Friday, March 29, 2019

Silent cries

In my last post about attending My Fair Lady as a child, I said that part of the theatergoing magic was the "chatty hubbub" in the lobby before the show.

When I entered the auditorium recently at the Baruch College Performing Arts Center for a performance of Crying Hands by Norway's Teater Manu, I had the opposite experience.

Never have I entered a theater full of people (about 200, including the actress Marlee Matlin) where there was so little noise. Teater Manu is a sign language theater and about 90% of the audience were deaf people. Flo, Ryan and I dropped our voices to a whisper, instinctively reacting to the quiet environment, then realized that was ridiculous.
From left, Eitan Zuckerman, Ronny Patrick Jacobsen,
 Ipek D. Mehlum in Teater Manu's production of  Crying Hands.
Although I did not hear much talking, the air was alive with hands conversing in sign language and people making the sounds of words. People were seated, yet dancing through a language I didn't understand. I was definitely in the minority and it was not a comfortable feeling.

I knew that I was about to see a play presented in both sign language and oral narration, but now I vaguely wondered if there were different customs among the deaf in the theatergoing experience itself. Flo recommended the play since she is taking a course in "deaf culture." It was the first time I had heard that expression.

Artistic director Mira Zuckerman introduced Teater Manu and the production, explaining that there had been some problem with lights. After she finished, the audience raised their arms and wiggled their hands. It was the first time I had seen deaf people applaud. 

The set we were viewing was sparse - a gray rear wall and six chairs, two bearing Nazi uniforms, two with civilian clothing and two with prison clothing. The signing actors, Ronny Patrick Jacobsen and Ipek D. Mehlum, sat on two chairs. A third signing actor, Eitan Zuckerman, stood at stage left and narrated in sign language. "Voice actor" Kjersti Fjeldstad sat at stage right and narrated in spoken language.

Ronny Patrick Jacobsen and Ipek D. Mehlum
Crying Hands was created by playwright and director Bentein Baardson from interviews with 10 deaf survivors of the Holocaust. Their experiences were distilled into the two characters onstage - Hans (played by Ronny Patrick Jacobsen) and Gertrud (Ipek D. Mehlum) - but not fictionalized. "Everything we tell you has happened," Zuckerman said, telling us that the two characters "could have been anyone" and asking us to consider whether it could happen again.

Hans is a deaf boy who tells us that as he grows up in Berlin, he is fascinated by motorcycles and becomes good at maintaining them. Attracted by Hitler's vision of a strong Germany, he joins the youth wing of the Nazi party. He enthusiastically goes on group rides with other boys in uniform and casually mentions that sometimes they would "have fun teasing and harassing Jews."

Gertrud, who can hear, grows up in a middle-class family and is interested in science from a young age. She becomes a doctor, interested in healing "society and people," and begins to explore theories of how to improve the human race. The Nazi party, she believes, is "the new doctor for the German people" and she becomes a proponent of eugenics to "improve the gene pool."

As they tell their stories, photos curated by video designer Simon Valentine are projected against the back wall, sometimes accompanied by sound effects. Clearly, Baardson wants to include the hearing audience. Sometimes the sound effects, such as the rumble of motorcycles, had a tactile component that could be felt by the deaf viewers.

As we hear of Hitler consolidating his power, both actors face the back wall, where a photograph of a giant Nazi rally is projected, and slowly, chillingly raise their arms in the "Sieg Heil" salute.

Then, things begin to turn.

Voice actor Kjersti Fjeldstad 
Hans is dismayed when his corp of deaf soldiers is disbanded because Hitler doesn't want disabled troops. "Eugenics" means that people deaf from birth must undergo forced sterilization since "anyone who carries a hereditary disability may not reproduce." Hans escapes that fate (members of his family are not so fortunate), but is sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Gertrud, who says she "did not consider Jews a threat," finds her professional and social position upended when it is discovered she had a Jewish grandmother. Now she is part of the "final solution" and put on a train to Auschwitz.

Hans and Gertrud are forced into survival mode and witness scenes of horror and torture, some involving children. This section of the play is the most difficult to endure. It is here where we learn of the terrible reason for the play's title. For this hearing listener, the steady tone of  voice actor Fjeldstad made it almost bearable. 

One reason Crying Hands  is so powerful is that it is a tale of Nazi Germany where the protagonists started as the oppressors, then ended up in the opposite space.

Could it happen again? Of course. There have been genocides since World War II - Cambodia, Rwanda. Perhaps plays such as Crying Hands and groups such as Teater Manu appeal to the best in humanity sometimes by showing us the worst.

At the end of the play, the hearing members of the audience clapped, the deaf members raised their hands and waved their fingers -- and also stomped their feet. It was the first time I had experienced an audience for whom vibration was more important than sound. There's a lot to learn about deaf culture.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

A "Fair Lady" for all generations

We had cameras, of course, in 1961 but not cellphones so there is no selfie of a woman and a seven-year-old girl outside Broadway's Mark Hellinger Theater just before a matinee of My Fair Lady.


 

It was my first Broadway show. Fifty-eight years later, My Fair Lady was a young man's first Broadway musical - a time-spanning dose of historic theater magic that brought generations together.

Before My Fair Lady, Mom had taken me and my little brother to a couple of local shows in Queens, but Broadway involved dressing up and taking the subway into "New York" (Manhattan) - an intensely exciting process.

Theater-going (and theatrical personalities) run in my family. In the Depression, my mom (who would later become a fashion writer) and her sister would buy $1.00 balcony seats and have $1.00 spaghetti dinners at Sardi's. They saw such luminaries as Laurence Olivier and Katharine Cornell.

Last weekend, I filled in the young man (Ryan) on the plot of Pygmalion, the Shaw play on which My Fair Lady is based, (leaving room for suspense), and I'm pretty sure my mom (Florence) would have done the same, being a natural teacher. Florence's granddaughter (Flo), also in the selfie, has been to considerably more shows, beginning with The Lion King.

My Fair Lady opened in 1956 and was an instant, gigantic hit. The story of Eliza the Cockney flower girl transformed into "a lady" by phonetics professor Henry Higgins along with Frederick Loewe's music, Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics, Moss Hart's direction, Rex Harrison as Higgins, Julie Andrews as Eliza, made it the toughest ticket on Broadway for years.

By 1961, the principals were played by suave British actor Michael Allinson and the first American to play Eliza, the charming Margot Moser, who is still alive. The show was at the magnificent Mark Hellinger Theater, with its soaring golden lobby and rococo interior. I absorbed the chatty hubbub in the lobby, the walk to our seats, the darkening auditorium and then - those slashing eight notes that start the overture.

I was thrilled and seduced by that masterpiece of a score, from "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" through to "The Rain in Spain" and "With a Little Bit of Luck." That afternoon began a lifelong love affair with the theater.

Today, Lincoln Center Theater uses a proper 30-piece orchestra, conducted by Ted Sperling, and Flo and Ryan felt the same excitement: "That's the overture, Ryan." As the violins swept into the melody from "I Could Have Danced All Night," I was overcome by memory and emotion.
From left, Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins, Laura Benanti as
 Eliza Doolittle and Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering in "The Rain in Spain."
Harry Hadden-Paton and Laura Benanti were our Higgins and Eliza, and my appreciation of their performances changed throughout the show. They are closer in age (both in their late 30s) than the characters Shaw wrote (Higgins is in his 40s and Eliza is 20, as were Harrison and Andrews), which meant that the lovely Benanti and her glorious soprano came across as very much a woman, not a girl, as she is referred to in the script.

I missed the older/younger dynamic, but this Fair Lady focuses on Eliza's discovery of her own strength and self-reliance. I thought Hadden-Paton might be too handsome and "nice," but he found Higgins' edge and delivered an intense "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" at the end that showed a man falling apart as he realizes the depth of his feelings for a woman.

Both of the principals brought fire to Eliza's declaration of independence ("Without You,") and a scene of intellectual jousting over how they can possibly relate to each other now that they are on more-equal terms.

I particularly enjoyed Allan Corduner's warm, kind Colonel Pickering and Linda Mugleston's steel-spined Scottish Mrs. Pearce. The great Rosemary Harris, at 91, gave us a Mrs. Higgins (Henry's mother) of grace and wisdom. Danny Burstein was the force of life itself as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's father -- a sly street philosopher who undergoes his own transformation when he gets an unexpected windfall.

Christopher Gatelli's choreography shone during Alfred's send-off into marriage. "Get Me to the Church on Time" was a rousing music-hall number and such a delightful riot that such odd directorial touches as can-can girls and a cross-dressing bride simply seemed part of the joyful ruckus. Ryan particularly liked this number.

Director Bartlett Sher's production was properly sumptuous. Catherine Zuber designed costumers in shades of grey, silver, lavender and pink. Michael Yeargan's sets most spectacularly featured a revolving, mobile set of Higgins' townhouse that allowed actors to travel through three interior and exterior areas while performing. Ryan noticed particularly Donald Holder's lighting which Holder said referenced "the color and quality of early electric light while also reveal[ing] the cool exteriors of central London."

Our post-show discussion focused on Sher's change in the the always-problematic ending and the question of whether Eliza comes back to Higgins. Flo wondered whether the final scene in Higgins' study actually took place in his imagination - an unusual, but valid, interpretation. I thought the ending was illogical, but perhaps symbolic. Ryan felt the show wanted to end on a message of Eliza's empowerment but still wanted to have a final send-off between the two characters. He also noticed how Sher's blocking (stage movement) had the two circling each other in their final scene.

We talked about Shaw's ideas about class and society, about how men and women get on with each other - and about how it was all set on a brilliant comedy-drama and glorious songs.

If you don't "get" theater, you don't understand how something called "a show" can actually be life-changing, but My Fair Lady is one of those shows. There are reminiscences all over the Internet about its effect.

It's the perfect "first time," with the potential to light up the mind and heart for a lifetime. The theater gods -- as they do -- arranged everything abso-bloomin'-lutely perfectly.