Monday, September 24, 2018

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

Monday, September 17, 2018

Playing to the Gods (Book Review)

In the acknowledgements at the end of Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever, author Peter Rader explains that he (with a coauthor) had originally wrote about this rivalry as a screenplay, but "Subsequently, to deepen the narrative, I decided to explore the subject in book form." Just one problem: the deepened narrative he has provided is based on little but his imagination. Yes, the book has notes, but they focus only on quotations from newspapers or other books. When it comes to Rader's depiction of scenes, dialogue, and emotions, there are no notes at all.

For example, from page 107: "They will adore you, insisted Tanczer; the actress remained unconvinced." No notes. Or page 151, "Sarah was outraged at how easily critics bought into Eleonora's 'saint' mystique." No notes.  Page 214: "It was high time, grumbled Sarah, upon learning she was to receive France's highest accolade." No notes.

This may seem like nitpicking, since each little example doesn't matter that much. But the book is full of them, including entire scenes; they go from the first sentence ("Cesar Ritz checked his pocket watch as the lavish carriage rolled into the roundabout") to the last paragraph ("Both actresses would have agreed with Stanislavski's greatest instructions"). They morph the book from biography to historical novel.

Rader is also inconsistent. For example, in the beginning of the book he makes much of the fact that Eleonora Duse and her family were traveling performers who lived from town to town with no guarantee of a roof over their heads. Then, he writes that Eleonora's mother "invited [a] distraught woman into the cottage where they lived." Where did this cottage come from? Were the Duses doing better? How was the cottage paid for? Again, while this one example is not the end of the world, there are so many that the book becomes completely unreliable.

To be honest, if I was not reviewing this book, I wouldn't have finished it. (Also to be honest, it has gotten some good reviews, including its Kirkus review.) But it did accomplish one thing for me: it made me want to read more reliable books about these two incredible actresses.

Wendy Caster
(press copy)

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Marin Mazzie: 1960-2018

It was 1995. I was visiting from California and only had time for two shows. One, of course, had to be the new Sondheim, Passion. I had heard raves about Donna Murphy, who was, of course, rave-worthy, but I was really blown away by the blonde actress playing Clara. Her voice was gorgeous, every note a gift. Her acting was superb. And she was incredibly attractive as well. After the show I pulled out the program and saw that her name was Marin Mazzie.

It turned out that she could do anything. Ragtime. Kiss Me, Kate. Man of La Mancha. Spamalot. ENRON. Carrie. A Streetcar Named Desire (one of the best Blanches I've ever seen). Next to Normal. The King and I.

Marin's career was unusual in that, while she originated roles, she also worked as a replacement. There was a time (before Bernadette Peters took over A Little Night Music from Catherine Zeta-Jones) that going in as a replacement was seen as "less than," but Marin made the roles her own, and she was never less than  anyone (and in some cases, she was actually more than).

Marin Mazzie and Daniel Dae Kim.
Photo: Paul Kolnik

Marin was a superb interpreter of the American Songbook. She made the songs her own, and she made them new. Her "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" is my favorite version ever.

Marin was also a hero. Her response to her ovarian cancer was extraordinary; she became an activist for early diagnosis and never let her ill health stand in the way of making a difference. Her husband Jason Danieley told a story about her being horribly sick, yet dragging herself out of bed to go to speak before congress!

While Marin's activism was amazing, she was also a hero for the simple decision not to wear a wig or a schmatta when she lost her hair to cancer treatment. When I lost my own hair to chemo, I was far more comfortable going into the world than I would have been without her example. Hell, if someone as glamorous as she was could go bald, who was I to complain?

I wish I were half as good a writer as she was a performer. Then I would be able to do her justice. I'll leave it at this: the world was a much better place when Marin was in it.

Wendy Caster

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Heartbreak House

George Bernard Shaw's play Heartbreak House has been compared to the works of Chekhov. He himself hinted at the connection via the play's subtitle:  A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes. It is apt that the Gingold Theatrical Group's production of Heartbreak House does not use this subtitle, since David Staller has directed it in the manner of Oscar Wilde rather than Anton Chekhov. 

This is, I think, a legitimate interpretation in some ways. Shaw certainly included some distinctly Wildean lines, such as "The natural term of the affection of the human animal for its offspring is six years" and "[He] has been fighting for freedom in his quiet way ever since. That's why he is so poor." The plot too has some farcical twists and turns that lend themselves to a Wilde idea. [spoilers] A daughter comes homes after years away; her father doesn't recognize her; a young woman wants to marry a man for his money, but he doesn't have any; she falls in love with a different, charming man who turns out to be her hostess's husband; the hostess's father mistakes a current guest for someone he knew decades ago, who obligingly shows up in act II; and so on. [end of spoilers]

Karen Ziemba, Alison Fraser, Tom Hewitt
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Unfortunately, this approach makes the show thin and silly, with little in the way of guts or hearts. By focusing on the Wildean aspects, Staller ignores the Shavian/Chekhovian aspects that could/would add up to a stinging critique of humans, our inability to stay out of war, and the idiocy of our romantic lives. Staller, who also adapted the script for this production, tries to reinflate the play by presenting it as a play within a play being performed by people in a WWII bomb shelter. Since the performers are at risk of being killed at any second, the play gains texture and a touch of suspense, but Staller does little with them. (I must admit, however, that I did have tears in my eyes when the show ended.)

The performers are uneven and seem to be in different plays--none of which is necessarily Heartbreak House. Alison Fraser is wonderful as Lady Utterword, spewing out her dialogue in an endless nasal torrent that would be perfect for a Wilde play. How well her performance fits this play is an open question, but I loved it. Jeff Hiller, in four roles, also overacts his head off; his accents are uneven, his line readings are sometimes odd, he too is probably in the wrong play, but damn, he's fun. The rest of the performers give less farcical performances, with more or less success. 

The set design, by Brian Prather, is handsome. The costumes are uneven; for example, Fraser's dresses are perfect for her character, while Karen Ziemba's dress in the first act is both awful and distracting. The other production values are solid.

It seems churlish to complain, since I did have a good time, but I don't feel that I saw Heartbreak House. Instead, it was a professional, polished simulacrum.

Wendy Caster
(third row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 75

Friday, August 31, 2018

Days to Come

Is any theatre company in New York more consistently satisfying than The Mint? IMHO, the answer is a great big "No!"

Larry Bull, Janie Brookshire, Ted Deasy, and Mary Bacon
Photo: Todd Cerveris
(The set is much better-looking in person than this picture shows)

Here's what you (nearly always) get when you go to The Mint:
  • An unsung play from decades ago that is at worst interesting and at best flat-out wonderful.
  • A playwright who is smart, insightful, compassionate, and, usually, forgotten. 
  • Direction that is clear, straightforward, smooth, and completely in service to the play.
  • A cast that ranges from good to extraordinary.
  • A set you'd like to move into.
  • Costumes that are often beautiful and usually just right for the character.
  • Excellent lighting, sound, props, and fights.
  • A satisfying evening.
The current show, Days to Come, is by Lillian Hellman, who is not forgotten, but the play mostly is. I usually think of Hellman's work as tightly plotted and smoothly structured; Days to Come is neither. (It was her second play to be produced, and it closed after seven performances.)

Hellman herself diagnosed the problem with the play: "I wanted to say too much." Indeed, while the plot focuses on how a strike at a brush-making firm affects the small town where it occurs, the show also has a lot to say about relationships, money, family secrets, how to live a worthwhile life, the underlying reality in friendships between people of different classes, violence, sexual mores, and what does or doesn't make a woman's life full.

The result is somehow both too flabby and too thin, but still compelling. Hellman's point of view is not simple, and it is that complexity that makes the play worthwhile. 

The current production has all the strengths listed in the bullet-point list above, but I'd like to give shout-outs to Jane Shaw's sound design, which makes real the world outside the play, and to fight director Rod Kinter and stage managers Jeff Meyers and Kristi Hess, who provide some really nice effects. 

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, fifth row)
Show-Score Score: 85

Cast: Mary Bacon, Janie Brookshire, Larry Bull, Chris Henry Coffey, Dan Daily, Ted Deasy, Roderick Hill, Betsy Hogg, Kim Martin-Cotten, Geoffrey Allen Murphy, and Evan Zes. Sets, Harry Feiner; costumes, Andrea Varga; lights, Christian DeAngelis; sound, Jane Shaw; props, Joshua Yocom; fight director, Rod Kinter; dialects and dramaturgy, Amy Stoller; casting, Stephanie Klapper, CSA; production stage manager, Jeff Meyers; stage manager, Kristi Hess; illustration, Stefano Imbert; graphics, Hey Jude Design, Inc.; press, David Gersten & Associates.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Band's Visit

Last night I went to see The Band's Visit for the second time, with five other people. One had seen it before, the other four hadn't. When the show was over, we were all glowing.

We sat in the last row, in the $49 seats. We had some binoculars with us, but we only used them occasionally. Sitting in the last row was just fine, which is a tribute both to the structure of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and to David Cromer's quietly intense direction. The Band's Visit happens at a whisper, but it is a whisper that fills the theatre with emotion and beauty. (My niece said that the show was "like a poem," which I think is a great comment.)

One of my all-time favorite experiences is seeing something new and wonderful in the theatre, and The Band's Visit is both. It's a quiet show. It has no plot. It's a theatrical iceberg: 80% of its content is below the surface. The score is lovely, the lyrics by turns funny or moving or both. The performances are exactly right. The set is simple and thoroughly serves the show. The band's "Sergeant Pepper's uniforms" are perfect.

I'm so glad that the show won so many Tonys, all of which were completely deserved. It would have been unsurprising for the Tony voters to go for flash rather than quiet, but I guess The Band's Visit left them glowing as well.

Wendy Caster
($49 seats, last row)
Show-Score Score: 99

Friday, August 17, 2018


I get invited to a lot of shows, and it's not always easy to decide which ones to see. Often I rely on a familiar name: if person A is directing or person B is acting or person C wrote the music, I know I'm likely to enjoy their contribution, at least. But then there are the shows that have no familiar names. In those cases, I make decisions sometimes almost at random, knowing I'm taking a chance.

Blair Medina and Alec Irion
Photo: Michael Kushner

So I took a chance on Heist! for the simple reason that I love heists. Oh, and the theatre is walking distance from my home. I wasn't optimistic, but I was open to having a good time.

And, I'm glad to say, I had a very good time. Heist! is uneven and needs some polishing, but the basics are there: decent plot, some good songs, a strong sense of what is being spoofed. And this particular production has two huge pluses: director James Will McBride and choreographer Jenna Haimes. McBride keeps the piece moving along at a perfect clip and helps his performers find that silly-musical-comedy sweet spot of overacting just the right amount. Haimes manages to make excellent original choreography out of cliche steps, with some fun quoting of famous shows (I caught Chicago and A Chorus Line, but I suspect there are more).