Reviews: Paradise Drag and Endurance at Shakespeare & Company
by Larry Murray
Background: Theatre is constantly changing, sometimes by huge leaps forward, other times through small innovative steps. With the exception of the great authors like Shakespeare, Chekhov and Moliere, today’s theatre is a very different experience than that of fifty years ago.
In this age of media everywhere, shortening attention spans, and the eclipse of formal speech by the vernacular, the public is no longer seeking the same old entertainment that their parents and grandparents did. In fact, they are looking for plays that are new and different in the way they tell their stories. Even the way we date, love and live have undergone an overhaul in America. What plays speak to that, to the current human condition? We think two plays at Shakespeare & Company nibble away at the edges of this tasty subject, they are bold and innovative, and of course have their detractors. I am one of the cheerleaders.
Under the relatively new leadership of Tony Simotes as artistic director, it seems they are taking some real creative risks at Shakespeare & Company (ShakesCo) in Lenox. The company has undertaken a truly gutsy series of new plays to let people know that ShakesCo is not just about the Bard anymore.
Shakespeare is by no means being given the shove, not with the wild King Lear that just opened, nor The Tempest that will arrive with Olympia Dukakis on July 19. Then beginning August 22 there is the promising Satchmo, the story of Louis Armstrong made into a story for the stage by Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout with the incredible John Douglas Thompson in the lead role. This is going to be a summer to remember for ShakesCo.
And it is clear that something new and different is afoot at the venerable company. Tony Simotes is taking risks, plenty of them. And I think they are paying off. Here are reviews of two of the company’s more daring offerings in 2012.
With the gutsy Parasite Drag they raised the hackles of several critics who felt it went too far with its violence, f-bombs and simulated cunnilingus but in this play, it is all part of defining one of the most dysfunctional families every portrayed on stage. This is a firecracker of a work that sets off new explosions every night it plays the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, and has four of ShakescCo’s finest actors taking time off from the Bard to talk down and dirty on stage.
Josh Aaron McCabe plays the religious nut of the family, only he has plenty to hide too. And the brash loser, played by Jason Asprey starts off as the bombastic, foul speaking bully that repels us all, yet ends up perhaps being the most sympathetic of the four characters. Kate Abruzzese, who plays Asprey’s wife gives an understated and gentle performance, while the sex-starved wife of the future Deacon is played by Elizabeth Aspenlieder in what has to be a bad date gone horribly wrong.
In picking this play, Simotes told me he knew he was potentially courting some controversy. You can’t do theatre that touches people without it. Now some will point out that Shakespeare never used f-bombs in any of his plays, and besides, he was far too clever to repeat himself. (People who use that phrase work it to death, like a facial tic it seems.) But the old master was far from delicate as this line of Lady Macbeth clearly illustrates:
“I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”
The point of theatre is not to bore, but to illuminate, and the script of Parasite Drag by Mark Roberts does more to capture the deteriorating social contract in the 21st Century than a year of op-ed columns in the Berkshire Eagle. Perhaps some families have always been misfits and Parasite Drag allows us to gape at these emotional train-wrecks with fresh eyes. Certainly under Steve Rothman’s brilliant direction, the play becomes an escalating series of horrible revelations that makes its story ever more repulsive and hypnotic. In his interview with Berkshire on Stage, Rothman suggested that this play is Pulitzer Prize material, and it is right up there with August: Osage County and Clybourne Park, but it is no Streetcar Named Desiree or Long Day’s Jurney into Night. Roberts mines these theatrical connections making the characters incredibly familiar to begin with even as they damn themselves with their actions.
Parasite Drag is not for everyone, far from it. Older audiences may have trouble navigating through many of its more intense passages, and come away hating the play because they can’t stand the characters. And they are, for the most part, pretty repulsive acting folks, but that is exactly the point.
What works for the play is that it can open up family issues that many of us have experienced and that certain topics such as death and scandal always seem to get shoved into the back of the closet, never to be talked about sober; so they are never aired and finally exorcised from their nagging ability to undermine everything we do in life.
Of course, if your family life was close to ideal, then this play will disturb you and unsettle you, maybe even question its realism, and question why it was chosen. If that’s the case, revel in your naïveté. But if things growing up were not quite so genteel and ordinary, you may find much to identify with here, and a sort of catharsis, and the healing that flows from that.
For those reasons this was a risky play to include in the 2012 season, but it is one that some of us will remember for a long time.
Special Event: Parasite Drag Playwright Mark Roberts and Director Stephen Rothman will be on hand for a special Talk Back on Saturday, July 14 following the 3 PM matinee. It is free with the purchase of a ticket to the July 14th performance.
MichaelToomey is one of the founders of Split Knuckle Theatre and just its name should give you an inkling as to what these guys are up to…jesters fighting, clowns clowning, and actors miming. Underlying everything they do are a million possibilities. The company members studied under the French master actor Jacques Lecoq, whose own introduction to theatre came via the basketball court and the gym. While some actors and companies are driven to discover the psychological underpinnings of the characters they play, Split Knuckle goes even further, looking for the physical cues that will convey the same story, the same depth of emotion.
Endurance derives its name from the ship involved in the voyage of Antarctic explorer Sir Edward Shackleton and his crew of adventurers. Using the techniques of the L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, Split Knuckle conflates it with the realities of life inside a present day insurance conglomerate. Unlikely topics to be combined on stage, but with wit and determination – and endless hours of improv – what we see on stage works. Brilliantly.
While Paradise Drag hammers you with its story, Endurance is far more subtle, filled with thousands of small details that jump out at you if you focus closely, or flow as naturally as water if you let the story flow over you. To begin with there are things that are there, and things that are not there. By that I mean the papers they shuffle in the insurance office are real, tactile props, while the glasses used in the after-work socializing at a nearby bar are not. Yet the actor’s mime is so perfect you see them, you understand when one actor wipes his mouth after having a swig of beer.
So too the desks and coatracks become a vessel forging across the tumultuous seas on the journey to Elephant Island. You can feel the cold, the spray of a raging sea as their lives hang in the balance. Each of the four men – Jason Bohon, Andew Grusetskie, Michael F. Toomey and Greg Webster take on multiple roles as the story shifts from the safety of the office to the bitter cold of the ice pack.
In fashioning the tale we see, it turns out that the office is as dangerous a place to invest your life as an ice pack. The ice swallows men whole. The huge conglomerate eats workers up and spits them out. Initially the quartet is spared a layoff but finds itself exploited mercilessly, working to exhaustion to make up in streamlining and innovation what the company lacks in self awareness and leadership. In the end it is all for naught, their extra efforts rewarded with not being fired, but instead laid off. But they find they have used that most human of traits, optimism as the key to their personal survival, and that neither corporation nor the natural environment make adjustments out of sympathy. Ice will melt. Corporations will go Chapter 9 or 11. We can survive even as they disappear.
That this brilliant piece of theatre can hold an audience’s attention for 90 minutes is possible only if you give a little of yourself to what is happening on stage, it requires that the mind not wander. The company uses very few things beyond their hands and legs to create the illusion of a skyscraper complete with elevators and security devices. LeCoq was a student of Jean-Louis Barrault who also taught Marcel Marceau. The mime is hilarious and magical at the same time.
The four actors had the biggest challenge in creating the HMS Endurance and conveying how it gets crushed by the sea ice. With lighting, misdirection and vitually nothing more than a desk and wastebaskets, the actors gaze leads us to imagine it slowly yielding its life, sinking into the depths the Polar Sea.
Of course, these things never really happen on stage.
Yet it is odd how vivid these moments are in the memory when in reality it was nothing more than clever theatrical illusion. What Hollywood spends millions on in computer graphics is accomplished with some skill and imagination.
Split Knuckle is a treasure, highly entertaining and yet helping to redefine theatre. Its source of creativity is the same tool box that actors have always used, the human imagination.
Tony Simotes is surely on to something with both these fresh new works, the kind that perks up the interest of younger theatre-goers while proving to us old hands that there the possibilities of theatre continues to be endless.
Endurance plays June 28 to July 15 at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company.
Earlier review of Endurance by Burns and Turner: Read me.
Parasite Drag plays from June 20 to September 2, 2012 at the Elayne P.Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company.
Earlier review of Parasite Drag by Burns and Cane: Read Me.