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.

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.

Dooley Gives Tough Lessons in PRC’s SEMINAR

PlayMakers Repertory Company production of SEMINAR. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

PlayMakers Repertory Company production of SEMINAR. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Seminar, currently on stage at PlayMakers Repertory Company (through Nov. 1), is not a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it is bitingly funny, as carried out by craft-master Ray Dooley and four of his students in the Professional Actor Training Program in the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Dramatic Art. Anyone who has ever survived critiques in any art form will find it particularly so. In fact, Seminar seems to have been written for the academic setting–a broader audience might find it a bit tedious with in-jokes.

Theresa Rebeck‘s 2011 play about four striving young writers, and one older, in New York, is played snappily for its comedic and farcical qualities. On opening night, the ensemble sizzled, zipping from the mildly funny to the brutally hilarious to the mildly touching again and again. Under guest Michael Dove’s direction, Seminar is a lively entertainment, highly enjoyable, more than an exhaustive peeling back of creative psyches.

Yet it touches on something very important–how easy it is for a person to be damaged, even ruined, by a society that will punish him or her forever for a relatively minor error of judgement. This links Seminar with the last PRC production, Disgraced. Those who saw that production will also appreciate how effectively much of its set has been recycled here by Robin Vest (down to the figure of Shiva), yet made strikingly different with the use of a handsome suite of elegant mid-century modern furniture.

Ray Dooley plays Leonard, a famous writing teacher who takes only a few carefully chosen students, at an exorbitant price. Leonard exudes bitterness, it enters before him like a smell, and his gaze nearly incinerates those it focuses on. His persona is high-testosterone jerk. He comes to flay, to eviscerate, the hapless authors of unworthy wordsmithing, who he keeps off-balance by the undeniable truths mixed into his cruelty.

The four students of this group, all more or less known to each other beforehand, are meeting with Leonard for their seminar at the Upper West Side apartment of Kate, a well-to-do 20-something making the most of having been at Bennington, who is very well played by Carey Cox. In Kate’s rent-controlled apartment they will get to know each other, and themselves, much better. The others include Douglas, the appallingly stylish, name-dropping guy on a fast track because of his connections. Schuyler Scott Mastain excels, particularly in the moments of unguarded emotionality he slips into the comic routines. Allison Altman is a delight as the feckless, gorgeous Izzy, who’s all about sex and the pursuit of fame. And then there is Martin, a real writer. Myles Bullock gives a fine performance, with a wide and finely shaded emotional range, and his Martin gives the play a depth beneath the glossy comedy of sex and ambition. Writing’s not a joke to Martin, and it is up to Martin to pull the real lessons from Leonard–and give one in return.

The play’s final scene, between Martin and Leonard, in which each requires honesty of the other, and in which they reach a grudging trust, is most satisfying and most ambiguous. It’s possible, with Dooley looking so Mephistophelean, that a deal with the devil goes down.

Ray Dooley, left, and Myles Bullock in PRC's production of SEMINAR. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Ray Dooley, left, and Myles Bullock in PRC’s production of SEMINAR. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Following is my review of DISGRACED, published on cvnc.org. last month.

Disgraced: An American Tragedy at PRC

PlayMakers Repertory Company has opened its 2015-16 Mainstage season with an unusually powerful recent drama. Ayad Akhtar‘s Disgraced won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013; this season it is the most-produced play in the US, according to American Theatre Magazine. The play is of its time, certainly, and highly relevant because of its topic, but the deeper themes will serve to make it timeless. The PRC production, directed by Shishir Kurup, leaves you with much to think on — after you’ve gotten over the body-slam of its dilemmas and tragedies, and its astonishing array of insults.

There is not a good way to recap this play without making it sound slight, or giving away its many shattering twists. But briefly: Amir, a Pakistani-American and Muslim apostate, is a mergers and acquisitions attorney in New York who has labored with willing spirit for years in hopes of becoming a partner and seeing his own name alongside those of his Jewish colleagues in the company name. His wife, Emily, a white American, is a painter and advocate for Islamic culture. Their “friends” Isaac and Jory are, respectively, a Jewish-American art curator at the Whitney and a black American corporate attorney at the same firm as Amir. And then there’s Abe/Hussein, Amir’s nephew, a teenager actively searching for a viable self-identity as a brown person in post-9/11 USA. He is the instigating character who sets off the chain of events that leads to the devolution of the foursome’s relationship, and to Amir’s disgrace.

Along the way, playwright Akhtar skins and guts any number of social absurdities — his send up of the art curator is priceless — so that one laughs, even as the tension builds. You don’t have to know anything about the play to realize early on that something terrible is going to happen, that the veneers of civility will crack and peel away before you. (It reminds one of both God of Carnage and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in this way.) And from the first scene, you understand that Emily, with her cultural appropriation of Islamic forms and her incomplete understanding of Islamic culture, is going to unwittingly bring about the wreck. (Blessedly, Akhtar refrains from using the terms “cultural appropriation” and “cultural imperialism” even while scrutinizing the subjects.)

Shishir Kurup directs with extraordinary skill. He raises the intensity at such a gentle pace that you are in a state of twanging anxiety before you know how you got there, and still he leaves you unprepared for the blow-up. Rajesh Bose gave a heart-wringing performance as Amir. As his secrets and his rage were revealed and his behavior breached the bounds of the acceptable, he became more and more pitiable and lovable. His final scene amidst the wreckage of his life had a verisimilitude rarely seen on stage. He literally shrank into himself, imploded.

Nicole Gabriella Scipione was excellent as Emily, happily paddling on the surface of her easy beliefs, until she was sucked under in their riptide. Rasool Jahan was fantastic as Jory, cool as could be until an incident fanned the latent flame in her. Benjamin Curns, the only PRC/UNC cast member, played his pompous curator to a T. Samip Raval as the young nephew was very touching, but sometimes difficult to hear.

The scenic design by Nephelie Andonyadis is clean and informative, as is Geoff Korf’s lighting, which changes subtly with the changing tone of the proceedings. Bruno Louchouarn’s sound design is equally subtle and very affecting. Altogether, this was a tight production of an important play — one that successfully combines careful thinking with tragic drama.

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