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Monday, August 18, 2014

Felicitations and Male Factors

MOST OF US, if we’re lucky, need only deal with our more distant relations at once-a-year holiday times. Libby Skala, a frighteningly talented actor and writer, turns them into theatrical material, and now has impersonated three of those relatives in three different shows.

Libby Skala and Steven May
Photo by Shirin Tinati
It’s not surprising that her grandmother, Lilia Skala, should have been the first. She, too, was an actor, first in her native Vienna, then, after fleeing the Nazis, in the U.S., garnering an Oscar nomination for her role as the Mother Superior in Lilies of the Field.

Lilia’s sister, Elizabeth Polk, was next, a renowned dance therapist whose story allowed Libby to include her own such skills – and winning her a  “Best Solo Performer” award at the London Fringe Theatre Festival.

“Felicitas,” the latest, is the story of a third sister. She shares a name with the show’s title but was known as Litzi, and she recognized early in her life that she wished to care for babies, an ambition that eventually landed her a position at Vienna’s Home for Infants and Mothers, where Dr. Leopold Moll practiced the seemingly radical notion of offering the infants in-arms care.

This show differs from its predecessors with the addition of musician Steven May, who is onstage throughout – seated on a sagging park bench – offering underscoring on mandolin, an unlikely choice that suits the show admirably. And it’s not just underscoring – it’s a collaboration in which May is able to emphasize or contrast the mood of a moment.

He also serves as a silent presence, giving the character of Litzi a focal point for the story of Josep, the ski instructor who fathered her child but was deemed unsuitable as a husband by her parents – who nevertheless prove to be more open-minded than we expect, as revealed in one of the many plot twists that give this show momentum.

Like her sisters, Litzi fled Vienna, but she stayed longer and had a tougher time with the Wehrmacht and the bureaucracy. It’s more of a procedural than a dramatic part of the story, but its effectiveness – it forms the climax of the show – is a tribute to Skala’s ability to dress the narrative with an emotional layer that builds and reinforces the character she portrays without stooping to the maudlin.

Not that is likely ever to have been true of Litzi: she is a pillar of principle, a person for whom a schedule is everything, and Skala carries off the difficult job of allowing us to understand the denial that resulted from that discipline, even as Litzi justifies her choices.

Skala is an impressive performer in any one of her shows. I’ve seen all three and am astonished at the variety of the characterizations she has established in telling the sisters’ stories, even as she has given each of her shows what amounts to a color of its own.

Along with the addition of live music, “Felicitas” also benefits from the video design of Steven Stevo Arnoczy, who combines photos from the Skala family archives with film clips and animation to liven the story with visual commentary that amplifies appropriate moments of the story without competing with the actor.

Skala once again has brought to life a fascinating character, the more fascinating because she was a woman who went up against the resistance of family, of society, and ultimately of a powerful enemy force, yet one who was able to make a difference in the lives of many. It also happens to be one hell of a showcase for a performer; that Skala also wrote the piece only emphasizes how much self-determination she has drawn from these fabulous ancestors.

It’s being performed right now at the NY Fringe Festival; as of this writing, you have two more chances to see it: 7 PM Thursday, Aug. 21 and 4:45 PM Friday, Aug. 22. More info here.

Written and performed by Libby Skala
Directed by Janice L. Goldberg
Music written and performed by Steven May
The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre, 115 MacDougal St., NYC

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