Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fun Home

Based on Alison Bechdel's brilliant graphic memoir, the equally brilliant musical Fun Home tells the story of Alison (depicted at three ages by three different performers); her father, a not-quite-closeted closet case; and her mother, a talented woman trying to make the best of a disappointing life.
Roberta Colindre, Alexandra Socha
Photo: Joan Marcus

The show is structured loosely around the memories of the adult Alison (Beth Malone), who is trying to comprehend her past and, in particular, her complicated father, with his charm, fits of anger, manic redecorating schemes, and frightening coldness. How is she supposed to process the fact that this cultured sensitive man, whom she loved deeply, seduced young--sometimes very young--males? On this level, the show is heartbreaking.

Fun Home is also the story of the writer as a young dyke, tracing Alison's coming of age, from her first butch stirrings to her first girlfriend. On this level, the show is sweet and funny.

Jeanine Tesori's music is as wonderful as Tesori's music always is: melodic, touching, beautiful, funny, revealing, and true to character. Lisa Kron's book and lyrics are excellent; she is equally comfortable with the vicissitudes of Alison's childhood and the clumsy joys of coming out. I would love to quote some of her lyrics here, but they would be spoiler-ish, and I don't want to hurt a second of this amazing show. The direction by Sam Gold is sensitive and smart. David Zinn's scenic and costume design are both apt and attractive.

The cast is nothing short of amazing, in particular Small Alison (the astounding Sydney Lucas) and Medium Alison (the staggeringly talented Alexandra Socha). Judy Kuhn invests the role of Alison's mother with quiet dignity and pain, and when she finally reveals herself through song, it's beautifully devastating. Michael Cerveris is hampered by a wig, glasses, and clothing that practically yell "child molester," and I think he is miscast in general. (In the workshop, Martin Moran brought so much more to the part in many ways, not least by being right for it.) Roberta Colindrez as Joan, Alison's first love, is exactly who she should be.

If you had told my 20-something self that in 2013 there would be a superb musical that included authentic lesbian characters having full, not-just-lesbian lives, I would have said, "I have to wait until 2013? Are you fucking kidding me?" But better late than never, and Fun Home would be a gift in any decade, in any century.

The whole idea of seeing yourself on stage is an interesting one. I have spent my life identifying with people of different sexes, races, ages, nationalities, and centuries. But to see people on stage who are genuinely like me is a rare thrill. And to see them in the best musical in years, a show that successfully mixes love and fear and disappointment and creepiness and reality, a show with a gorgeous score and excellent book and lyrics is well . . .  wow. Simply that: wow.

(first row; friend-of-a-member discounted ticket.)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Marie Antoinette

David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, directed by Rebecca Taichman, finds itself hip, snarky, insightful, and significant, but it's merely an olio of unoriginal ideas tossed together with a dash of attitude, a talking sheep, and cartoon characters. The main weakness of the play is Marie herself, who is presented variously as a victim but powerful, stupid but smart, and unloving yet loving--and whose evolution from two-dimensional mean girl to tragic figure is wholly unconvincing.  
Marin Ireland
Photo: Pavel Antonov
Just as Marie doesn't quite gel, neither does the play itself. There are some genuinely moving moments and some funny ones, but they don't add up. The play is by turns fey, overly dramatic, cutesy, and serious. When it tries at the end to elicit our sympathy, neither the play nor Marie has earned it.  

Perhaps Marie Antoinette is better understood as a riff than a play: "Here is what David Adjmi thinks about Marie Antoinette," it seems to say, "plus a few cheap jokes." (E.g., when someone tells Marie that she doesn't feed her children sweets, Marie answers, "O let them eat cake.")

Marin Ireland's fascinating portrayal of Marie does much to cover the play's weaknesses and maintain audience interest. She has a contemporary edge that makes her a seemingly odd choice for the role, but her determination, humor, and intelligence give life and occasional depth to each of the versions of Marie on display.

The stage at the Soho Rep is backed by a long white wall with the words Marie Antoinette, also in white, running its length. Perhaps this tabula rasa is an invitation to the audience to write its own version of Marie, which is ultimately all any of us can do.

(first row center; press ticket)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Landing

The Landing, John Kander and Greg Pierce's musical triptych at the Vineyard, is theoretically about love, loss, betrayal, fantasy, and death. And yet it is not about much of anything, really; all three mini-musicals lack conflict, tension, suspense, and compelling characterizations.

In Andra, a friendless boy bonds with a carpenter renovating the kitchen. When something finally actually happens, it's a feeble bad-news moment that carries no weight because, really, who cares?

In The Brick, a woman falls in love with, yes, a brick. Granted, it's a charming brick, played by the wry and always appealing David Hyde Pierce in 1920's gangster regalia, but The Brick is silly and pointless.

The Landing, in which a gay male couple adopt what seems to be the perfect son, has potential, but its sloppiness and lack of focus water down the impact it might have.

The 90-minute evening has one redeeming feature: in the last 10 or 15 minutes, David Hyde Pierce gives us a level of emotion, meaning, and complexity that the rest of the show completely lacks.

John Kander's music is often lovely, and the four-person band does well by it. Greg Pierce's lyrics are better than his book writing, but that's not saying much. Julia Murney and Paul Anthony Stewart are okay, and Frankie Seratch is not quite okay. Only David Hyde Pierce rises about the overall mediocrity.

(sixth row center; tdf ticket)

Julius Caesar

What does an all-female Julius Caesar teach us that we don't already know about Shakespeare's tale of betrayal, ambition, and male stupidity? Not that much, really--but it does make the things we know fresh and vivid. And, anyway, the Donmar production currently at St. Ann's Warehouse is so thrilling and intensely hard-hitting that it doesn't matter what gender the actors are; it just matters that they're so damn good.

On the other hand, how wonderful that the cast is all female. How wonderful that they get to strut their stuff and be tough and play complex challenging roles. I can't help but imagine that, after stays and corsets and bustles, acting in trousers is liberating, and the performances certainly feel liberated: vibrant, fervent, and deeply heartfelt.

So, it's the usual story: Cassius convinces Brutus that Julius Caesar is too ambitious and too weak and therefore bad for Rome. Brutus has misgivings but persuades himself that murder is the only solution, despite his love for Caesar. The assassination is carried out, and no good comes of it.

In this production, the show is being performed in a women's prison. This accounts for the women playing men, and it also provides a nice edginess; some of these performers may actually be murderers. And the taut direction by Phyllida Lloyd--with electrifying support from Bunny Christie (design), Neil Austin (lighting), Tom Gibbons (sound),  Gary Yershon (music), Ann Yee (movement), and Kate Waters (fights)--maintains a breathless level of tension and conflict throughout.

And the cast, oh, the cast! Everyone is outstanding, though Harriet Walter (Brutus), Frances Barber (Caesar), Cush Jumbo (Mark Antony), and Jenny Jules (Cassius) get the most opportunity to strut their stuff--and strut they do! But there are no weak links here--everyone contributes to the beauty and glory of this excellent production.

Men playing women's roles is so commonplace as to be a bit tiresome, and there is often a level of cartoon to the performances. Women playing men's roles occurs less often, and, I think, has more to offer. Here's to an all-female, oh, Lear, or Henry V, or Much Ado About Nothing! I'm ready.

(very audience right; six row; tdf ticket)

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Film Society

Jon Robin Baitz's 1988 play The Film Society, which takes place in South Africa in the 1970s, explores racism, compromise, the closet, friendship, and many other interesting themes. Unfortunately, the Keen Company's current tepid production of the play, directed by Jonathan Silverstein to be both monotone and monochromatic, fails to tease out the themes, develop the relationships, or land the jokes. Only the stalwart, reliable Roberta Maxwell manages to bring dimension to her character; under Silverstein's uninspired direction, the rest of the cast ranges from wooden to okay.

(6th row on the aisle; press ticket)

Tamar of the River

The glorious Tamar of the River, running through October 20 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, is a must-see for anyone interested in nontraditional, engaging, and accessible musical theatre. Based on the biblical story of Tamar and Judah and his sons, Tamar of the River presents an active Tamar who is a prophet and pacifist and who exists on her own, not just as wife/mother/sex object. After the river tells her she is a prophet and gives her an assignment, she sneaks into enemy territory. There she ends up more or less involved with Judah and each of his sons as she tries to convince them of the importance of peace. The show is compelling, sexy, sometimes funny, and deeply emotional.

Composer/libretist Marisa Michelson, lyricist/librettist Joshua H. Cohen, director Daniel Goldstein, and choreographer Chase Brock create a vivid and magical world. Michelson's contribution is particularly vivid; using only voice, piano, violin/viola, dulcimer, percussion, and cello, she presents people, nature, love, mistrust, unity, hope, and great, great beauty.

The books and lyrics, as well as scenery by Brett J. Banakis, costumes by Candida K. Nichols, lighting by Brian Tovar, and sound by Jeremy J. Lee, are simple, clear, and strong, and the movement and dance work hand-in-hand with the music to bring wonder to this story and this show.

Tamar is played by Margot Seibert, soon to be playing Adrian in the musical Rocky on Broadway. She is a bit contemporary for the role of Tamar, but excellent nonetheless. The whole cast is wonderful, with magnificent voices; they are Ako, Jeremy Greenbaum, Erik Lochtefeld, Mike Longo, Vince B. Vincent, Jen Anaya, Adam Bashian, Margo Bassett, Troy Burton, Tamrin Goldberg, Aaron Komo,and Mary Kate Morrissey.

I might not have seen this if a friend hadn't invited me. I owe her a great vote of thanks.

(fifth row; discount ticket)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is not warm or fuzzy or uplifting or heartbreaking.  Its characters are not especially finely wrought or deeply nuanced, and do not Learn Something Important About Themselves Or Others by the curtain call. It is not propulsively plot-driven. Tidy exposition is never once slipped conveniently into the dialogue. The show is not really even about The Simpsons in the end--at least no more than, say, Gogol's "The Nose" is really about a nose.

Mr. Burns is mostly about how popular culture works, and the ways it flows, changes, and conforms--both immediately and in the long-term--to the changing needs of a changing populace. It is one of those dense, endlessly layered, brilliantly written pieces that commands your full attention and quietly blows your mind, even during passages when you don't fully understand what the hell is going on. And trust me, you won't always know what the hell is going on, because Washburn captures the way people talk--about pop culture, about themselves, about each other, about their world, about trauma and disaster--so exceptionally well that easy conveniences like exposition are sent packing. Which is as it should be, because when it comes to constructing and reconstructing cultural memory, being unable to fill in all of the gaps--or, sometimes, electing to fill the gaps with material that satisfies a collective need, even if it isn't as graceful or clear or accurate as it might be--is an enormous part of, if not the whole point.

What we do learn in the first act of the play, which is set "Near. Soon.": A random group of people have found one another after a series of nuclear disasters has wiped out most of the population of the country. As one would expect--since post-apocalyptic scenarios themselves are, after all, so deeply-rooted in American pop culture--supplies are dwindling; the power has failed; everyone carries guns and assumes the worst of strangers until convinced otherwise. The survivors don't have much to do but wait out the immediate future in the hopes that they will not die. Fighting off sorrow, dread and panic, they sit around a campfire and set about reconstructing as much of the "Cape Feare" episode from the fifth season of The Simpsons as they can. The act of linking themselves to a shared past, and thus to one another, is powerful balm for these mournful souls. Reconstructing a particularly beloved episode from an enormously popular show is certainly more pleasurable for them than the other activity they collectively engage in later in the scene, when a (friendly) stranger joins their group: taking turns listing the names and ages of their loved ones in hopes that the newcomer has seen or heard of them during his lonely, extensive wanderings. He hasn't. But he does have a really good memory, he performed in an amateur Gilbert and Sullivan troupe before disaster struck, and he knows some of the choicest lines from The Simpsons episode in question. And so, just like that, he becomes a member of the group.

This first scene is talky in the best sense of the term. Washburn's talent for dialogue is immediate and seductive. The scene also relies on spare, effective use of subtle movement: a furtive glance or the touch of a shoulder keys the audience in to the fact that two of the women in the group are deeply concerned about a sadder, more distant third. We learn little about these characters' bigger pictures--their pasts, their identities. One was married; one was from a very small town; one lived in the house the group is camping outside of. The gaps in their stories are--and remain--tantalizingly absent, but then, we don't share our lives with one another in times of crisis, now, do we? We worry after relative strangers, we dedicate ourselves to the issues at hand, we take care of what needs to be done, we help one another survive. And part of helping lies in working together toward the kind of comfort that camaraderie and shared memories provide.

The second act, set seven years later, has the same group--plus one new wanderer--frantically rehearsing what they've managed to reconstruct from the "Cape Feare" episode, complete with commercials. Again, we get only just enough backstory: the country is still a dangerous, semi-anarchical place; radiation sickness is still a cripplingly terrifying concern; a few of the characters seem to have paired off romantically; a few are less obviously traumatized than they were in act I. Accurate memories of popular culture before the disaster have become precious commodities that competing  troupes will pay for and jealously guard. Clearly, it is not just this group of survivors that prioritizes collective memory; the greater community does, too. As it rebuilds itself, then, this futuristic society gamely looks to the future while burying itself in the cozy, fleeting comforts of the increasingly-distant past.

Yet as preciously guarded as they are, the carefully amassed cultural indicators of the past have nevertheless begun to transform, to fuse into one another, to start to mean different things. Little details that no longer matter have begun to get lost as the past grows more distant (does it really matter, anymore, to this group of survivors that The Simpsons premiered in the 1990s, and not the 1970s?). Other details not only refuse to die, but have become larger, more relevant, more precious. The commercial the troupe rehearses in this act neatly demonstrates all of this, especially as it becomes clear it is not being used to sell anything. The commercial, which features a woman eager to take a long, hot bath after a hard day in the office, initially seems to be for a Calgon-like product. But as it plays out, it not only goes on for much longer than any contemporary commercial does, it also devolves into a long, chatty list of creature comforts that Americans once held dear, and that are slowly trickling away: hot baths, chilled wine, cans of soda, ice cubes . . . and the whole complicated structure of commerce that came along with it all. Commodity fetishism has become a weirdly longed-for phantom limb.

The final act, set 75 years later, is a full performance of "Cape Feare," which has changed slowly, if dramatically, over the many years that have passed. Like most aging popular culture references, it has been subject to a generations-long game of telephone, and now resembles a Kabuki-tinged operetta-cum-morality play, shot through with a dizzying number of pop culture references that have been drawn liberally (and not always accurately) from the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries. Washburn's packed, referential "script" has departed from the original episode in telling ways: Sideshow Bob has slowly morphed into Mr. Burns. Bart is the sole survivor in his family's struggle against this personification of evil "nucular" power. The show is still enormously layered and referential, but it is no longer funny. As an added plus, it features musical numbers by Michael Friedman, who is easily the most meta theater composer working today. References to songs, expressions, and actions that just will not die--lines from HMS Pinafore, sports chants, the macarena, that damned Des'ree song--float through the air and, just as you place them in their original time and setting, pop like soap bubbles.

What makes this play, and its show-within-a-show (within a show), so satisfying, intelligent, and effective is how brilliantly it demonstrates the symbiotic and sometimes directly contradictory relationship a culture has--and, Washburn implies, always will have--to its popular entertainments. We change them, they change us. They comfort us, they challenge us. They isolate us, they bring us closer together. They generate nostalgia, they propel us forward. They take us out of our lives, they become central to our lives. In short, to quote what I think I remember Homer saying once, in an episode I saw a long time ago, Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play is funny because it's true.