Elevator Repair Service’s Chekhov revival has promising ideas about art, experimentation and truth, but the production inevitably falls flat, our critic writes.If only I could find someone who loves me enough to gift me a dead bird in a brown paper bag.I jest, of course. The wounded young protagonist who delivers this confounding gift in Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” communicates his thoughts and feelings through wild symbols — “new forms” of art, he says — like this particular one of the avian variety. The theater troupe Elevator Repair Service — known for its ambitious, innovative takes on classics like “The Great Gatsby” (“Gatz”) — attempts to meet that challenge in its latest work, “Seagull.”But this highly stylized contemporary production, which recently opened at NYU Skirball in a nearly three-hour production, feels like a series of ideas that never quite cohere. The beginnings of those ideas are promising, though: the toppling of the fourth wall, the meta references to the original text, the vivid tonal changes and the comic recasting of the play’s characters, each of them living through their own sad, ironic farce of a life.Let’s begin with those clowns. Konstantin (a wooden Gavin Price) wants to be a great writer but is too busy producing incomprehensible symbolist plays, at least that’s what his mother, Irina (Kate Benson, a bluster of affected melodrama), thinks. A vain actress with a vicious streak toward her son, Irina has come to stay with her sick brother at his country estate, and she’s taken along her boy toy, the famous writer Boris Trigorin (a compellingly aloof Robert M. Johanson). From the other side of the property comes Nina (Maggie Hoffman, magnetic), a young woman who wants to escape her circumstances and become an actress.One may need a map for the various romantic entanglements: Semyon (Pete Simpson) loves the depressed, coke-snorting Masha (Susie Sokol), who loves Konstantin, who loves Nina, who is enamored with Trigorin, who is attached to Irina. And Masha’s mother, Paulina (Lindsay Hockaday), is married to Ilya (Julian Fleisher) but is having an affair with the former playboy doctor Gene (a delightfully quippy Vin Knight).“Seagull,” directed by the group’s founder, John Collins, opens with a meandering curtain speech, charismatically delivered by Simpson as his real-life self, and ends in the world of Chekhov, where Simpson is now Semyon, a poor lovesick teacher. Simpson cracks jokes and rattles off (real and fictional) information about the Skirball stage, letting the audience know that the line between reality and fiction is needlepoint thin, though to what end is unclear.Elevator Repair Service’s “Seagull,” directed by John Collins, not only breaks the fourth wall but also has its characters break into dance.Ian DouglasThe breaking of the fourth wall happens mostly in the first several minutes, though this play is being marketed as interactive, part “chat with the audience,” as if the entirety of the show will be meta. The production seems to want to reach toward some message about art — particularly experimental art, especially experimental theater — as when the group cheekily pokes fun at itself in Simpson’s opening speech. “If ERS is known for anything,” Simpson says, “we’re known for our livestock, wallpaper and violent dance.”I’m sorry to report that there’s no livestock or wallpaper but there is a bit of dancing (whether you’d deem it violent depends on your particular disposition). And besides a few references to the actors — not as their characters, but the real actors themselves — the production’s self-aware spoofing unfortunately falls to the wayside.The attempts to deconstruct Chekhov’s work extends to the set by Dots, the design collective. Lined up folding chairs, sat on by the cast, and a table with tech equipment are juxtaposed with a piano, where Konstantin broods, and a fraction of an old Russian dining room, just two perpendicular walls, decorated with framed paintings, a table and chairs in the center, where the characters sit to eat and play cards.And then there’s that dead bird.Dead feathered fowl! Suicide! Ruination! Unhappy marriages! Unrequited love! Festering resentment! “The Seagull” doesn’t seem like the kind of play that would tickle your funny bone, and yet Chekhov himself considered it a comedy. Most productions cast it as a tragedy (especially after the seminal Russian actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski reinterpreted it as such in one of its first productions).Collins opts for both, going all in on comedy in the first half and making a daring turn to tragedy in the second. So Masha isn’t the cool goth pining after the dejected artist but a mopey dork in knee-high compression socks who drags herself across the stage while the sad-sack Semyon shuffles along after her. Konstantin isn’t a misunderstood virtuoso but a solipsistic hipster of an artist with serious mommy issues. In the final scene of the first act, Gene, having comforted two distraught characters in a row, comically declares, “You’re so upset! You’re all so upset!”And yet, despite its playful humor and antics, the show often falls into lulls where it’s mostly just performing a rote version of Chekhov’s piece.It’s not until partway through the second act that the show’s unforgettable shift occurs. The actors freeze, posing in an almost suffocating silence for several minutes. The set darkens and fog unfurls across the top of the stage. None of the actors speak, but we hear them reading their lines in voice-over. We see Nina slumped in a chair in the corner, Irina sitting in a commanding pose front and center, arms spread out on either side to rest on the chair backs, her legs brazenly crossed in front of her, and Ilya leaning against a pillar, head drooped to the side. The effect is haunting when paired with the disembodied voices. Instead of trying to seamlessly incorporate both the dark humor and the woe, the production calls attention to each individually.Chekhov’s play lends itself to dismantling and comic scrutiny. Take Aaron Posner’s postmodern remix, “Stupid _______ Bird,” which actually manages to pull off the balancing act that the Elevator Repair Service’s “Seagull” struggles with, splitting the difference between a dutiful replication of the text (or at least parts of it) and an irreverent sendup of prevailing ideas, themes and executions of the beloved work. Posner’s ambitious, if pretentious, play manages it a bit better through an almost Spartan-level commitment to its conceit, from script to stage.“Seagull” is milder in its execution of its ideas, though it would benefit from committing more to its experimental aspirations and making its insights about art clearer. And it could further blur the line between performance and reality as it does in the opening scene, allowing the actors to speak more freely, to improvise, to share parts of themselves even as they inhabit their characters.This production may get its audience thinking about art, experimentation and truth but can’t quite see those thoughts through. In the play Konstantin declares that we need new forms. This production may have inadvertently provided the answer: Only if the artist is up to it.SeagullThrough July 31 at NYU Skirball, Manhattan; nyuskirball.org. Running time: 2 hour 50 minutes. More
- in Theater
Booth, who currently leads the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, will succeed Robert Falls, who is retiring after 35 years leading the Chicago mainstay.Susan V. Booth, the artistic director of the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, has been named the next artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, a dominant force in that city’s vibrant theater scene and one of the most influential regional nonprofits in the country.Booth, 59, who will assume the position in October, will be the first woman to lead the Goodman, which was founded in 1922. She succeeds Robert Falls, who announced last September that he would be stepping down after 35 years at the helm.The Goodman, which has an annual budget of $22 million and a staff of roughly 200, won the 1992 Tony Award for excellence in regional theater. Under Falls, it staged more than 150 world or American premieres, while also helping to transform Chicago from a theater scene known primarily for actors to one recognized as a seedbed for directors with artistic visions “too massive to be contained in a storefront theater,” as Chris Jones, the theater critic for The Chicago Tribune, wrote last year.The move will be something of a homecoming for Booth, who went to graduate school at Northwestern University, directed at theaters across the city and served as the Goodman’s director of new play development from 1993 to 2001. Her husband even proposed to her on the catwalk over the Goodman’s main stage on her last day on the job.In a telephone interview, Booth said she looked forward to diving back into Chicago’s rich theater scene, which she described as marked by a muscular, democratic and “radically diverse aesthetic.”“It was always a really fluid ecosystem, where artists would bounce between punky first-year start-ups in the backs of bars to the Goodman stage,” she said. “That fluidity meant that if there was a hierarchy, it had to do with your chops. It was glorious.”Her arrival at the Goodman comes at a time of widespread turnover in leadership in Chicago theater, because of retirement and upheavals around diversity and inclusion. She said one of her first tasks would be to figure out “where Chicago is now,” both artistically and civically, to determine how best to reach the widest audiences possible.She said she also wanted to work with the theater’s artistic collective to continue the Goodman’s tradition of “treating classics as if they were new plays” and giving prominent placement to challenging new works.“I love me a classic, and I have no interest in relegating that work to other theaters,” she said. “But I love the level playing field that’s created when you produce new work.”Booth led the Alliance in Atlanta for 21 years, where she doubled the operating budget (currently $20 million) and endowment, and led it to a 2007 Tony Award for regional excellence. The theater presented more than 85 world premieres, including six musicals that later went to Broadway, including “The Prom” and “The Color Purple.”It also worked to develop relationships with young playwrights, while cultivating new voices through programs like the Spelman Leadership Fellowship, a partnership with Spelman College in Atlanta aimed at addressing the lack of diversity in theater leadership.Asked about a signature project, she cited a staging of “Native Guard,” the former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey’s poem cycle exploring both her family history and the history of Black Civil War troops, which was staged originally at the Alliance and then later at the Atlanta History Center, amid its Civil War collections.“The theatricalization of it was as much about how the audience engaged with the work as about the source narrative,” she said. “It was a community event.”It was “theater designed to catalyze dialogue, to evoke action,” she added. “That mattered to me a lot.”The Goodman’s 2022-23 season, programmed by Falls, includes the world premieres of Rebecca Gilman’s play “Swing State,” about a Wisconsin community split by political polarization (one of two productions to be directed by Falls), and Christina Anderson’s “the ripple, the wave that carried me home,” about a family fighting for the integration of a swimming pool in Kansas in the 1960s. There will also be a 30th-anniversary production of “The Who’s Tommy,” directed by Des McAnuff.As for her own programming, Booth said she wanted the Goodman to be part of the ripe political and social debates of the moment, without losing sight of the pure pleasure of theater.“I don’t know a theater community in the country that isn’t creating the odd joy-bomb,” she said. More
With age-blind casting at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, two actors who have been married for 38 years play the teenage leads.GARRISON, N.Y. — A romance and a love story are two different things. In art, we’re not great at differentiating.Take “Romeo and Juliet,” a corpse-ridden romantic tragedy routinely mistaken for a tale of deepest love, even though the lovers are teenagers who’ve only just met — people who, despite their ferocious infatuation, would absolutely flunk a quiz about each other’s likes and dislikes, dreams and histories.They’re passionate, sure; isn’t everyone at that age? But the rash young people in “Romeo and Juliet,” both the title characters and some of their friends, die from their own impetuosity. They’re not old enough to know better than to kill one another in anger in the street, or agree to a harebrained plan that involves faking one’s own death and being interred in a real tomb.Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s staging — which opened on Friday night at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s new 98-acre riverside site, under the canopy of its familiar tent — presents the tragedy as a love story, with a twist. Romeo and Juliet are played by festival regulars Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson, actors who have been married for 38 years and done 68 previous shows together. Upon which background, apparently, the central idea of this production mistakenly depends.“With Kurt and Nance in the title roles,” Upchurch writes in a program note, using an ampersand as her production’s title does, “we get to take it for granted that Romeo & Juliet truly love each other.”Even if we could, and I don’t believe we can, that assumption wouldn’t be terribly helpful to a drama that’s driven by the urgency of fresh desire yet played here with the languor of long acquaintance, as if guided by Friar Laurence’s admonition to “love moderately.” And so the sparking attraction between Romeo and Juliet ignites not a raging conflagration but a glowing ember — warmth, not heat.The fault isn’t in the chronologically incongruous casting; audiences are sophisticated enough not to bat an eye at the actors’ ages. And in a summer when Ian McKellen is returning again to the title role in “Hamlet,” which he last played onstage a year ago, at 82, other well-seasoned actors might also want to take their shots at interpreting Shakespearean youths.Upchurch’s elegant interspersing of ethereal choral music by Heather Christian is one of this production’s most alluring features, along with costumes in eye-popping patterns by Enver Chakartash. But Upchurch hasn’t built a frame or puzzled out a conceit that supports her age-blind casting. The idea feels forced, not organic — grasping for meaning rather than providing it.Romeo and Juliet, adolescents still under their parents’ roofs, take drastic measures to wrest control of their lives and futures. But the even-keeled Rhoads and Williamson imbue these teens with none of the tidal-wave emotions that make them idealistic enough to defy their families’ hatred for one another, and heedless enough not to pause for rational thought.Without that palpable, desperate, cocktail-of-hormones recklessness, their actions make no sense. And if we don’t believe the characters, the play loses its stakes and its heft. As when Lady Capulet (a solid Britney Nicole Simpson) urges the almost 14-year-old Juliet to marry her suitor Paris, saying: “I was your mother much upon these years that you are now a maid.” There’s gut-punch potential in that line about girls and imposed maternity, but in the context of this wan production, it merely evaporates.Paris (Erin Despanie), though, is interesting: unusually affable, and thus uncommonly sympathetic. You feel a little bad for the guy as he innocently looks forward to his wedding. And if Kimberly Chatterjee’s appealing Friar Laurence doesn’t manage to reconcile his own honorable objective — ending the antagonism between the Capulets and the Montagues — with his deranged death-faking scheme, he is nonetheless one of the more fully inhabited characters.A hillside along the Hudson River serves as a captivating backdrop, with costumes in eye-popping patterns by Enver Chakartash.T. Charles EricksonThe tent in which this all plays out, with little more than chairs for a set, is a temporary structure nestled at the foot of a sloping hill. It’s due to be replaced nearby with a permanent open-air theater designed by Studio Gang, with Hudson River views — the sort of vista that festival goers enjoyed for decades at Hudson Valley Shakespeare’s former longtime home, on the grounds of the neighboring Boscobel House and Gardens.That backdrop is gone for now, but the customary soft sand stage floor is in place, to be traipsed across by spectators on the way to their seats. Also comfortingly unchanged: the dexterous use of the landscape outside the tent as a playing space. After mortally wounding Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Luis Quintero), Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Zoë Goslin) runs off to the hill, where, in dramatic side lighting (by Stacey Derosier), he surveys the damage from a distance. Upchurch does well with such tableaus.Covid-19 cases in the company delayed the opening night of this “Romeo & Juliet.” Even when it arrived, two actors wore face masks onstage. It’s impossible to know how much the disruption of illness might have foiled the depth of characterization in this production.But more time would not have alchemized the central elements that refuse to meld: the onstage fiction of Romeo and Juliet’s ruinous romance, and the offstage reality of two veteran actors’ devoted love.Romeo & JulietThrough Sept. 18 at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Garrison, N.Y.; hvshakespeare.org. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes. More
Katherine Stockton on her play Colloquium, playing as part of Camden Fringe
We all know the phrase Oxbridge, a portmanteau of Oxford and Cambridge, the two oldest, wealthiest, and most famous universities in the United Kingdom. It’s a phrase that will conjure up different images to different people. To some a mark of quality, to others it may mean elitism.
Katherine Stockton’s Colloquium takes us into that world, exploring the lives of stuffy Professors, pompous Candidates, and struggling Students, all suffering under the regime of pressuring higher education.
The play is one of the first on at this year’s Camden Fringe, with performances 1 to 4 August at Hen and Chickens Theatre. It also then plays for two nights at Kensington’s Golden Goose Theatre (5 and 6 August). Tickets for both venues can be found here.
Always wanting to further educate ourselves, we thought we’d put on our finest gowns and mortarboard and spend an afternoon in the study with Katherine to talk more about her play.
The play takes us into the world of our finest places of study, what can you tell us about the play and the characters we’re going to meet?
The play is most essentially a pulling back of the curtain on the mythic and hidden world of these elite institutions, yes. We are going to meet Alfred; a Professor of English in his last year before retirement, obsessed with leaving a form of legacy behind, Bennett; a junior Professor of English hoping to take Alfred’s job next year, Ben; a seventeen-year-old applicant who has been all but groomed for the interview process, Alice; an applicant to whom this world seems bewildering, George; a PhD student struggling to reconcile his relationship with his working-class, pub quiz loving step-dad, and Anna; a PhD student whose mental health is suffering to the point of giving up on her academic dreams.
And is the play a one-person show portraying the various characters we encounter, or do you have an ensemble?
We have a very talented ensemble who are able to bring their own distinct voices to each character who struggle with the pressures of elite education in similar ways, yet often take very different approaches to coping with those pressures.
You didn’t study at either of the Oxbridge universities, what made you decide to set a play there?
It didn’t matter so much to place a play where I’ve known. To me, and to most teenagers who go through the UCAS process, Oxbridge is a symbol – a monolith – of excellence. You either make it – become part of the symbol – or live forever outside it. It is the great divider of applicants. Therefore, it felt natural to set a drama within its walls.
There’s talk of balancing the conflicting hopes of education: to teach for the exam, for success, or to teach for life. Does the play answer which you feel is more vital or just highlight the contradictions that exist?
The play highlights how impossible both of the strategies are. Under capitalism, under our data-driven, results-driven society, where everything must be quantified and scaled, you cannot teach for life. You must teach for an exam. But you also cannot hope to produce educated, well-rounded citizens of the world if you only take this method. Whichever is ‘better’ cannot be discerned until we realise how to actually do either.
Do you feel as a country we often give too much reverence just because someone studied at one of the elite universities?
As someone who did not study there; it is almost impossible to say. Maybe the undergraduates of Oxford did get much better quality teaching than I did at Warwick. I will never be able to know for sure because I wasn’t there. I think it’s that wall that separates the two worlds that the play wants to look at most.
You’ve clearly looked at their processes deeply to put this play together, do you feel that the universities have changed or is there still a lot of unnecessary tradition at play within them?
The pomp and ceremony, razzle dazzle of the place is absurd to me. Almost cultish. I am sure those memories of sitting down in gowns and hats to banquets stay with you for life, embedding in you a network and a sense of loyalty that will carry you through your career for as long as you choose to tug on the strings of that network. I feel as though the ritualistic nature of Oxbridge is very much still in place.
The show has already performed at Bread and Roses, has it changed much since then? Did you learn anything at that run?
I certainly did. That run was a comedy with dramatic elements. I realised that the themes I want to tackle – how we venerate exceptionalism, the authority of tradition vs. the inevitability of progress, elitism, class, politics, etc – they all leant themselves much better to a drama. A drama with hilarious bits, but a drama nonetheless.
Why should we come and see Colloquium then?
Currently, there’s nothing quite like Colloquium out there. It dissects, with wit, and intelligence and humanity, a certain place and time that has yet to be visited on the British stage since the works of Alan Bennett. Come and see it for that.
And as it’s Camden Fringe, with so much else going on, do you have any recommendations of other shows we should see as well as Colloquium?
Boiling Frog is a digital event and so accessible to all. It explores the trauma of witnessing the horrific Australian Black Summer Bushfires of 2019/20 using the monologue form. Definitely one I will be looking out for.
Thanks to Katherine for finding the time to chat to us about Colloquium. You can find out more about the play and book tickets at Katherine’s website here.
Colloquium plays as part of Camden Fringe at The Hen and Chickens Theatre, 1 – 4 August. More details here and Golden Goose Theatre 5 – 6 August, more info here. More
Tina Zucco talks to us about new play, Just Sayin’
Tina Zucco’s Just Sayin’ is heading to Islington’s The Hope Theatre as part of this year’s Camden Fringe. Yes, we know, Islington isn’t technically in Camden, but hey, it’s a growing festival, it needs all the space it can get!
The play follows Cat, new to Barcelona and eager to find love. But when she starts to do voluntary work in the homeless community, it makes her question what it is she really wants from life.
It certainly looks to contain themes we’re always pleased to see covered, so we couldn’t resist the opportunity to grab some time with Tina and find out more.
Lovely to meet you Tina – first things first, how much of you is there in your character Cat? Are you from Barcelona originally?
Thank you so much for having me! It’s great having the chance to talk about Cat and Just Sayin’ in general because this show has been a part of my life for a year now and I’m so excited any time I get to share it with more people!
I would say that Cat(erina) is 50% me, and 50% my best friend… Although I did live in Barcelona for a while, the character of Cat and her story was actually inspired by my best friend, an Italian girl, working in Barcelona, and volunteering with the homeless community there. But then, all of Cat’s flaws and quirks come from me, and she has some of my interests too, like the fact that she loves salsa dancing and watching Vampire Diaries is definitely something we have in common.
But Is London your home now? And do you still feel it is as much home now as when you first arrived, hope Brexit hasn’t affected your love of our wonderful city?
London is my home and I love it! I’ve been in the UK for about 6 years now and I’ve had the chance to live in York, Manchester and now London! Brexit was a bit of a shock because the referendum happened just after I got accepted into university in the UK so I feared I wasn’t going to feel welcomed. But all of the wonderful people I met in England never made me feel unwanted, everyone is lovely and polite, which is one thing I love about the UK! But it is a bit saddening that other Italians now can’t just as easily move here and start a new life.
Your new play is Just Sayin’ – what drew you to write a play that seems to be very much about homelessness? Is this a subject close to your heart?
Like I mentioned earlier, this play is inspired by my best friend, Carlotta. She volunteers with a local Christian charity to help the homeless every Sunday, and when she started talking to me about it, her eyes had a wonderful spark in them, you could see how happy she was to be making a different in people’s lives, and how great she felt to be meeting all these different unique people every Sunday.
One day we were having a drink in Barcelona and one of the regulars that she sees quite often during her time with the charity came to talk to her, to catch up and ask for her help for a problem he was having, and I realised how she was actually building very personal relationships with many of them. That’s when I decided to start writing Just Sayin’. It actually had a working title of “Carlotta” for about 6 months.
Did you do much research into the subject, do you think people aren’t aware of just how much of a problem homelessness is?
Once I left Barcelona I still called Carlotta every Monday night. She would tell me about who she had met that week and the stories she’d heard. I started writing down everything she was saying. So that was the beginning of the research project. I wanted to make sure that all of the homeless characters Cat meets in her journey were real people and not just cliches.
Needless to say, the more I would hear about these people the more I got into tackling the problem of homelessness in the UK. I found a director who was also active in helping the homeless. We then picked London and Brighton as the places to stage Just Sayin’ because both of these cities have an incredibly high percentage of homeless people.
We don’t expect our play to change the world, but we do hope we can make a small difference, so we partnered with Beam who run individual fundraisers to help people get off the streets, and we’re fundraising for them on the days of our show, hoping to raise enough to help at least one person start a new life.
It’s also about how your actions can make a difference in someone else’s life, is this something you’ve experienced. Is it more about the small things we do, or are you hoping people might think much bigger – such as going out to volunteer?
I think it’s definitely about the little things. If we could just inspire our audience to be nice and kind, to acknowledge the people asking for help and honestly thinking is there anything I can do for them now? Like, maybe I don’t have change on me, but I’m going into Tesco, is there anything they need? Literally one smile can go a long way, so yeah, we can’t change the world, but we can try to change the mood of the people who inhabit it.
What can we expect from the play, are you going to tug on the heartstrings or just planning to make us laugh?
Well, I’m a massive fan of comedy. I think people remember things that make them laugh, so you can expect laughter for sure. But ultimately, we talk about some serious stuff, so there will be some heartfelt moments that will make our audience reflect, maybe even feel something they wouldn’t have expected to feel when coming into the theatre.
Camden Fringe is looking very big and bold this year, how excited are you to be part of it, and are there any other shows you’ve got your eye on and hope to see?
I am both excited and terrified to be part of the Camden Fringe this year. The thing I love the most about London is its theatre scene and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of it. But the competition is extremely high and I myself have a growing list of shows I want to watch! I’ll definitely start with Someone Else’s Shoes because it opens the festival and it’s put on by a group of young artists, which is something I always admire! Then I’ll catch Hooks and Hookups which is on the same days as me at the Hope Theatre. (You can listen to our interview with the creatives of Hoops and Hookups here.) One other show I would recommend is Blue Balloons Pink which is also at the Hope Theatre and I’ve had the pleasure to catch at the Brighton Fringe. It’s also a new piece of writing full of twists!
With so much to see, why should we make sure Just Sayin’ is on the top of the list of shows that should be seen at the festival this year then?
All I’ll say is that if you’re looking for a new, fresh, one-woman show that will make you forget you’re in London and transport you to the magical Barcelona for one hour, then come watch Just Sayin’, and you will not be disappointed!
Honestly, I am so grateful I had female creatives such as Lara Cosmetatos, the director, and Siân Elissa and Tee, the producer and designer, working with me on Just Sayin’. They all brought something wonderful and unique to the team and the show, and we were all amazed when we were nominated for Best Play at the Brighton Fringe. It was the first time we were all working together and seeing the results, and the way our first audience reacted to the show, was really gratifying!
As always, our thanks to Tina for finding the time to chat to us about her play.
You can catch Just Sayin’ at The Hope Theatre between 12 and 14 August at 9pm. Further information and tickets here.
The show plays after Hoops and Hookups (7pm) so we do highly recommend a double bill! You can find out more about Hoops and Hookups in our recent podcast with the writers/ performers here.
If you want to support Just Sayin’, they have a GoFundMe page here for donations. If you donate the price of a ticket you will receive a link with the professionally filmed performance of the show when it is available. More
Free School Lunch’s Aurelia Gage on her new play, All This Must Pass
Free School Lunch impressed us last year with their Camden Fringe offering, Sisters Of Charity. They are back again at the Fringe this year with their brand new play All This Must Pass. The play looks an epic exploration through time as a woman tries to find how she came to be.
It certainly sounds an ambitious and exciting endeavour, and you know we love ambitious and exciting new writing here at ET. So it felt a great time to get ourselves some Free School Lunch as we sat down to chat with Aurelia to ask her about the play.
Book tickets here.
The play promises to cover hundreds of years, how do you manage to squeeze so much into just an hour?
Not even an hour: 55 minutes! I wish I was a talented enough writer to do that, but it has required a generous edit. All This Must Pass tells the story of one woman travelling through time and space to discover the people that made her – it is the ultimate family reunion and because of that, it’s very exclusive. We meet celebrated heroes, despised villains, and those who history doesn’t care to remember – but all of whom serve a purpose for our main character.
What made you want to write a play spanning centuries?
I wanted to write about people who would/could never be put together and have them all share the same stage. For me, it was the perfect way to explore all the faucets of one person and properly articulate how they could possibly experience such a life-changing event.
And what is it that will bind all the moments in time together?
Every person, every decision, every moment has led to the life of our main character. She is the thread that binds them together and they, through every decision (good and bad) have created her.
The central theme of the play is the loss of a child during pregnancy, can you tell us a little more about this theme and why you wanted to explore it in this way?
I’ve wanted to explore child loss in my writing for a long time. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that something was so common and yet endless testimonies create a picture of an ordeal people largely navigate alone. I recently lost my father; and the outpouring of love and support was incredible, but what do you do when you’re told “it’s just one of those things” and the world moves on without you? How do you share your grief with others? How do you grieve someone you never got to know? These questions crop up in a quarter of all pregnancies, and for our main character in All This Must Pass. She is left without a map to navigate her grief and so looks to her ancestors to share their strength, their pain, and to know them in a way she couldn’t know her child.
Last year’s Sisters of Charity was a very Irish based play, and All This Must Pass makes mention of the Potato Famine of Ireland – is there a strong Irish feel throughout?
Irish identity crops up in a lot of my plays, Sisters of Charity in particular was a homage to the Irish women and children who were let down so badly by the Catholic Church. We get to spend some time in Ireland (and discover the best theme park on earth) in All This Must Pass but it’s one stop on a much more expansive journey through time and space.
Sisters Of Charity was a fantastic play, but very dark in its themes, is All This Must Pass going to follow a similar path? And how do you avoid things becoming too bleak?
First of all, thank you! And yes, there’s no getting away from the darker themes in both my plays. My focus as a writer is to bring light to maligned or forgotten people, but the driving force behind that is the strength, joy and humour people can show in the darkest of times. All This Must Pass in a one-woman show performed by the phenomenal Aidan Morris. Aidan is an actor, dancer and stand-up comedian; the energy she brings to the stage is just incredible. It was important for me to have a living breathing character tell this story, not just a vessel for a trauma. And as much as this is a story of grief, it is also a story of love, laughter and a good old knees-up at a family reunion.
Reheasal images of Aidan Morris
The play is on at Lion and Unicorn Theatre, how much has the venues support helped (or is helping) in getting this play ready?
Honestly, Sisters of Charity and All This Must Pass wouldn’t have happened without The Lion and Unicorn or David Brady (Artistic Director of Proforca Theatre). In 2021 we were in the midst of a pandemic (and still are), the industry was on its knees, and I had never produced my own play. There wasn’t a question too stupid or a problem too big for the theatre and its team. For an early career theatre maker like me, David and his team really gave me a roadmap for a seemingly impossible task and the all-round support of some really good people.
All This Must Pass plays as part of Camden Fringe between 18 – 20 August at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre. Further information and bookings can be found here. More
The Stratford Festival in Ontario opened a glamorous new theater last month that prioritizes the theater itself, not just what surrounds it.Jesse Green, the chief theater critic for The New York Times, has just returned from the Stratford Festival in Ontario, where the 2022 season started with the opening of a new theater.Leaving aside the plays themselves, the most dramatic presences at the new Tom Patterson Theater may in fact be absences. The usual whir of swiveling lights and the endless whoosh of moving air that infiltrate most theaters are undetectable here. Likewise, the blackouts are fully black — just the kind of inky dark to set the mood for “Richard III,” the play that opened the glamorous new building at the Stratford Festival in June.I got a tour of the theater, which cost 72 million Canadian dollars, during a six-day, five-show visit last week. Greg Dougherty, the Patterson’s technical director, led me from the depths of the traps beneath the stage — useful for drownings, burials and the like — to the catwalks high above it. The various noise abatement measures, most notably air handlers that look like space capsules and take up a room the size of a playing field, reduce the ambient sound to 10 decibels, Dougherty told me, similar to that of a recording studio.That’s a lot of silence. I understood its real value at that evening’s “Richard III” performance, in which Colm Feore, as the title character, delivered the play’s famous first line — “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York” — in what he later told me had been a whisper. No need to project, let alone overact, here; I heard him as clearly as if he were sitting next to me.Next to me is not a place I would usually want to find the evil king — except for dramatic purposes. But that kind of intimacy is part of the inheritance of the new Patterson, built on the site of the old one, a building that had previously been a curling rink, a dance hall and a badminton club, with all the charm of a Quonset hut. Despite that, its long thrust stage was much beloved, at least by actors, bringing them uncommonly close to audiences. To create that intimacy, though, the 480 seats (575 when configured in the round) were so steeply raked that finding mine when I first saw shows there in 2017 felt like an Alpine event.By 2019, the old Patterson was gone. That summer, Antoni Cimolino, the festival’s artistic director, took me on quite a different tour, of a campus under construction. Though it was the only time I’ve worn a hard hat on the job, it wasn’t the only time I could have used one.Jesse Green, left, at the work site for the Stratford Festival’s new theater in 2019, with Antoni Cimolino, right.Andrew MirerThe building, then a skeleton, was already mammoth. The auditorium, a kind of enclosed fortress, was beginning to take shape, but the surrounding public foyers and event facilities, which mimic the eddies and bends of the Avon River directly across Lakeside Drive, were as yet difficult to discern among the girders. I was concerned that, like so many new performance spaces built in the last half-century, the new Patterson would be blandly luxurious, deferring more to art donors than to art.I planned to find out in 2020, but by then the coronavirus pandemic had shut down almost all theater in North America, including Stratford. When I finally returned last week, I was wearing a mask instead of a hard hat. (Masks are strongly encouraged but not required.) I saw both shows running then at the Patterson — “Richard III” and “All’s Well That Ends Well” — and participated in five discussions and interviews in Lazaridis Hall, one of the event spaces. I admired the sensuous materiality of the undulating brass-and-glass facade, the riverine expanse of white oak floor, the roughness of the pale brick girdling the auditorium. I noted the whiz-bang electronic screens as well as the sparkling and seemingly infinite bathrooms.But those you can get anywhere. What makes the Patterson the best new theater I’ve seen in years is the clear prioritization of the theater itself, which sits like a treasured heirloom in a custom case. The silence and the dark are part of that, creating a plush space that is paradoxically full of emptiness, exerting a pressure of expectation as you sit in one of its 600 rust-colored seats. Watching a play there, you are always watching your fellow audience members as well, who sit across the thrust watching you. Because the seating is relatively compressed, you feel them, too.In an event at Lazaridis Hall on Saturday — part of what Stratford calls New York Times week at the festival — I talked to Mr. Cimolino and to Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini Architects, the Toronto firm that designed the building. We of course nerded out on details like where the rippling glass had been obtained and how the sound was tuned so that no microphones are needed.Yet we kept returning to something more abstract: the seemingly opposing feelings of intimacy and community that theater as a human endeavor, and this theater in particular, were designed to encourage. It’s an approach that acknowledges the art form as a palimpsest: a text that has been revised and overwritten for thousands of years. (In that sense, the choice to open with “Richard III” was no accident; the play, in a production starring Alec Guinness, opened the first Stratford festival, in 1953.) If we go to the theater in part to commune with the ghosts of our human past, we also go to feel a deeper connection to people living and breathing right now, in the seats immediately to our right and left.Trans CanadaThis week’s Trans Canada section was compiled by Vjosa Isai, a news assistant for The New York Times in Canada.Laylit, or “the night of” in Arabic, is a party based in New York and Montreal that spotlights music from the Middle East and North Africa.Ahmed Gaber for The New York TimesDance floors in New York and Montreal are ground zero for Laylit parties, which highlight music from the Middle East and North Africa and their diaspora. Laylit, which translates from Arabic as “the night of,” was co-founded by a Montreal-based music duo from Lebanon.Sean Kelly, the Quebec-born writer who helped infuse sharp-edged humor in the National Lampoon magazine, has died at the age of 81.In Nunavut, the discoveries of fossils of giant fish that had evolved limbs for walking around 375 million years ago, and then reversed course to become swimmers again, are challenging one of the biggest myths of evolution.Last summer, the Canadian women’s soccer team enjoyed a thrilling victory over the U.S. national team. This week, their rivals made a comeback in the Concacaf Women’s Championship final.Kinkcorn. Confloption. Sish ice, slob ice, nish ice. Duckish. You’ll find these words in “The Dictionary of Newfoundland English,” and if you happen to be traveling there, check out these book recommendations from a local author, Michael Crummey.In Ontario, the Shaw Festival is another draw for theatergoers besides Stratford. Here’s a preview of the ambitious reboot of the play “Gaslight.”Inflation in Canada has hit 8.1 percent, according to Statistics Canada, the national census agency, and is climbing at the fastest pace since 1983. Central banks in the U.S., Europe, Canada and parts of Asia are rapidly lifting interest rates to try to bring inflation under control.Jesse Green is the chief theater critic for The New York Times. His latest book, “Shy,” with and about the composer Mary Rodgers, will be published this fall. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseKGreen.How are we doing?We’re eager to hear your thoughts about this newsletter and events in Canada in general. Please send them to email@example.com.Like this email?Forward it to your friends, and let them know they can sign up here. More
This vaudevillian show at La MaMa in Manhattan is like a party where weed is the guest of honor, thrown by ardent, uncritical hosts.The reminder takes up only a single line of small print in the program, but it’s the kind of rule that doesn’t usually need spelling out: “No smoking permitted inside the venue.”“Cannabis! A Viper Vaudeville” knows its crowd. A music- and dance-filled celebration of marijuana, it belongs — no question — to downtown theater’s cherished tradition of weird art. Inside the doors of the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa in Manhattan’s East Village, audience members are enveloped in a thick cloud that’s really just theatrical haze, not a pot-smoke fug. But it does the trick, visually if not aromatically, of establishing the atmosphere.Created by Grace Galu, a magnetic, powerhouse vocalist whose character here is called Sativa Diva, and Baba Israel, who conceived the show and serves as its Magical Mystical M.C., “Cannabis!” is like a party where weed is the guest of honor, thrown by hosts whose ardent, uncritical devotion is about pleasure but also politics. Because as much as this experience allows you to get a little soft-focus while the entertainment swirls, there’s no missing its call to activism.“Tonight is for anyone who carries a felony on their back for smoking, growing or distributing a flower,” Israel says at the top of the show. A few moments later, he adds: “Tonight is for my mother, who has dementia, whose morning tincture turns tantrums into a Bob Marley shuffle.”Produced by Here and inspired by Martin A. Lee’s 2012 book “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana,” the show is built around a call-to-action American history lesson that ties hostility toward the drug to racism in the culture. Yet “Cannabis!,” whose excellent performers include the hip-hop-jazz collective Soul Inscribed and members of the dance company Urban Bush Women, is indeed a vaudeville. Directed by Talvin Wilks and Israel, it occasionally gives in to the stoner tendency toward shagginess but is in many ways quite sharp.Lighted by Tuce Yasak, with a multilevel checkerboard stage and a mammoth marijuana leaf suspended glittering above, the set (by Nic Benacerraf) makes uncommonly elegant use of the theater’s cavernous space, employing a diptych of projection screens as the backdrop. It’s there that we see the video (by David Bengali) that seamlessly complements the narrative we hear in song and spoken word, as Sativa Diva’s glamorous, vegetal-green costume (by Kate Fry) evolves piece by piece through the decades.Louis Armstrong’s affinity for marijuana gets its own chunk of the performance, as do the 1960s. The show also revisits the emergence of medical marijuana as a compassionate response to the AIDS epidemic, and makes a heartbroken case for legalization in the song “No More Drug War,” about a mother and her military veteran son, whose marijuana use lands him in jail. (Galu, who composed the show’s original music, is also its music director.)Grace Galu, center, cocreated the show and composed its original music. The show is a call-to-action American history lesson that ties hostility toward the drug to racism in the culture.Maria Baranova“Cannabis!” has a whole flock of dancer-choreographers: Chanon Judson, Courtney Cook, Mame Diarra (Samantha) Speis, Twice Light and Tatiana Barber. Yet that abundance seems right for a tribute to a plant that can change the way that people feel in their bodies, alleviating pain and allowing bliss.In its interrogation of American hostility to marijuana, though, the show never acknowledges any danger associated with it, even as high THC levels can make cannabis products extremely potent. This is an ill-advised omission. Plenty of drugs come with asterisks, after all. But if “Cannabis!” is unlikely to make converts of skeptics, it’s not only for zealots.This is at heart a gentle show, never more so than when we see projected the beguiling image of a beautiful, gracefully dancing old woman. This is Israel’s mother, Pamela Mayo Israel, once a member of the avant-garde downtown company the Living Theater, now ailing and taking those tinctures that her son gives her.Also gentle: the palpable pleasure that ensues, at the end of the show’s first half, when audience members are invited to come down and join the cast in dancing. The night I saw it, there was zero awkwardness — just a mass of people moving joyfully in their bodies, under that giant leaf.Cannabis! A Viper VaudevilleThrough July 31 at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater, Manhattan; lamama.org. Running time: 2 hours. More