Friday, December 29, 2017

The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living

This famous dictum by Socrates can be interpreted many ways.  He was a philosopher and it may be that philosophy is indeed the basis for all creative arts, and even the sciences, man’s attempt to come to grips with our place in an endless universe, the meaning of life, and its corollary, death.  When the 400-year-old King Beringer is told at the beginning of Eugene Ionesco’s play, Exit the King, that he now has only 90 minutes to live he rages “why was I born, if it wasn't forever?”

We live in an age of media overload, social, graphic, narrowcasting political views, and instant gratification on cell phones, iPads, and "reality" TV shows.  There are so many “streaming” choices that one’s inner life is suffocated.  Maybe that’s the point of it all, numbing us all into a somnambulistic state so we don’t have to do the hard thinking, just be an obedient lot of consumers.

More than ever we need the arts to find our moral compass, to return to examining one’s life.  Perhaps that is why the theater has become a centerpiece of my blog over the years, particularly the plays produced right here in my own backyard by Palm Beach Dramaworks.  It is among the best regional theaters in the United States, and although there are other good theaters nearby, none have been as consistently adept in their choice of plays, actors, and in their execution as Dramaworks.  It rivals New York and the West End.

Having reviewed so many plays of theirs over the past several years, missing just a few summer productions while we’re away, as an ex-publisher I thought it might be interesting to pull them together into an eBook PDF, something more navigable than going through the BlogSpot site. The software for doing this is not very flexible, thus including entries where Dramaworks is merely mentioned.   As such, some of our personal life, as well as an occasional review of other theatres’ productions, and even a few book reviews get commingled.  Fortunately, there are not many.  The vast bulk is indeed the “history” of Dramaworks during the period. 

What results is a 200 page PDF, easily downloadable into iBooks and therefore readable off line.  I brought my iPad on a recent Caribbean cruise (more on that in a later entry) and thought I’d just look over the results and instead I ended up reading it virtual cover to virtual cover.  I had feared a lot of redundancy.  After all, how many different ways are there of praising a play and performance since PBD’s productions have been uncommonly exceptional? (There are some reviews on my site of other theatre productions which are negative, so it’s not as if I don’t have a critical bone in my body.)

But it seems to come across without much literal repetition and most of the impact reading it as an eBook is from the sheer energy and enthusiasm that went into these reviews, not from any particular “review skill acumen.”   It’s all part of buying into Dramaworks’ vision:  “To enhance the quality of life through the transformative power of live theatre.”  Full circle back to the “examined life.”

Interestingly, the very first entry in the collection, published in November 2007, is entitled Literature and Family.  It is one of those entries that is not a review of a Dramaworks play although one paragraph does cover their production of The Subject Was Roses.  Most of the entry could serve as a fitting introduction to this collection as so much great literature and theatre is about family. That entry taps into some of my own family “secrets.” As Tolstoy said "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Literature and Family concludes with an essay about my father.  It explains a lot about how I made the journey to the very words you are reading at this moment.

Finally, I thank the PBD professionals who are really responsible for the contents of this document, and in particular, Dramaworks’ founders, William Hayes, Producing Artistic Director; Sue Ellen Beryl, Managing Director; and Nanique Gheridian, Company Manager. 

The PDF of the Dramaworks Retrospective by Robert Hagelstein is available here:

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Poetic Truth-Telling Prevails in ‘Billy and Me’ by Terry Teachout at Palm Beach Dramaworks

Blow out the candle of the present and imagine going back in time into Tennessee Williams’ memory revealing his relationship with William Inge.  That opportunity has been remarkably created by Terry Teachout in his latest play, Billy and Me, world premiering at Palm Beach Dramaworks.  Williams and Inge were among the playwright elites, friends, and possibly even lovers.  Teachout, a well known critic, playwright, and writer, is guided more by his knowledge of the two men and their plays than by historical record.  He has created a provocative new drama of uncompromising art and imaginative truth, vividly executed under the direction of William Hayes, PBD Producing Artistic Director, who inspired the idea for the play. In fact, the play is a major collaborative effort between these two professionals.

It is a memory play like The Glass Menagerie which is a centripetal force throughout.  Williams is the narrator and a character in Billy and Me as is Tom in The Glass Menagerie.   Both plays even end with the same three words.

In the opening act, Williams is anxiously awaiting reviews of The Glass Menagerie after Chicago tryouts on New Year’s Eve, 1944.  The setting is a gay bar where he is also waiting for a relatively unknown critic he once met who has come to review the play, William Inge.  Inge who is furtively gay, shows up in a faltering state, terrified of the bar scene and seeing Tennessee Williams again.  He is stunned by his unpretentious way of living his life openly and particularly of his gift for poetic language.  He is so staggered by the play’s force and honesty that he timidly confesses he’s thought of becoming a playwright himself.  He is goaded on by Williams: “You’ve got to write about sissy little Billy Inge. You got to be him. Face it and tell it, starting right here in this dump. No more secrets! No more shame! Live your life! You hear me? It’s all you’ve got! There isn’t anything else!”

Tom Wahl, Nicholas Richberg; Photo by Alicia Donelan
And it is language Teachout so perfectly captures, bringing his interpretation of both men to the stage, the repressed Inge, and the charismatic, poetic Williams.  He incorporates special conceits, the audience being allowed behind the hallowed veil of backstage, the setting of the play’s scenes and breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience or visiting his inner self to address his mother and sister Rose.

It’s a dizzying journey and the second act bursts upon the stage some 15 years later, with the unthinkable, Inge’s first commercial failure, A Loss of Roses being panned by the critics after years of Broadway and film hits.  In contrast to the sleazy bar scene of the first act we witness Inge’s badge of prosperity, his Sutton Place apartment, replete with a Willem de Kooning painting and all the trappings of monetary success as the framed posters from the Broadway productions of Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs attest.  

In contrast to Tennessee Williams’ rise in the first act, is his apparent career stagnation in the second, which brings out his monstrous jealousy of Inge, in spite of his apparent attempts to console his friend.  He reminds Inge that it was his encouragement and contacts – particularly Audrey Wood his agent -- which paved the way for his friend’s success.  The table is set for the play’s gripping climax which begins with a contretemps between the two about their plays, the kind of argument no friend can win, gathering intensity to a near calamitous result. 

Nicholas Richberg as Tennessee Williams; Photo by Cliff Burgess
As much as Tennessee Williams is the luminary of Billy and Me, the play’s dramatic arc is about William Inge.  But the story about how Inge became a playwright and the impact Williams had on his career, could not have been compellingly told without the bravura performance by Nicholas Richberg who strikingly captures Williams’ flamboyant persona.  His transformation in real time, on stage from the aged Tennessee Williams to his younger self, and then back again is heartbreakingly effective. His comic timing is carefully executed, inhabiting Williams’ personal pathos and vitriolic embrace of the truth, frequently in an alcoholic daze.   He carries the play’s poetry, some quoted from The Glass Menagerie but most penned by Teachout.  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – start with the truth and then make it beautiful.”

In many ways Tom Wahl’s challenge in portraying William Inge is the playwright himself.  Teachout could take just so many liberties with a character who mostly eschewed the public spotlight, especially when held up to the brassy extroverted nature of his counterpart.  Wahl stoically holds his own, courageously portraying a conflicted character, shy, insecure, secretly gay, and an alcoholic like Williams.  His role as straight man is compellingly acted with self loathing and awkward pauses that successfully capture a deeply disturbed man.

Tom Wahl as William Inge;  Photo by Cliff Burgess

There is a reference made in both acts that the two writers are “speckled eggs.”  As Inge relates it, his mother “called me…her ‘speckled egg’…. I wonder how you ever got into my nest.”  Wahl’s character never is able to break through the shell.  It is heartbreaking to watch, a metaphor for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.  It’s a difficult part and Wahl emerges as that self-effacing, insecure writer, a character with whom the audience can easily empathize.

Cliff Burgess, a PBD veteran, effectively plays three different characters, the impassive stage manager, the flirtatious waiter, and a somewhat comical doctor.  All three roles are integral to the drama, validating both playwrights.  He creates needed pauses from the taut action on stage.
Tom Wahl, Cliff Burgess, Nicholas Richberg; Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

The skillful scenic design by Victor Becker is representational, effectively highlighting the stark contrast between the dank and seedy bar room scene of the first act to Inge’s affluent Sutton Place apartment in the second.  Each part of the scenery is moved as Williams recalls it from memory.  In fact, when the audience arrives, the stage is simply a backstage set creating an anticipation of the action to follow.

Paul Black, the lighting designer picks up on that with constructive lighting, carving out space where there may be a black wall in the background, casting light to make the abstract seem real.  His lighting on the aged Tennessee Williams is particularly effective in achieving the suspension of disbelief.

David Thomas is the sound designer and there is an interesting back-story to his PBD debut.  Three years ago Thomas was the sound designer for the off-Broadway revival of Inge’s A Loss of Roses which is the subject of Act II of this play.  Terry Teachout reviewed that revival, praised the play, and David Thomas’ musical selections, and unknown to him, Bill Hayes hired him for Billy and Me.  Clairvoyantly, Williams says to Inge: “Hell, maybe all those bastards are wrong about Roses. Who knows? Maybe in fifty years some hotshot producer will dig up the script and a new bunch of bastards will go see it and say, ‘You know what? Those other bastards—they were wrong!’”  Teachout is ironically one of the “new bunch.”

Thomas has a lot to work with for sound, the singing of the drunken men in the unseen back room of the bar, the music on the jukebox, and magical elements that work with the memory aspects of the play.  As quoted by both Williams and Inge (from The Glass Menagerie): “In memory everything happens to music” and the sounds are evocative.

Costume designer extraordinaire, Brian O’Keefe, who is PBD’s Resident Designer, while needing a limited number of costumes for the five different characters plus stagehands in the play, imaginatively reinforces all the personalities and the different periods of the two acts with his usual creative touch.

William Hayes, the Director, has taken many dramatic inventions and put them seamlessly together into one flowing production, and we’re caught up in the illusion.  His inspired staging clearly conveys Teachout’s structure and words and the underlying message: be true to ones’ self and if you are a writer, write --- claim your artistic destiny!

As Williams said in the prologue to The Glass Menagerie, “Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”  The same can be said for this superb production, worthy of this world premiere, destined to go beyond its Palm Beach Dramaworks origins.