Thursday, September 21, 2017

As You Like It

I saw John Doyle's production of As You Like It at the CSC at an early preview, and this isn't a review per se. It's just some thoughts.

  • Yes, some of the performers do play instruments.
  • It's 90 minutes long, sans intermission, with chunks cut out. Doyle always thinks he knows better than geniuses how to present their work. If you don't know the show, you might want to read a synopsis before you go.
  • That being said, it is a pretty enjoyable production.
  • The poster is completely wrong for the production's mood.
  • I loved Doyle's scenic design, except for the parts that got in the performers' way and risked knocking them unconscious.
  • Doyle has Ellen Burstein sit for a really, really long time on an uncomfortable trunk (her feet don't even reach the ground) before she actually says anything, much as he had George Takei in Pacific Overtures sit on a uncomfortable chair (you could see him swaying) for a really, really long time before he said anything. In both cases, it was quite distracting.
  • Burstein has never worked for me in anything other than contemporary pieces. There is something about her voice that is thin, flat, and modern. Her "seven ages of man" speech is unimpressive. On the other hand, she  excels with one liners, dismissive hand gestures, and wry looks.
  • A few of the performers are so busy showing how fast they can speak Shakespeare's language that they forget to be intelligible. It's particularly a problem when their backs are to us, which happens with some regularity. It's not a speed contest, folks. Enunciate!
  • It's always a treat to see Bob Stillman do his thing at the piano.
  • Hannah Cabell should be a star. She is always excellent and quite likable. It turns out that she has a lovely singing voice as well. Cabell makes an amazing and entertaining Rosalind.
  • Yeah, do go see this.
Wendy Caster
(2nd row on the side, behind a couple who kept talking, the female of whom gave me the finger when I shushed her despite the fact she was likely annoying the performers as well as me. Tdf ticket.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Doll's House, Part 2

I'm late to the A Doll's House, Part 2 bandwagon, and I nearly missed it entirely. But a friend saw the show and raved, so I decided to finally check it out.

And, yes, it's as good as everyone says. The plot is simple: Nora returns to get Torvald to legally divorce her. Author Lucas Hnath tells his story with humor and compassion; Sam Gold directs smoothly and smartly. The cast is excellent: Julie White is snappy yet vulnerable as Nora; Stephen McKinley Henderson is a surprisingly human Torvald; Jayne Houdyshell is her usual wonderful self as the maid who brought up Nora (and is quick to point out that she brought up Nora's kids as well); and Erin Wilhelmi is close to perfect as Nora's sweetly passive-aggressive daughter. (My only real complaint is that White's and Wilhelmi's voices both get unpleasantly high-pitched at times.)

And the show gets extra points for multiculti casting.

A Doll's House, Part 2 only runs through Sunday. Catch it if you can!

Wendy Caster
(8th row, audience right, tdf ticket)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

I Am Antigone

At the very start of I Am Antigone, Antigone says to us,
I know what you’re thinking. Not her again. We’ve heard enough out of her. The fact is you’ve heard nothing from me at all. It’s not Antigone again. It’s me, Antigone, for the first time. 
She's got a point!

Nicole Ansari, Logan Pitt
Photo: Wai Wing Lau

In I Am Antigone, playwright Saudamini Siegrist calls on her deep experience as an activist, which includes working for UNICEF for over 20 years. She gives us an Antigone who is rooted both in ancient writing and modern times, painfully aware of the progress that hasn't happened.

There is much talent and intelligence in this production of I Am Antigone. Some of the writing is beautiful, and Nicole Ansari is a strong and convincing Antigone (and she has a truly prodigious memory; the play is largely 90 minutes of her talking). The supporting cast acquits itself well. I particularly look forward to following the work of Logan Pitt, a tall, striking, mesmerizing young man with a beautiful voice.

But this Antigone has a few serious problems. First, it is uneven in tone, to the point of fighting against itself. Director Myriam Cyr often makes inappropriately playful use of the chorus, with cutesy posing and face-making. Her direction of Shahrokh Moshkin Ghalam as Creon, which I assume was okayed by Siegrist, reduces him to an idiotic cartoon, which also reduces him as an antagonist for Antigone. Second, it gets preachy toward the end. All the parallels to current times are clear. We don't need to have them blatantly explained to us. And last, it is just too long, with too much repetition.

I suspect that a pared-down and more subtle version of I Am Antigone could be the hard-hitting, heartfelt piece it aims to be. But it's not there yet.

Wendy Caster
(third row; press ticket)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Mary Jane

The New York Theater Workshop's Mary Jane doesn't open officially until September 25, but I suggest you get your tickets now, before they become unavailable or you have to pay way more when it moves to Broadway. (No, a Broadway transfer has not been announced, but I can't imagine the show won't move.)

Yes, I was quite impressed with Mary Jane. Subtly and smartly written by Amy Herzog, subtly and smartly directed by Anne Kauffman, and subtly and smartly acted by Carrie Coon, Liza Colon-Zayas, Danaya Esperanza (who has an astonishingly beautiful singing voice), Susan Pourfar, and Brenda Wehle, Mary Jane is one of those great evenings in the theater when the whole is larger than the sum of its parts, and its parts are damn good.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Girl from the North Country

There's a lot going on in Girl from the North Country, Conor McPherson's play with songs by Bob Dylan that's running through the first week of October at the Old Vic in London. Set in a boarding house in Hibbing, Minnesota during the Great Depression, the piece features lost souls from various racial and economic backgrounds, who all have in common a restless, gnawing sense of spiritual unease. Among them are bighearted criminals, hypocritical men of the cloth, women unmoored from reality, estranged and embittered husbands, damaged children. The characters find themselves thrown together in a time and place during which they experience a wide range of intense emotions, from the purest joy to the most intense despair.

In brief, then, all the characters in Girl from the North Country are absolutely typical of your average Dylan song or McPherson play.

Say what you want about Dylan: he's notoriously strange, he was terribly rude to the Swedes, he looked ridiculous in that white makeup during the coke-drenched Rolling Thunder Review years. But he's clearly quick to recognize kindred-spirit artists, especially male ones, and to connect with them in his own weird way, even while maintaining his carefully cultivated secrecy. McPherson's recurring fascinations--with the divine, the devil, and the myriad poor suckers who get caught between them; with ghosts who soothe and those who torment; with the human condition as so much damaged goods--are remarkably similar to his own. This might be the reason that, some years back, Dylan apparently had his people contact McPherson to inquire about a collaboration of the kind only Dylan would suggest: he sent McPherson a complete set of recordings, gave him permission to use them as he pleased, approved a basic outline, and made it abundantly clear that he wasn't going to be stopping by rehearsals or lending any further input.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

If Only

The press info for Thomas Klingenstein's play, If Only, includes the following description:
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln came to New York City where he befriended a well-educated ex-slave, and a young, spirited woman from New York’s social class. In the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln brought them together. A romantic relationship ensued but one that neither could acknowledge. Now, thirty-six years later they meet again. They long for each other. For what might have been had Lincoln lived. His assassination changed forever their fate and the fate of a nation.
After the show ended last night, my theatre companion said that she had gotten more out of this description than from the play. Unfortunately, I agreed with her.

If Only begins with the clumsy device of having Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert) read a story from her journal to her ward. This exposition-dump is a slow way to begin a play, plus Gilbert tells the tale turned away from much of the audience. (Characters not facing the audience turns out to be a consistent flaw in the direction. The first time I saw one of the actor's full face was well into the play. Instead of talking heads, they provide talking profiles.)

As time goes on, more stories will be read, and some of Lincoln's speeches will be intoned, by both Ann and her would-be suitor Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz). However, the play is supposed to get its propulsion from the sexual tension between the two old friends, which should be constantly simmering under their interactions. Sad to say, the production is simmer-free. If Only comes across more as a history lesson than a love story.

The set, designed by William Boles, is quite attractive. The costumes, designed by Kimberly Manning, are largely effective, although the bodice of Gilbert's dress had a distracting crease along her bosom. I kept wanting her to straighten it. The lighting design, by Becca Jeffords, is pretty but occasionally heavy-handed. Christopher McElroen's direction does no favors to Klingenstein's play, which, while clunky, could have more life to it.

It's hard to judge how good or bad the performers are, but if Gilbert and Smaltz had more--or any--chemistry, the production would be much improved.

Wendy Caster
(4th row, press ticket)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Suitcase Under the Bed

Playwright Teresa Deevy lived from 1894 to 1963. The youngest of 13 children, she lost her hearing in her late teens, roughly at the same time that her family's financial situation became much reduced. She used theatre as as a way to practice her lip-reading (she read the play first, when possible) and soon felt inspired to write plays herself. When she had trouble getting her work produced, she switched to writing radio plays. She went to mass every day, yet was critical of the restrictions placed on women by the Catholic church. The limited biographical information available does not mention any romance.

She must have been a fabulous lip-reader and an even better reader of people, as her plays are wise, subtle, and full of psychological insight.

Mace and Deaver in The King of Spain's Daughter
Photo: Richard Termine
If not for Jonathan Bank and the invaluable Mint, Deevy and her work might be unknown, which would be a big loss for audiences and theatre history. Bank has not only revived Deevy's work; he has also been instrumental in tracking down copies of lost plays. Bank's latest evening of Deevy's work, The Suitcase Under the Bed, features four one-acts that were found in the titular location.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Van Gogh's Ear

Waiting for Van Gogh's Ear to start is a pleasure, since it gives you time to really examine Vanessa Jame's open and elegant set. It's all black and white, with dramatic strips of wide glistening material stretching down walls and across the floor. The upstage center area, arranged for musicians, is dominated by a striking white grand piano. Stage left features a small room, a pared-down version of Van Gogh's famous bedroom.

The Bedroom by Vincent Van Gogh

Soon the show starts, and the black-and-white set swirls with color as the white bands become screens for stunning projections (David Bengali) that envelope the audience in Van Gogh's gorgeous brush strokes.

Chad Johnson, Carter Hudson
Photo: Shirin Tinati

But Van Gogh's Ear is interested in more than showing Van Gogh's world; it also wants us to hear it. For the synesthetic Van Gogh, musical notes were colors, and he perceived painting as parallel to composing. Van Gogh's Ear includes live music by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson and César Franck, beautifully played and sung by Henry Wang (violin), Yuval Herz (violin), Chieh-Fan Yiu (viola), Timotheos Petrin (cello), Max Barros (piano), Renana Gutman (piano), Renée Tatum (soprano), and Chad Johnson (tenor). Van Gogh's dialogue is culled from his letters, which brings yet another dimension to the show.