Thursday, July 13, 2017

Angels In America: Home Again

Andrew Garfield in Angels in America (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
Sometimes a show is a time capsule to another part of your life. I saw Tony Kushner’s Angels in America on Broadway just after I moved to New York. I was 17. 

For a sheltered suburban teenager, I knew about AIDS from the news and reading movie magazines which contained yearly tallies of the disease’s decimation of the arts community. I visited my mother in the hospital in 1988 and remember the rooms where nurses would cover themselves completely before entering.  Despite no personal connection to the epidemic, I asked everyone in my graduating class to wear a red ribbon for our graduation day—a strangely small, public act of defiance in a relatively conservative high school.

When I saw Angels where gay men have sex, are affectionate with one another, or demand their recognition on stage, it was a big deal (for context, Chicago was considered too risqué for my high school to put on).  To my eyes it was radical and rebellious in ways I had not been aware of before. With its form breaking, openly political agenda, and sweeping scope, it also became a landmark piece of theater at an impressionable age.  I never stage-door shows, but I stage-doored to get Tony Kushner’s autograph which remains the one playbill autograph I have. 

Revisiting Angels in London 24 years later is a mindfuck. What has gone on in the points between the first time I heard the words “More life,” and this week—it is a lifetime of changes for me and for the world.  But there is so much that that wide-eyed 17-year old did not know was coming.  In the play and in life. 

I am grateful for the chance to see the play again, done in a manner it deserves (side-eye to that awful Off-Broadway production I will not speak of again).  Having a second chance in life to fall in love with these characters as they struggle, hurt, and break my heart, feels like a tremendous gift. 

Weaving together a narrative of Reaganite politics, Mormon religion, gay rights, race, love, disease, history, and survival, the play speaks to America in all it’s disappointing failures and yet the American addiction to hope in the face of those failures.  Yet my seven plus hours at the National Theatre also created a certain sense of dislocation as this ultra-American story unfolded in a London theatre.  Laughter at its American-ness with distance was a luxury this American could not afford.  As we live under the regime of a “Roy boy” in the White House, my understanding of the American experiment and our historical failures has never been so raw and close to the surface before. 

The play may focus on a particular time in American culture, conversation, and politics and some might find the story being told as reflecting a past that is no longer familiar.  It may be easy to forget this recent history.  But when I saw the play in 1993 the word “gay” was still a common pejorative on school playgrounds.  There was still a fear around AIDS.  The play’s radicalness may have dulled in the passage of time.  But it’s messages remain relevant. 

In some ways, this journey to London was a homecoming.  A reunion with my past self, a reckoning with the present, and a communion with a still broken America.

Even with distance, line readings from the Broadway cast still ring in my head. But as the familiar met the unfamiliar in London I found my mind at peace with the performance changes. In these new hands, the work is less funny and strangely more real. For a show with many surreal moments the timbre of these performances is grounded. While the performances bring new richness, the production is a frustrating battleground of dissonant choices and visual frippery. 

Ivo van Hove's edited production of Angels showed that the play can be stripped down and still deliver emotional satisfaction. Marianne Elliott opts to punctuate the production with bold brushes of lighting, punches of music and sound, a patchwork of neon, linoleum, turntables, and frames in the scenic design by Ian MacNeil. 

However, the visuals of the production fail to color our experience of the play—bringing no additional storytelling or emotional guidance.  Of course, with the cracking of the characters (and the world) the theatre space breaks apart.  The claustrophobia of the characters may evolve and grow into the broader, freer space.  But the materials used which may be riffing on the 1980's, are too literal. The layering of these dull surfaces and neon frames provide little meaning. 
Design by Ian MacNeil (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

As the characters lose their center, and the play moves beyond its earthly confines, the visual landscape of this production fails to move with it.  Though Prior’s bed untethered from the world, floats loose in the snow of Harper’s hallucination, this is only one ethereal moment.  We needed more visual poetry to honor the textual poetry of the play.


One place where Elliott added such a visual flourish was in the character of the Angel. Though the character is performed by Amanda Lawrence, she is also manipulated and moved by puppeteers.  With her larger than life wings controlled by a team of movement specialists, she is like a frightened bird trapped inside a house.  She darts with dangerous movement, unpredictable flutters, and ominous overtones.  

But these puppet performers gain additional tasks as the play wends on.  Looking like the daemons from His Dark Materials, they double as stagehands who move the furniture on and off stage. As they gallop in and out in a very interpretive dance meets street dancing way, they often feel like less of a choice and more a practical solution once Elliott had dumped the revolves and needs to move scenery in and out quickly. But wrapping someone in dark spandex does not make them invisible. And their presence/non-presence is mostly distracting.
James McArdle, Andrew Garfield, and a terrible wall (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Elliott relies on a score by Adrian Sutton which reverberates like heralds with loud, brassy horns but it’s ugly, heavy-handed, and brash.  Imagine trumpets burping out something like Sprach Zarathustra.  The play may shout at times, but the music unfortunately screams on top of that—portentous rather than prophetic.

But the cast mostly overcomes these frustrating aspects of the production.  The energetic and excitable Joe Mantello as Louis Ironson on Broadway becomes a more hesitant and measured Louis with James McArdle in London. His worry is less neurotic and more agonizing. His battle for his own sense of self-understanding is halting and contradictory and not as convinced of his own assuredness as Mantello. 

Andrew Garfield’s wispy frame and tremulous gestures match the modulated voice he adopts for Prior. Frequently high-pitched and performative (particularly in the intentionally high camp moments), his Prior cannot butch up his persona as Louis does at times. As a former drag performer, Prior revels in a more feminine aesthetic anyway. Garfield therefore cranes his neck and preens. He often moves as if the cabaret spotlight is still on him. He likes being looked at but then remembers he is ill and that conflict of defiance and self-confidence crashes into his newfound debilitation. Garfield shows Prior physically wrestling with being alive while at the same time dying. He manifests that physical struggle through elongated limbs and a fierce ever-present resoluteness. There is no shrinking of his being even if his body is betraying him. 
Denise Gough, Andrew Garfield (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

When in the privacy of his home with Louis, Garfield plays Prior as softer, quieter, and less performative. The public and private Prior has never been so clear as it is here (and something we did not see from Stephen Spinella who originated the role on Broadway). Even in an intimate moment with Harper, Garfield’s Prior belies no pretense. They are quietly simpatico.

Harper is a complicated role and Denise Gough plays her with a cool minimalism. She's not high-strung or loud.  For a pill-popping, agoraphobic she's oddly chilled and muted. Harper is not funny or frantic.  This Harper is in essence already dead playing a ghost in her own life. This changes the energy and place of Harper in the play’s narrative.

In the original Broadway production, Marsha Gay Harden as Harper and Stephen Spinella as Prior, felt like bookends.  Frenetic and high-energy in similar ways.  For these two strangers, we saw the parallels of their lives—and when they cross into each other’s dreams/hallucinations this is strengthened. But here, Elliott plays them in contrast to each other particularly in Millennium.  For as much as Harper is dead, Prior is very much alive.  This change still works with the text but as a consequence, Harper becomes less a presence in the play.  The clarity her character can bring as she cuts through the bullshit of the men around her, has less of an edge with Gough’s softer delivery.

Russel Tovey and James McArdle (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
Russell Tovey plays Joe Pitt with more disgust and contempt for Harper. Yet as Tovey’s pleading, desperate neediness as Joe becomes more and more untethered, it increases in complexity—the unsuitability of his coupling with Louis is apparent from the start but they proceed in this romp in an “ideological leather bar” until Joe is undone and Louis finds his way back home. 

Nathan Lane’s Roy Cohn is not colorful or comical. Lane plays him very much as a man and not a symbol. He's contained but still vicious.  Where Broadway’s Ron Liebman may have leaned on a certain oily, snake charm, Lane hardly bothers with the pretense.  He might faux apologize but in almost every moment you sense his personal agenda above all else.   

Seeing the play now as an adult, I was struck most by Kushner choosing Prior--this proudly effeminate character--to bear the brunt of the physical torture and mythical adventure. It forces us to look at our ideas of strength, masculinity, and epic heroes, particularly as Prior is framed against McArdle’s Louis who is broad-chested, rugged, and a conventionally handsome man. Louis is also weak, cowardly, and ambivalent. And yet I understand his self-preservation, fears, limits, and cowardice more now than I ever did at 17. 

I see the whiteness of the play now.  Any work that intends to wrestle with America, American democracy, and our system of law and justice must inevitably deal with whiteness.  Our “freedom” was built on the oppression of others. We have spent hardly any time at all reckoning with that. 
The play’s focus on migration and freedom is the province of white people.  Belize keeps reminding us that his movement was not his choice and he has to keep calling out the characters for their willful blindness to whiteness.
Andrew Garfield and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

But is Belize’s voice enough?  Not if this was a work written today. It does however consider the oppression inherent in race, religious, gender, sexual orientation.  The intersections of these are only glanced at.  But having seen revivals of other work from the 90’s recently I was struck by Angels doing more at a time when most plays were doing nothing at all on these fronts.

But we have to keep asking the question of all revivals.  Why now?  What part of the past are we able to converse with here.  Kushner’s play remains an important text and perhaps can be a helpful reminder of how much that was radical has become mainstream.  But we need to not stop demanding such radicalism.  

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Memory and Memorial: Come from Away and Villa

Photo: Play Co.
Guillermo Calderón's play Villa is about three women asked to resolve the impossible--how should they treat the remains of General Pinochet's demolished Villa Grimaldi, a notorious site of torture and rape in Chile. Should it be reconstructed?  Should a museum be built?  Should they do nothing and allow the gardens and reclaimed space by survivors remain?

Midway through the play I started to think of about the urban planning event I went to after 9/11 to talk about what New Yorkers wanted to do about the World Trade Center site.  I cannot remember who ran it or why it even happened.
It was a pie-in-the-sky kind of discussion (with a big budget--I recall digital buzzer thingys that we would indicate our votes with) because it made room for the possibility that the towers would not be rebuilt. Or maybe that is just my memory of it.

I was certainly of the mind that "absence" could be effective memorial.  Not rebuilding would keep the landscape in a way that would reflect how we had all been permanently changed.  I had no interest in sitting in a proposed park space or eating my lunch on a memorial bench.  At that time the idea that life should go on in that space seemed abhorrent to me. These were dark days and I was in somber thought over how I wished to remember.

Even the idea of remembrance was something I struggled with.  I recall a character in the Headlong production of Decade, a piece looking back at 9/11 ten years later, talking about not needing to "remember," because frankly no one would let her forget what had happened. Did a character say that?  Or was that just my memory of it?  Did that represent my feeling at the time, 10 years on.  

In the years since I have traveled to all sorts of memorials.  Auschwitz-Birkenau (oddly enough on 9/11/2008), the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, the site of Hitler's bunker, the House of Terror in Budapest, the Holocaust memorials in Budapest, and the Peace Museum and Peace Park in Hiroshima.

How we memorialize has been something that has struck me as I've gone to these places.  It speaks to culture, the events at issue, and I imagine there was no "one" way that people thought any of these sites should be treated.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, an exhibition hall that survived the blast and was left as a shell, was debated.  Should it be torn down since it was a horrific reminder of the suffering?  Should it be preserved since it remained standing and represents strength and resolve?  They chose to keep it.

The Peace Museum and Peace Park in Hiroshima take so many different approaches.  There is no ignorance of the fact that Japan was at war but it does focus on civilian casualties and particularly the children killed or made ill by radioactivity.  There are abstract sculptures and personal testimony exhibits.  There are pieces of bodies and no shirking from the horror. There are dedicated monuments to different groups, including Koreans forced-laborers who fought for years to get their memorial and the memorial placed within the Peace Park.

The curated museum in Auschwitz felt all wrong to me and the abandoned, crumbling buildings of Birkenau II made memorial sense to me.  I wept in the open field where a marker said people had been killed.  I understood better in the open spaces than I could in the codified exhibits. 

Calderon's smart, funny, and dark play helpfully points out that trauma lives in all of us differently. We process our grief and pain through laughter, art, images, or abstraction.  There are contradictions that cannot be reconciled because there are people who will want to remember and people who will want to forget their personal pain and loss.  No one thing can serve all. 

And so my trepidation with the 9/11 adjacent musical Come from Away became a manifestation of that.  It is based on real people and true stories but it is not my story.  It is not how I wish to remember or memorialize the day.  And the warmth generated by some Canadians taking care of strangers felt oddly like it was negating the care and generosity of New Yorkers to their own at the same time.  (For even more disconnect I was flying to Canada on that day and let's just say no one was particularly nice to me in Canada). 

Yes the pain of 9/11 was felt beyond New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.  Everyone has a 9/11 story.  As I've traveled the world, many people voluntarily tell me theirs when they hear I am from New York.  I've struggled for a long time with who's story it is to tell and the weird possessiveness I sense when anyone tries to tell theirs.

In telling some stories, I tend to sense the absence of others.

My father was a firefighter and he and I had a very difficult relationship.  But we were never closer than right after 9/11.  For once we talked about his work and I needed to know what had happened to all those firefighters.

We attended the funerals of firefighters together in the immediate aftermath.  When one firefighter dies in the line of duty, it is a loss to the community of all firefighters.  So it is not uncommon that fire departments from many different places will come together to publicly mourn a firefighter who has been killed.  I was scheduled to meet my father in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral with his squad.

In a sea of faces and uniforms looking identical (a lot of white men with a particular mustache that my father favored his whole life) I worried that I would never find him. With the panic of a child lost at the mall, every man around me looked like my father.

My 9/11 memories are colored by the days after as much as the day of. 

In listening to the women in Villa debate different memorials I found myself wanting to vote with them.  I liked the do nothing or the empty field.  I like giving people space to have their own experience of memorial.  Without curation, guidance, or manipulation, I want my feelings to exist and be valid in the form they take.  

I cannot know the pain of the person sitting next to me.  Or how these spaces make them feel.  But I like to think we can each find our place when we have the choice. 

The Ferryman: Everything and Nothing

(Photo: Johan Persson)
Can a play be both rich and slight?  Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman makes me believe so. 

Set in Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1981, it is inevitable that The Ferryman will revolve around the Troubles.  But in many ways, Northern Ireland is simply the device Butterworth uses to tell a different story he's interested in.

The Troubles are the framework he lays over a domestic situation to create dramatic tension. Butterworth otherwise does not seem particularly invested in the politics. He just likes the drama. Sadly, so do we.  It’s both an effective trick and devious one.  He’s poached the Irish cultural references for his purposes but it’s a shallow reading of them.  Yet, we might not notice amidst the theatrical poetry, tragedy, and sweeping romance of the play.  

Paddy Considine plays the patriarch of the Carney clan, Quinn Carney.  A farmer with a past, he’s got 7 kids and a houseful of relatives under his care.  Everyone is gathering, including some cousins from the city, to help with the harvest.  But Quinn’s brother Seamus’s body has been found after being missing for 10 years and this sets off a series of events that will change the family.  Bodies should stay buried and there are those who are unhappy this one has been found.

Seamus’s widow Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly) tries to keep her son Oisin (Rob Malone) in the dark about the discovery of his father’s body until they get through the long day of the harvest.  But secrets are hard to keep.

Butterworth lets the story unfold slowly and cagily at first. He holds our attention with quotidian activities, abundant personalities, and old family stories—crochety elderly relatives sharing tales of the past, their involvement in the Easter Rising, and their long dedication to the principles of the IRA. But there is a reason the Carneys are off in the countryside, far from the tensions of Derry.

As the machinations of the Butterworth’s plot kick in, like any tragedy, so much feels inevitable.  But Butterworth plays with pacing and storytelling devices, all of which keep us on our toes.

To make the play come together in the finale, Butterworth has had to strain to get this massive cast and slew of characters to take the steps he needs them to take to get the ending he wants.  At the same time, he tips his hand quite a bit.  It’s like he cannot help himself.  The play is suffuse with literary references which are oddly on the nose but he’s too in love with the language and poetry to worry about the obviousness.  In addition, he owes a hefty debt of gratitude to Of Mice and Men and Brian Friel.

We are intoxicated by the luxurious cast, colorful chatter, delightful yarns, and robust setting. Butterworth starts out slow and careful and only as we near the end does he escalate the speed to a whiplash-inducing finale. But once the drunken high of the play wears off, it does not have the sustaining strength and structure of Jerusalem.  In the cold light of day, the political ideologies certain characters are meant to stand for, seem flimsy and half-sketched upon reflection. The Ferryman also does not boast such a once in a lifetime portrayal as Mark Rylance in Jerusalem either.

Certainly, playwrights can write outside their personal experience but there is a hollowness to this play.  There's something muddy and non-specific that hangs on the work--flitting from conflict to conflict we are easily distracted away from the problem.  It's skillful sleight-of-hand where only in the aftermath you suddenly realize you did not get much information and just accepted the cultural tensions without demanding the connective tissue that makes up these disputes. So is that evidence of a highly talented playwright or a deficient one?

It’s still hard to really complain about The Ferryman. Large cast, epic plays are rare in this day and age.  The sheer scale of the production stuns.  At some point you think there cannot be more people on the stage, and more arrive.  Director Sam Mendes confronts the old adage, never work children (a real live baby!) or animals, by putting both on this crowded stage too.

Laura Donnelly’s complex performance is transfixing.  Caitlin lives a lifetime of highs and lows in the three plus hours we spend with her on stage.  She plumbs the depths of personal despair and the recognition of true happiness, with every emotion in between.  Donnelly brings a beautiful clarity to her character and achieves a great deal through unspoken moments.  It's worth seeing the play for her alone.  Considine feels less up to the task. This is his stage debut and despite a long career in film, he does not communicate emotionally across the stage space with enough force. He’s the critical linchpin to much of the play’s plot and he does not bear that responsibility well.

Even with the long running time, we do not mind how much time we’re spending with these characters and I might have even welcomed a six-hour version where some of these cultural issues could have been fleshed out. Jez Butterworth, I ain't mad at ya.