When old becomes new again

By Ande Jacobson

TheatreWorks is known for premiering new theatrical works.  Only having run once before in New York, playwright Carly Mensch’s new comedy, “Now Circa Then”, is making its West Coast debut at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

The play’s title is apropos as it draws the audience in to a 19th century reenactment of the daily life of a Jewish immigrant couple starting out while juxtaposing the “actors’” real lives.  Although a different time, it’s interesting to note the parallels between the reenactment and present day.

Written as a two-person play, the story takes place in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which incidentally opened in 1992 in real life.  Gideon (Matt R. Harrington) is a native New Yorker who’s been working at the museum for five years and is a history zealot.  To Gideon, history is a delicate treasure, to learn from and to respect as it is the most important influence in his life, at least at the outset.  Margie (Kimiye Corwin), on the other hand, has just moved to New York seeking meaning and purpose in her life, appalled by the small town mentality back home in Michigan, and she’s determined not to end up like her sister who’s stuck doing nothing with her life outside of having babies.  Margie took this job because she needs to eat, though in her mind, history is bunkum.

Gideon is protective of the museum and its artifacts, at one point admonishing Margie for cleaning an antique clock too vigorously, so he finds it offensive that their boss would hire somebody so cavalier about the important work they are doing.  Gideon and Margie reenact the lives of Julian and Josephine Glockner, circa 1890.  The Glockners are a young couple starting out together in an arranged marriage having just traveled to New York from their village of Moloschnya in the “West Prussia” region of Eastern Europe.

Much of the plot is exploration – exploration of the immigrant experience in the late 1800s; exploration of Gideon’s and Margie’s personal and professional goals; exploration of Gideon’s and Margie’s relationship – intertwining both sets of characters.  Once their “office” romance ensues, “real life” starts to bleed over into their depiction of history.

Andrew Boyce’s set is nicely architected, showing several views within the museum.   Locations include the outside of the Glockners’ apartment at the top of the play, the parlor where the bulk of their time is spent, the kitchen, and finally the bedroom.  In addition to larger furniture items, many pertinent artifacts such as the aforementioned antique clock and a period sewing machine adorn the set.  The walls and furniture pieces are moved smoothly between scenes, the former by the unseen stage crew, and the latter by Harrington and Corwin as they enter or exit the set.

The scene changes are accompanied by some lovely recorded Eastern European/Klezmer music featuring guitar, clarinet, and violin to remind us of the Glockners’ roots in the Old Country.

Meredith McDonough’s creative direction adds some nice touches.  From Harrington’s and Corwin’s first entrance coming up stairs out of the pit to the front door of the Glockners’ apartment, they hold the audience in rapt attention.  There’s only one brief segment about three fourths of the way through the play where the story drags just a bit, though that seems to be more a function of the writing than the acting or direction.

Written to intertwine reenactment with real life, Harrington and Corwin have to bounce back and forth in character, which at the outset is easily accomplished, particularly for Julian, as Harrington often adopts an Eastern European accent for emphasis.  Although initially separated by scene boundaries, as the play develops, the Gideon/Julian and Margie/Josephine lines later sometimes blur within a scene, though because of the recursive nature of actors, playing actors, playing roles, it works rather well.

A particularly amusing sequence occurs early on as Gideon tries to help Margie loosen up and become more natural as Josephine, telling her “what you’re looking for – it’s not in the manual”.   After some witty repartee, Gideon instructs Margie on changing her demeanor when she becomes Josephine by demonstrating the difference between “Gideon” and “Julian” when entering the room and then instructing Margie to do the same first as herself, then as Josephine.  Harrington and Corwin are both quite natural in this scene which is very reminiscent of a backstage theatre situation.

Harrington and Corwin appear comfortable with one another in these roles and run from being complete strangers to lovers fairly quickly yet believably.  Even between scenes, they work well together almost playfully tossing props to one another.  Though the later plot twist is a bit contrived, Harrington and Corwin make us believe Gideon’s and Margie’s new directions.

Performed as a one-act, TheatreWorks’ production of “Now Circa Then” provides a brisk and engaging 90 minutes of entertainment.

What:  Carly Mensch’s “Now Circa Then”

Where:  Lucie Stern Theatre located at:  1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto.

When:  Wednesdays – Sundays through 1 April.

See http://www.theatreworks.org/shows/1112-season/nowcircathen for more information.

(Photo credit: Tracy Martin)

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