NJ REP GOES BACK IN THE USSR…AND DOWN THE MEMORY HOLE

L-R: Steve Brady, Benjamin Satchel, Andrea Gallo, and Amie Bermowitz star in the NJ Repertory Company production of D.W. Gregory’s MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN MAN, opening this weekend. (Photos by Andrea Phox)

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), August 15, 2019

In the 2018 feature film The Death of Stalin, a cast of veteran comic character players (including Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Monty Python’s Michael Palin) has a blast detailing the often murderous machinations of a group of Russian Communist Party insiders, each one jockeying for top dog status after the longtime dictator Joseph Stalin drops dead on the carpet.

As D.W. Gregory reminds us, however, the transition between the uniformed Soviet strongman Stalin and the Cold War regime of the bullet-headed, business-suited Nikita Kruschev wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs — not for the various party functionaries who feared they were on the wrong side of history’s gun barrel, nor for the “ordinary people, who really aren’t political themselves…but who get caught up in massive political upheaval, when society is completely re-ordered.”

The award winning playwright who makes her home these days in West Virginia has been spending a good deal of time in the beachier setting of Long Branch in recent weeks, observing rehearsals of the New Jersey Repertory Company production of her script Memoirs of a Forgotten Man. Described as a work that “wrestles with the idea of public memory…and deals with what happens when a regime rewrites history,” the play opens this weekend as the latest offering at NJ Rep’s branded playhouse on downtown Broadway.

Going up for a pair of preview performances beginning tonight, August 15, the drama is also the latest in a long line of partnerships with the National New Play Network, the organization through which nonprofit theaters like NJ Rep share in the “rolling world premiere” of a featured show, which is produced in several member locales, each with its own director and cast.

While the Long Branch-based professional troupe has often been first out of the box with NNPN shows, in this case Memoirs has been seen by audiences in West Virginia (at Shepherd University’s Contemporary American Theater Festival), and upstate New York (at Shadowland Stages in Ellenville). And, as the playwright (who has had two of her earlier scripts become fully staged productions at NJ Rep) sees it, that’s a good thing.

“As a writer who likes to stay involved with my work, I get to refine the script as it moves from theater to theater…which is great,” she says. “I actually wrote this play with NJ Rep in mind…I often think of their space when I’m writing…and I have to say I was a little dubious about the first production, which took place in a 400 seat house, although they did an amazing job with it!”

Moving back and forth in time between the 1930s era when Stalin cemented his grip on absolute power, and the space-age span of Kruschev, Memoirs of a Forgotten Man displays the signature fascination with 20th century history that served the veteran journalist well in past works like her celebrated Radium Girls (and particularly October 1962, the tense period piece that brought the Cuban Missile Crisis to the NJ Rep home front in 2004). There’s also an implicit parallel to our own American moment, in which the concept of “fake news” and some time-tested tenets of propaganda have combined with some previously unimaginable teechnologies to create a cultural environment in which (as she observed on the Shepherd University website) “we’re losing our grip on realiity because we can’t agree on the fundamentals of facts themselves.”

According to Gregory, “I had the idea for the play well before the 2016 presidential campaign…things like Fox News and Alex Jones, Infowars were on my mind…but I didn’t have a story to hang it on.” That all changed, however, when the author “stumbled across” two books that would bring the project into sharp focus.

Uncle Joe Stalin looms large behind Amie Bermowitz and Steve Brady.

The first was The Mind of a Mnemonist, in which neurologist A.R. Luria recounted the case history of a patient in the old USSR; a man who exhibited remarkable and seemingly limitless powers of recall — as well as symptoms of synesthesia, a “blending of the senses” in which “he ‘hears’ colors, and ‘tastes’ sounds.”

“I was fascinated by this person, who was living in a time and place when the government was literally rewriting history,” says Gregory. “I was also fascinated by what he didn’t talk about in the book…there was nothing of politics; nothing of his personal life.”

The other inspirational read was The Whisperers, a “wonderful book about everyday life in Stalin’s Russia” by historian Orlando Figes — and, armed with the sturdy framework of her story, the playwright (who lived in Washington, DC for years, working primarily as a business journalist specializing in topics of tax law) got busy with her Memoirs; finishing her initial draft a couple of months before Election Day 2016.

In the play directed here by NJ Rep veteran James Glossman (returning to the Long Branch stage for the first time in nearly ten years), the case of an extraordinary “memory man” (played by Benjamin Satchel, last seen locally in 2016’s Struck) — a “person of no influence” who works as a low-level reporter for the state-controlled media — connects Kretlev (Broadway veteran Steve Brady), a government censor by profession, and a psychologist named Natalya (Rep returnee Amie Bermowitz) who arrives to interview him. They’re joined by frequent company trouper Andrea Gallo, herself an integral part of some half dozen productions (including the solo showcases Donna Orbits the Moon and Broomstick), with cast members taking on multiple roles as the action moves between the two regimes of its historical setting, “a world where justice is arbitrary and freedom as we know it does not exist.”

Along the way, past secrets are disinterred; the characters find themselves both “victims and collaborators” in the drive to erase enemies and rewrite history — and the nature of truth, memory, and objective reality itself are called into question, in a place where the evidence of the senses, even the superhumanly heightened kind, is called into question.

“You could call it psychological suspense…some might call it a political thriller,” the playwright sums up. “And if you like Hitchcock, I think you’ll find it a pretty good yarn, about people who are caught up in forces beyond their control!”

Offering preview performances at 8 pm on August 15 and 16 (tickets $45), Memoirs of a Forgotten Man opens at 8 pm on Saturday, August 17 ($60; includes post-show reception), with a matinee on August 18 available for a $50 ticket. The show continues through September 15 with performances on Thursdays, Fridays (both 8 pm), Saturdays (3 and 8 pm), and Sundays (2 pm), at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway (corner of Liberty Street) in Long Branch. Reserve seating at njrep.org, or by calling 732-229-3166.

SOUNDS & SYLLABLES: All the Action That (Barely) Fits Into Print

THURSDAY, AUGUST 15: Complaining of Stiff Joints, but find that your doctor’s Not On Call? Try looking for ‘em at the House of Independents, where the aforementioned are two of the featured groups in a BANDed Together Showcase event for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. Shore perennial partystrters Brian Kirk & the Jirks headline the evening that starts at 7 pm, with tix priced between $30-$60…the area’s outdoor stages stay beyond-busy, with the Jams on the Sand series (on the beachtop bandstand just off Anchor’s Bend at Asbury Convention Hall) spotlighting jazzy jamsters JAZZ is PHSH plus the Funky Dawgz Brass Band…another collection of coverband royalty, The Nerds, brings its pocket-protected prowess to the Pier Village plaza stage, while the Singers & Songwriters series at Bradley Beach’s Riley Park boasts a bill topped by Jim Crawford, and the venerable institution that is maestro John Luckenbill’s Asbury Park Concert Band unspools a set of “Movie Time” favorites on the AP boards…back in the great indoors, a trio of vocally virtuosic “Old Friends” (Ken Wasser, Deborah Murad, Ruth Levy) entertains upside Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in a fun-raiser for the nonprofit Cabaret For Life, while Julian Junior Marvin of the legendary Wailers brings his pedigreed grooves to the Stone Pony, and Aussie super-producer Emoh Instead (trading as What So Not) sets ‘em up at the Asbury Lanes

FRIDAY, AUGUST 16: The sixth annual AP Surf Music Fest — rebranded in 2019 as the Hi-Tide Summer Holiday — gets going with an afternoon Meet-Up session at Anchor’s Bend featuring the retro-rock music of The Hula Girls, moving on to a 5 pm Happy Hour with The Swingin’ Palms at the Asbury Hotel’s rooftop Salvation Lounge, a Lanes main event concert starring (among many others) Eddie Angel and The Neanderthals plus Japan’s Lulufin the Woo Hoo, and a Midnight Swell lobby lullaby with the venerable veterans The Insect Surfers at the Asbury’s Soundbooth space…get the full schedule at hitidesummerholiday.com, and be sure to check our feature-length piece in this space, on the mega-event brought to you by Vinnie Minnie ‘n Mags…Hall of Famers Jorma Kaukonnen and Jack Casady return with their electric iteration of Hot Tuna (with support by headliner-worthy David Bromberg’s Quintet) at the Paramount…even as former AP councilman and all-round legendary local Jim Bruno is celebrated with a benefit concert at the Stone Pony headlined by Eddie Testa and band, and up at the Brighton Bar it’s a “Not So Surprise Birthday Party” for Pattie, with THREE heavy bands and FREE admission…

SATURDAY, AUGUST 17: The Hi-Tide Summer Holiday continues, with a 10 am presentation on the History of the Surf Instrumental (conducted by professor Jonpaul Balak) at Danny Clinch’s Transparent Gallery, plus a full fight card of rock ‘em sock ‘em events happening in and around the Asbury Hotel/ Asbury Lanes compound (again, hitidesummerholiday.com for deep-dish deets)…Asbury’s Springwood Park is the site for a day-long (1 to 11 pm) Aquarian Ascension festival that boasts live tunes and DJ turns plus a whole lot more in the way of vendors,, speakers, and activities…the annual West End Cruise Night and Classic Car Show brings the showy sheetmetal from Detroit plus Shirelles frontwoman Shirley Alston Reeves (joined by the 2019 edition of the novelty-pop doowops The Coasters) back to Long Branch’s West End Park and adjacent stretch of Brighton Avenue…while just down the street, the Brighton Bar hosts a Live at the Barbecue smorgasbord of comedy and music, hosted by Donald Harris (and with a ten-dollar ticket accessing show plus BBQ)…more comic action occurs as Claudia Oshry (left) brings her Dirty Jeans Tour to the Paramount stage, while Judy Torres toplines a Summer Freestyle Jam event across the hall at AP ConHall… Saves the Day takes the stage of the Stone Pony, and our fave “detached garage” rockers The Ribeye Brothers are the entrée in a late-nite chowdown at the Asbury Park Yacht Club

SUNDAY, AUGUST 18: The Hi-Tide weekend winds down in leisurely and luxe fashion, bookended by an Asbury Hotel Pool Party (again with The Hula Girls) at noon, and a Last Call at downtown tropic nest Little Buddy Hideaway starring The Surfrajettes…the Brighton Bar hosts a benefit concert in memory of Anthony Alan Delva beginning in the noon hour, while The Saint (scene of early appearances by so many future legends) brings Gavin Becker to Main Street at 1 pm…then stick around Saintside that evening for a must-see double-bubble bill of Death Valley Girls and Sharkmuffin

MONDAY, AUGUST 19: Master and commander of the weekly Sunday Jam sessions at The Asbury (recently host to such guest players as Starship trooper Slick Aguilar) — and a genuine year-round attraction on the AP music scene — Sandy Mack takes it outside to Springwood Park for the last of the 2019 Music Mondays events (the series concludes on Tuesday, August 27 with The Sensational Soul Cruisers)…even as fellow Shore stalwart Stringbean Sorensen holds down the waterfront fort with The Boardwalk Social Club, something they’ll be doing well into the post-Labor Day/ Local Summer interlude…

TUESDAY, AUGUST 20: One of our most cherished veteran singer-songwriters, Words & Music impresario George Wirth is among the assembled talent at this week’s edition of the year-round Café Artists Showcase inside Ocean Grove’s Jersey Shore Arts Center…even as a tanned, rested ‘n ready DJ HI-Tide makes a quick Asbury return, spinning a Tiki Tuesday session out on the Wonder Bar deck, even as the WB stage hosts a free three-for-all of showcased bands…

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 21: That ‘forementioned Wonder Bar hosts Roots of Creation, while just across Ocean Ave The Housewives of Monmouth County bring their satirical (sur)reality TV back for a tenth season, in another summer-slate presentation of the Cabaret For Life collective, and multi-media satirist Mo Rocca (right) headlines the House of Indies with a live edition of his MoBituaries…even all of that is merely scratching the surface of a delightfully insane seven-day stretch, so be sure to check the quite comprehensive of music, comedy and more, in the August 15 print editions of The Coaster (Asbury Park) and The Link (Long Branch)!

SIGHTS: SIREN ARTS presents Jodi Lyn-Kee-Chow on the AP Beach

As part of the annual Siren Arts live performance series presented by the DC-based Transformer collective, the NYC artist Jodi Lyn-Kee-Chow draws from her multi-cultural heritage — and combines aspects of storytelling, drawing, painting, sewing, sculpting, and live performance — for “Junkanooacome,” an exploration of “cultural and spiritual practices, the topic of migration, and the effects globalization has on the natural landscape to (re)claim, (re)tell, and (re)educate on forgotten stories through art.” The Thursday series concludes on August 22 with a “Sonic Drawing” work by Andrew Demirjian, who appears during a Meet the Artist Happy Hour at 6 pm on Tuesday, August 20, hosted inside Danny Clinch’s Transparent Gallery (Kingsley Street side of the Asbury Hotel).

STAGES: An ALICE ballet, at the APAC

Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theatre returns to the stage of Ocean Township’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center beginning this coming Sunday, with a new and original family-friendly work adapted from one of the most enduring all-ages classics: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Created by ACBT artistic director and choreographer Gabriel Chajnik, the “wholly immersive” multi-media experience boasts a large cast of professional and student dancers, vividly costumed by designer Jose Solis and portraying such familiar characters as Alice, The Mad Hatter, March Hare, Queen of Spades, Cheshire Cat, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (as well as flamingoes, flowers, playing cards and hedgehogs). An original score composed by David Winkler (and performed by a live chamber orchestra under the baton of maestro Jason Tramm) helps bring the beloved fantasy world to life, with spoken selections from Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and selected poems interwoven with the score (and a children’s choir serving as “a compass to guide Alice through her magical journey” and “ as the character’s inner voice”).

Performances of Alice in Wonderland are at 7 pm on Sunday, August 18 and Wednesday, August 21, as well as at 2 and 7 pm on Sunday, August 25. Tickets (adults $48 – $54; seniors $40 – $46; students $26) can be reserved at axelrodartscenter.com, or by calling 732-531-9106 ext 14. Parents and children are welcome at a special “Mad Hatter Tea Party” hosted prior to the start of the August 21 performance, with admission to the 5:15 pm event open to all who purchase an adult and child combo ticket, and attendees invited to partake in light refreshments and tea, photo ops with costumed cast members, and face painting to give kids a special “look” for the occasion.