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.

Modulating Absurdity: Attempting to Define the "Rules" of Samuel Beckett by Gregory Isaac

I’ll be honest: Beckett baffles me.

Not so much when I watch his plays. I can totally sit in a theatre and watch Beckett performed and glean meaning, pleasure, sadness, and depth. (Well, expect for ENDGAME. ENDGAME just straight-up baffles me.)  But on the whole, yeah, I can watch me some Beckett.

Playwright Samuel Beckett

Playwright Samuel Beckett

BUT:  As a person occasionally (partly) responsible for helping to create those experiences… there I’m afraid I’m at a loss.

Beckett, it is said, works best when you watch his plays without trying to dissect the elements of them; when you allow the sum of the pieces to wash over you as a whole. But when you’re an artist working on creating that whole, it’s your job to dissect the pieces - or at least YOUR piece - and therein awaits a certain abyss.

I’ve recently had the pleasure/dismay of gazing once again into that particular abyss while working on WAITING FOR GODOT at the Quintessence Theatre Group.  My piece to dissect: Pozzo, the narcissistic, slave-owning traveler, who interrupts and visits with the play’s two main characters, Didi and Gogo for a chunk of each act, accompanied by his “menial,” Lucky.

The “absurdist” genre that Beckett wrote in – though, yes, “defined” is possibly more accurate – is a space beyond the familiar rules of our daily existence.  He turns a rather fractured mirror back onto the world, such that if you stand close to the glass you would be able to recognize the gently broken image of yourself, but the larger room (or world) beyond you would be so distorted by the cracks and fissures, that its familiarity would be much harder to seize hold of.  All the pieces would still be there, but scattered and rearranged into something different.  And that distortion is, one assumes, the point.  Beckett  takes a familiar thing that we might take for granted, and sets that familiar thing in an unfamiliar place, which then makes it possible to evaluate all of it in a whole new way.

The principle is easy enough to grasp.  Putting it into practice, though, well…..

As "Pozzo" in WAITING FOR GODOT (photo by Shawn May)

As "Pozzo" in WAITING FOR GODOT (photo by Shawn May)

Pozzo, (being my current example), is presented in the text of GODOT with scant few details about his personal history or existence.  We first meet him at the “master” end of a long rope whose “servant” end is tied around Lucky’s neck.  Though Beckett provides great detail about the manner of their entrance - how they are tied, what they are wearing, what they are carrying - he provides no specifics about either man’s physical appearance, where they come from, or quite exactly where they are going.

Further, Pozzo then embarks upon a series of odd behaviors and assertions, which sometimes seem inspired by his exchanges with Didi and Gogo, and sometimes spool out almost randomly, in stream-of-consciousness-like fashion: His cruel treatment of Lucky, his claim that he owns the land Didi and Gogo are waiting upon, his inability to sit down without somehow being invited to do so by someone else, the fact that the objects in his pockets continue to disappear later in the scene, etc., etc., etc…

In short, Pozzo is not “normal”.  No matter how you choose to play it, he simply does odd things in odd ways, and I found it intimidating to consider how to make sense of it all; how to chart a set of choices for my performance.  Where exactly do you drop an anchor and pick a point to work outward from?

Frank X & Johnnie Hobbs Jr. in Quintessence Theatre Group's WAITING FOR GODOT

Frank X & Johnnie Hobbs Jr. in Quintessence Theatre Group's WAITING FOR GODOT

In the end, I made two decisions:
First, my job as the actor is to focus on the text I am given and to make as many decisions as possible based on the basic information contained therein.  I guess that seems a little obvious, but really, if the playwright is good, everything you really need should already be in the script.  I think that is very much the case with GODOT.

Second: Given the first supposition, I must then trust the director (in this case, Ken Marini) to make all of the larger thematic and aesthetic decisions for the production, including how exactly my character should fit into that.  I just don’t think it’s possible to see the whole effect of a Beckett play from within it.  I think that can only be done from the outside.  So that has to fall on the shoulders of a director, perhaps more so than with any other playwright I’ve worked on.

(Theatre is often described as an actor’s medium, meaning that the actors have a great deal of control over the audience’s experience with the storytelling every night.  It is the movies which are usually identified as the director’s medium where the director really has that control.  But I think that’s mostly true for plays that occur in a familiar setting, with conventional rules.  When it comes to absurdist play’s like Beckett’s – or even, say, a musical, when characters break out into song and dance – then a much larger responsibility for “world-building” and story-telling is returned to the director.)

So, I mined my text to establish certain touchstones to help me localize character choices for Pozzo. 
Standouts included:
1. “I say does that name mean nothing to you?”
2. “I am perhaps not particularly human, but who cares?”
3. “Is everybody ready?  Is everybody looking at me?”
4. “Forget all I said.  I don’t remember exactly what it was, but you may be sure there wasn’t a word of truth in it.”
5. “Bless you, gentlemen, bless you! I have such need of encouragement!”

Those little discoveries were then enhanced by several key observations and suggestions from our director, Ken:
1. Pozzo’s kinship in narcissism to certain modern-day political personalities.
2. The idea that Pozzo and Lucky, perhaps, used to be part of a big traveling circus, for which Pozzo was possibly the Master of Ceremonies/Owner.
3. And finally, (and maybe on something of a whim), Ken suggested that I try taking Pozzo’s semi-famous speech describing the end-of-day twilight and turning it into a song instead, which resulted in the vaudeville-ish, music-hall-style tune I offered during the show each night. 

The result was, I think, a unique and original Pozzo, yet one still very rooted in Beckett’s text.  I cannot and will not claim that I’ve got him “right”, or that we produced the correct result.  I must leave that to those who observed the show as a whole, being first our director, Ken, and then each night’s audience.  I can accept a full range of responses, both positive and negative, to my version of the character. Everyone will have their own sense of taste, and anyone is certainly allowed to disagree with mine (or Ken’s, depending on how you look at it).

I will only argue that we did not get it “wrong”, because for there to be a “wrong” way, there must also be a “right” way, and I think that for a play like GODOT, and a playwright like Beckett, who was notoriously reluctant to explain his characters or his plays any further than what he wrote in the texts themselves, then as long as you are honoring that text, then you are not doing it “wrong”.

Anyhow, as Higgins tells his mother at a key point in PYGMALION: There’s no sense bothering about that now, the thing is done!

A friend pointed out recently that it’s a rather unusual thing for an actor like myself, at a (yes, relatively) young age, to already have performed in two of Beckett’s plays.  It’s something I hadn’t considered, but he is probably right.  Maybe that means I’ll be a little further along towards grasping Beckett’s deeper designs when the next opportunity comes around, whenever that might be.  Maybe I’ll get to that spot where the light gleams for an instant before time really does stop, maybe not, but that’s just how it is on this Beckett of an earth.

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

Martha Lavey - A Very Brief Recollection by Gregory Isaac

I didn’t really meet Martha Lavey during the only contract I earned at Steppenwolf while I lived in Chicago, except for a professional handshake once or twice.  But Erica Daniels and I managed to stay in touch after I moved to NYC, and every now and then when Erica had something going on in New York for Steppenwolf and needed a little help, she’d message me.  On one of those occasions a few years ago, I wound up reading the stage directions in a private reading of a play in NYC that was being considered for production back at the theatre in Chicago. 

There were a number of very impressive and accomplished people in the room that afternoon – especially the women – and Martha, of course, was among them.  She was still AD at the theatre, but she had little to do at this particular event, and so she had assigned herself the jobs of hostess and craft services.  She had stopped for treats and snacks on her way to the reading and was busy making sure that everyone had their fill of them before the reading started. 

By any measure, I was the least important person in the room that afternoon, and I’ve never been good enough at feigning the gumption to strike up conversation with people as important as were present that day.  Martha, however, perhaps being in hostess mode, took pity on me and came over to introduce herself and find out how I knew Erica. 

While I lived in Chicago, I had been given an impression by others that Martha could be a bit eccentric and aloof.  I don’t know why.  That afternoon in New York, she engaged me with genuine curiosity, though I was the person in the room who was due the least attention.  We chatted for less than ten minutes before the reading began, but long enough to move past general courtesies and reach that level of gentle confession one can experience when chatting with a stranger.  I talked about how much bigger NYC felt than I’d expected, and some of the question marks I had for my career there.  She was easy to talk to, and her interest was real. 

At one point in the middle of our conversation, she paused and said, “well, just remember, you can always come back,” – meaning back to Chicago – and there was something so clear in her tone about the way she felt about NYC, and the way she felt about Chicago, and something equally clear about the way she spoke to me not simply as a fellow theatre artist, but as a fellow Chicagoan, that made me stop cold. And in the next moment I just laughed, because it was so thuddingly true, and because, somehow, her saying it made me feel retroactively embraced and welcomed by everything about Chicago Theatre.

She gave me a polite hug goodbye at the end of that reading.  She resigned her position at the theatre later that year, and I never met her again, but Martha will remain a crucial part of my experience as a Chicago Actor even though my encounter with her occurred only after I left.  Thank you for that, Martha.  May you rest in peace.

(Read Chris Jones' tribute to Martha for the Chicago Tribune)

Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf Theatre

Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf Theatre

DOCTOR FAUSTUS - Reviews and Photos by Gregory Isaac

We got good news this morning from the theatre:  Buzz and tickets sales have been so strong that we are extending our "Devils and Saints" rep at Quintessence Theatre an additional week, through May 1st!! A really powerful, and very well received production of SAINT JOAN got us going a few weeks ago, I'm pleased to report that DOCTOR FAUSTUS has lived up to that high standard, with another round of rave reviews and audience enthusiasm.

As I'm tasked with the title role in FAUSTUS, I'm bashful about the warm reception the show is getting.  So, let me just give you the press:

Jim Rutter, for the Philadelphia Inquirer:
   "The Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe's play sought all the pleasures and knowledge that mortal life could offer. Quintessence Theatre's production equals his quest by showing all the magic that a tremendous cast and imaginative staging can provide.
   "Isaac’s Faustus performance begins humble and frustrated, and by turns of his newfound power, turns devilishly charming and pitiably unrepentant.  Through his performance, Quintessence’s staging creates a lifecycle. If Marlowe’s play acknowledges friendship as the chief of earthly pleasures, then watching performances like Quintessence’s Doctor Faustus certainly stands a close second."

Mark Cofta, for the Broad Street Review:
   "Quintessence Theatre Group's "Devils and Saints" repertory is devilishly good. This fast and furious production [of DOCTOR FAUSTUS] puts a premium on spectacle, but is also remarkable clear verbally and easy to follow.  At the center of it all, on stage nearly the entire play, is Isaac's fascinating Faustus, led to ruin by his ego."

And, Neal Newman, for DC Metro Theatre Arts:
   "Add all of this into one magical cauldron and The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus gets this critic's highest recommendation. Raves all around for this one."

Both SAINT JOAN and DOCTOR FAUSTUS are now set to close the weekend of May 1st.  Performances have already begun to sell out.  So don't dilly-dally, my friends.  Reserve your tickets today and get yourself out to the Sedgwick!

Gregory Isaac as Faustus - Photo by Shawn May

Gregory Isaac as Faustus - Photo by Shawn May

Gregory Isaac as Faustus, Josh Carpenter as Mephistophilis - Photo by Shawn May

Gregory Isaac as Faustus, Josh Carpenter as Mephistophilis - Photo by Shawn May

Josh Carpenter as Mephistophilis, Leigha Kato as Evil Angel, John Basiulis as Lucifer, Gregory Isaac as Faustus - Photo by Shawn May

Josh Carpenter as Mephistophilis, Leigha Kato as Evil Angel, John Basiulis as Lucifer, Gregory Isaac as Faustus - Photo by Shawn May

Gregory Isaac as Faustus - Photo by Shawn May

Gregory Isaac as Faustus - Photo by Shawn May