Thursday, October 20, 2016

"THE RAPE OF LUCRECE": Shakespeare’s Ancient Story Gets a Modern (and Timely) Reworking on the New York City Stage

"THE RAPE OF LUCRECE": Shakespeare’s Ancient Story Gets a Modern (and Timely) Reworking on the New York City Stage

The newest creation from New York Shakespeare Exchange (NYSX) Company is a full-length production of the epic poem The Rape of Lucrece.  Published in 1594, the powerful piece is one of the The Bard's earliest works.  It is set in 509 B.C. Rome, just before the fall of that city-state's monarchy.  The Rape of Lucrece is rarely adapted for an audience in contemporary theater.  Why?  It may be due to the challenges of creating an entire multi-character theater piece from a narrative poem.  Of course, there's also the heavy subject matter, which is unmistakable: The title gives that away.  History has proved that Shakespeare's popular works-- both the messages behind them as well as the audiences' reactions to them-- have transcended the test of time through the centuries.  The way his characters spoke, in all their quaint extravagance, may be different from the way we converse in 2016.  However, those characters' witty and sarcastic observations on their fellow humans and on society in general have shown that humanity really hasn't changed much throughout time-- sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.  Shakespeare's body of work has also shown that our core attitudes and mores have indeed evolved throughout time... but sadly, not as fast as they should when it comes to some issues.  The Rape of Lucrece, the poem, is about the sexual assault of its title character and its effects on both the victim and on society at large.  As we enter 2017, that theme couldn't be more timely-- especially given recent political events in America.  

Directed by Cristina Lundy, this production of The Rape of Lucrece was adapted for the stage by playwright Kevin Brewer, and uses largely original dialogue.  It has been expanded beyond its original source with new characters, a generous helping of modern sensibility, and an innovative new structure which allows a larger setting for the story.  The central synopsis, based on historical fact,  has stayed the the same.  In the town of Ardea, we meet Sextus (Leighton Samuels), the seemingly charming prince and soldier who is preparing for a battle against a renegade tribe south of Rome.  Sextus gets a visit from his four of his fellow soldiers/friends, one of whom is also his cousin, the just-married Lord Collatinus (Shawn Williams).  As the men indulge in wine and engage in "boys will be boys"-style talk about their favorite subjects (politics, sex, and religion... What else is there?), Collatinus waxes poetic about his new wife: the lovely, loyal, and oh-so-chaste Lady Lucrece.  Lucrece also happens to be the daughter of Lucrecius (Pat Dwyer), a Senator.  Eventually, the audience does meet the titular Lucrece (Aaliyah Habeeb).  Through her interactions with her handmaiden Mirabelle (Gabby Beans), we see not only her physical beauty but also learn of her gentle, gracious nature and her dedication to her husband.  It's not just the audience who becomes smitten with our Lucrece, however.  The very well-built (and very single) Prince Sextus soon develops carnal feelings for the wife of his friend/fellow soldier/cousin.  In Shakespeare's own words, the prince becomes "inflamed with Lucrece’ beauty".

There's a lot of smartly bawdy humor in the play's first act, and it  comes largely from the over-the-top buffoonery of Sextus' young servant Caius (a lovable Erik Olson) and the equally outrageous dialogue by Sextus' full-time socialite cousin Brutus (a comically deft Brandon Garegnani).  The comedy, full of puns and double entendres, both honors and parodies Shakespeare-style language with some broad anachronistic indulgences.  The humor and levity in Act 1, however, slowly give way to the far more serious second half, when Sextus visits Lucrece while Collatinus and the other men are away in Rome.  Through soliloquy (with lines taken from the original poem as well as some new Shakespeare-inspired ones), Sextus evokes Hamlet, another Shakespearean prince, as he proclaims himself as a tortured soul: tortured by desire, and foreseeing any of his impending actions to be the inability to repress those desires.   Needless to say, Sextus ultimately gives in to his dark side.  In a hauntingly superb display of theater, Aaliyah Habeeb chillingly conveys the emotional aftermath of her character's violation-- including but not limited to Lucrece's guilt, shame, feeling of helplessness, anger, and desperation.  Astonishingly, although her dialogue is largely taken from the original play, her post-trauma feelings prove to be virtually identical to those of any victim of sexual assault, whether in 1594 or 2016.  As a clever creative touch, Lucrece communicates her internal dialogue with the oracle Cassandra (played in physical form by Kate Lydic), who offers some enlightened insight.  Nevertheless, Lucrece sees only one self-sacrificial way to escape her emotional torture.  That act, according to history, propelled a full-scale revolt against the Roman royal family and the establishment of the Roman republic.  This reworking of The Rape of Lucrece offers an additional form of justice, which is not only surprising and shocking but also, shall we say, more "personal"...

The director and cast of The Rape of Lucrece have great respect for their source material as well as the serious (and, as said before, timeless) subject matter.  Both the comedy in the beginning and the tragedy in the second half are both performed with equal energy and talent by the youthful cast.  The play is also bolstered by many creative directorial and artistic touches, such as the "living" art pieces which play a role of their own.  This production is proof that Shakespeare, in all his complex glory, is alive and well in New York City.  And, he hasn't lost his ability to both entertain and provoke us.

The Rape of Lucrece runs through October 22nd at Teatro Latea at The Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street, NYC.  The play contains nudity and scenes of sexual violence.  Parental discretion is advised.  Tickets and more information are available at

Tuesday, October 11, 2016



Pancakes In Paris is the new memoir by restaurant entrepreneur Craig Carlson, the owner of the successful Breakfast In America chain in France.  Raised in suburban upstate Connecticut, Carlson seemed like an unlikely candidate for introducing our famously indulgent American breakfasts to the country known for its quiche Lorraine, foie gras, steak tartare, and escargot.  Of Polish and Finnish ancestry, the author claims no Gallic heritage.  However, an impromptu choice of French as a foreign language in high school led to an invitation to a study abroad program.  Before you can say "Au revoir!", the teenager found himself in the so-called "La Ville Lumière".  Carlson recalls, "Perhaps the happiest moment of my life was when I arrived in Paris for the first time.  To give you a sense of what it felt like, imagine the following scene: The airport shuttle pulls up to the curb and the door opens.  I step out onto the sunny Parisian streets, beaming like Mary Tyler Moore in the opening credits of her TV show, overcome by such bridled joy that I can't help but spin around and toss my beret into the air".  Carlson fell in love with the country.  Mostly, he fell in love with the French mantras of living life to the fullest-- perhaps best manifested by their culture's appreciation for fine food and wine.  It was a gastronomic epiphany of sorts: "So this is what all the fuss is about!... Food was more than just sustenance-- more than just something that kept us alive.  It WAS alive.  Even more, it was something that connected us to the earth, to our physical selves, and most importantly, to each other".
One thing that Carlson missed, however, was a "real American breakfast": ham steak, scrambled eggs, home-fried potatoes, and buckwheat pancakes. Apparently, in France, every breakfast was the same: "croissants and 'pains au chocolat', croissants and 'pains au chocolat'..."  It was a calling of sorts when thee author-- a filmmaker and screenwriter with limited business experience-- changed gears completely in 2003.  He got the idea to open the first bona fide American diner in his adoptive country-- called "Breakfast in America". (If that sounds like the name of a Supertramp album, you're right.  More about that in the book...)  But wait a minute!  Don't most restaurants have a hugely high failure rate?  Would an American diner in Paris even work?  After all, the French generally didn't have high opinions of American cuisine, although Carlson's French focus group concurred, "Breakfast is the one meal that you Americans do right!"  What followed was a L-O-N-G journey to realize that dream, with many euphoric highs and just as many crippling lows along the way. (The final segment of the book is named "Digestif: Le Grande Disillusion".)  As the author himself puts it, "I would barely survive to tell the tale".    Eventually, the restaurateur found his dream as well as, shall we say, "amour"-- in the form of his handsome husband Julien.   After more than a decade in business, Breakfast in America is thriving, and continuing to introduce the French people to big breakfasts, milkshakes, burgers, and other treats that we take for granted, like the "bah-guelle" (bagel).

Pancakes in Paris is a funny, inspiring, moving, and provocative story.  Reading how Carlson navigates through a  French legal, social and economic system (which, say the least, is VERY different from America's) on his journey to success is no less than fascinating.  The book has an infinite number of priceless moments, such as Carlson describing his French costumers trying to use an old-fashioned sugar dispenser for the first time, or how they eat their hamburgers (Two hands?  Never!).  In addition, the book also features recipes for two of his restaurant's trademark dishes: "CC's Big Mess" and "The Super 'Breakfast In America' Burger"-- as well as a recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon from "Belle Maman", his French mother-in-law Elisabeth.

The author celebrated Pancakes In Paris with a book party at Manhattan's Shakespeare & Co. bookstore this past Monday,September 26th, complete with readings from the book, a Q&A from the audience, and... enough Brie and Croque-Monsieur to make any New Yorker smile widely. After reading Pancakes In Paris, you'll be smiling widely as well.

The book is available from

Sunday, October 9, 2016

WELCOME TO THE PLAYHOUSE! New York City's Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company Launches Exciting New Season

New York City's Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company Launches Exciting New Season

Originating in one of the most historically creative and dynamic areas of New York City, the Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company (PCTC) has what may be best described as a trans-generational vision.  They seek to honor the creative mission and legacy of the American theater and its contributions to culture, while also keeping their eyes on what their audiences want and need as we approach 2017.  Since their birth eight years ago,  PCTC has been very prolific.  They've  produced six Main Stage productions, five new works series, five staged readings, several weekend-long Tennessee Williams festivals, and also cabaret and comedy events.  The Company promises that their future will be busier than ever.   One of their upcoming projects is their first musical: an original rock opera called Lady Monday, composed and written by David Alan Thornton.  Their goal is to have a full production in the spring of 2018.

The Playhouse Creatures  bring the audience a contemporary classic every season-- a previously produced but under-served play which is aching for a revival.  This season, it will be One Flea Spare, a 1995 award-winning play by Naomi Wallace set to open  at NYC's Sheen Center on October 16.  Set in plague-ravaged London of the 17th Century, the piece deals with the clash of cultural, social, and sexual boundaries-- all while confronting the characters and the audience to examine their own ideas of morality.  One Flea Spare boasts an interesting  distinction: In 2009, the play was incorporated into the permanent répertoire of the French National Theater, the Comédie-Française.  Wallace is the only living American playwright to enter the répertoire.  In fact, only two American playwrights have ever been added to La Comédie's repertoire in 300 years: the other being Tennessee Williams, whose work PCTC has also produced.  This fall engagement, directed by Caitlin McLeod and featuring two Tony-nominated actors (Concetta Tomei and Gordon Joseph Weiss), will be the first production of One Flea Spare that the author has allowed in New York City in 20 years.  Naomi Wallace will also be doing some talkbacks with the audience.

PCTC's spring production, Emily Mann's equally provocative Mrs. Packard, will premiere at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge, MA starting March 12, 2017 before coming to New York City in June.  Inspired by true events, Mrs. Packard tells the story of the title character, who has been proclaimed insane by her husband and committed to an insane asylum against her will. The Playhouse Creatures will be teaming up with Bridge Repertory Theater to bring this rarely produced piece from 2009 to the stage, under the direction of Emily Ranii.  Yes, that's two women playwrights and two women directors!

Joseph W. Rodriguez is the Producing Artistic Director of The Playhouse Creatures.  He also serves as an acting teacher and a Teaching Artist for the company's  children's outreach program.  Rodriguez  will also be playing Bunce in One Flea SpareRodriguez  envisions the theater and other arts as a gateway to increased empathy (a word he likes use a lot!) for other people and cultures, which be believes is sadly not encouraged or taught as much as it should be.  He tells me, "This goes back to my own personal belief in viewing art-- whether it's visual, performance, dance, or music.  You go and see or hear something that's foreign to your personal experience, and somehow  you connect to the humanity in that performance.  You're like, 'Oh, that makes me feel something.  I understand them'.  You may not accept them, but you understand something about them.  It gives us a wider perception of the world and of the differences that surround us.  Sometimes I think that living in New York City is both a blessing and a curse.  It's a a curse in the sense that we live in a world where we think that everyone is engaged in diversity, and that we all accept the differences around us.  And then you drive 20 miles outside of the city, and you realize, 'Oh, that's not the world!'  The world is very segregated.  People have not experienced the diversity that we live in on a day-to-day basis in New York City.  That's not to say that we necessarily have the best aspects of that, but in some way we are forced to deal with different people.  We have to engage with them.   Through that engagement, if it's not understanding, then it's at least acceptance.  That's so important. You learn.   You know someone who's gay, or you know someone who's black, or you know someone who's Jewish-- and now you may even have a friend or a family member who's gay, or black, or Jewish.  It becomes normal, and no longer foreign.  In New York, it's just part of your world experience.  You accept people.  I think that's what theater at its best can do.  It can give us that window into into other worlds that we otherwise wouldn't enter."

Rodriguez and the other men and women of PCTC have other goals for 2017 beyond just entertaining their audiences-- starting in their own neighborhood.   They are committed to reaching out to both the generation addicted to their Smartphones, as well as the pre-Smartphone generation.  PCTC does this both philanthropically and creatively.  They offer free camps and trips to Broadway for under-served youth in New York City through their Little Creatures Act Out initiative.   On the other end of the age spectrum, they do readings and workshops at New York City's Greenwich House Senior Center.  They also work with New York City's Nazareth Housing, which serves the homeless.

The Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company clearly view their work as more than a job, and even more than a  display of their joy of producing and performing.  They sincerely look at the theater as a means to break down some of the barriers between people that we've created through the years-- whether generational, cultural, economic, or even as  the results of technology.  The audience will clearly reap the benefits-- while being entertained too.

(Gordon Joseph Weiss as William Snelgrave, Donte Bonner as Kabe, Remy Zaken as Morse, Concetta Tomei as Darcy Snelgrave, Joseph W. Rodriguez as Bunce with director, Caitlin McLeod)

For more information on PCTC, One Flea Spare, and Mrs. Packard, visit the Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company's site,