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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)' - A Fascinating Theatrical Jigsaw Puzzle

Stephen Rea and Lloyd Hutchinson in A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)
(©Matthew Murphy)

One part Greek myth and one part television procedural Sam Shepard’s newest play A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) asks audiences to dive into the equivalent of a theatrical jigsaw puzzle that’s been semi-assembled. Given that most (if not all theatergoers) will walk into the Pershing Square Signature Center, where the show opened last night, knowing the Oedipus myth, a clear sense of what the puzzle should ultimately depict is basically understood. How Shepard’s varied pieces (that span centuries and cultures) fit together is the challenge, and for those theatergoers who are willing to wrestle with Shepard’s enigmatic script, the show consistently fascinates.

Certain portions of Particle center on Sophocles’ tragedy as it’s basically remembered. A soothsayer predicts that a king will be murdered by his child. The monarch attempts to forestall this eventuality after his wife gives birth by abandoning the child in the wilderness, assuming it will die. Of course, the infant is rescued, and when the he reaches adulthood, the prophecies, including the one about the child marrying the mother, are fulfilled.

Other portions of the play center on a drug lord who, along with two of his thugs, has been run down and killed in the desert in Southern California, and on the ways in which a local cop and a forensics investigator who’s been brought in to help solve the case go about determining what happened on a barren stretch of road.

The hallucinatory trick of Shepard’s play is that the two plot lines, which are loosely telling the same tale, warp in and out of one another. The conceit of the show seems to be that when the actors speak with English/Irish accents (the show features a company from both sides of the Atlantic and premiered in Ireland), audiences are watching events that are taking place in ancient Greece. When the actors affect a Southwestern twang, well, the procedural is unfolding.

But, the accents slide, and Lorna Marie Mugan’s contemporary costumes (that nod toward a Grecian aesthetic periodically) for the double and triple cast company only change slightly. Further, Shepard blurs the action almost from the outset when it seems that Oedipus’ father Laius is receiving the message about his fate from a soothsayer. In fact, it’s Lawrence (the drug lord) who has visited Uncle Del (as in Delphi) who predicts the future by rolling bones and reading entrails. Immediately following this, the actor playing Lawrence, Aidan Redmond, moves into a scene with Brid Brennan. Now he’s playing Laius and she’s playing Jocasta and we’ve moved back thousands of years.

Ultimately what the show seems to be exploring - and interpretations about exactly what Shepard’s getting at will, most likely, tantalize theatergoers and academics for years to come - is how this myth continues to haunt us and also how desperately people feel the need to ascribe meaning to events in the world around them. As an example of this, during the present day sequences, wheelchair-bound Otto (Stephen Rea, who also played Oedipus) becomes fixated on the murders in the desert, but a direct or clear line between Otto and Lawrence is never drawn. So while there are ties between this crime and the events in the Oedipus portion of the play, they are not exactly parallel. Depending on theatergoers’ taste for puzzles, such aspects of Particle will either fascinate or annoy.

All theatergoers will pretty much be able to agree on two things. The first is that Shepard’s language and colloquial poetry has never been richer. Throughout, the dialogue has both lyricism and a rough-hewn edge that seems like it would be at home in the playwright’s seminal works like Buried Child or Curse of the Starving Class.

Similarly, audiences should also be able to concur on the sharpness of director Nancy Meckler’s production, which unfolds in a white-tiled abattoir-like environment (from scenic designer Frank Conway) and is underscored with some terrifically atmospheric music for cello and slide by Neil Martin (who, tucked in an alcove of the set, performs the score with Scott Livingston).

Meckler’s elicited a host of savory performances from the company. Rea in the Oedipus/Otto roles is by turns passionately arrogant and curiously, and slightly dimly, inquisitive. Brennan brings spitfire intensity to her portrayal of Jocasta while a kind of wearied sweetness informs her rendering of Jocelyn. Redmond’s turns as Lawrence/Laius/Langos (yes, there’s a third patriarch) all have a genuine regality, and the performer brings subtle nuances to the three different roles.

Matthew Rauch and Jason Kolotouros deliver sturdy performances, respectively, as the forensics expert and the local police officer. Lloyd Hutchinson, who plays Uncle Del, the blind Greek seer Tiresias, a homeless guy labeled “Maniac of the Outskirts,” and a nameless traveler offers a quartet of immaculately detailed, wacky performances. And Judith Roddy does yeoman’s work as she takes on the roles of Oedipus’ daughter Antigone and Otto and Jocelyn’s child Annalee.

Midway through the play, Uncle Del says “Why they keep coming to me is a mystery, tell the truth. In droves sometimes, they come. Lines. Limping. Begging on their hands and knees for the truth. As though it were the rarest thing on earth.” Oddly, it’s a line that, altered ever-so-slightly, could be taken as an admonition about A Particle of Dread overall. Substitute the word “meaning” for “truth.” Look for it in this wonderful tease of a play, but as you do, don’t make it paramount. Enjoy the sense that oftentimes it’s elusive.

---- Andy Propst

A Particle of Dread plays at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.signaturetheatre.org.

'Allegro' - A Heartwarming Musical

Claybourne Elder, Randy Redd, Elizabeth A. Davis, Malcolm Gets in Allegro
(©Matthew Murphy)

For anyone who is encountering Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Allegro for the first time through the production that opened last night at Classic Stage Company, finding out that the show was considered a clunker in its day and has since been considered problematic might be a bit shocked. That’s because director John Doyle’s careful revisions and excellent staging make this 1947 tuner seem like a long-lost gem. It’s a joy start to finish.

In its day, Allegro was considered too “experimental.” Hammerstein imagined a chorus - of the Greek variety - that narrated the tale of a man’s life from birth through middle age. Beyond that, it offered up a bitter pill of a message: professional and financial success does not always equate with happiness. Times have changed and in Doyle’s carefully considered and beautifully staged production, the show just seems like a kind of musical Our Town.

The sense of Allegro as being a cousin to Thornton Wilder’s classic certain stems from the visuals for this staging. Doyle has served as the show’s scenic designer, and the action unfolds on basically a bare stage. He provides just a couple of benches, one antique kitchen chair, the sort with a carved back, and an upright piano (that can serve as a sofa and even the front seat of a car). At the back of the stage is the indication of a white clapboard-sided house. It’s stark, but when Jane Cox’s lighting hits the stage, the space can feel as inviting as a country home’s kitchen. Cox also knows how to make the space feel more ominous as the bigger issues of the show come to the fore and Doyle and she have collaborated to create some wonderful shadow effects against that back wall.

These visuals (along with Ann Hould-Ward’s carefully chosen period costumes that are primarily in earthtones) marvelously support Hammerstein’s story about Joe Taylor, Jr. (Claybourne Elder), who must grapple with how he loses sight of what’s important once he has left the small town that he called home to pursue a career as a big shot doctor in a big city.

Theatergoers get to know Joe from birth and Elder’s terrific in the musical’s earliest moments, gently indicating an infant’s wide-eyed wonder at the new world he’s entered. And, when Joe takes his first steps, it’s rough not to let out an audible “Aw” as the company, in their Greek Chorus mode, sing “One foot, other foot,” as a repeated chant.

As Joe grows up, he takes a shine to Jenny (Elizabeth A. Davis), and he eventually marries this childhood sweetheart, who’s father runs a local coal and lumber business. She wants Joe to go into her dad’s company, but he follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a doctor, entering into that elder man’s modest practice. It’s not enough for Jenny, and at her urging, Joe accepts a job with a much larger practice in a much larger city, where he discovers that he’s not so much tending to the sick as playing nursemaid to the rich and famous.

Doyle’s production uses the conceit that he developed working in the U.K. on shoestring budgets and has the actors, in addition to serving as the chorus, serve as the musicians. It works marvelously for Allegro in particular because, after they have taken to the stage with their instruments (strings-only to start), the show has a decided down-home feel. Brass and reeds eventually become part of Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s smart orchestrations, but that isn’t until Joe’s reached adulthood, when the Jazz Age has begun and he’s moved away from his rural roots.

The company handles the dual assignment of the show with finesse. Rodgers’ melodies---some as pretty as his most famous tunes and others a little edgier---sound terrific as the company plays. There are also a bevy of affecting performances. Beyond Elder’s sweetly moving turn as Joe and Davis’ work as the pert never entirely dislikable Jenny, there’s Malcolm Gets’ engagingly warm portrayal of Joe’s soft-spoken and good-intentioned dad and Jessica Tyler Wright’s gently fussbudget-y performance as Joe’s mom. Alma Cuervo brings decided gravitas to her portrayal of Joe’s grandmother and then, amuses as she plays a society dame Joe has to minister to, while Ed Brinker makes Jenny’s father an oily operator of the first order.

Clocking in at a breezy ninety minutes, Allegro has more emotional heft than many of the longer shows currently running on Broadway, and it certainly has a heart that charms through and through, making this once disregarded Rodgers and Hammerstein property gleam almost as brightly as any of their better known works.

----- Andy Propst

Allegro plays at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: classicstage.org.

'By the Water' - Affecting and Effective Family Drama

Quincy Dunn-Baker and Deirdre O’Connell in By the Water
(©Joan Marcus)

In Sharyn Rothstein’s new play, By the Water, which Manhattan Theatre Club opened last night at City Center Stage II, Hurricane Sandy has not only ripped the front wall off a waterfront home in Staten Island where Marty and Mary Murphy (Vyto Ruginis and Deirdre O’Connell) have raised their family, but it has also pulled their skeletons fully out of the closets. And, as they work to rebuild after the devastating storm, they also must endeavor to heal old wounds.

Rothstein packs a lot into her 90-minute play. Beyond the actual physical damage to the house that needs repair, there are long festering resentments between adult brothers Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker) and Brian (Tom Pelphrey) over a perceived betrayal. Further, patriarch Marty has to cope with the fact that his reputation has been severely undermined by unscrupulous business practices that brought the IRS down on him and forced him to close the three grocery stores that he owned.

As the play progresses, Rothstein reveals that the Murphy’s problems extend beyond the familial. Brian, who’s just been released from prison, and an ex, the recently divorced Emily (Cassie Beck), maneuver through rekindling their romance even as they work to put their troubled past behind them. Marty and Mary, too, find themselves scrambling to salvage a long-standing friendship with Emily’s parents, Philip (Ethan Phillips) and Andrea (Charlotte Maier) as disagreements flare over whether or not to accept a government buyout of their properties.

Rothstein has created a pungent and poignant tale and it’s marvelously observed. My theatergoing companion, who taught grade school in an area not far from where the play is set, commented after the show that he knew parents like the Marty and Mary and watched brothers like Sal and Brian take diverging paths into adulthood. (Unlike Brian who’s found a recovery job cooking at an Olive Garden, Sal has moved on from his childhood home into a high-paying job in Manhattan.)

Further Rothstein’s dialogue crackles with comedy (a joke about alternate side parking takes the audience by surprise and then produces a roar) and with deep emotion, particularly during a scene in which Marty and Sal finally reconcile over their old conflicts.

Directed with care by Hal Brooks, the production boasts one of the most uniformly excellent ensemble casts of recent memory. O’Connell embraces Mary’s soft-spoken nature, while also carefully revealing Mary’s long simmering resentments. Dunn-Baker never overplays Sal’s smoothness. Pelphrey brings a sensitive spikiness to his turn as Brian. Ruginis’ turn has a gruffness and hauteur that’s simultaneously unappealing and pitiable. Maier’s rendering of Andrea’s good-natured aggression is pitch-perfect as is Philips’ work as her seemingly milquetoast husband. And as their daughter and Brian’s love interest, Beck’s work has a charming earthiness.

It all adds up to an evening of family drama that may sound as if it were mere made-for-television fodder, but in actuality is much more.

----- Andy Propst

By the Water plays at City Center Stage II (131 West 55th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.manhattantheatreclub.com/.

'Our Lady of Kibeho' - A Gripping Drama as Faith Is Tested

Nneka Okafor and Joaquina Kalukango (left) and company in Our Lady of Kibeho
(©Joan Marcus)

Faith is tested at a Catholic girl’s school in a remote section of Rwanda in Katori Hall’s engrossing new play Our Lady of Kibeho, which opened last night at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Based on actual events from the early 1980s, the play examines what happens after one of the students, Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor), claims to have had visions of the Virgin Mary and to have received instruction from her. The school’s deputy head nun Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford) dismisses the girl’s stories as lies that she has developed to get attention. Hall also laces this woman’s---as well as many of the other students’---reactions with a healthy dose of bigotry. Alphonsine is an orphaned Tutsi, while the sister and many of the students are Hutus.

Alphonsine can take a little solace in the fact that Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera), the priest who runs the school, wants to believe her and becomes one of her chief defenders. Still, she has to endure ridicule from her classmates, particularly Marie-Claire (Joaquina Kalukango), a haughty mean-spirited soul and a favorite of Sister Evangelique, who enlists the young woman’s help in tormenting Alphonsine.

Eventually, other girls begin to have the same visions as Alphonsine, including Anathalie (Mandi Masden), a sweet bespectacled young woman who is as much an outsider as Alphonsine, and once reports of the visions have reached the neighboring village, pilgrims begin to flock to the school as do church representatives. The diocese’s bishop (Brent Jennings) comes and ultimately sees the financial boon that the girls’ stories might have for the area. Later Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith), an emissary from the Vatican arrives, to authenticate or discredit the verity of the girls’ tales.

It’s a gripping drama that director Michael Greif has tautly staged and in the Signature Theatre’s largest theater, The Irene Diamond Stage, his work feels concurrently expansive and intimate. These two diverging senses are created by the environmental production that he and the designers have created. Scenic designer Rachel Hauck and project designer Peter Nigrini give audiences a sense of the verdant mountains in which the school is located by placing screens on three sides of the space which show images of the rolling hills on which the institution is located.

Further, Hauck’s design extends the stage into either side of the house so that some of the action takes place just next to the audience, and Greif’s use of the theater’s aisles and a wide central row mean that other parts of the action literally unfolds around theatergoers. Lighting designer Ben Stanton also has a hand in drawing theatergoers into the piece. During several moments when the young women are going into their trances and having visions, lights blaze into theatergoers’ eyes replicating the blinding light that they are seeing. The creative team goes one step further during these sequences by having a faint incense pipe into the theater, replicating the smell of jasmine that is said to accompany the Holy Mother’s appearance.

But all of this excellent stagecraft might be considered mere trickery were it not for Hall’s fine writing, which manages to make the play feel both like a keen documentary and a rippingly good mystery, and the superb performances that Greif has gotten from the company. Most notable are Okafor and Masden who imbue Alphonsine and Anathalie, respectively, with sweetness, fervency, and even a modicum of fear. Their work is beautifully matched by Benford’s turn as the embittered and vengeful Sister Evangelique and Kalukango’s work as the bullying Marie-Claire. Neither performer shies away from making her character dislikable. At the same time, though, as the play progresses, they each find ways to embrace and reveal the humanity that lies underneath the characters’ exteriors.

Similarly, Odera brings warmth, compassion and sadness to his portrayal of the man responsible for guiding the school while Jennings makes the bishop a religious bureaucrat of the highest degree. As the papal representative, Smith’s work has a continental flair, a healthy sense of world-weariness, and, most important, an air of genuine religious commitment to it.

Those familiar with the history that has inspired Our Lady of Kibeho will most likely know what the fate of the young women and their visions were. For those unfamiliar with how the tale ended, it seems unfair to reveal any more. Regardless, it must be said that the play and production are theatergoing of the highest order.

---- Andy Propst

Our Lady of Kibeho plays at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.signaturetheatre.org.

'The River' - A Romantic Excursion into the Wild with Hugh Jackman

Hugh Jackman in The River
(©Richard Termine)

Hugh Jackman has returned to Broadway and brought neither his song-and-dance man persona nor his action hero Wolverine one. Instead, in Jez Butterworth’s The River, which opened last night at Circle in the Square Theatre, Jackman is a moody, intense, and even a little creepy romantic anti-hero. It’s a brave move, and although Butterworth’s elliptical play can sometimes be a head-scratcher, Jackman’s work, as well as that of his co-stars, never ceases to fascinate.

intermissionless show unfolds in a rustic cabin (from designer Ultz who has made sure that there are even wisps of cobwebs fluttering above the action) where Jackman’s character, known only as “The Man,” brings the women with whom he’s romantically involved. During the course of Butterworth’s play, theatergoers meet two of them “The Woman” (Cush Jumbo) and “The Other Woman” (Laura Donnelly). Both of them have come with him to this place that he has enjoyed since he was a boy to share one night of what he considers the ultimate romantic experience: spending a moonless night fishing for sea trout.

The Man’s experiences with these two girlfriends unfolds in an almost dreamlike fashion and as the characters flirt and squabble, The River becomes a keen exploration of how a person’s past relationships influence their present ones.

Director Ian Rickson (who staged Butterworth’s Jerusalem on Broadway a few seasons back) has elicited a trio of exceptionally detailed and finely nuanced performances from the actors. Jumbo’s performance has a pertly spiky edge to it, which curiously makes her endearing from the outset. Donnelly, who’s playing a woman no less blunt than Jumbo, takes a different and equally appealing approach to her character; her turn has an enticing etherealness to it as well as a bit of menace.

Both women prove to be perfect partners and foils for Jackman’s gracefully understated star turn. The actor never leaves the stage. and as he wends his way through Butterworth’s play, his innate charisma makes “The Man” someone who both women and men would willingly follow into the wilderness, and then, he builds on it and undermines it. When The Man spouts poetry or waxes eloquent in his own words about his love of fishing, there’s a child-like wonderment to Jackman’s turn. When it looks like The Man might not be getting his way, well, then, eyebrows raise, and one can’t help wonder what the character has got up his sleeve and worry just a bit. Beyond these two extremes, there’s a ordinary guy-ness to Jackman’s performance, particularly when he’s left alone onstage to prepare a meal (which includes the much-talked gutting of one of the catches).

The events in the cabin are made all just a bit more spooky by the woodsy soundscrape that designer Ian Dckinson has provided, and throughout, Charles Balfour’s lighting design cloaks the events in a warm murkiness that’s simultaneously cozy and eerie.

Theatergoers might find themselves talking for a while about the ambiguous and slightly confusing note on which The River ends, but more likely they’ll be talking about the immaculate turns that Jackman and company are delivering.

---- Andy Propst

The River plays at Circle in the Square Theatre (235 West 50th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.theriveronbroadway.com.