THE CHILDREN

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Written by Lucy Kirkwood

Directed by Robert McDonald

THE CHILDREN seems a curious title for a play in which the characters are all over 65. Perhaps playwright Lucy Kirkwood intends chose the name for the same reason Arthur Miller called his first great morality play ALL MY SONS. Kirkwood isn’t selling any religious agendas, but it’s a safe bet she’s familiar with Exodus 20:5, which states that sins of one generation are visited upon the next. With good reason, the 33-year-old playwright, though compassionate towards her elders, clearly isn’t pleased with the job the stewards of the earth have done so far.

In a farmhouse kitchen somewhere in rural England, two old friends reunite after decades apart. Nothing unusual there, but the conversation Hazel (Deborah Findlay) is having with Rose (Francesca Annis) isn’t limited to small talk.  There are repeated references to a disaster that has affected the area, and Hazel intuits that Rose’s sudden, unannounced visit isn’t just a social call. Then there’s the matter of the blood which has just spattered all over Rose’s blouse. She claims it’s from a nosebleed, but Hazel isn’t easily convinced. Further questions arise when Hazel’s husband Robin (Ron Cook) arrives home. He puts on a show as if he hasn’t seen the prodigal Rose for ages, but again, Hazel doesn’t buy it.  As tensions simmer and generous helpings of turnip wine are consumed, the veneer of British understatement begins to dissolve and grim details emerge about the nature of the recent calamity. Echoing 2011’s Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, the event in question involved nuclear power plant whose shoddy construction collapsed under the impact of an earthquake and a tidal wave. Homes are flooded, animals die from radiation, coastal towns have had to be evacuated. Unlike other survivors, Hazel, Rose and Robin can’t merely get on with their lives. After all, they’re the nuclear scientists who designed the plant all those years ago. And therein lies the ulterior motive behind Rose’s surprise visit. It’s all too much for Hazel. This woman has disrupted her daily routine, overflowed her toilet and slept with her husband. Hasn’t she done enough?  Yet someone has to take responsibility for the mistakes of the past, and when Robin reveals his own troubling secret, Hazel is forced to let go of her illusions and find a way forward.

Intriguingly, Kirkwood has chosen and unusual approach to a difficult topic. THE CHILDREN is, quite literally, a kitchen sink drama. It takes place in real time, and exposition is skillfully interwoven with present-day banter. Yet the apocalyptic world it portrays resembles is more reminiscent  of dystopian literature than naturalistic theater. The message is clear: yesterday’s sci fi is today’s concrete reality. The characters, both in their scripting and the nuanced performances of the cast, are not at all the scientists-as-socially-inept- brainiacs stereotypes. Refreshingly real, these people are more function like the rest of us, obsessing more over dinner and yoga than fusion theory.  So little hard science appears here, in fact, that the show’s lack of playwright-splaining may leave some viewers confused. If one plays close attention, though, definable features emerges of the coming Armageddon. Director James McDonald understands this balance of the quotidian with the apocalyptic, and keeps the action grounded in the rituals of daily life. Set and costume designer Miriam Buether frames the play in a universe that is both recognizable and unsettlingly odd. Lighting designer Peter Mumford chillingly evokes an encroaching darkness which must, one way of another, be reckoned with.

THE CHILDREN continues through February 28, 2018 at The Samuel J. Friedman Theater,  261 West 47th Street (between Broadway & 8th Ave.) Tickets:  https://www.telecharge.com/Broadway/The-Children/Ticket

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A MY NAME IS…

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Directed and choreographed by Stefanie Nelson

Before the performance even begins, director Stefanie Nelson has already begun to make a statement. One of the tunes playing on the mixed tape as the audience files into the theater is “White Rabbit”, Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic update of Lewis Carroll’s famous journey down the rabbit hole. As with all aspects of Nelson’s meticulously constructed meditation on the ravages of dementia, the song wasn’t chosen by accident. In some ways, the protagonist of A MY NAME IS has a lot in common with the literary Alice. Both are desperately lost in a world that increasingly seems devoid of logic and proportion. Both lack the tools to makes sense of it all.

Through a series of vibrant dance pieces, each with a clear mood and tempo established by composer Jonah Kreitner, we see the protagonist in three distinct periods of her life. Emily Tellier, the mature Alice, moves with confidence and restraint, while the vital young Alice, danced by Julia Discenza, seems keen to the world around her. Christine Bonansea plays in her later years, facing a rapid decrease in cognition and memory. The three Alices reveal their personalities through solo dances. They also observe one another and intermingle, sometimes in consort, often at odds. Cameron McKinney, who comes and goes like a phantom, seems to represent Alice’s relationships: the lovers, colleagues, family members and caretakers whose image is becoming unrecognizable.

Red apples abound on the stage, thudding and rolling across the floor and forming painterly patterns against the pristine white of the set. An apple even appears in a video projection, in which the decomposition process is sped up through time lapse photography. It’s an apt metaphor. All living things, from Alice to apples, are subject to what Robert Frost called the “slow smokeless burning of decay”.

Whereas a straightforward drama would walk us through stages mental deterioration, the abstractness and purity of dance allows for a more fluid, less literal approach. The performers bring to their work a sense of discovery, allowing themselves – and ultimately the audience – to step inside of subject most of us find uncomfortable. We begin to see the world through Alice’s eyes. Memories lose their moorings, pieces drop out of familiar narratives, and independence slips out of reach. Even then, there is something vital and human at the core of her experience. She is still Alice, even if she has lost the ability to say so.

A MY NAME IS… ran at 357 West 36th St, New York, New York from December 7-10, 2017. For more information on upcoming performances, check http://www.sndancegroup.org.

 

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND

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Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens

Music by Stephen Flaherty

Based on the novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy,

Directed by Michael Arden

First produced in 1990, this darkly hopeful fairy tale sports an impressive list of cultural ingredients. The story incorporates a Shakespearean duo star-crossed lovers, a cast of powerful figures from Caribbean mythology, a dash Zola-esque social realism, and a nobly-doomed heroine worthy of Hans Christian Anderson. Book and lyric writer Lynn Ahrens, working from a novel by Rosa Guy, skillfully blends these disparate flavors into a satisfying narrative stew. The musical menu is, unfortunately, not so zesty, but it’s solid enough to hold the story together and give the singers something to work with.

The eponymous island, located somewhere in the Antilles archipelago is populated by two distinct. The  wealthy side of the island is inhabited by the light-skinned descendants of French colonialists, who live lives of luxury and sport. Down in the village, the indigenous people cling to their own traditions while earning a livelihood for the earth and sea. Though they have little in the way of material goods, the peasants possess a rich tradition of storytelling. On a stormy evening, to comfort a little girl frightened by thunder the townspeople (Darlesia Cearcy, Rodrick Covington, Tyler Hardwick, Cassondra James, Grasan Kingsberry, Loren Lott T. Oliver Reid, and Aurelia Williams) gather together to spin the yarn of a young woman who dares to challenge the island’s never-the-twain-shall-meet attitude towards class.

The tale begins when water god Agwé (Quentin Earl Darrington), unleashes a bitter squall which causes the rivers to overflow. Many towns are destroyed in the deluge, but the life of little a little girl (Emerson Davis) is spared. Safely ensconced in a tree, the child is discovered by villagers Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin). Figuring the gods must have their reasons, the couple adopts the girl and school her in the ways of island life. As she grows to womanhood, though, the inquisitive Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore) desires to know more about the outside world. Fascinated by the rich young people who whizz through town in sports cars, Ti Moune beseeches the gods to let her be more like the grande hommes. Hearing her prayer, the gods scoff at Ti Moune’s lofty ambitions. But love goddess Erzulie (Lea Salonga), sees no harm in letting the girl have the happiness she desires. Not to be outdone, death deity Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge), places a bet with Erzulie: we’ll see weather love or death is the stronger force. The wager gets interesting when Agwe arranges for Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell), the son of prosperous hotelier, to crash his car while driving through Ti Moune’s neighborhood. Against her parents’ wishes, Ti Moune insists on nursing the unconscious Daniel back to health. She falls in love with the lad, and when Papa Ge comes to claim his life, Ti Moune offers hers instead. When Daniel is returned safely to his family’s estate, Euralie and Julian breathe easier. Ti Moune will forget him in time. As usual, though, the young woman has her own ideas, and insists on taking a journey to the rich side of the island. Here, Ti Moune  believes, she and Daniel will live happily ever after. Earth goddess Asaka (Alex Newell) sees to it that Ti Moune reaches her destination safely, but that’s only half the battle. In her zeal, the young woman has reckoned without the rivalry of Daniel’s promised bride (Alysha Deslorieux), the interference of his stern father (David Jennings), and a secret curse that has haunted the Beauxhomme family for generations. And, of course, there’s that rash promise she made to Papa Ge, who isn’t likely to let a debt go uncollected.

Wisely, Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty forgo the typical musical-comedy happy ending in favor of a more sublime finale. Director Michael Arden and choreographer Camille A. Brown use Circle in The Square’s round space creatively, creating a functioning village – replete with live animals – in which to ground the story-within-a-story. The shifting moods and changing locales of the plot are handled with confidence and imagination by set designer Dane Laffrey and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Costume designer by Clint Ramos uses a palette of rich, warm colors that evoke the exotic flora of the Caribbean. The actors radiate warmth and emotional honesty, and go at the songs with sensitivity and impressive vocal prowess. Innovative casting choices, such as the Dionysian Dandridge in the usually male role of Papa Ge, help to give the material a fresh interpretation.

There is only one respect in which ONCE ON THIS ISLAND falls short of the greatness it might have achieved. The score, though perfectly pleasant, isn’t particularly memorable. There are few catchy melodies and, with the exception of an exhilarating dance sequence, little exploration of Afro-Caribbean musical idioms. Most of the score sounds a bit like Jimmy Buffet: agreeable pop chord sequences with a light seasoning of calypso. It works, but with a more powerful musical spine, ISLAND could go from a great evening of theater to a classic.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND continues in an open run at Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W 50th St, New York, NY 10019 Tickets: http://www.onceonthisisland.com/tickets/