Monthly Archives: April 2021

Women’s Theatre Festival’s “Othello” Is Femme-tastic

Review: Women’s Theatre Festival production of Othello

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In so many ways, the new Women’s Theatre Festival production of Othello is radically different than any we’ve seen before. For starters, take the text, a modern verse translation by Mfoniso Udofiacommissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and flying off to Raleigh for its world premiere, streaming on a dedicated YouTube channel. As a longtime advocate of translating Shakespeare’s works into a form that would be as readily accessible to English-speaking audiences as plays by Moliere or Chekhov, I can attest that such an eminently sensible undertaking is widely viewed as sacrilege – among scholars, academics, and the theatre community. Less heretical is what director JaMeeka Holloway does with the 16th century settings of the tragedy, transporting the Moor of Venice to a fictional Venice College of today, where cellphones and laptops and Zoom meetings are all part of student life.

Utilizing an all-Black femme creative team and a diverse all-female cast, Holloway is boldly at odds with the Udofia translation, setting up many fascinating tensions between the modernized Shakespearean text and her production. Othello is now a debate champion of international stature and no longer a military general. Cassio is appointed as Othello’s second in Venice’s glorified debate society, slighting our honest Iago. Perhaps most bewilderingly, genders are blurred. Or fluid? Holloway often jumps off the binary confines of the Udofia translation and onto frontiers of non-binary gender or gender neutrality.Screen Shot 2021-04-09 at 12.28.45 PM

Contradicting the helpful captions projected at the bottom of our screens, Brabantio remains Desdemona’s father – and a Senator. Othello is still described as Desdemona’s husband and far older than Nubia Monks appears to be. Attending an all-women’s college, Othello is still spoken of as a general and, more puzzlingly, within the space of a few words, “She is a great man.” The disgraced Cassio gets a similarly straddling description, “She is a ladies’ man,” when Iago denigrates her, plotting her murder with Roderigo. And as you might suspect, Emilia continues to extenuate any duplicities she may be contemplating with the dastardly examples of men showing her the way.

Trespasses upon Udofia’s text remain slight, strictly confined to gender, because Holloway wordlessly transports Othello to America with a cinematic prologue that fully sets up the Moor’s champion status and the undercurrent of Venice College political rivalry, scored with eerie electronic music, hip-hop beats, and a sleek R&B groove. The feel of this WTF effort abruptly shifts from cinema to video when the actors begin to speak, establishing a useful borderline. Where Holloway wishes to underscore racism and white supremacy in Othello’s downfall, Udofia is already on board for her.

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Most of the references to Othello as a Moor have disappeared in translation. The mighty general is far more often called Black, an animal, an ape, or a monkey, lending a more racist tang to Shakespeare’s many casual mentions – left intact – of Othello as a devil. We also see pretty quickly that Udofia is willing to expand upon Shakespeare’s verse and insert her own wit. After she translates Iago’s scornful opening description of rival Cassio as an “arithmetician” with “a mathematician,” she layers on “This adder – and subtractor – this bipedal calculator.” A slithering new laugh for Othello!

All 36 playwrights recruited for OSF’s Play On! Project, charged with translating all of Shakespeare’s theatrical works, must wrestle with the question of what to modernize and what to leave untouched and antique. When the film version of The Wizard of Oz was an annual rite on network TV, we all knew the narcotic sleep-inducing effects of poppies readily enough. Yet Udofia comes upon Iago’s mesmerizing “Not poppy, nor mandragora,// Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,// Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep// Which thou ow’dst yesterday,” and begins with “Not heroin,” stripping the horrid beauty away from Iago’s incantation. On the other hand, Udofia disdains a feminist touch that Holloway might have relished, changing “put money in thy purse” to “put money in your pocket” as Iago palliates and advises Roderigo. Wearing a masculine sport jacket, Roderigo is addressed here as a man, another spot where Udofia’s translation is unaltered.

Holloway is intentional and color-conscious in her casting and has chosen to keep Othello’s, Iago’s, and Roderigo’s races consistent with the demands of Shakespeare’s original text while the rest of the cast displays a more varied spectrum from Shakespeare’s concept, most notably Cassio, Brabantio, and Emilia. Although the gender and racial inconsistencies may vitiate Holloway’s salvos against institutionalized racism, they don’t loosen the grip of Shakespeare’s drama in the slightest. I would also venture to say that WTF’s all-female presentation shines a grimmer spotlight on the virulent misogyny that heats up Shakespeare’s rhetoric, from both Iago and Othello, two of the playwright’s largest roles. We are particularly fortunate in the prime antagonists Holloway has chosen, Monks as Othello and Zandi Carlson as Iago, who deliver this pervasive misogyny with cringeworthy gusto.Screen Shot 2021-04-09 at 12.22.38 PM

We expect no less from The Moor. What sets Monks truly apart as Othello, from the four Othellos whom I’ve seen live in four Charlotte productions since the turn of the century – and others on stage and screen before then – is the youthfulness of her portrayal, occasionally scented with her femininity. That youthful energy is most recognizable in the first bloom of the tragic couple’s love, when Othello tells of marrying Desdemona and later when she’s impatient to consummate their marriage. A similar energy overflows when Othello returns triumphantly from Cyprus, brandishing her trophy with all the glee and swagger of an NFL or WNBA champion who has just captured the title. A distinctively feminine flavor also surfaces in the little chuckles and sighs that come from Othello as she recalls her courtship for the Senate. As wholesome and appealing as Monks is to me for all of these qualities, we should also be aware of how Othello’s strength, poise, and confidence are viewed by Iago and Brabantio, the white establishment. Brabantio sees his prerogative to oppress Blacks – and dictate his daughter’s future – upended by Othello’s value to the state (or here, the College) while Iago sees her as usurping his supremacy. The furious hatred that Iago conceives for Othello is made more monstrous by the touches of youth, openness, and femininity that Monks has added.

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There’s a vein of White privilege in Carlson’s portrayal of Iago that many will see as female cattiness when she conspires with Roderigo. Goading Cassio into drunkenness or inflating his ego on his past and present romantic conquests, Carlson serves up a cocktail that mixes gossipy confidences with barroom or locker-room badinage. Okay, so I do suspect Carlson may have stolen some glances at the text while delivering a couple of Iago’s longer monologues, but she is clearly a consummate master at the webcam, taking us into her diabolical musings and schemes. Would cheating truly compromise Iago’s villainy – or would such sneakiness compound it? Whole new vistas have been opened by the webcam and the Zoom format, breathing fresh life into theatrical monologues and Shakespearean soliloquy. Carlson’s work here is a prime exhibit.

The backgrounds that production designer Keyanna Alexander has selected for her scenic design, whether elegant or cheesy, were beautifully curated. Daylight splashes all around the scene where Othello returns triumphantly from her overseas adventure, reunited with Desdemona, who was separated from her during the voyage; and the actual laptop computer framing the Moor’s arraignment at the Senate is a hoot, a very polished touch to boot. Or how about Danyelle Monson as Bianca, introducing herself on a webcast shown to us on a cellphone, with emojis and chat cascading down the screen? But however grungy and cool the video concept was, I wish WTF had used better webcams and mics to execute it. Chiefly victimized was Jazmyn Boone as Iago’s wife Emilia, a marvelously frail and fallible portrait that was often muffled or not heard at all.

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Unless you had visions of a blonde, straight-haired Desdemona who was cloyingly chaste and submissive, Alicia Piemme Nelson‘s performance was easily the most conventional Shakespeare in sight, offering the best proof that a modernized text really does work – a courtesy to the Bard that is long overdue. Adoring yet sassy, far more dignified than coquettish, Nelson gave us a slight update on Dez, one that meshed well with Monks’ soulful charisma. She also inspired one of Holloway’s most resourceful camera placements, an overhead shot of her in the famed deathbed scene.

All of the supporting players are excellent, down to Mieko Gavia as a fulminating, browbeating Brabantio and Elaine Wang as a cool preoccupied Duke. Special delights come from the comical turns by Danyel Geddie and Marissa Garcia as Iago’s tools. Geddie brings us a Cassio who fancies himself a bon vivant, though we see her brown-bagging her wine; susceptible enough to drink that we can seriously question Othello’s choices in subordinates; and a party person who seems perfectly matched with Monson’s buxom, fun-loving Bianca. Garcia as Roderigo was so sincerely besotted with Desdemona that I hated to see such a pure soul so wickedly betrayed by Iago.

The new lens that Holloway had us seeing through was somewhat distorted when it focused on Roderigo, normally a depraved older man who thinks he can buy a beautiful daughter’s love from her mercenary father. Such creeps are longtime theatre staples. When a company decrees all-female casting on a Shakespeare tragedy, when a director’s concept further circumscribes the playwright’s creations to college age on a college campus, and a pandemic further constricts the space, action, and interaction allowed to the actors… stuff gets lost. Here, it was Roderigo’s corruption and depravity. He never had a single ducat in his hand, let alone his pocket.

Holloway has added a cinematic epilogue to silently complete the framing of her Venice College concept, one that dispels its complexities and contradictions. Along the way, if we’ve allowed this WTF production to lead us where it will, I’d say Holloway and her exemplary cast have revealed more than they’ve sacrificed. Far more.

Cernyak-Spatz’s Memoir Gets Better, More Urgent, With Age – and Video

Review: Protective Custody: PRISONER 34042

By Perry Tannenbaum

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If you missed the 2018 staged reading of Protective Custody: PRISONER 34042, Charles LaBorde’s adaptation of Holocaust survivor Susan Cernyak-Spatz’s memoir – or Three Bone Theatre’s world premiere production in 2019 – fate has been kind to you in 2021 with another reprise. Cernyak-Spatz, freed from the Birkenau and Auschwitz concentration camps at the age of 22 in 1945, lived long enough to see her story dramatized onstage. Already ailing, she lived only two weeks after attending the performance at Spirit Square on the opening weekend of the run.

Half whimsically and half seriously, she told the stage director Dennis Delamar to take the show on the road before she died at age 97. Founder of the UNC-Charlotte’s Holocaust Studies program and a professor of German language and literature, Dr. Cernyak-Spatz had seen plenty in her long life, but she couldn’t foresee the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on theatre and the arts around the globe, particularly how streaming would become de rigueur. Instead of on the road, Protective Custody is now online, free for the asking on your computer monitor or on your television screen.2021~Prisoner 34042-15

Of course, Cernyak-Spatz’s deathbed wishes weren’t about vanity, for the UNCC professor had lectured widely on the Holocaust and her personal survival, holding a passionate belief that we forget this horrific history at our own peril. What you may find disarming about Susan’s staged account, once again performed by Leslie Giles with the aid of Paula Baldwin as her dresser-mother-dancing beau-Nazi guard-fellow prisoner-rapist-Nazi accordionist-American rescuer, is how dispassionate her tone often is, punctuated by eruptions of bitter irony, cynicism, and rage. She tells us she lost her modesty long ago in the concentration camps, how animalistic she needed to become to survive them, implicitly conceding that the Nazis were at least partially victorious in dehumanizing her.

They surely hardened her, maybe the greatest irony of all. “I was strangely detached from the incredibility of what I heard,” she tells us after a Nazi guard has welcomed her to Birkenau by explaining – and describing – the extermination that is happening to newcomers who aren’t as lucky as she. Those younger than 16 and older than 35 rode immediately to “the gas.” We have all heard about the fiendish efficiency of the Nazis’ extermination systems and apparatus, but Susan repeatedly calls our attention to how the Nazis systematically humiliated and dehumanized their prisoners, squeezing as much work out of them as possible with the smallest expenditure. Cruelty is constant, even as the Third Reich faces defeat. Ordering the death march out of the camps as the avenging Russian Red Army approaches, the guard barks, “A bullet in the head for those who cannot walk!”

2021~Prisoner 34042-10Detachment and inhumanity are inevitable results of the plum jobs Susan is able to land at Auschwitz. The cushiest requires nothing more of her than drawing a line through the names of fellow prisoners, thousands of them, who have passed through “the gas” and the crematoriums. Another requires her to sort through the clothes and possessions of those who haven’t been as lucky as she has been – she can even scavenge some choice articles of clothing. No doubt this aspect of the story fascinated LaBorde as he adapted Cernyak-Spatz’s sprawling memoir for the stage. Thinking of changes in wardrobe as the organizing principle of Susan’s narrative is his idea, not hers. Magda Guichard’s wide range of costume designs help LaBorde depict Susan’s precipitous fall from her upper middle-class status in Vienna to her total degradation at the Birkenau death camp. Delamar spares Giles from the fullest indignities that the script allows, letting his star wear a flesh-colored leotard when Susan is ordered to strip for a delousing shower and allowing her to retain her own disheveled hair when she is shaven bald. A sleekly coiffed wig is removed to suggest the transition.

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PRISONER 34042 remains a potent brew in spite of these discreet alterations, with language, lurid descriptions, and a vaguely simulated rape scene that might give today’s helicopter parents some pause. Perhaps the sponsorship of this filming by Culture Blocks, which partners with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system, was the inspiration for addressing such qualms with a more benign Student Edition of the film. (Unabridged, as far as I could determine.) Filmed at McGlohon Theatre by SimplisticPhobia Productions, the three-person camera crew helmed by Will Jenkins helps to dramatize the action with angled close-ups, from stage right or stage left, that nearly fill our screens with the two players. These give way to centered long shots that remind us that we’re in a theatre, especially when Giles perches over the lip of the McGlohon stage and, after the Nazi accordionist plays the verse, sings the first eight bars of “Stardust.”

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Somehow all of the spot-on lighting changes by production designer Ryan Maloney stand out in better relief now than they did at Duke Energy Theatre 17 months ago, and photographs of Susan and her parents are far better showcased when shown in split-screen. Maloney also shines in sound design, whether bringing us that charming accordion, the sound of the cattle cars rumbling to the deathcamps with their human cargo, or the air-raid sirens when liberation is near. Decking his actors out in body mics that offer very crisp reproduction on the video, Maloney also provided pragmatic reasons for Giles to keep her hair and don a leotard.

Calmly helping Giles through all her costume changes and repeatedly partnering with her at key moments, Baldwin’s surrogate work seemed far more awesome as I re-watched her alternately stony and empathetic portrayals. Fearsome and melting like an iceberg, how much scurrying was Baldwin doing behind the scene, transforming from Mom to debonair boyfriend or from prisoner to Nazi oppressor, and how much of stage manager Callie Richards’ work was devoted to making Baldwin’s metamorphoses look effortless? She will likely be undervalued by many who see her because she has so few lines, but Delamar and LaBorde have given Baldwin a new epilogue to deliver after Giles is gone, and her perfection continues. A final elegant touch happened when she hung up one last article of clothing, surely the only costume Guichard didn’t design, for we see it on film immediately afterwards – with the real Dr. Cernyak-Spatz wearing it.

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Giles’ performance would be cleaner and bobble-free if cuts had been decreed during the filming rather than entirely in post-production. Yet after all the immaculate multi-take perfection that I’ve seen for months in screening films and TV series at home, it was wonderful to experience the arc and energy and stamina of a true live performance, warts and nerves – with lapses in Austrian accent – and all. Giles’true professionalism emerges in adversity, and like the performance at Spirit Square that I attended in 2019, accent and performance grew stronger as her story progressed, as we witnessed Susan’s perils and desperate hopes gripping her more and more.

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The little coda that LaBorde added to Cernyak-Spatz’s 2005 memoir, taking aim at emboldened White Supremacists and Anti-Semites as well as hate-spewing demagogues in the halls of Congress and the White House, sounded more potent and relevant on Easter Sunday than they did in late 2019 when Donald Trump was still our President. Maybe Delamar and Giles were simply more insistent on emphasizing LaBorde’s message. Or maybe the impact was greater for me now because, as these Holocaust echoes recede into the past, it’s more important than ever to remember them, remember how they recently grew more virulent and threatened our republic – and to call them out where they are still lurking.

“Tropical Secrets” Presents a Bittersweet Wartime Escape from Genocide

Review: Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Havana has never been the homeland of the Jewish people. Yet as we quickly learn in Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, now streaming from Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, it was often more hospitable to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression, terror and genocide than most other nations – including the USA. If that surprises you, imagine how 11-year-old Daniel felt when he made this discovery in 1940.

In the wake of the infamous Kristallnacht terror across Germany, Daniel’s parents rush him onto an ocean liner bound for New York, promising to meet him there. The ship isn’t allowed into the harbor. They sail north. Knowing there are Jews on board, the Canadians also turn them away. Young Daniel, who was holding his grandfather’s hand when rioters shot him down on Kristallnacht in the middle of the street, is learning some of the cruelest lessons of the world on his own, cast adrift from his family.

Interestingly enough, Margarita Engle’s story, adapted for the stage by L M Feldman, is almost equally about the 10-year-old Paloma, nee Maria Dolorosa. From the outset, her problems are paralleled with Daniel’s. Paloma’s mom abruptly decides to leave Cuba for Europe. Needing to become closer to her dad in the wake of Mom’s abandonment, Paloma finds herself turned away. Seems like an unfair comparison at first, but Engle constantly asks us throughout this new 75-minute drama to re-examine our perspectives and our sense of proportion.

Moral certitudes are questioned during the turmoil of World War II as we watch Daniel acclimate to Cuba while still holding out hope that his parents will find him – or that he will find a way to New York. A huge flip in sentiment and loyalty happens across Havana when news reaches the island that Pearl Harbor has been bombed. Instead of marking him as fodder for the horrific Nazi deathcamps, the Yellow Star that Daniel had been forced to pin on his shirt back in Munich now becomes the badge that prevents him from being arrested as a German spy.2021~Tropical Secrets-37

As with many children’s classics, kids perceive basic truths more readily than their elders. Paloma’s father, known across the island as El Gordo, is the decider when it comes to which ships are allowed to dock in Havana and which are turned away. He tries to explain to little Paloma that he makes his decisions pragmatically rather than on principle. “The world runs on business!” he proclaims with conviction. Paloma looks her dad straight in the eye and tells him, “The world runs on kindness!” Engle’s kids also have depth, as when Daniel informs Paloma, “In Germany, you have to wear a star on your shirt, so everyone can know what you are and hate you for it.”2021~Tropical Secrets-65

Adults here aren’t perfect role models chiefly because of their practical struggles to survive and thrive. With most of the world turning the Jews away, El Gordo naturally feels pressure not to open the floodgates. Yup, immigration issues! And though Daniel’s mentor, David, staunchly wears a brightly embroidered yarmulke with pride, he also bends to practicality, peddling his ice cream in his little pushcart on the Sabbath. When Jews are suddenly perceived as friends and Germans suddenly become loathsome, suspicious, and targeted for arrest, David abruptly veers to the other end of the spectrum, opposed to allowing any foreign ship to dock in Havana until the war is over – even if Daniel’s parents happen to be on board. El Gordo, on the other hand, stands fairly firm – except for raising the price of entry.

In the shifting mists of these patriarchs’ outlooks, blown by the winds of war, Engle’s Havana takes on some of the ambiguities of Casablanca. We aren’t on the same exalted levels of politics, decadence, or romance, but you may find yourself identifying more deeply with the everyday humanity of her people. You may also experience more keenly the anguish of survivors who are left in suspense for months and years about whether those dearest to them are still alive – and empathize more keenly with those who are wracked with memories of those who have died.

Most poignant, the kids rise to heroism in acting out their natural beliefs when, after the universe flips with Pearl Harbor, they encounter a Jewish mother on the run. Why would Miriam, a German Jew, be so terrified now? Because her only living relative, daughter-in-law Marta, is a Christian. For Daniel and Paloma, it is axiomatic that both are equally entitled to live in peace. Marta and Miriam, on the other hand, wrestle with the question of how fully they should describe to their rescuers the full details of the horrors they have left behind.

Thankfully for parents wondering whether Tropical Secrets might become to heavy for their youngest, Engle takes us to precipice without jumping over. There’s plenty for her to show us about kids conquering the language barrier and bonding, and there’s plenty for the kids and their elders to teach us about Judaism, Yiddish, and carnival. Helping Feldman transform Engle’s poetry into engrossing drama, stage director David Winitsky has made a welcome return to Charlotte after a year’s absence, having hosted the Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at Shalom Park for the previous three seasons.2021~Tropical Secrets-28

Two dramaturges, Carmen Pelaez and Wendy Bable, helped him and his cast get the history and the cultures across accurately. Anita J. Tripathi’s scenic design radiates hacienda elegance, but it was Robyn Warfield’s lighting that filled out the atmosphere and took us beyond the city when the story needed to travel, while Magda Guichard’s costumes deftly differentiated between the nationalities and the social classes.

Most gratifying after so many months of deprivation, isolation, and lockdown was watching such a professional all-adult cast captured so well in immaculately recorded audio and video. Because this world premiere was immediately headed for film, where kids are always kids, Adrian Thornburg and Isabel Gonzalez had the steepest obstacles to overcome as Daniel and Paloma. Thornburg’s path was to shrivel himself inwards with Daniel’s sullenness when we first see him, though Winitsky might have eased off a little on all our hero’s resentful turning away. Gonzalez’ regression moved in the opposite direction, outwards with an excess of energy and often with open arms. In less than a minute, I found myself returning to a familiar theatre world, where adults can pass as kids and be as tall – or taller than – their parents.

In Europe, on the ocean liner, and in Cuba, four other actors played multiple roles, at least one of them memorable for each player. Tom Scott as David had the dignity, tenacity, and flexibility of a time-tested Jewish survivalist, stretching himself more than usual to immerse himself in the ice cream peddler, while Frank Dominguez was stubbornly set in his ways as El Gordo, professionally urbane, gradually realizing how off-putting his pomposity has become. Paula Baldwin and Margaret Dalton complemented each other nicely as two different tandems, first as border guards who stole Daniel’s boots and broke his flute, later as the fugitives, Miriam and Marta. Baldwin as the suffering Miriam could be the most fearful, grieving, and overprotective, but Dalton as Marta delivered the best retort: “When things are ugly, you cannot help but speak it ugly.”2021~Tropical Secrets-79

Maybe the best secret in Feldman’s adaptation is the time taken to breath in the tropical air. Percussionist Raphael Torn and pianist Charlene Thomas bring the tang of rhythm and music to the street a couple of times. When Paloma takes Daniel to the festival, when she takes him to the beach at night, and when she brings him back to music again and again, fresh air infuses our hero’s life as he accepts the kindness of a friend. He tacitly acknowledges that after the bombs of world war and Kristallnacht, there is balm in Cuba – in the oranges, the coconuts, the drums, the Afro-Cuban beat, and in carnival.