(Helen Shaw’s article ran in Time Out New York, 7/15.)
Playwright Howard Barker—rageful, vulgar, riotous, brilliant, cynical and vain (in other words, the dark Shakespeare of our times)—does not care for theater that runs smoothly. In plays and essays, he rails against uniformity, even wholeness of theatrical experience: “The baying of an audience in the pursuit of unity is a sound of despair.” So Barker certainly wouldn’t mind the unevenness in PTP/NYC’s production of 1983’s Victory: Choices in Reaction, his cruelly funny historical drama that gallops roughshod through the nastiest bits of Restoration England. As always, the work makes us drunk on rich, cerebral wine. So if Barker doesn’t mind the wobbles, why should we?
(Robert Hurwitt’s article article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, 7/18.)
A lot can happen in a New York blackout. Stars are seen. Time stops. Dreams are realized, smashed or revived. Marriages, too. And lives. Songs are sung, tales intertwine and – in the case of "Fly by Night" at TheatreWorks – a breathtakingly good new musical is born.
Conceived by Kim Rosenstock, and written by her with songwriters Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick, "Fly" opened Saturday in a buoyant world premiere at Lucie Stern Theatre as the anchor production in TheatreWorks' New Works Festival. Smart, funny and poignant lyrics nestle in sweet melodies within a brain-teasing well-told tale.
It's a story as simple as a triangle, as the beguilingly protean, sweet-voiced Wade McCollum's Narrator tells us – and as complex. It's impossible to know where a triangle begins, so "Fly" keeps flashing back to relate how another leg led to a corner as we move toward the huge blackout that blanketed the Northeast in 1965.
(Lyn Gardner’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/18.)
Howard Brenton's play begins as it means to swagger on: in teasingly intelligent style. Miranda Raison's Anne walks on to the stage with her own decapitated head in a bag and plays shamelessly to the gallery and our predilection for the gory bits of history. But while this ticklishly enjoyable play may offer previously undreamed of tips on Tudor contraception (some apparently favoured a hare's anus tied around your wrist), this is no horrible history but a seriously enjoyable account of the staunchly Protestant Anne's part as a "conspirator for Christ" who had a role in the making of Protestant England, and whose ghost hovered over the religious schisms that emerged 70 years later during the reign of James I.
I’m not really much of an opera queen. When, among my gay male friends of the eighties, the talk turned to opera seria versus the “reform” operas of the mid-eighteenth century, say, or opera buffa and its influence on England’s Savoy operas, I shrank to the edge of the discussion, a taciturn schoolboy lost in the cognoscenti’s glittering world of productions picked apart and triumphs recalled. Still, listening to those friends argue the finer points of Maria Callas’s career—or Grace Bumbry’s or Teresa Stratas’s—could be educational and amusing, too, a live version of the world that James McCourt described so knowingly in his 1975 novel about “divadom,” “Mawrdew Czgowchwz.” And it was the memory of those critical, passionate friends, many of whom died of AIDS, that haunted my viewing of the current, brilliant revival of Terrence McNally’s 1995 play, “Master Class” (a Manhattan Theatre Club production, at the Samuel J. Friedman). I can’t say for sure that I would have enjoyed the show as much had I never known those men, but I do know that my sadness at their loss was mixed with joy that McNally had indirectly captured something of their voices in his characterization of the ultimate Voice—Callas.
(Matthew Harrison’s article appeared in Irish Theatre Magazine, 7/11.)
Flying in from the tinselly world of Hollywood movie blockbusters, Cillian Murphy touches down as an avenging angel in the gritty Galway Arts Festival premiere of a new version of Enda Walsh's darkly funny Misterman. In a transformed Black Box Theatre, the powerful forces of Catholic guilt, small-town oppression and dominant Irish mammies work their nasty ways on the vulnerable and weak. Landmark Productions and the Galway Arts Festival’s big budget, big bang is a high-octane dramatic rush.
Thomas Magill (a hirsute Cillian Murphy) is a well-meaning evangelist who has an obsession with sin. Sifting through his memory, he repeatedly relives his searches for the heavenly peace that he might expect to come “dropping slow” in his town of Innisfree. Frustrated by all around him, and on the day of the town’s ‘community dance’, Thomas decides to set off on a proselytizing tour of his neighbours. From the ban an tí to the garage mechanic and even to Roger the dog, “sin is our religion” and yet all could be saved if Thomas works hard enough. Lonely, mocked and often thwarted in his mission, Thomas’ zeal is re-charged when the angelic Edel offers to accompany him in his good works…
(Teachout’s article appeared in the July issue of Commentary.)
Ever since his two-play cycle Angels in America opened on Broadway in 1993, Tony Kushner has been the sole American playwright to approach the pinnacle of broad-based cultural réclame that Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams attained in the 1940s and Edward Albee in the 1960s. One striking aspect of his celebrity is that critics are all but unanimous as to the merits of his work. Frank Rich called Angels “the most thrilling American play in years” in his New York Times review of the 1993 production, which was also Kushner’s Broadway debut. Since then, there has been scarcely any dissent from this categorical judgment, or from the notion that Kushner is, as Newsweek dubbed him in 2009, “the playwright at the heart of America’s cultural moment.”
We’re so used to al fresco Shakespeare in the summer or musicals (Rent and Hair are back in town) that a dark, moody piece like Tryst, now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, seems like the real breath of fresh air. Karoline Leach’s play about loneliness, about other people’s definitions of the self, is not a social indictment or commentary, as if we’re watching a new Sweeney Todd or Shaw or even reading Dickens. Instead, it’s an adult drama that has something of a resemblance to Hitchcock’s Suspicion or even Cukor’s Gaslight—Hollywood stories of women who realize that men should never be trusted. There’s no revisionist, Feminist, or universal message, or not one that seems new anyway—the mind games, soliloquies, and close-ups of the battle of the sexes nod to Strindberg, and the Freudianism might put you in mind of Psycho. But the truth is that this is entertainment and atmosphere, the best movie Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant never filmed (if you could have gotten Grant to do it after the failure of None but the Lonely Heart)—perfect for hot nights and, maybe, a film option.
But who needs Cary Grant—or Joan Fontaine or Ingrid Bergman–anyway? The acting of Andrea Maulella and Mark Shanahan, in this two-hander concerning a con man and his mark, is specific and focused. Maulella, as a milliner with hypersensitive, spasmodic, slapping, shooting, exacting hands, is an artist of feathers and ribbons and felt. Watch her neck, too, craning, lifting, a giraffe forever weighted down by the density of physical being and industrial London (you might see cripples like a Laura, from The Glass Menagerie, Hulga from “Good Country People” in her—or even Ingrid Thulin in Cries and Whispers, unable to control flyaway hands). Mark Shanahan plays the petty criminal, who doesn’t really know where his lying begins or can end; he only knows some get taken “and some get took.” His character describes himself as “careful.” Watch the care with which he pours buckets of water for a bath into an aluminum tub that looks like a coffin. If you only know this actor’s work as the uptight, congenial, comic captain in The Irish Rep’s production of The Shaughraun (as I did), you’ll be surprised by the shading of his character work.
As an afterthought, you might decide to call Tryst “disturbing,” even when you know it works best as a commercial product. It also has style, which is not new to the Irish Repertory Theatre; in the past, it has asked Tony Walton to direct maybe the most gorgeous Candida ever produced. From the period orange-brown wedding dress in Tryst–bought to be sensible–to the deep string music playing in the background (somebody might even see this drama as being fashioned into a kind of chamber musical), the quality associated with this company, which has included revivals of Yeats, Shaw, and O’Neill, is a hallmark. Somewhere John Simon is relieved, too, that, finally, here is one show where the frontal nudity isn’t male. Kudos to Joe Brancato for staging this 1997 gem.
(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/11.)
Natalie Abrahami's production does exactly what it says on the tin. Billed as "Pericles reimagined for everyone aged six and over", what we get is a vivid theatrical experience that combines pirates, panto and the best bits of this relatively unfamiliar late romance.
In one respect, the production is extremely purist. It omits the first two acts, written by one of Shakespeare's hack collaborators, and puts much of the focus on Pericles's daughter, Marina. We first see her life being threatened by her guardian, Dionyza, flash back in time to witness her birth at sea, and then follow her later adventures around the Med before the eventual reunion with her father. Abrahami neatly sidesteps the problem of the Mytilene brothel scenes by turning them into a fairground freakshow in which Marina is expected to perform as a singing mermaid. But the big set pieces, especially the restoration to life of Marina's coffined mum, are very well staged, and the young audience is encouraged to listen as well as look by waving a paper boat every time the word "sea" is mentioned.