Wednesday, May 30, 2007

6th @ Penn’s Powerful “Resilience” Plays


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Don’t let the earnestness of the title “Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival 2007,” a series of productions running through August 12 at the 6th @ Penn storefront theatre at 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest, put you off from going. True, the name sounds like a collection of highly didactic and doggedly unentertaining plays about the great political, social and moral dilemmas of our time. But at least some of the productions are highly entertaining and often moving dramas, including many original pieces, some of which offer laughter along with the tears and emotional impacts of their stories. All are well staged and acted in ways that, as regular 6th @ Penn theatergoers know, far transcends the budget and technical limitations of the company and its space. (By the way, also ignore the address on the series brochure; it’s a typo. The above address is correct.)

One of 6th @ Penn’s current productions is a double bill called The Last Class and A Hundred Birds. The Last Class was written and directed by Marianne McDonald, a feisty, wiry woman of years whose previous connection to 6th @ Penn was as consultant and sometimes translator for their productions of ancient Greek tragedies. She’s also a professor and author about the period. The Last Class is a one-character play that purports to be the final lecture the unnamed professor (Jenni Prisk) will give in her life before she retires. It starts out as a zesty talk about her love of literature in general and the Greek classics in particular, but it soon drifts into a series of disjointed reminiscences of the professor’s own past.

6th @ Penn’s program describes The Last Class as “the personal journey of a woman through the hazards of alcoholism, loss and suicide to face her most difficult challenge: staying alive, and attempting to live a life of quality.” What that description doesn’t prepare you for is how laugh-out-loud funny the piece is. From Prisk’s stumbling entrance through the theatre onto the stage to give her lecture to many of the loonier parts of McDonald’s script (and her life, she insisted afterwards in an audience talk-back on opening night), quite a lot of The Last Class is downright hilarious. Even after McDonald’s script reaches its bitter, tragic emotional climax, there are still laughs, albeit fewer and more inhibited ones.

McDonald’s direction is like her writing — snappy, incisive, direct. Especially noteworthy is the moment in which Prisk slips out from behind the lectern when her talk becomes less academic and more personal. But it’s Prisk’s virtuoso performance which makes this show. It’s no disrespect to McDonald to say that Prisk probably does a better job of playing her than McDonald could do herself; she’s taller, more imperious and has a bell-like British accent which adds both to the appearance of sang-froid she maintains at the start of the play and the vulnerability and pain she reveals as the piece progresses.

A Hundred Birds is longer (a full hour), more elaborate (a cast of four instead of one) and a good deal more bitter. Its premise is simple, and in some ways tired from recent overuse: three 20-something men from different class backgrounds, preppie Dean (Robert Borzych), proletarian Mike (Greg Wittman) and lumpen actor Terry (Thomas Hall), kidnap and threaten to kill Nicky (Bud Coleman), the man who molested them all when they were 12. As conceived by playwright Ira Bateman-Gold, Nicky is a pretty baroque child molester even by today’s standard, when child sexual abuse has become a staple of popular entertainment and a frequent news story as well; not only did he fuck his victims in the ass, he made them wear dresses, lipstick and makeup and called each of them “my pretty girl.”

Though it’s performed without intermission and on the same bill with another play, A Hundred Birds is structured in two acts — and through much of the first act it’s pretty formulaic. If Ira Bateman-Gold doesn’t have a shrine in his home where he lights candles in front of a photo of David Mamet, he should; his characters converse in a sing-song style alternating between weird bits of trivia (Dean reads science books and Mike listens to NPR) and casually tossed-off obscenities. The play is about males under extreme stress — its cast is all-male, so 6th @ Penn probably paired it deliberately with the one-woman Last Class — and it even takes place in Mamet’s favorite locale, Chicago.

One thing Bateman-Gold gets right is he taps an old but still effective rule of dramatic construction: keep your main character off stage until Act I ends, and before that bring him to life only by having the other characters talk about him, thereby keeping the audience guessing about what he’s really like. When Terry enters after a brief blackout that divides the two acts, the play takes on chilling force. Though Wittman is the cutest actor in the production, Hall is by far the most charismatic, dominating the stage as his character does the situation and rising to the challenge of making this kooky psychopath believable. Also noteworthy is how subtle Bateman-Gold’s writing is; as much as the three protagonists hate the man who molested them, they don’t make the connection between the burnout of their intellectually precocious childhoods and their victimization, though we do immediately.

The acting is generally good, though Wittman’s attempt at a dese-dem-dose accent isn’t really believable coming from someone who’s physically so much the Valley Boy. Hall grips the stage, especially when he’s delivering the bizarre monologue that explains the title, and Borzych manages to make his spoiled character appropriately whiny — though in as class-stratified a society as the U.S. has become, it’s hard to believe this snotty rich (or at least semi-rich) kid went to the same public school as the other two. In a way, Bud Coleman has the biggest acting challenge: through most of A Hundred Birds he is either unconscious or pretending to be so, which means he has to spend nearly an hour slumped over in a chair without moving at all.

6th @ Penn founder, artistic director and occasional actor Dale Morris makes his directorial debut with the company in A Hundred Birds. He stages the action rather nervously but succeeds in keeping the play from becoming too talky. A simple set design by Kevin and Brenda McFarlane (Brenda is also the artistic director of the “Resilience of the Spirit” festival) serves both pieces effectively, and Mitchell Simkovsky’s lighting designs work even though one annoying house light shines straight at the audience until the overall lighting comes down as the plays begin.

The Last Class and A Hundred Birds alternate in repertory with a play called Lemkin’s House by Catherine Filloux, whose director, Hénia Belalia, has a fascinating résumé that alternates between work in the U.S. and Spain. Its subject is Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew, born in 1900, who trained first as a linguist and then as an attorney. Serving as a prosecutor through most of the 1930’s, Lemkin studied such mass murders of civilian populations as the Turkish government’s attack on Armenians in 1915 and Iraq’s massacre of Assyrians in 1933. When the Nazis attacked Poland in September 1939, Lemkin fled the country and escaped the Holocaust — but 49 of his relatives weren’t so lucky. In 1944 he published a study called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe in which, for the first time, he coined the term “genocide” — from the Greek for “a people” and the Latin for “kill” — to describe what the Nazis were doing to Jews, Slavs and others they considered “inferior races.”

After the war Lemkin served as a consultant to the Nuremberg war-crimes trials of Nazi leaders and lobbied the United Nations to pass an international convention against genocide. Passed in 1948, the convention formally took effect in 1951 after 20 nations had ratified it — but the U.S. didn’t do so until 1988, and then only when Senator William Proxmire pushed for it after the fallout over President Ronald Reagan’s visit to the graves of S.S. troops in Bitburg, Germany. Lemkin died of a heart attack in New York City in 1959 — and for some reason Catherine Filloux, instead of dramatizing his life, decided to begin her play with Lemkin’s death so she could have her fictional Lemkin react to more recent genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.

Lemkin’s House has some truly powerful moments, which director Belalia and her cast do full justice to — notably the sudden entrances of both men and women with guns (usually played by the cast’s two African-American actors, Anthony Gordon Hamm and Monique Gaffney, since they represent opposite sides of the war in Rwanda) — but a lot of it is as didactic as you’d fear from an entry in a series called “Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival.” It’s hard to believe that the real Lemkin was as naïve as Filloux’ Lemkin in believing that his anti-genocide law, in and of itself, would actually prevent future genocides. What’s worse — and maybe this is more a flaw of history or human nature than of Filloux’ writing — the “resilience of the spirit” her play documents isn’t anything positive, but the seeming persistence of the human impulse to massacre great numbers of fellow humans out of some racial, tribal or religious difference totally incomprehensible to those not directly involved. At one point the characters even debate whether the instinct to commit genocide is hard-wired into the human genome.

In general, 6th @ Penn does well by Filloux’ problematic script. All the actors except the one playing Lemkin, Walter Ritter — who gets the character’s passion but needs to soften the exaggerated oy-vey idea he has of a Jewish accent — have to do quick changes among multiple roles. Hamm is especially strong on both sides of the genocide fence, as an Army man and also a U.S. State Department official whom Lemkin sees as a potential protégé. Gaffney is better as a gun-toting militiawoman than as a refugee mother who gives Lemkin her baby. Duane Weekly’s big-lug appearance makes him viable as both a torture victim and a hapless, overwhelmed Red Cross worker, and he also becomes surprisingly authoritative when he dons a suit and a fuller wig to play Senator Proxmire.

Connie DiCrazia plays two victims of the Bosnian genocide and is also deeply moving as Lemkin’s mother. Their flashback scene, set in 1939, in which he tries to get her to flee Poland with him and she insists this is their home and she is staying, is not only heartrending but makes clear what a better play Filloux could have written if she’d just dramatized Lemkin’s life instead of cooking up this post-mortem fantasy of it. The same simple set is used for Lemkin’s House as for the other two plays — though in this one the walls are draped with cloth — and Simkovsky’s simple but effective lighting designs work equally well here.

Future shows in the “Resilience of the Spirit” series deal with torture, religious conversions, genocide and its effects on its perpetrators, abortion and the effects of long-term war on the families of those who fight. If they’re anything like the plays thus far (including an earlier revival of one of the most powerful pieces 6th @ Penn ever did, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda), they’ll be worth seeing.

Lemkin’s House and the double bill of The Last Class and A Thousand Birds will alternate in repertory at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue near Pennsylvania in Hillcrest, through June 17 and 18, respectively. Performances are generally at 7:30 p.m. Thurs, 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 2, 4 and 7 p.m. Sun. For tickets and other information, visit the special festival Web site at, e-mail, or phone (619) 688-9210.