New York City is filled with hidden gems and secret treasures, but the sheer number of fellow enthusiasts can make us reluctant to share our discoveries, keeping them to ourselves so we can still easily acquire tickets to shows and tables at restaurants and avoid lines at galleries, etc. But one of my simple pleasures over the last five years has been singing the praises of the small but phenomenal Mint Theater Company, which since 1995 under the leadership of artistic director Jonathan Bank has “scour[ed] the dramaturgical dustbin for worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or neglected.” As its official mission statement explains, “We do more than blow the dust off neglected plays; we make vital connections between the past and present.” Bank and the Mint have given us another wonderful gift with its latest offering, precisely the kind of play that they do so well, a work written in 1912 by a long-forgotten playwright that has not been performed in New York City since 1922. Penned by Stanley Houghton, a former office boy working for his father in Manchester in addition to being an amateur actor and theater critic, Hindle Wakes is an essentially simple morality play set in the fictional town of Hindle in Lancashire during wakes week, an originally religious, then secular holiday when mills and factories close, giving a vacation to industrial workers, many of whom head off to seaside resorts. One such mill employee is Fanny Hawthorn (Rebecca Noelle Brinkley); the play opens as she is returning home from a supposed break in Blackpool. But when she insists that she was there with her friend Mary Hollins, her parents, Christopher (Ken Marks) and his unnamed wife (Sandra Shipley), know she is lying and soon force her to reveal that she actually spent the weekend with Alan Jeffcote (Jeremy Beck), the son of wealthy mill owner Nathaniel (Jonathan Hogan) and his unnamed spouse (Jill Tanner). “She’s always been a good girl,” Christopher says with a tinge of sadness, later adding, “This is what happens to many a lass, but I never thought to have it happen to a lass of mine!” Christopher and his wife believe that Alan must do the right thing and marry Fanny to avoid public gossip and scandal, so Christopher immediately goes to the Jeffcote mansion, where he meets with Nat, an old friend who enjoys reminding Christopher that if he had followed Nat’s lead, he could have been a rich success too. It turns out that Alan is already engaged to Beatrice Farrar (Emma Geer), daughter of the former mayor, Sir Timothy Farrar (Brian Reddy), a wealthy industrialist himself, so the Jeffcotes have to decide what to do about the lurid situation with their son, a would-be playboy who doesn’t understand what all the hubbub is about.
In Hindle Wakes, which continues at the Mint’s new home at Theatre Row through February 17, Houghton, who died of meningitis in 1913 at the age of thirty-two, blurs the lines between the classes, emphasizing how one wrong, or right, turn can change a family’s future. A scathing look at the collision of old-fashioned morality and newfangled sexual freedom, the play was controversial for its time, a shocking look at a woman’s right to control her own body. Both the Jeffcotes and the Hawthorns seem to be enjoying their lives, but while Christopher does not appear to be jealous of Nat, it’s clear that Mrs. Hawthorn wouldn’t mind being a little more like Mrs. Jeffcote. But it’s also not just about wealth. “Money’s power. That’s why I like money,” Nat tells his wife. “Not for what it can buy.” The set, always a bulwark of any Mint production — many in-the-know Mint lovers stay in their seats during intermission of shows in which the set undergoes a dramatic change before resuming, although that is not the case with Hindle Wakes — designed by Charles Morgan, shifts back and forth from the striking elegance of the Jeffcote breakfast room, serviced by their maid, Ada (Sara Carolynn Kennedy), to the mundane casualness of the Hawthorn breakfast nook. The fine cast is led by Tony nominee Hogan (London Wall, As Is), who portrays the surprisingly unpredictable Nat with exquisite touches, from how he sits by the fireplace to how he moves with his cane. The costumes, by Sam Fleming, are as impeccable as ever, another Mint tradition, as is Gus Kaikkonen’s (The Voysey Inheritance, A Picture of Autumn) astute direction, which draws parallels between the two clans even as it points out their differences. The play might be more than a hundred years old, but many of the values it explores resonate today, in the bedroom, in the boardroom, and in religious institutions around America. Upon Houghton’s passing, Robert Allerson Parker wrote in the New York Press, “The death of Stanley Houghton has taken away a real force in making the English drama cosmopolitan rather than insular, in widening its appeal while deepening its insight.” Thankfully, the Mint is very much alive to continue to bring us such splendid cosmopolitan drama, a treasured company highly deserving of widening its own appeal as well.
The Brooklyn Public Library and Theater of War Productions pay tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s final sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” with a free dramatic reading at the Central Library branch at Grand Army Plaza on February 4 at 2:00. Inspired by the tenth chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel and J. Wallace Hamilton’s 1952 homily, “Drum-Major Instincts,” Dr. King delivered the speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on February 4, 1968; he would be assassinated exactly two months later. “There is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct — a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life,” Dr. King said. The piece will be performed by American actress Samira Wiley, who starred as Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale and Poussey Washington in Orange Is the New Black, accompanied by the Phil Woodmore Singers, the gospel choir that performed in Theater of War’s adaptation of Antigone in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the shooting of Michael Brown. Among the members of the choir are Duane Foster, a former teacher of Brown’s, and Lt. Latricia Allen, commander of the Community Engagement Unit of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, in addition to other musicians, educators, activists, and police officers. The sermon will be followed by a guided audience discussion about racism and social justice, led by choir member and Ferguson social worker DeAndrea Blaylock-Johnson and Theater of War artistic director Bryan Doerries. “Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator — that something that we call death,” King preached. “We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, ‘What is it that I would want said?’ And I leave the word to you this morning.”
Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 11, $90-$125
In 2016, the Signature presented a powerful revival of Adrienne Kennedy’s Obie-winning debut play, 1964’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, as part of a trio of experimental one-act plays, with Edward Albee’s The Sandbox and María Irene Fornés’s The Drowning. Now Theatre for a New Audience is staging the world premiere of the eighty-six-year-old Kennedy’s first play in nine years and first solo-written drama in two decades, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, which opened last night and deals with many of the same issues, focusing on generations of Americans affected by Jim Crow laws and institutional racism, and it feels like not a moment too soon nor a moment too late. Inspired by events in her own life and featuring snippets from Noël Coward’s Bitter Sweet and Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, the fifty-minute show is set in the fictional town of Montefiore, Georgia, in June 1941, where Christopher (Tom Pecinka), son of successful white businessman Harrison Aherne and a white woman — Harrison also has three young children by three black women — and Kay (Juliana Canfield), the daughter of a white writer and a black woman who died mysteriously shortly after Kay was born, have declared their desire for each other. The two seventeen-year-olds know their love is forbidden so they keep it a secret as Christopher leaves for New York City to pursue a stage career and they exchange letters. “He just knew these things. He understands history. He understands the devastation of the human spirit,” Chris writes about his father. “He knows the importance of making a person enter through the back door and of never addressing them as you are addressed. He understands how language can be used to humiliate.” Kay writes back, “My grandmother always said we saw my father all the time on Main Street but he never looked our way. My grandmother said, ‘Your father would look away but his mother would look at you like she was going to kill you right there.’” Meanwhile, Christopher begins to question his father’s friendship with Germans as WWII spreads around the world and is about to involve America. As they continue writing letters and planning their marriage, they traverse Christopher Barreca’s breathtaking set, a floor with several chairs, one of which is occupied by a life-size puppet representing Harrison Aherne. A long stairway leads up to a closed door; on either side are huge brick barriers. Video designer Austin Switser projects images on the floor, walls, and steps of two trains, one for blacks, one for whites; signs in waiting rooms and at water fountains declaring “White” and “Colored”; and photographs further displaying differences in class and race embodied by Christopher and Kay’s relationship.
Kennedy (Sleep Deprivation Chamber, June and Jean in Concert), who lived in New York for thirty years before moving to Virginia six years ago to be with her son, Adam, her collaborator on several plays, looks directly at racism and segregation and the lasting effects of slavery in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, as the history of two families becomes a microcosm for societal ills that sadly continue to be crucial sources of pain in American life today. It’s a dark fairy tale ably guided by Obie-winning director Evan Yionoulis (The Violet Hour, Three Days of Rain), who helmed the Lortel Award-winning TFANA revival of Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders in 2007. Despite its often confusing and fragmentary narrative, which eschews contemporary realism, Pecinka and Canfield, in her professional New York stage debut, are tantalizing together, striking surprisingly emotional chords as Kay and Christopher’s Romeo-and-Juliet-style love grows. The play is exceedingly angry and at times agonizingly personal, as if we are meeting Kennedy’s inner demons, as if she knew what she wanted to say and got right to the point, unconcerned with conventional plot and character development. (She wrote the play for her grandson after watching him graduate from a Virginia high school, feeling that not much had changed since the 1950s.) But there are also transcendent moments of pure poetry as Kennedy illuminates the sheer hatred that lies at the heart of racism. As you enter the theater, be sure to stop by the miniature model of the gray, dank Montefiore town, devoid of people, as if haunted, with tiny segregation signs at a water fountain and in the train station waiting room. As Kennedy demonstrates, one possible future is that there will ultimately be no one left, neither blacks nor whites, all victims of fear, jealousy, and the violence that comes with that.
Greene Naftali Gallery
508 West 26th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves., ground floor
Wednesday - Saturday through February 10, free with advance RSVP, 718-622-0330, 7:00
Life and death, science and mythology, earth and water, and past and future merge in Richard Maxwell’s Paradiso, continuing through February 10 at Chelsea’s Greene Naftali Gallery. The sixty-minute show, set in a pre- and postapocalyptic time, concludes Maxwell’s theatrical trilogy inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, following The Evening and Samara. In Paradiso, characters search for hope and question faith amid grief and despair in an empty, almost blindingly white space save for three sets of three-row semicircular wooden benches for the audience; two pillars offer some respite from the desolation. The staging makes the most of the unusual gallery space; the large, long glass east side walls can open like industrial garage doors, through which Maxwell has a shining white SUV drive in. A home-made robotic figure that evokes Erector-set-level technology, with a small, creaking camera for eyes and a speaker for a mouth, gets out of the car and put-puts toward the audience. “The sky isn’t blue,” it says in somewhat garbled electronic speech. “It’s neither overcast nor sunny — it’s a white slate that blanks your eyes across the day and it daily worsens.” His long soliloquy, with his camera eye surveilling the crowd, is followed by short vignettes and monologues by Elaine Davis, Jessica Gallucci, Carina Goebelbecker, and Charles Reina as various mostly unidentified characters, from strangers and friends to family members facing dilemmas both vague and specific. Occasionally they break into slow, silent modern-dance movements.
Maxwell, whose first monograph, The Theater Years, was recently copublished by Greene Naftali, wrote and directed Paradiso, which, despite all the gloom and doom, is ostensibly about love, in all its forms. “Love has no merit nor no blame,” the robot says. “Love is all that remains,” a character opines. “We are loving. Paradise means to be with the people you love who you lost, to reside in all the energy and vitality of hope,” another character says, adding, “What am I saying? I don’t use words anymore. Fuck it, I can’t dwell on it, I have to move on.” Meanwhile, two people have tea. A man and a woman sleep in the desert. A couple helps their daughter following an operation. Everyone talks primarily in nonspecific dialogue delivered in an often straightforward, detached manner. Snippets give tiny clues to what might have happened, including a major war. “Who were the people who could have saved us?” someone asks. At the end, all that is left is the robot, spewing out a long, narrow sheet of paper that conjures up a neverending CVS receipt. The audience can go up and read what keeps coming out, a series of randomly generated scenes between multiple characters that has nothing whatsoever to do with what we just saw, except everything — little fragments of life, much like Paradiso itself, offering more questions than answers but clinging to hope in an indeterminate, potentially cataclysmic future.
The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns
195 Maujer St. between Graham Ave. & Humboldt St.
Wednesday - Sunday through April 27, $135 - $165
Brooklyn’s Third Rail Projects take audiences down a very dark rabbit hole in Then She Fell, an immersive reimagining of Lewis Carroll, Charles Dodgson, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There set in a fictional mental hospital. The show, which opened in the fall of 2012 at a different location in Greenpoint, has now been extended in its longtime home in a building on Maujer St. that used to be a parochial school. The thrilling experience leads fifteen people at a time across three floors, and every room and hallway offers another chapter in the story; most of the time you will find yourself alone with a character or with only one or two other audience members (probably not those you came with), interacting directly with the narrative — although in a strictly limited way. As you are told in the introduction, you should not speak unless asked to and should not open any closed doors. However, you are given a key to try to unlock various drawers and boxes. Over the course of two hours, you might find yourself being fed grapes, brushing a young woman’s hair in a small, private room, playing an intimate game of poker, relaxing in bed next to a stranger, drinking a shot of an unidentified liquid, taking dictation using an old-fashioned pen and inkwell, or riffling through hospital records and pages torn out of a diary. (Many of the rooms are dimly lit, so bring reading glasses if you need them.) The multidisciplinary show, which features a lot of contemporary dancing, primarily solos and duets, focuses on the perhaps unhealthy relationship Dodgson might have had with Alice Liddell, whom Dodgson photographed and wrote, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for when she was twelve and he was thirty-two. Dodgson had been entertaining the Liddell children with his fanciful stories for several years, but a rift occurred in June 1863 between him and the family; mysteriously, several pages from his diary are missing, apparently now scattered throughout Kingsland Ward.
Since Then She Fell started, Third Rail has gone on to present two more immersive productions in New York City, Ghost Light, which went behind the scenes at Lincoln Center, and The Grand Paradise, a wild vacation set in a Bushwick warehouse. As much fun as those were, there’s something special about Then She Fell; the characters are more fully drawn, the narrative more driven, creating a unique personal experience for each audience member. The cast impeccably guides you through your particular story arc, which has a beginning, a middle, and an end, even though you will see only about two-thirds of what is going on. Alice Liddell and the Alice from the books are played by Kristen Carcone and Jenna Purcell, who merge together in mirrors. Alex Schell is sublimely sexy as the Mad Hatter, while Charly Wenzel is effectively cryptic as the doctor, whose staff includes Gabriela Gowdie, Bree Doobay, Kasey Blanco, and Jeff Sykes as Orderly Robinson, who might have a message for you. Kyle Castillo is the White Rabbit, Taylor Semin is the manipulative Red Queen, and Roxanne Kidd is the alluring White Queen. Meanwhile, Gierre J. Godley appears from time to time as Carroll/Dodgson. The production is intricately written, directed, designed, and choreographed by Third Rail cofounders Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett, with original music and sound design by Sean Hagerty, appropriately creepy lighting by Kryssy Wright, and lovely period costumes by Karen Young. Then She Fell delves into the mind not only of Dodgson/Carroll but of each character, giving them depth and emotional feelings that will immerse you even further into their tale. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothes you might not mind spilling ink on; you’ll have to check your coat and any bags at the door, and no cameras or cell phones are allowed. You don’t have to eat or drink what’s offered to you or do anything else you’d rather not, but, as with the best immersive shows — and this is certainly up there with the grand master, Sleep No More — the more you participate, the more you will rejoice in the spirit of it all.
Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Pl.
Tuesday, January 30, $25 (use code SOAP7 for $18 tickets), 7:00
In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which takes place every January 27, an impressive cast is performing seven staged readings of Jeff Cohen’s The Soap Myth in four East Coast states, from January 22 to February 1. The poignant drama was inspired by the true story of concentration camp survivor Morris Spitzer, whose one-man crusade to get Holocaust museums to include exhibits on soap made by Nazis from murdered humans was detailed in a 2000 article in Moment magazine. Reviewing the 2012 National Jewish Theater production at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, I wrote that it “offers an intriguing look into the speculative nature of history and one man’s furious dedication to setting the record straight.” The touring show is directed by Pam Berlin and stars seven-time Emmy winner Ed Asner as Milton Saltzman, two-time Tony nominee Johanna Day as Holocaust scholar Esther Feinman and Holocaust denier Brenda Goodsen, Naked Angels cofounder Ned Eisenberg as museum curator Daniel Silver, and Missing Bolts co-artistic director Blair Baker as journalist Annie Blumberg. The production will have two area performances, January 30 ($25) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and February 1 ($36) at Hofstra Hillel at Hofstra University in Hempstead, followed by a talkback with members of the company.