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Friday, May 25, 2018

Hello Dolly

About 15 minutes into Hello Dolly, I thought, "I love this stupid show." By the end of the first act, I had eliminated "stupid." Hello Dolly has a silly plot, yes, and some of the songs come out of nowhere, yes, but, damn, it is an unstoppable joy machine. And while I don't think that musicals must have instantly hummable melodies, it is great fun when the audience comes out singing and, yes, humming the songs. There were a lot of women not letting the parade pass them by while in line for the ladies room.

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

And then there is Bernadette Peters. When I saw the show with Bette Midler, I enjoyed it immensely, but Midler didn't even make believe she was playing Dolly (link to my review here). Bernadette Peters plays Dolly, and it raises the show a whole level up. I don't think she's a great actress, but she's warm and likable, and I love her voice, and she's Bernadette Peters. (In a scrapbook I have from my early teen years, I have an interview with her from 1969. I've been a fan for nearly half a century.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Peace for Mary Frances

Lily Thorne treads familiar ground in her new play, Peace for Mary Frances. Estranged members of a family gather due to the death of a parent. Old grudges are revisited, old wounds are reopened, and, well, you know. In this case, however, instead of assembling after the death (e.g., as in August, Osage County, Crimes of the Heart, and many more) they come to care for Mary Frances while she's still alive. Mary Frances, tired and in pain, is ready to die; she has decided to refuse further treatment. The family accept her decision, but they don't accept much of anything else.

Johanna Day, J. Smith-Cameron, Heather Burns 
Photo: Monique Carboni

One daughter, Fanny--the official fuck-up and ex-heroin user--has been living with Mary Frances but supposedly not taking good care of her. The other daughter, Alice--the quirky, angry one, who works as an astrologist--is jealous of the Fanny's relationship with their mother and neither trusts nor likes Fanny in general. The son, Eddie, who charges Mary Frances for helping with her paperwork, is largely oblivious. Alice's adult daughters are there too: one, a mother, is loving and able to push herself to do uncomfortable care tasks; the other, a famous actress, spends more time crying than helping.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tony Award Predictions 2018


LIZ: Were I to take awards seasons seriously, I’d join with the city’s professional theater critics in wringing my hands over the purported death of Broadway at the end of this weirdly inconsistent and ultimately disappointing season. But I don’t take them seriously, and I’m not a professional theater critic. Yay for me! Also, since critics have been bitching off and on for at least a century over the imminent death of Broadway, I can leave the histrionics to them. Sure, whatever, it’s not been the most thrilling season, but then, it still beats the daylights out of reality lately, so there’s that. I’m just as eager as I always am to watch the awards, and to catch up on shows I’ve missed—whether on, Off, or Off Off Broadway—this summer. While I haven’t seen as much on Broadway as I usually have by this point in the year, I’ll venture my most educated guesses below.

SANDRA: The Tony Awards are fun to watch, and they do recognize theatrical talent ... but not every person who deserves a Tony wins one. Laura Linney, Victor Garber and Judy Kuhn are statue-less (all nominated four times!). So, here are my predictions/preferences for the prize ... submitted with me wishing that occasionally you could have two individuals win the same category.

WENDY: When people argue about who will win an award, they often leave out a tricky wild card: math. If you have five nominees, someone could win with as little as 25% of the votes—far from a majority. Is it likely? No, but it’s absolutely possible. And this is an interesting year, in that a number of categories have no shoo-in winner.

Monday, May 14, 2018

League of Professional Theatre Woman presents Chita Rivera in conversation with Richard Ridge

Richard Ridge and Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera may be known primarily as an actress and a dancer, but she knows how to choreograph a punchline. She provided plenty of laughs as she spoke about her career with Richard Ridge, the lead correspondent for Broadway World--where he hosts "Backstage with Richard Ridge"--at an event presented in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women on May 7 at The Bruno Walter Auditorium inside the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

In an hour, Ridge did a remarkable job steering the conversation to hit all the high points of Rivera's career. From her start as a student for Doris Jones to her audition for choreographer/ballet master George Balanchine to her Broadway career. Rivera mixed wit with insight throughout the presentation. She recounted being scared at her Balanchine audition: my teacher [Jones] said, "Just stay in your lane, Chita." To this day, she tells people she meets that, "You find out who you are by being who you are."

Rivera also spoke about how learning comes from observing the greats. In Call Me Madam, she remembers watching Elaine Stritch, in Can-Can - Gwen Verdon. "I lived in the wings of every show and learned so much that way," she said.

Playing Anita in West Side Story also taught her - "suddenly we had words," she remembered. She enjoyed working with composer Leonard Bernstein, learning her songs with him in his apartment. "It's kind of fun to say 'Lennie." She liked nicknames - choreographer/director Jerome Robbins was dubbed, "Big Daddy," because "he had all the answers," Rivera said. The show tested her but "there's nothing better than working hard and finding out you can do it."

Observing Dick Van Dyke, when she originated the role of Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, also became a career highlight - "If you watch, you learn," Rivera said, who referred to many theatre greats by first names. When discussing Chicago she spoke about composer John Kander's talent: "John wrote great vamps," she said. In her head, she kept wishing for a vamp ... and you got what she wanted with "Cell Block Tango."

Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman was a hard character for her to find because she showed in fragments through the show. Rivera also "did a lot of climbing during the show, but my name's Chita."

Rivera expressed gratitude about her opportunity to work with talented colleagues. She said that the reason she her tango electrified in Nine had everything to do with her leading man  - "You would be able to do that, too, if you were standing next to Antonio Banderas." In The Visit, a show she commented was about love not revenge "even though a few people die," she adored working with actor Roger Rees.

Ridge, an obvious fan, balanced his admiration with questions that gave insight to Rivera's career and showed the audience her grit, determination and sense of humor. "Every single day you are different," Rivera commented on injuries and aging. "You accept it as it is and you keep going."

Rivera will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Tony ceremony.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Sea Concerto

Before the Internet, daily-newspaper theater critics would see shows on opening night and write their reviews immediately after. Although these reviews often determined the fate of the show, the critics barely had time to think about what they had seen before their deadlines.

Morgan McGuire, Corey Allen
Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography

This is on my mind because I saw Flux Theatre Ensemble's new play, The Sea Concerto, last week, and I'm still not 100% sure what I think about it. I've considered it at length, and I've read the script as well, but I'm still not sure. Also, it's possible I didn't understand everything.

Follies (second viewing)


When I wrote my first review of  the fabulous APAC production of Follies, I was short on details. Then someone on the often-infuriating but also often-invaluable All That Chat asked for more details (shout out to lordofspeech), and I wrote a long answer to his post. Here it is, with a bit of polishing and updating.




I loved Tina Stafford. I thought she nailed Sally's complexity: yearning, angry, disappointed, hopeful, and sadly aware that she's at least a little silly. She wears her heart on her sleeve even though she knows it isn't a great idea. Her "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind" were both excellent. 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Happy Birthday, Wanda June

While the city's theater critics revive the century-old debate about the death of Broadway at the tail end of a reasonably disappointing commercial season, reassurance can be found in a visit to the tiny Gene Frankel: a musty, impossibly crowded blackbox theater that is home to a remarkable revival of Kurt Vonnegut's 1971 Happy Birthday, Wanda June. I've been hearing about this production for a while, beginning when Wendy Caster raved about it early in its run, so when the run was extended and I stumbled into press tickets, I jumped. I'm so glad I did.

Jeremy Daniel

A scathing case-study of toxic masculinity written long before "toxic masculinity" was a common phrase, Happy Birthday, Wanda June subverts Homer's Odyssey and relocates it in a strange, ridiculous dreamland that boomerangs between reality and some droll netherworld, which could just as easily be the late Vietnam era in the US as it could be purgatory. The revival remains rooted in the American past--those groovy, polyester costumes!--while simultaneously reflecting the frustrating fever-dream state of the nation right now. Therein lies both Wanda June's powerful appeal and the heartbreak of it: must a strange, dusty old piece that so efficiently bottled the darkness of the edgy, moody past have to be so damned apt again?

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America's Past (book review)

After all that's been written about Hamilton, one might think that there's nothing left to say. Turns out there's at least 400 pages' worth, as shown in Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America's Past (edited by Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter; see table of contents, below). The book should be of interest to people who love theatre, more interest to people who love history, and a treat for those (myself included) who love both. (For the record, three of the people who contributed to Historians on Hamilton specialize in theatre, rather than history. One of them, Elizabeth Wollman, writes for this blog.)



Some of the questions discussed in Historians on Hamilton: Who was Alexander Hamilton? How true is Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton to the real man? How much historical accuracy should we expect from art? Is Hamilton doing good work by getting young people engaged with history? Or is it doing bad work by getting young people engaged with inaccurate history? How has Hamilton managed to have a significant effect on thousands of people who will likely never see the show? How has Hamilton managed to win over people on both the left and the right? What is the role of race in Hamilton? Does it matter that none of the characters are actual people of color? Does Hamilton represent a revolution or the next step in theatre's evolution?

Monday, May 07, 2018

Follies

How much did I enjoy the APAC production of Follies? I've already purchased my ticket to see it again.

APAC (Astoria Performing Arts Center) has an excellent reputation and many awards, as well it should. Even with limited resources, APAC provides top-notch productions again and again. (See my review of Merrily We Roll Again here.)
How do they do it? I think a big part of the answer has to be Artistic Director Dev Bondarin.

Nailing "The Mirror Number":
Andrea McCullough, Victoria Bundonis,
Tina Stafford, LaDonna Burns,
Marcie Henderson, Denise DeMars,
Rusty Riegelman.
Photo: Michael Dekker

In this production, as the other shows she has directed, Bondarin honors and trusts the work. This Follies has plenty of flaws, as might be expected with an Off-Off-Broadway group choosing such an ambitious project, but that's okay: the important thing is that Bondarin has nailed the show's true Follies-ness. She is a smart director who eagerly serves the work, and this production is full of her smart decisions. The result is more excellent theatre than we the audience have any right to expect for a ticket price of $18! ($12 if you're a student or senior.)

So, yes, this isn't a star-studded production. The production values could be higher. Some performers aren't quite up to the task (though many others are quite good). But this Follies sings, it dances, it feels. It's Follies. If those two words have any meaning to you, make sure to catch this show. Tickets are available here. You'll rarely in your life get such value for your money.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, 5th row)
Show-Score Score: 90

Cast: Denali Bennett, Victoria Bundonis, LaDonna Burns, Denise DeMars, Tia DeShazor, Susan Cohen DeStefano, Christine Donnelly, Andrea Dotto, Dan Entriken, Jonathan Fluck, Spencer Hansen, James Harter, Marcie Henderson, Greg Horton, Kathleen LaMagna, Andrea McCullough, SharaĆ© Moultrie, Ben Northrup, Rusty Riegelman, Bruce Sabath, Carolyn Seiff, Cliff Sellers, Lauren Alice Smith, Tina Stafford, Noah M. Virgile, Mandarin Wu.

Production Staff: Director: Dev Bondarin; Musical Director: James Higgins; Choreographer: Sara Brians; Set Design: Ann Beyersdorfer; Costume Design: Jennifer Jacob; Lighting Design: Annie Wiegand; Sound Design: Caroline Eng; Prop Design: Andrew Short; Production Manager: Annie Jacobs; Production Stage Manager: Jessica McIlquham; Assistant Stage Manager: Robert Peatman.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

Sometimes, it's genuinely unfair when shows on Broadway flop. Countless worthwhile productions close in debt due to poor timing, a few weak links, material that's too dark or sophisticated or sad to lure mainstream audiences, not enough money to attract audiences in the first place. These poor, innocent, not-all-bad flops are somehow even more heartbreaking when compared with shows that are totally, astoundingly, mesmerizingly terrible in so many ways you lose count--especially when such shows do surprisingly well, at least at the outset. Which brings me to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, the title of which, now that I think about it, says a lot about the production. What the hell does summer have to do with anything, or are we not referencing the season? If we aren't, why bother to mention the woman's stage name twice? Couldn't anyone have come up with a more creative, less repetitive title--maybe one that draws on her songs or legacy? The Queen of Disco? Or Hot Stuff, or Bad Girls, or, hell, Dim All the Lights Sweet Darling 'Cause Tonight It's All About Reenacting Donna Summer's Life in the Dumbest Ways Possible, But At Least the Songs Are Catchy? Because I'm on a roll here, I'm going to toss one out that I think fits the show best: Someone Left the Cake in the Rain. You know, cuz it's a soggy mess. Get it? Get it? Get it?


Kevin Berne
Look, I know, slamming an entertainment product that people work hard on for a long time is cheap and easy. And truly, I'd hold back and be a lot nicer about this one, but Summer was created by a group of very accomplished, ludicrously established dudes who know from Broadway--Des McAnuff, Sergio Trujillo, the effing Dodgers, for pity's sake--and who, I assume, will live to see another day and better shows. I don't feel terribly bad for them for having spawned this disaster, especially since it's just so insulting in its half-assedness. Also, the show appears to be raking it in for now; to me, this implies that plenty of gullible people will shell out enormous buckage to sit for just over ninety minutes in a big shiny theater and come away impressed because some familiar songs are performed by a cast that, as a group, is curiously moving in its ability to look like they give a flying fuck about what the hell they're doing up on the stage eight times a week. It's not easy, I imagine: the only thing the creative team seems to have agreed on with this show is that a musical about Donna Summer really, really needs lots of blue lighting and the excessive use of hydraulic lifts.

Summer is in many ways derivative of McAnuff's more creative, compelling, and uncondescending Jersey Boys. The creative team seems here to have decided to borrow amply from that show in terms of structure, look, and design, but the result is less smart and sharp, and more like someone took a lot of pasta, dyed it a variety of cool blue hues, threw it against a sleekly-lit wall, and then moved it around on platforms that sank below the stage and back up again, as if constant movement would maybe trick the audience into believing that this production actually works

Good ideas abound, sure, but something--or a lot of things--seem to have gotten lost between page and stage. There are, for example, three perfectly fine actors portraying Donna Summer at various points in her life. But what the hell with the names and who is playing whom at any given time? Storm Lever plays Summer as a child--she's listed in the program as "Duckling Donna," I think because there was some conversation about the ugly duckling story in the show, but whatever, I wasn't paying attention at that point. Ariana DeBose plays "Disco Donna," which I guess would be Donna in the 1970s. This was confusing, though, because for some reason, many of the '70s scenes are aesthetically reminiscent of the '80s, which makes me feel incredibly old, and also pissed off that no one on the creative team could bother to remember that neon lighting and Robert Palmer videos were '80s phenomena, not '70s phenomena, for fuck's sake. Anyway, the great LaChanze, who deserves way better than this, is "Diva Donna," because I suppose "Born-Again Christian Donna Who Gives a Farewell Concert and Looks Back on Her Life Before She Dies, or Maybe It's Supposed to Be After She's Dead But Either Way, There's More Hydraulic Lifting" is way too wordy. Whatever; the names of the three Donnas at different ages is consistent with the fact that nothing at any age seems remotely clear, consistent, or well-developed. Sometimes La Chanze plays Summer; sometimes she plays her mother; sometimes Storm Lever plays Donna's daughter. You'd think the creators would give the poor women a break and hire more people so Donna Summer wouldn't have to play her own mom and/or kid all the damn time.

Among the many other things that are frustrating about this musical is that Donna Summer actually seems to have lived a pretty interesting life, which I genuinely would have liked to know more about. As it stands, fleeting, thin scenes touch very superficially on the fact that she was, at various points, sexually abused by her priest, the witness to a murder, a wild bohemian expat in Germany, an abused girlfriend, a drug addict, a disco queen, an ardent feminist, an open-minded embracer of difference who reigned supreme at Studio 54, a born-again Christian, a homophobe, a painter, a devoted wife, a loving mother. Any one of those things, really, could be enough for a musical. But so much of her life story is here told through fleeting narration in place of action or nuanced scene work, and the result feels flat and forced for all the effort. There's no depth or exploration to anything presented onstage, which makes the whole show seem manipulative and cheap. Worst of all, notwithstanding the manipulative and bullshitty scene excusing Summer's homophobic comments as misunderstood jokes, is the decision by the all-male creative team to capitalize on the current women's movement by featuring an almost-but-not-quite-all-female cast, which makes no sense at all. Why are chicks playing dudes sometimes, but not at other times, and why are there dudes in the cast at all, and who the hell came up with the idea that Donna Summer's one late-career hit about women's work made her some kind of ardent feminist warrior? Are you kidding me? And truly, how dare you?

Again, the songs are fine. It was nice to hear them again, even if some of them are remarkably stupidly staged. It's an example of how half-assed this show is that "Dim All the Lights" is re-envisioned as a funeral dirge for Neil Bogart, and that this is nowhere near the worst idea. I'd vote for the car chase as even dumber, but then, I just don't have the energy to revisit the musical ever again to assess all the dumbness more carefully.

I've been chided in the past by friends in the business for expressing any pity at all for working actors, but truly, I feel for this cast, I hope they're paid well, and I hope something better comes along and hires them all away from this mess. They're clearly....um....working hard for the money.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Unexpected Joy

No doubt: the York Theatre Company is on a roll. Its last show, Desperate Measures, received a bouquet of nominations for best musical (Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, etc.) and will soon open at New World Stages. And now the York is presenting the lovely Unexpected Joy.

The fabulous Courtney Balan, Celeste Rose,
Luba Mason, and Allyson Kaye Daniel
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Joy is a singer best known as half of the successful duo Jump and Joy. Jump died a year ago, and Joy is organizing a concert in his memory. She hopes to get her daughter, Rachel, and granddaughter, Tamara, to participate. Joy is a committed hippie (when someone is asked if Joy still smokes weed, she answers, "Only when she's awake") for whom protest is as important as breathing. Rachel has gone completely in the other direction; she is married to a TV preacher and lives a rule-bound life. Tamara is more like her grandmother, chaffing against restrictions and boundaries. The three women try to use this occasion to make peace. As you might imagine, it doesn't exactly go smoothly.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Chess

I have identified the problem with the musical Chess. It's bad.

You've got Florence, who loves bad boy chess player Freddie and has probably been his lover in the past. Does the show do anything--and I mean anything--to show their connection or give us one reason why anyone would like Freddie? No.



Florence then falls in love with Freddie's opponent Anatoly.* Does the show do anything to show their growing connection? Nope. (At least Anatoly isn't as thoroughly obnoxious as Freddie, so it's a little easier to buy Florence's love for him.)

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Metromaniacs

So, I could rave about the writing (joyfully wonderful and silly rhymes by David Ives) or the acting (from a strong, talented, attractive ensemble) or the design (charming) or the direction (calibrated perfectly by Michael Kahn). But what I want to say is this: If you're looking for a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying evening in the theater, go see The Metromaniacs at the Red Bull Theater (currently housed at the Duke on 42nd St).

Amelia Pedlow, Dina Thomas
Photo: Carol Rosegg

The plot: A thinks B is C, who thinks B is X, or something. And there's a mystery poetess. And, oh, who cares? The plot is a fun-delivery system--and it delivers! Also, Ives is smart enough to provide clear road signs and recaps along the way, so we know what we need to know. The time: 18th century, with a soupƧon of meta and a smattering of zany anachronisms. The source: La Metromanie (it means "The Poetry Craze"), a French comedy by Alexis Piron. The presentation: excellent, and every performer enunciates beautifully so you can actually hear all those wonderful rhymes.

Adam Green, Dina Thomas, Adam LaFevre,
Christian Conn, Amelia Pedlow, Noah Averbach-Katz
Photo: Carol Rosegg

What else do you need to know? Nothing, really, except that The Metromaniacs is a total treat, start to finish.

(The cast comprises Noah Averbach-Katz, Christian Conn, Adam Green, Peter Kybart,  Adam LeFevre, Amelia Pedlow, and Dina Thomas. Scenic design by James Noone, costume design by Murell Horton, lighting design by Betsy Adams, music composed by  Adam Wernick, sound design by Matt Stine. Runs through May 26. For more information, click here.)

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; third row)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Carousel

Among the many ways Rodgers and Hammerstein helped innovate the American stage musical was through depth of character. Their musicals, after all, featured some particularly memorable ones, many of them women, with nuanced inner lives that they expressed to audiences through increasingly sophisticated song, dance, and dialogue. The anxious Laurie manipulated her suitors and then had psychosexual nightmares about them in the form of a lengthy, absorbing, and downright creepy ballet. Nellie Forbush casually tossed off some lame excuses about her own racism, but then struggled to overcome it so that she could live happily ever after with Emile DeBecque. Maria, a terrible nun with no direction in her life, slowly realized her potential as a governess, music educator, mom, and Nazi-evader once she ended up getting saddled with a bunch of neglected, unruly kids.



But depth of character somehow evades poor Julie Jordan, which is a problem because her paramour, Billy Bigelow, is a hot mess who also just happens to be endlessly fascinating: smarter, deeper, and more philosophical than he seems at the outset, with a restless mean streak and oceans of bitter agita beneath his easy charm. Bigelow is fire and brimstone; Jordan is merely a "queer one" (not remotely in the contemporary sense of the word), at least as she's described by her way better-developed and more interesting friend, Carrie Pipperidge. I've long struggled with Carousel in this particular respect, because the imbalance disrupts a show that might otherwise be perfect: dazzling to look at, ravishing to listen to, so far ahead of its time in particular ways, so extraordinarily weird as a piece.

The dark midcentury musical adaptation of an even darker early-20th-century play (Liliom by Ferenc Molnar), Carousel touches on themes that certainly weren't considered musical theater-fodder at the time, and that still come off as reasonably edgy today: "Hey, Oscar! How about we adapt that Hungarian flop into a musical about America's cruel and random class system, maybe with a side-serving of spiritual nihilism?" "I like what I'm hearing, Richard. But can there be a botched robbery that becomes a messy suicide and some domestic abuse? Also--stay with me--a clambake? If so, you got yourself a deal!"

Monday, April 16, 2018

Happy Birthday, Wanda June

If there is an afterlife, I hope Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., has had the opportunity to look down and watch the Wheelhouse Theater Company's excellent production of his hilarious, incisive farce, Happy Birthday, Wanda June (directed by Jeff Wise with vitality, creativity, and respect). I'm sure Vonnegut would be thrilled with the show, although he would likely also be depressed at how timely it remains.

Kareem Lucas, Matt Harrington,
Kate MacCluggage, Jason O'Connell,
Craig Wesley Divino, Finn Faulconer
(not pictured: Charlotte Wise)
Photo: Jeremy Daniel 

Harold Ryan, a man's-man's man's-man, has been missing for eight years. His wife, Penelope, and son, Paul, have kept the living room the way he left it--full of animal heads and jungle rot. (The fabulous set was designed by Brittany Vasta). Harold has been declared dead, and Penelope has finally moved on. She is engaged to a pacifist obstetrician named Norbert. Paul still believes Harold is alive, even though Penelope tells him, "Not even Mutual of Omaha thinks so anymore." However, Paul is right.

Harold comes home, full of bravado and raging masculinity, bragging of all the humans and "other animals" he has killed and all the women he has bedded. ("If I'd ever been to the South Pole," he says, "there'd be a hell of a lot of penguins who look like me.") He's horrified to find that Penelope not only doesn't want him, but that she is engaged to Norbert, about whom he says, "I could carve a better man out of a banana."

The plot is not the thing in Wanda June; it's all about the characters and their interactions. Other characters include Colonel Looseleaf Harper, the pilot who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki,  missing with Harold for those long eight years; he is overwhelmed by life and constantly uncertain. Herb Shuttle, another beau of Penelope's, is a vacuum cleaner salesman thrilled to meet Harold, who he sees as a mythic hero. Major Siegfried von Konigswald, a Nazi killed by Harold during the war, brags that he killed ten times as many people as Harold did. He acknowledges that Looseleaf killed many more but says, "Harold and me--we was doing it the hard way."

Harold is a gigantic-er-than-life character and a horrible man. In order for Wanda June to work, he also has to be charming and sexually attractive. Jason O'Connell manages all of Harold's dimensions in a tour de force performance that would merit a Tony if the show happened to be on Broadway. Kate MacCluggage as Penelope, in a less showy role, is every bit as good. Both actors do that fabulous juggling act of being farcical while also inhabiting three-dimensional humans with real dreams and feelings.

It helps that Vonnegut, whose life was permanently marked by his experiences in WWII, wrote such an open-hearted, textured farce. Every character is ridiculous; every character is sympathetic; no one is a complete hero or villain. Wanda June is a delayed-release show, where you laugh nonstop while watching it yet remain genuinely moved by it afterward.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 4th row center)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Three Tall Women

Edward Albee was not exactly fond of his mother. The headmaster of a boarding school Albee attended was quoted in the New Yorker as saying, “[He] dislikes his mother with a cordial and eloquent dislike which I consider entirely justifiable .... I can think of no other boy who ...  has been so fully the victim of an unsympathetic home background ...” Albee's feelings about his mother show up in many of his plays, nowhere more overtly than in Three Tall Women. 



In the first act, character A, based on Albee's mother, is an old infirm woman with control of neither her mind or her bladder. B is her aide; C is her lawyer. In the second act, A, B, and C are all character A, at different ages. 

In the current, elegant Broadway production, directed by Joe Montello, the three women are played--superbly--by Glenda Jackson (A), Laurie Metcalf (B), and Alison Pill (C). Their costumes, by Ann Roth, add texture to the characterizations and are often beautiful (I particularly love Glenda Jackson's dress in Act 2). The scenery, designed by Miriam Buether, is both attractive and fascinating, using a mirror (or mirrors?) to give a sense of a full but split milieu, perhaps representing A's mind as well as her location. The lighting, by Brian MacDevitt, embraces and enhances the play and design elements.

Being an Albee play, Three Tall Women is both devastating and funny as it examines love, motherhood, marriage, life, and death. The show is surprisingly compassionate. Three Tall Women could easily have been Albee's revenge on his mother, yet he takes a kinder, more complex approach. I believe it is this compassion that makes the play as hard-hitting and excellent as it is.

(For an amazingly different take of Three Tall Women, check out Hilton Als' review in the New Yorker. It's hard to believe that he saw the same play I saw, but I guess, ultimately, he didn't.)

Wendy Caster
(full price $49 ticket, second-to-last row in the mezzanine)

Monday, April 02, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar

To stage Jesus Christ Superstar, I've long been convinced, is to set yourself up to fail. I'm not just being crabby, here; I love the piece very much. But it was not conceived for the stage in the first place, so putting it on one tends not to work very well. 

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice initially hoped to develop it for the West End, but after every theater producer laughed the young men out of their office for the very idea of rock-operafying the days leading up to Jesus's crucifixion, Superstar was instead composed and released in 1970 as a remarkably popular concept album. The studio setting arguably contributed to the rock opera's worldwide success: recording happened over many weeks, so vocalists could take breaks whenever they needed to rest their shredded vocal cords; flaws detected in playbacks could be nipped and spliced or recorded anew. And unlike West End producers, executives at Decca--flush from the recent success of the Who's Tommy, which had almost singlehandedly revived the dying label--were all too happy to market the daylights out of the finished product. To that end, the Murray Head recording of "Superstar" was released a full year before the album was; the BBC teaser, in which Head wanders earnestly around some church ruins while sporting a mullet and a cloth choker, is awesome

The album version of Jesus Christ Superstar went platinum in the US, and sold incredibly well in many European and South American countries. Its success--compounded by reports of numerous amateur stage and concert versions taking place across the US--finally convinced theater producers that a rock opera about Jesus's last days wasn't such a stupid idea after all. But among the many problems people encountered when trying to launch one: fans had already bonded deeply with the album and expected live versions to sound just like it; voices straining through full productions multiple times a week couldn't hold a candle to ones that could shriek for an hour and then rest for a few days, probably at a spa paid for by Decca; it's more interesting to listen to people thinking about things than it is to watch them wander in circles, however purposefully, scratching their chins or wringing their hands as they wonder "what then to do about Jesus of Nazareth." Directors have pulled out all kinds of stops to counter what is ultimately a pretty stagnant show: tiered, obstacle course-like sets; groovy laser Floyd-inspired lighting; gaudy makeup, day-glo costumes, an insect-inspired subtext. And yet I've never seen or studied a stage production of Superstar that has managed to triumph over a lack of dramatic build. 

James Dimmock
A "live in concert" televised event, however, is a different story, especially when it's been staged in a venue the size of an airplane hangar (an armory, actually, which is close) before an audience that sounds like it's having a collective orgasm for two-and-a-half hours. The spectators helped galvanize a production that drew almost immediately from a frequently overlooked ingredient that makes the sound recording as powerful as it is: its instrumentals. The son of a composer and organist (dad) and a violinist and pianist (mom), Lloyd Webber knows way more about music than his haters like to acknowledge; of all his pieces, Superstar is paced particularly beautifully. Beneath and between the voices, the score builds from those first distinctive licks on electric guitar into what eventually becomes deeply satisfying epic Wagnerian hugeness. This production not only took note of that fact, but milked it: following the first sweeping shots of Brooklyn, the armory exterior, and the audience of superfreaks within, cameras lingered lovingly on the large, multiply tiered, beautifully diverse orchestra, and then on four of its string players, who jammed together onstage in a tight circle before ushering in the cast. Yay, huge orchestra! You rocked!!

The production continued to deliver throughout, which is not to say that it didn't have its problems. There will always be a pacing issue with Superstar due to its tendency to dwell on chatty ruminations; the frequent commercial breaks sucked a little of the energy, too. But for the most part, jump-cuts, whizzing cameras, closeups, oceans of glitter, and a big giant cross that floats into an even bigger cross before being swallowed up in a beacon of light kept the action moving, even when the audience needed to pause to keep from hyperventilating. The sharp, active choreography by the exceptionally talented Camille A. Brown helped a hell of a lot, too; I can't say I've ever seen a Superstar with more dance than this one had, and it turns out that the stage production was crying out for it all along. Who knew? Not me.

People are already weighing in on the actors' interpretations, so here's what I think: they were all fine, though some certainly strayed from the original recording in ways that took some getting used to. The most noticable in this case was John Legend's Jesus. Whatever, the man's not a heavy metal screamer, and while I missed the dramatic, shouting-Jesus moments that occur through the piece, Legend's not nearly as petulant or whiny as Ian Gillan's Jesus was. This was a fair trade for me, especially since Jesus is not really the most interesting character in Lloyd Webber and Rice's retelling, anyway. As the second-least interesting character, Sara Bareilles's Mary was terrific, especially with her sweet and plaintive "Could We Start Again, Please?"

I have enough riding on Alice Cooper's aura that I could overlook the fact that he can barely move at this point in what has been an exceedingly excessive life (while not as iconic as JCS, Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies is a brilliant concept album from the 1970s that is a favorite of mine, too). The supporting cast was beautiful, committed, terrific sounding, and diverse enough to remind anyone who cared to watch that the very point of world religions is that they are followed by lots of different people everywhere, and not just blonde Caucasians in the American midwest and south. And while I suspect it didn't enter into consideration, since it kind of never does, the multicultural ensemble helped negate the not-so-subtle implication that one particular group of people (mine, in fact!) killed Jesus; if you view this piece as inherently anti-Semitic, this production just might make you feel a little less alienated from it, though I can't promise you anything. Anyway, for what it's worth, I appreciated Norm Lewis and Jin Ha's chilly, Matrix-like takes on Caiaphas and Annas.

And, like everyone else, I was thrilled by Brandon Victor Dixon's intense, muscular Judas. Not afraid to experiment vocally while doing a fair amount of scenery-chewing in a role that pretty much requires it, Dixon owned the piece. He has long been a dedicated Broadway performer; I hope this thrillingly successful live-tv event makes him a household name. Christ, he deserves it.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Art Times: The Thing About Revivals


My latest essay is up at Art Times. I would love to hear what you all think about the issues discussed.
Periodically, old shows with iffy depictions of women are revived on Broadway. People, mostly but not all women, complain about those depictions. Then other people complain about the complaints. Rinse and repeat.
Read more.

Wendy Caster

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Angels in America

It's been 25 years since I last saw Angels in America, which remains one of the most powerful theatergoing experiences I've ever had. I was so overwhelmed by the original production that I've long been afraid to revisit the show, as if somehow the very idea of seeing it again would negate the intensity of emotions I felt when I saw it the first time. But if the excellent National Theatre revival, currently at the Simon, teaches me anything, it's that I needn't have held my memories in such precious check. Sometimes, going back to see a beloved show is like checking in with an old friend you haven't seen in decades, only to find that you can easily pick up exactly where you last left off.



I saw the production over the course of two Sundays, both early enough in the run to notice a significant increase in fluidity between parts one and two. At least at that point, Millennium Approaches suffered a bit from a lack of design cohesion: lights glared and swamped the actors, casting enormous shadows across the set and making it hard to see facial features; trapdoors failed to open or close on cue; clunky scenery revolved around the stage making distracting grindy noises. I'm hoping at least some of this has been addressed, though I assume it's too late to fix the set design as a whole. I understand the attempt to mirror the deeply unhappy, restlessly boxed-in lives of the newly abandoned, bedridden Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) and the valium-addled claustrophobe Harper Pitt (Denise Gough). Still, the stage is densely crowded through much of part one with tiny, neon-studded compartments--apartments, offices, restaurants--that look unfinished and cheap. These all eventually give way, along with Prior and Harper's hold on reality, to wider, less constrictive spaces. I have no idea how to represent ugly and confining without actually being ugly and confining, but the first half of the piece doesn't quite manage it.

You know what, though? It doesn't matter, especially since this is truly the only significant criticism I can come up with. Once the set opens up late in part one, the production is beautiful--and alas, its stark political landscape remains relevant, even if we have evolved by leaps and bounds when it comes to sexuality and gender. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess; at least it's reassuring to have lasting artwork that reminds us of where we've been, how far we've come, and where we still desperately need to go.

While it was impossible for me not to compare the production with the original, this one holds its own due in very large part to an excellent cast. While I was impressed with the entire company, I feel compelled to single out Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, only because I've only ever seen Lane in loose, comic roles, and I fully admit that I've long underestimated him. Kushner's Cohn character is the roaring id that centers the epic, and Lane's take on him is arrogant, power-drunk, self-pitying...and squirmily endearing. Lane's Cohn is very much a monster, but the kind whose influence and reach make perfect sense, especially when he shows anything approximating humanity. Clearly, as a certain current president the real Cohn once mentored now demonstrates on a daily basis, rotten breeds rotten, and power-hungry people will always tolerate monsters with money and reach, no matter how putrescent their souls.

One of the many enduring strengths of Angels in America, perhaps regardless of the production, is that the characters in it are all so personable and approachable and flawed and real. The play takes frequent flights from reality, but its characters keep it firmly grounded--even when they find themselves meandering stoned through a hallucinatory Antarctica, walking the streets in a black-clad delirium, tangling with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, going on intellectual diatribes that justify childish behavior, or wrestling with ominously creepy-crawly angels (here rendered through movement, puppetry, and costume in endlessly mesmerizing ways). I've missed these wise-cracking, smart, funny, human fuckups, I realize--enough that I won't be waiting another 25 years to catch up with them again to find out how they--and we--have fared.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Good for Otto

What if the most heroic thing any of us can do is simply to survive?

[spoilers, arguably, but this is not a plot-driven show]

In Good for Otto, David Rabe gives us a microcosm of a small town--and perhaps of humanity--through scenes from a mental health center. Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris), whose mother killed herself when he was nine, devotes himself to his patients, often marrying calm acceptance with sympathetic guidance. But he also over-identifies with ssome patients, including the smart, volatile, and frighteningly ill Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), 12 years old with a brain full of "storms" that she relieves by cutting herself. Michaels' colleague Evangeline (Amy Madigan) also devotes herself to her patients, though her boundaries may be sounder. Both therapists despair at the bureaucratic limitations that threaten their patients' care.

Ed Harris and cast (and some audience members)
Photo: Monique Carboni

The patients vary widely. There's Timothy, on the autism spectrum and trying to learn how to "widen his circle," but unable to absorb the subtle rules of social interactions. This role verges on stereotype. (Although Mark Lynn-Baker's performance is charming, an actor on the spectrum might have offered more insight and less stereotyping.) Barnard (F. Murray Abraham) is trying to find a post-retirement reason to get out of bed. Alex is a manipulative gay man (also verging on stereotype), lonely enough to invent imaginary relationships. Jane is mourning her son Jimmy, who committed suicide. (Rabe's treatment of suicide is insightful and, perhaps accidentally, an excellent argument for gun control. Jimmy isn't planning to kill himself, but then he notices a shotgun in the corner. It speaks to him much as a piece of pie might speak to someone on a diet. And he picks it up, as he has hundreds of times, but this time he points it at himself. As he dies, he thinks, "Oh shit.")


Thursday, March 01, 2018

Bunny (Toronto)

When the stage went dark at the end of Bunny, my mouth dropped and I did not know what to feel. Empowered? Astounded? And just a tiny bit jealous that Hannah Moscovitch, Sarah Garton-Stanley, Maev Beaty, and the rest of the creative team had created this, a hauntingly beautiful story of a woman's sexual and emotional growth.

Maev Beaty as Sorrel in Bunny

Faced with the sexual advances of a much younger man (Jesse Lavercombe), Sorrel (Maev Beaty) runs back through the relationships that have shaped her life. Starting with the farmer's son she lost her virginity to (Tony Ofori) up through her college years to the man she married (Matthew Edison), Sorrel narrates what it felt like to grow into her body overnight and to navigate her desires with lovers and friends alike as a twenty-first century woman. Though the play's arc depends much upon the four men who shaped Sorrel's life, it is through her friendship with Maggie (Rachel Cairns) that Sorrel finds herself truly defined, as "Bunny."

The lines from the play haunted me the next day, as I thought through every phase in Sorrel's journey. She referred to men as "kittenish" and other bon mots--which kept the entire audience laughing and gasping at her honesty, the kind of honesty that most women think and yet never hear spoken aloud. Because women are not supposed to want sex. They are supposed to want love and marriage only. The girls at Sorrel's high school hate her for breaking these unspoken rules. Later Sorrel realizes that even her favorite Victorian novels hammer home that a woman's place can only be either blissful wedlock or disgraced in sin. Sorrel rejects this at every turn, not always consciously but because she just does not fit in these categories.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Jerry Springer: The Opera

[spoilers throughout]

Yes, curse words sung operatically by incredibly talented people are startlingly funny. And arguments about who's cheating on who, complete with hair-pulling, are also great fun presented operatically. But they have diminishing returns, and, although I completely was completely enjoying the first act of Jerry Springer: The Opera, I began to wonder if it goes anywhere.

It does: it goes to purgatory, complete with biblical characters (e.g., Satan, Adam, Eve, Jesus). And guess what? They have as many issues as the humans in Act I and behave as badly. And, yes, it's a blast.

I suspect the show wants to provide social commentary, and perhaps it did when it was first written. Now, it mostly provides entertainment--first-class, top-notch, occasionally side-splitting entertainment. And much of the music is beautiful, to boot.



Richard Thomas (music, book, and lyrics) and Stewart Lee (book and lyrics) could not ask for a better production than the one currently being presented by the New Group. John Rando directs the craziness of the show with perfect pacing and mood, and Chris Bailey's choreography is wonderfully character-specific and wonderfully wonderful.

And the cast is full of amazingly talented people who can sing magnificently, act well, and move--and who also have prodigious amounts of energy. They are Jennifer Allen, Florrie Bagel, Brandon Contreras (remarkably poised and effective subbing in two challenging roles), Sean Patrick Doyle, Brad Greer, Luke Grooms, Nathaniel Hackmann, Billy Hepfinger, Beth Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Loyacano, Terence Mann (a convincingly glib Jerry Springer), Tiffany Mann, Jill Paice, Kim Steele, Will Swenson (a sexy, commanding Satan), and Nichole Turner.

The design components are also top-of-the-line, appropriate, and funny. Scenic design is by Derek McLane; costume design is by Sarah Laux; and lighting design by Jeff Croiter.

One of the strengths of this fabulous production is the small theater in which it is currently appearing. I would imagine that Jerry Springer: The Opera will move to Broadway and will still be marvelous. However, if you can see it in its current incarnation, do so. The show happens all around the audience, and the intimacy is one of its major charms.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 4th row on the aisle; shook "Jerry Springer's" hand)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Jerry Springer: The Opera

For all its highbrow associations, there's a hell of a lot of lowbrow to opera, what with all the really dumb cases of mistaken identity, lurid psychotic breaks, incestuous couplings, and lovers' quarrels that end in brutal violence or surprisingly lengthy deaths from tuberculosis. Men who like to wear diapers and act like babies, women who dream of becoming strippers, and transgender pimps with hearts of gold would ultimately fit just as well into the world of opera as they do into the world of Jerry Springer. I guess that's kind of the point of this show.



Richard Thomas's Jerry Springer: The Opera, currently receiving its Off Broadway premiere at the Signature Theater complex courtesy of the New Group, reimagines The Jerry Springer Show (still in syndication! Who knew?) as something more Wagnerian than I'm sure Springer ever intended. As silly as it is sonically lush, the production is engaging, brisk and light, and in the second act even gently moving under the typically deft, never-too-self-important direction of John Rando. The cast is talented and interesting, Terence Mann is hilariously deadpan as Springer, and Will Swenson, who plays jerks very well, is notably well-cast as Satan, the supreme jerk among all jerks. The ensemble, too, is strong to a one, which is good, since this is very much an ensemble piece. I somehow expected Jerry and Satan to have much meatier roles, but there's a lot going on that does not always involve either one of them. In brief, and perhaps somewhat snobbishly, I would happily sit through this production again, whereas the thought of watching a few minutes of the real Jerry Springer Show makes the comparable thought of rolling around naked in ground glass just a titch more inviting.

The only issue I have with Jerry Springer: The Opera, really, is that for its groovy conceit--opera Jerry gets shot and, in purgatory, learns that Jesus, Mary, God and Satan are all as whiny, crazy, argumentative and flawed as his television guests are--there's ultimatlely not much more to it. Which is, I suppose, just fine: sometimes a good cigar is just a good cigar, a well-performed opera is just a well-performed opera, and a crossdressing sex-addicted trucker who likes to be spanked is just a crossdressing sex-addicted trucker who likes to be spanked.

Maybe, more specifically, it's the marketing for this particular production that doesn't fully jibe for me. The New Group's web-page copy insists that Jerry Springer: The Opera is "deeply in tune with the chaos and unrestrained id of our times," and that may be the case, but frankly, the opera seems postively quaint considering how low the bar has fallen and how much of what used to raise eyebrows on Springer has within mere decades become just another astoundingly sad news day. There's nothing at all wrong with the production. It's just kind of a bummer to realize how much of its content is rooted in a more innocent time--a time when the very basest of human behavior was relatively contained to a few afternoon talk shows. How newly foreign it is to realize that Jerry Springer: The Opera, so sweet and ultimately tame, actually caused enough of an uproar to spark boycotts that made the national news.

Much more than a nostalgia trip, Jerry Springer: The Opera nevertheless harkens back to a recently bygone era of slow news days. Maybe we'll get back to that point someday; in the meantime, I guess, we'll always have JERRY! JERRY! JERRRR-Y!!
 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cottagers and Indians (Toronto)

After becoming a permanent resident last year, considering how I can now participate in Truth and Reconciliation with Canada's indigenous peoples is important to me. When I noticed that Cottagers and Indians had replaced another production in Tarragon's 17/18 season, I knew I needed to see it and see it with the right person sitting next to me, someone who also cared about how art can seriously contribute to these conversations.

Drew Hayden Taylor's two-hander tells both sides of an argument on Starling Lake, an area of Northern Ontario now popular with Toronto cottagers but home to the nearby reserve's inhabitants for much longer. The two sides of the stage house each side of the feud: Arthur Copper (Herbie Barnes) sits in his canoe on the lake on stage right, and Maureen Poole (Tracey Hoyt) lounges on the deck of her cottage on stage left. They speak to the audience and each other, interjecting to tell together of their feud over the lake's true purpose--to provide growing grounds for the wild rice or manoomin that feeds Copper and his people or to remain empty and free for the cottagers' boating, swimming, and property values.

Drew Hayden Taylor headshot. Crossed arms and cartoon purple tree in front of him.

I recognized the space from the moment I walked in, as I have been to visit enough Canadian cottages to know what they look like. But I too have helped plant a healing canoe garden, and recognized the significance of the canoe arranged on stage right for Arthur Copper. The stage was set and I knew what conflict I had come to witness--one that I hear about in the news and at work as we discuss reconciliation.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Green Room 42 (Venue Review)

A year ago, a new cabaret space opened at the Yotel on 42nd Street and 10th Avenue (entrance on 10th): The Green Room 42. My first foray there was on February 14th, its first anniversary, for an evening of love and love-ish songs by the fabulous Lillias White. It's a nice room, comfortable, with tables not too-too squished together.

And here's the thing: no cover charge. Ever. And reasonable prices. Its not perfect; the sound at the Lillias White performance could certainly have been better. But it's a financially accessible cabaret in Manhattan!

Photo: Madrid Kuser

I realize that I'm a tad late to this party; after all, The Green Room 42 opened a year ago. But, better late than never (I made that up). For a list of upcoming shows, click here.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Dark Heart (Toronto)

Instead of going to a Superbowl party on Sunday night, I went to the theatre. Honestly, I forgot to put the game on my calendar and when it came down to switching my tickets for Dark Heart or watching the NFL, there was no turning back--Genevieve Adam's new play promised werewolves.

Dark Heart invites its audience at the Assembly Theatre to enter a forest back in 1661 when this land was not yet called Canada. Amable Bilodeau (Michael Iliadis), a green soldier just arrived in New France, gets himself thrown in the middle of marital drama, conflict between the settlers and the native tribes, and supernatural danger when he pulls Metis trader Toussaint Langlois (Garret C. Smith) out of the river.


Three stories begin to weave together, with Toussaint and Amable at the core. Nobleman Seigneur Louis de Lamonthe (Paul Rivers) put his wife Madeleine (Audrey Clairman) into the asylum at the local hospital, not for madness but punishment for cheating on him with a member of the local tribe. But after a few days, Sister Marie St. Bonadventure (Brianne Tucker) assisted Madeline in escaping. Dr. Joseph Sarrazin (John Fitzgerald Jay) and Amable go off to find and protect Madeleine, while Louis blackmails Toussaint into tracking his wife--until all come together in the woods where the loups-garous or werewolf is said to lurk.

The program says that Amable is the protagonist of the play, but I found the women he encountered in New France more compelling. Genevieve Adam wrote one of the most confusing, yet exciting characters for herself in the bone-setter or Eleonore "Lizzie" Ramezy. She seduced both of the male leads in the play, as the true puppet-master. As the only settler born and raised in New France, she seems to hold the most knowledge about how to survive, practically and culturally, amongst all the conflicts whirling around her. I suppose that is the trick of the play--though the men believe they are in charge, it was truly the women like Eleonore pulling the strings.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Calpurnia (Toronto)

I wish I could tell you all to go see Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre's Calpurnia... but the rest of its run sold out after the first week. So instead, I'm going to tell you how this 90-minute family comedy, set around another dinner party, challenged my beliefs about allyship, racism, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Julie (Meghan Swaby) has hit a wall in writing her screenplay, the untold story of the Finch family's maid Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird. As she goes to great lengths to unlock this character's voice, she unsettles and unravels the racial politics within her own house--most importantly, the relationship between her upper class Jamaican-Canadian family and their Filipino housekeeper, Precy (Carolyn Fe).


I have missed going to Buddies in Bad Times! Toronto's LGBTQIA+ theatre felt so much more open than other theatre houses in Toronto. Walking in, I didn't recognize the same faces in the audience. Which meant it wasn't just members of the theatre community attending, but members of so many other communities, too. I also wasn't the only one with crazy-colored hair. Best of all: this rainbow of an audience made up the background for every scene in Calpurnia. Due to the profile staging, I got to watch the other half of the audience react to each uncomfortable moment.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

A New Brain (Brooklyn)

While watching the Gallery Players' highly entertaining production of William Finn's odd but engaging musical, A New Brain, I found my own old brain full of questions. First, about A New Brain itself:

Jesse Manocherian, Justin Phillips
Photo: Alice Teeple

  • What makes a musical worth writing?
  • How does a writer decide what specifically to musicalize?
  • Is Finn's leaning toward silly rhymes a form of brilliance, audacity, or laziness?
  • How do you know when to end a musical?
  • What does a song need to offer in order to be worth keeping in a show?
  • What is Finn really about as a writer? 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

X or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation

Who assassinated Malcolm X? The answer remains a matter of debate in some quarters and may never be totally resolved until the New York Police Department releases the files on the case, which they have thus far refused to do. In X or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation, Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's widow, is certain about the assassins, and she argues her case in a court in the afterlife, somewhere between earth and heaven.

Jimonn Cole, Roslyn Ruff
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Playwright Marcus Gardley is a powerful and poetic writer, and X is well worth a visit. However, the play is also overwritten, with much repetition and a framing device and songs that are wonderful in themselves but also slow down the play. X is full of strengths but ultimately uneven; I suspect that, with judicious cutting, it would be brilliant.

Director Ian Belknap maximizes X's strengths through dynamic, imaginative, and beautifully paced direction. The cast is excellent, led by Jimonn Cole--who has a remarkable resemblance to Malcolm X and presents a man full of love and anger, hope and despair, and great intelligence--and Roslyn Ruff, who brings vivid life to Betty Shabazz. The other cast members are Harriet D. Foy, Kevis Hillocks, Cedric Mays, J.D. Mollison, Austin Purnell, Joshua David Robinson, William Sturdivant, and Tatiana Wechsler.

Jimonn Cole
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Lee Savage's scenery is imposing and attractive; Mary Louise Geiger's lighting adds a great deal to the emotion and clarity of the play.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

I would wish two things: (1) that the program include a brief history of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and (2) that Marcus Gardley also write a play focusing on Betty Shabazz herself.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, 4th row)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Art Times: Let's Make Sure Their Time Is Up

My latest piece is up at Art Times. It's about how we can help women in the arts get more power.
Almost as far back as I can remember, people have been labeling various time periods as “The Year of the Woman.” Each of these years succeeded in getting conversations started and speeches given, but progress remained slow.
read more


Hamlet (Toronto)

For an English major who only took one course on Shakespeare, I have very strong ideas about Hamlet. Usually these keep me from enjoying any production because the director's choices will inevitably fail to line up with my expectations.

I thought the same would happen when I attended Tarragon Theatre's 2018 production. Instead, I found myself captivated by a minimalist production of Hamlet set to live music.

Richard Rose and Thomas Ryder Payne's Hamlet begins as soon as the lights go down. There is no context, no preamble or pre-show speech, but suddenly the lights change. The light blasts at the audience through an opaque fog, two characters appear, and it begins.

Throughout the play, sound and lighting creates another character--the atmosphere of Denmark. With the set of a rock concert, only a few feet were left at the front of the stage for the playing space. But as the actors move between making the music behind the play and stepping into the playing space, it never feels like a limit. Or at least, it feels like one that makes sense in the "prison" of Denmark.

Hamlet ensemble. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The rock and roll setting leans into Hamlet's teenage angst. Hamlet (Noah Reid) wears a hole-y hoodie the entire time and the cast passes microphones back and forth, a la Spring Awakening. Leaning into this, instead of away from it, focuses the production on the big dramatic gestures and the lyric images woven into all of Hamlet's language instead of the psychological motivations of each character.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Hindle Wakes

Sex. It's a tricky thing, is sex.

Throughout history, including now, cultures have sought to tame sex's complexity via rigid rules, assumptions, and limitations (particularly for women), with little success. In fact, the rules invariably make sex more complex by adding layers of morality, expectations, and even property ownership. Perhaps most importantly, rules deny sex's mundane side: sometimes people just want to get laid.

Jeremy Beck, Rebecca Noelle Brinkley
Photo: Todd Cerveris

In the excellent Hindle Wakes, it's the early 20th century, and Fanny Hawthorn (a weaver at the Jeffcote mill) has just had a weekend tryst with Alan Jeffcote (son of the mill's owner and engaged to be married to someone else). Due to an unexpected circumstance, their parents find out, and all hell breaks loose.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Mankind

In Robert O'Hara's futuristic, dystopian fable Mankind, currently at Playwrights Horizons, women are extinct and men have evolved to reproduce without them. In an opening scene that is reasonably funny the first time, if exponentially less so each time it's repeated, Jason (Bobby Moreno) informs casual fuck-buddy Mark (Anson Mount) that he's pregnant. Despite Mark's impulse to "get rid of it," Jason ends up carrying the baby to term, because while women no longer exist, abortion remains illegal. As the play progresses, wackiness ensues: there are court trials and prison sentences, deaths, the invention of a new religion that splinters into various factions, a double marriage, many arguments, and two airings of a news-/reality-/game-/talk-show hybrid called "The Bob and Bob Show," featuring a Tom Brokaw-inspired Bob (Ariel Shafir) and a goofy, morning-show inspired Bob (David Ryan Smith).

Joan Marcus
In short, Mankind takes a lot of fantastical turns that I had no trouble buying: Absent women, the future is even more fucked up than it is now? Yup, sure. Money will win out over morality, ethics, or spiritual devotion? You bet. Various forms of lowbrow entertainment have merged with serious journalism? That's already happened, so why not? Lawyers will wear huge conical wigs and dress like the title character of The Wiz? Makes sense, especially since Andre DeShields himself plays the lawyer.

But abortion? Still illegal a century after women cease to exist? Even seemingly without the presence of some other oppressed group whose collective bodies become the endlessly manipulated tools of politics, religion, and all other aspects of culture? Sorry, buddy, you've lost me.

With Mankind, O'Hara repeatedly returns to the idea that the patriarchy destroys everything it touches: commerce, religion, intellect, law, the family, the environment, humanity. That's all well and good, but the play, which O'Hara also directs and which features an all-male cast, never attempts to wrestle with, or even approach, ways that a culture’s myriad ingrained hierarchies breed control, and thus institutionalized sexism. With some discussion of that in place--with even a fleeting examination of the fact that sexual inequality is bound with centuries of culturally sanctioned power and control ranging from the violently obvious to the impossibly subtle--O'Hara might have produced a compelling play about women's subjugation. But because he never digs below the surface--of the characters, the words they say, the world they occupy, or the ways any of this relates to the contemporary world--Mankind is simply an overlong, undercooked premise that has been explored more deftly elsewhere. The play purports to consider women's struggles for equality, but has erased women at every step. I'd say I've never experienced anything like it, but, of course, like pretty much everyone else in the world, I encounter entertainment that is overwhelmingly by, for, and about men, presented as universal, and dressed up as something more profound than it actually is pretty much every day, all my life.

Anyway, at least Mankind is too thinly developed, inconsistently written, and clunkily directed to be genuinely offensive. It comes off instead as sort of eye-rollingly typical: some man or another realizes that women have had it bad for a long time, does a smattering of research to back that eureka moment up, and then his project gets support, encouragement, and an audience. At its worst, Mankind's humor feels forced and its attempts at gravity patronizing; at its best, it's diverting. Truly, I dug "The Bob and Bob Show," especially the fine work done by Bob. The cast does what it can with scenes that go on too long, an awkward set, unflattering lighting, and a bunch of WTF costumes.

At the curtain call, the company solicits contributions to Planned Parenthood from the audience, which is nice, but feels like a hasty afterthought: a curt, pitying nod toward the far corner where the poor relatives have been seated for the sumptuous, expensive feast. I'd have appreciated the gesture a lot more had O'Hara's play seemed as if anyone involved had actually attempted to genuinely concern themselves with the plight of women--maybe, even, to have consulted with a couple in the process of writing, directing, producing, mounting, dramaturging, and writing program notes for a play that pretends to include us and help us bear our trials while so casually, even chummily, shoving us aside.

The School of Doing: Lessons From Theater Master Gerald Freedman

You may have heard of director Gerald Freedman. You may not have. But you've certainly heard of his work: Freedman assistant-directed the original West Side Story and Gypsy. He directed an early version of Hair before Tom O'Horgan brought it to Broadway. He directed various revivals of West Side Story and dozens of classics. He taught at Julliard in the early 1970s and was the dean of the University of North Carolina School of Arts for many years. He devoted seemingly every waking minute of his life to theater and its relatives film and opera. He was and is deeply admired by performers such as Mandy Patinkin, Christine Baranski, Patti LuPone, Chita Rivera, Kevin Kline, and many others.



And now there is a book that's sort of by him, sort of about him, and mostly about his beliefs on the making of theater. The School of Doing: Lessons From Theater Master Gerald Freedman is an odd, cobbled-together book. Author Isaac Klein took Freedman's words (gathered from personal interviews and various publications) and quotes from a who's-who of theater professionals and added his own commentary to create a book that is choppy, repetitious, uneven, and frequently annoying yet ultimately worthwhile reading for actors, directors, playwrights, and audience members interested in how the sausage is made.