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O, Earth: Theater review by Helen Shaw
One of the loveliest things—in an absolute avalanche of lovely things—about Casey Llewellyn's wide-ranging piece is her title. In calling it O, Earth, Llewellyn quotes from the end of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, when Emily's overwhelmed spirit exclaims, “Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” This is not so surprising; Llewellyn's postmodern pop threnody takes Wilder's masterpiece as its matter and prime mover. But the playwright also reflects the fragment through a prism. Written in just that dropped-h way, Llewellyn's title also harkens to Jeremiah (“O, earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord”); say the phrase, you hear the echoes. Llewellyn hides an encompassing lamentation in the words that even Wilder, past master of heartbreak, didn't amplify.
Is that a lot to pin on a title? Not if you see the play itself, which is confident, lyrical, hilarious, unabashedly literate and unapologetically political. It also holds the Wilder text as gently as a robin's egg.
The original playwright himself is on hand: a resuscitated Wilder (Martin Moran) welcomes us to the space (a giant mound of dirt), where is he digging, looking for a copy of his 1938 play. Our Town then whirls to life in front of him, with the Stage Manager (superb Donnetta Lavinia Grays) introducing Emily (Kristen Sieh) and George (Jess Barbagallo) on their familiar ladder, swept away by courtship. It's a fast slide down that ladder into modernity, though, and Wilder's drama did leave out a lot. George is transgender (“My uncle keeps 'she'-ing me”); Emily likes to watch Ellen on TV. Llewellyn handles the leaps into our time with impeccable comic timing: when the space turns suddenly into the Ellen show, with Moe Angelos bopping into view as the world's perkiest talk show host, it's funny enough to make you actually shout and drop your notebook.
As Wilder sits quietly to one side, sometimes reading a bit of his old chum Gertrude Stein, a cast of characters from the present pose one of Our Town’s persistent questions—the one about marriage. Llewellyn is clearly troubled by aspects of the gay-marriage triumph, and the extraordinary comedy of Ellen's talk-show sequence, in which Ato Blankson-Wood and Tommy Heleringer play a couple famous for their viral-video engagement, is pretty tart. That tang turns to bitterness when Ellen's wife Portia de Rossi (Emily Davis) appears on FaceTime. Marriage may be wonderful, but wifehood seems ruinous. Realities and histories, at this stage, have started pouring into one another. The dear, departed trans heroes Sylvia Rivera (Cecilia Gentili) and Marsha P. Johnson (Julienne “Mizz June” Brown) emerge from “beyond the River Jordan” to urge the Stage Manager into taking her narrative into her own hands; Emily visits Portia and discovers a world beyond mime-props. Moment by moment, the piece is comedy, but taken as a whole, it mourns all the “othered” lives that have passed away.
Somehow, in just over 90 minutes, Llewellyn lets everyone have their say. No wonder Wilder called to her—she has his same talent for unhurried inclusion. And as much as Llewellyn wants to shine a bright light on things that are not inclusive (the narrowing of the queer agenda, for instance), the play keeps speaking its heart through Emily, who keeps insisting Wilder's classic dictate: Appreciate each moment. Thanks to the Foundry's impeccable production, you may also find yourself appreciating each performer: Angelos at her wicked best; Sieh as the bright, idealistic blade; Gentili providing wry commentary; Davis flickering between humor and pathos so quickly she seems to shimmer. Director Dustin Wills offers a basically flawless staging of the text: At one point, the audience actually applauded one of the jokes in Adam Rigg's set. What a thrill it is to see a show that reaches out to Wilder's genius—and actually touches it. O, Theater, I thought. O, Show.—Helen Shaw
HERE Arts Center (Off-Off Broadway). By Casey Llewellyn. Directed by Dustin Wills. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission.