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Monday
Mar042019

'BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK' - MAID TURNED MOVIE STAR

From left: David Turner, Jenni Barber, Carra Patterson, Jessica Frances Dukes, Heather Alicia Simms and Manoel Felciano

HENRY EDWARDS - NEW YORK - March 3, 2019

“Schizophrenic.”

That’s how Lynn Nottage, the first female playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, characterizes a body of work that includes her two socially relevant prize-winners, “Ruined” (2009) and “Sweat” (2017).

“Ruined” conveyed the harrowing message that rape is a profoundly damaging weapon of war and must be stopped; “Sweat” dramatized the disaffection and racism of white working-class voters in the rust belt of Pennsylvania occurring eight years before the election of Donald Trump.

Schizophrenia?

Nottage’s antic social comedy, “Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine,” preceded “Ruined,” and her satirical comedy, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” came directly afterwards.

“Fabulation” imagines the downward spiral and subsequent reemergence of African American publicist Undine Barnes Calles who was born Sharona Watkins in the Brooklyn housing projects. Undine shares her newly minted first name with the ruthless, repugnant, vacuous anti-heroine Undine Spragg of Edith Wharton’s 1913 brutally satirical novel, “The Custom of the Country.”

Wharton wasn’t fooling around when she created her Undine; Nottage’s comedy has more laughs.

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” renders a back story for fictional Depression-era maid-to-movie star Vera Stark at a time when African American actresses were cast, if cast at all, almost exclusively as stereotypical maids, slaves or mammies.

Nottage is this year’s Signature’s Residency 1, affording the dramatist the opportunity to revisit both comedies from her so-called “frivolous period,” each in a new production.

“Vera Stark,” under the direction of Kamilah Forbes, executive producer of the Apollo Theater, currently holds court at Signature Center’s Irene Diamond Stage.

Having seen the original 2009 staging at Second Stage Theater twice, I remember the comedy as a cheeky original that went out of its way not to play by the conventional rules.  

Nottage credits viewing the delectably sordid, 1933 pre-Production Code-era studio film, “Baby Face,” on the Turner Classic Movies cable network as her inspiration.

The racy black-and-white melodrama starred a 26-year-old Barbara Stanwyck as steel town prostitute Lily Powers (her father was her pimp).  "Bound-for-bigger-things,” the power-hungry blonde sleeps her way to the top in New York City during the worst year of the Great Depression.

What caught Nottage’s eye was the fact that Stanwyck’s character had a “BBF” (Best Black Friend), Chico.  (A BBF was the leading white actress’s best friend; they are supposed to be “equals,” but the BBF exists strictly to support her white friend, aiding her in eventually overcoming some personal obstacle).

Unlike other movies of the period, BBF Chico was pretty, wore terrific clothes, had a real and far less stereotypical friendship with Stanwyck, enjoyed a substantial amount of screen time and portrayed a maid only in those scenes when Stanwyck was making her way into high society - blacks were automatically denied the opportunity to engage in any behavior that implied equal status.

Nottage had never heard of the African-American singer and actress Theresa Harris who portrayed Chico. Researching the actress’s life, the playwright discovered that Harris had appeared in 60 movies, but along with the other nearly invisible black actresses in the years before the civil rights movement, she had been so marginalized that information about her was virtually nonexistent.

Nottage decided to make amends by loosely modelling her comedy about beautiful, smart, funny and willful actress Vera Stark on her ruminations about the exceedingly difficult show-business lives typical of Theresa Harris and other forgotten Depression-era black actresses, and "Vera Stark” began to take shape as part screwball comedy and part bittersweet reverie about the limited options open to African-Americans in 1930s Hollywood.

Nottage’s Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes, who was amazing and terrifying as the burnt-to-a-crisp mom in “Is God Is”) works as the BBF to famed actress of the moment, Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber).

The on-screen Gloria is the personification of blonde innocence, and the public affectionately knows her as “America’s Little Sweetie-Pie.”

The off-screen Gloria is no sweetie-pie.  She's a vain, booze loving, melodramatic, self-absorbed peroxide blonde with embarrassingly affected, grand lady diction.

Fearing she is being aged out of her “little sweetie pie” screen persona, the 28-year-old harbors the conviction she can stay afloat in Hollywood if she had the opportunity to portray an adult character. That explains her determination to accept the offer to play Marie, “the beautiful but tragic octoroon prostitute,” in “The Belle of New Orleans,” a cornball 18th-century romance epic set in the Deep South.

But to her great horror, she has to audition, and BBF Vera and she are working on her lines, not the easiest of tasks for bubbleheaded Gloria.

The actress depends completely on Vera and it appears their friendship long predates their present arrangement. (We later learn they grew up together on the vaudeville circuit, and are cousins or possibly half-sisters; if so movie-land’s very white Gloria is, in actuality, half black, and only white actors are permitted to portray octoroons).

“The Belle of New Orleans” also contains a perfect role for Vera, that of Marie's “devoted servant and companion,” her slave Tilly.

Even though Vera has vowed never to portray a slave, unlike slave characters in other movies, Tilly is different – vastly different.  She has dialogue!

Try as she may, Vera has never been granted an audition.  She is around the same age as Gloria, but hasn't lost hope that something bigger and better than her current job is bound to happen. And now a big break just might be close at hand.

Jessica Frances Dukes and Jenni Barber

Riddled with fantasies of a successful future, she sets out from Gloria’s art deco mansion (sparingly designed by Clint Ramos) and heads home to the plain, small rooming-house flat she shares with two other aspiring black actresses, plump Lottie McBride (Heather Alicia Simms), and slender and sexy Anna Mae Simpkins (Carra Patterson).

Nottage’s satirical approach sends up the cultural stereotyping white culture enforced on black actresses in 1933, and in many instances has yet to stop. 

Actress-turned-seamstress Lottie is pretty, heavyset, cynical and witty. The once-slender performer in Broadway revues tells Vera "I spent seven years trying to eat my way into Hollywood's demand that women like me gotta be high yella mellow or look like you crawled outta Mississippi cotton patch to get work.  So here I is, looking like someone's mammy and the closest I've gotten to pictures is sitting in the back row of the cinema."

In her desire to navigate the racial barrier and obtain work, unemployed, pale-skinned “high yella mellow” vamp Anna Mae softens her consonants and opens her vowels,  totally denying her true identity in an attempt to pass as a Brazilian bombshell.

The next day, while Gloria is undergoing her audition for “The Belle of New Orleans,” Vera meets Leroy Barksdale (Warner Miller), a slickly dressed chauffeur and musician who works for Maximillian von Oster (Manoel Felciano), the idealistic but pompous European “genius” director of “The Belle of New Orleans.”

Leroy belongs to the New Negro movement and believes black performers should produce their own art rather than put themselves at the mercy of the Hollywood studios. He is proud, he tells Vera, to be working towards his own success as a musician without the (often sexual) compromises made by black women.

Meanwhile, in her determination to cinch the role of Marie, Gloria invites attractive, well-groomed and wealthy studio executive with less-than-stellar social skills Frederick Slasvick (David Turner) and director von Oster to a party at her mansion.

Lottie joins Vera as a second maid; Anna May turns up on von Oster’s arm masquerading as an Argentinian (with a horrible accent); and since Leroy is von Oster’s driver, he also pops in, only to get propositioned by America’s not-so-sweetie pie Gloria.

As the evening progresses Von Oster and Slasvick get into a knock-down-drag-out battle about art versus commerce.

The director plans to make an “authentic” story about a brothel in the south, but studio chief Slasvick knows that depictions of prostitution and intimacy between the races both violate the Hays Code.

“People need their history to seem heroic . . . if you're gonna give em slaves, give them happy ones,” he insists.

 “I want my Negros to be real, to be Negroes of the earth,” von Oster counters.

Aware they are expected to "perform" their race and all the suffering white people assume comes with it, if they want to work in movies, Vera, backed up by Lottie, rolls up her sleeves and delivers a jumbo-sized helping of black misery.

Nottage's script directions call for the first act to be performed in the style of a screwball comedy. The mid-1930s film genre, a blend of the wacky and the sophisticated, is characterized by fast-paced verbal dueling and witty sarcastic dialogue, zany, fast-paced and unusual events, and screwy plot twists.

Until the first production of “Vera Stark,” I had never seen black actors perform screwball comedy. The form often reflected a Depression-era fascination with the upper classes, thus denying blacks the opportunity to participate.

Harris pushes her talented cast to play and fast and hard in the screwball comedy style. But “Vera Stark” is a challenging high-wire act riddled with mercurial shifts in tone. Nottage’s characters play at being caricatures and often are caricatures. Harris’s super-energized direction encourages the actors to struggle determinedly to generate laughter – not the easiest way to breathe zany life into a comedy that refuses to play by the conventional rules, and one that works irregularly in starts and stops.

Heather Alicia Simms and Jessica Frances Dukes

In 2003, 40 years after its 1933 release, “The Belle of New Orleans” has grown into a beloved classic, and Act Two begins as the participants and audience members at a 2003 “Remembering Vera Stark” symposium watch the movie’s tear-jerking closing death bed scene. (Five cast members now appear in different roles.)

Katherine Freer’s version of “genius” Maximillian von Oster’s “genius” black-and-white masterwork brings us Gloria Mitchell’s sickly octoroon heroine, Marie, on her death bed. Tears pour from the eyes of Vera Stark’s comforting maid and confidante, Tilly. Also standing by are Anna Mae as a thick-accented Frenchwoman (what else?) and Lottie as a slave (what else?).

In Tony Gerber’s original version, the camera slowly dollied in on Vera’s face, creating an enigmatic close up that transformed the unknown Vera Stark into a star.

Since Nottage is a film buff, it was my hunch she was recalling “Queen Christina,” shot in the same time period as the fictional “The Belle of New Orleans,” and its famous closing shot, showing Christina standing as a silent figurehead at the bow of the ship bound for Spain.

Prior to shooting, director Rouben Mamoulian suggested that Greta Garbo think about nothing so that the final close up of her face could be a "blank sheet of paper," allowing audiences to fill in the blank on their own.

To this day, anyone who sees the movie is transfixed by the mystery locked in Garbo’s eyes.

This time around, Katherine Freer’s film left me little to think about.

The symposium features three cultural critics of color:  overly enthusiastic, self-important, filmmaker from Oakland, panel moderator Herb Forester (Warren Miller); staunchly opinionated poet, journalist and performer Afua Assata Ejobo (Carra Patterson); and combative media-gender studies professor Carmen Levy-Green (Heather Alicia Simms).

The academics amusingly but fatuously pontificate on the significance of Vera Stark’s “ground-breaking” screen performances, legacy and 30-year disappearance.

“What happened to Vera Stark?” Herb Forrester repeatedly demands with more than a touch of sensationalism.

Is Vera, like any performer, a creature of ego? Has she made compromises in her lifelong pursuit of applause? Did Vera silently comment on her own oppression within seemingly “mammy-ish” roles? Or was she simply trying to get work, and get by? And did she lose a piece of her soul in the process?

Those are the questions the panel is trying to answer with lots of attitude and an exasperating lack of insight.

Afua and Carmen share dueling theories: Afua thinks Vera overdosed on pills and liquor in a Reno hotel room; Carmen is convinced she spoke to Vera in a Santa Monica homeless shelter. Herb doesn’t really care.

Nottage’s heavy handed satire demonstrates how self-important academics currently utilize facts and militant political correctness to fit their individual theories.

As evidence, they turn to Vera’s last public appearance as a guest on a tacky 1973 Las Vegas television interview show, “The Brad Donovan Show.” 

Fatuous host Brad Donovan (Warner Miller) delivers his best Merv Griffin impersonation; Brad’s guest, Peter Rhys-Davies (Manoel Felciano), is a stoned British rock star who can hardly sit up straight. But it’s the last recorded appearance of Vera Stark that boggles the mind.

Her film career, having long since expired, has turned up to plug a Vegas revue for which she has been pulled out of enforced retirement.

The 28-year-old Vera was upbeat, unwavering and ambitious, but necessarily guarded, the result of always being conscious of her precarious position as a black woman attempting to achieve success in a white world.

Flamboyantly dressed in Dede M. Ayite’s overpowering, multicolored dress, 68-year-old Vera (monumentally portrayed by Jessica Frances Dukes) is a wily, fierce, hard-edged grande dame with a hearty appetite for booze and nicotine.

Resentful but resplendent, the hardened old timer destroys every pompous doomed-star-who-should-have-been theory about the lack of success that followed her breakthrough performance in “The Belle of New Orleans”: “I played a slave woman bound to her mistress, and here all of these years later, I find myself bound to Tilly. I wish I could shake that silly little wench out of me.”

Which is probably the truth. And a tragic one if you think about it.

Pulling a fast one, in the style of TV talk shows and has never gone out of style, Brad Donavan brings Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber) now a wealthy London matron, yearning for a comeback and more than willing to fight Gloria for the spotlight.

“Gloria, you were one of the biggest and brightest stars in Hollywood,” says Brad, “and Vera well you…you lit up the scenes with your memorable sassy presence.”

Vera is not exactly thrilled. But show business is show business, and the aged warriors even go so far as to reprise their ancient vaudeville act and perform “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”

In an affecting coda set in the 1930s, on the last day of shooting, Vera asks Gloria for a tiny change in the final scene of “The Belle of New Orleans.” It’s that adjustment that for better or worse ensures Gloria’s legacy.

Nottage wastes far too much time creating mirthless parodies of academic pretensions and dimwitted TV talk shows. At its root, “Vera Stark” provides a telling commentary about the vicissitudes and cruelty that lurk in the unpredictable future.  Gloria, sexy and white, succeeds; Vera, equally as ambitious, is a ground breaker and talented actress thwarted by systemic racism in both society and the film industry who winds up empty-handed.

"Vera Stark" is the personification of trickiness and director Harris and her industrious company have engaged in a valiant but unsuccessful struggle to amuse and make us care. 

Jessica Frances Dukes and Jenni Barber

Friday
Mar012019

'FIDDLER ON THE ROOF IN YIDDISH' IS SENSATIONAL

Steven Skybell

HENRY EDWARDS - New York - March 4, 2019

 Too Jewish?

 Investors, particularly Jewish investors, feared “Fiddler on the Roof” would be “too ethnic” (meaning “too Jewish”) to succeed on Broadway.

 Previous (and later) Broadway shows with Jewish themes had been at best modestly successful, and “Fiddler” envisioned an entirely Jewish world without a single gentile character with whom the audience could relate.

 The musical would also be the first work of American popular culture that evoked the precarious state of life for Jews in a turn-of-the century shtetl, one of the small villages in which Jews lived for centuries in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.  A pogrom brought the first act to a conclusion; the show ended with the eviction of the Jews from their homes.  

Composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, librettist Joseph Stein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins based their show on three of Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye, a pious and poor Jewish milkman, his unimpressed wife Golda, his five unmarried daughters and other residents in the village of Anatevka in 1905 Tsarist Russia.

Sholem Aleichem ("peace be with you" in Hebrew) was the pen name of the "Jewish Mark Twain," Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich.

Aleichem was born in the Ukraine in 1859, wrote in Yiddish, and was an impassioned advocate of Yiddish as a national Jewish language.

Tapping into the energies of the East European, spoken-Yiddish idiom, the writer was famous for his creation of modern Jewish archetypes, myths, and fables of unequaled imaginative potency and universal appeal.

The original “Fiddler” faced daunting odds, but miracle of miracles, the show was an instant blockbuster success.

Too Jewish? Dairyman Tevye  But timeless, ubiquitous themes pervaded the musical and its treatment of generational conflicts, changing traditions, love, family and friendship spoke unhesitatingly to every age group and culture.

The original production nin Tony Awards and ran for nearly a decade, exceeding 3,000 performances for the first time in Broadway history,

“Fiddler” has since undergone five Broadway revivals (1976, 1981, 1990, 2004, 2015) and a highly successful 1971 film adaptation. It is the seventh most frequently produced musical in American high schools.

Bottle Dancers

After five months at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where its run was extended four times, the National Yiddish Folksbiene Theater’s heart wrenching production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” performed in Yiddish, has moved uptown to Stage 42, with a run originally scheduled through June 30 (and now extended to September 1).

Spanning the quarter century from 1943 to 1968, the Golden Age of the American musical produced a number of beloved and enduring efforts. Of them, “Fiddler” (1964), is often considered the most internationally beloved, emotionally universal and instantly iconic.

Ostensibly breaking every rule in the 1964 rulebook for Broadway musicals, Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Joseph Stein (book) and Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography), created an entirely Jewish world without a single gentile character with whom the audience could relate.  “Fiddler” stands as the first work of American popular culture to recall life in a shtetl — the Eastern European market towns with large Jewish populations.

“Fiddler" is the first musical in history to surpass 3,000 performances and it held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical for almost 10 years. It remains the seventeenth longest-running show in Broadway history, winning nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, score, book, direction and choreography.

“Fiddler” has since undergone five Broadway revivals (1976, 1981, 1990, 2004, 2015) and a highly successful 1971 film adaptation. It is the seventh most frequently produced musical in American high schools.

In 1966, a year after the musical’s Broadway debut, Israeli actor-director Shraga Friedman created a Yiddish translation for a production in Tel Aviv.

Sixty-two years later, in 2008, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the longest continuously producing Yiddish theatre company in the world, mounted a production of Friedman’s long ignored translation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, directed by Joel Grey. It was glorious – so glorious that it was extended four times, triggering a decision to present the show at Off Broadway’s Stage 42 in 2009.

More than a half-century after “Fiddler” visited the Great White Way the first time, the musical could currently be the most internationally beloved, emotionally universal and instantly iconic of the musical theatre’s beloved and enduring classics.

Unlike the Broadway editions, Joel Grey’s heart rending, bare-bones production transforms the legendary show into a poignant musical version of very well could have been a mythic tale by Sholem Alecheim that revealed certain human truths whem a culture in flux and people simultaneously hold on to and let go of tradition.

Boris Aronson, one of the greatest and most prolific theater artists of the 20th century, created the original set designs. Aronson turned to the palette of Marc Chagall’s paintings to give the show Chagall’s and “simple-naïve-buoyant-primitive-childlike-charming-delightful look.”

The title of the musical was based on Chagall’s 1912 painting, “The Fiddler,” which depicts a fiddler on a rooftop against the background of a town resembling Chagall’s childhood shtetl, Vitebsk.

There is nothing decorative or 'big Broadway  musical" about Beowulf Boritt's "empty stage" approach. His spare design consists of a handful of chairs and enormous hanging paper sheets that that look like unrolled scrolls. The center sheet bears a single word, “Torah,” written in big black Hebrew characters.

Surtitles in English and Russian are projected on the two screens on either side of the stage.

The use of Yiddish turns out to be astonishingly effective.  Yiddish is Tevye’s presumed language and the language of Aleichem’s Tevye stories, and the Yiddish dialogue and lyrics characters would have used in real life and use her mbue the production with a remarkable degree of authenticity that is as cheering as it is accurate. Never as “Fiddler” as believable, and hearing pour the mouths of these particular Russia-Jewish characters ups the emotional stakes considerably.

Original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, whom many credit as the genius behind the show, insisted that the actor who portrayed Tevye combine the magnetism and virtuosity that make a Broadway star. Robbin's Tevye had to be lovable all times and generate mega-doses of empathy and awe.

The actors who best satisfied Robbins’s larger than life approach include the first Tevye, the great Zero Mostel, Topol in the movie version and Danny Burstein in the 2016 Broadway revival.

Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy, Luther Adler, Harvey Fierstein and Alfred Molina have also hitched Tevye’s milk wagon to their backs.

Unlike his predecessors, Joel Grey’s Tevye, Steven Skybell, delivers a superb characterization that is deliberately life-sized.  

Skybell is a gifted character actor who can also be very funny.  And he is exceptionally likeable as a complex and modest man living through difficult, changing times. His Teyve feels like he understands and, to a certain extent, is in control of his world, while it stands at the precipice of tumult, and he takes the audience along with him as he slowly but surely feels the earth shifting beneath his feet.

Aleichem punctuated his Tevye stories with the dairyman’s monologues with God. Skybell’s monologues exude authenticity, good humor and respectful informality.

Seemingly constantly caught between opposing forces, he weighs the pros and cons of every dilemma, Clutched in the warm embrace of the traditions he so cherishes, he was also taught, or at least learned, to think for himself. And that ever-jostling thought process often leads him to positions that seem antithetical to his upbringing, yielding often surprisingly progressive decisions based on his desire to guaranteed his family’s happiness and the fact that it’s “the new world.”

Lauren Jeanne Thomas and Steven Skybell

Three daughters violate tradition: oldest daughter Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff) defies Yente the matchmaker (Jackie Hoffman), in order to wed her true love, the poor and not tall tailor Motl Kamzoyl (Ben Liebert), instead of the rich and much older butcher Leyzer-Volf (Bruce Sabath). Tevye not only bends to her will to ignore the matchmaker tradition. but sets to trick his wife, Golde (Jennifer Babiak), into agreement, going so far as to fake a dream revolving around a visit from the grave by Golde’s vengeful, eight-foot-tall grandmother, Frume-Sore (Jodi Snyder).

When second daughter, Hodl (Stephanie Lynne Mason) falls in love with Perchik (Drew Seigla), a penniless radical from Kiev who winds up jailed in Siberia, Tevye bends again and blesses their marriage.

But when third daughter, Khave (Rosie Jo Neddy), announces her engagement to Russian Orthodox Christian soldier Fyedka (Cameron Johnson), Tevye violently abandons his progressive stances, banishes Khave from the family and declares her dead. His rage startles and petrifies.

Joel Grey’s direction is a model of precision. Every gesture is the perfect gesture. The tone of every moment is the correct tone.  He instills particular warmth to the scene involving Tzeitel and Motel that includes the joyful and daringly exacting Bottle Dance, one of Broadway's most iconic dance moments whose exacting maneuvers never fail to thrill.

Choreographer Staś Kmieć retains some of Jerome Robbins's classic moves - the bottle dance is one of them - but his work exudes a wild energy all its own, and his staging of "To Life” and "The Dream" is stunning.

A small-scale pogrom by the town’s Russian cohabitants – they speak Russian in the midst of the Yiddish-speaking wedding party and elicit gasps when they rip the Torah signage in half - concludes the first act.

Zalmen Mlotek conducts a spirited 13 piece orchestra and the company gives Bock and Harnick’s 15 timeless songs the love and vibrant musicality they deserve.

“Fiddler” moves its inexorable conclusion when Czar Nicholas II orders every Jew to leave Russia on three days’ notice. Somehow the company has transformed a bare stage into a place of life, difficult as it has been, of home, of “heartland” in the original sense of the term. There is no way you will not cry as the entire town is being expelled from their homes, effectively dividing and ending the community.

Grey stages the diaspora of simply and thankfully with a lack of sentimentality. As Tevye leads his family out of the shtetl and eventually to America, “Fiddler” strikes a final note of tragic poignancy.

Great musical theater hould move us; we should see ourselves in the singing-and-dancing storytellers on stage; we should delight in the risk inherent to live performance; we should revel in the irony of feeling nostalgic for something we are experiencing for the very first time.

“Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” endows a great musical with an unexpected and very special layer of additional greatness.

Company

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