In ‘Senescence,’ Small-town Prophet Takes on Big-time Profits

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BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

Axial Theatre Presents
SENESCENCE
by Howard Meyer
With Eric Cotti, Michael Kingsbaker, Ryan Mallon, Claire McClain
Directed by James Fauvell
Axial Artistic Directors Catherine Banks, Linda Giuliano
Axial Managing Director Betsy Klampert
Weekends through November 18, 2018
St. John’s Episcopal Church
8 Sunnyside Avenue
Pleasantville, New York 10570

Order Tickets Online
$27.50 General; $22.50 Students + Seniors

Playwright Howard Meyer packs a lot of meaty food for thought into his new play, Senescence, which is having its premiere performances at Axial Theatre in Pleasantville, where it runs through Sunday, Nov. 18. It is the 20th anniversary production of Axial Theatre, which was founded by Mr. Meyer, who also operates Howard Meyer’s Acting Program under the same roof.

As always in a Meyer piece, there’s a lot going on in his curious and socially-conscious mind, and it’s all there on stage: In the fraught scenario that has universal import, in the uniformly excellent acting ensemble that brings it to vivid life, and in the muscular vernacular of Mr. Meyer’s authentic and taut dialogue. This isn’t a musical, but in his expressiveness, he’s got rhythm.

(From right) Ryan Mallon as Rudy and Eric Cotti as Geo meet the strange stranger who calls himself just J. All photos by Leslye Smith

The play’s title is a word that means aging. In the context of the play, the word can be inferred two ways: aging, as in maturing into a responsible adult; and aging, as in growing old before your time. As one character points out, there’s a difference in the quality of life between getting older naturally and “being kept alive longer” through modern medicine.

Senescence is a wake-up call for our times: It’s in part a reminder of how we casually and negligently allow healthy bodies to be inflicted by toxic byproducts of industry, and how we intoxicate ourselves with mood-altering medication, legal and otherwise, to avoid facing hard questions about the future. Put another way, as we make toxins that can kill us, we unmake ourselves.

The setting is Linden, N.J., home of (fictional) Petra Oil Refinery, the second largest on the east coast. That’s the plant where a trio of millennials — lifelong friends — work and share a rented house: Rudy Malone (portrayed by Ryan Mallon), his girlfriend Natalia Janowski (Claire McClain), and their friend, ex-con Giuseppe “Geo” Gomez (Eric Cotti).

The author’s character development is clear and specific in each case. We know precisely at which point each person is in his or her life and see the recognizable behaviors they represent in the rest of us.

Geo (Eric Cotti) likes listening to Nirvana on his exercise cycle.

Rudy’s and Natalia’s fathers worked their whole lives at Petra. Both died of cancer believed to have been caused by carcinogens released in the refinery process. When not working their shifts, they get high on weed, listen to Nirvana, and approximate exercise by pedaling away on an exercycle tucked in a corner of their cozy living space.

Mr. Meyer makes credible use of the knowing street talk that’s endemic to the demography of these characters. The venturesome playwright even tries his hand at a few rap lyrics, riffing off of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” and, to borrow street talk, the result is “dope.” He interlaces the exchanges with just enough well-researched dollops of scientific fact to make his points without turning it into an academic exercise.

The character of J is a spiritual descendant of biblical personage Jeremiah, who is a prophet of judgment and hope.

Geo, who is fiercely proud of his Italian-Spanish heritage, is trying to rehabilitate himself after serving time for shooting someone. He wants to convince his dad that he’s righted himself enough to help run the father’s gas station. Natalia is looking to attend graduate school. As for Rudy, he ain’t goin’ nowhere, literally and figuratively. He’s a plant supervisor who repeatedly turns down promotions he’s offered by management.

It’s as if there are two basic ways to navigate this life: either move ahead purposefully in a more-or-less straight line toward specific goals of fulfillment, learning to grow and prosper and learn from adventures; or chase yourself while running in circles, avoiding adventures and, more likely, inviting disappointment, if not the outright depression that attends a static existence.

Rudy Malone (Ryan Mallon) is comforted by girlfriend Natalia Janowski (Claire McClain).

Into the humdrum lives of the threesome steps an agent of change who calls himself simply J (Michael Kingsbaker*). They don’t know at first what to make of the soft-spoken, cryptic stranger. He is equal parts mysterious (in his apparent metaphysical gifts), transparent (in his activist’s proselytizing of environmental and human sanctity), and deeply flawed (in his checkered past).

Does “J” stand for Jesus? Or for Jeremiah, a biblical personage who is invoked here, along with his quotation: “Each pursues their own course, like a horse charging into battle.” J, Jeremiah, and the noun that is Jeremiah’s namesake – jeremiad – all bring to bear urgent warnings against evil and destruction. It could be in the form of a hurricane with the force of a Sandy – which figures prominently in Senescence — or in unsafe refineries like Petra Oil, which gets Sandy in its eyes.

Michael Kingsbaker admirably essays J as humanistic, humble, and hell-bent on following his mystical (and biblical) muse. Claire McClain, Ryan Mallon and Eric Cotti are fine actors all who make us feel as if they’ve known each other their whole lives.

The production is briskly and impactfully directed by James Fauvell, who gets great technical enhancements from his lighting designer Shane Cassidy and sound designer Jim Simonson, both of whom orchestrate a perfect storm of special effects. The efficient, “before-and-after” scenic design is by Eric Zoback.

With Rudy looking on in wonder, J (Michael Kingsbaker) appears to exert a mystical power over Natalia (Claire McClain) after she is injured when Hurricane Sandy damages the house.

Make no mistake. Senescence is an indictment against the moral turpitude of the oil industry, illustrating through artful playwriting and stage performances how its corporate chiefs take advantage of human nature and mother nature.

In the end, Mr. Meyer presents the audience – and society at large – with a binary choice: Do we, as Rudy declares at one point, “Keep our mouth shut,” and be grateful for steady jobs and income; or do we stop misplacing our trust in the wrong powers that be, and start asking hard questions that may save us all from a dark, precipitous future.

Senescence playwright Howard Meyer is founder of Axial Theatre, commemorating its 20th anniversary with the premiere production of his play.


ADDITIONAL TECHNICAL CREDITS
Scenic Design, Eric Zoback
Lighting Design, Shane Cassidy 

Sound Design, Jim Simonson
Stage Manager, Mary Cate Mangum*
Assistant Stage Manager, Virginia Reynolds
Technical Director, Chris Arrigo

*Member of Actors Equity Association


Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914.275.6887.

The ‘Time’ of their (Embattled) Lives

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Bruce caricatureBruce the Blog Reviews Theater
BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act


As it has been doing for 18 years, The Armonk Players once again rewards audiences with expertly staged entertainment.

Directed by Pia Haas, Time Stands Still, by Pulitzer playwright Donald Margulies, cleverly coaxes us to think more reflectively about our own life choices, while challenging conventional wisdom about what is right and wrong.

TSS Ron Aaronson photo on set

Tom Coppola (l, as James Dodd) woos girlfriend Amber Mason (as Sarah Goodwin) in The Armonk Players’ “Time Stands Still.” Photo by Ron Aaronson

Sitcoms are the sugar in our cultural diet. They satisfy our sweet tooth for instant gratification, for flights of fancy to release workaday stress.

Like our bodies, though, our minds cannot (or should not) thrive on sweets alone.

Lovingly crafted live drama gives us enriching and, yes, tasty protein to digest. It gives the ol’ gray matter a chance to flex while pumping ideas. 

A provocative example is Time Stands Still, currently on stage by The Armonk Players at North Castle Library’s Whippoorwill Hall (Click here for more info.)

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Ruhl Breaks the Rules in ‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ at Axial Theater

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Bruce caricatureBruce the Blog Reviews Theater By Bruce Apar When Bruce The Blog Listens, People Talk


When a play’s title — “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” at Axial Theater — is a dead giveaway to what otherwise could have been a big reveal in the opening scene (that guy sitting slumped in his cafe chair whose phone keeps ringing didn’t doze off, he died off ), you have to wonder what the writer has in mind.

Author Sarah Ruhl has a lot on her fertile mind as she goes about creating her own rules. She is one of today’s most celebrated, cerebral dramatists, lavished with awards and critical praise, a finalist for the Pulitzer and Tony awards, and a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” grant. In other words, unlike the unfortunate man we espy at the play’s outset, it’s safe to say she’s no slouch.

Siobhan McKinley as Jean gets a lift from boyfriend Dwight Gottlieb (Duane Rutter). Photos by Leslye Smith

Neither is the high-minded director, Rachel Jones, who selected this work for the prestigious Axial Theatre, where it runs through Sunday, May 17 (Click here for more info).  Axial is one of an elite group of Hudson Valley theater companies that consistently mount top-quality, tightly disciplined productions that give audiences more than their money’s worth. Continue reading