Plays ‘Faith Healer’ and ‘Rotterdam’ demand rigorous self-examination
Paul Norwood as Frank Hardy in ‘Faith Healer’ / Enci Box

LOS ANGELES—There are no venomous snakes that Fantastic Francis Hardy (Paul Norwood) handles, nor does he speak in tongues, nor does he even much call upon the word of the Bible or the preachings of Jesus Christ to practice his profession. He’s an itinerant faith healer who wanders the small, nearly deserted towns in the outer reaches of the United Kingdom—northern Scotland, Welsh communities with poetic-sounding names he loves to recite, backcountry Ireland.

Frank, as he’s called, tanks up prodigiously on whiskey before every “performance.” It seems to be the only way he can reconcile who he is: A miracle worker? Yes, sometimes it appears so. But most of the time, a con man and mountebank whose rhetorical gifts before the vulnerable poor, old and sick beguile a few pounds out of his listeners’ pockets, just enough for him to move on to the next village and its dilapidated old meeting hall where once again, as he has done for years, he’ll hang up his banner: “The Fantastic—Francis Hardy—Faith Healer—One Night Only.”

Faith Healer (seen March 29) continues the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s 50th anniversary season. Ron Sossi has demonstrated an extraordinary dedication to presenting the highest quality theatre since he founded the company in 1969. The season recapitulates some of the seminal works that lit up the Odyssey boards in earlier years. This play by Irish playwright Brian Friel (1929-2015), dating from 1979, was produced at the Odyssey in 1989, an even 30 years ago, directed then by Jack Rowe. Now Sossi tackles it himself. Friel wrote extensively for the stage and is best known for this play, Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990).

Now haunting and mystical, now bawdy and besotted, now full of bravado and then abasement, but always with that famous Irish disposition for verbal lyricism, Faith Healer questions both faith and healing. Yet despite his numerous flaws as a person and showman, Frank has nevertheless attracted to him two loyal hangers-on who accept his peculiarities and on some level do believe he has a powerful gift.

His long-suffering common-law wife Grace Dietrich (Diana Cignoni) loves him despite all. She is originally German and seems to want to flaunt her parents and her strict upbringing by living the life of a vagabond driving around in a battered van. She has learned to swallow hard Frank’s slurs and punishments. And Frank has a promoter and set-up man, a Cockney from London named Teddy (Ron Bottitta) who knows show business from the bottom up (think: dog acts and pigeons) and, ever hopeful that one day his friend and client will break through to the big time, barely keeps body and soul together on the road with Frank and Grace. One must wonder what it is about these two that keeps them in mediocre Frank’s thrall all these years.

The play has a unique structure with no dialogue. It calls upon the three actors to hold the audience’s attention over the course of four long revelatory monologues that bring out the ludicrous elements of the story as well as the puzzling powers that Frank once in a while displays. Frank and Grace, in successive monologues, occupy Act 1. Teddy, who has been referred to often, but whom we have not yet met—starts off Act 2, relating his version of events, occasionally addressing “dear heart” (that would be us in the audience), followed by a final appearance by Frank in which we hear what became of the Fantastic Francis Hardy.

According to Sossi, the play is “at once a Rashomon type mystery, a delving into talent versus sham and, ultimately, a uniquely metaphysical view of life.” We hear three separate recollections of events that took place, but their perspectives never quite align. And except for “dear heart,” it’s an enigma all the while whom Frank and Grace think they are talking to—maybe it’s an excursion into their minds and we’re just privileged to go along for the journey.

Faith Healer is a masterpiece of theatrical trompe l’oeil, a landmark in the rich Irish canon, but without really accomplished actors it would be an intolerable bore. Fortunately, we have a cast that can hold their own against the formidable odds that Friel has placed before them. The playwright almost dares the actors (and the director) to make this work.

The set design is by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz; it’s very utilitarian, with the few unmatched chairs and odd table and stage one might find in a seldom used village community hall. The sound design is by Christopher Moscatiello, who effectively brings in Celtic singing and, oddly enough, the stylish Fred Astaire crooning of “The Way You Look Tonight,” a song from the film Swing Time by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern (it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1936). The juxtaposition of that staple of the American songbook against the tawdry circumstances in which it is played to introduce Frank to his audiences each night, is the height of ironic absurdity. Costumes are by Denise Blasor. The period is meant to be the 1970s, but in truth it’s a timeless tale.

Thematically, Faith Healer is about the quality of confidence we have in ourselves. Do we have so much that we presume to stand before an audience and preach a message that will almost certainly not find its mark? Do we abase ourselves tying ourselves co-dependently to some failed prophet? What does it take to assert our own desires in life? What can we be sure of? Do we in the end believe in ourselves or are we all in some ways a fraud, an imposter reciting lines? (Sort of like actors playing their parts, right?)

Performances of Faith Healer take place on Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 2 pm through May 12. Additional weeknight performances are scheduled on Weds., April 10, Thurs., April 18, and Weds., May 8, all at 8 pm. “Tix for $10” performance take place on Weds., April 10 and Fri., April 26. Additional discounts are available at select performances for seniors, students and patrons under 30; call theatre for details. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90025. For reservations and information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.

Slicing and dicing gender in Rotterdam

CULVER CITY—At Culver City’s 317-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre, as part of its third annual Block Party, Center Theatre Group is remounting Skylight Theatre Company’s production of Jon Brittain’s play Rotterdam (seen March 30), directed to delicious perfection by Michael A. Shepperd, whose Celebration Theatre contributed last year’s Die, Mommie, Die! to the Block Party. Each of the three productions in the Block Party runs for just a week, to give additional exposure to the work of under-99-seat theatres in the city. People’s World has already reviewed For the Love Of (Or, The Roller Derby Play) in this iteration, and Native Son in its original staging.

Rotterdam takes place in various apartments and public spaces in that Dutch city, starting on New Year’s Eve in Act 1 and moving four months later in Act 2. We meet Alice (Miranda Wynne), a young Englishwoman presumably in her twenties who has been working for a British company in Rotterdam for the last seven years (she still hasn’t learned to speak Dutch), struggling to put the finishing touches on an email in which she will come out as a lesbian to her parents. Before Alice hits send on her email, her courage in finally declaring herself prompts her girlfriend Fiona (Ashley Romans), another Brit living in the city, to make a declaration of her own. Fiona, it turns out, cannot be the girlfriend Alice has described to her parents, because Fiona is a man—that is, she has always identified as a man and now wants to live as one, with a new name, Adrian. Obviously this unexpected news threatens to upset their relationship.

From left, Ashley Romans, Ryan Brophy and Miranda Wynne in ‘Rotterdam’ / Craig Schwartz.

The two other characters in this four-hander include Fiona’s brother Josh (Ryan Brophy), who originally followed Alice to Rotterdam as her boyfriend (before Alice concluded she preferred girls) and who stayed on more or less out of inertia, Rotterdam being one of the great hip cities of today’s Europe. The fourth character is Lelani (Audrey Cain), 21, the only Dutch person in the cast, who is a smart-ass know-it-all who acknowledged her lesbianism at the age of 10 and who now has developed a crush on Alice, her co-worker.

These four lives are inextricably entangled like the colors on a Rubik’s cube, but the focal issue is what becomes of the relationship, once considered so solid, between Alice and Fiona-now-Adrian. How much do we give up of ourselves to accommodate the growth in our partner, and who gets to set the limits and conditions? If Adrian is now a man, does that mean that after seven years of conflict over accepting her own lesbianism, Alice must now be the “straight” woman for him? “Twenty-four hours ago I thought I was gay,” she muses. I’m not convinced that those who define themselves as sexually “non-binary” have any easier time at negotiating these types of questions. Gladly, the script calls for frequent enough occasion for LOL humor and ironic self-reflection that it does not bog down in preachiness and posturing.

If transitioning from one gender to another is the central subject matter of the play, it is not the theme. These characters really need to understand their own motivations, their sincerity, the lies and misrepresentations they put forward, their inability to articulate clearly what it is they want, and their avoidance of risk, which manifests itself in their all too transparent use of polite convention to paper over what they or others might find uncomfortable or hurtful. No one here gets away unscathed, especially as alcohol, hashish and unaccustomed hormones start kicking in.

That is the way in which Rotterdam meets Faith Healer—people who go along by force of dependent or co-dependent habit, unwilling to step out into a scarier individuation to create, or re-create their lives.

Rotterdam’s team includes scenic and lighting design by Jeff McLaughlin, who incorporates some of the iconic symbols of the cityscape, costume design by Naila Aladdin Sanders and sound design by Christopher Moscatiello. In the lobby are educational panels helping theatergoers answer basic questions they may have about transgender people. Director Michael A. Shepperd has his characters move props around with angular technocratic grace, punctuating their movements with fresh little hops and jumps that separate their “stagehand” identities from their “character” identities. It seems there is more than one way to live dividedly.

Rotterdam plays only through April 7 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City 90232. Tickets for Block Party performances are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at www.centertheatregroup.org, at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown L.A., or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office two hours prior to performance. Free three-hour covered parking is offered at Culver City City Hall with validation available in the Kirk Douglas Theatre lobby.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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