note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Carl A. Rossi
Describe it as it hit you that first moment. Dark. Narrow. Deep. Smells of dust and sweet syrup. A low, long shoe-box of a room. Little round tables everywhere. Wood-and-wire chairs. A tinkle and a twinkle. Fairy bells? ... in a space amidst the tiny tables two men in straw skimmers and striped blazers were performing the muffin scene from The Importance of Being Earnest. …
All the walls were littered with posters and pages, which fluttered as the candy-men swirled. Overhead, punched theatrical lighting instruments perched on pipes. Among them swags of languid tinsel waved.
The men spun like toy tops through the scene. Occasionally they’d jump back a few lines and repeat a section. It gave the piece a lovely fractured cubist quality that enthralled one lover of modern art. I hadn’t dreamed there was experimental theater! At the scene’s end, before I could applaud, they began again. I thought it a brilliant innovation.
--- from Robert Patrick’s TEMPLE SLAVE, his novelization of the Caffee Cino scene.
You shoulda been there, when Boston Conservatory’s festival A PLACE TO SAY SOMETHING: THE OFF-OFF-BROADWAY PHENOMENON OF THE ‘60s paid hommage to Joseph Cino (1931-1967), the former dancer turned café-owner whose Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village gave birth to the Off-Off-Broadway theatre movement, “Off-Off-Broadway” defining those experimental and avant-garde plays performed in coffee houses, church basements, etc. Mr. Cino had envisioned Caffe Cino as a Great Good Place for socializing and where poetry readings and folk music could be heard; the first theatrical offerings were excerpts and one-acts by established playwrights but Caffe Cino made its mark with works by a new generation that included Doric Wilson, William Hoffman, Robert Patrick, John Guare, Tom Eyen, and Lanford Wilson who broke down theatre’s illusionary fourth wall and tackled such taboos as the Vietnam war and sexual freedom (you must remember that the national mindset at the time was one of numbing conformity --- and, children, those days are returning). The Caffe Cino plays were of varying quality as Mr. Cino said “yes” to scripts before reading them and their productions were built from scraps, performed on a 8 foot x 8 foot stage and lit by electricity stolen from the city grid; hats were passed to pay the actors, whose roster includes Al Pacino, Bernadette Peters and the legendary Neil Flanagan, best known as the title role of Lanford Wilson’s THE MADNESS OF LADY BRIGHT. Mr. Cino was constantly harrassed for licensing violations and refused to accept government grants, fearing that they would kill the Caffe’s spirit; he became addicted to amphetamines and died on April 4, 1967, four days after attempting hari kari. Caffe Cino struggled to stay open but closed in 1968, a victim of the strict cabaret laws being enforced by the young alderman, Ed Koch.
Edward Albee, George Birimisa, John Gilman, Robert Heide, Willam M. Hoffman,
Larry Loonin, Michael McGrinder, Steve Susoyev, George White, Phoebe Wray,
Robert Patrick (on video)
Boston Conservatory faculty members Phoebe Wray and Neil Donohoe --- she, an Off-Off-Broadway actress/playwright/director; he, the director of BoCo’s mindblowing IOLANTHE --- brought together veteran O-O-B playwrights to reminisce and to set the record straight and BoCo student-directors and actors staged ten of these playwrights’ early works under similar no-budget conditions. One panelist mentioned that the Off-Off-Broadway movement has been airbrushed off the map; thus, A PLACE TO SAY SOMETHING was a reaction as well as a celebration now that sky-high rents have driven Village artists out of their neighborhood (can you imagine such theatre being performed nowadays in a Starbucks?). “Play to the room!” was Mr. Cino’s command when there were no bodies in the house; happily, BoCo’s house was thrice packed (with mostly its own students) but apart from two of the plays’ directors, I spied no Boston theatre folks, for shame! Mr. Albee (pronounced ALL-bee, should you ever meet him) pointed out that the O-O-B scene thrived creatively, if not financially, on public indifference --- but the public indifference of not attending such worthwhile events is a Boston tradition that needs to be smashed, and for its theatre folk, that goes double. Still, it was grand to encounter these seasoned playwrights, still writing and --- aside from Mr. Albee who continues to play the Gloomy Young Man --- still aglow with 60s spirit. Do these ten plays still hold up? Considering they were written forty years ago by young playwrights in an angry era, yes, most of them do, quite nicely. They may not do as well with polished actors and honest-to-goodness sets (that fourth wall, again) but they flourished in BoCo’s bare, black box theatre --- the energy and trust of these talented young artists simply floored the creators....
Roger … Jesse Swenson
Marvin … Tim Markman
Two young men, clad in towels, meet in a bathhouse, both as nervous as teens on a first date. If you can recall or imagine the underground landscape of pre-Stonewall America, then Mr. Wilson’s skit is breathtaking in its dare and he shrewdly had his cake (i.e. the situation) and ate it, too (nothing happens, not even a kiss). Yes, nothing happens, yet a positive note is struck: the two young men quickly dress and go their separate ways --- hopefully, to find love and sex in more dignified places. Jesse Swenson and Tim Markman gave convincingly awkward body rhythms of an era where “hot” and “woof” were never heard; Mr. Markman struck some amusing, chaste poses which would have registered as “naughty”, back then.
Man … Brendan McNab
A bored, blasé boss’ son tangles on his office telephone with his spying secretary, his demanding girlfriend and a dominatrix named Miss Victoria whom he dials on a friend’s dare, falls under her spell and ends up stark naked on the floor, humping his desk to a climax. Mr. Hoffman’s outrageous comedy (yes, comedy) could only go so far in the 1960s; thus, the original actor was not completely stripped whereas BoCo alumnus Brendan McNab most certainly was. Director Doug Lockwood wisely, subtly, took the monologue for what it is --- phone-sex, with its own escalating climax --- so by the time Mr. McNab bared all, the tickled crowd was ready for anything. Stage nudity is the most difficult costume to wear; Mr. McNab, to his credit, was relaxed and handsome in his own skin and all the funnier for it.
Ella … Cayt’lan Wayt
Peter … Isaac Elkiss
A man and a woman meet at a bus stop. The woman asks the man for directions but neither speaks the other’s language. They fall in love, learn to communicate and pass through marriage, parenthood, old age and the woman’s death. Michael McGrinder’s love story was rushed and threadbare in the second half, but his first half was brilliant with both actors, speaking in English, evoking foreign misunderstanding with their criss-crossing dialogue that soon became so many balls not being rolled back. Cayt’lan Wayt and Isaac Elkiss made a sweet, mismatched couple.
Hero … Richard Hoehn
Mother … Amanda Wilson
Girl … Krissy Price
Bud … Christopher Lyons
The Warhol Machine … Ricky Denning
No doubt many O-O-B actors performed in scripts where they hadn’t a clue, let alone the audience; this staged reading of Mr. Patrick’s word-collage proved an uphill battle: a Vietnam vet returns to America only to find that his country is under a fascist regime called the Warhol Machine. A quintet of stop-start actors, their noses in their scripts, did not illuminate matters.
George Birimisa, Daniel Haben Clark, John Gilman, Robert Heide, Doric Wilson
This second discussion focused on Equity conflicts, how the organization that had fought for actors’ rights and actors’ salaries now became an enemy of the Off-Off-Broadway movement where actors willingly exchanged a steady paycheck for creative freedom; the panelists agreed that Equity membership may eventually no longer exist as there are fewer and fewer Equity productions hitting the boards and since 50% of a theatre budget can go towards actors’ insurance, alone, producers are slipping more and more non-Equity actors into their casts. Acting styles were also discussed: the movement that destroyed the fourth-wall illusion no longer needed the Method --- Off-Off-Broadway actors learned and, in turn, taught that one can still tell truths without a psychologically-based technique (and the 1960s was a time of In-Your-Face); one veteran actress in the audience commented that her happiest days were in O-O-B theatre where its stylistic demands made her feel more of an artist than her eventual moving into mainstream productions.
Adam … Ryan Lile
Eve … Emily Ferranti
Disenchantralista … Adam Levinskas
Silvadorf … Will Larche
Urhelancia … Frankie Marrone
Adam, backed by three iconoclastic angels, encounters a beguiling but determined Eve (and Emily Ferranti’s Eve was indeed beguiling) in Doric Wilson’s cute, if longish, Biblical spin that got Mr. Wilson in some hot water in the Bad Old Days. “And He Made a Her” has the distinction of being the first original work performed at the Caffe Cino; due to a typographical error in one printed edition, Mr. Wilson briefly became “Doris Wilson” and his play was hailed as a feminist statement.
Sally … Elizabeth Maslen
Ingrid … Jessica Norland
Harold … David Albright
Christopher … Chase Davidson
Sam … David Christiansen
In Mr. Heide’s “sweet but sharp slice-of-Village life”, a young man tries to read his book while his live-in girlfriend tries to get his attention with body movements and nattering about the moon and other topics; when the young man puts down his book, he becomes even more verbally volatile than she. They are joined by a troubled couple who claim they all met at a party and were invited up; a friendly male neighbor drops by with a loaf of freshly baked bread. Director Ryan Wood gave the script a contemporary, not period, Village feel which was certainly sharp but more weird than sweet and his punching it into quirky comedy only made this much-acclaimed, much-performed work seem endless and disjointed.
Woman … Ilana Toeplitz
Man 1 … Chris Ruth
Man 2 … Andrew Durand
The undoubted hit of the festival, Mr. Birimisa “Daddy Violet” was a joyous send-up of actors’ warm-up exercises and improvisational techniques but loose enough for actors to embellish with their own topicalities, making it all seem astonishingly fresh. If there were anti-war sentiments, as advertised, they were swept aside by the nonstop, inventive fun. “What a Puck he would make,” murmured a O-O-B playwright as Andrew Durand, with his demonic baby face, strutted, gobbled and morphed his way through the piece. I agree.
Jennifer … Morgan Darian
Agatha … Rebecca Zaretsky
Prudence … Dani Burr
Henery … Taylor Oldner
An old maid, pining over an absent lover, and her widowed aunt have not stepped outside the walls of their garden for seven years, a garden that has been sown with rue (the plant as well as the emotion); they take on a cheery flower girl as their maid. The lover returns, remembering only happy events --- apparently, his beloved was not one of them, and no prizes for guessing which woman leaves the garden with him. This was a fascinating, offbeat parable --- but a humorous one --- with Dani Burr astonishing at evoking old age (and later appearing in the audience as a hearty, pretty young woman) and Rebecca Zaretsky as an oddly enchanting niece, twirling about in mechanical spasms. Ms. Nelson commented that her play was conceived in the style of Anouilh and Giradoux but applauded J. T. Ross’ Absurdist vision, as did the rest of us.
Margery … Whitney Snow
Mary … Kristen Sweeney
Betty … Rachel Jesien
Julia … Diana Jelmini
Sister Mary Amadeus … Lauren Nedelman
Millie … Langley Denton
Jean … Stephanie Alyse Sanford
Lucille … Tiffany Wiesend
Rachel … Courtney Garton Evans
Madelaine … Niki Michaelson
Another word-collage: ten women from different walks of life alternated thoughts about the men in their lives and how they have been defined by their attention or neglect. Ms. Wray originally wrote “The Mulberry Bush” as ten separate monologues but later cut and pasted them into its present structure. The original version may have worked better --- it took me awhile to keep track of what woman was reacting to what man --- but for a 1968 play, written before Gloria Steinhem set up shop, these women’s joys and grievances still sound all too contemporary…
Lula … Christine Nolan
Jimbo … Cameron Bautsch
Two narcissists bond out of sheer physical attraction; the man grows listless while the woman turns more and more monstrous --- their inevitable battles become their aphrodisiac. Mr. Clark closed the festival with this bizarro farce that makes Mr. Albee’s George and Martha seem tame in comparison and Christine Nolan, feline and diabolical, clever and coy even while bellowing in full throttle, was a misogynist’s nightmare --- or dream? Ms. Nolan’s performance finally defied description --- you simply had to be there --- and she had Cameron Bautsch’s paramour holding on for dear life.
Copies of Steve Susoyev and Mr. Birimsa’s new book RETURN TO THE CAFFE CINO, a handsome anthology of essays, photographs and plays (including a number of the above), were sold in the BoCo lobby; it can also be ordered online for those wanting to see what the fuss was all about, now as well as so long ago. Those who love to dig for treasure may also want to seek out Mr. Patrick’s TEMPLE SLAVE (quoted above), which seems to be out of print --- his novel is a transparent roman à clef (example: the Caffe Cino becomes the “Espresso Buono”) but it is still a valuable read.
Same time, next year, perhaps, with members and plays from the LaMama, Judson Poets Theatre or Theatre Genesis days? The airbrushing of this vibrant page of American theatre history, filled with lessons for today’s young artists, must STOP!
note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Carl A. Rossi
Becca … Donna Bullock
Izzy … Geneva Carr
Howie … Jordan Lage
Nat … Maureen Anderman
Jason … Troy Deutsch
Depending upon your age, if you ask your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents about Death, they will tell you how it was once a fact of family life: how generations of relatives died in or near their homes or how their playmates were claimed by scarlet fever or polio or how they dutifully attended funerals --- go back even further, and you will read of Victorians having Sunday picnics in cemeteries; today, people are living longer, looking younger (naturally or unnaturally) and cheating the Reaper with drugs and operations --- we have thus grown away from Death even though it will still claim us, all, and David Lindsay-Abaire’s RABBIT HOLE, now at the Huntington, is for those who prefer being coaxed in the same way that Norman Lear’s sitcoms tackled serious topics: laugh, first; listen, second.
Mr. Lindsay-Abaire is known for such Absurdist fare as FUDDY MEARS and WONDER OF THE WORLD and RABBIT HOLE is likewise seasoned for chunks at a time; unfortunately, its safe, quirky humor dilutes Death’s granite force: Becca and Howie, a married couple, have been coping with the loss of their four-year-old son, hit by a car while running after the family dog. Becca is first seen folding clothes at her kitchen table while her sister Izzy prattles about her entangled life, finally announcing her pregnancy. Her chuckling listeners may not realize that Becca is packing her late son’s clothes for charity and that Izzy’s conception should cause more than wan goodwill from her now-childless sister. Later, Mr. Lindsay-Abaire adds their mother Nat who tipsily skewers the Kennedy Curse before revealing that she, too, had lost a son (the formula seems to be the more serious the topic, the more relentless the tickling). Howie wants to get on with his life, at least sexually, while Becca remains as closed as a tomb; Mr. Lindsay-Abaire reverses their positions with Becca packing away mementos and wanting to sell their Larchmont home which Howie, in turn, declares to be pure-and-simple erasure; he becomes the one now clinging to the past. (Still later, Izzy accuses Howie of infidelity which he denies and which, sadly, in a dramatic sense, is dropped). Jason, the teenager at the fatal wheel, stops by with his theory about “rabbit holes” that lead to parallels of everyone’s lives in other galaxies (thus, Becca is comforted to know that there is a happier She somewhere out in space). RABBIT HOLE is television-as-theatre and on the night I attended the Huntington audience laughed and muted as if cue cards were flashed at them; my own buttons remained unpushed.
Two decades ago, John Tillinger reduced a Broadway revival of Joe Orton’s LOOT to twinkling cuteness and his RABBIT HOLE is more of the same, stapling rather than stitching the comedy to its tragedy; a more sensitive, “flawed” approach would blended, better. No doubt, Donna Bullock’s Becca will be hailed as a tour-de-force; I found Ms. Bullock to be so hard and strident that I wondered what sort of parent her Becca had once been, and if the thought of Matt Lauer as an actor appeals to you, then Jordan Lage’s Howie is the husband of your dreams. Geneva Carr’s Izzy is a throwback to the kooks of the 1960s (for example, she cannot tell an Irish accent from a German one); Maureen Anderman’s Nat grows more compelling once she gets past her drunken introduction. Troy Deutsch is far too old to play Jason and his gawky mannerisms result in a staring, crabbed presence from which one would shrink in real life --- small wonder why the offstage dog barks so much.
James Noone has designed large, impressive interiors that slide back and forth across the full length of the stage and distanced me even further --- that home is so neat, clean and opulent (judging by the son’s bedroom, he was quite the little prince) that RABBIT HOLE soon luxuriated in the same WASP-grief as did the film ORDINARY PEOPLE though chances are you will probably see Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s play on the small screen before you see it on the big one.