Monday, March 19, 2018

Art Times: The Thing About Revivals

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

Wendy Caster

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Good for Otto

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Bunny (Toronto)

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

Maev Beaty as Sorrel in Bunny

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

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

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Jerry Springer: The Opera

[spoilers throughout]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 23, 2018

Jerry Springer: The Opera

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cottagers and Indians (Toronto)

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Green Room 42 (Venue Review)

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

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

Photo: Madrid Kuser

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

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Dark Heart (Toronto)

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

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

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

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