28 November 2015

"Broadway's Anonymous Stars"

by Peter Marks

[On 3 January 2014, I came across a 19-year-old article on the New York Times’ website that struck me as an interesting glimpse inside professional theater.  I’ve posted several such articles from various sources over the years now, pieces about stage managers and dance captains   My friend Kirk Woodward wrote an article on being a Broadway investor in “Broadway Angel” (7 September 2010).  This time, I thought a look at the actors who replace the original stars in long-running shows, the actors who have all the chops of the famous stars (some of whom became stars because of this role) but whose names we often don’t know.  It’s not a Ruby Keeler world, as you’ll read: These actors didn’t go on stage as youngsters and come back stars.  They just did their jobs, excellently in most cases, and went on to other roles.  Peter Marks’s “Broadway’s Anonymous Stars” was posted on 2 Feb. 1996 (http://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/02/theater/broadway-s-anonymous-stars.html).]

They have no entourages, no bodyguards, no marquee billing. They are headliners who make no headlines, household names who are known chiefly in their own households. When they walk the streets, no autograph hounds seek them out. When they go to work, it’s not by limousine, but on the IRT.

Oh, for the life of a Broadway star.

Yes, Julie Andrews can pack them in for a lavish musical and Ralph Fiennes can cause a stampede for Shakespeare and Carol Burnett can fill a theater with the promise of a Tarzan call. But there is another breed of star on Broadway these days, one for whom the relationship to an audience can best be described as stranger to stranger. The parts they play are big: they are among the most demanding and familiar in the contemporary musical theater. But talk about the fleetingness of fame. Here are actors who are famous only in costume.

It is a whole new category of celebrityhood: anonymous Broadway stardom. It is conferred, most often, on actors who take over the leading roles in the long-running mega-musicals, shows like “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Beauty and the Beast,” which were built to survive through time without having to rely on big-name players. By the time these replacement actors are cast, the original performers are long gone. The only remaining star is the show itself.

You know the roles, but probably not the people who fill them. Does the name Craig Schulman ring a bell? At the Imperial Theater, Mr. Schulman is Jean Valjean, the epic role at the heart of “Les Miserables” originated by Colm Wilkinson. How about Joan Almedilla? She is the unknown who was recently cast as Kim, the Vietnamese heroine of “Miss Saigon” and the part that made Lea Salonga a known. Or Davis Gaines? An actor from Florida with a powerful voice, he has played the Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera” in Los Angeles and New York 1,675 times, a record unmatched by Michael Crawford or any other actor in modern Phantom history.

“I’ve counted the number of Christines I’ve acted it with,” Mr. Gaines said, referring to the character with whom the Phantom falls in love. “It’s now up to 10.”

But no matter how many times Mr. Gaines professes the Phantom’s devotion for this, that or the other Christine, the part will never really be his, in the original-cast-album sense of who puts his stamp on a musical role. It is the poignant problem that every anonymous Broadway star faces: despite getting the role of a lifetime, they still pine for a role of a lifetime that they can call their own.

“When I found out that I got the part, my sister goes, ‘You’re a Broadway star,’ “ said Liz Callaway, who for three years has sung the show-stopping “Memory” as Grizabella in “Cats,” the part that earned Betty Buckley a Tony. (Ms. Callaway’s sister, Ann Hampton Callaway, is a singer with whom she has performed in cabarets.) “I’m like: ‘What? Yeah, right.’ I don’t feel like a star at all. Not at all.”

Ms. Callaway is no stranger to Broadway. She herself was nominated for a Tony for her performance in the 1983 musical “Baby.” (Such is the roller-coaster nature of the business that 18 months later, a jobless Ms. Callaway went to work in a gift shop on the Upper East Side.) But the stardom question does not weigh too heavily on her. She commutes to her Grizabella job from a house in Westchester County that she shares with her husband, Dan Foster, a stage director, and their 4-year-old son, Nicholas. The part she owes to talent. The house she owes to “Cats.”

“I could never have bought it without ‘Cats,’ “ Ms. Callaway said on a recent weekday evening before getting into costume. During the house hunting, a mortgage broker had expressed doubt about the couple’s financial stability after Ms. Callaway gave her occupation as actress. But the broker perked up, she said, when she explained that she was in the now-and-forever production of “Cats.”

“This was very impressive to a mortgage broker,” she said.

And this, of course, is one of the great things about landing a mega-part, no matter how many people have played it before. The role may be a bit frayed around the edges, but the paycheck is always crisp. (The weekly salary for a replacement actor in a major role can be quite substantial, sometimes in the mid-four figures.)

What follows is a brief Broadway tour through the lives of five actors who day in and day out must put thoughts of their theatrical legacy aside and try to find ways to make their famous roles their own. It is not an easy job. In fact, it is one of the toughest assignments on the street.

Craig Schulman

Some people may think that a big part means a coddled actor. Mr. Schulman once imagined that, too. “I was thinking Champagne and limos,” he said. “Here I am, riding the 104 bus.”

“Les Miserables” has been a part of Mr. Schulman’s life since September 1987, when he was offered a role in the ensemble and as understudy for the actor playing Jean Valjean in the show’s national tour. Having trained as an opera singer, Mr. Schulman, a native of Commack, L.I., did not fully appreciate what the part could mean to his career. When he wavered, a friend yelled at him: “What are you, nuts? Take it!”

He did, and so began Mr. Schulman’s immersion in what he calls “the ‘Les Miz’ community.” (Mega-musicals are not just shows, it seems; they are tight social networks.) Not long after he joined the show, he took over the lead in Boston. And on Jan. 15, 1990, three years after the musical made its Broadway debut, Mr. Schulman made his.

Sometimes, being a replacement can seem a little like trying to shout in a soundproof room: does the outside world ever hear? “Even though I haven’t gotten the publicity or media accolades I’d like to have had, the buzz within the ‘Les Miz’ community is that this is the performance to beat,” said Mr. Schulman, 39, adding that he was chosen from among the various Valjeans to represent the United States at the show’s 10th anniversary concert in London last October.

Having established a reputation as a standout Valjean -- some critics have said his performance is on a par with Mr. Wilkinson’s -- Mr. Schulman leaves and returns to the show like a professor on sabbatical. Recently he signed a new six-month contract. He had tried to negotiate a better deal for himself, but was successful in only one area.

“I got them to pay for my parking,” he said.

Davis Gaines

Like Mr. Schulman, Mr. Gaines had worked his way up the musical ladder to become the eighth Broadway Phantom. But there is a mystique to the Phantom that makes it even more of a star purn than the other big mega-musical parts. (Norma Desmond, in “Sunset Boulevard,” is in a different league, in that the show’s producers have frequently gone to well-known actresses for both the original casts and replacements. Only for the road company have the producers hired an unknown.)

Thus Mr. Gaines has his own cult following and fan club. Even he is a little stunned by the part’s magic. “It still amazes me, the power that the Phantom has,” he said. “When people find out that’s what you do, they act as if they’re meeting the President.”

Since his face is obscured by a mask for much of the show, the 37-year-old actor often has to explain, out of makeup, exactly what it is that he does. It certainly is an icebreaker. “I was flying back to New York from Los Angeles,” Mr. Gaines said, “and the stewardess said: ‘Excuse me, were you the Phantom? You’re the most important person I’ve ever had on my flight!’

The actor has a hard time squaring the Phantom’s charisma with his decidedly un-Phantomlike image of himself growing up in Orlando, Fla. “People look up to me as something bigger than life,” he said. “I see myself as this scrawny little nerd in glasses that everyone made fun of.”

And yet, despite the job’s perks -- “It’s changed my life,” he said; “I bought a home in L.A.” -- Mr. Gaines is not anxious to take on someone else’s part again any time soon. What he craves is a role for which he would have to be replaced. “I’d like to originate a role,” he said. “I’d like to do a new show, or even an interesting revival.”

Joan Almedilla

Miss Almedilla’s story could be the basis for a musical on its own: with virtually no previous acting experience, she landed a lead in “Miss Saigon.”

It has all happened so quickly to this 22-year-old from Cebu city in the Philippines that she seems almost unable to take it all in. She says that even after the producers’ representatives told her last June to start learning the part, she did not fully grasp that it was hers. “When people asked, ‘Did you get the part?’ I didn’t really know at first,” she said.

Sitting in an office a block from the Broadway Theater, where “Miss Saigon” is playing, Miss Almedilla laughed at her own naivete. When she made her debut last summer, she was filled with the sort of self-doubt that even her more experienced colleagues in replacement roles often feel: could she handle such a big part? Did the producers simply want a re-enactment of the role as played by Ms. Salonga? (This is the most oft-repeated complaint among the replacement actors. “When you replace someone, they want you to do a carbon copy,” one said.)

Miss Almedilla, who says that she has a lot to learn about the theater (she is taking acting lessons at the moment), knew enough to perform it as she saw fit. “Every day, I try to create more technique, learn how to be more natural,” she said. “I never get tired.”

Still, it is a solitary sort of life. She lives with her parents in East Meadow, L.I., and each afternoon, she takes the train into the city and walks over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Deeply religious, she sits there in silence to “get my strength.” And after each show, her parents sit in their car by the stage door, waiting to drive their daughter home. 

Jeff McCarphy

Mr. McCarthy’s 6-year-old daughter, Anna, has an original reply when asked what her father does.

“My daddy is the Beast,” she says.

This is no reflection on Mr. McCarthy’s skills as a parent. He is, indeed, the character of that name in “Beauty and the Beast,” a role originated by Terrence Mann, and for which Mr. McCarthy is rendered all but unrecognizable eight times a week under a mane and fangs and breastplate. They take about 45 minutes to put on.

Mr. McCarthy, 40, had done a number of musical roles onstage over the years, but he was working in television, and living with his family in California, when the offer came to play a big hairy creature in a Disney musical.

Like the other actors, he is pragmatic about the tradeoff the role requires. “I have children now, and I have some financial responsibilities,” he said; he and his wife had a second daughter, Juliet, seven months ago.

At a time when musicals run for decades and longer, a part like the Beast or the Phantom can become a pleasant sinecure.

But for an ambitious actor, such a comfortable position can become a trap. Mr. McCarthy is quick to point out that no options have been closed to him as a result of taking the role, and that he would not stay long enough to be regarded in the industry as an actor who replaces other actors.

But then again, it’s a tough gig to relinquish. “God knows,” he said, “the money’s good.”

Liz Callaway

Ms. Callaway says playing a role that others have played, singing a hit song that others have sung and not having the responsibility for filling the seats the way above-the-title stars are expected to is not a bad way to earn a living.

And yet there is something missing. “They don’t give Tony Awards for replacements,” she said. “That’s the only thing different about being a replacement. There’s nothing like opening a Broadway show.”

She knows of what she speaks. In the New York production of “Miss Saigon,” she created the role of Ellen, the wife of the American serviceman who falls in love with the Vietnam bar girl. As the latest in a long line of Grizabellas, on the other hand, there is nothing much left to patent. The satisfactions come in performing well and in keeping up the quality of the show, long after friends and neighbors and most of the inhabitants of the metropolitan region have seen it.

Ms. Callaway, 34, has found a cozy niche. And though she is in no particular rush to leave, there are nights when she hankers for a different life. “Sometimes, when I sing my song at 20 after 10, it’s exhausting,” she said. “I think to myself: I should be home watching ‘Law and Order.’

It just goes to show you: a job is a job is a job.

[Marks was the New York Times’ Off-Broadway theater review-writer from 1996 to 1999.  Since 2002, he’s been the chief theater reviewer for the Washington Post.]

23 November 2015

"How to Free Speech"

by Lee C. Bollinger

[I have several pet topics, as occasional readers of ROT will probably have discovered by now.  Arts education and arts in the schools is one, writing and teaching writing is another.  But threaded though all of those and other concerns is my devotion to free speech and the freedom of expression, a subject on which I’ve blogged many times now.  “How to Free Speech” by Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University, published on 15 February 2015 in the “Outlook” section of the Washington Post, is a unique discussion of free speech.  I feel it’s ROT’s mission to share such considerations with the readers of the blog in the hope that the ideas contained in them will spread around.]

Americans figured it out just 50 years ago. Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger explains how the world can follow our lead.

We have been negotiating between the new and the old, the foreign and the familiar, tolerance and censorship forever. But digital communications and global commerce are remaking the world: Last year, there were more than 1 billion international travelers. Some 2.7 billion people around the world are online. Smartphones and satellite dishes are the symbols of our time, pushing people everywhere to demand more control over their futures, greater openness and more responsiveness from governments.

These trends draw previously separate cultures into contact with one another: Turkish soap operas are popular in the Balkans, and Taiwanese animators skewer Scottish secession efforts. But technologies that convene different cultures do not always help them interact peacefully, as the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher grocery show.

As those tensions rise, governments and reactionary groups resort to nationalism, victimization and suppression to keep foreign or offending speech at bay. The Pew Research Center found that, as of 2011, nearly half of the world’s countries punished blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. Russia has just legislated harsher punishments for those guilty of offending religious sensibilities, and violent protests in Pakistan halted attempts to soften anti-­blasphemy laws. China employs more than 2 million people to monitor online activity and support government censorship, according to the BBC. And last year, the ownership of Venezuela’s oldest daily newspaper, El Universal, changed hands under mysterious circumstances, a move accompanied by a much softer editorial stance toward the government. These salvos against freedom of speech and the press force the question: Can the global society emerging today also be a tolerant one?

To Americans, that debate can feel very foreign, especially when it results in Paris-­style violence. After all, our respect for First Amendment freedoms is one of the few values that still rises above partisan politics.

But in truth, the protections for uninhibited expression in this country are just a half-century old. They were not attained quickly or easily, nor were they simply a product of judicial edict. They took hold because they emerged from larger forces that are visible again today around the world: expanding economic markets, quantum leaps in communications technology and a set of urgent social problems solvable only through previously unavailable levels of concerted action. The way that Americans learned to adapt to changing times, and to tolerate discordant views, shows how others can, too.

Contrary to what most people think, our modern conception of freedom of speech and press is a relatively recent phenomenon — one not fully formed until the 1960s. The first Supreme Court decisions about the meaning of the First Amendment did not come until 1919, and in its debut the amendment did not fare well. World War I and the emergence of Russian communism had spread fear and intolerance in the West: A prominent Socialist, a German-­language newspaper editor and Eugene Debs , a frequent candidate for President of the United States, were convicted of crimes for speech that today would certainly be protected. In the opening case, Schenck v. United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. authored a unanimous decision upholding Socialist Charles Schenck’s conviction and voiced the memorable (if inapt) analogy that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

But this was only the beginning of America’s halting evolution into a far more tolerant society. A repentant Holmes and his brilliant new colleague, Justice Louis Brandeis, wrote eloquent dissents in later cases that began to steer our jurisprudence in a different direction, leading eventually to Near v. Minnesota, a 1931 decision banning government censorship in advance of publication and establishing the doctrine of “prior restraint,” which later allowed this newspaper to publish stories based on the Pentagon Papers. In 1940, Cantwell v. Connecticut held that an anti-­Catholic message was shielded from state interference intended to protect perceived religious sensibilities from offense.

Progress stalled in the 1950s, amid the Cold War and the witch hunts of McCarthyism. In Dennis v. United States, the court upheld the convictions of 11 Communist Party leaders for advocating the overthrow of the government. In Beauharnais v. Illinois, the court allowed the state to punish the distribution of a leaflet by a white supremacist on the grounds that Illinois’ troubled history provided ample reason for alarm about racial violence. A powerful culture of “states’ rights” preserved a constitutional policy of deference to local control.

All this was about to change. It was common at the time for judges to elevate state libel protections above the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and the press, inhibiting what many newspapers were willing to publish. In 1964, the Supreme Court overruled one such decision out of Alabama, in New York Times v. Sullivan, and declared the “central meaning” of the First Amendment to be the right of citizens to discuss public issues, including criticism of public officials. In this case involving the civil rights movement, the justices unanimously committed America to a realm of expression in which debate would be “uninhibited, robust, and wide­open.” Sullivan was widely understood, right away, to have established a national norm, and it was followed by numerous decisions expanding on this new sensibility.

But in a broader sense, the court was ratifying sweeping changes that were already turning the United States into a truly national American society (foreshadowing the transition to a global society occurring today). By the time of the Sullivan ruling, 90 percent of U.S. families owned televisions, which had been novelties just a decade or so earlier. The government had constructed an interstate highway system, and air travel was becoming much more common. Regional disparities in per capita income fell, reflecting the emergence of a national commercial marketplace. Uninvolved white Northerners contended for the first time, thanks to TV news, with the graphic bigotry of Jim Crow, helping to forge a cohesive national culture that contained a growing moral conscience. Traditionally local issues suddenly became national ones. And Americans needed a set of standards to govern the exchange of information and ideas. Sullivan and its progeny were merely the capstone to this process, yet the ruling had a huge effect: It gave the United States the strongest freedom­-of-­expression jurisprudence in the world, perhaps in history.

Of course, the extraordinary protections here did not signal the end of our debates over the First Amendment. Nor do they mean that intolerance and suppression are now alien to American society. In my own world, for instance, protesters pushed a number of colleges and universities to disinvite admirable public servants who were scheduled to deliver commencement addresses last spring. So we should tread cautiously before casting judgment on foreign governments and their people. Still, these are footnotes to a profound, far­-reaching ethos that embraces freedom of thought and expression.

The collision of forces we faced (and mostly sorted out) is now evident all over the world. Issues that until recently were matters of local prerogative, such as representations of the prophet Muhammad, are often geographically unconfined. With unrestrained exposure and access, emboldened individuals are banding together with their fellow citizens, making their governments feel besieged by their unexpected new demands. For now at least, a chief effect of the global forum is to generate resistance from those who perceive the new world as a threat.

Governments whose authority is ebbing have been increasingly brazen in their attempts to silence critics. Turkey used charges of tax fraud and massive fines against a conglomerate of newspapers and TV stations critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies. Hungary’s government established a media authority to impose restrictions on content deemed inappropriate.

To counter these regressive trends, it is critical that we nurture the norms, laws and institutions needed to support free expression globally. There is a sound foundation on which to build. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly after World War II and subsequently reaffirmed by the nations of the world, unequivocally asserts the freedom of expression and the right to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Just as, over the past century, the First Amendment moved from the periphery of America’s civic consciousness to its center, Article 19 must gain a similar familiarity, globally.

The surest way to make this happen is to harness the prevailing international commitment to free markets and a global economic system, which demands the open sharing of information. For example, Washington should signal the economic importance of ideas by developing a new international trade regime that protects journalism, academia and digital information. The administration has already gestured in this direction by urging the World Trade Organization to investigate how Chinese censorship blocks commerce and not just speech.

Next, the U.S. government should insist that regional and bilateral trade pacts commit all parties to the free flow of information and ideas integral to trade and investment. The Trans­Pacific Partnership agreement being negotiated by the U.S. trade representative, for instance, should contain not only provisions concerning the environment and labor standards, but also vigorous protections for freedom of information and expression. Columbia’s own Global Freedom of Expression and Information project is cataloguing international legal precedents on freedom of speech, and next month it will present the first awards for legal attempts to strengthen international norms.

Given the breadth of attacks on speech and the press around the globe, this approach may appear to elevate hope over experience. Yet as tragic and worrisome as setbacks such as Paris are, they are small impediments to titanic forces that must ultimately lead to greater and greater openness. It will, no doubt, take a long time. But the American experience shows that the backlash to new ideas and cultures, now evident in many countries, can be overcome. The yearning for freedom of expression is universal. There is nothing uniquely American about it at all.

[Lee C. Bollinger has been president of Columbia University since 2002 and is the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century (Oxford University Press, 2010).]

18 November 2015

Arts In Schools

[There was a lot of press coverage this year of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, which came around this past August.  The devastation hit the schools particularly hard, but there have been rays of hope and vast improvements in the ensuing decade.  Readers of ROT will know that education and especially arts education is a singular interest of mine.  So I’ve put together two articles, one from CBS Television and the other from the Washington Post, that both report on how the arts in schools have benefited the schools, their students, and the community.]

by Michelle Miller

NEW ORLEANS – There was a talent show at the White House Tuesday, and the first lady was right in the middle of it. The performers go to troubled schools that have added the arts to their core curriculum to try to turn them around.

It’s an Obama administration program that has been so successful, it was expanded Tuesday to a total of 35 schools.

With so much rhythm in the room, it’s hard to imagine music nearly died at one New Orleans school. But four years ago, everything was failing at the school, now known as the Renew Cultural Arts Academy.

Fewer than 15 percent of students could read at grade level. It was one of the lowest testing schools in Louisiana.

“I heard from friends that there was a lot of stuff going on, like fights, and teachers weren’t really teaching,” says seventh-grader Angela Russell. Angela didn’t want to come to the school, but she says things are different since the school decided to put more emphasis on arts education.

“I like everything about being here,” she says. “It’s, like, the first school I’ve ever really enjoyed.”

Now students like Angela count the measures in band or stand up in math class to act out a bar graph.

“It’s not just to have a music education class, you know, during the school day or after school,” says Ron Gubitz, the elementary school principal. “But it’s actually to use the music and use visual arts and use theater to teach core content.”

With the new curriculum, the school has seen a 20 point rise in standardized tests over five years – plenty of room for improvement, but enough to earn recognition from the White House. Renew is one of the Turnaround schools granted funding to hire more arts teachers, tripling the time kids spend learning the arts.

“We’ve been doing that work to set a template so that any school sees that it’s possible to do this,” says actress Alfre Woodard, who volunteers at the school. “Enrollment stays steady, or it goes up, behavioral problems go down and the culture of the schools are transformed.”

It’s transformed sixth-grader Jarred Gray.

“I was bad,” he admits. “I would get put out of class a lot.”

With his classmates, he just took his first-ever plane ride – to the White House.

Jarred says when he found out he was going to the White House, “I fainted.”

“I got home and I was like, ‘Wait, I’m going to Washington,’ and I laid in my bed and I was like, ‘Oh, goodness,’” he recalls.

Music woke him up – and brought his school back to life.

[Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms.  Her work regularly appears on the CBS Evening News, CBS This Morning, and CBS Sunday Morning.  She joined CBS News in 2004.  This report was aired on the CBS Evening News on 20 May 2014.]

*  *  *  *
by Krissah Thompson

[This article, which appeared in the “Style” section of the Washington Post on 21 May 2014, reports on a program that’s been extraordinarily successful in reviving not only the strengths of the city’s education system, but the resilience and confidence of the students and their families, not only in the schools, but in their city as well.]

The first White House talent show was a little retro and at turns kitchy and cute. Children, invited to show how arts education had helped their underperforming schools, were the main attraction. But a few celebrities assisted.

The East Room, typically a showcase for a portrait of Martha Washington, was bathed in neon orange, green and red lights and served as a stage on Tuesday afternoon. A piano player sat in the corner.

Michelle Obama, who was seated front row, appeared to be thrilled as she took in performances by children from six of the eight schools selected to participate in an arts program backed by the federal government. The students moved to African beats, played tribal tunes on xylophones and performed spoken word pieces during a program that lasted an hour and a half.

A handful of celebrities joined in, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Alfre Woodard, who volunteer as arts mentors at schools through the Turnaround Arts program. The program and the talent show that celebrated it came about through a partnership of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Education Department and the White House two years ago to see whether arts education could give a boost to failing elementary and middle schools.

For three years, eight schools were “adopted” by a well-known artists and collectively received $14.7 million to institute arts and other programs. That money came from a range of sources, and about $2 million of it went to arts alone.

The program is working, Obama said, and next year it will grow from eight schools to 35.

“With the help of this program and some school improvement grants, math and reading scores have gone up in these schools, attendance is up, enrollment is up, parent engagement is up, suspensions have plummeted, and two of the schools in our pilot improved so dramatically that they are no longer in ‘turnaround’ status,” she said. “That’s amazing.”

After the first lady’s remarks, students from Lame Deer Jr. High School on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana performed with musicians from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Girls from Martin Luther King Jr. School in Portland, Ore., sang “You’re Never Fully Dressed” from the play “Annie” with Sarah Jessica Parker. A trio of teenage boys from Noel Community Arts School in Denver crooned “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to the first lady.

Obama swayed throughout the performances, clapped her hands, sang along and convinced her husband to swing by.

“Thank you, honey,” she said to him, when he popped up at the end of the performances to congratulate the students, who came from schools in Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Louisiana, Oregon, Montana, Colorado and Washington, D.C. Students at two of the schools displayed photography or other forms of visual art.

“I hope that events like this help send a message to school districts, and parents, and governors, and leaders all across this country: You’ve got to support the arts,” President Obama said. “It’s a priority.”

Michelle Obama, who advocates for young Americans to attain education beyond high school, has been a strong supporter of the arts. Last year, she visited Savoy Elementary in the District with “Scandal” star Kerry Washington, who serves as arts mentor to the school.

For the Obamas, talent shows are a family tradition that date back to the first lady’s childhood. The large Robinson family could not afford a big gift exchange, so everyone would put gifts in a bag. Each person would pull a gift and would be expected to take part in a kind of talent show by singing, dancing or telling a joke.

The family still holds the talent show each Christmas.

[Krissah Thompson began writing for the Washington Post in 2001. She’s covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County, Maryland, bureau. She’s also been an enterprise writer on the National staff, traveling the country to interview voters during the 2008 presidential campaign. More recently, she’s written about civil rights, race, and politics. Now she’s a Style writer, who covers First Lady Michelle Obama and a broad range of people.]

13 November 2015

'An American In Paris' (Part 2)

by Kirk Woodward

[As Kirk points out below, I posted a report on the Broadway movical An American in Paris on 2 August.  I’d seen the performance of 9 July and almost 10 weeks later, Kirk, who’s contributed frequently to ROT (and has another post in the pipeline), saw the show for himself.  It turns out we had divergent responses to the production—not really diametric, but decidedly different.  Besides being an actor and director—including musicals—Kirks knowledgeable about writing reviews, so I asked him to write out his take on AAiP and contrast it with my report.  (Like me, Kirk makes a distinction between my blog “reports” and reviews.)  Just to remind ROTters, Kirk published a book called The Art of Writing Reviews in June 2009 (available on line at http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272; the same site can be accessed from Kirk’s own website, Spiceplays, http://spiceplays.com/id7.html).  I also blogged a commentary on Writing Reviews on 4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009.  I’m very pleased to be able to post this “op-ed” report on An American on ROT as a sort of oblique companion piece to my own comments.  ~Rick]

On 2 August 2015, Rick posted a report on Rick On Theater, the blog you are now reading, on the Broadway musical An American in Paris, which opened in New York City on April 12, 2015 (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2015/08/an-american-in-paris.html). That report illustrates the strength and importance of this blog: it is comprehensive and detailed, with extensive descriptions of the book, music, and lyrics; the acting; and the critical response to the show. All in all, it is an excellent place for anyone to turn who wants to know about the experience of the show.

The report was not particularly enthusiastic about the musical An American in Paris. It said, in part:

Overall, the show was enjoyable (like my evening at On the Town, it rained again, but not until we left the theater—and even then it stopped quickly)—but American’s not as good a play as On the Town.  Craig Lucas’s book is very weak and there are lots and lots of inserted songs (“I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” from Shall We Dance; “Who Cares” from Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 Gershwin play), so many—nine at my count—it’s hardly still An American in Paris any more!  Some of the “new” songs don’t really seem to fit, like when Jerry decides, for no apparent reason, to call Lise “Liza” (cyber reviewer Zachary Stewart compared him to “a particularly aggressive Ellis Island immigration officer” renaming a new arrival)—it never comes up again—just so he can sing “Liza” from the Gershwins’ 1920 stage musical, Show Girl

I don’t think I’m misrepresenting the report to describe its feeling about An American in Paris as tepid. The reason for the report you are reading is that I also saw the show, at a matinee on September 16, 2015, and had a significantly different response: I loved it, leaving the theater with the feeling sometimes described as “walking on air,” and have since described it to people as “nearly pure bliss.” The differences in opinion between Rick and me illustrate some issues in evaluating a show, and I want to spell some of them out here.

A good place to start is to recognize that two people very well may legitimately feel differently about the same show, even if they see the same performance. No two people are the same, and no two people have exactly the same sensibilities.

For this reason, incidentally, a reader who takes any single review of an event as gospel is taking quite a risk. The reviewer may just have been criticized by the editor, and therefore in a bad mood . . . or drunk, or sleepy . . . or not in the frame of mind to be entertained or, depending on the show, enlightened . . . or opposed at some level to the kind of event being described . . . the list of possibilities is practically endless.

More to the point, an event – say, a show – can be as easily defined by what it is not as by what it is. Any work of art is a series of choices made by the artist(s) involved, and any yes to one choice is a no to another. Even a virtually formless work of art like John Cage’s famous composition 4’33”, in which a pianist sits in silence at a piano for four minutes and thirty three seconds, will at some point take a shape of its own, as choices (for example, coughing, muttering, shifting in seats) are made.

So one review may describe what a show is (that is, the choices it made), and another describe what it is not (that is, the choices it declined to make), and both may be correct, nevertheless still giving radically different impressions of the event.

The classical answer to the problem this situation poses was laid out by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who suggested that a work of art should be criticized – or reviewed – using the following three questions (my words, not his):

1.      What is the work (or, perhaps, the artist) trying to achieve?
2.      Does it achieve it?
3.      Was it worth doing in the first place?

Here I need to point out a linguistic shift I’ve made in this discussion. First I talked about the “report;” then I changed the terms to talk about “reviewing” (or, as Goethe has it, “criticizing”). This shift is significant, because ordinarily Rick’s pieces about shows in this blog are “reports,” not “reviews.” They explicitly do not stick to Goethe’s criteria; they include whatever details the writer feels appropriate, for the purpose of presenting one observer’s experience as fully and clearly as possible.

My aim here is a little different. I will briefly “review” the show, and then point out a few contrasts between my attempt and the report.

Before beginning, as a matter of full disclosure, I will mention that one of the actors in the show, Brandon Uranowitz, who plays Adam Hochberg, the Narrator and the “Gershwin figure” in An American in Paris, is a friend of mine and a close friend of my daughter’s. I thought his singing, dancing, and in particular his acting were splendid, and I can even claim a bit of objectivity for my opinion, since he was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance. Still, it’s quite possible that his being in the show affected my opinion of it. Take that as you will.

Here’s a very brief review, then.  I won’t summarize the story of the musical, as most reviews would, since the report has already done so in detail; please click on the link above if you need to refresh your recollection of the plot.

I would say (as a reviewer) that An American in Paris has as its intention the aim of presenting a romantic picture of love blossoming under difficult circumstances. Some of those difficulties include: the devastation, both physical and emotional, caused by the recent Nazi occupation of Paris; the struggles of any artist to do first class work; and the complexity of romantic relationships, especially where more than two people are involved.

I said “a romantic picture” and that is significant, because much of the story is told in dance – primarily ballet – and song. The ballet is choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, an “artistic associate” of the Royal Ballet, and it is sumptuous, dreamlike in its effect, which in turn is magnified by the sets (by Bob Crowley) and the lighting (stunning, by Natasha Katz), both of which won Tony Awards. 

And the music of course is by George Gershwin (1898-1937), whose “symphonic poem” “An American in Paris” was the inspiration for, first, the film of that name, and now the musical.

The lyrics were written by Gershwin’s brother Ira (1896-1983). It’s true that a Gershwin song or two has to be shoehorned into the book, by Craig Lucas, like “Liza,” but the songs are quintessentially American - ideal for the characters of the former GI’s, now bedazzled residents of Paris – and romantic as well, so I don’t see the stretched introduction of an occasional song as a serious fault. It happens in musicals all the time, and besides, I like a Gershwin tune. How about you?

So I conclude that An American in Paris does what it intends to do, and does it splendidly. And I don’t see any reason to belabor the question of whether or not such a result is worthwhile. I know that I have been affected by the atmosphere of the show ever since I saw it; I can recall a great deal of it, always with pleasure.

That’s my slightly simple-minded review. (Ordinarily I would say at least something about the acting in the show, but the Roger report covers that subject thoroughly.) Out of several possibilities, let me mention just two ways in which my perspective differs from the report.

One is the issue of the post-World War II setting.  The report is not amused:

Lucas’s resetting the story to 1945, right after the liberation of Paris, makes it almost imperative that the war be a presence in the lives of the city and its inhabitants.  But it seems perfunctory to me, obligatory references rather than true character motivations or plot drivers.

From my point of view, however, the setting is justified. It’s a question of what the art work is trying to achieve. If I’m correct that the musical is trying to give us a picture of “love blossoming under difficult circumstances,” then the milieu is thematic, drawing us into a world where even ballet doesn’t guarantee happy endings. (The actual end of the musical, described in the report, emphasizes this point.)

And a second issue where we disagree, and possibly a more significant one, is the relation of An American in Paris to the movie of the same name (1951) that inspired it. (“It’s hardly still An American in Paris any more!” the report complains.) The report frequently compares the musical with the movie. There are plenty of examples. One that struck me was, “The lead actor, Robert Fairchild, though he’s very good, is no Gene Kelly.”

But too many reviewers dismiss one actor’s performance by saying that another actor was better in the role, without coming to terms with what the first actor is trying to do. That’s too easy a way to evaluate a performance (or any other aspect of a work). I haven’t seen the movie (except for the “American in Paris” dance) and I don’t know how Kelly did the part. I’m sure he was splendid, and he can be seen on film. However, he’s not on Broadway.

I’m not claiming that An American in Paris is perfect. (For example, I agree with Rick that the hints that Henri is gay are merely confusing.) And there definitely are issues raised when a new version of a well-known piece appears that I’m not prepared to address here, since they involve a discussion of the whole field of popular art, and of the sources of our responses to it.

But if the report were a review, I would object to its comparison of the musical to other works, and I would urge looking at the piece for itself, in particular taking another look at its intent, pretending for the moment that the show has no antecedents (and no other actors) associated with it. I believe that’s the only way a review – as opposed to a report – can fairly estimate the worth of a work of art.

Seeing the show from the perspective I describe, I find it a lovely success. Ultimately, of course, these judgments are subjective. So, in the case of An American in Paris, take the word of the report for what it’s like. Or take mine. Or, best of all, see the show and decide for yourself. That’s the American way!

[In addition of my commentary on The Art of Writing Reviews, which I mentioned in the introduction, Kirk’s other contributions to ROT are: “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks,” 5 October 2009; “Race,” 3 May 2010; “Kirk Woodward’s King Lear Journal,” 4 June; “The Most Famous Thing Jean-Paul Sartre Never Said,” 9 July 2010; “Broadway Angel,” 7 September 2010; “The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010; “Making A Movie,” 27 October 2010; “A Lawyer and a Life,” 11 November 2010; “Directing Twelfth Night for Children, 16 and 19 December 2010; “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January 2011; “A Year in Korea,” 18 January 2011; “A Playwright of Importance,” 31 January 2011; “The Scottsboro Brecht,” 12 February 2011; “Herbert Berghof, Acting Teacher,” 1 June 2011; “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Waterfall,” 12 September 2011; “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” 2 October 2011; “The Jukebox Musical,” 7 October 2011; “Lady Gaga: Artist for Our Time,” 1 November 2011; “Saints of the Theater,” 30 December 2011; “Notes on Reading,” 24 January 2012; “Look Back in Anger,” 23 February 2012; “Noel, Noel,” 24 March 2012; “The Best Man,” 19 July 2012; “Beach Boys,” 3 August 2012; “Bernard Shaw, Pop Culture Critic,” 5 September 2012; “The Beatles Box,” 30 September 2012; “Bob Dylan at Woodstock – And a New Album,” 14 November 2012; “Eric Bentley – An Appreciation,” 4 December 2012; “The Beatles Diary,” (with Pat Woodward), 8 January 2013; “Leonard Cohen,” 2 February 2013; “Reflections On Directing,” 11, 14, 17, and 20 April 2013; “William Goldman’s The Season,” 30 April 2013; “Theatre Alley,” 20 May 2013; “Eugene Ionesco,” 2 July 2013; “Creative Dramatics,” 30 September 2013; “Religious Drama,” 19 January 2014; “Reflections on Theater Etiquette,” 11 February 2014; “Lady Gaga and Once,” 5 May 2014; “Act One,” 25 June 2014; “Bullets Over Bullets Over Broadway,” 29 August 2014; “Bertolt Brecht and the Mental Health Players,” 21 October 2014; “Beth Henley and Ridiculous Fraud,” 20 November 2014; “Curtain Calls,” 3 February 2015; “Memoirs of a Desperate Actor,” 3 March 2015; “Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials,” 13 May 2015; “Some Of That Jazz,” 7 June 2015; “Simon Callow,” 23 June 2015; “The Beatles’ Influence,” 13 July 2015; “Henry Fielding’s Theater,” 16 September 2015; and “Great Notch Inn,” 21 October 2015.  (At the time I compiled this list, Kirk had just sent me a new article on Eric Bentley and G. B. Shaw which I’ll be posting on the blog shortly.)  Well, that’s quite a catalogue, isn’t it?  Not to mention, a very broad spectrum of topics.  But it’s perfectly reasonable that Kirk should be such an avid (and generous) contributor to ROT: starting this blog was largely his idea.  I am eternally grateful, as I’ve often told him, for both his initial suggestion and his continued interest.]

08 November 2015

Shaliko’s 'Kafka: Father and Son,' Part 2

[As I wrote a few days ago in the introduction to the first part of “Shaliko’s Kafka,” this seems like a good time for an examination of the three productions by Leonardo Shapiro’s Shaliko Company of Mark Rozovsky’s Kafka: Father and Son.  I see it as a kind of companion to my report on Yukio Ninagawa’s Kafka on the Shore (posted on ROT on 11 September) which I saw in July.  I invite readers to go back to Part 1 (posted on 5 November) for an explanation of how I came to know these productions and for a run-down of the backstory of the three mountings.  Part 1 also includes biographical sketches of both the playwright and the director; Part 2 below is a discussion of the three productions of the play, the 1985 world première at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, the 1990 Russian-language première at Rozovsky’s own Nikitsky Gates Theater in Moscow, and the 1992 Shaliko revival at La MaMa.  I’ve included a survey of the critical record for all the productions, including the Russian one.  ~Rick]


Leonardo Shapiro’s productions of Mark Rozovsky’s Kafka: Father and Son, though there were changes in the mise-en-scène from staging to staging and, since the casts were different, in the performance approaches, all shared some fundamental aspects.  “I wanted the whole theater to be a direct analog of the creative act itself,” explained the director.  “I was interested in setting up metaphorical space where the dialectic between creativity and authority could be played out in the present tense.”  He laid out the foundational image on which he based his staging concept:

[I thought of] a room where people seem to get bigger or smaller as they move from one part to another.  I remember a place like this somewhere on the road from Minnesota to Florida when I was a kid traveling with my mother in her Nash Rambler in 1952.  Anyway, this room in Tennessee or somewhere made me, at one end, bigger than my mother at the other.  In 1984 I taught a course in creativity at a college in New England; I had a book on consciousness that had a picture of a similar room from the Exploratorium in San Francisco.  I wanted a room in which Kafka’s and his father’s relative size was changeable.  I was also fascinated by the idea of making literal the metaphorical values of stage space (“blocking”).

The director’s notion was to create a space where “the action of the play literally takes place within a construct of Kafka’s imagination.”  This ultimately gave rise to the ideas of mirrored panels in the 1985 première at La MaMa and mobile Venetian blinds or jalousies in 1990 in Moscow and 1992 at La MaMa which changed the size of the space and even the relationships between the two Kafkas.  (Shapiro liked interactive sets—often accomplished with low tech because of The Shaliko Company’s constant impecuniousness.)  The playing area was bisected right to left by the frames but they moved progressively to a steeper and steeper angle.  When the blinds were used, they opened and closed to reveal Kafka, the Father, in varying amounts.  When closed, Kafka, the Son, was sometimes silhouetted against them.

The lynchpin for this concept, however, “was putting Kafka’s desk between the audience and the stage and structuring a running joke into the piece of Kafka sitting down to write and instead talking intimately in close-up to the audience.”  The actor’s eyes and face were lit by a desk lamp that left the rest of the sparsely-furnished room dark.

Shapiro intended to “make every scene as different as possible from every other scene.”  He set every scene in a different place: a bathroom, a bedroom, a Prague street, Franz’s study, and so on.  Then he “came up with tricks: a different visual space, a different visual trick, a different lighting trick for each scene.”  In some of the Son’s scenes Shapiro raised the house lights to prevent the total isolation of the actor from the audience—the character is supposed to be alone in a world of his own making, but the director always strove for a connection between spectators and performers—and some dialogue was delivered in a non-Realistic rhythmic manner. 

The world première of Kafka: Father and Son ran at La MaMa from 28 February to 24 March 1985.  The set designer was Derek McLane, the lighting was designed by Blu (the professional name of William Lambert), and the costumes were from Catherine Zuber.  The cast for the production was Sam Gray as Kafka, the Father, and Christopher McCann (one of the founding members of Shaliko in 1972) as the Son.  Rozovsky hadn’t even been allowed by his government, then under the leadership of Konstantin Chernenko, to come to New York to attend the début of his own play.  “When I first read the play,” wrote Shapiro, “I was struck by how many fathers and sons—but especially fathers—there seemed to be in the dialogue. . . .  My first thought was multiple casts.”  Discarding that idea as impractical, the director rethought: “My second idea was mirrors.” 

I liked the idea of Kafka surrounded by images of his father (or of himself), of the father being able to appear and disappear instantly on one side of the stage or another. . . .  It was a room divided by thirteen rectangular panels, each approximately ten feet tall and two and a half feet wide, with a roughly equal amount of space (two and a half feet) between them.  On one side, they were wallpapered and on the other, they were mirrors.  Each mirror was on a spindle with a little homemade axle and a separate wire, running invisibly to the back of the theater where two very busy and stressed out young techies had to manipulate all the mirrors together, separately and in sequence as if they were a real computer board on Broadway.

The mirrors, admitted Shapiro, were “gimmicks” or “tricks” that “could make the son be surrounded by ten fathers.”  Shapiro always liked gimmicks and stage tricks, and he’d been a devotee of stage magic since he was a boy, and mirrors, like other effects, such as masks, he used in his productions, are magical.  “They could make the father appear or disappear in any place and the same with the son,” he explained.  “So you could have somebody actually be offstage and then turn a certain number of mirrors and have him suddenly appear onstage.”  Shapiro stated that Rozovsky’s original text had no movement at all: it was just talking heads, like a radio play; but the intent of the mirrors was “to give a sense of the duplicity of the world of appearances.”  Shapiro and McLane worked all the effects out on scale models, testing all the angles of the mirrors for each scene.  Despite all this, one thing was not to scale: Shapiro’s and McLane’s eyes.  Nevertheless, the mirrors worked out technically but Shapiro was not happy with the overall effect, feeling that it tied him to “the world of appearances” instead of freeing him from it. 

The Soviet Ministry of Culture officially banned Kafka: Father and Son’s abortive Moscow première in 1983, observed Shapiro, while in New York, the lack of critical attention did the job with equal effectiveness: the play “was not ‘banned,’ but was painlessly invisible—no confrontation required.”  The New York Times didn’t send a reviewer at all and most other dailies of that era habitually ignored Off-Broadway and, especially, Off-Off-Broadway.  Of the few mass-circulation outlets that did cover this world première, the Village Voice, a publication with a reputation for reviewing off-beat performances, disliked the production.  Robert Massa dismissed Rozovsky’s script:

Clearly there are compelling links to be made between Kafka’s life and his fiction, but on a stage this cherished academic exercise seems pointless. . . .  Rozovsky tries to unravel [“The Judgment”] into its raw material, wrongly assuming he can capture the artistic process in reverse.  He loses the cool detachment and immaculate pacing that fire Kafka’s tale, leaving the actors little to do but randomly, repetitively, and pretentiously bounce subtext off each other.

Massa judged Shapiro’s directing “as arty and reductive as the script” and specifically criticized the “Chorus Line wall of mirrored panels” that made “the actors spend part of the evening bouncing subtext off reflections of each other.”  The Voice review-writer then recounted:

At the first public performance, the audience’s giggles suggested that the piece has potential as grotesque camp in the Edward Gorey vein. especially thanks to Christopher McCann’s wry, tense performance as Kafka junior—with the slight dip in his walk, he always seems about to break into a tango.  But the biggest giggle came on the line “We will never finish talking,” which arrives just when you’ve begun to wonder whether it may be true, though the production lasts only an hour.

As a conclusion, Massa averred: “As a portrait of tedium, this evening, unintentionally, is truly Kafkaesque.”

The only daily paper to run a review was Bergen County’s Record in New Jersey.  Peter Wynne started his notice by asking: “Could there be a better way to explore the life of writer Franz Kafka than in a Kafkaesque play?”  He characterized Rozovsky’s play as “brief but intense” and reported that the Russian playwright “brings a bluntness, a brutality that’s not to be seen on our native stage.”  Wynne felt that, though “a slow starter,”  the “presentation becomes more and more hallucinatory, the play’s power grows beyond the ordinary, and what seemed just another rehash of pop psychology becomes something much more artful.”  “[S]taged insightfully” by Shapiro, the reviewer affirmed, “by the play’s end the viewer’s sympathy is for both men.”

The only other timely coverage of Kafka was a pair of fringe papers.  In the New York City Tribune, a paper meant to pick up the mantel of the renowned New York Herald Tribune but published by the Unification Church from 1976 to 1991, Sy Syna wrote:

This unusual two-character drama with surrealist trappings is brilliantly performed.  But, like a pair of mice in a treadmill, the text forces [the two Kafkas] to go around and around with their agonized relationship to the point of monotony.

Syna finished up by saying of the “mutual love-hate relationship” shared by the two men that though it’s “initially fascinating, the sameness of each encounter begins to pall, despite the superb performances.”  In the Villager, a neighborhood weekly, Steven Hart declared, “There are three actors in” the Shaliko production of Kafka: Father and Son.  “They are Sam Gray as the father, Christopher McCann as Kafka and Derek McLane’s simple and powerful set.”  Hart explained: “All the elements of this production work together to shape the dissonant harmonies of Kafka’s world.”  After lavishing extravagant praise on Gray’s and McCann’s performances and Shapiro and McLane’s scenic concept, Hart complimented Rozovsky for “a script of great literacy” and Elena Prischepenko for translating it with “wit and grace.”  He closed by insisting, “I submit that ‘Kafka: Father and Son’ is the real thing.”

Paul Berman of The Nation, publishing after the production closed, lamented: Kafka: Father and Son, by Mark Rozovsky, arrived at the morgue recently after receiving, as far as I know, no more than two paragraphs of mention anywhere—and those paragraphs a spade and shovel. . . .”  The Nation reviewer went on to assert:

The play has some of the intensity of Kafka himself . . ., an intensity that comes from enormous compression of thought and feeling, so that every line carries a truth on the surface and another truth below and an electric charge from one to the other. . . .   [T]here were brilliant aspects, too, which managed to distort the sense of distance between audience and stage so thoroughly that Christopher McCann, who played Kafka the Son, seemed to loom as if in a close-up, like one of those famous photographs of Kafka’s face and haunted eyes. . . .

The Nation reviewer had some reservations.  Though Berman acknowledged the “brilliant aspects, too,” he felt that Shapiro was “a little techno-happy and broke the audience’s concentration by means of off-stage loudspeakers and mirrors that revolved undependably.”  Returning to his opening premise, however, Berman concluded, “And to think that such a play has come and gone without an escort of critics waving and shooting fireworks.” 

Irrespective of Shapiro’s disappointment with the press coverage or the mirror effect, the show was successful  and, the director asserted, Kafka: Father and Son “for some reason, sold out—this was a popular show.  We had standing room every night.”  Good reviews in Russian of the La MaMa production got back to the playwright in Moscow.  Shapiro’s première mounting of Kafka: Father and Son closed just as glasnost was beginning in the Soviet Union and Rozovsky felt free to stage his own play at his own theater.  He asked Shapiro to come to Moscow to direct it.

Rozovsky revised his script between pre-glasnost 1985 and its first Russian-language performance in 1990 and Shapiro rethought the production concept as well, “making it more musical, more dreamlike, more theatrical, and clarifying and sharpening the political and aesthetic content,” the director wrote in the 1992 Kafka program.    The director traveled to Moscow in December 1989 to cast the show and confer on the design.  Rozovsky was away in Minsk, then the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union (now the independent nation of Belarus), on tour with the Nikitsky Gates company—and, due to a miscommunication with Gregory Speransky, the company’s technical and administrative director, the “respected artist” whom the playwright had selected to make the new design was out of the country.  Shapiro examined the rendering of the set, a “standard proscenium box set, very twenties deco elegant, but ultimately two guys sitting around a table talking.”  It was “very beautiful, but flat,” remarked Shapiro, and he decided, “This wasn’t what I had in mind. . . .  I wanted something much more immediate and three dimensional.”  He told Speransky that he couldn’t use the design and, in the end, the TD persuaded Shapiro to create his own as he’d done in ’85. 

The director didn’t want to use the mirrors again, as Speransky suggested, because “I thought that they were too showy and that they were too much about me and not enough about the show.  And I’d done them.  I mean, they turned out to be superficial.  I mean, they were a good idea, they were fun, I liked it, everybody liked it, but there was nothing to learn from doing it again.”  So he sat in the theater daily for 10 days and developed a new plan. 

Basically, it involved a couple of simple, wooden moving walls that were constructed like Venetian blinds with slats about four inches wide.  One side was wallpaper and realistic interior detail.  The other side [was] the text of THE JUDGMENT, the Kafka story that the last third of the play is based on.  The idea was that the wall would gradually pull back, scene by scene, to reveal a deeper and deeper stage space until it cut the room into two deep triangles, one for Kafka and one for his father.  By using very specific lighting, one could keep opening and closing the blinds small and precise amounts, revealing different scenes of the father as barely perceptible image, distant memory. or present reality.  For the last third of the play, the walls were transformed into the complete text of THE JUDGMENT so that the action of the play literally takes place within a construct of Kafka’s imagination.

Like the mirrors, the blinds, or jalousies, as they’re known in Europe (including Russia), were an overtly Brechtian device, of which Shapiro said: “The principle [behind the mirrors and the blinds] is physically the same.  The only difference is that the blinds are horizontal and mirrors are vertical but what they’re doing is the same action.  It’s definitely following through the same thought.”  The director, though, liked the Venetian blinds better and he used the same concept—with much less success, as we’ll see—for the 1992 La MaMa revival.

The casting was also a small study in crossed signals.  The director, who had idiosyncratic criteria for casting, recounted that he ended up with two pairs of actors: one with the Father of Rozovsky’s choice and the Son of Shapiro’s, the other with Shapiro’s Father and the playwright’s Son.  As Shapiro described the difference:

His son is . . . this kind of virile Russian leading man.  The son I want is this sort of weirdo gypsy who’s a composer and musician.  He doesn’t play their leading parts.  He’s a beautiful guy.  He isn’t as experienced an actor, but he’s, I don’t know, more sensitive, more frail.

The actors were paired up cross-wise: Shapiro’s Father with Rozovsky’s Son and vice versa.   (The description above of Shapiro’s choice for Kafka, the Son, isn’t so similar to Christopher McCann, the American actor who played the role in 1985, but it sounds remarkably like Michael Preston, who took the part in 1992.) 

The director returned to Moscow in April 1990 to begin rehearsals (in Siberia!) and Shapiro’s Russian-language première of Kafka: Father and Son ran at the Nikitsky Gates Theater (which co-produced) in Moscow in May and June and then went on tour in the USSR and U.S.  The cast was Vladimir Dalinski as the Father and Sergei Erdenko as the Son.  (I have no information about which of the two casts this was—it appears to have been the director’s Father and the playwright’s Son, but I can’t be positive—or what became of the other actors.  If they alternated performances, this was just the pair seen by the Moscow reviewer whose notice I have.)

The only Russian review I have is from the Moscow publication Sovietskaya Kultura [Soviet culture], in which Natalya Kashtanova declared, “The recent audience at the premiere of Franz Kafka: FATHER AND SON at Nikitsky Gates Theater witnessed a strange and alluringly intellectual show.”  Kashtanova seemed particularly to have appreciated the scenic design: “The fantastic shadows on the Venetian blinds [jalousies], the sharply defined light and darkness that separate people one from another, . . . and the sudden[ly] mobile space of the stage all make the performance grotesque and locate it at the junction of the real and the unreal.”  She summed up the production with: “There is an acuteness of the aesthetic perception of life, wherein lies [its] affinity to Kafka.” 

Shapiro was in Russia for five or six weeks, including four weeks of rehearsals; he remained in Moscow for a week or so of performances before leaving for home.  The production proved so successful in Moscow—it was still running at the Nikitsky Gates in 1992—that Rozovsky took it on a tour of Russia.  When Shapiro returned to the U.S. and his artistic residency at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, he arranged for Rozovsky and his troupe to come for a Russian theater festival at the college and present Kafka there in the fall of ’90. 

A year-and-a-half later, in January and February 1992, Shapiro was once again in production for a restaging of Mark Rozovsky’s Kafka: Father and Son at La MaMa, The Shaliko Company’s first show of the year.  Why was Shapiro, who described Kafka as “the most conventional piece we’ve done in a long time,” doing a revival of a two-character, psychological language play instead of his more usual Shaliko production: a physical, socially conscious, politically oriented, multi-cultural theater piece?  Shapiro explained flatly: “After 25 years in the New York theater . . . it’s all we can afford.”  

The Shaliko revival of Kafka opened on 25 January 1992 (after canceling its official opening performance on 23 January) and ran at La MaMa through 8 February.  The music was composed by Marilyn S. Zalkan, the lighting designer was again Blu (who lit the 1985 première), and the costumes were designed by Liz Widulski.  The cast was George Bartenieff, a veteran of the original Living Theatre (The Brig, 1963), as the Father and Michael Preston, who performed as Rakitin with the comic acrobatic and juggling troupe The Flying Karamazov Brothers, as the Son.  Shapiro imported the mise-en-scène, with its movable jalousies, from the 1990 Moscow production, but the acting was developed anew in rehearsal with and for his new cast.  (I attended many rehearsals and performances of this production between 7 January and 6 February.  I also interviewed the actors and some of the other artists.) 

A new element Shapiro added to his second revival of Rozovsky’s play, was music created by Marilyn Zalkan, a new-music composer who also served as the company administrator, based on the electronically sampled speech of the two actors in the production and then manipulated through a digital synthesizer.  Of this work, Zalkan said:

Leo and I decided that what the music was going to be was . . . solely made up of the actors’ voices.  That’s what everything was. . . .  He knows the kind of music that I do outside of theater is very sort of experimental.  I don’t use  any real instrument sounds.  I’ve been doing more and more with taking sounds of voices or whatever—you know, sounds that happen in nature or not nature—and altering them beyond recognition and finding the sort of interior rhythm, interior melodies that come from sounds in general.  That’s sort of what I was working with on Kafka to try to create a sort of tortured, internal, interior, existential feeling. 

Shapiro commonly worked with long rehearsal periods, though the Russian system didn’t permit it with the 1990 Kafka.  Circumstances didn’t, either, for the 1992 remount: the La MaMa revival of Kafka: Father and Son  was rehearsed in four weeks.  As a result, the production wasn’t even technically ready to go before the public on its designated opening night, 23 January, and the official opening had to be postponed for two days. 

The principal problem was the new Venetian blind frames.  The motors running the blinds were very noisy and the carriages Shapiro’s designer built here were so heavy and cumbersome that the movements were awkward and loud.  Shapiro blamed the difficulty on his set builder, who “overbuilt” the contraption—and the lack of money (to replace something that doesn’t work, for instance). 

A more pervasive difficulty, however, affected the outcome of the second La MaMa Kafka.  Shapiro counted on preview performances to hone the audience-performer relationship, the crux of his productions.  “A certain phase of the work starts with the first audience.  I can’t just sort of have it ready in three weeks,” he said.  “I thought I could because I’d done the show before.”  But because a good part of Shapiro’s notion of theater is a shared experience, the actors and spectators can’t share an experience if one participant isn’t there.  He could accomplish a certain amount of preparation for that interplay, but until the cast went before an audience, he couldn’t refine it.  The technical delays resulted in cancelation of the previews so the production opened in front of an audience before Shapiro and his actors had time to work on a relationship with theatergoers. 

Furthermore, Shapiro wasn’t a Stanislavskian; there were no discussions of psychological motivation during rehearsals and the director didn’t let the actors indulge their emotions and then discuss those feelings with them.  Nevertheless, I was surprised to see how conventionally Stanislavskian Shapiro directed his actors: without using the Stanislavskian jargon, he referred to objective, subtext, and urgency.  On one of the last rehearsals I watched, I noted that, though there was “[s]ome imposition of stylization ,” for the most part, the “[a]cting is pretty Stanislavskian (i.e., psychological realism).”  But then when I returned for the first public performance, I recorded: the “performance was very stylized—where and when did it come from?”  (I learned later that Shapiro habitually did this kind of style work during tech rehearsals at the very end of the rehearsal period, which I hadn’t attended.) 

Without previews, the production wasn’t ready by opening night.  The audience, including Jonathan Kalb of the Village Voice, was turned away.  Even by 25 January, some technical problems still had not been solved and the audience had to wait about fifteen minutes in La MaMa’s small lobby.  The performance, itself, was marred by technical glitches and actors not yet fully comfortable with their performances.  The critics, predictably, were not kind.  Wilborn Hampton, for instance, wrote in the Times, the first paper to publish a Kafka review, four days after the delayed opening: “Mr. Rozovsky has not written a play so much as stitched together a patchwork of simulated dramatizations based on Kafka’s epistolary and fictional indictment of his father.  For some reason, both Mr. Rozovsky and his director, Leonardo Shapiro, felt it necessary to embroider on the original.”  Hampton continued his disapproval: “Apart from such expansions on the author’s reminiscences, Mr. Rozovsky cannot resist the compulsion to pad out Kafka’s words with dialogue of his own.  The result is a pair of characters who often sound more like refugees from a Beckett play than a Kafka story.”  The Times reviewer added that “a major interpretive problem with ‘Kafka’ is its narrow view that the ‘Letter’ is little more than a monochromatic portrait of child abuse and that there is a political subtext beneath Kafka’s celebrated conflict with his father.  Kafka himself dismissed the former, and while one might read Kafka’s epistle as a ‘Letter to God,’ it should never be mistaken for a ‘Letter to the Commissar.’”  Hampton also dismissed the acting: “Michael Preston as Kafka and George Bartenieff as his father strive to turn all this into drama.  At a recent performance, they also had to contend with a host of technical problems that, among other things, brought the house lights up at odd moments in several scenes.”  In the end, Hampton didn’t have one positive word to say about the production.

Less than a week later, Jonathan Kalb of the Village Voice, who had been turned away from that canceled opening but was in the house on the 25th, referred to himself in the third person as “K.” in a review entitled “A Trial.”  He exaggerated the delay (“an eternity”), the weather (“The city outside was deep in snow”) and the temperature (“the frostbitten crowd”) to emphasize his displeasure.  Kalb described the play as a “response to totalitarian circumstances that no longer exist” and disparaged its “relevance and timeliness in post-glasnost Amerika [sic],” overlooking the ubiquitous examples of the suppression, even in the late-20th-century United States, of ideas both political (the party machinations during the 1992 presidential primaries to remove candidates from the ballot) and artistic (the congressional attacks on the NEA in 1989 and 1990 and the NEA’s introduction of the 1989 anti-obscenity “loyalty oath”). 

(I wonder what the Voice writer would have thought 23 years ago if he’d foreseen the arrival of Putin on the geopolitical scene.  Indeed, hadn’t he heard of repressive leaders even then in power, such as Fidel Castro of Cuba, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, Jiang Zemin of the People’s Republic of China, Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Kim Il-sung of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, or Moammar Ghaddafi of Libya?  Some of these have left the scene since 1992 and others, like Putin, have come along, but even in liberal democracies, ideas have been seen to be suppressed—even in the 21st century.) 

In addition, Shapiro argued that the repression he was investigating in Kafka was, in part, self-repression; he saw the father as “a voice inside the son.”  While it is certainly not Kalb’s fault if the production did not successfully communicate this aspect of the play, Shapiro would undoubtedly have said that the critic had failed to make “the connection between events . . . that are hidden . . . by the official reality” that the Soviet Union represented the repression of ideas and with its demise, freedom of thought is no longer an issue. 

The Voice reviewer filled out his column with put-downs and quips by his alter ego, the bewildered victim of Kafka’s “The Trial,” but just reading his press packet before the performance began left him “filled with nebulous anxieties.”  He went on at some length:

For the next 80 minutes, K. watched and listened as this [famous] author was bleached of his celebrated weirdness and turned into a plain, pouty adolescent, his unhappy, paranoid, and strangely fruitful relationship to his father reduced to a distended round of kvetching, cobbled together from posthumously published writings. 

The Voice writer catalogued a host of directorial effects and technical problems which Kalb declared “led K. to the point of distraction.”  Kalb revealed that “he had been summoned to this play in order to talk about it afterward, but as it went on he began to feel more and more dull-witted.”  Kalb summed up his experience with “his last thoughts before losing consciousness”: “So much effort to rescue a dated, dreary, chatty script with directorial stunts and then bungled stunts . . . .”  Again, not a positive word appeared in the entire notice, calculated not just to be a pan, but to be dismissive and insulting.

The Kafka later audiences saw, however, was quite different from that first night.  The actor-spectator interplay didn’t develop, for instance, until the second week of performances (the time the cancelled previews would have run).  Nuances in both the acting and stage business had been added and unproductive things removed.  The psychical distance between the performers and the audience was closed later in the run, and audiences at the last performances were visibly affected by the encounter.  Reviews based on later performances described a more engaging experience.  Three more notices came out in February and March, all from limited-circulation periodicals.  First out was the Jewish Week, in which Paul Kresh described the “stormy two-actor drama” as a “fairly exciting evening in the theater, especially in the ingenious new production Shapiro has devised.”  Citing one of Kafka’s “main themes” about “the futility of trying to understand the ways of God,” just trying to “submit and obey His laws,” Kresh asserted that “this play . . . becomes at the same time a brooding drama about God the Father and man the son.”  He continued, “All this could have been staged as a series of conversations in conventional settings but Shapiro has ventured instead to do something more daring, to pitch the two protagonists in startling juxtapositions from constantly mobile orbits.”  While caviling that Kafka “does tend to drag,” Kresh described his experience as “electrifying,” even if it’s “at times slightly tedious by virtue of its very intensity.”  The reviewer observed that the actors “tear at each other in impassioned tantrums; then again, . . . whisper, murmur or mutter in acting performances shaped to approach the condition of music” in a play that’s “shrewdly scripted, stunningly acted and directed, and brilliantly staged.”

Next to publish was Henry Popkin in the Forward, the weekly English edition of the century-old Yiddish Forverts, who pronounced Kafka: Father and Son “not up to the level of ‘[Strider:] The Story of a Horse.’”  Comparing Rozovsky’s play with the original source material, the review-writer commented on what’s in the story and the letter that Kafka doesn’t include.  Popkin also recounted other anecdotes he’d heard about the writer, including one of an encounter on the street between Kafka and his father that ends with a riposte in which Kafka remarks “that love sometimes wears a forbidding image” and the Forward reviewer responded, “I find that incident more moving and more telling than anything in the play.”  Popkin’s final analysis of Kafka was:

Most of the speech on stage is evidently intended to be the equivalent of the words that might have been spoken  between father and son in ‘Letter to His Father.’  It is not.  The two actors . . . are more than adequate to the stylized demands of this play about a tyrant and his victim.  To make their actions more theatrical, Mr. Shapiro arbitrarily shifts them from one playing area to another and startles us with changes in the lighting, not always to good effect.

Finally, John Bell in TheatreWeek, citing “an extraordinary piece of theater, with two fine actors, . . . a fascinating script . . ., and a splendid production . . .,” wrote on 24 February, two weeks after closing, that the “father/son duel goes on like two good boxers for eight rounds,” and that the actors “show the [father-son] bond to be too complicated for easy resolution.”  Continued Bell, “Shapiro’s set is an apparently simple turn of the century interior which turns out to be capable of surprising transformation. . . .  The set is a marvel, in part because it works so harmoniously with the actors and the texts.”  As for the performances, the TW writer declared, “Best of all are the actors, who seize their roles with a kind of expressionist passion.”  It was a glowing review . . . and came too late (and in a package too small) to benefit Shaliko or the production. 

I don’t know if Rozovsky is still presenting Kafka: Father and Son, but he’s still running the Nikitsky Gates.  (Russian theaters tend to keep successful or important plays in their repertoires for years—even decades, remarked Shapiro: “The Moscow Art Theater still has The Bluebird that Stanislavski directed in rep.  That show must be 100 years old.”)  The text is published, but I don’t know how easy it would be to locate: Kafka, Father and SonA One-act Play for Two Actors, Based on Franz Kafka’s “Letter to His Father” and “The Judgment” ([Scarsdale, NY:] Theatre Research Associates, 1982).