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My night in a ‘Glass House’..

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Harris Yulin as Mies van der Rohe and Janet Zarish as Edith Farnsworth

What a treat to witness acting at it’s finest in June Finfer’s Glass House with leading lady Janet Zarish(Public Theatre, Primary Stages appearances), who plays the self-sufficient Edith Farnsworth and it’s leading man Harris Yulin, a prominent Broadway actor (Hedda Gabler, Julius Caesar) and film star as Mies van der Rohe, a German architect. Directed masterfully by Evan Bergman and appearing in conjunction with Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, Resonance Ensemble’s, The Glass House, tells the true story of a German architect, Mies van der Rohe(1886-1969), and the opportunity he was given to create a live-able work of art for Chicago Doctor Edith Farnswarth who was in search of a weekend getaway.  Well, true in the fact that it is based on actual people, not neccesarily events.  That is writer June Finfer took Mies and her other characters and created an emotionally driven play chopped full of affairs, betrayals, and passionate 4th wall monologues with Mies talking to the audience about his desire to create this skin and bones glass house not only for Farnsworth, but for his own desire to create something new, something with purpose.  Taking place over a ten year period(1945-1955), we see the developement of not only the house, but of the relationship between Mies and Farnsworth, which comes to a crashing halt in the last 20 minutes of the oddly blocked show.   A play that not only forces you to question what is art and its role in the modern world, but to what extent art can frame the way in which an individual leads his/her own life.

The highlight of the evening, for me, as an actor, was witnessing impecable and flawless acting by Zarish and Yulin.  Yulin’s performance was perfection.  Emotionally she connected bravely with her high strung, indecisive Doctor and had I not known that I was watching a play I would of thought that she was merely a stranger who had wandered off the streets of midtown, found her way on to a stage and begun a conversation with Yulin.  Her naturalistic style is refreshing and inspiring and it never falters at any point in time throughout the play, but instead grows with every scene creating a living, breathing human being that you expect, after the show ends, to go back to her lab or wherever she came from and carry on with her life.  And I’m sure having Yulin as a support would make it even easier for someone who is already as talented as Zarish to be able to create an even more enriched performance.  Yulin, I think, has heard enough praise to know that he is one of immeasurable talent.  I’m sure that many critics have commented on the beauty and simplicity of his acting.  I would, of course, agree with their criticism as it is undeniable that Yulin’s talent exist beyond the capacity of words.  I can merely say that it was a joy to watch him perform and a honor to sit in a theatre with someone of such seasoned skill.  Not to mention that his German accent was dead on and he played perhaps the best grumpy old man I have ever seen.  Not that your old, Yulin.  In regards to both Yulin and Zarish it was if the audience didn’t exist and they were both carrying on with their lives, playing off each other smoothly, creating tension, love, hate, co-existing and growing within the ten years, and portraying how in real life, it all ends.  Quite simply, a magnificent work of Art.

In all my awe and although, in general, I highly enjoyed Glass House there were a couple of things that bothered me.  Number 1, the sets. Now, it didn’t bother me so much that between the succession of each year the lights dimmed, jazz music played, and the set was changed, what bothered me was that the set moves seemed, for lack of a better word, pointless.  With no more than maybe two chairs and a desk on stage, it seemed distracting to me that stage hands, dressed smartly in the decades attire, would come on to move a desk in a different position, change the utensils on a table, or to take away every other scene the same table and chairs.  Had it been done quicker it might not have been much a nuisance, but I found myself concentrating on how long it would take for the sets to be changed rather than what was going to happen next.  With such a strong play that has so much to say about art and life and with such strong point of view, why would you distract by creating unnecessary obstacles such as moving the same desk 10 times?  Less, as Mies would have seen it, would have been more in this instance.

Number 2: The two minor actors.  Gina Nagy Burns(Skylight, The Heiress), who plays Mies’ ex-love Lora Marx, delivers a tolerable performance, but lacks the fire that it acquired of her character.  As Meis’ artist lover, a sculptor, who takes it upon herself in the earlier scenes to break her relationship with Mies due to his drinking and dependency, I find that the character may have required someone with a more powerful presence.  Someone who could stand up to Mies when he forcefully asked her why she was leaving.  Someone that could center herself, stand her ground, and deliver the well thought out text with powerful purpose and zeal.  Here it seems that when Meis and  Marx are conversing, Mies seems to be having one-sided conversations, and at points he leans in hard to distract from the actresses not delivering her lines with intention.  This may be because I am over critical  or it could be because this actress may not have fully understood who her character was and was not given good direction.

The second minor character, Philip Johnson, played by David Bishins(We Declare You a Terrorist, Incident at Vichy), who is Mies’ protege and a curator at the MOMA, actually delivered a commanding performance, but I find, and this may be silly, that the voice he chose to use for his character was distracting.  It is a shame because you can tell, from the audience, that Bishins is actually a very talented actor, but he made a bad choice and that in some parts he falls out because he is thinking more about his smoker voice rather than his beats.  From the minute he opened his mouth at the beginning of the play, I knew that it would be a problem.  While I realize that the span of the plan takes place in the 50’s and 60’s and that the cliché is the raspy, sexy voice of a male cigar smoker, when you begin to lose the actor’s words, therefor the text, therefore the play, it becomes a problem.  And  besides this forced, if I think about it makes my throat hurt, raspy voice, his performance was actually delightful, light, airy, and an almost comic relief from the sometimes heavy tension that lived between the three other characters.  Charming and snub at times, Bishins played a convincing role of student and what it is not only to please your teacher, but to find out that at some point you have to live your own life.  What an interesting lesson for Art to teach.

For more information about June Finfer’s Glass House and performance’s, check at Resonance Ensemble’s site!
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