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Summer 2015 Off-Broadway Round Up: Part I

While Broadway has been spending the last few weeks anticipating whether their most recent productions will make it or break it under the Tony Awards chopping block, Off-Broadway theatre companies have begun to premiere their exciting new shows for the summer season. Here are two productions that should make you keep your eyes open for the theaters beyond Broadway’s bright lights:

Mobile Shakespeare Unit Presents Macbeth at the Public Theater. 

The Public Theater is famous for their free Shakespeare in the Park performances at the Delacorte Theater every summer, but they produce Shakespearean productions year-round. Their Mobile Shakespeare Unit, which continues to spread Public Theater founder Joseph Papp’s mission that Shakespeare is for everyone, performs Shakespeare’s plays for the public in nontraditional venues, such as shelters, prisons, and elderly care centers, throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Every Mobile Shakespeare Unit production ends its NYC tour with a run at the Public Theater. This year the Mobile Shakespeare Unit tackled Macbeth, and their production is just as revelatory as the Public’s more lavish presentations of Shakespeare’s work.

If you don’t know the plot summary, I’ll Spark Notes it further for you: Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman, meets three witches who make prophecies of his growing power. Lady Macbeth, his wife, is loving this supernatural development, and encourages Macbeth to murder the King. The body count only rises from here.

Macbeth and the Weird Sisters go grunge. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This production, directed by Edward Torres, has a practicality befitting both its genesis as a touring show and the world of the play itself. Macbeth’s Scotland was one of thanes and kings, but it was also one of war and bloody takeovers. Wilson Chin’s set design, cleverly composed of small movable pieces, and Amanda Seymour’s utilitarian, grey-toned costume design created an aesthetic that is efficient for the cast to use and the audience to absorb. The fight sequences were effective, their choreography and execution being athletic and brutal. And Rob Campbell’s performance as Macbeth imbued the character with a rugged charisma that allowed me to see the character in a more nuanced way.

With this compact but emotionally rich production of Macbeth, it is clear that the Mobile Shakespeare Unit’s work would do Joe Papp proud.

What I Did Last Summer at the Signature Theatre.

Charlie (Noah Galvin) and Anna (Kristine Nielsen). (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Signature Theatre’s revival of What I Did Last Summer takes audiences back to a familiar time and place. Set in the summer of 1945, fourteen-year-old Charlie (Noah Galvin) is summering with his mother and sister on the shores of Lake Erie. When Charlie, sick of avoiding his mother’s chores and wondering about his father serving overseas, sees a flyer for a summer job, he leaps at the chance to make some pocket change and impress his friends. But his employer, Anna Trumbull (Sara Krulwich) is notorious in the town for her part Native American heritage and affair with a well-known doctor. She has been dubbed the “Pig Woman” by locals, and her art teaching and leftist point of view are both strange and exhilarating for Charlie. But the summer must come to an end, and Charlie’s mother (Carolyn McCormick) is determined to restore order and bring her son home.

At first glance, What I Did Last Summer seems like a play that is covering well-trodden territory. There is no shortage of coming-of-age stories about young white boys in America’s nostalgic past, and I wondered what A.R. Gurney’s play could say that hasn’t already been said before. As it turned out, quite a bit. Anna’s mentorship of Charlie is a unique element of the play, as I don’t recall many stories about a young man who was inspired by an older woman in an unromantic way. As Charlie asserts his independence (which has decidedly mixed results), he does so in a way that shows that he is growing up–but is still a boy who must fall back in line with his family’s values.

What I Did Last Summer is also not afraid to state it’s a play, with projections of stage directions, direct addresses by the characters stating who the play is and isn’t about, and a drummer clad in forties garb who provides sound effects, incidental music, and an omniscient presence of his own. John Narun’s projection design is especially moving, as the set directions and dialogue, in the ubiquitous typewriter font, became breathtaking and evocative backdrop images that set the scene both on page and on the stage.

Though What I Did Last Summer takes us to often-visited places, like Charlie and Anna, it forges its own path–and audiences are all the better for it.

“Big Love” Romances Audiences @ Signature Theatre

If you thought graphic violence, insightful prose, and Jason Mraz covers can’t exist in the same play, think again. Big Love, now playing at Signature Theatre, has all of the aboveand still manages to make room for tomato throwing and trampolines.

biglove1
“Not Getting Married Today.”

Still, like many plays, Big Love is centered on a wedding—fifty of them, to be precise. Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and her forty-nine sisters have been pledged by their father to marry their cousins. Wisely, playwright Charles Mee simplifies the onstage number of runaway brides, focusing on Lydia and her sisters, strong-willed Thyona (Stacey Sargeant) and sweet Olympia (Libby Winters). Clad in stained and tattered wedding dresses, each sister has a different point of view on men. Thyona can’t stand them, Olivia loves them, and Lydia falls somewhere in between. But all three women do not want to be forced into marriage, and have left Greece for Italy. There they hope to find a haven in the home of Piero (Christopher Innvar), as his mother Bella (Lynn Cohen) takes pity on the girls’ plight. But the sisters are not alone for along, when the wannabe grooms arrive–repelling from helicopters, no less.

biglove4
The boys are back in town.

The men, like the women, are represented by only three brothers. Constantine (Ryan-James Hatanaka) is their leader, and is determined to fulfill their family’s marriage contract. His brothers Oed (Emmanuel Brown) and Nikos (Bobby Steggert) are in full support, especially since Nikos has feelings for Lydia. As the brides and grooms fight for and against the wedding, Lydia and Nikos form a dangerous connection across enemy lines.

biglove2
I’d ship it.

Inspired by Aeschylus’ play The Danaids, Big Love has some trappings of ancient Greek drama. There’s enough spectacle to make Aristotle proud, with a bed of flowers hanging from the theater’s ceiling, wall-to-wall projections, and musical numbers that include songs by Leslie Gore and Michael Jackson. (The musical numbers were also a wonderful way to remind us why we love to see Bobby Steggert and Rebecca Naomi Jones in Broadway musicals.) But the play has a style and sensibility that is unique to Charles Mee, with dialogue that is closer to poetry than prose.* This exchange between Nikos and Lydia shows the verse-like quality of the dialogue:

NIKOS

I want a love really that’s all-consuming
that consumes my whole life

LYDIA

Sometimes people don’t want to fall in love.
Because when you love someone
it’s too late to set conditions.
You can’t say
I’ll love you if you do this
or I’ll love you if you change that
because you can’t help yourself
and then you have to live
with whoever it is you fall in love with
however they are
and just put up with the difficulties you’ve made for yourself
because true love has no conditions.
That’s why it’s so awful to fall in love.

Mee tackles many challenging concepts at once: the nature of romantic love, of course, is prominent in Big Love, but there’s also themes of justice and forgiveness, especially in the play’s powerful final scene. Other memorable moments involve the brides and grooms proclaiming their issues with gender roles and how they relate to them, repeatedly throwing themselves to the floor. The violence of their careening and crashing bodies physicalizes their conflicting expectations and desires—and it’s all at once engaging and shocking.

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Girls vs. Boys. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Despite all of its disparate elements, Big Love succeeds in telling a story about love trying to conquer all.

“Big Love” runs until March 15th. For more information, click here.

*If you are interested in reading more of Charles Mee’s work, you’re in luck. All of his plays are available for reading (and performing!) on his website here.

Oh, Mother: “Our Lady of Kibeho” @ Signature Theatre

In the second act of Our Lady of Kibeho, now playing at the Signature Theatre, one priest admonishes another with the line, “You have a weak stomach for faith I see.” The same could also be said for New York theatre audiences, who prefer religious motifs to be accompanied by biting satireor a big musical number.

You know how musical nuns do. (Source: nytimes.com)

Written by Katori Hall, Our Lady of Kibeho does neither, going the route of a drama based on true events. In 1981, Alphonsine Mumureke (played by Nneka Okafor), a student at an all-girls Catholic school in Kibeho, Rwanda, starts to have visions of the Virgin Mary. At first her visions are thought to be the imaginings of a young girl. Then another classmate, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka (Mandi Masden) begins to have visions too. Both girls face the threat of expulsion from the school, and are mercilessly bullied by Marie-Claire Mukangango (Joaquina Kalukango)… until the Virgin Mary visits her, too. The school’s head priest, Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera) wants to believe the girls’ visions, while Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford), the head nun, does not. Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith), a priest sent by the Vatican, investigates the truth behind the girls’ visions. What they all soon discover is that the Virgin Mother’s messages also warn of a dark future for Rwanda.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO

At first, I wasn’t sure what narrative direction Our Lady of Kibeho was going to take. Was it going to be like Doubt, where the mystery depended on the veracity of the characters? Or was it going to treat the religious material with an excess of derision or reverence? Thankfully enough, none of these scenarios play a part in Our Lady of Kibeho. Yes, Mary’s apparitions are presented as fact rather than fantasy (with breathtaking special and aerial effects, designed by Greg Meeh and Paul Rubin). But the strength of the show lies not in its religious stance, but in the faith of its characters. Yes, Alphonsine is the first to receive visions of Mary, and actress Nneka Okafor embodies the role with grace. Still, she feels the burdens of the visions, and is tempted to try and sin to make the visions stop.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO
Spoiler alert: the sexy priest might be the source of said temptation.

Some of the play’s best scenes involve the character’s responses to the visions. Father Tuyishime wants to believe the girls… but he has not prayed in eight years. Sister Evangelique seems to thwart the girls at every turn… but it’s because she wonders why she cannot see the Virgin Mary, too. And Father Flavia is skeptical if miracles can truly come to a village in Rwanda.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO

The play’s acceptance of the girls’ visions also allows audiences to focus on another dramatic current running through Our Lady of Kibeho: the ethnic tensions in Rwanda that led to the country’s horrific genocide in 1994. In the same way that Cabaret slowly reveals the future devastation that Nazis will bring to Berlin, Our Lady of Kibeho continually makes references to the Hutu/Tutsi conflict. When Alphonsine is initially mocked for her visions, her Tutsi background is also used against her. Marie Claire, who first bullies Alphonsine, is actually pretending to be Hutu… and will later die for it. (The real life Marie Claire was killed in the genocide; in the play, Marie Claire has a vision of her death.) And when Father Tuyishime and Sister Evangelique disagree over the girls’ well-being, there is the underlying knowledge that Father Tuyishime is head of the school because he is Tutsi… and Sister Evangelique is not.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO
The head priest in charge—and the head nun waiting in the wings.

Our Lady of Kibeho is a definite must-see. Katori Hall’s play about three girls who inspire a nation the brink of destruction is as exhilarating as it is devastatingand that is truly a miracle.

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