Sunday, December 10, 2017

Meteor Shower

"Well, now, that was a mess," my daughter mused during the curtain call at Meteor Shower, currently running at the Booth through late January. "Yeah," I agreed. "Didn't really hang together, huh?" "Maybe Steve Martin wants another de Kooning or something," my husband mused. And with that, we bundled up and walked out of the theater into the snow.

But don't let the comments above throw you: all three of us laughed our asses off through the whole show, and you should totally go see it so that you can laugh your ass off, too. Just don't expect to encounter an actual play at any point during the process. Because Meteor Shower is to drama what a can of Chef-Boyardee ravioli is to dining.

Matthew Murphy
Here's the thing, though: I loved that canned, viscous glop. At some points during my reasonably happy if occasionally depressive childhood, I'd venture that there was absolutely nothing better than an entire can, heated over the stove and dumped into a plastic bowl. Just like sometimes--especially at times when the world has become a hot, flaming pile of endless disappointment and despair--a whizzing series of not-especially-connected one-liners, short bits, and sight gags that only kind of resolve at the end of a fleetingly satisfying seventy-five minutes is absolutely heavenly.

It's not worth recounting the plot, in part because there isn't much of one and in part because what does count as a throughline doesn't really make any sense. But whatever, in case you're curious, two married people (Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos) hang out with their alter egos (Laura Benanti and Keegan-Michael Key) at their place in Ojai during a meteor shower, and wackiness ensues. Said wackiness ranges from mysterious eggplant-sending and related attempts at gaslighting, some increasingly convoluted sexual couplings, the speaking of invented languages, the use of hard drugs and the lifting of silverware, a handful of nicely-timed sight gags, and a smattering of garden-variety dick jokes. Because the four actors cast in the roles are brilliant with comic timing and are clearly having a blast playing for every guffaw they can milk out of the script, the fact that there's no logical whole doesn't matter at all.

Meteor Shower has been likened to a Saturday Night Live sketch that goes on too long, I disagree with this. Instead, it reminds me of Martin's most hilariously bizarre standup work: his grandmother's song; his fondness for names like Gern Blanston and the one it's impossible to spell out accuratelythe cruel shoes. Martin quit doing standup years ago, but I suppose a brilliant comic doesn't ever stop coming up with random bits; Meteor Shower strikes me as a long list of gleefully strange gags he kept track of, gradually strung together, and finally tried to drape a practically nonexistent plot around. Not quite a straightforward standup routine, the show still functions less like a play and more like an excuse for four very broad comics to be collectively ridiculous for a little over an hour. Go if you can, take your mind off the world, guffaw a little. You'll be especially amused, I think, if you're a fan of any of the people involved: the goofily funny people who make up the cast; Jerry Zaks, who has been directing since Broadway was invented and does a typically fine job here; and Martin, whose flair for the absurd is on full display. Hell, even the costumes are amusing (Keegan-Michael Key's mandals nail the landing, Ann Roth).

Go. Enjoy. If possible, sneak a can of ravioli in with you; you'll thank me.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Miss Saigon and M Butterfly

What are the odds that I'd see two different takes on Madama Butterfly in rapid succession? Pretty high, it turns out: they're both running in revival here, I have a student writing an honors thesis about Asian stereotypes on Broadway, I'm teaching a seminar about musicals and American politics that we had money to spend on tickets for, I dig Julie Taymor. It happens that the Puccini original is in repertory at the Met this season; Wendy suggested I hit that, too, and make this writeup a trifecta. Beautiful though the opera is, I've officially hit my saturation point with this damn story line, so no, I'm not going to the Met and you can't make me.

Matthew Murphy
Miss Saigon is--and this is putting it very nicely--not one of my favorite musicals. I saw the original production the week I graduated from college, and it failed to grab me; I spent most of the show wondering distractedly what the hell I was going to do with my life, pausing occasionally to seethe over a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend who couldn't keep his pants on for five minutes whenever I went anywhere without him. Sure, a few scenes yanked me to attention: the one with the helicopter, you bet, and that other one in which Jonathan Pryce, by that point refreshingly free of yellowface and eye prosthetics, humped a cadillac. Otherwise, though, the show didn't stay with me for long, and by "long" I mean "more than five minutes after I left the theater."

Seeing the revival 25 years later with a group of students roughly the age I was when I first saw it had its charms, for sure. Reception was mixed among them, but even the biggest critics remained awake during the show and did not sneak out at intermission, which translates as a raving success when it comes to class trips to venues of any kind. As an added bonus, most were genuinely thrilled when I suggested we take the empty seats in the front few rows to the right of the stage for the second act. It's no wonder: the very hugeness of the show is, without question, one of its major assets. Aside from the scenes involving large vehicles, there are enormous backdrops and huge musical numbers, some with acrobats and giant billowy flags, during which cast members gradually appear at tiered levels you didn't realize were there. And as a primer on the megamusical, Miss Saigon has just about every ingredient required: high emotion, universal themes, hummable songs, visual enormity, dazzling and often mechanized spectacle. I'd add, in this case, a nobly committed cast, a very talented Kim (Eva Noblezada), and a mesmerizingly good Engineer (Jon Jon Briones). Miss Saigon just isn't my bag--really, megamusicals in general just don't do it for me, but that's not to say that the production isn't done very, very well. If you like shiny romantic sappy bigness and don't mind two-dimensional characters that threaten to dip into outright stereotype, the show just might be yours.

Sara Krulwich

The original production of M Butterfly stayed with me a lot longer than Miss Saigon did, and I was eager to revisit the show with Taymor at the helm, but I was disappointed by the revival. So, apparently, are a lot of people: the show was originally supposed to run through February, but is closing six weeks early. It's curiously flat, especially for a Taymor production. Not especially pretty to look at (though damn if that woman can't work wonders with a few carefully angled rays of soft, white light), the revival feels sluggish, talky, and distant. I wasn't especially impressed with Clive Owen, who I usually like a lot, and the added material does little more than make the show...feel...longer. While I appreciate the attempt on Hwang's part to subvert the Madama Butterfly story--and to toy, especially, with the stereotype of the fragile, delicate, passive Asian naif whose life is consumed with longing for the white western man--there's little else that really takes hold: no depth or nuance of character, no one especially likable or ultimately very interesting.

At least in my case, the best thing about seeing both shows was the opportunity it gave me to learn from my students. A few Asian-American kids in my seminar love Miss Saigon because they thrill at seeing representations of themselves--but they are also fully aware of and willing to criticize its many problems, oversights, assumptions, and caricatures. My honors student has written extensively about M. Butterfly; I wish the revival was, in the end, as brilliant as her reading of the play is. So while the two productions didn't amount to the most thrilling experiences I've ever had at the theater, the conversations I had with my students about the shows after having seen them were well worth the price of countless admissions. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Meteor Shower

"Meteor Shower" by Steve Martin is perfectly cast and great fun, but it's not much of a play. The nonlinear plot makes little sense, the characters aren't compelling - except in their quirks, which are fascinating to watch: Laura's (Laura Benati) overt sexuality, Gerald's (Keegan-Michael Key of "Key and Peele") germaphobia and Corky (Amy Schumer of "Inside Amy Schumer") and Norm's (Jeremy Shamos) over-the-top marriage therapy relationship (where every slight ends with psycho-babble like, "I understand you probably didn't know you hurt me. I'm asking you to be more careful with my feelings.") "Meteor Shower," at the Booth Theater, is like a really good Saturday Night Live skit - one that meanders on longer than it should (even at 80 minutes) but, at least, it keeps you laughing. The surrealistic satire also played in California and Connecticut last year.

The thin storyline involves an evening of meteor watching between two couples at Norm and Corky's modern Ojai, California, home -- Beowulf Boritt designs a living room worthy of Architectural Digest. Several versions of the evening are presented, with each alternate reality leading closer to a conclusion -- although not necessarily an understanding of what exactly the resolution is ... something along the lines of "If you don't deal with your subconscious, it deals with you" as Martin dissects marriage -- with the two couples representing distinct aspects of Corky and Norm's personality. But Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," it is not.

There's a lot to enjoy, though. Schumer's deft skill in delivering crazy lines about "exploding head syndrome" and her cannibalistic past. Key's physical prowess - his expressive face, stance and body movement, which conveys more than Martin's play reveals. Tony Award-winner Benati's obvious delight sparring with her co-stars as she seduces everyone. Shamos' powerhouse performance of an everyman lost in absurdity -- not every actor can pull off a meteor wound with such casual aplomb. There is also Jerry Zaks' able direction, which you can see in the enormous black sky where the brilliant lights of the meteors burst (lighting design by Natasha Katz) and the production's pause that showcases it or the lovely flexibility of how the set is used, flipping easily from the home's interior to its backyard. Plus, no one does one liners better than Steve Martin: on why Corky's "exploding head syndrome" is not curable - "it's not funded." Such witticisms are aplenty in "Meteor Shower."

Biggest kudos here go to Caparelliotis Casting. Without this star-studded array of talent this show would languish. The cast makes "Meteor Shower" work ... at least well enough for a few laughs.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Disgraced (Toronto)

Disgraced was the play of the moment when it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. This month it returned to Toronto for its second run by The Hope and Hell Theatre Co. and David Mirvish at the Panasonic Theatre.

Though the play centers around a dinner party gone wrong, it mainly follows Amir (Raoul Bhaneja). He has done everything to fit in to the upper classes of white American society--switch from public defense law to corporate mergers and acquisitions, marry a white American woman (Emily, played by Birgitte Solem), and denounce his Islamic upbringing at every chance. When his efforts to reject the Islamic faith and hide this part of his identity backfire, his wife and the attendees of their celebratory dinner party get to watch him unravel.

The show is well-produced with a spotless set representing Amir and Emily's high-end loft. But unfortunately there's not much else I can say that I liked about the production. I will admit I was biased against Ayad Akhtar's play from the beginning. I read the script four years ago in an issue of American Theatre. It didn't impress me then. When a friend offered me a ticket last week, I decided to give it a second chance. After all, everyone here in Toronto was raving about it and this was a repeat, almost sold-out second engagement.

Unfortunately seeing it on stage, at least in this production, still did not win me over.

I did appreciate the play's commentary about white men being the next terrorists. It hit even harder now in the years after Sandy Hook, Orlando, Vegas and countless other shootings by mostly white men on American soil. I do also agree that cultural appropriation--a theme the play explores through the Islamic influences in Emily's art--is tricky and worth exploring. How do we honor the voices of minorities and their contributions to culture without appropriating or fetishizing their traditions? Then again, it is difficult to see Emily's abandonment of Islamic influences as an answer to this question, or because her husband uses his religious upbringing as an excuse for beating her.

My favorite character in the whole play, Jory (played by Karen Glave) had some fantastic one liners. In a room of different minorities all claiming "who has it worse?" Glave put everyone in their place without taking over the story. Besides the shock and awe of discovering an affair between her husband, Whitney art curator Isaac (Alex Poch-Goldin), and Emily, Jory's job still puts her in the position of the most power at the end of the play--a note that I did not miss.
Raoul Bhaneja as Amir

But in the end, Disgraced is another traditional dinner party, two act, ninety-minute play. The only difference is a man of Arab descent at the center of the action instead of a middle-aged white man. Electrifying acting and directing could have punched up the commentary and breathed more into the interpersonal relationships, but as my acting friend especially noted, that didn't happen either. Without the chemistry of a happily married couple, the love between blood relatives, or the playful trust of friendship, it did seem like the overarching institutions of religion and class were controlling the characters as they fought around the dinner table. To me, that's not a compelling story to watch. It's excuses.

To be fair, the play seemed like it landed well with the rest of the audience. The struggle of a privileged man of color in corporate culture did not speak to me, but perhaps it did to many older patrons who have worked in that world. Seeing the story of an Arab man might illuminate something new for them.

But for me, I think theatre can do so much more.

Free ticket as plus one with a friend, row Q.

Follies (National Theatre Broadcast)

You just never know how something is going to hit you. Last night I saw the National Theatre Broadcast of Follies with five friends. Among us, we have easily seen 80 live performances of Follies, including the original, the one in England in the 1980s with Diana Rigg, the concert version with Barbara Cook, Roundabout's, Encores!'s, the one with Bernadette Peters (in D.C. and in New York), Signature's (Arlington, VA), St. Bartholomew's, Paper Mills's, and a couple up in the Berkshires, many of them multiple times. We could probably perform the damn thing.

Photo: Johan Persson

We sat in a row. And the three of us sitting to the right liked it, and the three of us sitting to the left hated it. It was as though a line had been drawn in the middle, and we had completely different experiences on either side of it. (With one exception: we all loathed Tracie Bennett's version of "I'm Still Here.")

You never know.

The Oldish Woman and the Show (Art Times)

My latest essay is up at Art Times:
Many years ago, I had the magical experience of being there when my nephew Charlie, who was around six years old at the time, saw his first musical. It was Titanic, and he already knew the CD by heart. To say that he was rapt does not begin to describe his 100% concentration. We were in the last row, and at one point he leaned forward so far that he slipped off his seat. In contrast to the noisy high schoolers in front of us, he was a perfect audience member. In fact, he said only one thing: after a particular song, he leaned toward his mom and said, quietly and joyfully, “That was number 10.” Yes, he knew the numbers of all the songs on the CD.
(read more)

Monday, November 13, 2017

Nellie McKay: The Big Molinsky--Considering Joan Rivers

There are still some seats left for Nellie McKay: The Big Molinsky--Considering Joan Rivers at Joe's Pub on November 17 at 11:30. They're only $15, with a $12 cover (the fries are delish). Here's the link. If you like her, go. If you've never heard of her, go.

Seriously, go.

So now I suppose I should tell you who Nellie McKay is and describe the performance, but it's like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll. When my nephew asked what kind of singer she was, all I could come up with is, "She's Nellie McKay." It's the only correct answer.

But, hey, I'll give it a try. Nellie McKay is sweet, lovely, talented, and funny, with an edge. She is innocent and experienced. She sings every sort of music, from 30's musicals to the Beatles and beyond, along with her own songs. (Her latest CD is My Weekly Reader. I highly recommend it. Song list here. The actual CD has two bonus songs.) She plays piano, ukulele, bells, clarinet, congas, cymbals, harmonica, keyboards, maracas, marimbas, organ, and tambourine.

In The Big Molinsky--Considering Joan Rivers, which is a solo show, McKay plays Joan Rivers, as well as many people in Rivers' life and people in movies Rivers watches (McKay does a great Dietrich). She inserts all sorts of songs, which she sings wonderfully. She also manages to include a lot of political commentary, as asides, which somehow fit right in and are incredibly funny while also pretty devastating. She accompanies herself on piano and uke. She is a little strange and quite talented.

During a McKay show, I tend to spend a fair amount of time thinking, "What is she doing?" and "How did she think of that?" I also laugh, a lot. And I adore her singing.

Anyway, I give up. I don't have the chops to describe the indescribable. Here's a link to some of her own work and a song from the 1920s. Check it out. And then go catch her at Joe's Pub. Really.

Wendy Caster
(paid for the ticket; sat the equivalent of 4th row, I guess?)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Introducing Maggie Sulc

I am excited to introduce Maggie Sulc as our new Canadian reviewer. As you can see from her bio below, she has a great deal of experience in both theatre and writing. Even better, at least in my opinion, is that she is also passionate and insightful, as you can see from the two posts she has already written: Marine Life and Cloud.

Based in Toronto, Maggie is a playwright and dramaturg. She moved to the Great White North from Texas to earn her MA in Theatre and Performance Studies from York University and has now become a permanent resident and Torontonian.

In her first year in Canada, Maggie saw over 90 theatre performances of many varieties and volunteered at 4 theatres and 2 festivals. Now she sees less theatre but makes a bit more of her own. Her theatre interests include immersive experiences, independent theatre, and new plays.

Her first reviewer gig was for the Rice Thresher at Rice University; she also writes for HowlRound on a semi-regular basis; and she's excited to bridge the gap between Toronto and the New York theatre scenes.

For more information about Maggie, check out her blog at or on Twitter @austinausten.

Shame of Thrones: The Rock Musical: An Unauthorized Parody

There's good news and there's bad news.

Good news: Shame of Thrones: The Rock Musical: An Unauthorized Parody (what would be the point of an authorized parody?) largely succeeds in getting laughs--some big laughs--lampooning the oh-so-lampoonable TV hit Game of Thrones. 

Bad news: it's often difficult to impossible to hear what's going on. Only some performers have the voices to be heard unmiked; of the others, only a few performers are miked; the prerecorded music frequently drowns out the singers; and many of the cast could use lessons in enunciation.

In other words, get out of your own way, Shame of Thrones! Why take all that time to write good jokes and funny lyrics if we often can't hear them? (The music is by Erin Stegeman and Peter Frintrup; book and lyrics by Steven Christopher Parker and Steven Brandon; additional lyrics by Erin Stegeman.) I understand that budget is probably an issue. However, it would help a lot if the prerecorded music was piped from the back of the stage instead from four speakers in the auditorium, where it drowns out much of what goes on on stage.

Shame of Thrones is a pretty fun couple of hours and I suspect it could be a very fun couple of hours if all the jokes and singing could be heard.

The cast ranges from D+ to B+; happily, there are more of the latter than the former. The cast includes Ariel Barber, Peter Berube, Drew Boudreau, Jeff Bratz, Konrad Jeffrey Custer, Billy Finn, Mandie Hittleman, Zachary Evan Kanner, Randy Wade Kelley, Delilah Kujala, Allison Lobel, Ace Marrero, Meghan Modrovsky, Ryan Pifher, Milo Shearer, Kacey Spivey, Erin Stegeman, and Jay Stephenson.

The costumes (Katie Stegeman) are silly and imaginative, as they should be; the choreography (Jessica Anne Peavy & Brittny Sugarman) is, hey, silly and imaginative, as it should be. The set has little to do with the show, which doesn't matter.

I laughed a lot. I would recommend the show to anyone who knows and loves Game of Thrones. I would recommend it even more highly if the sound was improved.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, third row)

Marine Life (Toronto)

After being stuck in bed with a cold, I could not wait to attend the next Extraspace production at my main mid-sized theater in Toronto, the Tarragon: Marine Life by Rosa Labordé.

Marine Life is a romantic comedy with a touch of magical realism that sticks an environmental activist in a love quadrangle--does she pick the planet, her brother, or her lover? Sylvia (Niccola Correia-Damude) is is literally caught by lawyer Rupert (Matthew Edison) in the first scene's meet cute--when his fishing line hooks into her neck instead of a fish's. As the two fall for each other, Sylvia's mentally unstable brother and one-man mariachi band John/Juan (Justin Rutledge) fights to maintain her full attention.

Nicola-Correia-Damude in show poster for Marine Life

I knew this would be an environmental show from the moment I entered the Tarragon Extraspace. Opaque styrofoam lunch boxes were clumped around the stage and growing out of the audience, almost like clouds or growths of unnatural coral. And if that weren't enough, the projection screen stage and backdrop started with a projection of the globe at the top of the show.

Usually a show so obviously about a political issue would have my "preachy show" sirens blaring, but Marine Life depicted flooding, protests, the effects of human activity on the world's ecosystems, and even directly call out our role in global warming without preaching.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Don't Feed the Indians - A Divine Comedy Pageant

Don't Feed the Indians - A Divine Comedy Pageant has inflated its title a bit. The La MaMa world premiere of Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective Projects was created and features an all Native American cast that proudly showcases each members' heritage on the bios displayed in the lobby.

Conceived, written and directed by Murielle Borat-Tarrant (Kuna/Rappahannock) with musical direction by Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk), the show attempts to tackle Native cliches, from the alcoholic Indian to the bare-chested, feather-garbed performer by using vaudeville, dance, music and cultural rituals to show the stereotypes that were formed and are still perpetuated by the entertainment industry as well as the difficulties of being an Indian performer.

Don't Feed the Indians relies on its actors, posed as a group of traveling performers, to mix a loose tale of their showbiz experience with video montages and asides to both entertain and educate the audience. Unfortunately, the show merely brushes the surface of the many complex topics threaded through the dialogue. Names and phrases such as Leonard Peltier, Standing Rock, Wounded Knee Massacre, Indian Removal Act, Indian Boarding Schools become more a litany than a lesson since, often, no context is offered to connect the audience. Lines such as "Tribal members on reservations were not allowed to vote until 1970" give better resonance because they provide understanding -- and the show needs to do more of that. Lampooning the inequities of Native Americans without trying to explain the history more thoroughly is a missed opportunity.

Even the videos have no captions so the audience does not recognize what they're seeing. Yet, the script includes some commentary: for instance, "Hey Ya on Grammys, Rock Hudson in Winchester '73, Burt Lancaster in Apache, Iron Eyes Cody, Natalie Wood in The Searchers, Alana Sanders from 'Peter Pan Live,' Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. All while the Peter Pan 'Ugg a Wugg' song plays." Some of the delicious irony is lost here when the audience doesn't get the references.

Borst-Tarrant, who comes from a five-decade family business that did Wild West shows and pageants, shines as the drily humorous centerpiece of the play's show, Bea. Under her delivery, the rather tepid jokes find more fodder than they should and her rapport with her drum-playing husband is acerbic and delightful. Many of the skits in Don't Feed the Indians simply don't work, though. A bit called "Keeping Up With Pocahontas," where the family confesses to eating her pet raccoon one Thanksgiving is humorless and features screeching participants. It's unfortunate because Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective has a noble goal of creating a "new paradigm for the presentation of Indigenous arts and culture within the broader American theatre to combat stereotypes and support vibrant Native American communities." I hope their next effort is more successful.

John Scott-Richardson (Haliwa-Saponi Nation), Danielle Soames (Mohawk/Kahnawake Nations), Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk Nations), Nicholson Billey (Delaware/Choctaw/Creek Nations), George Stonefish (Delaware/Chippewa Nations). Photo by: Maya Bitan. 


The show runs from Nov. 2-19 at La MaMa's Downstairs Theatre (66 East 4th St.). For more information, visit

Wednesday, November 08, 2017


Last season, Richard Nelson's Gabriel Family trilogy was a comforting beacon in a traumatic time. Watching the tight-knit Rhinebeck family mourn their dead, contemplate their future, prepare homey meals around a beaten wooden table, and talk--wearily, anxiously--about American politics in the months leading up to the presidential election felt weirdly, sadly comforting: these fictive people, like the real ones I sit amongst, have had the rug ripped out from them, but here we all are, strong and clear-eyed, together. I'm forever grateful to Nelson for that cycle, which made me a fan. So when the Public announced that it had commissioned Illyria, a Nelson play about the Public Theater in its very earliest days, I snapped up tickets as soon as they became available.

Joan Marcus
I suppose I needn't have been so hasty. Even though the Public is giving some of the tickets to Illyria away free in the lobby 90 minutes prior to every performance, the house during the performance I saw was about 3/4 full. I guess this is why I feel compelled to mention the obvious every time I write about him: Richard Nelson's plays are really, really, really just not for everyone.

They work for me, though. Illyria might not feel like quite the lifeline the Gabriel plays were a year ago, but I found it to be similarly comforting and moving just the same. Maybe it's the presence of more beaten wooden tables, or the food that inevitably appears atop them. Or maybe it's that the pretty ordinary-seeming men and women who debate, fight, plan, and kibbitz while sitting around those tables are all at least partly responsible for the beloved institution Nelson often writes (and directs) for in the first place.

Set in 1958, well before the Public was ensconced in its current home at 425 Lafayette Street and only shortly after its mobile stage unit broke down on the lawn beneath Belvedere Castle, Illyria depicts the organization's very early history without ever coming off too much like a Wikipedia page. Conversation, typically ultra-natural, steers clear of obvious exposition (one or two exceptions--"remember how we met? With that show at that time in that place? My, that was swell"--clash pretty clearly with the rest of the dialogue). Still, the play manages enough detail for audience members who know very little about Papp or the Public to make sense of what's going on. We learn, for example, that Papp (John Magaro) is stubborn, controlling and not an especially effusive or attentive family man (Kristen Connolly plays Peggy, the second of his four wives). We learn that he has recently been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and fired from his day job at CBS (not mentioned in the play: he entered arbitration to get the job back just so he could quit, because he was hilariously oppositional and thus a total badass). And we learn how singularly obsessed he is with realizing his vision of bringing free theater to the people of New York City.

Of course, we also learn about the Public in the process: its scrappy origins and its near-desperate reliance on up-and-coming white-hot talent like Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton) and George C. Scott (never depicted, but drunk as a lord nonetheless). We meet some of its earliest champions; Emma Duncan and John Sanders are Gladys and Stuart Vaughan, Papp's first assistant and go-to director, respectively; their marriage is even more obviously doomed than Papp's is to Peggy. And we get plenty about just how rootless the organization is, and how shaky it is financially.

It's no spoiler to note that it all works out okay in the end, if not for any of the couples then most certainly for the Public. Nelson leaves Illyria's characters, tipsy and taking a moment to celebrate the closing of Twelfth Night, sitting together  and passing a flask on a rainy lawn in Central Park--strong and clear-eyed, together--at the site of what will eventually become the Delacorte Theater. Fifty years later, the story of the Public is still unfolding

Friday, November 03, 2017

Big Apple Circus

There are certain humans who seem to be their own species. In the case of circus performers, it would be homo sapiens amazingus. The Big Apple Circus is full of these wondrous folk, flying through the air, bending in ways the body seemingly cannot bend, juggling more balls than seemingly can be juggled, balancing in the air on a thin rope in a seven-person pyramid, zipping around on roller skates on a space barely bigger than a dining room table, and generally defying gravity, the limitations of the human body, and good sense.

Elayne Kramer

The Big Apple's claim to fame is its intimacy, with no seat further than 50 feet from the stage. It's a great way to watch circus acts, although occasionally a little intimidating, as when a contortionist operates a bow and arrow with her feet and you think, what if she slips? (At least your death would make all the websites, papers, and TV news shows.)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Cloud (Toronto)

As an indie theater supporter and huge fan of plays that stage science fiction, fantasy, and other genre work, I bought my ticket to Scapegoat Collective's Cloud as soon as I could.

Cloud imagines a world where technology--also named Cloud--can connect us to a new level of internet. Our individual consciousness becomes directly connected to the collective so we think and feel the same as everyone else who is connecting. Would the collective consciousness bring about world peace? Or would it strip the meaning out of the relationships that define us: friendship and love?

Cloud explores these hypotheses through three main groups of characters. The first group includes the first beta testers for Cloud: the creator Edward (Tim Fitzgerald Walker), his best friend Geoff (Jonas Widdifield), and Edward’s girlfriend Jessica (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah). After Edward convinces them test the technology and save its funding, the experience does lead to one awkward night of sexual reconnection, but then splits the three individuals onto separate paths as they try to cope with reality after they’ve been in the collective.

Roberts-Abdullah was my favorite part of the play. I enjoyed the way her constant cursing and presence threatened and challenged the two men. And I was not the only one cheering when she finally chastised Walker for casting himself as the savior in this dystopian epic instead of the Dr. Frankenstein he really is.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train

What makes a person good or bad, and what's the dividing line between the two? Is religious devotion helpful or harmful in the search for redemption, and can it be both at the same time? How much bad can a good person have before tipping the balance, and vice versa? And is anyone even listening to the prisoners who wrestle with these questions while biding their time in the solitary confinement wing of a maximum security prison? Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, Stephen Adly Guirgis's edgily compelling prison drama, can't answer any of these questions--seriously, now, what the hell can? Still, it does an engaging, unnerving job of trying.

The revival of Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train now at Signature Theater has experienced its fair share of disruption: two of its five actors left the show unexpectedly, one for scheduling reasons during rehearsals and one early in previews for what is being described as a "medical issue." When I saw it, the production had only just started up again after a halt for some emergency rehearsals. No shock, I guess, that the cast seemed a little off at first, though the actors all found their groove well before intermission. Sean Carvajal, the newest member of the company, was still on script for a few of the later (and most intense) scenes; nevertheless, his Angel is already quite good, and I assume will only get better as he sinks into the role. This goes for the whole production, really: it's a credit to all involved that the revival is already as strong as it is, considering the circumstances.

The play, one of Guirgis's earlier works, can be clunky in parts. Some of the expositionary monologues feel a little forced, and some of the plot points that propel the moral haze driving the show feel a little too easy. I had trouble buying the motives of Angel's overzealous lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan (ably played by Stephanie DiMaggio). And Valdez, the unambiguously self-righteous sadist of a prison guard (a game Ricardo Chavira), is ultimately all bark and no bite--both as a sadist and, alas, as a character.

But at least for me, these quibbles didn't get in the way of the production, which builds to a mesmerizing, unsettling climax. This is due in large part to scenes carried by Angel and an ostensibly eviler prisoner named Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi, in a genuinely riveting Off Broadway debut), who is awaiting extradition to--and execution in--Florida. Angel, arrested for shooting a Reverend Moon-type in the ass, finds himself up on murder charges once the cult leader dies on the operating table. Moved to protective custody after a vicious beatdown by other prisoners, Angel sees Lucius daily during their allotted hour of outdoor time in cages on the prison roof. Convinced that his actions were justified because the cult has his best friend in its grip, Angel is gradually challenged by the disarmingly likable Lucius, a recovering polysubstance addict and serial killer who has become born again. The many questions the play wrestles with--who deserves to be forgiven and why, what faith means and whether it helps, whether seeing the light (both literally and figuratively, a recurring theme in the play) truly matters--converge in the second act and alter the characters' lives in ways that never feel cliched.

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train may be a flawed play, but it delivers. And the production--which, like its characters, seems to have taken some pretty hard punches along the way--is well worth your time and consideration. Kudos to the company for turning a bad situation good.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lonely Planet

In Steven Dietz's two-character play Lonely Planet, Jody (the subtle and smart Arnie Burton) owns a map store. He loves and is comforted by the factual information contained by maps. On an array of shelves, he moves a map over a hair; quiet exactness is his thing. Jody wears simple, nondescript clothing. Carl (the not-quite-right Matt McGrath) is anything but quiet, and what he does for a living is not clear. The jobs he sometimes claims include fixing car windows, restoring art, and dusting for fingerprints. He tells Jody that he does not make things up; he lies. Carl wears a different odd, stylish, and/or flamboyant outfit each time we see him.

Burton, McGrath
Photo: Carol Rosegg

As the play begins, Jody is alone on stage. He tells us that one day a chair appeared in his shop. He looked at it; he sat on it. We soon find out that Carl brought the chair, although it will take a while to find out why.

Friday, October 20, 2017

War Paint

I didn't stay for the second act of War Paint, and it's closing in early November, so I'll make this brief.
  • My response to Patti LuPone's first solo: "I wish they had closed captioning."
  • My sister's response to Patti LuPone's first solo: "Was she singing in English?"
Patti LuPone
Photo: Joan Marcus
Lyric interpretation: Wendy Caster

  • The dancing was lame. 
  • They have a lot of nerve having a scene at The Cotton Club with zero black performers.
  • LuPone and Christine Ebersole sounded fabulous musically--and Ebersole was frequently even intelligible. 
  • A show so completely lacking in plot really needs something else to make it worthwhile. They went for two amazing stars, having all sorts of scenery and costumes, and generally trying to be stylish. It is not enough. 
  • I am a big fan of Grey Gardens, also by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, but this show has little of that show's individuality, character, and humor. 
  • I suppose that War Paint's lyrics may be as good as Grey Gardens', but, really, who could tell? (By the way, the chorus was also pretty difficult to understand. And we were in the 7th row, so that wasn't the issue.)
  • The show curtain is ugly. It's a huge painting of a woman putting on lipstick. Only her face from the nose down, her neck, and her hands are visible. It's completely out of proportion and the color choices are awful. 
  • After I got home, I texted my sister, "Did it get any better?" She texted back, "No!!! But great fun and BAAAAAAAAD." I guess that's something...
Oh, and:

  • This isn't the show's fault, but it is part of my experience: Before the show started, the guy behind me was crinkling something. I figured he'd stop when the show started. He didn't. I gave him a look. He said, "I'm trying to make less noise." The crinkling got fainter. I figured he was getting something he needed, and he'd be done. But it kept on. So I turned again and saw that he was taking pieces of candy, one at a time, out of a crinkly bag. I hissed, "Seriously?" He did stop after that. Except...
  • After I was gone, the guy started crinkling again during the second act, until my friend turned and mouthed "Stop!" at him. Considerate fella.

Wendy Caster
(7th row, audience left; tdf ticket, around $47)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Mary Jane

The beautiful, incredibly nuanced Mary Jane, currently at New York Theatre Workshop, does what seems impossible: it burrows deep into a character who practically forces herself to be two-dimensional. Credit for one of the most finely-wrought productions I've seen in a long time seems evenly distributed across the entire company, from playwright Amy Herzog to director Anne Kauffman to a universally solid five-woman cast. This is one of those shows that grabs you quickly, and then only gets better the more you think about it. I'm still marveling over its depictions and its many smart choices, and expect I will continue to for quite some time.

Joan Marcus
Mary Jane is all the more remarkable considering the fact that as a play, it is quietly descriptive, but not at all big on Maximum Staginess or Dramatically Well-Paced Moments. More a succession of scenes depicting days in a small if very complicated life, Mary Jane doesn't go in for more exposition or subtext than it has to. Its refusal to slop into cheap sentiment is especially noteworthy considering the fact that the titular character is a divorced woman with a (never seen or heard) catastrophically ill special-needs child. If there's anything that invites melodrama, or what I have sometimes heard called "inspiration porn," a show about a single parent with a very special kid is probably gonna top the list.

But Mary Jane (an excellent Carrie Coon) has absolutely no time for pity. She's too busy putting one almost impossibly competent foot in front of the other, even as the treadmill she walks gets ever faster. She's almost exhausting in her unwillingness to budge from behind her chipper, ultra-positive facade: not when she's offered unsolicited, ludicrously alarmist (if well-meaning) advice, not when one of her son's nurses borders on dangerous incompetency, not when she's nearing termination from a job she frequently can't make it in for, and certainly not during the most terrifying of medical emergencies.

I know special-needs parents like Mary Jane. I probably even turn into her sometimes, even though I have a devoted partner and my kid has nowhere near the special needs hers does. She's built up the kind of coping mechanisms we happen to excel at developing in the face of umpteen forms, countless meetings, annual assessments, regularly scheduled tests, friendly advice from the totally uninformed, totally informed advice from the not always friendly, wellsprings of undesired and unsolicited pity, and endless judgments, less from above than from across: across the playground, the restaurant, the grocery store, the subway, the dinner party. We all cope differently; Mary Jane's unique cocktail of defense blends quick jokes, self-deprecation, displaced anxiety, a too-cool demeanor, and a stubborn refusal to think too deeply, ever, about how she feels, what she wants, how weary she is. To contemplate any of it would result in a headfirst fall into a bottomless abyss.

It is only in the second half of the play, set in the pediatric wing of a hospital during a particularly lengthy stay, when Mary Jane starts to show cracks in her veneer. Yet even these are barely perceptible: an extra beat between questions to her son's neurologist following an especially ominous response; conversations with hospital staff and fellow parents that veer into newly complicated spiritual territory; a particularly terse exchange with a hard-to-schedule music therapist. Still--no spoilers, here--the play doesn't tie up all its loose ends nicely and neatly. Lives--especially those devoted, even in part, to the very special and very sick--have a pesky way of not resolving perfectly at the well-timed end of a two-hour stretch.

Mary Jane  doesn't make a big dramatic splash, but it ripples out beautifully into ever wider circles nonetheless. It's an astonishingly good production of an astonishingly good play. If you get the chance, make this the one show you rush out to see before it closes.  

Saturday, October 14, 2017

AM I DEAD? The Untrue Narrative of Anatomical Lewis, The Slave

Anyone who regularly reads Show Showdown knows that I am a huge fan of the Flux Theatre Ensemble. The Lesser Seductions of History, Dog Act, Hearts Like Fists, Jane the Plain, and Sans Merci were all tremendous and beautiful productions, full of love and talent and insight and compassion. They are among my favorite shows of the past 20 years.

But everyone has a bad day at work now and then, and unfortunately, AM I DEAD? The Untrue Narrative of Anatomical Lewis, The Slave is Flux's.

AM I DEAD? takes place in a purgatory where people who have broken black men psychologically are sentenced to put them back together, literally, even if it takes forever. The purgatorians exist in a workroom full of rocks and tiny pieces of what look like wood or fiber and turn out to be the minute remains of the black men who have been broken. (The set, by Will Lowry, is wonderful, full of mystery and just the right amount of creepiness.) The people in purgatory--Mrs. John Gray, Isaac, and Tatiana--have to find the appropriate bits and pieces and re-form them into the men they have wronged. It is an impossible task. Mrs. John Gray has been at it since the mid-19th century and Isaac since 1991. Tatiana joins them early in the play.

The purgatorians' work is interspersed with scenes from their lives with the black men they have wronged. (They are all played by the truly amazing Corey Allen, who makes each one distinct and specific and switches from one to the other almost imperceptibly).

As AM I DEAD? unfolds, it becomes clear that this is a morality play about the mistreatment of black men in the US. Commentary on Rachel Dolezal (the infamous white woman who decided she was black), born-again Christians, and even the Egyptian Gods Isis, Osiris, and Horus is stirred in.

The ideas in AM I DEAD? are interesting, and there's no arguing with the politics. The mistreatment of black men is a national horror of which we all must be ashamed and against which we all must fight. But a play must work on its own terms, and unfortunately, AM I DEAD? is preachy, repetitive, and heavy-handed. It outlines its messages in bold and italic again and again, and good theatrical moments (the projections; the way the people hold their stomachs after seeing scenes from their lives) go from being hard-hitting and impressive to boring and even annoying.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in AM I DEAD? is that it lacks the compassion that I consider to be the hallmark of Flux Productions. It may sound strange to expect compassion for people in purgatory, but it's a theatrical necessity for the play to work. Presented without compassion, the main characters become flat. Anything valuable they have done in their lives is dismissed; they are judged only by their faults. In real life, I have zero compassion for the cops who shoot innocent black men, but if they were in a play, I'd want them to be fully dimensional characters. (In contrast, the black men are a little too good, which flattens them as well.)

If you want the audience to accept your message, you have to give us a way in. As it is, AM I DEAD? works against our identifying with the purgatorians, and allows us a simple out: we're not that bad. And when the show ends with the actors facing the audience and accusing us, it's offensive rather than powerful. Considering that the Flux audience is likely quite aware of the great shame of racism in our country, and also that many of us are anti-racism activists, and furthermore that some of us are black men ourselves, you have a case of not only preaching to the choir, but attacking the choir.

I am nevertheless excited to see the next Flux production, and the one after that.

Wendy Caster

(third row, press ticket)

Written by Kevin R. Free. Featuring Corey Allen, Lori E. Parquet, Anna Rahn, Alisha Spielmann, and Isaiah Tanenbaum. Directed by Heather Cohn. Scenic Design by Will Lowry, Lighting Design by Kia Rogers, Costume Design by Jerry L. Johnson, and Sound Design by Asa Wember. Dramaturg-Community Organizer, Nissy Aya; Fight Director, Brian Lee Huynh; Production Stage Manager, Jodi M. Witherell.Co-presented by the Theater at the 14th Street Y from  October 7-21. 

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Time and the Conways

In J.B. Priestley's 1937 play, Time and the Conways, it's 1919 and the Conways are giving a party for daughter Kay's 21st birthday. While the guests enjoy themselves elsewhere, various Conways retreat to a side room to prepare for charades, rest themselves, chat, and freak out a bit. The Conways are well-off and happy in some ways, but the father has recently died and of course they've just been through the Great War.

Kay (Charlotte Parry, superb and unique) wants to be a writer, Hazel (Anna Camp, touching and beautiful) wants to marry well, Madge (Brooke Bloom, energetic and moving) is a socialist who wants to change the world, and Carol (excellent and tremendously likable) wants people to be nice, get along, and tell the truth. Their amiably ineffectual brother Alan (Gabriel Ebert, just right), loves their friend Joan (Cara Ricketts, quite good). The other brother, Robin (Matthew James Thomas, unconvincing), is a war hero full of promise.

And then there is their mother, Mrs. Conway (Elizabeth McGovern, not particularly impressive), an ostensibly charming woman who can--and does--devastate her children with the most seemingly innocuous of comments. Only Robin is safe from her acid tongue.

Throw in the passage of years, a little jumping around in time, a soupçon of metaphysical philosophy, smart and insightful writing, wonderful design elements, smooth direction (Rebecca Taichman) and a largely first-class ensemble, and you have an excellent and surprisingly contemporary evening in the theater.

One thing: Elizabeth McGovern should not have gotten a solo bow. Not only is Time and the Conways an ensemble piece, but McGovern is far from the best thing in it. On the other hand, if her name and association with Downton Abbey helped get this production put on, then all I can say is, thank you.

Wendy Caster
(third row on the aisle; friend won the lottery so ticket was only $19.19)

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Show-Off

There is a unique satisfaction that comes from watching a solid revival of a well-made play from the early or middle 20th century. This is why I have long been a fan of The Mint Theater Company; it is also why I have just become a fan of The Peccadillo Theater Company.

O'Toole, Hudson
Photo: Jeremy Daniel
The Peccadillo's production of George Kelly's odd but effective comedy, The Show-Off, is more than solid. It is wry and real, and it manages to show the play's relevance to today while never betraying its place in the past. Written in 1924, The Show-Off tells the tale of a reasonably functional family that is thrown off-kilter when Amy, the younger daughter, falls in love with Aubrey Piper, a genial, hyper-friendly, lying, manipulative con man. He is not a con man in terms of scamming people in particular ways or using set methods of fraud. Instead, he improvises as he goes, relying heavily on cheerful lies and Amy's besotted gullibility. The rest of her family see right through him, plus they know that he is a clerk rather than the supervisor he claims to be. (He also has a laugh that would cause a hyena to put its paws in its ears.) Amy's mother, father, and sister refrain from criticizing Aubrey, when they can help it; they know that their censure only pushes Amy further into his arms.

The weakness of The Show-Off, at least in this production, is that you have to accept that Amy would be--could be--so blind as not to see Aubrey for who he is. Ian Gould's take on the role, while amusing, is so broad that it makes Amy seem flat-out stupid to love him. But if you're willing to accept the premise that she does, indeed, adore him, then the play works like the proverbial well-oiled machine.

Kelly's excellent writing is fabulously supported by Dan Wackerman's direction and the wonderful acting of, in particular, Annette O'Toole as Amy's humorously frustrated mother Mrs. Fisher and Elise Hudson as Amy's sister Clara, who cannot figure out why her husband doesn't quite love her. (The answer is clear to a modern audience and probably was pretty clear to one in the 1920s as well.)

The design elements are all attractive and effective: scenic and lighting design by Harry Feiner, costume design by Barbara A. Bell, sound design by Quentin Chiappetta, and properties design by Jessica C. Ayala. Particular kudos are due to Paul Huntley for his wonderful wigs, which do not call attention to themselves and completely support the sense that Amy, Clara, and their mother are indeed related to one another.

I had heard of the Peccadillo Theater Company, but since in New York City you can't see everything (hell, you can't even make a dent), I had never caught one of their productions. I will be sure to catch them in the future.

Wendy Caster
(front orchestra, taken by a friend)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Treasurer

There is a certain gravitas that automatically attaches to a play about dementia starring Deanna Dunagan and Peter Friedman and produced at Playwrights Horizons. Because of this gravitas, it can take a while to realize that there is very little there there.

Max Posner's play, as directed by David Cromer, has a certain power as any play about dementia must. Yet it distances itself from truly engaging the audience by having few face-to-face encounters (the play largely consists of phone calls), by using a cold and unattractive set, and by failing to establish the characters' personalities. The two main characters are difficult (her) and controlling and angry (him), and that's as far as it goes. Dunagan and Friedman do much to provide complexity and humanity, but the play limits their ability to draw truly human characters. The other characters barely exist.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Critical Companion to the American Stage Musical

Yes, I know, that does sound like the dryest name for the most boring play, ever, but I'm not discussing a show, here: this is the (admittedly fairly dry) title of my latest book, which was released by Bloomsbury/Methuen late last week, and which you can link to here and also here. For whatever reason, if you order from Bloomsbury directly (the first link), it's cheaper than if you order from Amazon (the second link).

Just so you don't confuse this particular Critical Companion to the American Stage Musical with any others that happen to be floating around out there, the cover, which I think is very nice, looks like this:

While the books title does sound very clinical and foreboding, I can assure you that this is a fairly breezy treatment, at least by academic standards, and that I wrote it with general audiences in mind. It intends to deliver a history of the Broadway musical that touches at various times on the development of the commercial theater industry, the growth of New York City, and various cultural shifts that take place across the country. I worked hard on it, and hope that the finished product is useful, reasonably entertaining, and that there aren't too many errors in it.

I'll be back to regularly scheduled commentary on theater--both musical and otherwise--once the fall season gets rolling and my semester starts chugging along without the fits and starts typical of the early stretch.

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.