The Neurology Of The Soul

Artistic director Eric Einhorn describes his Untitled Theater Company #61 as a “Theater Of Ideas: Scientific, political, philosophical, and above all theatrical.” In the capacities of producer, director, and especially playwright, Einhorn has a strong background in theatrical work that pursues these ideas. A keen interest in neuroscience and its theatrical possibilities also saw him contribute heavily to the “emergence of neuro-theatre.” Hot off the success of his last intellectual dramedy on Gertrude Stein, Einhorn pens The Neurology Of The Soul, which sees this love of neuroscience explore the neuroscience of love.

“I love you,” says Stephen, a cognitive neuroscientist, as his wife Amy lies in the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery). “Sexy,” he continues, watching how each of his words lands in his wife’s mind. It is a live experiment conducted on the brain to determine the patterns and circuits of love “reactions”; to find out how people, or at least how Amy, ticks.

Enter Mark, the smooth-talking head of a neuro-marketing firm, who convinces Stephen to take a job applying his research to advertising. Mark sees the marketing potential in quantifying love way beyond Stephen understanding Amy, but that doesn’t mean he’s completely overlooked her. When Amy, an artist whose career has stalled, is inspired to make multimedia art from her brain scan records, Mark steps in to help jumpstart her career, to growing suspicion from Stephen.

Eric Einhorn’s dissertational script demonstrates copious research on the matter of cognitive neuroscience. Neuroscientist Stephen Macknik spoke in his talkback about the scientific nature of fMRIs, in which blood oxygenation is studied for trends. Which is about as precise as it gets; blood oxygenation occurs based on the movement of neurons, at which level very little discernible change happens—which means these trends are far from conclusive. That Stephen makes such concrete interpretations of Amy’s brain definitely leans more towards fiction than science. Which corroborates Einhorn’s intent of “filling the gap between pure scientific analysis and what it means to us all as humans.”

That said, the play may hold up to scientific scrutiny, but from a theatrical standpoint, Neurology feels like Einhorn coloring in a thesis with a narrative, and the drama he tries to infuse to it makes for an uneven blend at best, and in some moments even undermines the science. It is appreciably difficult to write love triangles, but they require three-dimensional and authentically motivated plots and characters. All four of Neurology’s talented cast struggle to accordingly flesh out soulless roles. Mick O’ Brien, whose Mark’s main function in the narrative seems to be a mouthpiece for Einhorn’s marketing research, affects a convincing corporate air, but is too often reduced to “talk, talk, talk,” even if his Powerpoint presentation monologues sometimes lend exposition to Amy and Stephens’ lives. His own character is obscured until the third act. Matthew Trumbull’s Stephen similarly lacked a human element, but for Trumbull’s acting chops, it follows that Stephen still has his moments. Ashley Griffin, a character actress known for bravura performances in nuanced female leads, is stuck here in a plot-driven drama with a plot that barely drives, and affords her character even less agency. Yvonne Roen’s Claire is an interesting exception: Though written as a caricature, the fact that her character does not contribute to the stagnation of the plot gives Roen much more freedom to excel in scenes, and she does. Her timing and delivery were always conducive to the energy of the scenes she occupied, and there are glimpses of a subtle empathy in her towards the end for which I credit the actress alone.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the architects of Neurology, in which much of the show’s soul is found. Big points to Jim Boutin, Magnus Pind Bjerre, and Jeff Nash for set, video, and lighting that yields a product of alchemic cohesion, which sound designer Sadah Espii Proctor contributes to with the most creative of choices.

Moonlight Cocktail – Moonlit Blessing

Errolyn Healy’s dazzling benefit concert for gun safety at Feinstein’s/54 Below.

So I was recently invited to Moonlight Cocktail, a benefit concert at Feinstein’s/54 Below featuring vocalist Errolyn Healy, accompanied by Cris O’Bryon and a train of other guest artists. The benefit refers to Everytown For Gun Safety, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence in America. As a movement, it works to end gun violence and build safer communities. 100% of the concert’s proceeds (up to a maximum of $15,000) were donated to this cause.

Perhaps my fascination with my surroundings at 54 Below was coupled with it having been my first time at such a venue, but I immediately understood how it earned its reputation as the ultimate platform for guest artists and benefit concerts like this one. The decor gave the room an exclusive air, and leaves the “invitational” part of the atmosphere to the performer. There was a decent amount of noise; people were chatting comfortably as they seated and ordered for the evening. All this, of course, to contrast what happened next.

I remember the lights dimmed, and in walked the moon. At least it might as well have been the moon—when Errolyn Healy entered, the room became instantly silent and wholly attentive, as if arrested in the same manner as people are with the rising moon on a quiet night. Then she opened her mouth, and we regained our senses, only to be transported once more.

Now, I’m no expert on benefit concerts or supper clubs, having never attended either, but I was at no risk of being a fish out of water; Healy’s presence made me feel right at home. She proves an immensely talented vocalist fluent in a range of styles. One could hear the moon not only in her repertoire for the evening—all of which featured the moon in some respect—but in her voice itself, which was equal parts dazzling, mellifluous, yet also nurturing. When appropriate, it was also backed by strong support and clean delivery. This, coupled with her seasoned performing skills and natural charisma, made her the whole package as a 54 Below guest artist.

I would’ve also complimented her chemistry with the other guest performers, namely musical director/accompanist Cris O’Bryon and Michael McCorry Rose, but in this respect she was outshone by none other than O’Bryon and his one-time duet partner, Siri. As Healy took a mid-show break, the stage was ceded to the pair, who indulged the audience with a comical break by performing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” O’Bryon’s chops on the piano and anxious persona were the perfect match and foil to Siri’s monotone speaking of the lyrics and occasional Google-search-infused gibe at O’Bryon, which gave the AI a strange but hilarious degree of personality.

I liked the moon as a subject. Though it has nothing to do with gun control directly, one thing that I believe ties the two subjects together is Healy’s motherhood. Between singing the moon through the maternal softness in her vocals, she took a moment to reflect to the audience about the personal significance of gun control to her as a mother. This moment aside, audiences were invited to “bring [their] sweet dreams and leave [their] worries behind them,” and thanks to Healy’s masterful stewardship, we were able to do just that. With perennial favorites from both Broadway’s moonlit past and the Great American Songbook like “Moonglow,” “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” and a surprisingly well-done lyricized rendition of Claire de Lune, Healy takes us through each of the moon’s phases and intricacies in a journey that leaves us comforted, dreaming, and no doubt musing on both.

Special mention to the guest artists: Michael McCorry Rose is a veritable Corey Cott to Healy’s jazzy Laura Osnes, though significantly younger, with a more boyish charm. Young singer/actresses Gracie Beardsley and Anna Forget also stepped onstage as backing vocals for one or two moments. Both were competent, though Forget was noticeably nervous onstage, which is pardonable given her age and experience. Special mention also to Ashley Griffin, who put the whole thing together: Though I am predisposed to trust any production under Griffin’s auspices, Moonlight Cocktail was another success of organization and pace to add to her belt. Lastly, a shoutout to whoever designed and worked the lights for the show: A small but essential part of the ambience is owed to the lighting, and it was done just right.

Through the efforts of all those listed above, Moonlight Cocktail was a night to remember, hopefully also as far as gun control efforts are concerned.

 

 

 

Writer’s Note: The concert took place on February 6th, 2018, and I’d written this not long after, but I accidentally saved this as a draft instead of publishing it. Welp. I hope to never in my life be this careless (and this late) ever again.

Snow – Reframing Grimm In Triplicate

Ashley Griffin’s profound revision of the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White in three new parallel storylines.

 

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Ryan Clardy, Gracie Beardsley

All art by some essence tells a story, and storytelling has as much potential to provoke reflection as it does to entertain. While fairy tales as we know them, or knew them as children, are a break from the quotidian, their themes are often timeless and universal. “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten” is only a more specific and goal-oriented rephrasing of “art is the lie that leads to the truth,” a theme quintessential to playwright/actor Ashley Griffin’s Snow.

If storytelling—as put by Griffin—is a dying art, then she herself is in the vanguard of its resuscitation. Following a 2016 summer premiere at Under St. Marks, her brainchild Snow was brought back by A.N.O.N. Productions for another run at The Producer’s Club, where it played to riveted audiences. Fluently acted by a versatile cast, Snow explores common themes of love, the human condition, and storytelling itself via a medium aptly chosen by Griffin for its relevance and ubiquity—fairy tales.

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L-R: Ryan Williams, Ashley Griffin, Leslie Alexander

Snow is set in three separate storylines revolving around the tale of Snow White, with a cast of six actors playing corresponding archetypes in each. The first is a historical account of the Brothers (Jakob and Wilhelm) Grimm’s attempt to save Germany from cultural subjugation by collecting and preserving its fairy tales, and how they clash over the dilution of the details. The second concerns a family of thespians during the Victorian era whose exploits begin to mirror the events of Snow White as the (step)mother grows jealous of being supplanted by her daughter’s success. The third and final is the story of Astrid, an abused modern-day girl who is rendered comatose—but for her, waking up is a choice, and a difficult one at that.

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L-R: Ashley Griffin, Ryan Clardy, Leslie Alexander

The three stories, staged seamlessly by Sage Barrie, illuminate tiny but important aspects of one another. As a motif is discussed and mused upon by characters in one world, it is transpiring in another. The frequent transitions during the scenes are, as put by Griffin, “little poems”: The set pieces are few and versatile, and all six actors are dressed in a base of “actor black”; a prop or a costume piece are all that separate one identity from another, making feasible the mere seconds an actor has to turn from English to German, from malevolent to timid, from being in full view to being part of the background.

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L-R: Ashley Griffin, Ryan Clardy, Ryan Williams, Gracie Beardsley, Jay William Thomas

This is done very efficiently by the actors, whose performances themselves are nothing short of laudable. Although Leslie Alexander’s lines as Isadora/Donna were occasionally rushed (to the detriment of their gravity), she is powerfully detestable and vulnerably paranoid as the evil queen. Ryan Williams draws praise for being both the selfless, paternal Jakob and the domineering, amoral Jack; the latter seizing everything in his path with a lustful verve that makes one’s blood curdle. Jay William Thomas balances a boyish charm as Tate and Arthur with a nationalistic zeal as Wilhelm Grimm. And Gracie Beardsley, in the words of reviewer Seth from TheatreArt (I couldn’t top this): “…showed poise and intelligence beyond her years as all of the little girls in the show…Charm, innocence, vengeance and grace pour from her as she captivates our heart.”

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Ryan Clardy

Special mention must be given to Ryan Clardy’s Shadow: As a personification of death, or Vernichtung (German: literally “destruction), Clardy gives life to an immaterial force that quite literally pervades the entire play, tying the three storylines together. Summoned to deliver the kiss of death to any character that draws close to it, Clardy’s imposing stage presence is the veins and arteries of this show. I find his character a refreshing take on death; a fairy, a forgotten celestial who, after eons of struggle, is neither fully naive nor resigned, who with all his witness and wisdom still possesses a somewhat childlike spirit, and is still caught off guard by Astrid.

And Astrid is, in the hands of her architect Griffin, a tragic and arresting centerpiece to the story. Astrid is a physical and emotional challenge for any actress, and Ashley Griffin plays her roles with the commitment of one who created them, but more importantly, understands them. Her electric chemistry with Clardy’s Shadow is as inimitable as the fantastical circumstances of their bond. Astrid, deprived of love and trapped in abuse, is quite literally in love with and flirts with death, desperately wanting him to take her. Shadow is entranced by a disposition he’s never received from a human, and cares deeply for Astrid, but knows that to consummate it—by a kiss—would be to kill her. Their love climaxes in the final scene tremblingly, but intimately. It is a section written entirely in stage direction, but to the audience member, it simply defies description.

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Ashley Griffin, Ryan Clardy

Arguably the most resonant part of this show is the writing. Drawing from a line within: “Storytellers take words and make order out of the chaos of life. They must be able to look at everything in the world and find the sense in it” (funnily enough, this bill also fits critics). The characters in Snow are, to Griffin’s immense credit, fully fleshed out and not the impersonal caricatures on whom they’re based. They also, when taken out of larger-than-life settings and pantomimic portrayals, face and respond to situations not so different from our own. Griffin’s visceral reframing of Snow White and its more traditionally-sourced elements (abuse, incest, and murder) is a harsh reminder of how desensitized we are to such darker things in fairy tales. This is compounded upon by the Grimm brothers, who become their own greatest enemy as they edit the stories they’ve compiled. Love, however, remains the prevalent theme of Snow as in its fairy tale predecessors. Love is the common denominator in the characters, be they in search of it or in resignation from it, in faith or neglect of it, or acting for or in spite of it.

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Jay William Thomas, Ashley Griffin

One of my favorite examples is the tale told by Shadow in the first scene. It spoke of a good and wise king whose daughters competed for his affection. One thought she could do so by becoming beautiful, the second by becoming good and kind. Eventually the first became cruelly jealous about her beauty, and the second became self-righteous and cold. The king tearfully responded thus:

“My daughters, you did not need to make yourselves beautiful and good to earn my love. Do you not understand? You were beautiful already, and might have been truly good if you had known in your hearts how much you were already loved. If love could be earned I fear no one would ever obtain it, for we are none of us as pure and good as we ought to be. Beauty will fade, and goodness will not protect you from trials. Therefore, be joyful. And love others, not to get a reward, but to honor the love that has been so freely given to you. Put your hope in love.”

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L-R: Leslie Alexander, Ashley Griffin, Ryan Williams

This significantly foreshadows the paths of the two “archetypes” concerned. Leslie Alexander’s queen/stepmother roles are all concerned with beauty: The aging actress Isadora fears her loss of it and becomes jealous in the incipience of it in her daughter, and Astrid’s mother Donna blames her for the loss of youth and beauty that come with pregnancy. Ashley Griffin’s Snow White roles, on the other hand, pursue goodness: Isadora’s daughter Clara grows up around the idea of being a good, obedient girl, while Astrid doesn’t think she’s good but wants to be, for the same reason she wants to be loved. None of these characters believe they deserve love inherently, and not as a reward for their achievements of beauty and goodness. The final choice presented to Astrid of believing in love despite her resignation is exemplified in the other choice she has to make: That of waking up from her Snow White slumber to a mortal world she must then continue to face. The play ends as Astrid opens her mouth to answer, making hers the only storyline out of the three that isn’t completely wrapped up. It is gripping, it is suspenseful, and it is poetic.

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Ashley Griffin, Ryan Clardy

Of course, Snow is not without its flaws. The transitions are flawless, but sometimes the action during the scene is a little artificial, liable to break the flow of an exchange. Moreover, its two-hour runtime as a one act play isn’t for the faint-hearted (or, for that matter, for the small-bladdered). It is a heavily worded and themed piece that, while infinitely quotable with its many musings, is probably lost in no small degree to the audience member that isn’t giving full, unblinking attention. That said, Snow’s didacticism is only half-way to being Brechtian, stopping close enough to still resonate emotionally; Griffin has achieved a tentative balance between the two. In conclusion, her presentation of this material is in no way contrived. At its core, it is beautiful, ambitious, and original, and I would be neither chagrined nor surprised to see it produced again in the future.

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For more information on Ashley Griffin, visit her website.

All photos here courtesy of Micah Joel