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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 gladlybeyondaustinausten.wordpress.com 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 http://lamama.org.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Illyria

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.)