Sunday, March 25, 2012

Court-Martial at Fort Devens

Court-Martial at Fort Devens, by Jeffrey Sweet, tells the true story of a group of African-American women who joined the women's army corps during World War II to be trained as medical assistants, only to be assigned to washing floors and toilets due to a white officer;s racism. The women went on strike; most returned to work when ordered. Two, however, decided to take their chances with a court-martial. (I don't know how much theatrical liberty Sweet took with the story; I do know that the version he tells is convincing.)

Nambi E. Kelley
Photo: Gerry Goodstein
Sweet tells the story efficiently and cleanly, ably juggling the events and characters. Mary Beth Easley keeps the machine of the play moving smoothly, provides focus where focus should be, and guides the performers into an impressive ensemble.

The play shows us many brands of heroism. Ginny (beautifully played by Nambi E. Kelley) is a no-nonsense women who cannot back down from what she believes. She's genuinely frightened but moves forward anyway. In contrast, Johnnie Mae (the charming Eboni Witcher) doesn't frighten easily--Ginny describes her as someone who would jump into a pool without checking if there's any water--but she is fully aware of the risk she is taking. The two female lieutenants, Lawson, white (Emma O'Donnell), and Stoney, black (Gillian Glasco), display the heroism of self-control, of putting up with mistreatment now to achieve important goals later. Both O'Donnell and Glasco are superb, subtly revealing the three-dimensional women beneath the discipline and repressed anger.

Watching Court-Martial at Fort Devens is frequently painful and infuriating, and it stays with you. Since seeing it, I've been thinking about the myth of post-racial America. I've been thinking of how far we've come, with a largely well-integrated military. I've been thinking of how far we still have to go, with the Trayvon Martin tragedy being only the most recent proof that America is far from post-racial. I've been thinking of my parent's neighbor, who is incensed at the very idea of a black president. I've been thinking about who the heroes are, and who the villains.

Court-Martial at Fort Devens tells an important story, and the pain of watching it is well-mitigated by the pleasure of the writing, direction, and performances. It's only running through April 1st. If you are interested in serious theatre, it's a must-see.

(press ticket; first row)

The Maids

Ana Reeder, Jeanine Serralles
Photo: Carol Rosegg

In Jean Genet's intense one-act, The Maids, Claire and Solange are in service to a frivolous woman who treats them with a false bonhomie; she believes she is a generous and kind mistress, but she is self-centered and unaware they exist outside of her needs. The sisters express their repressed intelligence, energy, imagination, and anger in sadomasochistic play in which one sister plays "Madame" and the other her servant. The Maids is loosely based on a true story, and in response to the accusation that maids "never spoke like that," Genet said, "If one put one's ear on their heart, they would hear that, more or less. One must know how to hear what is not articulated." However, just as we don't really hear the ocean when we put a shell up to our ears, Genet didn't really hear the maids. What he did hear, I suspect, were his own thoughts and desires, which The Maid expresses with a clarity both compelling and fevered.

In the Red Bull production, the three-woman cast consists of Jeanine Serralles and Ana Reeder as the sisters and J. Smith-Cameron as Madame. All three are vivid and excellent. Dane Laffrey's fine set is boxed in, with two-foot-high walls and audience on all four sides. Director Jesse Berger has the women use the space as a combination of jail cell and boxing ring, and the viewers end up as voyeurs as much as theatre-goers.

Genet also said, "I go to the theatre in order to see myself, onstage . . . such as I wouldn't know--or dare--see or dream myself, and yet such as I know I am." In The Maids, we see a version of him, and it is an intense, disturbing, and often fascinating ninety-minute view.

(press ticket, first row, quotes from program)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Lady from Dubuque

There's much to appreciate about the message at the muscular heart of The Lady from Dubuque, particularly David Esbjornson's fluid staging, the ease of which only serves to cast the two visitors with more menace. (Ever seen the film Funny Games? It's a bit like that, in that the calm veneer simultaneously masks and reveals the horror.) And Signature Theatre's revival boasts a terrific ensemble: not just the deeply wounded Hayden, utterly relaxed Alexander, scene-stealing James, and mighty Robins (who one can easily imagine doing true justice to Wit), but also Thomas Jay Ryan and Catherine Curtin as an annoyingly meddlesome couple. (It's much harder to get a read on C. J. Wilson's brutish Edgar and his more-than-a-floozy girlfriend, played by Tricia Paoluccio.) But much of the show's second act revolves around blind hysterics and an unfocused script that makes the first act's fourth-wall-breaking winks seem out of place. Albee notes that he lets the characters speak; perhaps he should have stepped in as an editor, then.

[Read on]

My Occasion of Sin

(Caveat: at the performance I saw, not one, but two, women crumpled plastic bags on and off for the whole 100 minutes. They were really annoying, and they made it impossible to concentrate fully. So take this review with however many grains of salt you consider appropriate.)

  Rosebud Baker, Scott RobertsonPhoto: Ben Hider
In Monica Bauer's well-meaning but not-quite-successful play, My Occasion of Sin, it's 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska. George Hollewinski, a Polish musician and music teacher, hires Luigi Wells, an African-American drummer, to teach at his store. George's wife Helen is glad that George is finally acknowledging the existence of rock and roll, but wary of Luigi. Mary, a young student of George's, is thrilled to put down the accordian and pick up the drum sticks, cheerfully eager to disprove Luigi's belief that drums are not for girls. The four people's needs, desires, assumptions, and even innocence rub raggedly together, sending up dangerous sparks in a world about to explode.

The play also has a fifth character, Vivian, an African-American girl in her early teens who doesn't interact with the others, speaking to the audience directly.

Using actual events and people as her inspiration, Bauer works hard to present a complex situation where good people can unknowingly be bad and even people who strive to be better can end up destroying what they want to build. The problem is that her characters are not real enough to support this level of ambition. The wife Helen, in particular, consists of traits that never cohere into a breathing person (it doesn't help that actress Janice Hall has not found a way to give her depth). It's also impossible to accept that Mary could be as completely innocent/oblivious as she is--though she is in other ways a wonderful character, beautifully acted by Rosebud Baker. George (Scott Robertson) and Luigi (Royce Johnson) are more believable; Bauer has given them more depth, and the actors do much to bring them to life.

And then there's Vivian, who exists unmoored in the play. She comes onstage, she talks, she leaves. On, talk, off. On, talk, off. We eventually find out who she is and where she fits in, but for most of the play, her lack of grounding is disturbing. However, Danielle Thompson's performance is amazing; she develops Vivian fully, tells stories well, and brings everyone she talks about to life.

Director Hill unfortunately lets the pacing lag, particularly between scenes; after the fifth or sixth scene change, the musical intervals become irksome. Hill's blocking is also problematic; in certain scenes, particularly between George and Helen, the characters seem unanchored, with no physical reality. The set, by Roman Tatarowicz, is attractive, but may contribute to the lack of context. On the other hand, the projections, by Kevin R. Frech, work well, adding a sense of the bigger issues and concerns.

I feel a bit churlish in this review; there is good work in this show, and a great deal of talent. But the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

(press ticket, sixth row on the aisle)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

That Beautiful Laugh

I think I've figured out why some people are afraid of clowns: it's because they're kids who have never grown up. It can be a little frightening to see adults so recklessly free, so literally lost in their own world; what is excusable in children as an exploratory, exhilarating phase is, all grown up, is almost menacingly silly. (Inane is only a letter removed from insane.) This is worth noting not because Orlando Pabotoy's clown show, That Beautiful Laugh, nor his talented performers, are bad -- they are quite good! -- but because the looseness of the affair provokes a certain tension, even at La MaMa: they might do anything to get a laugh!

Over the course of slightly more than an hour, we'll join the brave yet comparatively incompetent Flan (Alan Tudyk), shy yet physically dominant Ian (Carlton Ward), and deliberate yet excitable Darla Waffles Something (Julia Ogilvie) as they show off their comic repertoire to an unborn egg, hoping to make it fly, either through physical or levit(y)ational means. There's a dance with stilts, and a creepy shadow-puppet song about the "Scary City," plus a "rule of threes" series of performances that include Flan's cryptic non-act (that may actually be fairly impressive); Darla's nonsensical "feats," like attempting to yo-yo with one's mouth; and Ian's "DAHN-gerous" arsenal of the everyday: a clothes hangar, plastic bag, and hula hoop -- kids, do not try this at home!

[Read on]

Monday, March 19, 2012


Seth Rudetsky is arguably one of the most talented people in New York and definitely one of the funniest. His latest production is Disaster!, co-written with Jack Plotnick, and it is over two hours of comic joy.

Seth Rudetsky
The premise is simple: Disaster! is a musical spoof of disaster films, using songs from the 1970s. It features a lot of the jokes you might predict, but with twists that make them funnier, plus jokes and situations and visuals that are surprising and wonderful. Under Denis Jones's insanely creative direction, the small space bursts with action and fun and inspired silliness. And the helicopter rescue is a delight.

Impressively, the songs aren't shoehorned in. As a matter of fact, one or two are weaved in so well that they seem written for the show. As just one example, Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" becomes an effective opening number with a surprising range of interpretations.

And the songs are beautifully sung by the amazing cast. An extra bonus is that the performers enunciate like the musical theatre pros they are. Last night was the first time I ever understood all the words to "Alone Again, Naturally" and "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight."

The charming Zak Resnick plays the lead, a sexually successful waiter who is secretly nursing a broken heart. Carrie Manolakos is his staunchly feminst ex-fiancee; she is woman, hear her roar. Rudetsky plays the dour scientist, and he's perfect in the role, mining the humor and springing out a long and surprising high note when needed. Lacretta Nicole is hysterical as the down-on-her-luck diva; Felicia Finley is amazing as the almost-as-dumb-as-she-seems pop singer; Anika Larsen shines as the nun-slash-compulsive-gambler; and Annie Golden is delightful and impressive, as Annie Golden always is. Others in the wonderful cast include Paul Castree, Kevin Loreque, Clif Thorn, Saum Eskandani, Clark Oliver (great fun as twins), Tom Riis Farrell, Jennifer Know, Linsay Nicole Chambers (those of you who know her from Submissions Only will get an extra kick out of seeing her actually smile), and Sherz Aletaha.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, Disaster! has only one more performance: March 25th at 9:00 at the Triad. Catch it if you possibly can!

And, to the producer I was chatting with yesterday, yes, Disaster! could have a larger audience. And it should!

(reviewer ticket; audience left, five-ish rows-ish from stage)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter (book review)

In 1975, Antonia Fraser, biographer of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry VIII's six wives, and Harold Pinter, renowned playwright, fell madly in love, pretty much at first sight. Over the next decade or so, they disentangled themselves from their respective spouses and eventually married. They remained besotted with each other until the day Pinter died, some 33 years later.

Fraser's memoir of her time with Pinter is based on her diaries, and it includes some surprising glimpses into his complicated psyche, along with some intriguing anecdotes about life in the theatre. However, it is haphazardly put together, with no footnotes, index, bios, or cast of characters. People show up with little intro, and disappear with little notice. The new writing she has added to tie the diary entries together is interesting but insufficient.

I am a major fan of Fraser's. I think her bios are superb. But this collection of memories is the sort of book one should self-publish and share with loved ones. Selling it at $28.95 a pop is ridiculous.

(library book)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Venus in Fur

Hot damn; I still love Nina Arianda's performance as much as when I first encountered Venus in Fur two years ago at CSC, but unfortunately, I've yet to see anyone who could match up to her -- even as a submissive! At the performance I caught, Arianda's Vanda was up against Hugh Dancy's understudy, Mark Alhadeff, who can't handle a live wire like Arianda. While her wattage fluctuates throughout the night, his remains static; only occasionally is there enough friction to actually spark some tension between the two. When he says that "There can be nothing more sensuous than pain, nothing more pleasurable than degradation," they're just words, but when she quips that "You don't have to tell me about sadomasochism, I'm in the theater," every word lands a punch. And while it's true that she's meant to be the more extroverted, energetic of the two, from the moment she runs into the theater with an umbrella, squealing her apologies and stripping to her lingerie, Alhadeff must do more than play a lethargic opposite; at some point, mustn't he feel the thrill that the audience receives from Arianda's deft command? As she often instructs, he must be appear ambiguous, not ambivalent. 

(Press; twelfth row, left side)

The Maids

Forget Venus in Fur; the real power play walking the boards this year is Red Bull's revival of Jean Genet's savage 1947 drama, The Maids. Claire (Jeanine Serralles) and Solange (Ana Reeder) are sisters in the employ of Madame (J. Smith-Cameron), social prisoners who give their lives meaning by acting out, each night, a spiteful exaggeration of their oblivious mistress, all so that the other sister may pretend to kill her. Penned in by propriety, however, they are unable to exact their true revenge, and each time it seems that they may at last free themselves -- if only in a dream -- the alarm rings, snapping them back to their grim reality.

[Read on]

(press ticket, East Entry)

Painting Churches

Kathleen Chalfant, John Cunningham
(photo: Carol Rosegg)
It's hard to know how to respond to Tina Howe's 1984 Pulitzer-Prize-nominated play Painting Churches in 2012. It's not the play's fault that the past three decades of theatre have been stuffed full of adult children coming home and fighting with their parents. (Recent example: Other Desert Cities, which resembles Painting Churches in some significant ways, right down to the petulant daughter who learns, gasp, that her parents aren't quite what she thinks.)

Painting Churches's plot is simple and familiar: artistic, unappreciated adult child visits. Fights are fought; old wounds are reopened; a form of reconciliation occurs.

To work to full advantage, Painting Churches requires a balanced triangle, with mother, father, and child having strengths and flaws, legitimate grudges and sympathetic blind spots. In this production, however, due to the casting and awkward direction by Carl Forsman, the parents come across as difficult but likeable while the daughter comes across as a loud, overgrown, whining baby.

John Cunningham does nicely as the father sinking into dementia, but he also has the most consistent--and most consistently sympathetic--character. Kathleen Chalfant does well with the quiet moments but seems less comfortable being "quirky." Both Cunningham and Chalfant mostly come across as real people, but Kate Turnball, in the least sympathetic role, declaims and emotes and suffers and acts. Forsman has done her no favors in allowing her to (or asking her to?) completely unbalance the triangle. In addition, the threesome is not physically convincing as a family.

The set is handsome. The costumes are effective. The lighting is odd (but I think they were having tech troubles the night I went). The musical choices are a bit heavy-handed.

And the title is flatout odd. The family's last name is Church, and the daughter, an artist, wants to paint her parents. Painting Churches. Get it? But why?

(press ticket; fourth row on the aisle)

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

An Iliad

The Poet is exhausted, and why shouldn't he be? He has been telling tales of man's inhumanity to man for years, maybe centuries. If a poet can have post-traumatic stress disorder, he does. Or perhaps it would be better termed intra-traumatic stress disorder, since the trauma never ends. He's a bard of war, and there has always been a war and it seems there will always be a war. And each time he tells his stories, he relives them, poetic flashbacks that break his heart and stir his blood, even though he knows that rage is a disease.

He also knows that we have heard many tales of war--so many, in fact, that we have probably distanced ourselves from the horror. He cuts through the distance. He tells us that the men at Troy are not from Coronea, Haleartus, Plataea, and Lower Thebes, but rather
. . . from every small town in Ohio, from farmlands, from fishing villages…the boys of Nebraska and South Dakota …the twangy boys of Memphis…the boys of San Diego, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Antelope Valley…You can imagine, you can imagine, you know, um…there are soldiers from Kansas. There are soldiers from Lawrence, Kansas. There are soldiers from Springfield, Illinois. Evanston, Illinois; Chicago, Illinois; Buffalo, New York; Cooperstown, New York; Brooklyn; Queens; Staten Island; uh, the Bronx; South Bronx.
And he asks us, "Do you see?" Because he wants very much for us to see, to understand, so he won't have to keep singing of dead boys and mutilated bodies and rape and infants with bashed skulls. Again, he reminds us:
. . . and uhhh the battlefield was just littered with bodies and when you look at it you think, “Oh, well these are a bunch of bodies” but they’re not just bodies cuz this is this is Jamie and this is Matthew and this is Brennan and this is Paul, this is Scottie he was 19, he was 21, he was 18, Brennan was meant to go to Oxford – he had gotten a scholarship because of his writing – his father was a postman he would have been the first child in his whole family ever to go to University -- but he didn’t..
And again he asks, "Do you see?"

"Every time I sing this song," he says, "I hope it’s the last time." But he's not really hopeful. There have been too many wars, too much destruction, too many cases of rage poisoning. Too many people poisoned by pride as well. Too many people in too deep to pull back.

Yes, The Poet doesn't want to be here. He doesn't want to tell the story again. His memory is going. He's profoundly burnt out. But he's a poet and an old pro, and even while he wants to teach us, shock us, he also wants to enthrall us. And he does.

Director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare have done a magnificent job streamlining The Iliad (based on Robert Fagles's translation) and making it speak to the 21st century. It's a bit too long, and it can be hard to keep track of who's on whose side and why, but these are small complaints in light of the brilliance of what they've accomplished.

And, of course, it takes a village to raise a one-man show. Director Lisa Peterson, bassist Brian Ellingsen, scenic designer Rachel Hauck, costume designer Marina Draghici, lighting designer Scott Zielinski, and composer-sound designer Mark Bennett all contribute enormously.

So now we get down to the performers alternating as The Poet: Denis O'Hare and Stephen Spinella. Both are excellent; both give performances of olympian stamina and memory. But Denis O'Hare brings more depth to the story. Spinella comes across as an actor who wants to be loved and wants to impress us. O'Hare comes across as The Poet, burned out, heartbroken, wanting only to make us see.

(press ticket, third row center)

Hurt Village

I don't doubt the accuracy of the picture Katori Hall paints of the former Memphis project she's titled her play Hurt Village after. Though many of her characters come across as stereotypes, I don't believe them any less: there's a reason stereotypes exist, whether that's fair or not, and the ensemble embodies them well. But there's a reason theater is a different medium than photography or painting: it's a three-dimensional, living art form, and must do more than simply show a moment in time. It must breathe life into its characters long enough for us to care about them, not just their social circumstances, otherwise it's just a rawer sort of propaganda. It's a little telling that I felt more uncomfortable at the talk-back following Hurt Village than I did during the production itself -- uncomfortable with how shocked the audience was that parts of America look and sound like this. (In that sense, however, Hurt Village is a success.)

But while Hurt Village may have achieved its goal to shock people -- a shallow goal, if you ask me (look at the difference between the gruel of Thomas Bradshaw and the manna of Young Jean Lee) -- it misses out on opportunities to nurture empathy and provoke outrage. The script jumps around far too much, settling on all of the things that it is not rather than any one thing that it is: it is not a coming-of-age story for Cookie (Joaquina Kalukango), a thirteen-year-old girl who has said fuck the village and decided to raise herself; it is not a tale of the neglected soldier Buggy (Corey Hawkins), whose dishonorable discharge after ten years of service has all but forced him to once again start dealing drugs with his buddy Cornbread (Nicholas Christopher); it is not about the inadequacies of the welfare state, in which Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins) discovers that despite the government's choice to evict her from a one-bedroom project where she works night shifts and lives with her unemployed daughter-in-law Crank (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and granddaughter Cookie, she makes roughly $400 too much to qualify for Section 8 housing, and therefore may end up on the street. There's no real resolution or development to any of these characters or situations, just an emphasis (well-enhanced by set designer David Gallo and the raw direction of Patricia McGregor) on how awful all of this is.

[Read on]

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Judy Kuhn at Feinstein's

This is a golden age of musical leading ladies. Donna Murphy. Audra McDonald. Marin Mazzie. Tonya Pinkins. Christine Ebersole.  Bebe Neuwirth. Laura Benanti. Patti LuPone. Victoria Clark. Kelli O'Hara. Alice Ripley. Kristin Chenoweth. To name a few!

Although she hasn't had their careers or received similar amounts of attention, Judy Kuhn belongs on that list. Her voice is splendid and her acting is subtle and smart. And in her cabaret act, currently at Feinstein's, her talent soars. You want gorgeous singing? Listen to Kuhn's versions of Sondheim's "Happiness" and "In Buddy's Eyes" or her sinuous take on Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love." You want heartfelt, complex acting? Watch Kuhn provide a woman's entire being in Billy Barnes's "Something Cool" and a heartbreaking demonstration of, well, heartbreak in Randy Newman's "Losing You." How about sexy fun? Try Kuhn's delightful takes on "I Love the Way You're Breaking My Heart" (Louis Alter and Milton Drake) or Oscar Brown Jr.'s "Forbidden Fruit."

And what about her range? She's comfortable, excellent, in pop, jazz, Broadway, folk, American Songbook, art songs, novelty songs. You name it, she can sing it and express it and live it.

Kuhn is also smart enough to work with a truly amazing band. Percussionist Greg Joseph, playing cajon and djembe rather than a traditional drum kit, does a remarkable job of providing intricate, enticing rhythms that are both necessary and subtle. Peter Sachon's cello playing adds emotional depth and smooth radiance. Musical director Dan Lipton on the piano has a sure hand (sure hands, I suppose) in both his elegant playing and his impeccable direction. Any of these musicians would be a treat as a soloist; making up a seamless foursome with Kuhn, they are even greater than the sum of their very impressive parts.

After the show, I chatted with a couple at the next table. They said that they were from Atlanta and that New Yorkers are incredibly fortunate to be able to go to such high-quality performances. Who could argue?

(By the way, Feinstein's is working to be more accessible, and Kuhn's shows have $30 non-premium tickets--which are really more like $40 tickets with the insane fees and taxes--with a $25 minimum.)

(Press tickets, extreme audience right)

Friday, March 02, 2012


Even after a show runs for 2 months off-Broadway, you might expect it to take a little time to find its legs in the new space of a Broadway house. As of its third preview Once has found its wings. The cast is just as thrilling as it was at New York Theater Workshop, but they’ve made a small adjustment—well, not so small actually. Each has managed to retain the intimacy of their performances in a 200 seater while filling a space with five times the capacity.

There is no need to wait to see it. Disregard the opening date. This show has opened. And it is worth every penny.

I saw the show twice off-Broadway, from the first and third rows, and felt achingly close to the drama. From one of the worst seats in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, I was orbiting around the bubble surrounding this unexpected love story, which made it feel all the more dangerous, waiting for the bubble to burst.

Steve Kazee has an effortless charm that seems to only be contained by the amount of space around him. Cristin Milioti is simply perfect. I could single out every other member of the cast for excellence. So, to be completely fair, David Abeles, Will Connolly, Elizabeth A. Davis, David Patrick Kelly, Anne L. Nathan, Lucas Papaelias, Ripley Sobo, Andy Taylor, McKayla Twiggs (who was off the night I saw it, so I can’t vouch for her), Erikka Walsh, Paul Whitty, and J. Michael Zygo are excellent.

I attended with a friend who was seeing the show for the ninth time and another seeing it for the first. They both had the same reaction: barely containable joy.

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová have created a score that is a beautiful as it is moving. Enda Walsh adds a book that is a master class in simplicity. Finally, John Tiffany directs with surgical precision and a glass blower’s artistry, creating a gorgeous show that is exactly what it should be.