After the Fall – a YouTube interview with Eclipse Theatre

Hurry! Only 4 more chances to see “After the Fall”!!

 

Cutting Close to the Bone:

 

A conversation about Arthur Miller’s After the Fall

 

with Director Steve Scott and lead actor Nathaniel Swift

Elicpse Theatre - After the Fall

by Paige Listerud

After the Fall is Arthur Miller’s most personal play. He exposes the implosion of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, set off by addiction, driven by the demons of childhood sexual abuse and Hollywood exploitation. It’s a play in which Miller acknowledges his own failed attempts to save her from any of it. In the play, Miller’s persona, Quentin (Nat Swift), marvels at and abhors the sexual fascination that Maggie (Nora Fiffer), Monroe’s persona, casts over men—a power that makes her vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation. But even as he attempts to protect her, he acknowledges his own culpability and morally compromised state in succumbing to her bombshell beauty and erotic, childlike nature.

After the first production of After the Fall, taking place one year after Monroe’s death, Arthur Miller was savaged in the press for exploiting his wife. But the play really is a purge and cathartic release of all sorts for Miller. Of all his works, After the Fall cuts closest to the bone. Furthermore it’s a play that covers other purges and other morally compromised states—such as America’s purge of communists, fellow travelers, and other leftist thinkers during the McCarthy Era. It was an era in which the outrageous accusations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) met with collusion by some fearful Americans, ready to surrender names in order to save their careers, while other fearful Americans maintained their silence about McCarthy’s witch hunt under the peer pressure of Loyalty Oaths.

It was an era for all sorts of moral compromise—not something that Miller’s intelligent and incredibly moral protagonist Quentin can live with very well. If you want to know how Eclipse Theatre has done one of Miller’s most cinematic and impressionistic works, you can now read an array of critical acclaim from the Chicago theater press. (You can also see our in-depth review here ★★★½).  As for diving even deeper into the challenges of rendering this difficult play so well, enjoy our video interview below. Then get thee to Eclipse Theatre before the production closes.

 

 

        
        

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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Into the Heart of Arthur Miller

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Into the Heart of Arthur Miller

by Paige Listerud

It seems like only yesterday we started The Arthur Miller Project. Back in November, TimeLine Theatre was finishing up with All My Sons and Raven Theatre had extended its hit production of Death of a Salesman. I still marveled at the line-up of Arthur Miller works being produced through the 2009-2010 season. To the best of my knowledge, an opportunity like this–to grasp the breadth of Miller’s drama, live, in a single season–is unprecedented, even for a world-class theater city like Chicago. You don’t have to be a theater geek to appreciate what a break it is to see an American master like Miller done comprehensively, and done well, in the course of a year.

Plus, it happened this way without anyone planning it. No theater company coordinated with any other to produce seven Miller plays across the city. They are still not coordinating with each other, not even for advertising purposes–unlike TimeLine, Remy Bumppo, and Court Theatre’s promotional collaboration, Fugard Chicago 2010. In fact, Infamous Commonwealth, TimeLine, and Raven Theatre bid against each other for the rights to produce All My Sons–much to the bewilderment of Miller’s estate, according to Eclipse Theatre’s Artistic Director Nathaniel Swift.

Well, for some reason Arthur Miller is in the Chicago theater community’s headlights this year. Companies needed and wanted to dig into Miller’s canon. When they couldn’t get All My Sons they moved on, not to another playwright but to another Miller play.

So April is here, Easter is upon us; the spring Chicago theater season is about to burst into full glory. Infamous Commonwealth Theatre opened The Crucible last week (see our review) and Eclipse Theatre started its previews of Resurrection Blues on March 25. You can see our interview with Infamous Commonwealth’s Chris Maher and Craig Thompson below. Video of Eclipse Theatre’s theater artists and events are to come.

We hope you’ve warmed up nicely from seeing TimeLine and Raven Theatre’s productions last fall—find our interviews with their directors below.

Covering everything Eclipse Theatre has planned for its Arthur Miller season could be a project in and of itself. But then its mission, unique in the Midwest, is to concentrate upon one playwright per season, supplementing fully mounted plays with further explorations of the playwright’s work in a series of intimate readings and discussions. Eclipse selected Miller’s lesser-done plays Resurrection Blues, After the Fall and A Memory of Two Mondays for full-scale production. As in previous seasons, Eclipse will also employ directors, actors, scholars and dramaturges to enhance their subscribers’ introduction to other Arthur Miller works. It’s all part of the subscription–although, for a suggested donation, non-subscribers can also join in the journey to the heart of Arthur Miller.

If sneak peaks are any indication, that journey will be substantial.

arthur-miller2 First up in Eclipse’s Playwright Scholar Series is a staged reading of Miller’s first full-length play written in 1944, The Man Who Had All The Luck. Held Saturday, April 10, at 2 pm at the Greenhouse Theater Center, the play has the kind of protagonist who reads like the photographic negative of Willy Loman. David Beeves acquires success in every area of his personal and professional life, regardless of the obstacles. “But his good fortune merely serves to reveal the tragedies of those around him in greater relief, offering evidence of a capricious god or, worse, a godless, arbitrary universe.” I guess there are two kinds of tragedies in life: one is never getting what you want and the other is getting it. While we are familiar with the former in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a work like The Man Who Had All the Luck explicitly shows the playwright delving into the latter.

Swift, who also directs Resurrection Blues this season, particularly looks forward to discussing the theme of “being liked”—the proverbial American need to be liked—running through both plays.

Other Arthur Miller treats:

The Homely Girl, A Life—Eclipse has been contemplating a workshop on a stage adaptation of this Miller novella. At last notice, acquiring rights from the estate were still a little sticky. Stay tuned.

Enemy of the People—discussion will compare Miller’s adaptation to Ibsen’s original work. Hopefully, discussion will resonate with Eclipse’s upcoming production of After the Fall in July and Infamous Commonwealth’s The Crucible going on right now. All three have to do with Miller going before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

A View from the Bridge—readings from the original one-act version and songs from the opera version. Just this January, Gregory Mosher, once head of the Goodman Theatre, revived this little Miller classic on Broadway with Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson. In a thousand ways, this tense tale of incest and domestic violence just keeps turning up. Its blue-collar atmosphere may enhance Eclipse’s last play of the season, A Memory of Two Mondays.

arthur-miller-marilyn-monroe The Misfits—a reading of the screenplay and discussion of Miller’s life and writing. Marilyn Monroe was with Miller all through HUAC and starred in this, her last completed film, screenplay written by Miller. The shooting of the film was the site of their marriage’s demise. Miller’s last play, Finishing the Picture, depicts the making of The Misfits.

Swift doesn’t mind not getting All My Sons for Eclipse’s season. While a famous Miller blockbuster definitely would bring in more revenue, focusing on lesser-known Arthur Miller works better fits their mission to cover the full arc of a playwright’s career. “Our focus is largely dramaturgical,” says Swift, “to ask how these works resonate–especially now. Not to compete with other companies.” Other companies covering Arthur Miller simply give more context to what Eclipse is doing.

Chuck Spencer blew me away,” says Swift, regarding Raven Theatre’s Death of a Salesman. “I’m looking forward to seeing Incident At Vichy at Redtwist Theatre. A bunch of people are thrown into the same room and it builds terrifyingly with the realization of how bad it’s going to get.”

I’m anticipating how good it’s all going to get, show by show, event by event. Please join us, here and at the theater.


For all YouTube interviews, click on “Read more”


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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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