ECHOES

echoes5Written by Henry Naylor

Directed by Henry Naylor & Emma Buttler

ECHOES is what might be called a “plovel”, a hybrid of theater and prose that, judging by its ubiquity at the last several Brits off-Broadway festivals, is currently popular among UK playwrights. On a practical level, the approach makes sense: a small cast, acting on a bare stage, can use description to create an unlimited universe. But plovels also depend heavily on narration, which rarely packs the punch of traditional drama’s mainstays, action and dialogue. Nevertheless, playwright Henry Naylor builds the first half of this parallel narrative effectively. The introductory scenes are charmingly funny despite the show’s dark undercurrents, and its bright, rebellious heroines are easy to empathize with. As it rushes towards its tragic conclusion, though, the theatrical energy of the story bogs down in a surfeit of excess detail and moral homily.

Though they are separated by over a century of history, Victorian-era Tillie (Felicity Houlbrooke) and present-day Samira (Filipa Bragança) have a lot in common. Both hail from the riverside town of Ipswich, England. Both find the burg to be an absolute bore, and both – for very different reasons – choose marriage as a way out. Tillie, though plucky and extremely intelligent, has little chance of pursuing a career. All the marriageable men, it appears, have gone to India to establish British rule there. Like many single ladies of the time, Tillie books passage on what is known euphemistically as the “Fishing Fleet’’ in an effort to find a suitable mate and embark on a life of opulence in the exotic East. Sadly, the rosy future she imagines is not to be. The couple is transferred to Afghanistan, where British opium interests have destroyed the agrarian economy and civil unrest is simmering. The man she chooses as a husband is not merely an arrogant imperialist. He drinks prodigiously, cheats on Tillie, and beats her when she objects to his mistreatment of the local population. During one of his drunken rampages, he and his cohorts rape two local women. The Afghans demand justice and a bloody uprising ensues. Caught in a crisis that is not of her making, Tillie must choose a side.

Intercut with Tillie’s story, Samira’s 21st Century journey is less about innocence than naiveté.  Bored by a low wage job and a culture that deems Kim Kardashian’s buttocks more newsworthy than the Syrian refugee crisis, Samira is susceptible to the propagandizing of her militant best friend. After looking at photos of armed Muslim women with  fighting for their homeland, Samira decides to take action. To join the movement, she’ll have to marry a Mujahideen fighter: hardly a move that epitomizes independence, but one that Samira believes will ultimately empower her. She and her friend travel to Syria, where Samira becomes one of the wives of a rebel soldier. Her idealism is quickly supplanted by a harsh reality in which women are used for housework and sex, and the men, gleeful at the loss of innocent life, treat mass murder like a videogame. When Samira dares to question whether Allah would approve of all this wanton slaughter, her husband, like Tillie’s, becomes abusive. Escape won’t be easy in this war-torn country, but Samira soon realizes she has no other option.

Both Houlbrooke and Bragança turn in solid, vibrant performances, often jumping in and out of character with lightning-quick precision as they morph into the various inhabitants of their respective worlds. Co-directors Naylor and Emma Buttler give the 60- minute show a brisk pace and keep the intertwining stories from becoming confusing. Ultimately, though, the show stops being about the characters and becomes a sermon on the Worldwide Perpetual Martyrdom of Women. Naylor should trust his more humanistic instincts, and allow the audience more room interpret what the story means.

ECHOES continues through May 4, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. https://www.ticketcentral.com.

 

Advertisements

THE FATHER

the_father_production_still

Written by Florian Zeller

Translated by Christopher Hampton

Whether by design or coincidence, the American debut of Florian Zeller’s Molière Award-winning drama marks the second time this season that Manhattan Theater Club has presented a piece on the topic of aging: specifically, the unreliable memory of an aging parent and the struggles of adult children as they adjust to their unfamiliar new role as caretakers. Stylistically, though, OUR MOTHER’S BRIEF AFFAIR and THE FATHER couldn’t be more divergent. Where Richard Greenberg provides a narrator to guide the audience, Zeller prefers to plunge us headlong into a world in which everything is called into question, even the physical surrounding in which the play takes place. Remarkably, this conceptual approach does not serve to intellectually distance the audience from the action of the play. If anything, it keeps us engaged and enables us to see the world through the protagonist’s disoriented eyes.

Andre (Frank Langella) suffers from dementia. His daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) is torn between moving forward with her life and taking responsibility for Andre’s care. The old man doesn’t make it easy. With his cantankerous attitude and tendency to misplace his valuables, Andre develops a penchant for accusing his home health care aides of stealing. Anne goes through a series of attendants, unable to find one who’s willing to stay. She finally hires high-spirited Laura (Hannah Cabell) who seems to have the right combination of stamina and vivacity. But as Andre’s condition worsens, it’s obvious that he Laura’s help is not enough. Anne’s husband, Pierre (Brian Avers) grows increasingly irritated with the situation, and Anne herself can no longer deny the fact that her father needs round-the-clock supervision. The father, frightened and disoriented (“I feel as if I’m losing all of my leaves,” he laments), is inevitably relocated to a home.

This action is framed in a jagged, non-chronological style that infuses the play’s fairly simple storyline with dramatic tension. Characters disappear and reappear played by different actors. Fragments of events repeat themselves, set pieces vanish, and conversations run in circles as no two people seem to have the same information. Sometimes Andre appears to be living in his own flat, and at other times staying with Pierre and Anne— or perhaps with his other daughter Elise (Kathleen McNenny). In one of the more shocking scenes, Pierre, his exasperation at an all-time high, become physically abusive to Andre. Or does he? The same scene is acted out by another man (Charles Borland). Ultimately, Andre dismisses the incident as a bad dream. Some things, it seems, are better not to relive. Andre even forgets the fact that Elise died in an accident some time ago. It is these keen observations of the dualities of dementia – its tendency to alternately protect and disturb the patient’s psyche – that give Zeller’s script its veracity.

Langella, always a commanding presence onstage, here gives one of the most emotionally raw and vulnerable performances of his career. By turns callous, charming, desperate, and controlling, he captures both the elegance and authority of the gentleman Andre once was and the primal helplessness of the second infancy to which he is headed. Aided by Scott Pask’s scenic design and Donald Holder’s lighting, director Doug Hughes creates a dissolving visual landscape that mirrors Andre’s descent into senility. The supporting cast is largely strong, though Erbe, both vocally and emotionally, needs to increase her presence. A more vital Anne, her life force at odds with her daughterly obligation, would have added an extra layer of poignancy.

THE FATHER continues through June 12, 2016 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street, Between Broadway and 8th Avenue, New York NY 10036. Tickets: www. telecharge.com /Broadway/The-Father/Overview

WOLF IN THE RIVER

wolfjp-master768

Written & directed by Adam Rapp

Always provocative, often poetic, playwright-director Adam Rapp blends the mythic with the mundane in this potent exploration of the tribulations of coming of age in the wild backwaters of rural America. Borrowing from the traditions Greek drama, pagan ritual and magic realist literature (with a bit of VH1 glitter thrown in), WOLF IN THE RIVER offers an entrancingly primal approach to theatrical storytelling.

Sporting a sinewy physique and a ringing voice, The Man (Jack Ellis) kicks off the proceedings with a soliloquy somewhere between spoken word art and Baptist homily. Carrying us back and forth in time, he weaves a fable of a hardscrabble hamlet and the dangers of trying to escape its confines. There is little adult supervision in this backwater community, which is separated from the rest of the world by a river that teems with natural and supernatural predators. The local urchins, who are often high on indigenous poppy-like flowers, take their orders from the despotic Monty Mae Maloney (Xanthe Paige). Like a tribal leader, Monty waves a scepter adorned with a gator’s head, and summons her feral enforcer, Aikin (Karen Eilbacher) to intimidate anyone who steps out of line. Shy Tana (Kate Thulin), lives with her older brother Dothan (William Apps), an Iraq War veteran who suffers from Post Cannibal Orgy Stress Disorder. Tana’s job is to runs errands for the gang, including delivering food to Monty’s housebound, senile, occult-practicing mom (Ellis) and home. But lately, the whole town has begun to notice that the self-conscious 16-year-old is blossoming into womanhood. Tara is timid around her fellow villagers, but her confidence grows when she catches the eye of Debo (Maki Borden), a likeable – and gainfully employed – boy from a better-off town. He just might be Tana’s ticket out of indigence. But to get to Debo’s place, she’ll have to cross the hazardous river. Here be monsters, and though kindhearted man-child Pin (Mike Swift) is willing to help, Tana’s fate will ultimately be decided through the intervention of unseen forces.

In keeping with the story’s recurrent motif of magic circles, Rapp and scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado frame the action in the meta-round. The audience, seated in a circle, is itself encircled by additional playing space, and often a member of the Lost Choir, (Alexandra Curran, Jack Horton Gilbert, Paul Harkin, Artem Kreimer, Derek Christopher Murphy, and Casey Wortmann) can be heard crawling or chanting behind the patrons. A particular effective scene involves Debo helming a raft in languid circles around the little island where Tana is sunbathing. It’s all done without effects, with Borden using his miming skills to transmogrify the floor into a placid lake. Michael Hili & Hallie Elizabeth clad the cast in rough-hewn, revealing costumes and masks that embody the show’s earthy mysticism, while Masha Tsimring’s lighting design evokes a kaleidoscope of real and imagined landscapes. There are times when Rapp’s dithyrambic dialogue seems be trying too hard, especially when the characters rhapsodize on the nature of the cosmos. Thankfully most of the play consists of more character-driven beats, in which the language of regional speech achieves an affecting musicality without calling attention to itself. The Bats (the Flea Theater’s resident acting company) leap into their roles with their customary zeal, clearly trusting Rapp’s vision and committing dauntlessly to the show’s physical and emotional demands. By turns fanciful and viscerally naturalistic, WITR gives them omething they can sink their teeth into.

WOLF IN THE RIVER continues through May 16, 2016 at The Flea Theater,  41 White Street (between Broadway & Church Streets), New York, NY 10013. Tickets: https://web.ovation-tix.com/trs/pr/954298