Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brief Encounter

Photo © 2010 Joan Marcus

There is something so wonderfully tragic about the current production of "Brief Encounter" that at the end of the show, I wanted to run down to the stage and give each actor a hug, and thank them for letting me be a part of their story.

The story tropes - love, loss, and how we cope - are nothing new. There are no groundbreaking life lessons in this show. Rather, the story told is one of quiet sadness, the agony of adults who know that they have to, and eventually will, do what is right instead of what makes them happy. "Brief Encounter" is full of angst in the true sense of the word. Alec (Tristan Sturrock) and Laura (Hannah Yelland) know that what they have is real and special, and that there is absolutely nothing they can do about it.

The supporting cast is just as magnificent. It is a perfect rendition of how our own small tragedies are simply that: our own. The epic love story unfolding center stage has no effect on the budding romance between Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson) and Stanley (Gabriel Ebert), nor is it of any importance to the tempestuous relationship between Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin) and Albert (Joseph Alessi). Each couple is encased in their own unfolding plot, and blissfully unaware of the foibles of their neighbors.

Many shows live or die by their realism; reality is boring. Playwrights and directors know this, and therefore give us drama instead. It is a true pleasure to see the skill and grace with which Emma Rice creates the utterly real and yet terribly poignant world of Alec and Laura; the resulting show is nothing short of a delight.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Sarah Ruhl's smooth, respectful adaptation of Virginia Woolf's most playful work, Orlando (directed by Rebecca Taichman), is in some ways a play, in other ways a dramatic reading, and in still other ways a tone poem. Its split personality is apt for the story of a duke who wakes up one day to find that he--she--has become a duchess. Woolf wrote Orlando in honor of one of her great loves, Vita Sackville-West, and used the book to examine relationships, feminism, gender roles, and politics. She also made concrete (and romantic and sexy) Sackville-West's straddling of gender roles as a soft-butch lesbian (or "confirmed sapphist," as Woolf once described her).

Ruhl relies heavily on Woolf's own writing, which is a wise decision since Woolf's work is beautiful, evocative, and often funny. Much of the "dialogue" is actually narration, and Annie-B Parson has choreographed various series of moves that gracefully support the language. With the exception of one performer, the entire cast depicts both men and women, taking Woolf's gender play one step further. The expert performers are led by the subtle, sexy, extraordinary Francesca Faridany, who plays 16-year-old boy and middle-aged woman with equal elegance.


The new musical Bunked! (presented as part of the Fringe Encores) tells the story of five camp counselors who hope to have the "Best Summer Ever." There's the self-aware, snappy gay guy; his chirpy nonidentical twin (picture Kristin Chenoweth at 18); the handsome bisexual guy on whom they both have crushes; the straight guy with a secret; and the snotty girl with a bigger secret. Anyone with knowledge of musicals could write a plot based on that character list and do as good a job as Bunked! The book (by Alaina Kunin and Bradford Proctor) is an awkward combination of trivial and serious, and there is little opportunity to care about the characters. The score (lyrics by Kunin and Proctor; music by Proctor) is better, with a handful of strong moments. However, the songs tend to sound (and feel) alike, and there are too many 11:00-number wanna-be's.

Three other points: (1) the hyper-enthusiasm of part of the audience, who guffawed at the smallest joke, sometimes before the joke was told, did not help the performance I saw; (2) although Bunked! has many flaws, it gives reason to hope that Kunin and Proctor keep writing; and (3) this review should be taken with a grain of salt, as I have socks older than Bunked!'s target audience.

Getting Even With Shakespeare

What is the difference between a play and a skit? This question came to mind while watching Matt Saldarelli's amusing but slight piece, Getting Even With Shakespeare (presented as part of the Fringe Encores). A play, it seems to me, has a beginning, a middle, and an end; at least one character who changes and grows (or whose lack of growth is the point); and a coherent depiction of its world, realistic or not. A skit, on the other hand, consists of an idea or two developed for laughs, with unidimensional characters and a willingness to throw consistency to the winds for the sake of a laugh.

Getting Even With Shakespeare falls into the skit category, and as such it has much to offer. To start with, it has an amusing concept: a lawyer who is bored with his life wanders into the bar where Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet hang out when they are not being called upon to inhabit actors playing them anywhere in the world. It also boasts some funny supplementary ideas (an errant word or moment can send any of the characters off into one of their monologues) and a strong cast. However, it has a tendency toward "in" jokes and being too pleased with itself, and it definitely overstays its welcome. For Getting Even With Shakespeare to be a fully successful skit, it would need to be streamlined. For it to be a successful play, it would need to be more fully developed. In either case, it would need to be more focused on the audience's needs and less on the playwright's, director's, and actors'.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ritter, Dene, Voss

Photo: Dave Beckerman

Thomas Bernhard may be one of Europe's great postwar writers but his plays are rarely seen in the US. This is a shame. The production of his Ritter, Dene, Voss which opened last night at La Mama has percolated since 2006, and it is a thing of finished beauty. Two sisters, wealthy actresses who perform only what and when they choose, prepare for the return of their tubercular philosopher brother from a sanatarium. Painfully, like the turning of a screw, the sisters exercise the frictions of their lives. Bernhard's fluid yet joyfully abrupt language (translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott) is the river from which the true, sad, spiritually ugly faces of the repressed Dene (Maev Beaty) and the looser, spiteful Ritter (Shannon Perreault) swim into startling focus. When Ludwig finally arrives the tension has reached a high pitch. What will he be like? What will he do? Equally important, will he spoil the play, so brilliantly constructed so far? Bernhard's play first meets, then defies expectations, with enough linguistic flair and dramatic panache for two or three plays. Director Adam Seelig and his superb cast wear this wonderful work like a surgical glove.
Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): Ritter, Dene, Voss by Thomas Bernhard on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Photo: Chris Mueller

The production of Chess at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, directed by Eric Schaeffer, is the umpteenth version of a show that started as a concept album and still hasn't made it to solid musical theatre. The score, by Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, is energetic and frequently engaging, but many (most?) of the numbers lack the character revelation and dramatic arc that distinguish theatre songs from other sorts of music. The book's combination of love triangle, chess match, and geopolitics never gels, and many characters are given little, well, character. Euan Morton is wonderful as Anatoly, the Russian chess player, giving him a dimension and reality far past what's written. Jeremy Kushnier does pretty well with the obnoxious American chess player Freddie, although he is hampered by the character's sheer unlikeability. Jill Paice as Florence fails to take advantage of some of the best songs in the show to create a emotionally believable character. In singing the elegant "Someone Else's Story," she seems unaware of what the song means and too focused on showing off her (sometimes annoying) voice. Among the supporting cast, Christopher Bloch stands out as Anatoly's second, Molokov, and Eleasha Gamble sings beautifully as Anatoly's wife Svetlana, although her acting is marred by theatrical pauses that would put Elaine Stritch to shame. Chess is a reasonably entertaining evening in the theatre, but it would be no less entertaining simply to listen to one of the recorded versions, particularly the Original Broadway Cast CD with the amazing Judy Kuhn as Florence.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


The first act of Aidan Mathews' Exit/Entrance features a not particularly likeable old couple; the second act features a not particularly likeable young couple. They may or may not be the same couple. Much of the dialogue is elliptical. The wives want honest conversation; the husbands do not. Since both husbands are self-centered, manipulative, and condescending, it is unclear why their wives love them. Mathews seems to be attempting something along the Beckett-Albee line, but he lacks their wit, intelligence, and ability to be compelling. Linda Thorson rises above the material with a subtle performance that gives her character dimension; the other three performers fail to inflate their cardboard characters.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Roadkill Confidential

Photo: Carl Skutsch

Trevor is the stereotypical tortured and misunderstood artist, unable to satisfyingly connect with her lover or anyone else. In real life such people tend to be tiresome, but Trevor—though like everyone else here a very consciously written character—is written and played so well (by Sheila Callaghan and Rebecca Henderson respectively) that she's unceasingly interesting to watch, whether squirming silently in front of the war-blasting TV, politely seething during one of her neighbor's uninvited visits, or monologuing to the camera so that her face appears in creepy, giant video closeup.

Do her activities at her rural studio go beyond the merely disgusting (collecting roadkill and incorporating it into art installations) to include something more sinister? A cocksure FBI agent is on the scene to try and find out. Projection is used smartly and integrally throughout the production; kudos must also go to director Kip Fagan, whose overall vision keeps this talky piece moving smoothly, and to the artistic mastery of the tech crew.

Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): Roadkill Confidential on Blogcritics.

Love, Loss, and What I Wore

Due to various circumstances, I have now seen Love, Loss, and What I Wore twice. Without these circumstances, I would not have seen it even once, as my interest in clothing is at the nano level. I would have missed a delightful and touching evening (well, two delightful and touching evenings). LLAWIW uses clothing as a launchpad from which to discuss growing up, romance, family dynamics, aging, and the strange and wonderful adventure of being a woman. At times it has the audience laughing hysterically; at other times, sniffles can be heard. Helen Carey, Victoria Clark, Nancy Giles, Stacy London, and Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who make up the current cast, are all wonderful. By the end of the show, you want to go out to dinner with them and continue the conversation.

Jurassic Parq: The Broadway Musical

Photo: Caite Hevner

Jurassic Parq: The Broadway Musical
tells the Jurassic Park story from the dinosaurs' point of view, commenting
along the wayon sexuality, family, musical-theatre tropes, and the struggle between science and religion. The plot, such as it is, is simple: the scientists who brought the dinosaurs back to life made them all female so that they couldn't reproduce, but one of the T rexes has suddenly developed a penis, along with a T rex-sized desire to use it. The story is narrated by Morgan Freeman, who may be Samuel L. Jackson, and who is in any event played by a white guy (the marvelously deadpan Lee Seymour), and the show features funny, energetic songs (by Emma Barash, Bryce Norbitz, Marshall Pailet, and Stephen Wargo) and top-level dance, fabulously choreographed by Kyle Mullins and energetically danced by the strong cast. Jurassic Parq provides a 70-minute good time, full of silliness and pointed satire. I suspect that the title is unduly optimistic;however, being an excellent non-Broadway musical is not chopped liver. (My 18-year-old nephew described it on his Facebook page as "the shit," which I understand is quite a good thing to be.)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Michael Feinstein & Barbara Cook "Cheek to Cheek"

Photo: Mike Martin

Considering that they both have devoted their lives to the American Songbook, Barbara Cook and Michael Feinstein make a surprisingly odd couple. While Cook uses her voice in service to the songs, Feinstein uses the songs in service to his voice. As a result, each piece that Cook sings reflects the unique life of the unique song, while most of the songs that Feinstein sings get the start-slow-and-soft-and-end-fast-and-loud treatment (an exception being his delicate treatment of Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich's beautiful "Ever After"). I prefer Cook's approach--there's a reason that many people (including Feinstein) consider her the preeminent interpreter of the American Songbook--though Feinstein is in fine voice and his love of the songs is evident. The short evening (70 minutes) combines solos and duets and runs the gamut from well-loved standards ("Tea for Two," "Cheek to Cheek," "I've Got You Under My Skin") to lesser known finds such as the sweet and touching "Here's to Life" by Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary. The between-song patter ranges from mutual-admiration-society declarations of love to funny professional and personal anecdotes; unfortunately, it is hard to hear some of the patter in parts of the room. The wonderful back-up band includes musical director John Oddo, Aaron Heick on reeds, George Rabbai on trumpet, Warren Odze on drums, and David Finck on bass.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Girls of Murder City (Book Review)

After author Douglas Perry saw Chicago: The Musical, he wanted to read a book about the real women on whom playwright Maurine Watkins had based her original play, also called Chicago. To his surprise, such a book did not exist, so he wrote one. The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago is not a great book, but it does effectively introduce the real-life versions of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly. Roxie is based on the beautiful Beulah Annan, who defended herself for shooting her lover by saying that "they both reached for the gun" and who feigned pregnancy to gain the sympathy of the public and the jury. Velma is less exactly based on the upper class Belva Gaertner, who was too drunk to remember if she shot her lover but thought it was unlikely, because, "I don't see how I could. I thought so much of him." The main source of enjoyment reading the book is seeing how much of the musical is based on actual events: for example, there was indeed a number of female murderers in the Cook County jail at the same time as Beulah and Belva, being pretty and well-dressed was a more valuable defense than being innocent, and there were indeed credulous sob sisters writing for many newspapers. (Watkins herself, however, was not a sob sister and did all she could to get Beulah and Belva found guilty. ) Perhaps the most fascinating realization is that Bob Fosse's version of Chicago is no more cynical than Maurine Watkins's or the reality of 1920's Chicago. Unfortunately, the book's structure is confusing, and Perry's writing ranges from pedestrian to purple. The frequency with which he claims to know what people were thinking 75 years ago suggests one of two conclusions: (1) he was too willing to accept as true the hyperdramatic newspaper reports of the time, or (2) he has too much faith in his ability to read dead people's minds.