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 think...it'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 outrĂ© 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

Friday, October 19, 2012

Steve Rosen, Nice Guys, and The Other Josh Cohen

The Other Josh Cohen.  Production Photo by Carol Rosegg.
If the new Off-Broadway show The Other Josh Cohen is based on a true story about a nice guy who always seems to finish last, it cannot be based on the life of genuine nice guy and Broadway performer Steve Rosen.

I sat down with Rosen this week to talk about his new show (co-created with David Rossmer), his comedy heroes, his family (always there for love and support--even if he's dancing around in his underpants), and his further comic adventures on Broadway and off (While a seat filler at the Grammys, "I accidentally tripped Puff Daddy while I was trying to watch Hanson.  That’s a true story.").  It's clear things are going very well for this multi-talented performer. 

Tony Award winner and Smash star Christian Borle calls Steve Rosen a "friggin' genius" but despite such high praise Rosen is not a household name--he should be.  If you've frequented  Broadway and Off-Broadway shows for the past seven years you might have caught him performing Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher at NYTW or Sir Bedevere in Spamalot or Benny Southstreet in Guys and Dolls on Broadway.  If you live outside of New York maybe you saw him as Nathan Detroit in the national tour of Guys and Dolls.  He's also sometimes on Law and Order: SVU as, in his own words, a "terrible public defender."  Or you might remember him from the concert series If It Only Even Runs a Minute doing a comic rendition of Ode to a Bridge from the famous flop musical Kelly (his delightful interpretation of the truly awful song starts at 5:51). 

But this season it's the name Josh Cohen that is important to Rosen.  Rosen and Rossmer (who starred on Broadway as Ted in Peter and the Starcatcher), have written the book, music, and lyrics for this new show, The Other Josh Cohen.  If that wasn't enough, they star in the show, both playing the eponymous Josh Cohen.  They have been working on the show for the past two years while still managing busy acting careers.  From the infectious energy they exude on stage, it is obviously a labor of love for them both. 

Rosen and Rossmer. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Rosen and Rossmer have been friends since they were teenagers at summer camp.  According to Rosen, the two stumbled upon the genesis for this musical in the most unlikely of ways.  As they were about to sit down and play Mario Kart on Nintendo 64, the main screen music of the video game played the same two chords over and over again.  David said that he thought it sounded like a Neil Diamond song.  They grabbed a guitar and decided to write a Neil Diamond song then and there.  Seven hours later they had nine songs and were on their way.

The show was previously called "V-Day" (in reference to some Valentine's Day plot points) and they were invited to premiere the musical at the New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF) in 2010. The title changed to The Other Josh Cohen because as Rosen joked "[Eve Ensler] owns the V. She owns every woman’s V. Just know that women, your Vs are no longer your own. Eve Ensler owns it." Comedy aside, Rosen said the "V-day" title did not necessarily tell you what the show was about and the new title shows a little more of their sense of humor.

Rosen describes the musical as being based on a true story about “a guy named Josh Cohen [who] is very broke, he’s alone and a couple days before Valentine's Day his apartment gets robbed of everything and the only thing left behind by the thief is Neil Diamond's Greatest Hits Volume 3 which doesn’t have any of the good songs on it...and then just when things couldn’t get worse on Valentine's Day proper he opens his mailbox and finds a check from someone he doesn’t know for a huge amount of money made out to him." Josh Cohen is a nice guy who always does the right thing and must choose what to do with this check.  Rossmer plays Josh Cohen of today, and Rosen plays Josh Cohen of one year ago who is "trying to rock the mustache which doesn’t work."

The show co-stars Hannah Elless, Ken Triwush, Kate Wetherhead (co-creator of Submissions Only--check out the very funny web series where both Rosen and Rossmer have appeared), and Vadim Feichtner (also the Music Director).  It is directed by Ted Sperling.  Rosen appeared jittery with excitement a few hours before their first preview but he almost got "verklempt" thinking of their long journey to this day and finally being so close to seeing this project realized.

A self described "theater nerd," Rosen started seeing theater as a young boy on weekend trips to New York City with his father. His family has always encouraged and supported his work. Whether warmly describing how his grandmother won his father his first bicycle on a game show or mentioning his mother's phone calls to check in on how Josh Cohen is going, he clearly loves his family as well as what he does.

It seems he was destined for the stage.  His first on-stage performance of "any great import" was as a 7-year old at performing arts summer camp where he played a slave in the King and I. His costume was a grass skirt.  He was supposed to come out and bow down before the king, stand up, and leave. After bowing to the king, Rosen somehow managed to step on his skirt as he stood up and before a live audience he was left with only "little tiny 7-year old underpants on."  The audience started to laugh and he took this opportunity to do a dance (which he demonstrated for this writer--arguably the Twist with some comic flair) for the audience and they went "bananas."   Although his parents always told him he was funny kid, they believe this is where his love of performance started.

He studied at NYU and he landed his first role on Broadway in Spamalot working for one of his comedy heroes, Mike Nichols.  Rosen said, "Nichols and May were a huge influence to me as a kid because they both improvised. They improvised together. They were intelligent. They played to the height of their intelligence."  Rosen's love of theater history is great and when I asked if he had a comp ticket and a time machine what show would he see, he said, "I would love to see Zero Mostel live in something.  Because he’s one of these guys who you see in movies and you can tell that he’s larger than life and he doesn’t necessarily translate well to the medium of film....I would love to have seen him doing [Fiddler on the Roof] as written with Bea Arthur in it…and Austin Pendleton. That original Jerome Robbins production I think that would have been something amazing."

Even his recollections from the Tony Awards belie his awe and respect for theater. His favorite Tony memory is when all the acts got together to rehearse the big opening number, he recalled that "that’s the most fun. Because the gangsters from Guys and Dolls are standing next to Shrek or standing next to Billy Elliott and then Liza Minnelli is walking around going 'It’s good to see you kid.'  It’s just surreal."

At his first Tony Awards, he got to perform with his Tony-nominated show, Spamalot.  Because he was in the cast, he would be allowed to go up on stage if the show won for Best Musical.  Rosen worked it out with a seat filler and took an "empty" seat closer to the stage so that he would be better positioned to get up there quickly if they won.  He took the seat next to Liev Schreiber and when Spamalot won Rosen turns to Schreiber and "was like excuse me…[Schreiber] must have been so confused that the seat filler sitting next to him got up and went up on stage." 

Rosen may be unassuming enough to be confused with a seat filler, but give it time. With his new show, his hard work and dedication to his craft, I expect he won't remain unassuming for much longer.

The Other Josh Cohen is now playing Off-Broadway at the Soho Playhouse through November 11.   Tickets are available here.

Photo by Carol Rosegg

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sunday in the Park with George: A New Canvas

Sometimes it takes an artist to open your eyes to the things around you.  There are a lot of great artists at work in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of Sunday in the Park with George.


I think this entire blog could be subtitled, Art is not easy.  I have always liked Sunday in the Park with George (James Lapine (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics)), which is an elegant exploration of artists and their lives in a world where people don't really understand them.  When their passion for their work is their first love there may not be much room for lovers, children or family.  Gary Griffin directs this production and unlocks an emotional side to the show that did not loom as large in the last production I saw: family.  Family was always a theme in the story but this production seems to put family on equal footing to George's struggles to connect with Dot, the woman who loves him.   Griffin makes some key choices here that gave me new perspective on this show.

Act I is set in 1884, with the story of George Seurat (Jason Danieley) painting his famous painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (which lives at the Art Institute of Chicago).  His model and his lover Dot (Carmen Cusack) poses for him.  But as he becomes more drawn in by his work, and Dot needs more from him, their relationship becomes rocky and she ultimately must choose what to do for them both.  Act II is set in 1984 where an artist working with lasers and light, George (also Danieley), presents a work based on the Seurat painting along with his grandmother Marie (also Cusack) whose mother was the artist's model Dot.

It is almost easy to dislike George Seurat.  He's distant, meticulous, controlled, and remote.  But we know from the songs that are sung that there is more to him and that George is torn.  His passion in his work is not so much his choice as it is the air he breathes.  Griffin makes some deliberate choices to give us a window into George's psyche on top of the songs.  There is a moment in Act I where George Seurat grabs his mother's arm with the panicked desperation of a drowning man.  Suddenly the artist, the lover, the man living and working at a distance becomes a child to his mother.  He wants to connect, but he cannot and we as the audience can feel that struggle in that sudden gesture.  Moments like these punctuate the production.  George, the 1980's artist, after his frenzied rendition of Putting it Together, showing him needing a bit of liquid courage to make it through his art world schmoozing (a bold choice that works here), he clutches his ex-wife like a life preserver and goes in for a kiss.  Her rejection of him rings as loudly as the moment with his mother.  What he needs, what he wants, what he is missing is dramatically rendered. Simple, but pointed choices that gave real life to the show.

With these choices it must be said that they are well-served by Jason Danieley's (The Mikado) performance.  I really loved the 2008 Sam Buntrock directed production that originated at the Menier Chocolate Company and later went to the West End and Broadway (I saw it both in the West End and Broadway and it is hard not to compare this production to it).  I thought Daniel Evans was a fantastic George in 2008, but Danieley feels more vulnerable and accessible through the particular staging choices.  And it must be said that audiences are in for a treat with Danieley's gorgeous voice (it's like God took all the sharp edges of out Mandy Patinkin's voice and just left Danieley with the warm embers of it).  I really hope someone records this production because I would cry myself to sleep with Danieley's Finishing the Hat every night--yes that is an endorsement, so get a Kickstarter going someone.  I have your first dollar.  

Carmen Cusack (Carrie) has the difficult task here of following Jenna Russell's 2008 performance as Dot and Marie.  Cusack has a lovely voice, and when she is playful in her powder puff scene and when she escapes her oppressive dress to caress George lovingly she is a delight but I still can hear Russell's epically cutting performance in every one of Dot's songs.  Maybe that is why the love story loomed so large in the Menier production, because Russell made Dot unforgettable.  Cusack was perfectly fine in the show but I know Dot can be more.  And her accent left me a bit puzzled.  I could not tell if it was intentional but Dot sometimes spoke with a Southern accent.  Russell used a Lancashire accent for Dot which contrasted with a London accent for George.  I'm not sure if the same thought was contemplated here but her accent was unreliable. 

If you have not seen the Menier production of "Sunday" then the digital projections here (by Mike Tutaj) are a workable background to set the mood, give a the sense of place, and hint at the general feeling of the painting.  But I think I was spoiled by the Menier production which used digital projection to create the painting step by step--it was really the first show I saw that made digital projections (and animation) seem not only relevant but necessary and for me enhanced the experience.  Here, I liked that the white frames used to frame Seurat's painting and around the proscenium were creatively lit (even if the frame sometimes obscured Danieley from us).

The 80's art piece that George is creating always leaves room for some interesting options.  Here, Chromolume  #7 was like one of the pink flowers from the Loveland set in the 2011 revival of Follies which had escaped through a nuclear power plant, mutated and ended up here glowing and throbbing.  I'm going to say it was over the top even for what it was supposed to be.

This production utilized a thrust stage and character entrances from the audience.  I was seated on the side which gave me a less than ideal angle on the painting and tableau aspects of the staging, but was chosen intentionally so I could be close to the action.  Sometimes being on the sides meant the actors' backs were toward me, but even though Danieley's back was toward me during the "clutch" scene, I burst out into tears during it.*  It was so violent and sudden, I leapt from my seat.

Griffin made a startling choice for the finale (which I don't want to spoil) but again it was something thoughtful, simple, and direct that served the story well.  All in all this was a powerful interpretation of one of my favorite shows of all time and I'm glad I was able to squeeze it in in my weekend trip to Chicago.  

*I sincerely hope that fact that my friend and I were sobbing in the second row throughout much of the show did not distract the actors.  Jason we heart you...hope our snot and tears were taken as a sign of how much we liked the show.  I know the people seated around us thought we were weird for crying so much.  But it's hard not to feel in the depth of your heart the powerful combination of the epic score, the gorgeous lyrics, swelling harmonies captured by fantastic voices, in an inventive presentation.  And I'd just like to offer this sobfest as proof I'm not completely dead inside. 

Harper Regan: The Distances Between Us

The ambiguity of adulthood takes center stage in Simon Stephens's play Harper Regan, at the Atlantic Theater Company. This play mines the penumbras of adult relationships but ultimately questions of truth, lies, and whether we can ever really know each other becomes the focus. A combination of a rich text and smart direction make this production an intellectual banquet.

Stephens is a prolific playwright in the United Kingdom but feels quite unknown in the U.S.  His 2012 play Three Kingdoms launched a thousand blog posts of opinions earlier this year-- see posts by Andrew Haydon, Matt Trueman, Maddy Costa, Catherine Love for a start (see other reviews, discussions they link to in their posts).  It was such a lively controversy that I felt compelled to see Stephens work to see what all the fuss was about.*  His only recent New York production was Bluebird at the Atlantic last season with Simon Russell Beale which sold out very quickly and I missed out on tickets. So I was glad I caught his searing Morning at the Edinburgh Fringe and his adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time through NTLive.  But now having seen a few different works by Stephens I find his his work defies easy categorization.  Yet, all have been worth the time.

Harper Regan (Mary McCann) is a 40-something woman whose father is ill. Despite her boss threatening her job if she takes some time off and without telling her husband Seth (Gareth Saxe) or teenage daughter Sarah (Madeleine Martin), she impulsively decides to go home to see her father before it is too late. She is estranged from her divorced parents and when she finally sees her mother (Mary Beth Peil) she confronts her about the reasons for this estrangement. Peppered throughout her unexpected journey are strangers who she confides in, clings to, and engages with. But there is something in her past that haunts her and this unexpected chapter in her life seems to be directly linked to that incident.

Striking about this production is the smart and measured direction by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. I was taken with the idea of characters physically molding the space by moving the layers of the set into position. Not merely moving props or set pieces, here the lit actors touch panels which start out as walls and end as floors and physically set the stage for each scene and breaking down the space (the clever scenic design is by Rachel Hauck who has also done the excellent design for Regrets and An Iliad). Taylor Upchurch stages extreme gaps between characters in scenes together--acting like physical pauses between two people engaged in conversation.  At other times they are on top of each other with intense, forced intimacy.  Rather than this being inconsistent or uneven, this intentional choice supports and emphasizes Harper’s oscillating personality.  Harper early on says “You think you know where you are then…”, and her voice drifts off. She is losing her footing and the direction, costuming, and performance choices all serve this well.

Despite her efforts to make it home, she fails to reach her father before he dies. The death of a parent can be a watershed moment for anyone but it can illuminate quite harshly the loss of childhood.  For Harper, her father’s death drives her to shed some of her grounded adult attributes and adopt flighty teenage behaviors—she’s impulsive, self-absorbed. She says to a man she picks up on the internet, “I’m not really in my body” whilst wearing the leather jacket she stole off another man earlier that day. These traits were there even before her father died but something more reckless is unleashed in her grief. 

As anyone who was once a teenager knows, adulthood creeps in and reality and truth are inevitable. McCann’s Harper is pleasant and detached. She is convincing as a woman who is losing touch but keeping much of that turmoil and chaos below the surface. I think it could read to some as a disconnected performance but I believe that is what it called for. I don’t think she reached the emotional climax needed in the scene with her mother but you see McCann’s Harper change as the play moves forward and though that change is subtle I was lured in. Her vacant smile and inviting exterior was intentionally misleading. The play calls for a large supporting cast where most characters only get a scene or two. But I felt like even the smaller roles were well cast. Mahira Kakkar as the depressed hospital worker, Christopher Innvar the internet pick-up, and Gareth Saxe as Harper’s husband were stand-outs for me.

Taylor Upchurch and Stephens have created a vivid, real world platform but this story takes reality and suspends and extenuates it.  Like the physical spaces between the characters, time and emotions seem stretched (even lighting cues accentuated this).   It may take place over the course of a few days but we feel the weight of this one weekend on this family and this woman.  Some commentators have spoken of theme of mothers and daughters in the work.  Although there are clear parallels between Harper and her mother and Harper and her daughter, I thought the piece could be read a lot more generally to all relationships.  When trust in a relationship is broken and brutal honesty becomes unleashed, whether out of love, or to punish someone, speaking the truth of everything (without buffers or filters) is unsettling whether it is between mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, or the encounters of strangers.  Such is adulthood, when that which we don't want to hear must be heard.

* A couple of years ago I did manage to see A Thousand Explosions in the Sky (which Stephens wrote in collaboration with David Eldridge and Robert Holman) in London but my main recollection is the school group in the theater who was unprepared for male frontal nudity and the school teacher who was freaking out after because she was going to have to explain the incident to the parents.  But the theme of family, buried truths, and confrontation was certainly present in that work. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cyrano: Too Much Jekyll & Hyde

Remember that scene in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman's character Michael Dorsey gets into argument with his director over having to stand up during a dying scene as Tolstoy...yeah so that basically happened in the Roundabout's new revival of Cyrano de Bergerac.  They make a character who is seriously dying, walk whilst dying.  My brain could not quite reconcile that awkward directing choice with the lovely heartfelt speech Douglas Hodge was giving...so half my brain wanted to laugh while the other half of my brain called for tears.  I can't recall a more Jekyll and Hyde theatrical experience.   I saw the show in previews in a few weeks ago and looking back I was disappointed by much of the production but enjoyed aspects of Douglas Hodge's performance.

This production is directed by English director Jamie Lloyd (who directed Hodge last season at the Donmar Warehouse in Inadmissible Evidence) and it boasts a new translation of Edmond Rostand's play by Ranjit Bolt.  Though the new translation may throw in some saucy words (they say "turd"), on the whole this production did not feel modern, just messy. 

Douglas Hodge when given to quiet moments and Cyrano's own true feelings of Roxane he delivers a romantic and delicate reading.  There is something in the timbre of his voice that communicates emotional fragility (and what made him so tremendous in La Cage aux Folles).  He delivers longing and pain with ease and that's where he got me.  But when Cyrano is to be the dueling, warring braggard, Hodge's performance loses its appeal.  He doesn't seem to have that larger than life personality to carry the big moments.

I was taken with the themes of a man trapped in a life dictated by his principles--such that he is penniless, surrounded by enemies, and without love.  But he cannot compromise even a little ("Unpopularity is my stock in trade.")  Yet, he compromises in one place--in love--and it it has given him only suffering.  He gives Roxane the love she thinks she wants at great cost to himself.  It's a beautiful dramatic sacrifice and I think in the final scene, despite the unintentionally comic blocking, it was the emotional build up of Cyrano's life of sacrifice that I connected to emotionally and Hodge delivered on.

Sadly, there was a lot more play than that and it was largely without poetry.  The duel of words and swords scene fell flat.  The sword blows may have landed but the comedy did not.  It felt hurried and the language in this translation just did not seem to find the laughs the material usually provides.  The show lumbers along.  It took until the wooing of Roxane for the play to grab my attention and it was a while in coming.   Others may not have the patience to wait.

I was curious to see British actor Kyle Stoller make his Broadway debut here as Christian, the object of Roxane's affections.  But sadly he's clad in a greasy blond wig (!) and given very little to do.  How can you make Christian look bad!  Come on people. Patrick Page, as always, delivers a vibrant and venomous performance as Cyrano's nemesis of sorts, Comte De Guiche (and one cannot help to think what kind of Cyrano he would be with his robust voice and classical delivery).  Clemence Poesy, as Roxane, seems to always be sending young men off to war (the last time I saw her was in Birdsong on PBS...which appeared to just be a movie about war and the lust for Eddie Redmayne's cheekbones).  She was fine here as the sweet French girl, but it's a thankless task.

Charlie Rosen (formerly of The Craze USA in One Man, Two Guvnors) did the music for this production.  There were some sweet and lovely string-driven interludes between scenes. The multi-leveled set was used to excellent effect in the second act. 

But those longing for a snappy update to the traditional tale will be disappointed.  And those looking for a classic rendering of poetry and love will also be disappointed.

It made me mad I missed the Kevin Kline production in 2007.  Oh theater regret.