Sunday, December 03, 2006

Proof at Theatre Widener

Last Friday night I attended the opening performance of "Proof" at Theatre Widener at Widener University.

Written by David Auburn, "Proof" has been a spectacular success on Broadway, and has won the Joseph Kesselring Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Desk Award, and the Tony Award for Best Play of 2001.

"Proof" is a play about Catherine, a 25-year-old Chicago woman who had been taking care of her mentally-ill uberMathematician father (Robert) for several years prior to his death in their home in Chicago.

Following his death, she then begins to deal with her own issues, including the fact that she's troubled by the many traits that she shares with her father, including a potential mental instability and an apparent gift for Mathematics.

The arrival of her bossy sister Claire from New York, to attend to their father's funeral, and the re-introduction of Hal, a former student of their father, who is now a professor of Mathematics at the University of Chicago (and who hopes to find some new and valuable mathematical insights in the 103 gibberish-filled notebooks that Robert left behind), set in motion the various elements of this play.

We learn a lot about mathematicians in this play. We are told that it is a young man's profession (most mathematical discoveries have been made by young men under the age of 25), and that it is young men who are the key mathematicians, and it is inferred that mathematicians may be predisposed genetically to mental instability, and finally, that mathematical research and the discovery of something "new" is the ultimate goal for "real" mathematicians.

When Hal is directed by Catherine to a locked drawer, and discovers a notebook filled with a mind-boggling new mathematical proof, the audience is initially led to believe that the old mathematician has shattered the foundations of (a) and has made amazing new advancements in the field while enjoying a one year remission in his mental illness.

Because "Proof" also makes a heavy-handed point that mathematical research is a young man's game, we are ready to gasp when the play then tackles the issue of Catherine (who has been trained by both her father and by undergraduate classes in Math at Northwestern as a beginner mathematician), as she stakes the claim at the midpoint of the play that it is she - and not her father - who has created the new proof.

Both Hal and Claire doubt the claim, and Catherine begins to descend into a depression that seems to put her on the same mental road as her father. Eventually, the play eases into a closing where Hal and Catherine, now romantically involved, work together to resolve some of the "less than elegant" parts of the proof.

The play spends a lot of dialogue talking about the culture of mathematicians. Since the author of "Proof" apparently does not have any mathematical background, I was surprised in the sense that he certainly does show remarkable insight into the culture of mathematicians.

For example, "Proof" introduces into the dialogue the rarity of female names in the top names for the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition and the total absence of any female names on the list of Fields Medalists - prizes and competitions apparently well-known only in the field of Mathematics.

With the exception of Ted O'Tanyi (who plays Robert), these are all very young collegiate actors, and sometimes their youth shows, both in a positive and negative (no pun intended) manner, most often in their facial expressions to deliver an emotion.

Kristen Hearty, who plays Catherine (and whose character manages to somehow get cuter with each act in the play) uses her youth to plant her acting skills deep into the part. Her facial expressions and vocal range add a lot to the frustration and mental anguish of her character as she progresses through the various acts, and she is best when she interacts with Hal. She is also especially good in delievring some of the funnier lines in the script, during the second half of the play, and almost exhausting in her depiction of a very negative young woman.

Brian Harrington (who plays Hal) delivers the best performance in "Proof." He is believable as the Math geek professor, struggling to make Catherine believe that he's really interested in both her and her father's work - and not in getting his hands on the proof to make a name for himself. He stepped into the role from the very first line, and that singularly noticeable, since it took all the other actors a bit to "warm up," especially in the first act, which was a bit stilted and shrill.

Elizabeth Epright and Ted O'Tanyi are adequate as Claire and Robert respectively. O'Tanyi started a little shaky at first, but his performance matured as the play went on, and by his last appearance in the second half of the performance, was very good in the role of the mentally ill genius.

I was somewhat bothered by the choice of costumes for Claire and Catherine, which (especially in the case of Claire) seemed to be cheap suits off the rack from some outlet and apparently someone's ill-conceived notion of what a New York businesswoman wears. Claire ranged widely in costumes, from typical jeans and T-shirt, to a very pretty dress that takes the character from being a frumpy mid-20s Chicago girl into a sexy woman, and then again ends in the final act in a weird ochre pantsuit that must have caused gasps when finally purchased in some discount women's clothing store somewhere in Philadelphia.

Overall this is a very good collegiate production of a very strong play (directed by Dennis Bloh), which manages to raise some interesting issues about the ignored role of women in a male-dominated field.

"Proof" runs through December 9, 2006.

Altar Boyz

A while back a regular reader of Mid Atlantic Art News, who I think is also a producer for the show Altar Boyz, sent me a couple of complimentary tickets for one of the show's performance in our area at the Hippo in Baltimore.

I didn't know this at the time, but Altar Boyz is an award winning play, and somewhat (if we're to judge by the screaming girls in the audience) some kind of a "under the radar" cult hit, that somehow takes the phenomenom of pop boys groups, seriously athletic dancing, catchy tunes, and religion, and puts it all together in an unexpected, sort of fun musical show.

At first I thought that the show was an effort to poke fun at religion, Christian religion of course, but as the musical got going, I realized that this was an effort to well... bring some harmless pop into religion, while delivering a positive, and 100% harmless, religious message.

The "boyz" are Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham; sort of a pop Christian Mod Squad, that is ethnically diverse ("Juan" (Spanish for John) is Mexican, and "Luke" plays an Italian street toughie stereotype (I think); and even includes a Semite ("Abraham" is Jewish), and one of the boyz (Mark) is gay.

The characters played by the boyz, especially the gay, the Mexican and the Jew, are little more than cliché Hollywood cartoonish stereotypes, but this is somewhat overcome by their interaction and the whole "fun" attitude of the show.

This Christian boy band, mike-in-cheek (I think) hopes to save souls in their travels with a power-packed ninety minutes of diverse music (rap, Latin, rock, gospel, etc.), well-choreographed and sweat-producing dancing, and a ton of laughs - in fact many more that one would expect... from (ahem) this kind of musical play.

And this is a show, that if someone would have described it to me ahead of time, I would have skipped it; and yet I will admit that I actually quite enjoyed the songs (includes "Girl, You Make Me Wanna Wait" and "Jesus Called Me On My Cell Phone"), the dancing, and even the post-modern Christian message of acceptance.

The show is based on a book by Kevin Del Aguila, and it is choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, who deserves a "well done" for the dancing and moves on this show.

More on the Altar Boyz website here (be prepared for annoying musical effects).

The Case of the Kennedy Portrait

Jessica Gould and Dave Jamieson have a really interesting report in the Washington City Paper about the fact that "Phillip Bailley took a handsome portrait of Robert F. Kennedy from his presidential campaign office. So why is he suing Ethel Kennedy?"

Read the story here.

Ellyn Wise on the Corcoran Acquisition of the Randall School

Last Thursday I mentioned the acquisition of the Randall School by the Corcoran and asked to hear from some of the MAC artists who have studios there, since there have been some past issues between them and the acquisition process.

Several artists have responded and below is Ellyn Weiss take on the subject:

Personally, I would characterize The Cork "under new management" as every bit as imperious and high-handed in its dealings with the local art community as was the old regime. It truly amazes me, not to say pisses me off royally, that after the Millennium artists - at The Cork's explicit request - supported the Cork's acquisition of the Randall School when they needed City Council approval, they never even deigned to meet with us and let us know what their plans and schedule are for the rehab.

Instead, they chose to communicate, on the rare occasions when they did, only through scary lawyer-drafted letters that ordered us to do one thing or another. For example: thanks to our truly amazing pro bono lawyers, Norman Sinel and Rich Lucas from Arnold and Porter, the deed for the Randall School now contains the requirement that, after rehab is completed, the Cork must offer the artists comparable studio space.

In an apparent nod to this, we all just received a registered letter informing us that we would be offered, in 48 - 52 months, a studio of no less than 72 square feet, but only if we sign a "legally binding" document now committing to rent it.

This magnanimous offer pretty much says it all. It couldn't be more clear that The Cork views itself as on a whole different planet than the one that local artists inhabit.

But not all gloom and doom from us Millennium artists! We have a show right now at 910 E St. NW organized by Zenith Gallery (thanks, Marjory) and are planning a big old party soon to which all of you artists and art lovers will be invited. We DO plan to rise again.

Peace and love, Ellyn Weiss
As there are always two sides to every story, I have asked the Corcoran to respond. Later I will publish more comments from other MAC artists.