Friday, September 15, 2017

Margin Notes: Rhinoceros

Eli Rosen and Luzer Twersky as Jean and Berenger.
Photo by Pedro Hernandez.

Seen on: Wednesday, 9/13/17.
My grade: B+/A-

Plot and Background
Berenger, an aloof drunkard, meets his ambitious friend Jean for drinks, but the two are soon interrupted by the shock of a rhinoceros running down the street. The number of rhinceroses in the village grows, and Berenger witnesses his colleagues and friends capitulating one by one to become rhinoceroses themselves. Eugene Ionesco, considered one of the fathers of Theater of the Absurd, lived through the Nazi occupation of France, and wrote Rhinoceros in 1959 as a response to the rise of fascism he observed. New Yiddish Rep, whose mission is to perform "modern treatments of Yiddish classics and Yiddish interpretations of modern masterpieces," presents a new Yiddish translation of Ionesco's play by Eli Rosen (with English supertitles).

What I Knew Beforehand
I studied Ionesco's oeuvre in a Theater of the Absurd course in college. I'd also seen an incredibly powerful production of Rhinoceros at Virginia Tech when I was a teenager that still stays with me.


Play: It feels not only appropriate but inevitable to see a revival of this play done by a Jewish troupe - the ethnic group most specifically targeted and slaughtered by the Nazi regime. They've been here before, and they know the landscape. Despite, or perhaps because of, its absurd premise - that people are turning into rhinoceroses and stampeding about the town - Ionesco's play is able to make its point so clearly. We know we wouldn't want to turn into rhinoceroses, we know what destruction they're callously wreaking in this village; it's so clear, and yet the villagers refuse to see it. This is the parallel drawn to the rise of fascism - an inevitable destruction so plainly obvious to some it seems foolish to have to point it out, and yet people find excuses to allow, to permit, to try to meet them on their monstrous level. The new translation, both its Yiddish and English versions, is acutely aware of the frightening parallels to be drawn to the political climate today - so Botard, intent on denying the very existence of rhinoceroses, cries "Fake news!" while Jean and the Gentleman deliberate on whether the rhinoceroses had one or two horns - a distinction that not only doesn't matter, but puts further emphasis on wanting to classify between "acceptable" rhinoceroses and ones to be shunned, indicating a racist bias even before conversion to rhinoceroses. Director Moshe Yassur and translator Eli Rosen are aware of the obvious parallels, and so treat them with a light but conscious hand, so that the play feels neither didactic nor trivial. This has happened before, and we should all know the landscape.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Margin Notes: A Piece of My Heart

Poster design by Rachel Ely.

Seen on: Friday, 9/7/17.
My grade: A

Plot and Background
Shirley Lauro's play, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Keith Walker, follows six women from different backgrounds who journey to Vietnam during the war - as soldiers, as nurses, as performers - and examines the toll it takes on them, both during and after the conflict.

Disclosure, and
What I Knew Beforehand
I'm vaguely sure I'd seen a ten minute cutting from this play in speech and debate tournaments in high school, so I knew loosely that it was about nurses in the Vietnam War. Disclosure: I am friends with director Reesa Graham (we met when I reviewed another show she directed, May Violets Spring).


Play: It's easy to think that going to a play about a war over forty years past might feel stale or dated. What's remarkable about this production is how immediately urgent it feels, how presently now each moment is - and how desolating it is to realize how little some things have changed in the ensuing decades. My main exposure to the Vietnam narrative has been history classes, a few films, and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Those stories are about the men in combat. The stories here are about the women in a combat zone. They're not getting blasted with grenades, but it's their job to try desperately to repair what's left of the men who are. Director Reesa Graham conducts this symphony of the unsung women - a blending of six women's stories (with help from one All American Man) through words, song, the stamping of feet, the biting clack of the banging of sticks, the stillness of silence - with grace and subtlety. The text of the play is powerful in its own right, without adornment, and Graham doesn't try to gussy it up - she lets the play speak honestly, lets the characters be frank - open and vulnerable, hardened and hurt. These women have been forgotten and ignored. Here they have their space, to remember, to be, and - hopefully - to heal. A Piece of My Heart isn't an easy play to watch - but it is an essential play to witness.