Monthly Archives: February 2020

IN ‘COAL COUNTRY,’ MEMORIES FROM A MINING TRAGEDY LIVE ON ·

(Julia Jacobs’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/18; via Pam Green; photo: Devin Yalkin for The New York Times.)   

A new documentary play at the Public Theater weaves together interviews from people whose lives were forever changed by the 2010 mining disaster in West Virginia.

Six years after the explosion that killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia, family members and co-workers of the dead weren’t answering phone calls from the New York playwright.

That writer, Jessica Blank, wanted to know if they would be interested in sharing their stories for the play she was creating with her husband and frequent collaborator, Erik Jensen. The couple are best known for “The Exonerated,” based on interviews with former death-row prisoners who were wrongfully convicted.

For their latest documentary project, the Public Theater commissioned them to write about the mining tragedy that sent reporters flooding into the tiny rural community of Montcoal, W.Va., on April 5, 2010. A decade later, the play would tell the stories of the miners and their loved ones after the rest of the country stopped listening.

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ZOE CALDWELL, REST IN PEACE ·

(Neil Genzlinger’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/18; via Pam Green; Photo: Patrick A. Burns/The New York Times.)

ZOE CALDWELL, WINNER OF FOUR TONY AWARDS, IS DEAD AT 86

Her signature performances included the title role in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and Maria Callas in “Master Class.”

Zoe Caldwell, who won Tony Awards — four in all — in the 1960s, ’80s and ’90s, the last for portraying the opera star Maria Callas in “Master Class,” Terrence McNally’s study of the twilight of the singer’s career, died on Sunday at her home in Pound Ridge, N.Y., in Westchester County. She was 86.

Her son Charlie Whitehead said through a spokeswoman that the cause was Parkinson’s disease.

Ms. Caldwell, born in Australia, began her acting career in that country; joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in England in 1959; and then, after a stop at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, was part of the inaugural season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1963.

In 1966 she was in a bill of two short Tennessee Williams plays on Broadway, combined under the title “Slapstick Tragedy.” The run lasted only seven performances, but she made an impression: She won a Tony Award for best featured actress in a play.

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MYSTERIOUS RUSSIAN ARTIST NICHOLAS ROERICH’S NEW YORK ‘HEADQUARTERS’ ·

(John Varoli’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 2/20; photo: John Varoli, Alexander Krasavin/Sputnik.) 

The Nicholas Roerich Museum in Manhattan is North America’s only institution dedicated to the heritage of the great Russian Symbolist painter. While the museum is a treasure trove of the artist’s works, few New Yorkers, or Russians, even know it exists.

Soon after the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917, Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) fled St. Petersburg and sought refuge in Finland, then London, and finally made his way to New York in October 1920, staying and traveling around the U.S. until May 1923. A large exhibition of Roerich’s art, which was organized by the Chicago Art Institute, began in New York in December 1920 and which subsequently toured the country. 

During Roerich’s time in the U.S. he founded the Master Institute of United Arts (an art school in New York) and the Roerich Museum, which opened in November 1923 at a location overlooking the Hudson River (310 Riverside Drive, Manhattan’s Upper West Side). 

Like many other talented Russian emigres who fled the Revolution, Roerich quickly found admirers among New York City’s rich and powerful. Some patronized his art endeavors and were enthralled with his progressive ideas of world peace and spiritual harmony. 

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DRUID, CHEKHOV AND THE POLITICS OF POWER ·

(Gemma Tipton’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 2/15.)

Garry Hynes directs The Cherry Orchard, a play she says that’s still of the moment

Power comes in many forms. There is physical power, inherited power, seized power. There is the extraordinary and frequently unexpected power of strong feelings, and the insidious power of unhealthy ways of being that drag us into decline. Add to that the power of tradition, and its counterbalance, the power of violent change, and you have quite a cocktail.

Speaking with Garry Hynes and Derbhle Crotty, in a chilly room painted in various shades of brown and purple, I’m also almost hyper-aware of the power embodied by these two very different women. At first, Crotty draws your attention. She has taken a break from rehearsals for Druid’s forthcoming production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and I have just been watching her pace the stage, not yet in costume, but clad instead in baggy cream pants and a cosy, sloppy green jumper. She wears them like a queen.

I get a look from Hynes that could freeze boiling water, or wither a strong plant in an instant

Tall, or more exactly, statuesque, she’s one of those rare people who makes, and maintains unabashed eye contact; and she smiles and laughs frequently as we talk. I find myself wanting to see things as she does, to believe what she projects, which is, of course, one of the enchantments of a really good actor. Beside her, Hynes is smaller, quieter, more measured, and yet when she speaks, which she does quietly, you feel the world around you pausing to pay attention.

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A BELOVED NEIGHBOR LEAVES THE BUILDING ·

(Peter Khoury’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/13; via Pam Green.)

An Illinois farm boy who came to New York to be a singer left an indelible mark on the Upper West Side co-op where he lived for more than six decades.

There’s a void in my Upper West Side co-op.

There’s no piano playing coming from the apartment directly above my ground-floor unit. No deep, reassuring bass-baritone.

I miss that voice. It belonged to Charles Dunn, a singer, voice teacher, former co-op president and good friend who died this month at 99.

Charles — a strapping Illinois farm boy who graduated from Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1942, served in the Coast Guard during World War II and later came to New York to follow his passion — made the city a richer place.

One great thing about Manhattan is that the density of humanity increases the chances of encountering people who bring something special to the table.

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Photo Credit: via the Dunn family

IVO VAN HOVE ON ROUGHING UP WEST SIDE STORY:  “THE VIOLENCE SHOULD BE TANGIBLE” ·

(Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/27; via the Drudge Report.)

Ivo van Hove likes it in America. Broadway rarely warms to avant-garde Belgian directors, but it has embraced this one, first for his blood-drenched A View from the Bridge, then for his unorthodox Crucible, which starred a large dog, and then for his adaptation of Network, complete with a working onstage restaurant that audiences could eat at. Now he and Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker are refashioning West Side Story, that quintessentially American dance musical – a rare story of juvenile delinquency and fatal love that you can hum along to. It will be, says Van Hove, “a West Side Story for the 21st century”.

The show is not one that either had seen on stage, though each had watched the 1961 movie version in the 70s or 80s. “I liked it,” De Keersmaeker says, seated in the mezzanine of the Broadway theatre before a preview performance of their new production, which opens later this week. “The dancing. The clarity and efficiency. The long lines.” She gets up from her chair to demonstrate.

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Above: Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel as Tony and Maria. Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (72) ·

Perhaps in our art there exists only one correct path—the line of the intuition of feelings! And out of it grow unconsciously the outer and inner images, their form, the idea and the technique of the role. The line of intuition at times absorbs into itself all the other lines and grasps all the spiritual and physical contents of the role and the play. (MLIA)

RADICAL NEW WEST SIDE STORY PAINTS AN ANGRY YOUNG AMERICA ·

(Brian Schaefer’s article appeared on Bloomberg, 2/13.)

Van Hove realized that the issues bubbling up in the campaign—racism, immigration, issues of integration, tribal loyalty—were all in a certain 1957 musical, van Hove realized. “I thought: Well, West Side Story talked about this in a very accessible way,” he says. “With great music.” After directing a string of critically acclaimed reinterpretations of American classics, including A View from the Bridge and A Streetcar Named Desire, among others, he decided the Shakespearean story of star-crossed lovers in midcentury New York would come next. 

One presidential election cycle later, van Hove’s West Side Story will open on Feb. 20 at the Broadway Theatre in a production that feels as urgent as its themes, thanks to a slimmed one-act structure and video projections that leave the vast stage bare for hurricanes of dancers to blow through. (The production will precede Steven Spielberg’s big-screen remake of the 1961 Academy Award-winning film adaptation, due in December.) Six decades after its debut, it seems West Side Story is again the story of our time. 

Reinventing a Treasure

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Photo: Bloomberg

‘THE MIKADO’ FROM THE NEW YORK GILBERT & SULLIVAN PLAYERS (NYGASP)—REVIEW FROM NEW YORK ·

By Bob Shuman

The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) brought their production of The Mikado to the Kaye Playhouse over the holiday season (12/27-1/5)—perhaps especially topical now since it is about a prince who runs away from his family.   The larger issue concerning the operetta is thornier than that, though, and has been since its premiere, in 1875, because of characterizations of the Japanese (a random list of role names is telling, and includes, Nanki-PooPish TushPooh-Bah, and Yum-Yum). The dramatist G. S. Gilbert, in defense, explained that “[The Mikado] was never a story about Japan but about the failings of the British government.” Even so, the work would be impossible to create today.  

Attempting to minimize the offensive, the NYGASP spoke to the Asian-American community in 2015, upholding “The Mikado’s musical score, setting, characters, storytelling, and most of its universal Satire”—you can see the difference in multi-racial, if primarily non-Asian, casting and costumes by Quinto Ott that make use of shoulder ornamentation and flow—even gowns with their backs cut out–but which are only suggestive of the East.  Director and choreographer David Auxier-Loyola, interprets the piece openly; how a Westerner would imagine Japan, in innocence and ignorance.  He has also penned a prologue—apparently based on an almost-true story, which gives a rationale for a departure into the make-believe.

New material elsewhere injects mention of the disastrous film version of Cats, presidential hopefuls, and even Trump, but the creators ensure that the cultural misinterpretation is never as outrageous as in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, for example.  NYGASP, which might be compared to a family of loving, ardent supporters, treats the work of Gilbert & Sullivan as treasure, not merely a gold mine. They may, in fact, be giving the team more accommodation than others would, as even contemporary writers, working sensitively, are typically not allowed to give voice beyond their own race and ethnicity, in the entertainment and publishing worlds.

Still, The Mikado is considered “the most popular piece of musical theatre of all time,” and today NYGASP is a needed outpost in the arts— important for students in understanding the range and history of theatre.  The organization also allows audiences to get away from cold, hyper-tech Broadway and, beyond it, stage work that is created without access to a repertory group. For those who find Gilbert & Sullivan’s Victorian sensibilities too eccentric and psychologically weightless (The Mikado actually has a stronger storyline than The Pirates of Penzance,  which relies on counting age by leap years), there is the music–which may, in part have influenced Frederick Loewe‘s score for My Fair Lady.   Tuneful, pleasant, and rousing, the songs, choruses, recitative, trios, quartets, madrigals, and more, are all ably performed by the NYGASP orchestra, ensemble, and principals, who include David WannenJohn Charles McLaughlinDavid MacalusoMatthew WagesDavid AuxierSarah Caldwell SmithAmy Maude Helfer, and Rebecca L. Hargrove.  Cáitlín Burke brings strong emotion to her role, as an elderly lady, in love with the prince—taking this Mikado from operetta to opera.

Conducted by: Albert Bergeret and Joseph Rubin.

Look for The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, at the Kaye Playhouse,  April 18-19 2020 with The Gondoliers.

Visit The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Press: Sean Katz, Katz PR