Elaine Stritch At Liberty is available to stream just in time for Women’s History Month. A true dame in all the best connotations of that word, Stritch adds song-and-dance sparkle to deeply personal storytelling in her one-woman show. This performance was captured at London’s Old Vic, where it played after development at New York’s Public Theater and a Tony-winning run on Broadway. It received two Emmys when it ran in prime time nearly 20 years ago and is a gift to her fans and anyone else with a love of show business.
The intro is so stuffed with detail, it’s hard to believe there’s more to tell. Costumed in a man’s dress shirt, dark tights, and dance shoes selected by designer Paul Tazewell, Ms. Stritch shares life stories from her sheltered Catholic upbringing in Michigan through her early acting classes in New York to her professional experiences on stage and in film and television. New Yorker Magazine staff writer and theater critic John Lahr developed the script under Stritch’s watchful eye. (The credits describe their collaboration as “Constructed by” and “Reconstructed by” respectively.) Monologues are arranged to provide a constant shift in mood. There’s a farcical account of a time she had a significant role in an out of town production concurrent with serving as understudy to the great Ethel Merman on the Great White Way. But she is also brutally honest about her history with alcohol and less-than-wise choices of lovers. Over her 50 years in the industry, she had brushes with many stars including Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, and Rock Hudson. Though she is a clever mimic, many she mentions are not as well known to today’s audiences and those not immersed in theatrical lore might need to keep their IBDB page open.
Singing in more of a patter style, Stritch could still strut her stuff well into her 70s. Jonathan Tunick mixes solo piano numbers reminiscent of Stritch’s sessions at the famed Carlyle Room with full orchestral pieces designed to bring down the house. The expected songs from Ladies Who Lunch to Zip are all here, along with ones that played a role in her development into an unusual leading lady. Some of the lyrics would not make the cut today and should be appreciated in context.
Seasoned vet George C. Wolfe directed for the stage and gives life to the work even when Stritch is sitting still in a chair against a brick wall. In an unusual agreement, five people have screen directing credit (documentary filmmaker Rick McKay along with Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker, and Andy Picheta). Certainly the visuals captured by a full complement of 11 cameras are varied given the intimate setting. The differentiation of surroundings is further defined by the lighting design of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
At nearly 2 ½ hours long, Elaine Stritch At Liberty is a lot to take in, but so was the lady herself. By turns funny, bitter, and vulnerable, she never wavers in her devotion to the path she chose. The On Demand special is available beginning March 1, 2023 on BroadwayHD (https://www.broadwayhd.com/).
Dogs of Rwanda
Dogs of Rwanda is like that really sweet guy you wanna like, but you just can’t get beyond his shortcomings. There are several unfortunate distractions that prevent it from being as powerful as it should be. Given that the Rwandan genocide took place in 1994 and the audience spans a large age range, a short background beyond the artistic director’s statement would have helped. By necessity, the tale we hear is a deeply personal one and moments are certainly shocking, but they are not given sufficient context or a sharp enough lens through which to see. There are also some artistic choices that have hindered the impact of the piece.
The script by Sean Christopher Lewis is delivered as a monologue told solely from the point of view of David Zosia, who at 16 volunteered for a church run spring break program in order to spend time with his crush, Mary. At their Ugandan camp, they are assigned laundry duty working just downstream from Rwanda. When the fight between the Tutsis and the Hutus breaks out, bodies begin floating by the horrified youth. The pair is drawn deeper into the conflict when they attempt to help a local boy named Gods Blessing. Over the course of 90 minutes, David vividly describes what happened at the time and also 20 years later when he receives a note from Gods Blessing that takes him back to Africa. The audience is present to bear witness to his account: an integral role in any deeply meaningful ritual.
David is portrayed by Dan Hodge, an actor and director with an impressive resume. Unlike most solo performances this isn’t Hodge’s story and that is the first stumbling block to its success. Hodge never fully inhabits the role: he is acting not being. The only other person on stage is musician Abou Lion Diarra who accompanies David’s tale with original music performed on a variety of percussion instruments. This creative embellishment was added by the Urban Stages team, but the execution doesn’t quite work. Hodge is inconsistent about including Diarra in the action, sometimes exchanges glances and sometimes ignoring him. Furthermore, the talented Diarra is often so swept away by the joy he finds in playing that it is easy to catch him smiling incongruently to the horrors being described.
Actor Dan Hodge with instrumentalist Abou Lion Diarra. Photo by Ben Hider.
There is also the critical issue that David is essentially a selfish SOB. Everyone else we hear about — Mary, Gods Blessing, and his current girlfriend — have been treated with contempt by our narrator and guide. He is not without redeeming qualities, having literally bled to share at least some of his story with the public in a book called Letters From The Red Hill. While David is certainly contrite by the end, that is where we leave him, never witnessing any actual change in his behavior. This makes his confession a rather hallow one. How can we forgive David as we are meant to if we never see him embody the lessons he claims to have learned and put them into action?
Urban Stages Founder, Frances Hill, and Director of Musical theatre, Peter Napolitano are responsible for the meandering direction. The creative team is the same as the one that brought Zhu Yi’s A Deal to life. Their vision is much murkier this time around. The set by Frank J. Oliva is made to look like a village clearing with a faux earthen floor and thatch peering through a side opening. It lends an interesting flavor to the atmosphere, though the setting is only appropriate some of the time. John Salutz’s lighting casts long shadows which may be intended to add mood but come across as an amateurish mistake. The brilliant Ryan Belock has once again designed the projections, but the screen is at an angle over Hodge’s head. This is effective for planes, trees, and clouds, and a head scratcher for ocean waves.
While not completely successful as a drama, Dogs of Rwanda can serve as a reminder of the dehumanizing effects of war, the atrocities committed based on tribalism, and the many treasured places around the globe devalued by Americans. It is a worthy end to a season in which Urban Stages has been shining a light on works with an international point of view. It runs through Saturday, March 31, 2018. Tickets for are $35 ($25 during previews; $50 on opening and $15 student rush) and may be purchased via OvationTix at www.urbanstages.org or by phone at 1.866.811.4111.