Monday, April 30, 2012

The Best Man: Starring Everyone and the Kitchen Sink

I do not enjoy politics because the times may change but the rhetoric does not.  It always seems to me to be a world that never truly evolves.  Gore Vidal's The Best Man, despite being written in 1960, helps illustrate how that is true.  The questions of morals and mudslinging in politics and even what makes a good politician seem to be as true today as they were then. 

In a production directed by Michael Wilson, two political candidates are neck and neck vying for the party's nomination.  Former Secretary of State William Russell (John Larroquette) is the senior politician and statesman.  He drags his wife Alice (Candice Bergen) along to the convention and if he is nominated she'll stick around, but if he's not he can have his bimbos and she'll leave him.  His competitor, is young Senator Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack).  A Southern-fried, smooth operator who is all double-speak and no platform, and he's gaining in popularity because of it.  His chipper wife, Mabel (Kerry Butler), is close by his side.  Cantwell and Russell are both vying for the endorsement of former President Artie Hockstader (James Earl Jones) and the support of the Chairman of the Women's Division, Sue-Ellen Grandage (Angela Lansbury).  As the convention heats up, Cantwell prepares to throw some personal mud at Russell.  Russell must decide if he will do the same. 
Perhaps it was the fact that the play brings together actors known for their TV comedy work, but The Best Man had a sitcom vibe to it.  It is political satire that is smart, but not too smart.  It dangles enough anti-politician snark to please the audience and even if there were some serious moments, it feels rather frothy as it goes.  It is a two and half hour play with two intermissions but it is bubbly enough you won't notice.  That is not to say I recommend it.  It was a pleasant diversion but much like a sitcom it did not feel substantial in the end.  Audiences will leave with the self-satisfaction that politicians are generally immoral jerks and true character in politics is rare--but I am pretty sure they felt that way when they arrived.

That said, Dan Larroquette is a pleasure to watch on stage.  He seemed well-suited to play the role of a man of honor in some aspects of his life but not others.  I wished Candice Bergen was as feisty as she used to be.  Her role could have had a bit more bite.  She seemed to be holding back in it.  Angela Lansbury brings her brand of lady-like sass to the proceedings.  She lights up the stage when she is on it.  James Earl Jones was mostly bluster but I appreciated when things got a bit more serious he brought the gravitas.  I mean there is no better gravitas than the Vader-kind.  Michael McKean was wasted in a small role.  Please cast him in a lead again soon.  I loved him in Superior Donuts!  Eric McCormack plays slick just fine but seems to have a lot of acting tics that I found distracting (mainly because they were reminiscent of his famous television role).  His accent however was atrocious. Kerry Butler was a strange little chipmunk in this role.  She was excitable, shrill and grotesque.  That seemed to be the direction she was given but it felt a little off.   And as always Jefferson Mays shows up and blows everyone away with a small role that was thoroughly rich and dynamic.  Love him! 

What the play lacks in depth, it makes up for in heavy-hitters on stage.  For some that might be enough to make it worth checking out.  

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Leap of Faith: Holy Cornpone on the Great White Way

Leap of Faith* brings you Raúl Esparza in LEATHER PANTS making the ceiling quake with his heavenly voice.  So that's your upside and it's a good one at that.  Hold onto it and treasure it like a precious gem.  This production with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, and directed by Christopher Ashley otherwise is a challenge with a weak book, Gospel tinged musical numbers, and overall uneven tone and pace.

Based on the 1992 film, Leap of Faith is set in a traveling religious revival group led by Rev. Jonas Nightingale (Esparza) who with his sister Sam (Kendra Kassebaum) con people out of money.  They are assisted by singer-bookkeeper Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans) and her daughter Ornella (Krystal Joy Brown).  Later Ida Mae is joined on the road by her Bible-college educated son Isaiah (Leslie Odom Jr.) who is suspicious of the good Reverend.  Also suspicious from the start is local sheriff Marla (Jessica Phillips) who tries to run Nightingale out of town before he has even set up shop.  Lured in by his irresistible charms, she gives into his temptations but with the understanding this will be a short visit and he will move on.  Moreover, he is not to encourage her wheelchair bound son Jake (Talon Ackerman) who has faith that Jonas can heal him.

It's a messy story and, I'll be honest, not my favorite setting.  I didn't want to be in the dust bowl Kansas town it is set in for more than I had to be (and the clunky set, heavy on "metal," made it even less inviting).  The gospel music is also not my cuppa.  So a lot of things in this show work against my taste.  I prefer a little edge and the show tries to have one (and thinks it has one) but at it's heart it's a gooey, sweet center. 

The first Act was slow and plodding.  Focused far too much on the revival and reliant on the gospel ensemble numbers, I found myself bored.  I could not tell if it was direction or performance that was the issue, but Esparza ends up playing Jonas's charisma as wolfish--he seems to make love to everyone and everything (Hello tent, I think you are sexy.  Hello religious gathering, I think you are sexy.  Hello chair, I think you are sexy.  Hello sister, I think you are sexy.  Whoops.)  This all leads to a song called "Fox in the Henhouse"...What evils did I do in a former life to have to hear that!?  I was so confused by Esparza being sexy with everyone that I thought there would be a subplot about him possibly being Isaiah's father (which makes no sense if you look at the age of the actors but frankly it seemed plausible in how it was staged).

The moment the first Act perks up is when the romance is dialed up between Jonas and Marla. They sing a great duet "I Can Read You" (musically very similar to the "Fox in the Henhouse" but at least this song gives more light to the characters).   The burgeoning romance between these two might be wholly out of character for the Marla we have been introduced to but it is a welcome respite.   It's still an unbelievable set-up (local sheriff wants him out of town but lets him stay for a bit, sleeps with him, but then keeps trying to arrest him).  But with her gorgeous Second Act ballad "Long Past Dreamin'," there is a little more clarity about her backstory and her internal struggles over her romantic dilemma.  Jonas too gets to be more vulnerable and open with her.  When there is some character development it can lead to engaging songs, in particular, the great duet between Marla and Sam "People Like Us." 

The most successful aspect of the show for me is the dramatic tension Esparza creates in the dynamic between Jonas, Marla and Jake.  Jonas legitimately likes Jake and knows his con artist game could hurt him (and consequently Marla).  But he also knows his entire crew including his sister depends on him to pull off the con.  Esparza convincingly plays this struggle and fear of hurting two parties he cares about.  He seems truly invested in Jake and even a little sad that his cons keep him disconnected from people.

His big eleven o'clock number, "Jonas' Soliloquy" is where it all comes together and it's a worthy showstopper from this Broadway star.  It's a glimpse of Raúl getting to be Raúl.  He sings his heart out in a song that lifts the entire audience up to the rafters and beyond.  The set for that song is simply a starry black sky: a beautifully staged moment worth savoring.  I just wish the rest of the show was as clear and sharp as this one moment is.  Phillips has a difficult job.  Her role is a challenge to make believable and she tries but I still had a hard time buying the transformation from hardass to love interest.  She and Esparza have a great scene after Long Past Dreamin' but these successful scenes alone could not carry the rest of the show.

Sadly the show is a muddle of too many ideas, themes, and action.  There is a significant story line about Ida Mae, Isaiah and Ornella but most of the time it felt wholly separate from Jonas's story.  This subplot includes a number of songs that don't do much for the larger plot or even to give background on these characters in any meaningful way.  It's too bad because all three performers are terrific.  Leslie Odom Jr. has a gorgeous voice and is a talented dancer.  I wanted him to have more stage time but the two plots are just too disconnected musically, narratively and emotionally. 

There are some talented people in this cast (Kassebaum included) but the material doesn't gel.  That said, an audience primed for sweet-ish, "family" entertainment would eat this up and in fact both times I have seen the show the audience was hungry for more (I heard audience members shout out to the characters during the show--that's how engaged they really were). 

I want to see Esparza in a great musical role.  Alas, my prayers were not answered.

*I paid for one ticket to an early preview and received a complementary ticket to the frozen show.

The Columnist: Brothers, Loyalty and Principles

There is a moment in The Columnist where Joseph Alsop (John Lithgow), a longtime political journalist, is arguing with someone over the phone.  He's shouting at a newspaper man named "Scotty."  I somehow instinctively understood it was Scotty Reston* he was talking to and did not think twice about it.  By the end of the play, many names from 1960's era journalism and politics are bandied about without explanation or context.  If you are not familiar with the who-s, you might find yourself frustrated and less interested in the where, what and whys of The Columnist.  But if you can keep up with the people and places being discussed, this portrait of a difficult, irascible man is well worth your time.  

Lithgow does imperious very well and Alsop, with his Groton accent, Georgetown address and the ear of the President, is nothing short of that.  He's a gay man, living a quasi-closeted-existence, but he also enjoys the unusual position of shaping public opinion about the politics of his day.  At the beginning of the play he is shown entrapped by the KGB and a gay pick-up (Brian J. Smith) in Moscow.  Alsop has his secrets but it's the rare moment of vulnerability for a man mostly calling the shots.  For a character most would have little sympathy for, it is a very effective structure to get the audience to peel back the layers on this man and know at all times going forward there is more than meets the eye.

Alsop was a close confidant of JFK.  He relishes the influence he has, the proximity to power and the value given to his counsel.  Gadfly to Alsop is David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken), a scrappy Saigon based reporter for the New York Times, challenging the status quo of Alsop's views on Vietnam and representing the voice of a different generation of journalist.  Alsop's brother, Stewart (Boyd Gaines), was for a time his writing partner but Stewart breaks off to write on his own.  Stewart nevertheless remains Joe's protector.  Joe marries a Washington widow, Susan Mary (Margaret Colin) who is aware of Joe's sexual preferences, and creates a home for her and her daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer). 

David Auburn's play, directed by Daniel Sullivan, crafts a stunning character portrait of Alsop, his contradictions, and many of his un-loveable qualities.  What's more, he's given two stellar actors, Lithgow and Gaines, a chance to dig deep into these two brothers who are inexorably linked but who have such different temperaments.  Stewart Alsop is thoughtful, patient, and kind.  Joseph Alsop is sharp, harsh and strident.  They have the ability to care most deeply for one another and the power to hurt each other more deeply than anyone else.  For me, these actors in these roles, make this play work.  The shifting generations, class warfare and the changing tide of American public opinion are all themes underlying the work.  But putting aside, JFK, Vietnam, communism, and the fate of America, the real stakes at issue in the play are the relationships being portrayed.  Questions of loyalty and principles abound.  The play gives space for questions about men who hold onto their principles, falter with them, or become controlled by them.  These themes dovetail nicely into the deeper historic issues but ultimately how this played out within and among the family members brought me to tears. 

Lithgow has the showier role but Gaines is heart-breaking as the man who stands by Joe no matter what Joe says or does.  Gaines makes the cost of that choice palpable and devastating.  It's a beautiful and subtle performance.  Lithgow nevertheless deserves credit for bringing delicate shading to a character who is larger than life.  He finds the humanity in a man who did not always prioritize such a thing.  Kunken as Halberstam is also noteworthy.  It's an important role in the play to give context and perspective outside of Joe Alsop's driven personal POV.  Kunken plays both hotheaded young man and seasoned journalist with specificity and aplomb.

Auburn's play offers Alsop a moment to reflect on his choices, his regrets, and where his principles have gotten him in the end.  I may have wanted more of that in balance with the rest but the play made me walk out the door thinking of these things beyond just my time in the theater--a welcome consequence of seeing great actors and challenging writing on Broadway.

*I have no idea where I pulled that out from.  I read Katharine Graham's autobiography once and I was a bit Watergate obsessed as a kid.  Who wasn't?  But I wondered if others were following along or possibly wanted more background which Auburn does not give.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ghost the Musical: Cheese Washes Ashore

I saw a preview of Ghost the Musical on Broadway while it was still working out the kinks in the show.  I know changes have been made since I saw it but I think after seeing it in London and now New York my feelings about the show are frozen even if the show I saw here was not.  But take my review with a grain of unfrozen salt...

Directed by Matthew Warchus, with music by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, I was surprised that I enjoyed Ghost in London. It was a major cheese-fest but the love story as staged did get to me. 

Now that it is here in New York and my relaxed vacation brain has been replaced with my cynical New York brain I wondered if I would react the short, I did. 

The thrust of the story remains the same as the movie (and the production in London).  Molly (Caissie Levy) and Sam (Richard Fleeshman) are a happy couple who have just moved in together.  A mugger kills Sam in front of Molly, and Sam's ghost finds himself trapped between the worlds.  He discovers his mugging was no accident and he finds out Molly is in danger from people he thought he could trust including his best friend Carl (Bryce Pinkham).  He finds a psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Da'Vine Joy Randolph)  who can hear him and enlists her aid to protect and communicate with Molly.

The visual effects in this production remain an incredible stage achievement.  From a subway car that splits apart on stage, to ghosts, and dead bodies, the entire look of the show is a triumph. I liked how the LED lighting created real sets that "felt" very specific and not like some sort of painful digital rendering (Atari style is definitely the look of Jesus Christ Superstar's LEDs as well as Magic/Bird).  There is a moment where there is a sunset coming through the windows of Molly's apartment and for a moment I swear you believe it is actually a sunset.  The stage magic is truly spectacular and leaves you gasping.

I still found myself sucked into the love story particularly through Caissie Levy's ballads (which I think could be lovely pop music numbers outside the show).  Caissie Levy remains a winning heroine and her scenes of grief are legitimately touching.  But...

...the ensemble numbers were a real chore to get through this time.  They did not move the story ahead, they did not add to the characters or to the setting. 
...the music and lyrics, beyond Caissie's songs, are otherwise forgettable.
...I still was never won over by Richard Fleeshman in a role that is underwritten.  He's got two things to do: shout or be confused.   Wait, he has a third thing to do: show you his very fine abs.  Which he does.  He's supposed to drive the narrative so his feckless performance bothered me more the second time around.
...some of the projections are just ridonkulous.  I swear I don't remember the giant Richard Fleeshman head being projected on the screens in London.  As much as I liked a lot of the stage "magic" the New York production seems more heavy on unnecessary projections.
...I was bored a lot more than I was in London.

Ghost is not as craptacular as Jesus Christ Superstar.  So if there is one cheese-fest you attend on Broadway this season I'm sorry to say JCS is the one you should see.  It's a little unfair.  JCS has Andrew Lloyd Webber's infectiously catchy music.  But if you have a little extra dough (you can lotto it and probably get a ticket) and want to see a show that is visually unlike any other on Broadway then I think you should check out Ghost.

I am not the type of person to encourage special effects and spectacle over character-work or a strong book but the visual effects used here are so impressive I think people who go to the theater would appreciate the skill and inventiveness used in the production (if only the story and music/lyrics were as skillful).  Between Ghost and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark I would recommend Ghost.  Spider-Man is just boring beginning to end.  Ghost, at least, has whole scenes and moments of engaging story and some truly beautiful songs.  But the good bits of true emotional resonance are buried among needless ensemble numbers.  It's muddled mess but I found myself enjoying parts of it and will still buy some of the tracks off the cast album to listen to. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire: A Cold Day in Elysian Fields

A Streetcar Named Desire* returns to Broadway welcoming a multi-ethnic cast but Emily Mann's lethargic direction and a weak ensemble fail to bring Tennessee William's rich play to life.  Each individual actor tried their best but the passion, torment, and rising drama was not to be found in this sluggish production. 

The classic story remains the same.  Schoolteacher, Blanche DuBois (Nicole Ari Parker) comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Stella's new husband Stanley (Blair Underwood).  Blanche claims the family homestead is lost and must remain with Stella and Stanley well beyond the point that tensions develop between them.  Blanche is being politely wooed by Stanley's friend Mitch (Wood Harris) but Stanley puts an end to that romance when he finds out the truth about Blanche.

The ensemble did not have the chemistry or strength to bring the material together.   It seems from staging, performance and direction we are meant to know Blanche is a liar from beginning.  This undermines much of the dramatic tension. Without the push and pull of what is real and what are lies, it seems like the entire play is anticipation of the inevitable unveiling of her background but without any palpable tension.  Her drinking and lying end up awkwardly being played for laughs.  Sympathy for Blanche is practically non-existent here.

Nicole Ari Parker looks luminous as Blanche but did not effectively convey the full range of Blanche's various mental states in the play.  You feel no actual relationship between Stella (Daphne Ruben-Vega) and Blanche (Nicole Ari Parker).  There is no warmth, history or feeling between the two sisters.  But frankly, I did not believe there was a real relationship or heat between Stella and Stanley either.

Underwood is is striking performer and quite scary in this production (I'm pretty sure a pork chop got thrown somewhere into the rafters in one scene).  But the frisson between Stanley and Blanche was not there.  There was menace but not the sexual tension necessary to build to the violent conclusion of rape.

That said, I liked Wood Harris a lot.  He conveyed a sexually, frustrated but ultimately respectable Mitch struggling to court Blanche.  His pain was the most clear and direct. 

As for the rape scene, as one news outlet noted, there was some inappropriate audience interaction right before it during one performance.  I think this is emblematic of the tone problems of the show throughout.  The costume Stanley in this scene is laughable and regardless of Blair Underwood shirt-on or shirt-off it's an odd choice.  But the audience did not seem to entirely get what was happening on stage.  When the doctor finally comes to collect Blanche at the end, it is staged like a Keystone Cops scene.  When he offers her his hand, the audience I was with burst into laughter.

Whether audiences are familiar with the text or not, this production fails to set the right tone from the beginning.  I thought for a moment I was watching a sincere high school production of Streetcar.  Everyone was doing their best but it was as if no one actually understood the lines they were saying or their reasons for being there.  It is inevitable with that type of performance that the audience will not understand either. 

With these major problems, I am not surprised they seemed to have lost the audience for crucial, emotional scenes.  Between boredom and confusion, this production does not offer audience much besides some inappropriate laughter.

*I received a complementary ticket to the production.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Magic/Bird: Lifetime Television for Basketball

Magic/Bird* has been brought to Broadway by the creative team behind Lombardi. Director Thomas Kail and writer Eric Simonson dramatize the rivalry and friendship between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.  With a fantastic cast, Magic/Bird manages at times to be funny and touching but never really rises above the level of a TV biopic.  That said, I'd love to see any of these talented cast members in other plays in the future.

The show opens with the difficult call between Johnson and Bird when Johnson gets his HIV diagnosis and then moves back in time to see the men develop their friendship.  Using video projection of TV moments from their lives (including their Converse commercial which got cheers from the audience), and staged on a parquet floor, they talk, shoot hoops, and become a part of each others lives.  Focused more on the relationship of these two men, you won't hear about how Johnson became infected with HIV or much about his personal life.

As someone who cares very little for sports (but grew up with Celtics fans in my family), I came to Magic/Bird a bit reticent.  What I left with was a lovely portrait in friendship between these two men.  This is largely due to the terrific actors portraying them.  Kevin Daniels as Magic Johnson is all charisma and ease.  Tug Coker as Larry Bird is gangly awkwardness personified.  He speaks so little that everything he conveys about his character is through his body-language.  It's an impressive feat.  These two actors enriched the relatively thin material with their thoughtful performances and created a believable relationships between these two iconic men.

Each supporting cast member played a variety of characters and completed this strong ensemble. Without drifting into caricature, Peter Scolari physically embodied Red Auerbach and Pat Riley (and for the record, if anyone is wondering he has some very nice biceps!  He was always my favorite Bosom Buddy).  I would be remiss if I did not give credit to Deirdre O'Connell for her EXCELLENT Boston accent.  Beyond nailing the always difficult Boston accent, she was incredibly specific with each of the characters she played.  Whether she was Bird's mother, his wife or a Boston barkeep, she made each unique and dynamic.  My friend and I sat there wondering who is this actress and why have we not seen her before!  She's fantastic and now someone I am keeping an eye out for.  Francois Battiste should also get some recognition for his hilarious performance as Bryant Gumbel.  His Gumbel sounded a lot like Kermit the Frog.  It was funny every time he did it. 

But in the end, little happens in this play.  The arc of their careers/rivalry/friendship is necessarily dependent on the iconic TV footage which for me was over-used in this production.  Rather than work with the play, it seemed to remind me of how thin the play itself was and how necessary these clips were for moving the story ahead.

*I received a complementary ticket to the production.

Clybourne Park: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Unpopular opinion. Dead ahead. 

Clybourne Park written by Bruce Norris and directed by Pam MacKinnon is two unique plays merged into one: first, a screwball-esque family dramedy, second, a comedy of modern errors. The two halves are married together to get audiences to focus on the language of race over time and the history of urban change.  Building off of the story in Raisin the Sun, and using the same house, we meet different people at different times in history who are all connected to these issues.

In Act I, it is 1959 and we meet Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood) who are coping with the death of their son and choosing to move out of their neighborhood.  Neighbor, Karl Lindner (Jeremy Shamos) (a character taken from Raisin in the Sun) comes along with his deaf wife (Annie Parisse) to try to talk Bev and Russ out of moving because an African-American family has bought the house and this will be, according to Karl, the end of the neighborhood. Awkwardly caught in the middle of this debate is Bev's African-American housekeeper Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton).

In Act II, set in the 2009, a dispute is being mediated between a couple moving into the same house from Act I, Lindsey (Parisse) and Steve (Shamos) and neighborhood association represented by Lena (Dickinson) and Kevin (Gupton). 

Many people I know and respect really liked this play but I failed to connect to it.  I did not find it funny and I did not find the drama satisfying. 

With the frenetic, muddled direction and a certain level of comic wackiness, it came across to me as the "You Can't Take With You" of racism.  Somehow the staging and production seem to play up screwball comedy in an unexpected, and for me, wholly unwelcome way (a priest, a deaf woman and an overtly racist asshole walk into a house full of tragically broken people and comedy ensues). 

Although some have described this is a comic satire, I found it less than satisfying in it's comedy or it's satire.   The play was not subtle in it's attempts to forge connections between time periods and tie together the "issues."  But what was more problematic for me was putting the issues above character development.  What caught my interest was the family drama at the core of the play.  But the playwright and director seemed to keep pushing that emotionally engaging story to the side (it crops up again in Act II in an awkward, tacked-on kind of way).

Christina Kirk's shrill Bev was challenging to connect with.  Her "high-strung" nature is played for comedy here but I found it constantly undermining the dramatic reasons for her emotional state.  She is not meant to be a lovable character but as performed I hated her for all the wrong reasons (notably I liked Christina Kirk in Act II).  Further more, I've about had it with Frank Wood. I have seen him in two shows recently and I felt like he gave the same performance in both.  His lip-licking shenanigans must stop.  Have you ever seen him perform a role where he did not spend 85% of his time on stage punctuating his lines with lip-licking? It was beyond irritating in Angels in America and here I just lost it.  I am sure he's a lovely person in real life but he has fallen into some sort of strange acting tic that throws me out of his performances every time. 

Without being able to feel for these grieving parents, Act I was a struggle for me.

In Act II, there is absolutely no interest in building fully-formed characters.  The only resonance is "supposed" to come from familial connections hearkening back to Act I.  But Act II falls into a "God of Carnage" like parlor-game of modern manners when efforts to be over-sensitive to race lead to a variety of insensitivities. 

The play sets up interesting parallels for the audiences to think about but I felt like it was easily reduced to that dichotomy.  You hear the echos from Act I in Act II as you are meant to.  You see the open racism of 1959 and then you see the closeted racism and assumptions people make today in the 2009 era.  The play demonstrates the shift in language: how we talk about race and how that has changed over time.  The openly racist language of 1959 may be uncomfortable for audiences to hear.  Moreover, watching the African-American actors portray characters who have no say or role in the conversation and are not permitted to speak as equal parties may also be painful.

But I found all of this a lesson in the obvious getting its message across with the subtlety of a Looney Tunes cartoon anvil dropped from the sky.  I longed to know more about the story beneath the story but that wasn't apparently the focus of the play.

That said, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.  But as I like to remind people, so did How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

One Man, Two Guvnors Takes Broadway

Lately I have hated a lot of the shows I have seen. I even went so far as to pronounce my inner child dead.  But after seeing One Man, Two Guvnors again, I think my inner child might have been resurrected.

I loved the show when I saw it on tour in the U.K. and nothing has shaken my love of One Man, Two Guvnors now that it finally washed ashore on Broadway.  An unabashed farce, One Man, Two Guvnors written by Richard Bean, and directed by Nicholas Hytner, merrily rolls into town and I think you'd have to be made of stone not to fall for its charms.

EVEN I LIKED IT--something they should put on the posters.

Though the story is merely the backdrop for the Commedia dell'Arte shenanigans (hunger and lust being the primary motivators)...the plot centers on hungry Francis Henshall (James Corden) who gets hired by Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper) who is impersonating her gay brother Roscoe in an attempt to hide out because her boyfriend, posh boarding school bred Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), has killed Roscoe.  Rachel and Stanley both come to Brighton not knowing the other is there and hire Francis to work for them.  In an arrangement with Charlie "the Duck" Clench (Fred Ridgeway), Roscoe was engaged to marry Charlie's daughter Pauline (Claire Lams).  But Pauline loves actor and overall ham Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby).  Dolly (Suzie Toase), who works for Charlie, has a thing for Francis. 

Setting the stage for the tone of 1960's Brighton is a skiffle band that opens the show, plays during scene changes and eventually each member of the cast joins in.  The original band The Craze is still performing with the production in England, so they have created an American version of The Craze (Jason Rabinowitz, Austin Moorhead, Charlie Rosen, Jacob Colin Cohen). The music is buoyant and tuneful and sustains the frenetic energy of the show between scene changes.

James Corden leads the stellar cast.  Corden (a former History Boy and he was the star and co-writer of one of my favorite TV shows of all time Gavin and Stacey), wins over the audience with his physical comedy, comic interactions with the audience, and sweet persona.  He is so winning and talented you won't be able to spot the scripted from the improvisational in the show. 

The rest of the cast keeps the energy high and the laughs flying.  My favorite remains the stuffy, ridiculous interpretation of the upper-class guvnor by Oliver Chris.  I thought this was an exaggerated performance of a "public school" accent until I happened to work with a guy who sounded JUST LIKE THAT (with the yawp-yawp-yawps included).  After not warming to Jemima Rooper the first time around, I have to say I enjoyed her performance a lot more this time.  She felt more integrated into the comic ensemble. There are not enough words to praise the incredible physical pratfall work of Tom Edden.  Daniel Rigby remains sincere and hilarious with his overwrought "acting" as Alan.  The entire cast makes it all look so effortless. 

I had worried when I first saw the show that the accents and slang would be troublesome for U.S. audiences.  My friend and I definitely struggled with it at that performance.  They have made some slight tweaks to dialogue and it seemed to me the accents have become easier to understand.  Frankly, most people are laughing through so many of the lines that what they say takes a backseat to the physical comedy.  But you won't mind. 

As for the material itself, the opening scene drags a bit because there is great deal of exposition to get out.  Once you make it through that, the remainder of Act I is a non-stop joy-romp.  So just bear with the first scene.  The laughs will come.  The final scene in Act I might cause you to pee your pants.  Consider yourself warned.  Act II is often funny but takes a bit longer than I would have liked to get everything neatly wrapped up.  But it did not seem to matter to me either time I saw it because of the generous amount of mirth the show delivered.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Ogling the Newsies: For Journalism

Sometimes you find yourself at a well-known gay bar on a Monday night ogling Newsies. I mean someone has to, right?  They can't just ogle themselves--well they probably can.  But anyway, this is that kind of Newsies post. 

I went to Splash last night for their Musical Mondays event (a popular sing-along to musical theater video clips) where the cast of Newsies attended.  When we walked in, the entire room was singing along to One Day More with Nick Jonas's face projected on giant TV screens.  I noted that this was just like being in The Craptacular's livingroom only there were substantially more gay men present.

There was Newsies trivia and they gave away some Newsies prizes (including tickets to the show).  The trivia portion was emcee'd by cast members Ryan Steele and Tommy Bracco.

For those who could not make it (over 21 only I'm afraid) or had somewhere more reasonable to be at 10:30pm on a Monday night...Here is the cast of Newsies at Splash.

This is  provided to show off Tommy in his jeans. I mean this is Splash! Waiters were wearing only tightie whities (except that they were red).  You are welcome. 

Tommy Bracco looking quizzically adorbs! Ryan Steele beaming.
Ryan is very focused on the trivia question.  But I like that the trivia winner on the right seems very excited about his Newsie bag
First trivia contestant. First question: What year was the movie Newsies released?
Tried to get a little closer.
Although Tommy is blurry, Ryan looks perfect.

And the crowd goes WILD.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher: Pocket Full of Whimsy

Sometimes a show comes along that warms the cockles of your heart, makes you laugh, and brightens your day.  For a lot of people that show is Peter and the Starcatcher.  But alas not for me.  I was worried that this show was going to be a little too full of whimsy for my liking and it was.  I was choking on a giant dosage of saccharine joy and mirth and, unlike the old expression, a spoonful of sugar did not help the medicine go down for me. 

Peter and the Starcatcher is a sincere production directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and an adaptation (by Rick Elice) of a children's book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.  A young, nameless orphan, Boy (Adam Chanler-Berat) and his friends Prentiss and Ted (Carson Elrod and David Rossmer) are shipped out on the boat the Neverland to be sold into servitude to an island King.  Also on board the Neverland is haughty, precocious young Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger) who explores the ship, discovers the boys, and uncovers a secret about certain cargo on board.  Pirates, led by Black Stache (Christian Borle) seize Molly's father's ship and chase down the Neverland to capture this secret treasure. If you haven't quite guess it yet, this is the Peter Pan creation story. 

As creation myths go, this one did not resonate with me.  Having seen the National Theatre of Scotland's excellent production of Peter Pan (directed by John Tiffany of Once and Black Watch fame) where they attempt to connect the Peter Pan story to historic issues of the day I feel like I have already experienced a powerful and moving attempt to tell this story.  Of course that production was incredibly dark (issues of repressed sexual desire, abusive child labor) and as many of you know I love dark material.

Peter and the Starcatcher attempts to be cute, funny and a little dark...but it was just trying too hard for me.  Everyone in the cast was having fun and trying to make people laugh.  They were largely successful in their efforts...with everyone else.  I laughed a total of two times.  Two hours into the show there was a joke about cynicism and I laughed--no one else did.  And there was a Philip Glass melody joke.  I laughed then too.  The comedy felt forced and obvious (Oh Mildly Bitter what isn't funny about men dressed as mermaids or fart jokes?).  Everyone in the audience seemed to enjoy it-- well everyone, except me and a nine year old boy in the row in front of me.  He seemed confused as he kept looking at his parents who were snorting with laughter. Don't worry kiddo.  You are not alone.  Sometimes it feels that way, but it is not true.

I was touched by the sweet, romantic storyline between Boy and Molly but it constantly took a back seat to the sophomoric humor.

The production is creatively designed. Rather than substantial set pieces, the directors chose to use the actors to carve out and define certain spaces.  I particularly liked the hall of doors made up of the cast members.  The design scheme seems as if it springs from a child's imagination or at least a child's imagination rendered in water color illustrations in a children's book.

There is no question the majority of the world will find this show a lovely diversion. The show's merits are many: a performance with gusto by Christian Borle, a funny turn by Teddy Bergman, a sweet and tender story about love, family and unexpected destinies, inventive direction that taps into the creative imagination of children. But in the end I just found it too juvenile and too childish for me.  And worst of all, I just did not find it funny.

I imagine this is a sign that my inner child is officially dead. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Mikado: Go See Steve Rosen In Everything

I found myself somewhat further uptown from Broadway last night seeing The Collegiate Chorale's production of The Mikado at Carnegie Hall.  Don't I sound fancy!

@MrTylerMartins brought this production to my attention and in classic Mildly Bitter fashion I wanted to see The Mikado because Steve Rosen was in it.  I admit I am a Johnny-Come-Lately with respect to Mr. Rosen.  I stumbled upon his work in CQ/CX (a title I still get backwards all the time).  He gave the best performance in that show and I swore at the time I would be on the lookout for other things he did.  Only by chance, I happened to catch him breathe life into a dreadful song from Kelly at If It Only Runs a Minute last month.  He can act, he sings, and he's funny y'all.  Very very funny. And adorbs.

There were other reasons to see this production of The Mikado...uhm Victoria Clark (who I last saw in How to Succeed in 1995), Jason Danieley, Kelli O'Hara, Christopher Fitzgerald...but I was there for Steve Rosen.  Seriously I am this unpredictable and contrary.

It was my first Gilbert & Sullivan and I am glad I got to see a wonderful cast interpret The Mikado in this concert format.  The story involved a wacky tale of love, loyalty and execution.  Jason Danieley plays Nanki-Poo, son of The Mikado, who is hiding out as the second trombone player in the town band so he won't have to marry Katisha (Victoria Clark).  Nanki-Poo falls in love with Yum-Yum (Kelli O'Hara) but she is engaged to Ko-Ko (Christopher Fitzgerald) the Lord High Executioner.  Nanki-Poo convinces Ko-Ko to let him marry Yum-Yum for one month before he is executed as Ko-Ko must execute someone in his town before the month is up or he will lose his job or his head or both.  Let's just say hijinks ensue after that...
Victoria Clark was hilarious as the angry Katisha and tore up the stage like a wronged-woman-hurricane.  Christopher Fitzgerald was appropriately goofy and non-G&S purists enjoyed the updated the lyrics to one of his songs.  Kelli O'Hara, as always, sounded like a frickin' angel.  Steve Rosen had a smaller part as Pish-Tush (which sounds like something a grandmother would call her grandchild) but he was funny and sounded great even from the tippy top of Carnegie Hall where I was sitting. 

Maybe the story/show went on a bit longer than I would have liked but you really can't complain with a group of top Broadway voices like this.

Anyway, keep an eye out for Mr. Rosen and the musical he co-authored called The Other Josh Cohen opening Off-Broadway later this year (or so says his bio).

Monday, April 9, 2012

Gatz: The Bathroom Strategy

I forgot Gatz was going to wrap-up its run at The Public Theater in New York and head over to England.  So I thought I would do a quick post on how to best strategize your snacks, caffeine and liquid intake.*  You laugh.  But I made some crucial errors.  I don't want to you to do the same.  I'm going to drift into TMI territory but I am doing so to help all of you.  The things I do for the readership....

The structure of the show is:
ACT I: 2:00
15 minute intermission
ACT II: 1:15
75-90 minute dinner break (we started at 3pm, went to dinner at 6:30 and it started promptly up again at 8pm sharp)
ACT III: 1:30
15 minute intermission
ACT IV: 1:30

I don't know if the structure will be the same in London (I know they love a 20 minute interval over there).  But here's what I would recommend.


I ate my lunch a couple of hours before leaving and then ate a little something right before I went out the door.  BUT I failed to have a caffeinated beverage.  Definitely get some caffeine up front.  I was a little sleepy during the first two hours because of this crucial error.  Also you should pack a snack for this portion just in case.  I usually have a peanut M&M floating around my purse but NOT ON SATURDAY.  Epic fail on my part.  I'm a little embarrassed. But don't be like me.  You've been warned.


I grabbed a tea & chocolate bar during the first intermission and ACT II perked up considerably.  It was a nice combo actually and I enjoyed my warm beverage and candy bar.


I foolishly ordered a beer with dinner.  Bad move.  First, too much liquid and second, this required an upper (caffeine) after my downer (beer).   Don't get a beer.  Stick to caffeine.  Definitely take a bathroom break at dinner.  I tried to bring another beverage in for the second half and consumed too much liquid.


Bathroom break.  After all the liquid based mistakes I made at dinner this was a necessity and I possibly left my friend in the dust as I made a beeline for the ladies room.  As I left the ladies room there was quite a line.  So running was totally necessary and recommended.  I will take this awkward opportunity to thank The Public Theater for their new and improved bathrooms and the many stalls for the ladies.  

As an alternative, you could take a bathroom break at the first intermission if you pre-planned your snacks better than I did.  Learn from my mistakes.  Do as I say, not as I do.

This has been your guide to Gatz, uppers, downers, and candy.  By yours truly, Mildly Bitter.

*Thanks to @goldenavenger1 for suggesting this post.

Gatz: 8 hours later...

After staring at Scott Shepherd for close to six hours, I finally figured out who he looks like:  Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes, grown up.  Ok.  Now that that is out of the way...he is a tremendously talented actor and the main reason to see Gatz.

Shepherd leads a cast of actors in a "reading" of The Great Gatsby.  He plays Nick Carraway and as Nick he narrates all the action.  His fellow-office workers join in and portray the characters from the novel.

This is the second production by the Elevator Repair Service I have seen.  It seems in both productions they are keen on stripping away emotion, using a highly stylized soundscape, and playing against the grain of the texts they are interpreting.   Rather then elucidate the author's intent, they are focused on their own deconstruction. Sometimes this creates interesting theatrical moments but at other points weakens Fitzgerald's emotional arc from the book. 

I love my deep thoughts in high school. "Retrospect"
In the end, my attention, my focus and my emotions were all bound up in Shepherd's performance.  Thankfully he is the main force of the production.  He had an accent and intonation that made the book sing.  He brought the pages to life.  His comic punctuation of various lines in the book were sharp and cutting.  In those moments of observation--where Nick the office worker steps back and comments on Nick Carraway the character-- we are given the most perspective on the novel and the most theatrical color in the play.  And I loved every minute of that.  There were times I wished Shepherd were playing all the parts.  You don't realize how versatile a performer he is until he breaks into another character, in particular Meyer Wolfsheim, and suddenly he is transformed. 

There were moments from other performers I enjoyed.  Laurena Allen played Myrtle as I always imagined her--bubbly, ridiculous, and sad.  Gary Wilmes was the right mix of blustering entitlement and angry cuckold as Tom Buchanan.  The supporting cast often provided nice moments and specific choices that brought to life smaller characters in the book. (In particular, Vin Knight as Chester and Owl Eyes, Frank Boyd as George, Ben Williams as Michaelis).

But the remainder of the leads were a real challenge.  I struggled with Susie Sokol as Jordan Baker from beginning to end.  Her comic choices, her blank stares, and her terrible costumes were a constant distraction and the challenge for me to get through in the first two hours of the piece.  Her character shows up less and less as the play moves on.  I did not like her at all in The Select and I continue to not understand why she is cast in these productions.  She seems just wrong for the role and does nothing to add any shading, character or understanding to Jordan Baker. Victoria Vasquez as Daisy fared a little better but not much. 

Worst for me was Jim Fletcher as Gatsby.  I have no idea why they would cast him in this role he is so ill-suited for.  He takes a character I have always had some level of sympathy for and makes him at his base, creepy and as time goes on dull and passionless.  If there ever was a Gatsby I'd want to shoot in a pool, this would be the one. 

The idea that office workers take on roles in the book and start to perform alongside Nick might lend itself to some odd casting choices* conceptually but as a production...and a long one at that, I would think you'd want actors who would bring the emotional core of these characters to life...unless ERS actually is not interested in the emotional core.  I'm not sure I understand enough of their theatrical mandate to know what their goals are.  But I found Shepherd's performance of Nick to be very emotional.  If they wanted to focus all emotional attention on him, and leave none for the other characters then they succeeded.

I liked the staging in the office.  I felt the flow of office activity into the book scenes worked seamlessly.  I accepted the premise and did not get too caught up in the why of it.   I loved the soundscape here (props to Ben Williams who does double duty as onstage sound designer and actor) far and above the comic punchline one in The Select.  It really gave a sense of place and time. 

Theatrically, the work is sustained by Shepherd and he would be the reason I would recommend people see Gatz.  Did it change my life?  No.  Was it the most fascinating theaterical experience of my life?  No.  But did I enjoy the language of the book, the character of Nick Carraway, the sense of place and time? Absolutely.

 *Also why is the hottest guy in the cast mainly the sound designer and only the sometimes actor.  Please utilize Ben Williams more in your shows. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

I Can Hear You Googlers: Photos of the "New" Daniel Kitson

I get an enormous amount of googling traffic looking for a photo of Daniel Kitson with his shaved head and shaved beard.  And why not.  It is a big deal if you happen to follow the work of Daniel Kitson.  I am curious to see how it plays into his new work Where Once Was Wonder where he ponders issues of his own identity.

I've finally seen prime photo evidence of Daniel Kitson's new look myself.  A few photos* have been circulating on twitter as well (see here and here).  The clearest surreptitious photo can be seen here.

UPDATE: Some additional photos were taken during his show at the Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park in Summer of 2012.  Some 2012 Edinburgh pictures as well. This one by Josie Long (heelarious in her own right) is remarkable for the serious lack of joy in the subject.

For those who have been wondering, Mr. Kitson has a very round head.  Like a perfect melon.  And in one photo I saw he was wearing really round glasses.  Basically, in my opinion, he looks like a handsome Dr. Bunsen Honeydew.  So if these photos are not guidance enough and you didn't get into any of his preview shows, or you are not seeing him do Where Once Was Wonder on his tour of the Antipodes and you are wondering what he looks like without hair and without a beard, just picture a human Dr. Bunsen Honeydew in your mind.

You are welcome.

*I will warn all paparazzi, Mr. Kitson specifically requests that he not be photographed during his shows.  I do not encourage anyone to violate that request.  I like that in the photos taken on the sly Kitson looks like a brightly glowing, round-headed hologram. One could argue that Kitson's talent burns so bright no iPhone can actually capture him.  I think the King of Contraryland might like that.   His awesomeness cannot be contained by mere pixels.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Big Meal: A Large Helping of Time, With a Side of Indigestion

A Big Meal, written by Dan LeFranc, and directed by Sam Gold, offers more about the feeling of time than about the feelings of any characters, and suffers from an overdeveloped sense of profundity. 

Too literal. Too bad.
It is the story of a young couple Sam (Cameron Scoggins) and Nicole (Phoebe Strole) who meet and several moments later are dating, in love, and married.  Verbal smash cuts are the modus operandi of this play and with the turn of a phrase and slight nod of direction and performance we see that time passes between scenes with these characters as they sit in the same seats at a restaurant. 

As time moves along, Sam and Nicole are played closer to middle age by Jennifer Mudge and David Wilson Barnes.  Scoggins and Strole suddenly play Robbie and Maddie, the grown children of Sam and Nicole (with Griffin Birney and Rachel Resheff playing Robbie and Maddie as young children).  Anita Gillette and Tom Bloom originally play Sam's parents and later the most senior versions of Sam and Nicole.  The identities of the actors keep changing with age but the story is centered around the life events of Sam and Nicole from dating onward.  

Despite what seems like a complicated tag-team acting game (it's most confusing in the playbill where everyone is listed as Woman or Man) it is very clear at each turn which actor is playing which role.  The play is assisted by Gold's direction and fine performances by the cast.  But as this talented cast rotates through these roles and Gold establishes various moments and scenes from their lives, the play itself fails to develop the characters in any meaningful way.  Sadly the characters remain largely generic creations.  We know Sam and Nicole the longest and the closest I felt to the characters was in fact in their courting scenes, understanding them less and less as time went on. 

I had no problem with the "smash-cut" concept and the rapid transition mid-scene from one place or time to another but I wished between these temporal leaps the characters had had a chance to develop and grow.  What they say ends up so abbreviated and limited that there is little emotional impact.  Arguably LeFranc was not focused on the moment to moment emotion aiming for a larger arc.  But I was given so little I was not invested in the 10,000 foot view of these characters.

There are sudden jolts to the structure to denote major events in their lives and the rapid-fire pace slows to a glacial crawl to indicate this.  I can't help but think of cinematic devices here.  Like a freeze-frame or extreme slow-motion, we feel time stop and that is the most effective emotional device of the show.  The lighting, sound, and action changes to give the audience pause to digest this moment.  But sadly the value of this seems lost when nothing is really vested in the characters.   And the effect starts to lose its power as it is used more often.

Whatever profound things LeFranc thought he was saying seem a little too easily boiled down with these devices.  The overall effect of The Big Meal is like watching a film largely in fast forward (plot point, plot point, plot point) and then pausing a few times (giving over emphasis to those beats).  You might get the basics of the film but it's not emotionally engaging.  It's too bad because I love Gold's direction (and who isn't a Sam Gold fangirl these days) and the cast (Scoggins, Strole, Mudge in particular) seemed to have been able to do a lot with a little but it was just not enough. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Daniel Kitson: Under the Stars

Daniel Kitson will be doing a show with Gavin Osborn at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park this summer on July 22nd. It will be half stand-up (Where Once Was Wonder) and half story-show.  Tickets go on sale tomorrow (or if you become a member you can buy tickets in advance).

I'm DEVASTATED that the show will be on one week before I arrive to London.  I assume it is the universe telling me to chill the fuck out with this Kitson nonsense and learn to live with disappointment.  Point taken universe.  Though I might argue, universe, you've been selling this message to me for quite a while now and a little good fortune thrown my way would not kill anyone.  I mean unless someone steps in front of said good fortune as it is being thrown and it decapitates them or something...then that would be bad.

I am sure London a week later sans Kitson will be lovely.  Just significantly less funny. Le sigh. 

But I intend to see lots of good theater in August in London (and open to anyone's recommendations) far the plans include Matilda, Sweeney Todd, Posh (with Tom Mison!), Birthday, Long Day's Journey Into Night (my favorite play), Henry V, Richard III (with Mark Rylance).  Now that I write it all out, I realize I'm clearly being greedy demanding more from the universe at this point.  I'm very lucky indeed and have gotten far more than I deserve in 2012 already (Kitson-related and otherwise). 

But UK peeps should definitely buy tickets to this show if you can...I think Kitson under the stars would be delightful.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

'Tis Pity She's a Whore: Cheek by Jowl's Colorful and Sexy Production

With modern dress and music, John Ford's Jacobean tragedy of an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister is beautifully staged in this biting and sensuous production by famed British theater company Cheek by Jowl (director Declan Donnellan, designer Nick Omerod).

Original Photo by Manual Harlan edited by Mildly Bitter
Annabella (Lydia Wilson) is presented as a rambunctious teen/young adult bouncing around her all red bedroom to loud music with Vampire Diaries and True Blood posters on her red walls.  Despite having several suitors make their plea for her hand, including the "well-timbered" Grimaldi (David Mumeni) and the "noble" Soranzo (Jack Hawkins), her brother Giovanni (Jack Gordon) convinces her of his physical love for her and they consummate this under the red sheets of her bed.

This secret relationship is uncovered by Annabella's maid Putana (Lizzie Hopley) who promises to keep the secret.  Once Annabella discovers she's pregnant she agrees to marry Soranzo.  But when Soranzo realizes she's pregnant he sends his faithful, but devious servant Vasques (Laurence Spellman) to find out who the father is.  Vasques uses what could only be described as a leather clad male stripper (leather thong included) to seduce Putana to get the information out of her.  When she reveals Giovanni is the father, said stripper bites Putana's tongue out of her mouth.  Things start to get very bloody from there on out.  Annabella sends a letter to Giovanni renouncing their love and Giovanni does not take kindly to this and well...more blood is spilled.

Original Photo by Manual Harlan edited by Mildly Bitter
It is a story of lust and love, and the staging and production exaggerate this to delicious excess.  Giovanni draws a heart on his chest with lipstick and after sex with his sister she too has the lipstick heart on her chest.  The ensemble bursts into dance at various points.  In other moments they form classical painting tableaus framed by the lighting and poses.  With a lot of sex and seduction between various characters, there are several naked male butts, shirtless men, and Annabella spends most of the show in her underwear (red when it's sex with her brother, white when it's her wedding night).  I swear Soranzo unbuttoned his shirt 200 times in this show.  I never saw him re-button it.  But he kept tearing it off at various points during the show.  The tongue scene was particularly gruesome.  A visible bathroom off the bedroom was used to great effect whether it was when our well-timbered friend Grimaldi went to take a shower, or darling Giovanni needed to take pee after sex with his sister.  And I loved every minute of it (well the subplot about Soranzo betraying a widow he once said he would marry was a lot less interesting to me than the main plot but added another layer of dark seduction leading to tragedy).  The entire production was grotesque, exaggerated, and expressionistic but beautiful, funny, and disturbing all at the same time.

As I left the show, some older gentleman muttered under his breath about how BAM has gone so commercial.  This made me laugh.  I found this production to be a lot of fun but not commercial--this is not transferring to Broadway...ever.  I found the visual decadence and modernization served the adaptation of this text quite well.  The style and direction conveyed the class issues (servants and masters were designated by accent and meter), the religiosity of the characters (some Latin chanting during sex, a Virgin Mary tableau), and the taboo nature of the relationship (It's a tragedy.  No incest endorsement here).   The performers were fantastic and worked well as an ensemble.  I liked that the cast sat onstage for much of the show as observers to the action and I liked how the dance and movement exploded at various points into choreographed numbers. This is not the type of material that calls our for a naturalistic reading and I thoroughly enjoyed the expressionistic approach.
It is by no means a traditional production but was highly engaging, a lot of fun, and sexy sexy sexy.  It was an excellent companion piece to The Maids which I also saw this weekend.

'Tis Pity She's A Whore was much sexier than Venus in Fur...and now I want to see tongue-biting-off scenes in more shows.  Already I suggested Pipe Dream would be much improved if Will Chase bit off the tongue of Joe the Mexican and spit it out of the Pipe.  Just an idea...

And I am seriously considering bringing "well-timbered" back as a descriptor...

The Maids: Peeping Tom Edition

I was glad I caught the Red Bull Theater's production of The Maids in one of its final performances because it was an unusual staging, with strong acting, and it is a work I had not seen performed before.  Jean Genet's play is about two maids, who are sisters, who play-act a strange ritualistic "ceremony" when their mistress is out. Jeanine Seralles is Claire and Ana Reeder is Solange with J. Smith-Cameron as Madame, their mistress.

This production, directed by Jesse Berger is performed in the "square" so to speak.  With the audience sitting outside a box while the action is performed within the box (which is the mistress's decadently decorated bedroom).  With viewing windows carved into the bedroom, it feels a bit like we are spying on the intimate goings-on in this bedroom.  Though it is not the mistress we largely end up spying on, but the Maids, who are acting out their ritual where one plays the mistress and the other her maid, with the mistress lobbing exaggerated insults and the maid diligently taking them.  Once the mistress actually returns to the house, we see that little was actually exaggerated and she is a bit of a poodle--high energy, flighty, expensively done-up, with lots of curls, and abusive to her dedicated maids (and Smith-Cameron does this very well).  But we also know they have launched a plot against her.

I had seen Serrales in Maple and Vine and was eager to see her in something else.  She's incredible at portraying "artifice" which was largely her role in Maple and Vine and comes into play here quite a bit as well. But what was most impressive was how she managed to easily oscillate between bold Claire, Claire in the role of the Mistress, and timid church-mouse Claire.  I loved watching her move between those characters and seeing the changes shift across her face and take over her whole body.  If you see she is cast in a play, just go see it.  She is an incredible talent.

It took me a while longer to warm up to Reeder.  I struggled with her portrayal of Solange up until a certain emotional breakdown moment.  When the role became overtly emotional, she excelled at it.

This play was a wonderful companion piece to Cheek by Jowl's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore.  Both used luscious color, colorful set design, extreme theatricality, and both address taboo topics with sincerity.

The Maids digs into issues of class, power, control, freedom, religion, ritual, dominance, submission, shame.  It is incredible to think that Genet wrote this provocative play in 1947 and the themes are still relevant today.  There was something about these women pouring over murder magazines and fantasizing about the celebrity they might gain from their bad acts that seems even more relevant today.  It is chockablock with meaty topics for the actresses to wrestle with and the audience to be confronted with.  Genet's love of the forgotten, the base, or the voiceless is apparent here.  I loved it when Solange responds to Claire (as the mistress) saying they are in "the world of outcasts that you only touch with your tongs."

I found a lot of humor in this production of the play.  The language is colorful and theatrical but Serralles's delivery was at times utterly gleeful (I happened to like the snake-like tongue moves she would make upon saying the name "Claire"). 

The theatricality of the ritualistic play-acting is fascinating to watch and see how it serves as an outlet of their anger, a cause of shame, but works to calm and soothe them.  It feeds them and also destroys them.
There was so much to this material, I wished I had had an opportunity to see it again.