This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

TWI-NY TALK: JOHN KELLY — UNDERNEATH THE SKIN

John Kelly takes on the persona of Samuel Steward in Underneath the Skin (photo by Josef Astor)

John Kelly takes on the persona of Samuel Steward in Underneath the Skin (photo by Josef Astor)

NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
October 11-12, $35-$45, 7:30
212-992-8484
nyuskirball.org

“I like to move people. That’s my job, to move people. I’m not an entertainer; I’m an engager,” performance artist extraordinaire John Kelly told me in a phone interview earlier this week as he was hunkered down, preparing his latest show, Underneath the Skin, for its world premiere October 11-12 at NYU’s Skirball Center. For four decades, Kelly has been creating shows in which he takes on the persona of other artists, including Egon Schiele in Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, Caravaggio in The Escape Artist, Joni Mitchell in Paved Paradise, and Antonin Artaud in Life of Cruelty. In the multimedia Underneath the Skin, Kelly, who is also a visual artist, filmmaker, dancer-choreographer, vocalist, songwriter, and author, explores the life and career of poet, professor, tattoo artist, novelist, diarist, and “sexual renegade” Samuel Steward. The Ohio-born Steward, who died in Berkeley in 1993 at the age of eighty-four, left behind a highly influential legacy despite constant systemic roadblocks because of his sexuality.

“Misfortune to a degree followed him, but maybe misfortune followed every gay man in those days,” said Kelly, who did extensive research for the show, which he wrote, directed, choreographed, produced, scored, designed the set and costumes for, and did the video editing. The piece, which is completely constructed of Steward’s words, also features Chris Harder, Alvaro Gonzalez, and Hucklefaery (ne’ Ken Mechler). “Every hour at this point is crucial,” Kelly noted, but he was still very generous with his time as we spoke about Steward, the AIDS epidemic, cultural amnesia, recalibration, and autobiography. Kelly will also be appearing at the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky on November 26 in a cabaret concert of original music as well as songs by Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Charles Aznavour, Danny Elfman, and others.

twi-ny: Since the mid-1980s, you’ve been taking on the persona of other artists. What initially attracted you to do these kinds of character studies? As a child, were you doing impersonations, or were you drawn to artists?

John Kelly: I grew up assuming I’d be a visual artist. I could draw — I got that gift from my father. But then I switched to dance and ballet training, and modern when I was about seventeen. I came upon Schiele in art school and he became one of my early inspirations. So my performance work about him was a way of merging my dance background with my visual art practice, literally to embody an artist onstage, to see what that would look like.

The thing about the niche in my career focusing on the character of artists — my work has been fifty-fifty autobiographical or semiautobiographical or metaphorical, and then fifty percent focusing on actual characters from history, whether it was a real person or a mythological character like Orpheus. And I guess the reason with that is that when I do the autobiographical or metaphorical or semiautobiographical works, there’s an urgency in me that is wanting to get out. And then when I focus on an existing character, there’s something in their life story and work that speaks to me, and I’m able to embody them to some degree and also satisfy my need to express certain parts of myself and what I’m going through at any given moment.

(photo by Paula Court)

John Kelly traced his own life and career in the autobiographical Time No Line (photo by Paula Court)

twi-ny: When you were doing the autobiographical Time No Line, did you learn anything about yourself that you hadn’t realized before?

jk: I’ve been keeping journals since 1977, and I started scanning them because I wanted to get another copy, with an eye to an eventual memoir. But one of the things that fueled Time No Line was that I’m a survivor of my generation. My generation was pretty much wiped out by the AIDS epidemic, and I’m watching a couple of things: I’m watching the absence of my tribe in the world and the absence of those voices and the absence of our intergenerational dialogue between my generation and younger generations, and also I’m seeing my generation’s history being written by younger people who weren’t there and who probably had no way of really getting it.

I imagine they’re highly educated and well-intended — I just hope they get it right because they’re accessing the dead heroes, like David Wojnarowicz and Marsha P. Johnson; they’re not accessing the live heroes or the last survivors necessarily. With the world the way it is right now, there is a focus on activism in the kind of street sense of activism, but I embody a different kind of activism. I decided my place was on the stage, not on the streets, and that said, I made many pieces directly or tangentially about the AIDS epidemic and issues of survival and grief and all that.

It’s exacerbated by digital technology, it’s exacerbated by short attention spans, it’s exacerbated by a culture of narcissism and entitlement. Half the youth generally doesn’t really care to look back; they just assume that the ground they are standing on is solid and has always been there.

twi-ny: And they can like something on Facebook or post an article and then they’re done.

jk: Exactly. So it’s an uphill battle, and I do what I can to connect the dots. . . . But the upside of technology is that you can be on a platform like Facebook and connect and have dialogue and be reminded that our lives are still valid.

twi-ny: That leads us right into Underneath the Skin, about Samuel Steward, who, like you, was a diarist. What inspired you to take on his persona?

jk: I had read Justin Springs’s book [Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade] about four years ago and I really loved it. Then Jay Wegman, who runs Skirball, said, “I want to commission you to make a piece about him,” and I was like, “Whoa. Hey, let me think about this.” So then I went to Steward’s actual writings and drawings and the rest, and I avoided Springs’s amazing take on Steward because I had to formulate my own relationship to this man and his work. And also to witness it in context; probably the most profound aspect of his whole thing is that he prevailed and he took enormous chances at a time when literally if you went to a gay bar, you couldn’t even face the person next to you; you had to face front, and there were police outside waiting to arrest you if you didn’t have payola. And if you were arrested, your name and address were put in the newspaper. Those were the decades in which he was functioning and flourishing, albeit behind closed doors.

twi-ny: A lot of people still don’t know about the cops waiting to arrest gay people, in bars right around where Skirball is now.

jk: Exactly. That’s cultural amnesia; it’s a sad history to be reminded of.

Samuel Steward is subject of John Kelly’s latest performance piece

Samuel Steward is subject of John Kelly’s latest performance piece

twi-ny: What do you think Steward would have thought about what’s going on today?

jk: From his vantage point between 1950 and 1984, he was already speaking to younger audiences and saying you have no idea what it was like. So to imagine him now, and maybe if he had survived the AIDS epidemic — he died December 31, 1993, at the height of the epidemic — I imagine he’d by joyful in the advancements that have occurred.

twi-ny: Do you think he would have taken quickly to the internet, which could have provided a forum for his different kind of works?

jk: The thing is, he wanted to write authentically and he couldn’t. I mean, he did, but he eventually maybe wrote most authentically when he wrote as Phil Andros for his erotic literature. I don’t call it pornography; I call it erotic literature because it’s beautifully written.

He wrote a novel, Angels on the Bough, in 1936, and he got fired from a teaching job for it because he had a positive presentation of a prostitute. He couldn’t be out. I think he might have a low tolerance for the minutiae of policing ourselves and the immediate vilification of any wavering from abject correctness, even with people who are coming from two generations earlier. He might have a hard time navigating that, or maybe he would endorse it. There’s no way of knowing. He was a smart man.

twi-ny: I don’t know if you’ve seen Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, but he does a bit about the LGBTQ community and how it overpolices itself, and some people find it very funny and others think it’s highly offensive.

jk: Basically, the whole planet is recalibrating; the whole culture is recalibrating. And we’re in the process of recalibrating what really wants to happen and what does not want to happen anymore. And it’s a learning curve. . . . Especially on the internet, where there’s maybe no real consequence attached to a response, which could have a ripple effect and have enormous consequences.

twi-ny: Do you see anybody today continuing his legacy?

jk: When I think of Samuel Steward, I think of a gentle soul who had to put a hardened shell around himself because he wasn’t able to — he lived life freely, but he couldn’t live his life completely freely. . . . His greatest contribution was that he kept all this stuff, and it comes down to us, and that the ephemera and the archives are what speak to a life pretty fully lived in a time when it was illegal to do any number of the things that he did.

THE SÉANCE MACHINE

The Séance Machine,

Ilana Gabrielle, Lisa Lamothe, and Jonathan Cruz star as three doctors trying to communicate with the dead in the world premiere of The Séance Machine (photo by Brandon James Gwinn)

The Tank
312 West 36th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
October 10-31, $20-$30
thetanknyc.org
brandonjamesgwinn.com

Sitting around a table with a medium attempting to contact deceased loved ones took off in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century as people flocked to spiritualism. EllaRose Chary and Brandon James Gwinn take communicating with the dead to the next technological level in The Séance Machine, running October 10 through All Hallow’s Eve at the Tank. Cowriters Chary and Gwinn and director Julia Sears invite fifty-six guests a night to spend an hour with Dr. Carolyn Blau’s Mechanical Wave Reassembly Hypercardioid Sequencing Module, the latest in spiritual equipment to deal with ghosts and time travel. NEMOD Industries CEO Carly McPherson explains in a promotional video, “Dr. Blau had the vision for a device capable of letting us hear aspects of our own universe no human ears have ever heard before.”

The cast features Jonathan Cruz (The Hollywood Special Effects Show) as anthropologist and psychologist Dr. John Alvarez, Ilana Gabrielle (It’s a Man’s World, Coming: A Rock Musical . . .) as paleontologist and geologist Dr. Gabby White, and Lisa Lamothe (Incredibly Deaf Musical) as audio-physicist Dr. Blau, with set design by Susannah Hyde and lighting by Annie Garrett-Larsen. Chary and Gwinn have previously collaborated on Cotton Candy and Cocaine, Thelma Louise, Dyke Remix, Queer. People. Time., and other shows and also curate the monthly cabaret series Tank-aret, which returns to the Tank on November 26 with “Maybzgiving: A Queerucopia.”

NEXT WAVE 2019

(photo by Heidrun Lohr)

The Second Woman repeats the same scene from John Cassavetes’s Opening Night one hundred times (photo by Heidrun Lohr)

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Peter Jay Sharp Building, 230 Lafayette Ave.
BAM Fisher, Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Pl.
October 15 - December 15
718-636-4100
www.bam.org

Like myriad loyal BAMgoers, I look forward every year to the announcement of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which has been presenting cutting-edge, experimental, and innovative dance, music, film, theater, opera, and hard-to-categorize multidisciplinary performances from around the world for nearly forty years. We eagerly scour the schedule to see when our longtime BAM favorites will be returning, scanning for such beloved names and companies as Robert Wilson, Sasha Waltz, Grupo Corpo, Batsheva, Philip Glass, Sankai Juku, Ivo van Hove, Mark Morris, Théâtre de la Ville, William Kentridge, Laurie Anderson, and the incomparable Pina Bausch, programmed by masterful executive producer Joe Melillo since 1999.

But this year’s lineup features nary a single familiar name, including that of Melillo, who retired after the Winter/Spring season. For his debut Next Wave Festival, new artistic director David Binder has opted to include a roster of performers all making their BAM debuts as well. But don’t be scared off by the lack of recognition. There was a time when no one in New York had ever seen Pina Bausch, Sankai Juku, Batsheva, Sasha Waltz, et al. And by its very nature, the Next Wave is all about the future of performance, delivered to an eager and intrepid audience open to anything and everything.

(photo by Ernesto Galan)

Dead Centre’s Hamnet tells the story of Shakespeare’s son (photo by Ernesto Galan)

“In programming my first season at BAM, I was inspired by the genesis of Next Wave and the groundbreaking work of my predecessors, Harvey Lichtenstein and Joe Melillo,” Binder said in a statement. “Next Wave is a place to see, share, and celebrate the most exciting new ideas in theater, music, dance, and, especially, the unclassifiable adventures. We’ve invited a slate of artists who have never performed at BAM. Each and every one of them is making a BAM debut, with artistic work that’s surprising and resonant. I’m excited to launch this season and to build BAM’s next chapter
with you.”

The 2019 Next Wave roster is an impressive one, kicking off October 15-20 with Michael Keegan-Dolan and Teaċ Daṁsa’s Swan Lake / Loch na hEala, about a young girl sexually assaulted by a priest. In The Second Woman, Alia Shawkat performs the same scene from John Cassavetes’s Opening Night one hundred times with one hundred different men over the course of twenty-four consecutive hours. Christiane Jatahy’s What if they went to Moscow? explores film and theater in a retelling of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters that takes place concurrently onstage at the BAM Fisher and onscreen at BAM Rose Cinemas, the audiences switching places as the performance repeats. In Dante or Die’s User Not Found, audience members sit in a café at the Greene Grape Annex on Fulton St., following the exploits of a man a few tables away. Dimitris Papaioannou breaks boundaries as he explores human existence in The Great Tamer. And Glenn Kaino’s When a Pot Finds Its Purpose will be the inaugural free exhibition at the new Rudin Family Gallery at BAM Strong.

(photo by Justin Jones)

Dante or Die’s User Not Found takes place in the Greene Grape Annex on Fulton St. (photo by Justin Jones)

The 2019 Next Wave Festival also includes Bruno Beltrão/Grupo de Rua’s Inoah, Dumbworld’s free outdoor art piece He Did What?, Selina Thompson’s free interactive installation Race Cards, Dead Centre’s Hamnet, Marlene Monteiro Freitas’s Bacchae: Prelude to a Purge, Untitled Projects/Unicorn Theatre, UK’s The End of Eddy, Peeping Tom’s 32 rue Vandenbranden, Fuel/National Theatre/Leeds Playhouse’s Barber Shop Chronicles, Kyle Marshall Choreography’s A.D. & Colored, Kate McIntosh’s In Many Hands, and Meow Meow’s A Very Meow Meow Holiday Show. Still worried about unfamiliarity? If you’ve been to BAM before, you should be ready, willing, and able to be surprised, and if you’ve never been to BAM, you should be preparing to make your debut.

HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING

(photo by Joan Marcus)

It’s Catholic conservative against Catholic conservative in world premiere of Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights Horizons (photo by Joan Marcus)

Playwrights Horizons, Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 10, $49-$89
www.playwrightshorizons.org

Almost every day we see news about the cannibalistic infighting among the Democrats as the moderate, liberal, and progressive wings argue over policy and identity politics while the original field of more than two dozen candidates to challenge President Donald Trump is whittled down. What appeared to be a slam dunk has been hampered by uncertainty and venomous attacks on their own. Tired of watching them yelling at one another? Then perhaps it’s time to hear some Republicans ripping each other apart, as playwright and filmmaker Will Arbery twists audience expectations in his unnerving and wickedly poignant Heroes of the Fourth Turning, making its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons through November 10. New York City theatergoers who are used to seeing liberal-minded works that attack, and often deride, religious conservatives and Trump supporters are in for a surprise as Arbery, who was raised in a Christian conservative home in Dallas, Texas, brings together five Republicans who are also hampered by uncertainty and let loose some venomous attacks. “We are living in barbaric times,” Justin says.

It’s August 19, 2017, one week after the Charlottesville riot and two days before the solar eclipse, and a group of friends are mingling in Justin’s backyard in the small town of Lander, Wyoming, pop. 7,000. (The cozy evening set is by Laura Jellinek.) He’s hosting a party for Dr. Gina Presson (Michele Pawk), who has just been inaugurated president of Transfiguration College of Wyoming, the alma mater of Justin (Jeb Kreager), Emily (Julia McDermott), Kevin (John Zdrojeski), and Teresa (Zoë Winters). They all graduated Transfiguration over the past fifteen years, and all are in the path of totality, a scientific term relating to the eclipse as well as a metaphor for their attempts to find their individual paths in the world. Although the Republicans control the White House and Congress, the friends are concerned about the Democrats. “There are more of them. We lost the popular vote, by a lot. And they’re mobilizing. In many ways, they are in power. And they’re trying to wipe us out,” Justin says. “There’s a war coming,” Teresa warns.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Kevin (John Zdrojeski), Justin (Jeb Kreager), and Teresa (Zoë Winters) pray for better times in new political play (photo by Joan Marcus)

Kevin, who drinks, smokes, and snorts too much, is an off-balance clod who spurts out whatever’s on his mind, which pisses off the cold, calculating Teresa, who has moved to Brooklyn. “Don’t say gross things in a holy space,” Teresa declares after he makes a rude remark. “This isn’t a holy space; it’s just Justin’s house,” Kevin replies. “The panopticon, Kevin, Catholicism is the panopticon. This is a holy space,” Teresa explains. “It’s also a profane space,” Kevin responds.

They bicker over the Virgin Mary, morality, identity, the LGBT community, Trump, Hillary Clinton, Barry Goldwater, abortion, Patrick Buchanan, and more, making many of the same arguments that liberals do; in fact, if you were to switch a few names or words here and there, it could be a battle between lefties. There’s also a sexual energy that looms, from a past secret to possible future hook-ups.

The verbal sparring heats up when the distinguished Gina joins them and is not happy about Teresa’s unyielding support of far-right ideologues. Gina — a right-wing mirror of Hillary Clinton, down to her personal style — tells her, “These new people on the right, they’re not true conservatives. They’re charlatans, they’re hucksters. And honestly, darling, they’re a bit racist.” Meanwhile, Emily, who is very ill with what appears to be Lyme disease, is somewhere in the middle, searching for the human element. “Wow, she is . . . I’m sorry but she is such a hypocrite,” she says of Teresa. “At the ceremony, she had a little audience and she was trying to get me to admit that my liberal friend was a bad person. And I’m sorry, but I think it’s unfair to argue that I should cut ties with someone just because they’re on the other side. I can’t see things in black-and-white like that. I have a full faith, it’s my rock, it’s my pain, it’s my everything — and I also am friends with whoever I want to be friends with.”

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Kevin (John Zdrojeski) and Emily (Julia McDermott) discuss love and politics in Heroes of the Fourth Turning (photo by Joan Marcus)

Arbery (Plano, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing) was inspired by William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 1997 book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy — What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny and his own family: He was raised in Texas by Catholic conservatives who were not a bunch of numbskull deplorables but fellow citizens with a different point of view. Teresa explains that there are four turnings, each one lasting about a generation: High, Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis. In the play, as in America today, we are at Crisis mode. Not only won’t Republicans listen to Democrats, and liberals won’t listen to conservatives, but all the caterwauling within the same party is creating chaos; empathy and compassion have all but disappeared when it comes to politics. “Trump was made possible by the uneducated. . . . Liberty is being attacked, by both sides, and it’s tragic to see. Polarities make way for a tyrant,” Gina says, but Teresa proclaims, “Trump is a Golem molded from the clay of mass media and he’s come to save us all.”

Danya Taymor’s (Daddy, Pass Over) sharp, eagle-eyed direction smooths over some rough patches and carefully avoids turning the play into the kind of political posturing and manufactured conflicts we see on television news and social media, and monologues delivered by the three actresses are downright exhilarating, even if your personal opinions are completely contrary to theirs. In fact, the three female characters are stronger than the two males, and that shows in the acting; McDermott (Epiphany, Queens), Tony winner Pawk (A Small Fire, Hollywood Arms), and Winters (White Noise, An Octoroon) kick the men’s butts. But the real star of the show just might be sound designer Justin Ellington; the play begins with a blaring gunshot, and Ellington later lets loose a shrill, mysterious explosion of loud noise several times, a clarion call that perhaps is meant to wake us up to what is happening to every one of us, no matter who you plan to vote for in 2020.

NOVENAS FOR A LOST HOSPITAL

(photo  by Julieta Cervantes)

Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (Kathleen Chalfant) rules over Novenas for a Lost Hospital (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and other locations
224 Waverly Pl.
Wednesday - Monday through October 13, $20-$60
212-627-2556
www.rattlestick.org

Cusi Cram’s Novenas for a Lost Hospital is part historical walking tour, part theatrical drama, honoring the legacy of St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village, guiding sixty guests a night from a church courtyard to a theater to the park across the street from where the nonprofit Catholic hospital stood from its beginnings as a one-room medical facility founded by the Daughters of Charity in 1849 until April 2010, when it closed due to ballooning debt and questionable redevelopment plans. In the two-plus-hour show, longtime West Village residents Cram, Rattlestick artistic director Daniella Topol, and dramaturg Guy Lancaster relate the history of St. Vincent’s, a Level 1 trauma institution and teaching hospital that treated victims of the cholera epidemic in 1849, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, the Titanic sinking in 1912, the FALN bombing in 1975, and the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

(photo  by Julieta Cervantes)

Cusi Cram’s Novenas for a Lost Hospital explores the history of St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

But the hospital is perhaps most well known for being front and center battling the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, which is what Cram focuses on from the start, in the courtyard of St. John’s in the Village, where a singer (Goussy Celestin) welcomes everyone, hands are ritually washed, a quartet does the Hustle, and an ailing man bathes himself with agonizing difficulty. The action then heads indoors to the Rattlestick black box, where a collection of newspaper articles and photographs about St. Vincent’s are on display on upturned gurneys. After they are wheeled out, a long, repetitive, melodramatic middle section switches back and forth between 1849 and more contemporary times, led by Sisters of Charity founder and first American-born saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (Kathleen Chalfant), who is accompanied by Sister Mary Ulrica (Natalie Woolams-Torres) and Sister Mary Angela Hughes (Kelly McAndrew) in the past and a pair of nurses (Woolams-Torres and McAndrew) more recently.

They are visited by flamboyant Afro-Caribbean slave, hairdresser, and philanthropist Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith) as they treat a series of patients, primarily Lazarus (Ken Barnett), so named because he won’t die, his boyfriend (Justin Genna), and choreographer JB (Justin Genna). “A crisis can be very grounding. Purposeful,” Lazarus tells the audience. “Not dying was my job for three years. And before that, trying to save everyone I loved or admired from dying a miserable, humiliating death was my job.”

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

The audience is led from a courtyard to a theater to a park in Novenas for a Lost Hospital (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Ultimately, the show, which is divided into nine novenas, including “A Prayer for the Reluctantly Resurrected,” “A Prayer for the Forgotten,” and “A Prayer for the Beauty of Chaos,” makes its way through the streets to NYC AIDS Memorial Park for a grand finale that brings everything full circle. Despite plenty of bumps and slow moments, Novenas for a Lost Hospital is a touching communal experience, a unique eulogy for an institution that helped define a neighborhood — and a city — through more than a century and a half and is now a memory of a bygone era when money wasn’t everything and individual lives mattered.

CROSSING THE LINE: WHY?

Kathryn Hunter in Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne's play 'Why?' at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, June 2019 Pascal Gely

Kathryn Hunter wonders why in Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne production about theater itself (photo by Pascal Gely)

Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Through October 6, $85-$120
866-811-4111
www.tfana.org
crossingthelinefestival.org

The basic three-letter question “Why?” can be a repeated response, over and over again, from a curious child learning about the world, a deeply philosophical inquiry into human nature, or a painful cry when tragedy occurs. In Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s Why?, continuing at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center through October 6, it relates to two queries, general and specific: Why do we make and attend theater, and why did Josef Stalin have theater innovator Vsevolod Meyerhold and his actress wife, Zinaida Reich, brutally killed?

Part of FIAF’s multidisciplinary Crossing the Line Festival, Why? is also the centerpiece of “Peter Brook\NY,” a two-week, two-borough tribute to the ninety-four-year-old theater and film director — he actually prefers being called a “distiller” — an Emmy and two-time Tony winner who has written such books as The Open Door: Thoughts on Acting and Theatre, Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning, and The Shifting Point: Theatre, Film, Opera 1946-1987 and has directed such plays as Hamlet with Paul Scofield, The Visit with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Marat/Sade, and more recently The Suit, The Prisoner, and The Valley of Astonishment. He is a fixture at TFANA, which is around the corner from the BAM Harvey Theater, which he helped renovate in 1987 for his epic version of The Mahabharata. He and Estienne have been collaborating for more than forty decades, and they know theater.

(photo by Pascal Gely)

Marcello Magni gets serious after clowning around in Why? (photo by Pascal Gely)

The first half cheerfully explores why there is theater at all, how it came to be, and what can make it so special. The show begins with Hayley Carmichael, Kathryn Hunter, and Marcello Magni, all dressed in black, giving a kind of master class in acting. Highlights include a clownish Magni running around in circles and Hunter wondering how to make the line “My Lord, the carriage awaits” not boring. They interact with the audience, even bringing a few people onstage for some clever improv, and clearly are in love with their chosen profession, just as we are in love with watching them. There’s lots of laughter, accompanied by Laurie Blundell on piano. Theater appears to be a friendly, safe space for everyone.

But in the second act, the trio, still wearing the same costumes, moving about on the same, mostly empty stage (Brook is known for his spare sets, as evidenced by his seminal book The Empty Space — A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate), the trio becomes far more serious, reading letters, news reports, and other documents relating what happened to Stanislavski protégé Meyerhold and Reich when they supported the communist revolution instead of Stalin, who dealt with them in violent, theatrical ways. The harsh tale also involves actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. “Theater is a dangerous weapon,” Meyerhold famously wrote in the 1920s. Nearly a century later, it still is; it may be able to entertain, educate, and enlighten us, but it is also seen by far too many as a threat, which Brook and Estienne point out in their inimitable, inestimable way.

SATOSHI MIYAGI: ANTIGONE

(photo: © Stephanie Berger)

The Park Ave. Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall has been transformed into the Styx-like Sanzu River for breathtaking version of Antigone (photo © Stephanie Berger)

Park Avenue Armory
Wade Thompson Drill Hall
643 Park Ave. at 67th St.
Through October 7, $35-$175
Artist talk with Satoshi Miyagi and Carol Martin, October 4, $15, 6:30
armoryonpark.org

Satoshi Miyagi’s lush Antigone at the Park Ave. Armory is likely to be the most stunning and graceful adaptation of Sophocles’s classic Greek tragedy you’ll ever experience. Originally presented in a courtyard in a fourteenth-century palace in France to open the 2017 Avignon Festival, the hundred-minute production has been adjusted for the armory’s massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall. The work uses almost exactly half the drill hall space, taking place on a long, shallow eighteen-thousand-gallon pond at the far end of the hall, with the audience sitting in rising rafters before it. Miyagi, who previously staged a different version of the twenty-five-hundred-year-old play in 2004, has now infused it with Buddhist meditations on ritual and death. As the audience is being seated, characters in white kimono-like dress are standing like ghosts in the water, surrounded by several large cairns. (The elegant set is by Junpei Kiz, the sublime costumes by Kayo Takahashi, and the fab hair and makeup by Kyoko Kajita.) The main actors come out and gleefully announce that they are a troupe from the small city of Shizuoka about to put on Antigone, identifying who they are portraying and playfully giving an English-language summary of the story. At the end of the intro, the charming Micari, who plays the title character, exclaims, “We invite you to see what happens next. Enjoy the show!”

What happens next is exquisite. Miyagi combines elements of traditional Noh, kabuki, and bunraku theater to create a brilliant retelling of the well-known tale, with the main characters each portrayed by two actors, one who speaks the dialogue (in Japanese, with English supertitles) while kneeling in the water, the other who lyrically moves about the space and interacts with the rest of the cast. The priest (Tsuyoshi Kijima) floats in on a small raft with paper lanterns; he stops to give shiny white wigs to the protagonists. The sons of Oedipus, Eteocles (Morimasa Takeishi) and Polyneices (Keita Mishima), have killed each other in battle, the former fighting for King Creon (Kouichi Ohtaka; Kazunori Abe), the latter leading a revolt. Creon has declared that Eteocles is to get a hero’s funeral while Polyneices will be treated as a traitor, his body left to rot and decay in the desert — and that anyone who attempts to give him an honorable burial will be stoned to death.

(photo: © Stephanie Berger)

Antigone (Micari) declares her freedom from the rules of the state in lush Satoshi Miyagi production (photo © Stephanie Berger)

Oedipus’s daughters, Antigone (Micari; Maki Honda) and Ismene (Asuka Fuse; Yuumi Sakakibara), disagree on how to proceed: While Ismene does not want to challenge Creon’s decree, Antigone is determined to follow the law of the gods and do right by Polyneices. “One sought to destroy us. One fought to defend us,” Ismene says about her brothers. “The dead are all the same. We send them off with the same rites,” Antigone argues. “That will not do. The death of a hero is different than that of a traitor,” Ismene answers. Antigone: “The difference doesn’t extend past death.” Ismene: “An enemy is an enemy even after death.” Antigone: “I was not born to hate. I was born to love.” Antigone, who is betrothed to Creon’s son, Haemon (Yoneji Ouchi; Daisuke Wakana), buries Polyneices and is turned in by a guard (Katsuhiko Konagaya; Tsuyoshi Kijima) who witnessed her illegal act. Creon then has to decide the fate of his would-be daughter-in-law as both Haemon and the blind prophet Tiresias (Takahiko Watanabe; Soichiro Yoshiue) demand mercy.

Antigone features a thrilling percussion score by Hiroko Tanakawa. Koji Osako’s extraordinary lighting design puts small lights in front of the moving actors, casting huge shadows on the wall that hover over everything like the gods looking down on humanity while evoking shadow puppet theater. Translated by Shigetake Yaginuma, the narrative, which resonates with regard to current global political situations (particularly in Japan, Greece, and America), centers on themes of gender and power. “As long as I live, no woman shall impose her will,” Creon says. “Never let a woman triumph over you,” he tells his son, who is torn between his love of Antigone and his duty to his father. Early on, Ismene explains to Antigone, “I cannot act in defiance of the state.” But Antigone refuses to acknowledge the government above the gods. “I do not fear the king,” she declares. “The law of the gods is what is most precious. . . . In the eyes of the king, mine must seem the actions of a stupid woman. But in my eyes, the king is foolish.”

(photo: © Stephanie Berger)

Haemon (Yoneji Ouchi) is torn between love for this betrothed and responsibility to his father in Antigone (photo © Stephanie Berger)

Throughout the show, the chorus (Ayako Terauchi, Fuyuko Moriyama, Haruka Miyagishima, Kenji Nagai, Mariko Suzuki, Miyuki Yamamoto, Moemi Ishii, Momoyo Tateno, Naomi Akamatsu, Ryo Yoshimi, Shunsuke Noguchi, Yu Sakurauchi, Yukio Kato, Yuya Daidomumon, Yuzu Sato) slowly wanders across the Styx-like Sanzu River, which leads the dead to the afterlife, mostly silent except for the sounds of their feet gliding on the water and occasional musical verses, including, “Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man. . . . Never without resources, he has devised escapes from desperate plagues. Only against Death shall he call for aid in vain.” Miyagi, who with the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center has also staged Medea, Mahabharata, and Peer Gynt among other classics, is emphasizing the notion that death is the great equalizer, that people should not be basing their earthly deeds on how it will impact what may or may not occur when the end comes. It’s not about heaven and hell or good vs. evil, the living and the dead or the rich and the poor; his Antigone is set in an ambiguous time and place that could be anywhere and everywhere, a breathtaking display of philosophy and artistry that, at its core, is about the basic decency of love, honor, and respect. Do whatever you can to see it, even if you have to defy your own personal gods of schedules and emails.