Month: October 2016

Theatre Review – Parade at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I have some “real big news” for both fans of “pretty music” as well as those who prefer “a rumblin’ and a rollin’” in their seats. Haddonfield Plays and Players are putting on an outstanding production of the musical Parade. I experienced the pleasure of witnessing the show firsthand at the premiere on October 20, 2016. Director Pat De Fusco understood one person couldn’t “do it alone.” The cast and crew earned their share of “the glory” for this remarkable performance. Many times “it’s hard to speak my heart.” So I hope readers will forgive me for “all the wasted time” I spent on this “prelude.” I would point out that the substantive parts of this review are “not over yet”; and there’s a lot of substance to this one.  So “what am I waiting for?”

Parade (book by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by James Robert Brown) told a disturbing tale for a musical. The action commenced on Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1913. With the backdrop of a parade commemorating this Georgia holiday, authorities discovered the body of a 13 year-old factory worker named Mary Phagan (Played by Alexa Reeves) in the basement of the building she worked. In order to advance his political career, Georgia Governor Slaton (played by Michael Doheny) pressured District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (played by Michael Lovell) to quickly convict someone of the crime. He opted to frame a Jewish migrant from Brooklyn, Leo Frank (played by Andrew Jarema).

Mr. Jarema’s role reminded me of a character from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. With his big spectacles, clean-cut looks and straight hair he looked the part of an average man drawn into a bizarre happening through forces beyond his control. He showed great range in his performance, as well. When police asked his character to identify Mary’s body he became squeamish and anxious. During an enactment of (false) court room testimony, Mr. Jarema did a superb job transforming from a timid man wrongly accused into a predatory lothario. I enjoyed his spirited performance in the later incarnation during the jazzy “Come Up to My Office” number. He also demonstrated tenderness singing the “This is Not Over Yet” ballad accompanied by Lucille Frank (played by Arielle Egan). I have to applaud this performer for transitioning his character into a courageous and even heroic figure by the end of the show.

Arielle Egan played an outstanding supportive wife in the role of Mrs. Frank. Mr. Jarema’s character didn’t make it easy for her. In spite of his taking his anger and frustration out on her, sometimes in rather shrill tones, she conveyed both her anxiety and devotion to him. I found her renditions of “You Don’t Know This Man” and “All the Wasted Time” very moving.

I also liked the way she adjusted her character’s personality throughout the show. While visiting her husband in prison she expressed a desire to leave town during his trial. Like her counterpart’s, her character became more audacious throughout the performance. Later in the show her character approached the governor at a private party and asked him to re-open her husband’s case. Her animation of Mrs. Frank made this change credible.

The best moment in the show occurred with Darryl Thomson, Jr.’s soulful performance on “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall.” With the chain gang serving as a chorus and the image of the scorching sun over the Georgia landscape in the background, he sang the blues in a way that would’ve made Robert Johnson jealous. I enjoyed the song so much it gave me the blues because it ended too soon.

I also appreciated Taylor Brody’s portrayal of cynical reporter Britt Craig. His dark suit along with the tie hanging loosely under his unbuttoned top button looked the part of a beat reporter in search of a scoop. So did his taking notes while attending Ms. Phagan’s funeral. The rendition of “Real Big News” really captured his character’s essence. Visuals of newspaper headlines projected against the background enhanced the atmosphere on this tune, as well.

I applaud Michael Arigot for his very emotional portrayal of Frankie Epps. He began by playing a carefree teenager courting Mary Phagan. Following her death he delivered heartbreaking singing during “The Funeral Sequence.” I found that portion of the show very poignant. Following that, he compellingly played a man consumed with rage and obsessed with the need for vengeance.

Parade featured a veritable high tech extravaganza. A projector flashed images on the rear wall during several crucial scenes. A pre-recorded soundtrack played in the background for the musical numbers. Several times the harmony played so loud it drowned out the singers’ voices. Towards the end of the show the music cut out several times. With a show this complex these things happen. None of the performers let the distractions affect their performances. They remained focused until the sound crew addressed the issues. That’s a credit to everyone’s professionalism.

I also want to credit Michael Lovell (as DA Hugh Dorsey) and William H. Young (as Riley) for the interrogation. If I may borrow a line from Hamilton, these gentlemen made me feel like I was “in the room where it happens.” The questioning occurred the same way I would’ve imagined a politically ambitious DA grilling an African-American witness in the Deep South during the early twentieth century. Mr. Lovell delivered threats with veiled hostility. Mr. Young prayed and trembled while listening. The proficiency of these two performers made this scene uncomfortably realistic.

My “verdict” on Haddonfield Plays and Players production is that this show was phenomenal. If someone tells you I made different comments regarding Parade, tell that person, “‘That’s what he said.’ ’You don’t know this man.’”

“Somethin’ ain’t right,” though. “It don’t make sense” that the show’s “finale” will take place just a few short weeks away on November 5th. The performance deserves a longer run. Where’s the “hammer of justice” here? Visit Haddonfield Plays and Players before Parade passes by. That’s my “closing statement.”

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Book Review – Death etc. by Harold Pinter

Some time ago I had a discussion regarding Harold Pinter with my writing partner. We got talking about his 2005 Nobel Lecture. I explained how the playwright devoted half the speech to his vitriolic hatred of the leaders of the United States and Great Britain; the then on-going war in Iraq germinating much of this animosity. At times I believed Mr. Pinter became unhinged in his excoriation of Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. My writing partner suggested that since he did suffer from terminal cancer at the time, he may not have felt any reason to restrain himself. Death etc. left me with the impression his remarks to the Swedish Academy reflected an ordinary conversation with Mr. Pinter.

Death etc contained a diverse sampling of the playwright’s later works. It included several poems, a number of speeches and some of his shorter dramas. As a fan of his plays, I enjoyed the diverse sampling of his writing.

I’ve read Pinter’s Collected Works volumes one through four. The latter ended at 1981. I liked that this book included his later dramas Mountain Language, The New World Order, One for the Road, Press Conference, and Ashes to Ashes.

The plays provided a solid sampling of Pinter’s unique gift for language. In One for the Road he included the expression, “Your soul shines out of your eyes.” (Location 492)

In my review of Betrayal I commented on Pinter’s minimalist use of language. The following passage from One for the Road made the wording in that play seem like something out of a thesaurus.

Nicolas: When did you meet your husband?

Gila: When I was eighteen.

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: Why?

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: I just met him.

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: I didn’t plan it.

Nicolas: Why not?

Gila: I didn’t know him.

Nicolas: Why not?

(Pause.)

Nicolas: (Continued.) Why not?

Gila: I didn’t know him.

Nicolas: Why not?

Gila: I met him. (Location 529)

I mentioned in my opening that Mr. Pinter vocally criticized both the US and the UK for their roles in the Iraq War. His dissatisfaction with their respective policies towards that country began long before then. He expatiated on his anger in Death etc. Here’s an excerpt from “An Open Letter to the Prime Minister” written five years prior to the conflict. He wrote:

Dear Prime Minister (Tony Blair):

We have been reminded often over the last few weeks of Saddam Hussein’s appalling record in the field of human rights. It is indeed appalling: brutal, pathological. But I thought you might be interested to scrutinize the record of your ally, the United States, in a somewhat wider context. I am not at all certain that your advisors will have kept you fully informed.

The United States has supported, subsidized, and, in a number of cases, engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world since 1945. I refer to Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, Greece, Uruguay, the Philippines, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey and El Salvador, for example. Hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered by these regimes, but the money, the resources, the equipment (all kinds), the advice, the moral support, as it were, has come from successive US administrations. (Location 719)

I felt his observations would’ve had more resonance if he placed them against the appropriate back-drop of the Cold War. Nonetheless, I accept the old libertarian adage that, “Freedom is your freedom to disagree with me.” I also respect the author for the strength of his convictions.

While Mr. Pinter’s political views may offend some readers, his poetry will, no doubt, turn off others. I thought his verse rather cross and graphic. Here’s a stanza from 1997’s “Death.”

Did you wash the dead body

Did you close both its eyes

Did you bury the dead body

Did you leave it abandoned

Did you kiss the dead body (Location 1339)

The playwright also quoted this poem during his Nobel Lecture.

Mr. Pinter held strong left-of-center political positions. He also didn’t show reticence or restraint when he expressed them. For that reason, Death etc would best be enjoyed by hard-core Harold Pinter fans. I’d advise those with a modest interest in his plays read the four volume Collected Works.

In The Press Conference, Pinter wrote, “He that is lost is found.” (Location 704) That expression summarized his view of political philosophy. While I disagree with his harsh condemnation of the free world’s policies, individuals like Mr. Pinter show us that our leaders and existing orthodoxy should always be challenged.

Bob Dylan Named 2016 Nobel Literature Laureate

“Things have changed” for who’s eligible to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The 2016 award went to American singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. Why did the Swedish Academy award it to a lyricist? The answer is “blowin’ in the wind.” Mr. Dylan must think it’s an “idiot wind.” To date he hasn’t responded to the committee’s efforts to get in touch with him. Through this “simple twist of fate” Bob Dylan has found himself the center of an unlikely controversy.

Perhaps, Mr. Dylan thinks some “jokerman” notified him about this honor. I’m sure “it ain’t me, babe” would’ve been his first reaction.

Since the Nobel Prize is a lifetime achievement award, it may be showing him that he’s not “forever young.” Of all people, he should know what matters is feeling “young at heart.”

Or maybe he’s thinking that by ignoring it, “I shall be released” from accepting it. “Most likely you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine” if he doesn’t answer the Swedish Academy’s requests. To be fair: They’re simply saying “’I want you’ to accept, Mr. Dylan. ‘All I really want to do’ is award you the prize. We’ve ‘got to serve somebody’ with it.” Mr. Dylan may reply, “’If not for you’, I wouldn’t be in this situation!”

I can understand if the announcement put Mr. Dylan in a “melancholy mood.” The news swept through the internet like a “hurricane.” From some of the reactions I read from novelists, I worried the “man in the long black coat” would have him “knocking on Heaven’s door” soon. I don’t blame him for seeking “shelter from the storm” the media frenzy caused.

This year’s selection of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature shows just how much “the times they are ‘a changin’.”As for me, I’m “pledging my time” to encouraging Mr. Dylan to accept this award. I don’t want him to look back on this and think “I threw it all away.” “One of us must know sooner or later” whether he will or not. But he earned it, so it’s his decision. I’d tell him that if he opts to turn it down: “Don’t think twice. It’s alright.”

 

Drama Review – Betrayal by Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter deserves respect as the greatest English language playwright since William Shakespeare. Whereas The Bard crafted beautifully worded verbose passages, Mr. Pinter chose the opposite approach. He populated his plays with repetition of words, and short phrases separated by myriad pauses. This technique equated to genius. Mr. Pinter’s craft reached its apogee in 1978 when he published Betrayal.

Many playwrights either draw on aphorisms or choose esoteric expressions for their titles. Not Pinter. This play delivered exactly what I expected. As with many of Pinter’s works, the drama contained few characters. The story centered on an act of betrayal between good friends Robert and Jerry. It seems the latter engaged in an affair with his “oldest friend’s” wife, Emma, “for years.” (Location 305)  In addition to that betrayal, Jerry felt betrayed by Emma’s revelation to Robert that the two were lovers. Emma felt betrayed because Robert “had…other women for years.” (Location305) Even by the standards of a Harold Pinter play Betrayal was not a happy story.

Pinter, as usual, selected very unconventional characters to animate the drama. Here’s Robert’s reaction when Emma informed him of her affair with his friend.

I’ve always liked Jerry. To be honest, I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. Maybe I should’ve had an affair with him myself.

(Silence.)

Tell me, are you looking forward to our trip to Torcello? (Location 898)

I really liked the way the playwright structured this work. It opened in the present as Jerry and Emma met for a drink. During the course of a conversation that seemed banal on the surface, it transitioned to their past affair. In the next scene Jerry discussed it with Robert. Each subsequent one regressed backwards in time. The play ended with the occasion when Jerry and Emma first felt attracted to one another.

I complimented Mr. Pinter’s minimalist use of language. Here’s an exceptional example of it.

Emma: (Pause) It’s just…an empty home.

Jerry: It’s not a home.

(Pause.)

I know. I know what you wanted…but it could never…actually be a home. You have a home. I have a home. With curtains, et cetera. And children. Two children in two homes. There are no children here, so it’s not the same kind of home. (Location 586)

Home appeared seven times in the above 57 word passage. I admire the way Pinter managed to include it so many times in such short succession without it coming across as contrived.

Here’s another phenomenal example of repetition. In this one, Robert explains his awareness of Jerry’s and Emma’s infidelity.

Robert: No she didn’t. She didn’t tell me about you and her last night. She told me about you and her four years ago.

(Pause.)

So she didn’t have to tell me again last night. Because I knew. And she knew I knew because she told me herself four years ago. (Location 2057)

I only had one criticism of Betrayal. I didn’t understand Robert’s behavior. From my reading of the text, the character didn’t possess any emotions. I can’t believe someone would react so dispassionately to a wife’s relationship with a close friend. Because of his inability to express feelings, I wondered what attracted the other women to him; and, for that matter, his wife.

But, that’s how I interpreted Robert on the page. I’ve never watched Betrayal performed. It’s possible an experienced director would understand him differently.

For his lifetime of work Harold Pinter received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m a huge fan and I’ve enjoyed many of his plays. If he never wrote anything else, he could have earned the Swedish Academy’s honor for Betrayal alone.

Theatre Review – ‘night, Mother at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

Intense. Marsh Norman’s drama allowed an audience to share the final hour-and-a-half of a young woman’s life with her. Jesse (played by Stevie Neale) accepted her impending passing with quiet reservation. ‘night, Mother began with her informing her Mama (played by Phyllis Josephson) of how quickly her end approached; opting to share her last moments with her. This set-up alone would have made for a powerful dramatic performance. The cause of Jesse’s death made it intense: she’d planned on committing suicide before the evening’s end.

In my experience with theatre, I’ve found that the fewer the characters in a given performance, the more challenging the roles. With only Jesse and Mama in this case, ‘night, Mother proved it. Fortunately for theatre fans, director Tim Sagges, selected two extraordinary talents for this Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage production. I attended the opening night performance this October 7th.

Stevie Neale deserves immense credit for playing the role of Jesse. The character had failed as a wife, raised a criminal son and couldn’t keep a job due to poor health. She explained various household miscellanies to her mother such as the arrangement of silverware, the location of spare fuses and how to order groceries from the local store while discussing terminating her life. That’s quite a challenge.

Ms. Neale selected an exceptional voice for Jesse. She used a calm, almost whisper-like tone containing a trace of anger. It really conveyed Jesse’s emotional state, or lack thereof. She described suicide with the same passion as someone reciting passages from the National Electrical Code book. This inflection demonstrated how Jesse viewed life as a bus trip that she “wanted to get off.”

But Jesse’s character possessed more dimensions than the surface showed. When Mama brought up Jesse’s ex-husband, Ms. Neale stared into the distance. Her facial expressions displayed a pining for the past coupled with immense sadness for the present. It illustrated why taking care of Mama just “wasn’t enough” to inspire an interest in living.

Upon getting to know Mama through Phyllis Josephson’s exceptional interpretation, I could understand why. I credit the playwright for pairing a suicidal character with the worst possible person to talk her out of it. It made for great conflict. When Jesse asked Mama if she’d loved Daddy, a pause and a matter-of-fact “no” followed. While Jesse believed a fall from a horse in adulthood caused the epilepsy which thus fractured her marriage, Mama rebutted that she’d had “fainting spells” since childhood. (She’d never thought to take Jesse to a doctor because of them.) Then she expressed jealousy towards Jesse’s relationship with her father, a man Mama admitted she didn’t love. I wrote that this show was intense, right?

I’ve watched Ms. Josephson play comedy as Grandma in the Addams Family Musical. I also attended a performance of the dramedy Kimberly Akimbo, in which she played the title character. I really enjoyed watching her take on a role this much more complex. Mama ran the entire range of grieving emotions from denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance in less than 90 minutes. At the same time she struggled to give her troubled daughter reasons to live. In the course of doing so, she reflected on her own life. That’s a very demanding role and Ms. Josephson portrayed it brilliantly.

In terms of the play itself, I thought the playwright could have written it better. While an intense drama I thought it lacked emotive depth. Jesse had already resigned herself to her, if self-inflicted, fate. Mama experienced myriad emotional states during the show, but they passed quickly. By the time I understood her feelings she’d already moved on to another. No doubt, the show’s time frame necessitated this. It encompassed a consecutive 90 minutes of these two characters’ lives. It also lacked an intermission which required the drama to progress quickly. With that acknowledgement, both performers and the director did an exceptional job with the material.

At the show’s conclusion the audience sat silently for several moments. No one seemed exactly sure how to respond until the woman next to me cried. Due to the unsettling subject matter ‘night, Mother may not be for everyone. The phenomenal performances by Ms. Neale and Ms. Josephson certainly made it worth seeing, though. I can summarize the quality of their performances in one word: intense.

Book Review – All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

When the book’s “villain” is the character opposed to a physical relationship between an adult male and an underage girl you know it’s going to be interesting read. I have to admit that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood certainly drew on a lot of disparate elements. It gave readers insights into a criminally inappropriate relationship with life at a 1980s Kansas meth lab serving as the backdrop. I’ve got to give the author an A+ for originality.

In addition to the unorthodox subject matter, Ms. Greenwood selected an unusual way of telling the story. She changed the point of view character with each chapter. While I found this author’s use of the technique easier to follow than Marlon James’ (in A Brief History of Seven Killings) I still had issues with it. As one would expect, the author wrote many of these chapters in the first person. I found it odd that she crafted others in the third person. I also didn’t feel that the author gave sufficient thought in creating each character’s voice. I found many of them very similar. If it hadn’t been for the chapter headings, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the narrator’s identity. To be fair, I thought she did an excellent job making Renee’s and Judge CJ Maber’s voices distinct.

It’s difficult to shock readers of modern literature with graphic language. This is one area where I have to give the author credit, if irreverently. The Court Reporter had the following reaction to 13 year-old Wavy’s testimony regarding a sexual encounter with twenty-something Kellen:

I looked up at her, but I was the only one who did. They lawyers all had their heads bent over their legal pads, but none of them were taking notes. Why bother, when they could get a transcript of it from Penthouse Letters. (Page 239)

To be clear: I’m no stranger to outlandish sexual escapades in literature. I’ve read the daughter’s attempt to seduce her mother in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. I’ve read Suetonius’ disturbing portrayal of Emperor Tiberius’ relationship with his “minnows” in The Twelve Caesars. I’ve also read the lurid depictions of pederasty Mario Vargas-Llosa included in The Dream of the Celt. As much as they troubled me, I found the detailed narratives of Wavy’s and Kellen’s encounters grossly out of line and unnecessary. At the risk of sounding iconoclastic, sometimes “tell don’t show” is a better approach to writing.

I didn’t care for the pacing. I found the first half of the book boring. The author showed the development of Kellen’s and Wavy’s relationship. She could have done so just as effectively in a quarter of that many pages at most.

I also thought all the loose ends in the story wrapped up too quickly at the end. There were two significant events that took place in the middle of the book that faded into the background until the final chapter. I would’ve preferred reading about their resolution to more (and more) discussion of Wavy’s and Kellen’s lives.

The main issue I had with the story concerned the protagonists. I couldn’t understand either one of their motivations. Wavy ended up in college to study astrophysics while still pining for her tattooed, biker paramour. She certainly wouldn’t be the first intelligent person to make an unorthodox choice of lovers. I would’ve liked to know precisely what about Kellen interested her so much. With respect to the later character, he admitted to Wavy that he’d been “rubbernecking” at her when he crashed his bike. At the time she was eight years old. Throughout the story he insisted he wasn’t a pedophile. Maybe Kellen didn’t know the correct meaning of rubbernecking. Either way, this came across as very inconsistent to me.

For those who complained that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita needed a meth lab to add excitement: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things will delight them. For me it’s wonderful that I finished the book, but it was sure ugly reading it. I’ve got to go now. Chris Hansen just walked into the room. He has some questions about what I was doing reading the book.