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Friday
Apr122019

'OKLAHOMA!' - OH WHAT-A-NOT-SO-BEAUTIFUL MORNNG

Damon Daunno, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Patrick Vaill

 HENRY EDWARDS - New York - April 14, 2019

More than 300 productions of Rogers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration, “Oklahoma!,” are staged across America in a typical year and undoubtedly not a single one bares the slightest resemblance to experimental director Daniel Fish’s audacious, radical and radically stripped down interpretation at Broadway’s Circle In The Square Theatre.

R&H’s beloved 76-year-old classic has been viewed habitually as an emphatically tuneful demonstration of American optimism and self-assurance; Fish’s non-MAGA approach reveals the genuinely disturbing side to America’s unrelenting and self-infatuated self-confidence.

"The hope is that it's dark and disturbing and celebratory and happy and all of these things thrown together,” the director says of his production.

Fish introduced his deconstruction at Bard College’s 2015 SummerScape Festival. After a multi-extended and generally acclaimed 2018 mounting at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, the show staked out a claim on Broadway, beginning on March 19.

The original production held its Main Stem debut on the last day of March 1943 just three months after the United States entered World War II.

R&H set the musical in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, a year before the poor ranching and farming district achieves statehood.  Their romanticized version of the past conjures a close-knit community working together to give birth to a new state.

The team launched the show with one of their greatest anthems, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'.”

“I've got a beautiful feelin' -- everything's goin' my way!" declared the lyric, providing a hefty dose of jubilant medicine to the citizens of an anxious nation at war.

Perceived as a ringing endorsement of American values and the need to defend them, “Oklahoma!” seemed to be sending word that everything was destined to go America’s way.

By the time the show ended its initial five and one-half year Broadway run, it had attracted the largest audience in the history of the American musical theater.

Oklahoman writer Lynn Riggs' 1931 (far from successful) nostalgia-driven Broadway play, "Green Grow the Lilacs" provided the source material for Oscar Hammerstein’s faithful adaptation.

Both the original play and Hammerstein’s book relate the same modest story:

Cowboy Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) wants to take farm girl Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) to the town box social. So does her family’s hired hand, loner Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill).

In a contrasting comedy sub-plot, “girl-who-can’t-say-no” Ado Annie Carnes (Ali Stroker) has to choose between her wide-eyed cowboy suitor Will Parker (James Davis) and unwilling Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill).

Three (long) hours later, Curly and Laurey are married, Jud is dead, Annie and Will have worked out their differences, and the settlers are all cheerily singing, “Everythin’s goin’ my way.”

I have previously seen two Broadway productions of “Oklahoma!’ (1979 and 2002, directed by Trevor Nunn and subsequently broadcast on PBS starring Hugh Jackman), along with Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 movie version, and I have always had the same reaction.

I emphatically respect “Oklahoma!” and gratefully acknowledge it as perhaps the most influential of all Broadway musicals.

R&H had the genius to embed song and dance so fully into the drama that they become an indispensable part of it, resulting in the first “integrated” musical in theatre history and the first entry in the glorious 25-year Golden Age of the Broadway Musical.

But a musical that revolves around which cowboy will marry which farmer’s daughter has the same effect on me as a double dose of Ambien. It’s a bore.

Darkness has always lurked beneath the show’s vision of a corn-fed, star-spangled Americana. To Fish’s credit, his intimate and contemporized makeover at long last allows the darkness to show through.

Remarkably, his production preserves every line and melody from the original score – with one devastating exception as the show nears its conclusion.

The director's extremist alteration transforms “Oklahoma!” into a suddenly brand new, disturbing, frighteningly contemporary show. 

Set designer Laura Jellinek’s environmental-theatre transforms Circle In The Square into a community meeting hall with the audience wrapped around the three-sided playing area and in very close proximity to the actors.

Blond plywood boards are nailed into the theater’s walls and floor, colorful metallic fringe and strings of glittering Christmas lights hang from the ceiling, and guns – lots and lots of guns – are mounted on the side walls and visible from every vantage point. They serve to remind us of the violence in 1906 and regrettably of now. It is as if we were visiting the birthplace of the gun culture.

The stage is virtually empty except for plywood tables along the perimeter, topped with hampers, portable coolers, piles of corn and blood-red Crock-Pots filled with chili. (The chili is served, with corn bread, at intermission – additional proof that we are all members of the same community and we are all in it together.)

In another reinforcement of the communal nature of the event, lighting designer Scott Zielinski’s blazing white house lights remain on for most of the show. The audience and cast see each other freely and as much as we look at them, they look at us.

Arranger Daniel Kruger has reduced the orchestra from the traditional 28 musicians to seven; Nathan Koci conducts the band in a shallow pit cut of the plywood stage.

Kluger’s job was to erase any trace of legendary Broadway arranger Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations.

Bennett literally is the creator of the traditional Broadway sound, and responsible for the massive 8-part chorale near the end of the title song and to extending it to include the famous spelling of the name, Oklahoma.

Kluger left the score’s underlying musical architecture, arrangements and sumptuous harmonies in place, but radically changed the instrumentation, incorporating banjo, pedal steel guitar, and mandolin, but retaining bass, cello, and violin.

The captivating result has a far more authentic turn-of-the-twentieth-century ring minus any Broadway bombast.

Trevor Nunn’s production employed 36 actors; Fish eliminated the chorus and 12 actors do all the heavy lifting.

They are dressed in costume designer Terese Wadden’s casual modern dress, sit at a few tables and on wooden folding chairs on the playing area and often remain onstage Brecht style as the action moves forward.

As originally conceived, romantic leads, soprano Laurey and baritone Curly are classic musical-comedy white-bread types with “legitimate” voices that enable them to sing in operetta mode; less self-aware, less educated subsidiary pair, Will Parker and Ado Annie, perform in a less “cultivated” musical comedy idiom.

Curly is a traditional romantic hero, the most handsome man in the county and blessed with a confident swagger; Laurey is the perfect ingénue — virginal yet possessing an air of knowledge about life.

In a traditional production, Damon Daunno and Rebecca Naomi Jones would never be cast in these roles.

Daunno comes from an Italian-American New Jersey family and his Curly is a mix of bravado, arrogance and silliness.

Jones was raised in Tribeca by an African-American father who worked as a vocal coach for doo-wop and oldies acts, and a Jewish mother. She is a steely-eyed, independent and doing her best to choose between Curley and dour Jud.

Unlike traditional, larger-than-life musical-theatre couples of yore, the duo creates a readily identifiable, life-sized, attractive, sex and contemporary interracial dating couple.

At the age of two, Ali Stroker, the Ado Annie of “Oklahoma!,” was in a car accident that resulted in a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the chest down. Because she is unable to walk, she uses a wheelchair.

Stroker’s Ado Annie is mostly sweet, impulsive, frankly physical and fun loving at a time when the consequences seem remote.

Ali Stroker

R&H musicals generally represent the values of a middle-class society with a suppressed id.

Thus "Oklahoma!” deals with Ado Annie’s sexuality by making it a joke. Stroker is hilarious whirling around in her chair unaware of her indiscretions and busy fulfilling them. The approach preserves her status as a fundamentally moral character that is redeemable by the end of the show.

In the world of R&H, the choice between good and evil is always clear-cut, and Judd Fry traditionally qualifies as “evil.” Nobody likes him; he lives a lonely depressive existence in the smokehouse; and his outsider status makes him a danger to the community.

Fish busts the game wide open by electing Patrick Vaill to be the first appealing actor ever to play this role.

Vaill gives a superb performance, rendering a very personal and tender portrayal of someone who is in profound pain with tragic implications.

In the original production, Laurey and Curly are married and everyone rejoices in celebration of the territory's impending statehood ("Oklahoma").

A drunken Jud harasses Laurey by kissing her and punches Curly, and they begin a fist fight. Jud attacks Curly with a knife and Curly dodges, causing Jud to fall on his own knife and Jud soon dies.

The wedding guests hold a makeshift trial for Curly at Aunt Eller's urging as the couple is due to leave for their honeymoon.

In a grave but forgivable dispatching of justice, the judge, Andrew Carnes, declares the verdict: "not guilty!" and in the happiest of endings, Curly and Laurey depart on their honeymoon in the surrey with the fringe on top.

Damon Daunno, Rebecca Naomi Jones

In Fish’s version, Judd kisses Laurey and starts to advance on Curly, who shoots him from several feet away, blood splattering all over the bride and groom’s white clothes. 

Dispensing with the rule of law, a decision is made as to whether Curly is a murderer. (He is.) Even though a federal marshal tries to insist on a courthouse trial, he is brushed off, enabling Curly can set out on his honeymoon.

The newlyweds’ clothes are still drenched with blood as the company brings the show to a conclusion with a taste of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and a hearty reprise of “Oklahoma!” (“You're doin' fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, you're O.K,”).

We are witnessing the birth of the pathological tribalism that currently consumes America - and it is an ironic and disturbing shocker.

O.K. then?

By the time Oklahoma became a state, the Native American tribes in the region lost approximately two-thirds of the land the government had previously given them - a signifiant clue to the greatness of those days gone by.

O,K. now?

Fish says of his revised take: "It makes the community culpable, and I would argue that it probably makes the audience culpable, as well . . . It's an old story, but it's also a story that matters now in terms of issues of community, in terms of violence, in terms of how we create outsiders and in terms of love."

Here is one“Oklahoma!” that is not going to put you to sleep.

The show continues through Jan 2020 at Circle in the Square Theater - For more information and tickets: Click OKLAHOMA


  Damon Daunno, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Patrick Vaill   Ali Stroker Damon Daunno, Rebecca Naomi Jones Cast

 

Sunday
Mar242019

ISABELLE HUPPERT IS 'THE MOTHER'

Isabelle Huppert
HENRY EDWARDS - New York - March 24, 20019    
 

Chelsea residents: If you think you have spotted Isabelle Huppert on the street, you have not been hallucinating. The indisputable queen of French cinema has arrived in Chelsea. She’s here to make a rare English-speaking stage appearance at the Atlantic Theater Company. She portrays the title role in French playwright Florian Zeller’s 2010 “tragic farce” titled “The Mother,”

Tickets to the 199-seat Linda Gross Theatre are virtually non-existent.

And no wonder.

Huppert, an actress for 47 of her 66 years, has earned the admiration of the international film-going public, having delivered fearless performances as incendiary yet despairing women in 120 movies.  Perversion, murder, self-mutilation, prostitution, adultery, transgressive behavior – you name it, she’s suffered through it.

Huppert’s potent 2016 Academy Award nominated performance in Paul Verhoeven’s button pushing “Elle” is a recent example.  She portrays a woman who seeks out her rapist for further encounters and then makes sure he gets what’s coming to him.

Her role in “The Mother” fits her like a glove.

It is the first of three unrelated plays in playwright Zeller’s so-called “Family Trilogy.” A second dark farce, the 2012 “The Father,” and this season’s “The Son” complete the series.  

Both “The Mother” and “The Father” received Molière Awards (the French Tony)

The 39-year-old writer has achieved conspicuous success in his home country and overseas and hailed as “the most exciting new theatre writer of our time.”

After seeing his work in Paris, Academy Award- winning British playwright, screenwriter and translator Christopher Hampton was inspired to introduce the French playwright to the English-speaking public.

Hampton’s translations for the theatre include spark ling versions of the plays of Yasmina Reza, the previous Parisian playwright to make it big in Britain Jean-Paul Sartre preceded Reza many years before in the 1940s.

In 2015, Hampton’s translation of “The Father” played in London's West End to widespread critical acclaim. The following year, Manhattan Theater Club mounted the play in New York in a production directed by Doug Hughes.

Frank Langella, then 76, portrayed the title character, an 80-year-old man named Andre who was in the late stages of dementia.

Rather than observing Andre, the audience was placed in the position of seeing the world from the old man’s point of view.

A series of repeated scenes rewritten slightly differently force Andre to question everything he once thought was real, and observers share in his terror as his dementia advances and he struggles desperately to retain focus.

Langella’s harrowing performance earned the distinguished actor his fourth Tony award.

 “The Father” was extremely clever, but the cleverness tended to make the play feel somewhat like a stunt.  Underneath the dazzle of the tricks, Zeller’s self-conscious script lacked empathy and depth.

The dramatist attributes Harold Pinter as a major influence and the British Nobel laureate and he have much in common.

They share a lean, bare-bones aesthetic, utilize disjointed timelines, repetitions and alternative narratives, play with time and perspective, and enjoy dismantling an architype from multiple perspectives.

When I arrived at “The Mother,” Huppert was already onstage.

She sat on an impossibly long, white leather couch comprised of sectionals that spanned the width of the stage.

The actress radiated enormous stillness as she occasionally looked down at the book she was reading.

The program lists Huppert as “The Wife” (the character’s name is Anne); Chris Noth as “The Man” (Anne’s husband, David); Justice Smith as ”The Son” (whose character name is Nicolas); and Odessa Young as “The Girl” (in reality of all the ”girls” – how sexist is that?- who taunt Anne’s mind: Nicholas’s girlfriend, Emily; David’s girlfriend who might also be Emily; “unsympathetic” daughter Sara who flees her mother; and even the memory of Anne’s younger, “naive” self.)

I could not resist wondering if the 85-minute play was meant to be an allegory.

After a dramatic visual cue set the play in motion (Ben Stanton is the lighting designer) ,Chris Noth’s David rushed in and declared he was off to a seminar.

But his wife stops him in his tracks.

A projection on a screen in front of the Atlantic’s exposed upstage brick wall announces “UN,” the first “act” of the play. (Lucy Mackinnon is the projections designer.)

Mark Wendland’s sleek, minimalist set design – a Venetian glass chandelier, the protracted couch and not much else – tells us virtually nothing about the characters.

And alas neither will the playwright.  

Having stewed before us for so long waiting for David to arrive home from the office, Anne appropriates a sunny tone to complain - about her day and then her adult son Nicholas. He has stopped telephoning her with regularity fails to respond to her countless messages – proof that he has abandoned her.

She badgers David about whether he had a nice day, repeating the same question again and again with repeated intensity each time. Her surreal behavior drives her husband almost to the breaking point.

Anne infers she knows he is cheating on her. The businessman neither confirms nor denies her suspicion.

If he attempts to respond, she ignores him, tells him he is crazy or repeats her catalog of woes.

She also lets him know she purchased a little red dress to wear to his funeral.

The projection of “UN” reappears and the first act starts all over again, featuring three variations of the dialogue and changeable emotional temperature of the married couple.  

In the style of “The Father,” the disparities provide evidence of the confusion in Anne’s mind and her unsettled emotional state.

They also suggest that knowing what is real may be beyond us.

The ensuing “acts” also come in three versions apiece, each with two versions.

 Isabelle Huppert and Chris Noth

After walking out on his girlfriend, Emily, Nicolas returned home in the middle of the night, and to his mother’s great surprise, her son turns up in the morning with his shirt open to the waist.

In the 2016 British import, “Yen,” the gifted actor, Justice Smith, delivered a memorably outrageous performance as a writhing, shrieking, mentally damaged 13-year-old; in “The Mother,” he experiences the surprise of his – or any son’s life – when he has to cope with a mother in Jocasta – or perhaps - Phèdre mode.

After listening to her son’s explanation for his presence, Anne cannot bring herself to say Emily’s name; only gagging sounds emerge from her throat.

She reviles her sons’ uncouth and ugly live-in girlfriend, accuses her of numerous sexual indiscretions and of cheating on her son.

Even worse for Nicholas, his mother simply cannot keep her hands off him, pawing him aggressively.

Later, she urges him to go out on the town with her as his date, insisting that people would probably mistake them for lovers. Mom strips down to a slip and garters and wiggles into the scarlet red mini-dress meant her husband’s funeral.

Anne then becomes so out of control, she mounts her son and Nicholas has to fight her off.

Current psychological theory holds that people living in close domestic proximity during the early years of life are desensitized to sexual attraction later in life. So it’s probably best to treat Anne’s smothering mother-love as part and parcel of a descent into madness.

Nor is she an allegorical figure unless you believe that in common with Anne, every mother in enormous emotional pressure turns to incest.

In the acts and variations that follow, a disoriented, slowed-down Anne, popping sleeping pills and slurping white wine, crashes even further.

She leads a static life that has lost all meaning, experiencing a present that drags on and on and absolutely nothing happens.

But the thing that really pushes her over the edge is the arrival of Emily. Nicholas’s girlfriend is beautiful and young, wears exactly the same daring outfit as the much older woman (it makes Anne her look even older) and flaunts her delectable body in front of the jealous and miserable matron.

Anne’s jealousy strikes me as a relic from a B movie of yore. Mental illness is a terrible thing, but I find hard to accept the notion that empty-nest syndrome ultimately has the potential to lead to insanity.

Nor do any of the one-dimensional characters inspire the slightest empathy.

And the bafflement wears thin and becomes exhausting.

Zeller dismisses anything that really is too much to handle, including a murder, as a “dream sequence.”

Is Peter really having an affair? Does Nicholas actually turn up at the family homestead? Did Emily really visit? And who is she?

We will never know – or care.

Trip Cullman is an uneven director (a terrific “Choir Boy”; an awful “Six Degrees of Separation”). Here he does everything he can to create a highly theatrical, distorted, collage-like and surreal air of unreality.

What is wonderful is the opportunity to see a highly energized, Huppert deliver a ferocious, all-stops-out star turn.

She’s great, but “The Mother” is as pretentious as it is inscrutable.

I’m thrilled Isabelle Huppert came to Chelsea.

Huppert