Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Jagged Little Pill

There's a lot going on in Jagged Little Pill, which has to be the wokest jukebox musical you're likely to see on Broadway lately. Built around the era-defining third album of the same name by Alanis Morissette, the production departs from the '90s in its setting and aesthetics, even as it remains rooted in women's concerns--and the women's rage that was so fresh and exciting in the pop music world back then. The musical usually works, and even when it doesn't, I can't criticize it too much; like Morissette's album, it's not perfect, but its heart and mind strive to be, and that counts for a lot.

Focused on the Healy family, a comfortable suburban foursome who seem on the surface to have it all, Jagged touches on an impressive host of contemporary social issues in its two-and-a-half hours. Mom Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) puts on a brave face as she exercises, shops, tidies, and competes with other suburban mothers, but she's got a growing dependency on painkillers following a car accident that took place about a year before the action begins. Her husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill) works all the time, and the two are becoming increasingly estranged. Their golden-child son Nick (Derek Klena) just got into Harvard, but also has no clear sense of his own needs or purpose in the world. Their activist daughter, Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding), was adopted at birth; now a teenager, she has grown tired of her mothers' constant criticism and of feeling like she doesn't belong in suburban Connecticut.

What saves the show from feeling like an overstuffed after-school special are its working parts. There is, of course, a rocking score--and a cast of voices that is consistently able to handle it. The zippy, typically good-humored book, by Diablo Cody, is respectful and serious about the many issues tackled, but never feels preachy or histrionic. There are some excellent performances (Lauren Patton as Jo, Frankie's best friend with benefits, is a huge standout). And mu favorite part of the production were the dance and movement sequences, courtesy of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. I appreciate, as well, just how focused this production is on the desires, relationships, and contradictions of its female characters.

I saw Jagged Little Pill with my teen daughter, who pointed out that its upbeat ending felt a little forced, considering the ocean of issues the characters encounter in what is meant to be a single holiday season. Then again, a musical devoid of hope--especially in these dark times--is a serious breach that I suspect even peak '90s Alanis wouldn't go in for. Ultimately, I appreciate what this production tries to do, how it tries to do it, and how groovy it looks and sounds in the process.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Where Are We Now

Sven Ratzke; Photo by Hanneke Wetzer
Dutch-German performer Sven Ratzke is the best kind of David Bowie fan. When he sings his Ziggy Stardust songs, he closes his eyes, softens his face and tries to interpret the artist, not just mimic him. Ratzke's committed enough to don the skintight catsuit with the plunging v-neck and high-heeled black boots (costume design by Thierry Mugler and Armin van Zutphen). Fans of Bowie will enjoy both hits like "Heroes" and some lesser-known numbers such as "Sweet Thing/Candidate" at the U.S. premiere of Where Are We Now at La MaMa's Downstairs Theatre.

Ratzke is the cabaret version of Bowie. Pianist Christian Pabst plays beautifully, but the only rock you'll get is when he rhythmically knocks on the wood for "Let's Dance." Each song is presented after some banter where Ratzke mixes fact with fiction. Last night's show was amazing, he recounts early on, it was nine hours long with everyone rolling on the floor naked. The conversation, while often entertaining, becomes long-winded -- a wandering path of a story. 

The song list seems aimless at times, too, with no discernible order or theme. Ratzke cannily seems to pick songs that match his evocative voice, with most of the selections offering intimate versions of Bowie's softer side. Most impressive is Ratzke soulful encore of "Absolute Beginners," where he showcases Bowie's prowess as a storyteller with a nuanced, personal rendition. 

Directed by Dirk Groeneveld, the show's sparse set with bared brick walls and a simple divided curtain relies on lighting to heighten and slow the mood. This is not Ratzke's first Bowie outing, in 2016 he toured with Starman, including a run at Joe's Pub.

Through Dec. 21 at La MaMa Downstairs Theatre at 66 East 4 St. Two hours with one intermission. For more information, see or

(press seats)

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Nutcracker Rouge

Ashley Dragon. Credit: Mark Shelby Perry
Even when Company XIV produces a problematic show, it’s vastly entertaining. While the Nutcracker Rouge’s version of this well-known holiday tale loses some of its magic — relegating the role of Clara to more of an assistant narrator rather than a girl on the cusp of discovery — its vignettes provide constant amusement and titillation.

Most of the show is situated in the kingdom of sweets and the traditional first act is quickly dismissed onstage, removing most of the Staulbahm’s party (dubbed here after Clara’s godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer) and rushing through the Mouse King’s challenge of the Nutcracker. 

“Snow,” Rouge’s second scene, featuring Vivaldi’s “Winter,” beautifully reinterprets “The Waltz of the Snowflakes,” which usually closes out Act I, with snow trickling from the rafters. Then the show’s tone changes as it becomes more vaudevillian with each holiday treat participating in its own sideshow for three acts. Some are readily recognizable from its source material, including numbers with Mother Ginger and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Others like Ashley Dragon on her Cyr wheel or arialist Nolan McKew, while graceful and thrilling, never offer that Nutcracker-holiday feel. 

Company XIV’s artistic director/founder and choreographer often mixes genres to great success — his versions of Alice in Wonderland and Snow White, for example — but Ballet Rouge’s storyline falters, and the additions of burlesque, circus and opera limit the tale rather than exploring it in a new way.

But, there’s a reason why the show is marking its eighth year — even with its fragmented story, each scene entertains as performers sing, strut and even escape elaborate bindings Houdini style. Acts like Marcy “Operagaga” Richardson’s astound — how does she belt those notes suspended upside down? 

Imbibing is encouraged, with one number celebrating the wonder of absinthe before selling it during intermission, and small tables make your cocktails easily accessible at your seat. Lilin Lace even saunters in a champagne glass as part of one routine.

Nutcracker Rouge plays through January 26 at 383 Troutman St. in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Running time is two hours and 25 minutes. For more information, see:

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Let 'Em Eat Cake

The narration for the MasterVoices production of the Gershwins' Let 'Em Eat Cake mentions that (1) it was the very first musical sequel (to Of Thee I Sing), and (2) it set the precedent for musical sequels flopping (see, e.g., Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, Bring Back Birdie, and Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge). It failed, however, to include point (3), which is that the sequels mostly aren't as good as the originals (exception: Falsettoland).

Bryce Pinkham, Mikaela Bennett
Photo: Erin Baiano

It's not that Let 'Me Eat Cake is bad. It just isn't . . . good. The plot is all over the place, even for a silly satire, and Ira Gershwin is in full twee mode. (Complicated rhymes that don't quite make sense get boring quickly.) But, and this is a huge but, the score by George Gershwin is gorgeous.

And any show sounds terrific when presented by the 150-person MasterVoices and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, directed and conducted by the fabulous Ted Sperling. It's always a treat to see them perform. In addition, they generally have amazing guest stars. This time, the cast included Bryce Pinkham, Mikaela Bennett (delightful), David Pittu (stealing the show), Kevin Chamberlin, Christopher Fitzgerald, Fred Applegate, Chuck Cooper (wasted!), and Lewis J. Stadlen (mumbling through his one-liners).

It's a little odd to review MasterVoices shows, since they're always gone before the reviews come out. So let me predict that their entire season will be well worth seeing and leave you with a link to their website: MasterVoices.

Wendy Caster
(row R, press ticket)

Monday, November 18, 2019

Fires in the Mirror

Midway through Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith's moving and generous one-person show about the 1991 Crown Heights riots, Robert Sherman, the head of the City of New York's Increase the Peace initiative, talks about bias. "I think you know the Eskimos have 70 words for snow," he notes. "We probably have 70 different kinds of bias, prejudice, racism, and discrimination, but it's not in our mind-set to be clear about it. So I think that we have sort of a lousy language on the subject and that is a reflection of our unwillingness to deal with it honestly and to sort it out." In some ways, Sherman--one of many real people Smith interviewed and worked into Fires, which premiered at the Public in 1992--nails the landing: bias underscores the monologues of almost every person Smith has worked into the show. But then again, there's so much more to the piece, and to the people in it, than the ways bias shapes our thinking. And Fires in the Mirror would be a far weaker piece if Smith had allowed her own biases to influence the ways the many characters in the piece consciously or unconsciously air theirs.

A mild stir went up at the initial announcement that Smith would not be performing her celebrated play this time around, but then, Fires in the Mirror very much deserves to live on whether she's involved or not. Michael Benjamin Washington holds his own in the Signature production, moving easily between characters with the lighting of a cigarette, the donning of a headscarf or hat, or the careful preparation of a cup of tea. Like Smith in the original production, Washington disappears into each of the many people he portrays, all the while keeping his own opinions off the table. Some of the people portrayed are angrier and less tolerant than others, and a few have especially strong--and not especially kind--opinions about Blacks, or Jews, or the incidents that sparked violence and rioting. But in letting them all speak for themselves--whether about the role of hair in black culture, complications that can arise during Shabbat, which cultural group has been treated most cruelly through human history, or who specifically was to blame for the violence in Crown Heights in summer 1991--Smith has created a quiet, moving, kaleidoscopic reflection on race, culture, and personal identity. While the riots at the heart of the production certainly took me back to that strange, sad summer, I found Fires to be, for the most part, curiously uplifting and even hopeful. Bias might occasionally slop over into violence and hatred, but then again, as one character muses, no matter who they are, most people want the same things: to go freely about their days; to experience more joy than pain; to live in quiet, peaceful neighborhoods; to get along with one another more often than they don't.   

Saturday, November 09, 2019

The Hope Hypothesis

In the excellent Voyage Theater Company production of The Hope Hypothesis, running through November 15 at the Sheen Center, playwright-director Cat Miller deftly shows how easily innocence can be misread as guilt when the authorities involved neither understand the people involved nor care to.

Soraya Broukim, William Ragsdale
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
The plot is simple: When Amena, a long-time resident of the United States, goes to a governmental agency to complete some immigration paperwork, the clerk freaks out at the flag on her birth certificate. She is soon caught in a bureaucratic nightmare that also ensnares her boyfriend and an ACLU lawyer.  Unfortunately, reality these days is scary enough that Miller needed to write only the smallest twists on reality to drag Amena into an insane and frightening world from which she may never return.

In addition to being tense and suspenseful, The Hope Hypothesis is funny, warm, and pleasingly clever. Its 75 minutes fly by. Miller and her excellent cast imbue potentially stereotypical characters with humanity (only the character of a dumb CIA agent fails to take life), and the characters' interactions ring true in a way that brings further dimension to Amena's adventures in Kafka-land.

Connor Carew, Wesley Zurik, Charlie O'Rourke
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
The scenery, by Zoë Hurwitz, provides a coolly anonymous setting while also allowing quick and effective transitions into other locations. (I have a personal bugaboo about slow scene changes in multi-scene plays, but The Hope Hypothesis moves quickly due to Hurwitz's scene design and Miller's smooth direction.) The costumes, by Katja Andreiev, suit the characters, and the lighting, by Bailey L. Rosa, and sound design, by M. Florian Staab, nicely support the general sense of dread.

While we constantly hear about the insane prices of Broadway, it is important to remember that all over New York and the entire country, top-notch work can be seen for the price of a movie ticket, medium soda, and medium popcorn. The Hope Hypothesis deserves way more attention than it is likely to get in its short run Off-Off-Broadway, but you have a week to catch it before it goes.

Wendy Caster
(2nd row, press ticket)

With Soraya Broukhim,* Wesley Zurick,* Charlie O’Rourke,* William Ragsdale,* Greg Brostrom,* Connor Carew,* Mary Hodges*

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association

Scenic Designer: Zoë Hurwitz
Costume Designer: Katja Andreiev
Lighting Designer: Bailey L. Rosa
Sound Designer: M. Florian Staab
Production Stage Manager: Sarah Biery
Stage Managers: Erika Blais and Morgan Eisen
Assistant Director: Ann Kreitman
Technical Director: Eric Zoback
Press Representative: Glenna Freedman PR
Casting by: Stephanie Klapper

Graphic Design by: Youness El Hindami

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Molly Sweeney

What is a play? There are many definitions, of which this one (from the Merriam-Webster website) is a representative example:
A composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance [emphasis mine]
This is clearly a simple and perhaps simplistic definition; it ignores the many ways that great playwrights have broken the boundaries of theatre. But it's also a good starting place.

I was pondering this definition while watching the Keen Company's revival of Brian Friel's 1994 two-act play, Molly Sweeney. The story of a blind woman who undergoes surgery to partially restore her sight, it consists of alternating monologues by Molly, her husband Frank, and her surgeon Mr. Rice. As the play went on, I just kept wishing they would talk to each other!

The device of alternating monologues can provide conflict by having the characters give differing accounts of what happens; however, Molly, Frank, and Mr. Rice are largely in agreement. It can add dimensions to characters by allowing us to see them through varied points of view; again, there is little disagreement among the three characters. Monologues could also, theoretically, provide suspense by carefully doling out information, but Molly Sweeney telegraphs its aims, meaning, and ending early on.

So we're left with the language and the performances. The language is often lovely, as Friel's language generally is, but there's just too damned much of it. On and on the characters drone, well past the point of having anything to add.

And, in the Keen Company's production, directed by Jonathan Silverstein, the performances are disappointing. Molly (Pamela Sabaugh), Frank (Tommy Schrider), and Mr. Rice (Paul O’Brien) never bloom into characters. In addition, the actors fail to vivify the anecdotes they tell and the people they describe.

Molly Sweeney is not one of Friel's best works but I'm sure it has more to offer than evidenced by this sadly flat production.

Wendy Caster
(third row, press ticket)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Panama Hattie

Panama Hattie, the third show in the York Theatre Company's Cole Porter-a-thon, is a mixed bag that is ultimately great fun.

Simon Jones, Kylie Kuioka, Stephen Bogardus,
Klea Blackhurst, Anita Welch
Photo: Russ Rowland

The positives:

  • Oh, those unmiked voices! I could listen to them forever. Panama Hattie starts with the chorus singing, and those combined, natural, beautiful voices are amazing.
  • Klea Blackhurst is charming and funny in the role that Ethel Merman originated. As soon as she comes on stage, the audience is on her side; she radiates likability. And her voice is wonderful.
  • Kylie Kuioka, who plays the young daughter of the male lead, is having a great time up there. She loves that we love her--eats it right up, in fact. She can deliver a line, her acting is fine, and she's so damn cute. And she knows she's so damn cute, which somehow makes her cuter. And then she sings, and her voice is the icing on the cute cake--lovely!
  • The rest of the cast--Stephen Bogardus, Simon Jones, David Green, Jay Aubrey Jones, Lael Van Keuren, Garen McRoberts, Casey Shuler, Gordon Stanley, Joe Veale, Zuri Washington, and Anita Welch--acquit themselves nicely to wonderfully.
  • There are some cute jokes and a few good songs. 
Gordon Stanley, Casey Shuler, Joe Veale, Zuri
Washington, Jay Aubrey Jones, Lael Van
Keuren, Garen McRoberts, David Green
Photo: Russ Rowland

The negatives:
  • Even in a time period where musical books were silly and thin, Panama Hattie's stands out for its total lack of sense, logic, character building, etc.(which is why I haven't bothered to explain it here).
  • Many of the songs are far from Cole Porter's best (although still worth hearing).
The take-aways:
  • Panama Hattie is a great example of the importance of what the York does in its Mufti series.* First of all, it allows us to see works that wouldn't be done otherwise. 
  • It also reminds us that even the "Golden Age" had its own share of mediocre theatre and that only the best shows have made their way down to us. 
  • Whatever its weaknesses, Panama Hattie is make worth seeing by the top-notch work of the cast, musicians, and director Michael Montel.
  • And, oh, those unmiked voices!
Wendy Caster
(5th row, press ticket)

*Muftis are staged readings, but so much more than that. While the actors are more or less on book, it never gets in the way of the performances. The orchestra is one piano or a piano and one other instrument. Panama Hattie was beautifully accompanied by piano and bass fiddle. Muftis may also have costumes and choreography. Panama Hattie had both. 

Monday, October 28, 2019

Big Apple Circus

Tired of the news? Depressed by the weird meanness of humans? Maybe you need a mini-vacation. Maybe you need to bask in the weird wonder of humans.

Jayson Dominguez and the Wheel of Death
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Big Apple Circus is a cure for what ails us. Over the course of a couple of hours gorgeous humans challenge their gorgeous bodies to do dangerous, bizarre, scary, lovely, and gorgeous things. Such as juggling umbrellas--seriously, gorgeous. Or balancing on one another's bodies in amazingly challenging positions. Or riding a bike across a high wire. Or skipping rope 30 feet in the air. Or taking trapeze to a whole 'nother level--as though regular ole trapeze was not sufficiently thrilling. You get the idea.

Rafael Ferreira and Alan Pagnota
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Big Apple promises that no seats are further than 50 feet from the stage, and we in the audience get to watch each other as well as the performers. It's great fun to glance across a few rows of the audience and see wide-eyed, open-mouthed looks of astonishment--and those are the adults! The kids pretty much radiate joy.

Ringmaster Storm Marrero
Photo: Matthew Murphy

I have to take a moment for my yearly complaint: Big Apple and all circuses need to stop animal acts. Horses were not made to ride in tight circles while someone jumps on them. Period.

Kyle Driggs
Photo: Matthew Murphy

This year, however, I have to add an exception: the Savitsky Cats! They're not lions or tigers, but little ole house cats. With most animal acts, many of us in the audience spend all of our time worrying about the poor creatures and wishing their "trainers" would leave them the heck alone. But anyone who has ever had house cats knows a simple fact: they only do what they want to do. In fact, the best part of the cat act is when the cats refuse to cooperate and give the trainers the well-known feline "eff you" look. It's a hoot. (But, seriously, leave the horses alone!)

A Savitsky cat from America's Got Talent

Big Apple Circus is committed to inclusivity, as reflected in some special performances. The following is from their press release:
  • For one night only (December 5 at 5:30PM) there will be a completely empathetic and immersive experience where audiences will enjoy a three-course dinner and the show--all while wearing a blindfold. The performance is fully guided and audio described, and it will provide the audience with the incredible perspectives afforded only to the blind.
  • Sensory-friendly Autism performances (October 26 and November 1st at 11 am) feature lowered light and sound levels, a complete social story available for download with a descriptive picture book showing the different areas and acts involved with the circus, a professionally staffed “calming center,” and additional support that can be accessed at any point during the show.
  • As part of the Circus for All initiative, eighteen performances throughout the fifteen-week run will offer $10 tickets for every seat in the house to underserved schools and community groups. In addition to the tickets, Big Apple Circus offers a complete study guide highlighting both CORE and STEAM curriculums for the students to learn about science, history, geography, and more first-hand as they experience the Big Apple Circus.
  • Tickets are now on sale at The regular performance schedule is Wednesdays at 11 am and 7 pm; Thursdays at 11 am and 7 pm; Fridays at 11 am 7 pm; Saturdays at 11 am, 3 pm, and 7 pm; and Sundays at 12 pm and 4 pm. As there are schedule variances, please refer to the most up-to-date calendar on the website. 
I hope you get a chance to go.

Wendy Caster
(first row, center, press ticket)

Yes, the circus does bring out the kid in everyone!

Sunday, October 27, 2019


The production of Macbeth at the Classic Stage Company (CSC), directed and designed by John Doyle, is a streamlined affair. It runs 1:40 without an intermission; it has a cast of only nine people; it makes do with a bare wooden thrust stage with movable benches and a plain wooden throne; and the costumes are simple, in dark colors and topped by overlong blankets.

Corey Stoll
Photo: Joan Marcus
I'm not sure who the audience is supposed to be. The production is pretty straightforward, so it would seem to be appropriate for a wide range of audiences, including newbies. However, many of the performers play multiple roles, and it can be difficult to tell who they are, particularly since women sometimes play men, the costumes give little clue as to class or position, and characters who are family members are cast from different races. I don't mean to criticize these decisions per se. I enjoy multicultural casting, and I would gladly live in a world where Mary Beth Peil is king. But the decisions detract rather than add to the play's intelligibility.

Mary Beth Peil
Photo: Joan Marcus
The audience at the performance I attended was full of young people, in their teens and even younger. Some watched attentively; a few fell asleep; some seemed to be daydreaming; and most laughed at any moment that was funny in a familiar and recognizable way. They particularly enjoyed Nadia Bowers as Lady Macbeth (as did I), and I suspect that's because she has the gift of making Shakespearean English sound clear and even contemporary. Bowers also does the evil thing rather deliciously. Overall, however, the show does a disservice to young audiences by obfuscating rather than elucidating the goings-on.

Nadia Bowers
Photo: Joan Marcus
(A strange and distracting problem with this production is the cumbersome blankets that the cast members must schlepp around. They frequently threaten to trip up the performers--and sometimes actually do. At one point, Lady M rises in a pointed and sinuous manner from lying atop Macbeth. It's a fabulous piece of character work, except that the night I saw it, Bowers had to keep kicking away part of a blanket that had caught her foot.)

Of course, Macbeth ultimately relies on the quality of the actor essaying the lead role. Corey Stoll is uneven. Sometimes he is compelling, clear, and even fascinating. Other times, he seems curiously uninvolved. His version of the famous speech after Lady M's death is so off-hand as to be little more than a bunch of words.

Overall, this is not a must-see Macbeth. It's not bad, but it's also not distinct or distinguished. It just kinda is.

Wendy Caster
(third row, audience right, press ticket)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation

Once upon a time, Broadway was full of larger-than-life stars (often women) easily identified by their distinctive voices and mannerisms. Gwen Verdon. Carol Channing. Ethel Merman. Elaine Stritch. Patti Lupone. Mandy Patinkin. Bernadette Peters. They were the stuff of impersonators' and satirists' dreams. In addition, Broadway was more significant to US culture than it is now.

Today's stars are often as talented in their own ways, or even more so, but not larger than life. Kelli O'Hara. Sutton Foster. Ben Platt. Santino Fontana. Katrina Lenk. And they don't have the level of fame the old-timers do/did.

For Gerard Alessandrini, creator of the hilarious Forbidden Broadway series, these changes must have presented a major challenge. In Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation, Alessandrini meets the challenge by taking on Broadway as a living idea, rooted in old ways and growing toward new ones. Yes, he and his excellent cast provide us with fabulous over-the-top versions of Bob Fosse, Gwen Verdon, Bette Midler, Jennifer Holliday, and Bernadette Peters, but they also take on the musicalization of every damn movie ever made, juke box musicals, Irish drama, inclusivity, and "woke-ness." This Forbidden Broadway is, as always, hysterically funny, but it's also surprisingly moving. Alessandrini adores the theatre, and his love is always present, even at his skewering best.

Jenny Lee Stern, Chris Collins-Pisano
Photo: Carol Rosegg

The star of Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation is Jenny Lee Stern. Alessandrini smartly makes sure that all the roles are identified by name ("I'm Amber Gray," "I'm André De Shields"), but this safety net is not needed when Stern is on stage. I particularly loved her Gwen Verdon and Judy Garland, but she was also great playing an old lady in a coma.

The rest of the performers--Immanuel Houston, Chris Collins-Pisano, Aline Mayagoitia, and Joshua Turchin--are solid and funny, and musical director Fred Barton provides verve, pacing, and a structure for the insanity. Also contributing brilliantly are Gerry McIntyre (choreography), Dustin Cross (costumes), and Conor Donnelly (wigs).

Houston, Mayagoitia, Stern (back row)
Collins-Pisano, Turchin (front row)
Photo: Carol Rosegg

I laughed for about 78 minutes of Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation's 80-minute run time. The other two minutes, I actually got a tad ferklempt. Gerard Alessandrini is a gift to the New York stage, and I am so glad to welcome back my old friend Forbidden Broadway.

Wendy Caster
(front "orchestra," press ticket)

Monday, October 21, 2019

All Hallow's Eve

When a set of twins (Eve and Evan) press the wrong doorbell on Halloween, they are forced to fight for their lives against a manipulative, mean, and hungry witch. Can they save themselves? Can they help the creatures whose souls the witch holds captive?

All Hallow's Eve is silly. It should be shorter. The sound is murky. The musical numbers aren't great. But, the puppets! Oh, the puppets! They charm. They frighten. They amuse. They break your heart. Ranging in size from around a foot to maybe 15 feet high, they are all larger than life, yet all somehow real. (To say that a show is jaw-dropping is a cliché, obviously, but my jaw did drop, again and again.)

Tyler Bunch (Pumpkin Man);
Haley Jenkins (Eve);
Jennifer Barnhart (Witch)
Photo: Richard Termine
The bios of the creators, cast, and crew of All Hallow's Eve are, unsurprisingly, full of Avenue Q and Sesame Street credits. It takes the highest levels of skill to produce puppets that are this evocative, convincing, and fascinating. What is more surprising is that the show is Off-Off-Broadway--and inexpensive!. What a great opportunity to see the best of the best without paying an arm and a leg. (It's only running through November 2, so don't delay. For more information, click here.)


FYI, the producers write, "Please know that this production invites the audience to follow our cast on a somewhat immersive experience.  The audience will be required to move throughout our beautiful space.  There will moments where chairs will be available to those who need them.  Please wear comfy clothes and leave your luggage at home." 


  • Book, lyrics, puppet design, and direction: Martin P. Robinson 
  • Music: Paul Rudolph 
  • Choreography: Kaitee Yaeko Tredway
  • Cast: Jennifer Barnhart, Tyler Bunch, Aubrey Clinedinst, Austin Michael Costello, Cedwan Hooks, Haley Jenkins, Kathleen Kim, Marca Leigh, Spencer Lott, Kaitee Yaeko Tredway
  • Scenic design: Christopher Swader and Justin Swader
  • Lighting design: Alex Jainchill


Wendy Caster
(press ticket)

Friday, October 18, 2019


On the surface, Betrayal is about entitled Londoners who meet for fancy lunches, during which they chat about art and literature and the best way to get to Torcello from Venice during summer holidays. They schedule games of squash, exchange niceties about their children and their loveless marriages, and engage in long-term affairs that they eventually throw over for other long-term affairs. On the surface, I do not give much of a rat's ass about people like this, who are hardly unique to London and who have always struck me as occupying a world utterly foreign to me in its material comforts, privileges, and casual amorality. But damn if the current Broadway revival, directed with devastating understatement by Jamie Lloyd, didn't burrow deep into my head. Spare, sparse, and exceedingly restrained in execution, the production gives us characters who have mastered the art of lying to themselves and one another, even as they fail to escape their stasis, disappointment, and sorrow.

Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox.
Photo by Marc Brenner.

Loosely inspired by the seven-year affair Pinter had with the journalist Joan Bakewell during his unhappy marriage to the actress Vivien Merchant, Betrayal follows three characters backward in time, beginning two years after the dissolution of a seven-year tryst between gallerist Emma (Zawe Ashton) and literary agent Jerry (Charlie Cox), and ending just at the very beginning of it. Emma's husband, book publisher Robert (Tom Hiddleston), is Jerry's best friend and a frequent business associate. In a series of scenes that I suspect could easily feel like so many actors' exercises in the wrong hands, Pinter's characters betray one another in myriad ways as they keep up appearances year after year after year.

Pinter's style is pronounced and influential enough to have earned its own adjective; Pinteresque plays reflect the playwright's penchant for, among other things, terse dialogue sliced through with long pauses, lots of repetition, and vague, benign chatter that belies deeper, sometimes menacing subtext--hence, in Betrayal, so much more than lunch and squash and Torcello, even though these are the topics mentioned over and over and over again. On the page, Pinter doesn't offer much more to go on--his stage directions are as sparse as his dialogue--so I can imagine the temptation to fill in all his gaps with lots of actorly business and overwrought delivery in search of the subtext. Segments of dialogue certainly would seem to court some seriously explosive bluster, as when Robert informs Jerry (over lunch, natch) that he occasionally gives Emma "a good bashing" simply because he feels like it,  or when Emma confesses her affair to Robert, or when Jerry learns that Robert has known of the tryst for years, even as he's continued to schedule lunch dates and invite Jerry for games of squash.

But this production holds back in just about every way: the actors all lean into their restraint, even when you'd expect them not to. The stage, outfitted with a huge turntable that moves the company around in space, remains nearly bare, even as the walls close in and then open out again on the characters. And while every scene is a two-hander, the odd actor always remains onstage nonetheless, lurking in partial shadow: memory is selective, after all, and sometimes time and distance can numb the intensity of even the most intense passion, pleasure, or pain; nevertheless, the characters are, even despite physical absences, always deep in one another's heads.

Rather than making the three characters seem even more obtuse and distant, the silence and minimalism work to reveal layers of meaning in the text. The three characters depicted may be as well-practiced in how not to make a scene as they are in knowing how best to travel to a highly exclusive island resort, but they feel a whole lot realer and more nuanced for the choice. They may be worn amoral from lives of privilege, but this production does a beautiful job of demonstrating how they are also world-weary and searching and sad, no matter how sumptuous the lunches or beautiful the views from their exclusive holiday retreats.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter

I bought my first Ben Bagley record, Irving Berlin Revisited, for 69 cents at a flea market in New Jersey a million years ago. Albums those days cost around four dollars, so it was quite a bargain, and it introduced me to Blossom Dearie, Bobby Short, and Bagley's unusual world view (world equaling the American songbook in this case). During his career, Bagley also revisited Oscar Hammerstein, Alan Jay Lerner, Arthur Schwartz, Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen, Kurt Weill, Rodgers and Hart, and many others. And he featured performers similarly fabulous: Dearie, Short, Ann Hampton Callaway, Margaret Whiting, Barbara Cook, Nell Carter, Chita Rivera, Kaye Ballard, Karen Morrow, and, again, many others. 

Lee Roy Reams, Diane Phelan, Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina
Photo: Ben Strothmann
Bagley also produced revues. One of them, The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter, was perhaps the first to focus on one writer. (According to Wikipedia, Variety wrote that the show "helped pave the way for later Broadway revues like Ain't Misbehavin' and Sophisticated Ladies which surveyed the work of a single composer.")

The wonderful York Theatre Company has revived The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter as part of its Mufti series, and it's a treat. 

Lauren Molina
Photo: Ben Strothmann
I have mixed feelings about revues. They can be overdirected, chirpy, and annoying. Each performer gets many songs to sing, so a mediocre singer can really hurt the evening. Some songwriters' songs start to sound repetitious when surveyed in this way.

The Decline and Fall ... Cole Porter has none of these problems. Pamela Hunt's direction is imaginative and spirited. Eric Svejcar's music direction is similarly lovely, and his piano playing is wonderful. Choreographer Trent Kidd's work, which shows a strong familiarity with old movie musicals, is witty and great fun. And the cast is strong: Lauren Molina (someone cast her in Funny Girl ASAP), charming song-and-dance man Danny Gardner, Diane Phelan, and long-time theatre veteran Lee Roy Reams.

Danny Gardner
Photo: Ben Strothmann
As for experiencing an evening of Cole Porter's work (mostly lesser known songs), I actually came out respecting Porter more than I did going in. In general, I find much of his work one-note. He establishes a joke structure and then works it to death, with no development. But the songs in The Decline and Fall ... Cole Porter cover a wide range of styles, and I liked a lot of them much more than his better known work.

A word about the Muftis: they are staged readings, but so much more than that. While the actors are more or less on book, it never gets in the way of the performances. The orchestra is one piano; I didn't put orchestra in quotes because the amazing pianists provide full-bodied musical accompaniment. 

Diane Phelan
Photo: Ben Strothmann
And the performers are not miked! Listening to superb singers unplugged is a delight and a luxury. (It's also nice that the singers don't have mikes hanging out of their hairlines.)

Lee Roy Reams
Photo: Ben Strothmann
On top of all of this, the shows are inexpensive, and matinees are followed by talkbacks that are unusually entertaining. In brief, sometimes the talkers-back dish. At one talkback years ago, the widow of the composer spoke of how glad she was when the original producer died. At this past Sunday's talkback, Reams told a story about Bagley that was, shall we say, risqué, and damned funny. Reams said that the tale was "not to leave this room," and I will honor his request. (Anyway, I couldn't do it justice.) But you do wish you were there.

The Decline and Fall ... Cole Porter runs through October 20th. Catch it if you can.

Wendy Caster
(fifth row, press ticket)

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Tonya Pinkins' Truth and Reconciliation: Womyn Working it Out!

The cast; Photo by Katie Walenta

While much of Tonya Pinkins' Truth and Reconciliation: Womyn Working it Out, a collective of nine 10-minute plays and songs about women and oppression performed at The Tank (West 36th Street in Manhattan), from Oct. 3 to 6, was overwrought and simplistic, there are searing moments that showcase the cruelty women have faced and the strength required to find healing. 

The best vignettes, "Tierra de las Flores," written by Glory Kadigan and "Law 136" by Carmen Rivera recount historical tales of discrimination. "Tierra" tells the story of two women in Florida, set in the 1800's about 50 years after slaves were freed, and explores their uneasy navigation of class, abuse and vigilantism. 

"Law 136" recalls the covert Puerto Rican "voluntary" sterilization campaign, started in 1937 and funded by the U.S. Government, that by 1968 had operated on one-third of the female population. "The Operation" was marketed as a means of birth control and many underwent the tubal ligation procedure without knowing the irreversible consequences. "Law 136" frames the story around a first-time nurse who struggles between keeping her job and being ethical.

Pinkins--a Tony-Award winning actress (Jelly's Last Jam) and author--produced, directed and appeared in the production, as well as wrote the segment "Till Hell Freezes Over." Examining oppression--how women are both impacted by it and also hurt one another through it--is a worthy topic and Pinkins' take offers a variety of perspectives--from contemporary to historical that look at class, culture, prejudice and more--in one show. And that's admirable, but some of the stories need tightening to truly add to the discussion started by the #MeToo and #TimesUpNow movements. 

Traditional native chant sets an appropriate tone at the production's opening, reminiscent on how traditional history is often told again and again through music, but the subsequent musical interludes that connect the short works often feel amateurish with uneven dancing. The last song about the infamous "C" word, which provokes smiles as the women on stage take back the taboo with a punchy take, ultimately fails because the language is not nimble or provocative enough. This flaw permeates through the piece and removing the mawkishness and periodic overwriting would elevate the entire show as well as its songs. Perhaps in the show's next incarnation, the execution will be more taut and effective. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Laughing Liberally: Make America Laugh Again

Laughing Liberally: Make America Laugh Again, an evening of left-leaning stand-up comedy, provides a bubble of shared beliefs, politically correct (and occasionally incorrect) commentary, incisive humor, and the comfort of being among friends (assuming, of course, that you're a liberal). With changing line-ups, it can be hit or miss; the night I saw it, the major hits were John Fugelsang (smooth and fast and surprising and witty) and The Reformed Whores (bawdy and silly and insightful and very sex-positive). Your odds of enjoying yourself will naturally rely on the combination of your tastes and the particular line-ups, but in general you can expect a fun, quick-moving evening.

The Reformed Whores
Here are the line-ups going forward:

Saturday 9/14
  • Jeff Kreisler
  • Dean Obeidallah
  • Joyelle Johnson
  • John Fugelsang
  • Elayne Boosler

Tuesday, 9/17
  • Natalia Reagan
  • Gregory Joseph
  • Mehran Khaghani
  • John Fugelsang
  • Janeane Garofalo

Wednesday, 9/18
  • TBD
  • Gregory Joseph
  • Calvin Cato
  • Scott Blakeman
  • John Fugelsang

Thursday, 9/19
  • Kevin Bartini
  • Leah Bonnema
  • Chuck Nice
  • Liz Miele
  • David Feldman
  • John Fugelsang

Friday, 9/20
  • John Fugelsang
  • Judy Gold
  • Elayne Boosler

Saturday 9/21
  • TBD
  • John Fugelsang
  • Elayne Boosler

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, 4th row)

Sunday, September 08, 2019

American Moor

When Keith Hamilton Cobb first took an acting class, he wanted to play Titania from A Midsummer Night's Dream. His acting teacher said no. Cobb continued to make creative suggestions; his teacher continued to say no. Finally, his teacher made recommendations. For some strange reason, all of them were "Moors." You see, Cobb is black, and his teacher was a jerk.

However, this is just one side of the racial limitations put onto to Cobb. On the flip side, in his professional career white directors would try to explain roles such as Othello to him. As Cobb says in his play American Moor, in which he also stars, they didn't trust him, a big black man, to perhaps have a fuller understanding of Othello, a big black man. Add to this that directors' suggestions often leaned toward the offensive, and it's easy to understand how and why Cobb could end up annoyed and tired and flat-out pissed.

Much of American Moor happens in Cobb's head during an audition to play Othello, with the director (Josh Tyson, in a very minor part) whitesplaining the lead character and Cobb pondering and dealing with the historical, professional, and personal ramifications of this, for him, representative life experience.

Cobb's descriptions of his life as a 6'4" black man and actor are hard-hitting. His performances of lines and speeches from Shakespeare are well-done. But I was ultimately uninvolved by American Moor. I'm not sure why, if it was the writing or the flow or that it was a Saturday matinee or that the show felt too performed. Some people in the audience were clearly touched and affected by Cobb and his show; about a dozen people gave it a standing ovation. But, for me--and I suspect for others in the audience--there was a disconnect.

Nevertheless, I am glad that the wonderful Red Bull Theatre broke from their usual centuries-old plays to produce this new show about how the classics live in today's people and how today's people live in the classics.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 7th row)

Monday, August 19, 2019

Art Times: Whose Opinion Matters?

My latest essay is up at Art Times:

The holy grail of New York theater is a rave review in the New York Times. It doesn’t guarantee success (and a pan doesn’t guarantee failure), but a rave certainly increases the odds of the show running. That’s why the paper is quoted all over posters and ads. “Brilliant,” says the New York Times. “Must-see” says the New York Times. “Ground-breaking,” says the New York Times. Many other cities also have professional critics whose reviews can affect the financial success of a show.

read more

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Queen of Hearts

Ian Spring and LEXXE as Alice. Photo: Mark Shelby Perry

This burlesque journey down the rabbit hole transforms Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a circus-tinged, sexy romp. Theatre XIV’s Queen of Hearts reinterprets Alice’s introduction to Wonderland and all of its characters into lively tableaus, where performers pose and pivot — creating scenes full of beauty and eroticism that showcase conceiver/choreographer/director Austin McCormick’s inventiveness and sense of play.

It’s not for everybody — and it’s advertised as a show for over 21. While the mix of circus, opera, magic, dance and music is vastly entertaining, the show celebrates the art of the tease — with barely there, sometimes S&M-inspired costumes and a healthy appreciation for beautiful bodies highlighted by glitter, feathers, leather and whatever else will showcase their curves (Wardrobe Supervisor Lauren Brandt). Part of the show is enjoying the titillating movements of the firm, young performers on stage. Alice (LEXXE), in Theatre XIV’s version, is somewhat of a naughty girl, both minx and innocent.

The eclectic selection of music – from Neil Sedaka’s “Alice in Wonderland” to Perry Como’s “Dream on Little Dreamer” to Rossini’s “La Pastorella” adds to the fun. The tunes constantly surprise — what other version of the Alice story has the Mad Hatter (a captivating Marcy Richardson) singing Lady Gaga in it — and honors traditional burlesque, which often peppered shows with high-brow references, like McCormick’s use of opera and ballet, assuming a certain level of sophistication in its audience. 

Theatre XIV recently moved into the space at 383 Troutman St. in Bushwick, Brooklyn, launching their 2018-2019 season there, and the show uses the venue to heighten the audience’s experience: it's arranged more as a salon than a conventional theater, with even one of the numbers starting from a large champagne-shaped goblet on the bar before continuing to the stage. You can imbibe on cocktails like the Queen of Hearts (Champagne Brut, Blackberry Liqueur) or Painting the Roses Red (Rose Gin, Aperol, Lillet), among other drinks and snacks.

The running time at two hours and 30 minutes is a tad bit long (it has TWO intermissions … and it’s not even Wagner), but overall Queen of Hearts offers the joyful, entertaining respite of an old-fashioned cabaret – your troubles are left outside and momentarily disappear amid all the joyful frivolity.

Shows run Thursdays through Sundays and select Wednesdays (through Nov. 2). For exact times, visit and for more info see Tickets run from $85-$155, with VIP couches for two starting at $325.

View the Queen of Hearts 30-second promo video trailer at

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)