Friday, February 3, 2023

Theater Review: “Memorial” Tells the Compelling Story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; Anthony Rapp Gets Deeply Personal in “Without You” and Irish Rep Delivers a First Class “Endgame”

Memorial (c) Russ Rowland

Theater: Memorial 
At Pan Asian Rep 

Maya Lin was only 21 years old when her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was accepted in 1981. According to Livian Yeh’s new play, “Memorial,” that was one of the few times Lin (Angel Lin) was truly happy and proud about the project. Once the memorial was underway, she kept getting pushback from veterans and the government, embodied in the play by Colonel James Becker (James Patrick Nelson) regarding the design, which goes underground instead of above like many of the other memorials dotting the Washington Mall. When things got really heated, and the memorial was debated in the press, it didn’t take much for the fact that Lin was Chinese (the decision process was a blind one, with no names attached) to become part of the discourse. Yeh’s play is well researched and ramps up the suspense of the future of the memorial, even though we all know the outcome. That there are so many parallels to the issues facing Asian Americans today is also not surprising. Where the play could have invested more time was on Lin herself. There’s not much biographical info given, although the presence of her mother (Rachel Lu) does humanize Lin with their knowing, nonverbal interactions. That said, Yeh’s play does hold many surprises, including a lovely discussion about DC and the cherry blossoms as well as an extended tea ceremony that is quite effective. Rounding out the talented cast are Glenn Kubota as architect Hideo Sasaki and Robert Meksin as journalist Wolf von Eckardt who are Lin’s trusted allies. Director Jeff Liu provides many memorable stage images with the help of Karen Boyer’s appealing period costumes and Victor En Yu Tan’s powerful lighting, although Liu could have tightened the transitions between scenes by being more flowing and not quite so literal. Sheryl Liu’s inventive set design and Gregory Casparian’s dynamic projections do a lot of the heavy lifting, reminding the audience that there might be a lot of arguing and drama before its birth, but it’s the memorial that will ultimately be the lasting historical touchstone for us all. 

Endgame (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater: Endgame 
At Irish Repertory Theatre 

Samuel Beckett plays are not to be experienced lightly. You have to psych yourself up as you enter the stark and bleak world of his plays, even the ones you know well. I have seen my fair share of “Waiting for Godot” and, surprisingly, a very popular choice in New York, “Happy Days” (the one with the woman buried in sand). But I had never seen “Endgame” on stage, and the only thing I know about the play is that there are people living in garbage cans and a blind, wheelchair-bound man and his much put-upon servant. Even Beckett himself had to concede that the play’s theme deserved one of his most pessimistic titles of “Fin de partie.” So, if I am going to see a production of “Endgame,” you’re going to have to tempt me, and the Irish Rep’s latest production, has done just that with the casting of four of the best actors working in theater today: Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Joe Grifasi as the couple in the garbage bins, and the extraordinary John Douglas Thompson and Bill Irwin as the blind Hamm and his servant Clov, respectively. 

Endgame (c) Carol Rosegg

I’ve always debated if what Beckett intends is literal or a symbolic representation of the desperations ordinary people feel in this cold and unsympathetic world. But after what most of us experienced at the start of the pandemic with self-isolation, I have a feeling Beckett’s plays will probably be played more literal for the foreseeable future. In Ciarán O'Reilly’s evocative production, we are in set designer Charlie Corcoran’s appropriately existential basement of Hamm’s residence, after an apocalypse of some sort has wiped most of humanity away. Hamm is reliant on Clov, whom he treats cruelly. In the garbage bins are his parents Nagg and Nell, who have both lost the bottom half of their bodies. Thompson impressively utilizes his commanding raspy but booming voice as Hamm, which leaves the less verbal but highly physical Clov in the capable hands of Irwin, whose bendable body and expressive facial expressions are beyond exemplary (the bit with his leg on the ladder is priceless). One does wonder what would happen if the roles were reversed. Again, for those with an aversion to Beckett’s theater of despair, I ask you this: iI you’re going to see a production of “Endgame,” shouldn’t it be with actors of this caliber in a production this clearly realized and well-thought-out? 

Without You (c) Russ Rowland

Theater: Without You 
At New World Stages 

Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” felt revolutionary when it premiered in 1996, but add to that the heartbreaking backstory of Larson’s death before the first preview and there will always be a sad aura around such a life-affirming musical. Last year’s Oscar nominated movie version of “tick, tick…boom” gave us a glimpse of Larson’s personal and artistic life, but to get a front-line, firsthand account of “Rent” itself, there’s now Anthony Rapp’s one-person musical, “Without You,” a sequel of sorts to that film. Rapp played ‘’Rent’s” filmmaker and documentarian Mark from its workshop to its off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop to its Tony-winning Broadway run to the Chris Columbus film. Rapp fulfills a similar role here as he goes through many of the steps in the process of creating “Rent,” starting with his 1994 audition, singing R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” The title of Rapp’s show is very telling. Taking the title from a song from “Rent,” “Without You,” which is adapted from his 2006’s memoir of the same name (the full title is “Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent”), has a more poignant story up its sleeve. Turns out the “You” of the title is plural as the show not only deals with Rapp’s reaction to the death of Larson but also his mother, Mary Lee. Mary Lee was Rapp’s biggest cheerleader, but she was besotted with many health issues, many that she had to deal with during the whole “Rent” phenomenon. This part of the show may not be what most ticket buyers were expecting, but it is certainly what they will mostly remember as Rapp’s portrait of his mother is so effective, so personal and so emotional. Rapp has always been a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of actor, and he certainly doesn’t hold back when dealing with his own life story. “Without You,” which is finally making its Off-Broadway premiere directed by Steven Maler, is one of those shows where you can’t believe the actor has to go through such an emotional journey eight times a week, and Rapp does indeed give the show his all.

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