THE BIRDS

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Adapted by Conor McPherson from the story Daphne du Maurier

Directed by Stefan Dzeparoski

Writing in 1952, author Daphne Du Maurier imagined a bleak future in which mankind’s survival is threatened by a sinister change in the avian population. In his iconic film adaptation (which didn’t please Du Maurier), Alfred Hitchcock kept little of the plot, but retained the core concept of winged menace. Now Conor McPherson, known for chilling Irish Gothic yarns like THE WEIR, offers a modern spin on ornithopocalypse. As in the previous versions, McPherson keeps things enigmatic. No pat explanations are offered, and audiences are left to guess at what evil forces are at work, what sin awakened the monster. For the 21st Century audiences, THE BIRDS reads as a parable of climate change, Mother Nature’s payback for humanity’s destructive hubris (“Who’s the endangered species, now? Huh? “). Given this contemporary context, McPherson’s new spin ought to feel grippingly relevant. Yet despite a strong cast, there are gaps in the construction of the play that ultimately impede its momentum and muddle its meaning.

Seeking refuge in an abandoned rural New England house, writer Diane (Antoinette LaVecchia) tries to make the most of what little provisions she can find. Like the rest of the human race (what’s left of it), she is seeking shelter from the birds, who have united as a species and are tearing people to shreds. There are human threats as well: people are forming into gangs, looting and killing in order to survive in this ravaged landscape. Diane joins forces fellow fugitive Nat (Tony Naumovski), who is strong and handy but emotionally unstable. The two have just begun to bond when young Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) turns up at their door. A free spirit who reads palms and quotes Ecclesiastes, Julia enlivens the group dynamic and manages to find some wine and food in a nearby house. The trio begins to coalesce into a family. But Diane questions whether the younger woman, who once ran with a bad group of people, is telling the truth about where she got the goodies. Diane’s suspicions are confirmed when she receives a visit from the Farmer, the only other living human being in the area. Clad in homemade armor, and speaking like a populist politician, the Farmer claims to be the only one who can lead the way to a better life. Diane doesn’t take him up on the offer. She’s more concerned with the fact that his canned onions resemble the ones Julia has been bringing home. Clearly the girl has been trading sex for comestibles, and lying to Matt and Diane about it. Trust is further eroded when Julia uses her nubile charms to lure Matt away from Diane.  An incestuous tug of war ensues, and Diane reshapes her morality to suit her changing environment.

The charisma and credibility of the cast is almost enough to carry this odd drama. Stefan Dzaparoski uses the theater’s round space adroitly and keeps the tension taught. Yet even their best efforts can’t fill in the missing pieces. Matt comes across as something of a disparaging caricature, a panting male easily led by the clever women in his life. Diane is more multidimensional, but her arc (much of it telegraphed through the journal entries she read aloud to the audience), isn’t fully convincing either. Apparently a two hour and 20 minute version of McPherson’s script premiered at the Dublin Theater Festival in 2009. Perhaps taking more time to get to know the characters might have helped the audience follow their transformations. In this leaner, 90 minute edition, something crucial seems to have been sacrificed. Trimming the fat from a script is part of every playwright’s process, but it must be done skillfully lest the good bits disappear as well. Ultimately THE BIRDS leaves us undernourished.

THE BIRDS continues through October 2, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison, New York, New York.  Tickets: https://www.ticketcentral.com

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DEAD SHOT MARY

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Written by Robert K. Benson

Directed by Stephen Kaliski

In 1931, an ambitious, Irish-born woman named Mary Shanley took the bold step of  joining the mostly male NYPD. In a career spanning over two decades, Shanley racked up over 1000 arrests and became one  of the few women of the time to attain the rank of detective first grade. Her exploits, covered admiringly by the local press, captured the imagination of a public hungry for heroes. A kind of urban Annie Oakley, her pistol-packin’ image represented the can-do character of American womanhood.  Doubtless her example inspired generations of women to pursue careers in law enforcement. But few people learned much about the woman behind the iconic photos. With mixed success, playwright Robert K. Benson and performer Rachel McPhee attempt to paint a more multidimensional portrait of the woman New Yorkers came to know as Dead Shot Mary.

Growing up in a poverty-stricken immigrant family, young Mary seeks a path to a better life. In her neighborhood, it’s the coppers that get respect, and she becomes determined to join the force. The idea sounds farfetched at first, but by the time Mary comes of age, female police officers have begun to gain some traction. Sexism still prevails, but Mary believes – correctly – that given a chance she can prove herself as capable as her male counterparts. During months of training, she pines for the day she can proudly don a police uniform. Yet her first job involves putting on pretty clothes and blending in with the population. Though she initially chafes at the idea, she turns out to be a highly effective undercover cop. Pickpockets, department store shoplifters, phony parishioners who burgle donation plates, fortune tellers who bilk impressionable customers: all become the target of Mary’s ruthlessly efficient detective skills. Often she’s required to investigate nightclubs, which is just fine with Mary. Her appetite for both jazz and booze is considerable. Fame arrives when a newspaper photographer captures Mary’s eye-catching blend of fashion and formidability. Beneath a wide-brimmed hat the detective wears a give-no-quarter expression, and her gloved hand reaches into her dainty purse to clutch that essential accessory, a .38 revolver. Mary’s reputation grows as she receives a commendation from Mayor La Guardia and travels to London to apprehend international scam artists. But the officer’s life is not all glory. Mary’s binge-drinking worsens and she gets demoted when she brandishes her firearm in a pub. Eventually she gets back into the department’s good graces, but her twilight years are haunted by self-doubt.

McPhee handles the period accent skillfully and, with the aid of Peri Grabin Leong’s well-researched costumes, disappears into the part. Both commanding and likable, she carries the audience confidently through the ups and downs of Mary’s life. As a play, though, the production leaves a few too many questions unanswered. Shanley’s crime fighting exploits are compellingly recounted, but Benson and director Stephen Kaliski are less surefooted when it comes to the more personal aspects the narrative. To be fair, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of biographical information available, so a certain amount of guess work is par for the course. Still, a more affecting balance could be struck between Mary’s legend and her true identity. No one knows why she remained single all her life. She certainly wouldn’t have required a husband to support her, but what about the emotional dimension of relationships? Were there lovers? Was Mary gay, straight, or simply an independent soul who cherished her autonomy too much compromise it? The script introduces a few possible theories, but never lands solidly anywhere. This cloudiness might work if the story were told from an outsider’s perspective, but with Mary confessing in the first person, we end up more puzzled than moved by her penchant for rueful introspection. DEAD SHOT MARY has its heart in the right place, but its creators need to line up their targets more decisively.

DEAD SHOT MARY continues through October 15th at The Bridge Theatre 244 W 54th St, New York, NY 10019. Website http://deadshotmary.com/ Tickets: http://tix.smarttix.com/ Modules/Sales/SalesMainTabsPage.aspx?ControlState=1&SalesEventId=5796&DC=

 

 

THE TROJAN WOMEN

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Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Anne Cecelia Haney

Written shortly after the barbaric Athenian conquest of Melos, Euripides’s tenth tragedy was designed to inspire his countrymen, if not to give peace a chance, at least to think twice about the human cost of war. Told from the point of view of the vanquished, THE TROJAN WOMEN remains a significant work, its allegories applicable to contemporary conflicts. Trimming the script to a brisk 60 minutes, adaptor Ellen McLaughlin highlights the play’s themes of remembrance, identity and survival, while trimming away some of the lengthier dithyrambs of the original.

In the quiet after the carnage, sea god Poseidon (Thomas Muccioli) walks among the lumbering women of a once great society. As their city burns, the Troades awaken to face a grim future. As we learn from the Chorus (Amanda Centeno,  Chun Cho,  Clea Decrane, Jenny Jarnagin, Kyra Riley, and Jennifer Tchiapke), the women of Troy were artists, healers, farmers and craftswomen.  Now reduced to spoils of war, they will be taken as brides, concubines and slaves by the conquering Greeks. Many, like Hecuba, (DeAnna Supplee) are mourning the loss of their husbands, fathers and sons. Prescient Cassandra(Lindsley Howard), whose visions of the destruction of Troy went unheeded, now takes perverse delight in her new premonition : she is going be murdered, but her new Greek masters will suffer, too. Helen of Troy (Rebeca Rad) mocks their lamentations. Hardened by years of captivity, she has learned to hold her head up even under subjugation.  Her presence is not welcomed by the women. After all, it was the Greek king’s lust for Helen that started the war in the first place. Seeking to mar her legendary beauty, the women attack Helen, but their misplaced objurgation changes nothing.  Hope arrives in the form of the infant son of Hecuba’s daughter–in-law Andromache (Casey Wortmann).  Hecuba instructs Andromache to “teach him to remember”, to carry the story of Troy forward into the future . Alas, it is not to be. In the drama’s most heart-wrenching turn, Greek soldier Talthybius (Phil Feldman) ruefully proclaims that the child must die.  Still the Trojan women endure, never forgetting the world they left behind.

McLaughlin and director Anne Cecelia Haney wisely don’t oversell the relevance of the narrative. Its universality speaks for itself, especially given the show’s visual style. Scenic/costume designer Marte Johanne Ekhougen frames the action in a bunker-like space of concrete walls and bare light bulbs. The captives, as well as the soldiers who periodically enter the scene, are mostly clad in muted, culturally-ambiguous apparel. Only Helen and Andromache, wives of royal warriors, appear in colorful finery.  Anchored by Supplee’s commanding Hecuba, the cast the delivers the confident, visceral work for which the Bats (The Flea’s resident acting troupe) are well known.  Their unaffected approach to this challenging material potently embodies both the mythic and the modern elements of the text.

THE TROJAN WOMEN continues through September 30, 2016 at the Flea Theater is located at 41 White Street (between Broadway & Church Streets), New York, New York. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/960702

A DAY BY THE SEA

 

Directing Austin Pendleton Sets Charles Morgan Costumes Martha Hally Lights Xavier Pierce Original Music & Sound Jane Shaw Props Joshua Yocom

 PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

By N.C. Hunter

Directed By Austin Pendleton

Playwright Norman Charles Hunter merits the adjective Chekhovian in more ways than one. In setting and structure, Hunter’s work certainly shows the influence of the master of tragicomedy. As a historic figure, too, Hunter had something in common with the vanishing bourgeoisie of turn-of-the-century Russia. Once the toast of the British stage, Hunter, along with Terrence Rattigan and other West End luminaries, was destined to see his world swept away by the tide of revolution. In 1955, when John Osborne’s LOOK BACK IN ANGER ushered in the era of angry (read whiny) young man, Hunter’s gentler approach to drama went out of fashion almost overnight. Looked at through 21st Century eyes, though, Hunter’s insightful take on rising cost of ideals is surprisingly relevant. The characters that populate A DAY BY THE SEA are hardly the anyone-for-tennis stereotypes associated with British drawing room fluff. They are, like most of us, concerned about their careers, worried about the state of the world, and struggling to make sense of their relationships.

Now in his early forties, hardworking diplomat Julian Anson (Julian Elfer), once dreamed aiding in the causes of world peace and social justice. At the very least, it would be nice if he could advance beyond the middle management position he holds at a small government bureau in Paris. Unfortunately, Julian’s a little too zealous for his own good, and is not well liked by his lackadaisical employers. As he waits to hear from a colleague (Sean Gormley) if a promotion is in the cards, Julian pays what the thinks will be a brief visit to his family estate in the lovely seaside town of Dorset. Here he finds a motley assortment of folks each coping with some sort of personal conundrum. His mother Laura (Jill Tanner) keeps busy running the estate while caring for elderly Uncle David (George Morfogen). Her only assistance in this effort comes from Dr. Farley (Philip Goodwin), who is given free room and board and all the gin he can drink. Estate manager William Gregson (Curzon Dobell), seeks to improve the property, but gets little support from frugal Laura and seeks Julian’s help in changing her mind. The atmosphere is soon energized by the arrival of lovely Frances Farrar (Katie Firth). Taken in by Laura after her parents died, Frances spent a good part of her childhood at the Dorset estate and holds many fond memories. Now she has two children of her own, and is faced with the challenge of bringing them up on her own. Having lost one husband in World War II and another in a scandalous divorce, she has no idea how she’ll support her young son Toby (Athan Sporek ) and daughter Elinor (Kylie McVey). She would seem to be a perfect match for Julian, and a romantic chemistry begins to develop between the two singles. In a parallel scenario, the doctor- a good man despite his bad habits- wins the admiration of governess Miss Mathieson (Polly McKie). Her nurturing touch might be just the thing to pull him back from the abyss. Of course, drawing up blueprints for happiness is one thing. Putting a plan into action is another, and there are more surprises to come before the end of the day.

Although the evening moves a leisurely clip, the dramatic never slackens and the suspense mounts considerably towards the play’s conclusion. We care whether Julian will pop the question or pull a Lopakhin and lose his nerve, how Frances will react if he does propose, and whether the doctor will put the booze down long enough to realize see that Ms. Mathieson is his last. best hope. Director Austin Pendleton, unceasingly dedicated to absolute honesty on stage, draws quietly powerful performances from a talented, committed ensemble. Alive to the subtleties of the script, the actors move with an innate awareness that every line, every beat, signals a change in their characters’ psyches. The house by the sea is, of course, a kind character in its own right, and is given a strong presence by Charles Morgan’s painterly set design, Martha Hally’s period costumes and Joshua Yocom’s props. Xavier Pierce’s fluid lighting changes underscore the play’s central metaphor; the summer sun burns brightly, then all too quickly fades.

A DAY BY THE SEA continues throughOctober 23rd, 2016 at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, Between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/A-Day-by-the-Sea-Mint-Theater-Company/Ticket