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