PIFA Quick Take- Taylor Mac: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

By Nan

The Take-away
  • An inclusive party of beauty and queer joy

  • Mac breaks down nearly every theatrical wall

  • Gorgeous design

In My Pockets
This is my first real Taylor Mac experience, having only seen Simpatico’s HIR and watched one of judy’s Ted Talks.
I had heard that part one (1776-1896) was a religious experience and was attracted by the dual challenge/novelty of a twelve hour show. I showed up sans snacks and with an empty bladder.
How do we build ourselves as we are being torn apart? 
It’s impossible to put down exactly what went down in those twelve hours, but I can tell you I did not take a pee break– missing any one moment was not worth it. Mac is clearly one of the great performers of our time– it’s a pleasure just to share a room with judy. As judy said maybe halfway through the show, the goal of a twelve hour show was partially to be able to marathon so hard that all the perfectionism was totally stripped away by the end, and that was certainly achieved.
Mac’s singing is gorgeous and the entire show was a feast for the eyes, from giant floating fish on strings weaving through the audience to huge inflatable Russian and American dicks carried crowd-surfing style through the audience, to the avant-garde/drag ensembles judy wears throughout (designed by Machine Dazzle, who also appears onstage). The most interesting and risky part, for me, was the active shifting around of the audience for the purpose of getting POC, queers, and those with cheap seats into the front and center.
Beginning with inviting those in crappy seats onstage to watch (which continued throughout, with various groups being invited onstage to watch or generally be singled out), then progressing to banishing white people to the sides of the audience (Mac was careful to include non-POC Jewish people in the groups that took part in the “white flight” to the sides), then inviting queer people to join the POC in the middle after several numbers. We were told more than once that if you moved, and returned to find your seat occupied by a POC, you were absolutely NOT to tell them to move.
Mac also invited various POC onstage to do guest numbers, including Juntos organizer Yared Portillos, Toshi Reagon, and the fantastic Camden Sophisticated Sisters/Distinguished Brothers drill team featuring the Almighty Sound Percussion Drumline. Mac clearly knows the importance of inclusion. It was a party. By the end the entire theater was strewn with balloons, confetti, ping-pong balls, empty soup cartons, the remnants of bagged lunches we ate on the bus to Bayard Rustin’s march on Washington. We were encouraged to talk to the people sitting next to us– to take part in an audience-wide same sex slow dance– to be active participants.
“You don’t have to agree or disagree– just come and consider. That’s what it’s all about.”

 

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Fun Home- The Arden

Hannah is a queer theatre maker human alien person.
Elaina is a queer director & new play enthusiast.

The Take Away

  • A uniformly excellent cast.

  • Don’t tell stories about us without us.

  • Props to the Arden for a positive and measured response to an open-letter from the queer community!

  • More stories by queer folx on mainstages, PLEASE and THANK YOU!

  • Happy Pride, y’all.

 

In Our Pockets

Hannah
I auditioned for this show, I’m friends with many of the performers and creative staff, and work about queerness and family and childhood and memory hits me in my dang sweet spot. I saw the touring production of Fun Home when it was at The Merriam last year.

Elaina
I’ve never seen a production of Fun Home, I have relationships with a few members of the team, and I was a part of group of queer artists and allies that sent a letter to Terry Nolen and the Arden with demands for a higher level of queer representation in the room, as well as meaningful programming for queer audiences.

((We’re both here and queer!))


The Project

Hannah
So before we talk about the production, I feel like we need to unpack the larger conversation surrounding Fun Home getting produced by The Arden this season.

Elaina
For sure! It’s super exciting to see queer narratives on regional stages, and I was excited to have an opportunity to see the piece presented by local artists. That being said, I was skeptical about the representation of queer voices in the room. I don’t think there’s a way to meaningfully discuss this piece without discussing the optics and intricacies of queer representation on stage.

Hannah
WORD. Yeah, it’s tricky. There’s a part of me that’s like WOOO The Arden is putting this queer play on their mainstage! This is huge! I want them to get good feedback, so they do more / better! But also, you don’t get an automatic pass for doing the bare minimum in terms of queer representation. Optics matter. This show is by and for queer people, and it’s essential that queer folx get to tell their own stories. Or else regional theatre institutions are just capitalizing on queer narratives.

Elaina
The good old “don’t tell stories about us, without us.”

Hannah
And it’s worth noting – there’s been lots of trickiness historically surrounding Fun Home and its optics. Which makes sense. IT IS OUR ONLY *mainstream* QUEER MUSICAL. There’s a story about how when they were first casting the show, someone drew glasses on Laura Benanti’s headshot to see if she could read as a butch lesbian. The tour of the show was plagued with controversy surrounding the “de-butching” of Alison. (Although Lisa Kron eventually stepped in and, I think, gave a very satisfactory response.) And, yaknow, God Bless Sam Gold – he did an impeccable job directing the original Broadway production, but he is a SWM. And that sets a precedent.


Elaina
Early after they announced their season and a few key casting choices, a group of queer artists and allies penned a thoughtful (mostly private) email to Terry Nolen (Artistic Director & Director of Fun Home) and the Arden expressing concerns about the lack of queer representation on their team, and I have to say their response was really positive. The email exchange went back and forth a few times, and at the end of the day we ended up with several openly queer actors on stage, core queer members of the production team, and a PWYD performance that gave it’s proceeds to the William Way Center.

I bring this up for two reasons– the first is that I don’t think the representation would have been as strong if this communication hadn’t happened, but ALSO– it worked. This regional theatre heard the queer community, and they took action steps to improve the representation and programming surrounding the show. I think it’s important to acknowledge this Arden team on their Journey of Unlearning in the American Theatre, and I applaud them for these steps.

Hannah
IS THIS THE GAY AGENDA? IS THIS THE FUTURE LIBERALS WANT?

Elaina
I’m just saying that these conversations are so important! Change can start at the bottom, but those in power have to listen for major shifts to happen.


The Performances

Elaina
This was a strong cast for me.

Hannah
Oh same. I thought the cast was uniformly goddamn excellent.  
Let’s start with Izzy Castaldi, yeah?

Elaina
They were the brightest light for me in this production. Izzy has an incredible voice and walked the fine line of youthful awkwardness, blossoming maturity, self-discovery, and trauma in this role.

Hannah
Their singing voice really struck me – so clear and human and authentic. “Changing My Major” had me actually weeping. The fine balance between embarrassment and total bliss! I felt like they were able to live in this beautiful and relatable space where they were never mocking, but fully 100% living in the messy wonderment of your first queer sexual encounter. It’s such an incredibly vulnerable moment.

I also want to add – I feel like I learned something new from Izzy’s work in this production. Their Medium Alison was scared and unsure, while simultaneously rejecting the queer shame narrative pushed on by her father. And that rejection in turn is what undoes Bruce. This came through really strongly in Izzy’s choices during the phone call home when Medium Alison confronts her father. Teasing out fear from shame is so important, I think, to the way we tell queer coming of age stories onstage. So, props! To! Izzy!

Elaina
I completely agree. I learned so much from watching them– particularly those moments between Medium Alison and Joan. Those two were so tender and truthful to a queer experience. I was so grateful for Jackie Soro’s contrasting performance– she brought such a chill, cool, generous energy to Joan. I actually think the Joan track is really tricky– she doesn’t have a musical moment, she’s mostly responsive, and she isn’t meant to pull focus. I completely understand why Medium Alison chose Joan, based on Jackie’s performance. She was there to graciously intake Alison’s angst as she comes to terms with her sexuality, while navigating family drama.

Hannah
Oh, agreed. Joan is tricky! Generous is exactly the word I’d use to describe Jackie’s work. I really appreciated her openness. I’ve seen Joan played as a sort of painfully cool stereotype in the past, and I really dug her groundedness and simplicity.

Elaina
Okay, let’s talk about Alison Bechdel. Mary Tuomanen doesn’t sing enough on Philadelphia stages, if you ask me. It’s true that I could watch her quietly watch another actor for a good while– and that’s so much of the heart of this piece.

Hannah
YUP. Ditto. That track is HARD. You just watch and watch and absorb, and don’t really get to split open until “Telephone Wire.” It’s just being aggressively present. Doing nothing, but actively listening, and simultaneously anchoring the whole production. Mary had some really altruistic moments with the ensemble, balanced with this total deer-in-the-headlights energy when the memories became overwhelming. But it was all kept painstakingly under a lid, until it was time for release.

Elaina
I was enraptured by her performance– specifically the moments where she got very close to her young self (the moment where Bruce criticizes Small Alison’s drawings, the dress/barrett moments, Middle Alison and Joan). I also appreciate Mary’s effortless comedic abilities. She can lightly sprink dialogue on the audience, and it’s a lovely truthful quality that she brings to the role.

Hannah
YES. Those moments were particularly dynamic for me too. Watching this production, I realized that this is a piece that’s really about how we choose to engage with our trauma, and its tenuous relationship with memory. Which, like, duh. But also, this script is goddamn special. Thank you, Mary, for shepherding us through with such vulnerability and veracity.

Elaina
Ben Dibble!

Hannah
Yeah, Ben Dibble as Bruce Bechdel destroyed me. Those moments in the car were so agonizing. The weight of the one thousand unsaid things between a child and a parent. Guh. Ow. And some of his early moments in the play, where he engages with his still burgeoning sexual energy. They really broke my heart.

Elaina
His final song tied so much of the piece together for me. The way he related to the space– his house, his self-worth, there was so much tied into that– made me realize that the whole piece had been set up to unleash this moment.

Hannah
I also really dug his descent into mania. It really became a portrait of someone unwell. Like, this is what homophobia and self-hatred do to a person. His final moments in the play were deeply beautiful, and deeply upsetting. Props to Ben for going there full-throttle.

Elaina
I thought Ben’s energy played perfectly in contrast to the refined and restrained performance given by Kim Carson as Helen Bechdel. She is so delicate, but so strong. I loved her quiet tense moments, the moments that she chooses to stand up for herself, her obvious love and dedication to her family. Kim’s presence was so clearly the backbone of this broken family, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

Hannah
Kim Carson also slayed me. And that track is also so hard! Okay, I’m realizing I think most of the tracks in this play are really challenging. But. When I saw the show on tour, the mother made zero impression on me. (No shade – I think the proscenium killed my ability to connect, to be frank.) But Kim! Her Days and Days song! She has the voice of an angel. And was so pained and restrained. Such beautiful, simple work.

Elaina
I really do feel like this cast was so connected, and listening so well. Kim was the perfect example of that quiet success.

Hannah
The more we talk about the cast, the more I realize that this ensemble was truly an ensemble. Duh. What I mean is – they were alllll on the same page. I feel like I could describe everyone’s work as “simple, generous, grounded, and open-hearted.” Everyone was breathing the same air.

 

The Direction

Elaina
This production had a clean, simple energy that I appreciated. I’ve seen some flashy work from director Terry Nolen and the Arden, but I was grateful that this production felt stripped down in a way that served this specific story.

Hannah
Totally.
I had some difficulty with the pacing in some moments. I feel like the play can reflect the conceit that it’s a comic book in some really cool ways – brisk page turns, things sorted into squares, harsh corners. Yafeel?

Elaina
Yeah, I also felt some jolts in the pacing and shape of the piece, which for me stemmed from the language of the transitions.

Hannah
I think the piece was missing a strong cohesive vision. We were in the round, like in the original, and under this heavy suggestive roof. Everything was white, and fairly literal. I didn’t see a lot of directorial brush strokes beyond that. And maybe that’s fine? I feel like I really heard the play. Perhaps that was the point. Suffice to say, this was a fairly uncluttered production. I appreciated that.

Elaina
I disagree with that statement about vision. I do think there was a vision behind it, and that the vision dug into a skeletal-blank-page-fill-in-the-story-vibe. I did appreciate the simplicity of the space, though I think it set up some challenges for the rhythm.

Hannah
Heard! The transitions felt occasionally kind of muddy to me, which slowed down the juggernaut. I sometimes thought we were waiting on a musical cue, or on a set change, when we should have been barrelling forward. I don’t think this piece can afford to get sentimental until the final scene.

Elaina
Sure, I definitely hear that. There were some transitional moments that I have questions about, which I think comes from a design criticism that I have– which definitely relates to direction for me.

OKAY, so we have a big white circular area, then everything else is black– including the large alley where a lot of our main entrances happen. All scenic pieces are also white, and must enter through this black area. That meant that every single time the ensemble rolled scenic pieces into the space there were large white objects coming from a black space, a flurry of bodies emerging, and then disappearing in a way that couldn’t help but pull enormous focus… but I don’t feel like the production told me where to look. I craved guidance in these transitions, and often felt like the large movement set me up for a level of energy that the top of the following scene couldn’t match. The transitions felt like a lot of unfocused commotion that was followed by a quiet energy that fell flat in the early moments of the scenes.

Hannah
I feel that. There were some quiet, close moments that really worked for me though! I heard that Terry stepped back and let the Associate Director do a lot of the direction specifically surrounding queerness onstage. Which is rad!! I’m here for that!

Elaina
Yeah, after talking to some cast members it’s clear that Associate Director Jennie Eisenhower was a super important guiding presence in the room. Which makes so much sense! Jennie has a strong musical theatre background, a great directorial eye, and brought a queer woman’s perspective to the rehearsal room. The intimate moments in the piece were very truthful, and really struck a chord with me. I’m grateful that Terry and Jennie collaborated so well with these actors on this subject matter.

Hannah
I do wonder what might have happened with an AFAB and/or queer person at the helm. I’m still aching for a Fun Home directed from an overtly queer perspective.

Elaina
I wonder about that as well. There was something about Mary’s (Alison) placement on stage that left me questioning the amount of focus that she was given in the piece– and maybe this relates to that? She was often tucked into the up stage left corner (on a black surface) while the action happened in this white circle. That is NOT a strong position on stage, and she often was washed into the background. So much of this piece is about Alison putting together the timeline of her queerness and how it intersects with her father’s death. I so appreciated the moments where she was more present, but sometimes felt like she was shoved into the background, rather than really digging in to her quiet, watchful presence. I think there was an opportunity for us to be more connected to Alison, and that the placement of her nook took away from that.

 

The Design

Hannah
I thought the sound design in particular was excellent. Sound in the round is HARD. But I heard the piece loud and clear. Props to Sound Designer Jorge Cousineau. Ben Dibble actually mentioned to me in the lobby that there were individual speakers placed inside the stage all around, which is ingenious.

Elaina
The mix was excellent. I felt like every moment was balanced, and crystal clear. Audio Engineer John Kolbinski is the real deal– he beautifully mixed that piece. Very impressive.

Hannah
I thought the costumes (by Rosemarie McKelvey) were noticeably great. (Honestly Kim Carson’s wig alone is Barrymore worthy. And Izzy, please keep that vest. Did anyone else notice their vest matched the sleeping bag?? Just me? Loved that detail.) The only thing that piqued me a little in the whole costume schema was Ben Dibble’s shorts.

Elaina
For context, the night that Hannah and I saw the piece the audience laughed when Ben Dibble entered in denim cut-off short-shorts.

Hannah
Everyone laughing really miffed me. I felt like we were laughing at this gay stereotype, which is the opposite of what the play wants to be doing. But. I know we laugh at what makes us uncomfortable. So maybe that’s the point, really. Watching this closeted man, who is awkward in his body, be exposed in such an explicit way. HMM. It’s tricky.

Elaina
Okay, but I think the play sets us up for that laugh in some way. The audience has been given insight into Bruce’s homosexuality– so this moment of him in short-shorts is an insider moment with the audience. We as an audience know, but nobody else on stage does– so it’s us picking up on all of the signs that have been there all along. I think that’s where the laugh stemmed from, but maybe I’m being too optimistic. I thought he looked GREAT.

Hannah
I thought the lighting (by Thom Weaver) was lovely in the final moment with Bruce. And the square of light surrounding the sleeping bags was really crisp – it was one of the few times I felt like the comic book motif was truly utilized in the piece. Although, looking back, my sightline from my seat may have limited my sensitivity to this. Thom Weaver is a genius. I sort of wish he’d been set loose to do something even starker and more imaginative. But I realize that might have jarred against the production on the whole.

Elaina
I liked the sleeping bag moment and the final moment of lighting as well (that was a perfectly called cue, good work to Stage Manager Alec E. Ferrell), but I craved more focus from the lighting in this piece. There were a few standout flashy moments, but otherwise I often didn’t know where to look. I say this with the full acknowledgement that it is HARD to light a white space, but I think we suffered the loss of some fine-tuned check-ins with Older Alison in tough moments of the story.

Hannah
The props were all sort of delicate in this way I really appreciated. They felt like soft little memories! I do think the design was super literal, which isn’t always my bag. But I thought Properties Master Christopher Haig did a very graceful job.

Elaina
I enjoyed the overall aesthetic of the props/furniture when they were set, but found their movement to be unsuccessful in the rhythm of the piece.

Hannah
Okay, the scenic design by James Kronzer– I didn’t love the heaviness of the roof. It was a little too New England ginger-bread-house for me. It’s weight and ornateness felt distracting. Maybe this is a taste thing, though. The roof feeling heavy and too fancy was probably the point!

And I thought the white downstage / black upstage was visually interesting, but never used in a way that felt super engaging. Which is fine. Still, I thought the dark funnel upstage was useful. It felt like the depths of memory! I appreciated set pieces shuffling out of this dark chasm, into an exposed white circle.

Elaina
I think that black alley upstage worked super well for the silhouette funeral home moment and the final headlights/Bruce death moment. Otherwise, I struggled with watching white furniture move in and out of that space, and felt like it tucked Mary (Alison) away in a shadowy, out-of-focus space.

Hannah
Right, sure.
Also wanna add – I think the band sounded great! I am such a sucker for a live band. This is the most I’ve ever enjoyed the score of Fun Home. The orchestrations felt really tender, but had a wonderful sense of drive. And everyone sounded LOVELY vocally. Which I know is a testament to the musical direction– we’re talking to you Ryan Touhey and Pax Ressler!


WRAP UP

Hannah
This is my favorite production of a musical I’ve ever seen at the Arden. Just wanna toss that out there. The cast was strong, the design was overall very clean and accomplished. And duh, the story f*cking hit me in my feels. That doesn’t hurt. (But also IT HURTS. Catch me crying in the alley post-show!)

Elaina
I really enjoyed watching this production, and was very impressed by the cast’s performances. I am grateful that The Arden produced this piece, and look forward to more queer narratives being presented on their mainstage!

Hannah
I feel really encouraged by the positive outcomes of the conversations surrounding representation on this production. THIS IS HOW IT’S SUPPOSED TO WORK. Right? Right? Is this another positive train stop on the Journey of Unlearning in American Theatre?

Elaina
THIS. IS. THE GAY. AGENDA.

Hannah
More queer shows on mainstages! More queer artists making queer shows on mainstages!  Gay Agenda, over and out.

2018 Surya Winners

 

In Bonaly’s second year, Philly Theater offered so much for those of us who care about inclusion, accountability and making sure that all stories get told. Scrappy, unstoppable companies demanded a seat at the table and a place on stage for Asian Americans, Latinx people and black folks. And we saw so much more representation of queer and nonbinary people on our stages. We see a real change, driven by women and people of color demanding control over their own stories, and the entire theater landscape is richer for it.  

We were also overwhelmed with the quality of the work we saw this year. There was innovation in design, use of non traditional spaces and pushing the limits of what theater can be. Choosing a few standouts from over 50 shows and performances that our writers advocated for, and over 80 that we reviewed this year was not easy, but it was great to spend time remembering all the wonderful moments– both successes and beautiful failures– that we saw this year.

‘Surya’ Awards – Recognition for May 2017 to May 2018

Bonaly Recognition for Creation of Community Joy

Las Mujeres, Power Street Theater Company

Las Mujeres is a celebration of Latinidad. It made me feel more connected to mi gente and my history and thinking about how many other incredible historical Latinx figures I don’t know about.Every Latinx person in Philadelphia should be proud to know that our city is an artistic playground for plays like Las Mujeres.”

Bonaly Recognition of a Game Changing New Play

Running Numbers,  Theater in the X and Cheyenne Barboza

“It was an absolute treat to see this well made, structured play. The writing is very tight.  Playwright Cheyenne Barboza doesn’t leave any loose ends, and she doesn’t waste any time. The story is clear, the characters are motivated and truthful. There is so much craft in this script.”

Bonaly Recognition of Meaningful Children’s Theater

School Play, Tribe of Fools

This is a play for the kids who can’t sit still and watch plays. It’s a play for the teachers who yell at those kids. It’s a play for parents who wish to empathize with their kids who learn differently. It’s a play asking for alternatives to passive listening. It’s a play that says a lot without a lot of words.”

Bonaly Recognition of an Excellent Performance  

Niya Colbert, Running Numbers, Theater in the X

Niya Colbert! Who is this brilliant actress and why isn’t she in everything? I want a whole other play just about Mouse. What an honest, giving performance. And so funny! Colbert has amazing timing.

Bonaly Recognition for Excellent Direction

Maura Krause, Tilda Swinton Adopt Me Please, The Greenfield Collective

“Direction on this show was smart and spare, and showed respect for the considerable vulnerability of the performers. Maura Krause is responsible for the next step in The Greenfield Collective evolution.”

Bonaly Recognition for Powerful Producing

 

 

 

 

Tiger Style,  Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists

I think it’s really important that this play exists right now, because I cannot remember a single time in my 10-year-history of being a part of this community that I’ve seen that many Asian faces onstage in a full production, that I heard an Asian-American story told by Asian Americans, fully embodied in a complete production..”

Bonaly Recognition of an Evolving Company

Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes, Almanac Dance Circus Theater

“Under Annie Wilson’s direction, this imaginative and risk taking company moved their work to the next level. The performers made magic with their bodies, building shapes and tools together like a colony of ants. It made me feel like maybe humans are meant to fit together in all of these different ways, but that only our egos get in the way.

 

Bonaly Recognition of a Fantastic Fringe Risk

Strange Tenants– Sam Tower + Ensemble (Ninth Planet)

“Clever use of an unusual venue, bold aesthetic choices, and a talented cast. This kind of risk is what Fringe was made for.”

Bonaly Recognition for Excellent Overall Production

The Gap, Azuka Theater

Hooray! A play for everyone! It was really exciting to see a queer person’s story told on stage, and to see that story told by someone who identifies with the queer experience.  I feel like we’re finally getting to a place of frank conversation about sexual assault, so THE GAP is pretty damn necessary. It engages with that topic and doesn’t let its audiences sit back.”

Bonaly Recognition of an Excellent Performance

Alice Yorke, The Gap, Azuka Theater

Alice Yorke slayed as the high-strung and fragile Nicole…she rode the arc that Emma crafted for her with grace, and her transition into a more-grounded Nicole later in the play was seamless.

 

Bonaly Recognition of an Excellent Performance

Jenna Kuerzi, Fishtown: A Hipster Noir, Tribe of Fools

As always, Kuerzi was totally tuned in as Claire. She doesn’t settle for genre tropes or easy answers. Her Claire was complicated, vulnerable and compelling.

 

Bonaly Recognition for Excellent Costume Design

Askai Kuruma, Las Mujeres, Power Street Theater Company

Asaki Kurama’s costumes nailed the styles of each character’s historical moment. Added touches like Minerva’s butterflies in homage to her sisters showed that Kuruma paid attention to the most minute details.

 

Bonaly Recognition for Overall Design  

Alexander Burns, John Burkland, Randy Redd, Christina Lorraine Bullard, Uncle Vanya, Quintessence

Redd’s rich soundscape, Burkland’s gentle lighting, Burns stark and evocative set and Bullard’s non traditional costuming choices come together to make a production full of rich design.

 

Unsung Heroes

We received about 100 nominations for unsung heroes. These names came up again and again.

Jamel Baker

Jamel Baker, is a stage manager whose gentle patience and kind leadership has helmed shows at Tribe of Fools for many years. Jamel is the stage manager we need in our lives. He is chill and gets shit done.”

Robin Stamey

Robin Stamey is doing god’s work as a production manager this year for a number of theaters that frankly should be kissing her ass. She deserves a break, more work as a lighting designer and some recognition.

Jill Harrison

I want to recognize Jill Harrison’s service as a theater artist and leader of Directors Gathering, which empowers emerging and seasoned directors alike in Philly by providing them with a myriad of creative resources..”

 

Melody Wong

“Melody Wong was an our incredible stage manager on Tiger Style. She’s super-competent at everything she does — she’s the one who holds everything together.”

 

Other Unsung Heroes Nominated:

Allison Heishman

Amber Emory

Andi Sotzing

Asaki Kuruma

Ashley Mills

Carlos Roa

Carrie Chapter

Christine Petrini

Daniel Park

Elaina DiMonaco

Elanor Safer

Emily Lynn

Gabriela Sanchez

Gabrielle Corsaro

Jackie Goldfinger

Jessica Darling

Jessica DalCanton

Jose Aviles

Kasual Owens-Fields

Katrina Shobe

Makoto Hirano

Mindy A. Early

Nia Benjamin

Polly Edelstein

Rachel O’Hanlon Rodriguez

Sam Tower

Sarah Nye

 

Sarah Mittledorf

 

Terry Mittleman

 

Wendy Rosenfeld

 

Zandra King

A People- Orbiter 3

The Take-Away

  • A whirlwind of thoughts and ideas that was a refreshingly different approach to a scripted play

  • Design that looked simple but was anything but and let the story shine.

  • An amazing ensemble performance of diverse humans

  • An important inward look at identity in a time where so many groups are under attack

 

In Our Pockets

Sarah

I really like what Orbiter 3 has done for playwrights and for Philly and I’ll be super sad to see it go. I was definitely a little sentimental knowing this was the last production. I am also friends with people involved in the production and many orbiter members. 

Nan

I’ve only seen a couple other Orbiter 3 shows and have been pretty impressed. I know some people in the show. I’m not Jewish and was curious if there was going to be any discussion about Israel and/or the recent events there relating to Palestinian protests.

Connie

I know nearly all the Orbiters, and I’m close friends with several people who worked on this production.

The Design

Sarah

I think for starters I want to say a play about Judaism where I was literally surrounded by images of Christianity was very distracting for me.

 

Connie

And on the other side of that, I really enjoyed it and thought it may have added to the experience. A story trying to live and thrive in a place that wasn’t really built for it.

Like, literally.

Nan

I was really interested in the choice to produce it in a church. I thought if nothing else it was definitely a heightened kind of awareness, and for me the work definitely benefited from being in a “sacred” space, of any denomination– I think it would have missed something if it were in a black box or any other kind of regular space

Connie

Churches present so many challenges for designers, too. Particularly set, lights, and sound. But on that note, I think all the design elements worked, just some more than others.

 

Sarah

That’s for sure. I just know there’s a large Jewish community here with multiple synagogues and I hope they looked at those options too. I guess I should have said my best friend is a rabbi, so I’ve been to quite a number of Jewish services and events, so I was very aware of the dissonance. For me, I feel comfortable in a synagogue but not in a church, and that took me some time.

Still, I was also glad it was in an older sacred space. It gave some weight and just- like- a smell of dust that only comes in an old sanctuary. I was very impressed with what they did with the space.  It just took a while for me to relax into it

 

Nan

The space didn’t have installed seating, which allowed Doug Greene to do really cool stuff with the arrangement of the space. The shifting of the audience so that there’s a thrust originating from the front door of the space was dramatically useful.

 

Connie 

I really liked Katherine Fritz’s costumes, and how comfortable everyone seemed in them. With that many costume changes it can definitely start to feel like a farce, but I think the costumes supported and enhanced all the work the actors were doing, without trying to do the work for them.

 

Sarah

Costumes were INCREDIBLE. So many shifts but no gimmicks!

NAN

I was slightly confused by the addition of that one plaid suit on Richard Chan

Connie

The addition of live music by Lucas Fendley and Dan Perelstein was great. It sometimes felt like a party, sometimes like a ritual, and overall helped thread all the different scenes together, particularly because there was no traditional throughline of “here’s the protagonist and we’re going to follow them.”

Nan

Absolutely. I also adored the homemade foley effects, with the matches being lit and the plops of objects in water.

Sarah

I loved the music and the sound effects. I was house right and there was also ambient sound coming from behind me in the hallway. That was great

Nan

I think overall that the design team really made the space work for them so beautifully, between the sounds coming from downstairs and the street and the weight of the decor itself. The way you noticed the tiny cups of wine set behind the seats when you entered, and not entering through the big double doors but through the side door– it was definitely a curated experience.

 

Sarah

Doug Greene’s really light touches on set really worked. 

 

Nan 

Yes! I loved the layered rugs especially.

 

Connie

It had a thrown together, ‘let’s tell a story to each other’ feel, while clearly being well thought out with professional polish.

 

Nan

A perfect balance of casual and ritualistic.

 

Connie

Yes! It makes me admire all the design all the more, because to make something look that easy is such hard work.

 

The Play

Connie

I thought the structure was spot on for a play that was a 90 minute existential and identity crisis.

 

Nan

The structure did fit the content, for sure. I was interested in how “devised” it felt, knowing it to be a written work.

 

Connie

Getting to see lots of different people across space and time (as the program says) creates so many ways for an audience member to find their way in to this play.

 

Sarah

I really appreciated all the detail in the experience both the play and the physical space. It just felt like a really loved piece that was well cared for

 

Nan 

Good point about many ways to find your way in– for me that same trait made it hard for me to get fully absorbed and stay in, because it changed direction so often. I think it did mean that there was something in it for everyone, more so than in something more linear, but by the end it felt like whiplash 

 

Sarah

I definitely left wondering what the focus was

 

Nan

I think what I really got out of it most was the little connections between individuals across generations– the family stories we hear briefly referenced and then scenes later are revisited by another family member, like the hat-sitting theme that kept reappearing as told by different people.

 

Sarah

Identity itself isn’t linear or focused, but that doesn’t make it unimportant. It felt like we were in the brain of someone trying to think about all of these things at once.

 

Nan

It was more interested in those big statements and questions than the little stuff. It was more about the gestalt image, which I guess identity is, in this case.

 

Connie

It was interesting to note which big questions got their own smaller scenes. A lot of scenes brought up the struggle of how to deal with ingrained misogyny, which is in no way a problem just found in the Jewish faith or experience.

How do we change and stay the same all at once?

 

 

The Performances

Sarah

The scene with the Orthodox person talking to the rest of the group really stands out to me.

 

Nan

That was really interesting. I really enjoyed Aaron Bell’s speech about having no choice but to become a hatmaker. And in general everything with Mal Cherifi. They really stole the show in almost every scene.

 

Connie

The ensemble was so strong. Leah Walton and Anita Holland in particular for me.

 

Nan

Leah Walton’s “I am not a fig” scene was so lovely. And everything Anita Holland does, ever.

 

Sarah

I couldn’t pick a favorite. I was also really happy to see faces I don’t get to see very often mixed with some regular players.

 

Connie

Shout out to Anita Holland, though, who knows how to look at an audience member (me) and not make them feel like they have to ‘act’ with them now. Seeing plays where I know there will be audience participation can make me anxious but she knows how to welcome and invite you in to the experience.

Nan

I was so glad to see Anita finish out the show too, with the Rabbi scene.

 

Connie

Oh I feel so conflicted about that scene. I loved that scene but also felt like the play ended one scene earlier, in the scene with the wine and bread.

 

Nan

Ahh yes, agreed. I didn’t sense much of an overarching plot rise and fall so it didn’t really bother me. But I also wasn’t really on board continuously throughout, the jumping around left me behind pretty early in the show

 

Sarah

I definitely checked my watch a couple of times

I really loved the elements of ritual and think there’s a version of this play where the rituals are what tie it all together and give it a loose structure. Those moments were so precious and specific and I would have loved to see more of them. The phone calls back to grandparents also felt like a ritual, and I loved that.

 

Nan

Or more of a tangible through line in recognizable recurring characters.

 

Sarah

I didn’t hate how non linear it was and I wasn’t looking for a “story”, but I did want an arc in there somewhere

 

Connie

The whirlwind structure of different stories and different people was refreshing after other works I’ve seen lately. It just felt like a blast of something different that made me sit up and pay attention in a way other plays haven’t lately.

 

Sarah 

I did enjoy that and I didn’t feel “lost”

 

Nan

I appreciate that it was something pretty different that they were going after, and I objectively enjoyed that, but it was hard for me to feel emotionally invested.

That said, I’m also not Jewish, and I was also aware of the lines that were getting laughs from certain people in the audience that didn’t register for me. So I wonder how much of it is about who the intended audience is.

 

Connie

Do you think some things don’t quite get across if you’re not Jewish? I thought about that a lot afterwards.

 

Sarah

I think this show wouldn’t have been successful if it was just about “the big questions” and not so specifically about the Jewish people, faith, and experience.

We can only explore those big questions because it’s framed specifically. 

 

Nan

Yeah. And it would have been missing something if it didn’t have those moments that totally go over the heads of people who aren’t Jewish, too.

I was also thinking about it in the context of the response to People’s Light’s Anne Frank this year, which some people were very angry did not have enough Jewish representation in the cast. I don’t know how many people in this cast are Jewish, or if it matters as much in a story that isn’t about historical figures who were also real people, but I found myself wondering if it was something that others were asking themselves.

 

Sarah

It certainly strikes me that we three are also not Jewish and so this review will ultimately be missing a huge part of what this play contains. It’s a good reminder of the difference between “I can imagine what that feels like” and “I know what that feels like”.

And it felt very clearly like a purposeful casting to show how diverse the Jewish people are

 

Nan

My last real question about the play is Why this play, now? 

 

Sarah

I think identity questions and politics are a major conversation point. And the question of “am I ______ enough? “ is really resonant to me, at least

And this felt like a big conversation about all of that

 

Connie

I don’t know if this is a helpful answer but it’s so hard to imagine this play not happening now with everything that’s happening in American life and politics. There are countless groups that feel the threat from those who want them to feel less than human. This play feels like such a raw and honest response to fear and anxiety of right now when the future can feel uncertain. That it also contained so much love and grace feels like a gift.

 

Mrs. Harrison- Azuka Theater

 

 

 

The Take Away

  • Keep producing R. Eric Thomas
  • It feels essential right now in the American theatre to hold a tough mirror up to liberal audiences, and this play is doing that work
  • Exquisite casting paired with good direction and collaborative production design makes the world go round
  • Asking questions is always better than answering them, and we’ll be thinking about this play’s questions for a long time

 

In Our Pockets

Hannah

I auditioned for the show, and read the script when I auditioned. I’m friends with both of the performers, and multiple members of the creative team. I also do distribution for Azuka, so I spent a lot of time walking around the city with flyers, talking up the show.

 

Elaina

I know/adore R. Eric Thomas (he was a member of Writers On The Rocks, which I dramaturg for). I’m friends with both actors, as well as several members of the creative team. I’m extra hype about new plays, and tend to view them with a more understanding lens– especially world premieres.

And we’re both white. 

 

 

The Script

Elaina

God bless R. Eric Thomas. Alert the media. Let’s continue to produce his work and uplift his beautiful, hilarious, important voice.

 

Hannah

Honestly, wow. I talked to someone yesterday who isn’t in the theatre community and had seen the show because they loved his writing on Elle.com.

 

Elaina

He’s high-key internet famous and now needs to become much more playwriting famous.

 

Hannah

Amen. What a nuanced, challenging play. I really appreciated the slow burn. I loved that we got to spend 70 minutes with two complicated, flawed women. I think this piece was functioning on about nine different levels, so it’s hard to know where to begin. It was dealing with race, but more specifically with authorial ownership, storytelling as a medium, white fragility, microaggressions, and also engaging with women’s relationship to creative success.

 

Elaina

Agreed. R. Eric only does things full-force, and I was astounded by the way these two deeply complex characters navigated their objectives, managed their secrets, and unfolded this tricky circumstance that shined a light on the dynamics between two storytellers, as well as a black woman and a white woman.

There was so much evidence of strong playwriting craft, as well as some excellent dramaturgy. R. Eric was blessed with Dr. Michele Volansky in that role– and she is a structuralist, which really served this tight well-made play. I learned things about myself from watching Holly (played by Brandi Burgess), and not in a pretty way. R. Eric’s portrayal of white fragility gave me insight into myself that made me lean in to his characters, rather than pull away.

The Performances

Hannah

I think R. Eric Thomas did a pretty genius job holding the mirror up to white women in a way that was alternately gentle, funny, and deservedly vicious. Also just wanna add that I really admired Brandi Burgess’s deftness in letting Holly be unlikeable when she needed to be. 

Elaina

Brandi Burgess! “Vicious” is a great way to describe it. She really let Holly suck sometimes, and I think that can be hard. Brandi’s portrayal made me cringe, and laugh, and lean in, and ache, and also sometimes I was uncomfortable because she was SO awkward. It was a delightful experience. I also appreciated the way that she slowly released her layers of vulnerability, too. A true gem, that Brandi.

 

Hannah

Both actors navigated so many hairpin turns like it was nothing. Shout-out to the extremely high level of craft on both their parts.

 

Elaina

Well, this seems like a great segue to talk about Queen Danielle Lenee.

 

Hannah

What a brilliantly restrained performance. For me, the moments with the biggest gut-punch were when Aisha showed flashes of legitimate and deserved anger, and then quickly reeled herself back in. I’m thinking specifically of the moment where she said, “MY MOTHER WAS A DOCTOR.”

 

Elaina

And then she had to regain control! Because she doesn’t have the privilege to be angry without being stereotyped as an “Angry Black Woman.” Because of course White Holly assumed that Aisha’s mother was uneducated. That moment showed me that Aisha probably navigates moments like that every single day with white people.

 

Hannah

Yeah, that whole exchange was so brutal. And then when Holly cringes in the corner, because she’s suddenly afraid of Aisha’s anger? Oof. 

 

Elaina

It’s so important to put work on stage that addresses microaggressions, as well as liberal internalized racism. This play doesn’t let you remove yourself as “a part of the problem,” it makes you sit with it.

 

Hannah

Watching the sustained onslaught from Holly was actually, for lack of a better word, deeply instructive. Like, this is what this looks like in the world, and because it’s theatre, we have no choice but to sit and listen and invest in this reality.

 

Elaina

Stories like this seem important as we embark on our Journey of Unlearning in the American Theatre.

 

Hannah

Oh wow. JoUitAT should be the title of a new Barrymore sub-committee. Right? Too far? Not far enough?

Elaina

Full-shade-ahead. (Bless Leigh Goldenberg for fighting the good fight– we see you, girl!) ANYWAY! I do want to talk about moments that I have questions about after all of that gushing.

Questions


Hannah

Structurally, this play is tricky. If someone leaves the stage, the play is over.

Elaina

I’ll be honest that the beginning had me skeptical. I hadn’t read the script before, and I was immediately aware of the “oh no these women have to be trapped in this bathroom for the whole play for it to work” thing.

I think this was mostly very successful, though there were a few moments where inner-me thought, “I would for sure leave, and I think Aisha should too. Holly is obviously up to no good– PLEASE go back to the reunion tent and escape!” BUT, then there was this moment where Aisha opened the bathroom door, decided to close it, and locked it behind her… I was 100% in from that moment forward.

 

Hannah

I think because I had read the script, I was able to interpret Aisha’s choice to stay as an intentional move that upset the balance of power in a really exciting way. Like, Holly needs her to stay because of her feelings, but Aisha chooses to stay. She holds the power, and is actually keeping herself at a safe, academic distance from Holly. It made me lean in and ask, what does Aisha want here? I never felt like Aisha was trapped, which felt really important.

The Direction

Elaina

I suppose when I look back, I realize that she knew Holly’s game all along and was choosing to stay because some part of her needed to see this play out. You know, now I actually appreciate that the play doesn’t overly outline this for us. Because now I’m genuinely rethinking things about Aisha.

This realization also has me really appreciating Kevin Glaccum. There’s a version of this play where someone makes Aisha more obvious, more sneaky, more cunning– and I think that version would fail. I really felt Kevin’s work as the balance of power shifted difficult to navigate and I think he used a lot of tactics to fight against them.

Hannah

There were a few moments of blocking that felt unmotivated, but for the most part I think they kept the ball in the air. I really appreciated the distance onstage between the two women for most of the play – it helped maintain a high level of tension. Getting too close together is deadly, and when they finally did get close, it was always as a means of detonating an explosion.

 

Elaina

The balance of tension was strong. Kevin expertly navigated the ups and downs, while really pushing the arc of the climax through. At some points, the play felt so DANGEROUS– and it was two young women talking in a bathroom at a college reunion. Kevin is a director that understands tone as a weapon, and that volume rarely wins. He really balanced the careful method that women navigate tough conversation in a quiet, scary way. He also had two incredible actors to do that work with him.

 

Hannah

I think the way Kevin navigated tone was incredible. Such! A! Slow! Burn! I never felt preached to or yelled at, but also was 100% squirming in my seat.

 

Elaina

I do have questions about the choice to have Holly’s stand-up moments pan out to the audience. I felt like the light shifted ever-so-slightly, and I wasn’t sure why that was happening, or what my relationship to her as an audience member was supposed to be. It didn’t pull me out, but it felt very intentional and I couldn’t get a read on why.

 

Hannah

Agreed. Those moments are hard. They did pull me out a bit. In retrospect though, I’m thinking about how we got all of this weird emotional access to Holly in those moments. She was sometimes hysterical, sometimes awful, and sometimes definitely full of shit. But we were super present with her. We never got those fully-forward facing moments from Aisha. With that in mind, Aisha’s ending actually felt like a reversal of the stand-up dynamic in a fascinating way.

 

The Design

Elaina

I will say that I’m not a huge fan of a spooky thunderstorm being used to break tension, which was an occasional tool. The sound design (Melissa Dunphy) was present and minimal– I thought it was functional, and that the script didn’t call for too much, but I wasn’t blown away.

 

Hannah

I’m not sure how I feel about the thunder claps. They struck me as a little sit-commy in a way that I oddly appreciated, even though they were admittedly unsubtle. (I did really like the odd mechanical sound when they turned on the automatic faucets. The whole beat around the discussion of the sinks was tremendous.)

Elaina

Yeah, that was a great moment for so many reasons. Setting a whole play in a bathroom is hilarious, and I loved the minimal, but effective, use of the bathroom stalls. Overall, the set-up of the Bluver on a diagonal is one of my favorites, and the shape of the space felt really great to me. The set (Meghan Jones & Avista) had a lot of nice detail and was rocking the bathroom-sink-realism-vibe, but I did have questions about how fancy the bathroom was supposed to be. I feel like the script specifically referenced it being “the nicest bathroom someone had ever seen” and that pulled me out briefly.

 

Hannah

Yeah, that’s a good point. There’s a whole other very important discussion to be had here about Aisha’s relationship to privilege. But I don’t think we’re the ones to lead that.

 

Elaina

That line about the bathroom in the script put me in the place of asking, “So is this actually the nicest bathroom she’s ever been in and that’s saying something? Or is this the level of expensive bathroom that scenic budget could accomodate and they chose to work within their means?”

 

Hannah

Spatially, I still think this was a really accomplished set. I feel like Azuka is low-key bringing some super sophisticated design to the table.

 

Elaina

Aly Docherty (Lighting Design) is the real deal. I’ve seen her do some really dramatic, colorful dance shows, as well as some really nuanced subtle realism. I thought the design was delightfully restrained, and she saved the pop for the final moment of the play. I really appreciated her use of practicals to balance the space, but also felt like the tone of the play remained clear in a pretty florescent environment.

 

Hannah

I thought the lighting was noticeably excellent. In the way that good lighting design also is sometimes unnoticeable. I thought the final moment was lit beautifully. That moment is so complicated –

 

Elaina

The choice to have Aisha unlit, which gives Holly all of the focus, but none of the power.

 

Hannah

Her voice coming from the back of the audience felt a little like the voice of god in the play. It drove home for me that Aisha has the authorial power within the play itself, while Holly is the protagonist in her own mind, but can’t transcend her own limited understanding of “what happened,” and so can’t actually bleed off the stage into the real world in a credible way.

 

Elaina

We also have to give credit to the production power-house of PM Lauren Tracy and SM Terry Mittelman. Those folx can RUN A ROOM, and I’m sure so much of the success in this collaborative design is due to them. Kevin Glaccum and Azuka put together a great production team.

 

Hannah

God Bless. We haven’t talked costumes yet!

Elaina

The costumes (Shelby Kay) were really strong. Danielle looked exquisite, and really popped in that orange printed dress. I liked that she had a shawl that she fidgeted with– it happened in a way that felt character-based, rather than an actor-tick. I also really appreciated the choice to make Brandi more casual, in a blazer that wasn’t 100% properly fitted, and less done-up. Brandi is gorgeous, and they dressed her down in a really important way. I think that there’s a lot of vanity that can get caught up in costuming, but Shelby came in with simple, truthful pieces and everything felt just right to me. I knew so much about who those characters were as soon as they walked in the room. That’s good costuming.

 

Hannah

I was more than a little preoccupied with Aisha’s shawl and what she was doing with it, but that probably just says a lot about me. I agree that it felt character-based. It sort of cued me in to how Aisha isn’t actually 100% comfortable, despite her sterling exterior.

I’m really struck by how this piece was both super accessible and also extremely sophisticated. I feel like it’s really difficult to do that while talking about “hot-button” issues – how do you invite people to the conversation without blunting your perspective? The answer: produce R. Eric Thomas plays at Azuka.

 

Elaina

Azuka announced at the show that they’ll be continuing their pay-what-you-can ticketing policy, despite the funding for it being over. That, in combination with the three world-premiere productions by Philadelphia playwrights has me about to buy an Azuka t-shirt and wear it every day.

 

Hannah

It’s true that there is so much more to say about this piece and the actual questions it poses.  I think this play asks more questions than it answers definitively – it reminds me of a conversation I was having about Passage at the Wilma, too. People left that playing feeling really strongly. And in the end, it was super reflective of where those individuals were at on their Journey of Unlearning in the American Theatre. The same applies to Mrs. Harrison. It meets you where you’re at, and then points you where you need to be headed.

 

Elaina

It’s also very clear to me that if we continue to produce more plays by people of color– our theatre community will expand, our audiences will grow, our casts will look more like our world, and we can have more positive experiences like Mrs. Harrison on Philadelphia stages.

 

Our Few and Evil Days- Inis Nua

TRIGGER WARNING- VIOLENT TRAUMA

ALSO SPOILERS – THIS IS A PLAY ABOUT A MYSTERY!

 

The Take-Away 

  • Beautiful design elements

  • Riveting production

  • Dramaturgical inconsistencies

  • A strong need for a content warning!

 

In Our Pockets

Sarah Grimke

I’ve got a lot in my pockets as a sexual assault survivor.

Linor:

In my pockets was a great deal of “fucked up” family dynamics. Certainly nothing to the dramatic extent of this family, but definitely being the older “capable” sister has left me feeling some kind of way about this play!

 

The Design

Linor

The set was immaculately designed.

Sarah Grimke

It’s a kitchen sink drama and just the one setting. I felt like Scenic Designer Meghan Jones gave us a lot of information about the age and class of the family with this set. Avista Custom Theatricals nailed the props. It really felt like a great home.

Linor

Really specific and beautiful, yes. We learned so much about everyone just by watching how they interacted with the space, which I loved about this play.

Sarah Grimke

I knew the family didn’t have a ton of money because the laundry was visible in the living room, for instance. And furniture didn’t match. Just a solid working class home. But obviously well loved and taken care of. Lots of color.

Linor

Oh interesting – I hadn’t drawn that conclusion about the laundry, because I’m used to laundry units being in visible places outside of the States.

Sarah Grimke

Even if we don’t concur on that detail- there are so many others that indicated who we are with in this play.

Linor

I want to talk about sound: it grew on me, but I really didn’t like it at first. It felt quite messy and lazy to me, mostly because I heard so much background noise every time the theme played.

Sarah Grimke

The production let us live in this really natural environment which relaxes you a bit. Sound was the only exception, and it did feel out of place

Linor

By the end, the background noise in the design felt like the sound the house was making. Like the house had become a character in the play.

Sarah Grimke

Oh I like that interpretation, but I definitely didn’t think about it until you said it. I mostly hated that most sound we got was used as a patch over some INCREDIBLY LONG SCENE CHANGES that really stopped the action in a show that otherwise clipped along really well. These changes seemed fully director chosen. I could tell that there were easier ways to do the change. It just really threw me off and it was extra noticeable because everything else really worked for me and felt immersive.

Linor

Oh interesting, that wasn’t my experience at all. Because each scene ended with such a weighty one-liner, I didn’t feel like the sound was masking a long change, it felt like it was asking me to really contemplate where we were headed.

Sarah Grimke

The only time I was really thinking about my watch was when the scene changes. That being said- I was at least partially annoyed because I was invested and wanted it to tell me more

Sarah Grimke

Lighting by Andrew Cowles really felt natural except for the moments where it really needed to highlight something unnatural.

Linor

Right, which I LOVED. When moments suddenly turned pink or green, I was enthralled.

Sarah Grimke

Exactly! Andrew Cowles needs to get more design work. This was another really beautiful design for a company that I know doesn’t have crazy resources, and I wish I could see his work with a company that has the technology to really let him dream. I’m always really impressed by his ability to switch between natural and supernatural lighting and to work with limited resources and/or difficult sets.

Linor

Yeah, the lighting in the final moment was HAUNTING. Literally. Ha. But having just Nancy’s face illuminated and the rest of the house plunged in dark actually made me lean back in my chair. Light is such a beautiful tool. The play went from discomfiting to terrifying with the lighting!

 

Sarah Grimke

I should point out that there were multiple moments in this play where I heard the audience GASP. People were invested!

Linor

Yes!! Or I heard audience members speculating to each other in whispers as to what was going on. It was really a captivating production, I have to say.

Sarah Grimke

I love a lean-forward play. I really wanted to know what was going to happen. That’s pretty rare for me, and I really appreciated the experience.

 

Performances

 

Linor

This is a Nancy Boykin show through and through. I think she’s amazing. Andrew Criss as the father was subtle but totally accessible. I also appreciated Liam Mulshine (Dennis) and his portrayal of the early boyfriend. 

Sarah Grimke

There were a couple of strange movement choices in the way the characters interacted that I think the director could have solved with different blocking, but I won’t lay that on any actor.

I also thought after everything was over that Dennis’ character could have been cut. He was an exposition device through and through, though a really well acted one. I think there’s a better version of this script where you get this info without that extra storyline.

Linor

I agree. Honestly my two biggest problems with this play were in the script and the accents!

Sarah Grimke

They need to invest in a dialect coach. One isn’t credited. 

Linor

And accents are such a petty thing to pick on, but I had a hard time listening to them in this play, only because their accents actually took me out of the experience. I kept forgetting they were in Ireland. It all felt so American to me, honestly

 

Direction

Linor

f there was any problem I had with the direction, it was in lifting up the dramaturgical questions of this play in a more graceful way than the play does for me. Essentially I’m asking the director to rise above the problems of the play, which is hard, I think, and also slightly unfair, but is honestly the director’s job, so maybe not.

Sarah Grimke

I agree wholeheartedly. Ultimately, I know Tom Reing picked this play and directed it, so I wanted more investment from him than I feel like we received. I wanted to know his answer for ‘Why This Play? Why Now?’

I thought there were some really strange blocking choices that the actors worked through but that didn’t aid them, and I felt like there were some missed opportunities for stage pictures, but I can’t say they didn’t get me invested and interested. 

The Script

Linor

I think I can understand what the playwright was trying to do with these expositional characters like Dennis and Gary – scaffolding our understanding of what this play is about until we finally get it at the very last moment. But I felt like what ended up happening by having these large moments with two characters that were kind of inconsequential to the actual meat of the play was that there were Two themes running through– toxic masculinity and mental illness and its stigma in Ireland. I’m very connected to those ideas, but not in a way that was strong or sharp in this play.

Sarah Grimke

I felt like the main theme was how families deal with trauma.  I was pretty mad that they focused on toxic masculinity in the dramaturgical materials instead of warning us in any way that this story concerns the fallout from domestic violence and rape. I could have used a heads up. And there’s a way to do it that wouldn’t ruin the twists.

 

Linor:

My understanding of the play was definitely colored by the dramaturgy I looked at in the lobby. The reason I think that toxic masculinity was a very conscious theme for the playwright was because I know of no other reason why Gary is in this play. Like literally no other reason but to force Adele and her father to have a conversation about masculinity that led us to question what actually happened with Jonathan.

Sarah Grimke

I didn’t look until after, and it felt really insulting to center only men in what I had just watched. It highlighted my feeling that this was a play about things that happen to women, and not a play about how men do things to women.

Linor

I don’t know if pointing out toxic masculinity is ignoring women – I mean, after all, wom*n are the ones who bear the brunt of it so often. But I do think we spend so much time thinking about the men in this world that we forget how incredible the two female characters are. Adele was totally straightforward and smart and not afraid to show sensitivity, but also stand up for herself! And had integrity! I so loved that. I felt like I was watching a smart romantic lead onstage for once.

Sarah Grimke

Yes! And they deserved some consideration, which for me was lacking in the dramaturgy materials. I did like Adele as a character. For all the reasons you just said. Taking it for herself!

Linor

Understood. Yeah, and then, by the end of the play, you realize that this is really a play about how incredible this mother is. Which is also part of my problem with the script – we spend so much time trying to figure out what the mystery is we forget whose story it is. And I wish I could have been digging into the mystery but also not be so surprised when I found out I was watching a different play than I thought.

Sarah Grimke

I think that’s exactly what I’ve been feeling. For me- the focus was on what happened to the brother but it was really a play about what happened to Mom. And Dad. And I wish that conflict scene where Adele learns more would have had a line or moment indicating that realization

 

Linor

I agree. I also feel like there’s a version of this play where Dennis and Gary are actually serviceable and don’t feel like throwaway red herring characters. What a waste of characters!

Sarah Grimke

Right! They were interesting layers but not really useful in this play.

 

Linor

Yeah, and so that’s why I drew so much messaging about toxic masculinity from the play. Because essentially what they did was give two examples of how these women handle masculinity. 

 

Accountability

Sarah Grimke

I’m glad this play happened, even though there are ways that I think it was mishandled. These are the right stories but the wrong questions. Obviously, it was a super white cast, and it didn’t have to be. You could have had any number of combinations of people up there.

Linor

I agree. We trick ourselves into thinking that Ireland is an all-white place, but it is not. I also think that this is the right story, wrong questions, but I don’t think the play was mishandled. I guess I think the wrong questions stem from the play itself rather than this particular production.

Sarah Grimke

I think their dramaturg and the company could have had a content warning and some expanded questions addressed. They didn’t look deep enough. The artistic elements of the play were strong, but context is important.

 

Carmen- Opera Philadelphia

The Take-Away

  • Gorgeous design

  • Beautiful stage pictures

  • Problematic portrayal of women and repeated use of g*psy slur inherent in piece

 

In My Pockets

I had seen Opera Philadelphia’s copious advertising of Carmen, notably the animated looping ad that featured a pop-art-style Carmen being viciously stabbed, which I had a strong negative reaction to. (The company appears to have replaced this video with one that omits the stabbing.)

Design

Every designer did a fantastic job of meeting and exceeding the challenges of opera– a large stage, many humans on that stage, and several very different settings.

Sets by Gary McCann were visually stunning and created interesting playing spaces as well as creating a painterly stage picture. The large graphic billboards were Gatsby-esque, signaling important thematic elements (and allowing a really fun moment in which Carmen rips part of an advertisement. It was audibly fabric, and not paper, which was slightly frustrating, but didn’t ruin the effect).

Paul Hackenmueller (lights) kept the story going  visually and helped the eye more easily find the important characters in busy crowd scenes.

Costumes did justice to the period, the military characters and the women. Carmen was, predictably, in red throughout.   I found her Act II bodycon style dress a little out of pace with the 50’s voluminous skirts shown in the rest of the show, but costuming was otherwise seamless. 

Fights by J Alex Cordaro included a technically successful knife fight in Act III, but the story could have been better told with knives that weren’t so obviously plastic.

Choreography by Seth Hoff was elegantly performed but felt too separated from the rest of the action in most scenes.
Accountability 

After experiencing Opera Philadephia’s  violent facebook ads, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about the production. I went into it knowing that this is part of the cannon, a well known story about a “devil woman” who in the end is brutally murdered, and ostensibly deserves it.

Having seen the production, I realize that there are few more layers to the story, most notably the fact that Carmen is a Romani woman. She’s also a great example of the stereotype that comes with the slur g*psy (which is the word that’s used throughout the show.) She’s a liar and cheat, “fiery” and promiscuous.

The show also banks on the exoticisation of Hispanic culture.  The setting for this production is vaguely described in promotional materials as ‘a fictional blend of Spain, Miami, and Cuba.’  You’ve got toreadors dancing with castanets, and creative reference to traditional Flamenco clothing.

Carmen is played by Daniela Mack, a fantastic performer who is Argentinian.  On one level it’s a pleasant surprise that the actor is actually roughly from the part of the world the piece is set in, but her casting also brings up the show’s problematic treatment of Romani people.

Mack has called Carmen “a woman out of time and definitely what I would consider a feminist” (link).  I really, really wanted Mack to be right. I’ll admit I was a little surprised to find myself seeing moments in her story that I would call empowering, thanks to intentional choice by the company.   Carmen was often allowed be strong and compelling, to have a palpable kind of power, maybe more than Bizet originally allowed. But her power is almost exclusively exerted through her sexuality. And what does power mean when you have to die in the end anyway, stabbed by a jealous lover who the audience is certainly meant to sympathize with?

But this is opera, right? There’s a reason why it’s considered so inaccessible and outmoded. We know well from the straight theatrical world that attempting to hold classics accountable is a difficult process. So should we stop doing them altogether? Do we attempt to improve or (some would say) sanitize them? Do we keep producing them more or less as they were written, and hope to gloss over the rough spots, maybe making some creative choices to attempt to lessen the blow?

This production has Don Jose kill himself after murdering Carmen– not a traditional choice (usually he kills her and then sings mournfully over her corpse). But in a recent reimagining of the show produced in Florence, Carmen kills Don Jose instead– a pointed comment on violence against women. Change is possible. I wish Opera Philadelphia’s commitment to representation were as thoughtful and impressive as their design choices.