Off-Broadway Roundup II By: David Sheward
As the year winds down, Off-Broadway has been unusually active with new American plays examining religious faith and fam
ily relations as well as reconsidering the Oedipus myth and our country’s penchant for violence. Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho at Signature Theatre and Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy at Lincoln Center benefit from imaginative productions with exceptional design elements. The plays present questions about belief but offer no easy answers.
Kibeho focuses on the real-life incidents of a trio of teenage girls receiving visitations from the Virgin Mary at their Catholic school in Rwanda in the early 1980s. Hall isn’t as concerned with the validity of the girls’ visions, but with the reaction from the community and the Vatican. At first, they are treated with skepticism, then celebrated as a tourist attraction. But when they predict an upcoming devastating war, they are greeted with anger. Michael Greif delivers his usual excellent staging with exquisite lighting by Ben Stanton, mesmerizing video projections by Peter Nigrini, and evocative sound design by Matt Tierney. There are even flying special effects, realistically created by Paul Rubin. Hall’s script effectively documents the story and fleshes out a fascinating cast of characters from the innocent visionaries-each distinct-to the sympathetic priest to the doubting expert from Rome. She draws no conclusions, but leaves the central issue of belief up to the audience.
In The Oldest Boy, Sarah Ruhl presents a similar conundrum-this one fictional and relating to Buddhism and reincarnation. An American woman married to a Tibetan immigrant discovers her young son may have lived previously as a lama. When two visiting monks apparently confirm the boy’s past life and wish to take him to live with them in Tibet, she must make a terrible choice. Like Hall, Ruhl does not probe deeply into the religious debate. Instead she zeroes in on the mother’s dilemma, given full weight by Celia Keenan-Bolger’s intense performance. Veteran actor Ernest Abuba brilliantly conveys the spirit of the boy (embodied by a puppet) as well as the lama. Rebecca Taichman’s production is spare but powerful, benefiting from Japhy Weideman’s eloquent lighting.
The heroine of Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse, just closed at Playwrights Horizons, also deals with doubt. Sister Shelley, a nun running a soup kitchen in the titular Bronx neighborhood, times her prayers by a microwave since she has trouble speaking to the Lord for even a minute. Her crisis of faith comes to a head when Emma, a mentally-disturbed volunteer disrupts the center, the staff and the homeless people who depend on them. Schreck’s play is sharp and funny as well as penetrating in its observations of the obligations religion placed on its followers. Schreck makes the radical conclusion that sometimes it’s okay not to forgive. Kip Fagan’s direction keeps the proceedings from getting too heavy and Rachel Hauck’s set design is accurate down to the kitchen sink. Quincy Tyler Bernstine masterfully chronicles Shelley’s conflict and Ismenia Mendes is a complex Emma.
Sharyn Rothstein’s By the Water about a Staten Island family dealing with the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy plays like a TV script which should come as no surprise since she has numerous video credits. Her script is rife with plots, secrets, betrayals, and familiar father-son conflicts, all tidily wrapped up within 90 minutes. But as played by a veteran cast including Obie winner Deirdre O’Connell as the mother, it’s an entertaining and occasionally moving hour and a half.
Also clocking in at the same running time is Sam Shepard’s A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), also at the Signature Theatre Center, mashing together different recastings of the classic tragedy in Ireland and California. At one point, the playwright unwisely has a character directly ask the audience if they are getting anything out of the play. Like most of Shepard’s oeuvre, Particle is fragmented and somewhat obscure, so the question may have received a few negative responses. In a series of short scenes, we are introduced to various modern versions of Oedipus, Jocasta, Antigone, Tiresias, and others and then some disappear, while others meet the legendary unhappy ends. But Shepard’s characteristically muscular style fascinates and creates a hypnotic American version of the blood-soaked story-Stephen Rea is gripping as the contemporary Oedipus in the climactic speech-indicting our obsession with violence, a topic that often grips us more than religion.
Our Lady of Kibeho: Nov. 16-Dec. 14. Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time: two hours and 45 mins. including intermission. $65-$45. (212) 244-7529 or www.signaturetheatre.org
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Oldest Boy: Nov. 3-Dec. 28. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time: two hours including intermission. $77-$87. (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Grand Concourse: Nov. 12-30 (closed). Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC.
Photo: Joan Marcus
By the Water: Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. $30. (212) 581-1212 or www.nycitycenter.org.
Photo: Joan Marcus
A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations): Nov. 23-Jan. 4. Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. $65-$45. (212) 244-7529 or www.signaturetheatre.org
Photo Mathew Murphy