In 1985, Frank Beacham, the owner of Television Matrix, which produced the hit series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, got a surprise phone call from George Orson Welles, the radio, film, and theater legend behind such masterpieces as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The War of the Worlds. Welles had found out that Beacham’s company was using one of the first Betacams, a Sony portable video camera, and Welles wanted to create a one-man show with it. The story of their little-known collaboration is revealed in the inventive Maverick, cowritten by Beacham and George Demas, who portrays Welles in the two-act play, which runs at the Connelly Theater through March 2. “When I met Orson, he was seventy and looking quite old,” Beacham (Stephen Pilkington) says near the beginning. “But I didn’t see him that way. You couldn’t see him that way. It’s as if you met Salvador Dalí when he was in a wheelchair with tubes coming out of his nose. You don’t think of being with an old man who struggles to make it through the day. Far from it. You-are-with-Dali! And this is Orson, as I see him. And here I am, as a narrator too —” In true Wellesian fashion, Orson emerges out of the darkness and cuts Beacham off. “There’s no need to say that,” he explains. “What?” Beacham asks. “It’s obvious you’re a narrator. You’re narrating,” Welles says. “I’m sorry, Orson, I’m not a theater person,” Beacham responds. “Well, you better get up to speed. You’re standing on a stage as we speak,” Welles replies. Beacham apologizes to Welles and turns back to the audience: “John Houseman once said, if your life is ever touched by a genius, a real one, you are never the same again. And this is my life, my memories, my . . . imaginings. And I’m . . . still piecing it all together.”
Beacham’s memories include lunching with Welles and his beloved dog, Kiki, at Ma Maison in Los Angeles; shooting a Welles pitch for funding for King Lear with his personal cameraman, Gary Graver (Brian Parks), who sidelined in porn to earn extra cash; discussing Touch of Evil and stained carpeting with Zsa Zsa Gabor (Alex Lin); and Welles trying to solicit money from a hot young director. Welles also shares memories of his tense relationship with Houseman (Pilkington) going back to the Mercury Theatre days and his battle with Universal Pictures head Ed Muhl (Jed Peterson) over the editing of Touch of Evil. Tekla Monson’s affectionately cluttered garagelike set is strewn with all kinds of props on the sides; tables, chairs, and other elements are carried center stage as scenes change. Codirectors Demas and David Elliott (Edison’s Elephant, Arrivals and Departures) employ Wellesian flourishes throughout the 110-minute Cliplight Theater production, with unexpected breaks of the fourth wall and a herky-jerky narrative inspired by many of Orson’s later films, including the recently released The Other Side of the Wind.
Axis Company regular Demas (High Noon, Last Man Club), who was an understudy as Welles in Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow, is terrific as the auteur-magician; he might not be as big as Welles was in 1985, and his voice is not as deep and resonant, but he wonderfully captures Welles’s deceptively whimsical nature, intense curiosity, fondness for wine and cigars, distaste of begging for funding, and endless imagination and charm. “I was very much encouraged to create myself,” Welles tells a reporter (Parks). “Ever since I can remember, someone was whispering to me that I was a genius. Of course, I didn’t find out until much later that I wasn’t!” Demas makes you feel like you are in Welles’s awesome presence. Pilkington (The Winslow Boy, The Home Place) plays Beacham with a wide-eyed innocence as befits a young producer suddenly thrust into his hero’s domain. Lin, Mundy, Parks, and Peterson do a good job shuffling quickly between minor characters, including Beacham’s line producer, an attentive Ma Maison waiter, a UCLA film school administrator, a loan officer, Merv Griffin, and Robin Leach. There’s a franticness to it all that matches the legends of Welles’s working methods, where anything could happen at any moment, all overseen by an iconoclastic mastermind and ambitious visionary who was so often ahead of his time.
MoMA, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Daily through February 25, $14-$25
22-25 Jackson Ave. at 46th Ave.
Thursday - Monday through February 25, suggested admission $10
Jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis said, “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.” That approach applies to the wide-ranging exhibition “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts,” which will disappear from MoMA PS1 and MoMA’s main Midtown location on February 25. For six decades, the Indiana-born artist has been creating painting, drawing, sculpture, video, sound, and installation that addresses both the artist and the viewer directly, examining physical and psychological presence and absence. At PS1, Mapping the Studio is a multichannel installation consisting of speeded-up shots of Nauman’s workspace, taken by surveillance cameras overnight; occasionally, a mouse runs past, headlights shine from outside, or other movement is noticed, but it passes by so fast you won’t necessarily know what you’ve seen. In the hall, Naumann has a detailed chart of what happens when, but it is so expansive as to be overwhelming in and of itself. In Two Fans Corridor, visitors are encouraged to stand in an empty space surrounded by three walls as fans on either side, behind the right and left walls, blow air toward no one while adding a sound element. One person at a time can walk through Double Steel Cage Piece, a prisonlike construction with narrow alleys that can cause claustrophobia even though you can see the outside; meanwhile, audible from the previous room is Get Out of My Head, Get Out of This Room, making it seem like a disembodied voice is yelling those words at the person making their way through the cage. For Untitled (Wall-Floor Positions), a dancer arrives at predetermined times and performs on the floor and against the wall, but most of the time there is nobody there. You might not know what to make of Lighted Performance Box unless you look at the ceiling, where light is projected; you can’t go in the box, and there is no “performance.”
Corridor Installation (Nick Wilder Installation) is a series of narrow passages, some of which you can walk down, and some of which you cannot; Nauman adds cameras and monitors, but what you see on the monitors does not mesh with your actual experience. In the painting Beating with a Baseball Bat, a shadowy figure has his arms lifted above his head as if to inflict violence, but there is no bat in his hands. In My Last Name Exaggerated Fourteen Times Vertically, Nauman employs neon tubing to make his name unreadable, as if erasing himself. Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists is made of fiberglass and polyester resin, not wax, and the impressions were not made by the five artists identified nearby. And A Cast of the Space under My Chair is a concrete sculpture of empty space from a nonexistent chair.
Nauman also plays with opposites in Seven Virtues / Seven Vices, seven limestone blocks in which one vice and one virtue (for example, “Envy” and “Hope”) are spelled out in classical type over each other, making it difficult to read either. A black man and a white woman interchangeably say the same hundred phrases, including “I am a good boy” and “You are a good boy,” in Good Boy Bad Boy, which blurs distinctions between race and gender. Clown Torture is a room of television sets that show clowns being tortured, instead of the clowns doing the torturing. Leaping Foxes, made for this exhibition, is a group of skinless polyurethane animals hanging from the ceiling, stagnant in death. Nauman’s own body figures prominently throughout the exhibition. Contrapposto Split refers to one of his most famous series, in which he walks in a classical pose, but here he does so in 3-D, his body impossibly cut in half, the top out of sync with the bottom, something that is evident in a number of other old and recent videos projected on long walls.
“Disappearing Acts” is spread throughout three floors of MoMA PS1; back in Manhattan, it takes up the sixth floor with several large-scale installations that continue the theme of what’s there and what’s not there. “Nauman's work teaches us that making and thinking about art involve all parts of the brain and body. As we move through his environments or stand in front of a drawing such as Make Me Think Me, ideas surface about what it means to be alert — to be in the world,” MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry writes in his foreword to the catalog. (You can read a free fifty-five-page sample from the catalog here.) “Challenging the ways in which conventions become codified, his work erases all forms of certainty, mandating that we craft our own meanings rather than accede to more familiar rules. The lessons learned from Bruce’s penetrating intelligence become more and more necessary every day, and I am confident that the importance of his work will be clear as long as people find meaning in art.” In a May 1973 article in Interview, Nauman said, “I thought I might have to give up art, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” Thank goodness for Lowry, and for us, that Nauman did not give up art but forged ahead, pushing boundaries every step of the way. Going Around the Corner Piece is a huge cube you cannot go into, but you can walk around it, watching yourself appear and disappear on four black-and-white monitors placed on the floor. Audio-Video Underground Chamber shows what seems to be live footage of an empty room. You have to sign up in advance to be given the key to Kassel Corridor: Elliptical Space and be the one person every hour allowed to unlock the door and enter the extremely narrow area between two curved walls.
In Days, disembodied voices call out the days of the week from two rows of microphones; as you make your way through the room, you lose track of time and space. The neon sculpture One Hundred Live and Die flashes such phrases as “Cry and Live,” “Rage and Die,” “Laugh and Live,” “Kiss and Die,” “Live and Live,” and “Die and Die” in multiple colors. And Model for Trench and Four Buried Passages alters one’s understanding of what a model is, in this case a giant circular construction of plaster, fiberglass, and wire that calls out with emptiness. But there’s nothing empty about “Disappearing Acts,” an exciting retrospective filled with importance and meaning of your own choosing, in addition to plenty of fun. (There will be a closing party at MoMA PS1 on February 22, from 8:00 to midnight, with the galleries open late, DJ sets in the VW Dome, screenings of the documentary The Bruce Nauman Story, cocktails, and more.)
It’s one of the great moments of film and theater, an exchange of such brilliance that it wraps you in the sheer beauty of what the English language can achieve. It comes in the latter part of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, which is currently enjoying a superb revival at the Acorn at Theatre Row. Sir Thomas More is being interrogated because of his refusal to approve of King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he can marry his lover, Anne Boleyn, and have a male heir to the throne, a divorce the pope will not approve. More’s friend the Duke of Norfolk argues, “Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?” Ever so calmly and reasonably, More replies, “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?” First written for radio in 1954 and then live television in 1957, A Man for All Seasons was expanded to a full-length play in 1960, when it opened at the Globe, followed by a Broadway run the next year, winning Tonys for Best Actor (Paul Scofield), Best Director (Noel Willman), and Best Play. Bolt’s 1966 cinematic adaptation won six Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), Best Actor (Scofield), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bolt), Best Cinematography (Ted Moore), and Best Costume Design (Elizabeth Haffenden and Joan Bridge).
Over the years, More has been portrayed by such actors as Charlton Heston, Sir Ian McKellen, Frank Langella, and Charles Dance. In the aptly named Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA) production at the Acorn, where it has been extended through March 3, More is played by Michael Countryman with an amiable grace. Tall and thin, Countryman has a mild-mannered demeanor that belies More’s intense dedication to his steadfast belief in right and wrong — and the separation between church and state. First, Cardinal Wolsey (John Ahlin), then the Duke of Norfolk (Kevyn Morrow), Thomas Cromwell (Todd Cerveris), Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (Sean Dugan), and the king himself (Trent Dawson), try to get More to change his mind, but he’s not budging. He’s also very careful not to say anything that could eventually get him imprisoned and executed. As matters become more serious, his daughter, Margaret (Kim N. Wong), her partner, Will Roper (Dugan), and More’s beloved wife, the strong-willed Lady Alice (Carolyn McCormick), don’t understand why he won’t bend. But even at the possibility of never seeing his cherished family again, he is a resolutely principled man who lives by his conscience. “There is my right arm. Take your dagger and saw it from my shoulder, and I will laugh and be thankful, if by that means I can come with Your Grace with a clear conscience,” More explains to the king, who replies a few moments later, “No opposition, I say! No opposition! Your conscience is your own affair.” Later, More tells Cromwell, his inquisitor, “In matters of conscience, the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing.”
Director Christa Scott-Reed restores the Common Man, who is often cut from film and theatrical adaptations; played by Harry Bouvy, he frames the story, serves as narrator, and appears in multiple roles, including More’s steward, a boatman, and a jury foreman, all of which Bouvy plays with a wink and a nod at the audience. “All right! A Common Man! A sixteenth-century butler!” he declares in the beginning. “The sixteenth century is the Century of the Common Man. Like all the other centuries.” He also changes clothing often (the classy period costumes are by Theresa Squire) and rotates parts of Steven C. Kemp’s set to indicate moving from the More home and garden to Cardinal Wolsey’s office, a dock, a private room in an inn, and a prison. The pacing of the two-and-a-half-hour show matches Sir Thomas’s approach to life, dignified and steady; it’s a talky play, but it never gets bogged down, since the words are so exquisite. The cast is uniformly excellent, with particularly strong turns by McCormick as More’s ever-loyal wife, Ahlin as both the scheming Wolsey and the sneaky Spanish ambassador Chapuys, and David McElwee as the overly ambitious, conniving Richard Rich. In addition, Scott-Reed doesn’t force contemporary relevance onto the narrative, as references to fake news, governmental corruption, and lies arise naturally in the audience’s mind; explicit references would only get in the way. Though fictionalized by Bolt (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago), A Man for All Seasons is primarily about perhaps the most devoted, principled character in the history of film and theater, a man willing to risk it all for his belief in the truth. “A clear and innocent conscience fears nothing,” Elizabeth I said to the Spanish ambassador decades after More’s death — but his values live on in Bolt’s marvelous play.
I AM CUBA (SOY CUBA) (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)
209 West Houston St.
The Revivals section of last year’s New York Film Festival included a rare screening of Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 political epic, I Am Cuba, in a 4K restoration from Milestone. It’s now back for a one-week run beginning at Film Forum on February 15. In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union wanted to cement its hold on Cuba and celebrate its new Communist regime by making a propaganda film celebrating the Cuban Revolution and the end of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorial reign. The Soviets actually disowned the result, considering it too arty and inaccessible for their needs. But it’s quite a film, a lavishly photographed black-and-white gem that was championed by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola when it was resurrected at the Telluride Film Festival in 1992.
I Am Cuba is divided into four sections that tell the story of the nation from different points of view. The film opens in a casino where American men degrade Cuban prostitutes; one of the men demands to see the home of one of the women, Maria, so he trudges with her through a poverty-stricken region and meets an unexpected man. Next, Pedro, a tenant farmer, is told that the land he has been working for decades has been sold to the American company United Fruit, so he takes dire action while protecting his family. (“I used to think the most terrifying thing in life is death,” he says. “Now I know the most terrifying thing in life is life.”) In the third story, a university student named Enrique is overeager to get involved in a campus rebellion, especially after saving a young woman from drunk American soldiers and witnessing a cold-blooded shooting by the police. The final part deals with a pacifist villager named Mariano who is being goaded by a soldier to join the military fight for freedom.
I Am Cuba is one of the most visually stunning films ever made. Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, who had previously collaborated on the extraordinary Palme d’Or winner The Cranes Are Flying, create breathtaking tracking shots from virtually impossible angles, high in the air and underwater, assisted by camera operator Alexander Calzatti, who was practically a stuntman to achieve whatever was necessary. A joint production of the Soviet company Mosfilm and the new Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, the film was written by Soviet poet and novelist Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Cuban director and writer Enrique Pineda Barnet and features interstitial narration by Havana-born actress Raquel Revuelta as the voice of the nation. “Is this a happy picture?” she asks. “Don’t avert your eyes. Look! I am Cuba. For you, I am the casino, the bar, the hotels. But the hands of these children and old people are also me.” Later she encourages her citizenry to take up arms, softly stating, “I am Cuba. Your hands have gotten used to farming tools. But now a rifle is in your hands. You are not shooting to kill. You are firing at the past. You are firing to protect your future.” The film, of course, takes on added relevance today given the US government’s relationship with Cuba and the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016; there are also scenes that seem to prefigure the coming civil rights and peace movements in the US that occurred after the film was made. [Note: The 6:40 screening on February 15 will be introduced by Amy Heller and Dennis Doros of Milestone Films.]
Classic Stage Company, Lynn F. Angelson Theater
136 East 13th St. between Third & Fourth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 10, $82-$127
Classic Stage Company gives Swedish playwright August Strindberg a decidedly twenty-first-century edge in adaptations of Mies Julie and The Dance of Death, which opened last night and continue through March 10 in repertory, both shedding light on seemingly impossible relationships. South African writer and director Yaël Farber moves Strindberg’s 1888 naturalistic Miss Julie to Freedom Day in her native country in 2012, an annual holiday celebrating the 1994 post-Apartheid expansion of voting rights to all adult South Africans, regardless of race or gender. Freedom might have come to the nation, but John (James Udom) and his mother, Christine (Vinie Burrows), have nothing, sharecropping on a farm owned by a wealthy Afrikaner family. Julie (Elise Kibler), the farmer’s daughter, is attending a fancy party but prefers to hang out with John, teasing him with sexual come-ons that both titillate and frighten him: He is well aware of the consequences if he is caught so much as touching her. “Don’t test me, Mies Julie. I’m only a man,” he tells her. When she doesn’t back away, he adds, “This is just a game to you. But my mum and I — we have nowhere else to go. She was born on this farm. Her sweat is in these walls. Her blood — in this floor. Now I must risk everything. Because you’re drunk and bored tonight.”
The stakes are high for John and his black coworkers, who live in a squatters’ shack on the farm. Meanwhile, the tiny, hunched, elderly Christine performs her chores dutifully, but she is ever mindful of her heritage and those who came before, several of whom are buried under the kitchen and the surrounding acreage, including Ukhokho (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), who occasionally walks through the room, a reminder of their ancestors and their connection to the land that was once theirs. (Farber subtitles the play Restitutions of Body & Soil since the Bantu Land Act No. 27 of 1913 & the Immorality Act No. 5 of 1927.) Referring to a tree just outside, Christine says to her son, “We planted it over your great grandmother’s grave. And under the roots likes Ukhokho. This tree saps from her bones. Your great grandmother won’t let me sleep until I free them from beneath. . . . They can cover what they’ve done but the roots keep breaking through. These roots will never go away. Never. Ever. Go away.” The roots might never go away, but John and Julie have some tough choices to make after an unpredictable evening.
Mies Julie is a razor-sharp examination of race and power; it might take place in South Africa in 2012, but it just as easily could be set any time in post–Civil War America, including today. There is nothing in the play or in David L. Arsenault’s design — a simple kitchen on a tiled oval platform, a ceiling fan rotating slowly above — that identifies a specific time. Udom (Father Comes Home from the Wars, The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d) is fierce as John; when he declares, “I’m not going to spend my life cleaning your father’s boots,” you believe him to his core, even though there might be no way out for him. Kibler (London Wall, Indian Summer) knows just how to flaunt Julie’s privilege, an ingenue in a striking red dress who doesn’t quite understand the depth of her power. Farber (Nirbhaya, Salomé) and Afropolitan director Shariffa Ali (The Year of the Bicycle, We Are Proud to Present) keep the heat up through a fiercely tense seventy-five minutes that takes Strindberg’s original apart and puts it together in a whole new way.
Irish playwright and filmmaker Conor McPherson (The Weir, Shining City) explores another problematic relationship in his seriocomic 2012 adaptation of Strindberg’s The Dance of Death. Edgar (Richard Topol) is a bitter and paranoid military captain exiled to a coastal fortress. Alice (Cassie Beck) is a former actress whose dreams of fame still linger. It’s 1900, and they’ve been married for twenty-five years, but they hate each other and life itself. “You see, what you do is, you take a mackerel, grill it, drizzle a little lemon on it, serve it up with a huge glass of white zinfandel — and one doesn’t feel quite like blowing one’s brains out anymore, does one?” Edgar says. “You’re asking the wrong person,” Alice responds. There’s an important party going on nearby at the doctor’s house, but Edgar and Alice are not on the guest list. When Alice taunts him, he states, “Do you want to know why I wasn’t invited? Shall I tell you? Because I refuse to mix with that scum – and because they all know I’m not afraid to speak my mind, that’s why.” Expecting her cousin Kurt (Christopher Innvar), the newly appointed quarantine master who introduced them to each other, to stop by, Alice says, “Well, he did bring us together.” Edgar replies, “He certainly did! And what a match!” Alice laughs and Edgar adds, “You may laugh. It’s me that’s had to live with it!” She responds, “And me!” Their jabs only get worse upon Kurt’s arrival, as they never miss an opportunity to attack. Edgar makes Kurt, who has plenty of his own personal baggage, a target as well, as they all talk about life and death and loneliness.
Director Victoria Clark (Newton’s Cradle, The Trouble with Doug) emphasizes the more comic aspects of the story, making Edgar and Alice look more and more ridiculous as Alice fires the maid and Edgar warbles on about the manual he wrote. They are both haunted by what could have been. A photograph of Alice in her acting days hangs over them like a grim reminder (she was based on the first of Strindberg’s three wives, actress Siri von Essen), and occasionally she sits down at an imaginary piano and plays music that can be heard. Their inability to communicate extends to Edgar’s distrust of the telephone; instead, he has a telegraph that he uses to correspond with the outside world via Morse code. As with Mies Julie, Arsenault’s set design is relatively basic, with some furniture on the same oval platform, the audience again sitting on all four sides. The black comedy, which has influenced such other works with bickering couples as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves, is too long at nearly two hours without intermission and occasionally gets tiresome with repetition, but Topol (Indecent, The Normal Heart) and Beck (The Humans, The Whale) hold nothing back in roles that have been previously performed onstage and -screen by such pairs as Robert Shaw and Zoe Caldwell, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, Paul Verhoeven and Lilli Palmer, and Laurence Olivier and Geraldine McEwan, with Innvar (’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Big Love) adding the appropriate sleaziness as Kurt. “Life is terrible,” Edgar says to Kurt. “I could never understand people like you. People who actually want more life, some in eternal hereafter. More life! Why?” As both Mies Julie and The Dance of Death reveal at Classic Stage, it’s hard to want more life when love can be so difficult.
Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater, the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 West 52nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 17
MCC inaugurates its cozy new one-hundred-seat Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space on West Fifty-Second St. with the New York premiere of Loy A. Webb’s The Light, a slow-building incendiary drama that opened last night and continues through March 17. Rashad (McKinley Belcher III) and Genesis (Mandi Masden) are celebrating a special evening, exchanging gifts and getting frisky in her beautiful Hyde Park condo, which features two skylights, a long marble kitchen island, a large window looking out on a small garden, and several paintings and photographs by African American artists, including one from Carrie Mae Weems’s highly influential Kitchen Table series. (The impressive set, surrounded on three sides by the audience, is by Kimie Nishikawa.) Rashad is a hunk of a fireman with a young daughter; Genesis is a teacher at an all-black charter school. “You’ve been a tremendous blessing in both our lives, baby,” Rashad says to Genesis, who is curious at his sudden honesty and eloquence. He adds, “Specially mine. It used to get me down thinking about all the failed relationships I had before you. But I realized that wasn’t nothing but life pruning me. Just as it would a tree. Cutting out all the old, damaged, and diseased branches that didn’t belong. Making room for the one that did . . . you.” She laughs, and he responds, “Really? I’m trying to have a serious moment and you laugh?” To which she replies, “This is so suspect, Shad. You were one Drake lyric away from singing.” What starts out as a romantic occasion becomes something very different when he presents her with a surprise gift that dredges up painful memories.
Webb’s full-length debut is a potent look at the fragility of love in a #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter world fraught with ever-evolving complications as people walk tenderly around matters of race, sexuality, abuse, and power exemplified by such controversial public cases as the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and the accusations against such celebrities as R. Kelly and Chris Brown. Over the course of seventy-five minutes, Rashad and Genesis’s relationship, so inspired at the beginning, goes through a series of challenges that tests their future as each one opens up their heart, moving through joy, pain, and redemption. “Please, don’t nobody want you. And the only reason I do is because my biological clock is ticking and I’m desperate,” she teases him, but when she sees he is hurt, she says, “I’m joking, baby.” Drama Desk Award winner Belcher III (The Royale, Ozark) and Masden (Saint Joan, Our Lady of Kibeho) are a formidable duo, each one balancing strength with vulnerability as some deep truths emerge. Webb and director Logan Vaughn (The Agitators) focus on the actors’ electric chemistry, which only intensifies as the friction increases; Ben Stanton’s lighting design keeps the full space partially illuminated so we can see our fellow attendees while also feeling implicated in the characters’ actions, wondering how we would react to the questions Rashad and Genesis ask each other. The play falters somewhat as the end approaches and Webb throws in too many late twists, but the finale hits the mark. Originally developed at the New Colony in Chicago (with Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. and Tiffany Oglesby, directed by Toma Langston), The Light will leave you gasping for breath — and examining your own meaningful relationships, trying to stay away from the darkness.
BLAME (Quinn Shephard, 2017)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Thursday, February 14, 4:00
Series runs February 14-21
Last summer, MoMA presented “The Future Is Female,” a week of independent features and shorts written, directed, and starring women, dealing with important issues of inclusivity and gender. The series is back for its second iteration, running February 14-21 and beginning with a recent head spinner. Twenty-two-year-old Quinn Shephard proves herself to be a sextuple threat in the daring, sexy teen thriller Blame. The New Jersey native wrote, directed, edited, produced, and stars in the film, in addition to writing the lyrics for several songs performed by Peter Henry Phillips. Her mother, Laurie Shephard, also produced and cast the movie, which takes place in a New Jersey high school where Abigail Grey (Shephard) has returned after a mysterious psychotic incident. She is immediately targeted by mean-girl leader Melissa Bowman (Nadia Alexander) and her trusted bestie, Sophie Grant (Sarah Mezzanotte), while the third member of the clique, Ellie Redgrave (Tessa Albertson), might be on the outs for showing sympathy for Abigail. Melissa sics her boyfriend, T.J. (Owen Campbell), and Sophie’s beau, Eric (Luke Slattery), on Abigail, taunting and teasing her, calling her Sybil, after the book and movie about a woman with multiple personalities. When Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina) takes over their drama class, he switches the play they’re presenting from Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, casting Abigail as protagonist Abigail Williams, who might be involved with witchcraft, and Eric as John Proctor, a married man she might be having an affair with. Melissa, who wanted the lead role, is furious when she is named Abigail’s understudy. When Eric doesn’t take things seriously, Jeremy steps in to play John, angering Melissa further as Abigail gets to spend more time with the rather attractive teacher, especially as she watches Abigail and Jeremy grow very close. And Melissa doesn’t like to lose.
Blame is a carefully crafted, intimate tale of lust, jealousy, and obsession, capturing the complicated zeitgeist of high school life, the fear and trepidation along with the experimentation and confusion. In shifting from The Glass Menagerie to The Crucible, Shephard equates mental illness with witchcraft as seen through a feminist lens as her story parallels Miller’s, much as Amy Heckerling’s Clueless follows Jane Austen’s Emma (only without the laughs) and Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions is based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses. The scenes between Shephard (Hostages, The Miseducation of Cameron Post) and Messina (The Mindy Project, Damages) are sizzling hot as teacher and student teeter on the edge of a major taboo. Shephard, who appeared in a high school production of The Crucible, also gets to show off her fab eyebrows, which are a character unto themselves. She is one talented filmmaker deserving of attention in an industry that must do a much better job cultivating, acknowledging, celebrating, and rewarding films by and about women. Blame is screening February 14 at 4:00 with Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel’s fourteen-minute Happy Birthday, Marsha!, about trans artist and activist Marsha P. Johnson, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers. “The Future Is Female, Part 2” continues with such other pairings as Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods and Crystal Kayiza’s Edgecombe, Kate Novack’s The Gospel According to André and Catherine Lee’s 9at38, and Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline and Eleanor Wilson’s Low Road, all followed by discussions.