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Monday, March 20, 2017

946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips

Kneehigh's stage adaptation of the 2006 children's novel The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo is so bubbly, energetic, and wacky that a few times during the performance, I was surprised by how suddenly I found myself choking up.



Told largely from the perspective of the feisty, funny, endearingly odd 12-year-old Lily (and, at the beginning and the end, her equally engaging elderly self), Adolphus Tips revolves around a search for the lost cat of the title. But since the setting is coastal England during World War II, and since the cat very quickly becomes a symbol for so many other kinds of absence--that of fathers and sons, of safe spaces, of food and supplies, of peace, and of a general sense of well-being--the production is ultimately a lot weightier than it can sometimes seem. Never heavy-handed or overwrought, Adolphus manages to tell a gentle, genuinely moving tale without cutting back on the clowning, drag, broad humor, folksy music, and energetic dance.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie

The Sam Gold-helmed version of The Glass Menagerie isn't for everyone (as you can see by reviews  here   and  here  ), but this stripped-down version of Tennessee Williams' 1945 memory play shouldn't be entirely discounted.

The bare bones set with its black exposed walls gives a bit of a shadowbox feel that belies the open space and surrounds the actors with an ever-present shroud of darkness. A rack piled with props, like dishes, sits close to a metal kitchen table and orange chairs. A neon sign blares "Paradise Open" in green and red. Though stark and jarring at first, the look mimics memory -- etching out the most enduring details with the rest fading into background. It somewhat echos the look of Fun Home, which Gold won the 2015 Tony for Direction of a Musical, where a bed, a desk, a piano also isolate moments of the narrator's recollection rather than sweeping scenery.

The Glass Menagerie's casting is unusual. First, Joe Mantello, with his grey-infused mop, is a few years past his early 20s, Tom's age as the play opens. With the 2013 revival, where Zachary Quinto received rave reviews (the New York Times called his performance "career-defining") still fresh, seeing a middle-aged Tom initially feels disconcerting. Still, the older Tom's viewpoint takes the audience into Tom's current perspective -- we feel his angst more deeply as we look at the man he's become rather than the remembrance of the boy he was.

Then there's Madison Ferris making her Broadway debut as Laura, the first wheelchair user to perform a major role on the Great White Way. Williams' own description of Laura states, "A childhood illness left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other, and held in a brace. . ." So amplifying the character's disability alters the play tremendously. As the play begins, this intensification provides distraction. Watching Ferris manipulate her body, inching it in an elaborate effort as she moves from chair to floor and back, takes the audience from Tom's world into Laura's. I missed lines as I watched her arduous maneuvers.This casting choice reinterprets Williams' vision and, to me, gives Laura a strength I haven't seen in any other version. Yes, Laura is still fiercely reclusive and awkward, but not fragile. The fortitude she displays in her day-to-day physical challenges gives Laura depth as a character. Her fascinations -- her crystal creatures and old-fashioned music -- become a way to find beauty in a difficult world rather than mere hiding places. Her condition forces the characters to interact with her physically as they help her move: their motions become awkward, too, as in the first scene where Sally Field carries Laura's folded chair up the stairs. At times, this makes the production clunky, but it also weaves an acutely tangible love into their actions.

The truth is Williams' stage directions don't always work. The first time I saw The Glass Menagerie on Broadway in 1994, with Julie Harris as the genteel Southern belle and Calista Flockhart as Laura, Kevin Kilner as the Gentleman Caller and Zeljiko Ivanek as Tom, director Frank Galati chose to use Williams'  original stage directions calling for "slides bearing images or titles" and periodically projected words such as "The sky falls" on the stage, interrupting the magic of the unfolding scene.

But reinventing a classic does have its pitfalls and the current version's deviations do lessen the impact of Tom's journey. The stark set doesn't include a fire escape and Tom's musings where he dreams of another life get lost in the dark apartment. The production puts everyone in more contemporary clothing even though their dialogue is obviously from another time. That's disconcerting, too. At one point, Sally Field twirls out in a cotton-candy froth of a dress, aping girlishly in front of the Gentleman Caller (a charming Finn Wittrock) and she looks nearly clownish in a caricature of someone clutching to her youth.

In general, Field's Amanda seems too young and soft, more beguiling than strident, and it changes her interactions with Laura and Tom. She simmers with anger -- her disappointment in life festering in her restless hands and arms. But the character never turns hawkish and the relentless commentary that drives Tom away and Laura inward sounds more annoying than invective.

There's also that pointless rain -- a sudden downpour that leaves puddles on stage. So much so, that the actors are forced to step over them. Yet, another distraction. Ultimately, Gold plays with transformation in this production too much, forgetting what story he is telling until The Glass Menagerie loses some of its potency.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Dear World

By the time you read this, the York Theatre Company production of Dear World will be over. Part of the York's Musicals in Mufti series (their version--in many ways better--of Encores!), this production was a total delight. Tyne Daly took the lead role of Countess Aurelia, and she was nothing short of magical. I've read complaints here and there about the limitations of her singing, but superb, funny, subtle, heart-breaking acting transcends perfectly hit notes. (Isn't this why people are paying $299 to see Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard?) And, yes, Daly was superb, funny, subtle, and heart-breaking.

Tyne Daly
Photo: Ben Strothmann

The show itself was much better than I expected. It has a mediocre reputation, but as a mood piece, it's quite good. And the plot is depressingly timely--a bunch of rapacious businessmen want to blow up Paris to get to the oil underneath. They have more money than they could ever spend; their actions would kill hundreds of people and destroy the lives of thousands more; they don't care. They just want more money and more money and more money. In the terms of Dear World, greed is a disease. In the terms of our present, as corporations blithely destroy the wilderness and people's water to squeeze out every penny of profit they can, yes, greed is a disease.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

All the Fine Boys

From public/political discussions and debates, you might think that sexual boundaries between adults and minors--and sexuality itself--are clear, defined, and unambiguous. They're not, as vividly depicted in Erica Schmidt excellent and disturbing (and surprisingly funny) new play, All the Fine Boys.


Wolff, Fuhrman
Photo: Monique Carboni
Emily and Jenny are 14-year-olds in South Carolina in the 1980s. Emily is a relative newcomer; Jenny grew up here. They watch horror films together. Their conversation focuses on middle-school gossip, along with life, adulthood, and sex, about which they know little but would like to know more. Emily's home gets covered in toilet paper every weekend; the perpetrators and their reasons are unknown. She feels overwhelmed by her new boobs. She is smart. Jenny seems a bit lost. She lies for no reason. She says, "You know sometimes I lie down in my driveway and I let the fire ants bite my arm." (Emily changes the subject pretty quickly.)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Wakey, Wakey

The man in the pajama bottoms, slippers and suit jacket is terribly confused but always polite to the crowd he is somehow suddenly responsible for entertaining. He has snacks and juice stashed in side pouches in his wheelchair, and a large stack of note-cards to fall back on when his memory fails or he loses his train of thought, which is often. He occasionally gets up gingerly to trudge across the stage, which is dotted with moving boxes and piles of unsorted clothing. He sometimes wears the strange grimace of a patient with advanced Parkinson's disease, but otherwise makes no mention of what ails him. He is amicable, calm, attentive, and funny. He is very soon about to die.



Wakey, Wakey, Will Eno's meditation on life and the end of it, is gently, beautifully performed by a cast of two (Michael Emerson is the man in the wheelchair, ambiguously named Guy, and January Lavoy is Lisa, his nurse). The show is brief, at an hour and change, which I suppose fits the concept: life is ephemeral and no matter what, the end always comes too soon. And its short finale, which I won't give away here, is flashy, fleeting, sweet, and (literally) generous.

While in no way a chore, the show itself nevertheless feels a bit half-baked. Wakey, Wakey is given over almost entirely to the celebration of the millions of tiny, seemingly insignificant moments that together make up a long and full life. Certainly, all the little things--standing with dozens of others on a subway platform awaiting a train, the feeling of becoming vaguely irritated by a fire alarm's dying battery, taking pleasure in watching in a funny animal clip on YouTube--matter a great deal in a life, especially as one is so actively contemplating the utter absence of any of it. But Wakey, Wakey never manages to quite transcend such moments; as lovingly as they are described, they just don't build into a play. As a quiet reverie about the final moments in a quiet life, Wakey, Wakey gets the message across, elicits a chuckle or two, and occasionally brushes at the heartstrings. But it never quite blooms into something much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Evening at the Talk House

Perhaps it wasn't fair to see Wallace Shawn's mildly compelling dystopian play Evening at the Talk House so soon after seeing Caryl Churchill's wildly compelling dystopian play Escaped Alone, but that's the way it happened and I can't change it now.

Broderick, Shawn
Photo: Monique Carboni
Shawn's characters are theater people at a once-popular club called the Talk House; they are celebrating the 10th anniversary of a play they worked on together, written by Robert (Matthew Broderick), who is now in TV. An unexpected addition is to the party is Dick (Wallace Shawn, showing considerably more vigor than the rest of the cast), a down-and-out actor who knows that his career was badly affected by Robert's dislike of his work. There are also two servers, both of whom the theater people know. And, of course, plenty of liquor.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Escaped Alone

Caryl Churchill's brilliant, bizarre, puzzling, horrifying, and strangely sweet Escaped Alone packs the punch of a major dystopia into its lean 55 minutes. It also allows us to meet, enjoy, and maybe understand four 70-something women sitting and chatting in a cozy, distinctly non-dystopian, backyard.

Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, June Watson
Photo: Richard Termine

Part of the play is easily comprehended. Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett) peeks into a backyard through a slightly open door in the fence and ends up spending the afternoon (or perhaps multiple afternoons) with Sally (Deborah Findlay), who suffers from an extreme fear of cats; Lena (Kika Markham), depressed almost into paralysis; and Vi (June Watson), who spent six years behind bars for killing her husband, perhaps accidentally, perhaps in self-defense, perhaps neither. Their conversation is presented as unfinished sentences and half-expressed thoughts that somehow paint fully dimensional portraits. It's verbal pointillism. Each woman also gets a monologue, unheard by the others, in which she expresses some of her deepest emotions.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Love For Sale: The History of Sex in Musicals

Hey, have you wanted nothing other than to listen to me, director John Rando, and producer Jack Viertel talk about sex and musicals in a very nice performance space in lower Manhattan? Well, hell, now's your chance, for the low low price of $20!

Click here for the link to buy tickets.



Join us, won't you? The discussion happens on Monday, February 27 at 7.

Rando and Viertel are knowledgable, funny, and smart. I'm sure I'll think of something to say, too.