Monday, March 19, 2018

Art Times: The Thing About Revivals

My latest essay is up at Art Times. I would love to hear what you all think about the issues discussed.
Periodically, old shows with iffy depictions of women are revived on Broadway. People, mostly but not all women, complain about those depictions. Then other people complain about the complaints. Rinse and repeat.
Read more.

Wendy Caster

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Angels in America

It's been 25 years since I last saw Angels in America, which remains one of the most powerful theatergoing experiences I've ever had. I was so overwhelmed by the original production that I've long been afraid to revisit the show, as if somehow the very idea of seeing it again would negate the intensity of emotions I felt when I saw it the first time. But if the excellent National Theatre revival, currently at the Simon, teaches me anything, it's that I needn't have held my memories in such precious check. Sometimes, going back to see a beloved show is like checking in with an old friend you haven't seen in decades, only to find that you can easily pick up exactly where you last left off.

I saw the production over the course of two Sundays, both early enough in the run to notice a significant increase in fluidity between parts one and two. At least at that point, Millennium Approaches suffered a bit from a lack of design cohesion: lights glared and swamped the actors, casting enormous shadows across the set and making it hard to see facial features; trapdoors failed to open or close on cue; clunky scenery revolved around the stage making distracting grindy noises. I'm hoping at least some of this has been addressed, though I assume it's too late to fix the set design as a whole. I understand the attempt to mirror the deeply unhappy, restlessly boxed-in lives of the newly abandoned, bedridden Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) and the valium-addled claustrophobe Harper Pitt (Denise Gough). Still, the stage is densely crowded through much of part one with tiny, neon-studded compartments--apartments, offices, restaurants--that look unfinished and cheap. These all eventually give way, along with Prior and Harper's hold on reality, to wider, less constrictive spaces. I have no idea how to represent ugly and confining without actually being ugly and confining, but the first half of the piece doesn't quite manage it.

You know what, though? It doesn't matter, especially since this is truly the only significant criticism I can come up with. Once the set opens up late in part one, the production is beautiful--and alas, its stark political landscape remains relevant, even if we have evolved by leaps and bounds when it comes to sexuality and gender. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess; at least it's reassuring to have lasting artwork that reminds us of where we've been, how far we've come, and where we still desperately need to go.

While it was impossible for me not to compare the production with the original, this one holds its own due in very large part to an excellent cast. While I was impressed with the entire company, I feel compelled to single out Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, only because I've only ever seen Lane in loose, comic roles, and I fully admit that I've long underestimated him. Kushner's Cohn character is the roaring id that centers the epic, and Lane's take on him is arrogant, power-drunk, self-pitying...and squirmily endearing. Lane's Cohn is very much a monster, but the kind whose influence and reach make perfect sense, especially when he shows anything approximating humanity. Clearly, as a certain current president the real Cohn once mentored now demonstrates on a daily basis, rotten breeds rotten, and power-hungry people will always tolerate monsters with money and reach, no matter how putrescent their souls.

One of the many enduring strengths of Angels in America, perhaps regardless of the production, is that the characters in it are all so personable and approachable and flawed and real. The play takes frequent flights from reality, but its characters keep it firmly grounded--even when they find themselves meandering stoned through a hallucinatory Antarctica, walking the streets in a black-clad delirium, tangling with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, going on intellectual diatribes that justify childish behavior, or wrestling with ominously creepy-crawly angels (here rendered through movement, puppetry, and costume in endlessly mesmerizing ways). I've missed these wise-cracking, smart, funny, human fuckups, I realize--enough that I won't be waiting another 25 years to catch up with them again to find out how they--and we--have fared.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Good for Otto

What if the most heroic thing any of us can do is simply to survive?

[spoilers, arguably, but this is not a plot-driven show]

In Good for Otto, David Rabe gives us a microcosm of a small town--and perhaps of humanity--through scenes from a mental health center. Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris), whose mother killed herself when he was nine, devotes himself to his patients, often marrying calm acceptance with sympathetic guidance. But he also over-identifies with ssome patients, including the smart, volatile, and frighteningly ill Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), 12 years old with a brain full of "storms" that she relieves by cutting herself. Michaels' colleague Evangeline (Amy Madigan) also devotes herself to her patients, though her boundaries may be sounder. Both therapists despair at the bureaucratic limitations that threaten their patients' care.

Ed Harris and cast (and some audience members)
Photo: Monique Carboni

The patients vary widely. There's Timothy, on the autism spectrum and trying to learn how to "widen his circle," but unable to absorb the subtle rules of social interactions. This role verges on stereotype. (Although Mark Lynn-Baker's performance is charming, an actor on the spectrum might have offered more insight and less stereotyping.) Barnard (F. Murray Abraham) is trying to find a post-retirement reason to get out of bed. Alex is a manipulative gay man (also verging on stereotype), lonely enough to invent imaginary relationships. Jane is mourning her son Jimmy, who committed suicide. (Rabe's treatment of suicide is insightful and, perhaps accidentally, an excellent argument for gun control. Jimmy isn't planning to kill himself, but then he notices a shotgun in the corner. It speaks to him much as a piece of pie might speak to someone on a diet. And he picks it up, as he has hundreds of times, but this time he points it at himself. As he dies, he thinks, "Oh shit.")

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Bunny (Toronto)

When the stage went dark at the end of Bunny, my mouth dropped and I did not know what to feel. Empowered? Astounded? And just a tiny bit jealous that Hannah Moscovitch, Sarah Garton-Stanley, Maev Beaty, and the rest of the creative team had created this, a hauntingly beautiful story of a woman's sexual and emotional growth.

Maev Beaty as Sorrel in Bunny

Faced with the sexual advances of a much younger man (Jesse Lavercombe), Sorrel (Maev Beaty) runs back through the relationships that have shaped her life. Starting with the farmer's son she lost her virginity to (Tony Ofori) up through her college years to the man she married (Matthew Edison), Sorrel narrates what it felt like to grow into her body overnight and to navigate her desires with lovers and friends alike as a twenty-first century woman. Though the play's arc depends much upon the four men who shaped Sorrel's life, it is through her friendship with Maggie (Rachel Cairns) that Sorrel finds herself truly defined, as "Bunny."

The lines from the play haunted me the next day, as I thought through every phase in Sorrel's journey. She referred to men as "kittenish" and other bon mots--which kept the entire audience laughing and gasping at her honesty, the kind of honesty that most women think and yet never hear spoken aloud. Because women are not supposed to want sex. They are supposed to want love and marriage only. The girls at Sorrel's high school hate her for breaking these unspoken rules. Later Sorrel realizes that even her favorite Victorian novels hammer home that a woman's place can only be either blissful wedlock or disgraced in sin. Sorrel rejects this at every turn, not always consciously but because she just does not fit in these categories.