Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Silver Tassie

Image: Robert Day

Se├ín O’Casey once described his play The Silver Tassie (1927-28) as “a generous handful of stones, aimed indiscriminately, with the aim of breaking a few windows.” I love this description, which fits the Druid Theatre Company’s gorgeous production of the piece (running through July 31 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College), not only because it nails the play’s scattershot approach to character, narrative, and plot, but also because it so clearly evokes the Impressionist style in which the play was written. Less a straightforward drama about Irish men serving during World War I, the play is sort of an absurdist-Brechtian-Beckettian-vaudvillian-music hall hodgepodge. Significant scenes take place completely off-stage while characters onstage chat about religion, domesticity, food, and politics; characters appear where they shouldn’t, or suddenly stop doing what one expects of them for no clear reason; characters frequently dance, clown, burst into song, find or lose God at their convenience, and randomly begin to speechify woodenly; characters strike poses (Christ figures galore!) or fixate on props that are thunderingly obvious (like the cup of the title, which is celebrated, revered, sipped from, and inevitably crushed); characters quickly become as abstract and as slippery as the scenes in which they appear.

The problem here is not the production, which is first-rate. It’s the play, which certainly remains compelling throughout, but does not always work. The big picture O'Casey is working with is, after all, nothing new, even if the materials he used in creating it were relatively innovative: war is hell; we all know that. It has the power to crush the strong as well as the weak, to destroy relationships, to make mincemeat of the body and to annihilate the spirit. But the medium remains cool throughout: the reaction is intellectual, but always emotionally distant. At least for me, the play evokes the same reaction as looking at something by Monet: one appreciates the beauty of the thing, and is even occasionally struck breathless by the mastery of the art form, but is likely less moved to empathize, or laugh, or weep, as to distance oneself for further contemplation. This is a brilliant production, and I am happy to have seen it; yet in having seen it, I understand why The Silver Tassie is not nearly as well-known as O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock or The Plough and the Stars.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Jessica Delbridge and Allison Hirschlag
(Photo: Eli Sands)

In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare meets Beckett and a good time is had by all--except Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy, R&G are brought to the kingdom of Denmark at the order of the king and queen, who are concerned by Prince Hamlet's behavior. As they wait to speak to Hamlet, R&G try to suss out what is going on, play games to pass the time, are visited by The Player and his troupe of Tragedians, and ponder life, death, and other imponderables. This being a Stoppard play, there is word play and mathematical theory and tremendously funny set pieces.

Panicked Productions has chosen to present R&G Are Dead with an all-female cast. Explains director Glenn De Kler, "There are tons of talented and funny ladies out there [and] they wouldn’t ordinarily get a chance to sink their teeth into these great roles." The strong cast does indeed sink their teeth in, and their being women brings some interesting texture to the show. Although the characters are still referred to as male, there is a different meaning when a female Rosencrantz cries than when a male Rosencrantz cries. And the female Player's independence, command, and panache feel hard-won while a male Player can take these traits for granted.

More important than the cast's gender is their skills. Allison Hirschlag as Rosencrantz and Jessica Delbridge as Guildenstern are entertaining and touching. Whitney Kimball Long steals the show as The Player, as a good Player always does. The rest of the performers do well with multiple roles, and their acrobatics are great fun. I do wish the cast had been larger.

The show is well-directed by Glenn De Kler and movement director Chie Morita. De Kler and Morita make good use of the small space, using simple clever touches to provide visual variety and a sense of place; the scene at sea is so effective that I found myself swaying with the boat. In addition, virtually every line of dialogue is clear and comprehensible, something that one can no longer take for granted, as shown by the recent Arcadia on Broadway, where great swaths of dialogue went past like so much noise.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre only through July 29th. If you are a Stoppard fan in search of a solid, enjoyable production, get thee to 36th St.

(Press tix; first row.)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Death Takes a Holiday

Death Takes a Holiday is a lovely, old-fashioned musical, with an inviting score by Maury Yeston (which sounds somewhat like his Titanic). The frequently charming book by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone offers few surprises but many pleasures. The female lead, Jill Paice, disappointing in Chess, is sweet, pretty, and likeable here and sings beautifully. Julian Ovenden as Death is everything he needs to be. His joy at discovering sensations is endearing and touching, and he too sings beautifully. (However, it would behoove director Doug Hughes to move Ovenden upstage a bit, as watching him spit on the first row is quite distracting.)

The supporting cast includes the underutilized Linda Balgord, the delightful Alexandra Socha, the ever-reliable Michael Siberry, and the I-have-no-idea-why-people-keep-casting-him Matt Cavenaugh, whose voice is as harsh and nasal as ever. The direction is largely solid, though the blocking makes Death's first song invisible to much of the left-hand-side of the audience. Also, Hughes and Meehan allow some of the relationships and plot points to remain murky. I can't help but wonder what the late and much-missed Peter Stone would have done with the show had he lived; clearly, the man who wrote the brilliant book for 1776 was a master at lucid exposition. The set design by Derek McLane is attractive and enhances the mood from the gauzy white show curtain through the twinkling night ski--though a few more set pieces (missing due to budgetary concerns?) might have better differentiated the grotto from the bedroom.

Kudos to the Roundabout for putting this show in the charming Laura Pels theatre, where every seat is at least reasonably close to the stage and no ticket costs more than $86. (Yes, these days $86 is a ticket price worth commending. Sigh.) Kudos too to designer Scott McKowen for yet another wonderful, evocative poster.

[spoilers below]

Having never before seen any version of Death Takes a Holiday, I enjoyed watching the plot unfold. However, at the end, when Grazia chooses to die to remain with Death, I found it a cruel decision. Her parents have already lost a child; her friends will miss her terribly. But then it occurred to me that this sort of decision was made millions of times by real people in the days before telephones and easy international travel. When Hodel sings "Far From the Home I Love" in Fiddler, she too is leaving her loved ones forever--and she too is willing to die for the man she loves. Yet her decision to leave never struck me as cruel to her family, but just as terribly sad.

Also, do you suppose there is divorce in dead-people land? If not, I sure hope Grazia and Death remain besotted with one another forever. As in, FOREVER.

(Despite my lack of romance here, I cried at the end when Death took Grazia's hand and they died happily ever after.)

(tdf ticket, $30something, first row, last seat on audience left, preview performance)

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Be Story Free

I admit it. I’m a Steve Burns groupie. With three children under the age of four, “Blue’s Clues” gets plenty of airtime on our television. So curiosity to see Steve sans his sidekick dog led me downtown to the Kirk Wood Bromley play, Be Story Free, performed on June 30th and July 1st as part of Ice Cubes, a one-time companion series to the 18th annual Ice Factory Festival that features new theatrical work.

Unfortunately, Burns’ part as The Device, a mysterious accessory that promises the antidote to well…almost anything, relegates him to movie snippets and voiceovers so fans never see him physically onstage. In a sense the role, like his long-ago days on the children’s program, still has him presenting the audience with a puzzle, encouraging them to find answers—only this time in lieu of following Blue’s paw prints, there’s periodic cell phone calls received by the cast and filmed segments of Steve engaging in random activities, such as playing with a top hat, to dismantle for meaning.

There’s much to admire in Bromley’s writing (who is also the artistic director of Inverse Theater, which co-produces the show) with its Mamet-like lyricism, featuring verbal acrobatics that demand precise articulation by the show’s actors. For roughly two hours, the five-member BSF (Be Story Free) Brigade explains their leader’s theories through a combination of film (by Leah Schrager), speeches, group shares and scripted “Q&A” sessions with the audience. Like true acolytes, they gaze at videos of Dr. Jip Syuzhet with absolute devotedness as he showcases his ability to free participants from “primordial narrative infections.” Imagine the fervidness of a Moony meeting crossed with the awkward audience/actor engagement during a performance of Tina and Tony’s Wedding and you’ll get the idea of this multi-platform theatrical experience: part performance art, part interactive theater, part YouTube video.

Despite the original premise of the show, this voyeuristic view into the cult-like seminars of the fictional Dr. Syuzhet sometimes feels like an overly long “Saturday Night Live” sketch. The play seems relentless at some points, berating the audience with its in-your-face philosophy on embracing life by eliminating story: you wish that the BSFers nonsensical lectures and frequent “shares”—brief bits of storytelling (despite their abhorrence for it)—ended after the sharpness of the first act. Everything past that point seems redundant.

Burns’ soothing voice as the narrator of the filmed clips fits perfectly as he questions the followers on their beliefs, gently mocking them as he asks for their stories or utters such counterfeit profundity as, “your love of truth condemns you to fiction.” Besides Burns, videos also feature dancers moving in Martha Graham-esque motions, sometimes by themselves, sometimes over props such as a table. All of the footage serves as a deliberate distraction, a commercial of sorts between the rants of the devoted, as Burns’ disembodied voice talks about an ultimate and unknown device with unlimited potential. What all of this means isn’t always clear, but it makes for an interesting conversation post-theater.

Often, the cast sits in the front row of the audience, almost part of the crowd, as they wait for their turns onstage. Sometimes this adds to the suffocating effect of attending an assembly geared to such constant persuasion—there’s no escape from the frenetic energy that surrounds you. However, it also allows you to see actors fall out of character occasionally as they yawn, drink a beer, or consult notes. Especially good here is Catherine McNelis, whose elastic face twists in anger as she recounts a tale, cursing a blue streak, then easily transforms later to a rapt, engaged follower.

The Ice Factory Festival, produced by Ohio Theater (under the banner Ohio Interrupted@3LD) runs from June 22 - July 30, 2011 at the 3LD Art & Technology Center. Ice Cubes performances are on Thursdays and Fridays. Upcoming shows includes: The Love Letter You’ve Been Meaning to Write New York (7/7, 7/8), Dead People (7/14, 7/15), Americans n’ Indians (7/21, 7/22), Will Sing (7/28, 7/29).

(Press ticket, front row)

Monday, July 04, 2011

A Streetcar Named Desire

Jessica Hecht
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Jessica Hecht has everything an actress could need to be a brilliant Blanche DuBois: talent, sensitivity, compassion, and intelligence. That's why her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire at Williamstown is so puzzling. To say that it is monochromatic doesn't sufficiently describe its lack of luster. This Blanche is sullen, one-note, and frequently unintelligible. This Blanche can barely be bothered to manipulate Stanley or fight for her life.

Not that Sam Rockwell as Stanley is any better. There's nothing theoretically wrong with having a bantam-weight Stanley. I can imagine James Cagney in the role with no problem. But Rockwell's performance is also monochromatic and sullen, and the only way his Stanley could get colored lights going would be by plugging in a Christmas tree. By the time Stanley is trying to stop the large, robust Mitch (nicely played by David Stewart Sherman) from going into the room where Blanche is, any suspension of disbelief is long gone, and it's hard not to laugh at the little guy supposedly restraining the big one.

While it can be difficult to tell from the audience where the director's responsibility ends and the actors' begins, it seems likely that director David Cromer supported, if not requested, these desultory performances. Cromer's aim seems to have been to get in the way of the show as much as possible, from lighting scenes with a single lightbulb, to setting up seats so that each section of the audience is forced to miss something important, to allowing a character to garble an entire joke with a cigarette in his mouth, to carefully casting the four main characters (the fourth, Ana Reeder as Stella, brought little to the table) so that no one has chemistry with anyone else.

I love Streetcar. I have seen six different productions. If this had been my first one, I wouldn't even know that it's a good play.

($35 including fee, not including cost of trip to Williamstown; sat on stage)