The Open Gate Leaves Itself “Open” to Criticism

Reviewed By Jara Jones

When tackling Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work, one has to have a distinct point of view. Do you stylize your production as a form of self-commentary depicting the specific time and faiths held by your characters?  Or, do you present the text with an objective eye, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions?

The Open Gate is a musical adaption of Singer’s THE MANOR, centered around a deeply pious businessman (Calman Jacoby) whose prosperity allows him to make a controversial choice as a Jew: to acquire a manor in a predominant neighborhood and expand his wealth.  We’re treated to a broad focus on Jacoby’s family as well as the citizens of 1860’s Poland. Ultimately, Jacoby is tested by the modern world and his rising social status, forcing him to examine his religion and moral code.

Mark Marcante’s set design wonderfully makes use of gentle suggestion through the presentation of stoic columns, an ivy trellis masking the theater’s stairs, and rivets our focus to the titular gate.  It’s open, yet massive and imposing as well – an entrance which offers easy access, yet almost impossible to one to exit. Carolyn Adam’s costumes offer a welcome specificity and attention to the time period.  Joel Martin’s work as Calman Jacoby is both engaging and subtle, guiding each choice with vulnerable assuredness. Also, the cast is thankfully diverse and avoids the tired excuse that historical productions must be blindly rooted in the exact race each character would have been.

All of the above is to be applauded.  However, the musical as a whole is a lopsided mess. From the opening scene (which feels like the “It’s a Small World” version of the town of Jampol, complete with Russian soldiers behaving in a slapstick fashion while arresting citizens, their toy rifles lazily jabbing at their victims) to the long overdue, vague finale, the production comes off like a one-dimensional morality play.  It asks us to pity and feel connected to these thinly written characters without investing in or earning such a reaction. The choices of the direction and script clang with modern behavior and annoying reminders of what the playwright assures us is backward customs (I lost count how many times ritual baths were brought up as the sign of losing faith and the last threads of culture.)   The use of projections offers nothing but a distraction and feel sorely out of place – as evidenced by the actors knocking the screen time and again in scenes. Finally, in the current world of Kavanaugh and #metoo, having a college-aged actress portray Jacoby’s eight-year-old daughter, nibbling sloppily on a cookie like a four-year-old while sitting on her father’s lap, naively agreeing to become a child bride, feels gross and demeaning.  If the playwright wanted us to be uprooted by Jacoby’s decision to cast off his girl into an arranged marriage, either cast an actor of the appropriate age and/or don’t have our narrator (Shaindel) immediately proclaim to the audience that this marriage ended up being the happiest and most fulfilling one of all her father’s girls. Finally, the music feels jarring and unneeded. Nothing is sung that is that is little more than a repetition of the character’s prior dialogue, and there’s no music which stays with you after the show has concluded.

The Open Gate tries so hard to encapsulate a bird’s eye view of the Jacoby family as well as the citizens of Jampol, to make us sympathize and draw humor from each character’s decisions, but just falls flat on each turn.  When the first act ended, I felt surprised that we had another 75 minutes to go. All the essential struggles and fates of the principal characters had already been shown; what remained was padding. There’s a good hour and a half play (not musical) inside this show.  A tale of a family, a town unraveled by time and questioning one’s faith. I encourage the artistic team to find this truth.

The Open Gate runs until October 27th at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave, NY, NY 10003)

Who is to Blame for the Downfall of Man?

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

The Seeing Place Theater Artistic Directors Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker could have easily bitten off more than they could chew by attempting The Hysteria of Dr. Faustus—the German legend about an old man named Faust who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for more time, more power, and more happiness.

They could have thrown together an erudite-looking poster, told all their erudite friends to come, and sat back and felt—even if people leaving the theater couldn’t quite wrap their heads around it—that they had already succeeded: At least we had the guts to tackle one of the most complex stories ever told.

But—and this is coming from a hardened theater critic—they went further than that, (mostly) pulling off something I don’t think many other independent theater companies could have pulled off in quite the same way.

They make it their own in a multitude of ways, but their modern twist—The Devil being played by a woman (Cronican) rather than a man—adds a unique dynamic between the two leads that serves well in certain scenes. For example, when Faust is trying to make a play on Gretchen (played by Broghanne Jessamine), The Devil, through exchanges only the two can hear, gives Faust cheeky play-by-play courtship pointers—“Kiss her, relax, don’t sit like that,” etc—lending a levity to moments that otherwise would have been nonsensical with two men.

“Another thing that was important in bringing the story to life,” explains Cronican, who also directs the play, “is the magical element, for which we used lush projections, sleight of hand magic, and haunting music. We want our modern audience to have a feeling of the story being graphically presented, not only to invigorate their imaginations but also to make the thriller aspect of the play more hair-raising and immediate.”

Walker, who plays Faust and also wrote the script, opens the play as a curmudgeon fighting depression and boredom. Over the course of the play we watch him blossom into a charismatic British novelist, so adroitly in fact, that we somehow can’t ever imagine him going back to being an old man.

Though there have been many iterations of the folklore over the centuries, the most popular are the two plays The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, and Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The text Walker primarily worked from during the writing process, though, was Historia & Tale of Doctor Johannes Faustus, written by an “anonymous German author.”

“The play is very relevant today,” says Walker, “and yet there were no versions of it that we could find that were modern or easily understandable. You don’t get to see why the actions are happening. I spoke with a well-known playwright recently who had given a shot at an adaptation of Dr. Faustus and got swallowed up in the complexities of the story, never quite completing it. I was swallowed up but we had a show to get up, and so we just made it happen.”

Walker may have written the twisting and turning script, but it was a real team effort to put it to stage. All four actors—Walker, Cronican, Jessamine, and Candice Oden, who plays Martha—were instrumental in its development for an audience.

If I had my druthers I would have significantly shortened the script—at an over two-hour running time, towards the end it began to feel slightly lumbering—but there isn’t much to complain about here, especially because it rewards you with a sudden, surprise ending.

In the Off-Off Broadway world, while it’s fairly often that you see something visually inventive, or something that makes you think, “Team Seeing Place” manages to marry them both, a much rarer feat, deserving of packed houses.

THE HYSTERIA OF DR FAUSTUS plays October 7-21, 2018 GENERAL ADMISSION – $20 (select tickets $10) The Seeing Place @ the Paradise Factory 64 East 4th Street, NYC


Holy Ghost, Holy Cow

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

“Live and let live” and transformation. Theses are the words that kept reverberating through my  head as I was watching Holy Ghosts by Romulus Linney, brought to us by Theatre East. The large ensemble does a remarkable job of moving and acting as if they were one person. Their connection to each other is great and they bring this emotionally charged play to life..

What happens when a struggling couple,Nancy and Coleman, get caught up in the frenzy of rattlesnake inspired Christian evangelists? Do people really transform through this extreme religious order or are they just plain crazy? These are central questions in Linney’s provocative look into this cult like sect of Christianity. Throughout the play we get glimpses into the unhappy and unhealthy relationship that Nancy and Coleman are trapped in. This prompts Nancy to seek a divorce and find love with an older man who is old enough to be her father.

The ensemble shines in this piece. They fit well together; just like a fine jigsaw puzzle. I could praise each and everyone of them as they deserve it. But I must give credit to Oliver Palmer, who plays Coleman. At first, Palmer merely comes off as the abusive drunken husband who just yells all the time. But like a great slow cooked meal, his layers peel off and we start to see his humanness. By the end of the play we love, or at least, empathize with this lost soul. He is captivating and compelling to watch. Equally impressive is Lizzy Jarrett, who plays Nancy. Her journey is profound and her nuanced performance is stunning. But, the show stealer just might be, Matthew Napoli as Carl Specter. At first glance, Napoli seems laughable as he mopes around the stage. Then he reveals the horrific death of his dog and we are heartbroken, at the verge of tears. I think all animal lovers would agree. His torment and sorrow are so real that we connect with him powerfully.

The climax of the play, which I will not divulge, made for audible gasps throughout the audience. It is too bad that this show ended October 6, 2018 as it is one of the finest off Broadway shows I have seen in awhile. Hats off to everyone involved and I can honestly say “Holy Ghosts”, Holy cow!

Holy Ghosts closed at Urban Stages on Oct. 6, 2018