Philly Theatre

BETRAYAL Reviews & Photos by Gregory Isaac

We’re just past the halfway point now of our six week run of Harold Pinter’s BETRAYAL at the Lantern Theater Company. Earlier this week we had our final scheduled post-show audience talkback. I’ve been really excited by the intelligent discourse initiated by our audiences, as inspired by the play.

The plot deals with a seven-year affair that Jerry (Jered McLenigan) has with Emma (Genevieve Perrier) despite the fact that her husband Robert (myself) is his best and oldest friend. (Ryan Hagan also has a delightful cameo as an Italian waiter in Act Two.) But Pinter doles out the plot of BETRAYAL in reverse chronological order, twisting Time and showing us the “end “ of the story at the beginning of the play and working backwards to show us the “beginning” in the final scene.

Gregory Isaac & Genevieve Perrier - Photo by Mark Garvin

Gregory Isaac & Genevieve Perrier - Photo by Mark Garvin

Our talk-back questions often began with this particular story-telling device, and an interesting observation emerged: Even though we learn how the story “ends” after the first two scenes of the play (the backwards time jumping first occurs before scene three), an audience can still only discover the full course of the story in real, forward time. As such, Pinter has ensured that in every scene, there is something new for the audience to learn about the narrative, sometimes by way of adding unexpected, new information, sometimes by finding surprising ways to subvert what the audience thinks they know already. I believe, at it’s heart, this is largely what BETRAYAL is about; exploring who knows what and when they know it, how they use that knowledge to hold power over others, and the lies they are willing to tell (or the truths they are willing to omit) to maintain that control. These revelations are spooled out gradually with each successive scene, and so the multi-layered discovery process - for the audience in real time, and for the characters in backward time - is very much part of the pleasure of watching the show.

The play is also populated by interesting characters who make a collection of very interesting choices - and not all of those characters are even seen onstage during the play. Judith is Jerry’s oft mentioned, but never seen wife. She is discussed directly or referred to in every scene of the play except the very last one. She is not only Jerry’s wife, but the mother of their two children, and has a full career as a medical doctor (in 1960s/70s England, no less!). She is clearly an impressive woman, and none of our talk-back audiences failed to bring her up. They openly wondered many things about her; her unseen exploits, wondering if and with whom she might be having affairs of her own, pondering if she really might have known all along about Jerry’s affair with Emma. I like to think that generating that much curiosity in a character we never even see is a strong endorsement for the show - or at least for the strength of Pinter’s writing.

(As a bit of side trivia: Pinter liked to send the first drafts of his plays to Samuel Beckett to get his thoughts and advice. After first responding to Pinter how much he liked the text, Beckett then followed up several weeks later to say, “I think of BETRAYAL. Strange poor present Judith throughout as if invisible watching it all.”)

The audiences’ curiosity was in no way limited to Judith. They frequently asks us why we thought our characters made the decisions they did, what we thought might have happened next, whether or not it was possible that some of the characters STILL hadn’t been entirely truthful about what they had done or when, and so on.

Genevieve Perrier & Jered McLenigan - Photo by Mark Garvin

Genevieve Perrier & Jered McLenigan - Photo by Mark Garvin

So each of those conversations proved to be extremely thoughtful and engaging, but honestly that dialog essentially exists during the performance every night. It’s a very satisfying play to perform, as Jered, Genevieve, Ryan and I navigate the revelations and omissions with each audience. Even Becca Smith, our stage manager, has said it’s the rare show that even she feels she must “perform” each night, feeling out the house’s responses and reactions and judging when to hold or execute certain cues from the booth (especially ends of scenes) in order to direct and give space for their discovery of the play each night.

A friend who saw the show recently asked afterwards what I thought was the message that Pinter wanted the audience to take away from the play. I honestly don’t know if I know the answer to that. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe there is. I think it’s entirely possible that Pinter’s impetus to write was simply a personal examination of his own experiences, as he himself had a seven year affair with Joan Blackwell until only a few years before he wrote this play. But I think there is more in the fabric of the play than just that: A study of memory, the passage of time, and why we love the people we love, and perhaps the ways in which we are willing to compete in order to attain or retain them.

Suffice it to say, though this has been my first opportunity to work on one of Pinter’s plays, I hope the next opportunity comes around soon.
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I’ve realized lately that reviews are less and less important to me, but I do still read them, and the reviews we’ve received for this production have been largely very positive:

-Toby Zinman, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, described our production as “A subtle, powerful rendition of Harold Pinter’s delicious, sinister love triangle.”

Genevieve Perrier, Gregory Isaac & Jered McLenigan - Photo by Mark Garvin

Genevieve Perrier, Gregory Isaac & Jered McLenigan - Photo by Mark Garvin

-Howard Shapiro, for WHYY, wrote that the show, “comes off with a quiet passion; directed with precision; and performed with enormous reserve.” He says he once thought he never wanted to see the play again, but, “Lantern’s satisfying production makes me glad I did.”

-Rebecca Rendell, writing for Talkin’ Broadway, offered me a special shout out, writing that, “Isaac’s passionate stoicism is a thing of beauty and reason enough to see this production before it closes,” adding that the production is, “Frequently funny, consistently engaging, and marvelously enigmatic.”

And yes, we also got one review from a once notable reviewer which was so full of venom and snark that I could barely take it seriously. I offer it to you here with no shame whatsoever.

Our BETRAYAL will continue through February 17th, for 8 performances a week at the Lantern Theater Company here in Center City, Philadelphia. I hope you’ll get a chance to see it for yourself.

HOPE & GRAVITY - Reviews and Photos by Gregory Isaac

Somehow, we're already entering our final weekend with HOPE & GRAVITY with 1812 Productions.  Time definitely flies when you're having fun!  It's been a really great process from start to finish and from on stage to back.

It's been a good while since I have worked on a piece with the playwright in the room with us, let alone one with the success and clout that Michael Hollinger has.  I can't say enough about the the amount of trust he gave us while he allowed us to work out his words in front of him every day.  He was gracious and lovely and supportive and patient.  No actor could ask for more.

I can also confirm, the rumors are true: Jennifer Childs is kind of a genius, kickass, director/human.  I learned a LOT from her in this process, and, as I told her on opening night, there is a great deal of her work in my work on this show.  I really don't know if I would have been able to find the right place for Hal and Peter without her help.

Plus, Suli, Jessica, Sean, David, Grace, Jess, Julia, Lindsay, and Tom BRING IT every night down there at the Plays & Players Theater on Delancey Street.  You've got 'til just this Sunday to come and see it before it's gone!

Here's a little bit of what they've been saying about us...

"Michael Hollinger’s title, Hope and Gravity, refers to elements in opposition: hope raises us up, gravity pulls us down. In his comedy, locally premiered by 1812 Productions, hope prevails — not only in the play’s themes but in Jennifer Childs’s entertaining production."
---Mark Cofta, Broad Street Review

"Producing artistic director and company cofounder Jennifer Childs directs a strong cast with broad strokes and high energy, nailing the laughs and most of the darker moments."
---Julia M. Klein, Philadelphia Inquirer

"There’s a thrill in chasing this plot — it’s always tantalizingly ahead of you — and finally nailing it. The thrill extends to witnessing five agile actors, some in dual roles, as they lay out this story that happens in the past, or sometimes in the future, yet also in the present."
---Howard Shapiro, WHYY

Gregory Isaac, David Ingram, Sean Close, and Jessica Johnson - Photo by Mark Garvin

Gregory Isaac, David Ingram, Sean Close, and Jessica Johnson - Photo by Mark Garvin

David Ingram, and Suli Holum - Photo by  Mark Garvin

David Ingram, and Suli Holum - Photo by Mark Garvin

Suli Holum and Gregory Isaac - Photo by  Mark Garvin

Suli Holum and Gregory Isaac - Photo by Mark Garvin

MY FAIR LADY - Reviews and Photos by Gregory Isaac

We've just about hit the mid-point of our run of MY FAIR LADY at Quintessence Theatre Group.  Attendance continues to swell, and I think there is actually a palpable buzz around the production here on the northwest side of Philadelphia.  An extension week (through December 23rd) has already been announced, and I have been approached by many patrons who have bragged eagerly about attending the show multiple times.

The materials we have to work with - both George Bernard Shaw's original text (from his play, PYGMALION, of course), and the score composed for the musical by Lerner & Loewe - are iconic and legendary for a reason, and it is a real joy to play it with such a talented and committed ensemble of performers. I cannot imagine a better group of people to be tackling this show with.

It is a testament to Shaw's genius that the plot he conceived, and the characters who move through it can still evoke such a strong response with our audiences.  Many of the issues it presents and wrestles with are even more vital today than ever.  I have, understandably, spent a great deal of time in the last few months, pondering Professor Higgins and his point of view.  First, I must say that I am incredibly grateful to Mr. Shaw for granting us (and me) a character packed full up with both brilliance and flaws, virtuosity and deplorability, who delights and disgusts in both extraordinary ways and equal measure.  He feels incredibly human to me, three-dimensional and so very, very real.  He is not a collection of randomly assigned character traits, but a HUMAN, whole and true, whose wit, and fears, and triumphs and failings are all tightly interconnected and constructed by a playwright who was not only better than most, but at the height of his powers. While I cannot fault anyone in this particular moment of our social and cultural history who chooses to write him off as a simple misogynist, I find I cannot fully agree with that distilled assessment.  Henry Higgins is every bit the titan of personality that his counterpart, Eliza Doolittle is (and I like to think that my performance is coming something close to doing him that justice).

But regarding Higgins and Eliza, there is no doubt in my mind that one entity is greatly diminished without the other, and I am incredibly grateful to be sharing that task with Leigha Kato.  She is a "tower of strength, a consort battleship," and brings to her Eliza not only a full-voiced glory, but a fire and intelligence that I greatly admire.  She is the best of all possible scene partners.  Marcia Saunders, Doug Hara, Bradley Mott, and Lee Cortopassi are each giving their own master classes on stage every night as well, and the game just keeps getting better every time we play it.  It hasn't been easy, this one, but I've found it incredibly rewarding, and I look forward every night to walking into the theatre with my co-workers to try the whole thing all over again.

But enough of me blathering on, and on.  Here's what a few of the professional opinionators had to say...

"MY FAIR LADY gets the Quintessence treatment: intimate, stripped down, concentrating on character, language, and action. It's a success.  An evening full of heady emotion, the spectacle of people changing before your eyes, and a profound closing truth, all the more profound right now."  - John Timpane, writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Quintessence Theatre's MY FAIR LADY is a jubilant mix of beautiful songs, dancing, magic, social politics... and elocution.  It's a splendid show, a holiday gift"   - Kathryn Osenlund, writing for phindie.com

"Kato's Doolittle has the perfect insufferable Henry Higgins to teach her how to be a lady with proper English: Gregory Isaac.  He plays the nasty know-it-all linguist with a smirk that seems to be born to the character."  - Howard Shapiro, writing for WHYY

And finally I want to share a thought that Amanda Morton, our incredibly talented 2nd piano player (though really it's more like Piano 1, and 1A), posted on Instagram about the show just before our opening night.  I found it very thoughtful and insightful:
"I grew up loving this show, then discovered problems with it as i got older, but have somehow fallen back in love with it thanks to [director] Alexander Burns' thoughtful, intelligent hand in revealing the complexity of a dynamic that, at first glance, can be repugnant.  However, it seems to me that Eliza and Henry are looking to be understood, and perhaps find a more evloved kind of love that acknowledges its flaws from the get and doesn't mind a lively verbal spar.  It is not our commecial vision of relationships, but it's deeply human and for that reason, touches me."

We now run until December 23rd.  PLEASE come to Mt. Airy and check us out.  You won't be sorry that you did.

Gregory Isaac as "Higgins" and Leigha Kato as "Eliza".  Photo by Shawn May.

Gregory Isaac as "Higgins" and Leigha Kato as "Eliza".  Photo by Shawn May.

Doug Hara as "Col. Pickering".  Photo by Shawn May.

Doug Hara as "Col. Pickering".  Photo by Shawn May.

The Ensemble in the Ascot Gavot.  Photo by Shawn May.

The Ensemble in the Ascot Gavot.  Photo by Shawn May.

Leigha Kato as "Eliza," and Gregory Isaac as "Higgins".  Photo by Shawn May.

Leigha Kato as "Eliza," and Gregory Isaac as "Higgins".  Photo by Shawn May.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THOMAS JEFFERSON, CHARLES DICKENS, AND COUNT LEO TOLSTOY: DISCORD - Reviews & Photos by Gregory Isaac

UPDATE (6/20): We've been extended!  Reviews, word-of-mouth buzz, and ticket sales have been so strong that the Lantern has decided to add an unplanned extension week to our run! We will now play through July 9th! Tickets are expected to go quickly!

We are now right in the middle of our scheduled run of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO... at The Lantern Theater, here Philly.  Everything about the process has been a pleasure, and a daunting task melted away in a rehearsal room filled with talented and generous people.  We're really having fun with it now.

The play is such a delightful blend of philosophy, religion, and comedic clash of ego.  It offers a healthy, historical dose of each topic from Jefferson's, Dickens', and Tolstoy's point of view.  You don't have to agree with any of them, but the debate is, nevertheless, a very interesting one, and leaves plenty to think about when the lights go down.

I think it's fair to say that even though we felt like we probably had a pretty good show going during rehearsals, we didn't really expect the audience's reactions to be SO enthusiastic.  Our previews were all nearly sold out, the word of mouth has been strong, and the reviews have been equally positive.

I'm not exaggerating.  Every performance has been at or near capacity.  So, if you're serious about coming to check out the show, please check your calendars and buy in advance.  We run - now - through July 9th.  I'd love to see you there!

Here's a little of what the press has had to say...

"[Director} James Ijames makes a theology debate - no the usual topic for a comedy - both entertaining and intriguing.  You'll laugh and you'll ponder.  In swift economical strokes, each actor establishes a personality and a nationality; comic caricature is always based on truth."
   --Toby Zinman for the Philadelphia Inquirer

"The often heady debate favorably compares to George Bernard Shaw, who likewise made intellectual discourse sincere and passionate. GOSPEL's fine cast bring these initially stiff figures to life and make them face themselves."
   --Mark Cofta for the Broad Street Review

"It would be hard to come up with better casting.  They ride with the give and take, each with a distinct and unmistakeable voice.  Gregory Isaac, whose work we've amired at Quintessence Theatre, is vital and compelling as a rational, cynical Jefferson."
   --Kathryn Osenlund for phindie.com

Photo by Mark Gavin   

Photo by Mark Gavin

 

Brian McCann as Dickens, Gregory Isaac as Jefferson, and Andrew Criss as Tolstoy Photo by Mark Garvin

Brian McCann as Dickens, Gregory Isaac as Jefferson, and Andrew Criss as Tolstoy
Photo by Mark Garvin

My "Fair" Holiday Plans... by Gregory Isaac

Quintessence Theatre Group, the company I've come to think of as "home" here in Philadelphia, revealed their eighth season this past week.  It's a big, bold line-up of classics, new and old.  

It also includes one big "first" for the company. Quintessence will stage it's first full-fledged musical, and I will be playing a crucial part.  I am pleased to announce that I'm set to appear as Professor Higgins in MY FAIR LADY, directed by Alexander Burns, and running from November 15 - December 17th, 2017.

I think the show fits in very nicely with QTG's usual fare, as the book draws almost exclusively from George Bernard Shaw's PYGMALION, and features some of Lerner and Loewe's most memorable song writing.

In addition to an expanded Family Series, the Quintessence season also includes Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT, and a spring repertory of Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR and Henrik Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK.

More details about the coming season, including a spate of guest directors, casting and ticket sales, will soon be available on the company website.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to stretching a few acting muscles I haven't tested in a few years.  And I'll have more to tell about where else you'll find me in the '17-'18 Philly theatre season very soon!