Category Archives: Play

Django In Pain – Streaming on Demand

A play about a young man so depressed that he wants to kill himself may not sound like an appropriate match for our national state of mind.  But the journey Antonio Vega and Ana Graham invite us to take in Django in Pain is a beautifully rendered one.  Filmed by Graham mid-pandemic on a cellphone, it features handmade puppets, with props and scenery fashioned from found objects.  And just like in the parable made famous by The West Wing, Vega has been down there and he knows the way out.  The 2016 election kicked him in the soul and the earthquake in Mexico the following year affected him more than he could comprehend.  But the time he found himself in COVID lockdown, he could hardly function.  An invitation to be part of a creative project — the one that resulted in this innovative work — is what motivated him to push away the mental cobwebs and seek help.

Performed on a clear desk by Vega and two visible puppeteers, the piece follows Django on a series of adventures. His suicide attempt is interrupted by an overexcited dog with whom he slowly forms a bond.  The playwright often interacts with his inventions, his inner monologue taking the form of an astute vulture.  While the story has gloomy themes, there are also absurdist images such as Django eating breakfast with a noose still secured around his neck.  These farcical elements prevent Django’s anguish from becoming excruciating for the audience while still honoring the character’s feelings. 

A scene from Django in Pain

Vega’s dialogue isn’t distinctive nor is it a particularly important element for success.  The visuals are what is essential to the narrative and they are inventive and impactful.  Many types of puppets are employed including Indonesian style shadow puppets and traditional stringed puppets.  The shadows are often as prominent as the characters and set pieces, well-representing the dark and lighter moods battling for attention.  As Django’s outlook brightens, so too does the palette employed.  Music with a Spanish flavor written by Cristóbal MarYán heightens the mood.  Headphones may improve your streaming experience.

Django in Pain serves as an important reminder of the powers of connection and accountability.  Whatever our circumstances, there is always an opportunity to develop our own story.  Originally commissioned by PlayCo, the production is streaming from 59e59.org as part of their Plays in Place series.  Runtime is 56 minutes including Vega’s introduction: essential for comprehending the ending of the play.  Narration is available in both English and Spanish.  $15 tickets are available at https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/django-in-pain-streaming/ and can be used on demand through October 19.  Due to the intensity of the content, there is a viewer advisory.

F.I.R.E. – Streaming On Demand

To end their inaugural season, New Normal Rep is presenting the world premiere of F.I.R.E. by talented new voice Julia Blauvelt.  Pronounced just like “fire”, the acronym stands for Financial Independence; Retire Early, the ultimate goal of Hutch.  The hotshot accountant has landed his dream job at a prominent hedge-fund that comes with a summer drinks night and free pretzels in the break room.  The only young white male in the department, he appears to have been uniquely embraced by the executive floor and consequently can’t wait to get out and mingle.  He is the newest member of a diverse team led by the emotionally intelligent Shauna.  She brought the devoted Jazz from her previous job to add to the brilliantly inventive Noel and old timer Chris and she has since hired temp Penny, a mediocre actress with huge potential to be the best accountant among them.

It takes 30 minutes of a play filled with clever banter, great humor, and sly character development to get to the first reveal in the plot.  Someone has opened an off-the-books account to funnel money out of the company and Danika, to whom Shauna reports, needs the team to find the culprit.  A team member will have to be fired, and not in Hutch’s unique meaning of the word.  If they fail to get answers, she’ll simply have Shauna sacrifice Chris — the only family man among them.  Act Two moves more swiftly towards the ultimately satisfying conclusion.

Director Heather Arnson does little to help with the pacing of this psychological whodunit.  While she interjects camera movement and makes the presentation visually interesting, she doesn’t seem to have given enough guidance to her fine cast.  Without the action that would be included in a live staging, there needed to be more variation in the dialogue to follow the build up of numbers-oriented incidents and consequences.  Instead, the energy present in the lines is muffled, and the performers are kept at a fairly constant hum.  Aaron Matteson infuses Hutch with the same high voltage boom throughout.  And though clearly capable of much more, Ella Dershowitz keeps Penny’s intelligence and the essential nature of her character clouded with a Valley Girl drone and nervous hair twirling.  These two characters who could be opposing swirling vortexes are firmly anchored like two metal poles with the rest of the cast hung between them.  Carol Todd’s appearances as Danica are at a constant boil, though that might be fitting as a woman who often repeats her origin story.  Jeffrey Bean is given some opportunity for breadth beyond fuddy-duddy through Chris’s phone calls with his unseen wife. Shauna also has story outside of the office, which Kierra Bunch leverages in the latter half of the piece.  (Her explanation of how work works is priceless.)  Jazz has one dramatic moment that Nathaniel P. Claridad uses to best advantage.  And Nygel D. Robinson brings appropriate warmth and smoothness to Noel, though he too could obviously provide more range.  

Kierra Bunch, Ella Dershowitz , Aaron Matteson, Nygel D. Robinson, Nathaniel P. Claridad, Jeffrey Bean in F.I.R.E.; Photo by Dora Elmer

As with the other NNR offerings, the production is enhanced with a virtual contiguous set that makes the characters appear to be in different sections of the same room.  This one is designed by Edward T. Morris complete with simulated florescent lighting, modern room dividers, and a city view.  The ensemble is well outfitted by David Woolard with the men all in shades of blue and grey, the two managing women in black, and Penny in the sole pop of red.  The sound by Lindsay Jones — who also provided transitional music — is unevenly mixed and Hutch is particularly difficult to hear.

While the entire creative community continues to struggle with the consequences of a global pandemic, it is promising that that New Normal Rep has presented an entire season of quality streaming theater not as a substitute of anything but rather as its own art form.  F.I.R.E. is a satisfying example of what can be achieved within the confines of Zoom boxes.  This production streams through October 20 at NewNormalRep.org. Runtime is an hour and 47 minutes with a brief intermission.  Tickets are $25; $10 for students, educators and theater professionals, and can be purchased on the company’s website.

Lines in the Dust – Streaming On Demand

“Opportunity is about positioning.”  So says Denitra Morgan in Lines in the Dust, a powerful drama beginning today on NewNormalRep.org.  Though set in 2009 and 2010, the play is a well-constructed examination of the systemic racism that still proliferates our educational institutions.  Built on the relationships formed among a handful of characters, it illustrates just how easy it is for people to move those dusty lines that are theoretically put in place to protect a community and transform them into rigid roadblocks used to constrain those who are less privileged.

The action takes place in Millburn, a New Jersey suburb that is home to an upscale mall and Regional Theater Tony winning Paper Mill Playhouse. With one of the highest income averages in the state, the residents support a public school system with a student/teacher ratio of 11 to 1. So it is unsurprising that Denitra has gone to great lengths to place her studious daughter at Millburn Township High School.   There, the teen is thriving academically under the watchful eye of Interim Principal Dr. Beverly Long, whom the girl idolizes.  

Denitra and Beverly had met as the only two Black people at an open house. They bonded over the many racist euphemisms employed by the real estate agent representing the nearly $900,000 property.  Now a year and a half later, Denitra is in Beverly’s office trying to straighten out her daughter’s registration paperwork.  Her timing could not be worse.  Beverly is under considerable pressure because a student who was shot and killed turned out to be a so-called “border hopper” from nearby Newark.  Blacker and poorer, nearly 1 in 8 residents in that city don’t graduate from high school, making it tempting for ambitious parents to falsify their home addresses  in order to send their children to Millburn instead.  At the insistence of the school board, Beverly has just hired Mike DiMaggio, a private investigator, to look into possible other incidents of residence fraud.

Melissa Joyner and Jeffrey Bean in Lines in the Dust

Based on events all too familiar to her, Pulitzer nominee Nikkole Salter’s script is economical, with every line providing meaning and insight.  Though the issues discussed are well-known, they are deeply humanized by her characters.  As embodied by Melissa Joyner, Denitra’s frustration and anger reverberate with genuine rawness.  Lisa Rosetta Strum gives Beverly a foundation of both tenderness and professionalism.  Their performances are nurtured by director Awoye Timpo with the action crisply edited by Hiatt Woods.  Not only is the relationship of these two bright women beautifully rendered, but the connection to their children and their deep understanding of what they each represent to the larger world are also apparent.  Much of that knowledge and acceptance is brought forth by their interactions with DiMaggio (a fierce Jeffrey Bean), a man so deeply enmeshed in a fantasy version of safety and fairness that he can’t even see his prejudice when it’s doused in spotlights.

As with the other projects presented by New Normal Rep, Afsoon Pajoufar’s production design is precise without being distracting.  An original jazzy score by Alphonso Horne becomes increasingly cacophonous, reflecting the devolving situation.  Qween Jean provides the well chosen outfits, from Beverly’s bold and polished attire to Denitra’s slightly too casual look.  

Lines in the Dust is created specifically for theater lovers who are still not comfortable being in an enclosed space with strangers.  Thoughtful performances and expressive dialogue move it beyond an issue play into the realm of truly satisfying home entertainment.  Offered on demand through August 8 at NewNormalRep.org, it runs one hour and fifty minutes with a brief intermission. Tickets are $25 with discounts available for students, educators and theater professionals, and can be purchased at NewNormalRep.org.

Brutal Imagination – Streaming On Demand

In late October 1994, OG “Karen” Susan L. Smith of Union, South Carolina called the police to report that an African American man had highjacked her car with her two young sons still strapped into the back seat.  Nine days later she was arrested for the boys’ murder.  Brutal Imagination is writer/poet Cornelius Eady exploration of the ease with which Smith constructed her lie.  Originally presented at the Vineyard Theatre at the end of 2001, it was nominated for the Lucille Lortel for the engulfing sound design and Eady was awarded an Oppenheimer for the script.  The piece has now been reimagined as a fundraiser for this supportive Off-Broadway incubator of dauntless voices.  Viewed through the shattering prism of recent events, the continued criminalization of Black men’s everyday actions, and the persistence of the rageful boogieman mythology, the work is as powerful as ever.

Though it is billed as a staged reading, this recreation by Joe Morton is more of a full-fledged film, complete with powerful special effects and a blood pumping score.  Fresh off her well-received role of Jane Apple in the Zoom-perfect Apple Family Plays, Sally Murphy revives her performance as the increasingly antsy Smith.  More tortured by her deception than the death of her children, Murphy is often shown caught in a frame constructed by turns from her bookshelves, her rearview mirror, and her television antenna.  But this is Morton’s show wherein he embodies Smith’s self-aware creation Mr. Zero.  At times he chuckles at his own inconsistencies, her shocking stereotyping, and above all the improbability of his very existence.  At others, his anger and those of thousands of others is channeled into brilliant condemnation of a society so deeply seeped in racism that Smith’s flimsy fabrication persisted for days.

Sally Murphy and Joe Morton in Brutal Imagination

Obie Award-winning video designer Jared Mezzocchi has brought Morton’s bold images to life, vividly blending them the way they would be entangled in someone’s mind.  This technique gives the piece tremendous movement even on a small screen.  Several racist touchstones are incorporated including the brilliant Buckwheat’s Lament.  The one flaw in the presentation stems from the sound mixing in which the score often obscures Murphy’s dialogue.  Closed captioning is unfortunately not available. 

Throughout the viewing of Brutal Imagination, it is hard not to feel weight of how little we have moved as a culture since the time of Smith’s saga.  Yet the poetry of the language and the wisdom of Mr. Zero’s observations shine through the darkness.  “We hope this play will be part of discussions about how we imagine or try to imagine what a future, a multicultural future, looks like,” says Cornelius Eady. “That to me is the heart of the struggle. This is part of the push that is going on. And the arts are part of this push… you have to imagine it before you can walk into it.”  This engaging play is available to stream On Demand through 11:59PM on June 7.  Runtime is 90 minutes and playback can be paused.  Tickets begin at $27.50 and are available on https://www.vineyardtheatre.org/brutal-imagination-2/.  Proceeds support the artists and programs in The Vineyard’s 2020-2021 Season.

Jericho – Streaming on Demand

One in three American families has lost someone to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The grief of individuals has become hard to process in the face of daily headlines and our collective mourning as a nation.  The decision to launch New Normal Rep with the company Artistic Director Jack Canfora’s own Jericho superbly meets this searing moment in our history.  This drama interlaced with comedic exchanges features two families whose lives have been impacted by the events of 9/11, another tragedy with deep historic significance.  It is an entertaining vehicle that provides an opportunity to explore the search for identify and the need to feel connected to something (or someone) meaningful.  

At the opening we meet Beth (Eleanor Handley) whose husband Alec died in the towers.  It is clear that her therapy and drug regimen aren’t having the desired affect.  To Beth and us, her 67 year old Korean female therapist looks exactly like her 40-something Black husband.  (CK Allen’s simultaneous portrayal of two such disparate people is a delightful highlight of this online event).  After nearly four years, Beth is finally dating somewhat seriously.  Her boyfriend Ethan (Michael Satow) is incredibly understanding of her slow progress towards intimacy.  His brother Josh (Jason O’Connell) escaped from tower two and has had what the family views as a “crazy” response to his brush with death. While the Hartmans have always been secular Jews who didn’t think twice about serving lobster at a wedding, Josh has become so devote he can only envision living out his life in Israel.  His religious fixation is particularly hard on his wife Jess (a fully present and wonderfully layered Carol Todd) who has seen her own future severely altered with his change of priorities.  The threads of all of their stories will be pulled tightly together over a typically taut Thanksgiving dinner in the home of Hartman matriarch Rachel (Jill Eikenberry).

Eleanor Handley & CK Allen in JERICHO, © New Normal Rep

In her direction of this the Zoom-based production, Marsha Mason has mixed elements of stage and screen technique.  Occasional tight close-ups and establishing exterior shots are mixed with the now familiar talking heads in individual boxes.  The shifts of style make what should be a first-rate theater experience feel studied and distanced.  The clean set is designed to make the backgrounds appear contiguous when characters are in the same room.  But though they rehearsed together in quarantine, the actors come across as six skilled monologuist rather than a cohesive ensemble. 

Written in another decade, Jericho still provides delicious food for thought.  As we work through this challenging time, each of us must decide what provides us with meaning and is therefore fundamental to who we are.  The play is streaming from NewNormalRep.org. through Sunday, April 4.  Tickets can be purchased on the site and cost $25; $10 tickets are available for students and theater professionals. The On-Demand show includes options for HD and closed captioning.  Running time is a little over two hours plus a ten minute intermission.  The intention of NNR is to continue to build a streaming company that meets this moment of transformation in live theater.  Four-play subscriptions are available for $100, and include free access to special programming including live play-readings, special Q&A discussions and virtual happy hours. 

[hieroglyph] – Streaming On Demand

Recent powerful productions including the film Promising Young Woman, the limited series Unbelievable, and the play What the Constitution Means to Me have strived to open conversations about our country’s seeming inability to effectively address violence against women.  All too often the aftermath of these crimes is focused on how to change the behavior of women (who should perhaps dress and act differently!) rather than the male perpetrators.  [hieroglyph] — a co-production of San Francisco Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre currently streaming from the SF Playhouse website — explores our near-dismissal of rape culture specifically as it manifests in the Black community.  Inspired by true events that took place in the projects near her Chicago home as well as headlines made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza has crafted a work centered on 13 year old Davis.  Along with her father, the girl was evacuated by FEMA from New Orleans to Chicago while her mother has stayed behind. 

Her old life ripped away from her, Davis is struggling with her studies and seems unusually anxious. Concerned that she’s endangering her chances of securing a good college education, her father Ernest enlists the help of her favorite teacher Miss T.  Art is the only subject in which Davis is excelling and he hopes Miss T can encourage the talented teen to put that energy into academics.  Instead, Miss T shares her concerns that through her art, Davis is attempting to communicate a trauma for which she literally has no words.  (The play’s title is enclosed in square brackets, used to indicate that an outside voice is imparting information left unclear by the speaker. ) The pictures of women and street scenes of her old home are peppered with symbols.  When their secret is revealed, it is simple and yet devastating. 

Jamella Cross and Khary Moye in [hieroglyph]; photo by Jessica Palopoli

The Equity production was fully staged at the San Francisco Playhouse and filmed using three cameras with Zoom in mind and under the guidance of two COVID compliance officers.  Assuredly directed by Hansberry Artistic Director Margo Hall with choreography by Latanya D. Tigner, the drama is paced with rising urgency.  Hall’s steering of the quick changes of mood is cleverly color coded by costume designer Regina Y. Evans, who wraps Miss T in a radiant palate while signaling Leah’s comfort with her own body with soothing tones and relaxed fit.  Dickerson-Despenza’s dramatic device of muttering in one’s sleep as a way of filling in backstory isn’t nearly as impactful as the use of projections (created by Teddy Hulsker) to share Davis’s impassioned pictures.  Headphones are highly recommended in order to better feel the anguish evident in Everett Elton Bradman’s searing soundscape.

Jamella Cross provides the vulnerable Davis Hayes with the shaky defenses of a typical teen.  In a moment of particular tenderness, she clutches a teddy bear while trying to hide the alcohol on her breath from her concerned father.  Her delicacy is nicely balanced by the bubbly confident energy of Anna Marie Sharpe’s buoyant Leah.  The pivotal role of Miss T is beautifully rendered by Safiya Fredericks, who has to navigate the tightest emotional turns of the four.  While Khary L. Moye as Ernest Hayes is left holding the space for men who must confront the fallout from their own toxic masculinity.  The skillful performances bring authenticity and connection to a script that occasionally overruns its banks.  There are four vivid descriptions of rape, similar only in their level of disturbance.  The tidal wave of horrors risks drowning the audience in pain and potentially depresses their ability to fully respond.  (The playbill provides contact information for appropriate agencies for those who need to talk.)

It is heartening to see two fabulous production companies collaborating to provide a homebound audience with thought-provoking content.  And despite its relentless gut punches,  [hieroglyph] fulfills the mission of continuing to build community one play at a time. It runs 98 minutes without an intermission and is streaming On Demand at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/hieroglyph/ through April 3.  Tickets ($15 – $100) can be purchased from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org. 

The Jewelry Box (Streaming)

Though The Jewelry Box is the story of one particular little Black boy buying a Christmas present for his mother, by distributing this production online the San Francisco Playhouse has given us all a gift.  Holiday season brings up a range of emotions; never more so than in the middle of a pandemic when we are likely isolated from the people with whom we’d most like to celebrate.  This warm, human, and utterly heart-melting play is performed and co-written by Brian Copeland, who’s Not A Genuine Black Man still echos in my mind despite the dozens of solo shows I’ve seen since.  Though there are storytellers who depict their assortment of characters with more physical distinction, Copeland has a singular flair with language and the ability to paint vivid and lasting images with his words.  Moreover, he has a fantastic sense of humor and periodically draws on his stand-up experience to share a little secret with the audience as his adult self.  

The Jewelry Box covers an early chapter in Copeland’s life, but it stands complete on its own.  We’re in 1970s Oakland where a six year old Brian has spotted a wooden jewelry box he knows will make his Mom smile.  His family had been forced to move four times in a short period and personal possessions had been left behind at each stop.  He sets out to raise the $11.97 he needs to purchase the box, showing himself to be a tiny but mighty entrepreneurial spirit.  We get to meet many of his neighbors — some more understanding than others — sketched out in detail with the colors filled in by mixing Copeland’s artistry with our own imagination.

David Ford directed the original production for The Marsh Theater.  The intimacy of this project makes it well suited for the streaming environment where San Francisco Playhouse’s Artist Director Bill English did the editing.  For this rendition, English balances mimicking the theater experience with more intense close ups. No set is necessary as Copeland builds his own landscape with some sound effects and lights fully focusing the picture.  The choice of a slightly baggy primary colored striped shirt makes it easy for Copeland to embody his much younger self.

No reflection on all those theaters who will once again stage A Christmas Carol or A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but the San Francisco Playhouse deserves praise for finding such an appropriate fresh offering for this unique holiday season.  Class and race play important supporting roles in The Jewelry Box, evergreen themes that have taken on renewed significance.  Two COVID compliance officers kept Copland and the production team safe and a brand new Equity agreement made it possible for this to be seen online for a limited time.   The final screenshot is a long “Heroes List”: a visual reminder that now more than ever we need to pull together and keep the performing arts healthy as well.  The only element I dearly missed was the laughter of my fellow audience members.  But I know for certain it was there.

The on-demand video stream of The Jewelry Box is available through Christmas day.  Single tickets are $15-$100. Call 415-677-9596, or visit https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-jewelry-box/.    Subscriptions in support of the San Francisco Playhouse season may also be purchased.

Pass Over on Amazon Prime

Spike Lee’s movie rendition of Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over debuted on Amazon Prime in April of 2018 without much fanfare.  It recently received a promotional bump by the service as part of their highlighted material related to Black Lives Matter.  The film couldn’t be more timely for those seeking a theatrical experience from the safety of their couch.

Produced at the Steppenwolf Theater, the 75 minute one-act is bookended with Lee’s footage of a primarily Black audience bussed in from the south side and west side of Chicago. The work is given more humanity by including throughout the faces of those whose lives all too often mirror the Pass Over themes as they witness the performance.  

The play was famously inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin.  Ms. Nwandu was teaching in Tribeca at the time of Trayvon’s murder and regularly coming into contact with young men who were being stopped by NYPD just for “breathing black.”  She wanted to explore whether we are capable of change as a nation, a conversation that has only gotten louder, broader, and more persistent in recent months. 

The tragedy portrays the deep friendship between two young Black men who have been cut off from everyone.  Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the classic from which Nwandu’s script takes its form, Moses and Kitch are stuck in a wilderness one-block long, starting each night by creating a top ten wish list.  Their desires are comprised primarily of simple things like clean tube socks with the occasional inclusion of something like a yellow sports car making them briefly smile. 

Julian Parker, left, and Jon Michael Hill in “Pass Over,” directed by Spike Lee_Credit_Chayse Irvin:Amazon Studios

Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill; Photo by Chayse Irvin/Amazon Studios

Lee takes full advantage of Danya Taymor’s strong stage direction, allowing us to see the characters’ cycles of ease and dis-ease she’s created with his wide shots punctuated by extreme close up.  Music by Howard Drossin emphasizes the stirring, melancholy mood.  The quality of the acting is sublime, with Jon Michael Hill  — who also appeared in the Lincoln Center production in the summer of 2018 — taking control of the stage as the outwardly assured Moses.  Julian Parker gives Kitch a refined and touching delicacy.  Balancing mannered charm and menace is Ryan Hallahan’s Master, with Blake DeLong rounding out the cast as an obvious and overblown police officer.  

Pass Over is not so much a conversation starter as a personal meditation that challenges us to dig deep and ask ourselves how we are each contributing to the patterns of racism.  For anyone who missed the original, this film offers an opportunity to see a well reviewed play performed by a first rate cast and filtered through the sensibility of a filmmaker of color at the top of his craft.  For those who saw the stage production, Lee’s revision displays the work through the sharpened lens of the BIPOC movement.  Pass Over contains strong language and adult themes.  It is available to Amazon Prime subscribers. 

Molière in the Park’s Tartuffe

For the 2020 production of Molière in the Park’s Tartuffe, the greenery of The LeFrak Center in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park has been replaced by green screen.  But the production still provides a breath of fresh air with its engaging performances and a timeless story of a faker whose plots are foiled by love and loyalty.  

Though there are obvious ties to today’s political and social currents (including a visual nod to a recent incident when someone used a bible as little more than a prop), for the most part this is a traditional rendition of the Comédie-Française staple.  Orgon, an aging landed gentleman, has fallen under the spell of Tartuffe, a wily vagrant who uses false piety to cover his lust and greed.  Though most of his friends and family try to warn Orgon about Tartuffe’s deceit, he will hear nothing against his new friend.  So taken is Orgon that he signs over his property to the conman and attempts to force his daughter to break up with the man she loves in order to cement the relationship in marriage.  

lf translation of artistic work is tricky, then translation of verse composed by one of the greatest playwrights of all time is a veritable Cirque du Soleil act.  Fortunately MIP used a script created by Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur, who completely captures the gleaming wit and social insight of the original.  The production is directed with heart by MIP founder, champion of free theater, and Brooklyn resident Lucie Tiberghien. 

Known for its inclusive casting, MIP has chosen Samira Wiley (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”) to take on Orgon.  To call this gender-bending is to wrongly emphasize the significance of Wiley’s sex rather than the elegant quality she brings to the part.  Providing a powerhouse performance that explodes beyond her small Zoom box is Toccarra Cash as Orgon’s charming, knowing wife, Elmire.  Between them stands Raúl E. Esparza in the title role.  He delights in playing every false note of Tartuffe’s guff with the twinkle of a Tony nominated star.  The supporting cast includes Kaliswa Brewster (Orgon’s vulnerable daughter, Marianne), Naomi Lorrain (Marianne’s protective brother Damis), Jared McNeill (bringing noble distinction to Cléante, Elmire’s brother), Lucille Lortel Award nominee Jennifer Mudge (clever housekeeper, Dorine), soap star Rosemary Prinz (Orgon’s deluded mother Mme Pernelle ) and Carter Redwood (Marianne’s devoted finance, Valère).

clockwise from top-Toccarra Cash, Jennifer Mudge, Naomi Lorrain & Jared McNeill

Clockwise from top: Toccarra Cash, Jennifer Mudge, Naomi Lorrain & Jared McNeill in Tartuffe

While it must have been frustrating for the artistic team (Kris Stone – Production Design, Andrew Carluccio – Video Programmer & Technology Consultant) to be confined to online resources, their choice to use green screen for the backdrop is an unfortunate one.  The effect is highly distracting, reminiscent of video games from the early 1990s, with parts of props and faces frequently dropping out.  Animated between-act bumpers by Emily Rawson and Jonathan Kokotajlo are somewhat incongruous, but charming.

This highly satisfying production of Molière Tartuffe is co-presented with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in partnership with the Prospect Park Alliance and LeFrak Center at Lakeside.  While this may not be the intimate night under the sky originally envisioned, moving online has provided a wonderful theatrical experience to a broader audience.  Replays with French captions have been extended until Sunday, July 12 on MIP’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/moliereinthepark).  The runtime is 90 minutes excluding introductions by the director, the producer and a Molière befitting the times.

Suicide Forest

Haruna Lee’s Suicide Forest is not so much a plotted play as an emotionally driven piece of performance art.  Sliding through dreamscapes saturated with Japanese cultural touchpoints, playwright and actress Lee allows the audience to undergo the experience of knowing that the way one is labeled by genetics conflicts with one’s sense of self.  So deeply personal is their storytelling that their actual mother, Aoi Lee,  appears on stage to represent the goddess mother, Mad Mad.  Her mature face whitened and her vocals racked with pain, she carries her grief symbolically in both hands.  The genuine pain was felt by the Lee family after the father passed away and the remaining members relocated from familiar Tokyo to unsettling Seattle.  With Mr. Lee in ashes, the father figure here is a put-upon salaried worker, who interacts uncomfortably with his own daughters and inappropriately with Lee’s character, Azusa.  The effect is unnerving whether your ancestors stepped off the Mayflower or you are a recent immigrant.

Lee’s story is disorienting and nightmarish, with dreamers and subjects exchanging places with frequency.  All of the characters are portrayed in poetic fashion with exaggeration and bold strokes, making them more like mythical figures than warm-blooded people.  But their feelings ring true, with repression and humiliation particularly starkly dramatized. Aya Ogawa’s dancelike direction builds on this illusory sensibility.  The Japanese-heritage cast — Ako, Keizo Kaji, Yuki Kawahisa, Eddy Toru Ohno, and Dawn Akemi Saito in addition to the Lees —slips easily between English and Japanese, sharing their befuddlement and isolation with most members of the audience. The flashback candy pink set by Jian Jung plays up the sense of otherworldliness, encompassing a graphical pattern that cleverly takes on added significance in the show’s second half.  Clothing by costume designer Alice Tavener combines elements of East, West, and cartoonish fantasy.

Design Team    Jian Jung | Scenic Design
    Alice Tavener | Costume Design
    Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew | Lighting & Video Design
    Fan Zhang | Original Music & Sound Design
    Jen Goma | Song Composition & Arrangement

Haruna Lee, Eddy Toru Ohno and Hoi Lee in Suicide Forest; Photo by Richard Termine

Holding this bold vision together is a taut framework of critical and timely conversation starters.  What does society use to measure what it means to be a man, a woman, or neither?  Is DNA destiny?  And what are accepted cultural norms when you live between more than one nation?  At one point Lee directly addresses the audience to share some of their thoughts on these issues, while designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew moves from stealthy shadows to literally illuminating the subject.  

Experiencing Suicide Forest is uncomfortable.  But this distinct work also provides a unique pathway into one person’s journey to self awareness that leaves a powerful impression.  The production presented by the famed Ma-Yi Theater Company runs until March 15 at A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre (502 West 53rd Street, Manhattan),  Performances  are Tuesday – Saturday at 7pm; Sunday at 5pm.  Tickets are $30–$75 and available at ma-yitheatre.org or by calling 866-811-4111.