Milling Miller in May by Michael D’Antoni

download (2).jpgLet me begin  by saying that I would be remiss if I did not start them with a bit of personal experience regarding Arthur Miller himself. I had, the once-in-a-lifetime pleasure of meeting and chatting with the playwright during the previews of his stage production of “The American Clock” written in 1974. I found Mr. Miller to be most friendly, classically charming and engaging. He was very interested in hearing my opinions about the piece we just viewed, all the while freely validating my suspicions about his Promethean collection of ingenious works, giving us a bit of a glimpse to his innovative creative process.

Miller was in a class all his own. An American playwright, essayist, and controversial figure of the twentieth-century his career spanned over seven decades, and at the time of his death, he was considered to be one of the greatest dramatists of his time.

For one to be instantly transformed and immediately absorbed by his deep soulful works, one only needs to read a few paragraphs of the opening pages of any of his writings to get a true feeling for his intense realism. For me it was the first few pages of the eternal classic “Death of a Salesman”. From that moment on I devoured every one of his literary works.

All that being said, it was rather delightful to experience two of Miller’s most sardonically political and subliminally parallel stories of the mid 20th Century in one short weekend. As one reads on you will begin to realize both of his works contain a most effectual and potent common denominator.

57694905_788719381497509_5126550961111695360_n.jpgTHE CRUCIBLE

Personally, I have always held the opinion that of all Arthur Miller’s classic dramas, “The Crucible” remains his most difficult play to convincingly produce. One wrong choice from a director; one wrong gesture from a performer; one meaningful line unconsciously conveyed as an awkward antic and the play will elicit laughter instead of the deserved gasps of pathos.

From a literary standpoint, the story and characters are easy to comprehend. Set in Salem Massachusetts the plot moves at a brisk pace and the audience quickly learns that the protagonist, John Proctor, is the object of the young wicked Abigail Williams’ wanton desires. Abigail will stop at nothing to capture the heart of this married man, even if it means accusing others of witchcraft and igniting the deadly flames of hysteria, a paranoia that will ultimately lead many to the gallows.

John Proctor carries a dark weight in his soul. A respected farmer and husband, he has committed adultery with the seventeen-year-old Abigail. Yet, although he hides this fact from the rest of the community, he still values truth. He knows that the allegations of witchcraft are vengeful lies, with which John struggles with throughout the play. Should he accuse his former lover of lying and attempted murder? Even at the cost of being publicly branded an adulterer?

The conflict intensifies during the play’s final act. He is given a chance to save his own life, but to do that he must confess that he had worshiped the devil. His ultimate choice provides a powerful scene that every leading actor should strive to play.

It is worth mentioning at this point that the other complex female characters within the play are essentially a interpretation boon for actresses. For example, the character of Elizabeth Proctor calls for a restrained performance, with occasional bursts of passion and grief.

Perhaps the juiciest role of the play, though she doesn’t get as much stage time as she should, is that of ​Abigail Williams. This character can be portrayed in many ways. Some actresses have played her as a childish brat, while others have portrayed her as a sinister harlot. The actress who is cast in this role should should already be considering, how does Abigail truly feel about John Proctor? Was her innocence stolen from her? Is she a victim or a sociopath? Does she love him in some twisted way? Or has she been using him all along?

Now, like I began to say, if the plot and characters are amazingly coherent, then why should this play be a challenge to successfully produce?  Well for one, the scenes of pretend witchcraft can evoke a comic effect if performed the wrong way. The actual script calls for young women of Salem to gyrate as if in a demonic fit, to envision birds flying around them, and to repeat words as though they are hypnotized.

If done correctly, these scenes of mock-witchcraft can create a bone chilling effect. The audience will be able to understand how judges and reverends of the time could easily be fooled into making  deadly decisions.

However, if the performers become too silly, the audience might chuckle and chortle, and then it might be hard to make them appreciate the profound tragedy of the play’s end.

Additionally, and especially in the case of stage productions, the actual “magic” of this play should come from the supporting cast. If actors can realistically recreate what life was like back in 1692, the audience will have a vicarious experience. They will come to understand the fears, desires, and disputes of this small Puritan town, and may even come to relate to the people of Salem not as characters in a play, but as real people who lived and died, often in the face of cruelty and injustice.

Then and only then, the audience will be able to experience the full weight of Miller’s exquisite American tragedy.

The story, on the surface, is about a witch hunt!  Witches, whores, collusion, and corruption, peppered with a bit of witness tampering, all of which threaten the dreams of small-town America. Lets recall to mind when this play was written, for here is, without question, a much deeper more underlying message within these pages containing a much greater meaning. The Miller classic was penned and staged by 1953, during the height McCarthyism.

The witch hunt symbolizes the anti-communist hysteria taking place during that time. Miller was the only playwright at the time to publicly critique the subversive and repressive political activities taking place (which ultimately garnered him an appearance ticket to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy hearings).

Moreover, and more broadly speaking, The Great American Dream itself is the invisible backdrop for “The Crucible”, in which this dark tale teaches us the law of polarities, where the flipside of good is evil; the opposite of light is dark; white is the juxtaposition of black all the while reserving an iota of faith through which guilt can become hope. “The Crucible” awesomely depicts this fervent dichotomy while it boldly remains an unapologetic indictment of our nation’s most powerful players. It’s through Miller’s perspective that we learn it is only through the heart and spirit of the ordinary man that we find our power for hope and resolution.

This often spellbinding and emotional HUNGER THEATER production showcased a surprisingly phenomenal cast of talented actors, including experienced and novice talent of all ages.

unnamed (2).jpgALLISON WICK in the role of Abigail was bewitching as a shape-shifter from demon to false victim. Her slim, lithe persona and vividly expressive eyes combined with her near-telepathic acting literally haunted me. One moment she was the sweet and gentle teenager and in another, very convincing morphed Abigail into an evil vindictive sociopathic bitch. WICK most certainly did her homework as her conveyance of the luminous Abigail along with the genuine human struggle between her and the Proctors formed the center turmoil as the story unfolds. The stage paradox was brilliantly portrayed and most certainly on point every minute of the play.

MS. WICK also directed the production which was tight, fluid and spellbinding from beginning to end. She pays all the due tribute to the playwrights words while using the limited space of the theater in a very effective and compelling way. Accolades to MS. WICK for her brilliant ability to both act and direct in a most convincingly and idiomatic manner.

unnamed (3).jpgBRIAN VESTAL as John Proctor provided a raw and unsettling performance as he struggles to free himself from the seductive and strangling web cast over his marriage by domestic service girl, Abigail, and their secret tryst. VESTAL navigated his demanding character with precision and mastered an emotional transcending tranquility all the way to the show’s conclusion, aided by his well artful verbal exchanges and command for the characters ambivalence.

SAMANTHA WENDORF, who plays his wife, Elizabeth Proctor was every bit restrained and puritan just as Mr. Miller intended. WENDORF’s confident and convincing portrayal of Elizabeth moved the emotional needle from fear to hope as she softly guided her character (and her husband) as with an invisible hand, culminating in a most inciting and convincing performance.

While the entire supporting cast magically and effortlessly brought the audience back to seventeenth century Massachusetts, a special note of excellence goes to three supporting players in particular.

Firstly, LUKE WEHNER who portrayed the beguiling Giles Corey was everything a character actor should be. Thoughtful and convincing his Giles possessed a subliminal erudition adorned with a bit of elusiveness all the while remaining pivotal as the play’s steadfast voice of reason.

Secondly, ZURI WASHINGTON (Tituba) is the productions female version of MR. WEHNER as her portrayal too is most thoughtful, convincing and steadfast in her honest portrayal of an otherwise abused, falsely accused and under appreciated household servant. You simply can’t help NOT loving and feeling for her character. Well done!

Thirdly, MADELINE ADELLE PHILLIPS captured the weak and naive
Mary Warren brilliantly. Her performance was hypnotizing and pathetic, as it was written. It’s if she lifted the character’s weakness and personality right out of Miller’s thoughts.

As the curtain parted, this welcoming, intimate and nominally designed production offered a sold out, perimeter seated audience a glimpse of a distinctly deeper point of view. Not as that of observer mind you, nor student of history and political events, but as engaged participants, as judge, juror, and sometimes defendant of our own deepest desires and wishes.

img_0866.jpegHUNGER THEATER’s  production of Miller’s “The Crucible” proved to be an enormously entertaining and a most provocative production. What began as a mere spark in the dark concluded with a glistening tear of truth. I left feeling that within ourselves, we grasp the power of the conclusive verdict of a controversial subject. For we shall not judge one in true name or on ones surface but, we should judge by who we are on the inside, which ultimately bears the essence of our genuine inherent goodness.

The ARCHBISHOP’S CEILING 

xiconsquareB37CF458-155A-4E05-934F0D96F2779AAB.jpg.pagespeed.ic.5zsnAdnaSq.jpgDirector BARNABY EDWARDS has made a surprisingly topical and most contemporary choice. Whether or not he drew the parallel to that fact that Chelsea Manning would get caught for spying on the USA by turning classified and sensitive documents to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks or that The Clinton Campaign would get caught creating a false dossier in order to spy on the Trump Presidential Campaign. Nonetheless, laurels go to Mr. Edwards for allowing  “The Archbishop’s Ceiling”, to find strong contemporary relevance with this production.

“The Archbishop’s Ceiling ” is one of Arthur Miller’s less performed plays, possibly because it takes on a very different subject-matter. It is about American writer who travels to an unnamed European city (probably Prague where one could encounter at the time, a good cross section of Communist society) during the Cold War. In many aspects this piece perspectively, is more reminiscent of the work of the British playwright David Edgar (who wrote related developmental works while he enjoyed a long association with the Royal Shakespearean Company) than of Miller himself.

The main player is a comfortable older writer who has given up on principles in exchange for taking up residency at a former Archbishop’s palace and a life of luxury. The story also includes a dissident writer and a pretty lady with startling intuition who has been the lover to all three writers, while less successfully introducing a blonde Danish bimbo seemingly just for show (not a complete surprise for Miller).

The play’s main dramatic tension rests on whether Sigmund wishes to continue to live and write in a country that does not want him and where he will have to publish through the underground presses. The elemental issue here is whether a writer in some subconscious way needs the stimulus of oppression and hardship in order to be able to produce his best work. And equally as important, whether the apartment in which they meet is bugged, which may be ultimately irrelevant because the belief that it might be is enough to alter the way in which people live and create.

Within this literary structure, Miller is able to view writing and politics on both sides of the Iron Curtain and the conclusions that he reaches are sometimes unexpected.

Sigmund is purported to be literary luminary who must decide whether to leave or remain in his native land. Maya, Marcus and Adrian each weigh in, for what it’s worth, not always trusting one another’s motives.

At one point in the show, it’s almost comical the way Adrian addresses some of his comments upward to the ornately painted ceiling (Hence,the plays title) and basically says “Are “they” listening? If so, hear this! ”

The ensemble cast included:

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LEVI MORGER as the American visitor Adrian portrays this character rather drolly and as a bumbling, remarkably stupid man, which doesn’t seem entirely appropriate for a world-renowned novelist. But nonetheless somewhat saleable.

KRISTEN GEHLING as Maya and especially MICHAEL METH as the dissident Sigmund deliver very nice and flavorful work all the while cleverly conveying the difficulties of life under a repressive regime.

This work should have been guided and shaped by the textured and  stalwart character of Marcus but JON SPANO’s performance was discarding and one dimensional. The character of Marcus should have been the rudder to this veritable life boat.

JESSICA CAROLLO fills out the cast nicely as Irina, the Danish adorable bimbo whom Marcus unexpectedly arrives home with.

This REGENERATION THEATRE production of “The Archbishop’s Ceiling” is produced and directed by BARNABY EDWARDS. And we most certainly must applaud Mr. Edwards for his choice of a rather perennial piece which at forty plus years old, portrays real and contemporary headlines all of which unfold in a rather drafty, over-stuffed, once opulent abode of some years past.

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The production is graced by a simple set design from RYAN GOFF which alludes to the overtones of the titular ceiling. My first thought was very early Marc Chagall.

Critics agree that this may not be Arthur Miller’s best play which is more so the result of world trends, for it can at times seem dated but, its years of neglect are most certainly undeserved. For the reasons I stated in the first paragraph, this production is a very welcome revival and asks interesting questions, some of which suddenly seem terrifyingly relevant today.

Themes of surveillance, spying and freedom; the power of the state and the role of artists in that state, have gained new potency in light of, not only in the aforementioned events, but would most certainly also include huge internet company’s and their attempt to ban or stifle free speech as well as their global reach in the wake of Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency revelations.

The play itself at times, can be brooding and uneasy. The goings-on can at times be sensual, even affectionate.  But what brings a contemporaneous warmth to the play’s otherwise Cold War chill is the director himself and his precise direction to his ensemble casts deep appreciation for the personal poetics of individual power during times of political paranoia, hatred and deep contentment for those with opposing views. Very relevantly contemporary.

This literary atmosphere of “The Archbishop’s Ceiling” is welcoming to the very last moment of the play, for Mr. Edwards decision to shine a light on these timely (and re-emerging) issues hung well with Miller, as it did with so many writers four decades ago.

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In closing, my  big “WOW” moment came half way through this production. It hit me, that Miller himself may well have easily identified with Sigmund. Now follow me on this line of thinking, “The Archbishop’s Ceiling” was written in 1976. The main character Sigmund, wants nothing more than to simply live and write freely in his country an arena whereby he inertly feels singled out and marginalized. This characterization, it’s very threshold of consciousness, perspectively mirrors Miller’s own experiences with Senator McCarthy and his  Communist witch hunt hearings whereby Miller was called upon to testify in the 1950’s, some twenty five years prior to the penning of this piece! This experience obviously left deep emotional scars on Miller, the effect of which I am sure, he carried with him till his very death.

 

CRUCIBLE Photo Credit: Sammy Tunis Photography
ARCHBISHOP Photo Credit: Marcus Gualberto

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