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Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Winter's Tale



photo: Joan Marcus

One of Shakespeare's problem children, this late romance (based on Robert Greene's novella "Pandosto") is currently receiving a lovely production at Central Park's Delacorte Theater under the sensitive, focused direction of Michael Greif. While the story primarily revolves around Leontes (Ruben Santiago-Hudson, quite compelling), a king who believes that his devoted wife, Hermione (Linda Emond) is unfaithful, this particular staging is notable for the strength with which its secondary material is imbued. The film and television actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste makes an electrifying New York stage debut as Paulina,a noblewoman who makes it her life's mission to inform the king of his errors, and Emond herself--despite being a decade too old for the role--brings more pathos to the wrong queen than any actress I've ever seen. The play also offers a great deal of comedy, with Hamish Linklater (so memorable in last year's Twelfth Night) and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as adept clowns. More than almost any other production I can remember in the past ten years, Greif's mise-en-scene uses the park setting to its advantage in an extremely beneficial manner; it bodes well with the ethereal, almost otherworldly tenor of the text. He also manages to stage the difficult, haunting final scene to brilliant effect. There are very few levels on which this Winter's Tale doesn't work, and it's an absolute must for New York Shakespeare lovers.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Marathon 2010: Series B

Marathon 2010: Series B is another strong evening of one acts from the Ensemble Studio Theatre. In They Float Up (written by Jacquelyn Reingold and directed by Michael Barakiva), a middle-aged stripper-wannabe forces a young man to interact with her. The play gives a vivid sense of the pain of New Orleans five years after Katrina and of the neediness of individual humans. It's also funny, and the choreography by Mimi Quillin is just right. (However, it could benefit from some tightening.) Airborne (written by Laura Jacqmin and directed by Dan Bonnell) has much to say about women in the military, and it devastatingly combines intense physicality, smart language, and a perfect sense of timing. Amateurs (written by David Auburn and directed by Harris Yulin), anchored by a flawless performance by David Rasche, features mesmerizing cat-and-mouse interactions between a politician and the daughter of a man he beat in an election years earlier. The play starts slowly, but once it gets up a head of steam, it's quite good. Anniversary (written by Rachel Bonds and directed by Linsay Firman) elegantly telescopes many years into a half hour or so without ever skimping on characterization, meaning, or emotion. The two leads, Julie Fitzpatrick and Jerry Richardson, subtly navigate the delicate turns of emotion, and I hope to see more of both of them. The weakest entry of the evening is Interviewing Miss Davis (written by Laura Maria Censabella and directed by Kel Haney), the story of a young woman applying to be Bette Davis's personal assistant. There is much that is interesting here, particularly in the character of the current assistant (nicely played by Adria Vitlar), but the decision to feature such a well-known person works against the play--Delphi Harrington's not-quite-Bette-Davis manner of speaking is distracting, as is wondering what is true and what is fictional. The play also drags some.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Freed

Photo: John Quilty

Playwright Charles Smith faces three challenges in telling the story of John Newton Templeton, the first African-American to attend college in the Midwest, in the 1820s. First, bio-plays are difficult to pull off, as most people's lives don't fit a dramatic arc. Second, idea plays can end up pompous and/or dull. Third, Templeton's life was epic, but theatrical economics require plays to have small casts. Smith mostly overcomes these constraints by choosing an extremely dramatic section of Templeton's life and by giving each of the other two characters--a minister and his wife who take Templeton in--believably different points of view. Despite Smith's skill, however, the play cries out for other characters. Showing Templeton interacting with his classmates and perhaps with friends or a girlfriend would give the play a chance to breathe--and would take the pressure off the other two characters to represent Templeton's whole world. Also, the first act drags. However, the characters are affecting, the discussions are compelling, Smith's writing is compassionate, and Templeton's story horrifies, fascinates, breaks your heart, and inspires, sometimes simultaneously. Sheldon Best as Templeton gives a performance of great delicacy.

The Broadway Musicals 1990-2010

Celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Broadway by the Year series, The Broadway Musicals 1990-2010 featured at least one song from each year in its title. It's obvious to second-guess the choices, but I feel compelled to do so: two songs by Frank Wildhorn and two songs by Andrew Lloyd Weber, but only one by Stephen Sondheim? I must protest! On the other hand, Kendrick Jones performed a tribute to tap dancers past (based on the tribute in Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk), and any show that features Kendrick Jones is worth seeing. All in all, however, I was not blown away by the evening.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sondheim on Sondheim



photo: Richard Termine

I love the music of Stephen Sondheim. I hate the revue format. Does that mean that Sondheim on Sondheim, James Lapine's multimedia amalgamation of some of the composer's greatest works, narrated by the man himself via videotape, would strike some healthy balance? Yes. No. Maybe. The production itself offers a handful of brilliant performers (among them Barbara Cook, one of the greatest living Sondheim interpreters) singing the master's songs with aplomb. Can you really complain about Ms Cook's delicate rendition of "Beautiful" from Sunday in the Park with George, or Vanessa Williams' fantastic and reading of "Ah, but Underneath" ? Or Euan Morton and Leslie Kritzer making a great case as to why they should be the only choices for Mary and Charley if and when Merrily We Roll Along is revived? Sadly, the main problem is the composer himself: The interviews with Sondheim don't really illuminate anything about the material, and most of the time you wish he'd shut up and let the music speak for itself. Which, of course, it does.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Marathon 2010: Series A

The one-acts in the The Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon 2010: Series A range from interestingly unsuccessful to quite excellent. Act one begins with Safe, written by Ben Rosenthal and directed by Carolyn Cantor, which explores the effects of loss on a young man and his step-father. While some of the ideas and dialogue are compelling, Safe exists awkwardly between comedy and tragedy, and it doesn't quite acknowledge how seriously damaged its characters are. In Wild Terrain, written by Adam Kraar and directed by Richmond Hoxie, an older couple visit an outdoor art installation. It soon becomes clear that the wife is struggling with dementia. The show rambles a bit, but it is sensitive and touching. And the performers--the always wonderful Marcia Jean Kurtz, Jack Davidson, and Catherine Curtin--acquit themselves admirably. Matthew and the Pastor's Wife, written by Robert Askins and directed by John Giampietro, takes an entertainingly bizarre look at the lengths one person will go to to serve God.

Act two begins with Turnabout, written by Daniel Reitz, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, and featuring excellent performances by Lou Liberatore and Haskell King. Turnabout tells the story of a desperate man begging an ex-lover for help--and the ex-lover's revenge. The show takes too long to get started; in fact, the entire first scene could be jettisoned at little cost and with much gain. However, once the second scene begins--with some, uh, startling costumes--Turnabout settles into a bittersweet examination of gratitude and acceptance. Where the Children Are, written by Amy Fox and directed by Abigail Zealey Bess, presents five characters who have relatives in the military in Iraq. Largely using monologues, and with very little blocking, the play manages to be much more than the sum of its (exceptional) parts. Somehow, Fox, Bess, and the solid cast let us see--and feel--the emotional wounds that war inflicts on soldiers and their loved ones. All in all, Series A deserves an A.

Before Your Very Eyes

Before Your Very Eyes was written and directed by Edward Elefterion. The director part of him did no favors to the playwright part, and the playwright did no favors to the director--and neither was of any help to the actors. The play starts on September 11, 2001. First we hear in the dark a difficult-to-understand phone message, then the lights come up on two women over-indicating shock and horror. It gradually becomes clear that Kate is listening to a message from Lakshmi's husband for Lakshmi, who is too scared to listen herself. One of their husbands comes home; one doesn't. The rest of the play examines the ways that 9/11 haunted and changed the lives of the people who were there, as well as their loved ones. Unfortunately, Before Your Very Eyes chooses bombast over dialogue, emoting over acting, stick figures over well-developed characters, and half-assed conspiracy theories over reasonable debate.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Honoring Patrick

In Patrick's obituary in the Times, it says that donations in memory of Patrick may be made at tdf. If you'd interested, here's the link for memorial gifts.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Our Patrick

Reading through all the posts honoring Patrick has reminded me of just how social and supportive he was, not to just to me, but to an entire community of bloggers, critics, artists, playwrights, and just about everything in between. You wouldn't ever see a bad show if you were in Patrick's company -- or at least, you wouldn't remember seeing a bad show, because you'd probably be off to a diner afterward to grab a bite and talk about all the good stuff out there in theater. And that was Patrick represented to me: all the good stuff you could find in theater.

Goodbye, My Friend

I was absolutely shocked and saddened to hear of the sudden passing of my friend and colleague, Patrick Lee. Patrick was one of the most beautiful, generous and caring individuals I've ever known, and probably my greatest supporter, encouraging me more than anyone to pursue my passions of criticism and theatre journalism. I honestly don't think I've ever met anyone who truly loved theatre as much as he did. I'll always remember his dry comments after a particularly heinous production, the late-night dinners where he lovingly recounted his many theatrical memories, and his overall love for what he was doing. I am happy that, although his life has been cut tragically short, he was able to spend his final years doing what he loved most in the world. I am a better writer, audience member, and person to have known him.

Our friend, Patrick Lee

Patrick and David getting their Tony Awards on.

Show Showdown has lost a cofounder and a dear friend. Patrick Lee, officially the most theater-obsessed person I have ever met, passed away earlier this week. His love of all things theater was infectious and his supportive voice via Show Showdown, Just Shows to Go You, and TheaterMania was a valuable contribution to the New York theater community.

I met Patrick while waiting tables at West Bank Cafe. I spotted his Playbill and struck up a conversation. I bragged that I'd seen over a hundred theatrical productions in the previous year. He bragged that he'd seen over two hundred. What?? Game on. We began Show Showdown-ing in 2006 and I quickly discovered what a formidable opponent he would turn out to be. Within weeks he'd seen twice as many productions as had I, and his succinct, haiku-esqe capsule reviews could capture a production's essence in just a few carefully worded sentences.

At the time, Patrick was considering a second career in documentary film and was taking courses at NYU (his first: television production). However, shortly into our race, Patrick confided in me that he had found his true calling in theater criticism and promotion. Over the next few years, he successfully created for himself a truly fabulous life in the theater community that he so adored.

Patrick Lee was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. He had a gourmet sensibility in terms of theater, film and any other mode of art you could throw at him. He was a generous listener and a captivating conversationalist. His favorite play of all time was Uncle Vanya. His favorite musical was My Fair Lady. His favorite showtune was "Ol' Man River."

I will miss my show buddy a great deal.

XODavidBell

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

In Memory of Patrick Lee

I only met Patrick twice, but that was enough to get a sense of his joie de vivre and sheer likeability. That he is gone at the shockingly young age of 51 is heartbreaking, and the world is a duller place without him. My deepest sympathy and best wishes to Patrick's loved ones.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Red

Photo: Joan Marcus

The artist Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina) sits staring at a canvas. His new assistant, Ken (Eddie Redmayne), enters stage right, dressed in a suit and nervous. Rothko points at a canvas and asks Ken, "What do you see?" He then holds forth for minutes before allowing Ken to answer. As Rothko pontificates on art and bosses Ken around, the arc of the play becomes predictable to anyone familiar with theatre and with bio-plays in particular. However, John Logan's Red (directed by Michael Grandage) is more about art, language, and ideas than plot, and in those arenas it fascinates and provokes. Both performers are top notch, and Christopher Oram's scenery brilliantly explicates and supports Rothko's art, belief system, and life.

Sunday In The Park With George


**** (out of 5 stars)
Arden Theatre Co.
Philadelphia, PA

I think we can all agree that there's nothing like a well-executed Sondheim score. Having felt a little gypped after being offered a six-person orchestra in the current Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, and a measly five-person orchestra in the recent Broadway revival of Sunday In The Park..., the promise of a fifteen-person strong orchestra was sufficient enough to lure me down to Arden Theatre company's Sunday... in Philly. Good call, because there's something kinda gorgeous going on down there. This well-executed, lovely-sounding, beautiful-to-look-at regional production in many ways, trumps the Studio 54 revival. The sound of the show is near perfect with its meaty orchestra and cast of Broadway caliber singers. The projections, created especially for this production, are far more subtle and not the least bit heavy-handed like in the Broadway revival (though in the Act 2 "Chromolume #7" sequence, Arden's stage was a thrilling explosion of colorful animation). Stand-out performances included Jeffrey Coon's thoughtful, pensive George, and Maureen Torsney Weir's elegant and emotional delivery of "Beautiful" as the Old Lady. And when orchestra and cast join together in Act 1 and 2 "Sunday" finales? Forget about it. Thumbs way up.

Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play

It is the rare play that dares to span over 400 years, but Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play is nothing if not ambitious. Ruhl's three-and-a-half-hour epic ponders love, betrayal, belief, and hatred and numbers among its characters Queen Elizabeth, Hitler, and Ronald Reagan (all acidly depicted by the wry T. Ryder Smith). Many cast members play similar characters in the three time periods, and their changing allegiances reflect each time and place as well as the effects of playing such sacred characters as Jesus and Mary. The show is funny, moving, and often beautiful. I wish I could see it again; its myriad relationships, ideas, and images were too much to take in on one viewing.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Joking Apart

Photo: Gili Getz

Chalk up another success for the T. Schreiber Studio. Its latest production, Joking Apart, does full justice to Alan Ayckbourn's hysterically sad, sadly hysterical story of the golden, lucky Richard and Anthea and their not-so-golden, not-so-lucky, frankly envious friends. Taking place over twelve years, Joking Apart limns the erosions of relationships, the dreams that don't come true, and the humiliation of not living up to one's own standards. Despite this grim description, the play is a riot, and director Peter Jensen and actors Alison Blair, Michael J. Connolly, Anisa Dema, James Liebman, Sebastian Montoya, Michael Murray, Stephanie Seward, and Aleksandra Stattin manage both the heartbreak and the humor with assurance.

Amerissiah

Photo: Larry Cobra

The Amoralists' current production, Amerissiah, is the story of a man who thinks he's god, his struggle with cancer, and his impressively dysfunctional family. It sort of believes in miracles, and it sort of doesn't. Starting with the huge moose head that dominates the set, much is left unexplained. The characters in Amerissiah live at the top of their lungs, brandishing their desires like pulsating neon swords. This high-energy, even cartoonish writing and acting worked to great effect in the Amoralists' wonderful previous production, Happy in the Poorhouse. In Amerissiah, however, too many of the characters and situations are ugly, from unsuccessful toilet humor to a father-daughter team who embezzle millions of dollars by neglecting to purchase the health insurance they promised their employees. I guess Amerissiah fits perfectly with the company's stated mission of producing "work of no moral judgment." But is that goal desirable? Is it even possible? For me, it was hard to care much about Amerissiah, and I guess that is at least partially a moral judgment.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (revisited)

In my review of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, I wrote, "However, the whole of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, mostly because director and book writer Alex Timbers, while extremely creative, sometimes seems more interested in clever theatrics and cheap (albeit funny!) jokes than in the painful history he is exploring." The more I thought about the show, the more I thought that its politics were offensive. But I wasn't sure, so when a friend wanted to see the show, I joined him for a second viewing. (Warning: I discuss the ending of this show and of Cabaret below.)

Andrew Jackson was responsible for the mistreatment, forced relocation, and deaths of thousands of Native Americans. The show mentions that some people view him as an "American Hitler," and one of its last images is a poignant silent tableau of displaced Native Americans. But then the handsome, energetic Benjamin Walker comes bounding out to sing yet another song as Andrew Jackson, rock star. At the curtain call, one of the white performers is killed by a Native American, and she never gets up to take her bow--the final image of the show is the dead white girl. In other words, the Native Americans are ultimately presented as murderers and honoring them is nothing more than lip service.

Compare this to the end of Cabaret, with its tableau of the victims of ethnic cleansing: prisoners in a concentration camp. And that's the actual end, that lingering image of evil. To have had the Emcee prance out to sing one more "look at me, aren't I funny" song would have been perceived as--and would have been--in bad taste. To have one of the Nazis come out to sing a cheerful, "aren't I lovable" song at that moment would have been unimaginable. Yet what Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson does is the equivalent.

A defense I have heard of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson is that the hero-ization of Jackson is supposed to be ironic. Okay, I kinda buy that. But (1) the Native Americans still should have had the last word/image, and (2) there was nothing ironic about the dead white girl at the end.

Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day

On one hand, the sweetly odd and completely delightful jazz singer Nellie McKay comes across as a combination of, oh, Cyndi Lauper, Steve Martin, Gracie Burns, and Diana Krall, with a soup├žon of Ella Fitzergerald thrown in. On the other hand, she is like nobody else, sui generis. In Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day, at Feinstein's at the Loews Regency, McKay uses a variety of voices, including sweet and thin, Ella-esque, and 1930's vibrato-laden soprano--all perfectly matched to the material. Her song list, while mainly focused on pieces sung by Doris Day, travels hither and yon, including "Mother of Pearl," her ironic contribution to the argument as to whether feminists have senses of humor. McKay plays piano and ukulele and is backed by a fabulous band (Kenny Davis on bass, Ben Bynum on drums, Belinda Whitney on violin, Glenn Drewes on trumpet, and Jay Berliner on guitar). Highlights for me included an energetic "A-Tisket, A Tasket"; a tender "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans"; an appropriately crazy "Crazy Rhythm"; and a poignant version of "Georgy Girl," accompanied by ukulele and dedicated to Lynn Redgrave. Her patter comes across as stream of consciousness, and an entertaining consciousness it is. Added bonus: in honor of the title of the show, the audience receives yummy blueberry tarts. (Tickets max out at $75 with a $40 minimum, but select $40 seats with no minimum are often available.)