Monday, December 24, 2018

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Cooper Bates Photography
Burt Grinstead and Anna Stromberg wore many hats during Blanket Fort Entertainment’s New York premiere of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde from Dec. 6-16 at the Soho Playhouse as part of the Fringe Encore Series, including writer (Grinstead and Stromberg), director (Stromberg) and actors (Grinstead and Stromberg).

Based on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella, this version sought to insert moments of laughter into the traditional story, which takes place in London around the 1860s where Dr. Jekyll explores the academic question of “what is the nature of morality” after his brother is executed as a serial killer. Grinstead tackled the dual role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde admirably.

Especially well done were the transformation scenes where his body changed dramatically from one character to the next. With a jerk of his foot and the stretching of his hands, Mr. Hyde appeared - even as Grinstead simply changed the sets in shadow, an edge of malevolence in each deliberate movement.

The clever set, in interlocking sections, opened to reveal bookshelves, cabinets - even a fireplace of sorts - was manipulated in a swirl of careful choreography. When Mr. Hyde stamped through the audience, leering into their eyes, people laughed as they became part of the spectacle.

Gags lighten up some of the somber material. For instance, Stromberg "accidentally" left an apron on for a scene as a male. Grinstead communicated the costume problem with a deliberate look and she smoothly whipped it off without losing character.

The production team included Terry Collins (Set Construction), Burt Grinstead (Sound & Set Design), Matt Richter and Adam Martin (Original Lighting Design) and Anna Stromberg (Costume Design).

The show also gave context to the story by exploring Dr. Jekyll's friendships and relationships. Especially poignant is Dr. Jekyll's interactions with his maid, who ultimately becomes his moral conscience as the story navigates to its conclusion.

The show earned six Hollywood Fringe Festival Awards including Best Comedy, winner of the 2CentsTheatre Award for Distinctive Voices, and winner of the Soho Playhouse Fringe Encore Series Award.

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Sunday, December 23, 2018

Liz's Top Ten of 2018

While I can't say I'll miss a whole lot of things that went down in 2018, it's worth acknowledging just how good the theater was, at least in these parts. Whereas past seasons have been pretty weak, I had a lot of trouble whittling my list down to a top ten this year. Some of the ones I finally settled on weren't so easy to call: many just narrowly edged out other excellent productions (sorry, Network, Our Lady of 121st Street, Soft Power and Boys in the Band, you all kicked truly impressive ass--but something or another ended up taking your spot. I'm sure you'll forgive me. Soft Power, I'm especially eager to see you again when you're just a teeny bit clearer on what you want to be).

Anyway, thanks for the memories, 2018, at least as far as escaping to the theater goes.

To a happier and more peaceful new year--and another strong season!

SpongeBob SquarePants
My initial review was tepid, I admit it. But then, (a) the first time I saw the show, I went alone on a Wednesday afternoon, I was prepared to dislike everything I saw, and I was seated behind four ladies who all promptly fell asleep, so I was not exactly in the ideal headspace. Also, and way more importantly, (b) I did not have my son and nephew with me. Watching the show through their (very wide) eyes a second time made me realize that I'd stumbled on the perfect way to see it. My concerns about corporate soullessness vanished, especially once my son started bouncing up and down in his seat and singing along with "Best Day Ever" (we shushed him, but we all had a great time. And he wasn't the only one singing, either). Inventive, sweet, well-meaning and probably deserving of a longer run than it got, the show may remain a corporate behemoth--but it's one that had a great deal of charm, love and magic to it.

The Ferryman
The Ferryman was structured almost exactly the way Butterworth's Jerusalem was: the same loose, sweeping, frequently comedic scenes that gradually cohered into something bigger, less naturalistic, more intensely explosive--replete, even, with the same sonic build in the last scenes. The pacing thus felt lifted from the earlier (and, to me, ever-so-slightly-better) epic. Still, truly, this is the only criticism I can come up with (though I'm sure that, were I Irish, I might find plenty more to gripe about). The Ferryman is gripping, beautifully acted (even by a baby, a bunny, and a goose, for chrissakes), and I felt like I knew and cared for its many characters by the end of a fleeting three-plus hours. Butterworth might work on changing up the pacing of his future plays, but then, he's written two sweeping, huge, long, extraordinary plays, and I have never written a damn scene in my life. He totally wins this round.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Net Will Appear

At the beginning of Erin Mallon's The Net Will Appear, 75-year-old Bernard climbs out of his second-story window to use the roof of the first floor as a deck. He sets up his camping chair and pours himself what he will later refer to as his "Jim Beam juice." Not long afterward, 9-year-old next-door-neighbor Rory climbs out of her second-story window, full of questions and stories and malapropisms. He's crabby, though of course he has a heart. She's cheerful, despite plenty of reasons not to be. It quickly becomes clear that (1) she will win him over; (2) the play will offer no surprises along the way; and (3) the production will nevertheless provide a sweet little evening in the theatre.

Richard Masur
Photo: Jody Christopherson 

Author Mallon writes by the numbers, but she does so competently and with feeling. Richard Masur's performance as Bernard is also by the numbers, but he's a skillful, likable actor and it works. Eve Johnson as Rory talks very, very, very fast, often losing intelligibility along the way, and she could use some lessons in comic timing. She's not great, but she's good enough and also likable; in quieter scenes, she shows a level of promise that made me wish that director Mark Cirnigliaro had been able to elicit better work from her.

Eve Johnson
Photo: Jody Christopherson 

The physical production is fine, with the exception of the between-scenes music, which grows more and more annoying as time passes.

I don't mean to damn with faint praise here. The Net Will Appear is a nice, old-fashioned evening in the theatre, and Richard Masur's performance alone is worth the low-priced ticket. It is what it is, and it's a solid version thereof.

Wendy Caster
(4th row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 80

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Clueless, The Musical

"What, another musical based on a late 20th-century movie?" you may ask. Well, yeah. But here's the thing: it's really good.

Zurin Villanueva, Dove Cameron
Photo: Monique Carboni

Writer/lyricist Amy Heckerling made a series of smart decisions in bringing Clueless, her funny-yet-heartfelt movie to the stage. The first was using well-known 90's songs, to which she added sharp, funny lyrics. The familiar melodies establish the time period perfectly, and they feel/sound like old friends.

The second smart decision was to be true to the original movie, which is one of those wonderful pieces that manage to nest real dilemmas, character growth, and a moral stance into yummy cotton candy.

The third smart decision was to work with director Kristin Hanggi and choreographer Kelly Devine. Hanggi's direction is well-paced and -focused. She balances the silliness and meaning perfectly. And Hanggi's choreography is energetic, playful, and great fun--exactly what the piece needs.

And the forth smart decision was the excellent casting. Dove Cameron is perfect as Cher, melding the character's complex combination of savvy and shallowness, altruism and egotism, and courage and fear into a completely lovable heroine. She handles the direct-to-audience dialogue beautifully, and her singing voice is gorgeous. Other standouts in the cast include Will Connolly as the adorable stoner Travis, Chris Hoch in multiple roles as the male grown-ups, and Dave Thomas Brown as ex-step-brother Josh, though the whole cast is excellent.

So, I didn't love the scenery and lighting. There were moments that would have benefited from better enunciation. Heckerling's lyrics include occasional half-rhymes that would land better as full rhymes. (I'm of the school that musicals need real rhymes to help the audience catch and enjoy every word.) The opening number runs a little long. But these are small complaints in the context of how much genuine delight the show provides.

I imagine that Clueless, The Musical will move to Broadway. Catch it at the New Group if you can. The intimacy of a small theatre is an added plus to Clueless's already fabulous experience.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, row k)
Show-Score: 93

Monday, December 10, 2018


I expected to like Noura, Heather Raffo's play at Playwrights Horizon. I knew it was about a Christian Iraqi family living in the US, which I found intriguing, and that it delves into assimilation and loss, individualism versus community, and lies and secrets, topics that are endlessly delve-able. In addition, it riffs on A Doll's House, opening all sorts of possibilities. I was optimistic going in.

As the play unfolded, I found I had questions. "Is he her father or her husband?" "What did she just say?" "Why do they keep walking around that large table instead of going straight to where they're going?" "Why does she keep standing around?" "Why isn't that recorded voice-over loud enough to hear clearly?"

Then more serious questions came in. "Would anyone really do that?" "Would anyone really say that?" "Is she speaking Arabic or just mumbling?" "Why don't they ever close their front door?" "Why is she mad at him for being angry when she was angry too?" "Where did the Play Station come from?"

And then came the worst questions. "Is Raffo really pulling out that old soap-opera-y trope?" "Can't she at least do a better job of it?" "What is this play about, anyway?" "And why should I care?"

Heather Raffo
Photo: Joan Marcus
Noura has received good reviews in previous productions, so there may be more to it than I perceived. However, my plus-one liked it less than I did, and the applause the night I saw it was tepid. Oh well.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, row J)
Show-Score: 60

Monday, December 03, 2018

The Tricky Part

Well-deserved raves for Martin Moran's heart-breaking solo piece, The Tricky Part, can be found at the Times, Theater Mania, and the Fordham Observer. I'm more interested in the why of the show.

Art design by Leah Vautar.

One-person pieces can be theatrical stand-up comedy (think Lily Tomlin or Rob Becker), stories of actual people's lives (think Will Rogers or Emily Dickinson), or recreations of novels or other stories, with the actor often playing dozens of roles (think Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, or Alan Cumming's solo Macbeth). With the advent of Spalding Gray, Holly Hughes, and other soloists of the later 20th century, solo performance expanded into memoir and performance art. These pieces are frequently personal, revealing, and devastating.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

King Kong

While I appreciate it as a landmark in both film making and scoring, I've otherwise never much understood the appeal of King Kong. Sure, there's incredibly cool stop-motion animation and over-the-top Max Steiner aural grooviness, both of which are even more admirable since this is 1933 we're talking about. But otherwise, the movie has always seemed strongest as a genuinely depressing racist allegory, garnished with enormous doses of sexism and greed. The plot itself is hogwash: mercenary film director Carl Denham takes wannabe starlet Ann Darrow to the mysterious Skull Island to film a picture. There, they encounter deeply offensive "native" stereotypes, some prehistoric creatures, and the titular ape, who lusts after and kidnaps Ann. She screams endlessly, gets rescued, and then Kong is drugged and brought back to New York for Denham to put on display. In New York, the ape completely loses his shit, destroys large amounts of Manhattan, recaptures Ann, climbs the Empire State Building with her, and then gets shot down, surely crushing many innocent onlookers as he plummets to his death. In the film's final moments, Denham, who started all the mayhem in the first place, gets all faux-philosophical but reveals he's totally incapable of self-reflection or personal growth: he blames everything on Ann with a famous last line that makes no sense considering everything that's just happened. Come on, Carl, you dumbass: beauty didn't do shit. You did.

Special effects seem to dominate all remakes of the film; they are, I suppose, the point of revisiting King Kong in the first place. An awful lot of people, it seems, will tolerate steaming mountains of racist, sexist crap if they get to watch enough shit blowing other shit up in the process.

Joan Marcus

Spectacle certainly dominates the stage version of King Kong, which may not be the most well-balanced or wholly satisfying production, but is not without its pleasures and small victories. I appreciate the production for trying to rid the plot of at least some of its most offensive parts. Gone, in this iteration, are the grunting, monosyllabic, dark-skinned natives of Skull Island, and with them at least some of the stereotypes the movie played on. Gone too is the stupid line at the end about how beauty killed the beast. There's more of an attempt at moral trajectory: Denham (Eric William Morris, doing what he can), it's implied, will suffer economic ruin and isolation for his actions. Also, he doesn't blame everything on Ann; his famous "'tis beauty killed the beast" line is referenced in one of the show's exceptionally forgettable songs (songs are by Eddie Perfect; the persistent and weirdly porny electronic score is by Marius De Vries). But it no longer serves as the last line.

While the image of Kong being shackled and shipped far from his home will never not reference both the slave trade and the vilest of persistent racist tropes, some of the sting of the latter is offset in the production by Christiani Pitts, who plays Ann. Pitts is black, and thus not the traditional pale-blond, uber-Caucasian Ann of previous Kong iterations (Fay Wray; Jessica Lange; Naomi Watts). The choice works to temper at least a few layers of racist assumption that can be inferred in what was previously an allegory about primal, predatory black men and their insatiable lust for pure, helpless white women; the musical tries instead to paint Ann as smart, independent and headstrong--a modern woman before her time. Her connection with Kong, it is suggested, becomes a knowing friendship between two lost, misunderstood, disenfranchised fellow travelers.

Any attempt to expose and excise stereotypes is noble, but in addressing King Kong's problem areas as superficially as it does, the production opens up newer, bigger holes in a plot already full of them. Pitts does as much as any human can with the role as it's been rewritten, but hers is a thankless task. If Ann is now so insightful and level-headed and wise, what the hell convinced her that getting on a boat for months on end with a penny-ante director she talks with for five minutes in a diner is a good life choice? Yeah, sure, whatever, she's hungry and desperate for work. Get a fucking grip, all-male creative team: you can't have a modern, independent heroine who occasionally doubles as a shrieking damsel in distress. Pitts' Ann doesn't scream and play helpless as convincingly (or as endlessly) as Fay Wray did, but she is no more nuanced or developed a character, either: here, Ann bonds with Kong, then immediately sells him out, then feels remorse, then sings a song about how She Has Learned Something About Herself and Others. But what has she learned, exactly? That directors who hang out in diners are not to be trusted? That the world is cruel? That love is blind? That nature abhors a vacuum? That crime does not pay? Where's the build, the conflict, the cohesive story?

Anyway, whatever, story schmory; clearly, we're here to see spectacle. In this iteration, as in all iterations past, Kong is truly the star of the show, and while it's a shame he has to die, he at least gets the final bow here. The production's Kong is impressive: he's about the size of the stage and is operated by ten black-clad puppeteers who yank pulleys, manipulate the ape's body, and see to it that its hands and feet land correctly lest some poor cast member be crushed beneath its truly impressive weight. Another three dudes operate the facial expressions and the sounds Kong makes from a booth at the back of the theater. If you are solely interested in watching the puppet, and go to see King Kong with no other expectations at all, I suspect you won't be disappointed.

But heat? Conflict? Tension? Emotion? Forget it. The show, like the film, left me cold. Oh, except for two moments: in one scene depicting Kong's captivity in New York, his facial expressions were so real and so sad that I felt genuine pity for the character, stuck as he was in yet another exploitative entertainment that didn't do him justice. There was a smaller, more profound moment, as well, during which one of the puppeteers took exceptional care in placing Kong's left hand on the floor of the stage. It was the gentle, lovingly tender act of someone who has bonded deeply with the character they're responsible for giving life to. It was beautiful and one of the sweetest moments in the show for me. If only the company had been able to figure out how to extend such genuine sentiment throughout the entire musical.