Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Valley of Astonishment

In Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne's charming new piece, The Valley of Astonishment, the titular valley is that uncharted, elusive area where brain metamorphoses into mind and the unexpected can occur: perfect memory, hearing colors, only being able to move one's body parts while looking at them. A theatricalization of, and riff on, the findings of such scientists as Oliver Sacks (well-know for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other books about neurological anomalies), The Valley of Astonishment is in some ways like the coolest Ted Talk ever, with skits.
Jared McNeill, Kathryn HunterPhoto: Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

The main-ish character is Samy Costas, an unassuming journalist who doesn't understand how astonishing her mind is until her editor sends her to, well, have her head examined. Samy remembers everything. Everything. Her brain is a compulsive producer of mnemonics, constantly churning out pictures and associations and locating them in a mental map of her neighborhood that she can "visit" whenever she wants to access her memory. But when she becomes a nightclub performer, astonishing people with her mental talents, she comes up against an unexpected question--can her brain become full? And then what?

Samy is played by the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter, and every time she is off stage, you really, really wish she would come back. The other two performers, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill, playing various researchers, artists, and a one-handed magician, are also wonderful, and their scenes are entertaining, but it is Samy's story that most engages the heart and mind of the audience (at least this audience).

The problem with Valley of Astonishment is that much of it is old news to people who have read Oliver Sacks' books and who keep up with the ever-fascinating study of neurology and the brain. The show is elegant and often funny; the musicians Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori provide a soundscape of great beauty; and the poetry from the the Persian poem "The Conference of the Birds" is beautiful and evocative, but ultimately The Valley of Astonishment is slight. I had a good time, but if I had paid $50 to $100, I suspect that my predominant response would have been annoyance.

(balcony to the extreme side, press ticket)

Uncle Vanya

I have this theory about plays and movies. If the main character or another character learns something and grows, the piece can last hours. But if the characters remain stuck and learn nothing, the show can't be over two hours. Ninety minutes is ideal. Now, I understand that Uncle Vanya is a brilliant classic, but OMG the characters in it are annoying. No one learns a damn thing, and it's over two hours.

Does anyone ever learn anything in a Chekhov play? Chekhov was the patron saint of stuck people, people who can't read the writing on the wall, people who ignore good advice, people who sink into quicksand without even waving their arms and crying, "Help!" On one hand, I admire the heck out of Chekhov. His compassion and subtlety are impressive, and he juggles heartbreak and humor admirably. But if I never see another Chekhov play in my life, I will not mind at all.

The current production of Uncle Vanya at the Pearl is largely solid and well-acted. The scenery and costumes are effective. Hal Brooks' direction is good. The show's largest asset is Chris Mixon's performance as Vanya. Most Vanyas I've seen are pathetically kidding themselves during their "I coulda been a contender" speeches. They blame other people and the universe for making them the failures that they would have been anyway. In contrast, Mixon's Vanya has an undeniable spark and might really have accomplished something. His life is still his own fault and not anybody else's, but there is an extra level of meaning in his Vanya. Nevertheless, he still doesn't learn a damned thing.

(5th row center, press ticket)

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Country House

[As with my review of Indian Ink, this post contains what may be considered spoilers to some. Read ahead at your own risk. -CK]

Photo: Joan Marcus

The Country House is a rare--and a rather wide--miss for Donald Margulies. At first I wondered if this was due to the playwright stepping out of his comfort zone. Then I realized that he doesn't really have one. He's written everything from standard domestic dramas (his Pulitzer-winning Dinner With Friends to searing accounts of the effects of war (2010's Time Stands Still) to chamber plays like his famous two-hander, Collected Stories. His plays usually feature strong female characters, and this one--ostensibly, at least--is no different. In the end, I've come to believe that Margulies is weighed down by the anxiety of influence.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Fatal Weakness

If there is a theatrical heaven whence long-deceased playwrights can watch their work, then I'm certain that George Kelly is thrilled with The Mint's new production of his fascinating play, The Fatal Weakness, elegantly directed by Jesse Marchese. And I imagine he is particularly delighted with Kristin Griffith's wryly subtle performance as Mrs. Ollie Espenshade, a woman who discovers that she has been taking her marriage, her husband, and herself for granted. Griffith has an astonishing ability to simultaneously hide and reveal her emotions, just as she can be simultaneously heartbreaking and funny. Add to that her crack timing and superb listening skills, and the result is one heck of a performance.

Kristin Griffith, Cynthia Darlow
Photo: Richard Termine

Monday, September 15, 2014

Love Letters

Portrait by Ken Fallin

A.R. Gurney's Love Letters has long been a favorite of regional theatres and one-night-only benefits. Its conceit is simple: two performers--a man and a woman--sit side by side at an oak table and read the titular epistles, which amount to over fifty years' worth of correspondence. It's easy to produce, with a simple set and no props, and easy to entice well-known actors to participate, given the lack of necessary rehearsal and optional memorization. It's also, often, heavy on the schmaltz. I did not go into the current Broadway revival of the play, currently in previews at the Brooks Atkinson, expecting to be moved. Yet as the lights came up, I found tears in my eyes.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Indian Ink

[Note: This review contains potential plot spoilers. You have been warned. -CK]

Photo: Joan Marcus

Roundabout is starting its Broadway season with an all-star revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Beginning October 4, that production will shepherd the Broadway debuts of Ewan MacGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and feature the talents of Cynthia Nixon (who appeared, at eighteen, in the original New York production of the play) and Josh Hamilton. By all accounts, it will be an event. But Roundabout was not content to mount only one Stoppard offering this fall. The English master’s 1995 saga Indian Ink, featuring the indomitable Rosemary Harris, is currently in previews at the company’s Off-Broadway space, The Laura Pels Theatre. Helmed by American Conservatory Theatre’s artistic director Carly Perloff and featuring a smashing performance by the British actress Romola Garai, it’s a lush and luxurious staging of one of Stoppard’s most gratifying works.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

The acclaimed, awarded Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is currently benefitting from addition by subtraction. Neil Patrick Harris is gone, and he's understandably taken some star quality with him, but that's not necessarily a bad development. Currently filling out the wig and heels is Andrew Rannells, who, despite being the original star of the most successful musical in recent memory (The Book of Mormon), is not a huge name--or persona--in his own right. Whereas the awareness that you were watching a star playing a role was inescapable in Harris' interpretation of the "internationally ignored song stylist" who escaped communism and repression with a botched sex change, Rannells burrows deep into the character, wringing layer upon broken layer of meaning from John Cameron Mitchell's still-brilliant score. His voice is perfect--equal parts rock-tinged, poppy, and Broadway-beautiful--and his manner conveys an earthy sexuality that just feels so right for the role. It's a virtuoso performance that captivates the audience (now smaller, but no less fervent in its adoration) for the entire intermissionless performance. Michael Mayer's production and Spencer Liff's choreography remain boring and uninspired, and while Lena Hall is unquestionably excellent as Hedwig's husband/back-up singer Yitzhak, I still don't see it as a Tony-worthy role. Rannells continues as Hedwig through October 12; catch him while he's there.
[Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, without intermission. Rear balcony seats, $37.]

Thursday, September 04, 2014

You Can't Take It With You

photo: Joan Marcus

The new Broadway revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You is spectacularly bad. This, perhaps, shouldn’t be surprising. New York theatre no longer specializes in top-drawer revivals of the classic comedies of the twenties, thirties, and forties. Once in an ever-growing while, you’ll get a production like Doug Hughes’ The Royal Family, done for Manhattan Theatre Club in 2009, where a talented cast creates the kind of magic that makes you feel like the golden age never ended. More often, though, you end up with subpar stagings that might even make you question the integrity of the original work: the Kim Cattrall Private Lives; the Victor Garber Present Laughter; Roundabout’s ghastly Old Acquaintance. There are even more such productions of which I don’t care to be reminded.
This new take on the Pulitzer-winning classic, staged by Scott Ellis in a Roundabout co-production, seemed so promising. On paper, the cast is divine. The set takes your breath away as soon as the house lights dim. The incidental music by three-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown had my toes tapping. Yet as soon as the gums started flapping, I knew something was terribly wrong.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

You Can't Take It With You

Oh, the joys of a well-made, genuinely funny comedy. Oh, the joys of a solid cast of Broadway stalwarts doing what they do. Oh, the joys of a sold-out theatre rocking with laughter. Oh, the joys of Kaufman and Hart's classic, You Can't Take It With You.

With the thinnest of plots,  Messrs. Kaufman and Hart fill three acts with comic bliss. Tony Kirby loves Alice Sycamore. Alice loves Tony. Tony's family is staid. Alice's is idiosyncratic. Alice's family has Tony's over for dinner. All hell breaks loose. There is never any doubt about where the show is going, but, oh, the fun of getting there. You Can't Take It With You has begot many progeny, but none can touch it for sheer joy.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

This is Our Youth

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

In 2014, a play written in 1996 and set in 1982 is making its Broadway debut. Still with me? The play is This is Our Youth, the first major work by Kenneth Lonergan, who went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for the smart and touching film You Can Count on Me and make the Pulitzer shortlist for The Waverly Gallery. Some might consider This is Our Youth a modern classic: the acclaimed, extended original run in New York is often cited as a breakthrough not just for Lonergan but its original star, Mark Ruffalo; a long-running London production featured the likes of Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Paquin, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Chris Klein, to name just a few. Nearly twenty years after its premiere (and thirty years after it’s meant to take place), it’s on Broadway for the first time, in a production that’s billed as a “comedy” and coming direct from a well-received run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. I suppose the question is, does the play stand the test of time?

My answer, in short, is no. This handsome but lifeless production, staged by Tony winner Anna D. Shapiro and featuring the Broadway debuts of Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson, shows that what was once perhaps an immediate and recognizable appraisal of the play’s title “youth” has become not much more than a creak-ridden museum piece. It doesn’t help, either, that one member of the central acting trio is severely miscast.

And I and Silence

What happens when people have no options? Specifically, what happens when a pair of women, best friends who met in prison, try to make good lives for themselves in a world that has little use for them? In Naomi Wallace's poetic, uneven, heartbreaking, awkwardly named And I and Silence, what happens is not pretty.

Trae Harris and Emily Skeggs
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Jamie is black and smart and unyielding; she was an accessory to a robbery. Dee is white and uneducated and explosive; she stabbed someone in self-defense. When they meet, they are 17 and 16. Dee wants so much to be friends with Jamie, after seeing her stand up to a guard, that she sneaks from the white section to the black and shrugs off Jamie's rejections until Jamie succumbs to her admiration and offers of friendship and candy.

They spend much of their time together practicing to be maids. Jamie has the knowledge, and she tutors Dee in dusting, shining silver, and even how to bend down. They test each other's ability to put up with mean bosses and ill treatment. They discuss how to deal with sexual harassment (leave, and always remember to take your bucket and brush).

Allow Me to (Re)Introduce Myself

Hi, everyone! I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself. Or, depending on your history with this blog, re-introduce myself. I’m Cameron Kelsall, and I’m the new (old) writer for Show Showdown. Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while may remember me; I posted regularly as a contributing blogger here from 2009-2012. Prior to that, I was also a contributing writer for New Theater Corps, Channel 13’s companion blog to their wonderful program Theater Talk, and I maintained my own theatre-related blog, Theatre Snobbery, from 2006-2009.

I had to leave Show Showdown in 2012, when I moved to North Dakota for a teaching position. (Pro-tip: Don’t move to North Dakota for any reason. Just don’t do it.) After two years in the tundra, I recently moved back to NYC, and I am so happy that my fellow contributors have allowed me to resume sharing my opinions about my favorite subjects: live theatre and the arts. On a personal note, I am deeply honored to have this opportunity to continue the work of my dear friend Patrick Lee, who put his heart and soul into making this one of the best theatre blogs on the Internet.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Parade (New Hazlett Theater, Pittsburgh, PA)

Parade (book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown) is a musical about the 1913 Leo Frank case, which culminates in his lynching in 1915. A lot of people find entertainments about abominations of justice that culminate in brutal murders by angry mobs of morons to be sort of oxymoronic, which explains, at least in part, the chilly reception Parade got when it opened on Broadway in 2000, and closed after 39 previews and only 84 regular performances (the collapse of its chief producer, Livent, during its run, probably didn't help boost sales, either). Sure, it's possible to have a musical that is a smash hit and also a total downer--Cabaret and West Side Story are proof--but Parade came off as just a little too clinical, a little too two-dimensional, to stir the emotions of its audiences.

While this may be a central flaw in the musical, it's also one that I find particularly understandable. Leo Frank, after all, was unfairly accused of a murder, given an outrageously sham trial, and wrongly sentenced to death, basically because he was Jewish and unpopular. When the sentence was finally commuted to life in prison instead of death by hanging, he was promptly lynched by several upstanding members of the Marietta, Georgia, community (including a former governor of Georgia, several sheriffs, a judge, the mayor, and a general assemblyman who later formed the town's first Boy Scout troop). At their most basic, the events are so dreadful, so grotesque, so completely Kafkaesque, that I can understand the hesitancy among the creative team to flesh out the characters too deeply. Encouraging your audience to bond with a character who was, in reality, so terrifyingly doomed is its own fucked-up kind of torture. I would be willing to be that the creative team struggled mightily on this front.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Sunday at the Circus with the Bread and Puppet Theater

Photo: Me.

Bread and Puppet Theater, a politically radical puppet theater troupe, has been around since the early 1960s. In its first years, it was based in New York City, where, presumably, it fit in nicely with the many other socially conscious, and politically active fringe theater companies that had begun to crop up in the East and West Village as part of the mighty and influential Off Off Broadway movement. While most of the Off Off companies to emerge at the time were dedicated to using theater for social, cultural, and political change, Bread and Puppet set itself apart in ways that its name implies. First, it used puppets--graceful, beautiful, hand-made ones ranging from teeny-tiny ones to ones so enormous that they relied on several troupe members to lift, let alone operate. Second, it made a practice of serving its homemade sourdough rye bread to audiences after performances.
Robert Joyce papers, 1952-1973, Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.
The emphasis on puppets emerged from founder Peter Schumann's interests in dance, music, and sculpture; the practice of serving bread to the audience emerged from the company's interest in creating a sense of community among its audience members, and in encouraging spectators to think of the arts as just as central to life as food is.

Bread and Puppet left New York City in the early 1970s to become theater-in-residence at Goddard College, an innovative, low-residency liberal arts college in rural Plainfield, Vermont that was, at the time, a hotbed of radical thinking and artistic innovation. Once their residency ended there, the troupe decided to stay in Vermont. In 1974, they set up shop at a farm in Glover, Vermont, where they remain.