Friday, September 28, 2018

Holy Ghosts

Nancy Shedman sits reading in a large-ish, empty, nondescript room. Her husband, Coleman, comes storming in, full of accusations and anger. Little by little the room fills, and Coleman realizes that they are about to have a Pentecostal service, complete with snake-handling. He ends up fighting with many of the people in the room, who are now his wife's friends. He won't leave because he wants his wife to return all the things she "stole" from him when she left him or perhaps even to come back to him. The congregants speak to him with surprising (but not unlimited!) patience, telling him stories from their lives. It's mostly a device to allow the writer, Romulus Linney, to help us understand why people might choose to express their spirituality in extreme ways. The show is about 80% exposition/story-telling, but it works, beautifully. (In terms of structure, it reminded me a bit of the first season of Lost, where we meet the characters one by one.)

Oliver Palmer and Lizzy Jarrett
Photo: James M. Wilson

I worked on the last New York production of Holy Ghosts, 40 years ago (I was show electrician). I was quite impressed with the show, but I thought it had a major flaw. It turns out that play holds up very well--and this production actually fixes the flaw!

A Chorus Line

It takes a lot of ambition to decide to do A Chorus Line at a small Off-Off-Broadway theatre. And it takes a lot of skill to pull it off. Luckily, the Gallery Players in Brooklyn have tons of both, and their production of A Chorus Line is fabulous.

Photo: Steven Pisano Photography

Directed by Tom Rowan, author of the book A Chorus Line FAQ, and choreographed by Eddie Gutierrez, who played Paul in national tours, the production hews faithfully and elegantly to the template set long ago by the brilliant director/choreographer Michael Bennett. The familiar ensemble dance numbers and solos are all there, at a remarkably high level. A Chorus Line requires performers who can dance, sing, and act, and most of the cast at the Gallery Players can do all three, in some cases superbly.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The True

Is it ungrateful of me to wish that Sharr White's play, The True, presented by The New Group, had more to offer? Perhaps. After all, there is already much to like here: solid writing, smooth direction, and an amazing cast. But for all those strengths, I just didn't care.

John Pankow, Edie Falco
Photo: Monique Carboni

In all fairness, I mostly wasn't bored. I mean, look at this cast: Edie Falco. Michael McKean. John Pankow. Peter Scolari. Each and every one of them is a pleasure to watch, always. Falco, unsurprisingly, gives an excellent performance, and you can't keep your eyes off her as she talks, and talks, and talks, and talks. And curses and curses and curses.

Why is Falco's character such a gabber? Dorothea Noonan, known as Polly, is an essential component of the Democratic machine in 1970s Albany, and has been for years. She thinks she knows everything--she certainly does know a lot--and it takes many, many words for her to tell everyone around her how to live their lives, professionally and otherwise.

Noonan is a close friend and adviser to the mayor (McKean), but at the start of the play he has decided that he needs distance from her. This separation does not stop her from fighting for him behind the scenes, and she meets with the various men who will help decide whether he gets another term as mayor. (One theme of the play is how she is treated differently because she's female, but to me everyone was pretty obnoxious and she fit right in.)

Ironically enough, the most emotionally successful moment in the play is silent. (It would be a spoiler to say more.)

Some of the political machinations of The True are interesting. Some of the relationships look like they would be fruitful to explore. But as it stands, there is little reason to care about these characters, and the play ends up being about ploys rather than people.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, row E)
Show-Score: 80

I Was Most Alive With You

Craig Lucas's new play, I Was Most Alive With You, is impressively ambitious. Performed simultaneously in English and American Sign Language (ASL), with some use of supertitles, it is an extended riff on the biblical story of Job. Ash, a TV writer in his 50s or 60s, and Astrid, his somewhat younger cowriter, decide to use the recent events of Ash's life as the content for their latest project. As they discuss the script, scenes are enacted as they may or may not have occurred in real life. Ash is the Job figure, and much is taken from him.

Marianna Bassham (Astrid), Michael Gaston (Ash),
Russell Harvard (Knox), Tad Cooley (Farhad)
Photo: Joan Marcus

Ash's son, Knox, is Deaf. Although he was brought up to speak and read lips, at the start of the play he will only converse in sign language, even though that leaves his mother, the over-ironically named Pleasant, out of the conversation. Knox is clean and sober (as is Ash). He is in love with Farhad, who is deaf but doesn't sign. (Lucas makes clear that there is a difference between Deaf and deaf, but it goes by quickly. His decision not to define or clarify the distinction makes sense, since this play is written for a Deaf audience as much as--if not more--than a hearing audience, though a bit of explanation might have helped the latter group without hurting the former.) Farhad is a drug user, and although Knox adores him, he will not actually become involved with him until he becomes clean and sober.

Other characters include Ash's mother, Carla, who learned sign language to communicate with Knox, and Mariama, a hearing friend of hers who signs fluently and joins the family on Thanksgiving to translate, mostly for the benefit of Pleasant. The character of Mariama also allows Lucas to add more discussion of religion and loss and belief to the play; unfortunately, she feels much more like a device than a person. But, in truth, only a few of the characters are fleshed out; the others are mouthpieces rather than people.

The Emperor

More like a magazine story brought to life than an actual play, The Emperor still has much going for it, the main things being the performances of the protean and ever-fascinating Kathryn Hunter and the music of Ethiopian musician Temesgen Zeleke. Based on interviews with actual servants of the Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie, The Emperor weaves a vivid tapestry around a Selassie-shaped void. While he is not in the show per se, Selassie's effect, affect, and whims are everywhere and everything, as they were during his four-decade reign.

Photo: Simon Annand 

Adapted by Colin Teevan from Ryszard Kapuściński's book, The Emperor depicts how people are misshapen when they are forced to fit into small spaces with no freedom. The epitome of these characters may well be the servant whose job was to wipe the urine off of visiting dignitaries' shoes after the emperor's dog had peed on them. Many of the servants admired Selaissie and were proud of their jobs.

Is it strange that Kathryn Hunter plays all of these male African characters? Yes. No. Kind of. For me, her brilliance is its own excuse for anything she may choose to perform, although I completely understand why other people might disagree.

Photo: Simon Annand 

Is it strange that The Emperor is presented as a piece of theatre? Yes. No. Kind of. It has a limited point of view. It has no plot, story line, or arc. It almost completely lacks interactions. While it is arguably all about conflict, it has no conflict itself. In terms of any political or historical aims it may have, it somewhat succeeds, although other forms of delivery would have been more hard-hitting.

And is it strange that these stories of a country that was horribly oppressed, in which millions died of starvation, have ended up being about how brilliant one white actress is? Absolutely. Strange and horrible, really. But, for what little it's worth, it did motivate me to learn more.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, row J)
Show-Score: 80

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur is not one of Tennessee Williams's masterpieces, but it still deserves a better production than the one currently being presented by La Femme Theatre Productions. Director Austin Pendleton seems to think that Creve Coeur is a farce. It is not; it's a slightly hopeful tragedy with some humor. Pendleton does manage to get some laughs, but at the cost of the play's soul.

The situation is familiar: a high-strung Southern woman, Dotty (think Blanche from Streetcar), seeks love with a handsome, charming, well-off man whom she has "dated." Her older roommate, Bodey, wants to match Dotty with her twin brother, who is neither handsome nor charming (think Mitch from Streetcar). Dotty's workmate, Helena, wants Dotty to be her roommate, though she is more focused on Dotty's financial contribution than on Dotty herself.

Jean Lichty
Photo: Joan Marcus

Jean Lichty does a decent job as Dotty, particularly in the later scenes where she is allowed by the writing and the direction to be less frenetic. Kristine Nielsen's two-dimensional Bodey ignores the character's savvy and backbone, much to the detriment of the play. Annette O'Toole plays Helena as though she is a sitcom bad guy. I have to ironically tip my hat to Pendleton: getting bad performances out of Nielsen and O'Toole can't have been easy.

I saw a good production of Creve Coeur in 1990 at the San Diego Rep. While it could not cover the play's faults, it did express its heart and soul. I can't help wonder what the La Femme production might have expressed with a different director.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; third row)
Show-Score: 65

Monday, September 17, 2018

Playing to the Gods (Book Review)

In the acknowledgements at the end of Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever, author Peter Rader explains that he (with a coauthor) had originally wrote about this rivalry as a screenplay, but "Subsequently, to deepen the narrative, I decided to explore the subject in book form." Just one problem: the deepened narrative he has provided is based on little but his imagination. Yes, the book has notes, but they focus only on quotations from newspapers or other books. When it comes to Rader's depiction of scenes, dialogue, and emotions, there are no notes at all.

For example, from page 107: "They will adore you, insisted Tanczer; the actress remained unconvinced." No notes. Or page 151, "Sarah was outraged at how easily critics bought into Eleonora's 'saint' mystique." No notes.  Page 214: "It was high time, grumbled Sarah, upon learning she was to receive France's highest accolade." No notes.

This may seem like nitpicking, since each little example doesn't matter that much. But the book is full of them, including entire scenes; they go from the first sentence ("Cesar Ritz checked his pocket watch as the lavish carriage rolled into the roundabout") to the last paragraph ("Both actresses would have agreed with Stanislavski's greatest instructions"). They morph the book from biography to historical novel.

Rader is also inconsistent. For example, in the beginning of the book he makes much of the fact that Eleonora Duse and her family were traveling performers who lived from town to town with no guarantee of a roof over their heads. Then, he writes that Eleonora's mother "invited [a] distraught woman into the cottage where they lived." Where did this cottage come from? Were the Duses doing better? How was the cottage paid for? Again, while this one example is not the end of the world, there are so many that the book becomes completely unreliable.

To be honest, if I was not reviewing this book, I wouldn't have finished it. (Also to be honest, it has gotten some good reviews, including its Kirkus review.) But it did accomplish one thing for me: it made me want to read more reliable books about these two incredible actresses.

Wendy Caster
(press copy)

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Marin Mazzie: 1960-2018

It was 1995. I was visiting from California and only had time for two shows. One, of course, had to be the new Sondheim, Passion. I had heard raves about Donna Murphy, who was, of course, rave-worthy, but I was really blown away by the blonde actress playing Clara. Her voice was gorgeous, every note a gift. Her acting was superb. And she was incredibly attractive as well. After the show I pulled out the program and saw that her name was Marin Mazzie.

It turned out that she could do anything. Ragtime. Kiss Me, Kate. Man of La Mancha. Spamalot. ENRON. Carrie. A Streetcar Named Desire (one of the best Blanches I've ever seen). Next to Normal. The King and I.

Marin's career was unusual in that, while she originated roles, she also worked as a replacement. There was a time (before Bernadette Peters took over A Little Night Music from Catherine Zeta-Jones) that going in as a replacement was seen as "less than," but Marin made the roles her own, and she was never less than  anyone (and in some cases, she was actually more than).

Marin Mazzie and Daniel Dae Kim.
Photo: Paul Kolnik

Marin was a superb interpreter of the American Songbook. She made the songs her own, and she made them new. Her "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" is my favorite version ever.

Marin was also a hero. Her response to her ovarian cancer was extraordinary; she became an activist for early diagnosis and never let her ill health stand in the way of making a difference. Her husband Jason Danieley told a story about her being horribly sick, yet dragging herself out of bed to go to speak before congress!

While Marin's activism was amazing, she was also a hero for the simple decision not to wear a wig or a schmatta when she lost her hair to cancer treatment. When I lost my own hair to chemo, I was far more comfortable going into the world than I would have been without her example. Hell, if someone as glamorous as she was could go bald, who was I to complain?

I wish I were half as good a writer as she was a performer. Then I would be able to do her justice. I'll leave it at this: the world was a much better place when Marin was in it.

Wendy Caster

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Heartbreak House

George Bernard Shaw's play Heartbreak House has been compared to the works of Chekhov. He himself hinted at the connection via the play's subtitle:  A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes. It is apt that the Gingold Theatrical Group's production of Heartbreak House does not use this subtitle, since David Staller has directed it in the manner of Oscar Wilde rather than Anton Chekhov. 

This is, I think, a legitimate interpretation in some ways. Shaw certainly included some distinctly Wildean lines, such as "The natural term of the affection of the human animal for its offspring is six years" and "[He] has been fighting for freedom in his quiet way ever since. That's why he is so poor." The plot too has some farcical twists and turns that lend themselves to a Wilde idea. [spoilers] A daughter comes homes after years away; her father doesn't recognize her; a young woman wants to marry a man for his money, but he doesn't have any; she falls in love with a different, charming man who turns out to be her hostess's husband; the hostess's father mistakes a current guest for someone he knew decades ago, who obligingly shows up in act II; and so on. [end of spoilers]

Karen Ziemba, Alison Fraser, Tom Hewitt
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Unfortunately, this approach makes the show thin and silly, with little in the way of guts or hearts. By focusing on the Wildean aspects, Staller ignores the Shavian/Chekhovian aspects that could/would add up to a stinging critique of humans, our inability to stay out of war, and the idiocy of our romantic lives. Staller, who also adapted the script for this production, tries to reinflate the play by presenting it as a play within a play being performed by people in a WWII bomb shelter. Since the performers are at risk of being killed at any second, the play gains texture and a touch of suspense, but Staller does little with them. (I must admit, however, that I did have tears in my eyes when the show ended.)

The performers are uneven and seem to be in different plays--none of which is necessarily Heartbreak House. Alison Fraser is wonderful as Lady Utterword, spewing out her dialogue in an endless nasal torrent that would be perfect for a Wilde play. How well her performance fits this play is an open question, but I loved it. Jeff Hiller, in four roles, also overacts his head off; his accents are uneven, his line readings are sometimes odd, he too is probably in the wrong play, but damn, he's fun. The rest of the performers give less farcical performances, with more or less success. 

The set design, by Brian Prather, is handsome. The costumes are uneven; for example, Fraser's dresses are perfect for her character, while Karen Ziemba's dress in the first act is both awful and distracting. The other production values are solid.

It seems churlish to complain, since I did have a good time, but I don't feel that I saw Heartbreak House. Instead, it was a professional, polished simulacrum.

Wendy Caster
(third row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 75