Wednesday, July 3, 2019

People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point

Artist Susan Point. (Photo:: MonteCristo)

It’s all a question of scale. Recently on the West Coast we had the great opportunity to experience two sides of the widely accomplished and acclaimed Coast Salish (Musqueam) artist Susan Point. Her intimately scaled gallery works were showcased at the first solo show featuring her in the Okanagan Spindle Whorl, at the Kelowna Gallery, while her large-scale public artworks were celebrated in a remarkable new book, People Among the People, released by Vancouver-based Figure 1 Publishing, with insightful texts by Robert D. Watt and Michael Kew.

Both the interior gallery drawings, paintings and sculptures and the large exterior public space commissions by this gifted artist share an attention to indigenous motifs and an interactive spirituality for which she has been rightly recognized over the last thirty years or so. Ironically, the gallery exhibit has a bigness of heart while the public works featured in Watt’s book have a gripping intimacy which often belies their grander size.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Berkshires Season Openers: Outside Mullingar, A Raisin in the Sun and A Human Being, of a Sort

James McMenamin and Shannon Marie Sullivan in Outside Mullingar. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

John Patrick Shanley’s 2014 play Outside Mullingar, which opens the Berkshire Theatre Group summer season, is a quirky romantic comedy set in the Irish countryside, and I’d say it’s two-thirds of a very good play. In the opening scene, an ornery widowed farmer named Tony Reilly (Jeffrey DeMunn) and his forty-something son Anthony (James McMenamin) have their next-door neighbors, Aiofe Muldoon (Deborah Hedwall) and her daughter Rosemary (Shannon Marie Sullivan), over for tea following the funeral of Aiofe’s husband. Anthony has been taking care of the farm for years and expects to inherit it, but unexpectedly his father reveals that he doesn’t think he loves the property enough and proposes leaving it to an American nephew. The resulting back-and-forth reveals that Rosemary and not her mother owns a tiny parcel of the land that blocks the Reillys’ access to the sea, and that, due to a gripe she has nursed against Anthony since they were kids, she has no intention of selling it back to them. We also learn that she has been in love with him all her life, and that holding onto the land is her way of holding onto him – though only, of course, if Tony can be persuaded to reconsider his plans for the disposition of the farm.

This section of the play recalls Chekhov’s one-acts, especially The Proposal, though it contains Shanley’s trademark off-kilter humor and his fondness for tall tales. But in the fourth scene it seems to stall. Upon his deathbed, some time after he’s reconsidered his plans for disinheriting his son, Reilly Sr. shares an intimate confessional moment with Reilly Jr., and it’s sentimental – not a word I’d apply to any of the three scenes that have preceded it. It’s also extraneous, except perhaps to signal the narrative shift away from the older characters to the not-quite romance between Rosemary and Anthony. By the next scene Aiofe, too, is dead, and we get a courtship of the two younger figures reminiscent of Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, where the characters have to uncover and then eliminate the obstacles that stand in the way of the happy ending. But the process takes too long and the obstacles are silly ones.

Despite its flaws, the play is engaging – especially in Karen Allen’s skillfully shaped and impeccably acted production. All four of the actors do fine, distinctive work, and the somewhat meandering nature of the last two scenes is countered by the chemistry between McMenamin and Sullivan. McMenamin, who played George in David Cromer’s celebrated Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York and was in the ensemble of Anna D. Shapiro’s revival of Of Mice and Men on Broadway, is one of my favorite character actors: he buries himself so completely in his roles that, though he’s a handsome, rugged man with a broad, recognizable face, from play to play he barely seems to be the same actor. I enjoyed everything about the show, including John McDermott’s set and the way it accordions in and out for scene shifts. A BTG season always proffers surprises; this one, coming right at the outset, makes you feel very bright about what might follow.

Mandi Masdon, S. Epatha Merkerson and Nikiya Mathis appear in A Raisin in the Sun. (Photo: Joseph O'Malley) 

A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959 and earned its place in the history of American drama: it’s the first major play about the struggles of an African American family, in this case trapped in a Chicago ghetto, and the work of a black female playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. I’ve always found it a little dull, on the page and even in the famous 1961 movie version, in which all four of the talented stars of the stage production (Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands) repeated their performances. But I think it can come alive on stage, and for the first half of the Williamstown Theatre Festival production it mostly does. The director, Robert O’Hara, has coached the cast to overlap their dialogue, which works against the banality of Hansberry’s dialogue and gives it an electric, lived-in quality. Francois Battiste, who plays Walter Lee Younger, the angry, restless and impulsive son of the widowed matriarch, Lena, and Mandi Masden, who plays his wife Ruth, make it clear from the opening minutes that this marriage has a strong sexual core, and there’s an erotic tension between Walter’s college-age sister Beneatha (Nikiya Mathis) and one of her suitors, an African classmate named Joseph Asagai (Joshua Echebiri), that actors and directors don’t generally get at. And then there’s the amazing S. Epatha Merkerson as Lena. Everyone I know loves watching Merkerson on her TV series (Law and Order, Chicago Med), but you don’t know what a powerhouse she is unless you’ve seen her in the TV movie Lackawanna Blues or on stage. She gave a heartbreaking performance in a Broadway revival of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba a little more than a decade ago, and she’s a commanding and utterly authentic Lena.

In act one these features more than compensate for the production’s shortcomings – a clumsiness in the staging (though the scenic design by Clint Ramos is excellent); intrusive, distracting music cues; and a tendency to indulge the actors in their big moments that damages the rhythm of some of the scenes. This is mostly a problem in Battiste’s drunk scene before intermission, but only Merkerson is immune – her instinct for the dramatic shape of a scene and her generosity as a performer keep her completely grounded. And though it isn’t ineffective, there isn’t much point to O’Hara’s choice to insert an expressionistic element with imposed scenes hovered over by the ghost of Lena’s dead husband – whose $15,000-dollar insurance policy, paid for (we’re told over and over again) with the blood and sweat of a selflessly toiling African American working man, Walter hopes will finance a liquor store he wants to open with some buddies and Lena decides should finance their move into their own house in Clybourne Park, a white neighborhood.

But the second half of this Raisin begins badly and gets worse and worse. O’Hara gives up even trying to orchestrate the scenes or maintain some stylistic integrity. A scene involving an interfering neighbor (Eboni Flowers) feels like it comes out of a bad TV sitcom; in this context the character seems Martian, and because the audience is encouraged to find her a hoot, the point of the interlude – that she represents a ghetto-bred parochialism and reverse snobbery that fight against the efforts of a black family like the Youngers to find a better life for themselves – is lost. When we meet Walter’s friend and prospective business partner Bobo (Walter Miller), he comes across as so obviously disreputable that O’Hara appears to have missed – or ignored – the fact that when their third (unseen) partner runs off with the insurance money that Lena has finally decided to let Walter handle, Bobo is just a much a victim. Most dreadful of all is Walter’s big meltdown, where he shows his family how weak he is. O’Hara stages it as a Brechtian interlude in which Battiste, whose acting has become insufferably hammy by this time, goes into a minstrel routine addressed to the audience while his poor co-stars are stuck in shadow behind him, delivering their lines as if they’re the only people involved in the show who still understand that the style of the play is unfettered American realism. The minstrel stuff O’Hara has grafted onto the scene contradicts the text.

So does the showpiece finale, where, as the family prepares to move to Clybourne Park despite the efforts of the neighborhood committee to buy them out, the set breaks apart and a scrim flies in showing us the front of their new house with “NIGGER” scrawled across it in red paint. Hansberry ended her play on a hopeful note, though she had to fudge a metamorphosis for Walter in order to push it through. The last note is sounded by Lena’s exit holding the plant she’s kept alive in their ghetto apartment. It’s a trite symbol, but it works – and it’s consistent with the rest of the text, which is about a black family fighting to conquer its obstacles to finding a better existence. It’s clear from the covert threats of the representative of the neighborhood committee, the only white character in the play (played here, not very well, by Joe Goldammer), that it will be an uphill battle – but the ending isn’t cynical or sour. You can write a sequel to A Raisin in the Sun that details the complications of what followed – and someone has: Bruce Norris with Clybourne Park, the best play written by an American, in my estimation, in the twenty-first century. But O’Hara’s hammerhead interpolations don’t enhance Hansberry’s play; they violate it. The audience at the matinee I attended, no doubt convinced by the aggressiveness of the production that they were seeing something important, gave it the obligatory standing ovation.

Antonio Michael Woodard and André Braugher in A Human Being, of a Sort. (Photo:Jeremy Daniel.)

The other season opener at Williamstown, on the smaller Nikos stage, is also about race. A Human Being, of a Sort, a new play by Jonathan Payne, is based on a shocking true incident, the exhibition of a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo in 1906, and it gives audiences a rare opportunity to watch another brilliant African American actor known mostly for his TV work, AndrĂ© Braugher, live on stage. (His last theatrical appearance was in The Whipping Man at City Center in 2011.) Braugher, a mesmerizing presence, plays Smokey, a poor man sent to a Tennessee prison farm for three years for stealing some apples from a street vendor and recommended to the zoo’s director, William Temple Hornaday (Frank Wood), for the job of caring for Ota Benga (Antonio Michael Woodard). If he satisfies his new employer, Smokey will prove that prison has rehabilitated him. If he fails to, he’ll be sent back to the prison farm.

I loved watching Braugher and several of the other actors: Keith Randolph Smith, Jeorge Bennett Watson and especially Sullivan Jones as three black ministers who mount a campaign against the exhibiting of Ota Benga in a cage. (Woodard’s and Wood’s performances are less impressive, and I can swear I’ve seen Wood give precisely this performance before, and more than once.) But A Human Being, of a Sort isn’t a play; it’s a collection of scenes in which actors talk at each other. And since you get half the point the moment you see the cage marked Primate House – that’s not meant as a criticism of the set by Lawrence E. Moten III – and the other half as soon as the moralistic, bureaucratic Hornaday interviews Smokey for the job (another black man in a cage, though this one isn’t visible), all the play can do for the duration is tell you over and over again what you’ve already figured out for yourself. It isn’t the fault of the director, Whitney White, but play goes nowhere. The epilogue, a flashback to the discovery of Ota Benga by a white hunter named Samuel Philips Vender (Matthew Saldivar, whom I liked very much as Mucha in Bernhardt/Hamlet, utterly wasted here), provides one more leaden irony to guide us out of the theatre.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.