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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Pink Unicorn

Trisha Lee works as a cleaner in a hospital in Sparkton, Texas. She is a church-going Christian. She adored her late husband. The focus of her life is her 14-year-old daughter Jolene. Or is it Jo? And what does "gender fluid" mean? And will Trisha ever get used to calling Jolene, no, Jo, "they"?

Photo: JazelleArtistry

While Trisha is gob-smacked at Jo's announcement of gender fluidity, she responds totally from a place of love. Well, love mixed with confusion and fear. And when her pastor compares the LGBT community to Nazis, and the school system cancels all after-school activities rather than allow a Gay-Straight Alliance, Trisha finds herself turning into an activist, even while dragging her feet at every step.

Although playwright Elise Forier Edie, herself the parent of a trans child, occasionally leans toward "transgender 101" in Pink Unicorn, she also fills the play with love and compassion and knowledge and an important sense of the grays in which most people live, rather than the blacks and whites of the doctrinaire and the haters. 

Edie is most fortunate in having Amy E. Jones as her director and, particularly, Alice Ripley as Trish. Among other strengths, Jones utilizes the whole stage in Pink Unicorn, providing visual variety in this one-woman show while never having Trish's movements seem arbitrary. And Ripley imbues Trish with a deep humanity. One-person shows can be staid, but Ripley brings Pink Unicorn to life by reliving the story as she tells it to us.

Wendy Caster
(first row; press ticket)
Show-Score: 80

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Caroline, or Change

One of the themes of the gorgeous and heart-breaking Caroline, or Change, the story of an African-American maid working for a Jewish family in the 1960s South, is that "change come fast, change come slow, but change come." Caroline, written by Tony Kushner with music by Jeanine Tesori, premiered in 2003. Unfortunately, in 2019, in the superb production currently playing at APAC in Queens, another one of its themes is that change is still terribly needed.

Lauren Singerman, LaDonna Burns
Photo: Michael R. Dekker
Caroline's life is tediously difficult. She spends far too much of it cleaning and doing the Gellmans' laundry in a hot room in the hot South. She has four kids, and she would do anything for them--such as continuing to do the Gellmans' laundry in that purgatory of a laundry room. Larry, her oldest, is in Vietnam, "wherever that is." Her next oldest, Emmie, has a mind of her own, which terrifies Caroline but also makes her proud.

Noah, the 8-year-old son of the Gellman family, is always sad, but he is comforted by what he perceives as his friendship with Caroline. Noah's mother died a few years back, and his father married her best friend Rose. Noah's father is wraith-like nonpresence, and Noah hates Rose, mostly for not being his dead mother. But he adores Caroline despite her anger and unwillingness to be nice to him. Rose, whose good-heartedness is unfortunately dwarfed by her cluelessness, also tries to befriend Caroline.

Noah tends to leave change in his pockets when he puts his pants in the hamper. Rose decides to teach him a lesson, and to "help" Caroline, by telling Caroline to keep whatever money she finds. In Kushner's brilliant hands, this small, weird decision turns that awful laundry room into a crucible in which Caroline's heart and soul are tested.

Caroline combines theatrical magic realism (the washer and dryer are personified) with hard-hitting reality (Caroline's ex-husband being refused employment after the war because he's black; bills that can't be paid; buses that never come). It has humor and warmth amid the heartbreak, and its deep sadness is mitigated for the audience by its deep beauty. Tesori's thrilling score utilizes the sounds of Motown, spirituals, blues, Motown, and klezmer, with perfectly chosen quotes from well-known songs (e.g., "America, the Beautiful"). Kushner's book and lyrics work on many levels, with wit, compassion, and great humanity.



Caroline is not an easy show to do. It requires a first-class cast and a director with a sure hand. In the APAC production, it has both, along with a small but excellent band and solid production values.

The role of Caroline demands a tour de force performance that ranges from subtlety to raw power. LaDonna Burns' performance is frighteningly good. Even while keeping Caroline as closed-off and angry as she needs to be, Burns provides a three-dimensional portrait of a complex woman who is a hero with a horribly limited battlefield and no parades or medals. (To further attest to Burns' outstanding talent, she was an amazing Stella in APAC's Follies, funny and likeable.)

The rest of the cast is also top-notch, really as good as you could ask for. My only complaint was that a couple of people didn't project that well, but all in all it was an extreme pleasure to hear the casts' glorious voices unmiked.

Caroline is directed by Dev Bondarin, of whom I am a great fan. Bondarin goes to the heart of a show, understands it on all levels, and honors the work by presenting it in its best light. I saw Caroline, or Change both Off-Broadway and on, and thanks to Bondarin and everyone else involved, this production is every bit as amazing.

Wendy Caster
(first row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 98






Monday, April 29, 2019

Lady in the Dark

What an odd show is Lady in the Dark. Consisting largely of three dream sequences, it lacks forward propulsion and is frequently overdone and/or pointless and/or flabby, particularly in the first act. But it has some gorgeous songs, and the recent MasterVoices version had Victoria Clark in the lead role. She of course nailed the second act's two wonderful numbers, the energetic and funny "Saga of Jennie" and the wistful and lovely "My Ship."

Victoria Clark et al.
Photo: Richard Terminer

The plot, such as it is, is simple: Liza Elliott (Clark), editor of the fashion magazine Allure, is slowly unraveling and doesn't understand why. Her main symptom is her inability to decide between using "the Easter cover" or "the circus cover"; she has lost her certainty at work and in the world. Elliott lives with a married man and is glad of the limitations of the arrangement. She also goes on a few dates with a movie star. And then there is the advertising manager of the magazine, with whom she spars regularly and who seems to get who she really is. But she feels detached and at sea, so she goes into therapy, and her problems are solved in three sessions (if only!) via the dream sequences.

Ted Sperling who directed this Lady in the Dark and who runs MasterVoices, has spoken of wanting to do this show with Clark since they were teenagers. I'm glad for them that their dreams came true. However, the MasterVoices chorus was not well-served, particularly in the large and awkward City Center, where their 100-plus voices were lost amid the murky acoustics. (In contrast, in their most recent show, Night Songs and Love Waltzes, they could be heard loud and clear and were downright thrilling. But that was in Alice Tully Hall, whose acoustics are about a million percent better than City Center's.)

Sperling made at least a couple of other tactical blunders. One was having Clark sing "My Ship" sitting on the floor the stage. He has probably never sat in the balcony of City Center, but I have, so I know how mediocre the sight lines are up there. Even in theatres with good sight lines, many audience members will have trouble seeing someone sitting on the floor! It's a particularly questionable decision considering the importance of the song to the show. Another bad choice was having/allowing David Pittu to play a gay character in a wince-worthily fey performance that would have been cliché/offensive decades ago, let alone in 2019. (On All That Chat, sergius called his performance "gay minstrelsy," which sums it up perfectly.)

I enjoyed "Lady in the Dark" only intermittently. I'm not a huge fan of Ira Gershwin; I hated the choreography; I didn't like the costumes; and I thought the dream sequences were way too long. But many other people loved it, and I suspect this is a classic case of "to each her own."

I look forward to the next time I can actually hear the MasterVoices singers.

Wendy Caster
(1st row, grand tier, press ticket)
Show-Score: 70

Monday, April 22, 2019

King Lear

As you probably already know, in the old days theatre critics wrote their reviews right after seeing the performances. In fact, as the shows ended, the critics ran up the aisles to maximize their writing time before deadline.



If it were still the old days, and if I had written my review of King Lear right after seeing it, I would have given it an excellent review. I was caught up in the glow of a Saturday night performance in good seats watching a play I love starring many actors I deeply admire.

But time has passed, and the glow is gone. I have had time to realize that, yeah, the sound and fury did signify nothing. Glenda Jackson was great fun, but, really, Lear shouldn't be great fun. I respected and enjoyed her performance, but she didn't touch me. I thought that Ruth Wilson was quite good, while Elizabeth Marvel was not at her best (far from her best, really). The third sister, Aisling O'Sullivan, shrieked her way through the show; she was terrible, but I appreciated her commitment. (And, yeah, the three sisters all had different accents; consistency was not a characteristic of this production.) Jayne Houdyshell and John Douglas Thompson were excellent, as Jayne Houdyshell and John Douglas Thompson always are.

But what play was everybody in? Some seemed to be in Shakespeare's actual Lear; some seemed to be in a star-turn Lear; some seemed to be in a satire of Lear; and still others seemed to be in a college version directed by a young person with more imagination than skill.

This is not the first time I've seen such a distinguished cast end up in such a jambalaya of a classic. In fact, the criticism "they all seemed like they were in different shows" has become common in recent years, particularly when the cast is star-studded.

Way back when, in the days of affordable Broadway, before directors decided that their ideas are more important than the playwrights', classics weren't events. Instead, they were solid productions, true to the writing, with cast members all in the same time period and speaking the same language. Many of these productions lacked big stars, but they were excellent. I miss them.

Wendy Caster
(3rd row center; $159)
Show-Score: 70

The Pain of My Belligerence

My sister once said that, while the worst men are incredibly sleazy, the worst women are incredibly stupid. In the world premiere of The Pain of My Belligerence at Playwrights Horizons, writer Halley Feiffer spends 80 interminable, tedious, painful minutes demonstrating this point.

Feiffer, Linklater
Photo: Joan Marcus
The plot is simple: Cat, a needy woman, falls for an obnoxious, self-involved, asshole of a man named Guy who bites her, doesn't let her talk, and, oh, yeah, is married. They stay together for years. Time is marked--and faux significance is ham-handedly shoved into the show--by various elections, of course including that of Donald Trump. In her note in the program, Feiffer writes,
This play aims to explore the corrosive effects of the patriarchy on women and men alike—to examine the culture that has created the phenomenon of toxic masculinity and its insidious effects, and to start imagining ways we can break free...
Blah, blah, blah. Even the patriarchy deserves fairer representation than this boring, unpleasant play and the morons it depicts. Also, millions of humans have grown up in patriarchies but many still think for themselves, challenge themselves to grow, and take responsibility for their own behavior.

[spoiler]

In the third scene of The Pain of My Belligerence, Cat meets Guy's wife Yuki. She is a complicated, original character, and this scene is almost kinda sorta not terrible.

[end of spoiler]

Playwright Feiffer plays Cat; her acting is moderately better than her writing, but she lacks the sort of texture and subtlety that could make Cat bearable and/or sympathetic. Guy is played by Hamish Linklater, who is almost handsome enough to justify Cat's complete and voluntary subjugation to him. Yuki is beautifully played by Vanessa Kai, who brings way more class to the show than it deserves.

I have rarely hated a play as actively and deeply as I hated this one. The minutes nanometered along, and my desire to leave the theatre grew almost unbearable by the ninth hour of its ostensible 80 minutes. When it finally ended, I commented to my friend, "Of all the plays I've ever seen, this show would make the top 10 of shows I hated the most." She replied, "Top 5."

Wendy Caster
(third row on the aisle; press ticket)
Show-Score: 0

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Hadestown

It's a sad song
It's a sad tale, it's a tragedy
It's a sad song
But we sing it anyway

'Cause here's the thing: 
To know how it ends 
And still begin to sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
I learned that from a friend of mine

See, Orpheus was a poor boy
But he had a gift to give: 
He could make you see how the world could be
In spite of the way that it is

Helen Maybanks
One of the many miracles of Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin's strange, stunning folk opera at the Kerr, is the richly bittersweet way it manages to simultaneously lament and celebrate the endless repetitions that make up human lives. In so many ways, most all of them beautiful in execution, this haunting show teases out the endless redundancies and rituals that lead us from birth to death, pointing out along that way that cycles can be a drag, but also the source of joy and celebration. Life might seem futile in its repetitions, Hadestown implies, but so long as there's the potential for beauty, love and ritual, it isn't a waste.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Bathsheba's Psalms Or, a Woman of Unusual Beauty Taking a Bath

Tanyamaria. Background - Elizabeth Kenny, Marisela Grajeda Gonzalez, C. Bain.
Photo credit: Jody Christopherson



A fresh take on the Old Testament’s tale of King David and Bathsheba, April Ranger’s play, in its world premiere at The Tank, uses vulgarity and contemporary touchstones to create an occasionally provocative discussion on sex and power politics.

The play updates the traditional story of how King David, who already had several wives, spies Bathesheba bathing as he walks along his palace roof and decides he must bed her. The married beauty reluctantly engages in a tryst, and David purposely sends her soldier husband to the frontlines where he perishes. In the biblical version, David eventually shows remorse for his deeds, and accepts his punishment. The story represents God’s forgiveness and the possibility for redemption.

In Ranger’s version, no redemption is possible. David embraces his lascivious ways until the end of his life and no character ever moves forward. Bathesheba is never more than a pawn trapped in a culture where power, privilege and masculinity rule. Despite giving her story centerstage as actors quote from the imaginary “Bathsheba’s Psalms” and “The Book of Beauty,” Ranger’s take only reinforces the reality of life’s unfairness for women, offering little new perspective. Still, she allows us to see the familiar trope in all its ugliness. When messengers come to bring Bathsheba to King David, one states: “Come to the palace so the king can hold your breasts and ass and smell you and fuck you.” The strong language jostles the audience, plunging them into Bathesheba’s hardship: a moral dilemma with no real choice, but acquiescence. The harshness would work better if the play employed less cursing though. The show uses salty language so consistently that it eventually becomes ineffectual.

Bathesheba faces her situation with grace and humor—elaborately running away although she knows there is no escape. Despite her lack of options, she still must endure the judgment of society. When Bathesheba visits a pharmacy to obtain the morning-after pill after the king impregnates her, the clerk mocks her, saying, “We’re a Christian nation now. No more murdered babies on our hands.”

The hypocrisy exposed by the situation is unfortunately not unfamiliar and while Ranger updates the story with pop-culture nods to movies such as "Top Gun" and video games, she never moves the topic beyond simply acknowledging that time and modernity have not remedied the inequity of power.

Bathesheba, played by Tanyamari, embraces a graceful outlook on what life offers her—something the actress, who seemingly glows from within, conveys. Instead, Bathesheba finds beauty in the sunrise. Production designer Itohan Edoloyi casts lovely lighting across the sparse stage during these moments, allowing the audience to see the potential of the brand new day even as Bathesheba’s reality closes around her. The future mother of King Solomon has an overt sexuality that mingles with her dignity. She is sexy and she knows it, but that trait doesn’t define her as a woman, even if it’s how society labels her.

Christina Roussos’ direction introduces whimsy into the story, with missives dropping from the ceiling and a child’s playroom box of costumes on stage. Actors use the accessories to suggest characters, grabbing the crown to play David and a vest to become Uriah, Bathesheba’s husband. Rousso uses just four actors, a Greek chorus of sorts, that play all of the secondary characters, mixing and matching personas and genders. Some do better than others. While Marisela Grajeda Gonzalez flubbed too many words, C Bain consistently recites lines with fluidity and emotion.

“Bathesheba” ends April 21. The Tank is at 312 W. 36th St.

(Press ticket, third row).





Wednesday, April 03, 2019

The Cradle Will Rock

Marc Blitzstein's 1937 "play in music," The Cradle Will Rock, uses theatre as a political soapbox. Its scathing depictions of the hypocrisies of capitalism, religion, and other societal icons remain painfully apt today, and there is no doubt that it is an important work. It is also dull.

Lara Pulver
Photo: Joan Marcus
John Doyle's direction uses cutesy devices to try to liven up the evening, but he can't fight the reality that 90 minutes of in-your-face lecturing set to nonmelodious music is a slog.

It doesn't help that Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, with all of the performers wearing blue and gray work clothes, add a layer of monotony to the proceedings and remove the physical cues that help to distinguish not only character from character but also class from class.

The cast--Ken Barnett, Eddie Cooper, Benjamin Eakeley, David Garrison, Ian Lowe, Kara Mikula, Lara Pulver, Sally Ann Triplett, Rema Webb, and Tony Yazbeck--is excellent. It is a treat to hear their beautiful unmiked voices.

But a lecture is a lecture, and the evening simply doesn't work for me. (However, the show received an enthusiastic standing ovation the night I saw it.)

Wendy Caster
(2nd row, audience right, press ticket)
Show-Score: 70