by Ryan Leeds
CasablancaBox, the experimental play currently playing at HERE Arts Center had the potential to become a complete disaster. To begin with, it uses sacred material (The 1942 classic film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) as both its inspiration and focus. Using such well-known material is tricky given the fact that comparisons to original source material and actors are often made. The play is also comprised of 16 actors, each playing a variety of roles, another ambitious endeavor that is all too often butchered. Finally, it theorizes what events happened behind the scenes of the movie’s filming, leaving audiences to question what is depicted and actual fact. In spite of this, the show surprisingly works like a well-oiled machine.
The married team of Sara Farrington (Playwright) and Reid Farrington (Director) are the creative minds behind this work. Previously, they have declared their affinity for classic film through combining actual film clips with live action actors.
They’ve revisited Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. With distinctive flair, they project scenes from the actual film onto square silk screens, held by actors on both sides. In the middle of the ‘frame’ live actors are recreating the movie scene in real time. It is an effective and clever tool and is delicate trick to pull off, but thanks largely to Laura Mroczkowski’s lighting design and Reid Farrington’s set and video design, the result is theatrical magic.
Laura K. Nicoll’s choreography is another fascinating aspect here. Aside from farce, most plays have straightforward blocking. Nicoll has her cast moving in formations as complex as those in a Busby Berkeley film.
There are many fans of the original film, but it was vague in my own memory, so I watched it again before heading to HERE. For those who haven’t seen the original, here is thumbnail synopsis: In World War II Morocco, Casablanca city serves as a resting spot for emigrants fleeing Europe for the United States to escape Nazi Rule. However, Casablanca is a blend of Nazis and French rule and Rick (Humphrey Bogart), who owns a popular nightclub and casino finds himself into a delicate situation with Czech Nationalist Victor Laslo (Paul Henried) and his current wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Rick and Ilsa had a torrid love affair in Paris and reconnect once again when Ilsa and Victor appear at the nightclub.
Sara Farrington imagines what might have taken while the camera wasn’t rolling. Two refugees voice their disgust at one another for being ‘nobodies’ in the movie. In their native countries, they were big deals but now their promises of prosperity in America have been broken. Contract wages are also a point of contention as African American actors question when they aren’t making as much as their film colleagues. Alcoholic lovers and scorned spouses saunter onto the set, and the writers of the film can’t seem to agree on how to end the film. There is no shortage of drama, whether the cameras are rolling or not.
It seems like a perfect time to discuss and celebrate this canonized film. This year marks the 75th anniversary of its theatrical release. The discussion of immigrants was resonant then and remains even stronger today.
It’s not essential to watch the original film before seeing CasablancaBox. After all, you’ll be watching clips from it anyway. Yet a refresher viewing will make this all the more enjoyable, particularly when this talented cast impersonates the film’s counterparts.
The sprawling cast is carefully orchestrated and each of them serves the material extremely well. They are truly an ensemble team, reliant on one another to make this strategic chess game work. The 90-minute intermissionless show moves at a breakneck speed.
Between the current FX series, Feud, and CasablancaBox, we’re able to sink our teeth into some juicy characters from the Golden Age of Hollywood. These complex figures reveal their sordid lives, their triumphs, and their vulnerabilities. Both works will provide classic film buffs with more than enough material to satisfy.
HERE Arts Center
145 6th Avenue, NYC
Through April 24
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.