The Black Box Theater, the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture
18 Bleecker St. at Elizabeth St.
Thursday - Sunday through August 25, $57
Jonathan Leaf’s fifth new play in eighteen months looks at the last three years in the life of Russian literary giant Alexander Pushkin. The works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov, and Nicolai Gogol might get more attention in America, but Pushkin, who is perhaps most well known for two novels that were turned into operas, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin — and whose 1830 drama Mozart and Salieri was the basis of Peter Shaffer’s award-winning play and film, Amadeus — is widely considered Russia’s greatest poet, and his literary influence continues around the world. Written in verse (which you might not realize at first), Pushkin: A Life Played Out takes place from 1834 to 1837, shortly after the November Uprising, as Pushkin (Ian Lassiter) meets weekly with Tsar Nicholas I (Gene Gillette) and the monarch’s ever-loyal right-hand man, Count Benkendorf (Lou Liberatore), who edit Pushkin’s poetry and prose to make sure it fits their political agenda, since they believe that his earlier writings helped foment that rebellion, even if Pushkin denies that was his intention. Meanwhile, the court, including the tsar, Benkendorf, and Dutch ambassador and heartthrob Count D’Anthes (Christopher Kelly), have become enamored of Pushkin’s wife, Natalya (Jenny Leona). At first, Natalya is more interested in seeing her two sisters, Alexandra (Lexi Lapp) and Katarina (Olivia Gilliatt), married off, but slowly she appears to be more receptive to the court’s romantic interest, as Pushkin, an atheist, grows more stern and desperate, gambling at cards, fearing becoming a cuckold, and trying to finish Eugene Onegin, which he has not shown to the tsar.
He further angers Nicholas by insisting the serfs be freed. “We advocate reform by lawful means. But I’ll bring him to end it — serfdom — soon,” Pushkin promises. Baron Delvig (Daniel Petzold) wants Pushkin to write about the current war, explaining to Natalya, “I’m just suggesting we might see the deaths — a line or two depicting how things are. He has the crown’s affection and concern —,” but Natalya responds, “Obedience is best.” Pushkin adds, “I can’t write lines to circulate in secret. Those days are gone. And would it matter anyway? The idea that my poems spurred the revolt: You admit, it’s absurd?” Pushkin’s friends, Delvig, Prince Dolgorukov (Michael Earle Fajardo), and Gogol (Kyle Cameron), attempt to keep him out of danger, but Pushkin is a determined man who strongly feels that the only noble way out of certain situations is via the duel.
Presented by the american vicarious and running at the Sheen Center for Though & Culture through August 25, Pushkin: A Life Played Out is expertly directed by Christopher McElroen (Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salutation, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans) on Troy Hourie’s spare set, between four rows of audience seats on two sides. Elivia Bovenzi has designed exquisite costumes, from regal formal wear and military garb to serf outfits worn by crewmembers who move about various tables, chairs, and desks in between scenes, all underneath a square, sometimes lighted temporary ceiling featuring handwritten quotes from Pushkin. However, most of what Pushkin says and recites in the show was created by Leaf (The Caterers, The Germans in Paris); in fact, the play features only three instances where Pushkin’s actual words are used, including the line “They only love the dead,” which Pushkin says to Gogol. Leaf and McElroen toss in a bit of Othello, as Pushkin deals with jealousy and is demeaned because of his part-African heritage. Lassiter (War Horse, An Octoroon) is sturdy and bold as Pushkin, his spectacular muttonchops practically a character all their own as he gets deeper into trouble. The rest of the cast is strong as well, from Tony nominee Liberatore’s (Burn This, As Is) stalwart portrayal of Benkendorf and Lapp’s (Aligator, STET) heartfelt Alexandra, who sees her brother-in-law as a heroic figure, to Tracy Sallows (Angels in America, The Audience), who plays the Pushkins’ serving-maid, with two sons who are among Alexander’s serfs, and Madame Goncharova, Natalya’s mother who wants only the best for her three daughters, two roles that emphasize the difference between rich and poor, serfdom and the aristocracy, and even males and females in Russian society. “No one’s free. You think that?” Gogol says early on to Pushkin. Delvig adds, “In Russia? In what ways are you free, Gogol?” He turns to Pushkin and says, “A dare: prove on your birthday that you’re free.” Of course, there is no easy answer in this taut, solid production.
The free summer arts & culture season is under way, with dance, theater, music, art, film, and other special outdoor programs all across the city. Every week we will be recommending a handful of events. Keep watching twi-ny for more detailed highlights as well.
Monday, August 20
Movies on the Waterfront: Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018), Astoria Park Lawn, 8:30
Tuesday, August 21
Movies Under the Stars: Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1952), Poe Park, Bronx, 8:30
Wednesday, August 22
SummerStage: Mr. Gaga (Tomer Heymann, 2017), preceded by a performance by Gallim Dance, with a preshow Gaga/people class taught by Omri Drumlevich (advance RSVP required), Rumsey Playfield, Central Park, 8:00
Friday, August 24
Shakespeare: Macbeth, Fridays and Saturdays through September 8, no tarps allowed, Bryant Park Picnics, Bryant Park, 7:00
Saturday, August 25
Summer Concert Series: Joan Caddell & the Midnight Choir, Karlus Trapp, with wine and beer tastings and lawn games, chairs and blankets encouraged, Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, Staten Island, 7:00
Sunday, August 26
Staten Island Philharmonic in High Rock Park: Woodwinds Ensemble, High Rock Gate, Staten Island, 3:00
The twenty-eighth annual Coney Island Sand Sculpting Contest will take place on August 18, as amateur and semiprofessional individuals and groups will create masterpieces in the Brooklyn sand, many with a nautical theme (along with a few naughty ones). It’s a blast watching the constructions rise from nothing into some extremely elaborate works of impermanence. The event, which features cash prizes for family, individual adult, group adult, and people’s choice, is hosted by Astella Development Corporation and Brooklyn Community Services. While visiting Coney Island on August 18, you should also check out “The Museum of Interesting Things: The Summer of Love — The 1960’s and early 70’s” at the Coney Island Museum, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, the “Ask The Experts” book reading and signing by Tessa Fontaine of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts, and the Burlesque at the Beach presentation “The Wicked Gingers Present: A Night on Old Cape Cod at Coney Island USA!” in addition to riding the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel.
WE THE ANIMALS (Jeremy Zagar, 2018)
Angelika Film Center, 18 West Houston St. at Mercer St., 212-995-2570
Landmark at 57 West, 657 West 57th St. at 12th Ave., 212-757-2280
Opens Friday, August 17
Documentarian Jeremy Zagar’s first feature, We the Animals, is a deeply sensitive and intimate coming-of-age drama about a ten-year-old boy on the cusp of starting to understand issues of race, class, and sexuality. Based on the 2011 novel by Justin Torres, a fictionalized version of his real family story, We the Animals is set in upstate New York in the 1990s, where Paps (Raúl Castillo) and Ma (Sheila Vand) are raising three young boys, Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel), and Jonah (Evan Rosado). Paps is a security guard from Puerto Rico, while Ma is of Italian-Irish heritage and works the graveyard shift at a brewery. The boys all sleep in the same room; they often huddle together and call out, “Body heat! Body heat!” as if they are one. But Jonah, the youngest, is a little different. He’s more delicate, needing more of his mother’s love and touch. He hides a notebook under the bed in which he writes down thoughts and draws pictures of flying and freedom, which are inventively brought to life by animator Mark Samsonovich. When Paps and Ma have a fight and the father leaves, it affects Jonah more than his brothers. He soon starts hanging around with a local non-Latinx teenager who introduces him to pornography, but it’s not the women who Jonah finds himself intrigued by. As his parents’ relationship continues to be volatile, Jonah grows more distant with his brothers as he explores new aspects of who he might be — or become.
Zagar (In a Dream, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart) incorporated his documentary experience in making We the Animals, giving it a realistic feel as the story unfolds at a slow but natural pace. Cinematographer Zak Mulligan favors a handheld 16mm camera to further enhance the believability of the narrative. Zagar spent two and a half years first casting the boys, then working with them — all three first-time actors — before filming began. Zagar, who cites Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) and Ken Loach (Kes, Riff-Raff) as major influences, and co-screenwriter Daniel Kitrosser remain faithful to the book, but Zagar often kept the camera rolling after a scripted scene, allowing the boys to improvise in character, and Zagar and coeditor Keiko Deguchi ended up using some of that footage in the final film. The story deals with masculinity and machismo very honestly and directly, with their impact clear on the mother and her three boys. It’s all a kind of fever dream, one in which Jonah, wonderfully portrayed by Rosado, has created his own separate world, an escape from the brutality he sees in his father and the victimization of his mother. Despite that, the film still manages to be bittersweet and gentle, with a warm soundtrack by Nick Zammuto. An absolute gem that won the Innovator Award at the Sundance Film Festival, We the Animals opens August 17 at the Angelika and the Landmark at 57 West. The first weekend features a trio of postscreening Q&As at the Angelika, with Castillo, Vand, and Torres at the 7:20 show on Friday, Castillo, Vand, Kristian, and Torres after the 7:20 show on Saturday, and Castillo and Torres following the 2:40 show on Sunday.
The nineteenth annual Hudson River Park Blues BBQ Festival is set for August 18 at Pier 97, where blues and soul food and drink come together from 2:00 to 9:00. The former includes dishes from Brother Jimmy’s, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Mighty Quinn’s, Pig Beach, Ben & Jerry’s, and Melt, with beverages from Sixpoint and Glenfiddich and live music by the Slam Allen Band (2:00), Danielle Nicole (3:15), Welch-Ledbetter Connection (4:30), Dawn Tyler Watson (6:00), and Vieux Farka Touré (7:30). Admission is free with advance registration; chairs, blankets, beach umbrellas, pets, bicycles, and other items are prohibited.
Friday, August 17, and Saturday, August 18, free, 5:00
The fourth annual Emerging Music Festival in Bryant Park takes place Friday and Saturday afternoon, featuring sets by ten up-and-coming bands from across the musical spectrum. The free festivities begin Friday at 5:00 with EZTV, followed by Underground System at 6:00, Palmas at 7:00, Ohmme at 8:00, and Evolfo at 9:00. Saturday kicks off at 5:00 with Madison McFerrin and continues at 6:00 with Plastic Picnic, 7:00 with Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton & Terry Waldo Rum House Jass Band, 8:00 with Native Sun, and 9:00 with Katie Von Schleicher. There will also be lawn games and juggling in between sets and food and drink available for purchase. The concerts are part of the Bryant Park Picnics program, which concludes August 22 with Accordions Around the World.