Tag Archives: Mariana Bracciale

“Summer Night, With Unicorn” Plants the Seed for Professional Jewish Theatre at Shalom Park

Review:  Summer Night, With Unicorn

By Perry Tannenbaum

In a cycle that begins in November, The Levine Jewish Community Center jumped aboard the Jewish Plays Project two years ago as Charlotte became one of 12 cities adjudicating JPP’s annual Jewish Playwriting Contest. Charlotte has already assembled 21 readers for the judging process, tied with Chicago for the most among participating cities, in deciding the three scripts that are publicly presented in the spring at Gorelick Hall. That’s where the Shalom Park audience takes over, choosing the winner and also-rans for our region. From those results, a consensus national winner is chosen – not only for presentation at an annual Jewish play festival up in New York but also for full professional productions in all the cities where the Project has taken root. Last year’s contest was different from those that preceded, pitting all winners from previous contests against each other, so that an all-time winner from 2012 to 2017 would emerge. Decided by an objective points system, the 2018 contest actually produced two winners, Estelle Singerman by David Rush, winner of the 2013 prize, and Belfast Kind by Margot Connolly, the 2015 winner.

Among the co-winners, Charlotte chose Rush’s bittersweet comedy-fantasy. We had been told at the readers’ committee meeting back in January that Rush’s title was in flux. By the time it was presented at The Festival of Jewish Theater in June, Estelle had been renamed Summer Night, With Unicorn. That’s the title that JStage brought to Gorelick, sporting poster and playbill artwork with a Marc Chagall flavor that marvelously reflected the spirit and the magical realism of Rush’s play. The main figures in Kayla Piscatelli’s artwork are a crescent moon over the head and neck of a unicorn. Within that white unicorn, there is a silhouetted cityscape of skyscrapers with space enough above them for the Hebrew letters of the first four words of the traditional mourner’s kaddish. Estelle is a gregarious elderly Jew, not devoutly religious, since we meet her a little after 10pm at a lonely McDonald’s in Chicago. There’s nobody else to pester but Warren Spencer, an obvious Cubs fan busily clogging his arteries with a burger and a large order of fries.

Estelle would like this sullen, downcast, and brooding widower to believe she’s doing him a favor by sharing his fries and perhaps hoping to cheer him up as she invites him on a late-night odyssey. She will take him to a park, the Lake Michigan shore, a Christian Science reading room, a synagogue, and – inevitably – a zoo. Where else would Estelle and Warren converse with Seymour, a reincarnated giraffe? Rush proves to be very ecumenical in his ramblings around Chicago. The depressed and anorexic Hannah Kipper reads tarot cards on her lakeside blanket, the reading room is managed by a kindly Sister Rose, and the dark synagogue is haunted by a rabbi who’s unsure whether he’s alive or dead, a thickly bearded gent with Wandering Jew earmarks who has his visitors wondering who’s dreaming whom. Nor are the characteristics that Hannah and Rush assign to the Unicorn gleaned from the Encyclopedia Judaica, where there is no entry for the mythological beast.

Long before intermission arrives, we realize that Warren is a stubbornly lapsed Jew who is stewing in bitterness over the circumstances surrounding his wife Doris’s death. Estelle is a widow herself, habitually wandering the city at night because she’s afraid to go to sleep, promising Warren the glory of a sunrise over the lake at the end of their journey. We join Warren in wondering what Estelle’s ulterior motive is, getting hints that he isn’t the first to join her on her midnight rambles. As the lights go down for intermission, it becomes suddenly clear that Estelle is looking somebody to say kaddish over her. What we didn’t know was whether Estelle was alive, with a wisp of matrimonial motives triggering her quest, or dead, needing Warren’s prayers to bring an end to her ghostly wanderings. The other big question was whether Warren would ever say kaddish over his own beloved Doris, let alone this strange and mystifying Estelle.

My estimate is that I haven’t reviewed a theatre performance at Gorelick in almost 16 years, during which time the J has sprouted multiple new wings, one of them two stories high, along with a new entrance and dazzling new facilities – all of which make the Gorelick, now shunted from the front to the back of the complex, look old and drab by comparison. The stage and the dusty chairs we sat in could sorely use a refresh, for starters. JStage producer Susan Cherin Gundersheim, the cultural arts director at the Levine JCC (and a theatre professional in her own right), is clearly facing an uphill climb in convincing people to make a serious investment in the J’s theatre program. Gundersheim has managed to bring professional-grade theatre to the site regardless.

To check off all the design and directorial boxes, Gundersheim has brought in Piscatelli and Mark Sutton to don multiple hats, which they do admirably on their shoestring budget. Sutton’s set design, little more than three wooden frames after we exited McD’s, meshed well with his directorial concept, calling upon his audience to mostly imagine the scenes for themselves. Piscatelli’s costumes and lighting were no less complimentary, the raggedy cerements for the ghostly Doris and the gleaming silk cape for the Unicorn contrasting effectively with the garish attire of our earthbound protagonists.

There are plenty of Hebrew and Yiddish expressions studding this script like landmines. Fortunately, Sheila Snow Proctor navigated the treacherous terrain almost perfectly as Estelle, certainly better than Sutton, who allows Devin Clark to mangle his Yiddish mercilessly as the ageless Rabbi. Portraying a lapsed Jew, David Catenazzo probably earned a pass as Warren on his trespasses with the Hebrew blessing for putting on a tallit – I’ve heard worse during torah readings at my Conservative synagogue. Proctor not only clops around like a pensioner, slightly stooped, slightly squinting, she gets the essence of Jewish soul and humor, the impulse of kvetching leavened with a pinch of self-mockery. She even carries her late husband’s tallit bag and tefillin with a touch of reverence. Perhaps Proctor would have had an easier time of it if Catenazzo had similarly leavened his anger and impatience with hints of the Jewish soul that had loved and indulgently persevered with Doris when she wasn’t angelic. To some extent, Warren needed to be charmed by Estelle. Judging this role is a little like living the journey of Ebenezer Scrooge.

With two major cameos, the Rabbi and the giraffe, Clark had the most opportunities to shine among the supporting players. He was especially entertaining as Seymour sparring with Warren, who probed into the question of why he had been demoted to giraffe in his present incarnation. Yet Clark was curiously endearing as the bewildered Rabbi, notwithstanding the butchered vay iz meers. Liora Tal likely sparked some objections for how she delivered Hannah Kipper, a little underpowered and maybe a little too serene for a young fortune teller looking forward to death – but Estelle persisted in feeding her, and I didn’t think we were supposed to believe her, either. I’m afraid that Mariana Bracciale didn’t get much of a chance to shine as Sister Rose, but at least she got to glow in the denouement as the Unicorn, making her entrance and exit from the margins of the audience.

No cameo better encapsulated what Summer Night, With Unicorn was all about than Stephanie DiPaolo’s visit from the beyond as the ghost of Doris. Even more befuddled and uncomprehending than the Rabbi, DiPaolo only flickeringly registered what Warren was asking of her, but although she haltingly spoke, she never responded. That was very much the dynamic in Rush’s magical journey. Multiple possibilities presented themselves to Estelle when she posed the question we all have about what lies ahead, but through the night, there was no clearer answer than that death will surely come. With richer lighting, sound design, and a sprinkle of special effects, DiPaolo’s clarifying moment of confusion might have reached a finer pinnacle. Hopefully, when more people at the Levine JCC appreciate the gems these professionals are creating, they will also realize that the artists and their audience deserve a finer setting.

 

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Landing the Next LeBron Is Just Step One in “King Liz”

Review: King Liz

By Perry Tannenbaum

Wheeling and dealing, trading on her feminine wiles, sports agent Liz Rico is a dynamic dynamo in Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz. To keep her edge, Liz has to lie and cheat, sweet-talk and scold, soothing some mighty male egos while knowing her shit better than any of them. She must fight tooth-and-claw for every client and every dollar while keeping her calculating cool.

In the heat of an NBA draft session, Liz hopes to land her hotshot high school point guard, Freddie Luna, with the New York Knicks. Playing all the contingencies, Liz makes promises to the New York Nets that she doesn’t intend keep, works the phone further to keep the Knicks interested, and fervently prays that some other team doesn’t mess up her schemes by snatching up her player – and ruining her cred with everybody she’s been dealing with.

Including her boss, Mr. Candy, who has been dangling the prospect of letting Liz take over the company when he retires.

After the draft, Liz’s trials have barely begun. Coach Jones isn’t on the same page as the Knicks’ GM on Freddie’s readiness for the NBA, so the rookie’s place in the starting lineup and his actual playing time are both unknowns. Further threatening Freddie’s marketability are the kid’s impoverished, violent past, his hair-trigger temper, his déclassé friends, and his inexperience in the media spotlight.

The current Three Bone Theatre production at Spirit Square has a couple of extra déclassé elements that don’t chime well with Coppel’s script. The first is Three Bone’s budget, which doesn’t allow set designer Ryan Maloney to come anywhere close to simulating the office at a high-powered sports agency that boasts such big-name clients as James Harden, Kevin Love, and Carmelo Anthony.

Though she undoubtedly has the power and charisma for the full range of King Liz, I sometimes felt that Shar Marlin needed to be more of a smooth operator to completely define her. Having directed Marlin’s stunning performance last year in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director Corlis Hayes had to be supremely confident that this force of nature was equal to tackling Liz. But Hayes doesn’t altogether curb Marlin’s inclination to carry elements of the blues divas she has played – Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey – over to a more modern powerhouse who has the finesse to wow a boardroom.

I’m not sure that a big wheel like Liz needs to do quite so much yelling working the phones and bossing her assistant. Less would have counted more.

Granted, the streets and the projects loom large in Liz’s background, allowing her to empathize with Freddie, but if Marlin were finding them in Liz rather than Rainey, her manner would be more consistently elegant. Yet we need to acknowledge that Marlin nearly makes Liz a cohesive person despite the fact that Coppel makes her excessively chameleonic. Coppel does have that tendency. If you think Liz flits from persona to persona in the blink of an eye, wait to till you hear about her board of directors’ flipflops in the final scenes.

The script only takes us back to 2015, when Phil Jackson was GM at the Knicks, but Hayes manages to accent the #MeToo elements of the story, encouraging Tim Huffman to remain a blowhard as Mr. Candy while adding a sprinkling of Harvey Weinstein sleaziness. Costume designer Ramsey Lyric puts an exclamation point on Mariana Bracciale’s transformation as Gabby Fuentes, Liz’s ambitious assistant, making sure we see how much more willing she is to play ball with Candy.

Marlin fares better outside the office, strategically captivating Coach Jones without giving in or quashing his desires. Hooking Freddie and keeping him in line requires even more virtuosic hairpin turns from Liz, so Marlin gets to show the agent’s wiliness until Freddie breaks loose from her control, exposing her doubts and insecurities. He can’t control himself, so how can she?

Although Sultan Omar El-Amin doesn’t boast the physicality of a point guard sporting the stats of a latter-day LeBron James, he has proven himself to be a master of youthful roles that require resentfulness and volatility. Once we get past his lack of size, muscles, and tattoos, El-Amin grows on us, sparking empathy and frustration with equal force. Jermaine A. Gamble has played his share of brooding youths recently, so it’s gratifying to see how convincingly he ages here as Coach Jones, adding a hint of a limp to give his mellow pursuit of Liz extra poignancy. His put-downs of Freddie hardly qualify as tough love – kindness is an unaffordable luxury when your job with a perennial losing team is on the line.

The wildcard in Coppel’s scenario is Barbara Flowers, a TV host that Liz is counting on to help her repair Freddie’s damaged image after he goes off the rails at a postgame interview. Disdaining the obvious prompt to do a Barbara Walters imitation, Susan Ballard initially does give us the impression that Flowers will toss Freddie one softball question after another on her show as Liz and Coach Jones sit beside him, holding his hand. But when Flowers discards Liz’s playbook and goes rogue, Ballard makes her a hard-nosed journalist asking tough hardball questions, way beyond Walters cordiality and a fair distance beyond civility.

It’s in these interview scenes that Coppel’s penchant for abrupt surprises works best. Freddie has definite rough edges, but the media can grow cruel fangs when they smell blood. In a stressful stew of crisis and tantalizing ambitions, Liz must reassess the consequences of her goals and who she wants to be.

“Stupid F@#%ing Bird” Mashes Chekhov With Giddy Modernism

Review: Stupid F@#%ing Bird

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’re looking for clear outspoken themes and messages onstage, there are better places to look than the aching comedies of Anton Chekhov. Among his contemporaries, Count Leo Tolstoy found the best works of Chekhov difficult to grasp yet full of insights into “the inner workings of the human soul.” Chekhov’s mix of clinical objectivity and soul-searching empathy would become touchstones of modern drama and modern acting technique.

So it’s no surprise that Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, irreverently retitled Stupid F@#%ing Bird, is so willfully modernistic. Conrad Arkadina, nee Konstantine Gavrolovich Trepleff in the original, doesn’t merely write the bad script we see performed early in Act 1. He’s also the author of this play that we’re watching and will pause to tell us about it from time to time. But that doesn’t mean his mom, film producer Emma Arkadina, or his Uncle Eugene – a dying doctor – won’t also address us and lay bare their ostensibly fictional souls.

We can almost go around the complete cast in this Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production simply by cataloguing their unrequited loves. Mash, who is madly in love with Conrad, is desperately beloved by Dev. But Conrad burns for the beautiful Nina, who offers body and soul to the famous writer Trigorin, who is in a committed relationship with Emma – until he isn’t. Passion for other people or for art is the essence of futility among this crowd, often leading to self-loathing. Even Trigorin, slightly weary with his own fame, has restless longings that go unfulfilled.

If you already know The Seagull well, the idea of Conrad being our author is more than slightly absurd, for in the denouement, his spiraling depression begins with his ripping up all his manuscripts when he realizes he can never have Nina. Compounding the absurdity, Conrad frankly tells us of the catastrophe to come.

Assuming that you can find the Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus near Myers Park Traditional School, you’ll find that director Chip Decker – with his own fantastical set design and Hallie Gray’s lighting – has grasped the zany bittersweetness of this script remarkably well. The mixture of wholesomeness, naïveté, candor, and earnestness that Chester Shepherd brings to Conrad further ensures success. Somehow, in this blizzard of fiction and reality, where Conrad is both the playwright and his protagonist, Shepherd can come to his audience for advice and handle our spontaneous feedback.

He realizes that Nina, a rather bad actress who sustains a career, is not particularly worthy of his love. Hell, Mariana Bracciale as Nina is well aware of her shortcomings as an actress, with a slight Julia Louis-Dreyfus charm wrapped into her maddening flightiness. Scott A. Miller as Trigorin realizes Nina’s shallowness as well as anyone, his mind at odds with his loins in his struggle to decide what to do about her, yet he also grasps that his rascality is as much of his charm as his talent.

Emma suffers in her relationship with Trigorin and in her lack of aptitude for parenting Conrad, yet Becca Worthington is most disarming in her acknowledgement to us that she’s the meanie in this story, unlikely to redeem herself. Every one else lurks on the periphery, adding to the impression that our main characters are living in a teeming world. I was fairly smitten with the comedy of Carmen A. Lawrence as Mash, for she mopes so hopelessly – and needlessly, since the loving, patient, and wise Dev is crazy about her.

Peripheral or not, Jeremy DeCarlos as Dev combines with Lawrence to give their scenes a Midsummer Night’s Dream giddiness, for neither of them is among our gifted characters. Yet DeCarlos, more goofball here than I’ve ever seen him before, seems to have the knowledge that his waiting game – and his faith that Mash will come to her senses – will be rewarded. It’s a part of his calm wisdom, which occasionally reminds Conrad (and us) what an unbalanced, disturbingly normal hysteric he is.