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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Art Times: What We Can Do When We Work Together

My latest essay is up at Art Times
I just voted, and I’m a nervous wreck. The sad truth is that no matter who wins, it’s not going to be pretty. We seem to have lost the ability as a country to work together toward a common goal, if indeed we ever had it. 
And that’s one of the many reasons I adore theatre.
[keep reading]


Katharine Hepburn and Constance Collier
in Stage Door

Monday, November 05, 2018

The Thanksgiving Play

I see political correctness as largely a good thing. For me, it connotes trying to honor other people and their needs; calling people by their chosen names; respecting that people with different backgrounds have different experiences; and so on. On the other hand, political correctness can be taken waaay too far. Larissa FastHorse's wonderful new comedy, The Thanksgiving Play, takes place on the other hand.

Greg  Keller,  Jennifer  Bareilles, 
Jeffrey  Bean,  Margo  Seibert
Photo: Joan Marcus
Four people assemble to develop a thanksgiving play for an elementary school. They are to be the writers and the performers. Logan (Jennifer Bareilles) is the director. She works at the school, and the posters on the walls (the witty scenic design is by Wilson Chin) attest to her theatre tastes and values. Her boyfriend, Jaxton, self-righteously humble, is so thrilled to be involved that he is performing without pay. Caden (Jeffrey Bean), a history teacher and playwright wannabe, knows all about the truth of the "real Thanksgiving," which of course was not exactly full of turkeys, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and good will. The fourth writer/performer is Alicia (Margo Seibert), a well-known actress who has been promised a big paycheck. Logan and the others defer to her since she is Native American and therefore her opinions must come first.


Inner Voices 2018

Every couple of years, the theatre company Premieres commissions three sung monologues. The writers are given no limitations in terms of content or theme. The latest three monologues, Inner Voices 2018, display a remarkable range of styles, voices, and content. Two are terrific; the third less so. But all are worth seeing, and it's a unique evening in the theatre.



The first show of the evening, Window Treatment, was my favorite. Farah Alvin plays a kind of sweet stalker who is in love with a man who lives across the way. He doesn't have curtains, and she watches him, lovingly and creepily, with binoculars. She has also followed him in the real world, but has never spoken to him. Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer (words) and Daniel Green (music), the show is stuffed full of psychological insight and humor. Alvin's performance makes the most of her amazing voice, excellent acting, and heartfelt clowning. It's a real treat.

Waiting for Godot

The superb Druid production of Waiting for Godot, which is part of the Lincoln Center White Light festival, is damn close to perfect. Garry Hynes's meticulous direction exquisitely balances the pain and humor of Beckett's heartbreakingly funny play. While the famous review of Godot, saying that "nothing happens...twice," is not untrue, the show is full of emotion and meaning. What exactly it means has been debated, but certain themes seem clear: Life is meaningless and absurd. Most of us nevertheless choose to go on living. Human connection helps.

Aaron Monaghan, Marty Rea
Photo: Richard Termine

Godot hits particularly hard this time around, with the rich bully Pozzo, full of bluster and in desperate need of constant flattery, being a scarily effective stand-in for our 45th president.

Aaron Monaghan as Estragon and Marty Rea as Vladimir combine their wonderful sometimes-subtle, sometimes-broad acting with a physical grace that is a sheer joy to watch. Another gift for the eyes is the gorgeous set (designed by Francis O'Connor), which turns Beckett's tree, stone, and road into a Van Gogh-esque landscape of barren beauty.

Photo: Wendy Caster

Everyone affiliated with the production provides top-notch work, including Rory Nolan as Pozzo, Garrett Lombard as Lucky, and designers James F. Ingalls (lighting) and Gregory Clarke (sound). A special tip of the hat to movement director Nick Winston, whose work deliciously blends clowning and grace.

This production only runs through November 13, which is a pity.

(Aside: in an article in the program, designer O'Connor says that Beckett's specific scenery descriptions turned out to be liberating. He adds, "They made us ask fundamental questions, to investigate those few things he allows and how they interact. We asked, What is 'tree"? What is 'stone'? What is 'road'?" Really? Really?? It seems like laughable nonsense to me, and yet O'Connor's set is a work of art. So, what do I know?)

Wendy Caster
(8th row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 97

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Big Apple Circus

If you have any interest in circuses; if you love the daring young people on the flying trapeze; if you are entertained by amazing juggling or impressed by feats of strength or fascinated by people who can bend their bodies like proverbial pretzels or balance way high in the air, go see the Big Apple Circus!

Photo: Amy Schachter

The Big Apple Circus provides the chills, thrills, laughs, and ooohs and aaaahs of a three-ring circus in one small ring, with a level of intimacy that adds to the fun. The ringmaster, who doesn't actually do much, is the fabulous Stephanie Monseu, with a haircut like Annie Lennox's, a huge smile, and a ton of presence. The clowns (new style clowns, without painted faces) are genuinely funny. The performers are completely amazing. And there's a new act, called Wall Trampoline, which is unlike anything I've ever seen before. No description could do it justice. Just go see it!

I can't guarantee that "a good time will be had by all," but I'd bet on "a good time will be had by at least 99%."

Wendy Caster
(2nd row, press ticket)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Oklahoma!

Daniel Fish's absolutely stunning Oklahoma, currently at St. Ann's Warehouse where I wish it could somehow live forever, never loses sight of America's gloried past even as it confronts its darkly sinister present. The production is all the more remarkable considering the fact that it's a revival of the alpha and omega of the musical stage, for crying out loud: Oklahoma! is so frequently positioned as the culmination of all that came before it and the catalyst for all that came afterward that it would seem much easier to just not bother revisiting it at all. The last time the musical had a major revival in New York City was in spring 2002, not even a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center. That revival billed itself as an updated take on an old favorite, but it really wasn't: it clung so desperately to what I suppose was a pre-9/11 embrace of clear-eyed optimism and gosh-darn American gumption that I barely made it through the first act and was overjoyed to split at intermission. 

Scholars of the American stage musical, myself included, are quick to say that the genre reflects its time and place. But then, when it comes to revivals, cultural relevance all too often takes a backseat--or no seat at all--to nostalgia and familiarity. When they do get trotted out, plenty of musicals that are no longer remotely as relevant as they once were end up coming off like someone's beloved antique tableware: dutifully buffed of as much tarnish as possible, but still sort of futzy and vaguely ridiculous nevertheless. 

Sara Krulwich
Not so Daniel Fish's stripped, stark revival, which flays Oklahoma! to expose all the rot that--who knew?--festers beneath its cheery, wide-eyed facade. Staged in the center of a huge performance space, with the audience lining either side of the action, the production is a near-perfect blend of old and new, of joy and foreboding, of what Americans have and what we are rapidly losing. It is an object lesson in how to make a hoary old chestnut roar back to life without changing a single word. And since the lights remain up for most of the performance, spectators can watch one another reacting as the production unfolds: every smile of nostalgic recognition at the start of a beloved musical number, or knowing nod at the recitation of lines evocative of America at its rosiest; every grimace at the cock of a gun or a cheap punchline delivered at a woman's expense.   

Oklahoma! must have felt like a miracle when it hit Broadway in 1943. The first offering by the venerated dream-team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the musical not only became the blueprint for The Broadway Musical as Artistic Triumph, but also enjoyed pitch-perfect timing: after all, it celebrated all that was strong and sure and promising and wonderful about America just as the country was entering the Second World War to rid the globe of evil. Stories of young soldiers weeping openly with patriotic pride at performances before marching gallantly off to confront the Nazis fit perfectly into Oklahoma's breathless hagiography. This revival still gives credit where credit is due, while simultaneously zeroing in on aspects of the American experiment that have dimmed of their bright golden haze and begun to curl around the edges. It's a delicate balance for sure, but in mixing the sticky sweet with the excruciatingly sour, the revival blends up something absolutely dead-on in its relevance in the way only the very rarest of productions can.

It helps that the cast is so stunningly good. Damon Daunno has a gorgeous, clear voice that can trill and swoop, and his Curly is at once appealing and predatory: he's a good-looking, self-assured bro who knows exactly how tall he stands in the pecking order, and who has no problem resorting to cruelty when he doesn't get his way. His "Pore Jud Is Daid" scene with Laurie's comparatively awkward suitor Jud (Patrick Vaill) is done in darkness, save for a huge projection of Jud's face, rapt and practically twitching with longing when Curly suggests he commit suicide in exchange for the love and affection he desperately craves. Jud remains as off-putting and strange in his angry solitude as he's always been, but then, Daunno's Curly is precisely the sort of guy who gets off on devising new ways to make outcasts like Jud sadder, angrier, and more isolated than they already were. 

Laurie (Rebecca Naomi Jones) is a lot better than Jud at playing Curly's game; for the most part, the female characters are painted as smarter and more solid than the men in this production. It doesn't amount to a hill of beans, of course: they're still stuck in a place and time when women are treated about as well as a prized horse if they're lucky. Laurie is attracted to both Jud and Curly, though neither is an ideal match, which helps explain both the seething rage that roils beneath Jones' quiet depiction, and the fact that moments of particularly heated sexual tension are lit in a queasy, medicinal green.

While Laurie is clearly aware of just how small her life is going to turn out to be, Ado Annie (a bubbly Ali Stroker) enjoys playing the field, even though her romantic options are also limited. Annie is being courted by the sweet if dim Will Parker (James Davis) and the slightly brighter, if oilier and far less sincere Ali Hakim (Michael Nathanson). Will wants to buy Annie from her father; Ali wants to sell her on promises that he clearly has no intention of keeping. The bitter, totally-over-it bluntness of Mary Testa's Aunt Eller drives the womens' plight home, as does a silent, memorable scene in which the female characters shuck corncobs, breaking them into a pot with irate efficiency while the men in the cast lean idly against a wall of the theater that just happens to be covered completely with guns.

Layered over the same old dialogue that presumably passed for hilarity in the 1940s--and still does in too many corners of this grand land--is a more knowing acknowledgment of the subjugation of women as fuckable objects, as spent and sexless old crones, as nagging freedom-destroyers, or as livestock. The dream ballet, performed by the powerful Gabrielle Hamilton, neatly demonstrates just how trapped the women depicted in Oklahoma! are. I can't get the image of Hamilton, flanked by a group of young women in matching shirts emblazoned with the words DREAM BABY DREAM, racing frantically toward a door that slides shut before they can escape the blasting, electrified medley of songs from the score, while cowboy boots fall around them, striking the floor of the stage with gunshot-like pops. 


To that end, nor can I stop thinking about the flat, resigned, almost mechanical way federal marshal Cord Elam--here depicted by Anthony Cason, who is black--asks that Jud's death be properly investigated, even as the predominantly white cast insists that Curly quickly be pronounced innocent so he can honeymoon with the obviously traumatized Laurie. 

Fish's production sums up the American experience as it was and as it is. America still has its wind whipping 'cross the plain, its statue-like cattle, its beautiful mornings and its sounds of the earth like music. It's still home. It's still worth fighting for. But it's also blood-soaked and cruel, violent and unfair: it's a place where a guy like Curly will always get any girl he wants in the end; where a dimwit like Will Parker will always be content so long as he can buy sex and violence on the cheap in up-to-date places; where a woman like Laurie is free to dream of a new day, even if it never arrives. It's no wonder, then, that the cast's rendition of the title song near the end of the show blends whoops of joy with what sounds suspiciously like growls of rage and howls of pain. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Goodbody


A woman becomes aware of her surroundings. She is standing on a table and holding a gun. Behind her is a man who looks like he has been tortured, or maybe hit by a car, his injured arm secured to his chest with duct tape. In front of her lays a man who she seems to have just shot. She doesn't remember who she is, and she has no idea what's going on. The injured man starts explaining, but should she believe him? It's a fabulous premise.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Unfortunately, Goodbody, written by J.C. Ernst and directed by Melissa Firlit, loses steam as the evening progresses. Ernst attempts the violent insanity of a Martin McDonagh or Quentin Tarantino, but the humor isn't funny enough, the suspense isn't suspenseful enough, and the insanity isn't insane enough. Also, Goodbody is in a tiny theatre, and while the intimacy heightens the atmosphere, it also exposes the climactic violence as not-particularly-well-choreographed staged fighting.

Goodbody is not without its positives. There are genuinely funny moments (loved the Twinkie story), and some of the suspense works well. Amanda Sykes does a great job as the woman who doesn't know whether she's a nice person or really horrible. Raife Baker, as the injured man whose only weapon is words, provides a nice balance of eloquence, desperation, and suicidal ego. The set (by Matthew D. McCarren) is attractive and makes good use of the small space. Most importantly, Goodbody is never boring. But it just doesn't have the build and tension it needs to fulfill the promise of its premise.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 2nd row)
Show-Score: 70

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Ordinary Days

You know that old writing rule, "Show, don't tell"? It makes a lot of sense, particularly in theatre, where we watch characters live their lives right in front of us. Of course, there's also "Rules are made to be broken," to which I would add, "but only if what you're doing is rises above the rules."

Kyle Sherman, Sarah Lynn Marion
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Ordinary Days, music and lyrics by Adam Gwon, does a tremendous amount of telling. It's a 99% sung-through musical, and the four characters spend a lot of time explaining themselves.