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.

Fire & Air – All Fire And No Air

By the principle that history, the human condition, and art itself are some of the deepest  subjects addressed in the arts, it stands to reason that a work about a historical figure with significant artistic shrewdness is as high-risk-high-reward as theatre gets. Creating and executing such a work is a matter of provocation and sustenance. Or, in other words, of fire and air. Precisely what the Classic Stage Company aims to do and is celebrated for. Fire & Air, about Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes, draws from a rich history of a man whose contributions to the arts cannot be overstated. A veritable dream team of artists was responsible for presenting this work, penned by playwriting luminary Terrence McNally.

So why does it fall short from its great promise? Short version: The building blocks, though individually brilliant, don’t complement one another.

Fire and AirCAST & CREATIVE  for Fire and Air Cast Massine Jay Armstrong Johnson Misia Marin Mazzie Diaghilev Douglas Hodge Dima John Glover Dunya Marsha Mason Nijinsky James Cusati-Moyer Creative Written by Terrence McNally Director and Designer John
L-R: Marsha Mason, John Glover, Douglas Hodge, Marin Mazzie

The biggest clash comes between the writing and the direction. The play is paced like a racehorse, moving relentlessly and unceasingly. McNally can wax as poetic as he wants; one barely absorbs the nuances of one monologue delivered rapid-fire before the next one comes on. The play loses much of its literary merit to the cosmos when the audience isn’t given room to breathe. In this sense, it is all fire and no air.

As wondrously as it’s worked in other cases, director John Doyle’s trademark minimalistic style is simply out of place when dealing with the splendor of the Ballet Russes and its larger-than-life characters. The wooden floor of the CSC’s stage is set only with four chairs that offer multiple combinations for different locations, along with a mirror in the back like that of a dance studio, and another on the ceiling tilted towards the audience. They are, for one, insufficient in capturing the play’s various settings, exacerbated by the scene changes. It’s not that these transitions weren’t smooth, it’s that they were imperceptible. The audience is transported at one point immediately from a Venetian beach to the ballet studio with only an abrupt change in the topic of dialogue. The minimalism in both set and staging means the contrast in atmosphere between one scene and another is left almost entirely to the actors (and maybe the sound designer on a few occasions), but it’s an overreliance. Each act feels like one long scene. It does not help that, during some sections of the play, the actors don’t fully exit but remain in the background.

Fire and AirCAST & CREATIVE  for Fire and Air Cast Massine Jay Armstrong Johnson Misia Marin Mazzie Diaghilev Douglas Hodge Dima John Glover Dunya Marsha Mason Nijinsky James Cusati-Moyer Creative Written by Terrence McNally Director and Designer John
James Cusati-Moyer

Which begs mention of the acting. The cast is stacked only with the finest actors, but their compatibility with this work is at times questionable. Dialogue-wise, Diaghilev (Douglas Hodge) is the lone driver of the plot, which would matter less if the play didn’t stand solely on his shoulders. McNally writes beautiful, witty lines, but they become tertiary if not gratuitous for any character other than Diaghilev; the play feels like an extended Diaghilev monologue with the other actors interjecting every now and then. True, Diaghilev is in a world of his own while those around him live on Earth, but the adverse effect on the rest of the cast is that they become like a supporting ensemble. And one doesn’t bring in talent like John Glover (Dimitry “Dima” Filosofov), Marin Mazzie (Misia Sert), and Marsha Mason (Dunya) to appear disconnected. All three gave stellar yet underutilized performances, anchoring Diaghilev both to and from his lovers. James Cusati-Moyer (Vaslav Nijinsky) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (Leonide Massine) were strong casting choices for their respective roles; both embodied the drive and poise of their characters and even their mythic roles in the ballets without doing much dancing. Douglas Hodge as Diaghilev, though brilliantly acted, is difficult to evaluate: On the one hand, his Diaghilev is driven, obsessive, and even at times morbid. The character visibly feels strongly about his work and his lovers, which for him are one and the same. On the other hand, perhaps too strong—his is a very zestful, almost Nathan Lane-ish Diaghilev at times, and whether he should dial it back depends on whether one considers this to be an acceptable interpretation of the character. If not, then the clowning in his tantrums is certainly at risk of overshadowing his depth. 

Fire and AirCAST & CREATIVE  for Fire and Air Cast Massine Jay Armstrong Johnson Misia Marin Mazzie Diaghilev Douglas Hodge Dima John Glover Dunya Marsha Mason Nijinsky James Cusati-Moyer Creative Written by Terrence McNally Director and Designer John
L-R: Marin Mazzie, John Glover, Douglas Hodge, Marsha Mason

NoëI Coward once said “I will accept anything in the theatre, provided it amuses or moves me.” Fire & Air by all means should move its audiences— but it falls flat. Despite its rapid pace, the play feels low-energy, aa problem of “too much tell and no show.” Diaghilev’s relationships with his lovers are the lifeblood of his work, yet they feel like an afterthought. His moment of climax seemed equally unemotional. For all of Diaghilev’s accomplishments, one couldn’t feel that this portrayal was of the visionary impresario who revolutionized the arts forever, nor, for the most part, that he was driven by love.

Overall, Fire & Air needs to be, as all good CSC productions, more than the sum of its individually glittery parts. That said, it bursts with potential worthy of its title, and just a glimpse of it at this current stage of its development can still be interesting. As such, it comes recommended.

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FIRE AND AIR – by Terrence McNally

Director/Scenic Design: John Doyle

Cast: Jay Armstrong JohnsonMarin Mazzie, Douglas Hodge, John Glover, Marsha Mason, James Cusati-Moyer

Costume Designer: Ann Hould-Ward

Lighting Designer: Jane Cox

Sound Designer: Matt Stine

Wig/Hair/Makeup: J. Jared Janas

Bright Colors And Bold Patterns – Where On The Rainbow Is Khaki?

Drew Droege returns in his uproarious solo show, directed by Michael Urie.

Note to aspiring wedding planners: If there are gay men on your guest list, don’t run the risk of asking that they “refrain from dressing in bright colors and bold patterns.” The spiky reaction of one affronted invitee just might sow the seeds for a solo show that is the tragicomedy of the season.

Enter said invitee, Gerry Howard: A motormouthed fireball of an Angeleno whose wit is as forthright as his titanic presence. Armed with cocaine, margaritas, and his encyclopedic knowledge of 90s pop culture, this life-of-the-party wedding guest is ready to brighten, color, and embolden the fastest 80 minutes of any audience member’s life.

“Honey, we celebrate things and make fun of them at the same time.  That’s called gay.” Bright Colors does the very same thing. Arriving the evening before a gay wedding in Palm Springs, Gerry takes the wedding invitation’s discouragement of flashy attire as a personal affront, and is not afraid to dispense pure shade at those he deems responsible, especially when the wedding itself is between two men. And you better believe that with a guest list including his ex-boyfriend, the latter’s new young lover, and “that fuckbag Neil,” Gerry is going to be a fountain of drama.

Drew Droege, photo credit - Russ Rowland (5)

What’s most special about Bright Colors And Bold Patterns is that Gerry is the only one onstage—the only character out of four that is seen or heard. The audience gleans the dialogue of the other three by Gerry’s responses to them, and it is to Droege’s immense credit as a playwright and actor that the play runs so smoothly. Remarkably, it feels blocked and run as if it had its full cast of four; the audience can tangibly feel the emotions of the nonexistent characters. That’s an incredible feat: When dialogue is constructed so immaculately that even nonspeaking invisible roles are fully fleshed, three-dimensional characters.

Drew Droege is delicious as Gerry, and there is no mistaking that both actor and role love being the center of attention. He has total control over the audience, and his delivery is such that they are with him at every step. No moment in the show is empty; the audience is ready to fill any silence between lines with raucous laughter, applause, and even heavy anticipation during some of the more nuanced parts. To add to an already naturalistic performance, Droege engineers comedy and drama on the fly, and as both actor and playwright he is able to take that license on his own material without inhibition. This talent is of no surprise, given his experience with improv and sketch.

Drew Droege, photo credit - Russ Rowland (7)

Behind the hilarity, however, lies poignancy. We eventually see that Gerry’s outer rainbow and prickliness shields the insecurities of an aging man wounded by heartbreak and censure, but more importantly, who fears the obsolescence of his pride in a world that’s begun to normalize it. Gerry’s spirited advocacy of bright colors and bold patterns when faced with a gay wedding that avoids them evinces a deeper worry that the road to normal is the road to beige. In this sense, the interaction between Gerry and his ex’s new boyfriend (who is decades younger) is symbolic.

I personally welcomed the play’s admission that Gerry is a flawed man. To me, he represents the best and worst of us, of what we’ve been through, and what we want. One cannot ask more of a protagonist, especially in a comedy.

Drew Droege, photo credit - Russ Rowland (8)

The black stage of the SoHo Playhouse (where Bright Colors is currently running) is decorated as the poolside patio of a Palm Springs house, and although the unpainted black background might’ve precluded some comprehension of the passage of time, it is all irrelevant given Droege’s performance. It is through him, not the set, that I can imagine the different times in which the play is set.

That said, this fit achieved between Droege and his stage isn’t owed exclusively to Gerry’s relentless extroversion in conversing with chaise lounges, but also to Michael Urie’s direction. According to an interview with BUILD Series, Urie saw the production in its infancy at Ars Nova, thought it was brilliant, and felt it needed a full production. My verdict, having seen the show, is that Droege creates the world, and Michael colors it.

Truly, this show is a delight to behold, and Drew Droege plays Gerry with unending panache. Let’s all have some more bright colors and bold patterns in our lives.

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BRIGHT COLORS AND BOLD PATTERNS – by Drew Droege

Director: Michael Urie
Starring: Drew Droege (u/s: Tom Detrinis)

Scenic Design: Dara Wishingrad

Press Representative: Dan Fortune

Producer: Zach Laks, Riki Kane Larimer, Jamie Deroy, Keith Boynton/Mike Lavoie, Jim Kierstead, Drew Desky/Dane Levens

Associate Producer: Tom Detrinis, Amanda Bohan

Production Stage Manager: Jonathan Castanien

Company Manager: Hannah Woodward

Advertising/Marketing/Social Media: ABM

Technical Director: Joshua Kohler

Photos by Russ Howland.

Presented by Soho Playhouse through January 7.

https://www.brightcolorsandboldpatterns.com/

 

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