Sunday, March 22, 2015

An ancient Vietnamese myth inspires play about contemporary HIV warrior

     As a playwright who was born in Vietnam, Don Nguyen saw dramatic possibilities in a New York Times story about an HIV positive woman in Haiphong, a large port city near Hanoi, who started the country’s first support group for infected women. He wasn’t sure, though, that he could turn it into a play. Not only was it a heavy subject, but having lived in this country since he was 3, he questioned his ability to capture the women’s reality.

     “I’m Vietnamese but I grew up in Nebraska,” he said.  “They felt very foreign to me.  I wasn’t sure how I could write their voices. It was a fascinating subject but seemed daunting to take on.”

     Like most writers, he had a number of ideas rumbling around in his head. One that had been nudged at the back was of an ancient Vietnamese legend of the Trung sisters who gave their lives in a fight against the Chinese army.  In a lightbulb moment, Nguyen saw a creative challenge in combining the factual story with the myth as both were about strong women fighting for liberation, from a disease and its stigma and from a threatening military.

    The play that resulted, Red Flamboyant, will have its world premiere at the Parish of Calvary-St. George, an Episcopal church in Manhattan, from April 24 through May 16, produced by Firebone Theatre, an Off, Off-Broadway company dedicated to producing plays “where the human meets the divine.”

     With casting set to begin, Nguyen, 42, and Firebone’s artistic director, Chris Cragin-Day, 37, took time out on a cold January afternoon to talk about the production in Cragin-Day’s office at The King’s College, a Christian college in New York’s financial district, where she is an assistant professor of English and theatre. 

     “I love the feminist aspects of this story,” Cragin-Day says.  “I love these women who are just so powerful, not in a social sense but in a soul sense.”

     The real-life inspiration for the main character, Mrs. Hue, is Pham Thi Hue, who was featured in the 2006 Times story Nguyen had read.  Although AIDS was widespread in the country, many of those who had it were shunned by their families and fired if their employers found out. Most of the infected women had received the virus from their husbands who were IV drug users.

  Hue called her shelter Haiphong Red Flamboyant after a Vietnamese flower. Not only did she receive no government funding, the article said, but she had to endure bricks being thrown through her windows and a constant struggle to find money for food and medicine.

     Nguyen hadn’t know HIV/AIDS was so prevalent in Vietnam.

     “It affected me, being Vietnamese, and that the country I was born in had such a huge problem.  The stigma around it was shocking to me and I wondered how I could get a germ of a play from that.”

     He began writing in 2008.  To create a naturalistic play about Hue and all those dying of AIDS would be “an overwhelming experience for the audience,” he said.  “I had to find a less realistic way.  The Trung sisters legend demanded more heightened reality. It dictated the voice of the play.”

     In short, the Trung sisters formed an army to seek revenge after the Chinese killed the husband of one of the sisters.  The Chinese fought back and demanded the Vietnamese give up the sisters. They sacrificed themselves by jumping into a ravine.

    Nguyen recognized a connection between Hue and the legendary sisters. 

    “She was a modern day warrior who could be juxtaposed with the ancient female of Vietnam to make a great story.”

     But by 2010 and his “20th draft,” he was frustrated.  “I felt like I was writing from a distance with these people.”

     He decided to go to Vietnam to get a feel for the country and possibly meet Hue.  Since he didn’t speak Vietnamese, he asked his parents to go with him and they readily agreed. 

     A cousin in the country found Hue for him and told her about the play he was writing.  She agreed to a meeting.  It was then that it hit him, suppose the real Hue was nothing like the character he had created?

     “It became really stressful.  All I had had was one article to base her off of.”

     His appointments with Hue kept getting canceled, meaning rescheduling flights a couple of times.  After three weeks, it seems ill-fated.  

     “I thought, ‘I’m not going to see her and that’s fine.  I got close.’”

     But when yet another meeting was scheduled, he went for it. 

    “It was really a good test of faith.”  

     And it paid off.  With his father as interpreter, he talked to Hue for an hour. When he mentioned he was incorporating the sisters’ legend, “her eyes lit up” and she told him it is the Vietnamese belief that “if you do something great, you are a sibling of the Trung sisters.”

     She told him to make it clear that she receives no government support.  In that strong insistence he recognized the character he had created was very much like the real Hue.

     As Nguyen was leaving, Hue said something to him in Vietnamese.  He smiled and nodded.  In the taxi his father told him she had said, “Don’t forget about me.”

     And he hasn’t.  Ten percent of Red Flamboyant’s ticket sales will go to support the real-life women through the Vietnam Relief Organization, an American-based foundation. 

     The four female and one male characters will be played by Vietnamese actors if possible.  If not, definitely by Asians.  The actors will play instruments since the play incorporates live and recorded music. The play also will feature puppetry, possibly water puppets, which are immensely popular in Vietnamese culture.

     And some of the actors will have to fly, using single harness bungees for a more free-flowing choreography.  These ariel feats alone would be challenging for a small Off, Off-Broadway company like Firebone, but Cragin-Day sees advantages in its size.

     “We take risks.  Companies like ours don’t have much money at stake.”

     Still, the company bought extra insurance and hired Karen Fuhram of Grounded Ariel, an expect in the field, to do the choreography. 

   “It gives us the freedom to experiment with the human body in flight,” Cragin-Day says.

     She believes the play will speak to many people, especially women.

   “I feel like it’s not just about Vietnamese women,” she says.  “This play captures that spiritual strength that is the legacy of women and that’s beautiful.”

Friday, March 20, 2015

Kristin Chenoweth: Back on Broadway in "On the Twentieth Century"

     I saw The Kristin Chenoweth Show at the American Airlines Theatre last night and was mesmerized by every movement, facial expression and note from the tiny star.   She’s better than ever, and that’s saying a great deal.

     Oh, wait a minute.  I got that wrong.  Actually, I saw the Broadway revival of On the Twentieth CenturyChenoweth is just so magnetic that even with the first-rate cast, shimmering costumes and art deco sets that fill the stage, she is the center of the universe in this madcap musical, directed by Scott Ellis for the Roundabout Theatre Company.

     It’s Chenoweth’s show all right, even though the main story is about another character, Oscar Jaffee (played with energy and great humor by Peter Gallagher), a down-on-his-luck producer looking for a hit to revive his career.  He believes he can be on top again by luring his former lover and protégée Lily Garland (Chenoweth’s character) back to Broadway from Hollywood where she has become a big star.  The action takes place on a Chicago to New York train, the Twentieth Century.

     Chenoweth’s timing is impeccable and she uses her 4’ 11” body in hilarious ways.  I loved seeing her lying like a board across the arms of her current lover, Bruce Granit (a hilarious Andy Karl), an young actor obsessed with his image — he slaps multiple copies of his headshot up on the walls of the train compartment — and his well-sculpted body.  Lily’s in -- on -- his arms for a reason — he lifts her up and down to do his bicep curls.  When he does his pushups, she sits on his back.  It’s a visual delight, precisely choreographed, as is the whole show, by Warren Carlyle. 

     Then, of course, there’s her singing.  The music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (both of whom also wrote the book) give her ample opportunity to exercise her operatic chops.  I’m so glad she’s been lured back to Broadway from Hollywood, where she’s made some really lame comedies, not at all worthy of her gifts.

     The songs are upbeat, although only the title song sticks with me.  David Rockwell’s sets, William Ivey Long’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting do stay with me.  They and everyone onstage have created a shiny gem of a show.  I wish I could go back.

     A shoutout also needs to go to Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore and Drew King as the tap-dancing porters and Mary Louise Wilson as a batty old woman who offers to bankroll Oscar’s next show.

     On the Twentieth Century will only be in the station on Broadway through July 5.  Hop aboard it you can.  The ride is bliss.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Helen Mirren reigns in The Audience

It’s wonderful to see Helen Mirren once again assume the role of Queen Elizabeth II.  I just wish she was doing so in a vehicle with more depth than Peter Morgan’s entertaining but somewhat superficial play The Audience, now on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre through June 28.

     As she was in Morgan’s movie “The Queen,” Mirren is spot-on in depicting Britain’s long-serving monarch. She won an Oscar for that part and well could win a Tony for this one. Under the direction of Stephen Daltry, Mirren portrays Elizabeth from 1951 to the present, often decades apart from one scene to the next, under the guise of imagined meetings with each of her prime ministers — “the dirty dozen,” as she says.  They come to Buckingham Palace once a week to update her on matters of “cabinet, Parliament, and foreign affairs,” as Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews) explains in his first sessions with her as a young woman readying to assume the throne following her father’s death.

   Bob Crowley’s minimalist design is effective for focusing the attention of the conversations.  His costumes are impressive for the way they portray Elizabeth’s frumpy dignity, yet can be rapidly changed, often onstage, to present an Elizabeth decades earlier or later.

     Elizabeth is the thread that keeps the show together, although it can still feel more like a series of sketches strung together than an actual play.  I will say the scenes do blend well one into the other, rather like movie fade ins and fade outs.

     The elected officials often share elements of their pasts and Elizabeth reveals a dry wit in many of her responses, at times revealing her own feelings about her life’s role, which each time sounded contrived to me.  I can’t imagine the real queen opening up to her prime ministers, but I guess it’s necessary for dramatic purposes. Politics are discussed, but largely in a modern English history lite way.

     Elizabeth does display some spunk, especially in her first PM meeting, with Churchill.  When he proposes delaying her coronation by 16 months, she is quick to discern the reason — he hopes to stay in office longer.

     “I may be young and sheltered, but I am not a fool,” she says.  “Prime Minister, I feel you’re not taking me seriously.”

     Her anger is even stronger when John Major (Dylan Baker), prime minster from 1990 to 1997, suggests the Royal Family has an image problem and because the economy is so weak could bolster its standing with the public by paying income tax.  The queen is appalled.

     “That would make us like everyone else,” she says indignantly.  “We’re not like everyone else. … This family has given every minute of every day to the country.”

     She tells him her role as queen was “a consecration in God’s house.”

     She never forgets who she is, although years later she wonders about the importance of showing up for ribbon cuttings and being “a postage stamp with a pulse.”

     After meeting with Gordon Brown (Rod McLachlan), who was prime minister from 2007 to 2010, she reflects on the down side of “sticking around” for so long and hearing “the same ideas and the same people coming around again and again, just wearing a different color tie.”      

     Most of what I liked was in the first act.  By the second, the show began to drag for me, especially in the scene with Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey, left in photo). The concept of conversations with rotating prime ministers had begun to wear thin and, at two hours and 20 minutes, the show was too long.

     One feature I did consistently like was the appearance of her younger self, played the night I was there by Sadie Sink, who presents the child Elizabeth’s feeling of confusion upon her father’s sudden assent to the throne and her dislike for Buckingham Place, which she likens to living in a museum with no neighbors.  At times she and the adult Elizabeth talk and I always liked that.

    The Audience comes to Broadway following a record-breaking run at London's Gielgud Theatre in 2013 for which Mirren won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Play.  Her performance here, and that of all of her cast members, is award-worthy.  The play may be a bit weak, but the production still provides a good evening of theatre. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dianne Wiest and Tonya Pinkins star in Rasheeda Speaking at Signature

No date is given in the program for the setting of Joel Drake Johnson’s play Rasheeda Speaking, which is having its New York premiere at The Pershing Square Signature Center, so it’s hard to tell what era is being portrayed. The overt racism of the four very different characters would suggest late 60s or the 70s, but Allen Moyer’s set of a surgeon’s reception room features computers, so I’d say we’re supposed to be in a contemporary world, which left me with an insurmountable credibility problem.

Right at the start we encounter the surgeon, Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein), complaining to his mousey receptionist, Ileen (Dianne Wiest, seated in photo), about the other receptionist, Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins, top in photo), who has been out for a week suffering from anxiety. Although he doesn’t say so outright, his objections seem to center solely around her being black, with lots of references to ideas like “they” don’t fit in, despite the fact that he was the one who hired her six months before. He asks Ileen to look for problems with Jaclyn’s work and document them so he can fire her. Ileen is uncomfortable with this at first, saying she likes Jaclyn and thinks she’s a good worker. But Williams strong arms her with lots of talk of them and us, making her aware she has no choice. This sets up right from the start one of the play’s main faults, its complete lack of subtly.

In the case of Rasheeda Speaking, the play truly is the thing — the thing that is wrong with the evening. The acting is strong by all four actors, who also include Patricia Conolly as Rose, a befuddled patient. Cynthia Nixon does a good job with her directing debut. They just all need a better play.

It’s easy to see why Williams would want to get rid of Jaclyn, although her skin color has nothing to do with why she would be offensive in a tiny three-person office. She is a complainer of the first rate, going on and on about having to breathe the toxins in the room, placing plants all around to try to counter the effect. Williams had said she is rude to the patients and we see this in her treatment of Rose. She also talks nonstop. I wouldn’t want to work with her.

So why does Williams seem to make an issue of Jaclyn’s race? He’s too young to have been brought up in a segregated world where “they” were thought to be different from “us,” and the play is set in Chicago, not the Deep South. And if he is truly a racist, why did he hire a black woman?

By the time the 95-minute play winds down, Ileen has evolved into a paranoid, gun-carrying racist, Rose reveals her son’s theory that black people act out with anger as their “revenge for slavery” and Jaclyn has displayed her own side of racism, against whites and her Mexican neighbors about whom she lists her litany of stereotypical comments to Ileen. If we are to conclude that everyone is racist, what is the point of the play? As I said, it could certainly do with some subtly. It’s definitely a play of black and white. Had the story been set decades before, and possibly in the South, it might have worked, or at least worked better.

The Rasheeda of the title turns out to be the name Jaclyn overhears several 20-something white professional men use to make fun of middle-aged black women on the bus. That was the most unbelievable element of the play for me. Those young men would have been riding integrated buses all their lives, as their parents would have as well, so they are generations away from noticing and commenting upon black middle-aged women. While pack racism still exists — in the news now with the white frat boys at the University of Oklahoma — putting it in the mouths of young professional in Chicago is too much of a stretch. They would have been too busy talking about work and girlfriends to notice Jaclyn.

A play about racism in 2015 would be welcome. Unfortunately, this one misses the mark.

 Rasheeda Speaking is produced by The New Group as part of its 20th anniversary season. It runs through March 22.