novel Sounds: American Fiction in the Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Thompson took part in a panel discussion today as part of it. I’m surprised that anyone is surprised that there would be a reciprocity between storytelling in song and storytelling in novels, but there it is. And naturally the rhythms and tones of popular music infiltrate non-song writing, just as the ways of telling in novel and song influence each other. But Richard Thompson’s inclusion on the CPA schedule also fits with CPA’s admirable interest in older musicians, as well the new pathbreakers, and in presenting them these experienced artists in ways that make clear certain things one wants from art can come only from time spent living.

Thompson closed his last encore with “The Dimming of the Day.” Best version I ever heard–but we are both older now.

 

CLEAR & SWEET, on the stage at CPA

A magical, exhilarating performance at  Carolina Performing Arts on October 5 still has me resonating two days later. The work Clear & Sweet, by Seattle company  zoe | juniper, was repeated on the 6th in Carolina Memorial Hall, but sadly, the group has now left town. I have a good feeling, though, that we will see Zoe Scofield, Juniper Shuey and the rest of these performance artists here again.

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Lighting and projections onto the enormous fringed “lamp shade” hanging over the circle in the square made mystical space for Clear & Sweet, by zoe | juniper, on the Memorial Hall stage 10/5/16. Photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.

 

“We approach the creation and presentation of our work with a belief that dance is a visual art form and visual art is a physical form,” says zoe | juniper in the company’s website mission statement. That is exactly how I think about it. “Considering the movement as though we were seeing a sculpture, film, or painting allows us to expand the medium of classical ballet vocabulary and how it functions in performance,” the statement continues. But in this case we saw sculpture, film, and painting; ballet vocabulary and passages and frills from other dance languages, all threaded through and enveloped with four-layered shape note singing and a reverberant, intermittent, sound score (Julian Martlew).

I responded so strongly because one of my primary values for an artwork is its approach to wholeness, the harmonious completeness it can have, in and of itself (no matter its shape, content or emotional qualities). Thus, what I mean by the shorthand “dance,” encompasses all the production elements: light, sound, costuming, and space-making with image or scenery. The more fully these elements are integrated with the kinetic–the choreography and its danced expression–the more satisfied I am. And I was very satisfied with Clear & Sweet, for not only does it achieve the wholeness which denotes thought-through artistic truth, each element is itself made with refined skill.

Clear & Sweet required an intimate setting with height, like the simple churches where shape note singing is traditional. Its architecture was created partly by the audience risers flanking the four sides of a square centered in the Memorial Hall stage, making the audience literally part of the piece, and very close to the dancers. With the stage contracted this way, the space above seemed to soar even higher. Centered in the square was a circle of light from above, the shaft of light permeably bounded by an enormous fringed “lamp shade” suspended from the grid. Various lighting effects and projections (Amiya Brown and Juniper Shuey) created different paintings and moving images on the shade and on the floor, changing throughout, but always keeping the brightest glow in the center circle. The center of each side of the square was marked a chair different from the audience chairs–a shape note singer sat in each one, so their hymn singing cast sound-lines across the circle in the square, meeting in its very center.

This is some serious mystical stuff.

The movement begins with one of the five dancers (the mystical pentagram suggested by its points?) wiggling and worming facedown around the circle, caressing the floor with their tresses. Others join, each on a separate earthly quest. The costumes (Christine Meyers) are lovely and disturbing. Made of thin linen, they convey a delicate strength. In places sheer, in others layered and gathered, they are modest but allow for full freedom of motion. But it is the colors that are so affecting: the colors of very ripe, slightly bruised, peaches. So there you, thinking about redworms and country churches and overripe fruit, when all the sudden all five bodies are face up, lying together inside the circle, where they launch a gorgeous, prone, sequence of elastic folding and interlocking in unison, reminiscent of Ohad Naharin-influenced Israeli Gaga style.

So much amazing dance ensued that it was hard to see how they got it all into a short 70 minutes. Much of it was balletic–but ballet torqued; stripped of prettiness and easy sentiment, it blended easily with the barely-contained energy of Gaga style, and with the effervescent Celtic steps. It has a simplicity and a generous quality throughout. There were some very powerful segments in which one or more of the dancers were blindfolded. From the beginning, all the movement languages speak of matters of spirit and faith. The piece, dramatically speaking, is well-structured–it entices, it builds, it culminates, it ends cleanly. The dancing itself, by Zoe Scofield, Ana Maria Lucaciu, Navarra Novy-Williams, Troy Ogilvie and Dominic Santia, was often extraordinary and always passionate.

My one quarrel was with the introduction of three pieces of spoken word. One was probably included to emphasize issues of faith and the submission of self to the faith group, whether church or dance company, and the ever-plaguing conflict in the arts between the leader and her collaborators. The auteur model is out of sync with the currently sensibility–egalitarianism is the byword today–its all about collaboration. Yet someone must lead; someone must have the final word. All this was perfectly clear without the insertion of words, and that first spoken bit was the only part of Sweet & Clear that struck me as a self-indulgent sop to fashion, blurry and overwrought. Because we process words so differently from music and image, this talky bit was interruptive of the flow, and threatened to dissolve the mystical atmosphere. The other two speeches, one in English, the other in Romanian, fitted a little better with the movement. They describe a young dancer’s studies, and how the better she got, the more alone she became. That is certainly the price of greatness in dance or any field, but did this obvious fact need verbalization within the speaking dance?

How can a piece like Sweet & Clear even get made, and made so that we can see it thousands of miles from the artists’ home? Increasingly, institutions like Carolina Performing Arts are vital to the making of such serious art. An astute director, like Emil Kang at CPA, or Aaron Greenwald at Duke Performances, builds relationships with artists so that over time as ideas and opportunities arise, their organizations can support the creation of today’s probing art.

Amy Russell , CPA’s director of programming explains: “Emil [Kang] had been following Zoe’s work for years and we met her for coffee about two years ago to see what she was working on and how we could support her next steps and she told us about this piece and we were just floored by the ideas and sentiment behind it and we agreed right there on the spot to be a co-commissioner.  So, the origin of the co-commission wasn’t through the official channel of NPN [National Performance Network], but rather more organically arising out of our relationship with Zoe directly.”

Collaboration is the order of the day on many commissions, too. On this one, CPA had five partners. That doesn’t take a thing away from their leadership, or from the astounding fact that they presented this jewel for a mere 300 or so people over two nights. Such intimate presentations will become more economically sensible when CPA gets its new black box theater in a year or two, but I so appreciate the grand theatrical gesture that put a tiny theatre inside a large one, and made a place for sign and portent.

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Commissioned work Clear & Sweet in performance by zoe | juniper on the Memorial Hall stage 10/5/16. Photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.

 

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