Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tis Pity She's a Whore: Bloody Camp

With perhaps a nod too far into camp at times the Red Bull Theater production of John Ford's famous, bloody, incest tragedy still managed to show the hypocrisy and vanity of men, the power of the church, and the injustice of a corrupt state.  But it didn't do its utmost to provide important perspective on the underlying misogyny of the piece at all times. It's not a fatal blow but it's something that gave me pause.

Giovanni (Matthew Amendt), long lost in his studies and moping around for some unknown reason, finally confesses his love of his sister, Annabella (Amelia Pedlow). First he does so to his tutor, Friar Bonaventura (Christopher Innvar). Then he brings his sadness to his sister only to be met with a kindred spirit in her. The two consummate their relationship with their secret only being shared with the friar and the nurse Putana (Franchelle Stewart Dorn). Annabella has many suitors including the foppish Bergetto (Ryan Garbayo), the knavish solider Grimaldi (Tramell Tillman) and the imperious nobleman Lord Soranzo (Clifton Duncan). Soranzo has betrayed the widow Hippolita (Kelley Curran) whom he promised devotion to when she was married. She's having none of it and secretly plots behind his back with his aide Vasques (Derek Smith).

This is the third production of Tis Pity I have seen but it was the first American-born production. Cheek by Jowl toured NY in 2012 with a modern dress, rock and roll, blood-soaked production starring Lydia Wilson (looking nearly unrecognizable compared to her recent turn as Kate Middleton in King Charles III). In 2014, I saw the intimate candlelight production done in period dress and style at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London by the Globe Theatre. From both these productions I found the humor and the darkness were explored but in different blends. In both instances I found myself reacting to how appalling the misogyny of the characters was but reveling in how each production made clear it was not participating in that misogyny. The stomach turning finale left me with the bitter taste of injustice and the tragedy of the women in particular.

Red Bull production is quite clear--but perhaps too bluntly played. I think it's a fair production of a play that should be produced more.  Men and women lying, betraying, lusting, loving, and murdering. No one in this story is immune from sin. But the worst of these sins is incest.  From the beginning they know it is forbidden and no amount of Giovanni's rhetoric and logic and arguing can truly change that. But as in all things the women are always punished for their transgressions and even by men who have transgressed themselves.

Annabella's choices for other suitors between the vainglorious, the competitive, and the self-interested don't offer her the depth of affection Giovanni does. But once she finds herself pregnant she is forced to make a choice. Giovanni naturally just keeps on keeping on without the same consequences.

Similarly Hippolita may have thought Soranzo would marry her after she is widowed but when he refuses because in his estimation it would be more immoral to follow through on his promises than to abandon them and leave Hipppolita in the lurch. She tries to exact revenge. When she is thwarted the staging here left the audience laughing at her.

It was troubling. Even though the play is replete with misogynistic characters and attitudes befitting a play written in 1630, a production need not lean into the misogyny. In fact in prior productions what I liked was how a modern perspective could be applied on top of the play without it suffering. We can bring our head-shaking at what happens without joining into the condemnation of women. In fact the play can be made to felt that in fact the last line says more about the men than It does the women. We should be outraged by the lack of true justice beyond the tragic circumstances.  Certainly Jesse Berger's production plays into the hypocrisy and the corruption of the church. But I wish I'd felt a stronger POV about women in this world throughout.

Here I don't think the production intends to play on the misogyny but in leaning into high camp humor supplants reason. We are given space to laugh at the goings-on but I wasn't always sure who we were laughing at or why. And what kept getting lost was an observational perspective on the proceedings.

There are fine performances from Matthew Amendt and Amelia Pedlow. Ryan Garbayo was a fantastic Bergetto.  Over the top in dress and mannerisms (Sara Jane Tossetti's costumes are strong indicators of character and find the nice sweet spot between modern dress and a nod to more period style) are fine in this regard. The Bergetto storyline is meant to be our comic relief. But where I thought the camp overtook the text was with Vasques. The Soranzo universe is the height of hypocrisy and I wished we could have viewed them at all times in that way. There was far too much laughter when Vasques drags Hypollitas dead body from the stage by her hair. Though it shows his complete disregard for her something about it led the audience to think it was being played for laughs.  Since we had seen Vasques playing dastardly for comedy before it was not unexpected that the audience would follow that through in this scene but it was a critical misstep in how to deliver this story to a modern audience.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld

Self portrait, 1985
Ink on board
Collection of Harvard University
© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation.
Al Hirschfeld's career as the dynamic, visual chronicler of the American theater spanned seven decades. With such longevity he drew everyone from Fanny Brice to Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt to Audra McDonald. The New York Historical Society's new exhibit The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld is a broad look back at his iconic line drawings of celebrated actors of stage and screen as well as Hirschfeld's less well-known paintings and color illustrations.

Organized by his widow and second wife Louise Kerz Hirschfeld and guest curated by the author of the new book The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld, David Leopold, the exhibit opens on May 22 and runs through October 12, 2015. Louise Kerz Hirschfeld was on hand to open the exhibit along with Hirschfeld's daughter, Nina, by his first wife actress Dolly Haas.

It is Nina who figures so personally in Hirschfeld's drawings. After she was born in 1945 he began to hide her name in his drawings. Searching for “the Ninas” became a favorite past time of many who would see his drawings in the New York Times. The exhibit includes the first Nina hidden in plain view in the background of a drawing of the show Are You With It? and Nina's Revenge where in a portrait of Nina Hirschfeld has instead hid his own name and Dolly’s name instead.

With the grand scale of this exhibit which includes over 100 images by Hirschfeld, you can see flickers of other artists and art movements in his work. His political lithographs from the 1930’s have a Daumier quality to them, with rich shading, striking points of focus, and powerful compositions. One could mistake his drawing of The Defiant Ones for a work by George Bellows with the thick musculature and tense energy between Poitier and Curtis. He created a promotional book for the Selznick film distribution company and it is a rich and colorful tapestry to rival William Morris. Even a portrait of Will Mahoney in Take the Air has an air of cubism in the shapes.
Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, 1958
Ink on board
Collection of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation
© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation.

His series on Harlem in the 1940’s and his colorful images for The American Mercury magazine are unexpected forays into portraiture of regular folks and larger than life politicians. There is the same verve as his theatrical and film portraits (the sweeping eyebrows of labor leader John Lewis are a creature all their own) but the style and approach is much more varied in these lithographs and gouache on board.

Even work that is quintessential “Hirschfeld” has such a stylistic range. With this exhibit one can appreciate the different approaches he took over his life by seeing so many diverse examples in such close proximity. The heavy paint brush swoops of Ringo Starr’s hair are contrasted against the delicate feathers in the portrait of Richard Kiley in Man of LaMancha. Tommy Tune dancing with an array of feet beneath him has such a different feel than dancer Ted Shawn performing at Jacob’s Pillow where the trees in the background mirror his pose.
Tommy Tune in White Tie and Tails, 2002
Ink on board
Collection of Harvard University
© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation.

Although long associated with theater, Hirschfeld started out in film and some of his early movie posters and portraits of film industry figures like Will Hays (of the Hays Code) and David O. Selznick are on display.

Hirschfeld’s drawings have become the record of shows and artists who many of us would never have seen on stage. Walking through the exhibit you can feel the energy and enthusiasm for the craft of performance and the world of show biz--the joy, the larger than life characters, and the storytelling.

He cataloged so many plays and musicals through his drawings that these images of earlier productions still convey the feelings of those shows today--his drawing of The Visit (from a 1958 production of the play on Broadway) feels completely on point for the current musical incarnation playing on Broadway now. He fills the image with the peering eyes of the poor townsfolk (there are more eyeballs than heads) as they look pleadingly towards their possible benefactress. The exhibit ends with images Hirschfeld drew of past shows and movies that are now on Broadway including Gigi, The King and I, On the Town, On the Twentieth Century, and Doctor Zhivago (RIP).

The Hirschfeld Century book will be available at the Museum gift shop for six weeks before it is available to purchase everywhere on July 7th. Hal Prince, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, and moderator Robert Osborne will be at the museum on May 28th to discuss the life and work of Al Hirschfeld.

I received a complimentary ticket to attend the show.

Monday, May 11, 2015

An American in Paris: The Lime Lollipop

Perhaps a week after visiting Berlin was the wrong time to see a "new" American musical set in post-war Europe.  I had just been served a healthy dose of post-war European history from the European perspective so seeing An American in Paris I was disappointed in the simplistic and blunt American narrative about the war in Europe as communicated here. There are some talented people involved in this production but there's so much muddle in the madness.  Bright moments are not enough to make this musical work overall.

After the war, American solider Jerry (Robert Fairchild) decides to stay in Paris.  He wants to become an artist. He befriends composer Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz) and a wealthy scion Henri Baurel (Max von Essen). They sing, dance, and hang out but tend to keep their private lives secret from each other. I guess blame the war. Anyway, when Jerry tags along with Adam to a ballet audition to sketch the dancers he sees a mystery girl he spotted in the street once before, Lise (Leanne Cope). Lise easily wins a place at the a ballet and quickly the hearts of Jerry and Adam. She starts secretly meeting with Jerry but tells him nothing can happen between them.  Jerry agrees to this arrangement (while trying to kiss her--so I guess rape culture is alive and well in 1945) but he is also juggling a liaison with the wealthy American patron of the ballet Milo Davenport (Jill Paice) (oh good player culture is also alive and well in 1945).  Henri has a secret of his own. He is trying to become an American cabaret singer against the objections of his uptight family who expect him to carry on the family garment business and marry longtime family friend Lise.

Oh what a tangled...whatever. Each of these contrived relationships felt as inauthentic as the next. Certainly the book of the musical is the central problem but it is not helped by some talented dancers who are not talented singers or actors.  There's some fundamental problems with what the piece is trying to say.  It is supposed to be a sweep-you-off-your-feet romance with a bit of a darker core--this is post-war Paris after all.  And everyone is coming to the story with pain--some visible and some secret.  But rather than richly develop the depth of these issues--soldiers running away from war memories, the dark past of Vichy France, the delicateness of living knowing so many did not survive --the musical kind of uses them as cheap opportunities just to launch a romance out of.   Maybe I wouldn't be so hard on it but when you have something as complex and complicated as The King and I playing right now where history and world politics is  balanced so deftly against romantic themes, it's hard to give AAiP a pass on this.  Grow the fuck up AAiP and treat your audience like adults.  We can handle it and since we won't be getting much narrative drive out of the score (since it's a Gershwin jukebox musical), the least you could do is write the drama this time period deserves and that you are already cribbing from.  Instead, it's a sugary lollipop.  Like a lime lollipop--the worst flavored lollipop--sugary and a little bitter.

Because once you boil down the "romance" things start to get pretty nasty.  First,  Jerry stringing along Milo to get ahead in the art world is gross. But more importantly, all the men having a weird fixation on the nearly mute Lise is eye rolling.  They ALL love her. She's so perfect with her not talking and just being really good at ballet and being all tiny and fra-gee-lay. They just all want to "protect her." Awesome.  I love a good "helpless girl needs three men to complete her" musical.  <bangs head on keyboard for twenty minutes>  If only a man could unlock her passion that she has kept locked inside her because she has been trying to survive a WAR.  <punches self in face>  You couldn't give us some insight into her character?  The entire show is from the perspective of the three men who love her and she remains an enigma (even to us).  Sure she learns passion from Jerry and is fulfilling her ballet dreamz but she is written more as a plot device for all the men than a character making choices or calling any shots.  Why can't we write female characters today in new musicals who have voices, and use them, or have inner lives we can explore.

Yeah I get that her "mystery" is supposed to kept a secret from the audience but I don't think it accomplished what you hoped it would and in fact only served to leave her even more underwritten. Hooray for you.  Way to make a new musical feel like an old musical.  <burns bra and sets American musical canon on fire>

Too bad the creators of this musical insisted on making this a book musical. Because when they all stop saying inane, unconvincing, and vomitous things and they start dancing the characters have a lot more to say.  And it feels much more effective.  It also gains a certain level of nuance and helpful ambiguity that is completely erased when the characters start talking again.  Christopher Wheeldon is a talented choreographer.  The narrative achievement of the Second Rhapsody scene is so complete that you wonder why it took so long to set up all the book scenes before that.  The character dynamics were suddenly vital and passionate and then they dissipated with more book scenes.

The show culminates in the big ballet that all the characters have been working towards--a new modern piece to celebrate life after all the darkness of war and with the conceptual art design, pop art colors, and soaring ballerinas.  It's bright and cheery. When it's Cope and Fairchild perform their duet it gets all sorts of hot in here. Suddenly all the color is black and red and woo baby.  And maybe when the full ensemble comes back together again I had a moment thinking this is Danny Zuko does Alexander Calder. But that's not a complaint. Fairchild looking hot hot hot in his all black costume and the Calder shapes mimicked in the projections, stage design, and costumes.  But even with these successful dance sequences the overall work does not add up.  In fact, Christopher Wheeldon's direction otherwise left me scratching my head at times (what was with the Chorus Line spotlights on the main five characters after the Baurel's party scene).

When they leave it to their toes to do the talking most of the cast comes alive. God bless Robert Fairchild and his perfectly chiseled Gene Kelly ass but I didn't believe a single word that came out of his mouth. His doe-eyed American "solider" looking for happiness after all the sadness is all well and good on paper but I didn't believe he's suffered a day in his life. He's too perky, happy, and chirpy. There's a line about him picking pieces of his friends brains out of his lap during the war and I appreciate that that might be a hard sense memory to muster but it was not at all a convincing moment (and came so out of left field in the book).  But when he closes his mouth and uses his feet he's all magic. And well that's who he is and what he's trained for. And he's absolutely worth watching for that.  But please don't make him talk.  Or...put him in a show where the character is meant to be all pep, vim, and vigor.  He can't muster the dark raincloud his character needs here.  He's a fine singer but he's not at the Broadway level and I'm sorry but I think that matters.

Leanne Cope is the perfect little gamine but she's not given much to do beyond that and I'm so tired of female characters who don't really get a story of their own.  It's nice to see Max von Essen get a bigger role in this show and he's got one big production number.  But as each character is so underwritten I don't know what more he could do with Henri.

And here's the thing.  I could easily dismiss the piffle that is AAiP if it was not running head to head with Fun Home for Best New Musical.  Because that's what it is (though I want more from new musicals especially when it comes to female characters).  But Fun Home is the whole package--great score, lyrics, book, and production.  AAiP is cribbing history, Gershwins. and ballet to make a fake package of quality and richness.  It's got some crowd-pleasing moments but it is faulty at its core.  I really hope Tony voters don't get blinded by some nice ballet sequences and think AAiP is a solid musical.  It's not.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Airline Highway: Messy Lives

Where do addicts, hookers, strippers, and fuck ups end up? In New Orleans, apparently the answer is the Hummingbird Motel on Airline Highway. A crumbling rundown motel that like all its denizens it once had potential.  Scott Pask's multi-level dingy motel set provides an worthy framework for Lisa D'Amour's new play about hope, love, loyalty, and remembrance directed as always with a keen eye by Joe Mantello.

Tanya (Julie White) and Sissy (K. Todd Freeman) have organized a funeral for Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts) who is not yet dead yet, at her request. Miss Ruby ran a strip club for years in the Quarter and she has been the matriarch of this rag-tag collection of down-on-their-luck, make-all-the-wrong-choices tenants. Stripper Krista (Caroline Neff) usually lives at the motel but doesn't have the money this week.  Krista has hooking up lately with Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze) who's been trying to get paid for some odd jobs around the model.  Everyone at the motel has kept Krista in the dark about her old boyfriend Bait Boy (Joe Tippett) who is returning for the funeral after finding a better life with a "cougar"girlfriend in Atlanta. When Bait Boy arrives he insists on being called Greg now. He's got his girlfriend's teenage daughter Zoe (Carolyn Braver) with him in tow. Zoe is writing a sociology paper on sub-cultures and decides to try to interview the Hummingbird residents for her paper.

D'Amour structures the play with an extraordinary amount of overlapping dialogue. So much so that at times the talking and yelling end up just as messy as the people opening their mouths. There's no peace here. Voices are always raised. Information is not lost by this overlap. The tensions, lust, anger, sadness, love, and disappointment between characters is still clearly expressed.

I understand why D'Amour uses the teenage outsider as a catalyst for self-reflection and ratcheting up the tension but these characters do not really need a push beyond a pill or a drink to start to reveal more than they mean to. And the antagonistic privileged teenager feels too convenient and mostly a device at times. Besides the audience of a Broadway theater feels like a sociology student peering in at a subculture by its own nature. I'm not sure we needed the direct corollary on stage. I was also disappointed that the mostly naturalistic play drifts into a brief fever dream nearer the end to speak the subtext. It doesn't add enough to quite justify it in my mind.  Both these actions feel like a lack of confidence that the story would otherwise get communicated by the characters.  But in all honesty they are petty form nits.

Overall I liked this messy, broken down world that is presented with and without judgment. A group of people who have seen the worst of it and are struggling to live up to their potential. Withhold love or light from people and they try to fill these holes with something. They fold in on themselves and this world because the outside world is a constant stream of disappointment and judgment.  This community is self-forming because it allows for this brand of stasis and necessary self-delusion.

This world, these voices, and this subculture is not something we see a lot of on stage.  I noticed recently how little we even see regional stories that are connected to specific time and place.  Airline Highway is certainly the exception.  With Scott Pask's incredible two story motel set and D'Amour finely tuned voices, we know we are in a very specific and special place. Even before the show starts we see the flickering of action on stage.  Tiny bits of stage business add up to a wholly realized world that blooms before our eyes.

Mantello can draw out such beautiful, strong performances from actors.  Freeman and White are off-the-charts great here.  It would have been easy for any of these actors to lazily drift into some sort of stereotype of their characters, but Mantello makes sure everyone is being wholly authentic when on stage.  No motion, movement, or stage action is wasted.  He carefully controls the overlapping dialogue and action so that he let's the characters be messy but the storytelling be clear.  He's a genius.