Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Intermission Talk

Intermission Talk

by Tony Vellela

"Fela!'" "Let Me Down Easy" and

"In the Next Room, or the vibrator play"

It's not unprecedented to have the performance space play a critical role in what an audience experiences. Think of the chilling 1998 revival of "Cabaret," when the revamped Studio 54 was transformed into the sleazy Berlin Kit Kat Klub, or the Fifth Avenue Theatre, where Clifford Odets' revolutionary "Waiting for Lefty" electrified the country in 1935. So it is again - this time it's the Eugene O'Neill, where "Fela!" is shaking down the walls eight times a week.

©Monique Carboni

Americans notoriously know or care little about foreign events or history. In the mid to late 1970s in Nigeria, the reigning oppressive military dictatorship found itself threatened by an organizing, spiritual middle-aged woman named Funmilayo Anikulapo Kuti, who they threw from a second-story window to her death. Her son, called Fela, at first resisted the pull to take up the mantle, preferring instead to follow his musical talents. A trip to the U.S. of A. in 1969 radicalized him, and he moved back, to combine both callings. Director/choreographer Bill T. Jones ["Spring Awakening" choreography Tony], with Jim Lewis, has written the book for this bone-shaker of a show, using the music and lyrics of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Jazz musicians the world over know this music, because its composer lays claim to creating the infectious drums-and-brass based Afrobeat sound.

Trying to relate this tale, or these tales, would require the story-telling finesse of Odets, Joe Masteroff ["Cabaret" book] and John van Druten ["I Am a Camera," the play "Cabaret" is based on, which came from Christopher Isherwood's book]. Despite their combined credits, Jones and Lewis do not meet this challenge.

But what they do accomplish is a ravishing spectacle, set on the final night, in the Shrine nightclub in Lagos, in the summer of 1978. The entire theatre is meant to be that club, and the O'Neill fairly sags with posters, masks, clippings, projections, artwork, graffiti and corrugated tin, covering nearly every inch of the interior walls. A catwalk extends through the audience for performers to extend their reach, and the aisles are often filled with dancers. And what dancers! If the energy could be harnessed from these gyrating, mini-mini skirt-sporting, hip-swiveling, foot-pounding, butt-bouncing, shoulder-shuffling beauties, and their corresponding hunky honchos, the O'Neill would have no Con Ed bill for the length of the run. Fela's heart-stopping rhythms grab at your throat, furrow your brows, and tell you you, too, can dance. Get UP!!!

This is a serious-minded party, marking the end of the club as the eye of the rebels' hurricane. Politically-inspired crimes against opposition leaders and followers rip the city apart, day and night. Corruption has eaten away at the country's body, heart and soul. And Fela, arrested hundreds of times and beaten even more often, is to Nigeria what America experienced if Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Bob Dylan and Grace Slick co-habited in one sensuous, super-confident body.

Instead of a linear series of plot-lines, "Fela!" presents its elements as if each one had been carefully written on a loose-leaf notebook sheet, with the pages thrown up in the air, and then collected at random and replaced in the binder. The show leafs through the pages, stopping on some longer than others, with little regard for relative significance or chronology. And some pages - such as the one that reports how Fela died of the HIV virus - never fell to the ground.

©Monique Carboni

"Fela!" will be the buzz show of the winter, and the performances defy logic in terms of how these folks can keep moving and moving and moving and ... for 2 1/2 hours. [Lilias White, as the fallen mother, shines in the show's final moments, delivering a rousing anthem titled "Rain," not a Fela composition, but created by composers Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean, with lyrics by Jones and Lewis.]

"Passing Strange," with a more personal story to relate, did so with a nearly bare stage, and also shook up musical theatre conventions, and still covered its messages thoroughly And there was the shattering "Serafina!," about schoolchildren fighting apartheid in South Africa. No doubt about it -"Fela!" creates new excitement and marries performance to space in stunning ways. Perhaps having a dancer at the helm tipped the balance in favor of movement and away from words.

Words, the celebration of how they are spoken and how they can have shifting meanings, are the province of Anna Deveare Smith. Her newest piece, "Let Me Down Easy," [which could be the plea of some audience members at the O'Neill] examines a topic - health, bodies, and living and dying - instead of an event, such as her masterful "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," about the racial strife that ripped through LA following the Rodney King incident. Deveare's stage works pull excerpts from hundreds of hours of interviews she has conducted, from dozens of people. She then literally morphs into those people, gliding from one to the next effortlessly [so it seems], to weave together a big, sort of clearer picture of what is and was on everyone's mind. It is the work of a certifiable [MacArthur] genius, combining journalism, social commentary, acting, writing and stamina.

Her interview subjects vary widely, from the well-known [film critic Joel Siegel, actress Lauren Hutton, former Texas governor Ann Richards], to those who are memorable more for their actions rather than their names [the minister of the Memorial Church of Harvard, the director of a South African orphanage dealing with AIDS cases, a public hospital doctor in service during Hurricane Katrina]. Smith does not intend to come to some neat 'conclusion,' or fashion a relevant 'message.' Her skills serve a chronicler's mission. Your mission should be to experience this peerless artist, a Halley's Comet among so many, many lesser on-stage flashes of light.

Don't buy into it. You may promise yourself not to be tricked into enjoying an easy snicker or two "In The Next Room," because its subtitle is "...or the vibrator play." But you will fail.

Sarah Ruhl's new piece, at the Lyceum, presents itself as a look back to the time [the 1880s] when women knew their places - the home, the nursery, the church choir - and kept to them. The rigors, the stress of holding in their emotions and their ambitions and their sex drives led many to exhibit serious signs of unwellness, as it were. And to the rescue comes Dr. Givings [Michael Cerveris], whose ingenious invention relieves them, at least temporarily, of this condition, called here 'hysteria.' His contraption? A hand-held wand the size and shape of a - banana? - that is geared up to shoot electric shock currents into a woman's vagina. A Victorian-era vibrator.

Now, like that banana, this premise can be ripe with potential, much of which is realized. Mrs. Dr. Givings [Laura Benanti], a new mother unable to produce breast milk on her own, gravitates to the sounds coming through the door of her husband's 'operating theater.' His most ardent patient, a chronically bored and senses-sensitive Mrs. Daldry [Maria Dizzia] finds this cure literally uplifting - her body rises in agony/ecstasy whenever this magic mechanical finger lingers under her skirts. The Good Doctor [who is based on historical accounts from documents of that period] has focused so wholly on proving the usefulness of his invention to women [and men, who receive it in a different locale], that he all but ignores his wife, who is already bereft from having to hire a wet nurse to nurture the new baby.

Ruhl is giddy with choices to take with this idea, and she seems to have tried to take all of them. At times, "In the Next Room" lets us snicker at the ignorance that assumed females have no physical ability to enjoy sexual experiences, their bodies built for more practical purposes, including the responsibility of satisfying their husband's sexual needs. This is comedy. At times, it reveals the sad loneliness and weary resignation women endured, often without sharing their feelings with anyone else. This is drama. And at times, as patients and visitors and others bounce in and out, the doorbell rarely given more than a few minutes' rest, the heightened characterizations and overreaching plotting take us out of the story entirely. This is farce.

Benanti flits around the living room, and sneaks into the operating room, like a wide-eyed Pollyanna, except when she is acknowledging her own unhappiness. Cerveris keeps a steady hand on the proceedings, never, at least until the snow-and-starry ending, showing any crack in his resolve. And most winningly, Dizzia holds on to her britches as she rides one roller coaster after another. The genuine discoveries that this treatment has revealed to her, register even more poignantly, and more hilariously, than what is happening in the Givings household.

Many, many more laughs are hiding inside this premise, but Ruhl has not mastered the fine art of comedy writing - see early Neil Simon, or the stand-ups of masters like Jack Benny or Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller - where the very specific rhythms of the words and phrases of human speech are carefully deconstructed and reassembled for maximum punch. Some do land. But so many more are waiting to be operated on, in the next room.

On Book

To get the full picture of how "Cabaret" turned the former Studio 54 inside out, the event was photographed and matched with the text and songs, in "Cabaret: The Illustrated Book and Lyrics," from Newmarket Press. The Odets landmark production, "Waiting For Lefty," is always part of any collected works book, and Grove Press published "The Time is Ripe," containing Odets' personal journals.

Anna Deveare Smith's remarkable word studies read almost as beautifully as they sound in performance. You will learn from, and be moved by "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," "House Arrest: A Search for American Character In and Around the White House, Past and Present," and "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities."

And last time, writing about the Kaufman and Ferber classic "The Royal Family," not enough attention was paid to the distaff side of the team. In "Ferber - Edna Ferber and Her Circle," the life and times of this eccentric, gifted wordsmith, known for withering candor, lethal wit, temper-fuelled outbursts and boundless generosity are joyfully and engagingly told.


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies." His plays include "Admissions," Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival [published by Playscripts]. He has covered theatre for dozens of publications, including Dramatics Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, serving also as its Broadway critic. He teaches theatre courses at HB Studio in New York.


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