Regina Opera Presents Puccini’s Manon Lescaut

On Saturday May 14, Brooklyn’s Regina Opera now in its 46th year presented Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) Manon Lescaut, which was the composer’s first great success. Jules Massanet had already written his Manon in 1884 but Puccini felt two operas about the same fascinating subject could easily thrive. Manon Lescaut premiered at the Teatro Reggio in Turin, Italy in 1893. Its first performance at the Metropolitan Opera was in 1907 with rhapsodic tenor Enrico Caruso and the ravishing soprano Lina Cavalieri. Since then all the great tenors and great sopranos have sung the much coveted roles of Des Grieux and Manon Lescaut.

Manon Lescaut is in four acts and takes place in 18th century France. Renato Des Grieux, while cavorting with his fellow students, is smitten by a girl who is exiting a coach. She is escorted by her brother Lescaut on her way to a convent. Des Grieux, convinces her to elope with him. Geronte di Ravoir, an elderly official, plans to run away with Manon offering her wealth and jewels for his “fatherly affection.”

Des Grieux (Percy Martinez, left) learns that Lescaut (Nathan Matticks, right) has bribed a guard to free Manon from prison.
Des Grieux (Percy Martinez, left) learns that Lescaut (Nathan Matticks, right) has bribed a guard to free Manon from prison. Photo credit – George Schowerer

Tired of poverty with Des Grieux, Manon goes to Geronte and lives with wealth, but misses the passion of Des Grieux. Des Grieux, now wealthy from gambling woos and wins Manon again. Geronte denounces Manon as a prostitute. Instead of fleeing immediately, Manon tries to collect her jewels and, because of the delay in searching for and collecting them, is captured by the soldiers.

Manon is sentenced to exile in America with other prostitutes. Des Grieux begs the ship’s captain to let him come aboard as a cabin boy so he can be with his beloved Manon.

In the final act the lovers, having escaped the authorities, are on a desolate plain in Louisiana, starving and thirsty. Manon regrets her follies, expresses her love for Des Grieux, and dies in Des Grieux’s arms.

Des Grieux (Percy Martinez) holds the dying Manon (Sabrina Palladino).
Des Grieux (Percy Martinez) holds the dying Manon (Sabrina Palladino). Photo credit – Gregory Ortega

Manon was portrayed by soprano Sabrina Palladino.  Ms. Palladino has many fans in the metro area and New Jersey, where she is known for her dynamic and legendary performances. Her singing of “In quelle trine morbide” in the second act was magical. Her soprano, which has delicacy, color and grace, is not really one that dominates by size. It commands intimacy and pathos. Yet her voice carries very well and soared to the heavens when called for.  Ms. Palladino’s impeccable diction and vivid acting brought Manon’s plight to one and all. In the last act, her singing of “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” was heartbreaking in its lamentation. That she died “Le mio colpe sereno” with the love of her life was the only solace. Ms. Palladino’s interpretation was unforgettable. It simply stays with you in memory and won’t let go.

Des Grieux was sung by Percy Martinez, whose stalwart, serviceable tenor evolved to a memorable portrayal. His lighthearted singing of “Tra voi belle, brune e bionde” was nicely done. His “Donna non vidi mai” had him a bit short at the top, and went by sans recognition as the great aria it really is. His duets with Manon went from strength to strength and his big aria in the third act “No, no Pazzo son” found him on his knees sobbing, belting out full throated high notes with abandon and splendor. His laments at Manon’s death and their love duet “Manon, senti amor mio…” were extraordinary in their emotional wallop.

Manon (Sabrina Palladino, left) tells her brother Lescaut (Nathan Matticks, right) that she regrets having given up Des Grieux's love for Geronte's wealth.
Manon (Sabrina Palladino, left) tells her brother Lescaut (Nathan Matticks, right) that she regrets having given up Des Grieux’s love for Geronte’s wealth. Photo Credit – George Schowerer

Nathan Matticks was a clarion and robust voiced Lescaut.  Matticks’ resonant baritone was heard in “E a chi lo dite ed io da figlio” and other phrases with a suave and dominant tone.

John Schenkel portrayed Geronte as a cruel despot who did not enjoy playing the fool and gave Manon a very vengeful course leading to her tragic death. His adroit baritone was utilized to the fullest in a vivid portrayal. Schenkel also doubled as the captain.

Baritone Charles Gray was the Innkeeper/Sergeant, the versatile Wayne Olsen was the hairdresser and Reuven Aristigueta Senger was the hurried, harried Dancing Master.

David Bailey was Edmondo and the Lamplighter, his lilting tenor sparkled; Noelle Currie’s fine soprano served us well albeit briefly, as the Madrigal Singer.

The excellent ensemble and chorus consisted of Shelly Barkan, Samantha DiCapio, Catherine Greco, Margaret Keymakh, Marta Kukularova, Lily Lu Lerner, Wayne Olsen, Jennifer Klauder and Ksenia Stepanova.

The lively and captivating children were Nomi Barkan and Isabela Decker.

Maestro Gregory Ortega led the superb Regina Orchestra in a thrilling musical journey of the suddenly blooming young Puccini with Wagnerian themes and great heartfelt melodies of pathos and power. The Intermezzo was a revelation with bursts of beauty, sweep and grandeur. Yelena Savranskaya, violin concertmaster, was an inspiration, as was Michael Vannoni on the viola. Kudos to Michael Sirotta on percussion, Kathryn Sloat on the harp and Richard Paratley on the flute.

The costumes by Julia Cornely were brilliantly ornate when needed and threadbare when the times were not so good for poor Manon.

After having danced a minuet with the dancing master (Reuven Aristigueta, in pink wig), Manon (Sabrina Palladino,in white gown) flirts with the elderly Geronte (John Schenkel, far left with back to the audience).
After having danced a minuet with the dancing master (Reuven Aristigueta, in pink wig), Manon (Sabrina Palladino,in white gown) flirts with the elderly Geronte (John Schenkel, far left with back to the audience). Photo Credit – George Schowerer

The backdrops by Richard Paratley who also serves as principal flautist, evoked both the extravagant and the unfortunate aspects of Manon’s journey from opulence to demise.

Tyler Learned’s lighting touch added greatly to the scenes and Linda Lehr’s stage direction went brilliantly and smoothly.

Linda Lehr’s special theatrical skills carried us on that fateful journey of Manon Lescaut and Renato Des Grieux and left us with a priceless tableaux and memories of Puccini’s first masterpiece.

We thank the Regina Opera staff for a brilliant 46th season of opera in Brooklyn. Here’s to Regina Opera’s 47th season. Bravo to all!

Maestro Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York Presents Donizetti’s Parisina d’Este

Italo Marchini, Aaron Blake, Angela Meade, Eve Queler, Yunpeng Wang, Sava Vemic and Mia Pafumi. Photo by Meche Kroop
Italo Marchini, Aaron Blake, Angela Meade, Eve Queler, Yunpeng Wang, Sava Vemic and Mia Pafumi. Photo by Meche Kroop

Maestro Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York presented Gaetano Donizetti’s Parisina d’Este on the evening of Wednesday, May 4th at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall at Columbus Circle on Broadway and 60th Street.

This is a rare presentation of a work that calls for a revival. Maestro Eve Queler and the Opera Orchestra presented this work in a memorable Carnegie Hall Concert with Montserrat Caballe forty years ago. All that is needed are great voices and on this evening we had one in Angela Meade. The libretto is by Felice Romani after Lord Byron’s 1816 poem Parisina. The setting is Ferrara, Italy in the 15th century. The work premiered at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, Italy in 1833.

Angela Meade, Metropolitan Opera soprano, resplendent in a red gown, sang Parisina, wife of Duke Azzo in love with Ugo. Ms. Meade sang with gorgeous tone and superb coloratura embellishments. Occasionally she would literally “touch a shooting star” by lightly hitting a note seemingly in outer space. Her caressing tone in her Piangi aria touched the heart. (That I am chosen to weep) Ms. Meade gave us some exquisite silken phrases both ethereal and on a thread of spun gold. This is Bel Canto singing of the highest order. However, there is another side to her artistry. In the final scene, after viewing her lover dead, her singing of “Ugo e spento! A me si renda!” had the passion of a Tosca and this “victimized” persona was struck by unfathomable rage as she kills herself after viewing Ugo’s body. It was an unforgettable operatic moment that one recalls for a lifetime.

Aaron Blake was Ugo, Parisina’s lover. His full lyric tenor was serviceable but he labored in passages where he should have soared. He tried to attain the tenorial heft needed both in duet and solo. The audience was supportive of his effort but one hopes he will stick to proper roles and not have to push hard in his upper register.

Duke Azzo was sung by Yunpeng Wang in a powerful  resonant  baritone that indicated the intensity and cruelty of his character. His “River Po” duet with his minister Ernesto was captivating. His shifts of mood, bad to worse, were heard in his vocal offerings and he was wholly believable and well defined.

Ernesto, Duke Azzo’s minister was sung by basso Sava Vemic. He attempts to be the peacemaker, even announcing that Ugo is the Duke’s long lost son, raised by himself, from the Duke’s first deceiving wife Matilde. Vemic’s basso cantante had nobility and depth.

Imelda, Parisina’s handmaid, vividly portrayed by soprano Mia Pafumi in her debut with the Opera Orchestra, made a very strong impression with her sympathetic portrayal, duet with Parisina, and vocal bursts of glory. One would like to see and hear more of Ms. Pafumi in the future.

We envisioned what a stunning staged opera this could be with knights, handmaidens, gondoliers, squires and soldiers in a fully costumed production.

The chorus from the New York Choral Ensemble under Chorus Master Italo Marchini sang lustily and with inspiration.

Maestro Eve Queler conducted the Opera Orchestra of New York with mastery and love. There were passages with the chorus singing and the trumpets playing with the full rich sound of Donizetti’s melodic music that made one say “thank you Eva Queler for all this glory.” The audience cheered for the ever youthful and indomitable Maestro and founder Eve Queler for this great triumph!

The Gerda Lissner Foundation and Stephen De Maio are to be thanked for nurturing so many of the wonderful singers.

Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ opens in NYC with ‘Brooklyn’ star Saoirse Ronan

Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw in “The Crucible,” directed by Ivan van Hove. Photos by Jan Versweyveld
Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw in “The Crucible,” directed by Ivan van Hove. Photos by Jan Versweyveld

When the curtain rises on the new production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” at the Walter Kerr Theater (which boasts the dream cast of Saoirse Ronan, the star of “Brooklyn;” Ben Whishaw; Sophie Okonedo; and Ciarán Hinds), the audience sees a gloomy classroom with a blackboard, dim, drab overhead lights and three rows of seated teenage schoolgirls, in prim, black and gray uniforms with knee socks, sleeveless pullovers and blazers, all facing forward with their backs to the audience.

Faintly, the spectators hear a chorus of girls’ voices, but the words are unintelligible. The setting and the sounds are both ordinary and spooky. Before there is a chance to decide which description fits best, the curtain descends, and then quickly rises again on the same set, but now fully lit, with a young girl prone on a gurney, being administered to by a clergyman. In the background stands another schoolgirl, brooding and concerned.

Theatergoers who saw last year’s “Antigone” with Juliette Binoche at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and the recent revival of Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” will recognize where they are: in Ivo-land. The Belgian-born Ivo van Hove is everywhere; last November he also directed the limited run of “Lazarus,” a musical collaboration between the late David Bowie and the Irish playwright Edna Walsh. With “The Crucible,” which officially opens this Thursday night, van Hove makes his Broadway debut.

He is, indisputably, having his New York moment.

Recently, the Eagle spoke with van Hove by telephone about his propensity for tackling the theatrical canon, his unique approach to rehearsal and, in particular, the current production of “The Crucible.”

Director Ivo van Hove.
Director Ivo van Hove.

Eagle: Nothing in the theatrical or cinematic canon — Euripedes, Shakespeare, O’Neil, Miller, stage adaptations of Bergman, Cassavettes, Pasolini, Viscounti films — seems to intimidate you. How did you become so fearless?

Van Hove: Well, you know, you only live your life once. Why not take chances? Before we begin a production, I always tell my creative team that we’re in the Olympics. Our goal should be the gold medal. The stage work and the film adaptations I choose to do are always driven by the actors, not by the beauty of the visuals or the physical design. As a novelist does through his writing, I want to express through my theatre work, my feelings, my passions.

Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw
Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw

Eagle: You have said about “The Crucible” that “…it is not a play about good and evil; it is about evil within goodness and goodness within evil.” Can you elaborate?

Van Hove: Now that I have done two Miller plays, what I have discovered is that he deals with ethical problems, often in black and white terms. But I don’t see things as that black and white. Take Abigail [Williams, who is the catalyst for the Salem witch hysteria and subsequent trials]. Listen carefully to what she says in the first act, when she reproaches John Proctor for ending their relationship. She really felt, for the first time in her life, respected as a woman. She’s 17. The fact that John, her first lover, rejects her is earth-shattering. She is very fragile.

For the Puritans, being a young girl meant three things: You had to always obey your parents (especially regarding even the hint of anything sexual); you had to became a servant, as Abigail was for John and Mary Procter; and you were not allowed to truly transition from a girl to a woman. Abigail is so often played as the evil villainess of “The Crucible.” But I don’t see her that way. Remember, she is the only character to escape Salem, to seek her freedom. John and Mary stay — and pay the price.

Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan, Tavi Gevinson, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut and Erin Wilhelmi.
Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan, Tavi Gevinson, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut and Erin Wilhelmi.

Eagle: Why do you insist that your actors be “off-book” from the first day of rehearsal? And why, in rehearsal, do you have your actors work steadily through the text, reaching the end of the play just before the first public performance?

Van Hove: I believe it is great for actors, in rehearsal, to discover the play. After all, that’s the way one lives one’s life —not knowing from one day to the next what is going to happen. As with life, there should be uncertainty; I want my actors to unravel the play, scene-by-scene, to react to the uncertainty as they would in real life. When I have the actors rehearse the play, day-by-day, in chronological order, I don’t have to give them a lot of instructions. They are coming to their own recognition of the text. Which also makes them more comfortable and more natural.

Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw.
Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw.

Eagle: Finally, since you have been so bold in taking iconic films (to cite just a few, Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” John Cassavetes’s “Husbands,” Luchino Viscounti’s “Rocco and His Brothers”) and transforming them into theater, when are you going to adapt “Star Wars” for the stage?

Van Hove [at first not realizing the tongue-in-cheek nature of my question]: Oh, no, I don’t think…

Ben Whishaw, Bill Camp, Tavi Gevinson and Ciarán Hinds.
Ben Whishaw, Bill Camp, Tavi Gevinson and Ciarán Hinds.

Eagle: Sorry, I was joking.

Van Hove (laughing): I may be, as you said, fearless, but I’m not reckless!


The Crucible runs through July 17 at the Walter Kerr Theater. 

Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan and Tavi Gevinson.
Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan and Tavi Gevinson.
Saoirse Ronan (foreground), Elizabeth Teeter, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, Erin Wilhelmi and Ben Whishaw (background).
Saoirse Ronan (foreground), Elizabeth Teeter, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, Erin Wilhelmi and Ben Whishaw (background).

Ricardo Tamura Triumphs in Cavalleria Rusticana at The Metropolitan Opera

Nino Pantano with Met Opera baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Met Opera tenor Ricardo Tamura Photo by Judy Pantano
Nino Pantano with Met Opera baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Met Opera tenor Ricardo Tamura. Photo by Judy Pantano

On the evening of Tuesday, February 23rd, the promising Brazilian tenor Ricardo Tamura added Turiddu in Pietro Mascagni’s one act masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana to his list of Metropolitan Opera roles. Cavalleria Rusticana had its premiere in 1890 and is usually paired with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, both verismo (flesh and blood) works. The Metropolitan Opera was the first company to perform Cavalleria and Pagliacci together on December 22,1893. Cavelleria Rusticana was also performed with the Metropolitan Opera (Met) on tour at the old Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on March 8, 1892.

The role of Turiddu has been sung by many of the great tenors and is coveted for its passionate duets and solos. It is Easter Sunday and Turiddu, a Sicilian soldier is in love with Lola but when he goes off to war, Lola marries the village carter Alfio. Turiddu then turns his passions toward Santuzza who was excommunicated from the church. Lola makes overtures to Turiddu and their love rekindles. Santuzza tells Turiddu’s mother, then confronts Turiddu, they argue and with Lola in sight beckoning, Santuzza runs off and tells Alfio. Alfio in a rage, swears vengeance after confronting Turiddu drinking with friends in Mamma Lucia’s tavern. Turiddu sings a tearful farewell to his mother and shortly thereafter, a screaming villager shrieks that Turiddu has been killed. Santuzza stares straight ahead as all the grieving villagers turn their backs to her and help his grieving mother.

The offstage serenade from Turiddu “O Lola c’hai di latti la cammisa,” was sung with ringing tone and Italianate flair by Ricardo Tamura. This aria in white heat sung offstage is a challenge to sing.

Riccardo Tamura sang with passion, flair and well placed high notes. His declamatory utterance and rich middle voice evoked memories of the Italian greats -Beniamino Gigli comes to mind, “Tu qui Santuzza?” and the ensuing gripping duet indicated Turiddu’s frustration and his determination to find a balance to his dilemma. Tamura’s singing of “Intanto amici; Viva il vino spumeggiante” was brilliant, grand and generous right up to a dazzling high note. His confrontation with Alfio was white hot and one knows despite his words he will fight for what he wants! Tamura’s full throated “Addio a la madre” was sung with pathos, desperation and resignation with a beautifully framed finale.

Santuzza was sung by Liudmyla Monastyrska whose powerful soprano is a force of nature. Her singing of “Voi lo sapete mamma” was a tour de force and a little tapering and a bit of color would have placed her on the list of great Santuzza’s. The Regina Coeli was powerfully sung but was stripped of its poignant majesty by its lack of religious spectacle. Her “Turiddu ascolta!” and their duet were among the vocal high points of the evening.

Ambroglio Maestri was a gruff no nonsense Alfio. His “Il cavallo scalpita” was sung with brio and pride. Maestri’s singing in the duet with Santuzza, “ Infami loro, ad essi non perdono, vendetta avro” was fury and volcanic angst, his baritone barometer exploding in rage.

Lola was in the youthful and attractive persona of mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson. Her singing of “Fior di giaggiolo” had its lure and appeal. The production however gave us not a hint of sluttiness and spite.

The vivid Mamma Lucia of mezzo Jane Bunnell was rich voiced and not quite as naïve as one would think.

Andrea Coleman as the screaming woman handled “Hanno ammazzato compare Turiddu!” with eardrum piercing perfection.

The fabulous Fabio Luisi, principal maestro conducted with authority, intensity and inspiration. Luisi’s hobby is making perfumes and his various fragrances also seem to be part of his extraordinary blends of harmony in his music making. The Intermezzo was truly the heavenly calm before the storm.

Chorus master Donald Palumbo led the singers gloriously, especially the Regina Coeli and “Gli aranci olezzano.” All the singers were very well received.

With the splendid Turiddu of Ricardo Tamura, it was a good night of opera. Tamura as a student, wanted to be a scientist. Singing prevailed and his career took off like a rocket! The great soprano Licia Albanese heard him sing and with the assistance of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation started his ascent.

The sets and costumes were drab beyond belief; the singing cast gave us Sicily in their passion and dedication to the story but the black costumes, dismal rows of musical chairs and peasant dancing evoked Fiddler on the Roof. Not an orange tree could be seen and Sicily at Easter time got lost in the shuffle. The singers provided all the colors of Sicily in their vivid interpretations.

The celebration party at nearby Fiorello’s restaurant hosted by Ricardo Tamura and his charming wife Dagmar had many notable supporters and friends. Among them were Stephen De Maio President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation with patrons Karl Michaelis and Michael Fornabaio, Gloria Gari from the Giulio Gari Foundation, Sachi Liebergesell President of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation and opera artist’s manager Robert Lombardo, all longtime supporters of Ricardo Tamura.

As we were having dessert, the great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and friends joined the revelers. Outside it was pouring rain, but inside it was pouring love. Bravo Tamura!

Oscar contender Rylance returns to Brooklyn: More than just Fishin’

Mark Rylance. Photo by Teddy Wolff
Mark Rylance. Photo by Teddy Wolff

This past Sunday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, Mark Rylance’s and Louis Jenkins’s farcical, lyrical, melancholic, brilliant play “Nice Fish” had its opening night performance. Combining equal measures of Eugene Ionesco and Sherwood Anderson, “Nice Fish” is still sui generis. Alternately hilarious and doleful, the play is indisputably the yardstick by which the rest of Brooklyn’s 2016 theatrical season will be measured. Congratulations of the highest order to St. Ann’s Artistic Director Susan Feldman, Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater, which commissioned the play in 2013 and, most of all, to the American Repertory Theater, which produced it.

It would be churlish to single out any of the five cast members for praise. Suffice it to say that Rylance, Raye Birk, Kayli Carter, Bob Davis and Jim Lichtscheidl are all uniquely, and distinctively, outstanding. As are Claire Van Kampen’s direction and music, Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design and Japhy Weidman’s lighting design.

Among the guests praising the production at the after party were actors Holly Hunter, Gabriel Byrne, ex-New York Jets great and NFL color commentator John Dockery and Diane Borger, the play’s producer (who graciously gave up her aisle seat to this reporter).

Susan Feldman, president of St. Ann's Warehouse, speaks at the after party. Photo by Rob Abruzzese
Susan Feldman, president of St. Ann’s Warehouse, speaks at the after party. Photo by Rob Abruzzese
A large crowd enjoyed the after party at St. Ann's Warehouse. Photo by Rob Abruzzese
A large crowd enjoyed the after party at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Photo by Rob Abruzzese
John Dockery, Gabriel Byrne, Hannah Beth Byrne and Anne Dockery. Photo by Rob Abruzzese
John Dockery, Gabriel Byrne, Hannah Beth Byrne and Anne Dockery. Photo by Rob Abruzzese
Mark Rylance greets Holly Hunter. Photo by Rob Abruzzese
Mark Rylance greets Holly Hunter. Photo by Rob Abruzzese
Kayli Carter, Mark Rylance, Holly Hunter, Louis Jenkins and Ann Jenkins. Photo by Rob Abruzzese
Kayli Carter, Mark Rylance, Holly Hunter, Louis Jenkins and Ann Jenkins. Photo by Rob Abruzzese

After Feldman’s introductory acknowledgments, she invited Rylance to the podium. In his customarily idiosyncratic, unfailingly generous fashion, he spoke about the play’s gestation and his longstanding relationship with both St. Ann’s and the A.R.T. He also reflected on how appropriate it was that St. Ann’s is on the Brooklyn waterfront, since “Nice Fish” is set on the frozen waters of one of Minnesota’s 1,000 lakes. And he reflected on the spectral presence of Walt Whitman, both in the play and in his present surroundings. It was classic Rylance: modest, quirky, cerebral, free-associative and gracious. Let’s hope he has the chance to display these qualities to a national (and global) audience this coming Sunday at the Academy Awards…

“Nice Fish” runs through March 27 at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Mark Rylance and Bob Davis. Photo by Teddy Wolff
Mark Rylance and Bob Davis. Photo by Teddy Wolff

Carrying Around a Soda Can Poured with Rotgut

An Interview with Kent Russell, Author of “I am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son” Published by Alfred Knopf

“I am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son,” Kent Russell’s irresistibly engaging debut collection of essays, intertwined with personal history, is easily one of the best books of the past year. In a uniquely homespun, yet masterfully polished voice (think Mark Twain meets Joan Didion) Russell has us from the book’s title, which is actually a quotation from Daniel Boone, whose presence and notions of masculinity set a template of sorts for the essays and reflections that follow. Mixing autobiography (in particular, the Turgenev-esque healing of wounds – or at least Mexican stand-off – between father and son) with such wide-ranging topics as a stay on a remote island with a present-day Robinson Crusoe and a visit with a former hockey enforcer looking back on his bruiser’s life, Russell merges erudite insight with highly-developed powers of observation.

Born and raised in Florida, Russell now lives in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. He’s become a confirmed Brooklynite.

On a frigid and overcast January afternoon, at lunch in Fort Greene’s Cafe Paulette, I begin our conversation by asking Russell how he came to live in Brooklyn.

KR: I moved to New York to go to NYU’s Graduate School of Journalism. My sisters Lauren and Karen [Note: Karen Russell is the wildly inventive and prodigiously gifted author of Swamplandia! and Vampires in the Lemon Grove] were living in Washington Heights. Because I got a job at Yeshiva University, I stayed in Washington Heights until I decided to focus on my writing and moved to Brooklyn.

Eagle: Are you part of the Brooklyn Literary Mafia: Amis, Auster, Egan, Lethem, et al.?

KR: Truthfully, no. I mean I’m certainly aware of them and I know they live in Brooklyn, but I tend to hang mostly with fellow ex-Floridians. It’s a very small diaspora. I teach a course at Columbia so, of course, I have colleagues and acquaintances on campus. And friends in Brooklyn. But my inner radar seems to always point me in the direction of folks from my home state.

Eagle: You write about, to put it mildly, some fairly eccentric people. It would have been so easy to have ridiculed them, to have hoisted them on their own petards. But you scrupously, and generously, avoid this. How did you resist the temptation?

KR: Actually, since I’m not someone who’s usually forthcoming, I feel a sense of responsibilty when writing about others. My starting point is always to ask questions. Whenever you report something — especially when it’s something about someone else’s life, about their more intimate stuff — you become like a simpering [talk show] host insofar as you want to make the subject feel as though you’re here for them only, you’re their closest confidante in the world and, oh yeah, don’t worry about the live studio audience all around us. It’s a lot like what Janet Malcolm elucidated in the first few pages of “The Journalist and the Murderer.” I don’t have a performative persona; I like to observe and just be open to the world. One of my literary heroes in that regard is Montaigne.

Eagle: Your use of metaphors (“feet slow as Christmas.” “like raised hands eager to ask a question”), adjectives (“gnatty drizzle,” “peep yellow”) and verbs (“ragdolling,” “Pollock’ed”) is truly astounding. How do you come up with these?

KR: My sister Karen and I joke about who can come up with the best adjectives. We usually run neck and neck. One source I’ve discovered for some of this stuff is a three volume dictionary of American slang. I’m always trying to top myself.

Photo Credit: George Baier IV
Photo Credit: George Baier IV

Eagle: You may have done it with “that sounds about as feasible as squeezing it off mid-pee.”

KR: (Laughing) I don’t know how I come up with some of this stuff. When you ask me me about these one-liners and bon-mots and crazy metaphors, I guess it makes me think of sword fighters. Like, I am obviously not a sword fighter, nor have I ever been one. But I imagine that the best, most fluid, most reactive and most dangerous sword fighter is the one who isn’t worried about getting hurt. You know? The one whose head is empty, who can just “flow.” That’s the state I aspire to when I’m writing.

Eagle: Growing up, were you an avid reader. And who, and what, did you read?

KR: Everyone in our family read voraciously – and eclectically. My mom would read self-help books, followed by deep, intellectual tomes, followed by pulp thrillers. Karen read so much that she would be like Mr. Magoo, walking into things with a book in her hand. She’d be reading the cereal box at breakfast. Also, every Friday our mom would take the three of us to the local Borders and tell us to pick out three books. It didn’t have to be the canon; it could be any book, by any author. Our tastes and interests were wide-ranging and I believe this enriched our writing – and our lives.

Eagle: Finally, the cover of your book is so droll and apropos. [Note: the book’s cover is a photo of Russell wearing a sandwich board with the title hand-lettered on a sandwich board.] Whose idea was it?

KR: The brains behind the cover was Peter Mendelsund. You should Google some of his other covers; you’ll see that the dude is a legit master. I was more than a little skeptical about his idea, but he seemed very sure of it, so I went with it. I knew well enough to give an artist his freedom, and to trust in his vision. Plus, he orchestrated my first (and most likely last) photo shoot!

A Review: ‘Reporting Always: Writings from The New Yorker’

Lillian Ross reporting on the set of John Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” outside Los Angeles, 1950. Credit: Silvia Reinhardt
Lillian Ross reporting on the set of John Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” outside Los Angeles, 1950. Credit: Silvia Reinhardt

When I was a teenager and my father realized the true extent of my passion for the movies, he gave me a slim paperback titled simply “Picture.” The author was Lillian Ross. I’d read Arthur Knight and Manny Farber and Bosley Crowther and Stanley Kaufman, and, of course, Pauline Kael. But Ross was new to me. After reading the book, which many consider the best book ever written about the making of a motion picture, I never again missed an opportunity to read anything by Lillian Ross. (Who, not incidentally, while born in Syracuse, was raised in Brooklyn.)

Now, with the publication of “Reporting Always: Writings from The New Yorker,” with a forward by The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, we have the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the work of Ms. Ross — and to make new discoveries. For me, without doubt, the best of these discoveries is her droll and deadpan profile of the larger-than-life Brooklynite Sidney Franklin, titled “El Unico Matador.” (Not incidentally, this was Ross’s first New Yorker profile that appeared under her own byline.)

At first glance, Franklin, born Stanley Frumpkin in 1903 into an Orthodox Jewish family that had fled Imperial Russia for America in 1888, seems too outlandish to be true. The son of an NYPD cop (who was assigned to Brooklyn’s 78th Precinct), a closeted gay man (interestingly, the Eagle, which closely chronicled Franklin’s rise, was, in the 1840s, edited by another closeted male, Walt Whitman), a student of the legendary matador Rodolfo Gaona and friends with, among others, writer Barnaby Conrad, film director Budd Boetticher and James Dean (a great aficionado of bullfighting), Franklin went on to have an improbable, extraordinary life. The deeper one gets into Ross’s article, the more one realizes what a fantastic story she is telling. (In fact, in his biography of Hemingway, with whom Franklin had a fraught friendship, A.E. Hotchner writes that “Lillian Ross’s career with The New Yorker was founded on the success of her profile of the bullfighter Sidney Franklin.”)

Lillian Ross and Robin Williams, shortly after the release of “Good Morning, Vietnam” in 1987. Credit: Arthur Grace
Lillian Ross and Robin Williams, shortly after the release of “Good Morning, Vietnam” in 1987. Credit: Arthur Grace

As Ross recounts, Franklin became a matador after running away from home to Mexico. He fought bulls in Spain, Portugal, Colombia, Panama and Mexico. In “Death in the Afternoon,” Hemingway wrote of Franklin that “[He is] brave with a cold, serene and intelligent valor but instead of being awkward and ignorant he is one of the most skillful, graceful and slow manipulators of a cape fighting today.”

The reader quickly realizes that Ross is captivated by Franklin; where other reporters might have been barbed and mocking, Ross gives Franklin the benefit of the doubt. Even Franklin’s own sympathetic biographer, Bart Paul, notes that “El Torero de la Torah” (as his legion of Spanish fans dubbed him) was prone to exaggeration and tall tales. Wisely, Ross lets Franklin do most of the talking: “It’s all a matter of first things first. I was destined to taste the first, and the best, on the list of walks of life … I was destined to shine. It was a matter of noblesse oblige.”

On April 10, 1949, the Brooklyn Eagle published a story on Sidney Franklin, “Brooklyn’s own Matador de Toros.” Copyright © 2015 Newspapers.com
On April 10, 1949, the Brooklyn Eagle published a story on Sidney Franklin, “Brooklyn’s own Matador de Toros.” Copyright © 2015 Newspapers.com

Noblesse oblige is a term that Franklin uses a lot. Once, while watching a bullfight in Mexico, he was seated next to a British psychiatrist. They had a conversation, captured by Ross, straight out of Lewis Carroll, by way of Groucho Marx:

“While a dead bull was being dragged out of the ring, Franklin turned to the psychiatrist. ‘Say, Doc, did you ever get into the immortality of the crab?’ he asked. The psychiatrist admitted that he had not, and Franklin said that nobody knew the answer to that one. He then asked the psychiatrist what kind of doctor he was. Mental and physiological, the psychiatrist said. ‘I say the brain directs everything in the body,’ Franklin said. It’s all a matter of what’s in your mind.’ ‘You’re something of a psychosomaticist,’ said the psychiatrist. ‘Nah, all I say is if you control your brain, your brain controls the whole works.’ The psychiatrist asked if the theory applied to bullfighting. ‘You’ve got something there, Doc,’ said Franklin. `Bullfighting is basic. It’s a matter of life and death. People come to see you take long chances. It’s life’s biggest gambling game. Tragedy and comedy are so close together they’re part of each other. It’s all a matter of noblesse oblige.’”

Lillian Ross, Ernest Hemingway and his sons, Gregory and Patrick, in Ketchum, Idaho, 1947. Credit: Mary Hemingway
Lillian Ross, Ernest Hemingway and his sons, Gregory and Patrick, in Ketchum, Idaho, 1947. Credit: Mary Hemingway

Who but Ross could have captured that? And then, with impeccable reportorial instincts, gotten out of the way? One also realizes that, in many ways, she set the template for a certain New Yorker style. (The Franklin profile was written in 1949.)  The hallmarks of this style are bemusement, curiosity, meticulous attention to detail and, especially refreshing in our age of internet-fueled snark, generosity. It would have been so easy to mock Franklin; Ross never took that bait.

Lillian Ross and J.D. Salinger in Central Park in the late ’60s with Erik Ross, Matthew Salinger and Peggy Salinger. Courtesy of Lillian Ross
Lillian Ross and J.D. Salinger in Central Park in the late ’60s with Erik Ross, Matthew Salinger and Peggy Salinger. Courtesy of Lillian Ross

By email, I ask Remnick about the Franklin piece in particular and Ross’s reportorial prowess in general.

“The Sidney Franklin profile is one of my favorites. You don’t find many Brooklyn bullfighters these days. There must be something in the kale or the air or something. It doesn’t matter. What was so wonderful about Lillian’s piece, and all of her pieces, was her eye for a story and her ear for the way people tell them. She remains a master.”

Lillian Ross and Wallace Shawn on the streets of New York in the 1960s. Courtesy of Lillian Ross
Lillian Ross and Wallace Shawn on the streets of New York in the 1960s. Courtesy of Lillian Ross

Even when she is profiling (in “How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?,” written in 1950) someone with as huge a target on his back as Ernest Hemingway, Ross never takes a cheap shot. From Remnick’s Introduction: “To her astonishment and Hemingway’s, some readers thought the piece was a hatchet job, a work of aggression that besmirched the reputation of a great literary artist. Which seemed ridiculous to both writer and subject. Hemingway and Ross had become close, and he went to great lengths to reassure her of their enduring friendship: ‘All are very astonished because I don’t hold anything against you who made an effort to destroy me and nearly did, they say,’ he told her. ‘I can always tell them, how can I be destroyed by a woman when she is a friend of mine and we have never even been to bed and no money has changed hands?’ His advice to her was clear: ‘Just call them the way you see them and the hell with it.’”

Ross took Hemingway’s advice, and for the past 65 years and counting, she’s never approached her craft any other way. How fortunate we are to have this new collection (which also includes profiles of Fellini, Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench) — and to have this diminutive dynamo (it’s hard to get that Franklin patois out of my head) still out there with pad and pencil. Somehow, I’m sure she doesn’t use a Tablet.

Lillian Ross, John Huston and Audie Murphy on the set of John Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” outside Los Angeles, 1950. Credit: Silvia Reinhardt
Lillian Ross, John Huston and Audie Murphy on the set of John Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” outside Los Angeles, 1950. Credit: Silvia Reinhardt
Image courtesy of Scribner
Image courtesy of Scribner

Prospect Heights Resident and New York City Opera Legend, Don Yule Passes Away

MEISTERSINGER. Photo credit, Beth Bergman
Meistersinger – Photo credit, Beth Bergman

Don Yule was born in Enid, Oklahoma on January, 21st, 1935 and passed away in Brooklyn, N.Y. on July 3, 2015. He was born Donnie Elton Yule to Dr. Arthur Harry Yule and Izell Warren Yule. </br>
He was a popular member of New York City Opera for more than fifty years and a talented artist. Yule was considered an essential part of the core company, participating in more than a thousand performances. He studied Music Performance at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Don Yule began his career with New York City Opera as a bass in the chorus in 1960 and later as a comprimario artist. His talent as a character actor was discernible from the start. He debuted as Gluttony in Six Characters in Search of an Author, starring Beverly Sills and the orchestra conducted by General Director Julius Rudel. Yule sang in several languages, including Italian, French and Russian. His roles also varied, from comedy to drama. He played both the drunken landlord Benoit and the thwarted lover Alcindoro, in La Boheme and the sinister jailer in Tosca. His most memorable roles were that of the emperor in Turandot and multiple parts in Candide.

While on tour with New York City Opera, Yule performed in Los Angeles; Saratoga, N.Y.; and the upper Northeast and Midwest of the U.S., as well as in countries such as Taiwan and Japan. Yule also performed in New York City Opera’s summer musicals and in Gilbert and Sullivan at the City Center of Music.(The Mikado being one of his favorite roles).

Marriage of Figaro - Photo credit, Beth Bergman
Marriage of Figaro – Photo credit, Beth Bergman

Earlier in his career, Yule performed at Town and Country Musicals in East Rochester, N.Y., where he met his first wife, Christine Chernis Brandt.

He sang with Turnau Opera in Woodstock, N.Y. and Sarasota, Fla. His roles included Colline in La Boheme and Collatinus in The Rape of Lucretia. He also performed with Central City Opera and Santa Fe Opera. Don Yule was the President of the American Guild of Musical Artists for five years. It is a labor organization that represents the men and women who create America’s operatic, choral and dance heritage.

During his second marriage, to Jaye Adams, Yule resided in Brooklyn, N.Y., with their son Seth. One of Don’s hobbies was collecting and repairing antique clocks and he found a kindred spirit in Aldo Mancusi from the Enrico Caruso Museum of America which Don visited. Don was an avid collector of music-related classical treasures. His collection included antique Victrola’s and rare operatic recordings that he loved to share with his colleagues.

Yule often donated performances with Maestro Vincent La Selva’s New York Grand Opera in Central Park, at The Brooklyn Academy of Music with The Brooklyn Philharmonic and Brooklyn’s Regina Opera Company. Many young singers from both the United States and abroad got a grounding in the American classical tradition with these wonderful companies. Yule shared his wisdom and knowledge of musical history with grateful newcomers and assisted them in establishing themselves here. Every summer he and other veteran singers enabled novices to garner their first reviews by singing with them as part of their presentations. During his long and busy career, Yule also sang in several New York City churches and synagogues.

Nine Rivers from Jordan, Photo credit - Beth Bergman
Nine Rivers from Jordan, Photo credit – Beth Bergman

Of interest, Yule was a third cousin on his father’s side to Mickey Rooney, whose birth name was Joe Yule.

Don Yule is survived by his son, Seth, and two former wives, Jaye Adams of Palm Beach, Fla., and Christine Chernis Brandt of Asheville, N.C.

In lieu of flowers, gifts may be donated in Don Yule’s memory to the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, c/o the IU Foundation, P.O Box 500, Bloomington, IN 47402.

“Gotta Dance” – An Interview with Tyler Angle, Principal Dancer, New York City Ballet and Enthusiastic Brooklynite

Tyler Angle, Photo credit: Paul Kolnik
Tyler Angle, Photo credit: Paul Kolnik

Since 1964, when it became the second building constructed on the new Lincoln Center campus, the New York State Theater (known since November 2008 as the David H. Koch Theater) has been home to the New York City Ballet, one of the city’s, and the world’s, great cultural treasures. As one walks into the lobby, (and now that THE NUTCRACKER has begun its annual holiday season, through January 3, 2016, there will be multitudes entering) on the right wall closest to the entrance, in alphabetical order, are black and white photographs of NYCB’s principal male dancers. The first photograph is of Jared Angle, who has been a principal since November of 2005. Next to him is a photograph of his brother Tyler Angle, who has been a principal since since October of 2009. (The hierarchy in ballet is “apprentice,” “member of the corps de ballet,” “soloist,” and, finally the highest ranking attainable, “principal dancer.”) Although they are originally from Altoona, Pennsylvania, they both now reside in Brooklyn, as does a third brother Bradley. It would seem the Angles of Altoona have colonized the borough of Brooklyn.

(Interestingly. NYCB has two other sets of siblings: Megan and Robert Fairchild and Abi and Jonathan Stafford, although Robert Fairchild is on temporary leave starring in An American in Paris on Broadway and Jonathan Stafford recently retired from his principal dancer role and is now a ballet master for the company.)

Tyler, in particular, has become a diehard Brooklynite, living in Brooklyn Heights since 2012. In truth, however, his family’s Brooklyn connections goes back much further.

The Eagle spoke by telephone recently with Angle, who will be dancing a selection of performances in this season’s production of The Nutcracker.

Eagle: What drew you to live in Brooklyn?

Maria Kowroski as the Sugarplum Fairy and Tyler Angle as her Cavalier in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik
Maria Kowroski as the Sugarplum Fairy and Tyler Angle as her Cavalier in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik

Angle: When I first came to New York in the Fall of 2001 to study at the School of American Ballet (Note: SAB is the official school of the New York City Ballet), in order to be close to the School, I essentially lived at Lincoln Center. By 2009, when I became a principal, I wanted to put some geographic and pyschic distance between where I worked and where I lived, and because my father’s sister, my aunt Rosie, raised her family in Brooklyn, the borough was my first choice. In fact, another sister of my father’s, my aunt Shirley, also lived in Brooklyn; her husband was an NYPD beat cop. I had been visiting Brooklyn since I was ten. There was not the slightest doubt that was where I wanted to live.

Eagle: What are some of your favorite Brooklyn restaurants, cafes, activities?

Angle: My friends and I love having lunch or dinner at Jack the Horse, on Hicks. Excellent food, super great atmosphere. We also like Frankie’s, Roman’s, lots of restaurants in Williamsburg, which is where my other brother, Bradley, lives. We also like just wandering around, especially in the Heights. I really like the smaller scale, compared to Manhattan, of Brooklyn neighborhoods. And I like the way you can just be meandering and discover a plaque telling you that “Walt Whitman lived here” or Hart Crane wrote “The Bridge” on the fourth floor of this apartment. It makes these landmarks feel accessible. Afterwards, I like to go to Atlantic Avenue to buy Lebanese or Turkish food for dinner. Since purchasing the apartment, I’ve become a bit of a homebody; I enjoy cooking for friends, staying in, decompressing from rehearsal and performance.

Eagle: Although you dance the full repertoire, from Balanchine to Wheeldon, I’m always knocked out by your performance as one of the three sailors on shore leave in Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free.” On your profile page on the New York City Ballet website, you describe how one of your favorite aspects of this ballet is that, when it’s clicking, “the dancer is not aware of performing and the audience is not aware of watching a performance.” Is this only applicable to “Fancy Free” or do you also feel this way about other ballets you perform?

Angle: That’s a good question. Ideally, what I always strive for is naturalism over “exhibition.” For example, I remember dancing with Wendy Whelan (it was my debut dancing with her) in the pas de deux from “Diamonds,” and experiencing that same sensation, being totally olivious of the audience. That is such a rare feeling and one that every dancer strives for. Both “Fancy Free” and Jerry’s (choreographer Jerome Robbins) “In the Night” permit that transcendence to happen. With “Fancy Free” there are many other elements at work as well. My grandfather joined the Navy when he was 17 and fought in World War II. Talking with him about his experiences informed my approach to the ballet. Also, the first time I did “Fancy Free” I was still a very young dancer working with two seasoned veterans. Now I have the great fortune to dance with my contemporaries and this heightens the sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps. The ballet is wrapped up in all these memories, so, as I said on the website, it remains very special and significant for me.

Tyler Angle as the Cavalier in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik
Tyler Angle as the Cavalier in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik

Eagle: Six years ago, in an interview with Claudia LaRocco of The New York Times, you mentioned that, at your career’s end, you had no ambition to found your own company or to become a choreographer. Has your thinking changed? And have you thought about what you would like to do?

Angle: My thinking hasn’t changed about not wanting to run a company or to choreograph, but I also know I don’t want to reach 35 and think “What am I going to do next?” I want to be prepared for the “next.” For the past four years, during the summer, after the company’s residency at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, I’ve been the artistic director of the Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival. There are lectures, dance recitals, children’s classes. We’ve attracted prominent dancers from American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Miami City Ballet. We don’t have a big gala or benefit; it’s all very local and low-key – we perform in the Mary Walker Auditorium at Nantucket High School. What the Festival is all about is the concentration, discipline and diligence that ballet demands. This is the kind of career path I see for myself after my professional dancing comes to an end.

Watching Angle dance, exquisitely, the role of the Cavalier at last night’s performance of The Nutcracker, one hopes he puts off that decision until he’s eligible for AARP membership.

The Nutcracker continues its run at the David H. Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center Through Sunday, January 3rd. Tickets available at www.nycballet.com

 

An Affinity of Blood and Lust: An Interview with Helen Edmundson

Helen Edmundson. Photo by Richard Olivier
Helen Edmundson. Photo by Richard Olivier

On Feb. 21, 1948, at the Brooklyn Little Theater on Hanson Place, a production of “Therese,” adapted from Emile Zola’s 1867 novel “Thérèse Raquin,” opened for a limited run. It was a brave move for the Little Theater; the premiere of this adaption had occurred three years before in 1945 at the Biltmore Theater on Broadway. Starring the grande dame of the American stage, Eva LeGalliene, as Therese; Victor Jory as Laurent, her lover and partner in murder; and Dame May Whitty (well-known to American film audiences for playing Miss Froy in Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” and Lady Beldon in William Wyler’s “Mrs. Miniver”) as the formidable Madame Raquin, the play was not well received, both critically and commercially.

Now, a new adaptation by the esteemed English playwright Helen Edmundson, starring Keira Knightley in her Broadway debut, has opened at Studio 54. In the interim between the Brooklyn Little Theater production and this new adaptation, there have been many other “Thérèse Raquin” incarnations, including a 2001 Broadway musical called “Thou Shalt Not,” with a score by Harry Connick Jr.; a 2007 production by Quantum Theater in Pittsburgh, staged in an empty swimming pool; and “The Artificial Jungle,” a 1987 reimagining of the Zola work as a James M. Cain novel by the enfant terrible of Off-Broadway, Charles Ludlum.

Edmundson’s prodigiously impressive credits include stage adaptations of “Orestes,” “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Mill on the Floss,” “Life is a Dream” and “Mephisto.” In addition, Edmundson has written many acclaimed original plays, among them “The Clearing,” “Coram Boy” and “Mother Teresa is Dead.” Earlier this year, she was the recipient of the 2015 Windham Campbell Prize for Drama. In announcing the award, the Selection Committee celebrated her “[A]mbitious plays [that] distill historical complexities through characters whose passions and ethical dilemmas mirror and illuminate a larger political landscape.”

Keira Knightley and Judith Light. Photos by Joan Marcus
Keira Knightley and Judith Light. Photos by Joan Marcus

Recently the Eagle spoke by telephone with Edmundson from her home outside London:

Brooklyn Eagle: What was your greatest challenge in adapting a novel written in 1867 and making it relevant for a contemporary audience?

Helen Edmundson: Whenever I think about adapting something, I first ask myself if the play will still resonate today. Aside from whatever period the play is set in, the ideas in it must be able to leap through time. “Thérèse Raquin” is a study in guilt and the consequences of what happens when we give in to our primal, animal instincts. That is a timeless theme.

BE: Because so much of Zola’s novel portrays the characters’ hidden passions and interior thoughts, how did you handle the challenge of dramatizing these emotions?

HE: There is quite a lot of repetition in the novel, indecision, repressed emotions. In a play, everything has to keep progressing. So, it was important for me to keep things moving, almost inexorably. So much of this production is steeped in the characters’ physicality. For example, the sequence where Therese, Camille and Laurent go to walk by the river. Zola has pages and pages of description. In my adaptation, I wrote physical directions for the actors. The actual look of the scene — the river, the embankment — I left up to Evan [Cabnet], the play’s director, and Beowulf [Boritt], the set designer. When I write my plays, I don’t devote a lot of attention to the sets. In fact, sometimes the plays, as I’ve written them, are set in bare, empty spaces.

Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan and Keira Knightley
Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan and Keira Knightley

BE: In watching the play, I was struck by its modernity. Parallels with such examples of roman noir as “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Rings Twice,” were inescapable. Do you feel that “the affinity of blood and lust” that Zola refers to in the novel is a universal and timeless theme?

HE: We spend much of our lives controlling our instincts, struggling with the contradictions of societal restraints and human desires, dealing with conflicting forces and emotions. This struggle knows no boundaries of time, place [and] nationality. People have, and always will, wrestle with these strong, elemental forces.

BE: You certainly don’t seem at all intimidated about stepping into the ring with the heavyweights: you’ve written adaptations of Euripedes, Tolstoy and George Eliot. Audacious, brave choices. What makes you so fearless?

HE: No matter how large the canvas — and I like large canvases — at the core, I have to always feel that I can take the essence of the work and run with it. As monumental as the setting may be, it’s always the ideas that I pursue and want to depict. Ideas as embodied by character. That is my way in, whether it’s “Orestes” or “War and Peace” or “The Mill on the Floss.”

BE: Finally, were you ever tempted to have an animatronic version of Francois? [Note: Francois is Madame Raquin’s black cat, who, in the novel, bears mute witness to Therese and Laurent’s passions.] Or to recreate Laurent’s fear of Camille’s portrait?

HE: (Laughing) I have to be realistic about what things are possible on the stage. It would have been extremely difficult to have had a cat, whether real or animatronic, without having the audience giggle. As for Camille’s portrait terrifying Laurent, I left it out because I wanted to strictly follow Therese’s story. She is the fulcrum of the play; Camille, Laurent, Madame Raquin, all rotate around her. It is her story.

Matt Ryan and Keira Knightley
Matt Ryan and Keira Knightley