REVIEW: After the Fall (Eclipse Theatre)

When an intellectual looks for love in all the wrong places

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Eclipse Theatre presents
   
After the Fall
   
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by
Steve Scott
at
Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through August 22nd  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Arthur Miller just wants to be loved. Is that so wrong? After the Fall, the play that is his sojourn through love’s conundrums and dead ends, bears Miller’s soul for all to see at Eclipse Theatre’s home, the Greenhouse Theater Center. Miller’s devastating marriage to Marilyn Monroe, inextricably intertwined with our country’s descent into OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA paranoid McCarthyism (and Miler’s dealings with this paranoia), really did a number on his head. Shortly afterward, no doubt, the demise of Marilyn herself really, really did a number on his head. The result is After the Fall.

What does one do about conscious or unconscious betrayals—of the heart or of one’s principles? How does one go on after love has died and disillusionment has almost totally taken over? These seem to be the greatest moral pre-occupations for After the Fall’s excessively intellectual protagonist, Quentin (Nathaniel Swift).

But, wait. Perhaps to judge his intellectualism as excessive is a dumbed-down way of looking at him. Arthur Miller flourished in an era when America had many public intellectuals. Those intellectuals were disciplined to constantly interrogate the state of our nation’s cultural and civic life. Now, in the place of public intellectuals, we have talking-point-addled pundits and reality TV show celebrities. In terms of intellectual expression in American civic life, we have become a very cheap date.

Therefore, Quentin’s conundrums may not exactly be ours, whether they are about maintaining a pristine conscience in the middle of fallible human interactions or taking on overwhelming personal responsibility, to the point of seeing the roots of the Holocaust in one’s minute personal betrayals. Quentin suffers from serious survivor guilt. No doubt about it, the man is a survivor—not of the Holocaust per se, but certainly the McCarthy Era.

Apparently, surviving the McCarthy Era can take a lot out of you. As a Quixotic leftist lawyer, tilting against the onslaught of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Quentin is surviving the purge of leftists from American academia, from American media, from the everyday workplace. Indeed, he is surviving the purge of leftists from American thought. But try as he may, the friends he is trying to save are going down.

Quentin is prepared to defend Lou, his old Communist academic buddy—played with spot-on geeky anxiety by Eustace Allen. Lou is a man on the verge–on the verge of having his career decimated, his livelihood pulled out from under him like a magician’s trick. Other lefty friends, like Mickey (Eric Leonard), are ready to cave into HUAC and surrender names. Meanwhile, Lou’s wife, Elsie (Nina O’Keefe), salaciously comes on to Quentin with Lou not far away and further scenes reveal her to be nothing less than a sexual menace–a menace O’Keefe delivers with just one look.

Quentin is discovering, to his uncomprehending shock, his friends’ morally compromised natures. Even Lou admits to espousing lies in his academic work on the Communist Party. Lou’s book was received well enough during America’s World War II alliance with the Soviet Union but now the whole thing is crashing down upon him.

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Amid all this, Quentin’s marriage is souring and failing like all his other relationships. Amid the ruined lives, the cynical hypocrisy of colleagues distancing themselves from Joe McCarthy’s victims–amid self-compromise at every turn—why can’t our hero get a little love?

Quentin’s wife, Louise (Julie Daley), seems to have nothing more to give. Daley’s tight and sharp portrayal of Louise is by turns both sympathetic and bitterly judgmental. We hear the voice of “The Feminine Mystique” when Louise complains that Quentin doesn’t listen to her, only uses her as a sounding board for his own intellect. But we also hear an older, more Puritanical voice in her petty accusations that he finds other women sexually attractive. He has never slept with any other woman and feels guilty feeling attraction to women other than Louise, but Louise sees his straying sexual thoughts as infidelity and she holds them against him, just as she withholds sex from his attempts to ameliorate the growing distance between them.

There are more painful scenes to watch in After the Fall, but close in the running are Quentin and Louise’s arguments. They are an accurate depiction of two highly intellectual people so lost in their heads they can no longer open up emotionally. Problems that other couples would solve with a good argument, then a good fuck, Quentin and Louise cannot even negotiate without an interpreter. Perhaps divorce is the only thing, since they can’t generate the sexual interest necessary to get over ideological disagreements or personal flaws. What must have seemed like the ideal match in college has turned into a prison for them both.

Perhaps what Quentin needs is a more free-flowing sexual spirit, a woman with a sensual orientation, a woman who lives in the eternal now–maybe a woman who is the sex symbol of the age, like Marilyn Monroe. But it’s grossly unfair to write off Nora Fiffer’s interpretation of Maggie as a Marilyn Monroe imitation. Fiffer takes the role and makes it thoroughly her own. Any inflections she borrows from Monroe make her performance purely impressionistic and entirely original. One can know everything about Monroe’s life and still see Maggie up there on the stage.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The marriage between Miller and Monroe has always seemed like an improbable match; the marriage between Quentin and Maggie, far more realistic. Part of this is Swift’s youthful, corporate, Everyman appeal but another part is Miller’s psychologically acute take on Quentin. If divorce and disillusionment have upset Quentin’s apple cart and dumped him into the realm of uncertainty, then he is starting over almost as new and green as Maggie in her burgeoning singing career.

But Maggie still belongs to a younger, more rebellious, more sexual generation–the 50s generation of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Monroe, Brando, and Dean emerged just a beat before the Sexual Revolution of the 60s, but that didn’t make them any less rarin’ to go. After the Fall’s Maggie anticipates the qualities of the Boomer generation; sexual openness and adventurousness, full embodiment of a “be here now” attitude, childlike narcissism and arrogance, and a propensity to succumb to drug abuse—although it’s just good, old-fashioned alcohol and barbiturates that drag Maggie and her marriage into hell. Quentin really has gotten in over his head with this one.

Watching Swift and Fiffer play out this doomed pair’s degeneration is like watching two perfectly matched martial artists having it out in the ring. Theirs is a confrontation that could easily slip into the clichés of “Days of Wine and Roses” or a million other addiction dramas, but Scott’s direction keeps their battle taut and economical. Eclipse’s production should sell out for their Second Act scene alone.

Happily, the production doesn’t need to rest on two leads. Quentin’s progress through time and memory is an actor’s Iron Man marathon and Swift stays the course, receiving absolute support from the impeccable cast surrounding him. Cast cohesion is no small feat in an impressionistic and cinematic drama based solely on memory and yearning, but hold together they do. Their characters are the skeletal bones of Quentin’s memory and hold the keys to unraveling his perpetual guiltiness. Guilty memory, especially regret over not being able to save Lou or Maggie, has its claws deep into Quentin—to the point where one wonders whether he has more of a love affair with guilt than he could ever have with any woman.

Is that the cornerstone of Miller’s heart—thoroughly Jewish and unceasing guilt? One might consider Quentin’s survivor’s guilt almost pathological; its presence balanced only by the solid family team of Mother (Susan Monts-Bologna), Father (Jerry Bloom) and brother Dan (Joe McCauley). In them one awakens to Quentin’s ethnic roots, as well as his parent’s survivor’s instinct in the face of the Crash of 1929. Quentin supposes he got his instinct from his Mother, rendered by Monts-Bologna with crafty intelligence and comic intensity. Rather than being able to own it, it’s just another thing that makes him feel guilty.

But the truth is that everyone in Quentin’s family can be called a survivor—certainly of the Crash and of any other personal or political disasters that came afterwards. One is always a survivor, at least until one dies. The real question is if life is still worth living after everything else—including justice, love, and principle—has completely fallen apart. Not to diminish After the Fall as being one, big, Jewish survivor’s guilt fest, but the Holocaust is the play’s constant specter, even in scenes when it is never alluded to. Quentin finally finds another love interest in Holga (Sally Eames-Harlan) because she can confirm for him that no one who survived the Holocaust was innocent. Perhaps more than love itself, he needs another survivor to show him how to go on. It’s his final acknowledgment of his need that makes his survival noble.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

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Extra Credit

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinal scene of After the Fall

   
   

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REVIEW: The Crucible (Infamous Commonwealth Theatre)

Minimalist “Crucible” finds hope amid darkened righteousness.

 

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Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents:
 
The Crucible
 
by Arthur Miller
directed by
Chris Maher
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

The intriguing thing about a good production of Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible – and Infamous Commonwealth‘s definitely falls in this category –  is how distant it feels from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that was so infamously intertwined and on Miller’s mind as impetus for this composition.

The Crucible tells the tale of the Salem witch trials, an historical event that took place in Massachusetts back in the days of Puritan Theocracy (circa 1690).  Tituba (Adrian Snow), a slave from Barbados, and a bunch of goodly Puritan girls are caught dancing in the woods – at the time, some are even allegedly naked. And since Puritan foulplay of any sort is rewritten as Satanic rite, the whispers reverberating through Salem are about much more than a little naked dancing in the woods.

Abbigal Williams (Elaine Ivy Harris) and John Procter (Craig C. Thompson) -Infamous Commonwealth TheatreNumerous accusations begin to fly that girls have even been consorting with the Devil himself.  There are some murmurs that say Abigail Williams (Elaine Ivy Harris) did it.  Or was it the Reverend Parris’s daughter Betty (Glynis Gilio), as others say?  No, they insist, contradicting and indicting one another in a back and forth game of guilt and blame:  it was this girl and not that one, or it was Goodie Proctor (Jennifer Matthews) leading them all to the Devil! 

The accusations babble as sourceless and incoherent as a Massachusetts brook.  Townspersons accuse each other of increasingly sinful behavior, eventually metastasizing from the realm of the accused adolescent girls to grown women and eventually to the men as well.  Before long the small New England town appeals to an out-of-town minister to bring some order and some God to the whole mess – but it only gets muddier, further from the event and any sensible resolution.

As the play’s four Acts (though there’s only one intermission) unfold, the audience watches this small New England town shred itself, its children, its ministers, even the rule of law in hot pursuit of the Devil’s involvement, if any, in civic affairs.  The action moves from a villager’s home to the courtroom and then the prison at dawn on a day scheduled thick with hangings for witchcraft. Nick Rastenis‘ spare, white, post-and-beam, wood-colored set makes movement from one setting to another an effortless rearrangement of bodies on stage, and perhaps a table or a chair.  Rachel M. Sypniewski‘s costumes match the barren quality of Rastenis’ set, making it clear that Crucible-Prepress-Cropped-sThe Crucible is a kind of minimal costume drama; it’s a period piece where bare white walls and exposed wood beams do wonders. 

The minimal quality of the set and the dire consequences of being accused of witchcraft render Stephen Dunn‘s flamboyant gesticulations as Reverend Parris a little too sticky on stage – they tangle up the audience’s attention, making them question his character, and not listen to Reverend Parris’s doublespeak.  Perhaps this is the one instance where Director Chris Maher has pushed too hard – as otherwise the actors successfully achieve and maintain a nearly manic pace and pitch that keeps all four acts clipping along at a pace that makes the piece a borderline thriller – no small accomplishment for a piece where the characters are all too busy attempting to outdo each other’s rhetoric with brimstone polemics on the floor of a courtroom.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: Living Newspapers Festival (Jackalope Theatre)

A Lot of Wit, a Bit of Melodrama, a Dash of Epic, and a Big Slice of Apple Pie

 Living Newspapers - John Milewshi - phot by Ryan Bourque

Jackalope Theatre and Silent Theatre Company presents:

Living Newspapers Festival

Devised by Kaiser Ahmed, Gus Menary, Andrew Buden Swanson and Jon Cohen
Written by Andrew Burden Swanson, Paul Amandes, Matt Welton, Cassandra Rose
through January 30th (more info)

review by Paige Listerud

Inspired by the Federal Theatre Project, a program that put starving dramatic artists back to work under FDR’s Works Progress Administration, Jackalope Theatre revives the Living Newspaper, a style of documentary theater based on current events pulled straight from newspaper articles. The Living Newspaper of the New Deal was controversial for its time, originating from multimedia theatrical experiments of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Epic Theater style of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. Basing its drama on social and political issues, often told from a liberal/leftist point of view, the Living Newspaper drew fire from conservatives in Congress, which shut it down in 1939 after an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Living Newspapers - AJ Ware - photo by Ryan Bourque So it is that the five plays of the Living Newspapers Festival exhibit social commentary that is melodramatic, wildly satirical, a little agitprop, often surreal in its risk-taking but also laced with flourishes of old-school American patriotism. Both buoyant, youthful energy and casual professionalism sustain the production’s even tone and fully embodied concentration. The affable and rough-hewn presence of host Eric Prather rounds out Jackalope’s production with fresh accessibility—and a bit of corn, too.

Of all the plays, The Death of Print, by Andrew Burden Swanson, comes closest to old-fashioned social melodrama. Based on the closing of Ann Arbor’s local newspaper, the small town newsmen of St. Anne’s must also compete in a dwindling economy against the advance of new media technology. Reporter Jake Gallagher (Swanson) rails against the loss of a local voice and the mercenary media takeover that will never serve the older townspeople of St. Anne. But who knows if he, too, will need to use the Internet in pursuit of reviving St. Anne’s local paper. Without acknowledging any need to shift with the times, the preachiness of Swanson’s work undercuts its realism, even if Charles Murray (Jack McCabe), his news editor, adds the depth of camaraderie to their relationship and Jake’s post-partum wife Agnes (AJ Ware) contributes needed tempering to his quixotic character.

Trouble Shoot, by Paul Amandes, wanders into surreal territory while addressing the escalating suicide rate of our currently deployed military and the unwritten policy of the President not sending letters of condolence to the families of these suicides, as opposed to other deaths at the front. Worn out by multiple tours, Chance (Pat Whalen) is ready to eat his M4, personified as a death-dealing military dominatrix by Candice Gregg—weird, but maybe only just as weird as Dad (Bill Hyland) expecting the government’s little symbolic gestures to make his son’s death alright. For her part, Mom (Kristin Collins) also has an unhealthy fascination with Chance’s gun and expects the military to track it down and ship it to her so that she can destroy it. In the midst of hurts that won’t heal, the question, “Would a letter from the President have made this so much better?” hangs over the whole piece.

The riot of the evening is Night of the Gators by Matt Welton. A small town in Louisiana becomes terrorized when greedy gator farmers manipulate their alligators’ genetics and reproductive capacity, leading to an explosion in hybrid human-gators that prey on human flesh. “It’s Arma-shit-hill-geddon out there,” cries Bobby (Danny Martinez) barely making it safely home. “We should not have played God with those creatures of God!” Only minutes later do we discover this is a propaganda piece by PETA, once the PETA Activist (Daisica Smith) strides onto stage and leads the audience, gospel-revival style. But equal time is given to the other side, which is more than any news organization will do these days for the public good. Joel Reitsma’s Politician is so fabulously greasy he could consider running for office. Of course, we learn the terrible consequences of not running gator farms—to hilarious effect.

There’s a magnificent poetry to Cassandra Rose’s Washington in Winter. All funding has been cut for the historical re-enactment of George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware to defeat the Hessians at Trenton. One father, playing George Washington (John Milewski) remains humorously undaunted in the face of cold, cut funds, reluctant adolescent troops (his children), and interrupting cell phones. But the evening also reveals “Washington’s” terrible vulnerability. At the end, Lucy Hancock, as the daughter playing Private Wesson, delivers Thomas Paines’ words so profoundly, no doubt remains whatsoever why they should be imprinted upon our lives forever.

Living Newspapers - Eric Prather - photo by Ryan Bourque The Silent Theatre Company delivers Slice of Americana, a day in the life of miners deep underground; which they do without words and in almost total darkness, the lamps on their protective helmets serving as the only sources of light until spotlight is used to heighten moments of fantasy. One could almost call this Norman Rockwell Underground, although it’s not likely Rockwell would depict a budding romance between two of the men. While the fantasy sequences may be of the lightest sort, we become so involved in their daily work in darkness that by the time one miner bursts into singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” its spontaneity is unquestionable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any drama go so boldly for male pride and patriotism but Silent Theatre succeeds in making it an authentic moment.

The Living Newspaper Festival only lasts this weekend, but producer Kaiser Ahmed wants to make it a quarterly happening. Their display in The Artistic Home’s lobby goes into greater depth on the history of the Federal Theatre Project. Dramaturg Jon Cohen remarked on the similarities between now and then in the right’s targeting of arts’ funding. Try to catch this before it closes. The energy alone will give you hope for the future—for preserving current and relevant dramatic art, the 1st Amendment, and the nation–and the fun in doing it.

 

Rating: ★★★

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