Review - The Road To Mecca

By: Jan. 23, 2012
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There's a beautiful softness that bathes every artistic aspect of director Gordon Edelstein's graceful and endearing production of Athol Fugard's meditation on independence through creativity, The Road To Mecca.

The walls of Michael Yeargan's set, representing the home of an aging artist living in an isolated South African village, have the appearance of being covered in watery dyes. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting unobtrusively provides pockets on intimacy in the large, candlelit dwelling, displaying numerous creations and oddities.

And, of course, there's the exceptional company - Carla Gugino, Jim Dale and especially RoseMary Harris - giving delicate, but fully fleshed, portrayals that make for a deeply moving evening.

Written in the mid-1980s, the play is inspired by the real-life story of Helen Martins, a reclusive outsider artist who, until her death in 1976, spent the last years of her life creating glittering works from crushed glass, wire and cement; most notably over 300 statues displayed in her garden, primarily owls, pointing east. The home has been kept intact as a museum and is now a national monument known as The Owl House.

Fugard's fiction has the elderly Miss Helen (Harris) struggling with the limitations that come with aging. Her letter describing her distressed indecision about her future, sent to her younger friend, Elsa (Gugino), has prompted the Cape Town schoolteacher to make a twelve-hour drive to find out what is wrong. Their conversation, which takes up the bulk of the first act, doesn't set up a plot, but rather establishes a relationship where Elsa's affection for Miss Helen is as both a person and as a symbol of what she can do with her own life by denying the conventions put upon her sex.

Elsa is furious when the minister Marius (Dale) arrives trying to convince Miss Helen that she would be better off in a retirement home and lashes out at her friend when she hesitates to immediately refuse. Though Marius has great feelings for Miss Helen, and is concerned for her well-being, he's also concerned about how the locals regard her with suspicion and take offense at her outdoor display; works he considers blasphemous.

Perhaps it's hearing Marius' description of her statues as "monstrosities" ("Your life has become as grotesque as those creations of yours.") and Elsa's defensive, "She dared to be different," that gives Miss Helen the strength to stand by her choices. An inspiring second act speech, wondrously played with heartfelt dignity by Harris, is a tribute to those who dare to create their own paradise and live within it as they choose.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: RoseMary Harris and Carla Gugino; Bottom: Jim Dale and RoseMary Harris.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.

"We can make ourselves actors, but only the audience can make a star."

-- Jose Ferrer

The grosses are out for the week ending 1/22/2012 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: CHINGLISH (11.2%), WIT (9.8%), THE MOUNTAINTOP (8.6%), GODSPELL (4.7%), JERSEY BOYS (3.5%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (1.5%),

Down for the week was: SISTER ACT (-13.4%), MEMPHIS (-12.2%), MAMMA MIA! (-10.8%), MARY POPPINS (-9.5%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-8.7%), ANYTHING GOES (-7.1%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-6.9%), ROCK OF AGES (-5.8%), SEMINAR (-5.0%), CHICAGO (-3.8%), RELATIVELY SPEAKING (-3.8%), WICKED (-3.6%), STICK FLY (-3.4%), THE ROAD TO MECCA (-3.3%), PORGY AND BESS (-3.2%), FOLLIES (-2.9%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-2.7%), ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (-2.6%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-1.2%), War Horse (-0.4%), THE LION KING (-0.1%),

Is it possible to recreate someone else's authenticity seven times a week doing the same Off-Broadway show? If last Saturday night's performance of Gob Squad's Kitchen (You've Never Had It So Good) is any indication, the answer is a resounding... I'm not sure. But in any case, the lighthearted madness inhabiting The Public Theater's Newman space, devised by the German/British theatrical squad named in the title, makes for a rollicking good time.

The squad gets their inspiration from Andy Warhol's Kitchen, a 1965 film that had Edie Sedgwick and other Warhol actors hanging around a kitchen having meaningless, often indecipherable, conversations. Like his eight hour and five minute long film of the Empire State Building taken from a motionless camera, Kitchen was generally considered unwatchable, and to Warhol, that was the point.

Gob Squad's version - part recreation, part commentary - is viewed by the audience on a large screen that takes up nearly the entire stage. But before the performance begins, the customers are permitted to walk behind the screen to see the actors hanging out on the set; reinforcing the fact that even though once we take our seats we'll be watching projected black and white images, it's all happening live on stage. Also, I imagine, this quick visit also serves to let the actors see what kind of people are in the house for that performance, which will come in handy later.

The company rotates members with only four used per performance. On Saturday night Sean Patterson, looking into the camera and addressing the audience directly, supplied us with some background about the film, sharing the cramped kitchen with Nina Techlenburg, the Sedgwick stand-in.

Patterson tells us that the screenplay for Kitchen was penned by Ronald Tavel, but the actors didn't bother to learn it, improvising their scenes instead, and that the film was popular at underground cinemas where is was seen by gays, beatniks, lesbians, drug addicts; "People like you."

But while Sean goes on to explain how their set's box of Trader Joe's Corn Flakes is meant to represent Kellogg's and how the bag of "All Natural" Wise Potato Chips they have would, in 1965, be loaded with preservatives, there are two other films being seen at the same time.

To the right of Kitchen, we see Sharon Smith recreating one of Warhol's "screen tests." These were short films made of actors left alone, unaware they were being filmed, in order to capture them at their most natural. To the left, Sarah Thom is recreating Sleep, the nearly five and a half hour long film of a man sleeping.

Unfortunately, Thom is pretty restless so she finds an audience member to take her place being projected napping in bed. Smith has a role to play in Kitchen so she also recruits an audience volunteer to take over her screen test. Eventually the entire quartet is replaced, with audience actors wearing earphones so that the off-screen Gob Squad actors with hand-held microphones can whisper to them lines and stage directions. These aren't quick audience participation cameos. Some of them are on for over half the show.

Bits of other Warhol films, with self-explanatory titles like Eat, Kiss and Blow Job are given their due and though the evening is scripted, one audience member is drawn into an extended improvisational moment that, if the subject is willing, can turn quite intimate. The subject was willing the night I attended and for once, that bit of authenticity that Gob Squad was aiming for was there; a tender and honest scene played touchingly in black and white.

In a very funny and clever show that boasts some truly original and inventive moments, that's the one thing I wasn't expecting.

Photos by David Baltzer.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.

When director James Brennan's cracker-jack company of comics start whizzing across Ray Klausen's obstacle course of a bachelor pad set, The Paper Mill's wacky new production of the 1960s sex farce Boeing-Boeing is a good old fashioned riot. The play itself may not be the height of its genre, and quite frankly I found the Broadway revival to be a bit of a snooze, but the gang in Millburn seems to be having a blast with the material and their spirit is downright catching.

Originally penned in French by Marc Camoletti, an English translation of Boeing-Boeing opened on the West End in 1962 and ran for seven years, but the Broadway transfer closed after a scant 23 performances. A hit West End revival in 2007 prompted another crack at Broadway, this time running a much healthier eight months and taking home Tonys for Best Revival and Best Actor (Mark Rylance).

The Americanized version of the plot has swinging single American architect Bernard (Matt Walton) enjoying the good life in his Paris home. He's engaged to (and sleeping with) three beautiful airline hostesses (as they were called then): American Gloria (Heather Parcells) with TWA, Italian Gabriella (Brynn O'Malley) with Alitalia and German Gretchen (Anne Horak) with Lufthansa. The three women not only have no knowledge of each other, but they all have their own keys to the place, each thinking it's her and Bernard's exclusive residence. The juggling trick is achieved by keeping careful tabs on the airline schedules to determine who will be in town when, and with the expert assistance of Bernard's overworked housekeeper, Berthe (Beth Leavel).

The play, of course, takes place on the day everything goes haywire due to faster planes and flight cancellations, leaving all three women in Paris at the same time. Bernard's visiting pal Robert (John Scherer), who has just learned of the scheme, unwittingly winds up becoming the one responsible for making sure that doors are kept shut, personal items are hidden and the hostesses are kept from discovering each other.

While the plot is ripe for farce, a problem with the play is that the dialogue of the translation by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans isn't particularly funny, so until the physical antics hit high gear, the humor primarily comes from the international cast of characters' exaggeratEd Manners and accents. Parcells gives the pragmatic Gloria a thick New York outer boroughs voice and O'Malley's Gabriella, straight out of period Italian films, is both demanding and passionate. The tall, blonde Horak is especially funny as the cool and forceful Gretchen, a sort of mod Valkyrie.

With a raspy French accent and darting looks that could kill, Leavel's housekeeper is relishing watching the collapse of her boss' paradise, which would mean less work for her if he were forced to settle down. Scherer, a much undervalued Broadway musical comedy performer (best utilized as Bertie Wooster in By Jeeves), is hilarious as the jittery mess trying to keep the house in order while falling for the domineering German. Unfortunately, Brennan makes a pair of missteps, having Scherer play one scene with his character uncontrollably farting (recorded, of course) and another with him having trouble hiding his erection. Playing straight for the night, the handsome Walton makes Bernard a charmer, despite his caddish behavior.

Boeing-Boeing comes from a time when explicit sex comedy couldn't be televised into every home and playgoers enjoyed the mild titillation of such farces that wound up being fairly innocent and sweet in the end. Despite a few hitches, the energetic company ensures that for the next few weeks, Paper Mill will swing like a pendulum do.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson: Top: John Scherer and Beth Leavel; Bottom: Brynn O'Malley and Matt Walton.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.


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