Theater

Dialogue One International Theatre Festival

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Dialogue One US Award Winner Jessica Lynn Johnson in "Oblivious to Everyone" Click image for picture gallery.

“There are no monologues. You are involved in dialogue at least with the Universe itself.”

December 6, 2007, 7:30 PM
Mme. Tussaud, LIVE

Ilya Khodosh ’08 as Meyer Lansky

Amanda O’Connor ’10 in The Last Battle of Lannes (Jean Lannes)

Terence Tamm ’08 in On the Rocks (Jack Kerouac)

Andres Lopez ‘09 as Bud (Marlon Brando)

December 7, 2007, 7:30 PM

Mme. Tussaud, LIVE
December 8, 2007 from 2:00 PM to 9:30 PM
2:00 PM Vamping – Kali Quinn, GUTworks, directed by Jonathan Maloney and  assisted Daniel Burmester
3:30 PM Oblivious to Everyone – Jessica Lynn Johnson
6:00 PM American Cake – Jonathan Pereira, directed by Kristen Williams
7:30 PM Story of My Dovecote – Herbert Kaluza, directed by Johannes Talmon-Gros
8:30 PM Closing Ceremony and Reception

The pleasant, but potentially mind-numbing routine of holiday entertainment was relieved most satisfyingly this past weekend by Dialogue One, a new international theater festival of solo performances at Williams College. Its founder, Omar Sangare, Assistant Professor of Theater at the College is to be thanked warmly for this serious and extremely stimulating festival, which will be an annual event. It consists of an evening of performances by four of Professor Sangare’s students, Mme. Tussaud, LIVE, which took place on Thursday evening and was repeated on Friday and a day of performances by professional actors from New York, Chicago, and Germany. The festival concluded with a ceremony at which three prizes were awarded by a jury consisting of Williams faculty and students as well as outsiders, one for a student performance, another for a domestic performer, and the third for an international performer. The solo performances were without exception serious, even intensely so, and they provided some extremely welcome intellectual ballast for the season. We had an opportunity to appreciate the impressive talent which exists among the Williams students, both as actors and writers, and to see some of the best and brightest among the young professional actors, who are working in this extremely challenging genre. These were joined by a distinguished mature actor from Poland, Herbert Kaluza, who has been working in Germany in recent years. His linguistic abilities had ample scope in the quadrilingual version of Isaac Babel’s “The Story of my Dovecote.” Americans get regrettably little exposure to theater in other languages, and this solo performance brought together the distinguished traditions of Poland and Germany in a concentrated and accessible form. And what a powerful contrast to the American approaches we’d seen earlier in the day!

Omar Sangare is a product of the Polish tradition himself. A graduate of the Theater Academy in Warsaw (Ph.D.2006), the Polish equivalent of RADA, he came to Williams with a substantial reputation in his native country. At the Theater Academy he studied with the Oscar winning director, Andrzej Wajda. In 1994 he was awarded a scholarship to The British American Drama Academy in Oxford, where he worked with Derek Jacobi, Alan Rickman, and Jeremy Irons. His one-man drama, “True Theater Critic,” for which he was voted the Best in Acting by the New York International Fringe Festival in 1997. The same year he was invited to the Jerzy Grotowski Theater in Wrocław, where he won four prizes at the Theater Festival. Between his work with his students and the founding of Dialogue One Dr. Sangare has proven himself an indispensable member of the Williams community. The festival is indeed a substantial enhancement to life in a town which is already a prestigious theatrical center.

The student performances, which were each about twenty minutes long, were performed one after another. without a break. All shared a common pool of props, agreed on by the students in advance: a table, a chair, a bed, and a bare lightbulb. In the class in which the plays were developed, each student was free to select a historical figure of their own choosing, for whom they wrote three pages of text. At the entrance, they stood stock still on pedestals, as if they were figures at Mme. Tussaud’s. Ilya Khodosh, a senior theatre major at Williams College, played Meyer Lansky. Mandy O’Connor, a student of theatre and psychology at the College, played Jean Lannes, one of Napoleon’s marshals. Terry Tamm, a senior English major, played Jack Kerouac. Andres Lopez, an English and philosophy major, played Marlon Brando, and yes, he could easily win a look-alike contest. I had the pleasure of speaking to Mandy and Terry after the performance and was struck by their energy and enthusiasm. Terry in fact said that he decided to go to Williams, when he saw a model of the as yet unbuilt ‘62 Center. His manner projected all the inspiration and excitement he had drawn from Dr. Sangare’s classes. The ‘62 Center is clearly not just a impressive status symbol; it is being put to the best possible use.

Ilya Khodosh’s piece was a study of Meyer Lansky, particularly in relation to his friend Bugsy Siegel and to God. Throughout Khodosh maintained tight focus and control of his menacing character, and his sense of timing was as sharp as can be. Beginning with humor, the play grew darker and darker as it progressed. In the end, he conducted a chilling moral dialogue with God. Psychologically it was an entirely convincing portrayal of a sociopath, on a twisted path even when he does something of which we might approve, using violence to break up a Nazi meeting. Khodosh’s writing and acting were both on the same high level.

Mandy O’Connor played Jean Lannes, one of Napoleon’s marshalls, who died raving after losing one of his legs to a cannon ball. She set herself an enormous task by having her maniacal character leave his bed and crawl across the stage, making it difficult to conceal her two good limbs. She brought it off convincingly, however, and in her grey wig and hospital gown she  looked every bit her character’s age throughout this vivid portrayal of mad determination.

In “On the Rocks” Terry Tamm enacted a crucial night in Jack Kerouac’s life, well before he had enjoyed any success or written any of his major works. Abandoned in a San Francisco hotel room, his Kerouac goes through acrobatics of cockiness, self-pity and despair, stabilizing himself with whisky and pills. This was another instance of material and presentation both being equally top-notch.

Andres Lopez’ Marlon Brando, waiting to be called on camera, rolled through several parts he has acted, Stanley Kowalski and Mark Anthony, above all, revealing that between all these roles, there was no center within Brando himself. Lopez’ command of Brandoesque mannerisms and voice were impeccable.

In all four, the monologues were really dialogues with various present and remembered people, not to mention the Divinity. Each of these relationships brought out different aspects of the characters to the point where they approached schizophrenia, and all were intense. Humor had its moments, setting Lansky off on his course, and creating sharp highlights in “On the Rocks.” Each of these plays were fully developed dramas of richness and complexity, and I felt no need to make allowances. The students developed their work independently in consultation with Dr. Sangare and did not see each others’ work until the end, when they were all quite surprised by their thematic communality. Apart from unintended parallels of a concrete nature, there was a common existential thrust to them. As their characters dissolve into  insanity, criminality, or, in Brando’s case, the characters he has created, all four actor/writers have challenged us to consider just what constitutes the individual personality. Each character was shown as isolated within his private moral world. The judges chose Ilya Khodosh for the award, and I agree, but I also imagine that it was a close decision between him and Terry Tamm. A tough call, I think.

The professional contributions were longer and even more developed, but the student work stood up well in the comparison. Like Dr. Sangare’s students, each of the artists strove for as much variety and color as possible. In GUTworks’ “Vamping” Kali Quinn played several different characters who revolved around a 91-year-old woman suffering from senile dementia. Jessica Lynn Johnson in “Oblivious to Everyone” was an LA bimbo whose sense of self had been so deeply corrupted by media and marketing that, as she talked to a psychiatrist, she dissolved into split personalities. In “American Cake” Jonathan Pereira played an American Everyman, who recounts a flood of encounters with a range of types any of us might find close to home or on the road in this country, all bringing out a different aspect of his character’s seemingly ordinary, but actually rather complex personality. Herbert Kaluza, who was directed by Johannes Talmon-Gros, coming from a different tradition, took a simpler course: he presented Isaac Babel’s first-person narrative of a childhood recollection through a colorful, even eccentric portrayal of the story-teller, an elderly Jew dressed in the traditional black suit, making his way through the darkness with a large, well-worn suitcase. However, the tendency towards fragmentation emerged in the telling of this story, set in the environs of Odessa, in four languages: English, German, Russian, and Polish.

“Vamping,” while our attention is riveted on Kali Quinn’s virtuosic performance of a series of characters ranging in age from early childhood to 91, is essentially a collaborative work of the Brooklyn-based theater and multi-media company to which she belongs, GUTworks. She performs against a elaborate and impeccably designed and executed projection of both moving and still images. These extend from an empty nursing home corridor to old home movies to statistical charts, as the focus of the production shifts from atmosphere and dramatic pathos to social commentary, a shift it accomplishes successfully. Nonetheless, the quality which makes “Vamping” unique is the range of voice and movement, all based on fine observation, Ms. Quinn brings to her performance. Her exploitation of her few props, a blanket and a wheelchair, showed extraordinary skill and imagination, not to mention her own body. As the nurse, her stooped, almost deformed posture reflects years of caring for the elderly and disabled—work few people can maintain for very long. The situation of her character, 91-year-old Julia Quinn, as she moves inexorably to mental dissolution and death, is deeply affecting. Of course this is everywhere around us. Death is part of life for all of us. Most of us share the experience of caring for an elderly relative. But as drama, the universality of the dilemma proved limiting. The Verfremdungsaffekt of the projected commentary on the inadequacies of the way in which our society handles Alzheimer’s care extends its scope into the realm of social activism, but it also emphasizes the generality of the character and the problem. Looking at the piece as drama, one misses the components of individuality and character in the drama’s core mechanism.

The world of Jessica Lynn Johnson’s character, Carrie, who is free to make her way to almost any corner of LA county she fancies, is as depressingly limited as Julia Quinn’s room in the nursing home, where she can’t go to the toilet without imposed assistance. As Carrie makes her entrance she is deep into a “very important call.” She is making an appointment at the beauty parlor, micromanaging every aspect of what promises to be an intensive session with a substantial cast of service providers. However, her primary interlocutor is a psychiatrist, and in addressing the psychiatrist she addresses us, the audience. Carrie is there under duress, because her family and friends say “that it’s getting embarrassing to go out with her,” that “they can never tell who she’s going to be today.” We learn all about Carrie’s childhood, how she grew up in front of a tv screen and how she has become a “smut-aholic,” an addict of television talk shows and trashy magazines. It’s not so much that these questionable influences have crowded out any personality trait she might call her own, it’s that they took root in her so early, that there was never any room for anything else to grow. No wonder she is possessed by a host of familiar spirits, who have invaded her through the media and on the streets, or perhaps through great American over-soul, as when she assumes a Southern trailer trash persona. Carrie has ambitions and expectations of herself, but they are confined to parts of her body. The tastes of her former boy friend inspired her to get her breasts in order, and now her concerns gravitate to her sedentary organ. Of course she believes she doesn’t belong in therapy, and she gradually begins to come on to her therapist, who, as a successful Harvard graduate, is as desirable as a man can be in Carrie’s world. She is building up to one colossal act of transference. Although we hear all this in fragmented form from various external personalities, but her fundamental view of herself and her role in life is as a housewife, with a man shouldering the financial concerns.

In a way Carrie is a construct, a feminist model of what is to be eliminated from society, but at one point, about a third of the way through, Johnson began to develop Carrie further and further, and while she remained essentially true to this model, she “grew and grew and grew” into a repository of many other aspects of the American psyche, not only acquisitiveness, but fear of disruption in the pipeline of goodies, fear of people who might deprive her of her pelf, and a good measure of racial prejudice, which she of course tastefully deplores. Otherwise good taste is a trait totally lacking in Carrie. As her show approaches the end, Carrie’s alien personalities invade with increasing frequency and intensity and things become increasingly serious. Finally, when she assumes the personality of a little girl (or it assumes her, so little does Carrie’s will come into play), it becomes quite moving, as Johnson projects the terrorizing effect of family disharmony on her young psyche—not violence, not sexual abuse, just incompatibility and intolerance. The physical demands of Ms. Johnson’s performance were obviously heavy from the beginning, but they become even more intense as it approaches its conclusion. Of course these solo performances are still plays. The writer/actors have created characters, and even in the ‘62 Center’s intimate space, we are intended to feel some distance from them. However, at points, Johnson’s delivery was so natural that I forgot the theatrical situation and felt she was talking to us in an intimate conversation. This was a virtuoso performance of the highest order, in which she showed herself to be a consummate master of characterization, movement, and an encyclopedia of various American accents.

When the lights went up on “American Cake,” Jonathan Pereira introduced himself with a perfect Norman Bates moment. As he stood in front of an American flag, the iconic lopsided grin hinted that something scary is in store for us. The expansive course of Pereira’s play revolves around a heart-shaped cake, which, adaptable to various occasions in the American calendar of festivals, he elaborates and consumes through the evening. For his sake, I only hope the cake tastes better than it looks, because he eats a lot of it. Just as Carrie consumes cosmetic services and fashion goods, Jonathan fetishizes and consumes this cake. As he eats his way through the evening he discusses many other American fetishes: tv, beer, life in cars, the presidents, “our troops,” and, of course, the flag. He begins on a narrowly personal note, his likes and dislikes, his relationship with dates and the woman he eventually marries. Of course the even tenor of life is roiled by petty domestic imbroglios. Washing the dishes was the cause of their first crisis. For a moment, I thought we’d be permanently diverted from the political theme I was expecting, but gradually, and most effectively, Jonathan’s frustrations focus on his relationship to his nation, America. In this he expresses a feeling many of us share. Our relationship to our country is like a dysfunctional marriage. However, Jonathan is young. A dysfunctional relationship for him hardly goes beyond the discovery that marriage is inevitably fraught with irritation and bickering—behavior which discourages respect as well as affection. For others, our nationality, our Americanism, feels more like an old bad marriage, one which has grown worse over years and has become poisoned at the marrow with bitterness and aversion. We have corruption, hypocrisy, and injustice at what seems like an unprecedented scale in government and business. Our chief executive has committed us to an unjust war which is also harmful to our interests, and he trying to perpetuate and even expand it. What about capital punishment, which Jonathan never mentions? It feels very strange to be a part of a country which practices this outmoded, barbarous punishment. In any case, he comes to the conclusion that Bush is the symptom, not the problem, which shouldn’t make us feel any better. He may not be a Norman Bates, but he is as alienated as any of the other characters we have met on that evening: the old lady in the nursing home, the commercially exploited woman, or the survivor of a pogrom.

All three performances were on a very high level, but I agree that Jessica Lynn Johnson richly deserved her award, both for book and acting.

It is significant that the three American writer/actors came together on this theme, the critique of American society, just as the four student actors intersected on existential dilemmas. The distinguished Polish actor Herbert Kaluza brought us into another world, albeit a world to which many Americans are connected. In Isaac Babel’s “The Story of my Dovecote,” a Jew named Arye-Leib recounts how, at the age of nine, he overcame Russian discrimination and Jewish corruption to win a place in an elite school, only to have the celebrations cut short by a pogrom. Directed by Johannes Talmon-Gros, the performance was first staged at the theater “Die Komödianten” in Kiel, entirely in German. As Kaluza travelled the show, other languages accrued. He performed it in German and Russian in Kiev and Moscow, German, Polish and Russian in Warsaw, and here in English as well. Kaluza has performed it a numerous theater festivals and has won awards, like that of the International Network of One-Man-Show-Festivals for best actor. Its theatrical language was also  different from the American performances. Although “Die Komödianten” is evidently an intimate theater, the scale of the production was epic in comparison to the others. With his extravagant gestures and vivid theatricality Kaluza could have commanded a full-sized proscenium stage. At the reception after the performance, I was surprised to see that Mr. Kaluza is a man of slight build, he seemed so much larger than life in performance. His character seemed almost demented in his intensity, as he unfolded Babel’s spare, sharply ironic narration. This powerful and imaginative actor come from a tradition in which the color and expressiveness of the voice is cultivated in a way which is unfamiliar to most Americans. Mr. Kaluza was the only international participant, and he received his prize by default, but no one could doubt it was richly deserved.

It is a pity that international theater companies do not visit this country more often, other than the RSC, although there have been some exceptions at BAM. Hence, I believe that this was a particularly important component of Dialogue One, and I sincerely hope that it will expand in the future. I heard some members of the audience grumble about the incomprehensibility of the foreign languages, but the story, begun in English, was sufficiently clear for everyone to follow most of it. Perhaps a fuller synopsis in the program might help, a translated text, or even supertitles, although they can be distracting.

Dialogue One was a intellectually rewarding and terrifically entertaining event, a valuable addition to Williams’ already impressive theater program. The quality of the students’ work and the intense inspiration they drew from Professor Sangare is amazing. Both the College and the local audience should be grateful to him for devising this world-class festival.

 

 

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Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L'Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides' Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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