Loverly: MY FAIR LADY at PlayMakers

Rarely would a musical be my first choice of what to see at the theater, but there are exceptions, and My Fair Lady is first among them. PlayMakers Repertory Company has just opened its fresh version of this classic by Allan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, slipping plenty of substance under the frothy surface.

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Mia Pinero as Eliza Doolittle, and Jade Arnold as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in PlayMakers’ new production of MY FAIR LADY, in the Paul Green Theater through April 29, 2017.  Huth Photo.

 

Deriving from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), which itself derives from Ovid’s tale of the sculptor Pygmalion and his creation with which he fell in love, My Fair Lady details the metamorphosis of Eliza, a very poor Cockney flower seller, into a lady who can be mistaken for a princess–a metamorphosis orchestrated by Professor Henry Higgins and undertaken on a bet with fellow language specialist Colonel Pickering. Higgins is so well-to-do that he cannot even comprehend the conditions of Eliza’s life or even that she has feelings–and he has no use for women, except as servants (of whom he has aplenty). Hell, he can’t even comprehend that he has feelings until Eliza changes him.

The musical keeps some of Shaw’s pointed political-social commentary about class stratification, labor and capital, but both the play and the musical fail woefully to come to grips with woman’s powerless position in the patriarchal world when she has neither money nor a room of her own. It’s Jane Austen all over again, a hundred (now 200) years later, but without the empathy: a “lower” class woman can make a living, even if by snatching at pennies; a “lady” without her own money can only marry. (For a more contemporary reworking of the basic story, see the 1990 film Pretty Woman.) No version satisfactorily answers the question of precisely how the creation–the lady–could love her “creator”–this is not an equal relationship, despite the woman’s spunk…but so romantic.

Just go with it. You can gnaw the bones later; for two hours and forty-five minutes, this production spoons up crème anglaise and meringues pavlova for your apolitical pleasure.

Tightly directed by first-time guest Tyne Rafaeli, this My Fair Lady‘s cast includes a quartet of PRC’s finest actors, some high-grade non-company local talent and two knock-out imported actors as Eliza and her father, Alfred P. Doolittle.

Mia Pinero as Eliza is suitably volatile, if occasionally over-petulant, and has an impressive voice, with a wide range–of octaves, of tone, of emotion, of volume. Except when she is foiled by the technical weakness of the headset, which turns certain timbres and pitches to mush, she’s a joy to hear. (I truly do not know why they use these headsets–the actors all can make themselves heard to the back rows without them.) Her rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” along with the ensemble, is particularly fine, and I say that as a person raised on the Julie Andrews version from the original Broadway cast album. Pinero imbues the song with such depth of longing for the simplest comforts that one may want to give away all one’s luxuries to the deserving poor.

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Gary Milner, with the ensemble, tearing it up as Alfred P. Doolittle in PRC’s lively production of MY FAIR LADY. Huth Photo.

 

It’s a set-up, though, for Alfred P. Doolittle’s paean to the non-working life, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and his most excellent monologue on the undeserving poor. If director Rafaeli hadn’t kept strong control on the balance among the scenes, Gary Milner as Doolittle would have run away with the show. He is amazing, superbly physical, comically acute and utterly insouciant, especially in “Get Me to the Church on Time.” And again, part of his strength comes from the ensemble around him–the dozen actors who play all the smaller parts: dustmen, chimney sweeps, barkeep, servants, opera-goers, Ascot race-gazers, ball guests. Not only does the ensemble convincingly create all these individuals, not only can they sing–they can dance. Tracy Bersley has given them some marvelous choreography that goes beyond the standard musical theatre dance tropes, and involves a lot of very close synchronization to be effective. Outstanding among the ensemble are David Adamson, John Allore and Shanelle Nicole Leonard.

Longtime PlayMakers Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Henry Higgins and Ray Dooley as Colonel Pickering are superb. Cornell plays in the wide open space between Leslie Howard’s bloodless priggishness (in the 1938 film of Pygmalion) and Rex Harrison’s bombast (in everything, including the 1964 film of My Fair Lady), and gives us a Higgins with whom it is possible to empathize–because he makes Higgins’ own metamorphosis believable. Cornell has an attractive singing voice, and he’s deliciously wistful and confused in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” He and Dooley, colleagues these 22 years, work together as only time allows, and it is wonderful to watch. Dooley, who has an incredible range as an actor, is purely a treat as a the crotchety Colonel, a man’s man in a top hat.

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He Did It! He Really Did It! Ray Dooley, right, as Colonel Pickering; Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Henry Higgins, and Mia Pinero as Eliza after the ball, in PRC’s MY FAIR LADY. Huth Photo.

 

The men are buttressed by women, naturally–and luckily for us, they are two of the funniest women working on Triangle stages. Their roles are small, but they get the most out of them, and charmingly, director Rafaeli has given them almost identical laugh moments that involve the stage’s pit/lift. Julie Fishell plays Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mother, with a relish almost masked by her languid motions; Julia Gibson milks the housekeeper’s role of more than you knew was there. Together, the quartet of PRC company members makes one aware all over again of our extreme good fortune in having this resident theatre company in our midst. (This is Fishell’s final role as a PRC member. She’s leaving us soon, bound for California.)

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Jade Arnold in full voice as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in PRC’s production of MY FAIR LADY. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

But wait, what about the feckless Freddy Eynsford-Hill, that foppish charmer and exemplar of undeserving wealth? Freddy, who has the most beautiful and romantic song in the show, “On the Street Where You Live,” is luminously portrayed by Durham actor Jade Arnold. I’ve seen Arnold do a number of surprising and thrilling turns on stage but I had no idea he could sing. He rightfully brought the house to cheers on opening night. It is a great personal pleasure to me to see PlayMakers turning a little more towards the local theatre community, as artistic director Vivienne Benesch concludes her first full season with the company.

All this talent is lusciously supported by the musicians–Mark Hartman and Alex Thompson on two yummy Yamaha pianos lent by Ruggero Piano Company–and by the design team. McKay Coble has created another effective and efficient set which is made richer by Masha Tsimring’s emotive lighting, and Andrea Hood’s costuming is really excellent, clearly setting the time period, enhancing characterizations, and looking swell.

Rafaeli has made the final scene ambiguous–is, or is not, Eliza returning to Henry, who has belatedly seen the light? This has always been a worrisome thing to me–the WHY of her return–but there’s no questioning the ways of love, however it may be torqued by power or lack of capital. Still, it is nice not to have it taken for granted. Altogether, this is a stand-out production: very sweet, but the calories are hardly empty.

Through April 29.

“One Woman Plus a Typewriter Equals a Movement:” Pauli Murray Still Inspires

Pauli Murray’s immortal spirit is reembodied in TO BUY THE SUN, a remarkably dramatic piece of documentary theatre that played in Chapel Hill and Durham in late 2016, in a new and improved version of the original 2010 production. Six weeks later, I’m still thinking about the performance I saw at the Lyon Park Community Center, in Pauli Murray’s old Durham neighborhood (where her childhood home was recently named a National Historic Landmark; it also received a National Park Service grant for interior renovations). I see a lot of plays and generally mull them over for a week or two, but this one insinuated itself more deeply. In the tradition of the very best biographies, it throws light, but not heat, on a wide swath of history through the telling of an individual life.

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Rasool Jahan as Pauli Murray in TO BUY THE SUN, December, 2016. Photo courtesy of The Pauli Murray Project and Hidden Voices.

 

Commissioned by the Pauli Murray Project (led by Barbara Lau, as part of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute) from Hidden Voices, with support from the City of Durham and the Episcopal Church, TO BUY THE SUN was written by Hidden Voices founder Lynden Harris, in collaboration with her parter in progressive action, Kathryn Hunter-Williams, who directed both the original and the recent production.

Their brief was simple, if nearly impossible: make a play of a reasonable length that will appeal to a broad range of viewers, about Pauli Murray’s whole life. 1910-1985. Her ancestry was a tangle of pride and shame; her early life was crosshatched with sorrows; her adult life was filled with struggles and accomplishments so gargantuan that they almost obscure the woman. Rejected by the University of North Carolina for her race, and by Columbia University for her sex, Murray attended Hunter College, then Howard University Law School, where she graduated first in her class. Harvard rejected her application for master’s work on the basis of her sex, so she took that degree at UC-Berkeley, and joined the Bar in California, where she soon became the state’s first African-American deputy attorney general (breaking the path for California’s new junior Senator, Kamala Harris). Murray went on become the first African-American to earn a doctorate of law from Yale and later, the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. Along in there she became a friend and advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt, and a co-founder of the National Organization of Women. Although she did pioneering work against sex discrimination, she did not live long enough to marry any of the women she loved.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Murray herself told some of her story in her autobiographical book Proud Shoes, and the posthumously published Song in a Weary Throat (Wikipedia has an excellent, well-notated overview of Murray’s life; for a detailed look at one of the slave-owning, slave-raping branches of her family, see Miss Mary’s Money: Fortune and Misfortune in a North Carolina Plantation Family, by H.G. Jones and David Southern, McFarland & Company, 2015) but clearly there was more behind those books, the extant poetry, and Murray’s sermons.

Script writer Lynden Harris went to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, where Murray had placed her archives, and read up all her journals and papers. But Murray had often used initials instead of names, and had later excised portions, so it was often difficult to know what Murray had been writing about. So Harris then went to the archives of the Black press of the time, where she found much, much more–more information, and a viable design scheme for a bare-bones theater production. The team would go on to use a tapestry of collages and projections of the news articles and photographs as an ever-changing backdrop for the complex story.

TO BUY THE SUN takes place on the night of February 12, 1977, in the old family home at 906 Carroll Street in Durham’s West End, as Pauli Murray prepares for her first service of the Holy Eucharist as priest. She will raise high the bread and wine in the very chapel–The Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill–where her own enslaved grandmother was baptized. The ghosts are all around her. As she works on her sermon, they speak, from every stage of her life journey, and as always, Pauli speaks back. Not always fearlessly, but through the fears, distilling a life of pain and activist struggle into her great message: Peace, love, respect for everybody (as the revered Dr. Chuck Davis has also taught us to say). It is quite a writerly feat by Lynden Harris to keep Pauli Murray the woman alive in this nexus of history and struggle, and to always keep the audience seeing her life from her point of view–yet at the same time allow us to see her a symbol of the possible.

The original production of TO BUY THE SUN used only two actors for the many roles, and that was a bit awkward–the stage dynamics were too limited. “A couple of years ago,” Lynden Harris told me, “Kathy [Kathryn Hunter-Williams] said, ‘when we do this again, I want to have three people, I want a guy up there.’ And I said, that would be fine with me as long they didn’t play to gender and race. They had to play across that.”

This meant some arduous re-writing by Harris, for which no one was paying, but the result is brilliant and highly dynamic. And extremely informative, distressingly poignant, and powerfully motivating. The script is excellent and the direction acute, but the blazing success of the production in a flat-floored, former elementary school auditorium with almost no technical facilities was partly due to the casting of three of the area’s highly talented actors.

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A woman plus a typewriter. Rasool Jahan as Pauli Murray, and Jade Arnold, center, with Meredith Sause, as all the other characters alive in Murray’s memory, in TO BUY THE SUN, by Lynden Harris. Photo courtesy The Pauli Murray Project and Hidden Voices.

 

Rasool Jahan played Pauli Murray so thoroughly that it was difficult to remember that it was not Murray herself who spoke, while Meredith Sause and Jade Arnold played everyone else, making each character so specific that there was never confusion about who was speaking–including the ghosts. Having a mixed-race cast work through all the explosive racial content, and a mixed-sex cast portray the difficulties of variant sexualities worked very well. Joseph Amodei’s projections were wonderful–but very hard to see because the room could neither be darkened entirely not lit as it should have been.  If ever there was a history play that deserves to be given a fully supported production, this is it. Everything Pauli Murray lived and fought for is in jeopardy: We need this story told again and again. Harris tells me that there is considerable interest in touring and/or restaging TO BUY THE SUN from theaters and institutions around the state and the southeast. If it pops up near you, do not miss it.


Another piece of extraordinary documentary work, this one in film, is beginning to make the rounds. Cassilhaus recently had a special showing of OLYMPIC PRIDE-AMERICAN PREJUDICE. Researched, written and directed by Deborah Riley Draper, with executive production by Chatham County’s Amy Tiemann of Spark Productions, the film tells the story of ALL EIGHTEEN of the African-American athletes who participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Whoa! Who knew Jesse Owens was not the only one?

A staggering amount of research was required for this film, and the trove of materials found makes it visually rich, in the key of irony. Much of the archival film was shot by Hitler’s gal Leni Riefenstahl and her team to help prove Aryan supremacy–but the cameras caught the athletic achievements that won medal after medal for the Black members of Team USA. But the film’s greatness lies in its probing not only of the before and during, but also what happened after the Olympics. Some of it is heartbreaking; altogether it is a salutary reminder that we must continually assert our knowledge of history that we may always deny the veracity of “alternate facts.”

Look for this film –I think it will start appearing in local non-theatrical venues soon. The makers also have a Facebook presence, and you can go to tugg.com to explore single-screening rentals or educational licensing.

 

REDBIRD Festival, Part Two

Jade Arnold as Abraham Galloway, in Howard L. Craft's The Fire of Freedom at the REDBIRD new play festival. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Jade Arnold as Abraham Galloway, in Howard L. Craft’s The Fire of Freedom at the REDBIRD new play festival. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

From my review published on http://www.cvnc.org with the title “Redbird’s Second Program Features Hot New Play By Howard Craft”

Part Two of the Carrboro ArtsCenter’s thrilling REDBIRD Festival of New One-Act Plays by North Carolina Playwrights had its first performance the evening of March 14, with the remaining two out of the five plays presented. The glory of the program came in the second play, a very new work by Howard L. Craft. Inspired by wonderful historian David S. Cecelski’s book, The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves Civil War (UNC Press), Craft’s one-actor play proves (again) that a monologue, in the right hands, can be supremely dramatic….

Jade Arnold is an extremely charismatic actor, with powerful vocal skills, explosive physicality and breathtaking timing, making his embodiment of Galloway as compelling as Craft’s words. In a hidden attic, in New Bern, in 1863, Galloway has come to speak from his own observations and experiences to a crowd of black men about whether to take up with the Union Army; about what and who can be trusted and why, distinguishing incisively between the cause of the Union and the cause of Freedom. A representative from President Lincoln is to follow him, and Galloway is making sure the men understand that they are in a position to bargain and require, before committing themselves to the army. “I am not asking you to trust his words, but there are things that you can and must trust. Trust in a thing to be true to its nature. The nature of a bullfrog is to leap. The nature of an Army is to kill. The slave will not be free without much killing.”

READ THE FULL REVIEW HERE.

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