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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Art Times: What We Can Do When We Work Together

My latest essay is up at Art Times
I just voted, and I’m a nervous wreck. The sad truth is that no matter who wins, it’s not going to be pretty. We seem to have lost the ability as a country to work together toward a common goal, if indeed we ever had it. 
And that’s one of the many reasons I adore theatre.
[keep reading]


Katharine Hepburn and Constance Collier
in Stage Door

Monday, November 05, 2018

The Thanksgiving Play

I see political correctness as largely a good thing. For me, it connotes trying to honor other people and their needs; calling people by their chosen names; respecting that people with different backgrounds have different experiences; and so on. On the other hand, political correctness can be taken waaay too far. Larissa FastHorse's wonderful new comedy, The Thanksgiving Play, takes place on the other hand.

Greg  Keller,  Jennifer  Bareilles, 
Jeffrey  Bean,  Margo  Seibert
Photo: Joan Marcus
Four people assemble to develop a thanksgiving play for an elementary school. They are to be the writers and the performers. Logan (Jennifer Bareilles) is the director. She works at the school, and the posters on the walls (the witty scenic design is by Wilson Chin) attest to her theatre tastes and values. Her boyfriend, Jaxton, self-righteously humble, is so thrilled to be involved that he is performing without pay. Caden (Jeffrey Bean), a history teacher and playwright wannabe, knows all about the truth of the "real Thanksgiving," which of course was not exactly full of turkeys, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and good will. The fourth writer/performer is Alicia (Margo Seibert), a well-known actress who has been promised a big paycheck. Logan and the others defer to her since she is Native American and therefore her opinions must come first.


Inner Voices 2018

Every couple of years, the theatre company Premieres commissions three sung monologues. The writers are given no limitations in terms of content or theme. The latest three monologues, Inner Voices 2018, display a remarkable range of styles, voices, and content. Two are terrific; the third less so. But all are worth seeing, and it's a unique evening in the theatre.



The first show of the evening, Window Treatment, was my favorite. Farah Alvin plays a kind of sweet stalker who is in love with a man who lives across the way. He doesn't have curtains, and she watches him, lovingly and creepily, with binoculars. She has also followed him in the real world, but has never spoken to him. Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer (words) and Daniel Green (music), the show is stuffed full of psychological insight and humor. Alvin's performance makes the most of her amazing voice, excellent acting, and heartfelt clowning. It's a real treat.

Waiting for Godot

The superb Druid production of Waiting for Godot, which is part of the Lincoln Center White Light festival, is damn close to perfect. Garry Hynes's meticulous direction exquisitely balances the pain and humor of Beckett's heartbreakingly funny play. While the famous review of Godot, saying that "nothing happens...twice," is not untrue, the show is full of emotion and meaning. What exactly it means has been debated, but certain themes seem clear: Life is meaningless and absurd. Most of us nevertheless choose to go on living. Human connection helps.

Aaron Monaghan, Marty Rea
Photo: Richard Termine

Godot hits particularly hard this time around, with the rich bully Pozzo, full of bluster and in desperate need of constant flattery, being a scarily effective stand-in for our 45th president.

Aaron Monaghan as Estragon and Marty Rea as Vladimir combine their wonderful sometimes-subtle, sometimes-broad acting with a physical grace that is a sheer joy to watch. Another gift for the eyes is the gorgeous set (designed by Francis O'Connor), which turns Beckett's tree, stone, and road into a Van Gogh-esque landscape of barren beauty.

Photo: Wendy Caster

Everyone affiliated with the production provides top-notch work, including Rory Nolan as Pozzo, Garrett Lombard as Lucky, and designers James F. Ingalls (lighting) and Gregory Clarke (sound). A special tip of the hat to movement director Nick Winston, whose work deliciously blends clowning and grace.

This production only runs through November 13, which is a pity.

(Aside: in an article in the program, designer O'Connor says that Beckett's specific scenery descriptions turned out to be liberating. He adds, "They made us ask fundamental questions, to investigate those few things he allows and how they interact. We asked, What is 'tree"? What is 'stone'? What is 'road'?" Really? Really?? It seems like laughable nonsense to me, and yet O'Connor's set is a work of art. So, what do I know?)

Wendy Caster
(8th row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 97

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Big Apple Circus

If you have any interest in circuses; if you love the daring young people on the flying trapeze; if you are entertained by amazing juggling or impressed by feats of strength or fascinated by people who can bend their bodies like proverbial pretzels or balance way high in the air, go see the Big Apple Circus!

Photo: Amy Schachter

The Big Apple Circus provides the chills, thrills, laughs, and ooohs and aaaahs of a three-ring circus in one small ring, with a level of intimacy that adds to the fun. The ringmaster, who doesn't actually do much, is the fabulous Stephanie Monseu, with a haircut like Annie Lennox's, a huge smile, and a ton of presence. The clowns (new style clowns, without painted faces) are genuinely funny. The performers are completely amazing. And there's a new act, called Wall Trampoline, which is unlike anything I've ever seen before. No description could do it justice. Just go see it!

I can't guarantee that "a good time will be had by all," but I'd bet on "a good time will be had by at least 99%."

Wendy Caster
(2nd row, press ticket)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Oklahoma!

Daniel Fish's absolutely stunning Oklahoma, currently at St. Ann's Warehouse where I wish it could somehow live forever, never loses sight of America's gloried past even as it confronts its darkly sinister present. The production is all the more remarkable considering the fact that it's a revival of the alpha and omega of the musical stage, for crying out loud: Oklahoma! is so frequently positioned as the culmination of all that came before it and the catalyst for all that came afterward that it would seem much easier to just not bother revisiting it at all. The last time the musical had a major revival in New York City was in spring 2002, not even a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center. That revival billed itself as an updated take on an old favorite, but it really wasn't: it clung so desperately to what I suppose was a pre-9/11 embrace of clear-eyed optimism and gosh-darn American gumption that I barely made it through the first act and was overjoyed to split at intermission. 

Scholars of the American stage musical, myself included, are quick to say that the genre reflects its time and place. But then, when it comes to revivals, cultural relevance all too often takes a backseat--or no seat at all--to nostalgia and familiarity. When they do get trotted out, plenty of musicals that are no longer remotely as relevant as they once were end up coming off like someone's beloved antique tableware: dutifully buffed of as much tarnish as possible, but still sort of futzy and vaguely ridiculous nevertheless. 

Sara Krulwich
Not so Daniel Fish's stripped, stark revival, which flays Oklahoma! to expose all the rot that--who knew?--festers beneath its cheery, wide-eyed facade. Staged in the center of a huge performance space, with the audience lining either side of the action, the production is a near-perfect blend of old and new, of joy and foreboding, of what Americans have and what we are rapidly losing. It is an object lesson in how to make a hoary old chestnut roar back to life without changing a single word. And since the lights remain up for most of the performance, spectators can watch one another reacting as the production unfolds: every smile of nostalgic recognition at the start of a beloved musical number, or knowing nod at the recitation of lines evocative of America at its rosiest; every grimace at the cock of a gun or a cheap punchline delivered at a woman's expense.   

Oklahoma! must have felt like a miracle when it hit Broadway in 1943. The first offering by the venerated dream-team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the musical not only became the blueprint for The Broadway Musical as Artistic Triumph, but also enjoyed pitch-perfect timing: after all, it celebrated all that was strong and sure and promising and wonderful about America just as the country was entering the Second World War to rid the globe of evil. Stories of young soldiers weeping openly with patriotic pride at performances before marching gallantly off to confront the Nazis fit perfectly into Oklahoma's breathless hagiography. This revival still gives credit where credit is due, while simultaneously zeroing in on aspects of the American experiment that have dimmed of their bright golden haze and begun to curl around the edges. It's a delicate balance for sure, but in mixing the sticky sweet with the excruciatingly sour, the revival blends up something absolutely dead-on in its relevance in the way only the very rarest of productions can.

It helps that the cast is so stunningly good. Damon Daunno has a gorgeous, clear voice that can trill and swoop, and his Curly is at once appealing and predatory: he's a good-looking, self-assured bro who knows exactly how tall he stands in the pecking order, and who has no problem resorting to cruelty when he doesn't get his way. His "Pore Jud Is Daid" scene with Laurie's comparatively awkward suitor Jud (Patrick Vaill) is done in darkness, save for a huge projection of Jud's face, rapt and practically twitching with longing when Curly suggests he commit suicide in exchange for the love and affection he desperately craves. Jud remains as off-putting and strange in his angry solitude as he's always been, but then, Daunno's Curly is precisely the sort of guy who gets off on devising new ways to make outcasts like Jud sadder, angrier, and more isolated than they already were. 

Laurie (Rebecca Naomi Jones) is a lot better than Jud at playing Curly's game; for the most part, the female characters are painted as smarter and more solid than the men in this production. It doesn't amount to a hill of beans, of course: they're still stuck in a place and time when women are treated about as well as a prized horse if they're lucky. Laurie is attracted to both Jud and Curly, though neither is an ideal match, which helps explain both the seething rage that roils beneath Jones' quiet depiction, and the fact that moments of particularly heated sexual tension are lit in a queasy, medicinal green.

While Laurie is clearly aware of just how small her life is going to turn out to be, Ado Annie (a bubbly Ali Stroker) enjoys playing the field, even though her romantic options are also limited. Annie is being courted by the sweet if dim Will Parker (James Davis) and the slightly brighter, if oilier and far less sincere Ali Hakim (Michael Nathanson). Will wants to buy Annie from her father; Ali wants to sell her on promises that he clearly has no intention of keeping. The bitter, totally-over-it bluntness of Mary Testa's Aunt Eller drives the womens' plight home, as does a silent, memorable scene in which the female characters shuck corncobs, breaking them into a pot with irate efficiency while the men in the cast lean idly against a wall of the theater that just happens to be covered completely with guns.

Layered over the same old dialogue that presumably passed for hilarity in the 1940s--and still does in too many corners of this grand land--is a more knowing acknowledgment of the subjugation of women as fuckable objects, as spent and sexless old crones, as nagging freedom-destroyers, or as livestock. The dream ballet, performed by the powerful Gabrielle Hamilton, neatly demonstrates just how trapped the women depicted in Oklahoma! are. I can't get the image of Hamilton, flanked by a group of young women in matching shirts emblazoned with the words DREAM BABY DREAM, racing frantically toward a door that slides shut before they can escape the blasting, electrified medley of songs from the score, while cowboy boots fall around them, striking the floor of the stage with gunshot-like pops. 


To that end, nor can I stop thinking about the flat, resigned, almost mechanical way federal marshal Cord Elam--here depicted by Anthony Cason, who is black--asks that Jud's death be properly investigated, even as the predominantly white cast insists that Curly quickly be pronounced innocent so he can honeymoon with the obviously traumatized Laurie. 

Fish's production sums up the American experience as it was and as it is. America still has its wind whipping 'cross the plain, its statue-like cattle, its beautiful mornings and its sounds of the earth like music. It's still home. It's still worth fighting for. But it's also blood-soaked and cruel, violent and unfair: it's a place where a guy like Curly will always get any girl he wants in the end; where a dimwit like Will Parker will always be content so long as he can buy sex and violence on the cheap in up-to-date places; where a woman like Laurie is free to dream of a new day, even if it never arrives. It's no wonder, then, that the cast's rendition of the title song near the end of the show blends whoops of joy with what sounds suspiciously like growls of rage and howls of pain. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Goodbody


A woman becomes aware of her surroundings. She is standing on a table and holding a gun. Behind her is a man who looks like he has been tortured, or maybe hit by a car, his injured arm secured to his chest with duct tape. In front of her lays a man who she seems to have just shot. She doesn't remember who she is, and she has no idea what's going on. The injured man starts explaining, but should she believe him? It's a fabulous premise.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Unfortunately, Goodbody, written by J.C. Ernst and directed by Melissa Firlit, loses steam as the evening progresses. Ernst attempts the violent insanity of a Martin McDonagh or Quentin Tarantino, but the humor isn't funny enough, the suspense isn't suspenseful enough, and the insanity isn't insane enough. Also, Goodbody is in a tiny theatre, and while the intimacy heightens the atmosphere, it also exposes the climactic violence as not-particularly-well-choreographed staged fighting.

Goodbody is not without its positives. There are genuinely funny moments (loved the Twinkie story), and some of the suspense works well. Amanda Sykes does a great job as the woman who doesn't know whether she's a nice person or really horrible. Raife Baker, as the injured man whose only weapon is words, provides a nice balance of eloquence, desperation, and suicidal ego. The set (by Matthew D. McCarren) is attractive and makes good use of the small space. Most importantly, Goodbody is never boring. But it just doesn't have the build and tension it needs to fulfill the promise of its premise.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 2nd row)
Show-Score: 70

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Ordinary Days

You know that old writing rule, "Show, don't tell"? It makes a lot of sense, particularly in theatre, where we watch characters live their lives right in front of us. Of course, there's also "Rules are made to be broken," to which I would add, "but only if what you're doing is rises above the rules."

Kyle Sherman, Sarah Lynn Marion
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Ordinary Days, music and lyrics by Adam Gwon, does a tremendous amount of telling. It's a 99% sung-through musical, and the four characters spend a lot of time explaining themselves. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Salome


Salome dances for the tetrarch. Laura Butler Rivera  (Salome);  Background:  Anthony  Simone  (Tigellin),   Ross  Cowan  (Soldier),  Marty  Keiser  (Herod  Antipas),  Lisa  Tharps (Herodias), Patrick Cann (Soldier),
 Jing Xu (Page of Herodias).
 Photo credit: Eileen Meny/Eileen Meny Photography



While watching Oscar Wilde's Salome, you understand why it's rarely performed. That doesn't mean M-34's world premiere of director James Rutherford's (founding artistic director) new English translation is without merit. Initially written in French and translated poorly by Wilde's lover Bosie, the play was dismissed as odd and prurient — after all, Salome does perform the dance of the seven veils.

The story follows Herod Antipas (Marty Keiser), the Tetrarch of Judea, and his inappropriate attraction to his wife’s daughter, Salome (Laura Butler Rivera). This is not new territory for the Tetrarch who came to power after marrying Herodias (Lisa Tharps), his older brother’s wife. Salome has an unhealthy attraction of her own — to Iokanaan (Feathers Wise), a prophet her step-father is holding captive in the same damp well that once imprisoned her father. Wise, a transwoman, offers an ethereal presence with his porcelain skin, high cheekbones and earthy, silky voice. It is easy to believe he is a god’s vessel.

This world does not offer love, but alienation. Passion leads to ruin, destruction and death. A young Syrian, Narraboth, looks at Salome longingly. His companion tells him, “You are looking at her. You look at her too much. You shouldn’t look at people like that. Something bad will happen.”

Her words are prophetic, for it is his desire to please the princess that propels the plot forward as he gives the spoiled Salome access to the prophet. “Your mouth is like a branch of coral found by fishermen in the twilight sea,” Salome says to him longingly. “Like vermilion from the mines of Moab. Like the bow of the Persian King, painted with vermilion and set with horns of coral. There is nothing in the world so red as your mouth. Let me kiss your mouth.” But the prophet spurns her, cursing her as a “daughter of Babylon” and a “child of adultery.”

Lara de Bruijn (Costume Design), Oona Curley (Scenic Design), Kate McGee  (Lighting Design), Mike Costagliola (Sound Design) provide a simple set, with white drapes in place of the well that imprisons the prophet. The sheerness allows the audience to view the soothsayer in shadow before his form is revealed.

The play explores the baseness of humanity, showcasing its fear of the unfamiliar. The persecution of Iokanaan is cruel, but no meaner than the callousness displayed by how the royals treat their slaves. When a soldier kills himself, the Tetrarch is only concerned about his feast saying, “What is this corpse doing here? Do you think I am like the king of Egypt who never holds a feast without showing his guests a corpse? Come on! Who is this? I don’t want to look at him.” For the remainder of the party, he and his guests sit amidst the floor’s bloodstains. When Herodias asks her slave for her fan, she hits her and says, “You have a dreamer’s look. You shouldn’t dream. Dreamers are sick.” In this world where dreams are discarded and suicide is ridiculed, the people that inhabit it are monstrous, unable to see beyond their own desires and belief systems.

At times, the action intoxicates even as it horrifies. Several scenes are too long — Salome’s dance, a titillating and disturbing series of undulations as the room darkens and her image is reflected on her veil, is initially discomforting and intimate, though the moment’s power fades the longer it lingers (Choreography by Jess Goldschmidt and Projection Design by Wladimiro Woyno). The Tetrarch, whose vocal inflections sometimes sound like Donald Trump speaking at a rally, also has a speech that lasts past its effectiveness. Overall, though, Salome acts as a cautionary tale about the ruthlessness of people and the easy acceptance of horrific acts by those that surround them.

Salome is performed at the Irondale (85 South Oxford St.) in Brooklyn. Running time: 95 minutes. Through Oct. 27th. For more info visit https://www.M-34.org

(Press seats)

Sunday, October 07, 2018

The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America (book review)

It's difficult this week to agree with the title The World Only Spins Forward. But in the story of Angels in America, the world did spin forward, as shown by this fascinating, informative, and even exciting oral history.



Assembled by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois, The World Only Spins Forward is clearly the result of thousands of hours of interviewing people, editing the interviews, finding a structure, reading old articles and reviews, and stitching everything together into a truly impressive quilt. The book is largely chronological but some chapters focus on particular characters. Also, the occasional sidebar delves into other aspects of Angels' life; in one, people discuss the challenge of teaching Angels in college. (One professor says that her students don't always get references to The Wizard of Oz. That makes me sad.)

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties

Don't worry: the five prototypical women in Jen Silverman's absurdist comedy aren't going to yell at you over the course of the 90 swift minutes that they're onstage at the Lortel Theater. They're too busy trying to figure out who they are and what skins they're most comfortable inhabiting once they throw off all the societal bullshit and cultural expectations they've been saddled with all their damn lives. This ultimately results in a lot less demonstrative rage than the title might imply, which I suppose is very much in keeping with the contemporary woman: were any one of us--no matter what sort of woman we are or will become--to let out all the rage we carry around with us, the world might very well fold in on itself.  


Joan Marcus

Speaking of folds, Collective Rage is structured in a way that's kind of Shakespearean, kind of postmodern, and--given the frequency with which the word "pussy" is used, probably not at remotely accidentally--kind of vaginal: it's basically a play within a play, even if the narratives of both aren't especially linear or totally cohesive. Both Collective Rage and the play within--a completely half-assed, barely rehearsed, disastrously amusing non-staging of the Pyramus and Thisbe story--allow the characters to try on various personae in their search for comfort and meaning in strange, alienating times. Sometimes, the trying on of personae is literal: at various points, every one of the Bettys slips new costumes on or items of old ones off.  At other times, the show is less straightforward, if consistently enjoyable. The cast--Dana Delany, Ana Villafañe, Lea DeLaria, Adina Verson, and Chaunté Wayans--is strong to a woman, though Verson, as the most spiritually lost and longing of Bettys, is especially impressive in a role that's admittedly somewhat weightier than the rest.
  
I'm not convinced that this is the deepest, most profound play about contemporary women I've ever seen in my life, but it's great fun and, for all the havoc, curiously reassuring, which goes a very long way lately. See it if you can before it closes up shop this weekend.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Holy Ghosts

Nancy Shedman sits reading in a large-ish, empty, nondescript room. Her husband, Coleman, comes storming in, full of accusations and anger. Little by little the room fills, and Coleman realizes that they are about to have a Pentecostal service, complete with snake-handling. He ends up fighting with many of the people in the room, who are now his wife's friends. He won't leave because he wants his wife to return all the things she "stole" from him when she left him or perhaps even to come back to him. The congregants speak to him with surprising (but not unlimited!) patience, telling him stories from their lives. It's mostly a device to allow the writer, Romulus Linney, to help us understand why people might choose to express their spirituality in extreme ways. The show is about 80% exposition/story-telling, but it works, beautifully. (In terms of structure, it reminded me a bit of the first season of Lost, where we meet the characters one by one.)

Oliver Palmer and Lizzy Jarrett
Photo: James M. Wilson

I worked on the last New York production of Holy Ghosts, 40 years ago (I was show electrician). I was quite impressed with the show, but I thought it had a major flaw. It turns out that play holds up very well--and this production actually fixes the flaw!

A Chorus Line

It takes a lot of ambition to decide to do A Chorus Line at a small Off-Off-Broadway theatre. And it takes a lot of skill to pull it off. Luckily, the Gallery Players in Brooklyn have tons of both, and their production of A Chorus Line is fabulous.

Photo: Steven Pisano Photography

Directed by Tom Rowan, author of the book A Chorus Line FAQ, and choreographed by Eddie Gutierrez, who played Paul in national tours, the production hews faithfully and elegantly to the template set long ago by the brilliant director/choreographer Michael Bennett. The familiar ensemble dance numbers and solos are all there, at a remarkably high level. A Chorus Line requires performers who can dance, sing, and act, and most of the cast at the Gallery Players can do all three, in some cases superbly.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The True

Is it ungrateful of me to wish that Sharr White's play, The True, presented by The New Group, had more to offer? Perhaps. After all, there is already much to like here: solid writing, smooth direction, and an amazing cast. But for all those strengths, I just didn't care.

John Pankow, Edie Falco
Photo: Monique Carboni

In all fairness, I mostly wasn't bored. I mean, look at this cast: Edie Falco. Michael McKean. John Pankow. Peter Scolari. Each and every one of them is a pleasure to watch, always. Falco, unsurprisingly, gives an excellent performance, and you can't keep your eyes off her as she talks, and talks, and talks, and talks. And curses and curses and curses.

Why is Falco's character such a gabber? Dorothea Noonan, known as Polly, is an essential component of the Democratic machine in 1970s Albany, and has been for years. She thinks she knows everything--she certainly does know a lot--and it takes many, many words for her to tell everyone around her how to live their lives, professionally and otherwise.

Noonan is a close friend and adviser to the mayor (McKean), but at the start of the play he has decided that he needs distance from her. This separation does not stop her from fighting for him behind the scenes, and she meets with the various men who will help decide whether he gets another term as mayor. (One theme of the play is how she is treated differently because she's female, but to me everyone was pretty obnoxious and she fit right in.)

Ironically enough, the most emotionally successful moment in the play is silent. (It would be a spoiler to say more.)

Some of the political machinations of The True are interesting. Some of the relationships look like they would be fruitful to explore. But as it stands, there is little reason to care about these characters, and the play ends up being about ploys rather than people.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, row E)
Show-Score: 80

I Was Most Alive With You

Craig Lucas's new play, I Was Most Alive With You, is impressively ambitious. Performed simultaneously in English and American Sign Language (ASL), with some use of supertitles, it is an extended riff on the biblical story of Job. Ash, a TV writer in his 50s or 60s, and Astrid, his somewhat younger cowriter, decide to use the recent events of Ash's life as the content for their latest project. As they discuss the script, scenes are enacted as they may or may not have occurred in real life. Ash is the Job figure, and much is taken from him.

Marianna Bassham (Astrid), Michael Gaston (Ash),
Russell Harvard (Knox), Tad Cooley (Farhad)
Photo: Joan Marcus

Ash's son, Knox, is Deaf. Although he was brought up to speak and read lips, at the start of the play he will only converse in sign language, even though that leaves his mother, the over-ironically named Pleasant, out of the conversation. Knox is clean and sober (as is Ash). He is in love with Farhad, who is deaf but doesn't sign. (Lucas makes clear that there is a difference between Deaf and deaf, but it goes by quickly. His decision not to define or clarify the distinction makes sense, since this play is written for a Deaf audience as much as--if not more--than a hearing audience, though a bit of explanation might have helped the latter group without hurting the former.) Farhad is a drug user, and although Knox adores him, he will not actually become involved with him until he becomes clean and sober.

Other characters include Ash's mother, Carla, who learned sign language to communicate with Knox, and Mariama, a hearing friend of hers who signs fluently and joins the family on Thanksgiving to translate, mostly for the benefit of Pleasant. The character of Mariama also allows Lucas to add more discussion of religion and loss and belief to the play; unfortunately, she feels much more like a device than a person. But, in truth, only a few of the characters are fleshed out; the others are mouthpieces rather than people.

The Emperor

More like a magazine story brought to life than an actual play, The Emperor still has much going for it, the main things being the performances of the protean and ever-fascinating Kathryn Hunter and the music of Ethiopian musician Temesgen Zeleke. Based on interviews with actual servants of the Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie, The Emperor weaves a vivid tapestry around a Selassie-shaped void. While he is not in the show per se, Selassie's effect, affect, and whims are everywhere and everything, as they were during his four-decade reign.

Photo: Simon Annand 

Adapted by Colin Teevan from Ryszard Kapuściński's book, The Emperor depicts how people are misshapen when they are forced to fit into small spaces with no freedom. The epitome of these characters may well be the servant whose job was to wipe the urine off of visiting dignitaries' shoes after the emperor's dog had peed on them. Many of the servants admired Selaissie and were proud of their jobs.

Is it strange that Kathryn Hunter plays all of these male African characters? Yes. No. Kind of. For me, her brilliance is its own excuse for anything she may choose to perform, although I completely understand why other people might disagree.

Photo: Simon Annand 

Is it strange that The Emperor is presented as a piece of theatre? Yes. No. Kind of. It has a limited point of view. It has no plot, story line, or arc. It almost completely lacks interactions. While it is arguably all about conflict, it has no conflict itself. In terms of any political or historical aims it may have, it somewhat succeeds, although other forms of delivery would have been more hard-hitting.

And is it strange that these stories of a country that was horribly oppressed, in which millions died of starvation, have ended up being about how brilliant one white actress is? Absolutely. Strange and horrible, really. But, for what little it's worth, it did motivate me to learn more.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, row J)
Show-Score: 80

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur is not one of Tennessee Williams's masterpieces, but it still deserves a better production than the one currently being presented by La Femme Theatre Productions. Director Austin Pendleton seems to think that Creve Coeur is a farce. It is not; it's a slightly hopeful tragedy with some humor. Pendleton does manage to get some laughs, but at the cost of the play's soul.

The situation is familiar: a high-strung Southern woman, Dotty (think Blanche from Streetcar), seeks love with a handsome, charming, well-off man whom she has "dated." Her older roommate, Bodey, wants to match Dotty with her twin brother, who is neither handsome nor charming (think Mitch from Streetcar). Dotty's workmate, Helena, wants Dotty to be her roommate, though she is more focused on Dotty's financial contribution than on Dotty herself.

Jean Lichty
Photo: Joan Marcus

Jean Lichty does a decent job as Dotty, particularly in the later scenes where she is allowed by the writing and the direction to be less frenetic. Kristine Nielsen's two-dimensional Bodey ignores the character's savvy and backbone, much to the detriment of the play. Annette O'Toole plays Helena as though she is a sitcom bad guy. I have to ironically tip my hat to Pendleton: getting bad performances out of Nielsen and O'Toole can't have been easy.

I saw a good production of Creve Coeur in 1990 at the San Diego Rep. While it could not cover the play's faults, it did express its heart and soul. I can't help wonder what the La Femme production might have expressed with a different director.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; third row)
Show-Score: 65