Tuesday, July 30, 2019

A Fidler afn Dakh (Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish)

It took me a very long time to see A Fidler afn Dakh (Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish)--more on that in a minute--but I'm glad I pushed myself to go, because it's glorious. In slowing down the musical's often frenetic pace, cutting back on a lot of the usual schtik, and translating the dialogue into the language Tevye and his community would have spoken had they actually existed, the production puts new emphasis on collective Jewish life in the Russian shtetl. Still as warm, lovely, and ultimately heartbreaking as always, the show also feels newly urgent--and ended up feeding me in ways I hadn't realized I'd been quite so hungry for. 

Any good production of Fiddler needs a strong center, and Stephen Skybell delivers, even as he is also the most emotionally muted, physically small Tevye I've ever seen: there's not a trace of Zero Mostel's bluster or swagger to be found here. Gone too are the broad gestures, stagey asides, bits of clowning, bellowed dialogue. The same applies to all the musical's most comic characters: Jennifer Babiak's Golde is a levelheaded, calm and rather graceful balabusta who utterly lacks the harried exasperation and exceedingly short temper her character almost always seems to invite. The village rabbi is still a doddering, senile old man, but Adam B. Shapiro infuses him with enough grounded dignity and world-weariness that he is no longer a walking punchline. And as the always wonderful Jackie Hoffman has interpreted her, Yente is still a gossipy motormouth with a severely limited grasp of social boundaries, but she's also lonely, vulnerable, and concerned for her own livelihood in the face of political and cultural change.

These flesh-and-blood depictions result in a more moving (if also more painful) finale, in which Anatevka's residents are driven from what has been their home for generations on three days' notice. No wonder, then, that while the rabbi and Yente are still respectively as foggy and logorrheic as they always have been, there's nevertheless nothing cute or diverting about them in their final scenes; Hoffman, in particular, delivers Yente's last lines in a voice gritty with exhaustion, worry, and sorrow.

Havel: The Passion of Thought

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, I watched certain political plays with a sense of distance, deeply sympathetic to the characters and deeply grateful that those awful things weren't happening to me. Then a certain election happened, our country changed with breath-taking rapidity, and some of my white privilege bit the dust.

This all struck me, hard, while watching PTP/NYC's excellent evening of one acts, Havel: The Passion of Thought, which consists of three plays by Václav Havel, one by Harold Pinter, and one by Samuel Beckett. Václav Havel was a dissident playwright in Czechoslovakia who was harassed for years, spent time in jail, was beaten, and became president when communism was toppled. He didn't actually choose to be a dissident: "We simply went ahead and did certain things that we felt we ought to do, and that seemed to us decent to do, nothing more nor less.”

As assembled by director Richard Romagnoli, with the Pinter first, the Beckett last, and the Havels in between, Havel: The Passion of Thought takes us on a journey that includes terror, powerlessness, and farce. Our guide for the journey is the character Vanek (David Barlow), a man who upsets other people's balance simply by living an honest life. Vanek is the protagonist of the three Havel plays, and via Romagnoli's structure, appears in the other plays as well.

In Pinter's The New World Order, the Vanek-ish character merely sits there as two torturers discuss what they are going to do to them. Their dialogue reveals them as monsters, but human ones.

In the first Havel play, Interview, Vanek has an extended discussion with his boss. Due to a government crackdown on the arts, the best job Vanek has been able to get is moving kegs from one place to another in a brewery (this is directly from Havel's own life). His boss is overfond of the brewery's product, and the seemingly friendly conversation throbs with menace. Vanek says little and remains calm throughout.

Michael Laurence, David Barlow
photo: Stan Barouh

In Private View, a couple who has compromised themselves into material comfort take Vanek on a bizarrely personal tour of their overdecorated apartment and supposedly wonderful lives. The couple's lady-doth-protest-too-much message, over and over, is that Vanek should be more like them. Again, Vanek says little, but it doesn't matter; the couple continue to project all of their doubts, self-hatred, and despair onto him.

Christopher Marshall, David Barlow, Emily Kron
Private View
photo: Stan Barouh

The third Havel play, and perhaps the best, is Protest. Vanek's old friend Stanekova, whom he hasn't seen in years, has summoned him to her comfortable home. Here again, comfort represents compromise. She is hoping to enlist him in a campaign to get her future son-in-law released from jail. As it happens, Vanek has been assembling signatures on a petition for just this reason. Naturally, he asks her to sign. But will she? She discusses the pros and cons at length, and is angered by Vanek's quietness, which she interprets as opprobrium; she, like the couple above, projects her self-criticism and guilt onto him.

Danielle Skraastad, David Barlow
photo: Stan Barouh
Protest is tough to watch because it invites the audience to consider what risks we would take--and, more to the point, wouldn't take--to fight injustice.

The evening ends with a brief Beckett play, Catastrophe, which Beckett dedicated to Havel. In a physicalization of powerlessness, the Vanek character is on a pedestal, silent, with no agency, as his body as moved about to please a director-dictator. It is powerful, although it is difficult to switch one's head from a Havel mode (largely representational theatre) to a Beckett mode (anything but).

Madeleine Ciocci, David Barlow, Emily Ballou
photo: Stan Barouh

When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to this evening of plays, he joked that I was likely to have an edifying evening. And I did. The evening was also impressive and painful. To say it was thought-provoking is only accurate if you picture the thoughts as being elicited by ice-pick jabs to the brain and heart.

As usual with PTP/NYC, the pieces are well-acted. In particular, David Barlow does an amazing job spending most of the evening listening, which is no small feat.

The lighting (Hallie Zieselman) is outstanding, supporting and enhancing the mood of each piece. The excellent costumes are designed by Glenna Ryer, and the smart scenery by Mark Evancho.

Thanks once again to PTP/NYC for doing work that matters.

Wendy Caster
(fourth row, press ticket)

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Summer Shorts: Series A

In Series A, the first part of Summer Shorts at 59E59, all three plays circle around death. This is a lot for a 90-minute evening.

The first show, Interior, is the most fully realized of the three. Two men stand outside a house, gathering their strength to give the people inside terrible news. Gracefully if somewhat repetitively written by Nick Payne, Interior is a sad and hard-hitting slice of life, well-acted by Bill Buell and Jordan Bellow.

Jordan Bellow, Bill Buell
Photo: Carol Rosegg
The Bridge Play by Danielle Trzcinski lives in the gray area between a skit and a play, with a simple plot: a man is getting ready to jump off a bridge and a younger man starts talking to him. The play moves along nicely and has some funny moments, but since we know that the guy isn't going to jump, the suspense is minimal. The play does offer two decent character studies, and James P. Rees and Christopher Dylan White are both quite good.

James P. Rees, Christopher Dylan White
The Bridge Play
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Here I Lie consists of two interlocking monologues that don't interlock; they just kind of interrupt each other. The characters are a young women and man (Libe Barer and Robbie Tann, both excellent) with difficult problems that aren't quite what they seem. The two stories sort of relate, but not enough to justify the constant momentum interruptions. I would have much preferred to see the monologues as standalone pieces; the writing by Courtney Baron is fluid and the characters are compelling. They just keep getting in each other's way.

Libe Barer, Robbie Tann
Here I Lie
Photo: Carole Rosegg
While none of the three plays is bad, as an evening, Series A lacks oomph. The sum of the parts is a tad smaller than the whole.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, third row)

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Broadway Bounty Hunter

Ya gotta love Annie Golden. She has a sweetness to her, with a wild voice and a slightly goofy vibe. For a creative team to decide to shape a musical around her--even going so far as to name the main character "Annie Golden"--is a no-brainer, particularly now that Golden is famous outside of theatre from her stint on Orange Is the New Black. 

Golden, Green
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Broadway Bounty Hunter is the story of a "woman of a certain age" who has lost her husband and seems to be losing her career. She feels terribly unappreciated and worries about her future, telling her woes to the photo she keeps of her beloved late spouse. The path in front of her seems dire, at best.

And then Annie is recruited to be a bounty hunter. After intense training, she is sent with a reluctant partner to South America to bring back the drug lord Mac Roundtree. Unsurprisingly, Annie and the partner grow to like each other.

Every part of Broadway Bounty Hunter plays with-satirizes-honors-relies on '80s movie styles or cliché tropes or other musical satires or union organizing (really) or the usefulness of acting skills in real-life situations. The energetic cast works their butts off as the show roller-coasters from event to event, song to song, dance to dance, and joke to joke. It is a noisy, in-your-face, overdone, silly evening. And if you like that sort of thing, you might well love it.

I sometimes like that sort of thing, and I had mixed feelings. The noisiness became abrasive; the stage was too small; the chorus was too small; many lyrics were lost when more than one person was singing; the almost-constant dancing lacked creativity and polish; the cast was uneven; the score was uneven; Golden's big second act number was bland; the show was too long; and, although I hate to say this, Golden seemed harried by the frenetic pace and wasn't as good as she usually is. Oh, and the seats at the theatre offer neither comfort nor decent sight lines.

The strengths: some great jokes; some nice songs; Alan H. Green as Annie's reluctant partner; Brad Oscar as Mac Roundtree; Emily Borromeo as the martial arts master who recruits Annie; Annie Golden's singing and presence; the generally good-hearted, enthusiastic vibe.

To mix metaphors, Broadway Bounty Hunter is a mixed bag, but it may be your cup of tea.

Wendy Caster
(8th row, press ticket)

Broadway Bounty Hunter video.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoots Macbeth

Sometimes the plot in Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoots Macbeth by Tom Stoppard, first produced in 1979, runs too close to home. But some background first:

In Dogg's Hamlet, practically everyone speaks in Dogg, a guttural-sounding language that is a mix-up of actual words. A school in England is presenting a 15-minute version of Hamlet, which is spoken in a "foreign" language, English, and emphasizes the play's best-known lines. At its completion, the cast performs another, abbreviated version in a breakneck encore. Lots of hilarity ensues as communication misunderstanding arise and the play's pace quickens. Directed by Cheryl Faraone, PTP's co-artistic director, the first half shows the power of language while ebullient physical comedy displays how easily communication becomes disconnected.

Cahoots Macbeth serves as a companion piece, emphasizing the importance of free expression since the play is part of a forbidden living-room production, where the audience is well, the audience watching, and an Inspector keeps interrupting the unfolding action of Macbeth murdering his way to the Scottish throne--a disturbing parallel to the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia (where, in 1977, covert theatre acted as a protest since artists could not perform publicly) as well as to modern times where free speech is dismantled by repressive governments more everyday.

Chirstopher Marshall, Christo Grabowski, Tara Giordano in Cahoot's Macbeth.Photographer Stan Barouh.
Stoppard, born in Czechoslovakia, left the country at two and while he never lived under its Communist oppression conveys it perfectly here--making it unnerving and absurd simultaneously. Even as the audience laughs while actors spar with the Inspector there is an acknowledged silent truth that Big Brother could be watching. Ultimately, Dogg becomes the method of protest as Cahoot ends.

Overall, the cast is excellent, with a few stand-outs. Christo Grabowski as Fox Major/Hamlet and Banquo/Cahoot is iron-sharp with his dialogue and a graceful presence cavorting on stage. Matthew Ball as Easy navigates a difficult role, naturally conveying his confusion at a language he doesn't understand as he charmingly becoming an essential participant in the whimsical construction of the school's set--where several nonsensical phrases are spelled out before Dogg's Hamlet appears.

At times the production inventively modernizes the work. The three witches wear hoods that light up eerily around their face. The costumes, a hybrid of period pieces and contemporary clothes like jeans though, seem inconsistent though (Costumes by Chris Romagnoli-Dogg; Rebecca Lalon-Cahoot). There are also opportunities for Faraone to push the piece further into current times. It would be interesting to see a truly contemporary version of Stoppard's play set in our modern world.

For more on the show, see Wendy Caster's excellent review.

Running at PTP/NYC at The Atlantic Stage 2 (330 W. 16th St.) through August 4 in repertory with Havel: The Passion of Thought, five one-act plays by Vaclav Havel, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. For more information, see To see the 2019 season promo trailer, click here

(Press ticket)

Friday, July 19, 2019

Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth

Tom Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth plays with language and slapstick, presents fascinating mini-versions of two of Shakespeare's masterpieces, vividly depicts the importance of theatre under repressive government, and messes with your brain. It is both fun and important. In other words, it's Tom Stoppard.

Lucy Van Atta, Peter Schmitz,
Christo Grabowski, Connor Wright
Dogg's Hamlet
photo: Stan Barouh

Dogg's Hamlet takes place at public school (in English parlance) or a private school (in American). The students are rehearsing Hamlet. They speak a strange language that makes no sense until it starts making sense. The highly-truncated version of Hamlet presented is an excellent reminder that Shakespeare pretty much invented idiomatic English. (To thine own self be true. Shuffle off this mortal coil. There's the rub. Though this be madness, yet there is method in't. The lady doth protest too much. I must be cruel only to be kind. The play's the thing. Neither a borrower nor a lender be. I am sick at heart. This too shall pass. Brevity is the soul of wit.) Dogg's Hamlet is a fabulous mental workout.

Cahoot's Macbeth takes place in an LRT, or Living Room Theatre, in 1970s Czechoslovakia. LRTs were developed when the government cracked down on theatre, forbidding public performances and giving the artists jobs as janitors, clerks, and the like. Macbeth is interrupted by a government inspector who is snide, mean, all-knowing, and frightening. (And, since Cahoot's Macbeth is by Stoppard, she is also funny.)

As presented by the invaluable PTP/NYC and directed by the superb Cheryl Faraone, Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth serves a one-two punch of theatre, full of humor, meaning, provocation, and pathos. (It is running in repertory with Havel: The Passion of Thought which includes works by Harold Pinter, Václav  Havel, and Samuel Beckett. Havel is, in one way or another, the heart of all of these works.)

The cast (Matthew Ball, Denise Cormier, Olivia Christie, Tara Giordano, Christo Grabowski, Will Koch, Emily Ma, Christopher Marshall, Katie Marshall, Madeleine Russell, Peter B. Schmitz, Lior Selve, Lucy Van Atta, Zach Varicchione, Connor Wright) is top-notch, as are the production values (Mark Evancho, set; Rebecca Lafon, costumes, Cahoot’s Macbeth; Ellery Rhodes, sound; Chris Romagnoli, costumes, Dogg's Hamlet; Hallie Zieselman, lighting).

I am so grateful to PTP/NYC for their commitment to meaningful theatre and high standards. I try to see every show they put on. (And I sure would like to see Cheryl Faraone's Cloud Nine. Hint. Hint.)

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, third row)

Sunday, July 14, 2019


Ladyship, the new show by twins Laura Good and Linda Good, exemplifies how difficult it is to write a good musical. There is so much here to like: some beautiful songs, an original story, and a clear desire to write something that matters.

The story of young women sent from London to Australia for seven years in the late 18th century as penalty for their (often small) crimes, Ladyship largely takes place during the long, long journey. The two main characters are the teen aged sisters Alice and Mary, who stole because they were hungry. Also on the ship are Lady Jane, brought low after her husband went through her money; Kitty, painfully young, without family, and innocent of the crime for which she was sentenced; the street-smart Abigail; and Mrs. Pickering, heartbroken because she didn't even get to say goodbye to her children. The four men we see on board are the captain, who is kind but turns away from many injustices; Finn, a sweet, mixed-race sailor; Zeke Cropper, a nasty, misogynistic drunk; and Lieutenant Adams, who hopes to have sex with a different woman each night.

This story is a lot to take on, and it is important that the show have a clear through-line. Is it about the injustice of the women's punishment? Yes, but. Is it about the relationship of the sisters? Yes, but. Is it about the generally horrible treatment of women in the 18th century? Yes, but. Is it about the rottenness of  the rich and men, and particularly rich men? Yes, but. Is it about women banding together to help each other? Yes, but. Is it about being brave and making the best of whatever life hands you? Yes, but.

There's nothing wrong with a show taking on a variety of issues and story lines, but they have to mesh effectively, and in Ladyship, they don't. The Goods use the "making the best of what life hands you" theme to avoid dealing with the true reality of the other topics. For example, not a single female character is raped. On one hand, that's fine with me; I was glad not to have to go through that scene. On the other hand, that's a cop out. Many of the women would have been raped. A lot. Nor do any of the women die. In fact, the show is so unwilling to depict reality that it has Kitty sing about the stars she can see through a grill from the orlop deck. The orlop deck is below the waterline! There are no grills there, no stars, no light. The Goods don't want to face that level of darkness.

Does it make sense to try to address difficult topics when you're not willing to go to difficult places? The best serious musicals, e.g., Sweeney Todd; Caroline, or Change, are actually painful to watch. The pain is mitigated by the art, but the pain is also real. By avoiding that pain, Ladyship becomes dishonest.

Also, on a more micro level, the Goods use half rhymes, sort of rhymes, not-even-close rhymes. Away does not rhyme with safe, no matter how many times they are repeated. The songs thereby lose the clarity that comes from true rhymes. Also, many of the songs end lamely, sort of petering out.

The Goods have much to be grateful for in this NYMF production of Ladyship. The cast is strong, with some gorgeous voices: Maddie Shea Baldwin, Jennifer Blood, Jordon Bolden, Caitlin Cohn, Noelle Hogan, Justin R.G. Holcomb, Lisa Karlin, Brandi Knox, Quentin Oliver Lee, and Trevor St. John-Gilbert. The lighting design (Sam Gordon) is clear, clean, and lovely. The scenery (David Goldstein), costumes (Whitney Locher) and sound (Patrick Calhoun) are all effective.

I hope that the Goods continue to write musicals (perhaps with an experienced book writer who can provide some perspective and theatre-savvy). There is enough that is good in Ladyship to want to see more of their work.

Wendy Caster
(fifth row, center)

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Illuminati Lizards From Outer Space

It's hard to know what to write about Illuminati Lizards From Outer Space since I was unable to hear ~70% of the lyrics (100% if more than one person was singing). I don't know if it was where I was sitting (house right, fifth row, near a speaker that was blasting the musicians much louder than the singers) or bad sound design in general, but the experience was downright dreadful. For a campy show like Illuminati Lizards From Outer Space, lyrics are all-important, and, who knows, they might have been brilliant. I believe I caught a rhyme of free and happy that required a painfully unnatural emphasis on the last syllable of happy, so I doubt the lyrics actually were that great, but, again, I just don't know.

The basic plot, such as it is: A beauty queen is denied her crown because she is an "illegal alien" from Canada (which I think isn't a country in the land of Illuminati Lizards). The Illuminati lizards, who, I think, are supposed to destroy earth, or something, believe she's one of them since they are actual aliens. And stuff happens.

I think Illuminati Lizards is supposed to be a goodhearted, campy, political satire, but it comes across as though a bunch of reasonably talented people threw a pile of ideas against the wall and kept what stuck. And then they swept up the losing ideas and used them anyway.

I loved the video design by Lisa Renkel and Wayne Bryant. It stands in for scenery and periodically provides an excellent head lizard speaking from outer space (if only I could have understood more of what he was saying!).

The cast seemed pretty good, to the extent I could tell, and I was blown away by Brian Charles Rooney's huge voice. I couldn't decide if I would rather hear him sing Jim Steinman songs or opera, but I'd be glad to try either.

The one lyric that did stay with me was "Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space.  Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space." It rang in my head for hours after the show. I was grateful, though--it knocked out the "Hard-Knock Life" ear worm I had been enduring for days.

My apologies to everyone who worked on Illuminati Lizards From Outer Space. I wish I had been able to hear enough to provide a more useful review.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, 5th row, far audience right)

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The Bachelor Girls

Kristen Egenes, Laura Hall, Kathleen Culler, Kelly Berman, Gia Mongell, Timmy Hays, Emma Vielbig, Lucy Anders, Brittany Rodin, Emily Kersey, Mandy McDonell. Photo: Shoshana Medney

The Bachelor Girls (book, music and lyrics by Caroline Wigmore and Jen Green) is one of nine theatrical works (eight shows and a high school showcase), created by women, featured in the fourth annual She NYC Arts Summer Theater Festival at The Connelly Theater on June 28 and 29, and the only musical. While the piece’s plot and characters progress unevenly at times, the show features standout performances and often a witty score.

The premise intrigues: three British friends graduate from a woman’s college in 1919, just as the concept of the ‘modern girl’ is developing. Because of World War I — and the lives lost — the women are told that only 1 in 10 will get married. The graduates venture to London: Molly (Kelly Berman) takes care of her Aunt Smythe (Tracy Bidleman) while waiting to wed, Gertie (Lucy Anders) fights for women’s rights and Cecily (Lael Van Keuren) works as a nanny.

The title comes from an actual book published in 1916, The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Everything by Agnes M. Miall, which a teacher gifts to the co-eds at the show’s beginning. This world of flappers where women want careers, equal voting rights and pay equity offers a rich forum for heroic battles and character development. Unfortunately, the book still needs work as plotlines propel forward almost capriciously — so the show never gels like it could. In one scene, for instance, Molly and Gertie rescue Cecily from a graveyard, and it is never apparent how they even knew she was there. Such gaps pepper the musical and hinder character development, making the insights and growth the girls gather often unbelievable.

More thought-out is the role of Aunt Smythe, and Bidleman (Mrs. Harcourt in the national/international tour Anything Goes) shines in the best musical number of the show, "Bright Young Thing" — a showy romp worthy of Broadway at its best. Also good is Van Keuren (Broadway’s Sister Act) who displays a sweet earnestness in her yearning for romance and her difficulty in finding a place in the world.

In general, the 1920s style music and dance enlivens The Bachelor Girls. The choreography (Heather Douglas) is high-spirited and fun. The Bachelorette trio (Caitlyn Calfas, Maria Reginaldi and Stephanie Maloney), an Andrews Sisters type singing group, acts as a scatting/jazzy Greek chorus throughout the show — providing a nice addition to the drama unfolding on stage. Too bad their role isn’t more explanatory though — often they just provide background music rather than helping move the story forward. The show's second song, "Shimmy & Shake," touting the benefits of those activities set the high-stepping tone for the show.

The She NYC Arts Summer Theater Festival is a festival that seeks to develop full-length plays, musicals, and adaptations by women writers. Through an open submissions process, She NYC’s fosters up-and-coming talent by mentoring writers in how to produce their work. The yearly festival is in New York ( and Los Angeles (see The Bachelor Girls was also produced by British Youth Music Theatre in 2015. (Press ticket)