Monday, April 13, 2015

REVIEW: THEATER HISTORY COMES ALIVE ON CENTENARY STAGE

Sheila and OreoBy Sheila Abrams

Good acting is a kind of magic. The actor opens his mouth—and another person comes out.

Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso (below) are magicians who can produce that illusion. Associated with the Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown, the pair have been offering the Authors Out Loud Series and other theatrical treats at Centenary College for the past three years.

THEN CAME  FacebookNow, they have taken a lifetime of memories combined with an encyclopedic knowledge of theatrical history, and created an unusual show that brings the audience into their world. Added to the mix are a display of theatrical memorabilia the pair have amassed and a fascinating collection of images of actors of the past. The latter are projected onto a screen that forms the backdrop in the intimate black box theater where the presentation takes place.

The first act, Ladies of the Theatre, began in England in the period before the Restoration (1660) when women’s roles were played by men, and then to what must have been an astonishing moment, when King Charles II changed all that. Actual women began appearing as women on the stage.

Sarah Siddons was one of the earliest, and then the tall and muscular Charlotte Cushman, who reversed custom and played male roles! Julia Marlowe was a legendary Juliet, and Kim and Occhiogrosso showed us a glimpse of Shakespeare’s young lovers brought to life.

Anne Occhiogross - THENCAME EACH ACTOR-smallOne of the most arresting moments came at the end of Act I, with a scene from Euripides’ The Trojan Women, which, Kim explained, was set after the Trojan War. A play filled with powerful anti-war sentiment, it focuses on those left after all the killing—the women. Her husband dead, a woman hides her small son, in the folds of her garments. He must die, she is told, because the son of a hero left to grow up is too great a risk.

Occhigrosso’s rage and sorrow as she surrenders her child, all she has left, was devastating. This was genuine theatrical magic. We are transported to that moment and that place, without scenery, without props, without costumes, into the heart of that woman. No special effects. Just the ability of a great actor.

Randall Duk Kim - THEN CAME EACH ACTOR- smallAct II brought us to The Gentlemen of the Theatre, the first of whom was Edwin Booth. A historic figure because of his prominence as the greatest actor of his time, the mid-19th century, Booth had the misfortune to be forever linked to a historic disaster. His younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, also an actor, was the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

This story, mainly from the point of view of the great actor and how his relationship to the killer of Lincoln influenced his career, was beautifully relayed. There were tears in the audience, and also, apparently, in the eyes of Kim.

The role of Othello brought challenges, Kim explained, as actors dressed in blackface to play Shakespeare’s hero. Ira Aldridge, an actor of the mid-19th century who actually was an African-American, could not perform in the United States but did have a lengthy and successful career in England. His Othello was legendary, and he played other Shakespearean characters as well, apparently in white-face makeup.

Kim went on to the great African-American actor, Paul Robeson, who finally, in the 1930s, broke the color barrier in this country, playing Othello here. Kim talked about the years of harassment Robeson endured at the hands of the rabid anti-communist movement of the 1950s. And as we learned this history, the telling was punctuated by scenes from Shakespeare, Kim and Occhiogrosso playing the Moor of Venice and his unfortunate Desdemona.

We can’t say the program ended with stories about the great American actor, Morris Carnovsky, and his wife, Phoebe Brand, with whom Kim and Occhiogrosso were close. Let us say that it was temporarily stopped, hopefully to be resumed at our next encounter with this remarkable pair of magicians. Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso have it in their power to introduce us to people, places and emotions with whom we might otherwise never cross paths. This was an amazing experience.

Then Came Each Actor will be performed at the Kutz Theatre in the Lackland Center at Centenary College through April 26. For information and tickets call the box office at 908.979.0900 or visit www.centenarystageco.org online.