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Joe Papp Crowns Himself 

At the top of a Central Park hill, sweating in the cruel afternoon sun, some 50 young men are fran­tically waving banners, thwacking at each other with sticks, and hauling a huge wooden tower around. Furiously concentrated, seemingly oblivious to the heat, they respond to shouted commands from a man in a white shirt. Joe Papp, rehearsing Henry V, is once more leading his troupe.

Though he directs his followers with the single-minded intensity that young Henry brought to the fields of Agincourt, Papp carries 54 years. And despite his relentless omnipresence in the American theatre scene, his energies are not limitless. Three or four hours into rehearsal, the heat begins to get to him, and he removes his shirt. Suddenly, King Henry vanishes. Revealing, in an old-fashioned sleeveless undershirt, Shmuel Papirofsky’s aging boy.

Joseph Papp is both: the leader operating with what one critic called Henry’s “brilliance of inspired efficiency,” and the street-smart survivor of an impoverished Williamsburg childhood. There, as shoe-shine boy, chicken-plucker and — with his father — as a push­cart peanut vendor, life was work. It still is. The GI Bill and the Actors Studio may have provided a path to affluence, but the habit of struggle is ingrained. Henry’s leadership, in a mystery obscured by the centuries, was a function of his noble birth; Papp’s, perhaps no less mysteriously, is a triumph of the will.

“This play is really a study of leadership,” he said during a din­ner break, “of the leader of a major organization — a president, maybe — anybody that is in charge of men. It’s the third time I’ve done this play, and I’m doing it again now because I’ve learned a great deal about leadership since the last time. Now Paul Rudd, who’s playing Henry, doesn’t know any of that yet. He’s still really beginning; I gave him his first job, in the ensemble, only a few years ago. So I have to teach him about leadership. My authority has to be gradually transferred to him. For instance, I have to let him talk directly to the ensemble — direct them, almost — until he begins to feel like a king. A king, right. This isn’t some fucking Ei­senhower. He’s got to feel about his men the way I feel about the people in this show. Their souls are their own, but their duty is to me.”

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For Papp, leadership is not sim­ply a matter of hortatory rhetoric, but an all-consuming attention to detail. During a brief break in rehearsing Henry, three men in suits suddenly appear at his side. Carrying proposed illustrations from the adventurous ad agency of Case & McGrath (“I picked ’em myself,” says Papp. “Everyone said I was crazy to take a firm that hadn’t done theatre before, but they’ve been great.”), they retreat with Papp to the upper reaches of the Delacorte Theatre where he critically examines their work. Pleased with the illustration for Henry V, he nonetheless insists that a new model be brought in to pose for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, then dis­misses them. “And don’t,” he adds as they turn to make their way down the aisles, “Say ‘The Public Theatre.’ Say ‘The New York Shakespeare Festival.’ The theatre’s only a place; the festival is the organization.”

The New York Shakespeare Fes­tival is a somewhat anachronistic misnomer for an $8.5 million com­bine that, like Papp, came up from poverty. From its exceedingly unprepossessing origins in a black Presbyterian church located between Avenues C and D on the Lower East Side, the Shakespeare Festival is at once the hottest ticket on Broadway (A Chorus Line), the establishment (Papp’s operation at Lincoln Center), six theatres and workshops at the Public Theatre on Lafayette Street, and, of course, free Shake­speare in the park. In addition to the plays and playwrights he de­velops himself, his tentacles reach out to regional theatres as far away as Minnesota and snake through the city’s ethnic and avant garde companies. At his command, a play may begin in a workshop at the Public Theatre, be staged by an independent company as an Equity showcase, move back to the Public for a full-dress run, and then leap to the high-risk, high-profit commercial center of Broadway. And when he scores, Papp scores big. Including film rights and touring companies, A Chorus Line alone should pump more than $6 million annually back into the festival. And because the parent organization must by law be nonprofit, that money can only be used for still more expansion. As a result, The New York Shakespeare Festival, already the single most important force in contemporary theatre, will inevitably grow more powerful. With Joe Papp as its undisputed leader.

He is the organization’s engine; money is its fuel. Over the years, the festival has run up a sizable deficit (“We have about a million dollars in unpaid bills,” he says calmly), and the profits from A Chorus Line could put it firmly into the black for the first time in its history. “But that,” he points out, “Is what you call a very uncreative use of money. So I said let’s not pay the bills. Let’s take it and bang it into something that’s important for us. And that’s writers.”

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Thus a sizable chunk of the Chorus Line profits will go to a new festival enterprise: a play­wrights-on-payroll project. “Lis­ten,” he edges forward in his chair, “we’re going to have maybe 20 people who’ll be able to write plays for a living. Not a big living, but a real one, maybe as much as $10,000 a year. Plus — and this is the advantage of the payroll arrange­ment — unemployment, hospitalization… The kind of stuff that writers never get.”

It all sounds marvelous, but the stratagem behind it is classically expansionist: Never get out of debt, always use any new money to grow, always have a reason to ask people for even more. Become indispensable, then force people to keep you going. This sequence is part of the Papp armamentarium.

Years ago, he hustled some money to buy the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street and turn it into a collection of theatres. (“We kept a landmark from being torn down: people were glad to help us do that.”) He made it a genuinely exciting space with theatres of different shapes and sizes, poured every available dollar into renovating it, and created a place where a playwright’s dreams at least had a shot at coming true. Then he cried poor. Using the press — and the romance surrounding the free Shakespeare in the park — which, of course, could have gone on without the Public Theatre — he pressed the city for help. He got his financial backers — the Upper East Side cul­tural establishment, who were also John Lindsay’s constituency — to lean on the mayor. Finally he sold the buildings back to the city for $2.6 million, then leased it from them for a dollar a year. With all that capital — and six theatres for only a dollar a year — he expanded again, this time by underwriting productions at other companies.

If that all sounds more like Sammy Glick than like Henry V, it should, for there is at least a side of Papp that is as success-obsessed as Schulberg’s slum kid who made it big in Hollywood. That Papp surfaced in his aborted attempt to organize a Broadway season for his playwrights last year, essentially reducing the Public Theatre to a mere workshop. His increas­ing use of the Public Theatre as a prestige-conferring showcase for companies which developed their styles apart from him — this year’s Beckett performances by Lee Breuer’s Mabou Mines troupe was only the most notable example — shows that side as well. Like David Merrick scouring London theatres for Broadway vehicles, Papp patrols the avant-garde. As a result, though the Public Theatre may be full of treasures, many theatre people see Papp more as a claim jumper than a pioneer.

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But it isn’t that simple. He isn’t that simple. Just when it seems that he has overreached himself and allowed the entrepreneur to overwhelm the experimenter, he suddenly relocates his original obsession and pursues it with the same relentless drive that pro­pelled him out of the jungle of Williamsburg. And through the only slightly more polite jungle of Manhattan theatre.

In those moments, though Papp is no less driven, “making it big” has less to do with Broadway marquees than with an almost abstract search for quality. The search is still single-minded, but it contains an element of detachment that makes it almost noble.

This Papp emerges as he directs Henry V. Not so much in the collision of the French and English forces as in the victorious king’s romantic byplay with Katherine of France. Their romance, which dominates the play’s final act, has been a perpetual problem for Shakespeareans, causing centuries of critics to echo Dr. Johnson’s strictures: “The truth is that the poet’s matter failed him in the fifth act, and he was glad to fill it up with whatever he could get; and not even Shakespeare can write well without a proper subject. It is a vain endeavour for the most skill­ful hand to cultivate barrenness, or to paint upon vacuity.”

And yet, as Papp develops the scene, its tenderness becomes unpredictably affecting. At first, he works with Rudd, setting the tone of Henry’s speeches, seeing their flatness as part of a deliberate effort not to overwhelm Katherine with his newly proven magnificence. “No, no, Paul,” he counsels, “what you’re trying to do here is comfort her, make her a little more at ease.” As Rudd gradually finds his way inside the lines, Meryl Streep’s Katherine begins to respond in kind. Sud­denly, the electricity between them is palpable, and Henry is at once king and lover.

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“I’d wanted to play Henry for a long time,” says Rudd, “so I had my own ideas pretty well established, but there’s no other director in the theatre who could give me what Joe has. He identifies so strongly with the character that what I’m learning is Joe’s own understanding of himself. He’s deepened, not changed, the Henry that I’ve thought about. Now, those human moments — when he’s alone, with his brothers, or with Kate — those are more mature than I could have imagined.

“The strength that’s in Henry normally doesn’t come across in those scenes, so you don’t understand why his soldiers followed him the way they did. In this play, you will. Henry — and Joe — find a specialness in people and use it to make them rise to their capacity. We’ve done the battle scenes hundreds of times now, but the ensemble will still do everything he asks them. There are guys flinging themselves around in ways you wouldn’t believe, all for him. And by opening night, they’ll be doing it for me — for Henry.”

Papp has always been among the most physical of directors, and bodies were hurtling across his stage and bashing into one another when O’Horgan was a harpist. Actors do what he demands —­ and perhaps more than they ima­gined themselves capable of — because he expects it. And because — like Henry in the play Papp has returned to more than any of Shakespeare’s other histo­ries — he is quick to reward loyalty. And to punish any flagging: “There are 60 guys in the ensem­ble — and they’re all damn lucky to be there — so if I see someone sitting on his ass behind me smok­ing a cigarette when other people are out there moving the tower, he’s through. That’s all.

“But there are, every year, one or two who emerge, who become leaders themselves. They’re a lit­tle hungrier than the others, maybe, but whatever it is, they must be supported. Right now, I guess I believe in individuality more than anything else, and I’m gonna respond to anyone who shows that kind of individual drive.

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“It’s a critical time now — a per­fect time to be working with Henry V — because right now we’re going through a time of no leadership. I’m not a political director in any simplistic sense; ideology per se I find boring in life and boring in the theatre. Like with Jimmy Carter, there’s an unknown there, and it’s the unknown that interests me. The predictable is the worst thing on stage or in life. So I don’t find his smile negative; I find it,” he pauses, “interesting. I want to know what’s behind it, of course, but I already know that he’s a man who’s certain what he wants — and is prepared to go out and get it.”

He could, of course, be talking about himself. Eating dinner in a small Italian restaurant near the park, seeming to forget his striped bass while he gestures with a focused intensity, he is charming. He is also, I suspect, fully as calculating as the masquerading Henry V walking among his troops. One can never forget that Joe Papp is one of the two people to face down Robert Moses and get away with it. And that the other — Nelson Rockefeller — has a lot more going for him than any kid from Wil­liamsburg ever did. If ever a man was prepared to go out and get exactly what he wanted, it is Joe Papp. And so one wonders, as one does with Jimmy Carter, about the vision behind the smile.

So does Papp. On Henry, again: “For the six months before we started rehearsal this time, I immersed myself in history. I was trying to find the reasons why a small group of men could overwhelm a host 10 times their size. I know about the shape of the harbors, I know about the geogra­phy at Harfleur, I know how many people it took to maintain a siege, I know the accuracy of a long bow. I knew all about medieval arms, everything like that. But I still find the roots psychological. I know why Henry won and the French lost: A leaderless group can al­ways be defeated by a small number of men supported by their own self-assurance and faith in their leader.

“But the leader has to have faith in himself. And that’s why the most important scene in the play is when Michael Williams — and this is the first time in non-comic English theatre where you have common men with two names — questions the authenticity of the war. It’s a turning point because Henry­ — whose father stole the crown­ — needs to feel that his cause is pure. And there he is, on the eve of the most important battle in his life, and he thinks he’s doing pretty well, and there’s this one son of a bitch questioning everything. All of a sudden, he’s got to ask himself, ‘Must you be pure? Do you have to be impeccable?’ ”

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That question is one that Papp is struggling to answer for himself. Sometimes, as when he defends his Broadway adventure by arguing that it was the only way for his playwrights to make real money, the attempt seems a contrived rationalization for his own ambi­tion. At others, he seems genuinely striving for a kind of purity rare in the theatre. Or anywhere.

Certainly Papp’s energies and fiscal razzle-dazzle are a key ele­ment in New York’s fantastic explosion of minority theatre. Woodie King, whose New Federal Theatre has consistently developed new black and Puerto Rican playwrights and actors, is only one beneficiary of the Papp largess: “When we did Colored Girls at the Federal, it cost us about $8,000; Joe put up half of that. Right now, it’s at the Public, making a little money for the first time, and we’re getting half of those profits to put back into other new productions. And when it goes to Broadway in the fall, we’ll still have a piece of it. But it’s not just that he’s abso­lutely fair as far as money goes —­ though that’s rare enough, right — ­it’s that he had the guts to go with that play from the beginning. He’s a leader, not a follower. Even if Colored Girls hadn’t been a success, it would always be a bench mark for any play that really was built on poetry. And he was eager to be out there with it.”

That sort of putting one’s money where one’s ideals are has long been a mark of Papp’s operation, but it paradoxically grows more difficult as there is more money to spread around. It’s a long way from the basement of the ghetto church to the marble excesses of Lincoln Center, and the sheer size of the operation becomes overwhelming. Suddenly, there is just too much to keep track of, and bureaucracy perforce replaces personality. With the routinization of charisma, the obsessive search for quality quietly ends. “Inspired brilliance of efficiency” becomes, as it did for Henry V, meaningless.

Papp knows that — he is tormented by it. “I need,” he said, “a course of action to believe in.” But as he left the restaurant, he began to walk faster. “It will take me,” he said as he crossed the street against the light, “exactly seven minutes to get back to the theatre from here. And rehearsal is set to start up again in five.” By the time he reached the edge of the park, he was running. Still.

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This Year’s Under the Radar Festival Posed Tough Questions About Relationships

Under the Radar, the Public Theater’s annual festival of new work, turned the ripe old age of fourteen this year. If the name has become less literal, given its lineup of major American and international artists, it is still the place to spend one helter-skelter day at the theater: seeing your favorite company’s latest, or checking out adventurous imports from abroad. The main program is complemented by concerts (Erin Markey was a highlight), and by the Incoming! works-in-progress series (look out for final versions of Modesto Flako Jimenez’s ¡Oye! For My Dear Brooklyn and harunalee’s Memory Retrograde). Over the course of this year’s twelve-day run (January 4-15), the main-slate artists’ explorations ranged widely: from the life of Lester Bangs, in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s How to Be a Rock Critic, to Afro-futurist sci-fi, in Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. But a handful of festival offerings suggested that artists are thinking hard about some tough, basic kinds of relationships: intimate encounters; nationhood and global relations; and the overlapping convergences of real life with artistic work.

Pursuit of Happiness, the latest from multimedia maximalists Nature Theater of Oklahoma, puts the company’s trademark silliness (odd accents, hilariously outdated stereotypes) to serious use, probing the abysmal state of America’s reputation in the world. Set in a frontier-style saloon, the piece begins by juxtaposing the clarity of a Western — good guys vs. bad guys — with the far murkier morals of real-life family drama. An ensemble of gap-toothed gunslinger types discuss their hopes and dreams, then whip out pistols, unprovoked. But Nature Theater’s larger subject is international in scope. One of the cowboys, requesting artistic feedback from his drinking buddies, launches into a lengthy blow-by-blow of his new screenplay, the epic saga of a performance troupe who tour to Baghdad during the Iraq war. The performers orchestrate a virtuosic dance-off between NATO and Iraqi fighters, but are naively dismayed that they fail to halt the conflict. (“We’ve done more harm than good!” one American exclaims. No kidding.) Pursuit is a self-aware fable about art and American hubris, an obliquely autobiographical meditation on Nature Theater’s own journey, and an obsessively good time. Here’s hoping it tours.

While Nature Theater was exploring America’s vexed national identity, Havana’s Teatro El Público parsed the connection between selfhood and nationhood in Antigonón, a poetry recital by way of outrageous costume parade. Four performers declaim the words of, among others, José Martí, celebrated poet of Cuban independence, while traipsing on- and offstage to don their next spectacular, DIY-style ensemble: a gold-beaded apron, a beer-can headdress, a multitiered wedding gown covering the right side of the performer’s body and leaving her left half nude. Shades of Antigone eventually emerge as performers told the story of late-19th-century Cuban revolutionaries Antonio Maceo Grajales, killed by the Spanish, and Francisco Gomez Toro, who died to stay with Maceo’s body. (The Greek tragedy begins with a conflict over the honorable burial of Antigone’s brother, also killed in battle.) Poetry, choreography, and fashion show mingled powerfully, adding up to an outcry of patriotic pain, and a testament to the deep connections between personal experience and national life.

Sometimes relationships are easier to parse in closeup. Two festival offerings — U.K. drag artist Dickie Beau’s Re-Member Me, and Thunderstorm 2.0, from Beijing-based Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental — used cameras and screens to consider the politics of intimacy. Thunderstorm 2.0, an updated take on Cao Yu’s early-20th-century classic, examines the intersection of sexual conquest and economic inequality through the story of an entitled businessman who seduces and abandons two poor women. These events unfold in a suite of domestic rooms, contained upstage like a giant diorama, while live-feed video projects the characters’ gestures and activity onto a giant screen. A pair of musicians — who also voice all of the dialogue, drawing on traditional Chinese staging techniques — discuss the play’s relevance, which feels undiminished today. “Who’s more powerful, Under the Radar or Weinstein?” they drily inquire.

Dickie Beau’s “Re-Member Me” conveys the overlapping of life and art.

The most important relationship in Re-Member Me is between an actor and his character — Hamlet, to specific, as Beau explores the character’s power as a vehicle for the experiences of gay men in the profoundly homophobic U.K. of not so many decades ago. After describing a panoply of famous Hamlets and their directors (John Gielgud, Peter Hall), the piece comes into focus as a eulogy for actor Ian Charleson (best known for starring in Chariots of Fire), who played Hamlet while he was dying of AIDS in 1990. Alone onstage, Beau constructs and deconstructs a human figure from plastic mannequin parts. Above him, multiple iterations of his own head give voice to memories of Charleson and his heartbreaking, uncanny last performance. Re-Member Me is memory theater, offering a deeply affecting interpretation of the doomed Danish prince, and a testament to the ways art and life can overlap.

If Beau gently probed the convergence of theatrical character and a performer’s private self, Andrew Schneider’s After used technical effects — disorienting sounds, sudden light shifts — to imagine the experience of intimate bonds. Returning to the January scene after taking it by storm in 2015 with the Obie-winning YOUARENOWHERE, Schneider continued operating in his high-tech, philosophy-heavy mold. But while YOUARENOWHERE was a nearly-solo project parsing the contours of loneliness, After — created with a collaborative ensemble — is more about being with others, romantically and communally. Between long blackouts, hazy visual effects, and oblique, imagistic monologues, Schneider appears with a scene partner (Alicia ayo-Ohs). They speak, and try to listen, but rarely hear one another. Communication is difficult stuff — and where better than the theater, a space of watching and listening, to practice: watching more closely, listening harder. Luckily, this year’s artists helped show us the way.

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Flaming Out: A New Musical About Joan of Arc Oversells Its Timeliness

The new musical Joan of Arc: Into the Fire begins with an unmissable message, hand-painted on the curtain of the Public’s Newman Theater: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Mitch McConnell’s now notorious complaint about Elizabeth Warren is your first clue that this show wants to be very relevant.

What that relevance might be is anybody’s guess, though, even after ninety minutes of high-octane rock from David Byrne and energetic staging by Alex Timbers. A clear bid to follow on the heels of 2013’s Here Lies Love, Byrne and Timbers’s widely praised first collaboration at the Public, Joan misses the mark by a wide margin. Despite impressive vocals and dancing by the show’s young and athletic ensemble, this show suffers from meager, often banal book- and lyric-writing (also Byrne), unwittingly raising the question of just how important Saint Joan’s story is to our time.

In the lead, Jo Lampert is, naturally, the main attraction. Appearing early on in a muslin frock with long, Meredith Monk–style braids, she quickly jumps into a faux-hawk and head-to-toe leather gear to diva-belt Byrne’s unremarkable lyrics: “Take my dress and take my hair/Sword and fire be my prayer/I’m not a boy and I’m not a girl/The King of Heaven rules my world.” But Joan doesn’t know what to make of its protagonist’s radical butchness — what queer theorist Jack Halberstam calls “female masculinity” — and struggles to get off the ground from there.

For a famously tormented icon, Joan shows little internal struggle or uncertainty; in her campaign to oust the English occupiers from France, she wins support from her countrymen with no real resistance or dramatic conflict. “Have faith, be strong” is her earnest mantra, repeated throughout the evening, but her insights don’t get any deeper. It’s unclear what makes her so compelling to those around her — or what elevates her above mere fanaticism. Meanwhile, the show trudges from one power ballad to the next, and Joan goes to her pyrotechnic death crying familiar but decontextualized slogans like “It’s the fire next time” and “You can’t kill an idea.” What exactly the big idea is remains unclear.

Of course, the problem isn’t that the underlying story lacks political meaning; Brecht, for example, adapted it three separate times between 1930 and 1952. It’s rather that Byrne and Timbers (who have been working on this show since well before the election) want to keep emphasizing the supposed timeliness with gestures that are flatfooted and superficial, like the ham-fisted curtain quote. Persist, have faith, be strong — of course, but we also need to think in deeper, more careful and specific terms about the world. That, not showy proclamations, is how we mount a resistance that doesn’t end up in flames.

Joan of Arc: Into the Fire
Newman Theater
425 Lafayette Street
publictheater.org
Through April 30

 

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WTF, WTF, WTF? In ‘Tiny Beautiful Things,’ That Is the Question

When I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, I sobbed. Not out of empathy — disturbingly, I was jealous of her grief at her mother’s death. My own family relationship has been traumatic; I envied having a parent who was such a positive force that Strayed exploded her entire life (left her husband, shot heroin, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail) because she couldn’t fathom living in a world without her mother in it.

As a media critic I never write memoir, but it’s only fitting to reveal something of myself in reviewing the theatrical version of Tiny Beautiful Things, the book based on Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, because self-revelation is core to her words on the page and the stage. Sugar (Nia Vardalos, who has adapted Strayed’s work with a light, elegant touch) writes not from a traditionally safe distance but “with radical sincerity and open arms,” in homage to her mother’s memory. Audiences experience the breathtaking honesty and wisdom that won the columnist a cultishly devoted readership, watching Strayed search her archive of sorrow, addiction, wit, horror, and growth until she lands on just the right memory to motivate, inspire, or encourage. When to forgive the repentant, when to cut off abusers. How to love, how to leave.

“I don’t attend church, I don’t believe in God, but I believe in Cheryl Strayed,” notes the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, in the show’s playbill. If reading Tiny Beautiful Things is for some a spiritual experience, the play — co-conceived by Vardalos, Hamilton director Thomas Kail, and journalist Marshall Heyman — demystifies Strayed’s process, moving briskly and balancing emotional punch with just enough humor to let the material breathe. Kail places Vardalos in an intimate living room outfitted with children’s raincoats, last night’s leftovers, and a happily cluttered kitchen table where she wrestles her prose into a literary-therapeutic hybrid. As letter writers desperate for guidance, actors Alfredo Narciso, Natalie Woolams-Torres, and Phillip James Brannon sit on Sugar’s midcentury couch, lean against her kitchen sink, and reach out for human connection while embodying parades of real people in real need. The woman who steals due to her mother’s abuse. A trans man disowned in his twenties, whose parents beg forgiveness in his thirties. Virgins who long for connection; married spouses who covet freedom. A would-be mom emotionally frozen by her miscarriage. At their core, they all echo this gut-punch from “Living Dead Dad,” who lost his son to a drunk driver: “How do I become human again?”

Fans of Strayed will appreciate Vardalos’s vulnerable yet straightforward performance as she gives voice and dimension to the mini-treatises on fearless living they’ve pored over for years. They’ll also appreciate her adaptation’s hewing closely to the original text, without any superfluous content, conflict, or character development. Mostly, though, they’ll recognize and revel in Sugar’s oft-memed prescriptions: At some point every monogamous partner will “love X but want to fuck Z. Z is so shiny and new… Z is like a motorcycle with no one on it. Dazzling. Going nowhere.” To reach past suffering, realize that “Acceptance is a small, quiet room.” Playing it safe won’t protect you from romantic hurt, so be “Brave enough to break your own heart. Tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.” Sugar’s most famous time-waster, “WTF,” is interpreted perfectly with three smirking repetitions of: “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.” Strayed’s infamous reply — turning a troll’s prompt into an astonishing reflection on childhood sexual abuse — offers both meaning and compassionate ass-kicking, urging WTF (and us, whenever we’re tempted to waste our lives) to “ask better questions. The fuck is your life. Answer it.”

Tiny Beautiful Things
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-539-8500, publictheater.org
Through December 31

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Racial Histories Repeat in ‘Party People’ and ‘Death of the Last Black Man’

On Saturday, November 12, while thousands of New Yorkers were marching in protest of the president-elect, music-theater ensemble Universes was onstage at the Public Theater, performing Party People. Part docudrama, part musical collage, the show — created by Universes collaborators Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and William Ruiz, a/k/a Ninja, and directed by Liesl Tommy — is a passionate ode to the radical histories of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, exploring the necessity and danger of revolutionary dissent. Its timing couldn’t be more apt.

In this meta-theatrical musical, Malik (Christopher Livingston), the son of Black Panthers, and Jimmy (William Ruiz), nephew to a Young Lord, plan a reunion for the fractured older generation: a performance and celebration to honor their elders’ bravery and continue the struggle. But the veterans are traumatized from incarceration and infighting, fractious policy decisions, and betrayals by COINTELPRO informants. They’re suspicious, too, of Malik and Jimmy’s untested commitment to revolution and of the young men’s cameras streaming the event on Facebook. TV screens arrayed around the room show Facebook’s range of possible reactions — heart, sad face, thumbs-up — highlighting the emoji-defying complexity of this history.

Between scenes, montage-style song and dance sequences explore the history of the parties, black and Puerto Rican identity, and the new generation’s anxieties: Raised for radical action, they’re unsure of how to assume the mantle of revolution, and how much to risk. These sequences are raucously enjoyable, but it’s the quieter moments that sink in — like a scene in which performers present a bullet-riddled doorframe through which, the actors tell us, government agents assassinated legendary Panther Fred Hampton. In a ritual roll call, surviving organizers speak the names of fallen comrades, then exit the stage through Hampton’s door.

As the audience filed out of the theater, snippets of conversation relayed the frustrating timeliness of the play. “This” — radical organizing — “is what we have to do now,” said one audience member. “We have to do this all over again.”

 

Daniel J. Watts, as Black Man, in one of the play’s many startling visual moments
Daniel J. Watts, as Black Man, in one of the play’s many startling visual moments

History repeats itself more directly — and more heartbreakingly — in Suzan-Lori Parks’s early-1990s drama The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, a/k/a The Negro Book of the Dead. Now in revival at the Signature Theatre in an exquisite production directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Last Black Man is a surreal, poetic meditation on the linked histories of slavery and colonialism — America’s endless efforts to violently obliterate black bodies. Unfolding as a series of “choruses” and “panels” that evoke music and painting more than drama, the play riffs on language and remixes racial stereotypes with boldness and grace, creating an experience that is both revelatory and irresistibly watchable.

Parks’s play centers, loosely, on a pair of figures called Black Man With Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts) and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff). Black Man’s life is constantly under threat: Riccardo Hernandez’s set, an enormous white clapboard veranda, is populated with instruments of racialized murder — an electric chair; a noose tied to a tree branch. His death is staged repeatedly, but Black Man cannot move his hands to protect himself because he’s stuck holding an enormous watermelon, a prop that isn’t his but that he can’t put down. His scenes with Black Woman are reunions — “You comed back,” she says — but they’re goodbyes, too, in a world with a vested interest in killing black men. As Parks repeatedly suggests, Black Man is, in these brief reunions, both returning from the dead and venturing back toward inevitable death.

Between these encounters, we meet an ensemble of historical and allegorical figures sporting names like Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman), Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (Nike Kadri), and the biblical Ham (Patrena Murray). In beautiful choral interludes, the ensemble chants Parks’s poetic refrains, which link colonialism to racism and underline the role of language in perpetuating it. The play is 26 years old, but its critiques are current: One chorus member, And Bigger And Bigger And Bigger (Reynaldo Piniella), wears a black hoodie — a 21st-century addition to Parks’s catalog of the implements of murder.

These histories are bleak, but watching Parks’s play is not. She renders racial violence palpable but strange, transforming history into disturbing, evocative ritual. Blain-Cruz and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, with the excellent ensemble, celebrate these elements of the play, emphasizing its rhythmic language and adding exuberant dance breaks. Like Party People, Last Black Man testifies to theater’s potential for embodying historical memory. That’s vital in a country plagued by racist violence and now facing down a government that may do little to stop it — if not condone it outright. “You should write it down,” insists one of Parks’s figures, of the histories the play covers, “because if you don’t write it down then they will come along and tell the future that we did not exist.”

Party People
By Universes
Developed and directed by Liesl Tommy
Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-967-7555, publictheater.org
Through December 11

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, a/k/a The Negro Book of the Dead
By Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Signature Theatre
480 West 42nd Street
212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org
Through December 18

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‘Privacy’ Shows Us We Have None

No matter how deeply we may think we’ve absorbed the lessons of Edward Snowden, it’s still possible to be shocked by the extent to which our digital devices catalog our lives. Want to order a pizza or locate a friend? Planning on attending a protest? Your smartphone will help you — and gleefully log the metadata for later.

Such a shock is what Privacy attempts to administer. Currently at the Public, the high-tech, interactive drama, by playwright James Graham and director Josie Rourke, is part romantic comedy, part performance lecture: exploring the endangerment of intimacy and solitude in a digital age, and contemplating the devil’s pact that we ignore daily, as we “like,” “share,” and drop pins.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as The Writer, a neurotic English type, bruised from a recent breakup that was precipitated by his introversion and reluctance to “share.” He embarks on a pilgrimage of self-discovery, seeking to understand his own need for privacy — and to interview experts who can help him come to terms with the nature of privacy in our times. (This material, he announces, will provide fodder for a new play, presumably the one we’re watching.) The Writer flies to New York for research, and the play morphs into a kind of docudrama in the key of TED Talk. Experts on the subject of surveillance and privacy, from the heads of Google and OkCupid to the director of the FBI — all efficiently portrayed by the excellent ensemble — appear, offer pithy remarks, and vanish. A “researcher” (Harry Davies) sits upstage, glued to a MacBook throughout.

Meanwhile, The Writer pines for his ex, so his chorus of “experts” suggests he explore a different relationship: with us, his audience. Indeed, we are the co-stars of Privacy, our smartphones the most important props. Spectators are instructed to leave phones on, log on to a wireless network, and participate in various explorations, ostensibly of The Writer’s life, but really of our own. We snap selfies and explore our phones’ “Frequent Locations” lists, which track our travels like inadvertent diaries. We receive funny, sobering demonstrations of just how much personal information our phones broadcast without our knowledge.

Interactive performance, using spectators’ smartphones and personal data, has been on the rise in the last few years (a recent piece by theatermakers Chris Kondek and Christiane Kühl likewise hacked audiences’ phones; European companies like Rimini Protokoll, Blast Theory, and Gob Squad have long been at the forefront of such practices). Privacy manages to be both hugely entertaining and — by comparison to other work along these themes — somewhat glib. It’s impossible to tune out from the event Graham and Rourke have orchestrated: Each fresh revelation of our private data works like a magic trick, eliciting shocked laughter and delighted gasps.

But these digital sleights of hand can also obscure deeper discussion. The dichotomy suggested by The Writer’s tale, which pits live intimacy against digital exposure, feels oversimplified. And although Graham demonstrates our collective complicity with mass surveillance — and gestures, in an interrogation scene, to the technology’s darker uses — there is less exploration of the ways that race, immigration status, and other aspects of identity alter the stakes. Mostly, the creators seem as delighted as we are by the technological stunts: Who knew that your supermarket might realize you’re pregnant before you do? It’s disturbing — and disturbingly hard to look away.

Privacy
Created by James Graham and Josie Rourke
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-967-7555
publictheater.org
Through August 14

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A New Musical at the Public Is a Thrilling Reflection on the Costs of Fame

For anyone who’s ever suffered a loss of faith in religious life, politics, or the American musical, Stew and Heidi Rodewald, creators of 2008’s rousing Broadway picaresque Passing Strange, have the cure. Their new show, The Total Bent — an electrifying and thoughtful meditation on the artist’s process of self-creation and the role faith plays in it — is sure to make you a true believer.

Initially set in Montgomery, Alabama, during the bus boycott years, but traveling into the rollicking disco decade of the 1970s, the plot follows the young musical genius Martin “Marty” Roy (Ato Blankson-Wood) as he struggles to overcome the legacy of his father, “Papa” Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall), a former gospel blues legend turned faith healer who is looking for a musical comeback and more crossover appeal.

Marty wants to write (and eventually perform) music that directly addresses the civil rights struggle, while Papa Joe fears alienating white listeners. Eventually the son breaks with his father, turning both the Christian faith and the rhetoric of revolution to sensational new ends, surpassing Joe completely in a dizzying flight to pop chart success.

With music direction by Marty Beller and choreography by David Neumann, Stew and Rodewald’s score burns, blisters, and gets its audience totally lit — or totally bent. It’s an extended musical seduction, an act of divine energy transfer, and a sensitive reflection on the costs of fame, all in one. As the increasingly confident Marty, Blankson-Wood’s mesmerizing performance stands out as a masterclass in pure theatrical charisma. Sometimes he channels Prince or Michael Jackson, but the stardom he radiates is uniquely his own.

The Total Bent
Text by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-967-7555, publictheater.org
Through June 16

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In the NYC Theater World, January Is Festival Month

Algorithmically generated concert? Check. Inuit throat singing? Check. New musicals, pre-teen performers, re-enactments of 1960s sexual utopias? Check, check, and check. Does anyone remember a time when January wasn’t Theater Month in the downtown and experimental world? If so, let’s never go back there.

In the more than ten years since the Public began producing Under the Radar each January, the big three festivals — the other two being P.S.122’s COIL and the relative upstart American Realness — have become fixtures of the New York theater season, filling a dark, cold month with the new, the exciting, and the strange. This year’s lineups, running roughly from January 5 to January 17, feature a cast of heavy hitters from the international festival circuit, plus a healthy dose of the American theater and dance artists most deserving of your attention.

Long the biggest and most international of the festivals, Under the Radar is also, ironically, the least concerned with presenting the truly unknown. But since when does a festival have to be subversive to be worth your time? This year’s program includes an assortment of known quantities, but excellent ones: for instance, Chilean playwright and director Guillermo Calderón, whose poignantly ironic Escuela follows a cell of revolutionaries — long on passion, short on know-how — in the waning years of the Pinochet regime; or Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq, who reinvents the classically controversial 1920s documentary Nanook of the North. At the Japan Society, playwright Toshiki Okada — whose dramas of digital-age alienation have been speaking to American audiences for years — brings God Bless Baseball, a meditation on a sport with outsize significance on his home turf as well as here.

Under the Radar doesn’t lack for local work, either. New York–based troupe 600 Highwaymen will present Employee of the Year, a winsome meditation on family and aging performed entirely by a group of eleven-year-old girls. (Pre-teen performers have been a thriving theatrical trend over the past few years: Just think of U.K./German troupe Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes, featuring eight- to eleven-year-olds, which played at the Public in October.) And of late, the Public’s festival has supplemented its lineup with “Incoming” programming — works-in-progress by less established artists. There, you can catch young local companies like Sister Sylvester and I Am a Boys Choir, which excavate moments both momentous and strange from decades past: the 1970s student occupations in Athens and the, uh, legacy of Tonya Harding (remember her?).

The act of looking forward by looking back — a time-honored tradition in the experimental theater — also animates several new works on offer at COIL and American Realness. For COIL, Austrian artist Michael Kliën stages a one-time-only “excavation” of Martha Graham’s choreography at the Martha Graham Studio Theater in the West Village, performed by a multigenerational cast of the legendary dance company’s members. If you’re seeking a racier sort of re-enactment, check out Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen’s 69 Positions, a “guided tour through an archive of sexual performances” from the 1960s, presented by American Realness at MoMA P.S.1.

[pullquote]When the mainstream absorbs one institution, a new and scrappier one tends to step up and take its place.[/pullquote]

Then, too, you’ll find imaginative dives into the personal past, like Erin Markey’s new musical A Ride on the Irish Cream (American Realness) or Jonathan Capdevielle’s Adishatz/Adieu (COIL), an autobiographical concert that conjures up iconic pop hits of the Eighties. To truly shake up your experience of past, present, and future, don’t miss Annie Dorsen’s Yesterday Tomorrow, an “algorithmic” concert in which three singers, under the live direction of a computer software program, harmonize their way from the Beatles’ “Yesterday” to the musical Annie‘s “Tomorrow,” moving through many mysterious choral arrangements in between.

American Realness, hosted at Abrons Arts Center, usually presents the widest array of forward-thinking experimental performance and brings theater and dance into the intimate proximity they deserve. This year’s offerings appear especially diverse: There are dance pieces by Jillian Peña and Larissa Velez-Jackson, two intriguing works about race and the body (M. Lamar’s Destruction and Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s #negrophobia), and a smattering of performances by festival regulars like choreographers Keith Hennessy and Jack Ferver. (Ferver will remount his vulnerable, darkly hilarious dance-theater solo Mon, Ma, Mes, which should not be missed.)

All three festivals are headquartered in the East Village or on the Lower East Side but leave their mark all over the city. COIL, whose home base P.S.122 remains under construction, arranges the most interesting array of venues, from downtown standbys like La MaMa to the scrappy Ideal Glass Factory to the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City. COIL also expands the geographical reach of its programming this year, featuring a lineup of artists from Australia in addition to the European and American regulars, and it continues to be the only festival to regularly include performance installations in the scope of its January programming.

And what if you want your January to lead you into the total unknown? Luckily — as with all avant-gardes — when the mainstream absorbs one institution, a new and scrappier one tends to step up and take its place. Such is the case with Special Effects, a newer feature of the January landscape, which offers a weekend of hit-or-miss but refreshingly new material at the Wild Project January 15–17. For the newest of the new, check out “Gray Spaces,” an evening of short works that combines white-cube and black-box sensibilities. And the theme of this year’s “Gray Spaces”? Aptly enough, the young artists participating in the evening will be meditating on the future. You can say you saw it here first.

Under the Radar Festival
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-967-7555, undertheradarfestival.com

American Realness
Abrons Arts Center (and other locations)
466 Grand Street
866-811-4111, americanrealness.com

COIL
Various locations
212-352-3101, ps122.org/coil-2016

Special Effects
Various locations
866-811-4111, contemporaryperformance.com/sfx

 

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‘Before Your Very Eyes,’ Gob Squad Toys With Our Notions of Growing Old

Aging might well be the least dramatic of actions. We all do it, but imperceptibly. We can’t speed it up, nor (Botox aside) can we slow it down. Like it or not, we’re all aging at the rate of 24 hours per day.

Which is why it’s so striking to watch a group of pre-teens proceed through an entire lifetime during the charming, wistful Before Your Very Eyes, a performance piece created by the U.K.- and Berlin-based ensemble Gob Squad. Working with New York–area performers aged roughly eleven through thirteen (the piece was first done in Europe with a Belgian cast), the creators imagined their subjects at every age from childhood to young adulthood, through middle age, and, finally, as good-natured, gray-wigged elders approaching death.

As the audience enters, Gob Squad’s cast of seven lounges on sofas and rugs, surrounded by two-way mirrors, as if inside a psychological observation lab. We can see them — and beyond them, our own blurry outlines upstage. We, and they, can hear the disembodied voice that, at intervals, instructs them to keep getting older. But, as they hurtle through compressed life spans, they can’t see us.

With each wild leap forward in time, the performers try to act their new age (how else can we ever act?). At “21” they wear goth makeup and black leather and snort cocaine. At “45” they don cardigans and ties, get divorced, and lecture one another about wine provenance. Gamely embodying ages not their own, they reveal how arbitrary our ideas about age really are. Forty-five-year-old behaviors played by eleven-year-olds suddenly appear as odd and poorly conceived as their outsize sport coats.

[pullquote]Gamely embodying ages not their own, they reveal how arbitrary our ideas about age really are.[/pullquote]

The most poignant of these leaps in time, it turns out, is also the most recent. Gob Squad began recording the cast four years ago, and at intervals, screens flanking the stage reveal footage of the same children at ages eight or nine — asking questions of the present-day performers: What’s puberty like? Do they still have their old friends, and toys? Little Matthew, on film, keeps dropping his Hula-Hoop; today’s Matthew hulas like a boss. Little Maeve wore pigtails and a shy smile, while present-day Maeve looks tough and defiantly ignores her younger self. Are they the same people they were four years ago? Are we?

Eventually the characters’ fates begin to peel away from their childhood dreams. Aja’s younger self, onscreen, fantasizes about Olympic medals and California mansions. At “45” Aja sighs with disappointment and wanders outside the mirrored walls, emerging downstage to contemplate her life from the outside in, a vantage point on existence that few of us ever get. But if this sounds like a celebration of youth, mocking the pretensions and worries of age, do not fear. In the final scene an “elderly” Matthew, his hair caked with talcum powder, tells us he finds happiness in his memories of friends.

Gob Squad often uses the alchemy of performance, technology, and shared theatrical time to bring closer things we normally can’t see: historical change in the 1960s-inspired Kitchen, intimate relationships in The Conversationalist. Here performance becomes a time-lapse camera, transforming aging into action — until the end, when the cast leaps backward out of the mirrored walls and returns to inhabiting the ages they were before the show.

Except not really: They, and we, are 90 minutes older.

Before Your Very Eyes
Gob Squad
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-967-7555, publictheater.org

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With Liberia as Its Backdrop, the Forceful ‘Eclipsed’ Illuminates the Plight of Women in War

Civil war changes everything when it ravages a troubled country like Liberia. Men get conscripted or murdered. Women must choose sides while normal life collapses around them. Warlords abduct daughters and wives from their families, taking them hundreds of miles away to care for violent masters (sometimes their husbands). Survival might mean forgetting their family and ethnicity, even their name.

Eclipsed, a forceful new play by Danai Gurira, asks us to consider the kinds of choices women make in these violent circumstances. That alone is a feat in the American theater, which largely favors living rooms and domestic issues and tends to ignore foreign voices (unless they’re from England). Eclipsed is a rare specimen: a drama that gives us a point of access to an anguished corner of the developing world, showing the humanity that sustains it.

Gurira plants her play in some hopeful terrain: Founded as a West African republic for released American slaves, Liberia’s name means “Land of the Free.” Women suffered greatly when fighting broke out in the 1990s — a struggle between loyalists to the dictator Charles Taylor and rebel factions aiming to oust him. Some — like Eclipsed‘s battle-hardened character Maima (Zainab Jah) — took up arms alongside the men. But Liberian women activists also brought an end to the brutal conflict in 2003, staging marches and blocking negotiators from leaving peace talks. (Today president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first elected woman to head an African nation.)

[pullquote]The real battle takes place when bonds of sisterhood and maternity come up against urgent fears and hopes.[/pullquote]

Eclipsed takes place before those conclusive events but lets us see how they became possible. A small bullet-pocked shelter holds the four “wives” of C.O., a rebel army commander who never appears but whose presence requires the petrified women to drop everything and stand at attention. Other times C.O. summons them to his bed offstage. The matronly Helena (Saycon Sengbloh) and the very pregnant Bessie (Pascale Armand) have taken the Girl (Lupita Nyong’o) under their wing following her arrival in the camp. They tutor her in the ways of the camp; in return she applies her book learning and reads them daily segments from a tattered old copy of a biography of Bill Clinton. Meanwhile two visitors compete for the Girl’s allegiance: Maima trains her to fight, while the visiting peace activist Rita (Akosua Busia) urges her to resist.

The production gathers steam from a superb cast: Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her 2013 performance in 12 Years a Slave, fills her silences with bewilderment and terror. Her monologue, when the Girl unravels and remembers her mother, is exquisite and illuminating. Jah too gives a memorable performance, underlining Maima’s defiant counter-wisdom about how turning violent makes a woman strong. Director Liesl Tommy has found a depth and purpose that helps the production transcend the occasionally repetitive dialogue.

Despite the emotional power of the production — and its wonderful ironies when the women alight on Monica Lewinsky — the narrative has some significant problems. When Rita arrives, she seems to bring didacticism into the play with her, and the story’s resolution feels unconvincingly schematic. But Eclipsed is more interesting viewed as a series of ethical portraits rather than as a yarn with psychological payoffs. We watch a constellation of women over time as they make ambivalent, sometimes ill-advised choices in the face of constant threats and material desperation. The real battle takes place when bonds of sisterhood and maternity come up against urgent fears and hopes. War dehumanizes, the playwright seems to say, but it also uncovers inner strengths that might someday alter the world — and save it from men.

Eclipsed
By Danai Gurira
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-967-7555, publictheater.org