Marie & Rosetta is a stirring and often rousing musical biography of the life of gospel popularizer (and rock and roll predecessor) Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The work focuses on Tharpe’s relationship with her protégé Marie Knight, who Tharpe pulled from Mahalia Jackson’s backup choir and with whom she performed for three years. Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Tharpe and Knight, respectively, belt out the music true to its origins. Playwright George Brant struggled to find an ending, and it’s a little distracting the way the two stars have to mime playing their piano and guitar to (admittedly excellent) off-stage accompaniment, but those few awkward minutes do nothing to diminish the impact of the songs or the story. Directed by Neil Pepe. Runs through October 2 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s W. 20th Street house, NYC.
Through June 7, 2015
Athol Fugard’s “The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek” at the Signature Theater is, as most of Fugard’s plays are, about apartheid in South Africa. It is also, as most of his plays are, about the struggle between any two sides — when it comes to divisions over race, class, and economic status — to, at the very least, listen to each other.
“The Painted Rocks” resonates simultaneously as a look at two moments in recent South African history (during and after apartheid) and as a lens on current smoldering race/class/economic frustrations that are fueling protests around the U.S. and, indeed, the world.
Some tightening in the second act might benefit the dramatic flow, but the cast is so thoroughly enveloped by Fugard’s language, and the issues are so universal, that it hardly matters. Bless the Signature’s benefactors, who make $25 tickets available; take advantage.
The rapport between 13-year-old Caleb McLaughlin, playing an 11-year-old orphan named Bokkie, and the aging servant (played by Leon Addison Brown) who has taken Bokkie under wing and who together spend their Sundays painting flowers on rocks on the bosses’ arid land, is stunning.
In the second act, Bokkie returns 20 years later (now played by Sahr Ngaujah) to restore his mentor’s final painted rock but equally to try to make some sense and peace with the white Afrikaner land owners, in particular the wife (Bianca Amato) who had wanted to wash the rock and threatened the young Bokkie.
The arguments are hardly surprising, but the dramatic tension, and the overtones touching on such immediate issues are devastating. Ironically, as we left the theater on 42nd Street at 10th Avenue, a line of protesters in solidarity with those in Baltimore (and Ferguson and Detroit and . . . ) were rounding the corner as they marched downtown, with police closely in tow. Athol Fugard himself — a hearty if surprisingly elfin 83 — had left the building just a few minutes earlier. (Seen April 29, 2015.)
Dying For It
Atlantic Theater Company – Linda Gross Theater
Through January 18, 2015
Every Brilliant Thing
Barrow Street Theater
Through March 29, 2015
The common thread here is suicide, with both pieces evidence humor and great empathy.
“Dying For It” is a more conventional play, and a true ensemble-driven farce about suicide, at that. Playwright Moira Buffini’s adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s “The Suicide,” which was banned in Russia when it was written in 1928 and not performed there until the 1980s, is the tale of a man so bereft of reasons to live under the Stalinist regime that he announces he will kill himself at an appointed hour. The townspeople seek to leverage his death as political statement, as representative of the failure of religion, and as a money-making proposition. There is music! There is comedy! There is love (and resentment)! This isn’t the greatest long-lost play of the century, but it works. The cast, with Joey Slotnick in the central role of would-be suicide Semyon Smyonovich Podeskalnikov, is particularly apt with a maniacal, frenzied performance. Directed by the Atlantic artistic director Neil Pepe. (Seen January 6, 2015.)
“Every Brilliant Thing” falls into the looser category of “performance piece,” but is no less dramatic for it. This is the story of a son, played by Jonny Donahoe, whose mother first attempts suicide when the boy is 7. With an uncommunicative father, the boy’s response is to start a list of all the things worth living for — a 7-year-old’s view, of course. The son adds to the list over the years, as the mother attempts suicide repeatedly, and in response to other life events. That the mother will succeed is never in question. That the son will go through the worry of whether he is prone to suicide, and that his mother’s story (and their relationship) will cast shadows over his life, are also never in question. Donahoe takes a ringmaster’s approach to his material, incorporating the audience brilliantly (this is NOT “audience participation” in any usual sense), and weaves sweetness through the pain without diminishing the drama. Written by Duncan Macmillan and Donahoe; directed by George Perrin. See it. (Seen January 11, 2015.)
Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2
Through February 15, 2015
Great writing, excellent acting, and highly unpleasant to sit through (intentionally so, which I suppose makes that a compliment). Famous playwright father David (Reed Birney) and aspiring actress daughter Ella (Betty Gilpin) tear each other apart while drinking, snorting, and waiting for the reviews of Ella’s first off-Broadway performance. The two characters in Halley Feiffer’s “I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard” are neither likable nor sympathetic, nor is the father’s late-in-the-play attempt at reconciliation easy to believe.
It’s hard to imagine any father-daughter in such an astringent relationship (if that’s what it is), even allowing for dramatic license of condensing a lot of lifelong pain into 90 minutes. Feiffer is cartoonist/playwright Jules Feiffer’s daughter; I can only hope this isn’t autobiographical.
That said, Feiffer knows how to write, how to build tension, how to create star turns. I haven’t seen her film, “He’s Way More Famous Than You,” which she both wrote and stars in, but in answer to Ella’s question to an interviewer in this play, “Did I move you?” Feiffer moved me to want to take a look at that film and to see her next play.
Mention also to Trip Cullman, whose direction puts Birney and Gilpin in a nonstop pas-de-deux through their own discomfort. Cullman’s work on Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” had a similarly memorable choreographic fluidity. (Seen January 13, 2015.)