Saturday, April 30, 2016

Dido and Aeneas

There's good news, and bad news, and good news again. The good news is that the Master Voices (formerly The Collegiate Chorale) production of Dido and Aeneas was lovely. The bad news is that it was only two nights. And the other good news is that Master Voices is already planning its 75th season, starting in October with 27 by Ricky Ian Gordon (more info here and here).

Victoria Clark, Doug Varone Dancers, Master Voices

Meanwhile, Dido and Aeneas (by Henry Purcell) was splendid, and the prologue, The Daughters of Necessity (by Michael John LaChiusa), was delightful. Kelli O'Hara was excellent as Dido, though I prefer her Broadway voice, which reflects more of her personality. Victoria Clark did her usual, brilliant, glorious show-stealing; that she is not always in a show in New York is a sin. Anna Christy and Sarah Mesko were wonderful. All told, the women's voices were a feast for the ears. And the Master Voices soared. Getting to listen to dozens of brilliant performers sing gorgeous music could be the definition of good fortune, particularly as accompanied by The Orchestra of St. Luke's under Ted Sperling's direction.

The choreography, by Doug Varone, who also directed, was a real treat, working in service of the piece yet evocative on its own. (I could have lived without the dancers' frequently moving chairs and a table, but that's a small enough quibble.)

Yes, it's too late to see this show, but it's not too late to discover Master Voices.

Wendy Caster
(third row balcony, press ticket)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


The earnest and well-acted Echoes takes place in two times and places: Victorian England and Afghanistan, and present-day England and Syria. In both situations, a young woman has dreams. In both situations, she gets nightmares instead.

Braganca, Houlbrooke
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Tillie (Felicity Houlbrooke), the Victorian, wants to study the life cycle of flies, but ends up married to a dominating, humorless, repressive man who says that her "duty and sacrifice" in life is to have sex with him and procreate. She says, "Over the next three months, he makes sure I do my duty and sacrifice as frequently as possible. In fact sometimes he is so keen for me to do my duty and sacrifice that I worry his love of country may be too great."

Samira (Filipa Braganca), the present-day woman, wants to help build the Caliphate, but ends up married to a dominating, humorless, repressive man who already has a wife and finds his way around the rules of Islam. His first wife explains, "To get round the adultery laws, the fighters marry a woman for a week, then get a cleric to ‘divorce’ them. …He’s done it before.’"

Neither woman has a chance. The husbands are strong, violent men, and the woman are little more than slaves.

Echoes, written by written by Henry Naylor and directed by Naylor and Emma Buttler, is performed as alternating monologues. Despite being full of incident, the play never quite gels as theatre, and the politics are heavy-handed. Both husbands are one-dimensional creations; both women's situations come across as Women's Oppression 101 rather than the lived experiences of real individuals. Not to say that the stories aren't convincing, but they're not presented theatrically. The situations are effectively awful, but as lectures not a play.

Wendy Caster
(3rd row, press ticket)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Taming of the Shrew

There must be something in the water ... at least in Padua. The first of two productions of The Taming of the Shrew featuring an all-female cast opened on April 16 at the Wild Project. The New York-based Queen's Company, an all-woman classical theater troupe now in its 15th season, tackles Shakespeare's comedy by infusing their take, Taming of the Shrew, with a campy feel and a more feminist, redemptive ending. The Public will offer its own version, The Taming of the Shrew, as part of its Shakespeare in the Park series, from May 24-June 26, featuring Tony and Olivier winner Janet McTeer as Petruchio.

Elisabeth Preston (Petruchio) and Tiffany Abercrombie (Katharina) spar.
Photo credit: Bob Pileggi
Shrew tells the story of feisty Katharina and her unwillingness to wed and subjugate herself to a man's whims. That is, until she meets the clever Petruchio, who "tames" her. The misogynist plot, its depiction of women as chattel, and the abuse Katharina suffers under Petruchio's patriarchal hand sometimes earns the play criticism. This critique stung Shrew early on; even in the 1890s--long before political correctness became a trend--Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw said, "No man with any decency of feeling can sit (the final act) out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed." The question with Shrew is what was Shakespeare's intention: is he satirizing a female's role in society, creating a light-hearted farce for entertainment, or showing the transformative power of love? This dichotomy allows Shrew to be adapted in a multitude of ways, making it one of Shakespeare's most produced works.

The play haunted director/play adapter Rebecca Patterson (also the company's artistic director) for years since she oversaw another version about a decade ago: "There is something deeper that ripples beneath the surface--something Shakespeare himself was trying to explore and understand, something about our conflicting desires to either love or dominate ... it is my hope this production takes his lessons a step further than he could, illuminating a way forward toward something better."

In some ways, she succeeds beautifully. Patterson starts the play in modern times, a smart decision that emphasizes the differences of male-female relationships in the new age. A man in period clothing steps out and begins reading a page that falls from a book: "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee." Enter Tiffany Abercrombie as the modern-day version of Katharina, garbed in black, except for her bright wrap. She greets the man's interest with disdain and rolls her eyes at the old-fashioned depiction of females in the tome. Then she knees him. As he crawls off stage, she changes into the period Katharina by donning a red dress over her contemporary clothes.

The updated Katharina, though, remains present onstage with the insertion of women-power songs between scenes. The dialogue may encourage the view that men control the world, but the music of Cyndi Lauper, Blondie and others say otherwise. As Katharina becomes more programmed and less headstrong, the music indicates the sentiment. When the audience hears Tina Turner's "Time for Letting Go," they understand the conflict the main character faces and how she falters after all the harsh conditions she's suffered. In part, music changes the direction of the show and, ultimately, leads to a more favorable outcome for feminism. By the time, Peter Gabriel's "The Book of Love" plays, theatergoers see a Shrew that shows more love story than sexism.

The simple set by Angelica Borrero allows the actors to convey changes in time and place easily. The serviceable costumes (designed by Elizabeth Flores), with the exception of Katharina's splendid red dress and Baptista's regal cape, invoke the feeling of grade-school productions: lots of black pants, neutral-colored shirts and theatrical add-ons (a jacket here, a vest there).

Mostly, the construct of women playing men works. In movement, tone and diction, Elisabeth Preston as Petruchio, is convincing as a male. There is never that overriding Victor/Victoria sense that wow, here's a woman in a man's role. Nylda Mark as Katharina's wealthy father, Baptista, also is noteworthy. A lithe presence, she move with effeminate aristocratic grace while maintaining an authoritative stance. Bianca's lovers/servants don't fare as well. Sometimes their characters seem more pantomime than real. This aligns nicely during the more campy moments where the actors court the more popular sister, Bianca, who can't marry until Katharina does. Played by a blow-up doll, Bianca is the ultimate wet-rag of a woman: a perfect Stepford wife for the Elizabethan era. When the servant/lovers of Bianca lip-synch to Katharina, it also allows for extreme expression. Sometimes, though, when the traditional dialogue is spoken, the crispness of the language is lost in slipped words and too much gesticulation.

Ultimately, though, this Shrew's ending, which emphasizes the heart over wife control, is touching and showcases Abercrombie's wonderfully expressive face as she goes from perfect trophy wife to someone internally suffering to a woman in love.

Taming of the Shrew runs through May 1 at the Wild Project (195 East 3 St.) in NYC. 
For more info you can visit Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

(Press seats, fourth row)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Spring roundup: Head of Passes, Bright Star, The Color Purple, Kvelertak

It's been a hellishly busy couple of weeks, but I've managed to see a few shows nonetheless. In the interest of time, I'll spare you my typically long-winded reviews in favor of terser ones. Here goes:

Head of Passes, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is a modern retelling of the Job story. Set in Head of Passes, Mississippi, the action takes place in the formerly grand home of Shelah, who has a birthday approaching, a recently diagnosed illness she's dreading telling her friends and three children about, and property so badly in need of repair that it's raining as hard in her living room as it is out in the yard. The play itself, which has apparently been reworked since it ran at Steppenwolf in 2013, still occasionally misses the mark: some of the characters are not as developed as they might be, and a few of the plot points introduced early on don't gain much steam. But even if the show were perfect, there's really no way to prepare for the absolutely thrilling ass-whooping Phylicia Rashad gives the audience late in the second act.

Joan Marcus

I know it sounds like a cliche--as does the old "I had to remind myself to breathe"--but hell if Rashad doesn't tear the roof off in this tour de force performance. Being that this is a Job story, I don't think it gives much away to tell you that Shelah shoulders a whole lot of bad news in the second act. Driving the surviving characters away in a heartbroken rage, she stands in the rubble of her ruined house (yet another cliche: the set, by GW Mercier, is worth the price of admission), and the final stretch of the show has her alone, railing for a good half hour at a God she is at once furious with and wholly devoted to. While I've always appreciated Rashad, I admit I never knew she had the depth and range that she exhibits here. She makes mincemeat of a monologue that has her crying, cackling, thundering, raging and rejoicing on a dime. Hers is one of the finest--and possibly most exhausting--performances taking place nightly on a New York stage right now. Head of Passes has been extended, for good reason--see it before it closes, if you can swing it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The Tricky Limits of Color-Blind and Gender-Blind Casting

From Art Times:
Once upon a time, boys played the women’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays. Once upon a different time, Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor performed in blackface to great acclaim, and some brilliant black performers had to hide behind blackface to be accepted by white audiences. (African-American comedian-mime-singer Bert Williams, 1874-1922, once said, "A black face, run-down shoes and elbow-out make-up give me a place to hide. The real Bert Williams is crouched deep down inside the coon who sings the songs and tells the stories.") As recently as 1990, white actors played Othello with darkened skin.
African-American singer-comedian 
Bert Williams in blackface
 Keep reading.

Light in the Piazza 10th Anniversary Reunion Concert

Perhaps the single most salient fact about theater is that it is ephemeral, evanescent. Even if you get to see a production 10 times, it eventually closes, and it's gone. Poof. But in some incredibly wonderful cases, a show reappears, even if only for an evening, as with the magical 10th Anniversary Reunion Concert of A Light in the Piazza last night, with virtually the entire original cast.

Did the show and the performers live up to my golden memories of the eight times I saw it?

They were even better.

Bows at Light in the Piazza 10th Anniversary Reunion Concert