Synchronicity can be a scary, shocking and ominously timely thing. Only days after Barack Obama apologizes for a drone killing hostages held by al Qaeda in Pakistan, George Brant's Grounded opens.
Yes, here's a play that's been heading, drone-like, to the Public Theater from developmental productions elsewhere for a few years only to bow just when a particularly unfortunate incident occurs. The one-woman production is yet another item drawing attention to the lunacy of war realities, circa 2015.
Anne Hathaway, on stage in Manhattan for the first time in six years, is giving a harrowing performance as a flight pilot -- no name assigned to her -- devoted to her job who returns to active service after a pregnancy leave. Eager to regain the cockpit and resume flying over enemy territories, she's unsettled to learn that her old assignment exists no longer and that henceforth she'll be joining what she disdains as the "chair force."
She's sent to Nevada's Creech Air Force Base, where she fills a daily 12-hour shift at a desk. It's there that, bereft of cockpit, she'll, as she puts it, "go to war." She'll be stalking enemies as she's done in her earlier tours but now in her Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). She'll obliterate targets, even as she goes home every day to her husband Eric and daughter Samantha.
Brant's worried notion, presented with disturbing conviction, is that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) doesn't afflict only those at various fronts around the globe. It can also undo warriors supposedly safe at desks far from battlefields.
Slowly but inexorably, the pilot transforms from a confident flyer into someone whose daily office hours leave her so uncertain and frightened that she loses sight of whom and what she thinks she's hunting. She loosens her grip on mental stability in a way that Brant sees as tragically representative of a larger population of military personnel and perhaps an entire nation.
Inhabiting the role, Hathaway is far from the frail Les Miserables Fantine for which she won the Oscar two years ago. Strutting proudly as she begins to deliver the pilot's story, she makes vigorous physicality a strong component of what she's about. She even throws in a few push-ups to underline the pilot's buff condition. So her gradual mental deterioration into someone coming sorrowfully undone -- someone grounded but no longer grounded -- is that much more effective.
Through an undeniable beauty, Hathaway never plays on that. Quite the opposite. There's the suggestion underlying how thoroughly she embroils herself in the role--with the slightly Southern accent (Andrew Wade is the Public's director of voice and speech)--that she's out to prove her breadth as a performer. She does.
Credit for her achievement goes as well to director Julie Taymor, whom you wouldn't expect -- given her inclination to grapple with out-sized spectacle--to ally herself with a solo show. Guiding Hathaway with as firm a hand as she's guided anyone in her many more explosive enterprises, she's still able to indulge in her even more renowned practice: visuals.
She's had set designer Riccardo Hernandez place raked sand on the Anspacher Theatre floor and back it up with a tilted mirror on the upstage wall. The result is that the Nevada flatlands look as if they go on forever. In addition, she's had Peter Nigrini provide constantly thrilling projections that indicate, for only a couple of examples, the complex screen on which the Pilot does her maneuvering and a series of interlocking staircases that resemble an unbalancing M. C. Escher drawing. Elliot Goldenthal is responsible for the original music and soundscapes, while Richard Martinez handled the electronic music design.
American shame in regard to the undependable, unpredictable use of drones -- forget about them landing on White House lawns -- is intensifying. Thanks to Brant, Taymor and Hathaway, it'll only get worse. Thankfully. Maybe in response to growing dissent, policies will change.
The Belle of Belfast by Nate Rufus Edelman, at the Irish Repertory Theatre (in its DR Theatre season, and directed extremely well by Claudia Weill), is a touchingly unsettling work.
Young Anne Malloy (Kate Lydic)--having lost her parents in an IRA bombing and then having them acclaimed as martyrs--wants none of it. Instead, she's become cynical and wanton in 1985 Belfast. She certainly doesn't want solace from Ben Reilly (Hamish Allan-Headley), one of two local parish priests. Though he can comfort gossip Emma Malloy (Patricia Conolly) and has a good, if fractious, relationship with fellow priest Dermott Behan (Billy Meleady)), he can't get through to Anne.
Until he does get through to her, in a lapse from prescribed priestly duties that both Anne and he live to regret. The uncharacteristic action is so disturbing that Father Reilly's faith is severely shaken, and Anne's is far from strengthened.
That's where Edelman's interest lies. He's examining the extent to which religious beliefs can inspire and comfort followers. Not so sure they can, he constructs a play that asks time-honored questions--doubting one's faith not being a new phenomenon--and offers possible answers that aren't necessarily reassuring. Edelman's humanity lies in the depth of his empathy for those troubled.
The cast, including Arielle Hoffman as Anne's suggestible friend Clara Murphy, is effective in a play that could be called quiet but at that is quietly noisy.
'Tis Pity She's a Whore, John Ford's late Jacobean play, is receiving a respectable outing by the Red Bull Theater at the Duke on 42nd Street. Not seen at all frequently on these shores (an exciting treatment was on view last year in the small indoor theater at London's Globe), this is the bloody tragedy that adamantly insists incest doesn't pay.
Enamored Parma siblings Giovanni (Matthew Amendt) and Annabella (Amelia Pedlow), learn their lesson too late when enemies Soranzo (Clifton Duncan), who gets to marry Annabella, and Soranzo's henchman, Vasques (Derek Smith), get wind of the truth -- not only about the incestuous behavior but the resultant pregnancy. Setting aside larger prevailing taboos, Soranzo and Masques aren't the only ones providing clamor over the illicit union. Soranzo's jilted lover Hippolita (Kelley Curran) puts on a rowdy display at the wedding ceremony.
Director Jesse Berger mounts a handsome production (David M. Barber the set designer, Sara Jean Tosetti the costumer) that may be a whit too bathed in bright light, until, that is, the copious end-of-play bloodletting. His players are all first-rate, especially Amendt and Pedlow, who, among their many achievements, deliver an in-the-nude love scene that makes an intriguing argument for incest having the ability to look mighty pretty.