31 October 2015

'Waiting for Godot'

“I think Beckett was a genius and that Godot is a masterpiece.”  I confessed this sentiment 6½ years ago in a post called “Is Waiting for Godot Trash?” (17 April 2009), and I haven’t changed my mind on that score since I first saw the play at my college theater my freshman year.  (I’m old enough that the play was only nine years past its U.S. début and Broadway première when the Troubadour Theater put it on.)   I’d never seen, or even heard, of anything like it at that point in my cultural life—I was 18 and “Theater of the Absurd” was a whole new idea to me.  (A year or two later, the Troubs staged Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade—in which I had a role—and if Waiting for Godot and Theater of the Absurd opened my eyes, Marat/Sade and Theater of Cruelty blew my mind!  We did exciting stuff at Washington and Lee University back in the day.)

I haven’t always been able to see new productions of Samuel Beckett’s most famous play, so when I read that the Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University, just down 5th Avenue from my home, was hosting a performance of Godot, I jumped at the chance to catch it during its short stay here (13-17 October).  My frequent theater companion, Diana, agreed to go with me, so on Saturday evening, 17 October, we met at the Skirball Center on LaGuardia Place just south of Washington Square for the show’s 8 p.m. closing performance. 

A co-production of Gare St Lazare Ireland and the Dublin Theatre Festival, this presentation of Waiting for Godot premiered at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in October 2013 and toured to the Lyric Theatre for the Belfast Festival at Queen’s University and then to Boston, Massachusetts, to perform at ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage in November 2013.  In 2014, the show traveled to Shanghai as part of the ACT International Festival of Contemporary Theatre at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre.  

In 1991, after graduating from college with a BA in fine arts, Judy Hegarty Lovett, who directed the current Godot, moved to Paris and joined Gare St Lazare Chicago; Conor Lovett, who appears as Vladimir, was also a member of the Paris troupe, where they worked together as director and actor on several productions.  In 1996, the Lovetts founded Gare St Lazare Players Ireland, of which they are joint artistic directors, in County Cork.  Dedicated to the faithful rendering of Samuel Beckett’s plays—it has 17 of his titles in its repertoire—Gare St Lazare Ireland has also adapted Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick (2009) and produced the original play Title and Deed (world première, 2011), written specifically for the troupe by American Will Eno and seen in New York at the Signature Theatre Company in 2012 as part of Eno’s STC residency.  GSLI has also staged works by Michael Harding (Swallow, 2003) and Conor McPherson (The Good Thief, première, 2006).  The company has become Ireland’s most traveled theater troupe, going to over 60 sites in Ireland and making more than 200 tours to 80 cities outside Ireland in 25 countries on six continents. 

The NYU Skirball Center, funded in part by the Skirball Foundation and named for Jack H. Skirball (1896-1985), a rabbi who became a producer in Hollywood as well as on Broadway, is part of the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for University Life, the NYU student center on Washington Square South (West 4th Street), replacing the Loeb Student Center which was demolished in 1999.  The 860-seat theater opened in 2003, and this was only the second time I’d ever been there.  (The first show I saw at the Skirball was Not by Bread Alone; my report, posted on 12 February 2013, contains some additional details on the Skirball Center.)

Samuel Beckett was born near Dublin, Ireland, in 1906, the second son of middle-class parents.  He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, with a major in French and Italian.  His first job in 1928 was teaching English in the École Normale Supérieur in Paris.  During this time, the young Beckett met James Joyce and quickly became part of the older writer’s circle.  In 1931, he returned to Ireland as a lecturer in French literature, received his masters degree in French, and subsequently returned to Paris as a teacher in 1932.  He made Paris his home from then on, except for visits abroad and a retreat to the Unoccupied Zone in Vichy, France, from 1942-44. 

Beckett found teaching disagreeable and soon turned all of his attention to writing.  During the 1930s and ’40s, his writing consisted of critical studies (“Proust” and others), poems, and two novels (Murphy and Watt), all written in English.  During these Wanderjahre, he moved to Dublin to London to Paris and traveled through France and Germany.  Whenever he passed through Paris, he called on Joyce.  Once or twice, Joyce, whose sight had been failing for a long time, dictated passages from Finnegan’s Wake to Beckett.

In the late 1940s, he began writing in French, partly in rejection of his homeland.  Asked why he found Ireland uncongenial, he offered the same explanation as fellow Irish expatriates Sean O’Casey and Joyce: he couldn’t tolerate the many restrictive aspects of Irish life, especially the arbitrary censorship of the Catholic clergy and anti-intellectual cultural bias.  In 1958, during the International Theatre Festival in Dublin, a play of his compatriot O’Casey was banned, and Beckett, in protest, withdrew his own plays, none of which were seen in Ireland until many years later.

During the 1960s, Beckett became an influential figure in all dramatic media.  In British television studios; in the streets of New York where his Film (1965) starring Buster Keaton was shot; in the legitimate theater in which he worked firmly but easily with directors and actors, many of whom regard him as a genius.  At the end of his career, he served as his own producer.

When not in rehearsal, he divided his time between his Paris house and a country cottage bought with the proceeds from Godot.  He gave few interviews, was rarely photographed, and indeed, after winning the Nobel Prize in 1969, gave away all the prize money and went into complete seclusion for several months.  News from his friends, however, indicated that the great bi-lingual artist was exploring a new world of imagination, using innovative forms, which his English publisher John Calder, described in 1970 as “more painterly than literary.”

In the 1970s, partly because of failing eyesight and recurring ill health, Beckett wrote little; most works published were collected short pieces written years earlier.  Major honors, however, were accorded him during the decade: he was elected to the German Academy of Art in 1973 and the Royal Court company produced a two-part Beckett Festival to honor his 70th birthday in 1976.  A number of small works, including several short plays, were published and produced around the world.  In 1983, three new short plays opened in New York under the title “The Beckett Plays,” and ran 10 months on Theater Row.  In 1984, Beckett was elected Saoi of Aosdána (literally, the “wise man” of the “people of the arts”), the highest honor of the Irish national artists association.

Confined to a nursing home and suffering from emphysema and possibly Parkinson’s disease, Beckett died on 22 December 1989. He was interred with his wife Suzanne, who had predeceased the playwright by just five months, in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris where they share a simple granite gravestone.  He wrote his last work, the poem “What is the Word” (“Comment dire”), dedicated to Joe Chaikin, at the nursing home in 1988.  His writings still influence current novelists, poets, and playwrights, and his plays, which arguably introduced world audiences to what Martin Esslin came to call the Theater of the Absurd, continue to be a significant influence on dramatists, actors, and directors today

En attendant Godot was composed between 1947 and 1949 when Beckett was experiencing the first of two sustained creative bursts.  The French version was published in 1952 and opened in Paris on 5 January 1953, for a run of more than 300 performances.  It was directed by Roger Blin, who also played Pozzo, with Lucien Raimbourg as Vladimir, Pierre Latour as Estragon, Jean Martin as Lucky, and Serge Lacointe as the Boy.  The English version, which Beckett didn’t so much translate from the French as write again in English, was published in New York in 1954, débuted in London the following year with a cast of Paul Daneman as Vladimir, Peter Woodthorpe as Estragon, Timothy Bateson as Lucky, Peter Bull as Pozzo, and Michael Walker as the Boy, under the direction of Peter Hall.  The Irish première at the Pike Theatre in Beckett’s native Dublin, directed by Alan Simpson, was on 28 October 1955.  The play had its American première under the direction of Alan Schneider at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida, on 3 January 1956, with Bert Lahr as Gogo, Tom Ewell as Didi, J. Scott Smart as Pozzo, Arthur Mallet as Lucky, and Jimmy Oster as the Boy.  It bombed.  Lahr played Gogo again when the show moved to New York on 19 April under the new director, Herbert Berghof, with E. G. Marshall as Didi, Kurt Kasznar as Pozzo, Alvin Epstein as Lucky, and Luchino Solito de Solis as the Boy—all of whom repeated their roles for the Columbia Masterworks recording produced the same year.  Since then the play has been performed in over twenty tongues—in such scattered parts of the world as Japan, Sweden, Yugoslavia—and in all types of theaters, including on campus, in summer stock, in “little theaters,” and in prisons. 

Almost every opening night of Godot has been marked by extreme reactions.  The Paris production was hailed by many critics as a major dramatic breakthrough.  No less a literary figure than Jean Anouilh declared in Arts-Spectacle on 27 January 1953:

Godot is a masterpiece that will cause despair for men in general and playwrights in particular.  I think the opening night at the Théâtre de Babylone is as important as the opening of Pirandello in Paris in 1923 . . . .

At San Quentin Prison, on 19 November 1957, the inmates responded as never before to a theatrical piece.  The anonymous reviewer for the San Quentin News described this scene:

The trio of muscle-men, biceps overflowing . . . parked all 642 lbs. on the aisle and waited for the girls and funny stuff.  When this didn’t appear they audibly fumed and audibly decided to wait until the house lights dimmed before escaping.  They made one error.  They listened and looked two minutes too long—and stayed.  Left at the end.  All shook . . . .

But in Miami, a large segment of the audience left in disgust before the curtain rose for act two.  As director Alan Schneider put it in the 1958 Chelsea Review two years after it closed:

Doing Godot in Miami was, as Bert Lahr [the original Gogo] himself said, like doing Giselle in Roseland.  Even though Bert and Tommy [Ewell, who played Didi in Miami] each contributed brilliantly comic and extremely touching performances, . . . it was—in the words of the trade—a spectacular flop.  The opening night audience in Miami, at best not too sophisticated or attuned to this type of material and at worst totally misled by advertising billing the play as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” walked out in droves.  And the so-called reviewers not only could not make heads or tails of the play but accused us of pulling some sort of hoax on them.

And in London, Peter Bull, who played Pozzo in the original British production in 1955, witnessed a similar occurrence: in his memoirs, I Know the Face, But . . . (P. Davies [1959]), he wrote:

I have a habit of comforting myself on first nights by trying to think of appalling experiences during the war, when terror struck from all sides, but the windiness felt on the Italian beachheads . . . was nothing to compare with one’s panic on that evening of August 3, 1955 . . . .  Waves of hostility came whirling over the footlights, and the mass exodus . . . started quite soon after the curtain had risen.  The audible groans were also fairly disconcerting.

En attendant Godot was first performed in the small auditorium of the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris on 5 January 1953.  Typical of the enthusiastic response—and most prophetic of all—was the opinion of Sylvain Zegel, who wrote in La Libération:

Theater-lovers rarely have the pleasure of discovering a new author worthy of the name; an author who can give his dialogue true poetic force, who can animate his characters so vividly that the audience identifies with them; who, having meditated, does not amuse himself with mere word juggling; who deserves comparison with the greatest . . . .  In my opinion Samuel Beckett’s first play Waiting for Godot, at the Théâtre de Babylone, will be spoken of for a long time.

English-speaking audiences, which hadn’t seen as much avant-garde drama as had the Parisians (who’d already seen premières of Jean Genet’s The Maids in 1947 and Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, 1950, The Lesson, 1951, and The Chairs, 1952), reacted with mixed feelings.  Harold Hobson concluded his review in the London Times by saying: “Go and see Waiting for Godot.  At the worst you will discover a curiosity, a four-leaved clover, a black tulip; at the best something that will surely lodge in a corner of your mind for as long as you live.”  In The Observer, Kenneth Tynan, Hobson’s fellow doyen of London criticism, asserted, “It is vividly new, and hence I declare myself, as the Spanish would say, Godotista.”  But the American critic Marya Mannes, wrote acidly in The Reporter about the same London production:

The play concerns two tramps who inform each other and the audience at the outset that they smell.  It takes place in what appears to be the town dump, with a blasted tree rising out of a welter of rusting junk including plumbing parts.  They talk gibberish to each other and to two ‘symbolic’ maniacs for several hours, their dialogue punctuated every few minutes by such remarks as ‘What are we waiting for?’ ‘Nothing is happening,’ and ‘Let’s hang ourselves.’  The last was a good suggestion, unhappily discarded.

And surveying the London theater in 1957 for Sewanee Review, Bonamy Dobrée said flatly about Godot that

it is time to affirm that anything that can be called art must ultimately be in praise of life, or must at least promote acceptance of life, thus indicating some values.

Dobrée thus epitomized the widely-accepted view of the time that Beckett’s work, because of its “nihilism,” could not “be called art.” 

The New York production of 1956 garnered a mixture of critical response.  In the Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr wrote on 29 April 1956 that “Mr. Lahr has . . . been in touch with what goes on in the minds and hearts of the folk out front.  I wish that Mr. Beckett were as intimately in touch with the texture of things.”  In the New Republic on 14 May 1956, Eric Bentley dubbed the play “like all modern plays . . . undramatic but highly theatrical.”  He declared that “what has brought the play before audiences in so many countries—aside from snobberies and phony publicity—is its theatricality.”  (Eleven years later, Bentley revised his estimation upwards.)  On the other hand, for the New Yorker, Kenneth Tynan, already on record in London as praising the play, described the audience reaction: “And when the curtain fell, the house stood up to cheer a man [Bert Lahr] who had never before appeared in a legitimate play . . . .  Without him, the Broadway production . . . would be admirable; with him, it is transfigured.”  And the dean of New York critics, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times on 20 April 1956, calling the play “a mystery wrapped in an enigma,” wrote:

Although “Waiting for Godot” is a “puzzlement,” as the King of Siam would express it, Mr. Beckett is no charlatan.  He has strong feelings about the denigration of mankind, and he has given vent to them copiously.  “Waiting for Godot” is all feeling.  Perhaps that is why it is puzzling and convincing at the same time.  Theatregoers can rail at it, but they cannot ignore it.  For Mr. Beckett is a valid writer.

Even as late as 1988, when New York’s Lincoln Center Theatre produced Godot, than which the New York Times’ Frank Rich asserted “no play could be more elemental in either form or content” and which “began remaking the world’s theater” when it first appeared on stage, playwright Robert Patrick demeaned Beckett as “a pleasantly lugubrious, collegiate skit writer” and Waiting for Godot as “trash and trivia” and a “mediocrity” which ought to be “placed among the space junk.”  (Patrick’s remarks are the subject of my blog post “Is Waiting for Godot Trash?,” mentioned earlier.) 

Regardless of the direction of the response—for or against—no one seemed to be able to leave it alone.  It stirred something in all audiences—be it anger or praise, but it stirred.  Somehow that seems appropriately Beckettian—and, as the French say, godotesque.

In more recent years, the play, still controversial, has continued to be produced all over the world.  In 1984, Israeli director Ilan Ronen and the Haifa Municipal Theatre presented a bi-lingual production of Godot in Hebrew and Arabic (with Arab actors as Didi and Gogo and Jewish actors as Lucky and Pozzo).  British director Sean Mathias directed Ian McKellen as Gogo and Patrick Stewart as Didi as his first production as artistic director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company. Dubbed the X-Men Godot (because both stars had appeared in that 2000 film and some of its sequels), it toured the U.K. prior to opening in London on 30 April 2009.  Sydney Theatre staged Godot in November 2013 directed by Andrew Upton, husband of actress Cate Blanchett.

In New York, Berghof staged a 6-performance Broadway return of Godot in 1957 at the Ethyl Barrymore Theatre with an entirely new cast.  In 2009, the Roundabout Theatre Company staged a revival at Studio 54, a former club that the Off-Broadway company converted into a Broadway house, directed by Anthony Page with a cast of John Glover (Lucky), John Goodman (Pozzo), Bill Irwin (Vladimir), Nathan Lane (Estragon), and Matthew Schechter (Boy); it ran 84 performances.  A new production staged by Mathias was mounted at Broadway’s Cort Theatre in 2013-14 in which McKellen and Stewart reprised their West End roles and Billy Crudup played Lucky, Shuler Hensley played Pozzo, and Colin Critchley and Aidan Gemme alternated as the Boy for a run of 77 performances in rep with Harold Pinter’s No Mans Land

Off-Broadway, Schneider, the director of the ill-fated Miami première of Godot, staged a revival at Greenwich Village’s Sheridan Square Playhouse in 1971 that ran for 277 performances.  In 1981, Schneider again directed the play, a three-performance presentation with the Acting Company at the Joseph Papp Public Theater’s Newman Theater in the East Village.  Mike Nichols, former stand-up comedian turned renowned film and stage director, mounted a much-publicized staging of the play at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in1988 for a run of 56 performances; it starred Robin Williams as Gogo; Steve Martin as Didi; F. Murray Abraham as Pozzo; Bill Irwin, in what I believe was his first dramatic stage role (he would later play Didi on Broadway), as Lucky; and Lucas Haas as the Boy.  In 2005-06, Alan Hruska  directed a production at the Theater at St. Clement’s Church in the Theatre District.  The Classical Theatre of Harlem produced an all-African American revival of Godot in 2006, directed by Christopher McElroen, the founder and then-artistic director of CTH.  In 2014, the New Yiddish Rep presented a revival of Godot performed in Yiddish with English supertitles under the direction of Moshe Yassur at the Barrow Street Theatre in the Village.

The BBC having aired the play on radio on 25 April 1960, NTA Film Network, a part-time network in the United States, broadcast a TV version on 3 April 1961 directed by Alan Schneider from his Miami production script.  The stars of the telecast, also shown in the U.K., were Zero Mostel as Gogo, Burgess Meredith as Didi and Luke Halpin as the Boy, with Kasznar and Epstein repeating their Broadway stage roles.  Becket pronounced himself displeased with the television staging, principally because of the confinement of the small screen.  On 29 June 1977, a TV version of the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre production of Waiting for Godot for Theater in America was broadcast on KCET, the Public Broadcasting System’s station in Los Angeles, with a cast of Dana Elcar as Vladimir, Donald Moffat as Estragon, Ralph Waite as Pozzo, Bruce French as Lucky, and Todd Lookinland as the Boy, directed by Charles S. Dubin and Gwen Arner.  In 2001, British director Michael Lindsay-Hogg made a film version—despite Beckett’s own admonition in 1967 that he did not “want any film of Godot.”  The playwright had insisted, “An adaptation would destroy it.”  (The film may never have been released in the U.S.)

The famous quip about Godot is that it’s “a play in which nothing happens, twice.”  I beg to differ, but . . . to each his own.  (I’ll just quote one of Beckett’s philosophical influences, Heraclitus of Ephesus: “Many people learn nothing from what they see and experience, nor do they understand what they hear explained, but imagine that they have.”)  In act one, Vladimir and Estragon, two music hall clowns or tramps (Beckett preferred the former but many productions go with the latter), are alone near a bare, roadside tree, where they meet daily to wait for Godot (which, in Anglo-Irish is pronounced GOD-OH, with both syllables stressed, not g’d-OH, as we Americans usually say).  Estragon struggles to get his stuck boot off his sore foot; Vladimir fusses with his hat.  Gogo (as his partner in waiting calls him) naps but can’t recount his dream because Didi (Gogo’s common name for his companion) won’t listen.  They discuss separation (but make up), suicide (but defer it), vegetables, religion, Didi’s urinary troubles, and Godot.  As Didi and Gogo sit in resignation, a loud cry terrifies them.  

Passing through are Pozzo and his servant Lucky on a leash, carrying Pozzo’s possessions.  Pozzo, who owns the surrounding terrain, introduces himself and has a meal of chicken and wine.  Gogo begs the bones.  Pozzo smokes his pipe, speaks of time, discusses selling Lucky, who weeps at this but rewards Gogo’s offer of a handkerchief with a kick.  On command of Gogo, Lucky “dances”; on command of Didi, he “thinks” (in the most astounding monologue ever staged).  Pozzo and Lucky resume their journey and Didi’s glad the incident helped pass the time while they waited.  (The French title, En attendant Godot, actually means “while waiting for Godot.”  The play is about what happens—what Didi and Gogo do—while waiting for Godot.)  The two wonder again what to do—besides wait for Godot.  They decide to make conversation about whether they’d previously known Pozzo and Lucky; no agreement is reached.  Gogo returns to tending his feet.  Out of nowhere, a goatherd arrives with a message: “Mr. Godot . . . won’t come this evening, but surely tomorrow.”  Didi questions him about his brother, a shepherd, and Mr. Godot.  The boy leaves.  Night falls.  Gogo sets his boots on the road for some passerby.  Agreeing to leave, the two stand still.

In act two, it’s the next day and Vladimir and Estragon are alone again.  The two begin waiting again with games, calisthenics, and philosophical talk.  Didi finds and wears Lucky’s hat; Gogo finds boots apparently left in exchange for his.  Pozzo, now blind, and Lucky, now mute, return and collapse in a heap.  Didi and Gogo deliberate over whether to help; they fall, too, but finally help Pozzo up.  Pozzo, disparaging clock-time, goads Lucky into traveling.  Gogo’d been napping again, but Didi won’t let him recount his dream.  Didi soliloquizes on his predicament.  A boy, this time the shepherd brother, brings the same message.  Didi questions him about Godot but frightens the boy, who runs off.  Night falls.  Didi and Gogo decide to hang themselves with the cord from Gogo’s pants.  The cord breaks, and Gogo’s trousers fall down.  The two decide to return tomorrow.  Agreeing to leave, they stand still.

Waiting for Godot, which runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission in GSLI’s mounting, is such a philosophical and metaphysical (not to forget religious) mélange, as well as a language puzzle, that writing out an interpretation is a book’s worth (even many books’ worth) endeavor, and I’m going to skip it.  As I said, it’s rationale is looking at what Vladimir and Estragon do while waiting for the mysterious Godot.  (Beckett didn’t write or often even talk about any of his work, and he refused to say what or whom Godot represented, so it’s up to each of us to decide—sometimes at each viewing or reading.)  I discovered on reading the French version, which Beckett wrote first and then rewrote into English, that some material was not rendered into English—largely because censorship in England was strict.  Not until the end of 1964 did an unabridged version of the script get a British staging—and reading the first version reveals a lot that’s not clearly spelled out (even for Godot) in the standard English script.  Over the years, I’ve done some reading and research on the play (there are four 2009 posts on ROT on Godot-related topics:  “History of Waiting For Godot,” 30 March; “Thoughts on Waiting For Godot,” 1 April; “More Thoughts on Waiting For Godot,” 3 April; “Is Waiting for Godot Trash?,” 17 April) and based on that work, I do have a few pithy ideas.  First, the spine of the play (in Harold Clurman’s sense of the term) is “To find salvation”—which usually becomes “to survive; to get through the day,” or, to use Vladimir’s words, “to keep the ball in play.”  (Some theater people call this the play’s “action”; it means the same thing.)

Second, the theme of Godot is universal helplessness and uncertainty.  Beckett’s key word is “perhaps”; he deals not with knowledge and strength, but ignorance and, therefore, impotence.  Beckett believed the first spoken words should introduce the play’s theme: “Nothing to be done”—that is, we have no control over what happens.  It’s important to note that “helplessness”—the inability to have an effect on events—is not hopelessness.  Lack of control is not synonymous in Godot with doom—there is always the possibility of hope.  We just can’t be sure.  One of Beckett’s favorite statements is from St. Augustine: “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved; do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”  Beckett liked it for the symmetry of its form; but it also balances hope with despair in equal measure—and Vladimir even sees this dichotomy in Godot.

The metaphor of the play, its central situation—the uncertain and endless waiting—is analogous to waiting for a bus at night on a strange route without watch or timetable.  You may be at the right spot for the bus to stop—or you may not; the last bus may have already passed—or you may be on time.  If you wait, and the bus hasn’t gone by, and you’re in the right place, you’ll catch your bus and be on your way (that is, “saved”).  If the bus has passed, or you’re in the wrong place, you’ll wait all night to no avail and jeopardize your chances of catching another somewhere else or finding a taxi.  But if you leave to find another spot, the bus may come at any moment and leave without you.  Your complete ignorance of the essential facts—time, bus route, schedule—makes you impotent to take any specific action.

Judy Hegarty Lovett is obviously well-versed in the ways and means of Beckettian theater, having staged nearly all of GSLI’s productions.  Another of the dramatist’s philosophical influences was William of Occam, and Lovett certainly knows his Law of Parsimony, commonly called “Occam’s Razor” because it cuts to the bone.  That’s how Lovett approached her staging concept of Waiting for Godot, simple, straightforward and unadorned with irrelevancies.  The setting Ferdia Murphy (who also designed the simple costumes) gave her and the very performances themselves are manifestations of this notion.  It contains everything the performers and the spectators need, and not a jot more—not a frill or furbelow.  Lovett’s production of Waiting for Godot is the theatrical equivalent of a minimalist painting—but fraught with content.  Not to mention whimsy.  Godot may have been oversold as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” but the play, which is labeled a tragi-comedy, is funny and Lovett lets it show.

This raises a point relative to Murphy’s costumes, which are a take on the most common scheme for Godot.  According to Beckett’s original choice, Didi and Gogo are baggy-pants clowns, not tramps.  The playwright was very enamored of music hall (vaudeville) and burlesque forms and made frequent use of “low comedy” techniques, routines, and lazzi in Godot, along with his other works.  (Roger Blin, the director of the French première, at first intended to set the play in a circus.)  The ideal image is Emmet Kelley, aka Weary Willy; Beckett was also taken with the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton (who starred in Film).  In Ms. Lovett’s cast, Conor Lovett’s Vladimir and Gary Lydon’s Estragon together on stage give the visual impression of Laurel and Hardy.  Murphy holds with this baggy-pants imagery. clothing the four adult men in variations of Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Chap” get-up.  (The bowler hats play a significant role in one recognizable vaudeville routine in which Vladimir and Estragon engage.  The hank of rope that serves as Gogo’s belt is also an important comedy prop.) 

Murphy’s scenic design is essentially circular, like the play’s structure.  In the center of the Skirball’s proscenium stage is a tilted disk of a playing area, devoid of any enhancements or décor except the famous bare tree, which here overhangs the platform at stage left (Peter Hall, for the London début, made the setting a junk yard).  This is a depiction of Beckett’s vision of emptiness of life and the unlocalized setting demonstrates that life is the same the world over, that no place is special.  Murphy has given Gogo an open trap stage right so he can sit on the platform and dangle his feel in the hole.  (The hole has no further use—no one pops out of it or drops down into it.  It’s sort of a small sink hole in the landscape.)  All entrances and exits are made through the black, upstage legs either from the right or from the left.  The set’s backdrop is a screen on which is projected images which establish the time of day, sunshine for day and a huge, white, full moon for night.  (Since there’s no program credit for the projections, I assume they are the work of lighting designer Sinead McKenna.)  It’s as plain as plain can be, the production’s most visible application of “Occam’s Razor,” which, according to Beckett, is intended to keep the situation uncluttered with irrelevancies, in which the human mind often seeks refuge in its flight from the truth.  McKenna’s lighting, too, follows this principal, simply lighting the playing area, brightly during the daytime and darkening into evening and then night (after the Boy announces that Godot won’t come).  Bravo!

The performances, once again, fall solidly and happily, into the ensemble category.  I think all productions of Waiting for Godot (and probably all of Beckett’s plays) need to work like little clocks, each part driving and driven by all the others.  (I wonder how that worked out with the various star-studded productions with all those powerful personalities coming together.  I imagine the rehearsals were either hilarious and stimulating or annoying and frustrating.)  In any case, Gare St Lazare Ireland put a marvelous two- and four-hand partnership on stage at the Skirball (the Boy’s two scenes being almost separate set pieces, though 10-year-old William Keppler-Robinson did a fine job), operating like a small, absurd machine.  Lydon’s Estragon is, appropriately, the more physically oriented of the central pair; he responds to life almost instinctively and accepts himself and the world readily, even his regular beatings.  Conor Lovett’s Vladimir is the spiritual and intellectual (and verbal) half of the pair, more concerned with emotions, compassion (for Lucky, for example), and philosophy (the fate of the two crucified thieves).  He’s more the leader, as the name Vladimir, a saint’s name that means “ruler of the world” in Russian, implies and is focused on his duty and responsibility to Estragon (French for tarragon, a spice used in making pickles and vinegar) and, especially, Godot. 

Dominic J. Moore’s Pozzo is the personification of Raw Power and acts like the nouveau riche at its most arrogant.  He believes ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,’ and it’s important to know Pozzo.  Moore shows how important it is to Pozzo that he be top man.  Marcus Lamb’s Lucky, permanently stooped from carrying his constant burden—not just Pozzo’s literal possessions (which he can put down) but, metaphorically, also Pozzo and his whole world (which he can’t)—seems more animal than human.  Altogether, the work was stunning.

I’m disappointed to report that one lone blog review of the terrific New York performance of this modern classic was published (at least that’s all that I could find on line).  Several notices appeared during the 2013 Boston production, but in the world’s greatest theater town, a solitary word.  Shameful. 

I won’t quote any of the notices for the out-of-town performances (there are quite a few from Ireland) because the casts weren’t the same as the one that appeared at the NYU Skirball Center.  The single local review I found must have come on line just a day or so before I finished this report (it’s undated) because it wasn’t there all the while I was writing this—I kept checking.  On Theater Scene, Deirdre Donovan, pronouncing GSLI’s Waiting for Godot “something special,” opened her review saying, “Samuel Beckett’s great classic Waiting for Godot . . . seldom gets staged with such clockwork precision that it takes your breath away.”  Her one demurral was that “its one real drawback was that it left New York too soon.”  Warning that “Beckett didn’t create [Godot] to have you bask in the glow of its syrupy-sweet sentimentality,” Donovan asserted “the bleak poetry that plays out in this landmark work is unparalleled—and unforgettable.”  Declaring, “The Gare St. Lazare Ireland production was first-rate,” the cyber reviewer reported, “Its acting . . . was a real ensemble effort with no slouches.”  Judy Hegarty Lovett staged “each scene with razor-sharp clarity and kept the pace whip-fast.”  Donovan complimented GSLI’s “bent toward delivering prose with a fierce lyricism” and observed, “They took Beckett’s spare poetry and made it sing with a lilt.”  Her final remark was: “Indeed, this Waiting for Godot was funny, sad, and just as good as it gets.”

If you’re only going to get one review, this one’s a good un.  I’ll take it.

26 October 2015

'Cloud Nine'

While I was watching Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, I began to try to imagine what it would have been like to see it in 1981 (when it débuted here) or even ’79 (when it premièred in London).  It’s an artifact of its time (Thatcherite Britain principally, but also Reaganite America) but it still speaks to us today, 36 years after it first appeared on a stage.  But let me back up a bit.

In the same conversation my theater partner Diana and I had some months back about upcoming theater events to consider (I explained this in the Quare Land report of 16 October), I told her that the Atlantic Theater Company was reviving Churchill’s best-known play in the fall.  I’d never seen it and I thought Diana, who had originally contacted me back in the mid-’80s to ask me to be her Beatrice to the less prominent theater in New York, ought to see it if she hadn’t as well.  It was, at least, a chance to catch up on some contemporary theater history.  I myself hadn’t seen much Churchill, only Mad Forest in 1992, The Skriker in 1996, and Blue Heart in 1999, and Cloud Nine is a play that’s still talked about.  So I booked seats and we met at the Linda Gross Theater, ATC’s Chelsea home, for the 8 p.m. performance on Friday, 16 October, for what turned out to be a truly fascinating theater experience (despite a physically uncomfortable seating construct—more about which later).  ATC’s revival started previews on 16 September and opened on 5 October; the production’s scheduled closing date is 1 November. 

The London and world première of Cloud 9 (as it was then billed), produced by the Joint Stock Theatre Group, a troupe of young actors launched by Max Stafford-Clark, was on 27 March 1979 under Stafford-Clarke’s direction at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs.  Previously, Churchill and Stafford-Clark workshopped the play with JSTG on tour starting 14 February 1979 at Dartington College of the Arts in Devon, England.  (In 1980, Churchill and Stafford-Clark revived the play, with a revised script and a different cast, at the Royal Court.)  The play came to New York for its U.S. première in an again-minimally revised version at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village (renamed the Lucille Lortel Theatre in November ’81) from 18 May 1981 to 4 September 1983.  The production ran for 971 performances under the direction of Tommy Tune and won the 1982 Obie Award for Playwriting for Churchill.  There was a short-lived New York revival directed by Michael Rego at the Perry Street Theatre in the West Village from 3 November 1993 to 13 March 1994, but since then, despite the play’s popularity with rep companies and university theaters around the country, it hasn’t had a New York City return until now.

Caryl Churchill was born in 1938 in London.  Though her family moved to Montreal when Churchill was 10, she returned to England for university at Oxford (1957; B.A. in English lit) and remained there.  Churchill began playwriting at university as well; her earliest plays in the ’50s and ’60s were performed at Oxford-based theater troupes.  She took up radio drama and teleplays in the ’60s and ’70s in order to raise a family (Churchill’s married to a lawyer and they have three sons), until in 1972, she wrote her first major stage play, Owners, which was staged at the Royal Court in London.  In 1974, Churchill became Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court for a year and in the late 1970s into the1980s, wrote for several theater companies, including Max Stafford-Clark’s JSTG and the feminist collective, Monstrous Regiment.  1979’s Cloud 9, only Churchill’s second to come to New York, was her first play to garner wide attention and during that period, the playwright won three Obie Awards in New York (1982, Cloud 9; 1983, Top Girls; 2005, A Number) and a Society of West End Theatre Award in London in 1988. 

Churchill’s best known for works dramatizing the abuse of power and exploring sexual politics and feminist themes using a non-realistic style.  She experimented with form, though her themes remained constant.  In 1991, for example, she incorporated dance, mime, and singing into the script of Lives of the Great Poisoners, which she wrote in collaboration with composer Orlando Gough (operas Kiss, 1989 – TV; Critical Mass, 2007 – Almeida Opera; The Finnish Prisoner,  2007 – Finnish National Opera; orchestral works Transmission 2011 and XX Scharnhorst, 2011 and ‘12 – site specific for the HMS Bellfast on the River Thames) and choreographer Ian Spink (Australian Ballet, Australian Dance Theatre, Dance Company of New South Wales).  In 2009, controversy arose around Churchill’s 10-minute play, Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, her response to Israel’s 2008 military strike on Gaza, because of its negative portrayal of Israelis.  (This uproar also hit Washington, D.C., and is mentioned in my post “The First Amendment & The Arts, Redux,” 13 February.)  In spite of this, Royal Holloway College in Surrey named its new theater after the playwright in 2010.  During the 2013-2014 season, Churchill worked with the New York Theater Workshop on her new drama, Love and Information, which ran from February to April 2014. 

Her dramaturgy employs elements of Brechtian Epic Theater as well as Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty.  As she developed her style, her Postmodern plays became more and more fragmented and surrealistic (both characteristics being evident in Cloud Nine).  The young troupes with which she started out commonly used long periods of improvisation to develop their productions and Churchill continued this practice with her own work.  Her plays always contain strong political commentary, and alongside her focus on sexual politics and feminism, Churchill displays a definite streak of socialism, critical of most standard capitalist values such as aggressive wealth acquisition and getting ahead, in her writing (think the Bernie Sanders of the stage).  She’s also a vocal supporter of Palestinian causes (and has been accused of being anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic, mostly by rightist Israelis and Jews and conservative media).  Increasingly, the playwright abandoned the semblance of Realism and pushed the boundaries of theater.  In 1997, she and Gough collaborated on Hotel, a “choreographed opera” or “sung ballet” that takes place in a hotel room. 

Churchill’s plays originally seen in London and then in New York City include Cloud 9Owners, Traps, Mad Forest, Far Away, A Number, Seven Jewish Children, Love and Information (all at the New York Theatre Workshop); Top Girls, Fen, Serious Money, Ice Cream, The Skriker, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? (all at the Public Theater and Top Girls recently also at the Manhattan Theatre Club); Blue Heart (BAM).  Other plays include Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Vinegar Tom, Softcops, Three More Sleepless Nights, A Mouthful of Birds (with David Lan).  The playwright has also written translations, including Thyestes (Seneca), A Dream Play (Strindberg), and Bliss (Olivier Choinière, French Canadian writer).  Her music-theatre compositions include Lives of the Great Poisoners, Hotel, A Ring a Lamp a Thing (all with composer Gough).  James Macdonald, director of ATC’s Cloud Nine, mounted Lives of the Great Poisoners and Thyestes in London, Top Girls and A Number in New York, and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? and Love and Information in both cities. 

I’ve seen quite a few productions at the Atlantic Theater Company, from Wolf Lullaby by Hillary Bell in 1998 and The Water Engine & Mr. Happiness by David Mamet in 1999, to Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo in 2000, to  Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Lesson in 2004 to A Second Hand Memory by Woody Allen and Romance by Mamet in 2005, to John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church in 2012 and John Guare’s 3 Kinds of Exile in 2013.  (Those last two have been reported on ROT: 16 June 2012 and 27 June 2013, respectively.)  The company was founded in 1985 by playwright David Mamet, actor William H. Macy, and 30 of their acting students from New York University, inspired by the historical examples of the Group Theatre and Konstantin Stanislavsky.   ATC (co-founded by a playwright) believes that the story of a play and the intent of its playwright are at the core of the creative process.  Though ATC does present work by classic and modern classic writers like Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ionesco, Harley Granville-Barker, and J. B. Priestley, the works the company produces mostly are contemporary realistic dramas by writers such as Allen, David Hare, Ethan Coen, Guare, and Mamet.  Since its start, ATC has produced more than 120 plays, including the Tony Award-winning production of Spring Awakening (which the company moved to Broadway in 2006 and is now having a Broadway revival with a mixed cast of hearing and deaf actors).

The company maintains two theaters in Chelsea: the 199-seat Linda Gross Theater on West 20th Street in the parish hall of the former St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, built in 1854 and renovated in 2012, and the 99-seat black-box Stage 2 on West 16th Street in the former Port Authority Building.  Stage 2, which opened in June 2006, is the home of Atlantic’s new play development program.  ATC also operates the Atlantic Acting School, a professional conservatory and a studio of the NYU acting program; the school teaches Atlantic Technique, following Practical Aesthetics, an acting system originally conceived by Mamet and Macy.

The structure of Churchill’s Cloud Nine is unusual (especially for the 1980s) and greatly affects the narrative of the play.  Act one is set, for instance, in Victorian times (the published edition says 1880, but it’s never intended to be that specific—even the costumes cover several decades of the late Victorian era) in an unidentified British colony in Africa.  The second act is set in 1979 in London, but Churchill tells us that for the characters, only 25 years has passed; several characters from the first act return, a quarter of a century older (and played by different actors), joined by some new ones.  The roles are cast—in a specific scheme set down in the script—across genders, ages, and races: several of the female characters (including a five-year­-old girl in act two) are played by men, a male child is portrayed by a woman, and the sole native African character is played by a white actor.  (I’ll address this in a bit.) 

In the first act, we meet Clive (Clarke Thorell in a performance one blogger described as a “Terry Thomas type veneer”), a colonial official who apparently administers the colony; his wife Betty (Chris Perfetti); their son, Edward (Brooke Bloom), who’s confused about his gender identity (today, we’d identify him as transgender—which wouldn’t have been recognized in 1979, let alone 1880—and gay—anathema in Victoria’s day); and their daughter, Victoria (portrayed by a doll).  Also in the household are Betty’s mother, Maud (Lucy Owen); Edward’s governess, Ellen (Izzie Steele); and the family’s African servant, Joshua (Sean Dugan).  They are awaiting the arrival from the bush of Clive’s friend Harry Bagley (John Sanders), an explorer, but just as the family is gathered on the veranda, in rushes their neighbor Mrs. Saunders (Steele), a recent widow who’s clearly frightened.  Clive explains early in the act that there’s a disturbance brewing among the local tribes, though we never learn the specifics and Clive and Harry don’t discuss it in front of the women and children.  Everyone’s very stiff-upper-lip, of course, like proper English gentlemen and ladies—except, of course, when the veil slips a little when they think they aren’t being observed.  After all, the colony is a little bit of England and they are all there to do their duties, fulfill their prescribed roles—as British imperialists; as men and women; as husbands, wives, and children; as mothers and fathers—whatever the Empire and the queen expects and demands of them.  The act opens with a rendition by the family and Joshua of “Come Gather Sons of England,” a Victorian patriotic hymn with decidedly imperialist and militarist sentiments.

Of course, not all is what it seems—actually almost nothing is what it seems!  Though Joshua (played by a white actor) has announced in the opening:

My skin is black but oh my soul is white
I hate my tribe.  My master is my light.
I only live for him.  As you can see,
What white men want is what I want to be,

we discover that he’s not as loyal to his colonial masters as they believe.  (Inscrutability is usually a stereotype of Asians, but it’s probably a skill learned by all colonially subjugated peoples.)  Not only is he insubordinate to Betty when Clive isn’t around, but he’s in a sexual relationship with manly, dashing Harry.  In fact, Churchill reveals pretty quickly some example of every sexual relationship there is (oh, except bestiality, I guess) in the rest of act one.  Betty (played by a man) wants Harry, to whom she’d become attracted on a previous visit, to take her way with him when he inevitably leaves; Harry, on the other hand, likes to have sex with both Joshua and Edward (played by a woman), who declares, “What father wants I’d dearly like to be. / I find it rather hard as you can see”; governess Ellen is in love with Betty; and Clive lusts after Mrs. Saunders.  (This is my second play this season in which a man puts his head up under a woman’s dress and performs oral sex as the woman moans in ecstasy.  “I can’t concentrate,” groans Mrs. Saunders.)  At the end of act one, as Clive is making a speech at the contrived wedding of Harry and Ellen, Joshua stands in the back of the gathering, pointing a rifle at his master.  Only Edward sees this, and the lights go out on this tableau.

In the second act, the story jumps ahead about a hundred years to 1979 (the present when the play was written and first performed).  In Churchill’s modern day, women seem to be in control, at least on the relationship level, and gay people get to live their lives the way they want—more or less.  They still run into roadblocks, but they aren’t erected by straight men, like the Clives of the world.  (In real life, of course, the Clives may have changed their tactics and even some of their motivations—the world map was far less pink by the ’70s—but make no mistake, they were still running things.  Despite the fact that Margaret Thatcher—who was really a Clive in drag anyway—was elected prime minister in May 1979.  British imperialism is still on display: one of the women in act two has a brother who was a British soldier killed in Northern Ireland—his ghost appears to her briefly.)

Remembering that for the characters in Cloud Nine, only 25 years has elapsed, Victoria (now played by Lucy Owen) and Edward (Chris Perfetti), Clive and Betty’s daughter and son from act one, are at the center of the narrative.  Eddy’s grown up to be gay and Vicky, whose married to intense, but nevertheless talkative Martin (John Sanders), has decided to leave him and move in with Lin (Izzie Steele), a divorced lesbian mom.  Edward, working as a gardener in the park where Lin and Victoria bring their children, has begun a difficult affair with Gerry (Sean Dugan), a sort of teddy boy-manqué (he wears denim instead of leather), whose into promiscuity (in this dawn of the AIDS crisis, just breaking into the news when the play débuted in New York).  Even Betty entertains the idea of taking up with Gerry—until he explains he’s totally gay, even as Eddy’s begun to explore his own bisexuality.  Vicky’s raising her unseen son, Tommy, with little help from Martin, and Lin looks after her little daughter, Cathy (a bratty Clarke Thorell), by herself.  (Whereas little Edward played with dolls, much to his father’s dismay, in act two, Cathy likes toy guns and fighting with the boys, which Lin doesn’t discourage.  What dismays Lin, though, is Cathy’s preference for dresses over jeans!)  Victoria leaves Martin and sets up a household with Lin and their kids, and when he breaks up with Gerry, who’s a tad commitment-phobic, Edward moves in with them in a ménage-à-trois (or -cinque, if you count in the two kids)—which one reviewer called “a polysexual thruple.”  Betty announces that she’s left Clive (the 1979 incarnation of whom we don’t see) and suggests that she, too, join Lin, Vicky, and Eddy.  She’s been married for so long, living as the adjunct to her husband, that she has no idea how to live as a single woman in charge of her own life.  (Back in the first act, Betty announced, “I am a man’s creation as you see, and what men want is what I want to be.”)  Her mistaken attempt at hooking up with Gerry, even though it came to naught, has given her some courage.  (And Gerry may get back together with Edward anyway.) 

In a scene with Victoria, Lin, and Edward, who’ve been drinking pretty heavily, in the yard of their shared house, Victoria leads them in an incantation to call forth “The Goddess.”  Afterwards, Victorian characters from the first act (and Lin’s dead brother) begin appearing, reprising lines from their earlier dialogue.  After a conversation with Gerry about life and love, Betty finally accepts herself for who she is, rather than what men wanted her to be—and her younger self appears to her and they hug.

I don’t think I can resolve that question I brought up earlier—we’ve all grown too wise to return to the mindset of 35 years ago—but it’s curious because I’m pretty sure Churchill intended the play’s second act to be a stern comment on the then-current sexual culture in England.  (The first act was the “control group” in a way: the Victorian society which we take for granted was repressed and moralistic—despite the facts under the surface.)  Actually, I like theater (and literature) that makes me ponder that kind of question.  It means the piece is really doing more than just telling a story.  (This is one of my criteria for “good theater,” if ROT-readers recall.  The other one’s “theatricality”--and Cloud Nine has that in spades.  [My fullest definition of these standards is in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” 27 May 2011.])

The playwright wrote that

the idea of colonialism as a parallel to sexual oppression . . . had been briefly touched on in the workshop.  When I thought of the colonial setting the whole thing fell quite quickly into place.  Though no character is based on anyone in the company, the play draws deeply on our experiences, and would not have been written without the workshop.

The way I see it, Churchill exposes the hidden lives of the vaunted conformist and conventional Victorians that legend tells us was really seething with all kinds of illicit sexual practices.  (ATC adds that Cloud Nine “is about power, politics, family, [and] Queen Victoria,” as well as sex, which in Cloud Nine includes not only extra-marital affairs and homosexuality, but bisexuality, miscegenation, and pederasty as well; in act two Churchill gets in a little incest as well.)  All the coveted relationships are forbidden in this society and all are unrequited even though everyone declares his or her love or desire straightforwardly (when, of course, they think no one’s listening).  Since none of this would have been openly tolerated in Victorian Britain (or America, either), however, it had to be covered up and denied (“You don’t feel what you think you do,” Betty tells Ellen), hence the sham marriage between Harry and Ellen arranged by Clive.  It also accounts for Clive’s maintaining his marriage to Betty even after he learns of her attachment to Harry—appearances must be maintained.  Never mind, of course, that Clive himself is guilty of a little extra-marital dalliance himself—with Mrs. Saunders, herself an example of another kind of Victorian anomaly: the independent woman who doesn’t need a man to justify her life. 

There’s a good deal of humor, some of it wry and ironic and other bits nearly farcical, in act one, which is largely a satire.  Churchill mocks the Victorian image in order to set it up for contrast with “modern” England.  It’s humor, of course, with an edge, and there’s less of it in the second part of the play.  Act two, which Adam Feldman called “uncorseted” in Time Out New York, a metaphor I find apt, pokes some fun at relationships (gay and straight), parenting, and sex, but the jokes are fewer and less funny than in act one.  Act two, largely realistic in style, is where Churchill seems to be making her main points about the U.K. and the world.  Another contrast between the two parts of Cloud Nine is that most of the characters in act one are focused on what others—men, whites, adults—expect of them, but in act two, everyone’s concerned first with her or his own desires and needs first and foremost.  Even repressed Betty, more a refugee from the ’50s than a left-over Victorian, eventually finds a way to pursue what she wants from life.

Then Churchill reveals her vision of modern times, a Britain where women and gays make their own decisions about how to live openly and without guile or subterfuge.  In fact, the sole heterosexual male in the second act cast is depicted as something of a blowhard and feminist poseur.  But Churchill’s dramatic vision doesn’t exactly line up with actual Thatcherite Britain; it’s as much a fairy tale as the Victorian story.  (In England and Wales, homosexuality wasn’t even legalized until 1967; in Scotland, that didn’t happen until 1981 and in Northern Ireland, 1982.  Other gender-preference rights and protections didn’t come along until the 21st century.  By 1979 in the U.S., anti-sodomy laws had been struck down or repealed in only 21 of 50 states; they weren’t declared unconstitutional nationwide until 2003.)

As for the cross casting, Churchill explained:

There were no black members of the company and this led me to the idea of Joshua being so alienated from himself and so much aspiring to be what white men want him to be that he is played by a white.  Similarly, Betty, who has no more respect for women than Joshua has for blacks, and who wants to be what men want her to be, is played by a man.  For Edward to be played by a woman is within the English tradition of women playing boys (e.g. PETER PAN); for Cathy to be played by a man is a simple reversal of this.  Of course, for both that reversal highlights how much they have to be taught to be society’s idea of a little boy and girl.

So just as male dominanation and sexual oppression in the home recapitulates Western imperialism and suppression of the local population abroad, gender roles and even gender itself is revealed to be performative, something we learn to portray to accommodate social norms.  Further, it’s all something of a chimera anyway. 

The doubling scheme can vary from production to production—as it did between the 1979 première at the Royal Court and the revival there a year later, as well as the Theatre de Lys mounting in ’81 and ATC’s.  It all depends on the director’s desire “partly to fit the parts to the different actors and partly to give us all a chance to try something new.”  But the dramatist warned, “Different doublings throw up different resonances.”  At ATC, for instance, it said something to me that the actor playing Maud, Betty’s stern and unbending mother in act one, returns as free-living (and -loving) Victoria, Maud’s granddaughter, in act two, and that openly gay Edward in the second act is portrayed by the actor who’d been Betty, his convention-bound mother, in the first.  It’s also interesting when Betty in act two embraces Betty from act one since the actors had played mother and daughter in the colonial scenes and now the question arises, are we seeing modern Betty embracing her predecessor—or the modern mother accepting her younger daughter?  Maybe it’s both at once?  Another casting plan wouldn’t have raised that question. 

ATC’s production of Cloud Nine, under the direction of James Macdonald, was conceived and designed to be performed in the round.  Set designer Dane Laffrey created a plain wooden circle of bleachers, resembling a miniature bull ring (or, as one cyber reviewer called it, “a wooden O”), that replaces the Linda Gross’s normal seating plan.  (This alone is an element of “theatricality.”)  This set-up brings the performers into close range of the spectators, but it also reduces the practicality of props and set pieces.  As a result, while the action of the play and the work of the actors is right in front of us, the production needs few stage objects—just the bare necessities for the characters’ activities.  In the first act, the ground is covered with coarse, red artificial dirt; in the second, it’s artificial grass.  Churchill’s play doesn’t need any more, as long as the actors do the kind of superb work ATC’s cast provided.  It’s a play of the imagination in any case, so stimulating ours helps make it work better anyway.  (The bleachers are cushioned—and additional padding is available for those with sensitive tushies—but the narrow benches, low backs, and cramped legroom made the long performance—2½ hours with one intermission following the hour-and-twenty-minute first act—a bit less comfortable than the usual theater seats.  This seems to be my year for long plays, and if the show weren’t as excellent an experience as this was, it would have been unpleasant.  I don’t imagine that the 1981 U.S. première was staged this way, since I doubt the producers and impresario Lucille Lortel would have redesigned the Theatre de Lys into an arena.)

Scott Zielinski’s lighting is bright and glaring, especially in act one, evoking, at least in my mind, the “midday sun” out into which only “mad dogs and Englishmen” venture.  In act two, there’s nary a sight of London’s vaunted fog or rain—it’s nearly as bright there as in Africa.  The clothes of Gabriel Berry reflect this tropical or temperate summer glare, as far as the period’s strictures will allow—and not a hint of drag anywhere.  The Victorians, of course, are covered from head (the period wigs are by Cookie Jordan) to toe; even young Edward wears long stockings to cover his legs, left bare by his knickers—and despite the heat, all the men wear jackets of one kind or another just to keep up propriety.  (Joshua is dressed in wrapped fabric with a turban, such as I might imagine in a movie set in British South Asia—say Malaya or Burma.)  In act two, the garb loosens up a bit as far as conventions go.  Darren West’s sound design, from the jungle noises and native drums of Africa to the off-stage urban soundscape of London, set a perfect tone, somewhere between scary hyperreal and caricature.  (The jungle sounds might have been the soundtrack from an old Johnnie Weissmuller Tarzan flick or something with Stewart Granger.)  And I should say a word of praise for the dialect coaching of Ben Furey: while not everyone was note-perfect in their British dialects, all did a more than acceptable job and they were consistent, which is almost more important than plug-accuracy.

The directing of James Macdonald, an Obie-winner for Churchill’s Love and Information at NYTW and helmer of the film version of the writer’s A Number on HBO, was controlled and, given the peculiarities of the performance space, smooth.  From 1992 to 2006, Macdonald was associate director of the Royal Court, the cradle of many of Churchill’s plays.  He maneuvered the company from the bound-up 1880s to the liberated 1979 without a glitch, maintaining a continuity in the second act to the first despite the casting shifts.  (Of course, the actors are as much responsible for these accomplishments as Macdonald is, but they’ll get their due momentarily.)  Most importantly, the director established the right tone for the ATC production of Cloud Nine to keep it both topical and revelatory, and humorous and slightly mocking.  He kept the actors all in the same universes, which I imagine isn’t an easy task with Churchill’s scripts—a bit, I imagine, like wrangling artistic cats. 

Cloud Nine is clearly an ensemble piece, and it’s key for each actor not only to be on the same page as the rest of the cast, but attuned to the others.  (There are no star turns in Cloud Nine.)  That makes it difficult to single out any one actor for special mention, so I won’t except to note a few moments.  I was particularly impressed by the scene in which Harry inadvertently reveals his sexuality to Clive: Sanders and Thorell display the exact level of squirminess and discomfort for the setting, time, and tone of the play.  (Even unease is an emotion frowned upon by the Victorians.)  The same for Clive and Mrs. Saunders’s oral sex scene, clearly something outside the image of Victorian Britain; Thorell and Steele pull it off (as it were) perfectly.  (I said that this was the second scene like this I’ve seen this season.  The other, in the Acting Company’s Desire, report posted on 26 September, was also well performed.  In the acting sense, I mean, of course.)  The pompous speech by Martin in act two is extremely well presented by Sanders, with just the right touches of smarm and earnestness, and Betty’s second-act monologue, which ends up extolling masturbation, is delicately but forcefully (it’s proof that at least an accomplished actor can do both) delivered by Bloom.  There are other very nice bits by Bloom’s Edward and Perfetti’s Betty in act one (not to mention Dugan’s almost affectless portrayal of Joshua), as well as Steele’s frustrated and bereft Lin and Thorell’s rambunctious (dare I say “tomboyish”) Cathy in act two.  But this production must come down in the end to the ensemble, and this one, with the guidance of director Macdonald, performs magnificently.

Among my recent shows, I was disappointed (not to mention dismayed) at the lack of press coverage for a number of them; there seems to be a cut-back on theater reporting even among the cyber reviewers.  Cloud Nine, on the other hand, seems to have been deemed worthy of coverage from most New York outlets (though a few, such as the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Variety, apparently didn’t judge the revival significant enough to review—at least not on line).  New York’s Daily News declared the production a “very fine revival,” with Joe Dziemianowicz praising, among other aspects, “Caryl Churchill’s wicked and funny gender-bending script about sex, power and roles.”  The Newsman also reported that “the most compelling reason is the sublime actress Brooke Bloom, who stands out in a well-oiled ensemble.”  And though the “[c]ramped wooden bleachers may make your back ache,” Dziemianowicz argued, “[t]he play and the performances will make your head buzz.”  In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer made the intriguing statement,

The temporary reconfiguration of the proscenium stage into theater-in-the-round is pleasantly disorienting at the Atlantic Theater.  But that literal shift in perspective is nothing compared to the head-spinning, giddy thrills and vertiginous goings-on in Caryl Churchill’s still-wonderful “Cloud Nine.”

Remarking that the cross-casting in the 1981 U.S. première “felt giddily ahead of its time,” Winer added, “Now, in a production impeccably cast and directed by . . . James Macdonald, we’re aware that a work this clever will always be a step ahead, always pushing us playfully to see human connections that are elusive, important and seriously fun.”  With special praise for the acting of Bloom, Perfetti, Owen, and Dugan, as well as Berry’s costumes, Winer concluded by stating bluntly: “All perfect.”

Ben Brantley of the New York Times averred that “few writers have come closer to making sense of the hormonal urges that rule, transport and disrupt our lives than Caryl Churchill does in ‘Cloud Nine.’”  Calling the playwright “one of the wisest and bravest playwrights on the planet,” Brantley stated, “More than three decades ago—when ‘trans’ as a prefix most commonly meant something to do with automobiles she dared set up camp in that hazy frontier land where the boundaries of gender and the rules of attraction blur and dissolve.”  The Timesman continued his praise, writing that “James Macdonald’s pheromone-fresh production, which features a deliciously mutable cast of seven, makes it clear that today we’re still living in this gray zone of polymorphous selves, whether we admit it or not.”  After expressing qualms that the play he saw and “loved” in 1981 might seem “like a worthy . . . artifact,” Brantley attested that “Ms. Churchill’s play is far less polemical and arch than I remembered.  It has none of the quaint, hipper-than-thou smugness that often clings to works once perceived as being defiantly ahead of their times.”  Assuring prospective theatergoers that Cloud Nine never “comes across as anything like a debate or a lecture,” the Times reviewer observed that “the ensemble members feel utterly, emotionally in the moment.  If the actors and actresses ever seem distanced from their parts, it’s only because their characters, too, are wearing disguises that don’t fit them naturally.”  The review-writer continued that Cloud Nine is “an ideal showcase for the teasing metaphors and metamorphoses in which theater specializes,” but, he informed us, “its artifice never feels like a stunt.”  Brantley concluded, “This compassionate, tough-loving production finds the ecstasy, tragedy and exhilarating madness of what it means to be part of this eternal ball of confusion.”  In amNew York, Matt Windman dubbed the ATC production “a fine revival of one of the most dynamic English dramas of the past four decades.”  After joining the chorus of journalists who complained about the seating structure, Windman concluded that if would-be spectators can withstand the discomfort, “‘Cloud Nine’ is experimental, highly political playwriting at its best.”

In the Village Voice, Miriam Felton-Dansky dubbed Cloud Nine an “incisive, ironic” play and a “Brechtian fantasia” that’s under “expert direction” by Macdonald.  “In the hands of this excellent ensemble,” averred Felton-Dansky, “Churchill’s clear-eyed, darkly comic play shows us . . . just how revelatory revivals can be.”  Jesse Green, characterizing the ATC staging as “a superb revival” in New York magazine, said that the play “has only grown fuller, meatier, sadder, funnier, sexier, and more provocative—more theatrical, too—as the conditions from which it arose have changed radically, and have not.”  Green described the cast as “excellent” and wrote, “I trust they will haunt me as long as the original cast did because I’d like to see what this indispensable modern classic has become in another 34 years.”

In Time Out New York, Adam Feldman dubbed Cloud Nine a “delicious hash of gender and genre” and warned that it “may be less surprising than it was 35 years ago,” but he added that “director James Macdonald and his cast . . . keep its edges sharp.”  The man from TONY concluded, “Troubled and troubling, puckish and perverse, Churchill’s play is still a slice of theater heaven.”  Jesse Oxfeld characterized Cloud Nine, which he described as a “semi-ironic, farcical script,” as “a funny, fantastical study of the burdens placed upon us by expectations, and whether they can ever really be thrown off” in the Hollywood Reporter.  He went on to say, “There are many remarkable and surprising things in Churchill’s landmark play, . . . [b]ut perhaps most remarkable is to consider how its gleeful gender- and orientation-bending . . . would have been received in a Britain on the verge of Thatcherism.”  The current revival, he said, “remains intriguing, if no longer quite so subversive.”  Oxfeld did lament, “There’s a sense of fun in the performers that is lost from Act I to Act II, or at least in the characters, which renders their performances less crackling,” even though he acknowledged, “The cast is strong.”  He designated one of Betty’s final lines in act two “an epigraph for the play”: “If there isn’t a right way to do things, you have to invent one.” 

In the cyber press, the sentiment was largely the same, despite more coverage.  On the Huffington Post, Wilborn Hampton, calling the ATC Cloud Nine “a delightfully ribald revival,” wrote that “Churchill has been one of the most iconoclastic writers in the English theater over the past half century, pillorying the hypocrisies of society with acerbic wit and humor and uncanny insight.”  (He also quipped, “Should one be tempted to think that present-day openness on sexual matters makes the play irrelevant they should ask Kim Davis her opinion on the subject.”)  Though Hampton felt the play is “a challenge for actors,” he applauded director Macdonald, who “has put together a first-rate cast that doesn’t miss a nuance in the play.”  TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart pronounced that Cloud Nine  “brilliantly charts the life and death of a global superpower—a cautionary tale Americans would be wise to heed.”  He reported, “Under the sensitive and surefooted direction of James Macdonald, Cloud Nine offers a smart social critique that transcends time.” 

Noting that Churchill’s “focus [is] on gender, economics and power,” Elyse Sommer reported on CurtainUp that “all of which Cloud Nine combines with unique and hilarious theatricality.”  Of the cross-casting and doubling, Sommer wrote, “Expertly done and fun as [it] is, once you catch on to the satirical expose of Victorian hypocrisy, the humor wears a bit thin.”  She added, “What’s more, the gender and race blind casting tends to make the revelations about each character’s true nature somewhat predictable.”  Sommer also seemed to have been turned off by the play’s length, observing first that Churchill has since learned to write shorter scripts and ending her notice with the statement that “one can’t help wishing Mr. Macdonald had speeded things up.”  (I have to remark that I may have found the seating set-up less than comfortable, which Sommer complains of at some length, but I never felt the play was too long to sustain its dramatic point.)  The CU reviewer ended her notice by stating that Cloud Nine is “still a provocative entertainment.  But don’t expect to be on cloud nine in terms of your physical comfort zone.”  Michael Dale called Macdonald’s revival of Cloud Nine “terrific” on Broadway World and reported that the play “has been described as carnivalesque in style; a reflection on its treatment of serious subjects with an absurd view of reality.”  Dale continued, “Light on plot, Churchill’s dark comedy bends time, gender and race in an evening that is more fixed on roles and relationships.”  

Matthew Murray of Talkin’ Broadway declared that “Cloud Nine feels fresh, crazy, and relevant enough to have been written yesterday.”  Indeed, Murray felt that societal questions and debates of the last few years “make the Atlantic Theater Company’s new revival of the play even sharper and more trenchant than it might otherwise seem.”  He asserted that “Churchill so determinedly doesn’t let them or us off the hook until the very end, when past and present collide violently together, is a mark of bravery that lets this bizarre, compelling piece work yet today.”  The TB writer, however, objected, “That is not to say it works perfectly.  Macdonald and his cast haven’t yet unlocked the same playful verve in Act II that they have in Act I, leaving the last hour of the two-and-a-half-hour evening feeling drearier and less specific than it should.”  He explained, “There’s an uneasy sense of this being two different (if related) plays performed sequentially rather than a single continuous thought.”  Nonetheless, director Macdonald has “done well enough to keep you buzzing with bright appreciation even after the play has ended.” 

21 October 2015

Great Notch Inn

by Kirk Woodward

[Once again, Kirk Woodward has come through with a fascinating new article for ROT.  This time he’s not only discussing music, bands, and performance venues, but he did some personal research/field work to write this post: Kirk went to the Great Notch Inn in New Jersey, near where he lives, over the course of several weeks last month to see what it was all about and listen to the bands that play there and hear the kind of music they play.  As you’ll read, he got to chat with several band members and even the owner/manager of GNI.  I’m delighted to share Kirk’s discoveries with ROTters and I know you’ll all pick something up from this—perhaps even an interest in checking GNI out for yourself.  ~Rick]

If you leave Manhattan for New Jersey by the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River, follow Route 495 to Route 3, and continue when Route 3 joins Route 46, you will shortly afterwards see on your right a small brown house with a large porch, and a sign in front identifying it as the Great Notch Inn.

If you take this trip on a night when the Inn is open and a band (identified on the sign) is playing there, you will probably also see a number of motorcycles parked in front. Ah ha, you say, it’s a biker bar.

True, there are usually bikes there, but what the Great Notch Inn (www.thegreatnotchinn.com) – the GNI – really is, is a roadhouse. Wikipedia says that roadhouses used to put travelers up for the night, but that they seldom do that anymore. A Google search indicates that in New Jersey, a roadhouse is primarily a house, by a road, that serves customers liquor. (In other states, roadhouses tend to serve food; the GNI used to, but doesn’t any more, except for chips and the occasional pizza.) Music is also a common roadhouse feature.

Great Notch itself isn’t a town but a geographic feature, a gap in a long ridge, which made and makes it a natural spot for transportation east and west. A hotel and tavern with the Great Notch Inn name were established in the area in 1798, but the current establishment opened in 1939 when a house was moved across the road on logs to its present location. 

Inside the house is a bar to the right, with about a dozen stools, and a band to the left, with about six feet between the bar stools and the microphones. It’s an intimate place to hear music, to say the least – the band is right on top of you. The décor could be described as bar funk: over a dozen illuminated beer signs, miscellaneous posters of long-ago events on the wall, wood beams, nothing fancy.

Ordinarily the GNI is open seven nights a week, and on six nights there’s live music. (On Mondays there’s an open jam night.) That’s what got me to go there in the first place – the music. My daughter had been there, and had heard a band she liked, called Better Off Dead (not a Grateful Dead cover band – see below), and she persuaded me to go with her.

What’s interesting about the Great Notch Inn? For myself, I love music, and the GNI is a great place to hear it. What’s more, I’m always interested in the dynamics of performing groups, and at the GNI you can be so close to the band that you can see the smallest signals and instructions that band members give to each other. And bands are a form of performance, with no two exactly alike, and that always interests me.

I was a little apprehensive at first about the Great Notch Inn, like many other people I’ve talked to about it, because of the bikes. I think my mind must have been stuck in the 1970s. Anyway, I immediately felt comfortable in the place, and continue to, and for those of you who don’t know me, I don’t look anything like a biker. (A friend of mine said she knew she’d be okay there when she hesitantly asked for a white wine and the bartender said, “Pinot?”)

I decided that I’d make it a point of going to the GNI as often as I could, maybe for a couple of weeks, and keep a running report on the experience. Before beginning that report, I need to mention four things.

First:  My visits weren’t long, so these descriptions are snapshots, not in-depth portfolios. I’m not a night person, and my days of hanging out in bars not only are over, they never began. I don’t drink either, as a rule, so I ordinarily nursed a Diet Coke each night, and that’s hardly a typical bar experience.

Second: you don’t need to depend on my descriptions of the various musicians and bands; almost all of them have their own websites, and many post videos on YouTube.

Third: bands are often at their best as the night gets longer, and I seldom heard more than a first set. I never heard anyone at the GNI who was less than excellent, but I probably didn’t always hear a band’s best, either.

Fourth: bands frequently change personnel, and also bring in substitute musicians on occasion. So the lineup I saw for a given band may not be the one you see if you visit the GNI, which I hope you do.

With those things in mind, here we go.


WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 12 – Joe Taino, black clothes, black moustache, white goatee, pork pie hat, a guitarist accompanied by drums, bass, and “harp” (basically, harmonica). He plays blues-based music with a helping of jazz – the night I heard him, he started out with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Coming Home Baby,” both jazz standards, warming up before delivering some sizzling blues numbers. He has a sturdy, straightforward voice and played some magnificent guitar.

One of the interesting features of Taino’s performance is that he’s from Puerto Rico, and Latin music is an obvious influence in his sound. He mentions on his website that it can be difficult to be accepted as an Hispanic blues musician. (How many have you heard of?) However, his resume is impressive and he plays a mean guitar.

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1 – comedy night. Not because there is comedy at the GNI, but because I have to laugh at myself. First of all, I have trouble getting there, forgetting that you can only reach the Inn by driving west on Route 46 (go west, young man!). Go east, and the best you can do is wave as you sail by. I get to Route 46 on an entrance that only points east, and have to weave around until I’m heading in the right direction. I find myself hoping that isn’t an omen for this little plan of mine.

Then, when I get to the GNI, there are no bikes, and only one car, in the parking lot – a white Jeep with a kayak on top – until I park there. It’s the end of summer; with no music tonight, there are no customers. (I hadn’t checked the website in advance.)

There is only one person there, a large, bearded man with a pleasant deep voice, sitting on the porch. This turns out to be Rich Hempel, who with his sister Gail Sabbok owns and runs the GNI, and we glance at the Mets game on the TV above the bar and talk a while. I ask him if the Inn will be threatened by the highway construction that keeps being predicted for the area, and he says it won’t; new roads will be built behind the Inn, and he’s already sold some property back there for the purpose, but the GNI itself will stay.

It turns out Rich is both one of the bartenders and a drummer, so we talk about the music at the GNI. He has dozens of bands in rotation, he says; one has been appearing there for over twenty years, and he has plenty more lined up that would like to appear there. “There aren’t a lot of places that feature live music,” he says. Jam nights, he tells me, are literally jammed. I mention that it was my daughter who had introduced me to the Inn. “When people say it’s a scary place,” he says, “I know they’ve never been here.”

I sit on the front porch a while and watch the traffic go by. The porch is maybe 15’ by 30’, with windows on three sides, a flagstone floor, and a horseshoe (open end up) over the big opening in front. There are three tables, maybe a dozen chairs, and benches all around. On the cement by the front step is painted the word WELCOME. I try to count the cars racing by on the highway; a thousand must pass by in the short time I’m there. It is strangely restful. Not, of course, like it would be on a music night.

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 2 – twelve bikes in the parking lot when I arrive, plus cars. A big crowd! Well, not indoors – everybody’s on the porch; when I go inside, there are six people there, including me, the bartender, and Carmen Cosentino. He’s playing solo acoustic guitar tonight; he also plays with the band Real Rock Drive, who are on next week’s schedule, and he has accompanied some pretty amazing rock legends, including Chuck Berry and Berry’s equally remarkable pianist Johnnie Johnson.

With hardly anybody in the room to interact with, he doesn’t work the “crowd” much, sticking to picking a good variety of songs and having his own fun with them. I’ve made it a rule in this project not to look up the artists before I go to hear them; I wish I’d prepared for Cosentino, though, because I’d have liked to ask him about some of the people he’s played with.

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 3 – three bikes in the lot, three people at first, plus me and the musician, in the bar. The musician is Wild Bill, the youngest player I’ve seen at the GNI (in his thirties?), with a clear guitar sound and versatile, confident vocals. He changes up a lyric now and then “just to see if anybody’s listening.” For a long while I’m the only person in the room without facial hair. When I leave, I say “Thanks” and he says, “Where’re you goin’?” “Duty calls,” I say. “See you next time,” he says, and we shake hands. I walk outside and there’s a party – maybe fifteen people on the porch, women and men, chatting amiably.

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 4 – one bike when I arrive, another half dozen by the time I leave, and the parking lot fills up too. I get there early, and the band, predicted on the GNI website to start at 7, and on their own website at 9:30, doesn’t begin until 9:45. I have plenty of time to wander, so I spend some time on the porch, and join a small group gathered around a biker with a magnificent black Honda motorcycle. When I ask him if he does his own maintenance on it, he says, “What maintenance?” According to him Hondas hardly ever need any attention. He has an interesting history: he was a pipe fitter, diagnosed with MS around 2005, and despite some flare-ups still spends half the year living on his bike. “I plan to ride as much as I can,” he says, “until I can’t ride anymore.”

The band is Enzo and the Bakers, with lead and rhythm guitar/vocal, keyboard, drums, and, on bass tonight, Don Kenny, lead guitarist for Better Off Dead. I tell him I miss hearing that band – they won’t be at the GNI again until sometime in October. Enzo and the Bakers rock powerfully, with a leaning toward R&B (they start the set with a couple of numbers by Sam and Dave), crisp vocals, and exceptional lead guitar work. First rate rock.

The GNI is so small that on my legs I feel small puffs of air coming out of the opening in the front of the bass drum. The music is plenty loud; I leave when I think my ears are going to start to bleed. Memo to self: no matter how silly it looks, bring ear plugs.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 5 – one bike – the same one as last night – and maybe ten cars in the lot when I drive up. The numbers increase as the evening goes on, but there are never as many as tonight’s band, Sharp Edge, deserve. They’re a trio: Mike Brocato, the lead singer and guitarist, looks like Keith Richards if Keef ate a meal once in a while; the bass player looks like Ben Stein; and the drummer actually plays with dynamics – he can play soft as well as loud, he uses mallets, he started off the evening with brushes.

The opening set is mostly music from the 1960s, including the first Beatles song I’ve heard at the GNI, “I’ll Cry Instead;” a powerful “House of the Rising Sun,” and a magnificent “Like a Rolling Stone.” Brocato is practically a whole band on his guitar alone; he’s a virtuoso, and quite a singer too. According to its website the band also does original material, and Brocato also performs as a single. I recommend seeing him. This is a band I’ll be returning to hear again.

The band’s name, Sharp Edge, gets me thinking about the various band names I see on the sign in front of the GNI. Many are aggressive names, and I’ve wondered if I’d run into bands with real attitude, like the Who in their early days. Maybe so, but I haven’t yet, and it strikes me that a couple of factors work against that sort of thing.

One is that the bands are physically so close to the listeners that if the audience got irritated, there’d be no place for the musicians to hide. Another is that some of the bikers are really, really big men and women. It’s as though they’ve grown to fit the sizes of their bikes. As a friend said to me, I’m like the proverbial 90 pound weakling around them. As far as I can tell they are agreeable people but I would not want them to be mad at me, no matter what the name of my band was. (I’d probably name it “Bikers Rule,” just to be safe.) And a third reason, I suppose, is that we’re all getting a little older. Or so I hear.

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 6 – this is Labor Day weekend, and tonight is the first night at the GNI that has felt like it. Twelve bikes in the lot when I drive up a few songs into the first set, and the bar full of enthusiastic people. The band is The Poor Man’s Opera, three vocalists – the two guitarists (one vaguely resembling Jerry Garcia) and the bass player (vaguely resembling Neil Young), and also drums. Solid and energetic. They apparently started playing together six or seven years ago at a benefit for children with cancer. Favorite song I hear: a somewhat punk version of “Different Drum.”

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 7 – three bikes in the lot, ten people signed up to play on Jam Night. I’m  eager to find out what this night is like; Rich, the bartender/owner, had told me that usually when he moves a band into his regular rotation, it’s because they’ve played so well on Jam Night. Jams can take a while to ramp up musically, though; tonight the music doesn’t start until 9:50 anyway. I spend the time talking with Jeff DeSmelt, a pleasant guy who’s there to play guitar, and whose day job is entertaining very young children with music (http://bigjeffmusic.com/). We talk about the various weird things that can happen when you’re performing in an unfamiliar space, and about how tough it is to make a living in the arts.

The house band, when it starts, consists of a guitarist/vocalist (also the MC), a standup bass player, and a drummer (that’s Rich, the bartender, who has a classic drum style). Blues and basic rock are the easiest to jam to, so that’s what they play while I’m there, rotating in, after a few songs, a vocalist/harmonica player, and then a new drummer. The sound is punishingly loud, and I duck into the Men’s Room to make some earplugs out of toilet paper. Perhaps ironically, considering the volume level, one mike doesn’t seem to work. The MC tries to rouse the crowd, but hardly anyone in the room is there to party; they’re there to play.

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 9 – Three bikes in front when I arrive, six when I leave. Tonight’s music is provided by Mike Brocato, lead singer and guitarist for Sharp Edge, the band I liked so much last Saturday. I ask him how the second set went that night. “It was crazy, man,” he says. “Some wild [stuff]!” Tonight he plays amplified acoustic guitar – he’s brought three, including a beautiful Gibson (I think) and a twelve-string. He starts with a Beatles song, and stays mostly in the Sixties. When I remark how much the twelve-string sounds like the Byrds’ sound, he plays several of their songs.

The highlight of the set for me is a brilliant “I Shot the Sheriff,” with an adventurous solo that leaves me amazed. His right hand can strum with the pick held between his thumb and forefinger, while he plays solo lines with his fourth and fifth fingers – and at fast tempos. “I like this kind of evening,” he says. “Just a few people sitting around enjoying music.” The absence of an accompanying band is compensated for by a biker sitting next to me on a stool who harmonizes, and who knows all the words.

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 11 – maybe ten bikes and a hefty number of cars. Tonight’s band is the one I was most curious to hear because of their name. They’re called Hot Monkey Love, as good a band name as I’ve ever heard. I’m not sure what I expected them to be like – live sex acts on stage? No, but they’re hot, all right – they’re a roaring blues band with a lot of presence.

They have two guitarists, both capable of playing lead – V. D. King, from Better Off Dead, and Dee Meyer; a bass player, tonight also from BOD; a vocalist (Jack O’Neill) who looks like a cross between Willie Nelson and Joe Cocker, and delivers his vocals with power; and a drummer (Eddie “The Elf” Piotrowski) who surely was the model for Animal, the drummer in the Muppets.

Piotrowski so far wins my award for showmanship. Tonight, he flailed around; he tossed his drumsticks in the air, and didn’t catch them – twice; he leaped out of his seat to smash the drums at climactic moments; he silenced a cymbal with his mouth. When O’Neill said, “Let’s bring it down a little,” Piotrowski slid to the floor; when O’Neill said, “A little lower,” he disappeared behind his drums.

My favorite number in the set I hear is the early Rolling Stones song “It’s All Over Now,” but all the songs, mostly blues-based, are excellent. My friend and I both brought earplugs; as I write this, my ears are still ringing.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 12 – Two swings, two misses. I’m seeing a play tonight, but the GNI website says that Real Rock Drive starts their first set at 7. I’m suspicious, since the band’s announcement says they’ll start at 8. When I get there (no bikes), the bartender tells me the actual start time is 9. So I go on to my play. When I return, I swing by the GNI for a quick listen. It’s raining, so there are still no bikes, and there are no parking spaces either – every single one is full. Since the GNI is on the highway, there’s no such thing as on-street parking. So I go home, and I here and now offer my apologies to Real Rock Drive. Judging from the music you’ve posted on Facebook, you’re an excellent band.

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 13 – half a dozen bikes. I must be getting known at the Great Notch Inn; Rich pours me a Diet Coke tonight without my saying a word. The band is the Brother Sal Trio. They’re what I think of as a “blues plus” band – they’re blues-based, and they bring to other kinds of songs a blues sound. Sal has a voice and a scream that would make James Brown proud (and they do “Super Bad”), and plays vigorous guitar. The band members are good humored and it’s fun to watch the interplay between Sal and the bass player (Chris Ball). Rock trios can sometimes sound thin; the drummer tonight (Andrei Koribanics) makes the drum practically an additional guitar – his fills in particular are outrageous.

There are a few firsts for me tonight in my brief series of visits to the GNI. It’s the youngest band I’ve heard, and they have the drive and stamina to prove it. They play one original song. It’s also the first night there have been more women than men in the bar, and perhaps not coincidentally the first night I’ve heard a woman sing, or do anything else, with a band – one sings two songs, with fire. Another friend of the band plays harp for a couple of numbers, and a man who apparently has nothing to do with the trio at all, and who brought along a homemade percussion set that he wears over his shoulders, plays along with the band for a few numbers too, leaving the band bemused. All in all a fun night of music, and I hate to leave.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 19 – three bikes when we arrive, six when we leave. Tonight’s band, the Fabulous Flemtones, is a regional institution, with a standing monthly gig at Tierney’s, a Montclair, New Jersey bar that also features bands. The Flemtones remind me of groups I used to hear at college parties, and I mean that as a positive, although neither the band nor I have been in college for a long time. I think the reasons I feel that way are their song selections, and the sturdiness of the drums and bass. The members of the Flemtones, also including two guitarists who can both play lead, seem to have a good time with each other, like a batch of friends who love to play together. They enjoy the challenge of pieces with rhythmic shifts and long builds, and they often sing three-part harmony, the first I’ve heard in this series of visits.

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 20 – four bikes when I arrive, several more when I leave, and the crowd grows as football weekend wraps up. The band tonight is another one I’ve wanted particularly to hear because of their name – The Kootz. What kind of name is that? Well, some of them are older guys, so – “coots,” get it? Except there’s nothing old about anything in the hour and a half set I hear. On one song the band plays the closest to jazz I’ve heard in my visits since Joe Taino – a fine version of “Summertime.” The musicians are versatile, in particular using numerous guitar effects for a big variety of sounds in soaring solos. The leader, Glenn Taylor, switches between guitar and synthesizer, and he has a great command of his keyboard, which I’m partial to, being a keyboard player myself. Rich Hempel, the owner and bartender, sits in and plays mighty drums for a couple of songs. The band rocks from start to finish. “Old men should be explorers” – that’s what T. S. Eliot said. He never heard this band but he had the right idea.

After the set I talk for a minute with Taylor, who gets my name for the band’s email list, and tells me, as my jaw drops, that there are some 25 people in the group! (He is a constant, playing nearly all the dates.) “We play about 280 gigs a year,” he tells me. Aside from him, the personnel rotate nightly – this particular unit had last played together six months ago! That seems impossible – they’re so in sync with each other. “How do you schedule all that?” I ask. “Do you just ask who wants to play a particular gig?” “I plan them months in advance,” he says. I tell him that in that case I’m doubly amazed at how tight the band is tonight. “This is a good group,” he replies. I’ll say.


After all the bands and solo performers I heard, Better Off Dead, which didn’t perform in this series (although three of its members did, individually) still wins my first place prize, as one of the best rock bands I know, among all these outstanding musicians.

That band’s leader, V. D. King (vocals and guitar), has had with him, every time I’ve heard them, a drummer, bass, and lead guitar/vocalist, and a keyboard player. The band is tight as a tick (how tight is a tick?), but that is true of pretty much all the bands I’ve heard at the GNI as well. What, if anything, separates Better Off Dead from the rest?

The answer, in my opinion, is song writing. Virtually everyone I’ve seen at the GNI in my recent visits has performed as a “cover band,” playing songs written and popularized by others. (Some have original material in their repertoire, but little was played while I was there.) Better Off Dead is different. The songs it performs are almost all original. King writes most of the group’s material – they’ve recorded several terrific CDs – and he writes basic rock with a bit of a country attitude, with song titles like “(If I Can Quit Drinking) Why Can’t I Quit You.” Writing is the foundation.

King is an outstanding songwriter, and a clever one. Because the component parts of his songs are familiar, the band doesn’t have the problem that local bands usually face when they do original material – that nobody knows the songs. To solve this difficulty, typically King will take a familiar rock riff, layer a blues-based melody on it, and then finish it off with a brash, funny, sometimes outrageous lyric. The attitude of his songs is lower working class;  the speaker frequently is somebody who drinks too much, has trouble holding a job or doesn’t like it, and doesn’t have much luck with women either. Rock ‘n’ roll!

Better Off Dead notwithstanding, most of the bands I saw at GNI were “cover bands,” doing their own versions of songs written by somebody else. Having heard these groups, I’m through accepting the term “cover band” as a kind of insult. Is the New York Philharmonic Orchestra a “cover orchestra” because it doesn’t write its own music?

There are many ways of performing a song that someone else has recorded. You can do it exactly the way it was recorded, if you want. Or you can change it some. Or you can do a version so much your own that it might as well be a new work. I heard all these approaches at the GNI – the latter most of all; all can give pleasure; and it takes a lot of musicianship to do any of them.

What else did I learn in my weeks of sampling music at the GNI? I learned a new respect for performers. The late playwright Robert Anderson had a sign over his desk that read, “NOBODY ASKED YOU TO BE A PLAYWRIGHT.” Well, hardly anyone asks you to be a musician, either, or an actor, or a writer, or a painter, or for that matter an artist of any kind. The commitment to art has to come from artists, because it won’t come from the culture.

The GNI is a brave and fairly lonely outpost for one kind of performer, who will never get rich playing there – the tip jar seldom seems to have more than $20 or so in it, and there’s no other money for a night’s work. But musicians go to the GNI to play the best music they can. That has to be enough. There aren’t a lot of places like that. My hat’s off to all of them.

And the bikers? Turns out they’re people, who ride bikes.

[I suggested to Kirk that he consider making another series of visits to GNI again in about a year or so to see how things are then and if anything has changed.  He e-mailed me: I love the idea of returning . . . .”  We'll just have to wait and see.]