Monday, September 14, 2015

The Shaw Produces a Splendid Version of Tony Kushner’s IHO

The Studio Theatre Lobby at ShawFest
     Any theatre that states “Mature Content, Strong Language, Partial Nudity” outside of the auditorium pretty much guarantees that the audience will stay focused, especially when the three-act play runs almost four hours.  Reading those watch words put us in an extremely attentive mood.  We first visited The Shaw Festival in 1997 to see Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934) because no other company was reviving such a controversial work.  That production was both naturalistic with surreal and ghost story elements that are not explicitly stated in the script.  I still remember specific imagery from that matinee.  This year, we attended a much more recent play that few companies have had the chutzpah/faccia tosta to attempt, probably because it requires eleven actors and it’s left-wing political and historical context is somewhat arcane.  

IHO Playbill Cover
     The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (this version 2011) follows in a long line of top American plays featuring large families (Ah, Wilderness, Awake and Sing, The Little Foxes, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Delicate Balance, Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Piano Lesson, The Sisters Rosensweig) that teeter between hilarity and heartbreak.  Yes, I think Foxes is a vicious black comedy and that Cat is a comedy of manners.  Another play that it resembles is You Can’t Take it with You if Grandpa was humane, intelligent, and suicidal and half the kids had graduate degrees.  

The Extended Marcantonio Family Cast*
     Kushner’s Marcantonio family live in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn; the patriarch was a longshoreman, who later rose to be a leader of his labor union.  Set in 2007 – just before the economic meltdown – it looks back at the rise and fall of the union and, by extension, the plight of the working class over a sixty-year era.  It’s gutsy of Kushner to choose this subject since it’s not one with which American theatre audiences – primarily middle class – wish to concern themselves.  It requires both intense attention and the ability to quickly read the extensive and highly useful dramaturgical program notes.  

     Kushner sweetens the plot with attempted suicide, a variety of sexual and familial relationships that cross a number of boundaries, a pregnancy that almost results in a delivery, fascinating and passionate individual characters, and a beautifully constructed three-act structure that never flags for one moment.  In a period when every other serious play runs about ninety or so minutes without intermission, this salutes his achievement as a playwright.  Director Eda Holmes stages it with clockwork precision including a number of scenes where multiple conversations reach simultaneous crescendos and movement between multiple locales.  Peter Hartwell’s complex, authentic set features shipping containers within the walls signifying that dockworker’s past and is sharply lit by Kevin Lamotte.

Kelli Fox and Jim Mezon*
     The jewel in The Shaw’s proverbial crown has to be its acting ensemble that is being pushed to new heights because of the range of works being presented (newer as well as commissioned works and Broadway musicals – more of that in another article).  Jim Mezon and Kelli Fox inspire pity and fear (thanks, Aristotle) in the climactic scene.  Her commitment goes even further with Thom Marriott, who was hilarious, at the beginning of the show.  We saw Kelli Fox in the lead role in ’97 and her increasing power reaches incandescence.  

Fiona Reid*
Fiona Reid deserves a special note.  We’ve seen her a number of times, where she has performed in a grand manner, and we’ve even chatted with her in the parking lot.  As the quiet, watchful aunt, whose past is even more radically left politically than the other family members, she gives such a lived in performance with subtle details like the way she turns in her feet when she’s sitting and being dragged into a conversation/argument, that I wanted to follow the character off the set to find out what she did when she wasn’t around the others.  Her acting range is extraordinary.  All of the others
A Standing Ovation
nail the characters and then some.  One caveat:  a couple of them sometimes sounded as if their New York accents were by way of Boston.

*Photos by David Cooper for Shawfest.

IHO runs through October 10, 2015

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