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Monday, January 08, 2018

Mankind

In Robert O'Hara's futuristic, dystopian fable Mankind, currently at Playwrights Horizons, women are extinct and men have evolved to reproduce without them. In an opening scene that is reasonably funny the first time, if exponentially less so each time it's repeated, Jason (Bobby Moreno) informs casual fuck-buddy Mark (Anson Mount) that he's pregnant. Despite Mark's impulse to "get rid of it," Jason ends up carrying the baby to term, because while women no longer exist, abortion remains illegal. As the play progresses, wackiness ensues: there are court trials and prison sentences, deaths, the invention of a new religion that splinters into various factions, a double marriage, many arguments, and two airings of a news-/reality-/game-/talk-show hybrid called "The Bob and Bob Show," featuring a Tom Brokaw-inspired Bob (Ariel Shafir) and a goofy, morning-show inspired Bob (David Ryan Smith).

Joan Marcus
In short, Mankind takes a lot of fantastical turns that I had no trouble buying: Absent women, the future is even more fucked up than it is now? Yup, sure. Money will win out over morality, ethics, or spiritual devotion? You bet. Various forms of lowbrow entertainment have merged with serious journalism? That's already happened, so why not? Lawyers will wear huge conical wigs and dress like the title character of The Wiz? Makes sense, especially since Andre DeShields himself plays the lawyer.

But abortion? Still illegal a century after women cease to exist? Even seemingly without the presence of some other oppressed group whose collective bodies become the endlessly manipulated tools of politics, religion, and all other aspects of culture? Sorry, buddy, you've lost me.

With Mankind, O'Hara repeatedly returns to the idea that the patriarchy destroys everything it touches: commerce, religion, intellect, law, the family, the environment, humanity. That's all well and good, but the play, which O'Hara also directs and which features an all-male cast, never attempts to wrestle with, or even approach, ways that a culture’s myriad ingrained hierarchies breed control, and thus institutionalized sexism. With some discussion of that in place--with even a fleeting examination of the fact that sexual inequality is bound with centuries of culturally sanctioned power and control ranging from the violently obvious to the impossibly subtle--O'Hara might have produced a compelling play about women's subjugation. But because he never digs below the surface--of the characters, the words they say, the world they occupy, or the ways any of this relates to the contemporary world--Mankind is simply an overlong, undercooked premise that has been explored more deftly elsewhere. The play purports to consider women's struggles for equality, but has erased women at every step. I'd say I've never experienced anything like it, but, of course, like pretty much everyone else in the world, I encounter entertainment that is overwhelmingly by, for, and about men, presented as universal, and dressed up as something more profound than it actually is pretty much every day, all my life.

Anyway, at least Mankind is too thinly developed, inconsistently written, and clunkily directed to be genuinely offensive. It comes off instead as sort of eye-rollingly typical: some man or another realizes that women have had it bad for a long time, does a smattering of research to back that eureka moment up, and then his project gets support, encouragement, and an audience. At its worst, Mankind's humor feels forced and its attempts at gravity patronizing; at its best, it's diverting. Truly, I dug "The Bob and Bob Show," especially the fine work done by Bob. The cast does what it can with scenes that go on too long, an awkward set, unflattering lighting, and a bunch of WTF costumes.

At the curtain call, the company solicits contributions to Planned Parenthood from the audience, which is nice, but feels like a hasty afterthought: a curt, pitying nod toward the far corner where the poor relatives have been seated for the sumptuous, expensive feast. I'd have appreciated the gesture a lot more had O'Hara's play seemed as if anyone involved had actually attempted to genuinely concern themselves with the plight of women--maybe, even, to have consulted with a couple in the process of writing, directing, producing, mounting, dramaturging, and writing program notes for a play that pretends to include us and help us bear our trials while so casually, even chummily, shoving us aside.

The School of Doing: Lessons From Theater Master Gerald Freedman

You may have heard of director Gerald Freedman. You may not have. But you've certainly heard of his work: Freedman assistant-directed the original West Side Story and Gypsy. He directed an early version of Hair before Tom O'Horgan brought it to Broadway. He directed various revivals of West Side Story and dozens of classics. He taught at Julliard in the early 1970s and was the dean of the University of North Carolina School of Arts for many years. He devoted seemingly every waking minute of his life to theater and its relatives film and opera. He was and is deeply admired by performers such as Mandy Patinkin, Christine Baranski, Patti LuPone, Chita Rivera, Kevin Kline, and many others.



And now there is a book that's sort of by him, sort of about him, and mostly about his beliefs on the making of theater. The School of Doing: Lessons From Theater Master Gerald Freedman is an odd, cobbled-together book. Author Isaac Klein took Freedman's words (gathered from personal interviews and various publications) and quotes from a who's-who of theater professionals and added his own commentary to create a book that is choppy, repetitious, uneven, and frequently annoying yet ultimately worthwhile reading for actors, directors, playwrights, and audience members interested in how the sausage is made.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Maggie Sulc's Top 10 of 2017 (Toronto)

I did not start reviewing until much later in 2017 for Show Showdown, but I still found it difficult to bring my list down to 10. Although, if I am being truly honest, only four of these are from Toronto. Read on for my performances to remember from 2017.

The Millennial Malcontent
Tarragon Theatre
I did not expect to enjoy this play. In fact, based on the title I was ready to skip it--yet another group saying bad, cliche things about my generation. But instead Millennial Malcontent took the tropes and structure of a Restoration drama and put it in the present day. I could tell that the older members of the theatre were uncomfortable during much of the show, but my friend and I were laughing up a storm. We could--for better or for worse--see parts of our present day reflected on stage.

Interstellar Elder
Toronto Fringe
The science fiction theme drew me in, and the amazing dance/clown performance held me for the entire hour-long performance. The sound design provided amazing narration and characterization for a pod carrying the human population in perpetual sleep until planet Earth becomes habitable again--but the physical performance by Ingrid Hansen stretched and looped time so we could experience life stuck on a space ship endlessly orbiting.

Photo of Ingrid Hansen by Laura Dittmann (from press release)

Hogtown

Hogtown Collective at Campbell House
Immersive theatre in the heart of Toronto that reflects Toronto history--and includes song and dance! I'm so glad I did not miss the 2017 remount of Hogtown. Guests go back to 1926 on the eve of the next mayoral election to follow gangsters, flappers, and a huge cast of characters through the rooms of the historic Campbell House. I found it the perfect combination of guided and free exploration and a great use of this public performance space. I can't wait to experience whatever this collective produces next.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

SpongeBob SquarePants

All entertainment, they say, is a reflection of its time, place, and culture. That certainly applies to the cheerfully gaudy, brilliantly staged SpongeBob SquarePants musical. It's an unapologetically--and, now, absolutely typically--cross-marketed vehicle, so there's that whole American obsession with commerce, consumption and getting more and more of the same shiny baubly things right there. Also, for its incredible silliness and good humor, its plot turns out to be pretty dark in ways that mirror contemporary preoccupations: Oh, no! Because of climate change, the deep-sea town of Bikini Bottom is going to be destroyed by an underwater volcano! Sandy (Lilli Cooper), the science-minded Texan squirrel who lives among the sea creatures, has a brilliant plan to save the day, but because she's an outsider, the townfolk won't listen to her. Some descend into heavily armed anarchy, while others idly put their faith in the town's incompetent, corrupt politicians. Some agree with the scheming Plankton (Wesley Taylor) that raising money for a huge escape pod is the way to go; SpongeBob's boss, Mr. Krabs (Brian Ray Norris), is especially beholden to the almighty dollar. A group of sardines forms a cult and makes the dimwitted starfish Patrick (Danny Skinner) their unwitting leader. And all poor Squidward (Gavin Lee) wants to do is take to the stage for a big sing-and-dance routine (he gets the eleven-o'clock number, and it's glorious). As all hell breaks loose and the town nears doom, will SpongeBob (Ethan Slater)--along with the misunderstood if brilliant Sandy and the perpetually befuddled if well-meaning Patrick--be able to save the day?

Joan Marcus
Um, yeah, of course, because if Bikini Bottom blew up, there'd be no more SpongeBob. So--spoiler alert!--the trio saves the day, and everyone Learns Something About Themselves and Others. In the process, there are plenty of reasonably catchy songs in a variety of styles, and flashy production numbers ranging from intimate to enormous, from Blankenbuelher to Ziegfeld. The show zips along, it's perfectly well-timed and charming, and the audience I saw it with seemed to have fun with it.

And yes, still, I realize I sound a little cynical about all this. That's because I am, much as I did enjoy the show. I've never been one to kid myself into thinking that the most intensely commercial center for American stage entertainment is ever purely concerned about art, but in the old art/commerce balance, this show leans a titch too hard into the commerce zone to gobble up without the occasional raised eyebrow. Sure, the show's fun, spectacular, and gorgeously realized, and the cast is incredibly game. Still, something about SpongeBob SquarePants left me colder than I wanted to be left. Maybe it's because it really did rely on tropes that serve to constantly remind spectators about how awful the world is right now. Maybe it was my mood, which because of the previous sentence tends toward the sour these days. Or maybe it's because the show is so completely, totally, overwhelmingly rooted to the cartoon from which it springs that I left the theater unconvinced that it was genuinely fulfilling--not just for me, but for the company. Is imitating the characters' voices and movements really accurately, reciting lines taken verbatim and reenacting entire scenes from the cartoon genuinely fulfilling for the monstrously talented cast? Is singing the SpongeBob theme song at the curtain call not a little tiring after a while? Behind the day-glo colors and the cheery facade, is this show a challenge for--well, for anyone? And does it have to be, or am I just an enormous buzzkill?

I know, I know, I sound like a snob--and a waffly one at that. But truly, in this case, and for all the charm and innovation on display, I just couldn't subsume my concerns enough to get lost in this production.

This being said, word of mouth on the show is what convinced me to see it in the first place. And I came in with prejudice: I don't typically like shows based as wholly on tv shows and movies as this one is. You might not care; a lot of people I know and respect were way more tickled by the production than I was. Still, for all its cheer, its goodwill--its heart--I couldn't help but feel like something about this production lacked soul.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: The Broadway Musical (Toronto)

For this last day in 2017 I treated myself to a Young People's Theatre (YPT) Production of Beauty and the Beast: The Broadway Musical. Watching this well-known story amongst the chattering of young people (otherwise known as children) did give me a new perspective on this "tale as old as time"--which is exactly what YPT's production aimed to do.

This production cut Disney Theatrical's Beauty and the Beast down to 85 minutes and transferred it to a much smaller stage. I usually do not read any program notes until after I see a show, but in this case I am glad I read Artistic Director Allen MacInnis's preface to this "chamber sized" production. It allowed me to focus on the story underneath all the spectacle: love and true acceptance between two outcasts, Beauty and the Beast.

Beast and Beauty dancing in YPT 2017 production of the Broadway Musical

I have been dreaming of the live staging of Beauty and the Beast since I was four years old. And in the past year, I have watched both the animated 90's version and live action 2017 movie many times--so switching that off to focus on a smaller retelling of the story did not come naturally. Then again, it didn't for the other young audience members either. I counted three different little girls wearing tiaras and the yellow Belle ballgown from the Disney movies. In the post show Q&A, the cast was quick to remind the children--and me--that they made Belle's dress pink instead of yellow on purpose. Without quite as much spectacle, MacInnis's production asked the audience to instead look at the characters and how they decided to change.

Sandra's Faves of 2017

Here's seven of my 2017 favorites. Why seven? Well, in many cultures seven is considered sacred, both beneficial and protective for its bearer.

Honestly? Seven is all I got. I probably saw about two dozen shows this year, but these are the ones that stayed with me.
Christine Lahti
1.Signature Theater's Fucking A by Suzan-Lori Parks takes Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and goes all The Handmaiden's Tale on it. This play was produced in tandem with Parks' In the Blood as part of The Red Letter Plays, where the playwright presented two works under a common theme. I never saw the other play; I only saw Fucking A after a friend offered me an extra ticket -- and I'm glad she did. Maybe it's the time we live in, but this piece with no real heroes, and rampant with class conflict, sexism, corruption and greed resonated with me, offering pleasure in the discomfort of it all. Yet, still humanity is evident: in the loyalty of friendships; in the unwavering love of a parent; of the surprise that in a terrible, dark world, there is goodness. A contemporary Hester Smith (Christine Lahti) seeks to buy her jailed son’s freedom — by becoming the reviled, but needed, local abortionist in a story that blends dialogue and song, directed by Obie Award-winner Jo Bonney (Father Comes Home From the Wars). The entire cast is outstanding, with Lahti making her character sympathetic despite her myopic focus on vengeance and Marc Kudisch, evoking the brutish charm from his long-ago role as Gaston and notching it a bit higher as a corrupt mayor. 

2. Hello, Dolly! provided delightful escapism wrapped in spectacular technicolor sets and costumes (Santo Loquasto). Tony Award-winner Bette Midler deserves her accolades - she makes the most of every moment on stage, whether she's eating a meal or walking regally through a calvacade of singing waiters wearing a sequined red dress. While her dancing is more like well-choreographed placement than spirited, she always is riveting, the center of attention. Another outstanding cast is here, headed by David Hyde Pierce playing the cranky Horace Vandergelder, Gavin Creel as Cornelius Hackl and Kate Baldwin as Irene Molloy. I also love Jennifer Simard as Ernestina - I've been a fangirl of hers since she played a gambling-addict nun in Disaster! Add all this to Jerry Herman's music and lyrics, with standards such as "Hello, Dolly!" and "Before the Parade Passes By," and I almost forgot how uncomfortable the upper-level seats in the Shubert Theatre were.

3. The Band's Visit -- in a world where Mean Girls and Cruel Intentions are future options, here's a movie adaption I can truly endorse. Based on a 2007 Israeli film directed by Eran Kolirin, David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’s soft-spoken story of Egyptian musicians stranded in a beleagured Israeli desert town, shows the beauty of brief, unexpected connections. The plot is slight - no one falls in love, no dilemas solved - yet, for a moment, loneliness meets kinship; the quiet is filled with music; and strangers offer kindness, food and shelter rather than disdain and hatred. Director David Cromer links in lovely moments of hope fulfilled - from a lover who waits by a pay phone for hours each night, waiting to be remembered by his girl to a shy boy learning to flirt from a foreigner who tags along on his blind date. For 24 hours, everyone is exposed to "Something Different" (beautifully sung by Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub) and that becomes a lasting memory for all.

Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk 
4. Arcadia -- when I saw Tom Stoppard's Arcadia in 1995 I loved it so much I bought the script during intermission. The revival by PTP/NYC at Atlantic Stage 2 this summer allowed me to revisit that moment. Their delightful production features a stripped down set by Mark Evancho that the audience can walk through parts during the intermission. It's this intimacy that makes this production so special. As the play switches between time periods, the set and props remain the same -- even as different characters inhabit the space. These details seem more noticeable in a 98-seat theater. Andrew William Smith is also terrific as Septimus Hodge.

5. A Doll's House, Part 2. The audacity Lucas Hnath showed writing a sequel to Ibsen's play impressed me. His middle-aged Nora Helmer feels authentic and feisty. The show is funny, even as it questions serious, complex topics such as the role of women in society and the institution of marriage (Does love last forever? Does marriage imprison its participants?) Tony Award winner Laurie Metcalf offers us an imperfect, sympathetic Nora: selfish, brave, risk-taker. Anne Marie, the maid, is played by Jayne Houdyshell, who provides an excellent foil for the jokes and a voice of reason when things become more complicated.

6. Cost of Living -- A flawed show with a too-pat, coincidental plot, where no one is readily likable -- my favorite Ani (Katy Sullivan), a red-headed double amputee from New Jersey, is foul-mouthed and petulant. But most grow on you. Martyna Majok's play offers a compelling look at two disabled characters and the people who care for them: Ani and her ex-husband Eddie (Victor Williams) and John (Gregg Mozgala), a rich, arrogant grad student who has cerebral palsy, and Jess (Jolly Abraham), who works several jobs and still can't make ends meet. The intimate look at what such care taking requires sometimes shocks the audience. When Ani slips in the bath after Eddie leaves her momentarily alone, audible gasps are heard. Ultimately, though, this is a play about relationships, not disabilities -- and how people fail, and support, each other.

7. The short-lived Bandstand offered a compelling view of the price the survivors of war pay, packaged in the bright days of the Bandstand era. Director Andy Blakenbuehler's choreography suggests that patina of darkness when his characters move in sudden moments of anguish, with one number, "Right This Way," showing the war's burden as individuals are dragged down even as they try to move forward. The story centers around Donny (Corey Cott), who struggles through his homecoming, finally finding some satisfaction by forming a band to compete in a "Tribute to the Troops" contest. All the members saw active service and suffer from their war memories. I can see why Bandstand had trouble finding an audience - this darkness mixed with so many upbeat scenes is discomforting. This is not the typical, linear upbeat musical. Plus, the musical has flaws - many of the band members aren't fully fleshed out nor do all the plot lines feel authentic. Still, the upbeat numbers such as "First Steps First" and "You Deserve It" are fun ... as is watching the dancers perform the period's signature shrugs and swiveling hips. Laura Osnes sings the heck out of the score, too.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Mankind

Robert O'Hara's new comedy Mankind, which he also directs, doesn't officially open at Playwright's Horizon until January 8, so it's way too early to review it. But I do have a comment or two.


The show takes place in a future in which only men exist. O'Hara takes this premise to some surprising and some unsurprising places.

Audience response was extremely mixed, with some people walking out during intermission and others laughing their butts off.

One problem is that the pacing is waaay, waaaay, waaaaay too slow. Between actors drawing out their dialogue with more pauses than words, much repetition, and tedious, too-frequent scene changes, the show runs easily 15 minutes longer than it needs to. I wonder if O'Hara would be better served by a different director than himself.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Liz Wollman's Top Ten of 2017

Good golly, Miss Molly, a top-ten list is a hard list to come up with, especially during a year when I found myself escaping to the theater as often as I possibly could. So many choices! So much talent! So much horrible, soul-sucking news to run away from every damn day!

Still, I'm copying Wendy (and nearly every other writer, critic, editorial board, website, and borglike crystalline entity that generates year-end lists) by keeping my list to ten (though there is an honorable mention list. So sue me). Here they are, then, in alphabetical order, because coming up with a tippy-top of the top ten is just too hard in my tail-end-of-an-exhausting-year state of mind.

1) Bandstand. 
This short-lived musical had trouble finding an audience or selling itself in any plausible way. Who can blame it? "Hey! Come see our really dark, depressing musical about broken, shattered, completely fucked-up GIs home from World War II! There's really groovy period dancing!" I was surprised by how much I loved it, my kid loved it, and the friends we saw it with loved it. Groovy period dancing notwithstanding, this portrait of people coping with PTSD ("shell shock") by forming a band was deeply engaging. I wish very much that it had caught on.



2) Cost of Living. 
I am so grateful for the small explosion of plays by, about, and for people with disabilities that has been happening on local stages in the past few years. Martina Majok's four-character piece about disability, intersectionality, and human connections leaned a little hard at times on conventional plot turns, but the characters were real, their situations fleshed out and appropriately complicated, their lives never presented as feel-good disability porn. And gee, wow, what a concept: actors with actual disabilities were cast as the disabled characters!


3) Dear Evan Hansen
Is Evan a sweet, well-meaning if cripplingly neurotic teenager, or a manipulative, lying little shitbag who should burn in hell for all of eternity? Either way, whatever, the musical totally worked for me. Ben Platt was as incredible as everyone said he was, and the rest of the cast was pretty amazing, too. Also, "So Big/So Small" is possibly the best song about being a mom I've ever heard, and Rachel Bay Jones' rendition of it levels me every single time I hear it.

4) The Glass Menagerie.
A production that was hotly polarizing in local theater circles, Sam Gold's stripped-down Menagerie was hated as much as--if not (alas) more than--it was loved. But it resonated with me like little else did this year. See #2 above for at least a few of the reasons I appreciated it as much as I did. Thanks to everyone involved for taking the risks you did with this. You can't win 'em all, but for what it's worth, you won me over in a big way.

5) Jesus Hopped the A Train.
Stephen Adly Guirgis has been around for a long while now, but for whatever reason, I never got around to seeing The Motherfucker with the Hat or Between Riverside and Crazy, or any of his other many plays that are staged frequently in New York. Big ups to the wonderful Signature Theater for beginning a retrospective of his older plays this fall;  I can't wait to see more.

6) Jitney.
A gorgeous revival of one of Wilson's most accessible plays. I grew up in a very different (read: white, affluent) Pittsburgh, which remains as stubbornly segregated as it was when I was a kid (feh, name an American city that isn't.). Still, I love the complicated, endearing, real characters in this show, I love the town the characters live in, and I have always thrilled at Wilson's references to various neighborhoods and local institutions (Damn it, Turnbo, Monroeville's houses are no nicer than the ones in Penn Hills!).

7) Mary Jane
OK, so I maybe lied when I said above that coming up with a tippy-top favorite of the year was impossible. I loved absolutely everything about this show--every finely-wrought character, every honest if difficult depiction, every directorial choice, every nuanced performance. An added, if random bonus: Jake Gyllenhaal sat a few rows behind us in the small New York Theater Workshop, and it was fun watching other audience members devise increasingly inventive ways of casually checking him out before and after the show.

8) People, Places and Things.
An import from London, this harrowing piece about an actress trying to get and remain sober was not nearly as conventional as I feared it would be. Denise Gough's tour-de-force performance was certainly worth the price of admission, but then, the rest of the cast was pretty brilliant, too. No trite, feel-good play about beautiful, fragile addicts triumphing over adversity, People, Places and Things instead emphasizes just how incredibly hard sobriety is, how much emotional work goes into it, and how very easy it is to get sidetracked by everything the play's title suggests.

Zbigniew Bzymek
9) The Town Hall Affair.
The Wooster Group's multimedia re-enactment of Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker's 1971 documentary Town Bloody Hall says a lot about second-wave feminism and its discontents in the course of one fleeting hour. I recognize that we're living through an extraordinarily tumultuous, challenging and important period in American feminist history right now; this production made me appreciate the fact that even though we've clearly got miles to go, we've nevertheless come a very long way, too. To that end, the decision to have Norman Mailer played by two guys at the same time was a stroke of fucking genius.

10) The Wolves
How often do you see a play--or any kind of mass entertainment--that perfectly captures the social lives of average American teenage girls? And when you do, how often is what you see ultimately played for condescending laughs, or cheap sexualized thrills or both? Teen girls are almost never taken seriously as three-dimensional human beings, and it's only with brilliant, nuanced shows like this that one becomes fully aware of how very often their conversations, vocal inflections, slang, and cultural tastes are used for cheap comic effect: oh, those dumb little geese! How trivial they are! How shrill! How silly their music, style and social codes are! Like, ohmigoooood, squeeeee, riiiiight? Still, they're so young and perky, let's objectify them! The Wolves, an absolutely dead-on portrait of teenage girls who play together on a suburban soccer team, slides a little too close to conventional theatrical devices near the very end, but who the hell cares? It's funny, affecting, fascinating, and not even the teeniest bit nasty, condescending, or objectifying. More, please.

Honorable mention:
1984 (Broadway), 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (St. Ann's Warehouse), A Doll's House Part 2 (Broadway), Everybody (Signature), The Golden Apple (Encores), Hamlet (the Public), Hello, Dolly! (Broadway, with Donna Murphy), Meteor Shower (Broadway), Say Something Bunny (UNDO Project Space)