[ theater reviews ]
The Assassination of Jesse James
The ensemble-created The Assassination of Jesse James, directed by Brenna Geffers, explores the myth and matter of the famous bank robber (1847-1882) in a broadly theatrical style with a twist: James, his gang and his pursuers are all played by women (costumed with veracity by Natalia de la Torre), adding another interpretive layer to the tale of America’s first celebrity outlaw.
Melanie Julian (pictured) makes James a brooding loner, both inspired and repulsed by his hero “Bloody Bill” Anderson, whose executions of Union prisoners James witnessed as a teenager serving in his Confederate guerilla force. Amanda Schoonover plays James’ wife Zee, and also an infiltrator scheming to capture the famous killer. Kate Brennan’s Charlie Ford is torn between loyalty to James and obligation to her callow brother Robert, played by Colleen Hughes, and Maria Konstantinidis serves admirably in multiple roles and leads the show’s singing. All are detailed, genuine portrayals, all the more impressive for the skill with which the actors transform into a rich variety of supporting characters.
Geffers’ fascinating production maintains a documentary feel. The ensemble often steps out of character to quote direct sources, establishing how James’ exploits were immediately fictionalized (his Robin Hood reputation was pure invention) via the propaganda war he waged to justify his bloody crimes. This production tries to cut away the legend. The gang’s pangs of conscience, the bleakness of life on the run and an unromantic portrayal of violence counter the allure of the grinning, boyish outlaw that’s James’ legacy. When James says, “I don’t know how to be a-feared,” it’s not with the jaw-clenched, squinting certainty of a typical male action hero; in Julian’s complex portrayal, it’s a realization of limitations.
It’s oversimplifying to credit femininity for this humanizing approach, but our awareness of girls pretending to be boys who want to be men highlights the play’s anti-myth insights. Jesse James offers an entertaining glimpse of late-19th-century culture and its relevance to modern issues of celebrity and “reality.” The play’s dark epilogue explaining the survivors’ fates shows that no one associated with James could maintain, let alone profit from, his mythical status for long.
Through Oct. 28, $25-$50, Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Pl., 267-273-1414, egopo.org.
A Slow Air
The starkness of Meghan Jones’ scenic design — steel support beams, a suggested airport runway, battered bar furniture — doesn’t hint at the rich, intimate family story that develops in Scottish playwright David Harrower’s A Slow Air. The bleak picture, completed by a video screen showing distant planes slowly crossing blue skies, forces us to consider how the story of estranged brother and sister, Athol (Brian McCann) and Morna (Emma Gibson), relates to larger issues in director Tom Reing’s production with Inis Nua.
The personal tale is satisfying enough, really. Gibson and McCann are fascinating as the middle-aged sibs (with convincingly thick Glaswegian accents) making moves toward reconnecting after 14 years. The catalyst is Morna’s son, who makes a clumsy attempt to bring his mother and uncle together on his 21st birthday, and as the reunion approaches, the monologues begin to merge as the suspense mounts. Harrower, introduced to local audiences through Theatre Exile’s gripping productions of his equally challenging Blackbird and Knives in Hens, unspools their intersecting tales in a series of alternating monologues over a sleek 75 minutes.
If you’re wondering where the planes come in, this is all tied to the failed terrorist attack on the Glasgow Airport on June 30, 2007, when two men drove a Jeep packed with explosives through the doors. (In Harrower’s world, the would-be terrorists lived in Athol’s neighborhood.) Actual TV news reports from the attack, projected on the back screen, occasionally punctuate scenes. What’s disturbing about them is how undisturbing they are; more than a decade after 9/11, we’re far too accustomed to how TV news portrays violence and its aftermath.
The global issues resulting in the terrorist attack don’t dovetail exactly with the family split, but that makes its own point: Life, unlike most fiction, doesn’t make obvious connections between interpersonal and international situations. But juxtaposing them forces us to mull the parallels.
Through Oct. 21, $20-$25, Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom St., 215-454-9776, inisnuatheatre.org.
The past 30 years have seen a fall in Kennedy stock. The family that once represented heroism and sacrifice tends to be portrayed now as a collection of power- and sex-hungry vulgarians — from Camelot to “came a lot,” as it were. So it’s heartening to see a positive spin in Jack Holmes’ small-scale, touching one-man play RFK.
It’s possible that people under 50 won’t instantly know that RFK is JFK’s younger brother, Robert Francis Kennedy. A quick bio: As his brother’s attorney general, RFK famously cracked down on organized crime and enforced civil rights. After John Kennedy’s death, he won a seat in the Senate and became a presidential front-runner himself in 1968, but was assassinated the night he won the California primary.
Historical monodramas are, for me, a tough sell. Almost always, they oversimplify and overpraise. And what is an actor to do when playing someone who is instantly recognizable?
RFK mostly avoids these potential pitfalls. Russ Widdall’s no ringer for Robert Kennedy, but he’s a fine actor who clearly connects with the character. He’s mastered the accent and vocal mannerisms, and looks just enough like Kennedy that it’s not jarring to see him next to actual newsreel footage (one of the many forms of period media employed in a sort of recurring collage by director Ginger Dayle — ideally, this conceit would be more seamlessly executed, but somehow the almost-homemade quality emphasizes the humanity behind the whole enterprise).
Robert Kennedy was a controversial figure, dogged by allegations of high-handed manipulation. But the person we see here is an enormously likeable, deeply principled man who continually worked to prove himself worthy of his family name. (A trope in RFK is that the Kennedys overlooked and underestimated this middle child.) It’s fair to say the show is pretty much a love letter to its subject, but what makes it work is that it’s at least as much about the political turmoil he lived through — and fought to change — as it is about the man himself. Vietnam and civil rights are front and center, as they should be.
RFK will be self-recommending to many people, but I hope some younger audiences get there, too. The show — and RFK himself — deserves it.
Through Oct. 21, $24-$26, The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., 215-563-7500, newcitystage.org.
—David Anthony Fox
A Bright New Boise
We know right away that the title of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2011 Obie Award-winning play A Bright New Boise is ironic — the play is set in a bleakly recognizable box-store employee break room, where beleaguered Hobby Lobby manager Pauline (Catherine Palfenier, pictured) interviews shy, older Will (Kevin Bergen, also pictured) for a minimum-wage retail job. It’s 38 hours a week (which is part-time, two hours shy of full-time and benefits). Yes, in director Jill Harrison’s terrific production, we’re in a uniquely American hell.
The audience — sitting on opposite sides of Ian Guzzone’s wonderfully terrible little room, fluorescent-lit by David Todaro — soon sees that Hunter has plans beyond depicting minimum-wage misery. When Will’s small talk with surly teen coworker Alex (Aubie Merrylees) falters, he blurts out that he is Alex’s father. “You’d better not need a kidney,” the kid sneers.
Will arrives penniless, but with baggage: He’s a survivor of the New Life Fellowship, which preached end times until scandal destroyed them. Will still believes, writing Rapture fiction on his blog. Alex’s adoptive brother Leroy (Robert Carlton) tries to drive Will away — “This is me deliberately making you uncomfortable,” he glowers — while shy reader Anna (Jessica DalCanton) finds Will’s hobby alluring. All seek something to believe in: Leroy trusts his feeble art, Anna wants a man, Pauline’s god is a profitable store, Alex needs family.
Father and son make lurching progress as Will, in Bergen’s masterfully understated performance, struggles to maintain his battered religious identity despite his new world’s temptations — particularly the heartbreakingly lonely Anna. “One day, none of this will matter,” Will insists, but he begins to hope for more.
Hunter’s ending surprises with its suddenness — it shocked me, I think, because I was so invested in the characters and not ready to let them go — but an incisive script and the cast’s fine performances help us realize that providing no easy answers is sometimes the right answer. Through Oct. 21, $10-$22, Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St., 215-423-0254, simpaticotheatre.org.
Next to Normal
In a moment, I’ll get to the business at hand — the Arden’s fine, visually stunning production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. But first, please allow me to vent.
May we have a universal moratorium on heaping accolades on new musicals for bravely taking on difficult subject matter? It’s 2012, people. Stephen Sondheim has made an almost 60-year career of it, and he and his works are hardly the first. How about Show Boat, which in 1927 took on racism and family upheaval with a richly complex score? Or, closer to Normal’s turf, Oklahoma! (1943), in which Jud Fry’s mental illness is astonishingly captured in the song “Lonely Room,” which for me remains the most brilliantly disquieting two-and-a-half minutes of theater ever. And if we include opera as musical theater, well, mad scenes were regularly employed to showcase a heroine’s mental descent. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (one of many possible examples) fiendishly presses every tool of a soprano’s vocal arsenal into service over 20 electrifying minutes.
So instead of pulling out terms like “groundbreaking innovation” to describe Normal — a 2008 musical that deals forthrightly with bipolar disorder and the dysfunction it causes in the Goodman family (mentally ill wife Diana, husband Dan and their two teenage children, Gabe and Natalie) — let’s ask a better question. Just how good is it?
The answer is mixed. Normal is finely plotted, with some twists and turns along the way that surprise and draw us in both emotionally and intellectually. The writers Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) have an ear for how young people speak and think, so moments like Natalie’s song, “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” feel truly genuine. The score itself is varied, often lovely and sometimes powerful (occasionally both).
But neither script nor score bring us deeply enough into the Goodmans’ world of inner demons. Diana in particular seems far more on-the-edge than anything we hear in her songs. (Dark moods are routinely evoked by electric guitar and drums, which made me smile — I guess rock ’n’ roll is the devil’s music, after all.)
Ultimately, Normal leaves much of the character-defining work to the performers. This is probably a good time to mention Alice Ripley, who created the role of Diana and played it for a celebrated stretch on and off Broadway, and whose iconic performance remains for many inseparable from the show. Ripley is a compelling, highly idiosyncratic actress whose high-wire virtuoso vocalism was thrilling, by all accounts. But her performances became increasingly erratic over her two-year run as Diana — some nights, she seemed several continents away from normal.
That’s certainly not the case with Kristine Fraelich (pictured), whose performance of Diana is a model of vocal control. Each note is placed perfectly, and there’s nothing in the difficult score that seems to tax her. If anything, she sounds fresher at the end than she did at the beginning. But though such blue-chip, effortless-feeling vocals are generally welcome in musicals, here, Fraelich, an appealing but placid actress, doesn’t suggest the scope of Diana’s pain. “I miss the mountains,” she sings plaintively — appropriate, as her performance needs more peaks and valleys. Among the other cast members, Rachel Camp is especially winning as Natalie, but across the board there should be more underlying tension.
On the other hand, the musical values are universally strong, and Terrence J. Nolen’s sleek, minimalist production gets Normal exactly right, with video projections (by Jorge Cousineau) that are astonishingly apt and interesting. (It may seem like a backhanded compliment to praise the visuals in a musical, but there you are.)
There’s much to admire in Normal, which is served honorably at the Arden. But if you really want to see how sparks can fly at the intersection of musical theater and psychodrama, check out Lucia di Lammermoor — now that’s brave.
Through Nov. 4, $36-$48, Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St., 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.
—David Anthony Fox