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NYTW’s The House That Will Not Stand Doesn’t Collapse as History Blows Hard

NYTW’s The House That Will Not Stand Doesn’t Collapse as History Blows Hard

In she strolls. Wailing at the top of her lungs to the heavens above. Dressed in magnificent period black, courtesy of some fine work by costume designer Montana Levi Blanco (Public’s Teenage Dick), Madame La Veuve, played with playful aggression by Marie Thomas (off-Broadway’s Having Our Say), grieves for the whole wide world to see. That is until she gets inside. There, in the safety of her grand house, she seems to tire of the dramatics and sits herself down in the Louisiana heat to try to see her way forward in this new and changing world.  It’s a wonderfully fun and mournful opening to Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand, a fascinating discourse on freedom structured and inspired by the famous Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. Lorca described his last play, which many call his best, as a drama about the plight of the Spanish village woman revolving around the themes of repression, passion, and conformity, while taking a deep and close look at the effects of men upon the women that circle around them.

Playwright Gardley (finalist for the 2014 Kennedy Award for the three-part epic: the road weeps, the well runs dry) tackles the same with a witty and sharp pen, centering his adaptation on a grand house, not in Andalusia, Spain, but in Faubourg Tremé, New Orleans in the early 19th Century.  Racism and white privilege in the new America is a layer added in this complex telling, with the history of its time period playing a key  and dramatic role.

The House That Will Not StandNew York Theatre Workshop
Harriett D. Foy, Lynda Gravátt, Michelle Wilson. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Napoleon has just sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States, throwing the colonial governments and their laws and practices into turmoil. The new arrangement leaves many free women of color and slaves confused about their rights moving forward. In this house, the tension of their future, in all aspects, grips them all tightly, just like those corsets worn by these women on a hot and humid summer’s day. They are suffocating in the disarray, feeling the world closing in on them and squeezing their very existence and air out of their lungs. The Madame’s decades-long lover, the wealthy white man, Lazar, that has made their fine way of living possible, has died suddenly, choking on a fish bone, they say. He lies spread out on the table in the rear of set designer Adam Rigg’s (MTC’s Actually) spectacular, but slightly convoluted living quarters. Large shutters dominate the muddled structure, with a floor plan that overlaps and intrudes on one another while leaving other expanses underused and empty. But those high windows do cast the voodoo spell of luxurious repression upon our entry, bearing down on them like the history we all see coming.

The House That Will Not StandNew York Theatre Workshop
Juliana Canfield, Michelle Wilson. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Their slave girl servant, Makeda, played by the versatile and smart tongued Harriett D. Foy (Broadway’s Amélie), steals the show pretty much, especially with her sweet-toothed opening told with breathless anticipatory fits to the meddling Madame La Veuve, played with playful aggression by Marie Thomas (off-Broadway’s Having Our Say). With her good eye glued to Lazar on the night of his tragic death, the story that is coaxed out is hypnotizing, one that sets the stage fully for the desperate acts to follow. Foy’s Makeda is a dynamic storyteller, thinking as much about finding her own pathway to freedom as she does the shiny objects that she collects whenever she can. It’s an intoxicating dynamic she creates blending attachment, care, and personal desire to find her way out of the oppressive heat inside that house.

The House That Will Not StandNew York Theatre Workshop
Nedra McClyde, Juliana Canfield, Joniece Abbott-Pratt. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The social practice of plaçage under which white men and women of color set up common-law households, much like Madame Albans has craftily created, is her place of safety and security, or at least it felt that way before Napoleon sold the Territory and collapsed their world.  Beartrice has three children from her now deceased man, all who want to maintain the freedom and privilege that they grew up within, but that lifestyle is now under siege. Times they are a-changing outside of their high ceiling sanctuary, and as directed with a faltering sense of time and place by Lileana Blain-Cruz (LCT’s Pipeline), the three daughters feel the clock ticking on their own existence.

The oldest, Agnés, played with poise and determination by Nedra McClyde (PH’s A Life) has a plan. With the help of her delightful younger sister, Odette who carries the “dark stain” of her family with empowered grace by the lovely Joniece Abbott-Pratt (Broadway’s Eclipsed), Agnés can envision a way out, at least for herself, and it is just waiting outside at the ball. So with pen and paper in hand, and a deceitful disguise in mind, the two go against the warnings of their straight-laced religious sister, Maude Lynn, played a bit too cautiously by the usually solid Juliana Canfield (TFANA’s He Brought Her Heart…). They bind her hands in a completely ridiculous and supposedly religious manner so she won’t get in the way. It’s all a bit clumsy in its visualization and formulation, but the overall outcome rings decidedly true. Mama wants to believe that they all can find refuge against the coming storm by closing the shutters and nesting to escape the war. But the haunting presence of Lazar has other ideas.

The House That Will Not StandNew York Theatre Workshop
Nedra McClyde, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Juliana Canfield. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Locked up in the attic hearing the mad spirit voices of the past and future, Auntie Marie Josephine, played with wild-eyed abandonment by Michele Wilson (Broadway’s Sweat), heeds Lazar’s warnings in a comical but intense display. Assisted eventually by the divine Makeda and her voodoo sorcery, they are told that they must get out. Lazar speaks, transcending from beyond in one of the most telling and exciting creations by Gardely and Foy, and bringing to the forefront centuries of history and ceremony cascading out of Makeda’s mouth as if from another dimension. But what is out there inside of Lazar’s idea of escape remains to be seen. History doesn’t seem to create much salvation for these women, and his plea is in direct conflict with the demanding Mama. The final battle of wills is set, between Lazar and Beartrice, and each soul within that house will have to decide on which side of the shutters they want to forge ahead into the future.

Just like Lorca’s deliberate exclusion of any male character from the action, Gardley builds on the coming storm with wind and ancestral drums, ratcheting up the sexual tension with devilish glee. The sound design and original music by Justin Ellington (TFANA’s Winter’s Tale) and lighting by Yi Zhao (NYTW’s Red Speedo) do the job well, forcing the hands of time and history to be played out in wild abandonment and desperation. It’s not the most satisfying Lorca adaptation, especially when compared to the outstanding Yerma that graced the Park Avenue Armory stage just recently, but it is a majestic attempt to tease out the tragedy of these women and the history that storms against them. Will the shutters keep out the winds of change? History tells a different tale than the one suggested by Mama.

The House That Will Not StandNew York Theatre Workshop
Nedra McClyde, Lynda Gravátt in The House That Will Not Stand at New York Theatre Workshop By Marcus Gardley; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz; Scenic Design Adam Rigg; Costume Design Montana Levi Blanco; Lighting Design Yi Zhao; Sound Design & Original Music Justin Ellington; Wig Design Cookie Jordan; Movement Raja Feather Kelly; Dialect and Vocal Coach Dawn-Elin Fraser; Stage Manager Terri K. Kohler. CAST: Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Juliana Canfield, Harriett D. Foy, Lynda Gravátt, Nedra McClyde, Marie Thomas, Michelle Wilson. Photo by Joan Marcus.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Off Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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