theater review

Glenda Jackson Reigns Supreme as a Gender-Blind King Lear

Review by Katherine R. Sloan

George Bernard Shaw declared that “No man will ever write a better tragedy than King Lear” and, according to many, he was absolutely correct. Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century masterpiece deals with tragedy in its most intimate form and is, at its core, about human failing, the unrealistic need for complete love and the quest for power. What is so unsettling are the crimes committed within a family where something akin to solidarity should exist but, to our appalling dismay, fails. Recently in previews for over a month at the Cort Theatre, King Lear officially just opened on Broadway April 4th and is a most exciting spectacle because of its lead actor: Glenda Jackson. Having Jackson play the role of not simply a man but the king—and one of theater’s greatest parts—is a gender role reversal perfect for 2019 (she brought the role to life two years ago at the Old Vic in London).

jackson as lear.jpg

After coming out of a twenty-plus year retirement and a career in politics, Jackson’s acting chops are just as compelling and captivating as we remember from her stunning films of the 1960s and ’70s. According to The New York Times she is still the “mightiest of them all.” Her performances in such films as Women In Love (1969) and A Touch of Class (1973) (both of which garnered her Best Actress Academy Awards) remain in the imagination as paradigms of daring female energy. Now that she’s 82 years old, Jackson possesses an even more palpable essence of power and prowess. Instead of a uniquely feminine energy, she brings a ferocity to Lear that is without gender and, ultimately, human. When she takes on a Shakespearean role we have complete faith in her vision and understanding of the part: we feel her greed, wrath, madness and, in the last minutes of the play, her heartbreak. As Jackson recently expressed while promoting the play, the ultimate tragedy of King Lear is the realization of love only when it’s too late (Lear dies of a broken heart upon holding Cordelia’s dead body in his arms). With over 1,000 lines, it’s staggering to behold Jackson’s boundless vitality and seemingly effortless projection of some of the finest sentences to exist in the English language.

Under the direction of Sam Gold (Hamlet for The Public Theater, Othello for the New York Theatre Workshop) with original music composed by Philip Glass and costumes designed by the legendary Ann Roth, this version of King Lear has classic, well-honed talent on display along with a great deal of inclusion and modern touches. Russell Harvard (who plays the Duke of Cornwall) is deaf so the use of sign language is employed throughout and, other than Ms. Jackson as Lear, a second male role is played by a female actor with Jayne Houdyshell as the Duke of Gloucester. Roth’s costuming choices add a wonderful flair of sophistication as Jackson dons smart tailored suits and shiny patent leather loafers (until Lear descends into madness and is dressed in torn pajamas and a garland for a crown) while Elizabeth Marvel (House of Cards, Law & Order: SVU) has tattoos on display as Goneril. The women all wear trousers and full-on pantsuits with tunics as short dresses paired with high-heeled boots instead of corsets throughout (although all three daughters wear more traditional, jewel-toned regalia during the first scene where Lear divides his kingdom among them).

The second most rewarding performance is given by Ruth Wilson (The Affair) as she, per tradition, portrays both Cordelia and the Fool. Her Fool is extremely reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp with a Cockney accent and, upon watching, is a delight as she has the energy and physicality of a teenage boy. Wilson’s Fool supplies comic relief but, as we discover later, also has a great deal of depth and is not foolish at all. On the contrary, Wilson’s Fool is quite brilliant. One of the directorial liberties taken by Gold is that he seems to be letting the audience in on the secret that, yes, Cordelia is the Fool.

glenda jackson and fool.jpg

This is never blatantly stated and no direct theatrical evidence points to the fact that these characters were written as one and the same by Shakespeare but that they are simply played by the same actor out of convenience (as they share none of the same scenes) although Lear does state, upon seeing Cordelia’s dead body, “And my poor fool is hanged.” This utterance serves as more than a hint that Cordelia is the Fool in disguise and that Lear knows this. In this production of Lear Wilson (as the Fool) removes her wig and reveals to us her true identity as that of the King’s daughter, Cordelia. This decision by Gold adds another layer to Cordelia’s steadfast, genuine love towards her father thus making the Cordelia/Lear relationship deeper and her subsequent death even more poignant and tragic.

This production of King Lear has all the Shakespearean elements that make going to the theater awe-inspiring, frightening and exciting. With the epic storm scene where Lear literally rages against the natural elements, a deceitful and carnal affair between Edmund (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones fame) and the two malevolent sisters, extreme violence (the scene where Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out is wonderfully done but not for the faint of heart) and death, there is never a minute where action and raw entertainment coupled with superb language are lacking. All of these happenings are just as Shakespeare wrote them but are modernized to be even more salacious at times (there’s a satisfyingly raucous sex romp between Edmund and Goneril) while some aspects are almost an afterthought (as Regan—played by Aisling O’Sullivan—is poisoned and dies in the background). The most overwrought part of the play comes at the end when Cordelia is hanged and, justifiably so, but, if just for a moment as she’s lowered onto center stage with a noose around her neck, it seems that, although very effective, this could have been done with a bit more finesse and subtlety.

Shakespeare is not easy-going theater: one’s ears must remain pricked throughout as tensions run high and complexities grow ever higher. One of the most refreshing aspects of true art is its ability to reflect the most intense, beautiful and terrifying characteristics of life and what it means for even the most powerful among us to be proved fallible. In his 1816 poem On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again John Keats writes of delaying his own writing in order to enjoy one of his greatest inspirations and, in the last line, states: “Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire.” This implies that Keats hoped for a more effective way of writing poetry and that King Lear was a work of art that could provide him what he needed in order to continue creating. Upon seeing King Lear on Broadway the audience is rewarded not only with one of the greatest spectacles ever written for the stage but, with Glenda Jackson as the lead, one of the most impressive and exhilarating portrayals of Shakespeare’s tragic king.

Millennial on Millennium Approaches and Peroistrika

Millennial on Millennium Approaches and Peroistrika

          For many theatergoers this season’s revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Pareoistrika, now playing in repertory in a limited engagement at the Neil Simon Theatre, can seem like a veritable theatrical marathon. The two shows, which run for a total of 7.5 hours and can be seen in either one full day or split between two, takes about as much time as it does to fly to Europe or binge-watch an entire mini-series.

A review of the opera, Doctor Atomic


Carl Watson

The subject of John Adam’s opera, Doctor Atomic has been close to my consciousness and my heart most of my life, having been raised in the age of the fall-out shelters, air raid drills, duck-and-cover exercises.  In the 50s and 60s we lived with the constant threat of “The Bomb.”  It informed everything from our ideas of love (doomed love, uncommitted love, serial monogamy) to our concept of the future (no future, apocalyptic future).  Our entertainment was inhabited by monsters that were scared up out of the blood-red radioactive depths of the sea, and giant atomic men who roamed the cinematic landscape crushing cars in their fists while their faces melted like great decaying billboards for the end of time.  These were, of course, projections of the demons that inhabited the individual and collective psychology.  They were the products of atomic mishaps, human errors and human hubris, experiments gone woefully wrong or successful atomic explosions that had ugly unpredicted results.  Ultimately all this mayhem produced many a pessimistic and cynical psyche, something that is both reviled and sadly missing in today’s happy media climate full of good Friends and Manola Blonics addicts, the kind of people you see crawling the streets of the Lower East Side today.

I have been revisiting the early 60s of my youth lately as part of my studies, and Doctor Atomic came around just in time, as so often happens, when my private obsessions soon become those of the culture at large, or vice versa. Doctor Atomic, like other new operas, takes on a rather controversial and not necessarily romantic subject.  Commissioned as a modern Faust, Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books more accurately calls it a modern Frankenstein.  The other new opera I am thinking of is, of course, the Fly, which takes place in a similar time.  Both The Fly and Doctor Atomic deal with versions of the Mad Scientist myth and the quest for the cosmic dream of power.  For any number of reasons, which I will not elucidate here, the time is apparently right for the resurrection of this typically B genre in high art. 

Unlike The Fly, Doctor Atomic especially has garnered all kinds of validating attention. The CUNY Grad Center where I endlessly inhabit the library, recently held a veritable Doctor Atomic festival with learned seminars and atomic wine tastings, etc.  Every publication in this city has already reviewed it so there is really no need for yet another review, especially since, in large part, I tend to agree with Mendelsohn’s opinion.  (One wonders why it is reviewed there since it is not a book, but this question is beyond my reach.) 

Mendelsohn sees the weaknesses of the Met version mainly in its lacking the dynamic of the earlier (San Francisco) staging.  I contend that the Met version is an improvement, although it does not mitigate the fundamental flaws of the work. Mendelsohn says the “ambitions curdle too often into pretensions,” and I would not argue with that.  However, I don’t find Adams’ music nearly as interesting as most critics; I will admit, however, that it is far more evocative when you don’t pay any attention to the lyrics, a problem I will address later.

The San Francisco (SF) version, which Mendelsohn prefers, is more dance-oriented; men in casual dress (polo shirts and khakis) sport a lightness of foot that seems, to me at least, inappropriate considering the subject. Mendelsohn likes the dance, he believes it grants an atomic motion to the staging.  Without any justification, I will suggest that such lightness perhaps relates to their moral elevation compared to the darker more somber villains of the warrior class, intent on using the bomb as a weapon. Perhaps my preference is based on my indifference to fleet-footed prancing about, but I like to think it is a matter of moral/philosophical tone. The Met’s version is indeed stiffer, which I interpret as based in group or choral motion, perhaps signifying group-think.  The contrast extends to the sets and staging. The SF landscape seems less stark, more colorful, while I would characterize the Met’s version as more noir, more sepia-toned. This difference, admittedly, is less one of fact than of memory, i.e., a projection of my memory, flavored by the monotone sets of 50s science fiction films, as well as a kind of stoic subscription to destiny by way of power. The costuming in the Met version also has a more noirish quality.  The prancing cast of the SF production gives way to stiff men wearing fedoras and suits who remind one of post-Depression gangsters pumped up on a sense of American world dominance and prosperity. Even the backdrop can be distinguished on symbolic grounds. The SF backdrop is a silhouette of painted mountains, red mountains of course, signifying I suppose, blood, whereas in the Met’s version the mountains are represented by a series of peaked sheets covering something hidden,  nature perhaps.  Or they may represent a fateful refusal to see.

Visual aspects aside, however, the biggest source of discord for me came from the core elements of words and music. Much of the libretto is delivered as recitation, which I suppose is common in contemporary opera, so it is hard to judge the performances as proper singing per se. The voices were good voices.  The character(izations) could even be said to have been good enough.  It was the meshing of the total that disturbed me -— as if all the pieces didn’t quite fit but were jammed together with an impending deadline in mind. The various elements of the opera did not seem to jibe for me; the music, on its own, without the singing would have been fine, and the singing might have been fine as well. My problem is where the music meets the libretto -—the cadence of the words never seemed to match where the music was going.  Words seemed to have been stuffed into a musical phrase that was just fine without it. In part this awkward quality is due to personal taste, especially in regards to the English language. I have never been a fan of English language operas, and this is because I can understand them.  Opera lyrics tend to be pretty corny, even downright dumb, and they have a lot more power if they are lost without translation, becoming part of the music.

This awkward quality is also due to the way the libretto was assembled.  Peter Sellars is credited with the libretto, which he admits he did not write but “collected” or rather pasted together out of other sources.  There is thus a lack of dramatic unity or narrative consistency -— it is an assemblage and it plays like one. The libretto is composed in part, of poetry: John Donne, Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita amongst others. Mendelsohn says that Adams’ settings of verse are generally “splendid.”  I disagree. It is, of course, great poetry but seemed out of place and out of sync.  Oppenheimer’s citing of Krishna/Vishnu’s famous lines from the Gita (I am Death, etc.) is certainly resonant but there is no dramatic context for it.  Oppie (Oppenheimer) simply breaks into this rather incongruous bit of religious citation.  The same holds true with Baudleaire’ poem about hair, which Oppie sings to his wife. And the Donne piece is to my thinking rather painful to watch or listen to.  “Batter My Heart Three Personed God,” is sung as if from a different opera altogether.  It seems to have been (like the rest of the found material) airlifted into the opera. Mendelsohn echoes my sentiment when he comments on another scene: “Oppie’s big aria of anguish feels like its been parachuted into the proceedings, and fails to suggest a persuasively textured personality.”  Exactly.  One can understand the religious relationships that Adams wants to create -— too bad it doesn’t work. Unfortunately, I found myself humming this Adams/Donne piece over the days to come. I did so as a joke on myself, a kind of Monty Python skit I was producing internally, but still such activity testifies that the piece had become a sort of brain worm you can’t get out of your head, which might be what Adams intended all along -— a psychological atom bomb.

And so lastly I mention the bomb itself -— looking something like an iron sphere salvaged from an old railroad engine factory.  The ball/bomb is in the complicated grip of some kind of electrical octopus made of wires and conduit passing through various hubs and junction boxes.  It is a fascinating and somewhat sinister object.  At first I thought it was a fanciful representation of the real thing, the product of some artist’s conception. Then I saw the photo of the real thing and realized the bomb really did look like that. Think of the human face as a ball of iron and all that wiring as an alien life form clamped onto the face getting ready to inject its own form of brain worm into human consciousness, that worm being the fear of catastrophic end times, and well that’s the picture I had in my mind even now long after the opera is over. 

Review of The Connection

Review of The Connection(At the Living Theater, December 31 to February 13. Directed by Judith Malina; Music by Rene Mclean; director of production, Gary Brackett, stage manager, Erin Downhour)

Certainly anything Piscator staged would have the same unifying thread in that one set of illustrative usages would be prominent. A character, say, Nora Helmer, was herself but she would also be a congery of class attributes, displayed in her personality, relationship patterns and actions, such as her break with her husband. According to this German director, what Nora did served as an exemplar of social forces (such as the Norwegian suffragette movement), not personal choice. In an interview, Judith Malina put it like this this: “Piscator felt that the actor was duty bound to make his or her performance an explanation of this character's position in the social structure [and the characterization of that structure] always has to have a Marxist base.” She added, somewhat wryly, “If I have a play about pretty chorus girls kicking their legs that's also about the social structure, because who the hell are they and why are they kicking their legs like that?”

One has to ask, though, does the Living Theatre, which broke from Piscator’s teaching in order to define a less mechanistic, more anarchist dramatic practice, show the same sort of consistency? The question is not meant to begin to reproach the group, that is, if it were claimed they were not consistent, since thematic consistency across a string of productions is hardly a major virtue, but rather in light of the diversity of the theater’s projects over the years, going from reworked classics (such as Antigone) to collectively played, audience-participatory spectacles (Mysteries) to rigidly choreographed, dance-like pieces (The Brig), to highly literate, scripted performances (the current production, The Connection). I bring this up because I believe the triumphal new staging of the Gelber play reveals that there is a deep continuity woven through their drama.

But before getting to that, let me note the knotty complexity of this current work, which, understandably, confused the Times reviewer Charles Isherwood. He does note the contradiction that appears early on in the drama when the “writer,” Jaybird, comes on stage to say, “I am interested in improvised theater,” claiming the addicts who are sitting around the set are simply riffing as they would in everyday life, but then he later begins yelling at these same actors, telling them, “You are murdering the play … you’re [supposed] to give the whole plot in the first act.” Doesn’t’ seem very improvisatory if what they say is dictated by the author.

While Isherwood grasps this, he then comments, “We are not in the realm of strict naturalism, clearly. The actors … mostly perform in a realistic style, but they break into languid or fervent confessional monologues.” But, for him to say these monologues break with realism is to overlook the fact that (supposedly) these are addicts who are being paid to appear before an audience. They are expected to give viewers their money’s worth, which realistically entails they bare their souls. They wouldn’t do this if they weren’t appearing in a play, perhaps, but the premise is that they are.

This is no side issue for the very crux of the play is to contrast two ways of being artistically creative, either through playwrighting/filmmaking or musicianship. As I see it, the acute contradictions in Jaybird’s conceptualization of this project do not arise from his own naiveté and immaturity (which are considerable), but because of the hollow heart of American drama (then and now) that has proven incapable of capturing reality in any fundamental depth.

(Of course, this position is taken in a play, but I would imagine Gelber would exclude experimental theater from his critique.)

Simply look at the presumption of the producer and writer. The producer, played with harried grace by Tom Walker the night I attended, tells us, “Jaybird has spent some months living among drug addicts.” With this background, he is now apparently knowledgeable enough to cut us a slice of life. Yet, a little bit later, Jaybird (in a fine rendering by Eric Olson), explains to us, “Remember: for one night this [drug addict] scene swings. But as life it’s a damn bore.”

Okay, but that means we are not getting a real depiction of the addict lifestyle, which would be tedious, but a neophyte’s manipulated version. Moreover, this manipulation extends rather far. Later, Jaybird explains to the viewers, “Some of you will leave the theater with the notion that jazz and narcotics are inexorably connected. That is your connection, not –” Okay, Jaybird, but every player you picked for the combo that plays in the performance is a known user. Wouldn’t it seem this selection stacked the deck so the audience would be led to this “connection”?

This is not to say that a documentary depiction that really depicted a junkie hangout would make good theater, but rather to note that Jaybird comes to the scene with a built-in agenda.

And believe me, Gelber’s criticism goes considerably deeper into its indictment of American drama. Kenneth Tynan, in his introduction to the original Grove Press edition of this play, compares The Connection to Gorky’s Lower Depths. I wonder if it would have been more apropos if he had mentioned the American drama, the one the author said he had modeled on the Russian play, namely, The Iceman Cometh.

Now, there’s a curious addict Ernie. One of the other characters says about him, “He hasn’t played that rotten horn for five years now. And him coming on like he was the great artist or something.” It’s curious because such a labeling (and the suggestion that Ernie gets high to hide from himself the fact that he is no longer a musician), is not applied to any of the other drug fiends, whose reasons for their addiction is never explained.

In Iceman – and remember that O’Neill did not spend “some months” observing the denizens of a low-class haunt, but was himself a sponging bum in a Manhattan gin mill in a waterfront tavern off the Hudson River – every single character, all drunks, is consumed with such illusions, all thinking he or she will soon get back on track. O’Neill terms it “puffing on the [opium] pipe of the past,” while, perhaps coincidentally, Ernie, the only Iceman-like personage on view, is always blowing on his mouthpiece, as if in homage to that play. But the very fact that only one character is given this background, which, on top of that, is not necessarily believable, given the untrustworthy character who makes the comment about Ernie, to me suggests that O’Neill’s way of depicting the down-and-out has been found wanting. There’s the hint that O’Neill, like Jaybird, has hoisted his own agenda on the riff raff, making them resemble the illusion-haunted people in his own family, as depicted in Long Day’s Journey.

And there’s another thing. Consider The Connection’s central plot pivot. The addicts are waiting for the man, Cowboy, to bring their drugs. In Iceman, everyone is waiting for fast-talking Hickey, who has always delivered (on his yearly visits) a big helping of hope, but who, this time, is undercut and exposed as a fraud by one malcontent. Here, O’Neill follows Gorky to a degree, in whose play a religious visionary, Luka, delivers the same hope, but when he leaves everyone falls back into despair. In the Gelber play, it seems facsimiles of both of these characters show up: the visionary (Sister Salvation) and the hope deliverer (Cowboy) waltzing through the door together. And this doubling is not the only way the play departs from the line of the earlier works. There is never any faith placed in the religious zealot, who is not heeded, while the hope feeder does bring the expected relief, the dose, and, in a significant turn, is shown not to be an intruder from outside but a user himself.

It’s hard not to think that Gelber made these changes as an implicit criticism of the earlier writers. It would seem Gelber is hinting that in the improvisatory sections of the play, despite the strictures of Jaybird, something real about the addicts life has been captured that the moralism of O’Neill and Gorky, who want to emphasize the wretchedness of the lumpen proletarian, misses. What the first two authors overlook is that the addictive substance (alcohol in the earlier plays) does offer a substantial release. In other words, as a self medication, even if the end result is self destruction, heroin is real.

This is shown, in many places through subtle staging, for example, by having the characters in the Second Act, after they’ve fixed, act and talk more coherently. Sam, played by Eno Edet, in a magisterial performance, complete with a tic of clearing his nose that adds a spooky rhythm to his speech, tells a fascinating story, that more than fulfills the promise of the previous act, where he said, without proving it, “I have quite a rep … repi … quite a lot of stories that would tickle the hairs of your ass. But I’m kinda sick right now.” And the musicians, now high, though they don’t play better, show both a greater interplay (particularly in an intimate interchange of Rene Mclean’s noble sax and Alan J. Palmer’s snappy piano) and a greater willingness to let players follow their muse. This last is shown, when Andy McCloud is playing a pounding bass solo and the pianist and sax player, at different moments, seem about to jump in, but then back off, allowing McCloud to continue the flow.

These players’ aborted moves to enter the music are not broadcast in an obvious way. They don’t strike a few notes and then stop, but suggest their intentions only by shifts in posture. And this articulate but under-stressed acting is evident in all aspects of the performance. Most significantly, as one addict steps forward to “testify” while all around him other addicts are nodding out, it might seem these stoned characters would have little to do. But, occasionally glancing around, I noted that each character, without distracting from the main feature, was doing something (or not doing something) in a way that added to his portrayal. For example, when Solly (Anthony Sisco), one of the greatest jazz aficionados in the flat, who runs over and crouches beside the piano every time the quartet plays a number, gets his shot, he becomes so entranced with fixing his shoelaces, that he forgets to listen to the music.

Of course, Malina, playing Sister Salvation, is past master of such artistry, which is taken to heights in her illumination of this role. As each person speaks, she registers on her face a tortured mix of fear, fascination and, when she seems to spy a soul ripe for saving, excitement. She accompanies whoever is talking with a facial and bodily awareness as steady as that of the combo’s fine drummer (Emanual Harrold) backing the instruments.

But, I’ve said Gelber is using the play to compare two forms of creativity, the second being music. To get to this art’s presence, let me go to the play’s high point. It’s one of the greatest moments I’ve ever seen in the theater, and it’s not even a moment but a transition. In the Second Act, as has happened throughout the night, a jazzl interlude suspends the action. However, in each previous case, the playing has taken off at a juncture or break in the action, perhaps after a minor denouncement. This time, just as an addict finishes speaking, the music spreads out, as if it were a response to what he has said. I don’t know if I can convey this, but it’s as if the characters’ hopes, blues, rivalries and contretemps are being replaced by a mold of sound. And, further, it’s as if we now see that, yes, there is a connection between jazz and the addicts’ world. The link is that this music – at least when played with the virtuosity of Maclean’s group – can capture the effervescent skein of feelings and dynamics in this world, ones that, as we saw, in the face of which (establishment) film and theater are bankrupt. The whole play turns on providing this contrast between jazz, that can make the scene, and film/writing that can’t.

It may not seem so, but now we’re back at the beginning. For what I can now say is that, thought with radically different politics, the Living Theatre has been guided as if by a kind of organic Piscator.

How do I mean this? Anarchism has had an eye to unmask a much greater range of authoritarianism’s guises than has been possible in a Marxism (like Piscator’s) that is simply focused on the class struggle. Yet both theaters are concerned with this unmasking. The Living Theater looks at different forms of oppression, whether those channeled by the state (Antigone), the military (The Brig), the media (Anarchia), the economy (Capitalism Changes), patriarchy or controlling forms of art (The Connection). And each examination has included a tremor of hope. So, in The Connection, over and above the oppressions of poverty and conformity, which seem to draw the men into addiction – there are no women addicts in the play – and beyond the compromised and know-it-all practices of writing and filmmaking, which would depict a world these arts have already prejudged and pre-condemned, there is the tremor provided by jazz. This music can fight past the limitations of the milieu and crystallize its feelings in lively, lovely forms.

Even when it seems so, as it might in The Connection, the Living Theatre’s message is not rendered in personal terms, and this another reason why its dramatic thrust links it back to Piscator. It’s true that characters are rendered with unsurpassed insight. Think of the suavity of Cowboy (Jeff Nash), which suddenly plummets when he removes his shades and thinks of his past. Recall also the harbored, maternal surliness of Leach (John Kohan) or the coiled vigilance of Ernie (Brad Burgess). These are all well etched, unforgettable people, and yet the final impression one comes away with is the different modes of groups: the addicts as ground, the filmmakers/writer, who are the authority figures (yelling at and ordering the addicts around, since they are paying them), and the musicians, also hired hands, but ones who, at times, can anarchistically break bounds by suddenly wailing in the night.

That is the vision.

"The Man Who Appear**ed" Theater Review by Anitta Santiago

Martin Reckhaus, John Kohan, Jessica Slote, and Sheila Dabney in "The Man who Appear**ed." photo by chantel cherisse lucier

Gaze and Affect: A Review of “The Man Who Appear**ed.”

By Anitta Santiago

“The Man Who Appear**ed.” a New Science Production now running at the Theater for the New City brings a remarkable innovation on meta-theatricality. The premise is a film adaptation of Clarice Lispector’s short story, “The Man Who Appeared.” Not exactly the Kaufman-esque meta-theatricality of adaptation that turns the camera on the filmmaker to tell a story, the play brings film into the theater to do what film cannot do for itself: it turns the camera on the viewer—literally (but more on that later) to probe how we access a story at all.

The first thing the audience encounters is a wall with three windows, a door, and a screen framed like the windows (set design: Gary Brackett). Throughout the play, actors appear at each opening while the screen shows images, mostly of the action at the center window, so that one is always looking through frames, through the wall, struggling through all the frames to get the whole picture. The screen images are further complicated with overlapping images of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and filmed scenes of the adaptation, putting on display how mediated our experience is.

The actors work through this meta-theatrical, hyper-mediated production seamlessly, each participating in the latticework to produce a crystalline performance. Sheila Dabney plays “the Woman,” Lispector’s main character. John Kohan appears as the “the Man” or Claudio Brito, an old friend and poet from the writer’s past, now a drunk. Martin Reckhaus, Jessica Slote, and Asoka Esuruosa complete the cast as the director, the writer, and the cinematographer, respectively.

There are these wonderful moments with Reckhaus and Esuruosa where the audience is unsure if the “mistakes”—such as a lost feed—belong to the play or are “really” happening, a way to make that meta-theatrical questioning of the “real” really present in the technological absence. One could go into a Zizekian contemplation here, but I won’t. The distinctions between the real and artificial, always complex in the meta-theatrical are, in any event, here more complicated.

On the one hand, the actors playing actors explore the artificiality of performance. In the most repeated scene, the Woman encourages the Man to cry. “Off camera,” we have seen the Writer give the Man tips on how to cry, delivering his line “And here I am, drinking coffee and crying.” We have heard these lines delivered and immediately recovered from after the Director shouts “Cut!” and while these are humorous, self-conscious meta-theatrical moments, they are made more bewildering by the fact that we feel the lines more and more as they are repeated.

In another scene, Dabney walks through the door delivering a monologue, with the cinematographer filming and repeating every line she says. The repetition of the words with Esuruosa’s subtle inflections gives them a new import, so that they do not seem to belong solely to the Woman. The words take on a life of their own, telling, as it were, their own story. Every time the Writer repeats the lines “it’s a terrible impotence not knowing how to help,” they ring of deeper sadness and impotence, as though the words themselves confess that confessing impotence does not alleviate the impotence.

Similarly, the “mania for offering people coffee and Coca-Cola” gets repeated in a meta-theatrical wink in a scene between the Man and the Woman “off camera.” The Woman offers and serves the Man Coca-Cola, not as Lispector’s character, but as herself, and says of herself “I’m very simple. There’s nothing complicated about me”—blurring the lines between actor and character, and winking to the audience that there is something indeed very complicated about her, about all the characters/actors, about the status of person in general.

It is the repetition and recycling of lines among characters that seems to move the story forward. Repetition becomes the greatest deliverer of the lines, a character unto itself, not as a single entity, but as the entire cast and action and scene combined.

Dabney’s stellar performance is the unquestionable centripetal force that holds the gamut together. In one of the most moving scenes of the play, the Woman sits at the center window and, as the Man moves about in the background repeating in variations “you’re beautiful,” her eyes gradually well with tears. The Director calls ‘Cut!’ The Woman wipes her tears and the scene is rearranged, but the heart-wrenching feeling they produce in the spectator, or at least in this spectator, remains, and is real.

We try throughout the play to get a look at the whole picture, through frames and winks and feigned crying and real tears. “Look” and “wink” and “tears” are all optical words, and there is a powerful description of a game the writer plays with a cashier at a store, looking in her eyes to discern the person. We are told that the effort is futile, that the eyes are blind, that people are statues.

One of the central questions this play makes us ponder is how do we access a person’s story, how do we access another person? There are moments when the actors at the windows are doing nothing but looking at the audience. Generally, we come to a play prepared to look. We do not come prepared to be looked at. In one scene, the cast gathers around the camera, turned on the audience, approaching the audience, with the audience, then, appearing on the screen. This turns the gaze, the familiar trope in film criticism, back on the audience. As with the Woman’s tears, the reality of affect is in the audience.

In a play where the story is delivered through repetition and recycling, one cannot locate a narrative progression. It is not how the plot moves that is the focus here, but how the audience is moved. Theater can turn the camera on the viewer because the viewer is present. It can look at the viewer as the viewer looks at it and, with the innovation of the camera in theater, the viewers can see themselves looking. In this mutual gaze made possible by the theater, we access the person, because the person is you. This play accesses you and you are moved. This viewer was certainly moved.

“The Man Who Appear**ed.” Playing at the Theater for the New City.

Produced by Gary Brackett

"...a complex, witty interplay of reality and illusion....The setup leading to this conclusion occurs in the first, breathtaking scene."

Sheila Dabney and John Kohan perform "with riveting power. It takes one’s breath you to your seat with the raw honesty of the emotion."

"The set is stunning."

"It's like being inside a poem."

FOUR MORE PERFORMANCES of "The Man Who Appear**ed." a new production from the creative team of Gary Brackett, Martin Reckhaus, and Jessica Slote

Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave (between 9th and 10th Sts.) March 6 through March 9 Tickets $15 Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm

LIMITED SEATING. Make your reservations now. Call 212 254-1109 or buy your tickets online:

Review of The Man Who Appear**ed by Jim Feast

Review of The Man Who Appear**ed(playing at the Theater for the New City, Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 28 to March 9, 2008)

Putting pretentious claims aside, I don’t think there has ever been a literary Cubist. Gertrude Stein is the writer most often denominated one, but this was more because she was in the same milieu, indeed, helped support the milieu in Paris, shared by Picasso, Braque and others in the school, than because she adopted a similar stance in prose. I bring this up because a new play, The Man Who Appear**ed, by Gary Brackett, Martin Reckhaus and Jessica Slote, does recapture the essence of that art movement: its energetic shuffling around of a pulverized reality. To follow the interpretation of art critic John Berger, the Cubists’ re-viewing of café tables, people and guitars had nothing to do with seeing their surroundings as many-sided and fluidly assembled (although this is the reading the art is normally given). For Berger, the crucial fact is that this art movement arose in a period (1908-1911) when a heavy tide of socialist and anarchist protests, uprisings and propaganda flowed through society, casting doubt on the longevity of the reigning capitalism. Ergo, Cubist painting showed a scene that was unstable because of the future. The painters thought it was possible business civilization was on the verge of disintegration, and that it would be replaced by council communism or cooperative anarchism. Nothing in the present, they thought, was anything but an outline, since its anchor points were about to give way. Brackett/Reckhaus/Slote have applied a parallel Cubist view to a straightforward short story by Brazilian writer Clarisse Lispector (possibly because they share with the Cubists a sense of the fragility of contemporary social arrangements). They have applied it with this difference: Where the painters presented an individual object as a set made up of itself seen from different perspectives and in varied relations to other objects, all layered and collaged together, The Man achieves a similar effect by taking a single event -- the chance meeting of old friends (one of whom, the woman, has become a successful writer, and the other, the man, a derelict) -- and makes this the plot of a film being made. From this vantage, individual moments between the characters can be done more than once (to get them right), put in a rearranged sequence (since films are generally shot out of chronological order) and discussed by the actors (masks down) as they consider different ways of portrayal. Such a basis for the unfolding tale makes for a complex, witty interplay of reality and illusion. In the role of a friend (Slote) tells the woman (Sheila Dabney) she should have acted differently in her encounter with the man (John Kohan). Later Slote (out of role) advises her fellow actor, Kohan, on a different way he might play his role in relation to Dabney. Thus, Slote’s two parts (playing an actress and that actress in part) humorously intertwine. But to be entranced by these interlocking levels would be to miss the deeper-lying, more painful truths at the heart of the play. If in Cubism the whole object world is shattered to show its possibly temporary existence, these writers suggest that human connections in our time are so hollow and shallow that they can only contain passion and validity if they are re-imagined (taken apart analytically, that is, shattered) and re-lived. The setup leading to this conclusion occurs in the first, breathtaking scene. The audience is not facing a stage but a wall in which there are two small windows, one larger one, a door and a screen for projections. Dabney comes through the audience, goes in the door, and takes a chair, back to us, inside the bigger window. She is on a riser. Below her we see an empty space and, further upstage, a row of chairs. Although this is not the case, at this juncture, it seems as if we are about to view a drama over her shoulder. So, the feeling, right off the bat, is spooky, uncanny, suggesting the spectators will experience the whole play at second remove. To repeat, then, the play’s point, that nowadays rich emotional ties can only be created through very thick mediations, is established here. It’s an idea that can be taken either negatively (underlining the insufficiency of our humanity) or positively (that this way forward can lead to a new level of experience). In any case, three scenes of magnificent power graphically show what so far might seem a rather abstract concept.

  1. Dabney and Kohan sit closely together (in character) as she tries to convince him to regenerate himself. He looks listless and diffident while her face is filled with regret, compassion and concern. Here’s the surprise. Kohan faces the audience through the window. Dabney is totally turned away, facing the film’s camerawoman Asoka Esoruosa. Dabney’s face is seen projected on the wall screen, etched with feeling but flattened, mediated.
  2. Slote with a seen-it-all, deadpan voice tells Kohan how she thinks he should play a part of the dialogue. Suddenly, she goes into character, his character, and her voice and face ignite with heart-wrenching unhappiness. Reenactment complete, she goes back to Buster Keaton.
  3. In a tour de force à deux, Dabney and Kohan act out the scene where the derelict breaks down under the touch of his ex-friend’s solace. They do the scene with riveting power. It takes one’s breath away.

The director is not satisfied. Play it again. Astoundingly, with a reinterpretation of gestures, the second run-through is even more electrifying. Again, not satisfied. Act it again. The third, and last, version staples you to your seat with the raw honesty of the emotion. Yet, unsettling enough, this sequence hints that people only reach the emotional truth of their situations through repetition (something not very viable in daily life) and, moreover, more startlingly, a person seems more likely to sound her or his own depths in playing a (contrived) role not in everyday interactions. I should say, by the way, about this pitiless director, masterly acted by Reckhaus, that he is the only person on stage who seems carried away and convincing in everything he says – that is, he never adopts the deadpan stance. But, here’s the rub. His words are almost never heard. He is talking under others or whispering instructions, so his feelings only appear in his gestures and on his expressive face. Perhaps, I’ve already said in so many words that the set is off-putting but stunning; the lighting and screen insets well done, and the acting on-key, nuanced and strong. After all, only acting of such trenchancy could balance the intellectual complexity of this rethinking of the Cubist figuration.