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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.