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Mariaisabel

The Cathartic Power of “Dot”

“Don’t write plays about nice days.” This was the mantra of Mr. Moody, who led the after-school acting class at my high school. He taught that every compelling story must have a conflict in its core. At our first session, there were no performance exercises or script readings. No, Mr. Moody wanted to make sure his students understood the elements of drama and how a game of make believe can impact the cast, the audience and society so profoundly. Attending Vineyard Theatre’s production of Dot reminded how essential the cathartic power of identifying yourself on stage is to the best drama.

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Marjorie Johnson as Dotty. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Colman Domingo’s story centers on Dotty, an elderly black woman struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, and her adult children. The writing is abundant with the joy and humor of this vibrant family but simultaneously plugged into the pain and loss intrinsic to change, especially aging.  The exquisite directing of Susan Stroman enhances the tragic and comedic nuances established by Domingo as well as the natural playful dynamic between cast members.

The set is a middle-class home in present-day West Philadelphia, moving from the kitchen to the living room. The curtain is a cool-colored pointillist painting of the outside of several homes, reminiscent of the set in Sunday in the Park with George. It is the evening before Christmas Eve. Tunes by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland set the festive, yet melancholy. When the play is about to begin the light filled windows gives way to a blackout of the entire theatre, during which the music swells in volume. The play begins abruptly upon a severe, almost blinding, switch to light. It takes a few seconds to change perspective from the blurry pixels of a lived in room to a sharpened recognition of the pictures and magnets on the refrigerator door and Dotty’s daily pillbox laying open on the kitchen table. The jarring use of lighting and sound puts audience members in the position of experiencing the dramatic change Dotty and her family are undergoing, not only due to Dotty’s illness, but also the aging of the siblings and their long time family friend Katie.

The performances are absolutely stellar and bold in their vulnerability. Dotty (Marjorie Johnson) is portrayed with refinement and complex swirls of naughty playfulness. Longtime friend and childhood neighbor of the family, Katie (Sharon Washington, who has worked alongside Domingo in Wild With Happy and Scottsboro Boys) enters the play with secret agitation about how her own life has gone in a direction she never would have predicted. This anxiety is set free in a side-splitting tsunami to Jackie in tandem with a much needed box of Cheez-Its. For a large part of Act II, the middle child Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore) is only present as a voice mailbox in his sister Jackie’s unanswered calls of help in the caretaking of their mother. Soon after, we meet Donnie attempting to indulge in leftovers in secret. He fears that his husband Adam (Colin Hanlon) is ashamed of him for his changing body, his disengagement with drugs (with “white-girl names like Molly”), and with popular gay culture. Averie (Libya V.Pugh), the youngest child and a stormy force to be reckoned with, is YouTube starlet relentlessly stretching her small phase of fame.

Fidel (Michael Rosen) engages in fearless and gentle rapport as with Dotty as her Kazakhstani home care attendant. After spending Act I in denial of her shortcomings and lashing out at those around her, Dotty reveals she is frightened of her declining quality of life due to Alzheimer’s for the first time. This scene between Fidel and Dotty in Act II is one of the most moving scenes of the play.

But one of the most important characters in the play is someone we never meet: Jason, the young son of Jackie. The family asks themselves what families in real life are forced to ask themselves time and time again: How are we going to survive this change? Is survival even possible? On a tape recorder, Dotty shares her memories and stories she learned in school with hope that her grandson will continue getting to know her and remember he is loved by his grandma after her death, which she knows is coming soon. What does Merry Christmas mean during a time of impending loss? How do these characters, with their particular personalities and individual burdens aside from the shared concern for Dotty, take care of one another and themselves?

Facts and figures show that if you have not experienced or have had a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, it is highly likely that you will in the future. One in three of American seniors die with the disease. Despite its increasing occurrence scientists still don’t yet fully understand its cause. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can seem like a death sentence to many, an unjust robbery of one’s own mind. And yet, even though death under these (and frankly, all) circumstances is a cruel and unfair process, Dot presents the struggle to live life to the fullest and find joy in the face of our eventual end.

The more I think about Dot, the more I want to drag anyone I like in the slightest by their collars to the box office of the Vineyard Theatre. The performances of the entire cast ignite reflection on the vulnerability required to endure human existence and allow us to rejoice in the mixed sweetness and bitterness in the fruits of family.  Dot delivers the catharsis of theatre I first learned about that day in Mr. Moody’s class. I saw myself and my family (everybody’s family!) and all our strengths and weaknesses vividly portrayed on stage with non-judgmental love, generosity, and realism. If Dotty’s family can survive this enormous struggle with grace and love, then we can too.

Dot plays at the Vineyard Theatre through March 20. Tickets and information here.

Prisoners

Evil things happen in this world. We know this but we do our best to have hope, to focus on the blessings we have because if the reality of the amount of evil happening was in the front of our consciousness, we would not be able to function. Violence against children is a subject portrayed in film over and over again, typically in action movies, where an angry grieving father grows a huge pair of saline balls (DON’T GOOGLE IMAGE IT…okay, do it), buys a gun from Walmart and hunts for justice.

While the father, of a kidnapped little girl, Keller Dover (played by Hugh Jackman) makes a very tough dad, Denis Villneuve’s Prisoners  shows the emotional costs of looking for payback. Dover is frustrated by the rules and policies the police have on questioning the kidnapper suspects like Paul Dano’s soft spoken 10 year old IQ Alex Jones. Cruelty begets cruelty.

But before we get to the nitty gritty….can we talk about the perpetuation of the stereotype that folks with big 70′s prescription glasses are creepers? Director Villneuve CLEARLY has a big case of 20/20 privilege.

Melissa Leo and Paul Dano for LENS CRAFTERS.

The overall message of this film is quite bleak. The police captain states to a tattooed and frustrated Jake Gyllenhaal “We’re just cops. Janitors.” Justice is clean-up. Not guaranteed.

This movie should have been at least 30 minutes shorter. It is laden with tense moments that are unnecessary to the story such as a long blurry car ride to the emergency room and the arduous inspection of a RV with nothing plot-changing inside. It was frustrating to sit and wait for all the “make em sit at the edge of their seat” bull shit to find out what the hell was going on. BUT….through all that….I think this film is definitely worth seeing. Hugh Jackman’s depth of emotion and how he handles the contradictions between his desire for justice and the way he goes about getting it is going to stay on my mind for awhile.

No one prays the Our Father sexier than Hugh Jackman.

Three Eleanors at Stage Left Studio

As I was handed my ticket at the box office of Stage Left Studio, I smiled and professed “I am an Eleanerd!” The notion that one might not know exactly which Eleanor I’m nerdy for did not occur to me until I said this to Dorothy Chansky, the co-writer and director of Three Eleanors, a story of how the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt, Eleanor of Aquitane and Eleanora Duse intersect and diverge as well as how they have influenced young women today.

I’ve just returned to Brooklyn from a month being a group leader the Girls’ Leadership Worldwide at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center for Leadership at Val-Kill. On my first day on the job, the only thing I knew about Eleanor Roosevelt was that she was a First Lady and….and that’s it! But after founding editor of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers  Allida Black spoke to the GLW girls about the trials ER faced and overcame with strength through out her life, her vast political influence beyond the political status of the husband, and her profound commitment to human rights, I was in love with Eleanor Roosevelt. I purchased volume 1 of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of ER the first chance I could. I’m up to page 300 something.

So okay, I’ve got to give Eleanora Duse and Eleanor of Aquitane a chance!

My favorite thing about the play is that the three Eleanors, all feminist in their own way, probably would not have been BFFs. I am glad the production was not afraid to show the dramatic differences in their lives and values. Eleanor of Aquitane notes that the blood shed during war fare makes good fertilizer for the soil below while Eleanor Roosevelt passionately states “No one won the last war and no one will win the next!” Eleanor of Aquitane rolls her eyes at ER and says “Don’t be a fool.”

Eleanor of….

All of the actresses weave in and out of depicting the 3 Eleanors, their critics, admirers and those who had close relationships with the Eleanors such as Lorena Hickock and Duse’s maid and “guardian angels.”

 

 

….Acutane?

Eleanora Duse is depicted as a dedicated actress that allowed the grief and joys of her characters to inhabit her body as their medium for expression. She also struggled with severe menstrual cramps (I feel you, girl). She seems to be a world away from Eleanor Roosevelt and Eleanor of Aquitane, although I’m sure Duse and Aquitane could mix a Cosmo while dishing out on their love affairs.

Check out Eleanora Duse in action here.

I believe the show lost the audience’s focus during the bits of plot from the 3rd grader writing a report on Aquitane and a high schooler’s out of the blue trip to Planned Parenthood with her English teacher. The relationship between public schools and reproductive health is too complex to mention as an aside. The most compelling aspect of the play was learning more about the Eleanors, not the modern day women that admire them.

Do I recommend you go see this show?

Psssh. YES. 70 rare minutes of three kick-ass women that don’t just talk about boys and makeup. This passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.

Tea with My First Lady – Mariaisabel’s First Post!

With this post, I take my place among the great theatre reviewers of our time…..Sara, Critic Kate, and my playwright friend Amy. I have placed my hand on a vintage Playbill of Annie Get Your Gun and have taken the oath of office, the lyrics “Valjean’s Soliloquy.” NOW WE SHALL BEGIN!

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On Sunday night, I saw My First Lady, part of Metropolitan Playhouse’s Founder’s Festival, written by David Koteles and directed by Jason Jacobs. The play is set at a tea party in a “quite warm” March 1801 with Martha Washington (she sneaks the whiskey in), Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Thomas Jefferson’s prissy Francophile daughters and their slave Sally Hemings. When I read the play description, I just HAD to see it! I’ve always wanted to get a feel for what it might really be like to be a First Lady. After going to the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington D.C and seeing that the First Lady exhibit was all china plate settings and inaugural ball gowns, I needed to get that stale patriarchal taste out of my mouth.

OoOoO! Look at the pretty dresses!

As the audience take their seats, Sally Hemings (played wonderfully by Ashley Denise Robinson) is polishing spoons. An afternoon of pleasantries quickly turns into a boiling teakettle of tension when Martha mentions how she and her late
husband George pulled the teeth of their slaves to use as their own. It is spoken about so nonchalantly that my stomach started to twist and turn in disgust. While many in the room applaud Martha’s keen eye for good teeth, Abigail is horrified by the cruelty.

Dolly Madison (seamlessly played by Karla Hendrick) is the jewel of the show. She provides great comedic relief while not becoming as cartoonish as some of the other actresses. Each woman on stage is given her own monologue
aside from the party in a spotlight, except for Sally. Sally Hemings wants her place at the table of women in American history and dreams out loud of a time when a black woman can be First Lady (woot woot Michelle!) or even President. The ending of the play is subtle and numbingly powerful. The First Ladies process out of the President’s house and Sally is left behind to pick up their teacups.

Sad Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings real sad.

My First Lady is the kind of play that leaves you with a lot to talk about after the show (I suggest not having that discussion with your mouth on fire over dinner at a Sri Lankan restaurant like I did). I believe there are times when the writing underestimates the audience’s ability to analyze and recognize themes deeper than tea and pastry. During the aside monologues, Martha Washington reveals her dissatisfaction with the way David Koteles has written her character. She is regretful that she burned her diaries and letters before her death, that her character cannot be built upon her own words. This is touched upon very briefly but made a great impact on me. I wish there were more moments like these in the play, where the First Ladies show their vulnerability to time. It leans too heavily on making the audience laugh than making the audience feel.

Overall, I highly recommend My First Lady! Check it out at the Metropolitan Playhouse located at 220 East 4th Street.Get tickets here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/311364

Beware. Sri Lankan food can be HELLA spicy. And that’s coming from a Mexican-American, okay?!?!

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