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6 Hours, 48 Playwrights, and the Entire Bible

Colin Waitt & cast

Colin Waitt & cast

How dozens of writers came together to create The Mysteries

When invited to pitch a new project to The Flea Theater following his epic staging of These Seven Sicknesses—a five-hour, 40-actor adaptation of Sophocles’ seven surviving tragedies—director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar suggested something modest: Nothing less than “the entire history of the salvation of mankind,” he says.

Flea artistic director Jim Simpson and producing director Carol Ostrow had been considering another marathon event, perhaps around the subject of Christmas, to once again showcase the Bats, their youthful resident acting company. Iskandar picked up on their Biblical cue and suggested refracting the Old and New Testaments through the lenses of an eclectic group of living playwrights.

“I got a green light within 45 minutes,” he says. “I thought it was the maddest thing I’ve ever dared.”

Clocking in at nearly six hours and featuring 54 performers and 48 playwrights, the resulting project—The Mysteries, running through May 25 on The Flea’s mainstage—borrows from the so-called “mystery plays” phenomenon of the Middle Ages, when Bible stories were performed in vernacular style from open-air wagons in towns across Europe.

Iskandar and his primary partner on the project, dramaturg Jill Rafson, drew from the York Cycle of 47 playlets, the most complete surviving texts of the mystery form, to create an organizing template for their show. But even though the York Cycle, created in 15th-century England, narrows the 66-book Christian Bible to a digestible structure, Iskandar and Rafson were still flirting with dramaturgical chaos as they prepped the project.

“It’s a little bit like herding cats, just trying to keep in contact with this many playwrights,” Rafson says. “Our schedule is so incredibly complicated that I have to be their main source of communication. Every time we did a big run-through, I sent notes to 50 playwrights, individually.”

And that’s just the tip of the collaborative iceberg. According to Iskandar, recent rehearsal reports went out to 161 people.

“You have to be organized, but you also have to surrender,” he says. “You can’t fret that somebody didn’t get a draft in that afternoon, in time for rehearsal. You find something else to do. If you started fretting like that, I think you would feel the anxiety of trying to birth 50 babies simultaneously and making sure that they all try to make sense together.” [Read more →]

April 17, 2014   No Comments

He’s Not Really Acting, So Why Is He Crying?

The cast of "Eugene O'Neil..."

The cast of “Eugene O’Neill…”

The New York Neo-Futurists find the power in O’Neill’s stage directions

What do actors have to do to make us feel something? Do they need to cry? Do they need to speak? Do they even need to make expressions? Or can the simplest gestures, the most benign movements, pierce something inside us?

Those questions simmer beneath The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 2, the latest installment of the New York Neo-Futurists’ ambitious series, which begins performances on Thursday at Theater for the New City.

And yes, the company will only enact the stage directions from early O’Neill’s plays like The Sniper and Recklessness, not the dialogue. Crucially, though, they won’t perform like they’re in a naturalistic drama. We might hear a narrator read the cues and watch the actors embody them, but we’ll never think we’re at a “typical” show.

For one thing, the New York Neo-Futurists don’t work that way. They reject the idea of acting as “pretending.” When they’re on stage, they always acknowledge that they’re who they are and where they are. No one tries to convince us they’re “actually” a German duchess or a 19th-century doctor.

So with two artifices stripped away—both O’Neill’s dialogue and the pretense of becoming a fictional character—we’re left with the raw basics of the scripts. The company must decide how to bring those pieces to life.

“It’s addicting,” says Christopher Loar, a Neo-Futurist who also wrote and directed this production. “Every rehearsal was like an act of mystery. It was thrilling to get in the room and say, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work, but we’ll try.’”

But that’s not to say the show lacks discipline. In fact, the company tries to honor O’Neill’s strict instructions. “The particular plays have a list of commands that very much tell a person how to move, think, and feel from the outside in,” Loar says. “They’re given a lot of commands to take physical attitudes with their bodies and faces.”

The surprise is what happens when the actors perform those commands without putting on a traditional character. [Read more →]

April 15, 2014   No Comments

Angela Lansbury and Her London Ghosts

Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati

Angela Lansbury

In the West End’s “Blithe Spirit,” Angela Lansbury’s past is always present

Editor’s note: I’m delighted to welcome London critic and reporter Mark Shenton to TDF Stages. From time to time, he’ll file reports on West End shows that have special ties to New York. His exclusive interview with Dame Angela Lansbury is a perfect place to start.

The channels between Broadway and London’s West End can be remarkably fluid, and some artists seem to belong to both communities at once.

This season, for instance, Shakespeare’s Globe traveled from London to score a New York smash with its repertory of Twelfth Night and Richard III, and right now director Michael Grandage is at the Cort Theatre recreating his sell-out West End production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead.

In return, The Book of Mormon scooped the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical just last night, with star Gavin Creel also taking the award for Best Actor in a Musical. As Creel told one interviewer, “I’m very much an American to the core, but I really love being here and pretending it’s home!”

Meanwhile, Dame Angela Lansbury has come home at last. Though the 88-year-old legend was born in London in 1925, she hasn’t appeared on the West End in decades. Instead, she’s been starring in plays and musicals throughout the world, including four Broadway shows in the last seven years.

One of those Broadway triumphs has carried her back to London. At the Gielgud Theatre through June 7, she’s recreating her 2009 Tony-winning performance as Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s 1942 comedy Blithe Spirit. And she couldn’t be more pleased.

“I think it’s one of the best parts I’ve ever had in the theatre,” she says. “Honestly, that is the prime reason I’m here. She’s an extraordinary character. I adore playing it, and I love going out on stage every night to do it. If you’re that happy in a role, you want to repeat it, and what better place to repeat it than London, the place of its origins and of my origins. So here we are, anyway, and I’m terribly excited and very proud to be coming back.” [Read more →]

April 14, 2014   No Comments

Climbing a Mountain With Gertrude Stein

Kristin Sieh

Kristen Sieh

Ripe Time turns a Stein story into a fable for grown-ups and kids

Welcome to Borough Play, our exclusive series on theatre in Brooklyn, Queens, and beyond.

Gertrude Stein may be known for avoiding narrative in her novels, poems, and plays, but her 1939 book The World Is Round tells the relatively straightforward tale of Rose, a young girl who envies her alpha male cousin and decides to climb a mountain in an attempt to find answers about her life. “For Stein, a writer who is usually so ambivalent about narrative, it is remarkably clear in its storytelling,” says Rachel Dickstein, artistic director of Ripe Time.

Now Dickstein’s adaptation of The World Is Round is running April 17-30 at Brooklyn’s BAM Fisher, with music by Heather Christian and aerial choreography by Nicki Miller.

“I was immediately drawn to the brilliance with which Stein dialogues with the children’s book genre while also telling a resonant story of a girl wrestling with her own growing sense of identity,” says Dickstein, who describes the play as a fable for grownups and mature children. “I thought a lot about shows like Shockheaded Peter and the film Labyrinth, with David Bowie, when making this. Those are both based on fable-like scenarios, but have an adult sensibility that lends deeper meaning.” [Read more →]

April 14, 2014   2 Comments

Stephen Spinella Will Give a New Performance Tonight

Estelle Parsons & Stephen Spinella

Estelle Parsons & Stephen Spinella

Inside his work on Broadway’s The Velocity of Autumn

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles

“The thing that draws me to new plays is the speech,” says Stephen Spinella. “Does the writer have a good ear for the way people talk?”

His acting career has certainly been marked by thrilling language. From originating the role of Prior Walter in Angels in America to delivering a one-man adaptation of The Iliad, he’s mastered torrents of roof-shaking words.

The trend continues with The Velocity of Autumn, Eric Coble’s tragicomic play about Alexandra, an elderly woman threatening to blow up her Brooklyn apartment if her children try to move her to a nursing home. Spinella plays her son Chris, who climbs a tree to get through her window and coax her outside. Mother and son have been estranged for decades, but as they navigate their various disappointments and a roomful of Molotov cocktails, they’re as honest as they’ve ever been.

And the more they say, the more eloquent they become. If the opening of the play, which is now on Broadway at the Booth Theatre, is all pauses and stammers, then the finale is flush with arias. Both characters say rough, beautiful things about getting old, being forgotten, and finding reasons to keep going.

“All of that means character to me,” Spinella says. “The thing I like about Eric’s writing is that the language is kind of clumsy in places. The syntax is odd. The jokes can be awkward and bad. But then there are these long passages that have a wonderful kind of music to them. The task [as an actor] is to figure out the guy who does all of those different things.” [Read more →]

April 11, 2014   No Comments