Spring Awakening at performed at The Vogel at the Basie Center is a classic musical performed on Broadway and countless regional theaters across America is a 1891 German play with the same title by Frank Wedekind. Set in late 19th Century Germany it tells of teenagers discovering the inner and outer tumult of sexuality.
Phoenix Productions, under the direction of James Grausam and musical direction by Jason Neri, the show hits all the senses… from laughter to sadness and the remembrance of once being young. The kids are alright until parents and adult figures get involved and then things begin to go array.
With a small but deft setting, the romantic lighting sets the mood for what is for the most part a great evening. The young actors are all sufficient (at times difficult to hear), the singing and dancing entertains throughout the just under two hour intermission less show.
Spring Awakening with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik when first presented on Broadway won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. The stage at The Vogel had a similar setting – open, yet with the feeling that makes the show intimate enough to look in on these players who struggle with life and its rules.
What makes this show so unique is the different individual quandaries that each deals with. Mort Steeple is a young man who does not have the brains to be at a private school but he loves his friends especially Melchior who is the brightest and could care less about anything other than his love interest Gwendala. Boy’s and Girl’s who deal with their sexuality… hetro and homo, they move through the wake of society as best they can.
As the show moves into a deeper darker atmosphere we feel for these children; navigating the waters, some end up dead, some permanently scared for life. This performance was deep and moving. Under crisp direction with outstanding musicians these young actors belt out memorable tunes and the entire evening works very well.
Spring Awakening: Count Basie Center for the Arts, 99 Monmouth Street, Red Bank, NJ 07701
“Angels in America” Cracks the Wall With Intimate Power at BuddiesTO
From the first lines spoken by that aging rabbi, played meticulously well by Brenda Bazinet (Citadel’s Equus), I breathed a huge internal sigh of relief. I had persuaded a good friend from New York City to fly to Toronto to see That Theatre Company‘s production of the epic Angels in America, probably my most beloved play ever written, which is currently playing a much too short run at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. He had never seen a production of this iconic play, and I really wanted his first experience to be epic and meaningful, as powerful an experience as it is to me. And I knew, from those first few spoken moments, that this play, written so beautifully by Tony Kushner (A Bright Room Called Day; Caroline, or Change) and directed with such grace by Craig Pike (Buddies’ Body Politic), was going to rise up as majestically and magnificently as I had hoped.
The art of the play lies in the poetry of the words and the honoring of them all. If we can believe in them wholeheartedly, the play will fly forward on strong wings. Pike does exactly that. It’s not revolutionary, his approach, but it does play strong tribute to the words and how they are delivered. The rabbi tells us that he did not really know this woman who is being buried in that rectangular box of light before him, courtesy of some brilliant lighting design by Bonnie Beecher (Young People’s The Darkest Dark), but he knew her in a larger and more meaningful way; a grander idea of knowing, that this play resonates most profoundly outward with all of its cleverly constructed characters. We know them all, in some way or another, and believe in their words and actions. They carry emotional connections that feel personal; to ourselves and our loved ones, parts of those still with us and some that are not, and it is in the power of those words spoken at a funeral for a woman who plays no role in this majestic piece of theatre, we find our connection to Angels in America.
I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was to have the opportunity to sit through another 7 1/2 hours of Angels in America this past weekend at Buddies with my friend from NYC. I have seen this play numerous times before; on Broadway, twice (the original and the 2018 revival), the HBO film, the NTLive’s screening of the National Theatre‘s production that eventually transferred to Broadway, and an off-Broadway Signature Theatre production, all compelling in their own ways and means, but now, with my friend, I was going to be able to see it fresh through his eyes and in the glow of this magnificent play once again, this time in Toronto at the “largest and longest-running queer theatre in the world“, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. It seems completely appropriate, and if anyone doesn’t already have tickets, I suggest you get up off your butts and get them now. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of production that will move you beyond anything that you’ve seen before.
It is true that other actors and their performances in this play continue to haunt me as I take in any new production, whether I like it or not. The Broadway stage ghosts of Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, (the spectacular) Marcia Gay Harden, and Jeffrey Wright watch over me, as well as the HBO television spirits of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Mary Louise Parker, poking around in my head, asking me to not forget them. But I must say that as I sat and watched this current production at Buddies, I quickly set aside anything beyond what was happening before me on that simple cracked runway of a stage, designed most magically by Brian Dudkiewicz (Neptune’s The Last Five Years). The music and electric soundwaves, courtesy of sound designer John Gzowski (Tarragon’s Post-Democracy), play with our senses, vibrating through us and ushering us in so completely that I lost my sense of time and space. The cascading of the soundscape within the highs and lows forces the past to leave me alone, and not intervene with this epic viewing. Whatever the reason, this current revival is as solidly compelling and complete as one could wish for, and this is quite the understatement, if you ask me. Words can barely describe its wonder. And there shouldn’t be an empty seat in the house for this revival.
The heartbreaking and powerful 7 1/2 hours fly by, born on the energy and excitement of the audience and the intense power of an angel in battle, wrestling with a mortal for his salvation, and I was honored to be in its presence. Part One: Millennium Approaches is by far the most beautiful and far-reaching introduction to our shared History of Gay America in the 1980’s. The opening monologue mysteriously tells us all we need to know for the next 3 plus hours, and maybe for the entirety. Not in terms of the old Jewish woman laying in the coffin, which it does, but about the world and people we are about to embrace. It’s such a sly and wonderful piece of writing that sneaks into our collective soul and sets us up on almost all levels for what is in store. It’s about death, love, and life, but it’s also about pain, suffering, guilt, and abandonment. One thing you can say about Kushner and his writing of Part One is that there isn’t a moment of excess or a wasted scene that could be edited out. Every word seems meaningful and essential in this over three-hour beginning, and it is delivered to us compassionately and honestly.
The cast, as directed most beautifully and dynamically by Pike, is utterly connected, deepening and engaging our connection to them with every simple breath they take. Allister MacDonald (Neptune’s The Rocky Horror Show) as Prior gives us everything we could ever have hoped for from 1980s camp to the angry black-shrouded stalker looking for revenge, bruising, and a deeper understanding, artfully masking the frightened young gay boy beneath. His armored front is something exacting, and quite commonly donned as a shield against all that would want to harm in the world he lives in. It’s a powerful statement against oppressive forces and one that feels as authentic and real as any.
MacDonald leads us through the dark and heaviness of this play with power and hysterical grace, giving us an unforgettable portrayal that is as deep and meaningful as it is funny and smart. Ben Sanders (Showtime’s “Fellow Travelers“) as his guilt-ridden Jewish boyfriend, Louis is fantastically annoying in his defensive wordplay, hiding quite simply behind the intellectual waterfall of concepts and ideas. He dutifully tries with all his might to be present, but those theories and conjectures don’t, in the end, protect him. This stalemate of sorts is most beautifully pointed out by Belize, archly portrayed by the absolutely perfect Kaleb Alexander (Obsidian’s Pass Over), who lets him know, quite clearly, that it does distract him just long enough for him to see how far he is from being engaged with the world around him.
Alexander as Belize, the nurse and friend of Prior (and travel agent for Harper) grounds the piece in sharpness and clarity that echoes throughout the play, filling it with an emotional heart that forever stays within. Wade Bogert-O’Brien (Grand’s Controlled Damage) is organically exacting as the desperately unhappy Joe, unearthing layers of skin and authentic pain throughout. The battle that plays out inside this Marlboro Man’s head ricochets throughout the theatre and into our hearts, clawing at us with his need, both to crush and live fully inside his darkness and sexuality. He is the one truly tragic figure of this play, left desperate and in need without any support or care from any one soul in his sad, unhappy life.
Christine Horne (Tarragon’s Light) as Joe’s tortured and torturing wife, Harper, tackles one of the hardest parts in this complex play and triumphs. Her dementia is clear, thoughtful, and profound, leading us carefully through her fear and mistrust with an intelligence and bravery that is awe-inspiring. “Weird stuff happens”, she knows. “Like you,” she says to the travel agent who appears out of nowhere offering her escape from the monsters that wait for her in the bedroom. Once again, I was awestruck by the scene that unfolds between Harper and Prior. Something about these two coming together as we watch MacDonald’s Prior gently caress her face with his makeup brush, is by far the most electric and emotionally engaging tie in the play, making that lump in my throat rear itself up for the first of many times. The thin hair of connective tissue between these two holds the piece together in the same way that their “threshold of revelations” sinks deep inside, destroying and freeing themselves all within the same breath. The fragile and intimate way they can see inside the other and know their pain is what creates that added weight and meaning to the whole. And it adds layers and layers of fierce and unfair constructs to the two that electrify their existence in the world.
Bazinet and the magnificent Soo Garay (Factory’s Belle) have the joy and the difficulty of playing numerous roles spanning from a caring nurse, a distraught Mormon neighbor, a perplexed male doctor, a homeless disturbed woman, a patient Ethel Rosenberg, Joe’s angry mother, to a Rabbi and an angel. Horne also is given the sweetest of opportunities to showcase her profound skills playing a smarmy male friend of Roy Cohn, as does Bogert-O’Brien and Mezon as previous Priors coming back around to help guide and enlighten. But some of the finest work in this play is done by both Bazinet in her assortment of characters, especially the doctor who knows that hooker wasn’t a female, and Garay, who majestically embodies both the thoughtful nurse and the compelling angel (and Harrah’s real estate agent and friend) with a power and force that is out of this world magnificent. They all perform Kushner’s profound poetry with an ease that makes it look so effortless, yet deeply personal and authentic. Jim Mezon (That Theatre Company’s A Number) is exacting and deliberate as the closeted horrible Roy Cohn. His Roy Cohn is as layered and fiery as one could hope for, devastating and cruel but desperate for some sort of masculine connection. He, and the others, bring clarity and connection to the front without distancing themselves from the pain and suffering that surrounds them all. For a production running fast and furious forward, their work is unparalleled.
“I want the voice, it’s wonderful. It’s all that’s keeping me alive.”
Kushner spoke often about Angels in America‘s need to be seen as artificial in a theatrical framework, with all the strings and artifice showing. And in that stance, That Theatre Company’s tender and intimate production succeeds gloriously. The landscape plays perfectly with space and time, with expert framing of light by Beecher and perfect costuming by Louise Bourret (DWYT’s The Producers), expanding and highlighting all aspects of this play. It engages the characters through effortless transitions and authentic arrangments, blending the emotionality expertly from one moment to another through connective tissues of delivery that feel simple and true. The intimacy is palpable, especially in the intricate engagements.
“Greetings, Prophet. The Great Work Begins. The Messenger Has Arrived.”
One of the striking things about Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika is just how epic and large Kushner’s stroke is as he paints his complicated and captivating canvas. He opens this second half with the oldest living Russian Bolshevik (Bazinet) delivering a speech about revolution, passion, and theory. It’s captivating in its wordplay, painting a deep psychological meaning about living life and moving forward. Not just for Russians, or people with AIDS, but for humanity as a whole. The Bolshevik spins words and ideas out into the space that are sometimes overwhelming in the moment, but never without passion and a heavy meaning on its even bigger canvas. Hanging on to these ideas and ideals for the next four hours through heaven and earth only adds to their power and brilliance. Kushner shapes our minds with an expert hand, preparing us for what is to follow, unconsciously, and brilliantly, because the work really has begun for these souls, and we are ready to follow along.
I have heard from many theatergoers that Part Twoshould be edited down well beyond its four-plus hours’ length. They say the story could and would still be told with a good 30 minutes at least cut, and I agree with that point if story-telling is all we are here for. But like great works of Shakespeare and others, the piece would lose a great deal of its magic with each subtraction of text. Every poetic word and utterance feels utterly important somehow, and I truly believe they are in a way that is unconscious or unfathomable. When it is all said and done, the piece carries its weight well into the heavens, and beyond. The canvas is brilliantly textured; sad, terrifying, and confusing, but filled with desire, long after the last stroke is applied. And I wouldn’t want to lose one phrase for the sake of a few minutes here and there.
“The fountain’s not flowing now, they turn it off in the winter. Ice in the pipes. But in the summer…it’s a sight to see, and I want to be around to see it. I plan to be, I hope to be.”
Boop! Leaps To Life In Chicago
Boop! the new musical officially opened its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago last night. This is a delightful entertainment. Tony winning director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell has assembled a terrific cast, stunning visuals, strong movement and a heartfelt score into a seamless production that keeps the audience smiling at her antics.
Betty Boop was first introduced to the world by the Fleisher Studios in 1930. As a comedic representation of the free spirit of jazz age women. Betty has entertained and inspired audiences for over ninety years, even after being sanitized by the Hayes Code. Betty also has some real historical precedents, which are ignored by this creative team. As such, the character of Betty herself remains no more than a cute cartoon in the end.
Betty is introduced in a brilliant montage of projections and cardboard cut outs, as if we are seeing her perform in a series of her black and white, 1930s cartoons. She recaps the scenarios in which she got to save the day with her song, “A Little Versatility”. Jasmine Amy Rogers, as Betty is a sexy, cuddly, and touching musical theater dynamo, who adds her own considerable personal warmth to the character.
When the song ends, we are in the monochromatic world of the Max Fleischer cartoon movie studio. Betty complains to her director (Aubie Merrylees) and his megaphone-toting assistant (Ricky Schroeder) that she is suddenly feeling the pressures of cartoon stardom. She says she needs a vacation from herself. She also says she needs to find out who she really is, although nothing in particular has happened to incite that decision.
Actor Stephen DeRosa, in a deliberately cartoony depiction of Betty’s grandfather character, Grampy, who introduces Betty to a time and space machine, which is a Rube Goldberg contraption wedded to an overstuffed armchair. In an instant, Betty is transported from the world of black and white cartoons to the real world. She appears magically at the New York City Comicon 2023, which pulsates with Mr. Mitchell’s energetic choreography. There, Betty discovers the joys of life in living color.
At Comicon, Betty is befriended by a preteen girl, Trisha. This character is given a theater-shaking performance by petite sixteen year old Angelica Hale, who wowed the world on America’s Got Talent. Whenever she opens her mouth to sing, she literally brings the house down. If you are the parent of an aspiring young performer, you must bring your child to see this amazing young role model.
The problem is the story puts baby, or Betty, in the corner. Betty tells Trisha that she doesn’t want to be recognized as famous, she just wants to be normal. Betty asks Trisha to help her remove her signature makeup and make her look like a real girl, so we expect to see that happen. But it never does. Betty continues throughout the show looking and acting just as cartoony as she does from the beginning.
Also at Comicon, Betty meets Dwayne, an aspiring jazz trumpeter played with unforced charm and appeal by Ainsley Anthony Melham. Dwayne turns out to also be Trisha’s baby sitter, who comes over when her Aunt Carol (Anastacia McClesky) has to go to work as campaign manager for Raymond Demarest, a former city sanitation superintendent now running for mayor. Erich Bergen as Demarest is very funny and perfectly sleazy as this shady character, whose excremental campaign slogan is to “Doo doo” what needs to be done.
Dwayne invites Betty to join him at a jazz club where he sits in as a trumpeter. After saying she doesn’t want to be recognized, Betty inexplicably outs herself, belting the joyous song, “Where I Want to Be.” As the first act closes, our expectation is that Betty will be pursuing a career as a performer in modern times. That doesn’t happen either. Instead, the second act opens with Dwayne doing another jazz number on the stairs in Times Square for Betty’s benefit. Betty just sits on the sidelines, watching passively. Then, Demarest enlists Betty to be his assistant mayor, and help generate publicity for his campaign. In her innocence, she allows Demarest to exploit her fame as a cartoon character because she hopes to help women’s causes. Demarest does not allow Betty to speak or express an opinion. This again makes Betty just a passive observer of the story she should be driving.
Young Trisha supposedly admires Betty for the various roles she was given to play in her cartoons, however Betty shows none of the initiative and accomplishment in New York which inspired her young fan from watching her cartoons. That’s a story shortcoming which could have been turned into a positive, if it elicited disappointment on Trisha’s part, and created a crisis between her and Betty in the second act, but the book skips over this issue, and misses a great opportunity to raise the emotional stakes in its story.
Grampy is given an old flame to fan, in the form of Tony winning Broadway legend Faith Prince, as a once young scientist, Valentina. She is reunited with Grampy after a supposed forty year absence (an inexplicable timeline, given that the play takes place ninety years after the cartoons). They rekindle their romance with a charm song,“Together, You and Me”, and a little suggested senior sex. But Ms. Prince’s considerable comedic talents are vastly underutilized here.
Finally, Chicago puppeteer Phillip Huber of The Huber Marrionettes brilliantly and unobtrusively manipulates his marionette puppet of Betty’s dog, Pudgy. He delights us all with this fluffy white creature.
Apart from the wonderful cast, the real star and saving grace of this show is lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Jelly’s Last Jam, Working). Literally all the emotion and character development in this show are in her outstanding lyrics. Ms. Birkenhead says everything in song that the show’s book writer, Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaparone, The Prom), should have said in his libretto. Together with Grammy winner David Foster’s excellent music. This fine score is the beating heart of this musical, as it should be.
Mr. Martin’s book makes a joke or two about Betty’s cartoon origin as a dog character. But the glaring omission here is the lack of any reference to her real life origin story.
Betty Boop was a parody created by animator Max Fleisher of a white performer named Helen Kane. Unknown to Fleisher at the time, Ms. Kane had stolen the act of a very real black performer, 1920’s jazz singer Esther Jones, known as “Baby Esther,” who first popularized the phrase, “Boo boop a doop”. Ms. Kane had seen Ms. Jones in performance in 1928, and copied her signature expression. A lawsuit brought by Ms. Kane against Mr. Fleisher finally brought out the truth. Casting Ms. Rogers, a black performer, as a character who was initially a white misappropriation of another black performer’s identity, and give her no awareness of it, skirts the most sociologically and dramatically important story opportunities in the show. What if Trisha were to tell Betty that she is really based on a black singer who received no credit from history? What if Betty doesn’t know what color she really is? What if she feels white on the outside and black inside? So many interesting possibilities. Sadly, there is no consideration of any of them here. Even the program note, “About Betty Boop and Fleischer Studios,” blithely whitewashes her history and makes no mention of this.
In the beginning, Betty says she wants to take this journey to learn who she really is and yet, the creative team fails to let her explore the real answer to her question. Color is used in the end only to illustrate romantic passion. The story Bob Martin has crafted is cute, but insignificant.
The show ends with squeaky-voiced Betty inexplicably delivering a throaty power ballad, which states “I know I want something …but I don’t know what I want”. That might have made sense for Betty to sing at the end of the first act, but it’s ridiculously out of place at the end of her story. Yes, Ms. Rogers stops the show with that song, just because she can, but they should cut the song, or move it to the first act, and give Betty a final number where she gets to really express what she has learned.
Chicago audiences are not easily manipulated by flash over substance. We’ve seen too much smart work. We demand depth, even from our cartoon characters.
There is much to appreciate in the fine sets by David Rockwell, delicious costumes for Betty by Gregg Barnes, flashy lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg, clever projection design by Finn Ross, hair and wig design by Sabana Majeed, makeup design by Michael Clifton, and musical supervision by Daryl Walters. The performances are all great, the songs are fun, and Mr. Mitchell makes everyone’s work look its best.
If Mr. Mitchell came to Chicago, as he has done in six previous productions, he would have learned something which only this city can teach him about Boop!, and that would be that Betty’s own story still needs a lot more fleshing out.
Boop! continues through December 24 at the CIBC Theater, 18 West Monroe Street, in Chicago. For tickets visit ticketmaster.com.
Unpacking Frontmezzjunkies’s London Theatrical Trip 0f 2023
It was one of those spontaneous but well-planned cross-Atlantic journeys, fueled by a one-show idea that blossomed into something bigger. Antonio and I (two theatre junkies of the highest order) typically would find ourselves traveling to London, meeting there for about five nights, give or take. That is after I spent one evening with a good old friend and his longtime husband. Which was a personal requirement, and then, Antonio and I would dutifully schedule one theatrical event after the other, building a theatrical plan that would make others weak in the knees. But for the two of us, a London trip was exactly that. As much theater as we could fit in, with a few museums mixed in with at least one tourist attraction that was new to at least one of us. And a lot of great breakfasts made up of coffee and baked goods, as well as dinners with friends or just the two of us. Close to the theatre that was housing that night’s show. That was also a requirement. Born out of one too many breathless runs through Times Square trying to get to that scheduled curtain on time.
This year’s trip started with a casual statement about Andrew Scott doing a one-man Vanya in the West End. And the rest, as they say, is history. What soon followed was a Mark Rylance-starring play, Dr. Semmelweis, courtesy of a long-waiting National Theatre credit from March 2020. Then an immersive Guys and Dolls, and a quick grab at some standing-room-only tickets for a sold-out Next to Normal that we thought we had missed out on until we got that early morning email announcement. An Ian McKellen-starring Frank and Percy soon followed, as did the play Hamnet, based on a book I’ve never really heard of (but it seems many others had, including Antonio).
That was the plan. But I decided to stay even longer than normal. Surprising even myself. Usually, I would EasyJet myself off to some locale in Europe that I’ve never been to before, or to someplace I wanted to revisit after a far too long absence. But this time I just wanted to stay put a wee bit longer. And to give myself some time to see others that I might not have had the chance to see or spend time with. And of course, some more shows followed. The British farce Noises Off and a new musical The Time Traveler’s Wife with friends that weren’t Antonio. A matinee at the National Theatre on the day Antonio would fly home. And a last-minute day-of TKTS purchase in Leicester Square for a musical about an old English woman going to Paris to buy a dress from Dior. I probably wouldn’t have gone to see that one. Maybe I would have seen the Stephen Sondheim songbook show Old Friends starring Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga, or the recently transferred National Theatresoccer play, Dear England, starring Joseph Fiennes. But the new musical, Flowers for Mrs. Harris starred Jenna Russell, one of my all-time favorites, and that was just too good to resist. So why would I?
So ten shows. In about ten days. Not a record mind you. But a pretty satisfying theatrical and social undertaking. And here are a few words about each of the shows. If you’ve managed to get through this long-winded introduction. So here it is: My London theatre trip of 2023.
London Theatrical Trip 2023
SHOW #1: DONMAR WAREHOUSE’S NEXT TO NORMAL
SHOW #2: WEST END’S DR. SEMMELWEIS
SHOW #3: WEST END’S VANYA
SHOW #4: THE OTHER PLACE’S FRANK AND PERCY
SHOW #5: BRIDGE THEATRE’S GUYS AND DOLLS
SHOW #6: WEST END’S HAMNET
SHOW #7: NATIONAL THEATRE’S THE FATHER AND THE ASSASSIN
SHOW #8: WEST END’S NOISES OFF
SHOW #9: RIVERSIDE STUDIO’S FLOWERS FOR MRS. HARRIS
SHOW #10: WEST END’S THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
Can’t Wait For Boop To Come To Broadway
At the CIBC Theatre in Chicago, BOOP! The Musical, the new Broadway-bound musical extravaganza is making its debut . Actress Jasmine Amy Rogers is currently bringing her to life in Chicago, as she proves in this exciting song “Where I Wanna Be”.
The show is created by Tony Award®–winning director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray) who brings the Queen of the Animated Screen to the theater with celebrated multiple-time Grammy®-winning composer David Foster (“I Have Nothing,” “After the Love Is Gone,” “The Prayer”), Tony-nominated lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Working, Jelly’s Last Jam), and Tony-winning bookwriter Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, The Prom).
I am obsessed with the songs already. First was “Something To Shout About” and now “Where I Wanna Be”.
For almost a century, Betty Boop has won hearts and inspired fans around the world with her trademark looks, voice, and style. Now, in BOOP!, Betty’s dream of an ordinary day off from the super-celebrity in her black-and-white world leads to an extraordinary adventure of color, music, and love in New York City—one that reminds her and the world, “You are capable of amazing things.” Boop-oop-a-doop!
“The Father and the Assassin” Enlightens and Questions at the National Theatre, London
Weaving together a memory play with a psychological study of epic historical proportions, the National Theatre delivers a mystery revolving most dynamically around a murder up close and personal. Three bullets fired, we are told by our engaging narrator, Godse, portrayed most cleverly by Hiran Abeysekera (RSC’s Hamlet), all by him, but he says it almost triumphantly. “Even you could turn into me,” he also explains, and in that moment I realized that I knew so little about that sad chapter in India’s political history. Other than the headlines, I might add, but more so that there had to be another side to the assassination story of one of the greatest and most well-known Indians who ever lived, Mahatma Gandhi, and I couldn’t stop myself from leaning in to see and understand just what playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar (When The Crows Visit; The Snow Queen) has in store for us.
“Let’s not exaggerate,” but those three bullets changed history and shocked the whole world, mainly because of the confusion it elicited. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous conflict between India and its colonizing oppressors, the British Empire, The Father and the Assassin attempts to both outline the political journey towards Indian independence and give us a closer more intimate look at the man who fired those shots. Chandrasekhar has noted that thousands of books have been written about Gandhi in an attempt to understand and know every aspect of this famed philosopher and political public speaker and writer, yet very little about his assassin, particularly his upbringing and what would bring a man like him to this violent moment. This was the play’s intent.
“Any dramatization of history requires a degree of imaginative license,” she tells us in her notes, and here on the grand Olivier Stage of the National Theatre, this epic tale revolves forward revealing an upbringing of disorder and subtle discourse. To understand, or at least attempt to understand the central figure and our narrator, we have to peer back into Godse’s upbringing when his parents, and try to look beyond the act itself. You see, after losing three other boys in their infancy, Godse’s parents sought a somewhat odd religious solution to their situation and his birth. They decided, in order to sidestep what they thought was a curse on their family, to raise their boy as a girl. They would pierce his nose and deliver him into the world as a daughter, forever setting up a conflict that may have caused Godse to be quite lost in his own personal identity, possibly making him far more susceptible to father figures who might give him a structural meaning of self and acceptance.
This is Godse’s conflict story, of inner and outer divisions and betrayal of the father, played out in identity politics of a different order, resulting in some trauma and childish animosities that have their roots in personal relationships as well as, metaphorically speaking, political colonialism. At least, this is what Chandrasekhar tries to deliver forth in this psychological study alongside a complex paradigm for Hindu nationalism, all located in the central figure’s cracked psyche, which, in essence, may have resulted in the 1948 assassination of Gandhi.
It’s an exhilarating explorative adventure, laid out majestically (and somewhat typically) on a set on that grand Olivier stage. Rust-colored and ramped in the round, designed well by set and costume designer Rajha Shakiry (NT’s Trouble In Mind) with grand lighting by Oliver Fenwick (Audible’s Girls and Boys) and a solid sound design by Alexander Caplen (Royal Court’s Over There), The Father and the Assassin unpacks the complicated quest of a young boy to find purpose and an identity that would bring him, first to Gandhi (Paul Bazely) and his unifying movement of peaceful resistance. This dynamic laid out a fatherly framework that would be their undoing, as that relationship was followed by the divisive politics of Vinayak Savarkar (Tony Jayawardena), who built the foundations of the Hindu Mahasabha party pushing a strongly formatted idea of Hindu nationalism as a political ideology, all while serving out a life sentence in the Cellular Jail as a prisoner. It was a switch that changed the world, but one that seems to have been drawn from paternal inclinations and rejection, rather than political identifications.
The large cast of twenty does the piece grand service, as we play along with Godse as he, as a child, supports his family by channeling the goddess as a village fortune teller. It’s a captivating first engagement, as it weaves and rotates into view a childhood filled with obedience, and respect, followed directly by rebellion and political and personal debate.
“Hope smells a lot like sandalwood,” we are told, and the play unfolds with precise non-linear structuring that digs us deeper inside this fractured mindset. As directed with clarity and vision by Indhu Rubasingham (59E59/Round House’s Handbagged), the story sings on a whole other range, playing with our sensibilities and understanding of an event that shook the foundations of our world. With a staging that conjures up multitudes of complex psychological images, as well as dialectic themes of political style and belief structures, Godse becomes something of a childlike shell, trying desperately to control his narrative while batting away childhood trauma, embodied well, in contrast, with the peaceful qualities of his open-hearted childhood friend Vimala (Dinita Gohil) and the games they once played.
The play lives and breathes through the essential performance of Abeysekera as Nathuram Godse. The way he moves about is both delicate and angry; aggressive and casual, allowing playfulness to be weaved within the construct of empowerment and weakness of character. His desperation for fatherly and an authentic understanding of his own identity is at the center of this dynamic new play. His put-upon strut of childish resentment and ultimate vindictiveness delivers in the end, with the pulling of the trigger. The Father and the Assassin ends on a note of complications, energizing the room to seek for more clarity and understanding. It’s a complicated ending, leaving you questioning its stance, and making us want to know more. Which I think is precisely the point.
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