The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene has followed up its wonderful, ebullient hit, The Golden Bride, with Amerike — the Golden Land, a rather more clichéd historical pageant, a series of episodic set pieces about the American dream. The show began life as a special program honoring the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Jewish Daily Forward in 1982 and has gone through numerous iterations since then. The latest version, extended at NYTF’s new home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage through August 20, follows half a dozen emigrants from Eastern Europe who arrive in America expecting streets paved with riches. But the reality of making a new life on the Lower East Side is far more difficult for Oppenheimer (Glenn Seven Allen), Sadie (Alexandra Frohlinger), Joe (Daniel Kahn), Fannie (Dani Marcus), Gussie (Stephanie Lynne Mason), and Izzie (David Perlman). (The talented ensemble also includes Maya Jacobson, Alexander Kosmowski, Raquel Nobile, Isabel Nesti, Grant Richards, and Bobby Underwood.) Written by Moishe Rosenfeld and his cousin, NYTF artistic director Zalmen Mlotek, and directed by Bryna Wasserman, who helmed The Golden Bride and such other NYTF productions as The Dybbuk and Lies My Father Told Me, Amerike features a treasure trove of Yiddish songs performed by an outstanding band, with Katsumi Ferguson on violin, Jordan Hirsch on trumpet, Dmitry Ishenko on bass, Daniel Linden on trombone, Mlotek and Andrew Wheeler on piano, Sean Perham on percussion, and Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch on reeds. The story is told in eleven sections, from “Arrival,” “The New City,” and “Shabbos” to “Work,” “Citizenship,” and “The Depression,” with such numbers as “O Kumt Ir Farvoglte” (Oh Come You Who Are Displaced”), “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” and “Vi Nemt Men Parnuse?” (“How Do I Make a Living?”), by Joseph Rumshinsky, Arnold Perlmutter and Herman Wohl, Solomon Shmulewitz, and other composers.
Despite its innate exuberance, the narrative is laden with overly familiar vignettes about immigrants first seeing the Statue of Liberty, having their names changed on Ellis Island, battling poverty, and trying to assimilate. It often feels more like a history lesson, teaching us about things we already know, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, although it is imbued with a relevance to what is happening today as President Trump continues to push his immigration and refugee restrictions. Amerike — the Golden Land does have some beautiful and heart-wrenching moments, including the story of a widower whose young children are not allowed to enter America with him and two immigrants who are fearful of falling in love. Izzy Fields’s costume design and Jason Lee Courson’s set and projections capture the feeling of late-nineteenth-century / early-twentieth-century New York City, and Merete Muenter’s choreography melds well with the music. The songs are mostly performed in Yiddish with English and Russian surtitles, although, curiously, there are a few English-language numbers that feel out of place. The cast, only one member of which knew Yiddish prior to rehearsals, is solid, and the musicians, who get the crowd dancing after the curtain call, are outstanding. But the lack of originality in the story — there’s even a multilingual version of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” — dampens a lot of this terrific company’s freshness. (Be sure to arrive forty-five minutes early to get a free Yiddish lesson.)
139-141 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 8, $35 - $274
Among the myriad virtues of George Orwell’s final novel, the 1949 groundbreaking, language-redefining 1984, is its continued relevance to changing times, as every generation finds its prescience remarkable. “It’s a vision of the future no matter when it’s being read,” Martin (Carl Hendrick Louis), an antiques dealer, tells protagonist Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge) in Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s confounding stage version, running at the Hudson Theatre through October 8. Martin was talking about both Winston’s secret diary and the masterful source material, Orwell’s clear-eyed view of a bleak future ruled by unseen totalitarian entities who keep the populace under constant suppression and surveillance. Later in the scene, Martin explains to Winston, “Every age sees itself reflected.” Neither of these lines is in the original text, but they get to the heart of this inconsistent theatrical adaptation. Orwell warned us that all this was coming, and now we’re virtually there, pun intended. It’s no coincidence that the book keeps appearing on the bestseller list as President Donald Trump and his associates speak out about “alternative facts” and “fake news” and cabinet members are confirmed to head departments responsible for policy they seem to be against. Icke and Macmillan have interlaced a confusing framing story that takes place well past 2050, inspired by the book’s appendix, looking back at how Winston attempted to navigate a world drowning in Newspeak, where Big Brother proclaims, “War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery,” and “Ignorance Is Strength” and such words as “doublethink,” “thoughtcrime,” “telescreen,” and “unperson” have entered the lexicon. Romantic love is illegal, but Winston and Julia, who both work at the Ministry of Truth, where Winston erases people and events from history, decide to take a risk, finding themselves in each other’s arms while also plotting to bring down the party. But it’s not going to be easy, as they soon discover.
The 101-minute intermissionless play features some very strong moments, particularly whenever party leader and possible Brotherhood agent O’Brien (Reed Birney) is onstage. The scenes change with a shocking blast of noise and blinding white lights, courtesy of sound designer Tom Gibbons and lighting designer Natasha Chivers, which is frighteningly effective. Later, the torture scenes are so graphic that the theater bars anyone under fourteen. (Originally there was no age limit, but too many families were exiting early with their scared youngsters in tow.) Playing off the concept of the telescreen watching people’s every movement, Icke (Oresteia, Mr. Burns, a post-electric playEvery Brilliant Thing, City of Glass) rely too much on live projections by video designer Tim Reid; at one point the audience is watching the screens at the top of Chloe Lamford’s set for an extended period of time as no live action takes place onstage but instead is being streamed from offstage. In addition, the fourth wall is broken twice, but it’s more of an off-putting device than it is an effective warning that this could happen to us if we’re not careful. “Words matter. Facts matter. The truth matters,” Winston says as the play references Trump and his fight with the media. There’s not much passion between Wilde, in her Broadway debut, and Tony nominee Sturridge (Orphans, Punk Rock), while Tony winner Birney (The Humans, Circle Mirror Transformation) brings just the right calm demeanor to O’Brien. The cast also features Michael Potts as Charrington, Nick Mills as Syme, Wayne Duvall as Parsons, and Cara Seymour as Mrs. Parsons, and the disappearance/erasure of one of the secondary characters is handled quite cleverly. But the narrative jumps around too much between the past, the present, and the future and strays too often from the central plot, creating confusion and annoyance. The story’s overall message — which Orwell arrived at in part as a response to the rise of Stalinism while also predicting the German Stasi — gets buried in too much stylistic stagecraft. However, its relevance is still terrifyingly apparent: Big Brother is indeed watching us, and we don’t seem to mind anymore what they see.
July 11 - August 13, free, 8:00
The Public Theater follows up its controversial staging of Julius Caesar, in which the title character was modeled directly on President Donald Trump, with its fourth presentation of the Bard’s enchanting fairy tale, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. James Lapine directed the 1982 edition, starring Christine Baranski, Ricky Jay, Deborah Rush, Kevin Conroy, and William Hurt; Cacá Rosset played Bottom and helmed the carnivalesque 1991 version from Brazil’s Teatro do Ornitorrinco; and in 2006, Daniel Sullivan directed Martha Plimpton, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Mireille Enos, Keith David, Tim Blake Nelson, George Morfogen, and Jay O. Sanders. Now Obie winner Lear deBessonet (Venus, Good Person of Szechwan), who directed the Public Works adaptations of The Winter’s Tale in 2014 and The Odyssey in 2015 at the Delacorte, has assembled a stellar cast for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, running from July 11 to August 13. The roster includes Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford as Helena, six-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein as Nick Bottom, Tony winner Phylicia Rashad as Titania, Kyle Beltran as Lysander, De’Adre Aziza as Hippolyta, Bhavesh Patel as Theseus, Shalita Grant as Hermia, Robert Joy as Peter Quince, Patrena Murray as Snout, Richard Poe as Oberon, and two-time Obie winner and Tony nominee Kristine Nielsen as Puck. The scenic design is by Tony winner David Rockwell, with costumes by Tony winner Clint Ramos, choreography by Chase Brock, and original music by Justin Levine. There are several ways to get the much-coveted free tickets: going to Central Park and waiting on line at the Delacorte for distribution at 12 noon; signing up for the lottery at the Public Theater at 11:00 am; picking up a voucher at a specific daily location in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island for a noon distribution; or trying the email and digital TodayTix lotteries. Good luck — as Lysander tells Hermia, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
NEW YORK TRANSIT MUSEUM VINTAGE BUS BASH, FULL MOON FESTIVAL, IT’S YOUR TERN! AND MORE ON GOVERNORS ISLAND
Saturday, July 8, most events free
Tomorrow is a busy day on Governors Island, one of the city’s genuine summer treasures. The New York Transit Museum Vintage Bus Bash (11:00 am – 4:00 pm, free) pulls into Colonels Row, four classic old vehicles that used to shuttle passengers around the city. You’ll be able to check out 1956’s Bus 3100, 1958’s Bus 9098, 1959’s Bus 100, and 1971’s Bus 5227. The seventh annual Full Moon Festival takes place from 12 noon to 2:00 ($50-$61) on the Play Lawn, with Vic Mensa, Larry Heard a.k.a. Mr. Fingers, Kelela, DJ Harvey, Connan Mockasin, Abra, Jeremy Underground, Axel Boman, Tops, Awesome Tapes from Africa, Selvagem, Donna Leake, and Mass Meditation by the Big Quiet. The fourth annual It’s Your Tern! Festival (12 noon – 4:00, free) celebrates the threatened common tern, many of which have been nesting on Tango Pier. There will be games, arts and crafts, a scavenger hunt, a special spotting scope viewing, and bird tours led by Annie Barry and Kellie Quinones. The free Rite of Summer Music Festival in Nolan Park presents “Pamela Z — Works for Voice and Electronics” at 1:00 and 3:00, a live performance by the San Francisco-based composer and media artist. In addition, you can visit such free continuing exhibitions and programs as “The Public Works Department Presents: Sanctuary City,” “Christodora: Nature, Learning, Leadership,” “New York Electronic Art Festival,” “Art of Intuitive Photography,” a family-friendly literary party at “The Empire State Center for the Book,” the NYC Audubon Summer Residency, “Escaping Time: Art from U.S. Prisons,” “Billion Oyster Project Exhibit,” “Sculptors Guild Presents: Currently 80,” A.I.R. Gallery’s “Taken on Trust,” the Children’s Museum of Manhattan’s Island Outpost, LMCC’s “A Supple Perimeter” by Kameela Janan Rasheed, the Woolgatherers’ “Genesis 22,” and the Dysfunctional Theatre Company’s “Dancing with Light.”
Brooklyn-based Third Rail Projects, the immersive-theater masterminds behind Then She Fell, which has been leading audiences down the rabbit hole for five years at the Kingsland Ward at St. John’s in Williamsburg, and The Grand Paradise, which took guests on an unusual island vacation last year in a renovated Bushwick warehouse, have now moved uptown to Lincoln Center, where Ghost Light continues at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater through August 6. The show, conceived, directed, and choreographed by two of the company’s founding artistic directors, Zach Morris and Jennine Willett, is an unpredictable journey through nearly every nook and cranny of the Claire Tow, from storage closets, hallways, and dressing rooms to the balcony, the break room, and the inner stairway. Named for the electric light that is left on in a theater for safety reasons even when no one is there, the two-hour show has a premise involving ghosts that never quite comes to fruition, but most everything else is a complete blast. The audience is divided into groups again and again — don’t expect to spend the entire evening with the companion you came with — as they are guided through multiple areas, where actors share stories about the backstage machinations of creating the magic of theater. My journey began with a silly Shakespeare scene in which everyone was given a task, from holding up a mirror to help a woman check her hair to putting on fake armor and participating in a dress rehearsal complicated by personal drama. Shortly after that, we’re spying on a man (Edward Rice) and a woman (Julia Kelly) having a secret rendezvous, which feels long and extraneous. But everything that follows is far more intriguing and entertaining, including a beautifully choreographed dance in the main theater with a diva (Roxanne Kid) and a well-dressed gentleman (Cameron Michael Burns).
Other highlights include a splendid monologue by a sad Beckett-like clown (Ryan Wuestewald); the diva having a breakdown in a stairwell; Sam the janitor (Josh Matthews) explaining some important maintenance details; an intimate song by the would-be Shakespearean lead (Elizabeth Carena); and the swirling organized chaos that occurs moments before the curtain goes up. It is often difficult to know which sets have been designed by Brett J. Banakis (Big Love, Coriolanus) and which are just the way the Claire Tow is; I was particularly fond of two small spaces occupied by dozens of miniature sets, trying to see if I could recognize previous Lincoln Center Theater productions. There are also plenty of inside jokes, terrific costumes by Montana Levi Blanco (Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, War), and splendid work by Alberto Denis as the stage manager as well as the real stage manager (Kristina Vnook) and assistant stage managers (Stephanie Armitage, Nick Auer, Jack Cummins), who might just have the most difficult jobs of everyone while blurring the distinction between the show and the show-within-a-show. (The large, valiant cast also includes Rebekah Morin, Joshua Dutton-Reaver, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Tara O’Con, Niko Tsocanos, Jessy Smith, Carlton Cyrus Ward, and Donna Ahmadi as the usher.) In many ways, it’s like a miniature Sleep No More, except you can’t follow your own path. Ghost Light shines a fun and fascinating light on the creation of theater, mysterious ghosts and all.
JODY OBERFELDER PROJECTS: THE BRAIN PIECE
New York Live Arts
219 West 19th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Wednesday, June 28, gala benefit $200, 7:30
June 29 - July 1, $25-$35, 7:00 & 9:00
New York-based director, choreographer, dancer, and filmmaker Jody Oberfelder’s The Brain Piece, premiering at New York Live Arts June 28 – July 1, continues her exploration of our internal organs, following on her extraordinary 2013 piece, 4Chambers, an immersive, multimedia, interactive journey inside the human heart. Performed by Oberfelder, Mary Madsen, Pierre Guilbault, and Hannah Wendel along with ten dancer docents, The Brain Piece is divided into two parts, “Mind Matters / Head Space” and “World of Brain,” combining film, visual art, installation, dance, music, and text for an audience limited to 72 members. The cerebral, multimedia piece includes her award-winning short film Dance of the Neurons, made with Eric Siegel, which turns firing synapses into a colorful, joyous dance. Oberfelder, a travel and yoga enthusiast and former lead singer of the punk band the Bagdads, founded Jody Oberfelder Projects in 1989 and has previously presented such works as The Titles Comes Last, Moved, Re:Dress, and Throb. The charming, gregarious, always energetic creator took a break from rehearsals to tell twi-ny all about The Brain Piece.
twi-ny: We recently bumped into each other at the Whitney Biennial, where you were serving as a docent for Asad Raza’s “Root sequence. Mother tongue,” an installation of living trees paired with specific objects, one of which you contributed. As museumgoers made their way through the exhibit, I couldn’t help but think of it as a kind of improvisatory dance with nature, especially with you there. What was that experience like?
jody oberfelder: We’re actually called caregivers. The people who pass through sometimes don’t know we’re positioned as such as we, as you describe, do this improvisatory dance with people in conversation. The show has been up since March and we’ve seen the trees go from bare, to blossom, to leafing, and now they can’t wait to get planted outside. Many people have passed through. Asad’s work balances organic, inorganic, and human all in the space. Having a person in the room is as important as the trees and the caregiver’s placed object. I’m learning that conversation is often this invisible thread that links things together in the present.
twi-ny: Your work is very scientific; were you interested in science when you were a kid?
jo: I would not say I grew up with a scientific bent. I had a fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Dowd, who explained the digestive system with panache (“...and out the other end” — we were all snickering). I’ve come to science through the body, and through a curiosity about what makes us alive. There is a beautiful ecosystem within us and a giant cosmos outside of us. Did you ever see that film by Charles and Ray Eames — Powers of Ten — it’s all about zooming out and zooming in. That, to me, is what science is about. Things can be very specific and very vast.
twi-ny: Yes, Powers of Ten is quite eye-opening. How did you find/choose your science collaborators — Dr. Wei Ji Ma, Cecilia Fontanesi, and Ed Lein — and what did each one bring to The Brain Piece?
Word of mouth.
Cecilia is a dancer and a neuroscientist. She met one of my dancers, Mary Madsen, at a party. I loved talking with her from the very beginning. The thing she said, “The brain is everywhere in the body,” totally clicked with my premise of dancers illuminating brain life.
Wendy Suzuki, who helped illuminate the brain-body connection for me, introduced Wei Ji to me. Wei Ji has been a great collaborator. He comes to rehearsals to “fact check” and advise. He’s in Dance of the Neurons. I audited his class at NYU on illusion. We did a combo lecture / performance in Amsterdam.
Another neuroscientist introduced Ed Lein to me: Gary Marcus. My company manager at the time, Clare Cook, was giving him private Pilates lessons. Gary and I had several conversations, which culminated in him saying, “You know, you should meet Ed from the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He specializes in the biology of neurons.” Ed and I had a back and forth on a kind of Skype sketchpad, and he drew little pictures of how neurons are formed that eventually became the literal storyboard for Dance of the Neurons. I embellished, of course, and played with all the ways neurons “dance” and form synaptic connection. I’m most grateful to these scientists, who are also artists.
twi-ny: Without giving too much away, how will the physical space of New York Live Arts come into play? Only the second half will take place in the theater on a proscenium stage, correct?
jo: It’s my hope that there really is no separation between the sections, that the more experience-based portions of the work continue to inform the world of the brain in the theater. There are nine films in part two. When you go to movies, you don’t question that the actors are not that big. I think the problem with live theater is that we’re in a long shot for too long. I’m creating an atmosphere of a giant brain with moving parts. I think this is the nature of brain plasticity: zoom in for close-ups, see what the alignment of neurons are doing at this time, how we’re constantly in a perceptual loop.
twi-ny: 4Chambers involved a significant amount of interaction, at one point bringing the audience into physical contact with the dancers. Will there be anything similar in The Brain Piece?
jo: You’ll see.
twi-ny: Good answer. I only recently learned that the doctor who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein actually removed his brain and brought it home to study. What is the most unusual thing you learned about the brain while making this piece?
jo: That the brain is a noisy place and we’re constantly trying to figure things out and make sense of the world. And that our bodies are the vehicles for us to sensorially enter the world. Ask a neuroscientist to define “mind” and they have no clear thing to pin down. There were philosophers, then psychiatrists, and now great discoveries in seeing the pictures in the brain, seeing what makes things go off, decay, or become more plastic, make connections: That’s the dance of neurons. But the mind — it’s like vapor. We breathe in present and past. It’s in constant motion. And dancers are the perfect vehicles to convey this movement.
twi-ny: How have the two works brought the heart and the mind together for you?
jo: The heart leads to the mind. When working on 4Chambers, I interviewed Wendy, who talked about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and how all the way down from our brains our hearts operate. We feel our hearts, but it’s triggered by the mind. You know how what your brain is doing by what your heart is doing, and vice versa. “I can put my hand on your heart and feel your heartbeat, but if I put my hand on your skull, I can’t feel your thoughts.”
twi-ny: Regarding Dance of the Neurons, your choreography has always been very cinematic, and The Brain Piece includes that short film, which has been garnering prizes at festivals. How do you see the two disciplines merging in your work?
jo: Thank you. Someone at a festival said I was a filmic choreographer. I like that. I’m pretty visual. Like a filmmaker, I’m in the business of arranging time and space and hidden narrative. I use a lot of improvisation around ideas and look for dancers who can take the ball and run with it. I like to think that if I give the performers imaginative tasks, the content will form, and it’s my job as a director and choreographer to prepare for a rehearsal with a loose storyboard of possibilities, then go deeply inside the physical investigation for the interaction with audience members, the films, and the onstage content. Devising content is a matter of honing in on what feels right.
I worked with a wonderful dramaturg this time around: Jessica Applebaum. The piece has had many renderings. She helped me not be afraid of the complexity of the subject matter and to go forward making. Details and big picture always in mind. Jessica has also left me a lot of space these last months to figure it out on my own. Today our neuroscientist, Wei Ji, was there to see me finish the finale in our last moments of our last rehearsal!
I love it now. I’m even surprised by it.
twi-ny: I’m very much looking forward to being surprised by it as well. This might be an obvious closing question, but now with the heart and the brain covered, do you anticipate continuing to explore the mind-body connection with different organs as the focus?
jo: The sex organs will probably be combined with the guts. Like when you feel something in your gut. Intuition. Power.