Monday, May 30, 2016

Random roundup: The Father, Turn Me Loose, The Crucible

The Father, Florian Zeller's very good play (in very good translation by Christopher Hampton) is worth seeing both for the tricks it plays on the audience and for Frank Langella's riveting, pitch-perfect performance. Often, plays about dementia don't just tug but rip at the heartstrings--about three years ago, Sharr White's The Other Place , which also ran at the Friedman Theater, hit me so hard that I found myself openly sobbing at the curtain call, which I can assure you doesn't happen all that often with me. Oh, except as a kid, I remember having about the same reaction to Driving Miss Daisy. 

I've had my fair share of experience with dementia: it afflicted both my grandmothers, one of whom lived with and gradually declined from the disease for the better part of a decade. Several extended family members had it, and my father-in-law has the honor now. I'm sure I'm hardly atypical in this respect, but anyway, plays about the subject almost always set me off. So while I was eager to see Langella onstage for once, I steeled myself for The Father to hit me hard--but it didn't. This is not a play that seems written or directed to kick one's emotions in the groin. Rather, The Father struck me as a remarkably accurate, almost clinical examination of Alzheimer's, which allows the audience to ponder the ways the disease works from the perspective of the afflicted. I very much appreciated the ways the production plunged the audience into the kinds of anxiety and confusion the titular character, named Andre, experiences over the course of 90 engaging minutes. I don't want to give any of the gimmicks away, but they are all creative, subtle, well-executed and appropriately disorienting. The Father doesn't aim to make clean, straightforward narrative sense; I remain unsure who some of the characters were, or whether they even existed beyond the fragmented mind of Andre, who, like many people with dementia, frequently shift rapidly between different time periods or exist in several at once, confusing one person or place or thing for another. The strengths of the production and its performances thus don't lie in character development and plot trajectory, but that doesn't mean there isn't an abundance of strengths to be found.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Shuffle Along reconstruction? reconsideration?...of the 1921 hit show Shuffle Along, currently at the Music Box Theater (which, by the way, also opened in 1921), has some of the best dancing you'll see on a Broadway stage this season (or any), and a top-notch cast featuring some of the most well-known and beloved stars of the genre. There are some truly stunning production numbers, some laugh-out-loud gags, and a lot of warmth. I couldn't stop smiling through the entire first act, and while I struggled more with the second, I'd hardly call it a crashing bore by any stretch. I have studied the original show and thought enough about it that I think my reaction to the current production is tainted by my own ideas about what it should have been and what it should have focused on. Which is, in the end, my problem--a really weird occupational hazard befitting one with a really weird occupation--and hardly that of the production, which is fun and moving, maybe more so without preconceived notions.

Here's the thing: The original production of Shuffle Along is enormously important--a landmark musical that served, too, as a humbling reminder of just how hard it was for black artists to find success in overwhelmingly white entertainment realms (which at the time was basically every realm). While not the first Broadway show to feature an all-black cast and creative team (that was In Dahomey in 1903), it was certainly one of the biggest and most influential. Its enormous success was a bigger deal considering just how much it was up against. Shuffle Along was created and developed after Broadway's earliest black pioneers--a previous generation of performers and creative artists like Bert Williams, George Walker, Ida Overton Walker, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Will Marion Cook, Robert Cole, and James Rosamond Johnson--had died or quit Broadway, leaving behind a bunch of white producers who collectively decided, against ample and repeated evidence to the contrary, that all-black productions were not much worth backing, anyway, since the middle and upper-class whites who made up (and continue to make up) the majority of Broadway audiences wouldn't be interested in black productions.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The School for Scandal

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School For Scandal, first performed in 1777, reveals that humans have changed little over the centuries, clothing and make-up aside. Sheridan's deliciously despicable characters would slip perfectly into the 21st-century world of gossip blogs, truthiness, and schadenfreude-as-blood sport.

The play's plot is thinner than thin, but the characters are full-throated, puffed-up, and blissfully cartoony. Take Mrs. Candour, about whom it is said, "...whenever I hear the current running against the characters of my friends, I never think them in such danger as when Candour undertakes their defense." As perfectly embodied by Dana Ivy, Mrs. Candour lives up to a description from the The Sweet Smell of Success: "a cookie full of arsenic." Not only could I see her holding court at 21 in that film, but I can also picture her keeping a Sunday brunch full of gay men in delighted hysterics for hours.

What I Did Last Summer (And Fall and Winter and Spring)

From April 2015 to March 2016, I served as a judge on the Lortel Awards, which recognize excellence in the Off Broadway theater. The term was a little daunting--I was told to expect (and ultimately was invited to) just over 100 shows over the course of the year. I missed a few--a couple closed before I could get to them, a couple press agents never got back to me--but I saw nearly all of them. Just before I was asked, my year-long sabbatical was approved and I had been planning to see a lot of theater during leave anyway, so the invitation seemed particularly fortuitous. Plus, while I'm lucky that my husband usually likes having me around, he insisted that he and our kids would survive--perhaps even thrive--despite the fact that I'd often not be around to warm up leftovers or mumble distractedly at them while staring at the computer, so I took him at his word.

Before I accepted the gig, I asked a friend and colleague who has judged the Lortels in the past if he recommended it. He did--and added that while it is indeed an enormous commitment, it was also a rare chance to see a lot of shows one wouldn't otherwise, and was thus "a great education." Figuring that it would be seriously lame for a scholar to turn down something educational, I submitted my name and contact information to the Lortel Foundation. Thus commenced the deluge of press invites to Off Broadway shows, which lasted the year, peaking (with surprising intensity) in March before halting entirely when my term elapsed.

I spent much of the past year bouncing from one production to another, seeing one or two--and occasionally more like five or six--Off Broadway shows a week. I took notes on the shows I saw; my notes ranged from lengthy paragraphs about character and direction and lighting, to one- or two-word dismissals or superlatives. The experience was exhausting, irritating...and completely fucking wonderful. Also, my colleague was right: It was educational--just not always in ways I'd assumed it would be. Yes, I got the chance to see shows I would not have chosen otherwise. Yes, I went to many theaters that I'd never set foot in or sometimes even heard of before. But here are a few other things I learned over the course of the year, all of which surprised me a little.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Dido and Aeneas

There's good news, and bad news, and good news again. The good news is that the Master Voices (formerly The Collegiate Chorale) production of Dido and Aeneas was lovely. The bad news is that it was only two nights. And the other good news is that Master Voices is already planning its 75th season, starting in October with 27 by Ricky Ian Gordon (more info here and here).

Victoria Clark, Doug Varone Dancers, Master Voices

Meanwhile, Dido and Aeneas (by Henry Purcell) was splendid, and the prologue, The Daughters of Necessity (by Michael John LaChiusa), was delightful. Kelli O'Hara was excellent as Dido, though I prefer her Broadway voice, which reflects more of her personality. Victoria Clark did her usual, brilliant, glorious show-stealing; that she is not always in a show in New York is a sin. Anna Christy and Sarah Mesko were wonderful. All told, the women's voices were a feast for the ears. And the Master Voices soared. Getting to listen to dozens of brilliant performers sing gorgeous music could be the definition of good fortune, particularly as accompanied by The Orchestra of St. Luke's under Ted Sperling's direction.

The choreography, by Doug Varone, who also directed, was a real treat, working in service of the piece yet evocative on its own. (I could have lived without the dancers' frequently moving chairs and a table, but that's a small enough quibble.)

Yes, it's too late to see this show, but it's not too late to discover Master Voices.

Wendy Caster
(third row balcony, press ticket)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


The earnest and well-acted Echoes takes place in two times and places: Victorian England and Afghanistan, and present-day England and Syria. In both situations, a young woman has dreams. In both situations, she gets nightmares instead.

Braganca, Houlbrooke
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Tillie (Felicity Houlbrooke), the Victorian, wants to study the life cycle of flies, but ends up married to a dominating, humorless, repressive man who says that her "duty and sacrifice" in life is to have sex with him and procreate. She says, "Over the next three months, he makes sure I do my duty and sacrifice as frequently as possible. In fact sometimes he is so keen for me to do my duty and sacrifice that I worry his love of country may be too great."

Samira (Filipa Braganca), the present-day woman, wants to help build the Caliphate, but ends up married to a dominating, humorless, repressive man who already has a wife and finds his way around the rules of Islam. His first wife explains, "To get round the adultery laws, the fighters marry a woman for a week, then get a cleric to ‘divorce’ them. …He’s done it before.’"

Neither woman has a chance. The husbands are strong, violent men, and the woman are little more than slaves.

Echoes, written by written by Henry Naylor and directed by Naylor and Emma Buttler, is performed as alternating monologues. Despite being full of incident, the play never quite gels as theatre, and the politics are heavy-handed. Both husbands are one-dimensional creations; both women's situations come across as Women's Oppression 101 rather than the lived experiences of real individuals. Not to say that the stories aren't convincing, but they're not presented theatrically. The situations are effectively awful, but as lectures not a play.

Wendy Caster
(3rd row, press ticket)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Taming of the Shrew

There must be something in the water ... at least in Padua. The first of two productions of The Taming of the Shrew featuring an all-female cast opened on April 16 at the Wild Project. The New York-based Queen's Company, an all-woman classical theater troupe now in its 15th season, tackles Shakespeare's comedy by infusing their take, Taming of the Shrew, with a campy feel and a more feminist, redemptive ending. The Public will offer its own version, The Taming of the Shrew, as part of its Shakespeare in the Park series, from May 24-June 26, featuring Tony and Olivier winner Janet McTeer as Petruchio.

Elisabeth Preston (Petruchio) and Tiffany Abercrombie (Katharina) spar.
Photo credit: Bob Pileggi
Shrew tells the story of feisty Katharina and her unwillingness to wed and subjugate herself to a man's whims. That is, until she meets the clever Petruchio, who "tames" her. The misogynist plot, its depiction of women as chattel, and the abuse Katharina suffers under Petruchio's patriarchal hand sometimes earns the play criticism. This critique stung Shrew early on; even in the 1890s--long before political correctness became a trend--Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw said, "No man with any decency of feeling can sit (the final act) out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed." The question with Shrew is what was Shakespeare's intention: is he satirizing a female's role in society, creating a light-hearted farce for entertainment, or showing the transformative power of love? This dichotomy allows Shrew to be adapted in a multitude of ways, making it one of Shakespeare's most produced works.

The play haunted director/play adapter Rebecca Patterson (also the company's artistic director) for years since she oversaw another version about a decade ago: "There is something deeper that ripples beneath the surface--something Shakespeare himself was trying to explore and understand, something about our conflicting desires to either love or dominate ... it is my hope this production takes his lessons a step further than he could, illuminating a way forward toward something better."

In some ways, she succeeds beautifully. Patterson starts the play in modern times, a smart decision that emphasizes the differences of male-female relationships in the new age. A man in period clothing steps out and begins reading a page that falls from a book: "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee." Enter Tiffany Abercrombie as the modern-day version of Katharina, garbed in black, except for her bright wrap. She greets the man's interest with disdain and rolls her eyes at the old-fashioned depiction of females in the tome. Then she knees him. As he crawls off stage, she changes into the period Katharina by donning a red dress over her contemporary clothes.

The updated Katharina, though, remains present onstage with the insertion of women-power songs between scenes. The dialogue may encourage the view that men control the world, but the music of Cyndi Lauper, Blondie and others say otherwise. As Katharina becomes more programmed and less headstrong, the music indicates the sentiment. When the audience hears Tina Turner's "Time for Letting Go," they understand the conflict the main character faces and how she falters after all the harsh conditions she's suffered. In part, music changes the direction of the show and, ultimately, leads to a more favorable outcome for feminism. By the time, Peter Gabriel's "The Book of Love" plays, theatergoers see a Shrew that shows more love story than sexism.

The simple set by Angelica Borrero allows the actors to convey changes in time and place easily. The serviceable costumes (designed by Elizabeth Flores), with the exception of Katharina's splendid red dress and Baptista's regal cape, invoke the feeling of grade-school productions: lots of black pants, neutral-colored shirts and theatrical add-ons (a jacket here, a vest there).

Mostly, the construct of women playing men works. In movement, tone and diction, Elisabeth Preston as Petruchio, is convincing as a male. There is never that overriding Victor/Victoria sense that wow, here's a woman in a man's role. Nylda Mark as Katharina's wealthy father, Baptista, also is noteworthy. A lithe presence, she move with effeminate aristocratic grace while maintaining an authoritative stance. Bianca's lovers/servants don't fare as well. Sometimes their characters seem more pantomime than real. This aligns nicely during the more campy moments where the actors court the more popular sister, Bianca, who can't marry until Katharina does. Played by a blow-up doll, Bianca is the ultimate wet-rag of a woman: a perfect Stepford wife for the Elizabethan era. When the servant/lovers of Bianca lip-synch to Katharina, it also allows for extreme expression. Sometimes, though, when the traditional dialogue is spoken, the crispness of the language is lost in slipped words and too much gesticulation.

Ultimately, though, this Shrew's ending, which emphasizes the heart over wife control, is touching and showcases Abercrombie's wonderfully expressive face as she goes from perfect trophy wife to someone internally suffering to a woman in love.

Taming of the Shrew runs through May 1 at the Wild Project (195 East 3 St.) in NYC. 
For more info you can visit Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

(Press seats, fourth row)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Spring roundup: Head of Passes, Bright Star, The Color Purple, Kvelertak

It's been a hellishly busy couple of weeks, but I've managed to see a few shows nonetheless. In the interest of time, I'll spare you my typically long-winded reviews in favor of terser ones. Here goes:

Head of Passes, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is a modern retelling of the Job story. Set in Head of Passes, Mississippi, the action takes place in the formerly grand home of Shelah, who has a birthday approaching, a recently diagnosed illness she's dreading telling her friends and three children about, and property so badly in need of repair that it's raining as hard in her living room as it is out in the yard. The play itself, which has apparently been reworked since it ran at Steppenwolf in 2013, still occasionally misses the mark: some of the characters are not as developed as they might be, and a few of the plot points introduced early on don't gain much steam. But even if the show were perfect, there's really no way to prepare for the absolutely thrilling ass-whooping Phylicia Rashad gives the audience late in the second act.

Joan Marcus

I know it sounds like a cliche--as does the old "I had to remind myself to breathe"--but hell if Rashad doesn't tear the roof off in this tour de force performance. Being that this is a Job story, I don't think it gives much away to tell you that Shelah shoulders a whole lot of bad news in the second act. Driving the surviving characters away in a heartbroken rage, she stands in the rubble of her ruined house (yet another cliche: the set, by GW Mercier, is worth the price of admission), and the final stretch of the show has her alone, railing for a good half hour at a God she is at once furious with and wholly devoted to. While I've always appreciated Rashad, I admit I never knew she had the depth and range that she exhibits here. She makes mincemeat of a monologue that has her crying, cackling, thundering, raging and rejoicing on a dime. Hers is one of the finest--and possibly most exhausting--performances taking place nightly on a New York stage right now. Head of Passes has been extended, for good reason--see it before it closes, if you can swing it.