Tuesday, March 22, 2022

A Touch of the Poet


     The Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of A Touch of the Poet is well done, as I expected it would be, but I sat there wondering why that play was chosen for revival, especially during a pandemic.  Life was bleak enough without adding a long — two hours and 45 minutes — talky play filled with anger, drunkenness, disillusion and cruelty.  Include now the terror of war, which couldn’t have been predicted when the show was planned, and it all added up for me to a depressing afternoon and darkness I’m having trouble shaking.

     I hadn’t seen or read Eugene O’Neill’s 1942 play in maybe two decades so I booked it to see if my perspective on it had changed.    It hasn’t.  I still dislike the main character, Cornelius “Con” Melody, a former soldier in Ireland turned barkeep in a village outside of Boston in 1828.  Robert Cuccioli summons all his alcoholic rage and delusions of grandeur.  His long-suffering wife, Nora, (Kate Forbes) tries to keep him happy while their sharp-tongued daughter, Sara, (Belle Aykroyd, in photo) spars with him every chance she gets.  

     “God help you, it must be a wonderful thing to live in a fairy tale where only dreams are real to you,” Sara tells her father in one of her tirades against him.

     Not exactly the family with which one wants to pass an afternoon.   

     Con spends his days drinking and spinning tales of a grand childhood in Ireland and reliving his great battle of Talavera as Major Melody, wearing his red-jacketed uniform each year on the anniversary.  Alejo Vietti and Gail Baldoni did a fabulous job with the uniform and all of the costumes.

     Sara predicts her father’s downfall, telling him if he can ever face the truth “you’ll hate and despise yourself.”  It takes a long time to get to that conclusion. 

     The performances, under the direction of Ciaran O’Reilly, are good and Charlie Corcoran’s set is a wonderfully believable recreation of the dining room in an early 19th century tavern.  So many good elements in a play I wish I hadn’t revisited.  

Monday, March 21, 2022

'Coal Country' drills deep


     Coal Country at the Cherry Lane Theatre is another powerful documentary play by Drama Desk winners Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the wife and husband creators of The Exonerated in 2000.  This time their subject is the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 men, and the search by survivors and family members for justice.  

     Under Blank’s direction, seven cast members address the audience from a bare, except for four benches, stage to tell the stories without dramatization.  The first-person accounts are dramatic enough, as they were in The Exonerated’s stories of people wrongly convicted and imprisoned. 

     Coal Country features original country/folk music written and performed by three-time Grammy-winner Steve Earle, who is seated with his guitar and banjo to the side of the stage.  The show is produced by Audible Theater and is a return engagement of a Public Theater production that was shut down because of the pandemic. 

     “I had 34 years in coal mining,” says Gary (Thomas Kopache, in photo), the first to tell his story.  “My dad was a coal miner; grandpa, dad and me.  Back then it was all strictly union, I mean hard-nosed union.”

     The miners made little money and were poor but they worked only an eight-hour day and were given lunch breaks in which they could eat sitting and “you didn’t worry about gettin’ fired by speakin’ up.”

     It was “union, God and country,” Gary says before Earle teaches the audience the words to the song and encourages members to sing along so people won’t think they’re a scab.

     Union, God and country

     West Virginia gold and blue

     Union, God and country was all we ever knew

     But that changed when Massey Energy Company, under CEO Don Blankenship, took over.  Not only did the miners lose their little bit of privilege, they lost their safety as well.  Blankenship, whose compensation package was tied to production, demanded production reports every half hour of every day, including at his home on weekends. 

     At Blankenship’s trial it was revealed that the men were sent into the mine with broken and inappropriate equipment and that Massey had been alerted to when inspectors would be appearing, turning the place into what Goose (Carl Palmer) describes as “a ticking time bomb.”

     Judy (Deirdre Madigan), a miner’s daughter and the sister of one of the men killed, explained that the company was making $600,000 a day.  “And if they shut down for safety, that cuts into that $600,000 a day.”

     I won’t quote Judy’s graphic description of her viewing of her brother’s body, or I should say, remains.  It’s too horrifying.

     Blank and Jensen have once again done a service by giving voice to the suffering of the wronged and ignored in society but I wish I had seen the show before the pandemic so I could appreciate it as much as I did The Exonerated.  After two years of death and fear with the pandemic, and the possibility of more to come, of accounts of babies freezing to death in Afghanistan and starving to death in Ethiopia and now the terrifying war in Ukraine, I live each day feeling that I am surrounded by a black cloud.  Coal Country is too full of pain.  I already felt crushed by the suffering of others.  Be warned. 

Friday, March 4, 2022

'Lykz' Offers Healing for the Digital Generation


     Christopher G. Smith and his wife, Alana, stood in front of the empty theatre on West 41st Street.  Everyone else had gone and soon the marquee would be darkened.  Amazing Grace, the musical that Christopher created and nurtured all the way to the Great White Way over a dedicated 17 years, was closing, its Broadway run concluding after only four months.

     “It was the end,” Smith said.  “Obviously we were very sad because it was the end of a dream as far as we knew.”

     What they didn’t realize was that another dream was heading their way.  A woman who recognized them from the show’s publicity and had read that Alana was recovering from breast cancer approached to tell them her story.   She was being treated for cancer and when her energy allowed, she went to see Amazing Grace.  That closing matinee, Oct. 25, 2015, was her eighth time.

     “It was such a transformative moment,” Smith says, recalling that encounter during a phone interview from his home office in Huntingdon Valley, PA.

     While it seemed the transformation was just for their low spirits that Sunday afternoon, in time they would realize a seed had been planted for their next show.

     The couple had heard similar accounts of how the musical inspired by the life of John Newton had touched people deeply.  They wondered what it was about this story of a slave trader turned abolitionist and Anglican cleric that had such a healing effect, so they turned to the internet and found the research of Antonio Damafio, a University of Southern California professor who had studied how stories of gratitude change the brain, enabling people to better handle stress and depression.

     “We were like, ‘Wow.  This really heals people.’’

     About this same time they were hearing more and more news accounts of the near epidemic proportions of anxiety, depression and cyber-bullying affecting young people, much of it brought on by the disconnect created by over-reliance on video games and social media.  They wanted to help.

     “We decided to create a musical into which we could build actual mindfulness and neuroscience techniques into a story they would like,” said Smith, 52.

     They believed the key was to catch these young people through what mattered to them so they created a show based on the popular world game genre that would be instantly familiar.  They developed the idea together, with Christopher writing the script, the electro-pop score and 17 original songs.  The result is Lykz, a high-energy musical about finding friendship and self-worth in the lonely digital world.  The title, pronounced Likes, refers to a feature of several social media platforms and games.  In the musical they are a metaphor for the labeling that occurs when people judge themselves by the opinions of others.  Many young people become obsessed with earning multiple Likes, with their self-esteem dependent on them.

     “Our goal is to transport the audience into a game world where characters never touch and all anyone cares about is getting and giving Likes,” Smith says.

     The story revolves around Clarence and Clara, two social outcasts.  Clarence desperately wants approval but he’s awkward, speaks with a stammer and is not good at the dance and gymnastics the popular kids use to gain approval.  Clara intervenes by teaching him coping techniques involving breathing, movement and visualization.  Soon they will set out on a quest to unravel the mysteries of their universe and stop a cataclysm they alone acknowledge.  On the journey, the audience sees them grow through adversity and self-discovery, finding the tools they need to overcome a legacy of labeling and rejection. 

     Smith says this is done subtly, through song, so young audience members won’t realize they are being taught techniques but they will absorb them through the music and, he hopes, be able to apply them automatically.  

     “It’s part of the story.  We never say, ‘This is a technique.’  They get it in a deeper level so they won’t have to think about it.”

     The Smiths have consulted mental health professionals and done extensive research into mindfulness and other psychological and neuroscience practices used to fight anxiety and depression. 

     “That’s the way we want to help young people,” Smith says.  “We basically model how to make a friend and connect to overcome the negativity.  It’s about the core, the community.  We have to get everybody back to the core.”

     Smith sees no better way to do this than through theatre.

         “Theatre is one of the oldest communication techniques and one of the most powerful.”

     The show will be a multi-media production with gymnastics and dance.  He envisions a set that will instantly transport audiences into game world — very boxy with primitive shapes and lots of projections.  The story will intensify as Clara realizes she and Clarence have to teach the other characters how to connect or they will all be destroyed.

     “It’s kind of a nail-biter,” Smith says.

     Now that the script is complete Smith is ready to send it to directors and is looking for a developmental theatre to stage a production.  So far, the Smiths have put up their own money to bring the show to this point, although Smith will not disclose how much they have invested.

     Besides this theatre angle, the show has an educational component for which a nonprofit has been created.  In time this element will create programs to teach the techniques in schools and eventually develop Clarence and Clara as characters in graphic novels and TV shows.

     “It’s not just making a show to go on stage and it’s done when it’s done.  We want to build relationships with young people that will continue.”

     They have been doing this throughout the show’s progression, visiting local high schools to invite feedback.

     “They’ve been involved in every step,” Smith says.  “We let them read it (taking part in table readings) and we hear their questions.  When you’re building something for young people you’ve got to listen.”

     That outreach is set to grow even wider.

     “We’re working on a plan to have a national, or possibly world-wide contest where young people could submit a demo for a chance to actually be a part of a virtual reading of the work this summer,” he said, adding that interested students can find out more by visiting the show’s website, lykz.live

     Gabrielle Greene has been involved with the show’s growth since last summer.  The 17-year-old high school junior now plays Clara as part of the development cast.

     “I love the message the show is trying to present about mental health and speaking up for yourself,” she said during a phone interview from her home in Oreland, PA.  “I wish I had had that as a kid.”

     Greene already has a Broadway musical credit to her name; she was one of the children in School of Rock for a year when she was 12 and 13.  She says people her age who have grown up with technology “think too much about getting validation from other people and not themselves.”  

     She says “a new innovative musical” like Lykz will fill an unmet need by creatively presenting themes young people may not want to face.

     “We need something to bring us together to face adversity with strength and perseverance.  This musical will do just that.”

     Smith shares Gabrielle’s high expectations for Lykz’’s future.  He believes Broadway is a possibility.

     “A lot of people thought it would be impossible that Amazing Grace would go all the way to Broadway.”

     But it did.  And after that on to a national tour of nearly two dozen American cities.  It has also been performed in Nairobi and England and was the show that opened the theatre at the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. where it played for more than 100 performances.  It is now available for licensing. 

     “I have a powerful belief this is the right story and we’ll see how far it goes.”