What a FASCINATING week for theater in town—I saw three plays this week: a one-man show, one classic, and one Tony-nominated play having its New England premiere all of which left me thinking, laughing, scratching my head, and utterly engaged. You gotta love theater! Here goes.
SpeakEasy Stage is presenting the New England premiere of Robert Askins Tony-nominated play “HAND TO GOD” billed as a cross between “The Exorcist” and “Sesame Street.” Despite a superb cast, I think the play comes up short on both counts providing neither the shock of the former nor the wit of the latter. It actually reminds me of a movie Mel Gibson starred in years ago called THE BEAVER in which Gibson’s character channels his depression through a “therapy” puppet. Here, it seems the puppet may be calling the shots.
In HAND TO GOD, a texas teenager named Jason (Eliott Purcell in a tour de force dual performance as puppet master and puppet!) belongs to “The Christ Cateers” (like “Mouseketeers”) a youth puppet troupe housed in a church basement. Suddenly Jason’s hand puppet, Tyrone, begins acting up and out. In fact, this foul-mouthed little handsock begins voicing all of Jason’s repressed sexual urges and anger, and igniting a loaded situation. There’s Jason’s frustrated, widowed mom Margery (Marianna Bassham strung out and hilarious in the part), rambunctious young romeo Timothy who’s hot for Margery (an excellent Dario Ladani Sanchez), Pastor Greg who’s also hot for Margery (Lewis D. Wheeler funny and appealing in the part) and the comely young Jessica (a fine Josephine Elwood) on whom Jason’s crushing.
The play spends two acts (one act too many) whipping these characters into frenzy at the mercy of Tyrone, the demonic puppet who embodies their sublimated, animal impulses. We are ultimately asked to see this mini “Sodom and Gomorrah” in the context of the central Christian myth of the Crucifixion, i.e. the externalized purging of all that is sinful or bad in human nature by way of an external sacrifice. The play ultimately asks, “Wouldn’t it be great if one day we didn’t need to cast out or divide ourselves from our baser instincts, but rather accept, absorb, forgive, and redeem these feelings within ourselves and each other?” Ya think? I think this play spends too much time indulging the dark side, the superficial nastiness, sexual mayhem, and physical destruction it says we shouldn’t be demonizing. For me the humor extracted was tortured at best, but kudos to this cast who do their best beating a dead horse of a script which died in Act I. At SpeakEasy Stage company through February 4!
I also saw the Huntington Theatre Company’s latest, Henrik Ibsen’s classic A DOLL’S HOUSE. Wow. This take on A DOLL’S HOUSE was a shock and a revelation! A frisky interpretation of a classic that will rattle your cage, crack you up, and leave you hanging from the rafters by the time Nora slams the door. It’s not that it’s a perfect production; there were jarring notes and moments that I’m not sure worked. But it shook me up and I looked with fresh eyes at a play I’ve loved and seen many times.
First, British dramatist Bryony Lavery’s vibrant, contemporary translation jolts the play into the 21st century, re-injecting it with the shock of the new. Here the cadences are short, sharp, funny, and overlapping the way people talk in real life. The words land with some of the impact I imagine was felt when audiences saw it for the first time at its premiere in Copenhagen on Dec 21, 1879. It was controversial, provocative, and apparently disrupted many a household and dinner party in challenging the relationship of wife to husband and family. Melia Bensussen directs the action with dangerous abandon, a rough romp through a household rife with false joy, tension, and hidden agendas. James Noone’s “doll house” of a set has the flimsiness of a cartoon and gives way to Edvard “The Scream” Munch’s angst-y expressionist palate. So as you settle yourself in your seat, “Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
In “A Doll’s House” (literal translation “A Doll Home”), Nora Helmer (Andrea Syglowski) is the childlike wife and mother of three, and is treated like a plaything by her shallow, egocentric husband Torvald (Sekou Laidlow). That Syglowski is white and Laidlow is black emphasizes the division between the couple; she playacts for him and he is besotted with her performance. Their marriage is superficially based on masks which separate them from each other and their true selves; neither sees the other clearly. Thus they are poised for a simmering tragedy that will boil over as the play unfolds. It seems that Nora has unwittingly done something illegal, for good reason, and hides this from her husband for fear he and the relationship will suffer. But she is now being blackmailed by another man who is, in turn, being squeezed by his past mistakes. Money, social status, and power are the currency here, and Ibsen is measuring that currency’s relationship to true worth and a genuine exchange between human beings.
Andrea Syglowski who wowed as “Venus In Fur” here puts a screwball spin on Mrs. Helmer; Nora has never seemed livelier, funnier, or more contemporary. What’s more, she evinces a silly lack of self-awareness that mirrors Torvald’s transparent narcissism, and his almost ludicrous condescension to the little lady. But these performances were also a bit odd. Laidlow’s exaggerated delivery and his slim, tall, youthful appearance made his Torvald less believable and less daunting a figure. At one point people laughed out loud at his fatuous delivery of a line that usually signals serious trouble in paradise. It threw me and the tone a bit off. Also, given the contemporary setting and translation, Syglowski’s frivolous housewife seems somewhat anachronistic and makes her sudden desperation and final earth-shattering decision feel too abrupt; I wish she’d given us more than an inkling of what was to come.
That said, I found myself always engaged, wanting to see where these two would take us; though I’d covered this ground before, I felt like I had a new map. By that last scene, when Nora sheds her costume and gets real, I was riveted by her conviction and his shock at her audacity. Though it seems impossible that he and she could have ever been together, somehow this dynamic denouement took my breath away and made the urgency of being an authentic human being as powerful and relevant as it ever was and continues to be. SEE IT at the HUNTINGTON through February 5!
Finally– check out THURGOOD at New Rep Black Box Theater and treat yourself to an especially timely history lesson about Thurgood Marshall the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court. The compelling and charismatic Johnny Lee Davenport plays Marshall with great warmth and authority, but was not yet in possession of his lines the night I saw this solo show. Written by George Stevens, Jr. and directed by Benny Sato Ambush, the evening is an education nonetheless, with Thurgood himself taking us through his own personal history as a lawyer, as well as the various landmark cases which have shaped race relations under the law in this country. The script guides us from Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 which first justified state laws sanctioning “separate but equal” public facilities, to Brown vs. Board of Education in which Marshall successfully argued that segregated schools were unconstitutional, thus opening the door to the civil rights movement in 1954.
Direction, pacing, use of visuals and music all could be sharpened, refined, and pumped up to punctuate the anecdotes, and help us digest the legal reasoning and principles which pack the show. Davenport is the actor for the job; he has the chops, stamina, and power to persuade. I think the show just needs a little more time to incubate its argument. See THURGOOD as part of New Rep’s Prophetic Portrait Series: Examining History at the Level of the Individual through February 5!