Saturday, December 29, 2012

Late 2012 Quick Bite Reviews

As much as I love to see theater and write about it, the last few months have been really challenging to do either.  My day job (which funds this hobby) has been very busy.  From time to time, I have managed to get out to the theater but I have not had a chance to write about many of the shows I saw.  People have been asking my opinion of some of these shows so I thought I would do a very brief write-up just to give you a sense of where I stood with these productions--several of which have already closed.

This is not me at my most artful or articulate.  Down and dirty quick we go.


Glengarry Glen Ross:  After the first act of the play, I started to think this was the most experimental and Spartan reading of Mamet I had ever seen.  The actors seemed to be playing against the meter and so the words got more attention--too much attention.  Treating them like scripture seemed like the wrong approach.  The words are the emptiest part of this play.  What people are saying is largely irrelevant.  This play is about these men, their personalities and how they sell.  What they are saying is less important than what those words accomplish.  Saying what you need to say to make the sale is what drives them and feeds them.  It really could be called What Makes Salesman Run (come on I love Budd Schulberg--and if you have not ready What Makes Sammy Run you are missing out).  Al Pacino's Shelly Levene makes it clear that he's a salesman who cannot hold an audience any longer.  He is not feared.  He is not respected.  He is practically invisible.  Pacino's tic of constantly touching his hair made me think that this is a man who has to keep checking if he is still there.  A reminder that he is alive, present and accounted for.  Bobby Cannavale's Ricky Roma is there to show us how it is done--slick, fast, shiny, convincing.  When Lingk (played with subtly by Jeremy Shamos--who ends up again in parentheses) apologizes to Roma for letting him down by backing out of a sale,  Lingk is wishing he could be the man that Roma has sold him on being.   In Act Two, in Shelly's undoing you actually see Al Pacino become a wisp of a man.  It happens in an instant.  For he was puffed up, renewed, alive again, and then deflates before your eyes.  It is a moment of great theater.  Putting aside ego, reputation, our knowledge of this actor in so many iconic films, Pacino is Levene in that moment and he is physically diminished.  I might not have loved the production overall but for me that moment was worth seeing.

Grace:  Sometimes small scale intimate drama gets lost on Broadway and sometimes it was never very good to start with.  Craig Wright's Grace seems like the kernel of an idea that never quite blossoms.  Questions of faith, changing your life, fate, coincidence and God all ping around the surface of this play, but they never quite get plumbed to their depths.  Despite a cast of well-known actors who attempt to do their best, the characters are left to wander around these mammoth issues.  Michael Shannon, as per usual, is the best thing about this show.  Unfortunately saddled with a Phantom of the Opera style mask and the attendant deformity, he only gets to perform with half of his face for most of the show.  But half his face is definitely worth more than the whole face of some performers.  Paul Rudd's technical stage work is to be commended.  There are some scenes ostensibly rewound and he must act them forward and then backwards--which he does, brilliantly.  But he seemed overall ill-suited to the role. He was fine at times when he was a moony Jesus-freak but less effective as someone more menacing.  It was a delight to see Ed Asner on stage as well in a small supporting role here.  

The Mystery of Edwin Drood:  I was looking forward to this show because of the cast and the unusual premise where the audience picks the ending.  The cast did not disappoint.  Will Chase and Betsy Wolfe are both a delight.  The cast is having a lot of fun so I think much of the show's appeal is the infectiousness of that bonhomie.  I was less comfortable with the brown-face happening in the show than others have been.  But overall I found the show dragged for me.  I'm glad I stuck around for the Act Two voting because that was the most lively part of the show.  It's a harmless diversion and I think most people would enjoy themselves.   


Giant: A big beautiful mess. This three hour show may sprawl like the landscape of Texas but in all that time I lost sight of the characters, any emotional engagement and the reason we were there.   I've never read the book but having seen the film I know there is a lot of story in the story but this musical could not wrap it's arms around the story it wanted to tell.  Was this about a family?  Was this about love? Was this about ranch? Was this about Texas? Was this about America? It's all those things and none of those things.  There were some gorgeous songs and noble performances from Brian D'Arcy James and Kate Baldwin.  Bobby Steggert is underutilized sadly.  I enjoyed Katie Thompson's ballsy, fun performance as Vashti. She burns the stage down a few times.  As with the source material, this show still does not know how to handle questions of interracial couples and bigotry.  Sadly because of the limited time devoted to it the Mexican characters get little to say and do.  Adapting this material now seems questionable if no one was going to address the period questions with any modern perspective. 

Murder Ballad: What happens when teen angst gets inappropriately rendered as adult entertainment... You get a rock music musical such as Murder Ballad where emotions run high but the stakes are so generally absurd it's hard to care about anyone or anything in it. Worse yet here the music can only speak to a shrill level of emotional expression without any variation thus dulling actual emotional development. I'm afraid I had a "get off my lawn" moment but the joke is the creative team IS my age here.  Murder Ballad feels like the type of work that might have felt meaningful or powerful to me when I was younger but now it has none of the impact.  I was really curious about this rock musical and intrigued by the unusual staging where the audience is seated (in part) on the stage which is the set and the performances happen all around you.  An interesting directorial approach and a top-flight cast are wasted on material that just doesn't sing but it sure skulks around a lot like a moody teenager.   When an 80 minute show cannot sustain a story, I think it is time for someone to reconsider what exactly they are trying to say.

The Old Man and the Old Moon:  Despite predictions that I would run out of this whimsy-fest screaming I did not.  I did not even try to beat anyone to death with a banjo.  I grew up in New England on folk music and I frickin' love a sea shanty so walking into the Judson Gymnasium as the Pig Pen Theatre company played folk music I was easily sold on this production.  The music is the strongest aspect because it transports you to this time and place and sets the atmospheric tone for the folk tale adventure being told.  As a lover of cinema, I enjoyed the shadow puppet work (which reminded me of Kara Walker's art a bit).  The simplicity of the tools used were a good reminder that this show is about storytelling and a good story does not need bells and whistles.  Could Daniel Kitson have told the story better?  Yes.  Without shadow puppets? Yes.  (I thought of him during the amusing debate over the word dirigible).  But these young performers do a great job.  The story drags, especially in Act One.  But they had me in Act Two and maybe I started to rethink my own career when the Old Man starts to rethink his.  Damn you cute boys and your storytelling.  Now I'm crying.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Twelfth Night: Love is the Answer

"Ungird thy strangeness" and prepare yourself for a feast of joy. The Globe Theatre's West End transfer of Twelfth Night is a true celebration of Shakespeare and the comedic ensemble. Even though Twelfth Night shares a cast and stylistic traits with the Globe's recent Richard III, it is its own special show.

It opens with the all male cast on stage putting on their make-up and costumes. Besides enhancing the feel of equity among the cast, this choice foregrounds the layers of artifice within the play.  As here men are playing women who are also sometimes pretending to be men. We see the "women" putting on pasty white make-up, stepping into bodices, and we see the men in their stockings getting into their pantaloons. It was an unexpected choice that was more in the spirit of a farcical, backstage comedy than Shakespeare but it sets the stage well for what was to follow.

Duke Orsino begins the actual play by calling for the muse of love.  From then on a multitude of star crossed lovers stumble through their comic turns and like all rom-coms our pleasure is in the adventure that befalls them and a happy ending.   Here Mark Rylance is Olivia who falls for Viola. Viola survived a shipwreck only to believe her twin brother Sebastian has drown. Viola decides to pretend to be a boy, Cesario, so she can go into service for the local Duke. Viola (Johnny Flynn) falls for Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan) even though he has sent Viola to help him woo Olivia for himself. Later Viola's twin brother Sebastian (Samuel Barnett) finds himself in the court of the Duke and Olivia mistakes him for Cesario/Viola.  Complicating the complicated plot, Olivia's uncle Sir Toby Belch along with her faithful servant Maria (Paul Chahidi) decide to play a trick on Olivia's sour steward Malvolio (Stephen Fry) and convince him that Olivia is in love with him. Malvolio throws himself into wooing Olivia and makes himself quite the fool.

But this show is not really about the plot as much as it is about how this cast mines the material for comic gold.  Rylance and Chahidi seem to move as if they were hovercraft--hardly touching the ground as they sashay across the stage. It accentuates their delicacy as ladies of the court but is a fantastic physical gag. Even with men playing female characters, no one is "acting" feminine as much as they are acting their characters. I applaud the cast for laying the comedy on heavy but the gender dynamics more gingerly.  The comedy comes from the situations, characters and play and not from the use of an all male cast. 

Rylance finds his inner Carole Lombard as he gets more and more desperate for Cesario's attention. Whether "losing a shoe" which she hurls at Cesario as a ruse to stick around or defending her love with whatever weaponry is at hand, Olivia is relentless in her pursuit.  Here men and women have been bitten by love and the desperation goes in both directions.  Once mistaken for Cesario, Sebastian gets a "taste" of Olivia and Barnett (who I loved in Richard III) gives another great performance as Sebastian (albeit in a smaller role).  His stunned double-take moment after his kiss with Olivia is almost as good as his venomous curtsy in Richard III. I liked Chahidi's gleeful turn as Maria.  It was wonderful to see Stephen Fry on the stage after his long absence. 

Following upon the same style as Richard III, there are musicians playing Renaissance instruments throughout the show--though here the cast starts the second half of the show with a song and ends the play with a song and dance.  The lightness and joy was infectious and you'd be hard-pressed not to leave this show with a giant smile on your face.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Golden Boy: Beautiful Burnout

Despite a few moments when the florid language of Odets' play comes together well with some strong performances, this revival of Golden Boy* directed by Bartlett Sher does not land its punches.  A robust and admirable production of a dated play that just cannot find the spark it needs to be relevant or emotionally gripping today.

Boxing is a visual and dramatic sport that lends itself to change of fortune stories.  Budd Schulberg's book The Harder They Fall came out ten years after Golden Boy premiered in 1937 and has always been a favorite of mine (and manages to be a lot less black and white in its thinking--I highly recommend it).  It shows the gritty corruption of the entire boxing system.  Odets gives us pieces of this but it is not really his focus.  He's more interested in this young man chasing his dream, while running from his ghosts. But this noble production fails to find a way to cast off the shackles of Odets' polemical language.  It might not be so hard to swallow if the character development was richer.  But even that ends up in caricature.

Odets' story is the tale of Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), a cockeyed, runt who is teased and taunted and wants nothing more than to show the world he is more than they think he is.  And he's angry.  His father (Tony Shalhoub), an Italian immigrant, has always encouraged him to be a violinist and he is torn between the beauty and comfort that music gives him and this seething anger that cannot be stamped out which boxing feeds. He gives into the anger and becomes a boxer with his eye on a championship bout. He convinces Tom (Danny Mastrogiorgio) to be his manager and makes eyes at Joe's secretary and mistress, Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski).  Lorna's feelings are less clear.  She's used as a pawn with Joe but she's tempted by his affections.  Joe gets taken under the wing of trainer Tokio (Danny Burstein) and his contract gets bought by gangster Eddie Fuseli (Anthony Crivello). 

This is a story of a lot of broken people.  And that should appeal to me.  There were times I felt for Joe in his struggle.  I wished the pivotal moment where he plays the violin was played on stage and not off stage (I don't know if that is a dictate of the author or directorial choice to stage it so the actor doesn't need to be a violin virtuoso).  But in a three hour play the delicate moments for Joe and Lorna should have had the room they needed to breathe, but instead more time seems spent on set transitions when location mattered a loss less to me than sentiment here.  Those sets (by Michael Yeargan) are gorgeous and the rich, lustrous lighting (by Donald Holder) seems inspired by Edward Hopper.  They thought of everything including adding a naked man to the showers in the boxing gym.  The period music that plays over the transitions gives a sense of place but none of this enlivens material that is for all intents and purposes a flat, shadow play about, greed, ambition, and hubris.

Strahovski's performance as Lorna made me long for the days of wonderful onscreen actresses of the 1930's.  Even with the sexism of the era, there is still something about some of those performances that made me think these were strong and interesting women living in a society where their role was severely limited (I kept thinking of Jean Arthur who's one of my favorites).  I wished Strahovski showed that kind of strength but instead she played her character as cold for strength and lukewarm for her weaker moments.  Neither of which seemed appropriate for the scenes and leaving me to wonder what her character's inner motivations were.  I never felt we saw the real character of Lorna and her vulnerability.  In contrast, Seth Numrich is all vulnerability but is covering that with  overcompensating anger and bravado.  But far too much of his character's inner plight is scripted so even if his performance achieves nuance in his battle between softness and toughness the lumbering dialogue of the play lets him down.

I had hoped the actors could find the authenticity to their characters so that even if the dialogue was heavy-footed the performances could rise above it.  One of the things I was impressed with with the recent revival of Look Back in Anger was how performers took material that was problematic and used it, but conveyed a lot more than what was written.  In the silence, the pauses and how they dealt with the material, you felt a level of commentary, understanding, and perspective.  I would have liked to have seen the same thing here.

Instead I had to watch a bunch of actors over-gesticulate their way through caricatures of Italian and Jewish immigrants.  Somehow Joe's father comes across as a simpleton when that is far from the case as he has a massive capacity for music, art, philosophy and politics.  I struggle with dated works that deal in stereotypes when they are revived because I think the revival has the obligation to deal with that.  Recontexualize it or try to move away from stereotypes in the staging and performance if the play has locked you into it. If this production tried to do so, it failed in my estimation. 

It's too bad because at the core of Odets plays is an interesting story of a boy whose life has been full of pain and he has two paths before him.  One of quiet, artistic ambition and one of raw, violent anger.  All the taunts, teasing and slights he has withstood over the years have not been dealt with.  His need to show people, on their terms, that he is more than they think he is.  He gives into the anger and well, I've seen Star Wars, I know where that gets you.  Giving in to the dark side is not the balm he needs.  He can fight.  He can hit.  He can live on anger alone but it is empty.  The hole in his heart will not be filled by it.  But in three hours somehow that emotional, compelling story is actually rendered as overt symbolic gestures and blunt dialogue about hands.

Golden Boy is worth seeing because it is a rare, professional, big-budget production of a play that you are unlikely to see again.  But then again maybe there is a reason it has been kept in mothballs for so long. 

*I received a complementary ticket.

The River: Borne Back Ceaselessly Into The Past

"I will be out there looking for you."-- The Man, The River

Maybe it's the fact that I had just traveled to London and travel always stirs up so many of my emotions.  Or maybe I've had longing and desire on the brain lately.  But that ephemeral sense of wanting something that is beyond your reach really resonates with me.

Jez Butterworth's new play The River fit nicely into my existential musings and the sensuous, intimacy of the small-scale work was a dramatic departure from the epic nature of his last play Jerusalem.  Set in a fishing cabin in the woods an avid fisherman wants to share his passion with a new girlfriend.  And maybe today is the day he has said "I love you."  And maybe not everyone in the room is being honest with each other. The play starts with an open door, daylight pouring through it, and a woman singing off stage. 

Directed by Ian Rickson with design by Ultz (the same creative team as Jerusalem), the play was well-suited to the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs space at the Royal Court which provided for a small stage and an audience in close proximity to the action.  From the natural soundscape, to the dim lighting, to the creaking of the floorboards, the audience cannot help but be taken in by the sensations the space creates. The writing and performances created a sense of anticipation and ultimately unease as the entire play seems to be structured around what you will and will not be shown.  What takes place off-stage being equally important, at least to the characters, to the on-stage action.  It's like trying to watch the conversation between a couple on a subway platform across from you--maybe passing trains keep interrupting and you can hear pieces of the conversation--you know something pivotal is happening but you cannot know for sure exactly what.

It's impossible to talk about the play without some bit of spoiling the discoveries it has to offer and they are discoveries I enjoyed not knowing until after so...STOP IF YOU DON'T WANT TO READ SPOILERS.  STOP READING. Did you stop.  Ok.

Occasionally the fisherman is speaking to his girlfriend who is off-stage.  When she returns, it is an entirely different actress and becomes clear an entirely different girlfriend. Passages we have heard between one iteration of the man and the woman are repeated by the other iteration of the man and the other woman.  Suddenly the repetition creates tension.  Which relationship is in the present? Which relationship is in the past?  There are few temporal landmarks.

Unexpectedly my trip to London was full of plays and musicals that use repetition to enhance and change your emotional reaction to something you have heard before.  Constellations by Nick Payne is an entire play of repeated text (with slightly nuanced variations).  The repetitive lines there are about expressing the possibility of parallel universes and how one couple might fare through the fractured lens of immeasurable other realities.  Merrily We Roll Along, which is structured in reverse chronological order, uses repetitive musical threads to great effect.  For instance, Not a Day Goes By is sung both at the character's divorce as well as her wedding.  Hearing it first for the divorce and then later for the wedding colors the meaning of the reprise because you already know that this hopeful, happy moment will come to a broken end.  What could have been a sweet moment on its own and just a beautiful song becomes trenchant and bittersweet because of the repetition and the juxtaposition. 

Here, in The River, all this replication is blended with a great deal of silence. With sparse language, and a great deal unspoken, you palpably feel the space between the characters.  They are exploring where exactly they are in this relationship and where things are going with it.  But much of what they are feeling and thinking is unexpressed and we feel the emotional distance.  I loved the space that the play took.  Sometimes silence can be more effective at expressing a relationship than a constant stream of dialogue.  Using the small stage and the rustic enclosure of the cabin, the staging gave the right amount of space to the words, emotions and performances.

Dominic West, who I thought was revelatory as Iago last year, was magnetic again in the role of The Man.  He's believably rugged as he guts a fish and cooks it, yet intensely romantic as he expresses his love to The Woman (Miranda Raison) and The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly).

What was spoken, was often repeated but did not become tiresome.  Craving information or clues to this mysterious story, I found myself very attuned to what was being said, what was being withheld and how the results of the repeated conversations sometimes varied.  In contrast to Constellations, where I struggled with the writer's intent, here I felt like Butterworth had a keen sense of where the play was going and what he was writing, even if the audience was not to be let in on all the plans.  His confidence in his skill and his vision makes the play work.

The "mysteries" of the play are not neatly wrapped up.  Like the aforementioned subway conversation, Butterworth leaves you to fill in the holes.  You bring to this play your own relationships and your experiences.  There was something luxurious and freeing about that.  That freedom coupled with the lack of signposts in the play gave me a feeling of being suspended in the air.  Butterworth holds that tension like a beautiful note of music and it was enough to sustain me. 

I'm not much of an outdoorsy person, but I happen to like birdwatching.  What is always so incredible about birdwatching is when you are paying attention to the woods or fields around you, you hear every sound.  You become attuned to even the smallest movement around you.  Your senses become heightened and re-directed at things you might otherwise tune out in your day-to-day life. 

I found The River had the same effect on me.  Dealing in the ephemeral sights and sounds of nature, love, and relationships, The River transports the audience to another place, time, and world.  But you are left to find your own way home and you must listen, you must look around you, you must become aware.  Like nature itself, that journey can be beautiful, terrifying, mysterious, and intoxicating.  But to truly experience nature you must give in to all those sensations even if it means only understanding an infinitesimal amount of what you are actually feeling. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Merrily We Roll Along: A Good Thing Going

"Nothing's the way that it was. I want it the way that it was."

Merrily We Roll Along has been revived several times in the United Kingdom since its ill-fated initial Broadway run which closed after 16 performances in 1981. Maria Friedman, a former Merrily Mary herself (Leicester Haymarket 1992), makes her directorial debut at the Menier Chocolate Factory with the most recent revival. Friedman uses the Leicester version of the show despite there being a newer version which debuted in February at Encores! in New York.  I happened to really like the Encores production and even after several months the performances are still quite vivid in my mind (note: they were selling the cast album at the Menier) so was curious how I would feel about another revival so soon after that one. 

Maybe it is the subterranean space, the intimate venue, or the directing choices, but the Menier production offers a very different feel than the bright, shiny, bittersweet Encores concert staging.  Our story begins in 1976 in California at the fashionable pad of Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers).  He's hosting a party for his new movie which has just opened to great success.  He's clearly having a fling with his leading lady Meg (Zizi Strallen) while his wife Gussie (Josefina Gabrielle) a former Broadway star seethes in the wings.  Frank has flown his oldest friend Mary (Jenna Russell) out for the movie premiere.  Mary has nothing but vitriol for Frank who never talks to his son anymore, who has turned his back on his old friends, and who is not writing music anymore which is what he had always set out to do.  Time then moves backwards as we see how Frank got here after a major falling out with his creative partner Charley Kringas (Damian Humbley) on national television, a messy divorce from his first wife Beth (Clare Foster) who took custody of his son, and how he stole Gussie away from her husband who gave Frank his first big break on Broadway.  As the characters get younger we see Frank, Charley and Mary as young, hopeful dreamers expecting to spend a life pursuing their creative dreams while remaining friends.  Life in 1976 shows us that did not come to fruition. 

Friedman uses an image of 1976 Frank, our hero-antihero, as a motif throughout the play as time rolls backwards and we see how Frank came to be he unhappily married, wildly successful but artistically compromised producer he is in the 70's.  Starting from the opening scene, and then throughout various moments in the show, Frank holds a copy of a script (not sure if it was Take a Left the show he was supposed to do with Charley or his terrible movie) and without the help of the ghosts of Christmas past and future he wanders through his own life story.  This image gives us our perspective to reflect.  It's a helpful device and focuses us a bit more on Frank's own cogitation of his choices. It is particularly heartbreaking when 1976 Frank is confronted with his young son who sings his verse of one of the Transitions (I saw Joseph West play Frank Jr. and he was adorable). 

In contrast to the casting in Encores (where the leads were in their 30's--in fact Donnell only turned 30 later in the year) Friedman casts actors who are a bit older in the main roles so that again that point of reflection on their youth becomes a bit more palpable (Umbers is 39, Russell is 45, Humbley is 33).  Donnell and Co. were aged well to "play" older and younger but Friedman's choice puts the focus on older Frank and his regrets. 
One of the things I noticed about Frank in the Encores production was that things seemed to "happen" to that Frank.  Maybe because it was a younger actor there, or maybe because it was an older actor here I felt Umbers taking charge of Frank and his life.  Here, I found the frequent return to 1976 Frank made it a bit more obvious that Frank made his own future.  Frank's self-loathing was also a lot stronger here.  The conclusion I came to in the Encores version was that Frank took a different path--maybe not the artistic path, maybe not the noble path, but he could live his life even with the disappointments and lost friends.  Whereas in this version Frank feels like he is at the end of his rope.  This life he lives is almost foreign to him.  He's more disillusioned and disgusted with the way things have turned out.  When Mary leaves Frank in this version I never questioned that this was the last time they would see each other.  I never quite felt that finality in the Encores production. Those differences made the opening of this version immediately more engaging but I felt this production lost it's way as time went on--connecting more to the bitter than the bittersweet part of the show. 

One of the strengths of the Encores production was that the trio was so chummy and effervescent (and seeing the cast tweet the photos from the production in the weeks leading up to it made you feel like these actors were becoming the inseparable friends they would play on stage) .  Here, I felt the darker 70's scenes worked better than Encores (and by using the Leicester version things are a bit darker in that opening scene with the blinding of Meg by Gussie), but that breath of hopeful energy that is supposed to take over in the second Act was not as strong here.  What should be more bittersweet in the second Act doesn't feel as connected to the earlier scenes.  The emotional wallop later was not as strong as I wanted it to be.

Overall I enjoyed the Menier's terrific main trio.  Mark Umbers as Frank is a charismatic performer. He is masterful and solid as the older Frank whose sunny, handsome exterior hides his self-doubt and self-disgust. His voice seemed to go up a bit as he becomes younger and more enthusiastic.  But he has a glow about him and you can see why everyone would be drawn to him.  He plays Frank a bit more slick than Donnell and he feels more opportunistic. When he is propositioned by Gussie and she plans to leave her husband, you feel like he comes around willingly to this decision and it is even what he wants.  Abandoning his friends comes a lot easier to this Frank. I feel like I knew this Frank in my real life in Hollywood. 

Damian Humbley plays up the neuroses of Charley Kringas and nails the always difficult song Franklin Shepard Inc. playing it with less pain than Miranda but with more desperation and comedy.  Humbley is made to look schlubbier than Lin-Manuel Miranda was.  I liked the particular bit over him stuffing food into his pockets at the ritzy party.

Rounding out the trio, as the broken heart of any Merrily production, is Jenna Russell as Mary, who has been in love with Frank since she first met him and has never told him her feelings. Russell who was an incredible Dot in the Menier's production of Sunday in the Park with George is no less emotionally cutting here.  They play up Mary as a fat, washed-up drunk.  Maybe it was the costuming but something about the older Mary that made me think of Sue Mengers (I'm not sure that is fair having never met Mengers but I imagined her as sort of the one fat lady in a room full of starlets and starlet wannabes).  To some degree I found Mary's ill fitted costumes distracting, but I was happy to make the trip just for another dose of Russell singing Sondheim.

The remainder of the ensemble was fine but after Elizabeth Stanley tore up the stage as Gussie in New York, Josefina Gabrielle here paled in comparison for me.  Gabrielle did not quite feel like she had that manic, desperate energy that Gussie will stop at nothing to get what she wants.  It's an unfair comparison but Gabrielle could not erase Stanley from my mind.  Clare Foster did not hold a candle to Betsy Wolfe's Beth.  I saw Foster last year in Crazy for You and felt kind of meh about her then.  She just does not have the stage presence to really capture my attention.  An unexpected stand-out was the very handsome Ashley Robinson as Tyler (turns out he originated the role of Jett Rink in Giant).  He caught my eye in his small role as a pal of Frank's.  A few more stand-outs in small roles were Amy Ellen Richardson as KT and Joanna Woodward as the TV anchorwoman.

This production did suffer from some low budget woes.  I noticed it most in the costumes.  Gussie's Broadway production number looked like it cost about $12 to put together (what is that 8 pounds sterling).  Something about the design of the show was really distracting to me.  The set design seemed to work for the earlier scenes but then as the play moved on it became less clear where we were and what time period we were in. (I joked about this on twitter but I swear at some point in the early 1960's Gussie is wearing pajama jeans!?).  That said, I definitely enjoyed The Blob choreography by Tim Jackson and I liked that the ensemble would slowly creep onto the stage for the Transition numbers and in the end they came out dressed in their most indelible roles (making it a lot clearer that this was Frank's reverie of his past).

The space at the Menier is very small and I had not seen a musical there before.  It is shallow and long so the action gets staged horizontally rather than vertically. It enhances the intimacy but for me it felt a bit cramped.  The active space to perform seemed shallow and when the full ensemble was on stage it felt claustrophobic to me. 

All in all I could overlook the production elements I was not a fan of and enjoy Friedman's directorial choices and Russell, Umbers and Humbley singing their hearts out. Despite my quibbles Merrily is a show I would cross an ocean to see (and I might be in the minority with quibbles as the Guardian critic Michael Billington gave it a rave review).  In fact, I wished I had had a chance to see it a second time because the things I liked outweighed the things I didn't like and I just love to hear wonderful performers sing that gorgeous score.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Masterslut: Tim Key Soaks in a Bath

I managed to snag a last minute ticket to Tim Key's Masterslut during its London run. Wholly unfamiliar with Key's work (and a little suspicious that based on the title it was not my cup of tea) I ventured in without any context.  I was pleasantly surprised by the show. Somewhere between the absurd poetry, the odes to bathtubs (actual bathtub included), and the audience interaction I found myself falling for Key's wacky charm. Key's performance was quite varied. From film clips, to physical stunts, to his poetry, to the deconstruction of the poetry, it was a substantial 80 minute show.

After my unexplained resistance to Simon Amstell I was wondering if I was a one British comedian type of girl (Daniel Kitson or NO ONE). But it turns out I'm a little more British comedy slutty than I thought (well I already knew I liked Josie Long so I was already kind of cheating on Kitson). Key sets up his pull backs and reveals very skillfully.  He undermines expectations in a delightful way that were both clever and smart.  Speaking of a girl he invited back to his apartment "To be fair, she was more a situation than a girl."  His set-up about the pornographic playing cards that he has laminated his poems to provides a great number of jokes about the unexpected.  For some reason one of his poems really caught my fancy: "Some of the other cubs convinced Kenneth there was a badge...for arson."  

Key has a goofy persona but one that takes himself and his bath-loving endeavors quite seriously.   Baths are as he calls them "nature's womb."  I enjoyed his banter with his technician and driver Dougie. I found the image of Key and Dougie careening around the English countryside with a bathtub in the back of the van trying not to spill any water quite funny.

There was a lot of audience interaction. After Key's stints in his bathtub (yup) he was toweled off by a member of the audience. Key enjoyed the lavish attention furnished by his male towel bearers at
the show I saw.  He interviewed audience members over their bath-time proclivities. There was a part in the show where he has the audience put together a sentence one word at a time by each person in a row.  Our audience group started with the word "strawberry banana". We ended up with a sentence about a person called Strawberry Banana.  Key's improvised response to this was "If Vera Drake had been called Strawberry Banana it would have been a different story." True indeed.

I guess Key doesn't perform much (at all?) in New York so he's one to look out for at the Edinburgh Fringe and on tour in the UK.

Constellations: A Beautiful Trinket in the Cosmos

"You'll still have all our time."

I was disappointed leaving Constellations as I found myself not really experiencing the impact of the work after so many others were singing its praises.  A tourist behind me told me that the reason the play did not work was Sally Hawkins's costumes were not sexy.  "She needs a better costume,"* said this lady unprompted.  Everyone is a critic.  I was clearly not the only person who did not love this new Nick Payne play that transferred from the Royal Court to the West End but the "costume critic lady" and I did not see eye to eye on the reasons for why this play did not work.

The two-hander stars the aforementioned Sally Hawkins as Marianne and Rafe Spall as Roland who meet at a barbecue.  Marianne is a physicist.  Roland is a beekeeper.  Marianne explains to Roland that there is a theory of the quantum multiverse where "every choice, every decision you've ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes."  Nick Payne then goes on to show us Marianne and Roland spun through this multiverse.  Repeating scenes with slightly nuanced differences, meeting, meeting again, meeting again.  Spall and Hawkins have the challenging job of finding the variations in each of these incidences and making them unique and specific.  Remarkably they often succeed at finding gestures and vocal intonations to make this work.  Spall imbues each momentary character with great specificity. The repetition might not lead to a strong narrative thrust but Spall in particular shows great range as he reads each scene slightly differently.  Hawkins is, as always, sort of out to drown you with her quirkiness.  I'm dubbing her the high priestess of twee and there are probably those who love her for it and others (like me) that just wish she could dial it down a little.  I struggled to see her as a physicist in any multiverse.

But there were moments in the play where I really fell in love with a character or a scene.  But in the cruel rules of the multiverse these moments were necessarily fleeting.  So as the scenes pile up and the permutations of Marianne and Roland multiply, and their lives twist and turn, I somehow became less engaged.

That said, the design work is remarkable (Tom Scutt on Design, Lee Curran on Lighting, David McSeveney on Sound).  It has a set covered in gorgeous balloons that are lit, glow, pulse, and shine.  The lighting and sound effects cue the audience as we pass between parallel universes.  It's a smart and creative way to communicate what Payne's script calls for and I applaud director Michael Longhurst for it.

It's hard to complain about a production that reflects such thought and care (It tries awfully hard, but I ultimately wonder if that's what in part rubbed me the wrong way) but if in the final analysis all that work adds up to surprisingly little then I cannot hold back my disappointment.   Using physics as a structural device to deliver imagined realities is clever but that's about the extent of Constellations for me: an interesting gimmick that provides layers of repetition which did not enrich the material. We get to see these two characters experience myriad possibilities of life events. Or better yet we see them experience the same life events with slightly different results.  But despite the valiant efforts of Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall the characters they create exist only in a moment. The necessary transience of the play's structure makes it impossible to connect these scenes or characters. Each moment sits ostensibly isolated from the others. This structure also lends itself to a particular shallowness to the characters. Since each episode does not build upon another, the characters do not seem to grow--or they grow sideways in fits and starts. 

If the multiverse exists and we live in an infinite number of parallel lives, I expect we cannot demand narrative satisfaction from any of those lives because they do not exist in linear form. That may be true to the physics but a loss for dramatic impact on stage. 

And don't get me wrong.  I can enjoy a playwright who chooses to keep the narrative or the conclusions opaque.  The recent Royal Court production of The River by Jez Butterworth existed in a loosely defined fictional space and even without definitive answers I could enjoy the poetry of his writing and the mysteries of the characters.  But I have no doubt Butterworth knows what he was writing and why.  Whereas Payne seemed enamored of his idea but less sure about its trajectory or point.  I was somewhat resistant to the charms of Payne's first play If There Is I Haven't Found It yet currently playing off-Broadway. I don't deny his work feels smarter than average but I'm not convinced it actually is as smart as it feels.  Like his writing wears a fine cloak of intellectualism but just doing a little digging beneath the surface those thought provoking ideas are just a cover for the true gooey core of the work--sentimentality. 

Here, the play's sincerity was lost in trying to pull far too hard at my heart-strings rather than just letting our humanity speak for itself and letting emotion flow from that. 

*For the record I hated the shoes Sally Hawkins wears in the show but that had no bearing on my problems with the play. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Richard III: Power by a Different Name

"If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell."--Richard III

There has never been a question that Richard III is dastardly, power-hungry and evil.  But Mark Rylance plays him in the recent Globe Theatre to West End transfer as a gentle, sometimes doltish storyteller, who begins by manipulating everyone by his words alone and eventually becomes a man driven mad with power.  Rather than playing to power from the beginning, he demonstrates his power through his canny and the perilous result of power taking control of a man's life.  With Rylance there is never an evil mustache twirling moment.  This Richard is a truly unique creature.  On first blush it is a strange choice.  When has "Now is the winter of our discontent" every gotten a laugh?  Here.  But in Rylance's skilled hands he convinced me.  The text is so driven by monologues and speeches that it seems almost natural he is addressing us with his plans and schemes.  He's manipulating us as well--telling us the story we want to hear.

That Richard is at times comically "playing at" manipulating characters in the play enriches the numerosity of masks he is wearing throughout the play.  Rylance's Richard is exactly what he needs to be in each scene to get what he wants.  With his brother Clarence, he is the loyal brother pledging to do what he can to rescue him--even if we know he wants Clarence dead.  With Lady Anne, he is an admitted murderer of her husband but he inveigles his way into her heart as a suffering romantic who did everything out of his love and desire for her.  The sudden tone shifts or inconsistencies in the text here get smoothed over by Richard acknowledging, to us shamelessly, his constant duplicity.  But that duplicity is delivered with a sense of the character's humanity.  Rylance is often winking to the audience as we become his co-conspirators.  It's a bit like being charmed by a sociopath really.  You feel you are in on the secret joke and then you end up standing there holding a bloody knife not sure how you ended up with this murderer.

Rylance manages to pull this all off because he is respectful of the character.  He's open in a way I found Kevin Spacey to be closed when he performed the same role in the Bridge Project's production.  Rylance invites the audience in to share in his misdeeds.  Spacey took his "shouty" Richard and just kept beating the audience with it.  He was doing such violence to the text and the audience in an assault of sarcasm.  Here Rylance is not sarcastic once.  He's knowing, he's winking but he's honest to the character.  He does not step outside the character of Richard to mock it, even if he may look askance at his own cunning and admire it or acknowledge it.  Spacey never even defined the character of Richard.  Everything he did was with such contempt it seemed he did not know the bounds of his own character's humanity and evil--so that he was just all evil.  And Richard needs some boundaries. 

Here, once Richard starts to lose his mind, Rylance's humanity does slip considerably (there is a scene where he practically gnaws Lady Anne's fingers in a not-sexy, creepy way).  But his humanity existed so we recognize its departure.

Rylance and director Tim Carroll unearth great humor in this play but the seriousness of the struggles of others are not diminished by Richard's comic moments.  In particular I found Liam Brennan to be a wonderful Clarence, doomed brother to Richard, who has little to laugh about or at. And for a small comic turn, I enjoyed Jethro Skinner as the 2nd Murderer.

It need be said that this is an all male production of Richard III.  Johnny Flynn, Samuel Barnett and James Garnon play Lady Anne, Queen Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York respectively.  They are intentionally mannered performance to be sure but no more so than Rylance's Richard and they work here as part of the cohesive fabric of this production.  I liked Johnny Flynn's cool but angry Lady Anne.  The choices they made for both Rylance and Flynn make a scene that is so hard to pull off really work.  Flynn is left with no choice but to succumb to Richard and he plays the confusion and struggle with clarity.  Barnett's Elizabeth maybe gives the most venomous curtsy I have ever seen.  I kind of want a gif of it (Internet will get you get on that!).  I think The Heiress's Jessica Chastain could learn a think or two about venom, curtsies and a raised eyebrow from Barnett.

But all these aspects (including music played on Renaissance era instruments and Shakespearean era costumes) together integrate so well that you leave feeling if you saw Shakespeare performed as Shakespeare was intended to be performed.  And I'm not a strict-constructionist by any means (though my resistance to the recent Wooster Group Hamlet--reviewed pending--might suggest otherwise).  But this was really digging into the original "feel" of Shakespeare: what it might have been like to see this back in the day.

Since I saw the Bridge Project's Richard III this year, it is hard not to compare the two. The only thing I will say I missed from that production was the awesome use of drums--sincerely.  Especially as Richard's madness grew here, I longed for a bigger musical backdrop.  But I guess not having big drums is a small price to pay for great acting and a deep understanding of the purpose of your endeavor.  I'm very much looking forward to this same ensemble's take on Twelfth Night later this week.

And I should note I attended on Press Night and the audience went simply wild during the curtain call.  I have never experienced a British audience react so loudly and with such fervor as I saw that afternoon.  3 curtain calls and a standing ovation.  Even the critics were on their feet.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mies Julie: A Bloody Affair

"A storm is coming to this farm."  Never have such truer words been spoken because what follows them is a searing, violent, explosive storm that comes to this desolate part of South Africa when the white master's daughter and the black farm worker dancing around their desire and their history consummate their passions.  What befalls these characters, out of love, lust, hate, anger, frustration, politics, the past, or the future, it is a bloody affair which might actually steal the breath from your body and leave you gasping for air.

This production is an adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie presented by the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town in association with South African State Theatre.  Yael Farber wrote this adaptation and directs the production now playing at St. Ann's Warehouse.  The production is steeped in the history of South Africa but not some ponderous, academic, or theoretical history.  A living, visceral history with smells, sounds, and sights that will linger with you after the 90 minute show is over.   

In this adaptation, John (Bongile Mantsai) has grown up on this farm in the dry and dusty Karoo.  It is the land where his ancestors are buried and it is his home.  He lives there with his mother Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) who has faithfully cooked for the Boer family who own and run the farm.  Christine raised Julie (Hilda Cronje) the daughter of the master of the farm after her mother killed herself.  Despite the liberation from apartheid 20 years before, nothing seems to have changed on this farm.  The workers have nominal "freedom" only and there is a growing tension between the workers and the master.  The land, the power, and control remain in the hands of the colonial owners.  John spends his day polishing the master's boots while Julie, after a broken engagement, hangs around the farm, scantily clad, provocatively goading John.

Julie is playing with fire--but she wants to be burned.  It seems that her only escape from this life is through a complete annihilation of it.  Somehow she sees herself the Phoenix to be reborn from the ashes.  But as a child really, she has not thought this plan through.  John, by the nature of their dynamic and history must act as the adult and resist her aggressive advances.  John already endures taunts from the other workers because of his closeness to Julie.  They are both victims of their place in this society.  Both crave mothers they never had.  Both want something else for themselves--but it is not a shared dream.  It never could be because of who they are and what they have gone through in their lives.  And there's just the start of the tragedy here. 

There are a number of great things about Farber's adaptation.  One is that it takes Strindberg's framework and finds a contemporary space that suits it and yet even with Strindberg as a basis, it is a powerfully resonant modern production.  It feels very naturally adapted to the South African setting and political circumstance.  I was also drawn to the oscillating manipulation by Julie and by John.  Each have a power over the other and who is in control shifts with each moment.  Therein lies the real drama and Farber captures that tension and the underlying reasons for it with such piercing beauty.

Love or lust gets blurred by the roles society foists upon these characters.  John espouses a life long crush on Julie but he also says "I didn't touch you.  I fucked you."  Therein lies the rub (And by rub, I actually mean full on graphic sex on the kitchen table.  An old lady in the front row kept putting her hand to her mouth in making noises of audible shock.  Let's just say that the penetration scene in Spring Awakening was Disney compared to this one.)  John could be sleeping with a woman who he has always desired but there is no escaping he's also on some level revenge fucking the Boer whose family stole his land to make her bleed.  Sex, power, and history cannot be unwound from each other here.  Julie asks John, "You loved me or just hated yourself?"  John replies, "Same thing."  Cutting and beautiful. 

Even if Julie and John are symbols in this production (and the language of the play occasionally is a little too on the nose--somebody might call someone "the past" and the other person "the future"), the performances never let that get in the way of developing deeper characters.  Cronje can be the entitled, petulant brat or the broken, vulnerable child who is so desperate for love, affection, or escape.  Mantsai is both the acquiescing worker and the dominating, angry man whose own dreams seem to get further and further away from him.  Ntshinga is that voice from another generation who has moved beyond anger into a resigned acceptance that comes with age, experience, and an overabundance of pain.  Farber and her cast hold nothing back.  The raw, messy complicated feelings of South Africa's history come across with every moment in this show.

Farber's direction is smart and sharp.  Small physical gestures become so specific and powerful here.  When John takes the some pose as Julie had with his leg up on the kitchen table, after they've had sex, it means something completely from when Julie struck the same pose earlier.  By their stations, by their sex, by what has passed between them, it comes across as desire by Julie and mocking by John.  This table, where they had sex, is where John is not even allowed to eat when Julie is in the room--he sheepishly scurries away from the table in the beginning of the play and at the end he has dominated it, taken it, but it is still not his. 

The production as a whole is a sensuous experience with sonorous saxophone music, traditional African instruments, hauntings by ancestors, and a heavy cloud of smoke.  There was something beautiful and ghostly about the multitude of workmen's boots lined up at the door.  The red clay tile floor looks as if it has been there for eternity and it is not the first time someone has had to scrub blood off of it.  Rarely has a production unified all creative elements in such a way that everything feels like it is is feeding and nourishing the lifeblood of this story.   It is jarring to walk out the door of the theater, back into the streets of Brooklyn, because inside that room you feel you are in the beating heart of South Africa.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

M. Bitter's November Recommendations

Hurricanes, snowstorms, just waiting on the plague of locusts this month.  I'm headed off to London for some theater this month for my birthday (hope I don't bring any bad weather luck with me).  But if you're looking for some New York theater recommendations for friends and family, this is my monthly report.

Recommended for...

...Out of Towners/Tourists/Once a Year Theater Goers

Glengarry Glen Ross:  Al Pacino might be the biggest name in the cast but I hear Bobby Cannavale steals the show as the leading player Ricky Roma in this, the second most famous play about salesmen.  Pacino plays the struggling old timer, Shelly Levene.  The David Mamet play might be something non-theater folks will know from the 1992 James Foley film staring Al Pacino (as Ricky Roma), Jack Lemmon, and Alec Baldwin.  Expect swearing and machismo.  Prices are quite high for this show with a good deal of the theater being sold as premium seating but you can give standing room tickets a try for a cheaper option.

The Other Josh Cohen:  This is the last weekend!  A must see feel-good, rom-com of sorts.  Affordable tickets are available.  Neil Diamond-style music with catchy tunes and comic lyrics.  My interview with the co-creator and star here

Annie:  See October recommendations.

Newsies:   See October recommendations.  Discount tickets here.

...The More Adventurous, But Not Too Too Weird

The Mystery of Edwin Drood:  An unusual who-done-it murder mystery and musical where the audience gets a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure ending.  Audiences members get to participate in selecting certain actions for the characters and everyone votes on the ending. In the style of a Victorian music hall show, this unfinished Dickens novel comes to life with the likes of Mildly Bitter favorite Will Chase, Stephanie J. Block, Jessie Mueller, Broadway legend Chita Rivera.

The Performers: If you can handle a certain amount of bawdy language, some simulated sexual acts and sexy clothing then you might enjoy this new play by David West Read.  Starring Cheyenne Jackson as porn star Mandrew Rod-dick and Henry Winkler (the Fonz!) as porn legend Chuck Wood, this quick 90 minute play is about relationships, intimacy, and who we want to go home to at the end of the day.  It also stars Ari Graynor, Alicia Silverstone, and Daniel Breaker.  Despite its setting at the Adult Film Awards in Las Vegas it is a lot more sweet than salty.  And it's quite funny.  Cheyenne Jackson is shirtless and pants-less for a lot of the opening scene and that is worth the price of admission.   

Once:  See October recommendations.  Winner of Best Musical.  My review of the Off-Broadway version of this show here.

...Snobs/Theater Aficionados/Those Who Like It Weird

Mies Julie:  Award winning production of the August Strindberg play adapted by a South African theater troupe.  It gained a lot of attention at the recent Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  As St. Ann's Warehouse reopens in its new location in DUMBO, Mies Julie is the work that will launch the new season.  A contemporary setting in post-apartheid South Africa breathes new life into this well known classic play. 

The Whale:  A morbidly obese gay man and the oddball collection of people in his life, The Whale shows off beautiful writing, a strong acting ensemble, smart direction and a huge heart.  My review here.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:  See October recommendations. My review here.  Discount tickets here.

Wooster Group's Hamlet:  See October recommendations.  Extended for a few more performances.  A truly unusual Hamlet that will have you thinking more about the artifice of cinema and theater than Hamlet itself.  Another terrific performance by Scott Shepherd.

Planning Ahead...
And for those advance purchases you might want to be making...

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof will be coming to Broadway in December.  It stars everyone's favorite president Ben Walker (Vampire Hunting Lincoln or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) and film star Scarlett Johannson.  Discount tickets are available here.

I'm also really excited for previews to start in January for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella starring Laura Osnes (Bonnie & Clyde) and Santino Fontana (Sons of the Prophet). 

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Whale: The Weight of Sorrows

"You can't fit a morbidly obese gay peg in a Mormon hole," says Liz, a disgruntled nurse, about her friend Charlie to a Mormon missionary who has come knocking on Charlie's door.  But Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale is not about obesity, Mormonism, or homosexuality, though it deals with all those topics.  It's about how we connect to other people--when truth and lies bring us together or break us apart.  The flawed reality of human interactions. This play often deals in a type of honesty that maybe only comes to the surface when people are truly in crisis. 

Charlie (Shuler Henlsey) has become a shut-in since his partner died.  Charlie's world consists of a sagging sofa where he spends his days teaching expository writing online and eating.  He only leaves the sofa only for exhausting trips down the hall to the bathroom.  His only regular visitor is unhappy Liz (Cassie Beck) who tries to care for him while spending every day berating him.  Unbeknownst to Liz, Charlie has secretly reached out to his teenage daughter Ellie (Reyna de Courcy), who has not seen since she was a toddler.  Charlie invites Ellie into his home.  Ellie is sulky, difficult, hostile and uncontrollable.  Charlie does not seem to mind these negative aspects of her personality.  Just her being in his presence seems to bring him some sort of joy.  One day in the midst of a possible cardiac episode Charlie calls to a Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas (Corey Michael Smith) who has come knocking on his door, to help him.  What calms Charlie in this episode is Elder Thomas reading an essay on Moby Dick. Soon Liz, Elder Thomas, Ellie and Charlie are all wrapped up in each others lives.

Hunter's clever, funny and ultimately bittersweet story is a painful pleasure.  He explores colorful characters, each in the midst of their own personal crisis, and elegantly and effortlessly brings all these stories together.  Like a puzzle, the oddball characters, may be oddly shaped on their own, but fit together here neatly.  Each serve as catalyst for another.  And these interactions, clicking into place, give the play it's fluid momentum.  The literary underpinnings to the play organically enrich the characters and the story without being heavily didactic.  The play is often very funny, but there is laughter through tears and then just tears as Hunter reminds us of the fragility of our humanity.

The writing here is an absolute joy but the strong acting ensemble, the brilliant stage design (by Mimi Lien) and direction (by Davis McCallam) all serve the fantastic material. The filthy room that Charlie lives in seems like a straight-forward livingroom space but as the play moves forward sound and lighting design show the space surrounding the livingroom as something else.  I'd rather not say what and let you discover it on your own.  But suffice to say it is a beautiful illustration of some of the poetic imagery in the play rendered through set design, lighting and sound. 

It was great to see Corey Michael Smith again (Cock), here as a the skittish and earnest Mormon.  Reyna de Courcy is delightful as the irritating, out of control Ellie.  Shuler Hensley wears a massive fatsuit and you feel every labored breath of his performance.  But it's the radiant joy he manages to convey amidst all his pain that is his achievement here.

Right now, The Whale, is in my top 10 shows for 2012.  It's the kind of play that makes you feel hopeful for the future of the American stage.  

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sweet Bird of Youth: Sweaty Delusions

Cappadocia. You should go there. It's çok güzel.
I once tried to learn Turkish and attempted to use it with a Turkish taxi driver during a long drive through Cappadocia.  Like an idiot Turkish baby, my skill by that point in the trip involved saying "very" to describe everything.  Very hot, very dollars (for expensive house), very blessings (for sneezing), very beautiful (for everything else). 

Sweet Bird of Youth is a play I could probably describe in Turkish.  It is just very...very boozy, very gauzy, and often very ridiculous.  It's thick, rich, redolent melodrama.  In the end, I'm not sure that is a good thing.  The play is all atmosphere and histrionics but with minimal momentum.  Feeling the stickiness of a dirty tryst, the sweaty, humidity of a Florida morning and the judgment of moralizing locals I found this production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago to be a less compelling car crash to watch than I would have expected from the premise. 

Here, Finn Wittrock plays Chance Wayne a drifter and gigolo (!) who brings Alexandra del Lago (Diane Lane) a famous actress to his hometown to pull off some hare-brained schemed he has cooked up.  He wishes to reunite with his childhood sweetheart Heavenly but he was driven from town by her father under mysterious circumstances many years before. 

David Cromer's direction did not clarify the murky material and did not illuminate it either.  Cromer has staged each of the three acts in such a way that they don't feel like the same play.  First, during the bedroom scene it was all about sensuality and texture.  Billowing, translucent curtains, warm breezes, silken pajamas, dream-like memories, images and projections.  Very Tennessee Williams.  The second Act was odd, cold, and mechanical.  With a massive silver wall it felt like we had suddenly gone from Florida to an alien planet full of cavernous spaces.  You reached the beach through a door in the sky.  Absurdism?  I'm not sure.  The third Act was frenzied and confusing with a party that spins out of control.  The turntable set which involved a hotel bar rotated in such a way that it was hard to see the action from time to time and it wasn't clear what motivated such a choice (ok Chance's world is spinning out of control and he is losing his balance and footing).  Despite these extreme oscillations in texture and tone, I don't think Cromer was working against the text here.  The play itself feels uneven and imbalanced, but the staging choices unhelpfully emphasized that.  And at some point it ends up about castration so...what can you do.  Go with it I guess.

Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock hurl themselves into their roles and the trip to Chicago was well-justified in seeing them perform. There is a moment where Diane Lane, hungover, make-up smeared on her face, is clutching Finn Wittrock's chest with her red painted fingernails.  Taking handfuls of taut flesh in her long fingers.  Running her hands up and down his body to confirm its existence and her reality. And for that I thank you David Cromer.  Fantasy and delusion indeed.

Diane Lane manages to magically go from looking ravaged to transcendent before your eyes.  She's beautiful.  We knew that.  But she is both corporeal and otherworldly.  It served the character of Alexandra del Lago well that Lane has this talent where she can suddenly just turn on a light inside herself and glow with radiance.  She pulls you in with unexpected force making it quite clear why Lane is (in life and on stage) someone you don't want to take your eyes off of.  Her del Lago starts out lost but claws her way back and Lane projects that uninhibited inner strength.  I just wish she had been playing Blanche DuBois instead. 

Finn Wittrock (besides looking fantastic in his white silk pajama bottoms) is fully-committed to his character.  He is the personification of youth, beauty, and virility.  He has a dream that borders on fantasy and he thinks this is his moment to capture that dream.  The tragic beauty of his character is that he believes he is fighting to regain his lost promise.  But the truth is he never had that promise and everything about his memory of the past and his vision of the future is delusion.  His one ally, Aunt Nonnie, sits down with him as Chance reminisces about what never was.  She tries to get him to embrace reality but he cannot.  Wittrock has a strained smile on his face and no matter what is said to him or what is done to him he refuses to let that undermine his excitement and happiness for his delusional-dream.  Even when he knows that the dream is crumbling his smile does not waver.  But Wittrock's body starts to betray Chance with energetic tics and trembling hands shoved deep into his pockets.  When he can no longer deny reality he lets loose a primal scream and I feared for Wittrock as a his body and voice shook in the final moments of the play.  He held nothing back and it was terrifying.  It took me a while to feel for Chance but Wittrock's performance grabbed me by the end and would not let go.

Seeing two tremendous actors swim around in this stylized Tennessee Williams swamp of words and images was fascinating but I would have rather seen them dive into better material.  Nevertheless, it was great to see Wittrock fulfill the promise of his terrific supporting turn in Death of a Salesman in a leading role here and there is much cause for celebration to see Diane Lane on the stage after being absent from it for many years. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Regional Theater Spotlight: KC Rep Brings You Pippin

Sometimes you find yourself buying a plane ticket to Kansas City to see theater.  Your friends might smile and nod and wish you safe travels, but secretly they question your sanity.  Kansas City?  For theater?  Just for the weekend?

Sunset in Kansas City
The most wonderful reaction to this wacky theater adventure was a shopgirl in J. Crew in Country Club Plaza, Kansas City.  With complete incredulity, she targeted the exact reason for this trip--my friend and I came to Kansas City to get something we couldn't get in New York.  And it was true--we wanted to see Claybourne Elder (Bonnie & Clyde) star in Pippin.  Kansas City had the monopoly on that--lucky devils.

I was in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival this year where I saw some strong English regional theater companies put on shows  (I Heart Peterborough from Eastern Angles, Oh the Humanity from Northern Stages).  I started to wonder why I had seen so much more theater from regional theaters in England than America.  So a theater weekend to the Midwest was born.

Our first stop was the Kansas City Rep which is in its 48th season and puts on a mix of new works and revivals.  Some productions showcase Kansas City artists (for instance Death of a Salesman playing this January) and others involve both local Kansas City artists and out of town performers.  KC Rep also commissions new works such as the upcoming "Waiting for You on the Corner of {13th and Walnut}."

Eric Rosen has been the Artistic Director of Kansas City Rep for the past 5 years.  Rosen launched a new work (his collaboration with Matt Sax) Venice at KC Rep where it was very well-received.  Venice has been called the rap-music Othello and I'm hoping it gets staged somewhere nearby soon because it sounds fascinating.  KC Rep was also where the Broadway bound A Christmas Story: The Musical! had its world premiere.

Rosen directed this "punk rock" production of Pippin.*  Transforming the 70's-sound of Pippin into anything but an easy listening hippie fest is a feat.  Rosen's punk rock vision managed to get Pippin to sound more like contemporary pop musical theater than a remnant from my childhood.  But it never quite got the edge that the "punk" or "rock" monikers suggest.  Even so, Rosen makes some breathtaking staging choices in this production.  There were a lot of creative concepts at play (punk styling, rock singing, instruments played by actors).  Even though these moments did not work at all times, when they heaved into focus and clicked it was magical. 

Using literal "frames" around the action, as well as large scale framed paintings to set a scene he kept reminding us of the storytelling trope of the work.  In particular the massive Guernica inspired painting established the battle scene and was used to great effect combined with bare bulb lamps that descend from the ceiling and then are taken up as props by the actors.  Although these may sound like disparate elements, in Rosen's hands they seamlessly created the feeling of overwhelming battle by sound, light, space and action.  The chaos of all those elements was well-choreographed.  Pippin leaves the scene shell-shocked and Rosen has created a beautiful format to express that.  In some ways for me the trip to Kansas City was worth it for that scene alone (and to be introduced to Rosen's work). 

There is thought and care in each choice even if they did not all work for me.  For instance, I understood the effort to integrate musical instruments and microphone stands into the scenes to further underline the punk rock theme, but I found them to be more of a distraction (though I felt the same way when John Doyle did this in Company).  There was one beautiful moment where Pippin, singing With You, ends up as part of a string trio with the women who are trying to seduce him.  It was, for me, the stand alone moment where the instruments married to the mood well--the strings resonated as sensual and seductive.  And who would not fall for a handsome guy playing you the violin.

Claybourne Elder was a fantastic, dreamy young Pippin (even if illness had its way with his voice that night).  He draws you into a character who is impetuous, adrift, and often foolish.  Even when Pippin is being his most petulant, Elder makes him lovable (you understand how Catherine could moon over the arch in his foot).  Elder finds the vulnerability and wide-eyed searching in Pippin and it bursts forth through every gesture and expression, and he does not waste a single moment.  Supporting him in this cast was Mary Testa as a sassy, over the top Berthe who got the audience to sing along to No Time At All, Wallace Smith as a strong rock star Leading Player, and John Hickok as the slick and powerful Charles. All brought powerful vocals and polished dramatic performances to their scenes.  The scenic design by Jack Magaw was well-executed (the stained-glass style drop for the court of the king stood out) and lighting design by Jason Lyons was first-rate. 

Pippin will probably never be one of my favorite musicals but this production found some interesting avenues into the work which made it well worth the journey. 

And Kansas City bonus, we got to see the shuttlecocks!
Claus Oldenburg at Nelson Atkins Museum of Art
*I received a complimentary ticket to this show.

M. Bitter's October Recommendations

Recently I got an email from a friend looking for theater recommendations for her parents who were coming into town.  I thought I would try something new on the blog and make some recommendations beyond my reviews.  If it is helpful or interesting I might make it a regular thing. If you hate it, well I'm sure you'll tell me.

One of the hardest things about recommending shows is that everyone likes very different material.  My stepfather will only see musicals that are funny.  I'm sure there are other people who want to see only shows they have heard of or already know the music to.   But maybe you do not know where to start and you need a quick list of some ideas to recommend to family or friends coming to town.  or maybe you are planning a trip to New York and would like to know what's happening this month. 

Here is a list of some suggestions that you can either consider or ignore....because we live in a democracy.  I's still a democracy right?  Well at least until Election Day.

Let's give this a whirl, shall we.

Recommended for...

...Out of Towners/Tourists/Once a Year Theater Goers

Annie:  Little orphan, abandoned dog, orphanage related shenanigans.  Something familiar, musical and good for the family.  I wasn't particularly interested in this show until they cast Tony award winner Katie Finneran as Miss Hannigan and Anthony Warlow (Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables) as Daddy Warbucks.  But they are performers worth seeking out.  I haven't seen it yet but it's definitely one to consider if you need a family musical. 

Newsies:  Newsboys strike against Joseph Pulitzer but there is also love, adventure, and a young man trying to figure out who he is.  Another family option, based on the Disney movie, this musical is more appealing to those tween girls or ladies who are still girls at heart because there are lots of cute boys, high flying choreography and some delightful ballads.  Uplifting and very enjoyable.  Everyone will leave with a favorite Newsie...though you cannot actually take them home.   Do not try this.  That is kidnapping.  My review here.  Though Jeremy Jordan is no longer in the cast (loud, girlish sigh), I've heard good things about the actor who replaced him as Jack Kelly.  Discount tickets here.

The Heiress:  Awkward single woman and heiress living with her wealthy father on the elegant Washington Square meets a handsome ne'er do well and falls in love despite her father's suspicions that the man is only out to get her money. Traditional costume drama for grown-ups.  It's got pedigree since it is based on the Henry James novel Washington Square.  Older folks (or those who like old movies) may be familiar with the 1949 film version starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift (dreamy).  It stars Downton Abbey favorite Cousin Matthew Crawley, or as he is actually known in life, Dan Stevens, film star Jessica Chastain (The Help, Tree of Life) making her Broadway debut, and well-known character actors David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, Eight Men Out) and Judith Ivey.  It's serious drama for the most part but nothing too outré and if you like period dramas then you might enjoy it.  People clapped for the gorgeous set when the curtain came up. 

Cyrano de Bergerac:  As an alternative to The Heiress.  Swordsman and giant-nose bearer, falls in love with his cousin Roxane, but she loves his handsome and irresistible army co-hort Christian.  Cyrano helps Christian woo Roxane because Cyrano is a poet and Christian is a hottie and together they form the wonder-twins...or something like that.  Then there's a war and bloody battle is never good for romance.  Starring Tony Award winner Douglas Hodge Cyrano is an oft-revived play and there is a lot in Hodge's performance worth seeing here.  Again, a period drama with a little bit more comedy and lightness than The Heiress. My review here.

The Other Josh Cohen:  Do you like fun and laughter and a bit of silliness thrown in?  If so, this is my pick for you.  About a down on his luck guy who is not sure if a check that he finds in the mail is meant for him--maybe his luck is actually turning around.  Sweet, cute, and very funny 80 minute new musical playing Off-Broadway.  Affordable tickets.  Neil Diamond-style music with catchy tunes and comic lyrics.  A feel-good, rom-com of sorts.  My interview with the co-creator and star here.

...The More Adventurous, But Not Too Too Weird

Once:  Winner of Best Musical.  Based upon the film of the same name about a street performer and a Czech immigrant who help each other out musically and otherwise.  Full of well-known indie music makes it feel like it's not an old traditional Broadway show.  It's got gorgeous cast members you are sure to fall in love with conveniently named Guy (Steve Kazee) and Girl (Cristin Milioti) in the show so you can fill in your own fantasy names for them.  It's a bittersweet love story so probably not the show for your anniversary night out, but as a regular night out to the theater you'll probably think back on it fondly.  My review of the Off-Broadway version of this show here.

If There is I Haven't Found It Yet:  This Off-Broadway British play addresses issues of bullying, global warming, chaos, violence and family drama.  The cast is very strong and the director has chosen a very unusual staging technique that is something to see.  It stars Jake Gyllenhaal.  For those who moon over him, here's a chance to see him in the flesh.  With the heady topics of the play, it might give you some worthwhile discussion afterwards but it is not light-hearted that's for sure.  Also 90 minutes with no intermission, so it's a quickie.

...Snobs/Theater Aficionados/Those Who Like It Weird

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:  Classic American play about a husband and wife who invite a couple over for drinks and the liquor-soaked evening goes wildly off the rails. Maybe you've seen the fantastic film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which was Mike Nichols cinematic directorial debut. Tough and dynamic material but not for the faint-hearted.  Also NOT for your anniversary night out.  Funny, explosive, powerful performances.  My review here.  Discount tickets here.

Tribes:  Fascinating British family drama involving a hearing family and their adult deaf son who falls in love with a girl who is losing her hearing.   Inventive staging and beautiful writing combine together to form a thought-provoking and emotionally invigorating night at the theater.  My review (which included some cast members who have since left the production) here.  Discount tickets here.

Wooster Group's Hamlet:  It's Hamlet--Danish prince, mother marries father's brother, dead King haunts son, Ophelia, madness, everyone dies.  I haven't seen it yet but it is a show I am very much looking forward to.  Many nights are already sold out but if you are looking to see an experimental, deconstructed Hamlet unlike any other then I would snap up a ticket to see this production starring downtown performer Scott Shepherd (Gatz).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Get the Guests

On it's 50th Anniversary, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is in very good shape.  The Steppenwolf production directed by Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park, Completeness) carves out a space for itself as a unique interpretation of the play.  Not all of the aspects of the production worked for me, but it's remarkable that something I thought I knew well felt new and different.  There is no question that if you want to see an excellent production, this one is worth the time. 

Don't be lulled into believing that this messy, but inviting wood-paneled living room filled with books and bits of a couple's life is anything but a boxing ring or a battlefield. For me, Tracy Letts comes away as the clear winner in this knock-down, drag out production.  George (Letts) a college professor and Martha (Amy Morton) his wife, also the daughter of the University President, invite over a young couple, a new teacher (Madison Dirks) and his wife (Carrie Coon), for drinks after a faculty party.  But nothing is what it seems in this Broadway classic. 

With a gorgeous set (by Todd Rosenthal) and fantastic sound (by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen) and lighting design (by Allen Lee Hughes) (I could hear the sound of morning birdsong and the light of dawn through the open front door at the end of the show), this show demonstrates what top tier Broadway plays can do.  This production highlights some tremendous performances by actors I had not seen before.  Carrie Coon made for a delightful Honey.  She's dim, drunk and delicate all in the right places.  Madison Dirks plays a smarmy Nick who feels more deserving of the take-down he gets in the end. 

For me Tracy Letts was a revelation.  Letts's George has more presence and an equal part in the drunken and dark parlor games he and Martha play on the unsuspecting late-night guests.  Letts shouts, cajoles, teases, and suffers.  With each, scene and each aspect of George's personality, Letts finds creative and nuanced ways to communicate his character.  But unexpected was how much this George tries to take control of the evening.  He's a larger presence in the work here than I felt like I remembered from reading the play.*  He's smart, conniving, and insidious.  And he's also heart-breaking.  When he's left on his own and Martha has taken his bait, his quiet suffering was hard to watch.  Letts physically carries the exhaustion of a lifetime of George and Martha's "fun and games" on his shoulders.  They made a choice to not play to a bigger, braying Martha here and George manages to fill the void.  I enjoyed seeing Letts tear into a more relevant and substantial George, but the shifting balance of power between George and Martha felt off because of this.  If the scenes usually have a feel of boxing rounds to them, the final knock-out, George's take-down of Martha, does not quite feel like its warranted.  It feels even slightly more malevolent than a return to equilibrium or an absolute necessity.  

Amy Morton was last seen on Broadway in her Tony nominated performance in August: Osage County, written by Letts.  So there is no question she knows how to handle difficult material and does so with humor and pathos.  Here, Morton's Martha is a wholly different "monster" than Elizabeth Taylor's film version (I never saw Kathleen Turner's version in 2005).  She's no snarling beast.  She's not ugly drunk.  She's calm and much more sarcastic than caustic.  Morton's comic timing is sublime.  The entire production feels a lot funnier than I would have expected, and is endlessly enjoyable, yet this comes at a cost.  The emotional wallop that should come late in the play misses its mark.  I never felt Morton lets the audience in.  She does not drop her guard as Martha.  Even in the speech where she speaks to her own vulnerabilities, she comes across as detached and didactic.  As a more naturalistic, and less exaggerated Martha,  it should have made connecting to her more likely.  She came across as rarely if ever drunk.  Maybe it all just felt too calculated, too within her power, too intentional to me.  I missed the wild swinging of a Martha who was not always fully in control so her oversteps were more regrettable.  I kept waiting for an emotional connection to this Martha and it did not come.

I saw the play twice. I was seated in the mezzanine for the first preview (and I received a complimentary ticket) and I paid for an orchestra seat in the second row the night before opening.  I thought maybe I was not being taken in emotionally by the work because I was seated so far away.  But being up close did not change the ending for me.  In fact, I found the wrap-up, dare I say, tedious ("sad...revelation dawning...sad....sad...[checks watch]...and scene."). 
There was something about the high comedy and emotional withholding that made me start to wonder if MacKinnon was not actually following the rules of Albee's own game and actively working against the text in this production.  I'm not sure why I felt like I needed to defend Albee text after seeing this production but oddly enough I did.  He's alive and well enough to defend it for himself (I had no idea he requires the 1960's setting for the piece and objected to a stripped down set when that was attempted).  But there is something about this interpretation that, for me, felt like MacKinnon did not want to draw the same conclusions Albee does.  One friend suggested it was maybe MacKinnon working against Albee's hatred of women.

It's an interesting thought.  I have not read or seen enough Albee to make that conclusion.  And honestly, I love Martha.  I love Martha as the Harpie, as the bar room brawler willing to take anyone and everyone who comes at her.  I love how "strong" she thinks she is.  In a world where women have a particular a role she is not playing that role.  She is, and she isn't.  She is the dutiful daughter attending her father's cocktail party.  She is the faculty wife, who invites over the new instructor and his wife.  But she's so self-hating, so rebellious against being loved, being understood, being cared for.  She's a fascinating character and frankly maybe a little more real than we want to think.

No one leaves this play or this production thinking, "Those ladies are terrible.  Those poor men have to put up with so much."  Everyone is terrible.  They are terrible each in their own special way.  Martha is terrible because the only way for her to feel alive is to live off the carrion of her husband's soul.  But I never read it as all women need to ritualistically eviscerate their husbands on a regular basis.

Frankly this interpretation of Martha makes her look a lot weaker than I would have expected. I'm not objecting to trying to interpret the text in a new way but that interpretation should work for the entire piece.  Reinvigorating one aspect should still result in a dramatic payoff in another--unless the idea was to go for a cold, emotionally alienating finale.**

This is the second MacKinnon production where I felt like she used humor to deny me an emotional reaction.  I mean, not personally.  I don't think Pam MacKinnon is out to make me feel unsatisfied in my theatrical excursions.  I am still trying to get to the bottom of why the way she uses comedy alienates me.  It's like by foregrounding the comedy and really mining the material for "zingers" the underbelly of sadness, tragedy, and slow build toward drama is being neglected.  So when drama takes center stage (ugh...pun not really intended) the foundation has not been properly built for it and it cannot sustain the emotional weight.

Despite my strange internal battle with Pam MacKinnon I think the journey of this production, how George, Martha, Nick and Honey evolve is fascinating to watch and has only left me with lots to talk about.  And the more I talk with others about it the more there is to discuss.  Not bad for a 50 year old play.  Still pretty spry. 

*They are working from the 2005 edition of the play (which kind of threw me because I was familiar with the 1962 version).
**My friends saw some people making out at the show and when we walked out of the theater another couple was literally sucking each others faces off.  Maybe this production makes some people randy.  I mean...weirdest reaction ever to WAOFVW.   #leastsexyshowever