Andrew Carnegie Presents The Jew of Malta

Irondale Ensemble Project
Directed by Jim Niesen
Theatre for the New City
155 First Avenue (633-1292)
Non-union production (closes December 21)
Review by Marshall Yaeger

This mishmash comic melodrama promoting unionism ranged from poisoned nuns to escape from a Bessemer furnace. Its plot was about as convincing as a Flash Gordon serial. Ditto the agitprop politics. (How seriously can you take a character who declaims ``Jesus was a socialist''?) Nevertheless, the passion between the haves and have-nots was theatrically brilliant: for example, when an expressionistic chorus of laborers received their wages and collectively dropped their coins onto the floor.

The ensemble's authorship favored a technique called ``textual colliding,'' combining Elizabethan style with improvised dialogue. It produced few memorable lines and some low-level puns on the level of ``Moor is less.'' The director did some extremely inventive things, however, such as cinematic interviews with an actor's scissoring hands creating flicker. But his slow motion solution to scenes of violence failed in the intimate space.

Terry Greiss, playing Carnegie, gave everything he had to conjure up a complex man caught in a labor dispute that killed many people on both sides. Playing Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie's hatchet man--a thankless role with too much exposition -- Joe Fuer would have been cast more appropriately as Frick's son. Fuer was chilling, on the other hand, in a walk-on role of a doomed scab, ingeniously lighted by A. C. Hickox.

Patrena Murray and Michael-David Gordon are exceptional actors worth seeing a lot more of. Gordon infused his powerful singing voice with cantorial passion; and Murray's comic gifts bordered on genius (watch her handle a hot pot). She even plays the sax--as well as Bill Clinton.

The casting, by disregarding matters of race, religion, or sex, made interesting points. All the actors (except Greiss) played multiple roles that were well differentiated. Other members of the cast included: Yvonne Brechbuhler, Rana Kazkaz, John Silvers, and Brigitte Viellieu-Davis. They were all quite good. But there were no programs on opening night, nor was there a curtain call. The actors might want to appeal to a union.

Designer Ken Rothchild made great use of a great space with corrugated metal, wooden slats, ropes, ramps, bright fabrics, even smokestacks, and a crystal chandelier.

Hilarie Blumenthal had fun combining Elizabethan and Victorian costumes, with wonderful fezzes and turbans. But the use of prayer shawls outside a synagogue to identify a pair of Jews was tasteless.

The sound track was a little Ric-Burnsy at times. But it was cinematic in scope and intensity, highly creative, and technically advanced for a theatre piece--although the show could have used much better reproductive equipment.

This production was ambitious and important, and offered many excellent things. It had flaws, but it was sufficiently fine to say that if it had realized all it set out to do it might have made theatre history. There's time.

Box Score:
Writing 1
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 2
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 2
Copyright 1996 Marshall Yaeger

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