Tag Archives: Shawna Pledger

Gunderson’s “Revolutionists” Reminds Us That 1793 Wasn’t a Very Good Year

Review : The Revolutionists

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s easier to enjoy Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, a finely polished comedy gem from PaperHouse Theatre, than it is to find it. My GPS app resisted the 1776 Statesville Avenue address that was on my smartphone calendar, forcing me to choose between a Camp North End and a Goodyear Arts destination nearly 100 address numbers apart. Choosing the 1824 Statesville address got me to the Camp North End gate well enough after dark, and there was a PaperHouse emissary at the gate to tell us how to proceed. But as we navigated through a desolate concrete-and-asphalt landscape of vast warehouses, it was definitely an uh-oh episode for Milady GPS, who spun around from “Recalculating” to “Turn Right” in her instructions like a dog chasing its tail.

Following traffic wasn’t a reliable remedy, and I apologize to anyone who followed our lead on opening night and wound up parking a wilderness away from the PaperHouse performing space. Within sight of what looked like the building entrance – and another PaperHouse emissary – I still probably walked nearly a quarter of a mile after thinking I had sufficiently improved my parking spot. You walk through that building to another one.

Fortunately, PaperHouse is much better at producing plays than at getting you to them. (They will deploy more guides for future performances, I was assured.) Once you do arrive a the site of the action, with scenery by Jordan Ellis that strikes us as much with its simulated blood-spattered walls upstage as it does with the ascending scaffold in front of them, you can start to believe you’ve really reached the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror. You’re a bit of a pioneering revolutionary yourself if you’ve persevered and reached this secluded spot.

In the meta-world of her own – and history’s – making, The Revolutionists is Gunderson’s play, and it isn’t. We seem to be watching French feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges battling an onset of writer’s block as she ponders her next response to the rampaging Reign of Terror in the seclusion of her study. She is much in demand, for while Olympe is thrashing around, trying to settle on her message and her medium – shall it be another play? or perhaps a pamphlet? or a manifesto? – in walks Charlotte Corday, pressing the writer to compose a memorable line she can declaim when she assassinates the rabid revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub.

Olympe isn’t in advertising, so one-liners and slogans aren’t her forte. She hopes to come up with the right zinger during the course of composing a longer work, a plan that doesn’t jibe well with Charlotte’s mad impatience. Just when you think that the comedy will crest with the standoff between Charlotte’s insane homicidal urgency and Olympe’s many artistic hesitancies, in walks Marie Antoinette, dressed to the 17’s by costume designer Barbi Van Schaick. Her Highness wants a rewrite, a play by Olympe that will rebrand her tarnished reputation.

Everything seems to become absurd and almost surreal at this point – and likely stays that way with Marie’s queenly vanities and Olympe’s nervous vacillations. But if you go home and Google, you find that Olympe de Gouges really did embark on writing a play to rehab Marie Antoinette’s reputation, and that the playwright really did put herself in that work as an enlightened agent who reconciles the queen with the revolutionaries. If that weren’t enough, it’s also true that de Gouges wrote the courageously feminist Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, thereby punching her ticket to the guillotine.

In the play, Olympe writes her manifesto in response to some principled prodding from Marianne Angelle, a Haitian revolutionary seeking independence from France, the one fictitious character in Gunderson’s script. In the real world, de Gouges seems to have had no problem standing up for herself – and against the Revolution’s bloodthirsty zealots.

So you might take the layered-on comedy a couple of ways. Gunderson may be telling us that she prefers her feminist heroes to be more fallible and true-to-life rather than impossibly glorified. Or she might be substituting herself for Olympe and showing us how far short of the French revolutionary’s greatness she falls.

Gunderson nudges us to that second, self-effacing hypothesis with little anachronisms that she occasionally drops into the dialogue, like Marie’s rebranding and rewrite ideas. PaperHouse artistic director Nicia Carla takes the anachronisms beyond what Gunderson specifies in her stage directions, and she doesn’t waste any time about it. Lydia Williamson makes her first entrance as Marianne carrying a garish, polka-dotted plastic suitcase, and when Shawna Pledger as Olympe begins writing at her escritoire, she quickly switches from a quill to a BIC ballpoint.

So Pledger is only superficially presiding over a play that Olympe has written for her queen with a plum role for herself. She is actually channeling Gunderson writing a dark comedy about herself, and if you saw Pledger last season as the fretful Sister Shelley who runs the soup kitchen in Grand Concourse, you already know that she excels at stressed-out indecisive women who are so eager to please. Surrounded by this madhouse, Williamson as Marianne doesn’t get as many comedy opportunities as the true historical figures, but she does loosen up from time to time, on temporary leave from her hectoring. Cumulatively, she leaves us with the impression that the French, whatever their politics, have no special call for commanding an empire.

Au contraire.

Sarah Woldum has now haunted PaperHouse productions for two consecutive Octobers, last year as Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire Carmilla and this year as the notorious Corday. This time, she can milk a laugh or two from the assassin’s irrational zeal and her PR impulses, but she’s unmistakably insane. I’m not sure she ever blinked.

As for Caroline Bower, she does enter as an overdressed Barbi doll with some truly vain, insensitive, and bubbleheaded lines to delight us with. But Marie Antoinette’s grand gown, the ribbons she loves so frivolously, and the ridiculous piled-high wig and feathers all do come off as the Reign of Terror sweeps its scythe through our women, and its Bower’s humbling – still cohering with the incredibly spoiled brat we first saw – that brings home how monstrous the French Revolution turned out to be.

In the end, we might realize that our man’s world of today is hardly less bloody than it was in the fatal year of 1793 – and that Gunderson isn’t entirely playful or self-critical when hinting that she trembles in the face of such brutality.

 

Stirring the Pot in a Bronx Soup Kitchen

Theater review: Three Bone Theatre’s Grand Concourse

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Most people, particularly the homeless and the poor, don’t need to be told that soup kitchens are all about feeding the hungry who are beaten down – temporarily or permanently – by the harsh realities of our teeming cities. But to an unexpected degree, Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse, set in one of these missions of mercy at a Bronx church, struck me as a play about soup.

Not to worry, the current Three Bone Theatre production, at Spirit Square through Saturday, occasionally delves into the question of how to best serve the poor. Yet we aren’t out there among the hungry who are gratefully lapping up their free lunches. Instead, we’re behind the scenes – in the actual kitchen of the soup kitchen – so we’re mostly involved with the providers of the meals, not the recipients.

Sister Shelley runs the kitchen, a nun who has chosen to discard the traditional costume and struggles to sustain another habit: prayer. Setting the kitchen timer on her microwave to one minute, she can’t nearly fill it with 60 seconds of earnest supplications. A new volunteer, Emma, enters in the next scene, and it’s really her time at the kitchen – first as a volunteer and then as a salaried worker – that shapes the arc of our story.

About two-thirds through the action, which clocks in at 95 minutes, I had the feeling – can I admit it was a worry? – that we were watching one of those incubator stories about a flawed, wounded, immature young person who experiences growth and healing via the subtle balms of acceptance and friendship. We’ve seen a few of these, haven’t we?

Lovely Emma turns out to be a different kind of apprentice, partly warm-hearted and enterprising but also partly toxic. The two men in this tragicomedy, Oscar and Frog, help in sharply defining the best and worst of Emma. Among her initiatives, the boldest is to expand the mission of the soup kitchen into helping the regulars get on their feet and find jobs. Appropriately, the first beneficiary of these attentions is Frog, who has long disregarded the taboos against camping out by the church and fraternizing with the kitchen folk.

Her effect isn’t so benign in her various interactions with Oscar, the maintenance/muscle guy who regularly drops by for sandwiches kept in the fridge, usually lingering to lend the women a helping hand. Emma works on Oscar’s eyes with her good looks, then on his sympathies with her big lies. Everyone around Emma is hoodwinked as she spins plausible yarns to her mother, about her mother, and about herself.

There is more complexity with Sister Shelley, who is dealing with her crisis in faith and the oncoming death of her dad. Unlike most volunteers, Emma returns for a second day, becoming a standout simply by persevering. Continuing to volunteer, Emma introduces new variations to the daily soup – a whole eggplant one day, maybe a few pinches of fennel the next. But she’s stirring the pot at a deeper level when she starts helping Frog to hop out of hopelessness. Why haven’t the sisters thought of doing that before? It starts Shelley to wondering.

It also starts to make it obvious that Schreck isn’t primarily concerned about Emma’s apprenticeship. This playwright’s eyes are trained most diligently on how all the characters are affecting one another. What’s simmering up in the Bronx, workday after workday, is a human soup of interaction and influence – and this humble little soup kitchen is a microcosm for the Grand Concourse that is humanity. It’s a volatile stew without any pat or easy endings. It keeps on boiling along.

There are plenty of energies distributed among this unpredictable foursome, and director Robin Tynes does a fine job in making sure we see how different – and how unevenly distributed – these energies are. Shawna Pledger hasn’t been this wired onstage since she made her first Charlotte splash in the title role of Sylvia four years ago at CP. Here she’s rechanneling that restless energy into Shelley, a neurotic and indecisive nun whose ultimate crucible will be forgiveness when young Emma pushes her to her limits. Pledger’s is an intense energy pent up in a pressure cooker of religious tolerance and discipline. Even when she stumbled on a line on opening night, it came out like part of Sister’s high-strung struggles.

Emma’s confusions are on a more elemental, hormonal level than Shelley’s, and Callie Richards gives her a variety of erratic, moody, and sensitive shadings. Nothing about Richards’ demeanor suggests that Emma is a temptress. Nor are Jason Estrada’s costume designs spurring her in that direction. She’s sneaky, deceptive, and her conquest of Oscar is like a raccoon invading your attic in the middle of the night. Suddenly, she’s just there.

Watching things unravel, we don’t know exactly how to analyze Emma’s ultimate violence. It’s passive-aggressive, to be sure, and its effect is irreversible, but Richards is careful not to give away how intentional it may have been. Life is often messy precisely because we encounter chaotic, messed-up people like Emma behaving irresponsibly.

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As portrayed by Nicholas Enrique Pardo, it’s easy to come away thinking of Oscar as a genial sacrificial lamb, pounced upon by both Emma and Frog. But his victimhood is more complex and unique than that, for he had trained to be a dentist in the Dominican Republic before the process of immigrating to the US effectively stripped him of his credentials. Now he holds down a day job to survive and attends a community college to improve his employment prospects. Pardo just struck me as too young to have all that mileage and dentistry in his rearview mirror – but I didn’t detect much in Schreck’s script that exposed this shortfall.

Likewise, Bill Reilly may be a wee bit young to comfortably fit the aging hippy profile sketched for Frog, but he turns in such a compelling performance as this eccentric loose cannon that all incongruities quickly cease to matter. Reilly’s entrance at the dawning of his reclamation is delightful, largely because he himself seems shocked and disoriented by his new attire. The whole outing would have been even more extraordinary if Steven Levine’s fight choreography had been more meticulous.

Notably more shabby – and less clinical – than the Playwrights Horizons’ off-Broadway production, Ryan Maloney’s set design jibes better with the way most out-of-towners think of the Bronx. This kitchen is more welcoming and, with Jackie and Peter Hohenstein’s prop designs, still richly detailed.

The carefully crafted clutter and slovenliness of the kitchen also accords with the episodic manner that Schreck relies on in telling her story. Watching the jagged sequence of scenes unfold, it seemed that the playwright may have pieced them together like journal entries, maybe shuffling the order, discarding numerous scenes, and cutting out minor characters – the mother, the head nun, and a pesky teen delinquent – along the way.

We sift through a cunningly calculated slovenliness to get at Schreck’s takeaway, with a few loose ends purposely left dangling. You won’t be as sure of what to make of Grand Concourse as the many tidier comedies and dramas you’ve seen before, but you’ll likely be more convinced of its authenticity.

A Mad Tea Party at the Frock Shop

Theatre Review: Much Ado About Nothing

By Perry Tannenbaum

Much Ado1For a second straight spring, PaperHouse Theatre is using the Frock Shop on Central Avenue as a backdrop for an English comedy, but you can be sure that this year’s Much Ado About Nothing is far more freewheeling and lighthearted than last year’s A Woman of No Importance. Oscar Wilde’s work was about class, privilege, loyalty, and ideals, while Shakespeare’s is very much about misconceptions and manipulation.

Last June, the prissiness of Frock Shop and its charming hominess were upheld in the Victorian finery worn by the cast. Now as we arrive at June 2016, we can observe that formality has been largely relaxed, the better for all the cast to not only change costumes but also to change characters. Even the saltiest and wittiest of the lovebirds, Beatrice and Benedick, get to moonlight as buffoons. Hero and Claudio, the more ardent and tedious couple, also get in their comic licks, Hero working for her own destruction as Borachio, a sleazy stoner, and Claudio crossdressing as Ursula, Hero’s maidservant.

Nicia Carla adds deftly to the lightheartedness of the comedy in her first attempt at directing a Shakespearean script. Both the cuts she has applied to the script and the clarity that survives despite those hefty splices testify that she’s quite good at it. Several of the players on hand have experience with the Bard, and it shows.

The barbs Beatrice and Benedick exchange in Much Ado hearken back to the strife between Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, while the malicious scheming against Claudio prefigures the work of Iago in Othello and Edmund, the bastard noble in King Lear. So when Carla lightens the comedy, there’s a risk of diluting the drama. Yet the church scene where the wedding goes awry is one of the best of the evening.

Whether benign or virulent, manipulation is hard to pull off perfectly. In Much Ado, both plots are unmasked, but there are provocative contrasts in how each is resolved. Order is restored as the plot against Beatrice and Benedick exposes the love that both were hiding deep within – lingering from a liaison that had been broken off before the action begins, before Benedick marched off into battle. But the haze of the catastrophe that could have been hovers over the happy resolution of the deception practiced upon Claudio.

In the PaperHouse production, that darkness adds poignancy to the ultimate happiness Claudio and Hero achieve. After bringing so much youth and vitality to Annie Sullivan at Theatre Charlotte back in March, Sarah Woldum is softer and shyer as Hero with the same lurking buoyancy of youth, and it’s hard to believe that Deven Ginyard is a college freshman playing Claudio – unless we assume he has taken about seven gap years after high school.

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Chester Shepherd was at the heart of the success of last year’s Woman of No Importance when he was paired with Katy Shepherd. Now Shepherd is fencing with Alexandria White, whom I previously encountered last June as a glamorous gallery of discards in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Yet I can’t say these Shakespearean lovebirds are noticeably less wholesome than the romantic fledglings we followed around The Frock Shop last June when PaperHouse also tackled Wilde.

Curiously, the jousting lovers’ lack of sharpness doesn’t throw this Much Ado off-kilter because of all the zaniness that Carla strews around them. Andrea King and Shawna Pledger are the chief perpetrators of the low comedy, King as a Dogberry who’ll remind you of a backwoods highway trooper and Pledger in a trio of crossdressing roles, recycling the same crappy hair scrap as The Friar’s eyebrows and Don John’s mustache. Or vice versa? The thing just hangs like a sorry backwards necklace when not in use.

As I’ve mentioned, the lovers also moonlight as lowlifes. Woldum gets the juiciest opportunities when she crossdresses as Borachio, but Ginyard’s matronly bustle as Ursula is also a hoot. King upstages them all when she must appear simultaneously as both her characters, Hero’s father Leonato and the bumbling Dogberry. On these occasions, King produces a Dogberry puppet and converses with herself. Not great puppetry, but it is great fun.

Adding to the merriment, PaperHouse serves up tea, hot and soft beverages, and finger foods at various intervals before and during the show. A Pavlovian bell signals those times when you’ll move among the downstairs rooms during the production as well as the front porch, lawn, and rear parking lot. All in all, a pretty mad tea party.