Sunday, June 12, 2016

Wrapping Up

Edited to add link to pictures.

Henry Huey's pictures:

Well, Death and the Maiden is now one for the history books.  I can scratch it off my bucket list.  In many ways, I hate to see it end.

It's a brilliant show, but one has to go to the Dark Side to do it.  I am extremely grateful for actors willing to do so.  I will admit that it's disappointing that more patrons weren't willing.  They say that, during hard times, people just want fun shows, and I miscalculated.  Silly me.  I thought that, with the economy on the upswing, it was a good time for such a play.  I am now thinking that maybe the economic upswing is not as profound as it seems to be.  That, or people just don't want to go to the Dark Side.

Many thanks to those who came to see it, and especially to those who came in spite of their demons, and those who had to leave.

A critic asked me, "Why this show?"  I was tempted to be flip and say, "Because it's there," but I tried to explain.  I love plays that tell a tough story, and actors who can bring it to life.  I had seen a production of Death and the Maiden years ago, and that production did not seem to bring the story to the audience as well as it might have.  I thought I would like to try and do better, and, thanks to a stellar cast and dedicated crew, I did.  But the real real reason is that there are places in the play, lines of Paulina's, in which she says things I know to be true, but have trouble voicing on my own.  These things were said, in Ariel Dorfman's words, in Cathie Sheridan's voice, from my heart and gut.

Thank you!

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Third Review! Thanks, Central Texas Live Theatre

Review: Death and the Maiden by Sam Bass Community Theatre
by Jeremy Moran

Cathie Sheridan (photo: Henry Huey)
Cathie Sheridan (photo: Henry Huey)
Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden is not a literal ghost story, and yet there are ghosts hidden behind every corner of the action. These are the ghosts that linger in the lives of survivors of horrific human rights abuses the world over. They will forever hover over the life of Paulina Escobar (Cathie Sheridan), who was kidnapped, blindfolded, raped, and tortured by a sadistic, psychopathic doctor under a totalitarian government in an unnamed country (based on Chile). She can never again listen to the Schubert piece of the title because that was the music the doctor played as he violated her body.  She lives in a constant state of fear and horror.

Now she finds herself in the horrifying situation of seeing her abuser’s face for the very first time and in her own home, no less.Her husband Gerardo (Robert Stevens) has  invited him to stay the night as a thank you for helping him out during a road accident. Paulina does not know what he looks like, as she was blindfolded throughout her captivity, but she;s terrified when she knows without a doubt that this is the guy. She knows his smell. She knows the feel of his skin. She knows his fondness for using weird phrases like “teensy­weensy.” She knows that his name is Dr. Roberto Miranda (Frank Benge). This is absolutely the man who raped her fourteen times to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden.

Rather than cowering in fear, she turns the tables on him. She ties him to a chair and symbolically stuffs her underwear down his throat. She then forces him to listen to her recital of every disgusting act of abuse that he inflicted on her. She refuses to let that torture destroy her. She cannot make the ghosts disappear, but she can defeat them.
Frank Benge (photo by Henry Huey)
Frank Benge (photo by Henry Huey)
What follows is a brutal examination of a culture that seeks to disempower, discredit, and demean women. The setting may be based on Chile but that country is never explicitly named, and these events can happen everywhere. Her husband Gerardo, the only person to whom Paulina can go to about this, refuses to believe her and worries that this situation will affect his professional standing as a new member of the presidential commission. She can’t go to the authorities. She knows that nothing would happen, particularly because Roberto is a powerful man. Nobody will believe her story or offer support. In this patriarchal society that protects those who use their power to abuse, Paulina must take matters into her own hands.

Cathie Sheridan summons rage from a deep pit as she portrays Paulina’s determination to not be broken by her trauma. Never for a second does she allow Paulina to become an over-­the-­top madwoman. All of her extreme actions proceed logically out of her burning hatred of her abuser. She establishes this the moment that she turns a gun on Roberto and fires a shot into the wall. The weapon in her hand actually goes off and it’s completely startling. The audience wonders if she has another shot in there as she continues waving it around, and we become fearful of what she is going to do next. In quieter moments Sheridan seethes as if slowly breathing out a deep, sad stream of rage that never ends. When she cries, her tears are not those of a weak being crumbling in the face of fear but those of an empowered person using every single thing she has in order to obtain justice. This is one of the most realistic and affecting portrayals of post-­traumatic stress syndrome that I have ever seen, particularly in the final moments where Sheridan's silent scream is in her eyes. She doesn't actually utter a word.

Robert Stevens, Cathie Sheridan (photo by Henry Huey)
Robert Stevens, Cathie Sheridan (photo by Henry Huey)
Robert Stevens plays Gerardo as a cowardly worm of a man so terrified of jeopardizing his life and career that he never dares takes a stand on anything. He attempts to discredit his wife yet cowers and crumbles when she demands retribution. He begins to side with Roberto when things become too threatening. Stevens’ performance was uneven and there were times when he seemed to be struggling with lines and seeking appropriate emotional reactions. He does, however, provide the only moment of levity in this heaviest of shows when he  half­heartedly uses a comically large steak knife to threaten Roberto into submission, simply because Paulina demanded him to do so. His attempts to be menacing when he is not a menacing person actually garner a few laughs, hollow though they may be.

As Roberto, Frank Benge has the least number of lines, which may seem strange, considering how much text there is in this three-­character play. Benge spends much of the show with his limbs tied up to a chair and his mouth gagged, and yet he uses the rest of his body to project true menacing. In one scene between Paulina and Gerardo, Benge can be seen in the background subtly attempting to work his leg free, and effort that adds an element of suspense and menace. Yet he also shows Roberto as a charming manipulator who conceals his evil side so skillfully that, you do think that yes, he must be innocent. This is a realistic portrayal. Actual abusers are never Snidely Whiplash figures of pure evil. Benge's booming voice makes his monologue toward the end particularly terrifying.

Frank Benge, Cathie Sheridan (photo by Henry Huey)
Frank Benge, Cathie Sheridan (photo by Henry Huey)

Director Veronica Prior keeps the action at a slow burn, building gradually to the big emotional beats rather than attacking them at full force. She uses light and minimal sound effects to create a relatively subdued mood. Ashley Sandel’s lighting is very effective, illuminatinge Jim and Debra Mischel’s detailed set with warm, restrained reds and oranges. Blackouts are often used to highlight drama, and some scenes are illuminated by candlelight in a very beautiful way. All of this makes the already small space that much smaller, creating a very intimate, harrowing experience.

 I found it a very interesting choice to bring the lights up in full as assistant director/stage manager Lennon Loveday carried out scene changes. At first I thought it kind of weirdto highlight Loveday as she cleared tables and moved chairs, but over time it became a creepy motif. Loveday became a silent spectral presence existing outside the story yet physically changing the entire space for the characters. Am I reading too much into this? Maybe. Yet, the looming presence of Loveday has stayed with me as a haunting, sad image of that which is there when you wish it was not. 

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Broadway World Review for Death and the Maiden

Posting in its entirety

Consider, Chile, or, say, any country in Latin America wherein a dictatorship has preceded a democracy. Consider a woman has been held captive as political prisoner and tortured and raped by her captors in this country. Consider then, the effect that such trauma can have at every level. Imagine the personal, social, emotional, political circumstances of such an event and its potential to affect anyone within its reach. It is vast and thick and deep. Such is the subject matter of Ariel Dorfman's DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, playing at Sam Bass Theatre in Round Rock. Not the usual local theatre fare, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN is indeed a political, social, and personal play.
The play opens late one night years after said political regime has fallen. Gerardo (Robert Stevens) a prominent lawyer, has been visiting with the President, however, he is forced to ride home with a stranger thanks to a flat tire. The President plans to appoint Gerardo to a position that will give him the opportunity to seek justice and appropriately put on trial those who played a role in his wife Paulina's (Cathie Sheridan) capture. Later that night, the stranger returns, and Paulina recognizes his voice to be that of Dr. Roberto Miranda (Frank Benge) the man who tortured and raped her as a political prisoner.
Paulina takes justice into her own hands. She takes Miranda captive at gunpoint in order to get a confession from him. Gerardo awakens to find Miranda held captive by Paulina the next morning and attempts to reason with her, but she's convinced the stranger is indeed Miranda. Gerardo is not convinced of Miranda's guilt, and rightfully so. His wife Paulina has been so traumatized by the events of her past that she is skittish at best and downright homicidal at worst. And she can't be blamed, really, once we learn of what specific torture she endured. In fact, when she shares all of it with Gerardo, he helps (the man that may or may not be) Miranda formulate a confession, if for nothing else than to provide his wife with closure. However, when Paulina sends Gerardo out to get Miranda's car so he can leave, a dialogue ensues that leaves both Miranda's guilt and Paulina's motivation in question. There are no clear answers in this delusional quagmire of control and power.
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN weighs in on a number of levels. For instance, Gerardo embodies the political weight of the script. He could be interpreted as a representative of the people, both literally and literarily. As such, Robert Stevens is level headed and reasonable, however, I found myself wishing he'd go over the edge just a little more. Paulina provides us the personal and emotional, and Cathie Sheridan brings a lovely shine to such a psychologically demanding role. Stuck with the challenging position of guilty party (or not) Frank Benge speaks volumes without saying a word, conveying both the innocence and guilt of those who've persecuted others. In the case of Miranda, we are left to our own interpretation of his participation in the events to which he's eventually forced to confess.
Under the direction of Veronica Prior, the production leans more toward the personal than the political. As the play unfolds it becomes a character study of those deeply impacted by political unrest, and it's in large part due to the generous skill Benge and Sheridan lend to the production. Paulina and Miranda are characters written with the potential to be overplayed, particularly in such an intimate venue, and both these actors remained within the controlled boundaries of the particular neuroses of their characters.
Dramas like this one are fairly rare in the central Texas theatre scene, but they are no less worthy of attention than lighter fare. It's a little harder to bring oneself to spend an evening looking at the potential failures of the collective political apathy and how it can impact us personally than going to see, say, Oklahoma. Nevertheless, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN gives us an opportunity to consider our ideas of justice and humanity.
Directed by Veronica Prior

Sam Bass Theatre - Round Rock
Thursday through Sunday May 27 through June 11
Running time: Approx 2 hours 15 minutes, with two 15 minute intermissions.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Death and the Maiden...Review

Thanks, Austin Entertainment Weekly.  I'm going to copy and paste, as well as post the link because, over time, such links tend to disappear.

Death And The Maiden Is A Mind Bending Roller Coaster By Pearson Kashlak

DM miniWe often take for granted the labyrinthine nature of our minds. The destination in which we find ourselves may seem wrong from the path we took, but right when another takes a different route. True, we may be at the same location, but the reasoning that led to these ideas is what dictates our reactions. Justification is the name of the game. Whereas one, from the outside, may see an action as horrid, the individual in question sees their choices as logical, moral, and right. Despite what many works of fiction would have us believe, most villainous individuals don’t commit atrocities based on some bombastic desire to be evil. It doesn’t make sense. The crimes we commit, the barbarism that plagues us isn’t simply an epidemic one must fear catching. It’s a fear response to keep one concept in mind, that we are good people.
Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman follows Paulina Escobar and her husband Gerardo in the post-dictatorship years of their South American homeland (while the country itself is never mentioned by name it is heavily implied, given the time frame of the play’s publication and the nature of the dictatorship, that it takes place in Chile following the fall of the Pinochet Regime). One night Gerardo, after getting a flat tire, is driven home by Dr. Roberto Miranda in an act of kindness. However, Paulina, who was brutally raped and tortured as a political prisoner for a prolonged period of time, recognizes Miranda’s voice as that of “The Doctor”, the cruel leader of the men who abused her, none of whom she ever saw. Driven by desires for revenge and justice, Paulina imprisons Miranda and seeks retribution for the countless days of punishment she endured.
Much of the production’s weight depends on the trio of actors’ relationships with one another. Each pair-off of two characters brings with it a new dynamic to each scene that helps the flow of the production greatly. Cathie Sheridan (Paulina) is clearly in control of the show, both in her performance and as her character in the story. It doesn’t take long for the noticeably anxious Sheridan to lose herself to her fears and desires, whereupon she nimbly floats between rage and glee during the ordeal. Sheridan easily portrays a woman pushed to the edge of stability and is seeking satisfaction in the only way she sees is right. Frank Benge (Miranda) similarly floats between cunning and desperation. He continually maintains a sharp countenance that suggests he is formulating some means of escape while simultaneously looking like a man who has no idea how to escape with his life. Benge’s eyes tell varying stories when he is and isn’t gagged. Just by looking at them one finds it difficult to tell if this is the man who committed these heinous acts. As for Robert Stevens (Gerardo), he definitely gives off the calming vibe that comes with being the self-appointed mediator in the room, trying at once to satisfy his wife’s wants while also attempting to save Miranda’s life. Stevens’ classical background certainly shows in his physical mannerisms, and definitely shines when Gerardo is enraged. My only concern with his performance comes from the occasions in which his levelheadedness seems too calm for the given circumstances. It makes sense that at least one person in the room remains as balanced as possible, but I feel there was room for this to fall away over time. Still, his preternatural calm certainly sets an appropriately demeaning tone between he and Sheridan from the beginning, thereby further justifying Paulina’s need to take control of the situation.
Given the visceral intimacy of the play’s content, the set provided for the production serves the context quite well. Jim and Debra Mischel’s design is simple yet detailed. A small shelf, a table, and some framed photographs of free and caged birds (quite an apt touch) create most of the set, yet it’s all that is needed given show’s focus on Sheridan’s rage, Benge’s desperation, and Stevens’s trepidation. Benge spends much of the play in one spot, thereby allowing a rather large space (given the cast size) over to Sheridan and Stevens as they reason with (and threaten) one another. I was also quite a fan of Ashley Sandel’s lighting designs for the most part. She clearly understands how lighting effects can be used as “effects” in a production (a simple, yet evocative use of an upstage lamp to silhouette a conversation worked quite nicely). The only design that gave me pause was the use of a slowly flashing light to depict a character’s actions. I can see that they were going for a passage of time sort of effect on the scene, but given the circumstances of the event I felt it would have been able to either keep the event lit up or in the near darkness which preceded the scene (a very effective use of near total darkness I might add). There’s one other small detail that hindered the production a bit, and that was the scene transitions. Most of the scene changes were nothing more than the removal of a few props performed at a sluggish pace which broke the pacing between scenes. True, once the show started up again everything felt fine, but the transitions still added some unwanted drag that could have been hastened or avoided.

With a single set, three cast members, and some visceral conversations, Death and the Maiden excels in a smaller, more intimate venue like the Sam Bass Community Theatre. The production is greatly aided by how close the audience must be to the physical and emotional actions that occur onstage. I don’t wish to suggest that this is a grotesque production. Far from it. But Death and the Maiden is visually affecting in such a way that makes tension palpable, the threats conceivable, and the results unpredictable. Ultimately, the script’s greatest strength is that it treats both Paulina and Miranda as sympathetic and of questionable morality. Though there are hints to suggest whether or not Miranda is the infamous Doctor, there is never any solid evidence to say that Paulina isn’t paranoid nor that Miranda isn’t lying to save his life. Either one could be at fault. It’s just the right amount of ambiguity to maintain during and long after the show. It’s just the right kind of moral ambiguity and intrigue that leaves me thinking about who, if anyone, was right all the way home.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Prism (Or Preparing for a Role)

Not a very clear shot, but I can replace it, once we get our show shots.

This will be common knowledge to anyone who is a student of theatre, or a participant thereof, but I never had a theatre class in my life, so had to learn this stuff on my own.

The first thing I do is read up on the period in which the play is set, to learn how people interacted, what they wore, what they read, ate, saw and heard.  Prism is a governess, and I learned that a governess was in a very ambiguous position in the household.  She was above the servants, but not a member of the family (even if she were related to the family).  She ate most of her meals alone, and the servants resented looking after her...delivering her meals to her room or the nursery, doing her laundry and keeping the fire lit in her room, etc.  In a small household such as the Worthing estate, she might dine with the family on occasion.  She was expected to have impeccable upper class dialect and diction, because she is the example to the children.  She had maybe half a day off per week.  The rest of her time was spent looking after privileged brats (read, spoiled).  Relationships were few and far between.

There are many clues in Oscar Wilde's script.  We see that Prism started out as minor gentry, but some reversal of fortunes sent her out into the world to make her own way.  She might well be a minister's daughter.  She mentions better times, "younger and happier days," more than once.  She tells us quite a lot about herself, actually.  We know she is incredibly resilient...having hit the road after that little incident with the baby and the handbag, she has recovered to the point that, 28 years later, she is back where she started.  At the time the play is set, a governess would not be employable (by anyone who was anyone) without a reference, and she certainly would not get one from the Moncriefs after losing their son and heir.  For her to have been Cecily's governess for three years speaks very loudly of Prism's resilience.  We don't know what she was doing in those 25 years, but she must have been clawing her way back up. Maybe she taught in a school, or was governess to children of a slightly lower class.

However, life is moving along for her, and Cecily is about to come out in society, at which point, Prism's job will be done.  She sees Chasuble as her only way out.  She must marry, or it's all downhill from here.  That, plus her spinster heart (and nether region) clamours for fulfillment.

She does her hair in the same way she has for at least 40 years, hence my little curls at the sides.  We all know people like this...

She is not all that smart, but she can write, and was willing to give up her sleep for her creative endeavours.  She probably hoped the three volume novel would put her on easy street, or at least supply an ongoing income.  What a terrible disappointment that it wound up in a remote corner of Bayswater!

If she can't snag Chasuble, she is destined to find another position.  I'm sure Jack would give her a good reference.  However, she is getting up there, as they say.  There was no retirement except what she might have saved out of her princely salary of around 25 pounds a year.

Typically they were unmarried daughters of gentlemen who for one reason or another had to go into service to support themselves. Because they officially
belonged to the genteel class it would be unspeakable for them
to accept service as a maid. As a governess they were able
to make use of their education and in theory retain a little of
their dignity. In reality their lives were miserable. They were looked
down on by the house's family as being from a failed family. Equally, the
staff looked down on them because they represented hypocrisy: they
worked for wages like any servant yet were supposed to be genteel.
Their job was to care for the family's teenage girls. (Teenage males
were sent off to boarding school.) Their salaries were 25 pounds
($2,700) per year. I found no references that clearly stated whether
they were considered upper or lower staff. Movies that show governesses
walking through the front door and assuming a status high above that of
house servants are not consistent with the lives described in my references.
This quote is from, one of my references.

When you look at Prism in this context, there is much more depth to her than just being low comic relief in a sophisticated drawing room comedy.  This last is the way I saw her when I refused the role in a production some 15-20 years ago.

So, you see, I have learned a few things.  Not the least of which is to take the roles that come my way and do the best I can with them.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Happy Birthday All Three of Y'all

It's hard to figure out what to get for Things One, Two and Three.  Three always wants what One and Two have, but she may have Celiac disease, so she can't have a lot of simple things like modelling clay...and she's not going to be happy with a doll or something, if they've got something squishy and disgusting...

So Happy Birthday to Ethan, Jan 15th, Addy, Feb 17th and Eli, today!

No one has played in it yet, because I'm tired and sore from setting it up all by myself (it involved beating a hose bib with a hammer), and Vanessa is hurting worse than I am...

Maybe we can let them in it for a bit before bedtime.