Monday, December 07, 2020

Singular Sensation (book review)

I reviewed Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway by Michael Riedel, on Talkin' Broadway. I had mixed feelings. 

To read the review, please click here.

Thursday, October 29, 2020


Great news: It's not too late to watch The Mint's fabulous production of the painfully timely 1925 play Conflict. (Review of the production here.) For free. This is a nicely done video of the full production, and I recommend it highly. (BTW, it can only be watched from The Mint site and not on YouTube, but I ran a cable from my computer to my TV and the quality was excellent.) It's available through November 1.

Jeremy Beck and Jessie Shelton 
Photo: Todd Cerveris

Here's the info from their website:

Free On Demand Streaming of Miles Malleson’s election comedy CONFLICT runs from Monday October 19 through November 1. Closed Captioning is available.

If you need the Password, send an email to and watch for a response.

If you don’t see a reply, please check your spam folder and make sure you have a valid “reply to” address.

Mint is proud to have our artists back on payroll while offering you an opportunity to experience great plays and productions from the safety and comfort of your own home. We are gratified to know that we are providing a lift to out-of-work actors while sharing the Mint experience with old and new friends from around the world. Your support helps to make this possible.

Please consider making a gift to the Mint. Thank you!

The Mint itself can be reached at 

Wendy Caster

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Far Away (PTP/NYC)

In the past couple of decades, Caryl Churchill has perfected the oblique and concentrated one-act play, somehow providing the intellectual challenge and emotional punch of the best of full-length plays in less than an hour. Examples include Escaped Alone (55 minutes), a cutting examination of  people maintaining "normality" as the world unravels; A Number (60 minutes), which considers cloning from a clone's point of view; and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You (45 minutes), an evisceration of the United States' treatment of other countries. 

Caitlin Duffy and Ro Boddie

And then there is Far Away, which brilliantly depicts an existence that is just to the right of our current world. (The original New York production, in 2002, came across as a "what if" exercise, with a certain amount of insanity/metaphor/magic realism. In 2020, after many "what ifs" have actually occurred, the world of Far Away feels considerably less far away.)

Nesba Crenshaw and Lilah May Pfeiffer 

It's difficult to describe Far Away without spoilers. In fact, almost any description would tell too much. Suffice to say that it depicts a world where good things happen, horrible things happen, and as regular people go from day to day in their uncontroversial lives they may be more complicit than they would ever guess. 

The excellent PTP/NYC posted an amazingly successful streaming version of Far Away last week. Cheryl Faraone directed with her usual subtle intelligence, and she made simple but effective decisions to utilize the strengths of streaming (everyone in the audience has an excellent seat) and bypass the weaknesses (the use of identical backdrops and choreographed looks between actors make it easy to forget that they were not in the same room). Unfortunately, the current situation made impossible a truly amazing coup de theatre in the play, and I'm not sure that Faraone's replacement was sufficient to let new audiences know exactly what was going on. (In the original NY production at the NYTW, the scene was equal parts thrilling and chilling.)

In a streaming production, the skills of the performers are particularly important, and the cast is terrific: Lilah May Pfeiffer nicely shows that the questioning nature of young people can become dangerous; Nesba Crenshaw believably sinks into paranoia--or does she?--without ever seeming crazy; Ro Boddie charms as he negotiates finding a coworker attractive; and Caitlin Duffy is superbly both guarded and transparent as she struggles to understand what is happening inside and outside of her world and how she should respond.

It may seem strange to review a production that is no longer available and that can't be discussed in any real detail, but here's the thing: the wonderful people at PTP/NYC are already planning their next season, which will likely include other strong and significant shows, beautifully produced. That's what they've been doing for decades. 

Wendy Caster

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Seven Sins

Company XIV cast of Seven Sins. Photo by Mark Shelby Perry.
Seven Sins by Company XIV, their most cohesive production to date, tells the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and the introduction of the seven deadly sins using three narrators. Cemiyon Barber/Scott Schneider (Adam) and Emily Stockwell/Danielle J.S. Gordon (Eve) unfold the tale through movement, while Amy Jo Jackson as The Devil dominates with strong vocals and a hedonistic presence — her non-apologetic Satan embraces every bit of sequined avarice.

Stockwell* towers over Barber and when they dance, it exposes a lovely awkwardness: a subtle nod to humanity’s flaws and life’s inequity amid the beauty of their gestures. Eve — created by Adam’s rib, in a Vegas-like bit where Adam gets sawed in half and she magically appears in a cage — possesses a gangliness that contrasts with Barber’s sleekness. After a glittery snake, carried by a team of acolytes in bondage wear, introduces the apple, the two awkwardly remove ugly transparent costumes that emphasize their naked body parts, struggle with their nudity in a frantic fig leaf dance and, ultimately, join most of the vices onstage.

Some of the pair’s participation is integral to the number like when Lust (a provocative Lilin) shimmies over a blindfolded Adam in an elaborate lap dance. In others, for instance when Sloth (Troy Lingelbach) twists acrobatically over them as they sit sedately in a bathtub, offer less insight into story — giving spectacle rather than showing Adam and Eve’s evolution as both adapt to this new world full of temptations.

While Director/Choreographer Austin McCormick always creates inventive and entertaining productions, his work can lack emotional impact and a smoothness in storytelling. Even past pieces with well-known storylines, such as Cinderella and Snow White, slip into periodic vacuity when pageantry becomes more important than its characters. Seven Sins, however, provides real resonance, especially when using Adam and Eve as more than mere stand-ins, raising the bar for McCormick’s work and pushing beyond the litany of provocative acts. A pas de deux by the Eden outcasts near the end, for instance, is lovingly done, evoking a closeness of the couple and a yearning for what they’ve lost: a truly moving moment.

Seven Sins continues Company XV’s signature burlesque that mostly succeeds. Marcy Richardson, always a powerhouse, embodies Greed as she embraces the ultimate stripper pole and blends opera with an appreciation for her leanness and grace. Nolan McKew and Troy Lingelbach as Jealousy show athleticism as they try to outdo each other while suspended over the audience. More hokey is the Gluttony number that goes on for several segments and showcases silly posturing with plastic foods and an over-the-top can-can. Still, the blend of low- and high-brow entertainment embodies what Company XV provides in all of their shows — where else can you see such a collection of opera, nudity, dance, cabaret and circus acts?

The show runs through Oct. 31 (383 Troutman St., Bushwick, Brooklyn) Thursday-Sunday. Two hours with two intermissions. New Serpent VIP seating is available, and includes a variety of snacks, drinks and tableside entertainment. Tickets start at $85 and range from $245-$295 for VIP seating. For more information, see:

*in the Thursday night performance seen by the reviewer

Friday, February 21, 2020

West Side Story

While it seems that a good half the theater-going public in and around New York City hotly disagrees with me, I'm squarely in the camp that believes Ivo Van Hove's maximal minimalism fails West Side Story in a whole host of ways. This is a real shame: musicals, especially canonical ones, aren't terribly concerned with exploring the nuances of class dynamics, especially as they relate to immigration, race, and place. Had West Side Story been updated with more in the way of cultural insight--as, for example, Daniel Fish's Oklahoma! so brilliantly was--it could easily have served as a springboard for myriad meaningful reflections about the current cultural moment. But Van Hove, never an especially politically savvy director, here doesn't offer any truly compelling justification for what he's done to the musical.

Exceedingly spare in dialogue or much in the way of backstory, West Side Story practically demands a triple-threat cast that can convincingly play teen gangsters who sing exceedingly complicated melodies and nail intensely physical dance sequences between rumbles. Done well, the show is devastating--and not just because of the doomed romance at its core. I've always thought that the cruelest joke of the musical is that the Jets and Sharks are so willing to destroy one another over control of the slum they're forced to share--the dilapidated "turf" the Jets have been stuck in for longer but that the Sharks are guaranteed to have more difficulty getting out of. I suppose Van Hove is trying to drive that notion home via casting that is more honestly reflective of disenfranchised urban teens. But that's about as deep as the show ever gets.

Don't get me wrong: it's nice that the Jets are no longer all white, that the Sharks no longer wear brownface, and that the gang members' "girls" are no longer gum-cracking twits in poodle skirts. There are even some non-binary gang members--can you imagine?! Woah--poor folk sure are diverse! Culture is so very messy, though: is the casting meant to compensate for the presence of Amar Ramasar in the role of Bernardo, or for the production's insistent de-emphasis of the musical's already thinly developed female characters?

The show does have some pluses: a lot of Anne Terese de Keersmaeker's choreography is beautiful. The tableau she has created at the end of the balcony--er, fire escape--scene, during which Tony (Isaac Cole Powell) and Maria (Shereen Pimentel) lean toward each other as their peers pull them apart, is gorgeously lit, and moving in a way that too much of the rest of the production is not. The rumble, which takes place on a bare stage under Van Hove's signature Misty Rain©, is gorgeously lit and staged. And I feel compelled to give a special shout-out to Andrew Sotomayor for the brilliant makeup design: I've seen far too many smeary, fake stage tattoos in my years as a theatergoer; his scars, tats, and piercings are impressively applied. Also, thanks to him, we now get to know what Maria would look like had Chino actually shot her--in the head--at the end of the musical! In slow motion! In hi-res detail!

Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
Given that there's such incredible attention to some details--perfectly sculpted tableaux, realistic battle scars, Maria with a totally gratuitous gaping head-wound--why would the performers' microphones snake so obviously from their hairlines whenever a huge, real-time image of a sneering gang member is projected onto the back wall of the stage? This might seem like a silly thing for me to be hung up on, but then, it is perfectly indicative of the many ways this production, for all its stunningly perfect trees, so regularly misses the forest.

For example: the cast dances together beautifully, but they act and sing far less cohesively. The two leads are lovely--I'm sure they'll both become huge stars--but they're not ideally matched. Powell has terrific stage presence, but his gruffly contemporary Tony doesn't jibe with Pimentel's classic Maria, especially when they sing together and her gorgeous, soaring soprano overpowers his reasonably strong tenor. Other performers' voices are similarly inconsistent, and a number of soloists tend toward riffed embellishments they aren't always vocally strong enough to land. The music director seems to have encouraged the conductor to build countless safeties into the score instead of just insisting that the singers all dial the fuck back on the melisma. As a result, the sonic aspects of the production lack even a hint of the urgent, explosive build Van Hove seems to have been so insistent on newly emphasizing in the first place.

But all the inconsistencies don't hold a candle to the production's biggest misstep, which is in its use of near-constant high-res projections in lieu of a traditional backdrop. Most of the projections reflect the performers' actions in real time, while others have been prerecorded. The tactic is interesting for a few minutes, but the projections too often dwarf or distract from the actors: why is that street scene moving while Tony and Maria are pledging their love to each other? Are they supposed to be walking sideways down the middle of the street as they sing? Are those dancers in the distance also somewhere on the stage, or were they prerecorded? Which actor corresponds to that projection of a gigantic torso? What were those little ants--sorry, I mean actual human non-projected cast members--doing on that cavernous empty stage while I was being mesmerized by that gargantuan mic peeking out from that absolutely epic wig?

I suppose all the tiny, secret compartments Van Hove has devised on, in, and several floors above the stage--Doc's, the dress (here sweat)shop, Maria's bedroom--are meant to reflect overcrowded, constricting urban spaces and the stresses caused by forced togetherness, but they only distract further: why are the actors all crammed into spaces the audience cannot see except via huge, curtailed projections? Are those snacks in the sweatshop? If so, what kind of snacks are they? Are the decorations in Maria's bedroom supposed to be symbolic? What did I miss while I was contemplating the snacks?

Done well, there's a heartbreaking immediacy to West Side Story; after all, it's ultimately about desperate, forgotten teenagers who fight and fuck each other, dream and die together. Van Hove may have been trying to prove various points in relying as heavily as he does on his projections, but because the overuse of them saps the musical's intimacy, all this production of West Side Story has to offer is Misty Rain© falling on some monosyllabic meatheads as they kill time and one another. Those really are some super-convincing face tats, though. Seriously.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Coal Country

I saw a very early performance of Coal Country, so this is a brief report rather than a review.

Coal Country is a documentary theatre performance developed by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the creators of Exonerated (about people wrongly convicted of capital crimes) and Aftermath (about Iraqi refugees). As with their other shows, Coal Country relies on the words of the actual people whose stories are being told--in this case, coal miners and their families--giving it a vivid and sometimes heart-breaking immediacy. In addition, Coal Country features songs written and performed by singer-songwriter Steve Earle.

Coal Country features Mary Bacon, Amelia Campbell, Michael Gaston, Ezra Knight, Thomas Kopache, Michael Laurence, Deirdre Madigan, and Melinda Tanner. It runs 90 minutes with no intermission.

Coal Country runs through March 29 at the Public Theater.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker

One of the many joys of theatre is getting to experience how another person's brain and imagination work. Last night at La Mama, the brain and imagination belonged to Theodora Skipitares, who conceived, designed, made puppets for, and directed The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker.

Banneker puppet. 
Photo by Theo Cote.

Banneker puppet.
Photo by Theo Cote.

Who was Benjamin Banneker? According to Skipitares' directors notes,
An 18th century descendent of an enslaved man, [Banneker] was a self-taught astronomer who made historic discoveries at his homestead outside Baltimore. 
Banneker’s role in developing the American scientific enterprise has been largely passed over since his death... Banneker’s position in 18th century American culture marked the first time that white society had to openly acknowledge an African American’s discoveries. Yet Banneker’s correspondence with a sympathetic but fundamentally indifferent Thomas Jefferson showed the limits of the recognition that African Americans could expect from official society. 
Skipitares chooses to explore--no, celebrate--this story through drumming (by the incredible Soul Tigers), music (by LaFrae Sci), dancing (choreography by Edisa Weeks), narration, and fabulous puppetry. (As with many good things, it takes a village; see credits below.) The result is sometimes sad, often joyous, frequently funny, fascinatingly informative, and generally entertaining.

Frank Borman puppet.
Photo by Jane Catherine Shaw.

Banneker head with Soul Tigers.
 Photo by Theo Cote.
As I watched the show, I was reminded of a jazz musician's quote I read years ago. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to track it down, but to the best of my memory, he said that jazz wasn't just about the song--it was about how he felt about the song. Similarly, while The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker is indeed about Banneker, it is also about how Skipitares and the rest of the people involved with the show feel about Banneker, and also about science, TV, the role of race in the United States, space travel, and other themes.

Eclipse scene with dancers.
Photo by Theo Cote.
I had some complaints here and there. The narration sometimes jumps confusingly around in time; the visuals don't always match the words (eg, at one point someone was reading a letter written by Banneker but the visual was a letter written by Thomas Jefferson), and I personally would have enjoyed more story and less drumming. But overall, The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker provides a concentrated hour of excellent performance, as well as an introduction to a man we all should have learned about in school.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, first row)

The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker 

  • Conceived, Designed. and Directed by Theodora Skipitares
  • Composer, Musician LaFrae Sci
  • Choreography by Edisa Weeks in collaboration with Jasmine Oton and the performers
  • Puppetry Direction by Jane Catherine Shaw
  • Cast: Timothy Atkinson, Reginald L. Barnes, Eleni Daferera, Nishan Ganimian, Chris Ignacio, Alexandria Joesica Smalls, Jane Catherine Shaw, Tom Walker, 
  • Banneker Dancers: Adeoba Awosika, AnnJeane Cato, Isabel Elliott, Halle Gillett, Janee Jeanbaptiste, Kimori Zinnerman
  • Soul Tigers Marching Band, Inc.: Alora Brooks, Ava DeLeon, Arron Jones, Alex Patterson, Nathalya Pericles, Ionie Pumarejo, Dennis Usher
  • Recorded Voices: Tom Walker, Karen Oughtred, Jane Catherine Shaw, Alexandria Joesica Smalls, Chris Ignacio, Reginald L. Barnes
  • Set Design by Donald Eastman and Theodora Skipitares
  • Lighting by Jeffrey Nash
  • Video Design and Voice Recording by Kay Hines
  • Dramaturgy by Andrea Balis
  • Stage Manager Karen Oughtred
  • Animation Film #1 by Holly Adams
  • Animation Film #2 by Trevor Legeret & Klara Vertes
  • Special Projects by Jim Freeman
  • Scenic Painting by DeAndre Craigman, Taylor Clayton Brooks, Gabe Garcia, Brooke van Hensbergen, Lizzy Duquette
  • Chaperone Andy Safford
  • Banneker Dancers’ Co-Ordinator Francie Johnson-Sealey
  • Executive Director, Soul Tigers Music & Arts Program, Kenyatte L. Hughes
  • Percussion Director, Soul Tigers Marching Band, Osei K. Smith
  • Press Rep, Jonathan Slaff 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

2019-2020: Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Glories of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway

I was going to do a "best-of" for 2019 plus a "looking forward" for 2020, when I realized that their focus would be much the same: the treasure that is non-Broadway theatre.

I'm not denying the treasure that is on-Broadway theatre. There's something undeniably magical about those buildings, with their plush seats, ornate ceilings, and theatrical history. And there are always incredible shows running. But the prices are truly insane.

Once, when I was a kid, my parents were complaining about the price of something. I said, "But that's what it costs now." And my dad said, "Someday you'll be faced with a 'that's what it costs now' that you just refuse to pay. You just can't." I recently decided to bite the bullet and spend a small fortune to see American Utopia. But a small fortune wasn't enough. Could I have afforded the actual price? Yes, as a special treat. But I just couldn't do it. My dad was right.

Maybe it's because I'm old enough to have spent $9 on a "special treat" ticket--Debbie Reynolds in Irene, first row center. I was making $1.95/hr, minimum wage. Now minimum wage is ~$15/hr, and tickets are hundreds of dollars. Something is wrong on Broadway.

But Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway, something is right. You can see fabulous shows with brilliant casts from great seats, and it doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Not even a finger.

Here are ten of the theatre companies that I have found to provide reliably top-notch work at accessible, even cheap, prices. (All are linked to their websites; they're in alphabetical order.)

APAC. It's a pleasure to start with APAC (Astoria Performing Arts Center), which is high on my list of favorite theatre companies, mostly because the artistic director--Dev Bondarin--is one of the most reliably excellent directors in New York. In fact, when Roundabout announced their production of Caroline, or Change, my first thought was that I hoped it would be as good as APAC's!

And here's the thing: APAC's tickets for Caroline were only $25 for adults and $20 for students and senior citizens--an insane bargain. (I don't know if they will go up in the future, but even so, APAC will remain a bargain. Their Caroline was every bit as meaningful, beautiful, and heart-breaking as the original Broadway production!)

APAC has given us brilliant productions of Follies (amazing) and Merry We Roll Along (my favorite of all the productions I have seen, including the original), to mention only a couple. The rest of the 2019-2020 season includes the New York premiere of Jump by Charly Evon Simpson and a revival of Man of La Mancha. And who knows what 2020-2021 will bring?

Bedlam. I'm new to Bedlam, but after seeing their excellent revival of The Crucible (and also on the recommendation of a friend whose opinion I respect), I don't plan to miss any of their shows going forward. They don't seem to have announced their 2020 season, and I wasn't able to track down their ticket prices. (I bought my Crucible tickets on tdf.) But click here for their Facebook page, which may provide more up-to-date info than their website.

Elmwood Playhouse (Nyack, NY). I've only seen one show at the Elmwood, and to be honest I've heard some non-raves about their earlier work. But their production of The Little Foxes was solid, entertaining, and moving. Currently running is the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and tickets are only $27 ($24 for seniors and students). The rest of the season includes Born Yesterday, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Calendar Girls.

Flux Theatre Ensemble. I have been a huge Flux fan since 2009 when I saw the wonderful Lesser Seductions of History, a lovely and deeply humane play by Corinna Schulenburg, beautifully directed by Heather Cohn. In the intervening years, I've seen another 15 or so Flux productions, and an insanely large percentage of them have been amazing, incredible, thought-provoking, funny, and all the other things one hopes plays to be.

And talk about inexpensive! Flux doesn't even ask you to lay out money to get a ticket. They do ask you to support Flux in any way you can, but they don't want the price of a ticket to keep people from seeing their shows. (For more info, click here.) I donate to Flux every year.

Next at Flux: the world premiere of Rage Play by Nandita Shenoy, directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet. Runs March 28 through April 11.

Mint Theater Company. The Mint's tag line is "lost plays found here." And what treasures these lost plays are! Also, the Mint has a truly astonishing batting average, providing excellent production after excellent production after excellent production. There was one show I hated, but about a dozen that I liked, liked a lot, or loved. And Mint productions are often eye-opening. Who knew that plays in the early 20th century were grappling so honestly with sexuality and class?

Currently at the Mint is Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories. While I prefer it when the Mint focuses on more obscure writers, I am sure that this production will be worthwhile. After all, it's the Mint! (Ticket prices: $35.00 - $65.00.)

PTP/NYC. The PTP/NYC is yet another theatre company that provides excellent production after excellent production. Here's how they describe themselves on their website:
PTP/NYC is an Off-Broadway powerhouse of veteran and emerging talent creating socially and politically acute theatre for the 21st century. In its 27 seasons [actually, it's 33 now], the voices of PTP/NYC’s writers have addressed the necessity and difficulty of art, homelessness, censorship, pornography, AIDS, totalitarianism, apartheid and gender wars—always in passionate, deeply human terms. Playwrights whose work is often seen on the company’s stages include Howard Barker, Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter and Neal Bell. 
I have been blown away again and again by PTP/NYC, particularly by plays directed by co-artistic director Cheryl Faraone. Faraone's productions are lucid and smart; she lets the plays tell their stories with a subtle and smooth hand.

I don't know what PTP/NYC has up their sleeve; unfortunately, their website is terrible. But I do know that, whatever they produce, I'll be there.

Red Bull Theater. The Red Bull focuses on past centuries--often far past. For example, their next (one-night) event is a January 27 reading of Women Beware Women, Thomas Middleton's 17th century social satire. (There are $47 tickets left, and the reading has a very classy cast. For more info, click here). Sometimes I wish Red Bull productions were clearer; sometimes I wish they were truer to the original plays. But I'm always grateful to have seen their productions, feeling entertained and/or educated. And sometimes I'm blown away.

Signature Theatre. The Signature has a unique role in NY theatre, focusing largely on living playwrights but often including revivals of their earlier works. Signature used to pick one playwright per season; now they combine "legacy" and "residency" playwrights. The 2019-2020 season includes plays by Anna Deavere Smith, Horton Foote, Katori Hall, and Lauren Yee. And tickets are $35. Thirty-five dollars! (And ticket packages eliminate any fees, while providing a generous exchange policy.)

Voyage Theater Company. The VTC is brand-new to me, but I'm putting them on this list based on their production of The Hope Hypothesis. There's no way to know if their future productions will be as good, but I do know I'll give them a try.

York Theatre Company. The York is devoted to musicals, old and new, with main stage productions (such as the wonderful Desperate Measures and Unexpected Joy), concert readings (the fabulous Mufti series, recently including the very entertaining The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter), and a developmental series of over 30 readings a year. (Shows developed or partially developed at the York include Avenue Q and the brilliant, insanely funny Musical of Musicals: The Musical.) Some York shows are flat-out wonderful; minimally, the Muftis are of of historical interest; the casts are often top-notch; and the voices are unmiked. Main stage tickets are $67.50 - $72.50; Muftis are $45 - $50. Plus you can get a York membership, which reduces the ticket prices significantly, and there are various forms of rush tickets.


Strange to think that, for a price of a pair of tickets to a Broadway show, you could see a show or two at all ten of these theatre companies! And I hope you do.

Wendy Caster