MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Moving Nonsense and Beauty from Theatre22

Cast of Nonsense and Beauty (c) Truman Buffet

I can’t recommend Theatre22’s current production highly enough. It marks the West Coast premiere of Scott C. Sickles’s Nonsense and Beauty, a dramatic portrayal of the decades-long love story between novelist E.M. Forster and Bob Buckingham.

Sickles is a welcome discovery for me. Nonsense and Beauty received its world premiere in March 2019 at the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis. Structured as a mostly linear sequence of brief, cinematic scenes, the play traces the emotional and sexual connections between the lovers from their first encounter during an Oxbridge boat race party in 1930 until after Forster’s death in 1970. The dialogue is gratifyingly stylish and compelling; Sickles occasionally incorporates excerpts from Forster’s prose as well. (The eponymous quote, from , runs: He felt that nonsense and beauty have close connections,—closer connections than Art will allow,—and that both would remain when his own heaviness and his

Sickles is a welcome discovery for me. Nonsense and Beauty received its world premiere in March 2019 at the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis. Structured as a mostly linear sequence of brief, cinematic scenes, the play traces the emotional and sexual connections between the lovers from their first encounter during an Oxbridge boat race party in 1930 until after Forster’s death in 1970. Aside from a few longueurs that could be clipped, the tempo flows smoothly and is engaging.

The dialogue is gratifyingly stylish, compelling, without pretension; Sickles occasionally incorporates excerpts from Forster’s prose as well. (The eponymous quote, from The Longest Journey, runs: “He felt that nonsense and beauty have close connections,—closer connections than Art will allow,—and that both would remain when his own heaviness and his own ugliness had perished.”)

Based on biographical events, Nonsense and Beauty poignantly, without self-congratulatory hindsight, reimagines the atmosphere of risk-taking, secret intimacy, fear, and life-affirming liberation that surrounded Forster (Eric Mulholland) and his much younger lover, a policeman at that (Russell Matthews). Sickles doesn’t limit himself to the couple’s relationship but also explores the confusion that unfolds when Bob decides to marry May, an independent-minded nurse who has cared for him — and who loves literature, especially Forster’s writing (Jennifer Ewing). What results is a far cry from the stereotypical love triangle but a moving portrayal of the complex web of entanglements and loyalties of an enduring love.

The love story expands to include the circle of Forster’s close friends, represented by the witty, outspoken, and courageously out fellow writer and editor J.R. Ackerley (Hisam Goueli). His mother Lily (Marty Mukhalian), with whom he still lives in the first years of his relationship, observes judgmentally but suppresses her own critique after a certain point.

Corey McDaniel, who is Theatre22’s founder and producing artistic director, does the company proud directing a first-rate cast who each bring an individual stamp to their characters. Thanks to the efficiently Minimalist design, the flash of color provided by a symbolically fraught rosebush is especially effective.

But the achievement is bittersweet, as it seems this is, unexpectedly, Theatre22’s farewell production. I fondly recall the company’s inaugural show from almost a decade ago (also directed by McDaniel). Theatre22 has been a much-needed part of Seattle’s theater ecosystem, so it’s painful to realize all that will vanish. All the more reason not to miss Nonsense and Beauty, which runs at the Seattle Public Theater through October 2.

Filed under: review, theater

Abraham’s Land

I just received this press release for the world premiere of Abraham’s Land at Kirkland Performance Center, 350 Kirkland Avenue, Kirkland, WA,  July 15-18, 2021:

This original musical is by Seattle playwright Lauren Goldman Marshall and Pulitzer-nominated composer, Roger Ames, with additional music by David Nafissian and Paul Linnes, at Kirkland Performance Center, 350 Kirkland Avenue, Kirkland, WA,  July 15-18, 2021. 

A public preview performance is scheduled for Thursday, July 15, at 11 am PST to reach audiences in Israel, West Bank and Gaza, where it will be 9 pm.  Remaining performances will be at 7 PM on July 15 (opening night), 16, and 17,  and 2 PM on Sunday, July 18. For ticketing, live and livestream, go to or call 425-893-9900. 

Thirty years in the making, Abraham’s Land began as a Jewish/Palestinian collaboration, by Lauren Goldman Marshall, Hanna Eady, and David Nafissian, and was first performed in Seattle in 1992.  Marshall further developed it with Palestinian and Israeli youth at Seeds of Peace International Camp in 1999.  The current rendition features a new libretto and score. 

The three lead roles are played by Jewish-American, Israeli, and Palestinian-American actors. Abraham’s Land tells a human story, set against the backdrop of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, during the First Intifada.  Israeli Sergeant Yitzhak prides himself on being an ethical soldier, but when a Palestinian demonstration in Jerusalem appears threatening, he fatally shoots the provocateur, Ismail. 

Devastated to learn that the victim was unarmed, Yitzhak is haunted by Ismail’s ghost.  Disguising himself as a Palestinian, Yitzhak journeys to a refugee camp in Gaza to return Ismail’s identity card and ask his family for forgiveness.  In the process, he experiences the humanity of the other side and the darker aspect of his own.  Ultimately, he must choose between making amends and his duty to his country. 

With recent changes in Israeli leadership, increasing tensions and violence in the region, the reexamination of the United States’ role in the Middle East, and the rise of antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism and tribalism in the United States and abroad, this work is especially timely.  

This innovative production is directed by acclaimed director David Grabarkewitz, former Resident Director at the New York City Opera.  Music director Paul Linnes conducts a seven-member ensemble.  Choreography is by Kathryn Van Meter and Waseem Sbait.  The 22-member racially and culturally diverse, professional cast is drawn from New York City, Los Angeles and Seattle.  It features Michael Strass, Netanel Bellaishe, Maria Habeeb, Hassan Nazari-Robati, David Studwell, Bobbi Kotula, Danya El-Kurd, Camilla Ethridge & Paul Shapiro, along with a multi-generational ensemble.  

Each performance will be followed by a post-play discussion, with representatives from local Jewish and Muslim communities.  In addition, the Saturday performance will feature a pre-show talk by a visiting public health professional and mother from Gaza, Alaa Hammouda, who will share her story from her perspective as a 30-year resident of Gaza.  Further, an interactive workshop on Saturday 1-3 PM PST, will use techniques from Theater of the Oppressed to explore issues in the play. 

General admission is $39, students & seniors $25, with discounts for groups of ten or more.  Day of show rush tickets, as available, will be offered for $20, and for youth through TeenTix for $5.  Livestream performances are pay-what-you-can, with levels ranging from $1 to $20.

Filed under: musical, theater

Aeschylus: The Persians Streamed from Epidaurus

This looks intriguing: the first-ever live streaming from the ancient theater of Epidaurus. On 25 July at 21.00 Athens time (GMT +2), a performance of The Persians by Aeschylus will be streamed to a global audience via YouTube (donations welcome). All proceeds will benefit the National Theatre and Greek actors impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The performance will be in Greek with English subtitles. To stream, visit, National Theatre of Greece, the 2020 Athens and Epidaurus Festival, the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports, or the National Theatre of Greece’s YouTube channel.
(Thanks to Angelo Nasios for the tip.)

Filed under: ancient Greece, theater

Rare Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder from 1957

The Berliner Ensemble has made this rarity available as a stream until the end of 21 May 2020: Bertolt Brecht’s own staging of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder with Helene Weigel as Anna Fierling.

This raw, low-fi filming dates from 1957 and was made by Deutscher Fernsehfunk, the state TV of the DDR, from the postwar production that Brecht and Erich Engel initially staged at the Deutsches Theater on 11 January 1949, with a new score by Paul Dessau. This became the model for the play and for the new company Brecht established as the Berliner Ensemble. The 1957 filming (made a year after Brecht’s death) took place at BE’s home at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm.

Here’s a poem Brecht wrote in 1950 to introduce Mutter Courage to children:

There once was a mother
Mother Courage they called her
In the Thirty Years War
She sold provisions to soldiers.
The war did not scare her
From making her cut
Her three children went with her
And so got their bit.

Her first son died a hero
The second an honest lad
A bullet found her daughter
Whose heart was too good.

An interesting assessment of Brecht by Richard Gilman from 1978:

MORE than 20 years after his death, Bertolt Brecht remains a peculiar case, an unsettled question… And he continues to cause resentment by resisting classification. At 20, he wrote to Caspar Neher that “I am a materialist and a bad hat and a proletarian and a conservative anarchist,” and a few years later told another friend that “I must have elbow room, be able to spit when I want, sleep alone and be unscrupulous.” He was referring to his relations with women, but this was true in other parts of his life as well…
“Doubt moves mountains,” he once remarked. “Of all things certain doubt is the surest.” The elegant reversal was characteristic of his methods, just as the most stringent unsentimentality was of his being. Shortly before his death he wrote a poem to serve as his epitaph. It begins this way: “Here, in this piece of zinc, lies a dead man, or his legs and head, or still less of him, or nothing at all, because he was an agitator.” Having spent his life battling illusions, it was not likely he would have any in his own case.

Filed under: Bertolt Brecht, theater

Take Me to the World: Sondheim 90th Birthday Concert

UPDATE: Link moved here:

Go to Broadwaycom’s YouTube channel at 20:00 EST on Sunday 26 April for Take Me to the World, a benefit concert celebrating Stephen Sondheim at 90 and hosted by Raúl Esparza.

A slew of NYTimes stories on Sondheim can be found here.

Filed under: Live-Streamed Performance, Stephen Sondheim, theater

RIP Terrence McNally (1938-2020)

The 2018 documentary Every Act of Life, now streaming on Amazon Prime, covers six decades of the quadruple Tony Award winner, along with his pivotal role in fighting for LBGTQ rights.

92Y has made their evening celebrating Terrence McNally’s 80th birthday two years ago available for streaming.

More remembrances of the great playwright here.

Filed under: theater

Akropolis Performance Lab Serves Up Genet’s Subversive The Maids

Emily Testa as Solange in Jean Genet’s The Maids Mark Jared Zufelt/Aether Images
“Did I put on this dress to hear you sing about my beauty? Shroud me with hatred! Insults! Sputum!”

Even the process of booking an evening with Akropolis Performance Lab (APL) differs from the routine. There’s an aura of mystery to requesting an invitation to its current production of The Maids/The Vexations, which is under way until 24 November. The venue remains undisclosed until you’ve committed to actually attending.

Once arrived, you enter a room that’s been artfully converted into an almost uncomfortably intimate performance space — big enough to accommodate the three cast members required for Jean Genet’s play, an audience of 10-12 people tops, a piano, and a little bar. The aura is a blend of speakeasy and adventurous cabaret. A wall of mirrors serves as part of the set design, multiplying the spectators and actresses.

It all reinforces the hyper-self-consciously surreal atmosphere of APL’s remarkable interpretation. Jean Genet’s bold, one-act drama from 1947 (Les Bonnes en français) — his first play to be staged in Paris — was inspired by a real-life crime story that became the equivalent of clickbait news in 1933, when two sisters who were live-in French maids murdered their employer’s wife and daughter. But the very premise of a solid connection to “reality” at the most essential level — the sense of a real, authentic self — is subverted throughout the play, turning Hamlet’s sarcastic/melancholy “‘Seems,'” madam? Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems'” on its head.

Directed and designed by Joseph Lavy, APL’s production brings the point home by appending a preludial pantomime in which the three cast members, dressed in lingerie, strike varying exaggerated poses, interacting but interchangeable, prepared to shift roles on a dime.

And, on top of this, there’s a musical layer: the show actually begins with Zhenya Lavy — with Joseph, cofounding artistic director of APL — taking her place at the aforementioned piano and playing the enigmatic, sphinx-like harmonies of Erik Satie’s The Vexations: once, again, thrice, and over and over, through the pantomime, through the duration of the play.

Satie’s undated, single-page score (which has been variously described as an anti-Ring cycle and a kind of spell to get past a love gone sour) comes with the instruction “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” That total number of repetitions lasted over 18 hours when John Cage famously staged a presentation, but even at a fraction of that, Zhenya Lavy established a mood of archaic yet ironic ritual that perfectly suited the ritualistic anti-realism of Genet’s theater.

The play itself unfolds amid the accoutrements of the unnamed Madame’s wealth (or, at least, comfortably bourgeois lifestyle), as the maids Claire and Solange take turns rewriting the script of servitude, of mistress and servant. In the process, they enact rituals of domination and humiliation in all its connotations: sexual, political, social, religious.

Their shared, mutual fantasies of mutiny and sadomasochistic reversal climax in a plan to murder Madame with sleeping pill-laced tea, which will also solve the problem of her lover’s suddenly impending appearance, out on bail — after he had been denounced by Claire to the police and jailed.

Joseph Lavy also translated Genet’s text into an English that conveys the curious mixture of poetic filtering and religious ritual central to Claire’s and Solange’s game-playing (or is it even a game?) — aspects that get lost in more pointedly political renditions of the work on the English stage. Madame is also referred to as a kind of medieval “my lady” and, with her flowers and beautiful attire — briefly offered as gifts — creating a Madonna-like aura of reverence.

As Claire, Annie Paladino is spellbinding and dangerous, her ability to enter fully into each role as convincing as the speed with which she sheds one skin for the next. Her older sister, Solange, is given a complex, layered, deeply resonant performance by Emily Testa. One surprise of the casting is the youth of Madame (the excellent Catherine Lavy), which erases the generational distance between the characters and underscores the riddling interchangeability of identities.

All three are coached in APL’s characteristic focus style of ensemble-focused training, a refreshing, much-needed antidote to the default, watered-down “method” that dominates commercial theater and media. This company offers a wonderful, praiseworthy alternative to such predictable and formulaic theater-making.

Review (c) 2018 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Akropolis Performance Lab, review, theater, Uncategorized

Frank Castorf at Berliner Ensemble

For his first major post-Volksbühne production in Berlin, Frank Castorf has staged a version of Les Misérables at the Berliner Ensemble. It inaugurates a new relationship with BE, which itself is now its first season under Oliver Reese (following the quarter-century tenure of Claus Peymann).

Castorf brings his signature approach to Victor Hugo’s epic (whether in the full c. eight-hour “director’s cut” or “shortened” to a six-hour staging), blending characters and narrative threads from the novel with oblique references to Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s portrait of pre-revolutionary Cuba in Tres Tristes Tigres to generate a montage-like dream state of non-linear associations. The connection with the barricades of the 1848 Revolution in Paris has to do with Hugo’s pronounced support of Cuban freedom fighters.

The usual Castorf technical apparatus plays a central role: close-up real-time filming of the actors projected onto a large screen, using a fantastically lit rotating stage representing a Cuban cigar factory facade, a market stall, a sort of storage area, and a watchtower.

Excesses of physical exertion, emotion, reaction punctuate the theatrical rhythm to overwhelming, at times stupefying, effect. The most indelible performance of many highlights for me came from 85-year-old Jürgen Holtz, playing both Marius’ grandfather–in a nearly-half-hour-long opening monolog on the metaphoric sewers of Paris–and Bishop Myriel. Holtz’s portrayal of the latter’s compassion as an agent of social justice is theater at its most compelling.

Filed under: Frank Castorf, theater

Krapp’s Last Tape

Getting in the mood for Beckett tonight at Edinburgh International Festival.

And companion piece Not I:


Filed under: theater

August Wilson’s Birthday

One of our very greatest playwrights would have turned 72 today.  He was only 60 when he died in Seattle in 2005.

From the New York Timesappreciation of August Wilson’s legacy:

In dialogue that married the complexity of jazz to the emotional power of the blues, he also argued eloquently for the importance of black Americans’ honoring the pain and passion in their history, not burying it to smooth the road to assimilation. For Mr. Wilson, it was imperative for black Americans to draw upon the moral and spiritual nobility of their ancestors’ struggles to inspire their own ongoing fight against the legacies of white racism.

And from the Paris Review in 1999, Wilson’s response to the question, “If you had to construct an imaginary playwright, with what qualities would you endow him or her?”

Honesty. Something to say and the courage to say it. The will and daring to accomplish great art. Craft. Craft is what makes the will and dating work and allows playwrights to shout or whisper as they choose. A painter who has not mastered line and form, mass, perspective and proportion, who does not understand the values and properties of color, is not going to produce interesting paintings no matter the weight and measure of his heart, or the speed and power of his intellect. I don’t think you can ever know too much about craft. So I would give your imaginary playwright a solid understanding of craft. All that is necessary then is ambition . . . which is as valid and valuable as anything else.

Filed under: American artists, August Wilson, theater

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