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Monday, December 24, 2018

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde




Cooper Bates Photography
Burt Grinstead and Anna Stromberg wore many hats during Blanket Fort Entertainment’s New York premiere of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde from Dec. 6-16 at the Soho Playhouse as part of the Fringe Encore Series, including writer (Grinstead and Stromberg), director (Stromberg) and actors (Grinstead and Stromberg).

Based on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella, this version sought to insert moments of laughter into the traditional story, which takes place in London around the 1860s where Dr. Jekyll explores the academic question of “what is the nature of morality” after his brother is executed as a serial killer. Grinstead tackled the dual role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde admirably.

Especially well done were the transformation scenes where his body changed dramatically from one character to the next. With a jerk of his foot and the stretching of his hands, Mr. Hyde appeared - even as Grinstead simply changed the sets in shadow, an edge of malevolence in each deliberate movement.

The clever set, in interlocking sections, opened to reveal bookshelves, cabinets - even a fireplace of sorts - was manipulated in a swirl of careful choreography. When Mr. Hyde stamped through the audience, leering into their eyes, people laughed as they became part of the spectacle.

Gags lighten up some of the somber material. For instance, Stromberg "accidentally" left an apron on for a scene as a male. Grinstead communicated the costume problem with a deliberate look and she smoothly whipped it off without losing character.

The production team included Terry Collins (Set Construction), Burt Grinstead (Sound & Set Design), Matt Richter and Adam Martin (Original Lighting Design) and Anna Stromberg (Costume Design).

The show also gave context to the story by exploring Dr. Jekyll's friendships and relationships. Especially poignant is Dr. Jekyll's interactions with his maid, who ultimately becomes his moral conscience as the story navigates to its conclusion.

The show earned six Hollywood Fringe Festival Awards including Best Comedy, winner of the 2CentsTheatre Award for Distinctive Voices, and winner of the Soho Playhouse Fringe Encore Series Award.

For more info you can visit https://www.BlanketFortEntertainment.com

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Liz's Top Ten of 2018

While I can't say I'll miss a whole lot of things that went down in 2018, it's worth acknowledging just how good the theater was, at least in these parts. Whereas past seasons have been pretty weak, I had a lot of trouble whittling my list down to a top ten this year. Some of the ones I finally settled on weren't so easy to call: many just narrowly edged out other excellent productions (sorry, Network, Our Lady of 121st Street, Soft Power and Boys in the Band, you all kicked truly impressive ass--but something or another ended up taking your spot. I'm sure you'll forgive me. Soft Power, I'm especially eager to see you again when you're just a teeny bit clearer on what you want to be).

Anyway, thanks for the memories, 2018, at least as far as escaping to the theater goes.

To a happier and more peaceful new year--and another strong season!

SpongeBob SquarePants
My initial review was tepid, I admit it. But then, (a) the first time I saw the show, I went alone on a Wednesday afternoon, I was prepared to dislike everything I saw, and I was seated behind four ladies who all promptly fell asleep, so I was not exactly in the ideal headspace. Also, and way more importantly, (b) I did not have my son and nephew with me. Watching the show through their (very wide) eyes a second time made me realize that I'd stumbled on the perfect way to see it. My concerns about corporate soullessness vanished, especially once my son started bouncing up and down in his seat and singing along with "Best Day Ever" (we shushed him, but we all had a great time. And he wasn't the only one singing, either). Inventive, sweet, well-meaning and probably deserving of a longer run than it got, the show may remain a corporate behemoth--but it's one that had a great deal of charm, love and magic to it.




The Ferryman
The Ferryman was structured almost exactly the way Butterworth's Jerusalem was: the same loose, sweeping, frequently comedic scenes that gradually cohered into something bigger, less naturalistic, more intensely explosive--replete, even, with the same sonic build in the last scenes. The pacing thus felt lifted from the earlier (and, to me, ever-so-slightly-better) epic. Still, truly, this is the only criticism I can come up with (though I'm sure that, were I Irish, I might find plenty more to gripe about). The Ferryman is gripping, beautifully acted (even by a baby, a bunny, and a goose, for chrissakes), and I felt like I knew and cared for its many characters by the end of a fleeting three-plus hours. Butterworth might work on changing up the pacing of his future plays, but then, he's written two sweeping, huge, long, extraordinary plays, and I have never written a damn scene in my life. He totally wins this round.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Net Will Appear

At the beginning of Erin Mallon's The Net Will Appear, 75-year-old Bernard climbs out of his second-story window to use the roof of the first floor as a deck. He sets up his camping chair and pours himself what he will later refer to as his "Jim Beam juice." Not long afterward, 9-year-old next-door-neighbor Rory climbs out of her second-story window, full of questions and stories and malapropisms. He's crabby, though of course he has a heart. She's cheerful, despite plenty of reasons not to be. It quickly becomes clear that (1) she will win him over; (2) the play will offer no surprises along the way; and (3) the production will nevertheless provide a sweet little evening in the theatre.

Richard Masur
Photo: Jody Christopherson 

Author Mallon writes by the numbers, but she does so competently and with feeling. Richard Masur's performance as Bernard is also by the numbers, but he's a skillful, likable actor and it works. Eve Johnson as Rory talks very, very, very fast, often losing intelligibility along the way, and she could use some lessons in comic timing. She's not great, but she's good enough and also likable; in quieter scenes, she shows a level of promise that made me wish that director Mark Cirnigliaro had been able to elicit better work from her.

Eve Johnson
Photo: Jody Christopherson 

The physical production is fine, with the exception of the between-scenes music, which grows more and more annoying as time passes.

I don't mean to damn with faint praise here. The Net Will Appear is a nice, old-fashioned evening in the theatre, and Richard Masur's performance alone is worth the low-priced ticket. It is what it is, and it's a solid version thereof.

Wendy Caster
(4th row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 80

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Clueless, The Musical

"What, another musical based on a late 20th-century movie?" you may ask. Well, yeah. But here's the thing: it's really good.

Zurin Villanueva, Dove Cameron
Photo: Monique Carboni

Writer/lyricist Amy Heckerling made a series of smart decisions in bringing Clueless, her funny-yet-heartfelt movie to the stage. The first was using well-known 90's songs, to which she added sharp, funny lyrics. The familiar melodies establish the time period perfectly, and they feel/sound like old friends.

The second smart decision was to be true to the original movie, which is one of those wonderful pieces that manage to nest real dilemmas, character growth, and a moral stance into yummy cotton candy.

The third smart decision was to work with director Kristin Hanggi and choreographer Kelly Devine. Hanggi's direction is well-paced and -focused. She balances the silliness and meaning perfectly. And Hanggi's choreography is energetic, playful, and great fun--exactly what the piece needs.

And the forth smart decision was the excellent casting. Dove Cameron is perfect as Cher, melding the character's complex combination of savvy and shallowness, altruism and egotism, and courage and fear into a completely lovable heroine. She handles the direct-to-audience dialogue beautifully, and her singing voice is gorgeous. Other standouts in the cast include Will Connolly as the adorable stoner Travis, Chris Hoch in multiple roles as the male grown-ups, and Dave Thomas Brown as ex-step-brother Josh, though the whole cast is excellent.

So, I didn't love the scenery and lighting. There were moments that would have benefited from better enunciation. Heckerling's lyrics include occasional half-rhymes that would land better as full rhymes. (I'm of the school that musicals need real rhymes to help the audience catch and enjoy every word.) The opening number runs a little long. But these are small complaints in the context of how much genuine delight the show provides.

I imagine that Clueless, The Musical will move to Broadway. Catch it at the New Group if you can. The intimacy of a small theatre is an added plus to Clueless's already fabulous experience.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, row k)
Show-Score: 93

Monday, December 10, 2018

Noura

I expected to like Noura, Heather Raffo's play at Playwrights Horizon. I knew it was about a Christian Iraqi family living in the US, which I found intriguing, and that it delves into assimilation and loss, individualism versus community, and lies and secrets, topics that are endlessly delve-able. In addition, it riffs on A Doll's House, opening all sorts of possibilities. I was optimistic going in.

As the play unfolded, I found I had questions. "Is he her father or her husband?" "What did she just say?" "Why do they keep walking around that large table instead of going straight to where they're going?" "Why does she keep standing around?" "Why isn't that recorded voice-over loud enough to hear clearly?"

Then more serious questions came in. "Would anyone really do that?" "Would anyone really say that?" "Is she speaking Arabic or just mumbling?" "Why don't they ever close their front door?" "Why is she mad at him for being angry when she was angry too?" "Where did the Play Station come from?"

And then came the worst questions. "Is Raffo really pulling out that old soap-opera-y trope?" "Can't she at least do a better job of it?" "What is this play about, anyway?" "And why should I care?"

Heather Raffo
Photo: Joan Marcus
Noura has received good reviews in previous productions, so there may be more to it than I perceived. However, my plus-one liked it less than I did, and the applause the night I saw it was tepid. Oh well.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, row J)
Show-Score: 60

Monday, December 03, 2018

The Tricky Part

Well-deserved raves for Martin Moran's heart-breaking solo piece, The Tricky Part, can be found at the Times, Theater Mania, and the Fordham Observer. I'm more interested in the why of the show.

Art design by Leah Vautar.

One-person pieces can be theatrical stand-up comedy (think Lily Tomlin or Rob Becker), stories of actual people's lives (think Will Rogers or Emily Dickinson), or recreations of novels or other stories, with the actor often playing dozens of roles (think Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, or Alan Cumming's solo Macbeth). With the advent of Spalding Gray, Holly Hughes, and other soloists of the later 20th century, solo performance expanded into memoir and performance art. These pieces are frequently personal, revealing, and devastating.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

King Kong

While I appreciate it as a landmark in both film making and scoring, I've otherwise never much understood the appeal of King Kong. Sure, there's incredibly cool stop-motion animation and over-the-top Max Steiner aural grooviness, both of which are even more admirable since this is 1933 we're talking about. But otherwise, the movie has always seemed strongest as a genuinely depressing racist allegory, garnished with enormous doses of sexism and greed. The plot itself is hogwash: mercenary film director Carl Denham takes wannabe starlet Ann Darrow to the mysterious Skull Island to film a picture. There, they encounter deeply offensive "native" stereotypes, some prehistoric creatures, and the titular ape, who lusts after and kidnaps Ann. She screams endlessly, gets rescued, and then Kong is drugged and brought back to New York for Denham to put on display. In New York, the ape completely loses his shit, destroys large amounts of Manhattan, recaptures Ann, climbs the Empire State Building with her, and then gets shot down, surely crushing many innocent onlookers as he plummets to his death. In the film's final moments, Denham, who started all the mayhem in the first place, gets all faux-philosophical but reveals he's totally incapable of self-reflection or personal growth: he blames everything on Ann with a famous last line that makes no sense considering everything that's just happened. Come on, Carl, you dumbass: beauty didn't do shit. You did.

Special effects seem to dominate all remakes of the film; they are, I suppose, the point of revisiting King Kong in the first place. An awful lot of people, it seems, will tolerate steaming mountains of racist, sexist crap if they get to watch enough shit blowing other shit up in the process.

Joan Marcus

Spectacle certainly dominates the stage version of King Kong, which may not be the most well-balanced or wholly satisfying production, but is not without its pleasures and small victories. I appreciate the production for trying to rid the plot of at least some of its most offensive parts. Gone, in this iteration, are the grunting, monosyllabic, dark-skinned natives of Skull Island, and with them at least some of the stereotypes the movie played on. Gone too is the stupid line at the end about how beauty killed the beast. There's more of an attempt at moral trajectory: Denham (Eric William Morris, doing what he can), it's implied, will suffer economic ruin and isolation for his actions. Also, he doesn't blame everything on Ann; his famous "'tis beauty killed the beast" line is referenced in one of the show's exceptionally forgettable songs (songs are by Eddie Perfect; the persistent and weirdly porny electronic score is by Marius De Vries). But it no longer serves as the last line.

While the image of Kong being shackled and shipped far from his home will never not reference both the slave trade and the vilest of persistent racist tropes, some of the sting of the latter is offset in the production by Christiani Pitts, who plays Ann. Pitts is black, and thus not the traditional pale-blond, uber-Caucasian Ann of previous Kong iterations (Fay Wray; Jessica Lange; Naomi Watts). The choice works to temper at least a few layers of racist assumption that can be inferred in what was previously an allegory about primal, predatory black men and their insatiable lust for pure, helpless white women; the musical tries instead to paint Ann as smart, independent and headstrong--a modern woman before her time. Her connection with Kong, it is suggested, becomes a knowing friendship between two lost, misunderstood, disenfranchised fellow travelers.

Any attempt to expose and excise stereotypes is noble, but in addressing King Kong's problem areas as superficially as it does, the production opens up newer, bigger holes in a plot already full of them. Pitts does as much as any human can with the role as it's been rewritten, but hers is a thankless task. If Ann is now so insightful and level-headed and wise, what the hell convinced her that getting on a boat for months on end with a penny-ante director she talks with for five minutes in a diner is a good life choice? Yeah, sure, whatever, she's hungry and desperate for work. Get a fucking grip, all-male creative team: you can't have a modern, independent heroine who occasionally doubles as a shrieking damsel in distress. Pitts' Ann doesn't scream and play helpless as convincingly (or as endlessly) as Fay Wray did, but she is no more nuanced or developed a character, either: here, Ann bonds with Kong, then immediately sells him out, then feels remorse, then sings a song about how She Has Learned Something About Herself and Others. But what has she learned, exactly? That directors who hang out in diners are not to be trusted? That the world is cruel? That love is blind? That nature abhors a vacuum? That crime does not pay? Where's the build, the conflict, the cohesive story?

Anyway, whatever, story schmory; clearly, we're here to see spectacle. In this iteration, as in all iterations past, Kong is truly the star of the show, and while it's a shame he has to die, he at least gets the final bow here. The production's Kong is impressive: he's about the size of the stage and is operated by ten black-clad puppeteers who yank pulleys, manipulate the ape's body, and see to it that its hands and feet land correctly lest some poor cast member be crushed beneath its truly impressive weight. Another three dudes operate the facial expressions and the sounds Kong makes from a booth at the back of the theater. If you are solely interested in watching the puppet, and go to see King Kong with no other expectations at all, I suspect you won't be disappointed.

But heat? Conflict? Tension? Emotion? Forget it. The show, like the film, left me cold. Oh, except for two moments: in one scene depicting Kong's captivity in New York, his facial expressions were so real and so sad that I felt genuine pity for the character, stuck as he was in yet another exploitative entertainment that didn't do him justice. There was a smaller, more profound moment, as well, during which one of the puppeteers took exceptional care in placing Kong's left hand on the floor of the stage. It was the gentle, lovingly tender act of someone who has bonded deeply with the character they're responsible for giving life to. It was beautiful and one of the sweetest moments in the show for me. If only the company had been able to figure out how to extend such genuine sentiment throughout the entire musical.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Waverly Gallery

A friend of mine often uses the expression "pretty little play" to describe a show that's easy to digest, not especially profound or layered, and pretty satisfying nonetheless. The Waverly Gallery is very much a pretty little play--one I confess I probably wouldn't have gone out of my way to see, had my parents not been big enough fans of Nichols and May to have followed both their careers for decades. After they read about Elaine May's depiction of Gladys Green, an elderly gallery owner nearing the end of her life, they asked if I might like to se it with them. I'm a sucker for free theater and, ultimately, for hanging out with my folks. I'm so glad I didn't miss this one--and especially May's performance, which kicks brilliant, glorious, 86-year-old-woman ass up Waverly Place and back down again.


Marc J. Franklin

Directed by Lila Neugebauer and performed by a strong and likeable cast, the Broadway production accepts Lonergan's early piece (it was written in 1999) for what it is: a gentle, unfussy memory play about somebody's gradual loss of it. This production is as straightforward as the play itself: scenes unfold in chronological order; set changes take place behind a scrim on which projections of the city--grainy, black and white, and generic enough to be timeless--drift slowly from one side to the other before dissipating like smoke, accompanied by fittingly melancholy music by Gabriel Kahane. At times, the play is basic enough to feel almost pageant-like: Gladys's grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges) steps forward during a few scene changes to address the audience with direct-address prose about his family, their relationships to one another and to his grandmother, and various other expository points that aren't spelled out in the dialogue.

Still: basic and straightforward are not necessarily bad or amateur, and in this case both work exceptionally well. Lonergan's play doesn't need to dig all that deep to resonate, after all: dementia affects a lot of people, which is why plays, films, tv shows and books about it prevail in popular culture. An awful lot of such stories, in fact, aren't nearly as effective as this comparatively low-key one. The strong acting, of course, helps a lot: Hedges is blunt but never stiff or self-conscious, whether interacting with other characters or during his confessional curtain-speeches, wherein he admits how difficult it is for him to spend time with Gladys, even as he clearly adores her. The same goes for the rest of the cast: Joan Allen and David Cromer play Gladys's daughter and son-in-law; both are believably caring, kind, boneheaded, and impatient with Gladys in equal doses. Michael Cera rounds out the cast as Don, the last artist to display his works at Gladys's small gallery. A kind and well-meaning drifter whose life hasn't worked out especially well, Don is the sole denialist of the bunch in insisting that Gladys's memory lapses are entirely the fault of what he assumes are sub-par hearing aids. His opinions, however, don't get in the way of his loyalty to Gladys or his willingness to help her and her family as she declines.

At the center is Gladys, played downright majestically by May who, much like the production she anchors, never forces anything, even though it would be incredibly easy to. It's so much more typical to play aging, addled characters in bellowing, raging, do-not-go-gentle fashion--or as one-dimensional punchlines. But May's portrayal is solidly dignified, and all the more remarkable since Gladys is a fairly big personality to begin with: she's as endlessly chatty, headstrong, opinionated and irritating as she is bighearted and smart and endearing. Aided with small, gradual changes to her appearance--a graying wig here, an alarmingly roomy dress there--her Gladys starts to diminish in ways that feel no less sad or unfair, but are a whole lot more convincing for the actor's excellent choices: favorite expressions start getting repeated ad-nauseum like so many tics; remembering the right words or finding the house keys becomes harder; recognizing dear friends and close relatives grows frustratingly challenging. May never lets Gladys become a caricature or cruel joke, even as she becomes less coherent or independent.

There may be nothing remarkable about aging, or even about losing your memory as you do. But of course, something as commonplace as decline can still pack a punch. This quiet, lovely production of The Waverly Gallery is all the stronger and more resonant for never once forgetting that. 


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)