MARTHA, written by Ellen Melaver and Directed by Stewart J. Zully, is now playing at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks. It is a poignant and insightful play that artfully investigates the life and creative soul of modern dance icon Martha Graham (1894-1991).  MARTHA is a one woman show featuring the very talented actor/dancer, Christina Carlisi.

Martha Graham performed well into her seventies, defying age, her critics, and tradition. Much has been written about this amazing dance pioneer, and through narration and movement, Melaver has produced a beautiful oral history of Graham and other dance pioneers of that era such as Isadora Duncan, Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Dennis. Melaver reaches into Graham’s inner thoughts and exposes how Graham struggles with relinquishing her roles to younger dancers, and comes face-to-face with her own mortality.

Martha Graham invented modern dance. Before her there was no such codified art form by that title. She, along with her company members, created what is now known as the Martha Graham dance technique, and between 1926 and 1990 she created 181 dances for the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York. Graham stopped performing in her mid-seventies but continued to choreography new works until just before she died at the age of 96.

Christina Carlisi as MARTHA – Photo by Charles Dougherty

Christina Carlisi has had an extensive career in dance, theater, movies and television. Martha Graham was small in stature, but she was a true a force of nature, both onstage and off. She had an enormous ego, a quick temper and was driven by her creative forces to succeed. Some called her the Mother of Modern Dance, others, the Picasso of Dance. In 1998, TIME Magazine named her the “Dancer of the Century.” Those are big shoes to fill and Carlisi comes close to recreating that persona.

We see hints of Graham’s temper in MARTHA, and what an  intimidating presence she could be. There is a heated discussion with dancer Mary (Hinkson), a conversation with Board member John Houseman, and the sound of Martha smashing an object just offstage. We sense Graham’s reliance on friend and co-creator Louis Horst, and see the pain caused by the end to her marriage and dance partner Eric Hawkins. Melaver has used Graham’s own words to reflect how she felt about her art and her importance in the art scene. She swears to continue despite her Board’s insistence that she retire and lashes out at the departure of dancers such as Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor; dancers whom she feels are deserting her. Melaver shows us the agony and embarrassment that Graham experiences as her body fails her, leaving her unable to get up off the floor during a performance of Clytemnestra (1958).

Christina Carlisi as MARTHA – Photo by Charles Dougherty

Carlisi gives a convincing portrayal of Martha Graham. She helps us believe that we are listening to Graham struggle with growing old, lashing out at critic Clive Barnes and resisting the decision to give over her roles. Through movement, Carlisi embodies the physical and personal sacrifices that Graham made for her art for more than fifty years. We sense Graham’s fear that if she cannot dance, she will most certainly die. Carlisi is not as strong when she dances the Graham movements, but this in no way diminishes her portrayal of this monumental woman. Admittedly, Graham had a power and fierceness that few possess, and MARTHA is not about the dancing; it is about the woman.

The set for MARTHA is stark. There are two gray cube-shaped boxes and a clothes rack filled with hanging costumes. Choreographer Camille Loftin, has trained in the Graham technique, and did her research to produce phrases that, if not authentic, are very close to the actual choreography. Memorable are the sections from Graham’s solo Lamentation (1930), the entrance from Steps in the Street (1936) and movement from a scene in Appalachian Spring (1944).

Director, Stewart J. Zully fully utilizes his minimal set to help Carlisi fill up the theater with Graham’s spirit. The WhiteFire Theatre stage area is limited, but Lighting Designer Derrick McDaniel manages to create Graham’s apartment, studio, performance area, as well as a private realm for Graham’s inner thoughts. The costumes by Candice Cain are good replicas of those worn by Graham and Carlisi’s hair accurately represents the style worn by Graham in many of her photographs. A welcomed touch for those of us who are in the dance business are the projections of famous dance artists seen throughout the evening.

MARTHA runs on Sundays at 7:30pm through April 16. For information and tickets, click here.


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