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St. Ann’s Warehouse Tries To Bring a Massive Macbeth to the Brooklyn Waterfront

When Susan Feldman first saw Grzegorz Jarzyna’s version of Macbeth in a former munitions factory in Warsaw, she was enraptured.

Feldman, the artistic director of St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, always loved the play but had never seen a production she found fulfilling. This one was different: In the first scene, set on a battlefield, flares erupted in the cavernous industrial space. As wind and sound simulated a landing military chopper, Macbeth’s command squad—monitoring from a high-tech control room—implored him not to invade a mosque. From a raised seating section on the factory floor, the audience watched the video-saturated action unfold simultaneously on multiple stage tiers and screens.

“You couldn’t believe that anybody could do this with live theater,” says Feldman. “It was so spectacular, with the smoke and the lights and the explosions and the fire. The whole physical production is so beautifully orchestrated.”

At that instant, Feldman thought: “New York has to see this production.” She immediately approached Jarzyna about bringing this TR Warszawa show to St. Ann’s. (The company’s production of Hanoch Levin’s Krum, which has won an Obie for director Krzysztof Warlikowski, played at BAM last October.)

But in the weeks, months, and years after that 2005 Warsaw trip, Feldman found herself charging into a battle of her own: Like most nonprofit-theater producers in the U.S., she has had to struggle against the odds to pull off a non- commercial international collaboration. And the sheer scale of this intensely visual Macbeth­—which will play for 12 performances starting June 17—has brought a massive challenge to Feldman and her staff.

Part of the original appeal lay in Jarzyna’s broadened focus: The director moved the drama beyond the standard study of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s murderous individual psychologies. Through his quasi-cinematic spectacle, Jarzyna emphasizes what Feldman calls “the supernatural forces” driving Macbeth, and turns the whole world into a brutal battlefield rife with insanity.

Expansive and metaphysical thinking—so characteristic of Poland’s distinguished stage history—comes naturally to the 40-year-old Jarzyna, artistic director of TR Warszawa, one of Eastern Europe’s most vibrant companies. Jarzyna has interpreted everything from Euripides to Thomas Vinterberg films, and he’s often drawn to experiences beyond rational comprehension. For Macbeth, the director and his ensemble blend Shakespeare’s original text with contemporary language, creating a new adaptation. (St. Ann’s will project English supertitles.) “Mixing genres of cinema and stage was the idea from the beginning,” he says by telephone from Poland.

In the current economic downturn, that risky aesthetic alone would have deterred many nonprofit-theater producers. Poor exchange rates—coupled with swelling airfares, lodging, and shipping expenses—can break already-tight budgets. (For Macbeth, 32 Polish cast and crew members will come to New York.) On top of that, producers need to factor in post-9/11 visa hassles and uncertainty about whether local audiences will turn out for unknown artists and groups.

“Whenever we collaborate with international artists, we assume a significant demand for extra resources to accomplish the task,” says James Nicola, New York Theatre Workshop’s artistic director. “As resources dwindle in the current economy, we will have to weigh very carefully the value gained by doing such projects.”

Nicola has been trying—so far without results—to produce an off-site project of his own, a collaboration between director René Pollesch (from Berlin’s Volksbühne) and American actors called 24 Hours Are Not a Day, with an environmental set by superstar designer Bert Neumann. After a few years of effort, Nicola says: “We are still hoping this will happen, although the financial resources required are rather immense.”

Feldman harbored no doubts about Macbeth—which doesn’t surprise colleagues familiar with her tenacity. “Once Susan sees a piece and it touches her,” says Mark Russell, producer of the Under the Radar festival, “she will cross highways of burning coals to make it happen.”

Money, it turns out, was only part of the logistical challenge. The production, says Feldman, “is too tall for St. Ann’s.” The set required several meters more of overhead space than the organization’s DUMBO warehouse has. So Feldman and Jarzyna began investigating other performance locations, hiring technical consultants to make drawings and draft a budget for each potential site. Jarzyna would fly from Poland to see each venue—sometimes just for a day. They found suitable pier sheds on the Red Hook waterfront, but then discovered they were going to be torn down. A factory under the Williamsburg Bridge fell through. They thought of BAM’s Harvey Theater, but the dates wouldn’t work. At one point, Feldman seriously considered raising the roof on the DUMBO warehouse—even calling up the landlord.

After about a year of searching, they finally found a location with no roof—right across the street from St. Ann’s at the Tobacco Warehouse, part of the state-owned Empire–Fulton Ferry State Park. They got permission, though the site’s landmarked status entails complicated construction rules for the set and seats. Feldman was happy to comply. “Grzegorz was intrigued by the fact that it was across the river from where the Twin Towers were, the place where the battle has come to America. He really liked that idea. And it is a ruin.”

While Jarzyna was making regular visits to Brooklyn, Feldman found herself traveling in the other direction to procure additional funding from Warsaw city officials and from the Polish culture and foreign ministries. (She estimates that the Polish side is putting up “almost half” of the budget, which will come to more than $600,000 for all production and construction costs; the rest is coming primarily from American foundation support and the box office.) Feldman reckons she’s made 10 round-trips across the Atlantic.

Now that she’s in the home stretch, Feldman has concentrated on finding solutions to more concrete problems. For instance, the site near the Manhattan Bridge is too noisy for the show’s intricate soundscape. So she and Jarzyna decided that each audience member will wear muff-type headphones; the sound will be mixed live at each performance and piped into the personal headsets.

“This whole thing is not practical,” says Feldman, sitting in her theater on a recent afternoon, laughing and massaging a pinched nerve in her neck. “But I would say that every problem has been solved. It’s all excessive—but that’s what it is.”

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Girl, Interrupted

In a journal entry, composed well before Rachel Corrie ever went to the Gaza Strip, she wrote, “if you are concerned with the logic and sequence of things and the crescendo of suspense up to a good shocker of an ending, you’d best be getting back to your video games and your amassing wealth.” But peace activist Rachel Corrie did meet a “good shocker of an ending”: She was killed by an Israeli Defense Force bulldozer in May 2003. And it’s that shocker that led Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner to comb through Corrie’s journals and emails, crafting My Name Is Rachel Corrie. The play opens with Corrie (the willowy Megan Dodds) musing on her Washington State upbringing, her studies at Evergreen College, and her wakening to activism. The second act finds her working with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza, culminating in an audio-eyewitness account of her death.

My Name Is Rachel Corrie incited much debate last spring when New York Theatre Workshop announced a delaying of its planned production. Though scheduling concerns, work visas, and conflict with the original producers (the Royal Court Theatre) were eventually cited as causes of the postponement, NYTW artistic director James Nicola stated originally that he had polled Jewish community leaders and discovered “the fantasy that we could present the work of this writer simply as a work of art without appearing to take a position was just that, a fantasy.” With the election of Hamas and the illness of Ariel Sharon, he felt the political moment was inopportune for a work that might be perceived as pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli.

Nicola ought to have trusted his audience more. Corrie certainly fails to provide a balanced view of the conflict—in her rubric, Israelis are antagonistic, Palestinians cuddly—but it is very much one woman’s view of the situation. This woman, however bright and articulate, is not the most dependable narrator. Self-described as “scattered and deviant and too loud,” she’s the sort of Pacific Northwest creature who can say with perfect conviction, “The salmon talked me in to a lifestyle change.” Killed at 23, she was still only a budding writer and thinker; her emails from the Middle East vacillate, winningly and irritatingly, between the naïve and the astute. So, consequently, does the play, resulting in a slight, though moving theatrical work. However poignant and precocious her juvenilia, it doesn’t substitute for the dramatic arc of a full life.

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Say My Name

New York stage artists are rushing in to fill the void left by the aborted U.S. debut of My Name Is Rachel Corrie. But what’s lost in the controversy regarding the halted New York Theater Workshop production is the humanity of the play itself, as well as the closeness of the local theater community. “This has been like a family event,” says actress Kathleen Chalfant, “and we’re trying to see what’s going on in our family.”

The one-woman show tells the story of a 23-year-old activist from Olympia, Washington, who traveled to Gaza in early 2003. Less than two months later, she was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer as she tried to block its path toward a Palestinian home. Edited by actor Alan Rickman and Guardian journalist Katharine Viner, the single act is made up of Corrie’s journal entries and e-mail correspondence. The first half poetically details her college life (run-ins with an ex-boyfriend, second thoughts about painting her ceiling red). In the second half, the destruction she witnesses in Gaza as an international observer of potential human rights violations of Palestinians challenges her fundamental beliefs about human nature. “It hurts me, again, like it has hurt me in the past, to witness how awful we can allow the world to be,” she writes. “It is my own selfishness and will to optimism that wants to believe that even people with a great deal of privilege don’t just idly sit by and watch.”

A single line of text announces her death, followed by a video of a 10-year-old Corrie delivering a speech at a student conference. “I am here for other children. I am here because I care,” she states. “My dream is to stop hunger by the year 2000.”

After two sold-out runs at London’s Royal Court, the play was moving toward a March 22 opening at NYTW when its artistic director, James C. Nicola, pulled the plug in late February. All aspects of how far along the production agreement was, and whether NYTW’s decision constituted a delay until next season, an indefinite postponement, a cancellation, or as some contend, an act of censorship, are in dispute by both companies. The Royal Court owns the rights to the play and ultimately determines where it will have its U.S. debut.

According to The New York Times, Nicola withdrew the production after “polling local Jewish religious and community leaders,” an idea that has provoked great dismay from Jews and non-Jews alike who want to see the play produced as a work of art. “When NYTW does a play, the Workshop speaks with many members of the community before producing,” says NYTW publicist Richard Kornberg, adding that this process is more routine than has been suggested, and that no actual polling took place. The theater stands by its assertion that what it wanted, in fact, was merely more time to do justice to the playwrights’ voice.

An open letter posted on onlinepetition.com “in the spirit of friendship and collegiality” asks Nicola to make good on his commitment to the play. It garnered more than 350 signatures in three days— including those of Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler. “Dear Jim, my old friend,” writes a signatory, “I would welcome talking to you about this.”

In the meantime, theater artists and human rights activists are planning events to promote an inclusive dialogue around Corrie’s words and the questions raised by the recent controversy. A schedule, available at villagevoice.com/theater, should comfort those who worry that the New York theater community would ever sit idly by anything.


‘Rachel’s Words’
Thursday, March 16
Global readings from Brooklyn to Basra of the activist’s writings, modeled on The Lysistrata Project. For information , visit rachelswords.org.


‘Who’s Afraid of Rachel Corrie? An Evening of Rachel’s Words’
Thursday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m.
Lafayette Presbyterian Church
85 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn
Hosted by Irondale Ensemble Project. Free. 718-488-9233, irondale.org, rachelswords.org


‘Rachel’s Words’
Wednesday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m.
Riverside Church
490 Riverside Drive
Maysoon Zayid, Kia Corthron, Malachy McCourt, Najla Said, Kathleen Chalfant, Betty Shamieh, Anthony Arnove, and others join together for an evening of readings, incorporating video from the March 16 worldwide event. $20 suggested donation (no one will be turned away), rachelswords.org, theriversidechurchny.org


‘Out of Silence: A Public Conversation on Writing, Access, Funding, Censorship, Silence, and the Arts’
Tuesday, April 11, at 7 p.m.
New Dramatists
424 West 44th Street
Moderated by playwright Caridad Svich. Panelists include Jonathan Kalb, Marcy Arlin, Randy Gener of American Theater, Glyn O’ Malley (author of Paradise), Thaddeus Phillips, and Saviana Stanescu. Free. 212-757-6960


‘Patriot’s Day’
Monday, April 17, at 7 p.m.
The Culture Project
45 Bleecker Street
A town-hall meeting with readings, moderated by playwrights Jason Grote and Caridad Svich. Free. 212-253-9983, cultureproject.org

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The Play About the Baby

Donna’s young, sure, but she wants a baby something awful. So she “borrows” one from the neighbors—keeping it in a newspaper-lined box and feeding it lettuce leaves. Then the police have to go and get involved, so she and husband Kenny ditch the young ‘un, shimmy into sneakers, and light out for parts unknown. Arriving penniless at a near-deserted Appalachian inn, the couple win over the crusty proprietors—Luther and Martha—and settle down. Kenny helps build cabins while Donna does the laundry, and the seasons pass by.

In The Year of the Baby, playwright Quincy Long takes a simple plot—confused kids escape hometown, work hard, come of age—and sows it with tenderness and raillery. The result is stranger and more wonderful than the structure would seem to allow. A wordsmith with an enviable ear for dialogue, Long keeps his piece sweet but never treacly, edifying but not didactic. Though there’s often danger when a citified playwright turns his pen to country folk, Long creates indelible characters, neither patronized nor ennobled.

The main action unfolds on a dirt-floor set, spotted with rickety plywood and soiled mattresses. Far upstage lies a small room with the look of a screened-in kitchen. Around the table sit a fiddler, a banjo player, and two singers who occasionally break into classic Stephen Foster songs (“Beautiful Dreamer,” “Maggie by My Side,” “Hard Times Come Again No More”). In a mode nearly opposite to these pleasant arrangements, Kenny often straps on his guitar to strum out a rockabilly number of his own design. While squabbling with Donna he sings, “His wife, she made him mad/He took his car and drove afar/And then his wife was sad.”

The juxtaposition of the Foster songs with Kenny’s compositions illustrates a salient theme of The Year of the Baby. Foster’s catalog includes “Oh, Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Swanee River”—quintessentially American popular music. But what, Long’s play seems to ask, is the quintessence of American music and language today? Both Kenny and Donna use language awkwardly, a little uncertain of the mechanics of speech, reluctant to answer one another. When angry, Donna yells and stamps her feet, while Kenny tears at his guitar. Yet as the play progresses and the couple begins to truly care for one another, they learn to speak—clearly and cogently—for themselves. The last moments find them seated with the musicians, faces aglow, happily singing in harmony.

As Kenny, with his halo of unkempt hair and bemused expression, Jonathan Mark Woodward affectingly portrays the unease of a man who hasn’t quite stopped being a boy. Rebecca Soler keeps saucy Donna pert and prickly, but never invulnerable. Also excellent is Joseph Jamrog as the well-meaning but increasingly senile Luther, prone to derailing dinner conversation with a “Me, I like the westerns” or a “Tom Mix was the only real cowboy.” But Trevor A. Williams nearly steals the show as a manic mechanic who doubles as an amateur OB-GYN. “Gotta look under the hood to check the crank,” he tells the horrified Kenny. Peeking beneath Donna’s skirts, he says, “Gear box is good, yup.”

Director Daniel Aukin drives the play at a gentle clip. He has a sure hand at making the most of stage space, easily delineating different locales with a largely static set. And he elicits excellent work from most of his actors, though he ought to have better steered Annette Hunt’s scheming, wild-eyed Martha.




Miss Lulu Bett director James B. Nicola, though, seems to have let go of the wheel altogether. When Zona Gale’s Pulitzer Prize winner debuted in 1920, The New Republic called it “a serious comedy of emancipation.” Mint Theater’s production is quite serious and most definitely about emancipation, but Nicola alternately turns a deaf ear and a tin one to the comedy. The only giggles arise when “pussy” is used as an endearment.

Lulu’s a spinster mired in a joyless town, where she plays uncomplaining housemaid, nurse, and cook to her married sister’s family. But when the husband’s gallant, mustachioed brother arrives from the wilds of Oregon, she feels an unfamiliar flutter. After a mock wedding—which begins as a clumsy joke but turns quite somber—she finds herself unwittingly married and off upon a honeymoon. But then scandal arises and Lulu finds herself back where she began, alone but altered.

While Angela Reed acquits herself well in the title role—and Peter Davies charms as her swain—she receives little reinforcement from the supporting cast. As her ogreish brother-in-law, a justice-cum-dentist, Ed Sala decrees and deprecates with the smile of a man who knows he’s always in the right. But his unrelieved pomposity grows tiresome, as does the exaggerated femininity of Valerie Leonard as his wife.

Director Nicola clearly goes in for realism—there’s actual lemonade in the glasses, potatoes on the plates, and the costumes all look researched. But as he fails to elicit emotional verisimilitude, this revival is something of a still life.

At the play’s end, the consciousness-raised Lulu declares, “I thought I wanted somebody of my own—maybe it was just myself.” Maybe she just wanted a better production.