Saturday, January 27, 2018

X or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation

Who assassinated Malcolm X? The answer remains a matter of debate in some quarters and may never be totally resolved until the New York Police Department releases the files on the case, which they have thus far refused to do. In X or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation, Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's widow, is certain about the assassins, and she argues her case in a court in the afterlife, somewhere between earth and heaven.

Jimonn Cole, Roslyn Ruff
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Playwright Marcus Gardley is a powerful and poetic writer, and X is well worth a visit. However, the play is also overwritten, with much repetition and a framing device and songs that are wonderful in themselves but also slow down the play. X is full of strengths but ultimately uneven; I suspect that, with judicious cutting, it would be brilliant.

Director Ian Belknap maximizes X's strengths through dynamic, imaginative, and beautifully paced direction. The cast is excellent, led by Jimonn Cole--who has a remarkable resemblance to Malcolm X and presents a man full of love and anger, hope and despair, and great intelligence--and Roslyn Ruff, who brings vivid life to Betty Shabazz. The other cast members are Harriet D. Foy, Kevis Hillocks, Cedric Mays, J.D. Mollison, Austin Purnell, Joshua David Robinson, William Sturdivant, and Tatiana Wechsler.

Jimonn Cole
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Lee Savage's scenery is imposing and attractive; Mary Louise Geiger's lighting adds a great deal to the emotion and clarity of the play.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

I would wish two things: (1) that the program include a brief history of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and (2) that Marcus Gardley also write a play focusing on Betty Shabazz herself.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, 4th row)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Art Times: Let's Make Sure Their Time Is Up

My latest piece is up at Art Times. It's about how we can help women in the arts get more power.
Almost as far back as I can remember, people have been labeling various time periods as “The Year of the Woman.” Each of these years succeeded in getting conversations started and speeches given, but progress remained slow.
read more

Hamlet (Toronto)

For an English major who only took one course on Shakespeare, I have very strong ideas about Hamlet. Usually these keep me from enjoying any production because the director's choices will inevitably fail to line up with my expectations.

I thought the same would happen when I attended Tarragon Theatre's 2018 production. Instead, I found myself captivated by a minimalist production of Hamlet set to live music.

Richard Rose and Thomas Ryder Payne's Hamlet begins as soon as the lights go down. There is no context, no preamble or pre-show speech, but suddenly the lights change. The light blasts at the audience through an opaque fog, two characters appear, and it begins.

Throughout the play, sound and lighting creates another character--the atmosphere of Denmark. With the set of a rock concert, only a few feet were left at the front of the stage for the playing space. But as the actors move between making the music behind the play and stepping into the playing space, it never feels like a limit. Or at least, it feels like one that makes sense in the "prison" of Denmark.

Hamlet ensemble. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The rock and roll setting leans into Hamlet's teenage angst. Hamlet (Noah Reid) wears a hole-y hoodie the entire time and the cast passes microphones back and forth, a la Spring Awakening. Leaning into this, instead of away from it, focuses the production on the big dramatic gestures and the lyric images woven into all of Hamlet's language instead of the psychological motivations of each character.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Hindle Wakes

Sex. It's a tricky thing, is sex.

Throughout history, including now, cultures have sought to tame sex's complexity via rigid rules, assumptions, and limitations (particularly for women), with little success. In fact, the rules invariably make sex more complex by adding layers of morality, expectations, and even property ownership. Perhaps most importantly, rules deny sex's mundane side: sometimes people just want to get laid.

Jeremy Beck, Rebecca Noelle Brinkley
Photo: Todd Cerveris

In the excellent Hindle Wakes, it's the early 20th century, and Fanny Hawthorn (a weaver at the Jeffcote mill) has just had a weekend tryst with Alan Jeffcote (son of the mill's owner and engaged to be married to someone else). Due to an unexpected circumstance, their parents find out, and all hell breaks loose.

Monday, January 08, 2018


In Robert O'Hara's futuristic, dystopian fable Mankind, currently at Playwrights Horizons, women are extinct and men have evolved to reproduce without them. In an opening scene that is reasonably funny the first time, if exponentially less so each time it's repeated, Jason (Bobby Moreno) informs casual fuck-buddy Mark (Anson Mount) that he's pregnant. Despite Mark's impulse to "get rid of it," Jason ends up carrying the baby to term, because while women no longer exist, abortion remains illegal. As the play progresses, wackiness ensues: there are court trials and prison sentences, deaths, the invention of a new religion that splinters into various factions, a double marriage, many arguments, and two airings of a news-/reality-/game-/talk-show hybrid called "The Bob and Bob Show," featuring a Tom Brokaw-inspired Bob (Ariel Shafir) and a goofy, morning-show inspired Bob (David Ryan Smith).

Joan Marcus
In short, Mankind takes a lot of fantastical turns that I had no trouble buying: Absent women, the future is even more fucked up than it is now? Yup, sure. Money will win out over morality, ethics, or spiritual devotion? You bet. Various forms of lowbrow entertainment have merged with serious journalism? That's already happened, so why not? Lawyers will wear huge conical wigs and dress like the title character of The Wiz? Makes sense, especially since Andre DeShields himself plays the lawyer.

But abortion? Still illegal a century after women cease to exist? Even seemingly without the presence of some other oppressed group whose collective bodies become the endlessly manipulated tools of politics, religion, and all other aspects of culture? Sorry, buddy, you've lost me.

With Mankind, O'Hara repeatedly returns to the idea that the patriarchy destroys everything it touches: commerce, religion, intellect, law, the family, the environment, humanity. That's all well and good, but the play, which O'Hara also directs and which features an all-male cast, never attempts to wrestle with, or even approach, ways that a culture’s myriad ingrained hierarchies breed control, and thus institutionalized sexism. With some discussion of that in place--with even a fleeting examination of the fact that sexual inequality is bound with centuries of culturally sanctioned power and control ranging from the violently obvious to the impossibly subtle--O'Hara might have produced a compelling play about women's subjugation. But because he never digs below the surface--of the characters, the words they say, the world they occupy, or the ways any of this relates to the contemporary world--Mankind is simply an overlong, undercooked premise that has been explored more deftly elsewhere. The play purports to consider women's struggles for equality, but has erased women at every step. I'd say I've never experienced anything like it, but, of course, like pretty much everyone else in the world, I encounter entertainment that is overwhelmingly by, for, and about men, presented as universal, and dressed up as something more profound than it actually is pretty much every day, all my life.

Anyway, at least Mankind is too thinly developed, inconsistently written, and clunkily directed to be genuinely offensive. It comes off instead as sort of eye-rollingly typical: some man or another realizes that women have had it bad for a long time, does a smattering of research to back that eureka moment up, and then his project gets support, encouragement, and an audience. At its worst, Mankind's humor feels forced and its attempts at gravity patronizing; at its best, it's diverting. Truly, I dug "The Bob and Bob Show," especially the fine work done by Bob. The cast does what it can with scenes that go on too long, an awkward set, unflattering lighting, and a bunch of WTF costumes.

At the curtain call, the company solicits contributions to Planned Parenthood from the audience, which is nice, but feels like a hasty afterthought: a curt, pitying nod toward the far corner where the poor relatives have been seated for the sumptuous, expensive feast. I'd have appreciated the gesture a lot more had O'Hara's play seemed as if anyone involved had actually attempted to genuinely concern themselves with the plight of women--maybe, even, to have consulted with a couple in the process of writing, directing, producing, mounting, dramaturging, and writing program notes for a play that pretends to include us and help us bear our trials while so casually, even chummily, shoving us aside.

The School of Doing: Lessons From Theater Master Gerald Freedman

You may have heard of director Gerald Freedman. You may not have. But you've certainly heard of his work: Freedman assistant-directed the original West Side Story and Gypsy. He directed an early version of Hair before Tom O'Horgan brought it to Broadway. He directed various revivals of West Side Story and dozens of classics. He taught at Julliard in the early 1970s and was the dean of the University of North Carolina School of Arts for many years. He devoted seemingly every waking minute of his life to theater and its relatives film and opera. He was and is deeply admired by performers such as Mandy Patinkin, Christine Baranski, Patti LuPone, Chita Rivera, Kevin Kline, and many others.

And now there is a book that's sort of by him, sort of about him, and mostly about his beliefs on the making of theater. The School of Doing: Lessons From Theater Master Gerald Freedman is an odd, cobbled-together book. Author Isaac Klein took Freedman's words (gathered from personal interviews and various publications) and quotes from a who's-who of theater professionals and added his own commentary to create a book that is choppy, repetitious, uneven, and frequently annoying yet ultimately worthwhile reading for actors, directors, playwrights, and audience members interested in how the sausage is made.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Maggie Sulc's Top 10 of 2017 (Toronto)

I did not start reviewing until much later in 2017 for Show Showdown, but I still found it difficult to bring my list down to 10. Although, if I am being truly honest, only four of these are from Toronto. Read on for my performances to remember from 2017.

The Millennial Malcontent
Tarragon Theatre
I did not expect to enjoy this play. In fact, based on the title I was ready to skip it--yet another group saying bad, cliche things about my generation. But instead Millennial Malcontent took the tropes and structure of a Restoration drama and put it in the present day. I could tell that the older members of the theatre were uncomfortable during much of the show, but my friend and I were laughing up a storm. We could--for better or for worse--see parts of our present day reflected on stage.

Interstellar Elder
Toronto Fringe
The science fiction theme drew me in, and the amazing dance/clown performance held me for the entire hour-long performance. The sound design provided amazing narration and characterization for a pod carrying the human population in perpetual sleep until planet Earth becomes habitable again--but the physical performance by Ingrid Hansen stretched and looped time so we could experience life stuck on a space ship endlessly orbiting.

Photo of Ingrid Hansen by Laura Dittmann (from press release)


Hogtown Collective at Campbell House
Immersive theatre in the heart of Toronto that reflects Toronto history--and includes song and dance! I'm so glad I did not miss the 2017 remount of Hogtown. Guests go back to 1926 on the eve of the next mayoral election to follow gangsters, flappers, and a huge cast of characters through the rooms of the historic Campbell House. I found it the perfect combination of guided and free exploration and a great use of this public performance space. I can't wait to experience whatever this collective produces next.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

SpongeBob SquarePants

All entertainment, they say, is a reflection of its time, place, and culture. That certainly applies to the cheerfully gaudy, brilliantly staged SpongeBob SquarePants musical. It's an unapologetically--and, now, absolutely typically--cross-marketed vehicle, so there's that whole American obsession with commerce, consumption and getting more and more of the same shiny baubly things right there. Also, for its incredible silliness and good humor, its plot turns out to be pretty dark in ways that mirror contemporary preoccupations: Oh, no! Because of climate change, the deep-sea town of Bikini Bottom is going to be destroyed by an underwater volcano! Sandy (Lilli Cooper), the science-minded Texan squirrel who lives among the sea creatures, has a brilliant plan to save the day, but because she's an outsider, the townfolk won't listen to her. Some descend into heavily armed anarchy, while others idly put their faith in the town's incompetent, corrupt politicians. Some agree with the scheming Plankton (Wesley Taylor) that raising money for a huge escape pod is the way to go; SpongeBob's boss, Mr. Krabs (Brian Ray Norris), is especially beholden to the almighty dollar. A group of sardines forms a cult and makes the dimwitted starfish Patrick (Danny Skinner) their unwitting leader. And all poor Squidward (Gavin Lee) wants to do is take to the stage for a big sing-and-dance routine (he gets the eleven-o'clock number, and it's glorious). As all hell breaks loose and the town nears doom, will SpongeBob (Ethan Slater)--along with the misunderstood if brilliant Sandy and the perpetually befuddled if well-meaning Patrick--be able to save the day?

Joan Marcus
Um, yeah, of course, because if Bikini Bottom blew up, there'd be no more SpongeBob. So--spoiler alert!--the trio saves the day, and everyone Learns Something About Themselves and Others. In the process, there are plenty of reasonably catchy songs in a variety of styles, and flashy production numbers ranging from intimate to enormous, from Blankenbuelher to Ziegfeld. The show zips along, it's perfectly well-timed and charming, and the audience I saw it with seemed to have fun with it.

And yes, still, I realize I sound a little cynical about all this. That's because I am, much as I did enjoy the show. I've never been one to kid myself into thinking that the most intensely commercial center for American stage entertainment is ever purely concerned about art, but in the old art/commerce balance, this show leans a titch too hard into the commerce zone to gobble up without the occasional raised eyebrow. Sure, the show's fun, spectacular, and gorgeously realized, and the cast is incredibly game. Still, something about SpongeBob SquarePants left me colder than I wanted to be left. Maybe it's because it really did rely on tropes that serve to constantly remind spectators about how awful the world is right now. Maybe it was my mood, which because of the previous sentence tends toward the sour these days. Or maybe it's because the show is so completely, totally, overwhelmingly rooted to the cartoon from which it springs that I left the theater unconvinced that it was genuinely fulfilling--not just for me, but for the company. Is imitating the characters' voices and movements really accurately, reciting lines taken verbatim and reenacting entire scenes from the cartoon genuinely fulfilling for the monstrously talented cast? Is singing the SpongeBob theme song at the curtain call not a little tiring after a while? Behind the day-glo colors and the cheery facade, is this show a challenge for--well, for anyone? And does it have to be, or am I just an enormous buzzkill?

I know, I know, I sound like a snob--and a waffly one at that. But truly, in this case, and for all the charm and innovation on display, I just couldn't subsume my concerns enough to get lost in this production.

This being said, word of mouth on the show is what convinced me to see it in the first place. And I came in with prejudice: I don't typically like shows based as wholly on tv shows and movies as this one is. You might not care; a lot of people I know and respect were way more tickled by the production than I was. Still, for all its cheer, its goodwill--its heart--I couldn't help but feel like something about this production lacked soul.