Colossal COLUSSUS

The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern has just opened an amazing piece of work at Manbites Dog Theater (part of Manbites’ Other Voices series), a play that gives full scope to the group’s many talents and general fearlessness. The New Colossus, written by Tamara Kissane, was inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and may be considered a radical modernization (and Americanization) of a play that was itself radically modern when it was first produced 120 years ago. A knowledge of The Seagull enriches one’s viewing of The New Colossus, but is in no way necessary to appreciating this production. The themes are timeless: families; love and its variants; new art straining against and raging at the old, and the everlasting tussle between daring truth and comforting entertainment in theatre and literature.

Kissane has followed Chekhov closely enough that the origins remain clear, but she has changed some names and elided or eliminated some characters to create a balance between men and women, and she has written a couple of very moving scenes between women that make the story more resonant today. And her language is deliciously fresh and contemporary (coarse in places, but appropriately so). In The Seagull, the young would-be theatre artist struggles to create new forms to express his feelings and what he sees as universal truths. Kissane has embedded today’s newer forms into her script, so that video-making and video projections form an essential component of the stage play (rather than being set dressing). Little Green Pig has done a lot of experimentation with the use of video; this seamless incorporation of it with the live acting is the most successful I’ve seen.

Dana Marks directs with a very satisfying combination of boldness and delicacy, pulling powerful performances from a uniformly strong cast, and making quiet pools here and there amidst the ceaseless swirl of movement. Something’s always going on, often multiple things, as in life–and as in life, some important actions take place at a distance. Her style and pacing here recall her work with Harriet Jacobs, but Marks has achieved far greater control here, with both clearer structure and smoother fluidity, so that the stories, rather than their manner of telling, dominate the viewer’s immediate responses.

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Jaybird O’Berski as Trig (L), Alex Jackson as Konrad (C) and J Evarts as Irina, in Little Green Pig’s premiere of THE NEW COLOSSUS, by Tamara Kissane. Photo: Alex Maness.

The “broken” young man Konrad (Konstantine in the original), the aspiring theatre artist, is played by Alex Jackson, who keeps one ricocheting between sympathy and exasperation. He is balanced by his stolid counterpart, the schoolteacher Meddie (Medvedenko), portrayed by Lazarus Simmons, who is beginning to display the range of his talent. Poor Konrad is in thrall to his flashy B-actress mother, Irina; as Irina, actress J Evarts gives a tremendous performance, the largest, boldest work I’ve seen her do. She’s stunning in her casual unkindness and her stylish sexuality and her desperation to appear young and employable. She and Trig O’Ryan (Trigorin), a nastyish, self-loving author of popular potboilers are made for each other. As Trig, Jaybird O’Berski demonstrates once again his extraordinary skills as an actor. Trig’s a piece of work, but O’Berski never caricatures, never lets us despise him as inhuman–after all, he’s just a man.

Alice Rose Turner does a good job with Nina, the young girl from the neighborhood who aspires to an acting career in the big city, and with whom Konrad is in love. On preview night she was a bit tentative initially, but gained presence rapidly. She is the seagull, the free bird who both Konrad and Trig would capture for their own purposes. Turner was particularly fine in her final scene. Her counterbalance is the tough Masha, thrillingly played with dry understatement by Mara Thomas. In The Seagull, at the very beginning, Masha says “I’m in mourning for my life.” In The New Colossus, she wears that statement on her t-shirt. She’s in love with Konrad; Meddie’s in love with her–and like her mother, Pauline, she settles for the man she doesn’t love. We never see Pauline’s husband, but he asserts his position, forever texting Pauline and Masha, requiring they placate and attend to him. Pauline is in love–still–with the aging Sorin, Irina’s brother and Konrad’s uncle, on whose country place most of the action occurs. Mick Foley brings his very considerable knowledge of human behavior to the role, and as always, his nuanced acting, both physical and vocal, elicit great empathy for his character.

The scene between Masha and Nina, late in the play, late at night, in which the childhood friends comfort each other, drinking and holding hands, is quite beautiful. It has its counterpart in a similar, if more combative scene, between Pauline–exquisitely manifested by Susannah Hough–and Irina. These two scenes, in particular, hit the refresh button on The Seagull, although its feminization begins much earlier, with Kissane’s brilliant rewrite of Konstantine’s play within the play, in which she substitutes a great mother figure for Chekhov’s manly heroes.

The design team’s work is crucial to the production’s success. Miyuki Su’s set, with its dozens of upended umbrellas suspended below the lights, its shredded white curtains, its sand and grass, is really wonderful, especially in the way it allows the actors to work in the round, and off the main stage area. She, along with the playwright and stage manager Jenn Evans, designed/made/found the many props, while Jade Bettin did the excellent costuming, and Steve Tell the subtle lighting. The video work is by Nick Karner, with Ishmail Abdelkhalek and Alex Maness providing technical direction, and Jeff Alguire exerting technical control over the set. Nicola Bullock choreographed Irina’s seductive dance; Sir Lionel Mouse put together the emotive soundtrack (playlist on Spotify: “Colossus”).

The New Colossus showcases the brilliance of Durham’s most adventurous theatre artists, and their commitment to the collaborative process that can result in such powerful new work. Kissane of course had been writing on the script for a good while, but the cast and crew, all of whom have at least one other day job, put this awesome thing together in a month. Just think what they could do if they had two months. See this show, and consider whether the future of such theatre in Durham is worth your support, perhaps through Patreon, the new model for new arts outside the institutional box. LGP’s Patreon page will go live on June 6.

The New Colossus continues at Manbites Dog Theatre through June 4. Due to the high-decibel Moogfest event to occur nearby, there will be no show Sat. May 21, but there is an unusual Sunday evening show on the 22nd. Schedule and tickets here.

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Alice Rose Turner as Nina, with Konrad (Alex Jackson), in the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s THE NEW COLOSSUS, at Manbites Dog Theater through June 4, 2016.                     Set design by Miyuki Su. Photo: Alex Maness.

 

 

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PRC’s Nuanced New Version of THREE SISTERS: Ennui on Stage, but Not in the Audience

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The Ensemble in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Libby Appel. Jan. 20-Feb. 7, 2016. Directed by Producing Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

After several snow days, the PlayMakers’ Repertory Company‘s new production finally got to open on Tuesday, Jan. 26. It was not quite the celebratory occasion everyone had expected, the big welcome to PRC’s new producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch. But there is plenty of cause for celebration following the first public presentation, however delayed, of this updated classic. Benesch has beautifully directed an elegant new version of Anton Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS, by Libby Appel, and has gotten both seamless ensemble work and acute characterizations from the large cast, in the process bringing out many points of commonality between the life depicted in the classic play and life today. If you are new to Chekhov, this would be a marvelous introduction; for the repeat viewer, it may in some ways be a revelation, and not just for the success of the color-blind casting.

Given the deep understanding of character and human arrangements that Appel has demonstrated previously as a director at PRC (The Glass Menagerie, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) and her avowed lifetime passion for the works of Chekhov, it comes as no surprise that her Three Sisters provokes empathy rather than impatience with its philosophizing, unhappy people. (This new version was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, of which Appel is Artistic Director Emerita; she was assisted in the literal translation by Allison Horsley.)  Benesch, as she has previously demonstrated at PRC in her direction (especially of Love Alone, and In the Next Room), has a capacity of heart that allows her to show us humans with their marvels and their fears and foibles all blended.

Appel, Benesch and Chekhov together coax us into a nonjudgmental state of empathy and compassion for people whose weak or ridiculous qualities we might otherwise despise, and force us to ask the characters’ questions of ourselves. What do we really know? How do we get through this life? Is work the answer? Action, accomplishment, love: does any of it matter? Are we just stuck here, getting more stuck every day? Chekhov wrote Three Sisters in 1901, but sometimes this play (set in a Russia very long gone) seems stunningly modern, and very like Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.

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L to R: Arielle Yoder as Maria (Masha) Sergeyevna, Allison Altman as Irina Sergeyevna, Marinda Anderson as Olga Sergeyevna and Joshua David Robinson as Colonel Aleksander Ignatyevich Vershinin in PRC’s production of THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Libby Appel. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

On Tuesday night, the cast, although having had their momentum interrupted before they had even completed previews, was uniformly solid, from the students to the longtime PlayMakers to the guest artists. But in the second act they rose again and again to brilliance, and all the passions running under their surfaces burned clear. Daniel Pearce is particularly notable as Kulygin, the kind, absurd, self-deluding schoolteacher whose bored and disappointed wife Masha takes up with the dashing Colonel. Pearce makes him pathetic, but not pitiful; we cannot laugh at Pearce’s Kulygin, although we know he is ridiculous. The production design by Alexis Distler and the solo cello music composed by Ari Picker and played from the stage balcony by Isabel Castellvi further encourage us in a mournful kindness to those versions of ourselves, our families, our societies, who are bumbling through life on stage.

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Daniel Pearce as Fyodor Iliyich Kulygin and Allison Altman as Irina Sergeyevna in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of THREE SISTERS. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

As happens on rare, wonderful occasions in theatre, some of the passions on stage became so real on Tuesday night that even the actors seemed to forget they were acting. Daniel Bailin, as the Baron, seemed to actually tremble while saying goodbye to Irina and going his brave and foolish way.

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Joshua David Robinson as Vershinin and Arielle Yoder as Masha in PRC’s production of THREE SISTERS. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

And Arielle Yoder, Allison Altman and Marinda Anderson were so far in character as the three sisters that when the lights went down and the applause went up, the three visibly had to force themselves back to the here and now, and stifle their tears so they could take their bows. Now that’s powerful theatre.

At PlayMakers through Feb. 7. Tickets here.

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Arielle Yoder (Masha) and Allison Altman (Irina) near the end of PRC’s production of THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Libby Appel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

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