Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Theatre Roundtable: Directly Speaking

One of the many benefits of Dramaworks in West Palm Beach is the diversity of their offerings outside the productions on the main stage, in particular their ongoing educational program Dramalogue which is “a series that explores all aspects of theatre, in conversations with or about the industry's top professionals and master artists.” This year’s program is one of their best and last night’s Theatre Roundtable, Directly Speaking was, for me, particularly fascinating and relevant.

This was a live question and answer session about directing, trying to answer the question “what, exactly, does a director do?”  The participants were among the leading directors in South Florida, Joseph Adler the producing artistic director of the GableStage, David Arisco, the artistic director of the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, William Hayes a founding member of Palm Beach Dramaworks as well as its producing artistic director, and J. Barry Lewis, Dramaworks’ resident director and who also directs plays at other area theatres. Hayes and Lewis were the moderators of this spellbinding discussion.  Between the four directors on the panel, they estimate having some 400 plays under their directorial belts!

What impressed me was not only the content of their discussion, but their passion as well.  These directors are devoted to their craft; it is both an art and a process.  I was also struck by how closely directing relates to the role I fulfilled during my career, publisher. To be one for nearly forty years required the same degree of passion.

Joseph Adler likened his directorial career to pushing that absurd rock of Sisyphus up the hill, trying to reach the peak, but always being condemned to not reach it and having to do it all over again.  To him, it has always been the attempt to achieve perfection, but having to settle for the act of directing as being an ongoing learning experience.  I can relate. During my career as a publisher; the more I learned, the more I discovered there was to learn.

The director’s role is to present the play as the author intended and to get all the artistic aspects of a production in alignment to achieve that purpose, stage design, lighting, costuming, blocking and movement of the actors, not to mention the auditioning process as actor selection is as critical as getting the actors to understand the director’s vision and to act in harmony. 

Amusingly, someone said when a play is good they commend the actors but when it is bad it’s entirely the director’s fault! It was also said that a leading actor’s off night is always much worse than an average actor’s average night, especially if an actor goes “rogue,” changing interpretation after a play opens.  The production will then most likely stray from the director’s vision of the play.  And, unknown to most audiences, once a play opens (and in the South Florida regional theatre scene that occurs in most cases less than a month from when they first start to work on a play!), the play is no longer in the director’s control; it is handed off to the stage manager.  So the director has precious few weeks to get everything working together.

While there are overlapping choices of types of plays presented at the three theatres represented in the discussion, each has its specialization as well.  David Arisco’s background in musical theatre, as well as the size of Actor’s Playhouse’s 600 seat main stage has resulted in more musicals while Joseph Adler’s intimate 150-seat theater in Coral Gables’ Biltmore Hotel has gravitated to more experimental productions.  Dramaworks 218-seat theatre is also intimate but Hayes and company have focused more on well-established contemporary dramatic works, with some musical theatre during their summer programs.  And next week it is opening its new 35 seat Diane & Mark Perlberg Studio Theatre on the second floor for its also new endeavor, the Dramaworkshop, a lab for developing new plays, the first one being Buried Cities by Jennifer Fawcett. 

All of this reminds me of my publishing days. We too would have overlapping publishing programs, particularly in academic publishing, but we also forged our way into unique reference programs and even occasionally a competitive trade book (one published for a general audience).  Each press would generally be known for a particular specialty.

Unlike many commercial enterprises (and except for the university presses most publishing is a for-profit endeavor – or at least that’s the intent), book publishing is different as each book is a “unique product.”  Plays are similarly unique, each needing a creative team to produce it.  The director of a play is its CEO, very often involved in the selection process itself, and then heading up his creative technical team, and the actors, to present the author’s vision and to please his audience. 

As in theatre, we had to do justice to our authors. In publishing, our team was comprised of advisory editors (to help select the publishable material or to develop new works from scratch), copy editors, production editors, marketing specialists to make sure the book reaches its intended audience, designers for promotion and for the book itself, and then the back office business -- royalties, sales receipts, customer service, etc.  And there are similar business requirements to run a successful theatre, including fund raising as ticket sales themselves usually cover only about half of a regional theatre’s expenses.

I make these observations as those were the thoughts running through my mind listening to these great directors speak.  They were talking about a creative process I identify with although I neither have the knowledge or translatable experience to direct a play.  Ask me to produce a book, no problem! So no wonder I’ve become a “citizen reviewer” of many of the Dramaworks’ productions, and some other theatre productions as well.  Dramalogue helped bring out the sense of parallelism to my working life.  The “invisible hand” of the director is not so dissimilar to working with a creative publishing team.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Outside Mullingar – A Lyrical Irish Love Story at Dramaworks

Having recently concluded its run of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Dramaworks turns to a moving romantic comedy, John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar.  It is a well chosen change of pace which will be warmly greeted by Dramaworks’ audience.

On the surface, it’s a familiar formula of two star-crossed lovers who initially don’t seem to like each other or can’t get together because of some obstacle.  All we have to do is to find out how love finally prevails.  It worked well in one of John Patrick Shanley’s best known works, a movie, Moonstruck.  His Tony award-winning drama Doubt: A Parable was something quite different though, about possible sexual misconduct in the Priesthood leaving the audience in “doubt” about the resolution.  An excellent production of that play was put on by the Maltz Jupiter Theatre three years ago, directed by none other than J. Barry Lewis, the director of Outside Mullingar.

This is a delicate but sometimes melodramatic tale of unrequited love.  And what do we have in Ireland?  Rain.  Lots of it.  As well as loneliness, isolation and repressed feelings.  Plus we have old family farms in the Midlands, one owned by the Reilly’s and the other by the Muldoon’s.  They are side by side, but there is frontage between the two which old man Reilly, Tony, sold to old man Chris Muldoon almost thirty years ago, Reilly considering it a loan and Muldoon considering it a sale.  Reilly wanted the money at the time for a particular purpose which we later discover is an important turning point in the play.

Muldoon promptly deeded the frontage to his daughter, Rosemary.  Why?  Because she asked for it.  It is where Tony’s son, Anthony, pushed her over when she was seven and he was thirteen and she wanted the land to ultimately hold it out, seemingly as revenge (although we later find out it is for love). Very prescient for a young girl.  Time has come to cash in her chip.

Alex Wipf & Nick Hetherington
Her father’s funeral was just held, and dreamy-eyed Anthony invites Chris Muldoon’s widow Aoife and Rosemary over to the Reilly home afterwards, at the objection of his father who says, “Ah you’re half woman.”  Rosemary at first does not show, enjoying her cigarette outside in the rain. Instead there is a humorous but sometimes confrontational discussion between Tony and Aoife about their inevitable demise and how they will leave their farms. 

Alex Wipf compellingly and comically plays Anthony's father, Tony, with a stubborn pride in the land and of his dominion over it.  He’s a cantankerous old man, hardly acknowledging he has not done most of the work on the farm for years and his days are numbered with breathing difficulties.  Rosemary's mother, Aoife, is played by Patricia Kilgarriff who carries her role with a deadpan hilarity at times, hoping her pacemaker can keep up with the conflict.  She is a perfect foil for Tony. 

Nick Hetherington & Patricia Kilgarriff
Rosemary is in line for the Muldoon farm but Tony does not feel Anthony is a true “Reilly,” someone who loves the farm and land as he should.  No, he thinks he takes after his deceased wife’s family, the Kelly’s - a little daft in the head (“John Kelly put his dog on trail for slander”). He has already thought of selling the farm to an American cousin (a Reilly of course), hoping to leave money to Anthony so he doesn’t feel slighted. But he needs the frontage to sell the farm. And now Rosemary’s owns it!

But Anthony always seems to be out in the fields, either meditatively walking or working hard.  One would think this is where he belongs.  Except Anthony has a secret, which he once revealed to his one and only past love, Fiona, long ago.  But when “I opened my heart to her she ran like the wind.”  “She ran like fire.”  What kind of a terrible secret could it be?  Might he be a morphodite Rosemary wonders? It is yet another dramatic element that John Patrick Shanley holds out for the end.

Although Rosemary doesn’t appear in the first scene, you already have the sense that she is feisty, a real Irish lass; but the flip side of her anger is romantic longings.  She’s loved Anthony all those years.  Will they ever get together?  

She furiously turns upon Tony in the third scene, castigating and shaming him to such a degree about his plan to turn over the farm to anyone but Anthony that he finally relents.  It is just one of Rosemary’s several intense moments in the play, which Kathy McCafferty portrays with a full range of emotions, passion, pain, humor, and prideful joy.  McCafferty shines in the role.

Kathy McCafferty & Patricia Kilgarriff

It is several months later and Anthony is nursing his father in his bedroom.  He is dying and his son now knows he is inheriting the farm (not aware of Rosemary’s role in the decision).   Nick Hetherington’s Anthony has a hang-dog look most of the time but his sullen soulfulness reveals he’s more poet than daft.  It’s a difficult role to play and Hetherington carries it with a certain amount of humorous naiveté, often puzzled by Rosemary’s reactions to much of what he says.

Three years pass after the death of both Tony and Aoife, but Anthony still doesn’t seem to have a clue about Rosemary’s feelings – or be willing to follow his own in fact.  They hardly see each other except across the frontage, until one day Rosemary spies Tony in the rain with a metal detector, something she’s seen him with before.  She insists he come into her house, out of the rain, and it is there that Shanley works his way towards a fiery denouement, when the “secret,” along with a coincidence -- a “sign” so typical in Irish mythology – are both revealed.  One could say it is a contrived ending but if you give yourself over to the play, it is amusing and satisfying, as “the pain of love” emerges.  The sun shines.  We all want happy endings and this one is wrapped in feel-good four leaf clover and delivered with the lyricism of the Irish theatre.

As a born and bred New Yorker, Shanley didn’t want to be thought of as an “Irish writer” but lovingly wrote this play after having accompanied his father to the Irish Midlands on a visit, where his “Da” grew up and still has relatives.  "When I sat with my father in that farm kitchen, the one that he had grown up in, and listened to my Irish family talk, I recognized that this was my Atlantis, the lost and beautiful world of my poet's heart. There was no way to write about the farm, yet I had to write about it…I had held back much for a long time, and I kind of erupted with language. I felt free suddenly, free to be Irish…I had turned 60, and the knife at my throat woke me to the beauty of my own people, the fleeting opportunities of life, the farce of caution.…”  And while poetic, thematically Shanley’s play has a hint of Sean O’Casey’s strong women and clueless men. (Rosemary: “…men are beasts and need height to balance the truth and goodness of women.”)

Shanley’s deep affection for his flawed but real characters comes through in a very crisply crafted script.  It is elegant, threadbare writing with the comedic elements woven in its romantic and dramatic undercurrent.  The director, J. Barry Lewis, seamlessly orchestrates this delicate play so it can leap to life before our eyes.

We love Shanley’s characters too.  Our hearts go out to Anthony when he hears of his father’s plan to leave the farm to a cousin:  “Don’t criticize me, Daddy.  Some of us don’t have joy.  But we do what we must.  Is a man who does what he must though he feels no pleasure less of a man than one who’s happy?....Living as I do here with nothing but the rain and cold, and Mammy gone?....You know I’ll tell ya.  Sometimes lately I can’t breathe in this house.  You’d hold back the farm, would ya?  You stun me.”

He confesses to Rosemary that “My life is fixed down with a rock on each corner.”  She asks “by what?”  He replies: “There’s the green fields, and the animals living off them.  And over that there’s us, living off the animals.  And over that there’s that which tends to us and lives off us.  Whatever that is, it holds me here.  No.  The voice I hear in the fields wants me in the fields.”  It sums up hundreds of years of Irish misery and history.  The lyricism of the language lives, and the wonderful cast makes this seem like a slice of real life.

In spite of this being only a four person play, it is complicated to stage as there is the passage of some four years during the play and there are five specific locations which challenges any production company, having to make the choice between a representational set, or frequent set changes with darkened interruptions, or, as in the case of Dramaworks a rotating stage.  This enables the play to maintain its pace, with well defined sets for each scene, and for a representational depiction of the three year interval before the last scene. 

Scenic and lighting design by Paul Black takes full advantage of the Dramaworks’ stage (as well as its limitations, it being much wider than deep, the outdoor scenes being performed down stage left and right). The land and the sky are prominent and those are weighty themes in the play itself.  Although this is a contemporary play, the props are straight out of the 1950s, conveying the multigenerational nature of the farms.

Sound design by Steve Shapiro is yet another element enhancing the art of presentation.  There are the requisite occasional barking dogs and a train in the distance.  But most noticeable is the omnipresent rain, in various pitches that add to the gloom and then with the rarely blazing sun, a residual rain falling off the trees or from gutters.  There are also the well timed claps of thunder and lightning, or ominous rumbling thunder.  And the music Shanley chooses for some of the play’s intervals and for the background as the play closes is a beloved Irish/Scottish song, “The Wild Mountain Thyme.”  Some of the characters occasionally sing verses from it.

    And we'll all go together,
    To pull wild mountain thyme,
    All around the purple heather.
    Will you go, lassie, go?

Costume design is by Leslye Menshouse, reflecting what these contemporary working people of Ireland wear, and having to connote the passage of time from the beginning of the play to the end.  Costumes also have to reflect the inevitably of inclement weather.  There are several quick changes (including one on stage).

And as this is Irish theatre there is the notable work of dialect coach Ben Furey.  The brogue spoken here is undeniably Irish (and more reflective of the Midlands) but thankfully clear to the audience.

But not enough praise can be heaped upon one of South Florida’s leading directors, J. Barry Lewis, and the cast, all professional actors from New York City, making their Dramaworks debuts.  One can tell that his is a tight knit group, “singing” Shanley’s vision of his Irish roots in perfect harmony.  The last Irish play put on by Dramaworks was The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which was a straight forward tragedy. Outside Mullingar although arising out of Irish sadness is a successful romantic comedy and another high-quality achievement by Dramaworks. 

Outside Mullingar Opening Set
  Love is never defeated, and I could add, the history of Ireland proves it
---- Pope John Paul II from a speech to the people of Galway, September 1979.