Thursday, May 19, 2016

Theater Reviews—“City Stories,” “Anna Akhmatova: The Heart Is Not Made of Stone”

City Stories
Written and directed by James Phillips; music composed/performed by Rosabella Gregory 
Performances through May 29, 2016
59 E 59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Anna Akhmatova: The Heart Is Not Made of Stone
Written by Eve Wolf; directed by Donald T. Sanders
Performances through May 1, 2016
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Fishman Space, Brooklyn, NY

Daphne Alexander and Tom Gordon in City Stories (photo: James Phillips)

Part of this spring’s edition of Brits Off Broadway at 59 E 59 Theaters—again bringing together an array of new work from across the pond—is City Stories, a smorgasbord of variable one-acts that melds into a pleasing platter evokes the sights, sounds and people of London.

Director James Phillips’s half-dozen playlets are in rotating repertory: the four I saw—Narcissi, about a couple’s lifelong distancing act; Lullaby, a futuristic tale of a city beset by a plague; Great Secret, about a search for the meaning of life; and Occupy, about the countless letters people have written to God, all stored in a cathedral—run from contrived to clever, all accompanied by songwriter Rosabella Gregory’s sprightly piano playing and singing, which comments on, at times even forming the crux of the alternately intimate and adversarial relationships on display.

In the talented cast, Daphne Alexander stands out with her bewitching manner and easy way with Phillips’ cascades of dialogue in Lullaby. Gregory equally transfixing: when singing the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” during particularly fraught moments in Lullaby, she brings Phillips’s somewhat forced allegory into sharper focus.

Ellen McLaughlin in Anna Akhmatova: The Heart Is Not Made of Stone (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anna Akhmatova was the brilliant Russian poet whose lifelong struggle against Soviet government officials is encapsulated in Anna Akhmatova: The Heart Is Not Made of Stone, a stimulating multi-media performing piece written by Eve Wolf—who also performs several potent Russian piano works—for her enterprising Ensemble for the Romantic Century.

The ruthless and lethal tactics of the Stalinists are shown—sometimes absurdly, as when two apparatchiks dance together to Dmitri Shostakovich—alongside Akhmatova having an unforgettable evening in conversation with British intellectual Isaiah Berlin and commiserating with artist contemporaries like Sergei Prokofiev. We see how great artists, even when up against intolerant, uncomprehending authorities, continue to create.

And it was remarkable that Soviet artists were able to create such enduring works of art: and the best moments occur when Wolf and fellow musicians—fellow pianist Max Barros, violinist Victoria Wolf Lewis and cellist Andrew Janss—play works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Sergei Rachmaninov, briefly transporting her (and us) to a place away from the gulags and secret police, however much that reality informed their very creativity.

Ellen McLaughlin makes a strong-willed yet fragile Anna while Berlin is nicely sketched in by Jeremy Holm; Donald T. Sanders’ effective direction, coupled with David Bengali’s artful projections, Vanessa James’s evocative sets and costumes and Beverly Emmons’s resourceful lighting, vividly reminds us of art’s ultimate power to triumph over evil.

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