Sunday, December 8, 2019

In 'Gospel of John' onstage, actor takes on John's voice, telling his story

     When actor Ken Jennings was going through a rough patch two years ago he began to memorize St. John's gospel as a way to take his mind off of his troubles.  He saw this exercise as a form of prayer and a way to follow the guidance of the Jesuits who taught him at St. Peter's Prep and St. Peter's College in Jersey City, NJ.  They had said, "No matter what happens in your life, always remember to pray."  He followed that advice.

     "It was a process," he said.  "I started to memorize not knowing if I was going to complete the task.  I was not worried about a time frame.  Then I started to realize, 'I'm getting this under my belt.'"

     Reciting the gospel -- all 21 chapters -- was so healing he decided to offer it free to churches.  The reactions so moved him that he began to envision a larger forum.  In what he calls "a gift of the Holy Spirit," he turned to a priest friend to get connected to the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in Greenwich Village where he can now be found six or seven times a week through Dec. 29 presenting "The Gospel of John."  

     An award-winning Broadway actor who has performed alone in clues and poetry readings, Jennings, 72, had never done a one-man play.  And he doesn't consider that he is doing one now.  Other actors have taken the gospel to the stage, most notably British actor Alec McCowen who took his "St. Mark's Gospel" to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award.  McGowan called his work a play and took on the different characters with voices and accents as an actor would.  Jennings, who has watched the DVD of McGowan's performance, chose another approach.

     "I thought, 'What can I do that's different,'" he said during a telephone interview from his Manhattan home while the production was still in rehearsal.  "I memorized it as a prayer, not a performance.  I thought, 'I'm going to do this as a prayer, even now.’  John himself wasn't an actor.  He was a witness so he's not telling to entertain as an actor would.  He's saying, 'Look, I saw these things.  I was there.'  That's what I hope to do.  I just do it as if I'm John. The audience will realize they are seeing something different, not showbizzy at all." 

     Since he's being John, he doesn't use accents to distinguish the other characters featured in the narrative.

     "I let the story tell itself."

     But unlike in church performances when he had only "a chair and an old Bible," he now has a lighting designer (Abigail Hoke-Brady) and set designer (Charlie Corcoran).  Jennings told costume designer Tracy Christensen how he wanted to look.  "Normal street clothes.  I should look like I just walked in off the street.

     “All that's going to help me tell the story as well.  The lights have to be evocative to me and the audience to be the sights and sounds John is telling the audience about."

     The efforts have already made their mark.  DCMetro TheaterArts named “The Gospel of John” the No. 2 Christmastime show in New York, beating out such established favorites as "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker" and "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular Starring the Rockettes,"  which is interesting considering John's gospel doesn't include the nativity.

     Jennings turned to John's gospel in his time of need because it seems more first hand, eye witness than the other gospels.  He quotes from John's conclusion: "This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things and we know that this testimony is true."

     "This was really said by a guy who was there.  He's very specific."

     Using "an incremental process" over the last two years, Jennings read and pondered the first chapter and when he had committed it to memory he moved to the second and did the same thing.  Then he went back to the first chapter and added the second.  He proceeded to do the same with all of the chapters, always going back to the beginning. 

     "That's why it took so long.  I probably would have been able to do it faster if I knew I was going to complete it.  I just did it as daily prayer."

     In preparing for the theatrical run, he read nearly a dozen scholarly treatises on John, and incorporated some phrases into his script, used the Revised Standard Version and several other Bible translations and substituted some of his own wording to make it more conversational.  Realizing he would be on stage for hours if he used the entire gospel, he made some cuts to keep the show at 90 minutes with no intermission.  Rehearsals were intense -- just himself with a director and stage manager -- and unlike anything he had ever done in terms of breath and depth.  But he felt ready for the challenge.

     "So much of theatre can dominate your life.  This is different.  In essence it becomes the prayer it began as.  It flows around my life.  In some ways that makes it easier, but it's still tiring."

     Since he felt uneasy about cutting the gospel to fit to stage time, he showed the script to a friend, the Rev. Tony Azzarto, SJ, who gave his approval.

     "I thought, 'That's only one Jesuit."  So he asked the Rev. John Beddingfield, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity, the church in his Upper East Side neighborhood where he first performed this work.  Again he was given the go-ahead.  Expanding his base, he sought out the opinions of the Rev. Scott Stearman from Metro Baptist Church where Jennings now worships, and his friend Sr. Eve Kavanaugh.  He was told by both to proceed.

     Jennings said there has been some talk of finding a way to take his performance on tour, which he hopes will happen. Asked if he speaks or prays to John for help he offers a resounding yes.

     "I ask him to help me be more you.  To be a better person and to help me perform you."    

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Christmas Carol

     I have always been a sucker for A Christmas Carol.  Like many people, I first encountered this story of a drastic change of heart from "Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol," the 1962 cartoon that ran on TV every year, giving me the smarts to quote Victorian literature long before I was to ever hear of Charles Dickens. 

     Even if I didn't already like this story I would have fallen in love with the magnificent current Broadway production at the Lyceum Theatre.  Under the immensely creative direction of Matthew Warchus, with playwright Jack Thorne's new adaptation, every single element is theatrically perfect.  I walked out of the matinee Saturday and would happily have gone back for the evening performance.  It's a joy from start to finish. 

     The festivities begin even before the show starts, with musicians playing fiddles, an accordion and bass and actors distributing fruit and bags of cookies down the aisles while other actors toss clementines and small bottles of water to the audience in the middle of the theatre and even up to the balcony.  It's a good thing they have good pitching arms or the people below would have been in trouble.  They're in Victorian garb (costumes by Rob Howell) of long black coats and top hats or full-skirted long dresses, so we're put in the spirit from the get-go.

     Lighting designer Hugh Vanstone conveys the mood of 19th century London with twinkling lanterns filling the heights over the stage and up the sides of the theatre.  They flash for emphasis at key scenes, such as when Jacob Marley (Chris Hock) enters in chains to warn his former business partner Ebenzer Scrooge (Campbell Scott, in photo) to change his mean-spirited ways and to foretell of the three ghosts that will visit that night.  Howell, who is also the scenic designer, furthers the atmosphere by using a nearly bare stage with little more than door frames that come up from the stage floor as needed, minimal furniture and what looks like piles of black plastic garbage bags on either side of the stage.

     A chorus takes the stage to advance the narrative and sing carols throughout and even play hand bells.  Scott hits every note right with his Scrooge.  Maybe it's in his genes.  His father played the role for a 1984 TV movie version of A Christmas Carol.  He seems to be enjoying himself to the hilt.  In fact, everyone on stage appears to be having a blast, including Broadway veteran Andrea Martin as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

     The role of Tiny Tim is alternated between Jai Ram Srinivasan and Sebastian Ortiz, who played the part at the performance I saw using a rolling walker.  Both young actors have cerebral palsy just as the fictional character has a physical disability.  (Thorne insisted that only disabled children would be cast.)  I'm sorry to say I couldn't always understand Sebastian because of his quiet voice.  I would have missed one of his sweetest lines if my friend Mary hadn't told me what he said.  Scrooge has arrived at Tim's house with a bountiful feast, telling Tim he is being invaded.  Tim's reply is: "We surrender."

     About that feast.  The interactive way it arrives onstage is so much fun and unexpected I was laughing out loud. This is a show that just gives and gives to its audience.  It's as generous with its entertainments as Scrooge becomes with his money.  God bless them, everyone.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Little Shop of Horrors

     I went to the Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors with an open mind. This quirky 1982 musical about a plant that demands human blood has a cult following and is even loved by critics, at least most of them, but I have never seen the appeal. The current production at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs didn't change my mind, even though the show, under the direction of Michael Mayer, is top notch in every way. 

     The silliness of the story doesn't feed me for two hours.  I use the term "feed me" because as devoted fans know and love, this is an oft-repeated line of the murderous plant, Audrey II.  She is brought to life by puppet designer Nicholas Mahon with Kingley Leggs's rich bass voice.  The musical, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, is based on Roger Corman's 1960 film.  It spoofs old time horror movies and sappy ballads.

     While the show is tedious to me, this production's components couldn't be better.  It's always a joy to see Christian Borle, especially when he can fully exercise his comic chops the way he does here.  He pops on and off stage in a variety of roles, including the leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding, girlfriend-abusing dentist, Orin, and a Life magazine editor's wife in a pink suit and high heels.  He seems to be having a blast and it was fun to see who he was going to come out as next.  He certainly must have good dressers backstage transforming him from character to character so quickly.

     Not surprisingly, Jonathan Groff gives a strong performance as Seymour, the downtrodden clerk in a Skid Row flower show who becomes famous for the unusual plant he nurtures to enormous size, fed by the humans who get in his way.  Tammy Blanchard handles the role of Audrey, Seymour's fellow clerk and the object of his longing, with just the right amount of campiness and sensitivity, especially when she sings the show's funniest song, "Somewhere That's Green."  I was equally charmed by the chorus of Skid Row Urchins played by Ari Groover, Joy Woods and Salome Smith (pictured left to right with Groff) who do a great takeoff of 1950s girl groups with some nice Motown moves thrown in.  A nod to choreographer Ellenore Scott and to costume designer Tom Broecker for those shimmering red dresses they wear for one number.

     Scenic designer Julian Crouch offers a Skid Row that looks more like a set for "Sesame Street," which I liked.  Little Shop works better with this kind of simplicity that a small Off-Broadway stage provides rather than a full-scale Broadway production like the one in 2003.  

     Being able to give this much praise to a musical I don't even like is a tribute to all the folks reviving it.  True fans will be in heaven. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Play portrays post-war relationship between hero priest and jailed Nazi

     Kingfishers Catch Fire is a story about such extreme evil and amazing redemption that if it weren’t based on facts it might be hard to believe.  Robin Glendinning’s play, which had its world premiere this fall at Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre, portrays the soul-saving relationship that developed between two World War II adversaries in the years following the fighting. 

     Readers of J.P. Gallagher's 1967 book Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican will know these two historical figures.  Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty was an Irish priest who saved more than 6,500 Jews and escaped Allied POWs in Rome by sheltering them and arranging for their escape, using his role as Notary of the Holy Office and the cover of Vatican neutrality.  Lt. Col. Herbert Kappler was the infamous head of the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Rome.  The book was the basis of a 1983 TV movie, “The Scarlet and the Black,” starring Gregory Peck as O’Flaherty, Christopher Plummer as Kappler and Sir. John Gielgud as the Pope.

     The play’s director, Kent Paul, was unfamiliar with the book and movie but knew he wanted to direct the play after the Irish Rep’s producing director Ciaran O’Reilly gave him the script for consideration.

     "I was immediately attracted by the language of the play,” he said during a telephone interview from his home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  “I was intrigued by this preposterous friendship.  I knew nothing about these two people before I read the play.  It's been a voyage of discovery."

     While the book and movie portray the harrowing action of the war years, the play picks up in 1948 when O’Flaherty, saying he has been ordered by Jesus Christ, reluctantly makes monthly visits to Kappler, who is serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity in a prison on the western coast of Italy.

     In a running time under two hours, O’Flaherty, played by Sean Gormley, and Kappler, portrayed by Haskell King in a particularly strong performance, discuss questions of personal responsibility for actions taken during war, morality and the existence of God.  The play ends with Kappler begging O’Flaherty to bless him and the priest rising hesitantly to do so.  In actuality, O’Flaherty baptized Kappler into Roman Catholicism in 1959. 

     "The conversations are entirely imagined," Paul said, adding that it's a tribute to Glendinning "that the quality of the language makes you feel this is what these two men would have said to each other.”

     The 81-year-old Irish playwright, who lives in the small town of Comber in County Down, Northern Ireland, was unavailable for comment.  The play’s title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem of the same name.  It was developed following a 2016 staged reading that was part of the Irish Rep Reading series.

     I haven’t read Gallagher’s book but I have owned a copy of the movie drawn from it for more than two decades.  It’s an exciting, action-packed drama with three of Hollywood’s greatest actors.  In contrast, the play is about ideas and existential questions rather than action.  When I asked Paul about the challenges of directing, he said he had to "make action"  and worked “quite meticulously” on ensuring every word is heard.

     Action isn’t needed to make this play compelling, especially in the show’s most chilling scene.  King’s anguished Kappler recalls his overseeing of what is now known as the Ardeatine Caves Massacre in which German forces executed 335 people in the caves near Rome in retaliation for the deaths of 33 German soldiers at the hands of the Italian resistance.  King powerfully recounts the slaughter slowly and in great detail, conveying Kappler as a man deeply haunted by the horror of what he had done.  

     To make all the details real, Paul and the actors did much research into who the people were, “read a great deal about the war” and even tried to visualize what O’Flaherty would have seen as he drove from Rome to the prison.  For that, they found a photo of a Fiat from the time to imagine a line the priest says about the long journey, ”I'm a big man in a small car."   

     Set designer Edward Morris created a bleak cell, with dingy stone walls containing nothing but a single bed, a table, straight chair and a toilet.  I found Matthew McCarthy’s lighting distractingly bright, though, for a desolate prison.  The atmosphere would have been enhanced by dim lights.

    Still, the tight space of a prison cell is perfect for putting the focus on the sharp interchanges.  A line of Kappler’s stood out for me as he tries to squirm out of his culpability: "For a crime to be committed there has to be both action and intention,”  he says, explaining that he took action because he was ordered to but he had no intention.  It’s an interesting parallel to O’Flaherty’s claim that he was disgusted by the idea of visiting Kappler but did so because he had been ordered by Christ.

     I was also struck by a line of O’Flaherty’s.  Although a man of God, he is aware that questions of morality don’t always have easy answers.  “Colonel,” he says, “I know that good and bad exist but in this world they are often so mixed up we can't tell the difference.  It's a world of grays.  I think it's the Devil's work to persuade us that it's easy to decide in matters like these."

     Paul passed on the opportunity to comment, saying O’Flaherty’s words speaks for themselves.   "It's so beautifully put.  I agree.  I couldn't possibly say anything better."

     Then he added, ”In a certain sense the play is about to know all is to forgive all.  I think of Monsignor encouraging Kappler to continue his search for God.  He makes it clear he doesn't forgive Kappler for what he did but he can't live in the past.  He has to move on."

     He said it was rewarding "to see a play of language and ideas come to such vivid life.”

     The show has sold-out many nights and has been extended for a week, closing now on Oct. 27.  Paul said the producers are exploring possibilities for future productions.  This should be possible based on the simplicity of the needs — only two actors and one minimalist set.  

     I hope the play’s timeliness, with the rise of anti-semitism in Europe and America, will help it to be brought to life again soon.  This story of devastating hate followed by extraordinary grace needs to be told often.

   "The play speaks for itself so eloquently,” Paul said.  “I dread and hate the anti-semitism that has been developing in Europe.  The play is about, if we want to live, we have to embrace each other.  I think the play reveals to us the necessity of telling our stories because only in telling our stories do we accept ourselves.

     "It's one of the finest things I've done.”

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Elizabeth Patterson & Gloriæ Dei Cantores Receive an American Prize for their Performances of American Music

Congratulations to Director Emeritus, Elizabeth Patterson and Gloriæ Dei Cantores, who have been awarded the 2019 American Prize Ernst Bacon Memorial Award, recognizing Maestra Patterson’s conducting and leadership, as well as the ensemble’s performances and promotion of American Music. The award-winning American Psalmody collection premiered twenty-three first and only recordings of works by 20th Century American composers including Adler, Neswick, and Rorem. The American Prize is the nation’s most comprehensive series of contests in the classical arts.

“Ms. Patterson is a true choral alchemist, and never fails to draw truly golden sound and beautifully nuanced singing from her hard-working musicians. Sacred illumination is their mission, and they achieve it with spiritual sincerity and power.”

—American Record Guide

In addition to championing new American composers at home, Maestra Patterson led Gloriæ Dei Cantores on numerous international tours, using music as a bridge between Americans and other countries and nationalities. From New York to San Francisco, London to Venice, Prague to Moscow and Siberia, Gloriæ Dei Cantores and Ms. Patterson brought not only American music to foreign countries, but also the music native to the countries in which they were performing. Elizabeth Patterson has overseen the development of a repertoire incorporating over 2,400 works including world premieres and commissions by American composers Samuel Adler, Dominick Argento, Gerald Near, and Mark O'Connor. Maestra Patterson’s dedication to international understanding and cultural integrity have won her critical acclaim in concert halls throughout Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, England, France, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Wales.

Critical Acclaim for Gloriæ Dei Cantores
“Superb!”    BBC
“They sing with absolute fluency and authority”    GRAMOPHONE
"Seamless ensemble, seductive phrasing"   LOS ANGELES TIMES
 “A world-class concert choir”    WASHINGTON POST
“Beautiful, affecting music”    CHICAGO TRIBUNE
“Expert renditions of Gregorian chant”    NEW YORK TIMES
“Perfectly captures the exultation in every note”    FANFARE

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Love, Noel: The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward

     Lord Louis Mountbatten gave a speech at a 70th birthday party honoring his friend Noel Coward in which he said, “There are probably greater painters than Noel, greater novelists than Noel, greater librettists, greater composers of music” and went on to include singers, dancers, comedians, tragedians, stage producers, film directors, cabaret artists, TV stars.  “If there are,” he concluded, “they are 14 different people.”  A great many of these personas are brought to life by cabaret veterans Steve Ross and KT Sullivan in Love, Noel: The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward, the charming play with music devised and written by Barry Day, in production until Sunday at the Irish Repertory Theatre. 

     “I don’t think anyone has ever made a better summary of the man who bestrode the first three-quarters of the last century,”says Sullivan in her role as Woman.  “He did everything and knew everyone, as his letters testify.”

     Under the direction of Charlotte Moore, Ross and Sullivan read many of those letters and sing two dozen of Coward’s songs during the chuck-full 80-minute show.  Coward wrote to his mother weekly when they were apart and she saved every letter for 50 years.  Fortunately many others were saved as well.  

     The letters and supporting material are presented in character — the debonair Ross is a worthy embodiment of the debonair Coward — or in dialogue as Man and Woman.  Many of the famous people who made up Coward’s orbit appear in delightful ways.  Sullivan is hilarious hamming it up as Elaine Stritch singing “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”  She also does delicious takes on Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. 
     At the start of the show I was startled by the stars’ appearances.  The older woman next to me said to her companion, “They’ve aged.”  That was my reaction.  I thought back to the last time I had seen either singer and realize it’s probably been a decade.  I should have expected they would have changed — I don’t even recognize myself in the mirror anymore — but I wasn’t prepared.

     Then when they sang the opening number, “Where Are the Songs We Sung,” it seemed so lifeless I wondered if age had diminished their talent as well.  But not to worry.  In a short time they were lively storytellers and singers.  Sullivan occasionally spoke so fast I didn’t have time to take in all of the wonderful anecdotes she was spinning.  Only at first, though.  

     One thing not affected by time is Sullivan’s gorgeous soprano.   She has the same exquisite voice she has always had.  And Ross can play the piano as powerfully as ever.

     It was nice to see these two together for an entire show.  I’ve seen them join for a song or two at the Dutch Treat Club but never for such an extended project.  They are both well established solo cabaret stars but they play together in Love, Noel as if they’ve been an act for years.  The mark of true professionals and true talent.  

    The creative team also offers talent and professionalism.  James Morgan has created a simple and tasteful set (doesn’t he always?) for the downstairs Studio Stage — a baby grand center stage before a royal blue backdrop and a bust of Coward.  Michael Gottlieb provides appropriate lighting.

     The friend who accompanied me and I are both going through a really rough time but we left the theatre with greatly uplifted hearts.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Broadway Blessing -- 22nd annual celebration


22nd Anniversary Celebration

Monday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m.

Reception follows

St. Malachy’s Church - The Actors’ Chapel, 239 W. 49th St.

Seating is first come, first served

Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Designed as a program of song, dance and story to celebrate the spirit of the new theater season, BROADWAY BLESSING was founded in 1997 by Retta Blaney, who produced the event for the first 16 years. Produced now by Pat Addiss and Kathryn Fisher, BROADWAY BLESSING 2019 promises to be another exciting evening.

Chita Rivera is scheduled to give a special tribute to Hal Prince. Performances by other Broadway and Off-Broadway talent from Ain’t Too Proud, Fiddler on the Roof, Phantom of the Opera, Lion King, Desperate Measures and Hair will also perform, along with the Broadway Blessing Choir and Instrumentalists under the direction of Stephen Fraser. George Drance, SJ (La MaMa, Magis Theatre) will return as emcee. The evening will culminate with a moving candle-lighting ceremony led by clergy from various churches and Rabbi Jill Hausman from the Actors’ Temple.

Always free and open to the public, BROADWAY BLESSING has been graced by many wonderful participants, included Lynn Redgrave, Marian Seldes, Frances Sternhagen, Edward Herrmann, Kathleen Chalfant, Billy Porter, Tituss Burgess and Chad Kimball, just to name a few.

ST. MALACHY’S was founded in 1902, and THE ACTORS’ CHAPEL was established in 1920. St. Malachy’s Church - The Actors’ Chapel is a spiritual oasis in New York’s heart for Broadway artists and fans alike. Chiming “There’s No Business Like Show Business” every day, a half hour before curtain, the chapel has welcomed such theater greats as George M. Cohen, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino. Florence Henderson, Elaine Stritch, Danny Thomas, Bob and Dolores Hope, Antonio Banderas, Liam Neeson and countless others. Under the leadership of Fr. John Fraser (pastor) and Stephen Fraser (director of music) it continues to offer programming to the Broadway community and develop the talent and work of the next generation of Broadway stars.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Moulin Rouge!

     It's funny that a show about bohemians in 1899 Paris is the most lavish new musical on Broadway, produced for a whopping  $28 million.  The Al Hirschfeld Theatre is ablaze with color -- red! -- neon lights, golden pillars, a giant blue elephant and a windmill for Moulin Rouge!, the theatrical version of Baz Luhrmann's 2001 cult film. I've never seen anything like the number of people crowding the front of the house to snap photo after photo before the show began.  The curtain didn't need to rise for the entertainment to begin.  Derek McLane's nightclub set sees to to that.

    For the most part, the spectacle continues.  I loved the songs.  In the playful spirit of the movie, songs or snippets of them -- more than 70 -- from the 1960s to the present are woven throughout.  The anachronism of hearing a struggling young composer in 19th century Montmartre breaking into "The hills are alive . . ." is a hoot.

     Alex Timbers directs this big bustling show that is one of the hottest tickets in town.  Sonya Tayeh provides the lively choreography, and musical supervision, orchestrations, arrangements and additional lyrics are by Justin Levine. Those vibrant, sensuous costumes -- more than 200 corsets, bustiers, skimpy lingerie, cancan dresses and lush gowns -- are courtesy of Catherine Zuber and the bright lighting -- red! -- is by Justin Townsend.

     All of this razzle-dazzle wasn't enough to keep the show from dragging for me, though.  The oft-told story -- book by John Logan -- doesn’t sustain for 2 hours and 35 minutes. Christian, a young composer nicely played by Aaron Tveit, comes to the Left Bank from Lima, Ohio, to bask in the artistic community and get his show produced.  He falls in love with a dying cabaret courtesan, Satine, played without much sizzle by Karen Olivo.  Satine is the star of the Moulin Rouge.  Or at least she's the onstage star.  The real star is the owner, Harold, delightfully played by Danny Burstein (in photo).  Throw in the Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) who sinisterly make it clear he owns both Satine and the nightclub and you can pretty much anticipate what will happen.

     It's the music, credited to 161 writers from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Lady Gaga, and the dancing that carry the evening. With all those songs, what was the one that played in my head walking home, and is still playing in my head days later?  "Lady Marmalade" -- "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir."  Luckily I've always loved it.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

'Refuge' tells a little-known story of Albanians offering safe harbor to Jews in WWII

    Members of New York theatre company Blessed Unrest were meeting in the city with their international collaborators, the Kosova theate group Teatri ODA, searching for an idea for a third original play to do together.  They had no way of knowing that what they decided upon in those brainstorming sessions in 2015 would be about as timely as it could be when it opened Off-Broadway in the spring of 2019.  But then, they hadn't foreseen the presidency of Donald J. Trump and his attempts to shutdown the southern border of the United States.  Refuge, their story of the life-saving hospitality of Albanians in World War II, became even more relevant to them.

     "It's important now to tell of this historic humanitarian effort on behalf of strangers as the president of the United States portrays immigrants as dangerous," Matt Opatrny, Blessed Unrest's co-founder and managing director, said.  “Our President lies.  It’s important to show refugees as people under desperate circumstances.  What frightens me is the way refugees are being portrayed. You don’t leave Honduras and walk to Mexico unless you’re desperate.  We have to see these people as human beings who need help.”

     Four members of the production even know first hand how this feels.  They were refugees in the late 1990s in the no-man’s land between Kosova and Macedonia when they were among the one million fleeing the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosova.  Their experiences are part of the compilation of stories that make up the play, which parallels a story of Jews fleeing Poland in the late 1930s and finding refuge in Albania, the only country in Europe to have more Jews after the war than before. 

     Opatrny, 44, discussed Refuge, which had its world premiere in April at Baruch Performing Arts Center, during a telephone interview from his apartment in Manhattan’s Hells Kitchen neighborhood.  He calls himself “the lead playwright” and explained that Blessed Unrest’s productions don’t start in the traditional way with a written script.  Through a “devised process,”   the show is developed with the actors and co-directors.  The script was still changing within weeks of the April 27 opening.

     “I was writing text in response to what was happening in the room,” he said.  “The way we work is physically first.  We keep the script out as long as possible.  We’re building a physical vocabulary before the script.  I’m following the process rather than leading it.”

     The result is a powerful show that combines story with dance, music and song.  Refuge is modern in staging and yet conveys an ancient feeling of human struggle and triumph.  At the beginning, two young women in modern day New York City come together in a hearty embrace.   “I exist because of your family,” says Maya (Becca Schneider) with gratitude and wonder.  She has only recently learned what the Albanian family of Teuta (Ilire Vinca) did for her grandmother and great grandparents in the late 1930s.

     Enacted on a bare stage with few props (set design by Sonya Plenefisch, with lighting by Jay Ryan), the story takes prominence as it journeys back to Poland as the Nazis approach and Miriam (Schneider) and her husband, Yakov (Perri Yaniv) make the decision to escape with their daughter, Adah (Nancy McArthur).  They are rejected by every country they petition for refuge.  Except for one — Albania, whose government was issuing papers to anyone who wanted them. 

     “You are safe here,” the family is told as they arrive at the small house of Bujar (Eshref Durmishi) his wife, Zoja (Vinca) and their daughter, Tana (Daniela Markaj.  “Now we are cousins.  You are Albanian.”

     The characters are composites, based on years of research and first-hand accounts of many, many people who had helped the Jews.  Opatrny said at least 2,000 Jews have been accounted for as being saved, but that anecdotally the number is much larger.  Even though they didn’t share the same language, religion or culture, the Albanians, most of whom were Muslim, brought the Jewish refugees into their homes and gave them Albanian identities.  The refugees lived openly, holding jobs such as tailors and sign painters, even after the Nazi occupation.

    Not a single Jew was taken to a concentration camp from Albania or killed by Nazis in that country, Opatrny says.

     “They were right in front of them, not hiding in basements. They were fully accepted as members of the Albanian community.”

     Teatri ODA’s co-founder and a co-director of Refuge, Florent Mehmeti, knew of the Albanians’ heroism and outstanding generosity during the war and was the one to propose it as a basis for a joint production.

     “Of course, we had never heard of it,” Opatrny said.  “Almost no one we knew had heard of it.”

     Mehmeti also knew the story of how, in the late 1990s, it would be the Albanians who would become refugees because he, along with Vinca, Durmishi and Markaj, was among them.  This crisis is also portrayed by the fictional Albanian characters and their descendants. 

     The dialogue is bilingual.  Opatrny wrote it in English and Mehmeti translated it into Albanian.  The production is enhanced by musicians from Metropolitan Klezmer who play traditional Albanian music and Yiddish songs onstage at various times throughout.

     This unusual partnership seemed appropriate, Opatrny said, because Blessed Unrest has been international in its scope since its founding two decades ago.  In 2005, he and his wife, Jessica Burr, the group’s founding artistic director and a Refuge co-director, went to Albania to look for an international collaborator.  They chose that country because Burr had visited in 1993 as a college student and been overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people, who were extremely poor.

     “The generosity of the people blew her away,” he said.  “She wanted to bring something back to them.  The way she chose to do that was through theatre.”

     Opatrny and Burr discovered Teatri ODA and knew they had found their match. 

     “We artistically fell in love with them,” he said.  “This is something amazing to us.  It’s about reflecting another culture that is often ignored.”

     And, as Opatrny has found, it is a rich culture, and a giving one in spite of all the hardships the people have suffered in being overrun by many occupiers throughout the years and having their religion changed from pagan to Catholic to Muslim as the different powers swept through.

     “It’s an ancient culture.  They’re fiercely proud of who they are.  Circumstances changed but their code of honor, their besa, never did.  Cultural laws supersede government laws.”

    This is portrayed effectively in the play when the Jewish family arrives at the home of the poor Albanians and is given the master bedroom and told that the house is now theirs and no longer the Albanians.

     “It was not unusual that they did this.  It’s a tribal cultural with cultural rules.  It’s hard for Americans to understand.  If a guest arrives at your house, it belongs to them.  If New York were flooded with refugees I can’t imagine seeing it as their apartment and not mine.

     “Their strength is having lived through adversity for thousands of years.”

     The two theatre companies hope to share their story of the Albanians’ magnanimous deeds by raising money to tour Refuge in the Balkans next year.  In the future they’d like to tour Europe and Israel and then return to New York.  

     While some of the Albanians who harbored Jews are honored as The Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashen: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, the scope of their heroism remains little known.  

     Opatrny sees that as indicative of the Albanian people for whom hospitality is second nature.  He let’s Teuta explain it when Maya asks her why the Albanians aren’t recognized in every history book for what they did.

     “ . . . for us Albanians this is not something unusual. People needed help and we helped.  If your guest is thirsty and you offer them water, you don’t write about it in history books.”