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Seth Gilliam plays Othello

Theater alert for Bostonians and anyone who might be visiting town through August 15: Do whatever you need to do to your summer schedule to see the spectacular (and free!) production of Othello on the Boston Common.

We are regulars and have seen most of the Commonwealth Shakespeare productions over the last 15 years. But this one is the best ever. And it isn’t just my spillover passion for anything The Wire. Seth Gilliam (who played an unforgettable Ellis Carver in the greatest TV series ever) is rivetingly pitch perfect as the Moor. (Imagine how razor sharp your first circle/third circle—in the Patsy Rodenburg theatrical sense—edge must be to explode that Othelloian emotion without going too over the top, and to do it for an audience that stretches from the stage all to way to Tremont Street.) Tight and tough, Gilliam’s Othello is not the towering Moor that is often cast in this role but his energy is blinding. Iago, played by James Waterston (yes, he’s the son), captures the banality of evil with such force my poor partner Dave spent a sleepless night after encountering that ambient but essentially meaningless ill will. And the ladies held up their end as well, Marianna Bassham as Desdemona and a best ever Emelia played by Adrianne Krstansky. The sets are simple and elegant and also work with the large crowds that a free event on a summer evening attracts.

Don’t miss it.

For more info, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.

lonergan1

I’m a big Kenneth Lonergan fan. In fact I’ve been a fan of his since he was about 12 years old, long before he wrote plays like This is Our Youth and The Waverly Gallery, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. Or his Oscar-nominated film You Can Count on Me, which he both wrote and directed. A second film written and directed by him, Margaret, has been tied up in a lawsuit for several years and is not yet released.

This fall he is directing his first play, The Starry Messenger, currently in previews at the Acorn Theatre. Starring Kenny’s childhood friend Matthew Broderick, the play has been the subject of some theater world sniping and gossip. The press has reported on rumors of ongoing changes to the script, the need for a prompter, and one cast member leaving in a huff. Blood in the water, so to speak, the kind that gathers the sharks from miles away. (An article in the Sunday Times Arts and Leisure section by Patrick Healy can link you to some of this.)

We saw the play on Thursday night with Mimi Kramer, another life long friend of Kenny’s, along with her husband Bill Bryk. We all loved it. It has those essential qualities that Lonergan lovers always look for, and more. The pitch perfect dialogue. The characters who are drawn from life with a precision that is uncanny. The mordant humor that could turn into a Pinteresque downward spiral—but doesn’t. The masterful steering away from those expected theatrical turns and overused clichés. The shy optimism that is still standing, albeit fragile, at the end of his storytelling.

More than any of his previous work, this play is full of midlifeness. The characters in this story (with one exception, which is an essential pole position in the dynamic of the play) are managing around their brokenness. The teacher of astronomy at the old Hayden Planatarium who, like the building that will be razed the following year, has been eviscerated by a life of almosts. The elderly man who has run out of reasons to keep fighting to stay alive. The wife who has funneled all of her life force into the orchestration of the insignificant details of day to day life. The daughter who is caught between caring for her children and her dying father, a duty she has taken on more because she lives nearby than wanting to share the final chapter of a rich and rewarding relationship. The young Latina woman who in just one night loses her ebullient optimism to the lifelong burden of tragedy.

Gone from this cast of characters is that previously signatory Lonergan young man—the one who is way too smart, who can see life’s absurdities and call them out, who is too angry and insouciant and yes, a bit entitled. But in this play Kenny has found a gulf stream for his wit and wisdom that passes effortlessly through these midlifers. What may not be as sharp edged as those adolescent jabbings is full bodied and poignant in these older voices.

I was struck by a comment made to Patrick Healy by J. Smith-Cameron, Kenny’s wife, who plays Broderick’s wife in the play: “Kenny is painstaking about his work,” she said. “It’s one of the things we have in common, we’re very interested in detail and thoroughness.”

Painstaking perfectionism isn’t always pretty in the process, but the results make the journey worthy. You feel the results of that microtuning in this play, and when it officially opens I am sure there will be subtle shifts that bring the storytelling into even more focus. But see it if you can, now or later. It runs through December 12. Ticket information here.

And as a final note, this one paragraph in Healy’s piece delighted me completely:

Mr. Lonergan said his experience on “The Starry Messenger” would not deter him from directing more plays, including his own, among them new works about the papal schism in the 14th century and a country-western singer having a moral crisis.

Warring religious factions or Tammy Wynette, I’m signed up for life.

I am devastated to learn that one of my favorite American theatre companies, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, is being forced to close.

The Minneapolis company headed by theatrical visionary Dominique Serrand has been coming to Cambridge to collaborate with the American Rep Theatre for years. Their style is highly physical, visually stunning, with a group of actors that are so blindingly gifted it leaves you shaking your head at the concentration of talent. They are professionally trained singers, they dance and move with effortlessness AND they can act.

The productions they have brought to Cambridge have left me in awe. A few years back they brought a stellar Molière’s The Miser. Two years ago they mounted a theatrical performance of Bizet’s Carmen. Last fall they went all out and with a pair of productions that combined Mozart with two of France’s greatest writers. “Don Juan Giovanni joins Don Giovanni with Molière’s Don Juan to form a cross-country road trip that skewers notions of love, sex, and hypocrisy; Figaro unites Mozart’s sublime Marriage of Figaro with Beaumarchais’ revolutionary comedy of intrigue and seduction.” (Am Rep program notes.) Both of these works were a fresh retelling of old, familiar tales. They found that perfect pitch between a hat-donning homage to the past and a new 21st century retelling.

When news like this surfaces, it is hard to not slink down into a blue mood. Or to have to ask, once again, what is wrong with this picture? How is it we live in a world that can’t keep Serrand’s company afloat but can keep producing bad reality TV shows and mindless movies?

Note: I’ve excerpted an excellent blog posting about Jeune Lune’s demise on Slow Painting from Chloe Veltman. If you want to know more about the details regarding the closing of this remarkable company, read it and weep.