Category Archives: Uneasy Heads

The Destructive Process

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Old Familiar Faces

Written and Directed by Nat Cassidy

(as part of the Seventeenth Annual New York International Fringe Festival)

August 11-24, 2013

The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, New York City

www.oldfamiliarfaces.info

At one point in writer/director Nat Cassidy’s wise and moving new play Old Familiar Faces, a modern-day indie-theatre Shakespeare auteur exhorts his reluctant, Hollywood-bound partner about what “we’ll be remembered” for; a heartbeat and two centuries away, a Shakespearean adaptation artist (real life’s Charles Lamb, who collaborated on two illustrated volumes of the bard for kids in the 1800s) muses to his sister and co-writer Mary that the moment they are in will immediately be a memory, or soon not remembered at all, but that they will live their lives onward, fully, through each of them.

The forever-famous siblings are not interested in a recorded life, while the present-day lovers are highly conscious of being watched though they are by definition anonymous (creations of Cassidy’s, even if their uneasy ego balance and hi-/lo-culture tension is loosely based on yet another century’s marriage between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh).

It is one of many counterpoints in a play whose characters fight through older references and outer impressions to embrace their truest selves. The Lambs found purpose in Shakespeare, and we see them take solace in sharing his words, over the course of a volatile homelife where they contend with each other’s mental illness (especially Mary’s, which once resulted in the stabbing death of their mother during an episode); “Oliver” and “Lee” displace the mismatching pieces of their emotions onto the perfect constructions of the Shakespeare scenes they work on.

Charles and Mary are at odds almost constantly yet understand each other better than anyone else they know, and are tied in an eternal, loving way; Oliver and Lee are deeply in love yet driven apart from before the start by their genuine talents and the precarious egos that come with them. Cassidy’s perception into a dimly distant time is matched by his insight into the always even harder truths to see about our own; surprisingly, the traumas lurking in Lee and Oliver’s recent past are more concealed by far than the horrors in the Lambs’, since, bereft of the apparatus of therapy the modern era offers, they also exist without any of our ways of talking around it. (Though the frankness and feeling of now we get from both pairs of characters, behind the veil of legend and with the guard of the fourth wall down, is remarkable.)

Still, talk is costly in this play, with verse being both couples’ refuge from the most painful thoughts they might express themselves. At one pivotal point Mary (a luminously shaded, humane and intrepid performance by Tandy Cronyn) implores her brother (a portrayal of astonishing wit and warmth by Sam Tsoutsouvas) to “use your own words,” and Oliver & Lee speak in terms of how they are each other’s “language,” the lens through which their worlds are defined. When the characters’ fogs of conflict and artifice clear, the play enacts some of the most tender connections and most honest and aware accounts of mental illness and disintegrating relationships I’ve ever seen, and across a gulf of personality and from either side of the chasm of their relationship’s lifeline, Lee (Marianne Miller) and Oliver (James Patrick Nelson) give soliloquies, on longing for a not-yet-lover who is filling her thoughts and the loss of a wife his life has gone silent without, that are as heartbreaking as anything in the theatrical canon.

The play’s title, taken from a melancholy poem by Charles about departed family and friends claimed by death or just drifted away, is deceptive — the faces we think we know can be mysteries to us, including the one we look at in the mirror. And though the present-day lovers tell each other “we’ll always have the text,” there is no script to follow, no handbook left behind. Leaving us instead the scariest and greatest act of creation, to make ourselves something new.

3000

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Iphigenia in Aulis
by Euripides
Adapted and directed by Edward Einhorn
Music by Aldo Perez
Art by Eric Shanower
Sets and masks by Jane Stein
Costumes by Carla Gant
Lighting by Jeff Nash
Choreography by Patrice Miller
Vocal Coach: Henry Akona
Fight Choreography: Dan Zisson

At La MaMa’s First Floor Theatre
74 E 4th St, NYC
Feb 14 — Mar 3, 2013
Thursdays — Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 2:30pm

Tickets www.lamama.org

Iphigenia in Aulis is a study in pretext without principle. Nations and leaders lean on prescribed values like the characters in this ancient Greek drama lean on the staffs holding up ceremonial masks that project their larger- (yet less-) than-life official presence to the world. But both of these are often a consensual delusion — a dispiritingly unoriginal observation of mine that proves how fresh this play of Euripides remains.

The elopement of Helen with her lover Paris to Troy from her husband King Menelaus’s realm triggers an honor-war in which city-states pledged in a mutual support pact are obligated to overrun the offending territory. Menelaus’ brother King Agamemnon is in turn obligated to lead the expedition, and finds himself manipulated by a prophet (and then pressured by a restive army) into pledging his own daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to gain favor with the gods in battle.

The anguish this causes Agamemnon is a portrait of the blame that buffers our ethical decisions; the king feels at the mercy of greater powers and grand concepts that we can recognize as really the limits of his own moral imagination. And this distortion of private conscience by public piety and militarist imperative is renewably timely in our own era teetering on the ledge of theocracy and “generational” conflict.

But that’s not the only way in which the antique and modern collide in this production. The beautifully wrought, eerily impersonal masks which intervene between the characters’ feelings and their obligations are designed by Jane Stein from Age of Bronze graphic novelist Eric Shanower’s images, and the commenting chorus is transformed into a punky pair of power trios on instruments and collective vocals (composer Aldo Perez plus Matthew Brundrett and Mike Strauss as the band, and Jenny Lee Mitchell, Sandy York and Emily Clare Zempel to sing the unspeakable).

The latter, thought jarring by some viewers, is as disruptive as rock was once meant to be, and is perhaps the feature of the production most in tune with the combative rabble our “civilization”’s founding figures of legend really were.

The characters themselves are more high-minded, in debates which are compelling as drama and plain speech turned to insistent artistry by director Edward Einhorn’s translation. His treatment is a new standard text of language unadorned but not austere, the straightforward arguments of state and dialogues of moral dilemma almost entirely free of poetic ornament but elevated to distinguished oratory and elemental outcry by the external pressures and expressive necessities the characters face.

Those public and personal spheres clash in the conflict of Agamemnon and his Queen, Klytemnestra, who tries everything to counter her husband’s mad myopic plan. The compact between wife and husband in a decidedly pre-feminist culture is implicitly paralleled to the uneasy understanding between leader and citizenry at the points when Klytemnestra reminds him of her sexual deference in return for domestic peace, and when she insists (still thinking that Iphigenia has been called to the staging area for a wedding rather than a burial) that the home — and the family in it — are hers to direct and protect while the patriarch of the clan ranges the wider world. But this is an epoch of men who will destroy their own house to save someone else’s village.

The way the wretched of a society can be enlisted in the cause of their oppressors is portrayed with ghastly — which is to say almost unremarkable — inexorability as Iphigenia becomes convinced that Troy, if punished with the massacre to come, will forever forebear coming into “civilized” Greece and “taking its wives.” And so high principle ends up hinging entirely on possession, with the psychologically coerced consent of the dispossessed.

The message of disapproval for the paternal pattern of the society ours is said to be based on is a message still in transmission some 3000 years after these supposed events, and the last, laudatory lines about the nobility of Iphigenia’s sacrifice are delivered not even through the prescribed mood of the masks but the backs of standards held up by a heraldic chorus, between their faces and us — banners as blinders.

The vocal resonance, moral hollowness and unexplored depths of Michael Bertolini and Eric Emil Oleson as Agamemnon and Menelaus are frightfully magnetic; the emotional bravery of Ivanna Cullinan’s precarious balance of obliged social surface and embattled inner character is unforgettable; the burdened dignity and urgent humanity of Lynn Berg’s Old Servant, a man who seems literally stooped by the pressures both divine and royal upon his constricted frame, is bleakly moving; and the radiant decency and contained charisma of Paul Murillo as Achilles and the humanitarian conviction and emotional immediacy of Laura Hartle’s Iphigenia round out an essentially flawless ensemble.

The masks, accurate to the origins of Greek theatre and appropriate to our own age of social artifice and selected avatars, are discarded at moments of uncommon honesty and insistent feeling. This tragedy is a text we’ve been going through for as long as can be remembered, perhaps even inscribed in our very molecules over the repetition of millennia. But with collective knowledge and moral perception like we see the playwright, his interpreter, some of their characters and each of the cast attempt, perhaps we can at last go off-script and into a future that all of us can survive.