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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

Have You Seen this Side of Lear?

Michael Pennington & Lilly Englert

Michael Pennington & Lilly Englert

Michael Pennington finds new facets in Shakespeare’s tragic king

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

“I’ve always noted that most Lears are either good in the first part or the last part, but not always in both,” says Michael Pennington. “It’s difficult to catch the autocrat and the tyrant in the first half and then the pitiful old man in the second half.”

And if any living actor’s in a position to evaluate a Shakespearean performance, it’s certainly Pennington. In his native England, he’s played almost all the major roles, often with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He’s also toured extensively with Sweet Will, his solo play about the Bard, and written several books on performing Shakespeare’s work.

Now he’s applying his decades of knowledge to his first performance as King Lear, in the production currently running at Theatre for a New Audience.

Asked which part of the play comes more naturally to him—the tyranny half or the senility half—Pennington laughs and says, “The senility half. I’m of an age where one fears forgetting people’s names and does forget people’s names. One fears for one’s short-term memory.”

All joking aside, his performance in King Lear is nuanced throughout. He’s blustering and powerful in the early scenes, when Lear foolishly disowns his devoted daughter Cordelia and divides his kingdom between his perfidious daughters Regan and Goneril. Later, when a chain of tragic events leaves the king mentally broken, Pennington brings palpable emotion to his downfall.
His performance is partially animated by his new discoveries about the play, which continues to surprise him.

Take Act 2, Scene 4, when Lear tries to lodge with Regan after Goneril has turned him away. The king wants to bring a retinue of at least 100 knights to his daughter’s home, but as the scene progresses, the sisters wheedle him out of bringing any followers at all.

“I hadn’t realized what a complex piece of reasoning it is,” Pennington says.” You sort of know what’s going to happen, because you’ve seen it with Goneril. You know what the issue is, and you know that Regan’s going to reject him. In a way, the scene almost looks overwritten.” [Read more →]

April 7, 2014   No Comments

57 Plays in 100 Minutes

Love and Information Minetta Lane Theatre

In Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, 15 actors star in 57 shorts

The lights rise on a wall of grass and two suspended actors, arms resting behind their heads as if they’re stargazing. One of the actors (Noah Galvin) hangs from his feet, upside down, and chats with his co-star about the speed of light.

Then the lights dim, a sound effect blares in the darkness, and we’re suddenly in a toy-strewn living room with two new characters. An entirely different scene begins.

Asked about negotiating that sudden transition—in ten seconds and in pitch darkness, no less— Galvin smiles, saying, “Our job is to get changed very quickly and move furniture. I’ve been instructed by my stage manager to not give too many details.”

Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, now playing in a New York Theatre Workshop production at Minetta Lane, is a mosaic of 57 such transitions, as magical as they are jarring. The audience must process completely unrelated scenes ranging from five seconds to several minutes long, and this deluge is Churchill’s theatrical reckoning of our downloadable, ADD-driven world. Under the direction of James Macdonald, 15 actors play hundreds of roles arranged haphazardly into bite-sized—or perhaps more accurately, byte-sized—vignettes.

Galvin, who plays eight characters, likens the play to Twitter: “You have little snippets of people’s lives that you can scroll through. This play is perfect for younger generations who have no attention spans whatsoever.”

Throughout these kaleidoscopic glimpses of life, it proves impossible to do what we as audiences normally do: invest in an overarching story’s exposition, rising action, and conclusion. But those who have trained their brains to flip through emails or Instagram feeds might find themselves better equipped when assigning emotional meaning to Churchill’s bombardment. [Read more →]

March 7, 2014   No Comments

When Bruce Lee Battles His Father

francis-jue-kung-fu

Francis Jue and Cole Horibe

Francis Jue guards the soul of David Henry Hwang’s new play

Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages’ ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles

Want to know how to approach a David Henry Hwang play? Ask Francis Jue. He’s been starring in Hwang’s shows since the late 80s, from the Tony Award-winning production of M. Butterfly to the world premiere of Kung Fu, currently at Signature Theatre.

“Whether I’m playing a large part or a small part in David’s work, I feel like he pays attention to the humanity and the context for that character,” Jue says. “He challenges us to look at the world in a way that’s really exciting. It’s all about surface and what’s beneath that surface.”

Take Kung Fu, about the life of Bruce Lee (Cole Horibe). On the most superficial level, it’s a martial arts spectacular, delivering tightly choreographed routines as Lee uses kung fu to become a renowned teacher and an internationally famous actor.

However, there’s more to the show than flying kicks. Even at his peak, Lee grapples with Hollywood executives who don’t think America’s ready for an Asian celebrity, and perhaps more importantly, he clashes with his father Hoi-Chuen, a star of the Chinese opera who loathes his son’s choices and essentially banishes him from the family.

Jue, who plays Hoi-Chuen, wants audiences to feel the weight of that conflict. “I think that David sometimes isn’t taken as seriously as he should be because he’s so entertaining,” he says. “The challenge for me as a performer, for Leigh [Silverman] as a director, for Sonya [Tayeh] as a choreographer, is to look at this and say, ‘Without proselytizing, without hitting anyone over the head, how can we say what we want to say and entertain people at the same time?’” [Read more →]

February 28, 2014   No Comments

A Mother Reveals Her Body (And Her Heart)

the-clearing-allison-daugherty

Brian McManamon & Allison Daugherty

Inside the show-stopping nude scene in The Clearing

In an age of rampant thongs, plunging necklines, and burlesque everywhere you turn, onstage nudity is rarely shocking anymore. But when Allison Daugherty takes her clothes off in The Clearing, an emotionally-charged drama by emerging playwright Jake Jeppson, you hear the audience collectively catch its breath.

Part of that is because her character, Ella, is a modest, religious mom to two grown sons. She’s not the type to disrobe in front of anyone, let alone a virtual stranger like Peter, who is both her son Les’ lover and a photographer who wants to take her nude portrait. But it’s the intimate vibe of the scene that really makes you feel like a voyeur as you watch Ella strip herself naked both literally and figuratively.

“It stops the show every night,” says director Josh Hecht. “Watching her undress is like watching a text-less monologue, with its beat changes and turns, as we see a dozen thoughts go through her head with total clarity.”

In a strange way, it’s also a scene of seduction. Peter seduces Ella into doing something far beyond her comfort zone. Ella seduces Peter into sticking with Les, who, like his mom, desperately needs to come out of his shell. And, above all, it’s a seduction of the audience.

Although Ella’s age is never given, it’s fair to say that she’s at least a decade older than Daugherty herself. But agreeing to a nude scene is a big decision at any age, especially in a culture obsessed with youth and physical perfection. “My first thought was now I’m taking my clothes off, after two kids—you’re joking!” says Daugherty, who also played Ella in an earlier incarnation of the play at Pleasantville, NY’s Axial Theatre in 2012. “But in the very next show I did [after the first production], Tales from Hollywood at the Guthrie, I had to do the same thing. I was nude except for a scanty apron. In both cases it wasn’t about being sexy; it was about bearing the soul more than the body.” [Read more →]

January 29, 2014   No Comments