Monthly Archives: February 2021


(Michael Paulson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/19; via Pam Green. Photo: John Harrell and Jessika D. Williams in the American Shakespeare Center production of “Othello,” which was overseen by its former artistic director Ethan McSweeny.Credit…Lauren Parker.)

Amid severe budget cuts and complaints about his leadership, Ethan McSweeny, who had run the American Shakespeare Center since 2018, will not return.

The American Shakespeare Center in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley claims to have the world’s only replica of the indoor venue where Shakespeare’s company performed. And now it’s going to attempt another Shakespearean structure: an actor-led company.

The nonprofit announced Friday that its artistic director, Ethan McSweeny, had stepped down eight days earlier. The theater did not offer an explanation; McSweeny cited financial strain caused by the pandemic, but he was also facing complaints about the workplace climate from some employees.

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(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/26; Photo: Self-deprecating … Ronald Pickup in 1972. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images.)

The actor, who has died aged 80, had a thriving screen career but was also a terrific stage star and an essential member of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company

Ronald Pickup, who has died aged 80, had the capacity to bring a gaunt gravitas to high-ranking establishment figures. It is no accident that he was cast as the archbishop of Canterbury in The Crown and Neville Chamberlain in Darkest Hour. Although Pickup had a thriving career in film and television, to people of my age he will always be remembered as part of the National Theatre company that Laurence Olivier assembled in its early days at the Old Vic. When you think that Pickup was one of a number of rising stars including Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon and Anthony Hopkins, you realise it was a golden generation.

Pickup caught the eye at the Royal Court in 1965 when he played the title role in Shelley: the first of a number of a real-life figures he was to play, including Verdi, Stravinsky and Einstein. Rejoining Olivier’s company at the Old Vic where he had started out in small parts, he was an extraordinary Rosalind in an all-male As You Like It in 1967. It was an odd production but Pickup’s Rosalind, in peaked cap and white trouser-suit, caught something of the poetic sexuality for which the production was ostensibly searching.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock (10581536w)
New York’s governor ordered all Broadway theaters to shut their doors in the face of ongoing coronavirus concerns.
Coronavirus outbreak, New York, USA – 12 Mar 2020

(Judith Miller’s article appeared in City Journal, 2/22.)

Live theater has been devastated by the pandemic, and its return remains uncertain.

No industry in New York City has been hit as hard by Covid-19 as theater, and no industry is said to be as vital to the city’s recovery. But the much-heralded, long-awaited reopening of Broadway remains largely aspirational. When the pandemic shuttered New York’s theaters on March 12, 2020, performing-arts professionals hoped for a summer revival. As the virus spread, prospects for a reopening in the fall gave way to hope for non-virtual theater by January 2021, and then for summer 2021. Last October, the Broadway League predicted that New York theaters would finally reopen in fall 2021. In January, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, made the target date vaguer by telling performing-arts professionals at a virtual conference that he thought that theaters could safely reopen “sometime in the fall of 2021,” with patrons still wearing masks and social distancing, “if everything goes right.”

But things have not gone right. The vaccine rollout has been thus far slow and problem-plagued, and more contagious Covid strains that may require vaccine boosters have emerged. Fauci’s goal of herd immunity, defined most recently as requiring 75–85 percent of the population to be either immunized or recovered from the disease, seems increasingly elusive.

For live theater in New York, this has meant even greater uncertainty in an already anxious, financially fraught time. “No one knows what lies ahead,” says Robert Marx, director of the New York–based Samuels Foundation, which supports quality work in the performing arts. “We’re in totally unknown territory when theaters and other performing arts venues will have had no earned income for over a year and a high percentage of staff will have been furloughed.”

Since March 12, 2020, according to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, 52 percent of actors have been unemployed, among the highest rates of any sector. An industry estimated to sustain roughly 97,000 jobs in its 2018–19 season and contribute an annual $14.8 billion to the city’s coffers has never been so challenged. 

Few want to predict, for instance, how many of Broadway’s 31 shows that were running, and eight that were in preview, will reopen—or when. So far, four shows have fallen victim to the pandemic, among them Mean Girls, a hit that, since its opening in 2018, had not only recouped its $17 million capitalization costs but also grossed $124 million in more than 834 performances, its producers said.

Many of the 40-plus Broadway theaters deemed so vital to New York’s recovery may have difficulty financing the sweeping changes that will be required to reopen—including replacing air-filtration systems, reconfiguring seating, modifying lobbies and access to restrooms, and other changes that safety protocols may demand and that will likely be needed to lure back virus-wary patrons. Some of the oldest, least financially secure, theaters may not be able to reopen, given the devastating plunge in their revenues, which totaled some $1.8 billion from audiences of 15 million the year before Covid-19, the Broadway League reports, but tumbled to some $300 million in ticket sales before theaters closed last year. Even pre-pandemic, Broadway theaters had to sell most of the seats in their small spaces to make ends meet.

“On Broadway, we won’t be able to pay our bills with social distancing,” warned Barry Weissler, who, with his wife, Fran, is among the most successful producers on the Great White Way. “The changes required for 100-year-old Broadway theaters will cost millions and millions.” Some of the wealthier organizations—the Shubert, for instance, which owns 17 Broadway theaters and made millions staging popular musicals like A Chorus LineBye Bye Birdie, and Monty Python’s Spamalot—can afford to make the changes, but many others cannot. “So if you’re counting on Broadway to help revive the city, don’t,” Weissler said. “It will be the last to reopen.”

Some nonprofit theaters may turn out to be relatively better positioned to reopen than their commercial counterparts. Many occupy newer venues, are relatively less dependent on ticket sales, and can raise money from foundations, private donors, and the government. A coalition of select nonprofit venues spent the winter lobbying Albany for permission to sell tickets to events featuring limited live audiences. With their flexible designs, high ceilings, and open floor plans, theaters like the Park Avenue Armory, which can seat 1,500, and the Shed, which opened last year in the new Hudson Yards complex on Manhattan’s West Side and can hold 2,300, argued that they could offer live performances safely. Unlike traditional Broadway theaters—with their cramped orchestra pits and small backstages, lobbies, and restrooms—these newer venues more closely resemble the bowling alleys, gyms, churches, casinos, and museums that have been permitted to reopen, provided that patrons wear masks and maintain social distance.

When Broadway and other performance venues do reopen, ticket prices, which were steadily rising before the pandemic, could fall, at least temporarily, to lure theatergoers back into closed, even renovated, spaces. But that, too, is likely to jeopardize the commercial viability of some theaters. And given the reduction in seats available for sale, even higher prices might not compensate theater owners.

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The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

My system cannot be explained in an hour or in a day even. It must be systematically and practically studied for years. It does good only when it becomes the second nature of the actor, when he stops thinking of it consciously, when it begins to appear naturally, as of itself. (MLIA)


(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/25. Photo:  Richard Blackwood in Ryan Calais Cameron’s Typical. Photograph: Franklyn Rodgers. )

Available online
This superb play draws on the final hours of Christopher Alder, who died in police custody in Hull in 1998

Christopher Alder’s last moments, in April 1998, were unforgivably brutal. Injured in a fight at a nightclub, he took his final breath in police custody. It was an abject death: an unlawful killing that, for his campaigners, represented another instance of a black British man dying in a senseless way.

Yet what is marked about Ryan Calais Cameron’s astounding play, written in rap-like rhyming verse and tracing the minutiae of its unnamed character’s final day, is that it bursts with life, zest, humour and hedonism even as it hurtles towards tragedy.

First staged as a solo show in 2019 and now created by Nouveau Riche and Soho theatre for a screen version, it becomes a perfect, if eviscerating, nugget of dramatic performance in its new medium; theatrical in setting but also sharply focused and dreadful in its filmic intimacy. When the violence comes, the camera seems to throw the punches. In a claustrophobic closeup, it tightens its gaze around Richard Blackwood’s face so we cannot avert our eyes, even as his character chokes on his own blood.

Until those excruciating moments, Typical feels like a day in the life of an urban everyman, granular in its detail, Joycean in its steam-of-consciousness as he wakes up, puts on the toast, thinks about his marriage, divorce, an office flirtation, and gets going. It’s a typical day, says Blackwood, but he is determined to make it a special one with a big night out.

The language is playful, kinetic, partly in patois, with sentences that syncopate and waver between poetry and song, and fizz with wordplay: “Looking at the weather, weather looking back in anger, weather look mad, weather looking temperamental, menstrual, weather looking bad.” And later, when the police handcuff him: “I’m being manhandled … heavy-handed men, heavy-hearted men.” It moves at speed and has a polyphonic effect, making the set feel as if it is occupied by more than just one actor. Blackwood keeps up with every note, mesmerising us with every tic, smile or grimace.

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(Nobuko Tanaka’s article appeared in the Japan Times, 2/18; Photo: Playing the bad guy: Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ennosuke IV plays Suginoichi, a blind musician who kills and cheats to get ahead but ultimately meets a gruesome end, in the play “Yabuhara Kengyo.” | © KATSUMI MINAMOTO.)

Colorful graffiti marks the facade of a shuttered shopping mall. People navigate their way around chain partitions and orange traffic cones. It’s a scene that looks familiar to anyone who has walked through the streets of Shibuya recently.

And yet, while the backdrop is modern, the characters in “Yabuhara Kengyo” (“Yabuhara, the Blind Master Minstrel”) are rooted in the Edo Period (1603-1868), wearing kimono and living according to the law of the shogun. The play’s protagonist, a blind musician named Suginoichi who has risen from being a penniless minstrel to becoming the highest-ranked performer in the shogun’s court, is played by Ichikawa Ennosuke IV, a member of the venerable Ichikawa kabuki family whose real name is Takahiko Kinoshi.

Ennosuke may be recognizable to some for his recent role as an elite banker and rival to the titular hero of TV’s hit drama series, “Hanzawa Naoki.” But for many others, the 45-year-old actor is a standard-bearer for the Japanese stage who has been pumping life into traditional and modern theater since well before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the entertainment industry.

On the day we met for the interview, Ennosuke had already performed in a classical matinee program at the Kabukiza Theatre before moving to a studio to rehearse his role as Suginoichi, the cunning antihero of “Yabuhara Kengyo,” which opened on Feb. 10 and will run through Mar. 7 at the Parco Theater in Shibuya.

In the play, Suginoichi’s ascent from penniless minstrel to master performer is all the more remarkable because not only is he arrogant and averse to studying or practicing music, he is also a thief, rapist and murderer who slayed his first teacher, among others, to get ahead.

Although another blind performer, Hokiichi (played by Ken Miyake, who tackles five additional roles in this production), advises Suginoichi to keep a low profile because his blindness puts him at risk of being victimized, he pays no heed to the warning and continues to live according to his whims.

Meanwhile, discontent grows in society, and the shogun’s adviser asks Hokiichi how to quell the unrest. The minstrel suggests publicly punishing someone slothful as a scapegoat, adding that someone like Suginoichi could be accused of murder and bear a cruel sentence. Following Hokiichi’s counsel, the adviser puts Suginoichi to death in a manner that is painful and gruesome.

This picaresque play, written by notable postwar playwright Hisashi Inoue, premiered in 1973 under the direction of Koichi Kimura. A success from the outset, the show was repeatedly rerun in Japan and went on tour to Hong Kong, New York, London, Paris and Edinburgh. The production was then followed by lavish and energetic costume-drama versions staged by Yukio Ninagawa in 2007 and Tamiya Kuriyama in 2012 and 2014.

To direct the most recent iteration, which is part of a special series marking the theater’s reopening after a major refurbishment, Parco appointed Kunio Sugihara. Widely admired for his bold direction in works such as the rap-style Greek tragedy “Oedipus REXXX” and his 10-hour trilogy “The Greeks,” the 38-year-old dramatist has also worked on various “Super Kabuki” shows, a style of theater that combines traditional kabuki style with contemporary themes and media such as manga.

Ennosuke has been a driving force behind “Super Kabuki” for years, and in 2015, he chose Sugihara to be his assistant director on “One Piece,” an entertainment-focused production based on the titular manga series by Eiichiro Oda. Since then, the pair have often collaborated together, but this time it’s Sugihara in the driver’s seat.

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(Chekhov’s story appeared in Russia Beyond, 2/23/2021.)

Anton Chekhov. WOLF BAITING 

Translated by Dan Biktashev

It is said that we live in the nineteenth century. Do not be fooled, reader.

On Wednesday, the 6th  of January, in the European city of Moscow, a capital city at that, in the galleries overlooking the summer horse-racing track, sat a tightly packed crowd, jostling for position and trampling each other’s toes as they lapped up the spectacle. The spectacle itself, and even its description, is an anachronism… Are we even fit to describe it? We, who have exchanged brute force for ideas; we, the emotional, teary lot of suit-wearers and theatre-goers, and liberals et tutti quanti[1] – are we fit to describe this spectacle known as wolf baiting? I ask you, are we?

It would appear that we are. We must describe it, for we cannot help it.

Let me begin by saying that I am not a hunter. In all my life I have not killed an animal. I confess I have killed a number of fleas, but even then no hounds were involved; it was always a fair, one-on-one fight. The only firearms I am acquainted with are the tin cap guns I would buy my children as gifts for New Year. A hunter I am not, and I must beg forgiveness if I distort anything in my retelling, as non-experts are wont to. In what follows I will try to avoid touching upon matters that could allow me to flaunt my ignorance of hunting terms. Instead, I will tell you about this spectacle as the public would, i.e. in a superficial manner born of nothing deeper than a first impression…

It is the first hour. Behind the gallery are stagecoaches, luxurious sleds, and coachmen. Commotion and bustle abound… The sheer number of carriages is such that not crowding is impossible. Congregating in the galleries are men decked out in lambswool and the fur of raccoons, beavers and foxes; each professing expertise with horses, dogs, hawks, hounds, or other miscellaneous beasts. These men are freezing, but also burning with impatience. 

Ladies also congregate there, of course. You cannot have a spectacle without the ladies. Unusual for baiting many of the ladies gathered today are quite fair-looking. There are at least as many of them as men, and they, too, are burning with impatience. 

In the upper galleries one can glimpse an occasional gymnasium cap – students have come to watch the spectacle, and they are burning with impatience. Among the other spectators (burning with impatience) are the connoisseurs, fanciers, and self-styled critics who have come to the Khodynka Field all the way on foot and, for lack of a rouble to pay the entrance fee, have lined up along the fences, knee-deep in snow. 

In the arena are a number of carts laden with wooden crates. Inside the crates, the heroes of the day are enjoying the rest of their lives: the wolves. In all likelihood they are not burning with impatience…

As the crowd waits for the baiting to commence, it admires the Russian beauties riding about the arena on lovely horses… The most devoted and vicious of hunters are arguing about the hounds participating in today’s baiting. To a man, everyone is holding a poster of the event; the ladies also have a set of opera glasses.

“There is no pastime more pleasant than hunting,” an old man with a peaked cap and a wispy fluff of a beard confides to his neighbour; to all appearances he is a nobleman who fell on hard times a long time ago. “None more pleasant indeed… We would always set out on a hunt at first light… Sometimes with ladies, too…”

“There is no sense in going hunting with ladies,” his neighbour interrupts.

“Why not?”

“It’s not proper to curse in the presence of ladies. And what’s a hunt if you can’t curse?”

“Not much, I’ll give you that. But the ladies who went hunting with us were not above cursing at all… Mariya Karlovna, who was Baron Glanzer’s daughter, I don’t mind telling you, now could curse with the best of them! ‘You brazen-faced wretch,’ she would begin, and then proceed… with all manner of gosh and golly, dash and damn even… She was ever the bane of all low-ranking gentry’s lives… quick to anger, and to make use of her whip…”

“Mother, are the wolves in the crates?” a boy from the local gymnasium, who is wearing an extremely oversized cap, asks a woman with large ruddy cheeks.

“They are.”

“Can’t they jump out?”

“Oh, you! Stop that! Enough of your silly questions… Wipe your nose! Next time, try asking something clever. Why must you always ask about silly things!”

There is some motion in the arena. Six or so men, or shall we say, disciples of the hunting order, are carrying one of the crates. Now they put it down in the middle of the arena. The audience becomes excited.

“Good sir, whose pack goes first?”

“Mozharov’s. Hmmm… no, not Mozharov’s. Sheremetyev’s, I should think!”

“No, no, not Sheremetyev’s at all! Look at the hounds, they are Mozharov’s. And the black dog? It’s Mozharov’s! Or maybe not? Hmmm Yes, yes, yes, gentlemen, that yonder pack is Sheremetyev’s! Yes, Sheremetyev’s. Mozharov’s pack is over there.”

The men are pounding on the crate with a mallet. The crowd’s impatience is ad maximum… Now the men back off. One tugs on a rope, the walls of the wooden prison are pulled down, and a grey wolf – the most revered of all Russian animals – is revealed to the crowd. The wolf looks around, gets up and starts running… Sheremetyev’s pack race after it, followed by a Mozharov dog in breach of the correct order, in turn followed by the pack’s huntsman with a dagger in his hand…

The wolf does not get two full sazhens[2] before it is dead… The dogs have performed well, and so has the huntsman… “Bravooo!” cries the crowd, “braaavo! Bravo! Why’d Mozharov sic his dog out of order? Mozharov, boo! Braa… vvvoo!” Then another wolf goes through the same ordeal.


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(Chris Wiegand’s artciel appeared in the Guardian, 2/23;  Lena Olin and Erland Josephson with the Hedda Gabler sofa in After the Rehearsal. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy.)

Ingmar Bergman’s movie unpacks, like no other, the intimate emotional processes of staging and seeing a play

In the opening scene of Fanny and Alexander, a boy is alone in an empty house, playing with a toy theatre lit by candles. The 1982 film is an appealing portrait of the artist as a young man and, two years later, Ingmar Bergman presented a similar image in his next film, After the Rehearsal. The theatre director Henrik (portrayed by Erland Josephson) remembers creating his own makeshift stage as a child with a box and some bricks. It is a telling contrast to the ornate model playhouse that belongs to the young Alexander, played by Bertil Guve, who appears briefly in the later film, too, in a cutaway as the 12-year-old Henrik. Fanny and Alexander is a sweeping family drama told with an ensemble of actors; After the Rehearsal is less than half its length, with just a trio of characters. If the former is the crowd-pleasing main-house production, the latter is an experiment in that theatre’s studio space.

In the films’ opening scenes, both the young Alexander and the ageing Henrik are half-dreaming, heads rested on their arms. Fanny and Alexander, which revolves around a theatrical business and alludes to Hamlet, ends with the characters preparing a new production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play.

In After the Rehearsal, Henrik is preparing for the same drama, which Bergman himself directed several times on stage and for a 1963 TV film. Henrik wakes from his sleep when one of his actors, the twentysomething Anna (Lena Olin), pays a visit. The pair discuss the play and their relationship: many years earlier Henrik had an affair with Anna’s mother, Rakel (Ingrid Thulin). Rakel proceeds to enter the scene, too, and Henrik’s conversations with each woman, observed by the other, drift between past, present and imagined worlds in much the same manner as Strindberg’s play, with which it also shares similar imagery.

For Strindberg, objects become charged with meaning. As a seashell contains the sounds of the ocean, so the old woman’s shawl in A Dream Play has absorbed decades of sorrow, both from her own life and from others. This is how Henrik sees the props and furniture that are used in his productions.

He and Anna are sitting on the sofa that was previously seen in a revival of Hedda Gabler. The armchair, he tells her, was used in Strindberg’s The Father. That table? He cast it in Tartuffe. These objects are in effect their own rep company and bring their own connections with other plays, just as the “angels, demons and ghosts” of those productions still hover around the stage. They are all old acquaintances, which is how Henrik feels about the characters in A Dream Play. He still remembers seeing Strindberg’s drama for the first time as a child; he is now mounting his fifth production of the play and there’ll probably be a sixth or seventh, he suggests.

Each of these shows leaves a sort of spiritual energy on the stage, says Henrik, so that every performance at the theatre has the resonance of past productions. For Anna, it is intimidating to be acting in the footsteps of others who have played the same role. But this sense of theatre history is part of the pleasure for audiences – even if it’s just the romantic nostalgia of imagining the bygone productions whose fading posters hang in the theatre bar.

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