REVIEWS: “Apologia” and “Fireflies”
Here is a roundup look at two new plays that opened Off-Broadway last week:
“Apologia” (New Play, Roundabout Theatre Company): Apologia is one of those words that doesn’t mean what you probably think it does, and likely isn’t pronounced how you think it is. In this dark new play by Alexi Kaye Campbell, Stockard Channing stars as Kristin Miller, a one-time radical activist and political protester turned celebrated art historian and “old commie”. On the occasion of one very un-happy birthday party at her cottage in the English countryside, Kristin is joined by her estranged sons Peter and Simon (both played by Hugh Dancy), Peter’s new fiancée, the evangelical physiotherapist, Trudi (Talene Monahon), Simon’s soap-star wife, Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Kristin’s radical old academic friend, Hugh (John Tillinger).
At open, Kristin’s kitchen oven is broken—a fitting metaphor for this strident character who long ago made the decision to prize work over motherhood, losing custody of her sons at ages 7 and 9. Now at the pinnacle of her professional success, she’s published a memoir omitting any mention of her family, further deepening her sons’ festering resentment. In case you are still wondering, an “apologia” is “a defense especially of one's opinions, position, or actions”, distinct from an apology in that it contains no admission of wrongdoing or fault. Impatient with imprecise word choices and long divorced from caring what others might think of her, Kristin is a complex and difficult woman of principle—“opinionated, didactic, and dictatorial”, Peter says—who has dedicated her life to fighting for something other than her own “material and domestic wellbeing”, and now grapples with the consequences.
Ms. Channing smolders and terrifies in this moody, atmospheric production directed with haunting élan by Daniel Aukin. Overpowering Mr. Campbell’s sparring dialogue, though, are the stunning tableaus created by Mr. Aukin’s staging in cahoots with Dane Laffrey’s set design and Bradley King’s brilliant lighting schemes, at once natural and supernatural. The play doesn’t quite make the grander statement it purports to. While that point may be to illustrate the unfair standards by which professional women of a certain age and time were judged, by constructing an entire play about that judgment, Mr. Campbell paradoxically doubles down on a sexist trope, inviting the audience to judge Kristin’s parenting, or lack thereof. I’m waiting for the play about a man who chose his profession over caring for his children. In the meantime, Ms. Channing does make a chilling and lasting impact in her performance as a woman who dared to pursue her own passion at great personal cost, and without apology (almost). Opened October 16th; runs through December 16th at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Discount Tickets.
“Fireflies” (New Play, Atlantic Theatre Company): self-described Afro-Queer playwright, poet, and filmmaker Donja R. Love continues his new trilogy—dubbed “The Love* Plays”—exploring “Queer Love* during pivotal moments in Black History”, with “Fireflies”, set “somewhere down South, where the sky is on fire” in the fall of 1963. And that sky is on fire, all right. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set features a realistic eat-in kitchen encircled by a curving cyclorama frieze with projections of clouds by Alex Basco Koch, frequently exploding in disquieting echoes of the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little African American girls and laid bare to the nation the grim reality of white supremacist terrorism that had threatened black people for decades.
Set against that literal, fiery backdrop—which foreshadows events to come—Charles (Khris Davis) is a preacher gaining notoriety within the Civil Rights Movement for his stirring speeches; often out on the road, crisscrossing the south as a foot soldier for freedom, he leaves his wife and ghostwriter, Olivia (Dewanda Wise), at home alone, where secrets bud and bloom. Pregnant and despairing in the belief that “this world ain’t no place to raise a colored child,” Olivia finds herself trapped in a performative marriage, robbed of her own agency and ability to fulfill her potential, and withheld from exploring her inchoate romantic interest in women. For his part, Charles drinks too much, cheats on Olivia, and demands she be more “ladylike” (aka subservient).
As he did so brilliantly in “Sugar in Our Wounds”, Mr. Love’s work seeks to fill in an otherwise erased history, giving unknown, unheralded people of color the dignity of their stories through his imagined plays. Ms. Wise offers a staggering performance, ferocious and captivating, under the skillful hand of director Shaheem Ali who wrestles with the abundant imagery and magic of Mr. Love’s words. The language is sweeping and lyrical, but the plot is too thick with action and issues for two characters to explore in 90 minutes. This results in several wild dramatic swings—from Olivia drawing a knife on Charles to them dancing sweetly—and a bluntly gratuitous closing monologue from Olivia that explains the central metaphor of the play’s title. Compared to the first play of his series, where two male slaves radically explore their love for each other, this closeted tale, featuring their descendant, Olivia, is more muted in its queerness, but nevertheless painful and sad. I am looking forward to the third installment, set in the present era of the Black Lives Matter movement. Opened October 15th; runs through November 11th at the Atlantic Theatre Company’s Linda Gross Theatre. Discount Tickets.