Last night turned into a late night when I ventured up to Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre for their closing performance of Angels in America: Part II. I had seen Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater take on Part I in early summer, 2012, and am not sure why I didn’t go back when they also ran Part II that fall in a similar arrangement to what the Ringwald has done this year.
I also briefly met Tony Kushner himself almost exactly seven years ago (picture below) so the timing felt right to re-visit his most well – known work, especially since the play(s) have continued to be held in wide acclaim, but don’t seem to be performed too often.
This production deserved acclaim for mounting a large – scale play in the Ringwald’s intimate space, and the company seems to enjoy challenging itself in that way. I found it to be an inconsistent performance, with some aspects, such as Dennis Kleinsmith’s intense portrayal of closeted dying lawyer Roy Cohn, standing out amongst the ensemble work, while other design and acting choices, such as having a too consistent chorale underscore to many scenes, were problematic to my eye.
The production received local attention including, but not limited to, a review in the Detroit Free Press.
In spite of my mixed impressions, the Ringwald’s commitment to Kushner’s material is notable, and any honors the company receives for their staging of both parts of the Angels epic will surely be deserved. I hope the production team also feels a sense of accomplishment today as they reflect on a journey of many months and experiences.
There are just a few days left to catch Annapurna at Theatre Exile, and for some reason probably connected to my travel itinerary, I did not write it up here after attending the April 20 preview performance.
Actors Pearce Bunting and Catharine Slusar, pictured above, truly shine in this play, and I was very surprised to learn they had not worked together before, though they have likely crossed paths in the Philadelphia theatre community. I was interested to learn that the play premiered at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre shortly after I left the Bay Area in 2011 and also enjoyed a concurrent New York run this spring with the starry team of Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman, as The New York Times highlighted prior to that production’s opening. Additionally, I had seen one prior production of the playwright’s work, and wish that I had seen another, and felt that this script offered a more mature and seasoned writing style than the earlier pieces.
In Philadelphia the setting is (presumably) more intimate from the bright lights of Off Broadway. Anything can happen in Theatre Exile’s versatile Studio X space, nestled in to the character – filled and city – wise South Philadelphia neighborhood. This time, the studio was evenly divided between an expansive set, designed by Thom Weaver, and the audience assembled on risers, with the stage management booth beyond that. The noticeably detailed and artfully strewn set evoked curiosity from the first moments of the play, with screen doors, a running shower and faucet, a bed, and several cabinets all contributing to the strong impression of Ulysses (Bunting) living an isolated life on a Colorado mountain.
A brief slapstick introduction, when Ulysses can’t believe that his wife Emma (Slusar) suddenly reappears after a 20 year absence and no contact whatsoever, gives way to a quick shift into a strand of mystery-based drama, as Emma’s motivations for coming to visit become more apparent, though never explicitly spelled out, and we learn more about Ulysses and his choices to live in isolation and face a terminal illness.
It sounds a little bit “movie of the week” cheesiness as I describe the plot there, but the reality of the tale was much more gripping. Aided by Joe Canuso’s tight and specific direction, the two actors subtly juggled power dynamics and held the audience’s attention through the 90 minutes or so of the play, which is not always an easy thing to do. As well, the plot continues to slowly unravel in such a way that the Big Revelation could be considered the start of a wider contemplation and reflection that continues after the lights have gone down on the show.
It was great to “touch in” again with the work of Theatre Exile, where I spent an intense two months working on A Behanding in Spokane exactly two years ago. I was happy to see a healthy audience crowd in place for that Easter Sunday matinee, with a noticeable (and welcome) diverse age range visible, and know that the play has matured even further as it moves towards a sure to be strong finish this Sunday, May 11.
Opening night of A Behanding in Spokane, Philadelphia, April, 2012.
(l-r) Matt, Reuben, Pearce, Jamel, me, Joe; Amanda, who played the lone female role, is not pictured here.
All this week I have been thinking about how Tuesday 11/12 was the one year anniversary of former theatre colleague Reuben Mitchell dying from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. While I don’t feel I can offer as heartfelt a tribute as his friend wrote here, or as immediate a memory as someone else he knew wrote here, I did want to mention him here on my own blog.
What to say about Reuben, or rather, what not to say?
He was a kind and generous Greenville, North Carolina native who maintained a sense of good humor and congeniality in everything he did. When I mentioned that my mom and my cat and I had visited Greenville in late 2007 and were surprised by some late-night violence happening across the street from our hotel, he laughed it off, saying “oh, that happens every week!” – but he was proud of his Southern heritage.
Reuben lit up the stage for the Martin McDonaugh play we worked on, taking what could have been just a stereotypical part and turning it in to a full individual. He was dedicated to his craft as seen in his extensive professional training, studying in locations such as New Orleans and Toronto among others, followed by moving to Philadelphia to pursue a career. This training was also evident in his daily preparation for our performances, as he was almost always first at the venue (and I was genuinely concerned when he wasn’t), undertaking a rigorous 10-20 minute vocal warmup and brief physical warmup as well – even though he spent 2/3 of the show tied to a wall. He showed a sense of civility and fun in his interactions with everyone on the production team, while clearly understanding that the “play was the thing” and that was our focus. He was an incredible storyteller with a vividness to his tales I’ve rarely heard other people make use of.
Inevitably I look back at that production bittersweetly, with Reuben gone. At the time I was excited to work on a script by a favorite writer, Martin McDonagh, and am grateful to have had the opportunity. But I had to juggle the theatre work and a more 9-5 oriented job alongside commuting from Delaware to Philadelphia, thus limiting my social opportunities with the actors. Eventually I felt a natural ease when I was able to join in on the social time (as seen in the photo above from opening night), but it was not as much as I would have liked. And we can never re-create that same dynamic.
I only saw Reuben once more a month after the production closed; he’d been invited to return to the same theatre company we’d worked with for a fundraiser/festive evening , employing his subtle and uncanny Barack Obama impersonation skills to use in several skits. (Incidentally, the event got some official political humor by featuring Arlen Spector, who died a few months later in 2012, as the opening act.) Reuben jumped me with his characteristic enthusiasm as we waited for the show to begin, and we chatted briefly before he went onstage…
It was very clear (painfully now of course) that Reuben loved his motorcycle. He often appeared at our rehearsals and performances with it. While I’m not a motorcyclist myself, I think he and I shared a love of driving towards the unknown and engaging in some derring-do along the way; I recall energetically describing my favorite road in Marin County (Ridgecrest Boulevard) to him, while he replied with tales of curvaceous roads in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania that he’d gone out to explore one Sunday morning.
I hope Reuben knew how much he impacted others, and they cared about him. I’m sure I will always remember him.
One day this week when I thought of Reuben, I also recalled another theatre-impacted tragedy out in the Bay Area. Summer Serafin, whom I never met nor saw onstage, but she did work with several people I knew in the Bay Area theatre scene, died in 2011 after an accidental fall from a fire escape in San Francisco. It is clear from a quick Google search of her name that she also made an impact on many individuals.
I don’t want to read too much into this – and it’s probably just a coincidence – but I noticed that Summer died on Reuben’s 30th birthday, while Reuben died one day before what would have been Summer’s 33rd birthday.
William Shatner does not need to keep boldly going at age 80, almost 81. And yet, like any good actor, he keeps saying yes, or may be afraid of stopping, or he may just want to work as long as he can. Or some combination of those three factors. In any case, his latest career turn has taken him back to the theatre, where he got his start but has not spent time for quite awhile. So he turned to a knowledgeable and easy to remember subject: himself. He brought his latest enterprise to Philadelphia for one night only on Tuesday, March 13th.
With celebrity autobiography shows like this, it can be hard to pick out the drama. Well, their life’s drama is often splattered around the stage, but the dramatic throughline of their presentation can be harder to discern. I thought back to my seeing Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” four years ago in Berkeley, and how I’d let myself get wrapped up in her forcefully glamorous aura before being reminded by my also in the audience friend to think critically about Fisher’s presentation.
The same challenges exist in Mr. Shatner’s performance, and yet he has become so iconic (treasured?!) that I’m sure a good chunk of his Philadelphia audience took pleasure in simply seeing him LIVE. He did enter and leave the stage to a standing ovation, the latter round of which I joined in on.
This show, “Shatner’s World”, seems to have arisen out of a “now what?” or “why not?” phase of Shatner’s career. Actually, the expression is more likely to be “I’ve got nothing to lose!”
He takes the audience on a merry-go-round of a live autobiography, from the streets of Montreal to the hustle of Los Angeles to the infinity of outer space, and beyond. His most famous credit gets its due, but is not as closely scrutinized as I’d expected it to be. Shatner offers hints of what seems to be a larger theme of achieving personal (serious) acceptance of the role, something I would have liked to hear more about but may be difficult to describe in a public setting.
He doesn’t shy away from describing other parts of his career, but does keep the focus about 90% on his public life. His three daughters are only mentioned briefly, perhaps by their request, and there is no examination of the challenges of maintaining an acting career over so many years.
Shatner gave several unscripted asides to the audience about a range of topics from lighting cues to the eternal question of mortality. I found those thoughts to be more intriguing than the scripted material, and can understand why he’s gained popularity for his open mic and written word skills.
I’m certainly glad to have attended this performance, and realize that it adds to a relatively wide spectrum of Star Trek actors I’ve either seen or met in person – Shatner, Nimoy, Stewart, Spiner, plus two instances of one degree of separation links to Colm Meaney and Marina Sirtis.
And yet, in keeping with my theatrical sensibilities and desire for human insight, I know I might have even more enjoyed being a fly on the wall (or assistant director!) in the rehearsal room for this project. What must it be like to be so closely associated with a persona and therefore make your public life in conjunction with that role? Us it possible to show another side of yourself? How do those close to you feel about that side of your life? Or do they feel fortunate that they know you in real life? Do fantasy and reality blur to an inescapable nebula?
From what I gather, it seems that Shatner DOES ask some of those questions in his recent documentary “The Captains”, interviewing all five additional captain-actors of STAR TREK about their personal and professional lives. I considered buying a copy of this film at the souvenir table, but changed my mind after seeing it can be purchased for $12 less online.
It is clear you are a role model and still very present figure, Mr. Shatner. Thanks for your commitment and perseverance!