Edmond Chibeau looks at performance and theatre from the avant-garde communication perspective

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Location: Mansfield, Connecticut, United States

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Safe In Hell

photo credit Yale Rep

SAFE IN HELL at the Yale Rep
by Edmond Chibeau
12 November – 3 December 2005

Theatre repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Amy Freed’s “Safe In Hell” has many elements of a Greek Tragedy, and can not help be compared to Arthur Miller’s 20th Century tragedy, “The Crucible.” “Safe in Hell” is written as a comedy yet it touches us, often when we least expect it, in ways that a knock-about farce could not do. Perhaps we should use the oxymoron “tragicomedy” to describe it.

To succeed a play must operate on several levels at once. Not only does Freed’s play take a few slams at the Bush administration and the Oedipal drama that is lighting up the sky over Iraq and leaving New Orleans in darkness, it also looks at the themes of ambition and the absurdity of blind faith.

The Puritans believed in a spiritual baptism, a privileged moment when they saw the meaning of their faith, when the spirit of the Lord filled them and set the course for the rest of their lives as a Christians.

Early in the play we see a discussion between Cotton Mather and his father Increase Mather. It becomes clear the son has not yet had the conversion experience. It is a sequence of considerable tension between the two clerics. It is played for laughs but it is the hinge on which the rest of the play swings.

In a few sentences the father realizes that his son does not have the discernment, misericordia, or other spiritual gifts to be a spiritual leader. Increase, sees his son’s failing when the son tries to claim he that he has experienced the transcendent moment; that he can feel it when he creates fear in the congregation. His father lets him off the hook. Increase has too much compassion to confront his son’s shallowness.

In this scene the playwright lets us ask, “What might have been?” What if Increase had not sent his son to pursue the Salem witch trials? We can imagine King David, or George Bush or Increase Mather crying out in despair, “Absalom Absalom!”

Amy Freed is a poet. She gets down to the molecular level of language. She doesn’t simply communicate her insights, but does so in a language that is rich with sound and makes it easier for the actors to perform the psychological insights she offers. Poetry in the theater is not necessarily strict adherence to end line rhyme or metrical scansion. It is using the devices of poetry to serve the ends of the play. Amy Freed has an ear; assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, metrical rhythm and the breaking of that rhythm with caesura are among the tools she uses to bring us her play.

These elements are not there to draw attention to themselves but are hidden within the text to help the actors sing the song of meaning. We don’t really see them but we can feel their traces throughout the work.

There any number of characters who could be brought to the fore and it would be impossible to adequately represent them all in two hours. But if they are going to be brought forward at all then they must either drive the narrative forward or provide a significant sub plot.

The European who took on the traits of the Nipmunks is a fascinating character but is not developed enough to contribute to this work. Why did he choose to live as a native? How is he perceived by the Nipmunks?
The minister who died reciting the Lord’s Prayer played an important part later in the play but his early appearances did not involve us in his life enough to deeply feel his scenes at the end of the evening. Amy Freed is a highly skilled professional and should be held to the highest standards. The play is so good that a viewer wants it to be perfect.

It is hard to imagine a script more fully served by a production team. Yale Rep did a great job in bringing together excellent actors, a set that was complex and interesting, costumes, puppets, masks and interstitial music that all worked admirably. The characters were quirky individuals but the actors worked as a team; each playing off the others to create a unified whole.

The director’s art is a difficult one to notice but this ensemble is so finely tuned and the production so perfectly pitched that we must give credit to the hand that helped shape the performances. Part the director’s job it so make sure everyone is on the same page emotionally, interpretively, and in terms of pace and timing. Mark Wing-Davey delivers the letter.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Chibeau re: Sharif

By Edmond Chibeau

There is a solidarity of sorrow that binds every woman who has lost a loved one to war. The womb of loss is the lowest common denominator. Bina Sharif speaks for the rich, the poor, the powerful, the unempowered, who have lost their blood relatives in the ongoing and ever-present, senseless and eternal, war.

The Republic of Iqra is blood red. The language of the play is blood red.
The silken river of blood that runs across the stage and the lights illuminating the actors are crimson.

The blood motif is an allegory for the vortex of confusion and of real blood that is being spilled across the Middle East at the very moment the play is being performed at Theatre for the New City.

We shift back and forth between the reality a woman who faces the loss of her husband, children, and her country, and the allegory of a nation that has lost its sons and daughters and political freedom as well as its sense of ethics. No one escapes Sharif’s hot and piercing gaze. Invaders, corrupt local officials, international power brokers must all face the playwright’s scrutiny. She looks at the human cost of war, of oppression, of governmental corruption at the local level as well as the national level.

In an age of music-video-political-campaigns and bumper sticker attack strategies the audience must adjust to the longer monologues that Iqra offers. Each monologue, like a sura from the Koran, offers a meditation on some aspect of moral responsibility. The 96th sura, from which the title of the play is taken, enjoins us to “read in the name of the Lord who created humans from a clot of blood” and “who has taught the use of the pen.”

As director, Sharif has dared to let the performers hold still on stage, and let the intensity of the words and feeling be conveyed by the cold stillness and white-hot concentration of the actors.

The form of the play is inspired by classic Greek Theatre. The cyclic structure of the play is musical. A theme is stated and developed and then brought around again later to be heard with new insight. The form is one of theme and variation, contrast and juxtaposition, rather than linear progression.

Over the years and over the more than 18 plays she has authored, respected theatre veteran Bina Sharif has worked in many dramatic modes. She has written and performed in Stanislavski psychological realism, Hollywood romantic comedy, Theatre of the absurd, Expressionism, Monologue, and gone as far afield as Performance Art (as distinguished from performing art). Sharif is a true woman of the theater who has dedicated her life to exploring all aspects of the dramatic arts.

Kevin Mitchell Martin opens the play with a monologue that sets the tone of the evening. His control and interpretative powers are immediately manifest as he interprets the lines of what is an essential prologue to the rest of the play. Later as the judge, he demonstrates his consummate acting skills in his dialogue scenes. Not only does he play well with others, his listening skills are honed to perfection.

When he listens to the Prosecutor (ably played by Nathan J. Schorr ) we listen too. Martin is able to focus and keep his body alive without mugging to “demonstrate” that he is listening. Kevin Mitchell Martin is the kind of actor that other actors like to work with.

Nathan J. Shorr as the prosecutor, Pierre O’Farrel as the Western Government Official, and Robert Freedman understand the lines of the script and the style of presentation that is being offered. They give meaning to their characters and make a strong contribution to the production

Bina Sharif is a Renaissance woman of the theatre. She has acted, written and directed for film stage and television. Her performance in Iqra is chilling. Her vocal inflection carries overtones of personal suffering and compassion for all those who have suffered. When she is still, it is a stillness that speaks volumes. When she moves she is silk in a warm breeze.

The play is not just about the current war but about war as a human obsession.

The men of ancient Sparta claim that Spartan mothers told their sons to come home “with your shield or on it.” Speaking for women throughout history, Sharif asks us to reexamine the values inscribed on Sparta’s bloody shield. This is a play for those who love language and hate war.

The spare but effective lighting designed by Alex Bartenieff sets the mood, enriches the portrayal of the characters and illuminates the meaning of the text.

It is fitting that this Iqra should be presented by Crystal Field and TNC.
Theatre for the New City has been presenting new playwrights as well as alternative, oppositional and avant-garde theatre for 36 years. Among many honors its people have received are the Pulitzer Prize, 43 Obie Awards, 10 Rockefeller Fellowships and 5 ASCAPS. In 1997 TNC produced Between Life and Death by Chinese exile playwright Gao Xingjian. In 2000 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Republic of Iqra, by Bina Sharif is at Theatre for the New City, 155 First Ave. February 23rd to March 19th, 2006.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I just read part of Jane McGonigal's blog.
Gaming and performance, very interesting stuff. Very interesting.
I hope it is okay to comment on someone elses blog and home page.
(This is my second day as a blogger although I have had a web page up since 1992)

Her “best sentence” is a fun read.

Saturday, June 10, 2006
Best Sentence #78

>Everything can be gamed; there is no scenario that completely precludes play. It is simply a matter of being trained to perceive what is ludic about any given context or platform.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Theatre Review: Prudence

Prudence by Barbara and Carlton Molette
Connecticut Repertory Theatre
23 February - 5 March 2006

exquisite Prudence
by Edmond Chibeau

Carlton & Barbara Molette photo: Dolllie Harvey

Prudence by Carlton and Barbara Molette is intelligent theatre.

The problems it considers are not simple, the language it uses is rich, nuanced and complex enough to investigate the issues it is asked to address. The production team suits the word to the action and the action to the word.

Prudence Crandall is a teacher. She is motivated by her need to teach and by the need of those around her to learn. In 1834 she opens a school that allows her to pursue her desire to help people learn. One type of student that will always cut to the quick of a teacher’s heart is one who wants to learn; who needs to learn. A young middle class woman who is disenfranchised from her right to an education comes to Prudence and asks to attend class.

Once that domino falls the pattern becomes clear.

But there is a problem. The aspiring student is African American; and the unenlightened people of Canterbury Connecticut don’t want Blacks in “their” school. But Prudence believes that the good people of the town will encourage education for all. When Prudence enrolls “young ladies of color” in her school the law of unintended consequences comes into effect.

The playwriting team of Carlton and Barbara Molette gives life to the conflicting pressures that the characters feel. Will the Prudence Crandall School find support in the white community, the black community, the church, the courts, the Connecticut Legislature? All of those entities have bearing on the outcome of the play, but very few of them are unequivocal in their positions.

Early in the play Prudence reads from the abolitionist newspaper, “The Liberator.” She says, “There are no chains so binding as the chains of ignorance.” This line is the spine of the play; the hinge upon which the lives of the characters swing.

Conflicting social imperatives and personal emotions are brought out by the authors. The answers aren’t easy. In the beginning both sides are not as firm in their positions as they become as the play moves forward. Prudence and the audience hope that the clergy or some of the neighbors will see the value of an integrated school. But at every turning point each side becomes more obstinate and more firm in its position. The Molettes and Director, Tyler Marchant, reveal the equivocations that arise in the hearts of their characters.
They allow us to watch the deeply felt emotions of the characters while keeping our intellect engaged in a kind of Brechtian objectivity that helps us think clearly about the issues.

The 18th and early 19th century had a style of writing and speech that was more formal, elegant, and syntactically complex than the language we use today. Barbara and Carlton Molette have lifted passages from the letters and publications of the time and have managed to blend the voice of the playwrights with the actual voices of the 1800s. This is not an easy task and the subtlety of the expression reflects the subtlety of the understanding the playwrights bring to their topic and to the English language. It is characterized by an elegant restraint. This restraint is present even when discussing the most passionate views.

As a play is wrought it is possible to embed within the text ambiguities, opportunities and problems for interpreters to discover and make their own. There are any number of these forks in the road that actors and directors may take, but each decision opens another set of possibilities. How much does Prudence vacillate? How frightened, how brave, how unsure are the townspeople who disapprove of her undertaking? Prudence gives actors, directors and production designers a chance to offer interpretations.

This play is an important, intelligent, dispassionate look at people in the throes of great passion.

Part of a director’s job is to set the tone of interpretation for a production. Tyler Marchant found a way to create an ensemble for Prudence that includes the actors, designers and authors of the play. The actors listened to each other, felt their lines, and articulated the emotions of the characters and the words of the playwrights. Hillary Parker is an exquisite Prudence. Amber Gray, Christina Jolley, Prince T. Bowie, Ian Pfister, and Meghan O’Leary all play several characters and manage to differentiate those characters through posture, attitude and vocal inflection.

The costume, set, and lighting designs by Laura Crow, Brett McCormack, and Brian Barnett match and complement the subtlety and understated elegance of the writing.
The palette ranges from mourning-dove-gray to watery-mauve-blue but within that narrow spectrum is a kaleidoscope of shifting tones.

The Molettes have crafted a piece that production companies will want to work with. Prudence is highly producible, it is about an important, complex, and ongoing issue in American society. It is not one sided, and it has layers of meaning that offer opportunities for different levels of interpretation by directors, actors and designers.


"Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or doing it better."
John Updike.

The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804 - 1881)

I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.
Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662), "Lettres provinciales", letter 16, 1657