Onstage / Inventive twists on weighty topics
Playwright Gary Earl Ross
Photo by Nancy J. Parisi
By Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton
Director: Robert Waterhouse
Cast: Kristin Bentley, Adriano Gatto, Jenn Stafford, Chris Evans, Aleks Malejs (Anne), and David Lamb
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, winner of five 2013 Tony Awards including Best Play, brought audiences into the mind of a fifteen-year-old autistic boy. Onstage, that mind is presented as both clinical and complicated through both dialogue, lighting, and a stark set capable of drastic permutations. In The Father, the 2014 Molière winner for Best Play (as La Père), audiences are taken inside the mind of an elderly victim of dementia, and, while nonlinear storytelling accomplishes part of that task, the rest is left to the performer playing Andre, the central character. On Broadway, Frank Langella won his fourth Tony for the role in 2016; this month at the Kavinoky, company artistic director David Lamb takes on the challenge.
“Rather than taking on a conventional story line, the play shows us a state of synaptic disintegration in the addled mind of a dyspeptic old man suffering from dementia, possibly Alzheimer’s,” says Lamb. “I am in the process of learning it purely from a subjective point of view. This is especially important to me—though it may ultimately piss off the other cast members—as the play is delivered from Andre’s perspective. This makes their experience frighteningly disconnected and uncomfortable. The audience has to puzzle out what is going on, just as Andre does, even to the point of identifying the characters. Don’t want to give too much away about this unusual theatrical technique; however, suffice it to say that anything that appears certain may be upset and changed. This is a depiction of dementia and the rising panic, obstinacy, and defiant lucidity hurled at the gathering darkness. The play is very funny in a Kafkaesque way, but full of Pinter’s menace.”
While choosing a season of plays of merit is always a careful proposition, this one piqued Lamb’s interest when he’d heard in won awards in both Paris and London. “Bob [Waterhouse, director] was going to the West End, so I asked him to give it a look. He liked what he saw, I gave it a read, and it was added to our season,” says Lamb. “Tony Chase and Javier [Bustillo, Buffalo United Artists artistic director] saw it in New York and mentioned that I might play it; I was easily cajoled!”
Not that the role is an easy one, and not that Lamb isn’t apprehensive, given that he hasn’t been onstage in three years and heart surgery has since damaged his voice. “This part is huge in scope, and Chris Hampton’s [translator] lines are full of ellipses and very difficult to memorize—Frank Langella said it took him a year—but the very challenge is part of the role’s appeal, of course. Those ellipses have to be filled by the actor in a way that makes both their content and the character’s state of mind clear to the audience. It all takes time, but I will have very talented people to tell me I have made a wrong choice, probably even when I haven’t! I hope we will at least make our audience aware in a meaningful way of the horrors of dementia, both for those suffering and for those who are burdened with caring for them.”
Looking ahead to next season, “We are doing Buffalo’s first production of The Producers, and Lynne Kurdziel Formato will come back to direct,” previews Lamb. “And we’re doing The Foreigner and The Crucible, but we have to get some playable comedies!”
The Father opens April 27 at Kavinoky (kavinokytheatre.com, 881-7668).
The Trial of Trayvon Martin
Subversive Theatre Collective
By Gary Earl Ross
Director: Kurt Schneiderman
Cast: Brian Brown, Rick Lattimer, Lawrence Rowswell, Leon Copeland, Brittany Bassett, Vernia Garvin, Mike Motterna
For the third year in a row, three-time Artie award winner Gary Earl Ross presents a world premiere at Subversive Theatre Collective. This year, as with last year’s The Mark of Cain, he uses a true story to create drama, but The Trial of Trayvon Martin has a twist. It begins with the well-publicized confrontation between Martin and his killer, George Zimmerman, but ends in an alternate reality where Zimmerman lies dead and Martin enters the criminal justice system.
“In structure, the play has elements of both police procedurals—interrogation and review of evidence—and courtroom dramas, testimony and rulings by a judge,” previews Ross. “Instead of music during scene changes, there are voiceover dialogues that add texture to the story. Also, information from George Zimmerman’s trial is used in Trayvon Martin’s trial in a different way. And the lawyers, on opposite sides of the stage, do their summations like a debate, their arguments presented side by side.”
Ross first explored his feelings about Zimmerman’s acquittal through a short short story of the same name, which was first published in Lightning Gazette and subsequently in Queen City Flash (searchable on Google). When Ross, who is associate artistic director at Subversive, and artistic director Kurt Schneiderman began to plan this season, they discussed a Black Lives Matter piece. After Ross invited Schneiderman to read his story, the selection for the seventh installment of the Black Power Play series was set.
Ross created the play as an ensemble piece, with a mix of fictional characters and characters based on real people, including, of course, Zimmerman and Martin, as well as Martin’s father and school friend Rachel, and Zimmerman’s wife. Fictional characters are defender Imani Fairchild, prosecutor Anita Corday, detective Billy Hooks, and Judge Nora Westlake.
“There is no single direction early readers thought the play would ultimately go, but everyone expected the criminal justice system would be harder on Trayvon,” says Ross. “That expectation underscores the central premise, that the criminal justice system treats people of color differently, something that is well-documented. Blacks, for example, have less success with an insanity defense than whites. One study of Stand Your Ground laws, mentioned in the play, notes that when a white kills a black, he has a one in six chance of a Stand Your Ground defense working. With roles reversed, a black defendant has a one in 100 chance. The play tries to explore why. But I hope I have built in enough twists and turns with the details of Florida law, adolescents in jail, and the flaws of individual characters to give the audience genuine surprises.”
Next season, Ross and partner Tamara Alsace have teamed to write/and present Yo Tambien Soy un Hombre, a play about the “almost forgotten” 1966 migrant workers’ protest in the area around North Collins. It will be a coproduction with Raices and Subversive in the fall; Raices artistic director Victoria Perez will direct.
In the meantime, Ross would like to add that, “as the father of a police officer in the same Florida county that acquitted George Zimmerman—and my son predicted the acquittal based not upon the evidence but upon his perception of the area—I understand that blue lives matter and all lives do. But dismissing Black Lives Matter ignores the statistics that while police shoot more whites than blacks, blacks (ten to twelve percent of the population) are shot at a much higher rate. So many cases have filled the news since Trayvon was shot that we forget the many that took place before his death. In my play, his lawyer addresses several of those shootings that most of the audience will not have heard of.”
Subversive Theatre opens The Trial of Trayvon Martin April 6 (subversivetheatre.org, 408-0499).
ALSO PLAYING (in order of closing)
American Repertory Theater of Western New York closes Steve Martin’s The Underpants April 1 (artofwny.com, 634-1102).
The Sound of Music closes April 2 at Shea’s (sheas.org, 847-1410).
The Motherf*cker with the Hat closes April 2 at Road Less Traveled Productions (roadlesstraveledproductions.com; 629-3069).
Miss Nelson is Missing finishes at Lancaster Opera House April 2 (lancopera.org, 683-1776).
The Seedbed closes at Irish Classical Theatre April 2. (irishclassicaltheatre.com, 853-4282).
Buffalo Laboratory Theater closes Proof April 2 at Shea’s 710 Theatre (sheas.org, 847-0850).
Theatre of Youth presents Charlotte’s Web until April 9. (theatreofyouth.org, 884-4400).
New Phoenix closes The Correspondent on April 15 (newphoenixtheatre.org, 853-1334).
OPENING THIS MONTH
MusicalFare opens Million Dollar Quartet April 19 (musicalfare.com, 839-8540).
I’m Fine opens April 20 at Alleyway (alleyway.com, 852-2600).
O’Connell & Company presents The Cemetery Club starting April 20 (oconnellandcompany.com, 848-0800).
Godspell opens at Lancaster Opera House April 21 (lancopera.org, 716-683-1776).
Cabaret opens April 25 at Shea’s (sheas.org, 847-0850).
Jewish Repertory Theatre opens The Great God Pan April 27 (jewishrepertorytheatre.com, 888-718-4253).
Playwright Donna Hoke covers theater for Spree and Forever Young. Twitter @donnahoke.