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A Golden Age of Theater

Diane Curley in Gillian Grattan's "Fish Out of Water," at the Irish Classical. (photo by Gene Witkowski)

Following their own paths, Buffalo’s theaters have achieved a rare richness

The 2011-2012 Buffalo theater season continues to be a banner year. The offerings have been abundant, diverse, and of impressive quality.

This week alone affords audiences the chance to see a handsome staging of a virtually unproduced work by master of modern drama, Henrick Ibsen (Emperor and Galilean at Torn Space); a play by Buffalo pioneer of working-class drama, Manny Fried (Elegy for Stanley Gorski at Subversive Theater Collective); the world premieres of two plays by local playwrights (Darryl Schneider’s Clean Break at Road Less Traveled and Justin Karcher’s Men of Like Passions at American Repertory Theater of WNY); the world premiere of a play by an Irish playwright (Gillian Grattan’s Fish out of Water at the Irish Classical Theatre); a short play festival (Buffalo Quickies at Alleyway); a production of a great realist play from the Yiddish theater from 1907 that offered an early 20th century representation of lesbian love (Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance produced by Brazen Faced Varlets); a revival of an African-American feminist classic from the 1970s (For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf at Ujima); a moving, funny, and thought-provoking recent Broadway hit (Donald Margulies’s Time Stands Still at the Kavinoky); and the second gay-themed Jonathan Tolins play to be seen in this region this month (Secrets of the Trade at Buffalo United Artists).

Next week, Monty Python’s Spamalot rolls into Shea’s; William Inge’s soulfully painful classic, Come Back Little Sheba opens at the New Phoenix; and a stage adaptation of Madeleine’s L’Engle’s children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time opens at Theatre of Youth’s Allendale Theatre.

Add university and community theater to the mix and you can see Ray Cooney’s Out of Order at the venerable Aurora Players; Working, the musical about working people based on the book by Studs Terkel at Buffalo State; Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Niagara University; and Robert Harling’s appealing comedy, Steel Magnolias at Medaille College.

This abundance of theatrical riches would certainly suggest that we are riding the crest of a Golden Age of theater production in Buffalo.

The theater community, still energized with the unity inspired when their value to the region was impugned by county government last year, continues to surge ahead. The truth is that Buffalo’s theaters have long been in full surge. They simply got an extra boost from the emergence of a common enemy.

I would suggest that unity is not at the heart of the success of Buffalo’s theaters at all. What these institutions do best is charge along in their merry and independent directions. Yes, it’s a community, but it is the independent spirit of individual theater companies that gives us such enriching theatrical variety and vitality. Moreover, when new artists come along, if they can’t find their niche in an existing venue, they take off in their own new directions.

Every time I hear someone suggest that theaters need to collaborate more, I think, oh no—independence has proven to be the mother of creativity and survival in the theater, again and again. The spirit of creativity is individuality. Unity is a political strategy. Buffalo’s theaters have proven to be adept at both scenarios.

Fish Out of Water

Fish Out of Water, a new play by Irish playwright Gillian Grattan, proves to be an engaging and provocative tale of petty intrigue run amok. In a succession of monologues, we meet three people from a rural Irish town. At first, these quirky individuals, each flawed but endearing, seem to bear no relationship to each other, but as each successive scene unfolds, we learn that their stories are intimately intertwined.

The lights come up and Tom, a nice-looking middle aged man with a bit of a paunch is revealed -- dressed in a pink lady’s negligee-chemise. Tom talks to us about his love of women’s undergarments. We hear of his first experiences as a boy with his mother’s wardrobe. Tom is married, and in all other respects, a regular guy.

New scene.

We meet Mary. An earthy but engaging housewife, Mary tells us that she’s glad that her reclusive old witch of a neighbor has died, and tells us how she’s tried to make friendly overtures to her new neighbor—to no avail. As a narrator, Mary seems as unaware of herself, as did Tom. We quickly realize that she, despite her good intentions, is the neighborhood snoop and gossip. She tells us, disapprovingly, of the erotic art in the neighbor’s home, and how she’s helped herself to a good look around. In short, she sees herself as a delightful mix of wit and goodness; we see her as the neighbor from hell.

Finally, we meet Lydia, an attractive young woman who’s moved into her late grandmother’s house.

What do these people have in common with each other? Everything!

Of course. Lydia, played by Diane Curley, is the new neighbor of Mary and Tom, a married couple played by Beth Donohue and Christian Brandjes. What begins as comedy will end in near horror as the characters are reveals to each other, and to themselves.

Tom may think that his greatest secret is his fetish for women’s lingerie, but we learn that his deeper secret is his abusive marriage. On the surface, Mary’s secret may seem to be her innocuous obsession with gossip and a tendency to spy on her neighbors, but she turns out to harbor secret feelings of inadequacy that are glossed over with a malicious streak so powerful as to be psychopathic. Lydia’s secret only begins with her relationship to the dead woman who once lived in her house; she is a deeply flawed and manipulative person, guilty of such inept parenting that the audience cannot forgive her.

The Anglo-Irish genre of layered monologues has been employed previously by Irish playwright, Brian Friel, in such brilliant plays as Faith Healer, in which a faith healer, his wife, and his stage manager remember the events of their lives differently; and Molly Sweeney, the story of a woman blind since birth, who gains sight, as told by the woman, her husband, and her surgeon. English writer, Bryony Lavery used the device in her haunting play, Frozen, about the disappearance of a 10 year old girl, spoken by the child’s mother, her killer, and a psychiatrist. American plays in this genre include Jeffrey Hatcher’s Three Viewings, which examines three funerals; and Tony Kushner’s Homebody, in which an English housewife muses on the beauty and pain of the history of Afghanistan as a prelude to the play.

By isolating her characters within a succession of soliloquies, Grattan emphasizes their alienation and their loneliness. As each scene advances the narrative, the unhappy fates of the three characters draw closer and closer together. This theme is highlighted by Ron Schwartz’s masterful set, which limits each person to a lonely playing space.

Monologues leave each character alone, and therefore, delightfully un-contradicted. Each of Grattan’s three narrators is unreliable but confident. The truth only emerges as the audience is drawn gradually into the overlapping worlds of all three. As the lights fade with the final blackout, we have gained insight into truths that still elude the characters themselves.

The three actors who assay the roles, Brandjes, Donohue, and Curley, are three of Buffalo’s best. Each performs with earnest specificity and purpose. All seem bewildered by their characters’ perplexing and unwelcome fates, and convinced of their characters’ innate goodness. Though they never speak to each other, they comprise a tight and compelling ensemble.

Fish Out of Water has been directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti.

Local playwright Neil Wechsler has pared down Ibsen. (photo by Lukia Costello)

Emperor and Galilean

By the time the Emperor Julian was born, the Roman Empire was already imperiled. To solidify his power, Julian’s uncle Constantine had adopted Christianity and moved the capital eastward, away from precarious Rome to the city of Byzantium. The city was renamed Constantinople in his honor. Upon the death of Constantine, his heir ordered a campaign in which 11 of Julian’s closest relations were murdered. Every aspect of young Julian’s life was controlled and spied upon, from the food he ate, the woman he married.

Defying all odds, Julian would go on to become Caesar, and finally, Emperor. And as supreme leader of the empire, he would endeavor to restore the Roman pagan gods and allow Romans to worship any god they wished or none at all. The effort might have changed the direction of history, but it was not to be.

The early Christians were in no humor for a pantheon of gods. Constantine was correct in his assessment that monotheistic Christianity was compatible with totalitarian imperial rule. Adherents of the newly installed religion were willing to die for what they saw as the one and only true faith. Faced with what he saw as morbidity of purpose, Julian found himself drawn into tyranny—and all for naught.

Is it any wonder that this individualistic rebel fascinated the Romantics of the early 19th century?

Henrick Ibsen, himself, alienated from the modern world and fascinated by the cultural past, would focus on rebels throughout his career. Before he took on the rebels of his later realist plays, he took on the Emperor Julian in a two-part work completed in 1873, Emperor and Galilean. (Pillars of Society was completed in 1877; A Doll’s House in 1879, and Ghosts in 1881). The play is a brilliant examination of a remarkable moment in history, before the enduring supremacy of Christianity in the Western World was, by any means, a foregone conclusion.

Sprawling, unwieldy, lacking the fanciful adventure of Peer Gynt, and pre-dating the powerful realist dramas for which Ibsen is best known, the play has almost never been performed. In fact, it received its British premiere at the National Theatre in London just last year. The 3-hour production at the National was highly acclaimed, but nonetheless irked Ibsen purists for its departures from the original shape of the work. To make the 7-hour piece manageable, however, some could argue that something must go.

Enter local playwright Neil Wechsler who has streamlined Ibsen’s play into 2 hours and 45 minutes for a Buffalo audience, using Brian Johnston’s 1999 translation. The result is a brash, engaging, and fast-moving work, expertly directed by David Oliver with Adriano Gatto as Julian. Even in this version, the presence of Julian’s wife, pivotal in the London adaptation is missing, but the central events of Julian’s philosophical journey of the first three scenes, his mystical explorations, his military campaigns, and his ultimate ascent into tyranny are intact.

Wechsler has rendered the drama with impressive clarity and continuity, but I would still recommend reading a synopsis of the plot before venturing over to the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle on Fillmore Avenue—as one might before an opera or an unfamiliar play by Shakespeare. The scope of the work is expansive and its intricacies are challenging. The fans of Ibsen’s later plays will see their antecedents here, not merely in the broad themes and the rebel-hero, but in such little details as the Dionysian vine leaves in Julian’s hair, which Hedda will one day wish upon Eilert Lovborg.

In addition to the adapted text, the virtues of this bold production include David Oliver’s exciting direction, which keeps the action moving, and a large cast focused and engaged at all times. Percussive musical instruments provide a kind of underscoring that helps maintain momentum and propel action. In addition, Greg Faust’s thrilling set makes dynamic use of the theater space, with fabric festooned around the periphery, suggesting the already decaying grandeur of Rome, and a rolling scaffold serving multiple purposes and making large visual statements as it is launched across the stage. Patty Rihn’s lighting is similarly effective, as are Jessica Wegrzyn’s costumes. Sound is very much a part of this production; the design is by Todd Lesmeister with original music by Mike Yanoski.

Adriano Gatto gives a heroic performance as Julian. The role is huge and the arc complex, as he makes the transition from studious boy to tyrannical man.

In addition to Gatto, an ensemble of energetic, focused, and unflaggingly devoted actors play a dizzying array of characters. This faithful crew includes Daniel Henderson (who takes some terrifying falls), Lisa Vitrano (a trouper on crutches), Becky Globus (stepping in for injured Miss Vitrano), Brian Zybala, Kurt Guba, James Wild, Barry Williams, Mark Donahue, and Patrick Caughill. David Lundy plays Julian’s philosophical mentors, and as Maximus, makes particular fun of the séance scene.

The production is audacious, large, and renders Ibsen’s play in marvelously engaging fashion.