Saturday, June 30, 2007
I hope some of you readers are high-school students and/or veterans. Not only would I like to get so diverse a readership, but Waterwell's new half-history/half-vaudeville revue (in a chamber-rock style) is free for you guys. Not that The Last Year In The Life of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As Devised By Waterwell A Rock Operetta isn't worth seeing otherwise, but given the shaky amalgamation of technique that I saw at this preview, it would certainly go down smoother on the cheap. I've had great admiration for Waterwell ever since their last show, Marco Million$ made Eugene O'Neill interesting again. And The/King/Operetta is filled with great music and an award-deserving King (Rodney Gardiner); it's just also filled with a few moments of poor acoustics, an odd vocal choice (or perhaps just an illness) for Kevin Townley's portrayal of the cruelly effeminate Hoover, and some awkward interpretive dance. At the same time, King's final year has never seemed so accessible nor as human as when it's presented as a populist opera that pulls upon rock, ragtime, satirical minstrel work (ala Bamboozled), and even sweet little lullabies to get out the story. The show runs through August 11th, so perhaps give them another week to gel their work, but then by all means run to Barrow Street Theater and check 'em out.
Three one-acts, all written by Anthony Minghella (whose film-directing credits include The Talented Mr. Ripley and The English Patient), comprise the 100 minute Politics of Passion, currently presented by Potamac Theatre Project as part of their first season back in New York. While the tone of the middle piece (a very brief and out of context scene from the film Truly Madly Deeply) doesn't sit well in the show, the longer one-acts that flank it are very good indeed. The evening's opener is Hang Up, a sharp little observation of two lovers whose late-night phone conversation turns from seemingly benign and agreeable to thorny and distrustful: it's directed and performed at just the right pitch to inspire snickers of knowing recognition from the audience. The main attraction is the show's final play, Cigarettes And Chocolate, in which a woman puzzles her friends by ceasing to speak; her continued silence prompts them to reveal far more to her than they would if she would talk with them. The pace could stand to be a bit quicker, but it's a nifty, cleverly written one-act that gives each of the actors a chance to shine. As the woman who chooses to be mute, Cassidy Freeman remarkably creates a full, ever present character almost entirely out of just sitting and listening, and as her husband, James Matthew Ryan is especially vivid conveying shame, frustration, and flashes of anger.
Anthony Minghella, somewhat of a cold and intellectual director, is also a playwright -- the mind behind Truly, Madly, Deeply, among other movies you might never have seen. He's the same as a playwright: harshly reliant on language and even more so on silence. As a result, Cheryl Faraone's staging seems overdirected at every turn and a real hodgepodge of one-acts. "Hang Up" does well to divide the two actors, MacLeod Andrews and Lauren Turner Kiel, but the choice to have Kiel sitting on a ladder adds nothing to what is already turning into a terse conversation between He and She. A short excerpt from "Truly, Madly, Deeply," is filled with overflowing energy as a man tries to prolong what would otherwise be the shortest date ever with his art therapy insanity, but its brevity makes it seem like a scene being workshopped in class. The anchor of the night, the 70 minute one-act, "Cigarettes and Chocolate" begins too much in the misty vignette style of Jim Jarmusch, and by the time it settles and shows off Minghella's strengths as a storyteller (in monologue form), Faraone has already lost us with her pastel backgrounds and slanted lighting, all of which serve to make the play seem far more pretentious (or portentous) than it actually is.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
"Art don't hurt, but cartoons do," says Bela Veracek, the stubborn and brilliant political cartoonist who is the center of Howard Barker's excellent No End Of Blame. "I shock the bastards into life." The Potomac Theatre Project is wonderfully versed in the dark satire needed to revive such an epic play, and while it isn't shocking so much as provocative, it's filled with life. The strong ensemble of thirteen has a great range that lets them span sixty of the fictional Veracek's embattled years, not to mention the intricacies of the language, which puts the politeness of words to the test and views the world as the "Castor oil of life." Much recommended, especially for political theater buffs.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Doppelganger, developed at 3LD through their Curated Residency Program, features a wealth of multimedia events, some of which are motion-activated by the actors and therefore left to chance. This idea seems to promise a risky, anything-can-happen playing ground (appropriate for a story that gets started following a freak accident) but the night I saw it, the multimedia mostly seemed as stiff as a Power Point presentation. Perhaps that's intended, in service of one of the play's subthemes of the inhumanity of corporate culture, but the result is that too much of the play is distant and inhuman; it's telling that the moments when the play most held the attention were ones that involved the least technological business.
Monday, June 25, 2007
The first time I gave Passing Strange a thumbs-up, I found it wildy exhilarating but frustratingly problematic. But I couldn't shake the thing - it just kept kicking around in my head saying "see me again". Now that I have, I want to say it's the most thematically sophisticated, musically exciting and stylistically inventive musical I have seen in years. Seeing it a second time, already knowing the lay of the land, I could appreciate another layer of the first act that I couldn't before - namely, the dynamic between the narrator and the main character, his younger self. (The show lets you come at your own speed to the connection between the two, but the show is far richer if you know it right at the get-go. Spoiler babies: just trust me on this) I initially had problems with the second act (the second half of it, specifically: the first half, in which our hero makes a hit on the 80's performance art scene in Berlin by exploiting his race, is flawless) but even those concerns disappeared when I realized that what I had interpreted initially as sentimental was actually quite dark and strange. The show's boldy ambitious blend of concert and music theatre creates many unique, exciting moments that open the door to a new way that musicals might be constructed - how often does something come along that is genuinely so ground breaking? The score of the largely sung-narrated show runs a gamut from funk to pop to punk spoof but is always authentic and sophisticated, both musically and lyrically. All four of us at Show Showdown are way into this show (hey Christopher - post your review already!) and it closes this weekend, on July 1st. Don't miss it - this is one that people are going to be talking about and referencing a decade from now when ten times the people who've seen it will be claiming they did.
Also blogged by: [Aaron] [David]
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Early in the second act of this debut play by Nina Raine (who also directed) one character likens the phenomenon of memory in the brain to a room full of tuning forks: one vibration sets off another and another. It's only at this point that the bifurcated play reveals its purposefulness - it alternates punchy, lively scenes of a young woman's 29th birthday party with somber flashbacks of her interactions with her father, now deathbed-ridden. At its best the play depicts the chasm between what we display outwardly in a social situation while another secret unspoken story reverberates inside. The scenes at the party - where four of the woman's friends mostly needle each other about sex to hide the anxieties and animosities under the surface - are rendered naturalistically, credibly; Raine clearly has an ear for how these young, middle class people talk and flirt and one-up each other and for what they try to leave unspoken. On the strength of these snappy, sharply observed scenes, the play is worth seeing. The pity is that the flashback scenes, even allowing that they are memories, feel ill-defined and vague and aren't as compelling as the scenes at the party; the idea is better than the execution.
photo Michal Daniels
Following the journey of a young artist finding his voice, this musical was pretty fucking bad-ass. I lost count of how many different styles of music sprang from the score as our hero traveled from city to city. The phenom cast sang with personality and passion struggling valiantly to be heard over the band that was playing just a little too loud for its own good (my one complaint). You have to be a pretty special person to go by a single name and not come off pretentious. Author, composer, narrator Stew is a pretty special person.
Also blogged by: [Patrick] [Aaron]
Saturday, June 23, 2007
And yes, David..I know I can't count this in the race. ;)
Can a high school student who gets a 2380 on the SAT be as shallow as the one presented here? This disjointed play about drunk self-destructive party girls with eating disorders provided no revelations beyond being that way is like, bad and stuff. The director and cast did their best to keep things light and brisk but they had little to work with in this script that seemed more like an SNL parody than a sincere character study (what it apparently wanted to be according to the final wtf?? scene). If u like totally luv Paris Hilton and think that she like totally shouldn't have gone to jail then this is like totally ur show.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
When the story is tired and slight and feels like an excuse to have songs, but the songs are theatrically static and bring the story to a halt, you know you're in jukebox musical hell. This one, which uses country-tinged ditties by Patty Griffin, is a distinctive hell at least: it aims to be intimate and low-key, a chamber jukebox musical if you will, but it only succeeds if you define intimate as small and low-key as unexciting. The two lead characters (a guy and a gal on a road trip South a couple of months after their one-night stand: yep, you guessed it) lack the specificity that would make them believable: they're walking country song cliches, no matter what Matthew Morrison (charming) and Irene Molloy (a good singer) do to mitigate. Virtually all the other characters they meet are played by Skipp Sudduth and Mare Winningham, who is easily this show's most valuable player. Entirely at ease with Griffin's country-pop idiom, Winningham is able to create a small gallery of character snapshots over the course of the show that transcend cliche: she's the only reason that 10 Million Miles isn't entirely a trip to nowhere.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Playing eight soldiers who have been decorated with the Medal Of Honor, Stephen Lang gives the best and most generous kind of bravura performance in this 80 minute docu-monologue play: you may marvel at the actor's characterization skills, as he transforms from one real-life wartime hero to another, but you will leave thinking less about the actor's craft than about the war stories of the men he has brought to life so vividly. Lang is also responsible for adapting the stories (collected in Larry Smith's book of the same name a couple of years ago) for the stage and his writing is no-nonsense and unsentimental: he generally doesn't make the mistake of editorializing or politicizing. The cumulative effect is therefore all the more thought-provoking and emotional, even cathartic, as Lang honors not only the heroic acts of these soldiers but also the humanity.
The only frame of reference I had for Admiral James Stockdale, H. Ross Perot's running mate, was Phil Hartman's hysterical SNL impersonation of an out-of-touch, dim-witted old coot. Here in Steven Lang's one man play, Beyond Glory, he painted a different portrait: that of a courageous man who endured years of torture in Vietnam on behalf of his fellow soldiers. An enormous amount of respect and care went in to the presentation of 8 different soldiers who received the Medal Of Honor. Steven Lang, who adapted the book to the stage also portrays all the characters who performed enormous feats of bravery in WW2, Korean War, and Vietnam War. Very elegant, masculine and proud is Lang's work and I am very glad I went.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Though Brecht's Saint Joan of the Stockyards is filled with an overfawning look at communism and a deeply satirical stance on religion, Lear deBessonet has managed to take the alienating themes (and style) and ground it in the drama of a martyred innocent, our Jeanne d'Arc, brilliantly played by Kristen Sieh. It's hard at times to see Brecht, as Ralph Manheim's script has punched up the dialogue, and the cast delivers it with a real fervor, but it's not that deBessonet isn't trying to keep us alienated (the stage divides the audience and the props blockage the actors), it's that the avante-garde isn't as shockingly theatrical anymore, especially at PS122, a cultural center. Righteous indignation may be too expensive for the poor, but it doesn't look like deBessonet's team had to compromise for this production, and the polish, mixed with the industrial set, does wonders to bring Joan to life.
Monday, June 18, 2007
Sunday, June 17, 2007
I take it that all of you reading this are theater fans; that said, why haven't you already seen Off Stage: The East Village Fragments? Peculiar Works Project, following up on their West Village version, has put together a historical homage, a walking-tour-de-force, of off-off-Broadway '60s plays (surreal, abstract, absurd, experimental, classical, satirical, happening) to help pass on the culture and teach us all more about the state of theater today. I saw a lot of glimmering talent in all those styles and performances, and I hope there are some producers out there who realize that this type of concentrated festival can do as much good, if not more, than a full-length summer series (if for no other reason than it being outside in the beautiful New York summer). I missed the West Village version because I didn't know about it: if you've read this far, you can't use that excuse. From The Public to La MaMa, it's time to really put the pieces together.
A.R. Gurney's new comedy demands more than a fair share of suspension of your disbelief: the institutionalized title character's transformation from delusional shut-in to giddy romantic is about as believable as the attending psychiatrist's matter of fact first-scene confession that he's been diverting her money to fund community outreach programs. Incredible business such as this makes it seem as if Crazy Mary might be meant to be more farcical than it is played here. While the two female leads do quite well by the material under the circumstances (Sigourney Weaver is particularly good at wound tight WASP) the most convincing (in fact, revelatory) performance comes from Michael Esper, who makes entirely credible his character's transformation from sullen to lovestruck.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Friday, June 15, 2007
Slow-paced but sure-footed, The Devil on All Sides is a competent performance piece about war. But competence isn't enough when dealing with poetic dialogue, and for all the salvos of satire, drama, and love, the show remains a quiet, steady affair, and not an explosive bit of entertainment. The mood is there, terse and lurking, but the rest of the play is about as successful as an old-fashioned shelling: some is on target, some wounds you with the shrapnel of afterthought, some just misses, and some pieces seem like they were just written and performed to set up the 'kill shots' late in the second act. It didn't do enough for me, visually or aurally, but I wasn't displeased either. I just expected more, given such good actors.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
"What's the point of having an obsession unless it damages you?" With such an insightful comment not just about art, but love, playwright Tom Rowan could have made his new play The Second Tosca into a drama or a comedy. Thankfully, he chose the latter. The story is filled with hopes, aspirations, and charismatic yet technical banter about opera, but the pace remains light on its feet. In opera lingo, the show is presented with spinto tonality: that is, it rests somewhere between the dramatic soprano and the lyric, soubrette, soprano, and it has mastered the portamento, a technique of gliding smoothly from pitch to pitch.
There's so much that is right and strong in Neil Labute's new one-act that what goes wrong is especially frustrating. When the play is focused (as it is most of the time) on the damaged dynamic between the two brothers, it's engrossing and among Labute's most psychologically astute work. (This being Labute, you already know that theirs is an explosive, testosterone-pumped dynamic and that a heart-to-heart is unimaginable). As a dialoguist, Labute is in great form, rendering the brothers' pained, dysfunctional relationship with a cold, clear eye and a keenly tuned ear. The layers peel away incrementally until we see and well understand why these two men behave as they do with each other. But as a dramatist, Labute goes at least one plot twist too far in pursuit of moral anbiguity, and it's not credible. (And although we don't know the final twists until the play's last moments, we can feel that Labute is laying the path for them in the second of the play's three scenes, and we're the wrong kind of on edge.) The play is well worth seeing anyway, especially as this production serves it very well, with a compelling, hard-to-shake performance by Frederick Weller among its virtues.
Also blogged by: [David] [Aaron]
It wasn't until Stew's compelling, forceful, gospel-like rock ballad "It's Alright," late in the first act, that I really woke up and started believing that the music could go right over my head and to my soul. Pretty much my only complaint with Passing Strange is that the first half feels as if it's dumbed itself down with cute lyrics and extra jokes so that the second half comes as more of an epiphany. Note to director Annie Dorsen: don't you dare hold Daniel Breaker back. Between the dancing lights, neon choreography, recessed musicians, and triple-cast actors, Stew sucker-punched me with his late, direct-to-the-audience monologue: the uneven tone just needs a little more work. All said and done? Don't pass this up.
[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick] [David]
Set backstage at Opera California, this new comedy by Tom Rowan (Kiss And Cry) is a warmly entertaining and sometimes surprising pleasure that will especially appeal to opera fans: the playwright gets even the little opera details right. The story mostly concerns an emerging singer, preparing to perform a single family matinee of Tosca, who has to sort out the personal and artistic demands of everyone hovering around her: the controlling husband (who happens to be her conductor), the visiting diva, the awestruck fan who wants her to sing his music, the hunky stage manager who wants to steal her away to the country. There's even a singing ghost wandering around to wrack the nerves. The play is overlong at over two and a half hours, and it spells a bit too much out for us, but it's always colorful and entertaining, especially because the playwright skillfully subverts our expectations about each character just when we think we know who they are. (I was caught by susprise, for instance, by the unselfishness in the grand diva's second act speech) Considering the limitations of the small playing area, director Kevin Newbury does a commendable job of staging the action and of moving things along. And the cast is for the most part terrific: I was especially delighted by Melissa Picarello, who renders the visiting diva's personal assistant with youthful energy and transparent ambitiousness, and by Carrington Vilmont, an absolute scene-stealer as our heroine's gay brother and business manager. He's screamingly funny at dry and deadpan.
Also blogged by: [Aaron]
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Farce is hard, especially when it's bottled up with specific period-piece rhythms. Peter Jensen can't plead ignorance: he uses the era's music to choreograph interludes (which also miss the mark), but he doesn't get that rhythm into the whole play (the more successful second act hints at what's missing overall). As a result, these characters only have sparks of firecracker mirth, and like the fireworks in the show, they're not timed correctly. (Even then, they're derivative, not spontaneous.) This unevenness only exaggerates how the pieces are not fitting together. With the Sycamore clan, their quirks are complemented by the love they all share: but take away that necessary emotion, as in this production, and all that's left is unnecessary emoting.
[Read on] [Also blogged by: Patrick]
Sarah Ruhl's quirky, boldly inventive reimagining of the enduring Orpheus and Eurydice myth focuses not so much on the story's lovers but on the girl and her father, who reunite in the underworld where only one remembers the other. Ruhl's variation on the story still honors what may be the myth's most powerful truth, that love is both strong enough to conquer death and delicate enough to turn on a single backward glance, and the writing is a fascinating mix of the fantastic and the simple. The play's been given an evocative, visually striking production which carefully balances the play's whimsy and poignancy: there's an appropriate, almost Alice In Wonderland feel to Eurydice's interactions with the Lord of the Underworld when he circles her on his bright red tricycle, and there's an elegant sensuality when Eurydice's father builds a house out of string to shelter her. The play is finally a bit too cutesy-wutesy, and its final plot points momentarily reduce the myth to a simple example of bad timing, but that doesn't seriously diminish the play's freshness and its capacity to seep into the subconscious. Recommended.
Saturday, June 09, 2007
This summer's first Shakespeare In The Park has only been up for a few nights as yet, so there's every reason to believe that the acting will improve during its five-week run. With more time, maybe Lauren Ambrose (as Juliet) will convince that she has fallen under first love's intoxicating spell, and maybe Oscar Isaac (as Romeo) will be able to convey the anguish of losing her. Maybe Austin Pendleton (Friar Laurence) will no longer have trouble with his lines, and maybe Christopher Evan Welch (Mercutio) will settle down and not push so hard. With purposefulness, maybe director Michael Greif can guide all the performances so these actors feel like an ensemble, and with luck, perhaps the set (a metal structure that rotates in a pool of shallow water and makes you think of a giant protractor) won't be noisy and distracting anymore. That's a lot of maybe's.
Friday, June 08, 2007
Thursday, June 07, 2007
The mission of the Mint is to revive "worthy but neglected" plays and they've this time dug up a particularly lively one, by St. John Hankin, never before seen in New York. An Oscar Wilde-ish comedy that wrings its laughs (and its social observations) out of some of the hypocrisies and class-conscious expectations of Edwardian England, the Mint's production retains the text but re-sets the action in modern times. The result often makes for fun stage business - the layabout, ne'er do well prodigal son of the title wastes his privileged-class time sunbathing in board shorts, one of the daughters entertains guests by playing the guitar, and no one speaks with a British accent, which makes the snooty, voice-of-snobbery character named Lady Faringford seem like something out of Dynasty. But the concept too often hits a wall when the modern-dressed characters behave according to social codes unique to England a hundred years ago. The production is entertaining, but in the end less effective than if it had remained in period, with the audience allowed to find the play's modern relevancy. The members of the ensemble range from very good to exceptional, with the sensational lead performance by Roderick Hill at the very top of the spectrum.
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
[Read on] [Also blogged by: David] [Patrick]
This chestnut, first on Broadway in 1940 and made into a Bette Davis "women's picture" at Warners soon after, has been given a handsome, well-designed revival by the Roundabout. Two actresses I love (Margreat Colin and Harriet Harris) are in high gear as the competing novelists and lifelong friends whose rivalries come to a head when they're not descending staircases, summoning maids, and mxing cocktails in their fabulously roomy Manhattan apartments. Furs, silk gowns, the works. I was licking my chops ready to eat it all up but the play itself, by the author of Bell, Book and Candle, isn't much of a meal. As a catfight it's barely more than a morsel, and beyond that its main message - that valuable lasting friendship requires tolerance - isn't so tasty when only one of the two characters behaves almost intolerably. Colin's character as written is on the bland side, but it's fun to watch her in '40s heroine mode. (Really, when *isn't* it fun to watch her?) Harris gets all the lip-smacking, showy stuff and she goes as far out there as she can short of chomping at the walls. Chomp away, I say.
[Read on] [Also blogged by: David]
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Snapple Theater Center
Monday, June 04, 2007
Also blogged by [Aaron] [Patrick]
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Saturday, June 02, 2007
A terrifyingly decent work by Anthony Neilson, now updated for the Iraq War, this show puts a giant knife not only to an innocent teddy bear, but to your fragile heart as well. The fact that it's graphic and disturbing is only amplified by the intimate space, and the audience reactions (they ring the stage on three sides) become as much a part of the show as the shocking story itself. However, there isn't really much revelation, and even less resolution: the plot is jumbled within the twisted mind of a deserting US soldier. The lighter first half, which focuses on the friendship of two roommates, is far more accessible, and when this old, AWOL friend of theirs shows up, all that really happens is a lengthy and somehow uniformly jagged series of scares. With more revision, the play could do a lot more to talk about morality: instead, it uses its knife-point monologues to wax about the way things used to be. Certainly not for everyone, but if you've forgotten what it was like to be disturbed at the theater, Penetrator is waiting for you.
At first the use of language in Jenny Schwartz's play is exciting and bold: the people talk in nearly non-stop cliches and elliptical phrases, and sometimes repeat a sentence or an exchange with minor but meaningful variation. For the first forty five minutes or so, as we watch a married couple struggling with each other over the death of their child, it makes for thrilling theatre: the highly stylized, fractured speech is like the music of profound anguish constructed from the superficial sound bytes of everyday talk. But then other whimsical characters begin to figure into the play - a transvestite airline stewardess and The Tooth Fairy, to name two - and the expressionistic language doesn't have the same impact coming from their mouths. The play begins to seem more style than substance, and all but one of its forays into humor fall flat. (The exception is a punchy pick-up scene between the grieving father and a one-night-stand, played by Annie McNamara) Thirty minutes into this play I couldn't wait to tell all my friends about it. After the full ninety, despite a top-notch production directed with snap and smarts by Anne Kaufman, I crossed all but the freshness seekers off my To Tell list.
Also blogged by: [Aaron]