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.