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.

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Truly Beautiful INTIMATE APPAREL

PlayMakers Repertory Company has opened a deeply satisfying production in the Paul Green Theater. Beautifully directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Intimate Apparel offers the kind of intimate sharing of lives that is one of theatre’s most wondrous aspects. Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play was written nearly a century after it is set, and it is particular in its attention to the New York of 1905 that shapes its action and characters, but it is timeless in its delicate revelations of the souls of the women and men who people it. The basics of the story are not unusual, yet Nottage inserts at least three instances in which circumstances or behavior are such that they draw vocal response from the audience. During Sunday’s matinee (very well attended, and not just by old people) one moaning gasp in unison from the crowd nearly stopped the action on stage.

In other words, Intimate Apparel engages us at a deep emotional level. Certainly it concerns social questions, but it lets them radiate from the lived core. It doesn’t beat us over the head with its intellectual concepts; it never breaks the fourth wall. After all these years, I still find it miraculous that a play, with fragments, can let you look at a distant world complete–and tilt that distant world into a mirror of oneself and one’s own time.

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Rasool Jahan (left) as Esther, and Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Mrs. Dickson, in PlayMakers’ production of Intimate Apparel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

Intimate Apparel centers on Esther, a black woman who made her way out of the South by picking berries and selling them along the trek from North Carolina. She lives in a boarding house, and from her little room has made a career as a fine seamstress, sewing fancy corsets and lingerie. She loves her work, but she’s 35 and lonesome, but also proud and particular and chaste. Esther is embodied by Rasool Jahan, who never fails to make the actress invisible–only the character is present on stage. Kathryn Hunter-Williams, who plays Esther’s landlady, the widowed Mrs. Dickson, has the same quality as an actress, which makes the scenes between the two women particularly fine.

One of Esther’s clients is an unhappily married rich white woman, Mrs. Van Buren, played by the lovely third year graduate student Allison Altman. Altman’s always a pleasure to watch, although she has not yet reached the point where she can subsume herself completely in the character. Nottage uses Mrs. Van Buren to highlight social and racial stratification, and to promote the plot, but she’s not unsympathetic to the woman–she’s somewhat irksome, but not two-dimensional.

To find the gorgeous fabrics and laces for her rich ladies’ underclothes, Esther frequents the shop of one Mr. Marks, a lonesome Romanian Jew who has long been awaiting the accomplishment of an arranged marriage to a woman still in Romania. Benjamin Curns, another third year student in the Professional Acting Program, gives the most fully realized performance of his time at Carolina as Mr. Marks. He and Esther share a deep love of fabric–and maybe they could share more, but it cannot be. The scenes between them pierced my heart.

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Esther (Rasool Jahan) and the cloth merchant Mr. Marks (Benjamin Curns) in PlayMakers’ Intimate Apparel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

But it is handsome George who upends Esther’s life, with the help of her girlfriend, Mayme. Myles Bullock, another third year MFA student, is believable, touching and infuriating as George, the Barbadian laborer and pen pal admirer Esther marries. Poor George, thrust into the cauldron of Jim Crow New York, is not man enough to withstand the pressures and offenses and the destruction of his dreams, and even though one would like to get up and punch him, he is pitiable, and Bullock makes us feel George’s frustration to the degree that we can almost have sympathy for his profligacy.

Mayme, played with relish and a fine physicality by first year graduate student Shanelle Nicole Leonard, is the foil to the self-contained, working-for-the-future Esther. Mayme is a bawdy prostitute, living only in the now, the sensuous now. Yet she and Esther are good friends. Until. You know what will happen. But you don’t know what it will unleash in Esther. There are so few plots in life and in theatre, but so many twists.

Some plays don’t need much in the way of design, but this one is well-served by high production values. Bobbi Owen’s costumes are great–each perfect for its character. The scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee is rich and detailed, providing on the thrust stage several settings for the various locations so that the story is not interrupted by the moving of furniture. Her design is completed by the wonderful projections by Dominic Abbenante, and lighting designer Xavier Pierce has done a very interesting thing: the lighting is unusually soft, with fewer lumens overall, and this gives us the feeling of entering one of the old photographs used so effectively in the projections.

This fine production continues at PlayMakers through Feb. 12.

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Esther (Rasool Jahan) and George (Myles Bullock) on their wedding day, in PlayMakers’ production of Intimate Apparel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

 

 

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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