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Saturday, September 16, 2023

alt-Hamlet

What do you get if you stir together abortion rights, cancel culture, and Hamlet, throw in hints of Becket and Brecht, and add sharp writing, excellent acting, and fabulous make-up and costumes? The impressive alt-Hamlet, beautifully written and directed by Suzanne Willett, which is at the Players Theatre on MacDougal St through September 24th.

It's a heady mix, often funny, always insightful, frequently confusing, sometimes stunning. (It's also a little flabby, being maybe 15 minutes too long, but, oh, well.) It is very hard to describe!


Davon Howard, Yuliya Donovan
Photo: Find the Light


Alessandro Caronna
Photo: Find the Light

Here's what the website says:

Two Berkeley sisters come to realize the economics of being a woman.

A ghost, Gloria B.--the mother of Susan and Bella--tells her daughters to avenge her murder by uncovering their father’s guilt. Susan, a newly converted economics major, feigns madness by obsessively interpreting events through economics. Her sister, Bella, does the same via psychology. As the sisters gradually uncover the depth of their father’s duplicity, they spiral down into a cancel culture contest with deadly consequences. It’s a comedy.

But this description leaves out so, so much. More useful is this note from the script: "This is a carnivalesque/grotesque style of performance. Nothing should be sacred." The father is a demented ring master, his new wife a giant spider. Pregnancy is represented by balloons, abortion by excruciating popping thereof. One character is obsessed with representation via social media. And that still leaves out so much.

Leah Barker, Miranda Renée
Photo: Find the Light


Emily Ann Banks
Photo: Find the Light

Here's the thing: this is a rich and fascinating theatrical experience that doesn't feel required to explain itself and that dares to teeter over into too-too-much-ness. Watching it, I vacillated between thinking that this was Off-Off-Broadway pretentiousness and being sure it was brilliant. I was sometimes bored. I was frequently thrilled. There is great skill here, and great commitment. 

I left astonished yet again at the amazing things one can see in a nondescript theatre in a nondescript building, put together by people who give their time and effort and intelligence and talent for little outer reward (but, I hope, great inner reward). It's an incredible accomplishment.

Wendy Caster





Monday, August 28, 2023

How to Steal an Election

In this sad time of theatres' laying off staff, shortening seasons, and disappearing altogether, there is at least one bright spot: the York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti are back!!

Musicals in Mufti are somewhat informal (actors get only four days of rehearsal, they carry scripts during performances, costumes tend to be simple, etc) but always worthwhile. Sometimes they bring back familiar titles: eg, Tenderloin, Subways Are for Sleeping, I Love My Wife, I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, The Baker's Wife. Sometimes they reconsider iffy but interesting shows: Cyrano, Roadside, Big, Minnie's Boys. And sometimes they provide rare looks at the odd and/or historical: Keen, Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi. Sometimes the original creators are involved; Comden and Green rewrote a bit of Billion Dollar Baby, a show they had created 53 years earlier! And the performers are often amazing, whether early in their careers (Kristin Chenoweth) or well-know (Tyne Daly).


I would categorize the current Musical in Mufti, How to Steal an Election, as odd and historical. The cast is astonishing. A satirical revue in which Calvin Coolidge (the charming Jason Graae) explains politics to disaffected young people in the late 1960s, its humor is hit and miss, and its point of view a bit inconsistent. Some of the songs are funny, a few are beautiful, and some aren't either. Is it a great show? No. Am I glad I saw it? Yes: partially just to have seen it; partially to enjoy the high points; partially to watch/listen to that amazing cast; and partially to just be at a Musical in Mufti again after so many years. 

Years ago, when I saw Kristin Chenoweth in Billion Dollar Baby, I knew the second she opened her mouth that she was a star, as did the rest of the audience. You could feel the excitement. A similar moment happened last night when Alex Joseph Grayson started singing. Electricity zinged through the audience, and his applause was long and loud. Gorgeous voice, gorgeous man. For his sake and ours, I hope he works for many, many years in many, many shows. (Some of you may already know his work; he was recently in Parade on Broadway. But he was new to me, and a real revelation.)

While Grayson was extraordinarily extraordinary, the rest of the cast was also wonderful, with beautiful voices, good comic acting, and even some dandy tap dancing: Courtney Arango, Kelly Berman, Emma Degerstedt, Drew Tanabe.

How to Steal an Election is on through next weekend; it closes Sept 3rd. The rest of the season consists of The Lieutenant (opening Sept 10th), Golden Rainbow (Sept 24th), and When We Get There (Oct 8th). The York's website is here.

Wendy Caster

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

If I were forced to name one favorite show, it might well be Sweeney Todd. (Actually, it would be Sweeney-Night Music-Follies, but that's cheating.) Sweeney's size, wit, pathos, beauty, and lushness add up to an evening of riches. It can also be enjoyably frightening.

The current Sweeney, starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, leans heavily on the wit and humor (and, unfortunately, shtick), leaving it less emotional and devastating. However, it is beautifully sung and often quite funny, and its (relatively) large orchestra is a gift. 

I have in the past discussed with friends whether Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett ever had sex. Most of my friends said no. I thought they did, although not necessarily good sex. In this production, they are definitely lovers, and they enjoy each other. Whereas most of the Sweeneys I've seen have sung "A LIttle Priest" with humor, they have still been somewhat stiff, definitely damaged. Groban's Sweeney is loose, giggly, and even flirty, and it's nice to see Sweeney having fun for once. While the production's emphasis on humor undercuts its power, having Sweeney like Mrs. Lovett makes her betrayal hit particularly hard.

Josh Groban lacks the gravitas to totally pull off Sweeney, but his voice is gorgeous. Annaleigh Ashford carries her shtick too far into the story, undercutting the show's impact, but she is frequently wonderful.

The direction is messy. Sometimes it is impossible to find what you should be focusing on. And, ironically enough, despite the production's humorous bent, it misses some of the best jokes in the show. Also, the choreography is a total minus for the show and completely unnecessary.

Overall, though, this Sweeney is well worth seeing. While not the best version I've seen, it is solid. And, oh, that music!

Wendy Caster 

Monday, August 14, 2023

Orpheus Descending

Tennessee Williams’s play Orpheus Descending (recently at the Theatre for a New Audience) was the first of his works to be produced. While it is not one of his masterpieces, it is still rich, sad, funny, fascinating, and compellingly overwrought.

As described on TFANA’s website, the play “tells the story of the passion of two outcasts—Lady Torrance, a storekeeper’s wife and daughter of a murdered Sicilian bootlegger, and Val, a wandering guitar player—and their attempt to escape from a Southern Hell.”


Lady (the excellent Maggie Siff) and Val (Pico Alexander) must negotiate dealings with a wide variety of townspeople: Maggie’s husband, deathly ill but still quite powerful and mean; Carol Cutere, a needy young woman with little chance of ever getting her needs met; Vee Talbott (the wonderful Ana Reeder), who turns her religious visions into paintings; and her husband, the sheriff, who operates in a much more concrete–and dangerous–manner. There are also the town gossips, Maggie’s husband’s nurse, and others. 

Lady and Val exist in a different world than the rest of the town, and they inevitably get involved, despite the dangers of doing so. They talk and actually listen to each other, they understand each other, and they are deeply drawn to each other physically. Most importantly, they find hope in each other.

Erica Schmidt’s direction of the TFANA production left much to be desired in terms of clarify and use of space. The cast was uneven. Maggie Siff had the presence and skill necessary to ground the play in the underpinning of reality that it needs. Pico Alexander lacked the animal magnetism required by his role, which threw off the balance of the play. But all in all, the TFANA production was vibrant and alive.


Wendy Caster


Thursday, August 10, 2023

Once Upon a One More Time

Once Upon a One More Time is not a show I would usually see. The only thing I know about Britney Spears is that she's in the news a lot and has had some tough times. And I don't care much about fairy tales. And I relate to princesses not at all.

But my old friend Linda's son is in the show. Many years ago, Linda and I used to sneak into shows together; we'd travel an hour and a half each way to see a 50-minute second act! We saw entire shows when we had the money, but that was not often. We were kids.

The thing is, Broadway was complete magic to us. The people on stage were otherworldly--certainly not regular humans. Broadway was a place for joy and pain and catharsis and wonder and breath-taking talent. My view of Broadway has gotten a bit less shiny over the years, but there is still part of me that is gob-smacked by Broadway talent. So if Linda's son is in a show, I'm going! 

He's Joshua Daniel Johnson, and he's a particularly fabulous part of a particularly fabulous ensemble. He and they are wonderful, energetic, radiant. And they work their butts off! I'm in awe. 

The show itself is fun, full of wild choreography and great singing. Spears' songs are great to listen to, and the entire cast is top-notch. 

It's too bad that the book, while full of funny lines and good ideas, doesn't engage the audience emotionally (or at least this audience). It's hard to care about Cinderella, Prince Charming, and Snow White (despite the hard work and excellence of the performers) when they are written as stick figures. 

Once Upon a One More Time is an excellent concert, however, and I had a great time.

Wendy Caster

Friday, June 02, 2023

Tony Predictions, Because Why Not?

Well, it is that time of year again. The 76th Tony Awards will recognize theatrical achievements on Broadway for the 2022-23 season. Who will win? Below are Show Showdown's guesses.

Clip from New York, New York

Best Book of a Musical

Liz: Kimberly Akimbo

Wendy: Wow, one I’d finally bet on: Kimberly Akimbo, David Lindsay-Abaire.

Sandra: Ditto (I submitted my predictions last … so you might see this a few times).

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre
Liz: Kimberly Akimbo

Wendy: Kimberly Akimbo, Music: Jeanine Tesori, Lyrics: David Lindsay-Abaire

Sandra: Ditto

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Liz: Wendell Pierce, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Pierce was revelatory as Willy Loman and richly deserving of the award. I thought Stephen McKinley Henderson was also brilliant in Between Riverside and Crazy, and I’d be delighted if he took this, but I suspect it’ll go to Pierce.

Wendy: Tough, tough, tough category to guess. I guess this is kinda cheating, but I predict the two men from Topdog/Underdog. I just hope that Sean Hayes doesn’t win; his winning would seem just too #TonysTooWhite

Sandra: The fate of Willy Loman and his family is always wrenching, but particularly so in this version … and Wendell Pierce’s take on the iconic role ups the ante.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Liz: Jodie Comer, Prima Facie. I confess I’ve seen none of these, so this is a shot in the dark, but Comer apparently gives a mesmerizing, scenery-chewing, shape-shifting, mountain-moving, buckets-of-sweat-spill-your-guts-out performance, which is just total Tony bait.  

Wendy: This category should have five nominees! That being said, I think Jodie Comer, Prima Facie, has got it. Her performance is astonishing, and the role is full of the dramatic opportunities that nab trophies. If Comer wasn’t in the list, I think Jessica Chastain, A Doll's House, would have been the winner. Truly, this category sums up the weirdness of awards: four nominees instead of five for no real reason, and comparing apples, oranges, kumquats and motorcycles.

Sandra: Let’s make this lucky number seven for Audra McDonald.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Liz: J. Harrison Ghee, Some Like It Hot. Ghee’s performance as a trans jazz musician who discovers their true self as Daphne was by equal turns hilarious, graceful, beautiful to watch, and deeply moving.

Wendy: Everyone but Borle would be a legit winner here (I thought he was miscast and not all that interesting). I predict J. Harrison Ghee, Some Like It Hot, because their performance is lovely and something new.

Sandra: J. Harrison Ghee, Some Like It Hot. This was my favorite show of the season and part of that is because of Ghee who brings joy to this role and glorious tapping.


Some Like It Hot


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Liz: Victoria Clark, Kimberly Akimbo. Diamond could take this instead, but she never quite nails the southern accent; Clark makes what could have been a cliché of a character into a deeply nuanced, believable, lovable one.

Wendy: Victoria Clark, Kimberly Akimbo, is a shoo-in.

Sandra: Ditto. I have adored Victoria Clark since The Light in the Piazza and my admiration for her intensified after reading this New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/10/theater/kimberly-akimbo-victoria-clark.html

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Liz: Brandon Uranowitz, Leopoldstadt. Uranowitz was memorable in a very crowded cast of characters. That said, I’d be pleased if any of the nominees ended up winning this category.

Wendy: I’m going with Jordan E. Cooper, Ain't No Mo'. Fabulous performances!

Sandra: David Zayas, Cost of Living. I just loved this show … and he was wonderful — steadfast and moving.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Liz: Katy Sullivan, Cost of Living. This is total wishful thinking, but in both the original production and the Broadway one, Sullivan was funny and raw in the role of a paraplegic woman struggling to adjust to her new disabilities, and a life without her ex-husband.

Wendy: Katy Sullivan, Cost of Living. Though, once again, how can anyone possibly compare these performances?

Sandra: Katy Sullivan, Cost of Living. Who didn’t gasp during that bathtub scene? What a compelling and brave moment.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Liz: Alex Newell, Shucked. 
Newell stopped the show mid-act when I saw it, and apparently continues to do so every damn time with her barn-raiser of a solo number.  

Wendy: Kevin Del Aguila, Some Like It Hot, is a total crowd pleaser.

Sandra: Gotta go with Wendy on this one. You have to love Osgood Fielding III … if only Elon Musk was so open-minded and jovial.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Liz: Bonnie Milligan, Kimberly Akimbo

Wendy: Bonnie Milligan, Kimberly Akimbo, is a crowd pleaser.

Sandra: I feel like Sweeney deserves some acknowledgment this season and Ruthie Ann Miles is its best shot, bringing a seething fury and sadness to the beggar woman.



Kimberly Akimbo



Best Scenic Design of a Play
Liz:  I had some other guess here, but I totally just changed it because I too think Wendy had the better guess. What she says: 

Wendy: Tim Hatley & Andrzej Goulding, Life of Pi

Sandra: I’m with Wendy. Look what they did with a boat …

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Liz: Beowulf Boritt, New York, New York. New York, New York is not as genuinely terrible as most of the reviews imply…but then, the scenic design really did stand out as a particular strength.

Wendy: Beowulf Boritt, New York, New York

Sandra: Beowulf Boritt, New York, New York. I loved the subtle sketching of a city neighborhood that no longer exists — with its balconies overlooking everyone’s business.

Best Costume Design of a Play
Liz: Emilio Sosa, Ain't No Mo'. For Peaches’ glorious getups alone….

Wendy: Emilio Sosa, Ain't No Mo'

Sandra: Ditto

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Liz: Gregg Barnes, Some Like It Hot. I would happily wear the same pair of jeans and ratty t-shirt every day of my life if I could, and yet I coveted every damn outfit worn in this show.

Wendy: Gregg Barnes, Some Like It Hot

Sandra: Ditto


& Juliet



Best Lighting Design of a Play
Liz: Bradley King, Fat Ham

Wendy: Jon Clark, A Doll's House

Sandra: Tim Lutkin, Life of Pi

Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Liz: Natasha Katz. No idea who will win, so I’m guessing Katz because she’s nominated twice. For which show? Dunno.

Wendy: Ken Billington, New York, New York

Sandra: Natasha Katz, Some Like It Hot

Best Sound Design of a Play
Liz: Ben & Max Ringham. See "lighting design" above.

Wendy: Ben & Max Ringham, A Doll's House. Rarely has sound design had such a significant role in the ambience, meaning, and success of a play.

Sandra: Carolyn Downing, Life of Pi

Best Sound Design of a Musical
Liz: Gareth Owen, & Juliet

Wendy: Scott Lehrer & Alex Neumann, Into the Woods

Sandra: I’m with Wendy with this one.


Shucked Broadway Recording of "Corn."


Best Direction of a Play
Liz: Saheem Ali, Fat Ham

Wendy: Aargh! How to choose? I’m going with Stevie Walker-Webb, Ain't No Mo', for his breathtakingly energetic, theatrical directing.

Sandra:
Patrick Marber, Leopoldstadt

Best Direction of a Musical
Liz
: Lear deBessonet, Into the Woods. I was never a huge fan of this particular show, but deBessonet’s bubbly, joyous production was thoroughly delightful.

Wendy: Lear deBessonet, Into the Woods.

Sandra: Casey Nicholaw, Some Like It Hot. That chase scene alone deserves a Tony.

Best Choreography
Liz: Casey Nicholaw, Some Like It Hot. Call me a sucker for an old-fashioned tap-heavy musical, but come on, now.

Wendy: Another tough category. Casey Nicholaw, Some Like It Hot.

Sandra: Casey Nicholaw, Some Like It Hot. I haven’t seen such exciting tap since 42nd Street--and did I mention that chase scene?

Best Orchestrations
Liz: No clue, truly. May the best orchestrator win.

Wendy: Jason Howland, Shucked. Total guess!

Sandra: Bill Sherman and Dominic Fallacaro, & Juliet. Because I just want them to win something.

Best Play
Liz: Leopoldstadt. Stoppard’s legacy and the fact that this show keeps getting described as “probably his very last” will result, I think, in a symbolic win. That’ll be fine with me, but then, so would it be if any other show nominated wins for best play instead.

Wendy: I adore Stoppard, and I think he's going to win, but I'd love it to be Fat Ham.

Sandra: What Liz said.

Best Musical
Liz: Some Like It Hot. Big, splashy, sweetly subversive, lotsa tap dance.

Wendy: I predict Kimberly Akimbo.

Sandra: Some Like It Hot. Really fun, exuberant, well-staged musical.

Best Revival of a Play
Liz: The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. I really loved this production and this play, even as I suspect I’m wrong and it won’t win.

Wendy: Topdog/Underdog, but I wouldn't bet a lot of money on it.

Sandra: The Piano Lesson

Best Revival of a Musical
Liz: Parade. I’m really not a big fan of this show, even as I recognize that the production is solid. I would be delighted if Into the Woods upset the cart, but that’s no longer running and Parade is.

Wendy: Into the Woods. I have more faith in people's memories, but, hey, I could be wrong.

Sandra: Parade. A moving production that offers context about the true story

All video clips from YouTube

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams's Greatest Creation (book review)

I reviewed Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams's Greatest Creation at Talkin' Broadway:

Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams's Greatest Creation, by Nancy Schoenberger, is an odd little book. Saying that it runs some 193 pages of actual content is generous, as that includes a number of white pages, a faux obituary of Blanche DuBois, and four pages of sonnets, created by Schoenberger, that purport to be what Blanche's long-dead young husband might have written (!!!). Trimmed of its repetitions, the book could have made a fairly interesting long essay in The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books.

continue reading 



 Wendy Caster

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Assassins

The Gallery Players production of Assassins is unfortunately not up to its usual standards. I admire the ambition of attempting Assassins, with its non-plot, odd politics, long swaths of spoken scenes, and challenging score. But: Some of the performers didn't sing well enough or act well enough. A few were completely miscast. The band lacked cohesion, and the sound design didn't help it or the performers. The sound effects didn't work: the noises of a bottle-making factory sounded more like someone snoring, and the gunshots were too low and distant to discomfort the audience as they should. Some of the costumes didn't work; in particular, John Wilkes Booth's suit seemed more appropriate for a comedian than a dashing serious actor. The lighting was occasionally murky.

Weirdly enough, however, I would not dissuade you from going. Despite its many flaws, the production was ultimately disturbing in the right way.

Wendy Caster




Friday, May 05, 2023

Some Numerical Thoughts on the Tonys

Entertainment awards are silly and they're also endlessly fascinating. Part of the allure is the fashion, pomp, and party atmosphere. A bigger part, for me, is the speeches--at least, those speeches that show some personality, humor, and emotion. Add exciting numbers from nominated musicals, and a good time is had by most.

However, what drives me the most crazy, personally, about the Tonys comes down to numbers. For example, with four nominees, someone could win with only 31% of the vote, with the other three nominees receiving an average of 23% each. With five nominees, the winner might only have 24% of the vote, with the other four nominees averaging 19% each. (At least the Tonys have nothing as silly as the 10 nominees for best picture, in which the winner could have as little as 20% of the vote, with the other nominees averaging 8.9% each.)



While the examples I have given are extreme, the point still stands that someone can win a "best" award without even getting a majority of the vote.

Then we get to the odd rules set by the Tonys. For example, if a category has nine or more potential nominees, there will be five nominations (barring any ties). But if it has fewer, there will be four nominations. What has that got to do with the quality of the productions or performances? In cases where there are four nominees, is there a lessening in quality for the potential fifth because he/she/it/they had fewer competitors? If another show opened at the last minute, bringing the total to nine in various categories, would that fifth potential nominee suddenly improve?

In the other direction, are there always four or five performances/productions that definitely deserve to be nominated? There have been many times where the fourth nominee definitely came across as filler. And that's not even mentioning painful years such as 1995 when Sunset Boulevard won a slew of awards with only one competitor or none! Does that make Sunset Boulevard's Tonys worth less? I guess it depends on how you feel about Sunset Boulevard. (IMHO, worse shows have won, but not many.)

The final numberical issue is the total number of nominations for a particular show. Yes, Some Like It Hot is an amiable and enjoyable musical, but ads screaming "13 nominations!" suggest the show is brilliant. Four of the noms are design nominations, and, yes, it is a beautifully designed show. But that doesn't make it a great show. Another four are performance nominations. And, yes, it is a beautifully performed show. But that doesn't make it a great show either. It's a nice show. I would have certainly voted for it had it been against Sunset Boulevard! But great, no.

So, the numbers work against the significance of the Tony Award.

I'll still be watching on June 11th.

Wendy Caster


 

Iolanthe

Once again, MasterVoices has provided an evening of charm, joy, and fabulous music. In this case, it was Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe, not one of their best, but still great fun. (There are fairies, there are humans, there are misunderstandings, stuff happens.) 


Ashley Fabian
Photo: Toby Tenenbaum


The cast was amazing: Christine Ebersole (glorious), David Garrison, Santino Fontana (having a grand time in a supremely silly wig and demonstrating a gorgeous legit voice), Jason Daniely, Ashley Fabian (combining excellent comic chops with truly stunning singing), Phillip Boykin (adorable, with a bass that vibrated Carnegie Hall), Shereen Ahmed, Schyler Vargas, Nicole Eve Goldstein, Kaitlyn LeBaron, Emy Zener, and Tiler Peck.  


Christine Ebersole, Shereen Ahmed
Photo: Toby Tenenbaum

And then there are the MasterVoices singers and the MasterVoices Orchestra, doing their usual fine work, led by the incomparable Ted Sperling.


Ted Sperling
Photo: Toby Tenenbaum


And, although this performance was a staged reading, it was given an extra dimension by Tracy Christensen's beautiful and clever costumes. Also, the supertitles were clear, informative, and witty.


Santino Fontana, David Garrison
Photo: Toby Tenenbaum


As always, reviewing MasterVoices is frustrating, because their one-night performances are always gone by the time I write about them, and I can't urge you to go, go, go. However, I can give you a link to their website so that you can catch the next wonderful show: MasterVoices.

Phillip Boykin
Photo: Toby Tenenbaum

Wendy Caster





Thursday, April 27, 2023

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

The rollicking, deeply silly, remarkably funny production of the The Knight of the Burning Pestle currently at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, brought to us by Red Bull Theater and Fiasco Theater, has moments so seemingly contemporary that one has to wonder how much of Francis's Beaumont's 400-year-old play remains. The answer is, quite a lot. And it's wonderful.

The cast of The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Considered to be the first whole play of its sort--that is, a parody (satirical) crossed with a pastiche (loving). While the main object of the parody--chivalric romance--is no longer a popular genre, The Knight also parodies theatre, actors, and audiences, all of which, I am happy to say, are still  with us. While not exactly like any of the following, The Knight shares at least some DNA with, to name a few, Pyramus and Thisbe (the play within the play in A Midsummer Night's Dream), Noises Off, Story Theatre (and story theatre), and various farces.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle presents us with two plays. In the outer play, a grocer complains to a company of actors that his profession is not well-represented in theatre. With the help of a fair of amount of bribery, and the logic/illogic of his wife, the grocer gets the company of actors to agree to add a Knight Errant to their play (The London Merchant). This character is to be performed by the grocer's assistant (who refers to the character as a Grocer Errant). As the original actors try to act their original play, the grocer and his wife object, interject, and correct, making very amusing pains of themselves.

The fabulous cast carries off these shenanigans with great energy and aplomb, and they surely must enjoy getting to play, for example, a horse, an idiot suitor, an aggressively happy man who sings rather than talks, a ghost, a mother who plays favorites, and so on. The cast includes Jessie Austrian, Royer Bockus, Tina Chilip, Paul L. Coffey, Devin E. Haqq, Teresa Avia Lim, Darius Pierce, Ben Steinfeld, Paco Tolson, and Tatiana Wechsler.

The direction, by Noah Brody and Emily Young, is endlessly creative and filled with the love of theatre, seamlessly merging modern and Jacobean tropes. 

Fiasco Theater has committed to practicing sustainability in their shows, and parameters were set to limit waste in all aspects of design. This frugality in no way restrained the creativity of the designers: scenery, Christopher Swader & Justin Swader; costumes, Yvonne Miranda; lighting, Reza Behjat; props, Samantha Shoffner.

By Wendy Caster

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Smart

 I review Smart over at Talkin' Broadway: 

Elaine is committed to taking care of her mother, but it's far from easy. Ruth had a stroke, and she frequently has difficulty speaking, occasionally has difficulty moving around, and receives regular "visits" from her long-dead husband. Elaine tries to find caregivers, but Ruth is convinced that they steal from her, so she chases them away.

Click here to read more.





Thursday, March 30, 2023

Vanities

The York Theatre Company's production of Vanities, running through April 22, has many strong points. The main strength is the cast.

The story of three friends from roughly age 18 (in 1963) to roughly age 45 (in 1990), Vanities features terrific performances by Jade Jones, Amy Keum, and Hayley Podschun. They have good chemistry and provide full, textured characters. Most importantly, they all have truly beautiful voices.

Jade Jones
Photo: Carol Rosegg

The direction by Will Pomerantz, music direction by Deborah Abramson, and choreography by Shannon Lewis are also effective. The scenic design by James Morgan is elegant in its simplicity. The costume design by Barbara Erin Delo succeeds for two of the performers (but does no favors for the third). The band is small in number but not in sound: Deborah Abramson, conductor and keyboards; Jessie Linden, drums/percussion; Jim Donica, electric and acoustic bass; Matt SanGiovanni, electric and acoustic guitar and banjo; and Greg Thymius, flute, clarinet, and soprano, alto, and tenor sax.

Amy Keum 
Photo: Carol Rosegg

I was unimpressed by the show itself, unfortunately. First, I must specify that I believe that anyone should be allowed to write about anyone, across gender, race, and age. For example, Ibsen, John Sayles, and James Baldwin have all written believable compelling women characters. 

Hayley Podschun
Photo: Carol Rosegg

However, Vanities clearly was written by people who have never been--and don't understand--women. Throughout the show, the writers (book, Jack Heifner; music and lyrics, David Kirshenbaum) make mistake after mistake.

First, while the writers clearly want to depict real women in Vanities, they seem to believe that shallow depictions of cheerleaders from the past reflected actual human cheerleaders. As a result, the characters are thinly written, and their discussions are too often cutesy. When, for example, the women talk in 1963 about whether or not to have sex, the topics of birth control (not legal for single women in 1963) and abortion (not legal for anyone) are not mentioned. Potential pregnancy was not a joke in the early 1960s, and only cartoon cheerleaders wouldn't be concerned.

Throughout the show, there is way too much dialogue that relies on cheap, non-character-driven humor and makes the women look like idiots. For example, 

INTERCOM: Students, I am sad to announce the President has been shot.

JOANNE: The president of the student council has been shot?

KATHY And MARY: Oh my God.

INTERCOM: The President was gunned down in Dallas.

JOANNE: Dallas? I just saw him in algebra.

INTERCOM: If this report is true, classes will be dismissed for the rest of the day.

KATHY: What about the pep rally?

INTERCOM: In any case, the football game will take place as planned this evening.

ALL: Oh–THANK GOD.

For old-fashioned musical comedy characters, I guess this is okay. But for real women, which, again, seems to be the show's goal, it's unrealistic and insulting. 

In another example, one of the characters says, "When I found out that George Eliot was a woman, I got all confused." Really?

Also, the show focuses way too much on men. Yes, many women are very concerned, even obsessed, about men, particularly in their late teens and 20s. But that's not all they're concerned about.

[Spoiler] The show is ostensibly about the women's friendships, but only on the most surface level. In fact, the biggest plot point is when one woman sleeps with the other's husband. Why? Because the writers couldn't imagine anything else for female friends to fight about! Also, it's highly unlikely that the cheated-on woman would ever forgive her friend, but it's particularly unlikely that she would forgive her so easily. [End of spoiler]

Many writing books and teachers say, "Write what you know." That's limited advice that would nip the genres of sci fi and historical fiction in the bud. But it might have been a good idea for Heifner and Kirshenbaum. 

One last point: I am a big fan of inclusive casting, but when much of the show is about appearances, it can be awkward. Particularly when they are young, the characters in Vanities judge other people, harshly, by their looks. The show is called Vanities, after all. Having one of these characters be a large Black woman denies the reality (such as it is) of the show. If the other two women were capable of being best friends with a large Black woman--in 1963 in Texas!--they wouldn't be who the show claims they are. 

On the other hand, Jade Jones is a wonderful performer, and I imagine it's not a coincidence that there were many more people of color in the audience than usual, which is great. And I'm certainly glad to have seen Jones. I can't wait until there are enough good juicy roles to go around for people of every type and background.

Wendy Caster

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Arden of Faversham

Red Bull's fabulously entertaining production of Arden of Faversham, directed with a wry hand by Artistic Director Jesse Berger, tells the story of Alice (the terrific Cara Ricketts), a young wife who wants to trade in her boring husband for a hunky steward. Being as it's the late-16th century, divorce is not an option. But Alice has a plan!


Cara Ricketts, Thomas Jay Ryan
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat have done a smooth job of adapting this Elizabethan farce, believed to be one of the earliest "ripped from the headlines" plays and possibly coauthored by Shakespeare. Hatcher and Walat compare Arden of Haverham, with its gruesome version of farce, to Coen Brothers movies. In their adaptation, they have leaned on the noir and expanded the women's roles. 


Tony Roach, Joshua David Robinson, Cara Ricketts
Photo: Carol Rosegg

In the Red Bull production, the farce wins out over the noir, as the characters aren't real enough to care about their lives or deaths. But that's not a problem--Arden of Faversham is completely satisfying as farce. The show is great fun from start to finish. The performances are calibrated in that wonderful realm of overacting-just-enough, and each character is beautifully delineated with quirks and particularities. Outstanding in addition to Ricketts are David Ryan Smith and Haynes Thigpen as two breathtakingly useless miscreants; Zachary Fine, as a goofy lovelorn suitor; and Joshua David Robinson, fabulously funny in three different roles. But the whole cast delivers. (Though a little better enunciation from the Widow Greene would have been appreciated.)

The set is by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader; the costumes by Mika Eubanks; the lighting by Reza Behjat; the music and sound by Greg Pliska; and the props by Samantha Shoffner. All are excellent.

[spoiler] As for the play possibly being cowritten by Shakespeare: (1) I am no expert; and (2) Red Bull's production is an adaptation, so it would be difficult to ferret out Shakespeare's voice. However, the only facet of the play that struck me as Shakespearean was the body count.

Wendy Caster

Friday, March 10, 2023

Dark Disabled Stories

I reviewed this show for Talkin' Broadway. The review can be accessed here.


I have very mixed feelings about this review, just as I had mixed feelings about the show. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Crumbs from the Table of Joy

In 1995, Lynn Nottage had her first professional production: Crumbs from the Table of Joy, at Second Stage in New York. The Keen Company is now presenting Crumbs' first New York revival, well-directed by Colette Robert, in a solid production of this solid play. The writing is assured, insightful, wry, and open-hearted. (Nottage was only new to being produced; she had completed a full-length play by the time she finished high school and later went to the Yale School of Drama.)


Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, Shanel Bailey
Photo: Julieta Cervantes

In Crumbs, 17-year-old Ernestine Crump's mother has died, and her father, Godfrey, responded to the loss by dragging his two daughters to Brooklyn from Florida. He chose Brooklyn because he mistakenly believed he was moving closer to his spiritual leader, Father Divine, who turns out to actually live in Philadelphia. Ernestine and her sister Ermina face major culture shock (a more challenging school; kids making fun of their home-made clothing), and racism is never far away. And deep grief is with the family always.

Then Ernestine's mother's sister Lily shows up, with all she owns, and moves in with them. Ernestine's father, although he can be difficult, bad-tempered, and controlling, is in many ways a good man, and he takes Lily in even knowing that she will rock his barely maintained equilibrium. And she does. Lily is a radical, a communist, and a drinker. She is full of herself, frightened, and angry. And she is attracted to Godfrey, which she expresses with a marked lack of subtlety.


Sharina Martin
Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Godfrey insists that his daughters live by the terribly restrictive rules of Father Devine: basically, don't have fun, don't have sex. For Godfrey, who wasn't remotely religious before his wife's death, Father Devine and his rules are the life savers he needs to get from day to day. For the daughters, they are a prison. Godfrey neither listens to his girls nor allows them any freedom; he has no sense of who they are.

Nottage's usual wit and compassion are on full display here, although the play bites off a bit more than it can chew, delving into growing up, grief, politics, racism, sex, intermarriage, and religion. (To avoid spoilers, I won't go into detail.) But that's just about the best fault a good play can have, and Nottage's brilliance pops out again and again. Also, while the play is predominantly Ernestine's coming-of-age story, with the help of director Robert and the fabulous cast it provides full inner and outer lives for all of the other characters (save Ermina, who is only partially developed). 

The terrific cast includes Shanel Bailey, Jason Bowen, Sharina Martin, Natalia Payne, and Malika Samuel. And the show is well-supported by Brendan Gonzales Boston's scenic design, Johanna Pan's costume design, and Anshuman Bhatia's lighting design.

Seeing a new play by Lynn Nottage is always an excellent way to spend time, even if it's an old new play. She's simply one of the best playwrights writing today, or ever.

Wendy Caster

Friday, March 03, 2023

The Trees

An odd and lovely play is opening at Playwrights Horizons on March 5th and running through March 19th. Written by Agnes Borinsky and directed by Tina Satter, The Trees is the story of a brother and sister whose feet become rooted into the ground in a small park near their childhood home. Little by little a community develops around them, while developers want to turn the area into a mall. Within this premise, Borinsky explores relationships, the meaning of life, value systems, the importance of change, and what it means to grow up.

Crystal A. Dickinson, Danusia Trevino, Jess Barbagallo,
Photo: Chelcie Parry

The Trees is

  • Written with compassion, insight, and humor by Borinsky
  • Directed smoothly and smartly by Satter
  • Remarkably well-acted by the entire cast: Jess Barbagallo, Marcia DeBonis, Crystal Dickinson, Sean Donovan, Xander Fenyes, Nile Harris, Max Gordon Moore, Pauli Pontrelli, Ray Anthony Thomas, Danusia Trevino, Sam Breslin Wright, and Becky Yamamoto
  • Beautifully designed by Enver Chakartash, whose costume design is whimsical and witty, and Parker Lutz, whose scenic design, while completely non-park-like, manages to be just right, and beautiful.
  • Though-provoking
  • Great fun
Wendy Caster