Category Archives: Bob’s Theatre Reviews

‘WARS OF THE ROSES: HENRY VI & RICHARD III’, DIRECTED AND ADAPTED BY AUSTIN PENDLETON, AT HB STUDIO, 124 BANK STREET (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Although Queen Elizabeth, the unpretentious Johanna Leister in Austin Pendleton’s Wars of the Roses, now running at 124 Bank Street until August 19 (he co-directed with Peter Bloch), asks Richard III, “Shall I be tempted by the devil?” all the characters in this unbound adaptation of Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III might wonder the same. Each of the characters plays with evil and, because of the widened scope of bringing the two plays together (both feature Richard), their choices are horrifying and riveting, despite the fact that the bravura role of the humpbacked king (passionately played by Matt de Rogatis, in a hoodie), allows room for smaller roles to pop. Pendleton himself portrays a reticent Henry, wearing a black t-shirt with a red cross, his hand to his mouth or hand to his face—even sitting on his hands at one point.  Such are his skills that he can appear relaxed on stage, while, at the same time destroying any illusion that he is playing a role at all. Of course, going to one of his productions, whether that be in a black box, church, Lincoln  Center, on Broadway, or even the National Theatre in London, means reflecting on acting, perhaps more seriously than with work shown by virtually any other current director.  Here he seems to want the audience to reach out to the work artistically, rather than be steered by it, which, after so many busy shows–with projections and music and politics and computerized scenery changes–can take a minute to adjust to. His set, perhaps like one in a company meeting room, is made up only of chairs, a table, and a white backdrop, spattered with red to suggest blood (there isn’t even a credit for the scenic designer in the program, although the lighting is by Steven Wolf); the costumes are largely dark street clothes (Maya Luz consulted on them); and this powerful distillation and fusion, lasting three hours, with intermission, disregards pomp, coronets, or even much in the way of any props or technology. 

Wars of the Roses doesn’t offer much in the way of role models, either, unless one wants to sharpen his or her Machiavellian skills. In The Stranger, Camus writes about cinemagoers leaving the theatre, after an American movie, walking like John Wayne. Here, because the characters are compromised, the reflection on them must run deep and does not encourage imitation. The ensemble of fifteen (some play multiple roles), examine the dark characters intensely.  Debra Lass’s Queen Margaret is a strong, almost Nordic or Teutonic, warrior queen, a “she-wolf,” wearing a studded motorcycle jacket, her hair in a braid down the back; Pete McElligott’s real tears, as the imprisoned Clarence, are indicative of the inner truth this production is striving to reveal—and, while discussing eyes, watch the mourning, mesmerizing ones of Carolyn Groves, playing the Duchess of YorkGreg Pragel delivers his lines with speed, pacing, and command—and he can be humorous, too—although his rebuff by de Rogatis, with a prayer book (into his face), is swift and malicious.  Michael Villastrigo has found the manner of an assertive young king (Edward) and Adam Dodway (Tyrell and Ratcliffe), because of his naturalness on the stage, makes an impressive appearance.  Rachel Marcus is a strong, intelligent actress, forced to make sense of Richard’s mystifying behavior, finally succumbing to him (like Ophelia must do with Hamlet).  Excellence is also seen in Jim Broaddus’s York, Milton Elliott’s Warwick and Murderer,  John L. Payne’s Backenbury and Catesby,  Tomas Russo’s Rutland and Dorset,  and  John Constantine’s Prince Edward and Murderer, twirling a chair. 

During intermission, one gentleman, several rows back, stood to describe Wars of the Roses as “intimate,” which seems appropriate but also recalls Strindberg’s theatre.  Because of this production’s smaller scale, lack of castle scenery, for example, military action, and smoky battlefields that playwright seems to be watching over The Wars of the Roses, maybe more closely than even Shakespeare. The three imprisoned women (Lass, Leister, and Groves) mourning their lives, turning into mummies, might be part of The Ghost Sonata—and even Richard has a counterpart in Hummel, the handicapped man in that chamber play.  Both works examine cycles of suffering in communities—one explosive moment of pain, for example, in Wars of the Roses comes with Richard’s shocking kiss of Elizabeth, who has been asked to make her daughter a queen.  She is being hounded by a recognizable devil: part Weinstein, part Moonves, part Spacey.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

The playing schedule for THE ROSES: HENRY VI & RICHARD III is as follows: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7PM, with Sunday matinees at 3PM through August 19th.  Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by visiting  www.proveavillain.com

Press: Glenna Freedman PR.

Photos: de Rogatis: Chris Loupos; Pendleton: Playbill.

 

‘BRECHT ON BRECHT’ FROM POTOMAC THEATRE PROJECT (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Resisters who see a parallel between Trump’s America and Germany and Italy in the 1930s and ‘40s are making a misjudgment, even if they have grievances against the current administration.  Hitler and Mussolini were pursuing forms of Socialism, anathema to the Capitalist agenda of the president–and to the founding principles of this nation, for that matter.  But because some theatre professionals insist that the terror and evil of the Nazi period can be analogous to today’s burgeoning U.S. economy, Bertold Brecht (1888-1956) has found the renaissance he deserves, with recent New York productions of Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Good Person of Szechwan, Mother Courage and Her Children, and, currently, the anthology revue Brecht On Brecht, from Potomac Theatre Project (the PTP/NYC season runs until August 5 at Atlantic Stage 2).  In 1962, critic Harold Clurman’s discussion of the show, which includes music by Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, and has been adapted by George Tabori, noted the dearth of representation of the playwright on American stages—he described the work, which Ethan Mordden says “began as a special matinee one-off, that launched an open run,” as “a full evening, yet it offers only a smattering of Brecht’s scope.  Still, it is better to have a bit of Brecht than none at all—especially since we have had so much discussion of Brecht, while the production of his work is still largely confined to foreign shores.”

Brecht, the poet, playwright, and director, a Marxist, did not always write his theatre pieces, in part or in total, yet out of a political crucible of horror and poverty, Epic Theatre was birthed, an achievement provoking awe, even if its cost was far too great.  Clurman encapsulated the show as: “devoted to [Brecht’s] life, short poems, anecdotes, a recording of his testimony at the hearing before the Un-American Activities Committee (1947), passages from diaries, epigrams, quips, and the readings of several songs (in the first part).  “Part Two—is composed of speeches and scenes from plays (also some songs).” The current director, Jim Petosa, reminds us of some of the writer’s slogans in his program note: “Sometimes it’s more important to be human, than to have good taste”;  “Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life”; “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” An uncanny thought that occurred to this reviewer, during the evening, was that Brecht might have gotten along with Saul Alinsky.   Yet the performers, in the current production, do not seem to be coming out of deep, radical experience.   Brecht On Brecht demands a knowledge of harsh life, his canon, as well as the ability to give oneself over completely to the discordant material—things one might not wish on anyone.  The young, well-trained cast, staged in front of a grand piano on oriental rugs (set by Hallie Zieselman), excel most in musicality (the music director and pianist is Ronnie Romano) and they are clear in voice (soloists are Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Harrison Bryan, and Jake Murphy–and the cast also includes Miguel Castillo, Sebastian LaPointe, Olivia Christie, and Ashley Michelle)–but the edge is largely missing. No matter the quality of the ensemble–and their diligence—however, there is a difference between the singer’s voice and an actor’s art—and adapting both to a production (despite Petosa’s clean direction) is no small challenge.  Adding to the dilemma is the fact that in its initial run, Lotte Lenya, star of Threepenny Opera, and wife of Brecht’s collaborator Kurt Weill, was part of Brecht On Brecht—she automatically gave the evening authenticity and authority.  

Clurman said that Brecht On Brecht recalls a time of “strong feeling, witty eloquence, high aspiration, struggle, and fortitude.” In 1962, he felt those qualities were absent in American society—and, ultimately, he thought the show offered a “note of nostalgia.”  Today, America seems to be playing out a fantasy, with less and less people who can even remember the toxic brew of World War II.  If Brecht were escapist, the evening might be a way to get away from it all—but he’s not; he is always more than that.  Even so, the audience is left, after a largely illustrative performance, with the merely incomparable:  “Barbara Song,” “Mack the Knife,” “Pirate Jenny,” “Surabaya  Johnny” to  only name  four of the songs.  Forget Rodgers, Loewe, Porter, Lloyd-Webber, and Sondheim.  The evening makes a rock-solid case that the finest of them all is Weill.    

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

BRECHT ON BRECHT

Directed by Jim Petosa

Harrison Bryan, Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Jake Murphy, Miguel Castillo, Olivia Christie, Sebastian LaPointe and Ashley Michelle.

The production team for BRECHT ON BRECHT includes Ronnie Romano (Music Director and Pianist), Hallie Zieselman (Set Design), Joe Cabrera (Lighting Design), Annie Ulrich (Costume Design) and Alex Williamson (Production Stage Manager).

Brecht On Brecht photos:  Stan Barouh

Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity

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MADONNA, PAGLIA, AND ‘PLAYING TO THE GODS: SARAH BERNHARDT, ELEONORA DUSE, AND THE RIVALRY THAT CHANGED ACTING FOREVER’ BY PETER RADER  ·

By Bob Shuman

In August, Madonna will be sixty, a mean trick of time to any girl or boy who reeled at the thought of being “material” in 1984, barely out of the commune.  The Staff of Spin  notes she then went on to define and shock as “Coke-can-curled,  lipsticker movie star; barrier-crossing creator of the original Sexy Book of Sexy Sex; a ‘90s raver; a dancehall queen; an all-American girl; a Yoga mat toting goth child; and more.” Fans and feminists praise, defend, and sometimes revile her, the best-selling female rock artist of the twentieth century.  Two years ago, however, Camille Paglia, her intellectual advocate, wrote that the star had become a “prisoner of her own wealth and fame.”  At the Billboard Woman of the Year Awards at the time, Madonna said she stood before her audience as a “doormat”–she stated that David Bowie “made me think there were no rules.  But I was wrong.  There are no rules—if you’re a boy.  There are if you’re a girl.” Paglia, betrayed, called the performance “maudlin self-pity.” Madonna, the cultural barometer, the mistress of reinvention, “the real feminist,” had pinpointed the difference between the ‘80s and 20016 (and maybe now).  Imagine then the change in concerns, not of forty years, but of one hundred—or even fifty years beyond that.  Would anyone much care about Madonna then?  Or would the debate be rekindled?

Peter Rader’s dual biography of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, Playing to the Gods (Simon & Schuster), is a popular tribute to icons of their own day, on the cusp of the twentieth century.  The theatrical period is largely unknown, in America, because serious productions of new plays are not normally said to have arrived until the twenties or even thirties.  Bernhardt (1844-1923) and Duse (1858-1924) are two of the handful of ghostly names we dimly recall from earlier, floating before us based on stage lore, sepia posed photographs, and sometimes ravishing Art Deco posters  They are considered to be the finest actresses of their time (French and Italian, respectively), influencing Stanislavski and Proust, Gielgud and Brando. However, the impermanency of theatre has left us with little in the way of primary source material regarding their artistry (which has let others snitch from stories told in the dark)—there are archaic, silent films of Bernhardt, and recordings were made of her; Duse leaves us one silent film.  Chekhov said of her, “I do not know Italian, but she acted so well that I felt I was understanding every word.  What a marvelous actress!  Never before have I seen anything like it.”  Method acting is her legacy passed through her to Stanislavki (who saw her and wrote books about her technique–more was learned as Americans ventured to Moscow),  and the knowledge was transmitted to Strasberg, AdlerMeisner and other teachers of the craft.  Duse, who looked up to Bernhardt, fourteen years her senior, wanted to be possessed by her roles, an idea about theatre which may remind of  philosopher Simon Critchley today—she also did not recognize the audience, constructing a fourth wall, which had not been used previously.  Her need for privacy may remind of Garbo, and her preference to stay still in a scene can recall Liv Ullmann, who would also, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal recorded, play “the gaiety that is not happiness, and with a light laugh . . .  play[s] all the arid darkness behind the laugh.”

Madonna seems closer to Bernhardt (because of her love of imitation, so does Meryl Streep), for both know that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Having acted in terrible movies (Who’s That Girl?, Body of Evidence, Swept Away) and given atrocious performances (nine Gold Raspberry Awards; sixteen nominations), Madonna’s is probably the most memorable character in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, however, because in it, she was the East Village of the 1980s. Bernhardt received her share of negative press, too, but she rarely listened to a critic, including George Bernard Shaw and his notable drubbing: “[the] childishly egotistical character of her acting . . . is not the art of making you think more highly or feel more deeply, but the art of making you admire her, pity her, champion her, weep with her, laugh at her jokes, follow her fortunes breathlessly, and applaud her.  The woman is always the same.  She does not enter into the leading character.  She substitutes herself for it.”  She didn’t have to listen to a man either: her great ambition was fueled by an ability to manipulate men and break rules (ethnically Jewish, she was the daughter of a courtesan and became one herself, as well as a novice in the Catholic church).  She formed her own companies, rented her own theatres, and toured the world (as did Duse). Bernhardt even played men, with much ado–watch her swordfight on YouTube as Hamlet

 She thought she could play a man better than a male: “There is one reason why I think a woman is better suited to play parts like L’Aiglon and Hamlet than a man.  These roles portray youths of twenty or twenty-one with the minds of men of forty.  A boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet nor the poetic enthusiasm of L’Aiglon . . . . An older man . . . does not look the boy, nor has he the ready adaptability of the woman who can combine the light carriage of youth with the mature thoughts of the man.”  At the time Bernhardt was in her mid-fifties.

Playing to the Gods, however, misses another of Bernhardt’s arguments, by piggybacking on the success of the television series Feud: Bette and Joan. The amount of impressive research in the volume should actually not be in service of a tawdry answer to a reconsideration of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Although there are gothic moments in the lives of Bernhardt (her sleeping in a coffin, studying the faces of the dead, and horrifying leg operation) and Duse (her call to mysticism and the transcendence of materialism)—and although they were real competitors, at least battlers in upstaging, hoping to be considered the superior artist, they were also warring over a dominant aesthetic style.  Their determinations are still being deliberated today in the world of entertainment, but they might be seen as closer to characters in Les Liaisons Dangereuses rather than to those in B-movie Hollywood, as implied in the following: “But Bernhardt had her talons in [his] flesh with no intention of releasing him.” Because Bernhardt and Duse spent enormous amounts of their own money on productions, they kept the quality of  material high. For example, Bernhardt would not portray the realism of Ibsen, because she “felt it made theatre pedestrian.” Duse felt differently, and is lauded by feminists for making Nora known internationally. These actors are exemplars of high art, not trash—and this contradiction may be part of the reason why their personalities have difficulty coming through in the text.  Yet, the women did change with trends, regarding the subjects of their plays and the sets and costumes of their productions.  Playing to the Gods needs more nuance, ordering, and tightening, a sharper, less melodramatic construction—and a less colloquial editing: there is repetition and there are missing points.  Whatever the pronouncement of critics, however, some might hope that this was more of an academic volume, but the answer is actually in the title: “playing to the gods” means playing to those in the high-up, inexpensive seats.  Readers will see Peter Rader’s studio background in the work, but he’s still swimming in the material.  Hollywood, of course, as well as Schiller, would ask the women to confront each other face to face, a sad omission of history.

 

As a personal reaction, it was not Bernhardt, Duse, or even Madonna who made thinking about Playing to the Gods most interesting.  Rather, it was the lover, whom Bernhardt and Duse shared: Gabriele d’Annunzio (the women also shared roles, most memorably Camille, venues—they even  once acted in the same play in the same city, during the same week–and hired the same theatre practitioners).  D’Annunzio was a writer admired by Joyce, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, and Ernest Hemingway, among others.  In a scandalous novel called The Flame, he discusses Duse and her art—an influence unforgotten, if not specifically understood. Bernhardt created herself as an icon, the first female megastar, through tireless work, expert publicity, the love of symbolism, and trouping—in Kansas City, for example, she played one performance to 6,500 people: a beacon for rock stars in huge arenas. Perhaps, Playing to the Gods should be seen as an accessible introduction to the period and its great artistic innovators–and maybe it will enable a further opening of this market and a continuing examination of the area. 

Dying in Paris, Bernhardt had a younger actress take over her leading role in L’Aiglon.  Like O’Neill, who cursed that he was born in a hotel and would die in one, Duse, born on the road, died on it, too, in Pittsburgh.  Madonna, swearing that she’ll never make another movie, may have let her fans down on feminism, an issue both Bernhardt and Duse championed. Paglia can not forgive her for it.  Will time? 

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

View ‘Playing to the Gods‘ on Amazon

 

DE NIRO AND THE 2018 TONY AWARDS/‘IVANOV’ FROM MOSCOW’S STATE THEATRE OF NATIONS (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

In a week where Robert De Niro’s curse out of Donald Trump received a standing ovation at the 2018 Tony Awards, Russian actor Evgeny Mironov, who immerses himself in the title character of Anton Chekhov’s Ivanovat New York City Center from June 14-17–notes, in a Playbill interview with Katie Labovitz, that “Art is above politics.” The two actors, who were not reacting to one other’s comments, emphasize a cultural distinction between the aesthetics of the two countries and raise a tortuous, ugly subject for both—the degree to and ways in which censorship is employed.  American theatre, where politics is a marketing hook (Trump as Julius Caesar at the Delacorte last summer, for example) does silence through marginalizing and ignoring even important work and artists, admonishing or condemning them for mistakes in liberal thinking—recall the careless lack of perspective in the title for The New York Times review of the Pearl’s 2016 A Taste of Honey; “She’s Having the Baby.  How Quaint.” Or consider the roughly half of American voters who would not concur with Mr. De Niro or even want their children to have to listen to him on such a subject on a night which largely celebrates musicals.  Maybe Russians are more accustomed to abrupt changes in the political climate than those in the West, which may help explain why De Niro has had trouble accepting a free election that happened over a year and a half ago.  Or is he just emissary of the unofficial censorship from the left?  Here’s a simple observation:  Why do reviews of plays, books, art, concentrate so heavily on divining an author’s politics, real or imagined—and passing judgment on them, instead of discussing the work itself?  Have we become a nation not of art aficionados, but of inspectors patrolling the slippery slope of political correctness?  Within the last year the BAM production of the Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s conflicted dramatic interpretation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a novel he shamefully admires—but without him, without his standing in the artistic community, without his being native to another country, where would Objectivism, akin to Conservatism, have a chance to be contemplated on stage in this country?  Chekhov, of course, talks about the need to shift cultural perspectives through his character Konstantin, in The Seagull.  Perhaps, he is right to impute that a cultural collision is necessary to shake up prevailing artistic norms.

Ivanov (Mironov), the title character in the new Theatre of Nations production, brought to the U.S. as part of the Cherry Orchard Festival, would never be deemed politically correct, much less producible, if written by an American playwright, although the current settings and costumes are contemporary. This may upset the paradigm of understanding the playwright’s work in terms of needing to see him as part of Old Russia: fading, if grandiose; but Ivanov himself, plagued by financial crises and alcohol abuse, a dying wife he doesn’t love (Chulpan Khamatova), and a young woman he is attracted to (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) would also not win him much sympathy with the #MeToo Movement or raise much interest in the shrinking men’s market (a work with similar themes by Derek Ahonen of the Amoralists, The Qualification of Douglas Evans, did not make much impact in 2014).  Such a character is not unknown in the American vernacular, however; he’s just more akin to others who have had their day, like those in the writings of John Updike and John Cheever.  All of the actors—part of Ivanov’s family and social circle–need mention, though, because of their stamina throughout the evening (three hours and ten minutes, performed in Russian with English surtitles) and the complexity of their performances: Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Igor Gordin, Natalya Pavlenkova, Dmitry Serdyuk, Alexander Novin, Marianna Shults, Olga Lapshina, Aleksey Kalinin, Ilya Orshanskiy, Irina Gordina, and Andrey Andreev

Oleg Golovko’s settings for the play also inadvertently recall the American 1970’s—his decor is at first heavy, unmatched patterns and drywall, perhaps brutalist, reminiscent of paneling and prefab, pre-Martha Stewart. Elsewhere he recreates a dacha lit by candlelight (and sparklers), a utilitarian doctor’s office devoid of personality, except overseen by a large kitschy painting of a German Shepherd, and the back room of a wedding hall—the amplified lighting, using fluorescents, is by Denis Solntsev. Chekhov shows that Ivanov is despondent (“When I’m depressed, I fall out of love with you”), but that seems like a bad excuse for his transgressions.  Audiences are not asked to ascertain a minimal production, though; a current, cost-effective mode. The cast has also apparently been given time to move beyond telegraphing and shortcuts, to think past the next line or plot point.  They work naturalistically to achieve independent characters, arriving at fullness: the condition of entropy just before chaos.  Whether the credit should be given to the actors or to the director, Timofey Kulyabin, or all, the emphasis rests on accumulations of behaviors, quite detailed. Examples include the twirling of a plate on a tabletop or clapping the hands of a partner in a birthday dance, or doing chin-ups, or kissing hands—the depth of specific touches may be missed by the audience and some might never be known.  Whether they have been improvised or consciously blocked, Stanislavski is noting them.

Evgeny Mironov’s appraisal of art as above politics registers with a purity to American ears who have come to believe that art is only politics.  Internationally, there is much to be learned regarding fine art from other cultures, beyond the American status quo.  Domestically, though, art is not politically balanced and has been appropriated propagandistically.  There is work to see, but the American theatremaker has largely been abandoned by the right—to the point where his or her art can be demonized, if it can even be visualized at all.  During the time of year where lists are compiled about winning dramatic works, accolades are one-sided and incomplete.  Theatre does not have a Regnery, the publisher of Conservative books, to provide any kind of balance.  To a liberal, that may come as a relief on different levels, but it does not show the world the true range of possibilities for finding our own Chekhov, no matter his or her political affiliation.  One way Americans can start to confront this matter, as the #MeToo Movement raises its voice, is to allow someone, like Jon Voight, who, incidentally, played Trigorin in The Seagull on Broadway, to be part of the Tony ceremonies next year.  Part of becoming nonpartisan regarding the arts–and coming to a reckoning with the past–is to acknowledge how partisan they actually are.  

Update, 6/18:  In an apparent answer to Robert De Niro’s Tony performance,  Chris Perez, in The New York Post reported, on June 18, that a Trump supporter tried to disrupt the curtain call of the musical Bronx Tale, directed by Mr. De Niro, on June 16, by standing to display a  Trump 2020 campaign flag.

© by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

(Photos by Sergei Petrov–from top: Ensemble;  l. to r. Chulpan Khamatova and Dmitry Serdyuk; Elizaveta Boyarskaya and Evgeny Mironov; Ivanov Evgeny Mironov at table.)

 

‘TWELFTH NIGHT’ AT THE POLONSKY SHAKESPEARE CENTER–FROM THE ACTING CO. AND DELAWARE’S RESIDENT ENSEMBLE PLAYERS (REP) (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Maria Aitken takes the edge off overwrought Summer Shakespeare with a droll, whimsical Twelfth Night from the Acting Co. in a co-production with Delaware’s Resident Ensemble Players (REP), now playing until May 27, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn (an essential theatrical destination, which seems to transfigure for each new presentation).  Her light surrealism sets Illyria in the Thirties, maybe in California, probably not on the Adriatic and far away from traditional England or Trump’s America. What matters to her is the hair, the wigs (which go uncredited):  bouffants, bobs, punk dreadlocks, pageboys, coiffures piled high and on the verge of Versailles.  The costume designer, Candice Donnelly, provides veils, tams, netting and curlers, party hats, berets, and kerchiefs; variegated livery, period golf wear, ruffles at the neck, asymmetrical gowns, and old-fashioned black swimsuits–she even makes an allowance for nothing at all.  Some might surmise that to dwell on costumes is another way of saying that there isn’t much going for the show, but here, Shakespeare is what happens when the audience is looking the other way. 

The play has been called the finest of the bard’s comedies, and Aitken’s may be one director who can actually prove that, by insisting on lucidity–she does not clutter her stage, for example, for all her satirical idiosyncrasies, and the design, by Lee Savage, is white and clear, a little beat up, maybe a deck on a ship or the villa of a Hollywood star, a mystical swirl of eternity at the apex.  The backdrop, virtually a map, is as vivid and impersonal as the screensaver of a Dell computer.  As Viola, the page searching for her lost brother after a shipwreck, Susanna Stahlmann reminds of a young Isabella Rossellini—she’s giving a classic portrait, placing a knee up on a bench to intimidate or intimate virility or putting hands on hips to imitate manliness.  At the other extreme is Michael Gotch, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a role typically seen as secondary—however, in this Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole incarnation, he is the one through which the audience realizes it can laugh.  Gotch is thin and inventive, always in the moment, on, maybe like a Robin Williams.  Aitken and her cast are looking at what’s really comic in a Shakespeare comedy, such a Sir Tobey Belch (Lee E. Ernst) line: “She’s a beagle,” insulting and whacked out at the same time. 

The simplicity of the textual structure is allowed to be contemplated, without unnecessary stress from too much music, ham acting, and societal comment.  The director’s specific detail in scene work, one including a fake pheasant, for instance, highlights the lunacy. By the end of the evening, she will have brought in the kazoos and ukuleles, even guns and terrorists; the cold white scenic design, sometimes like reflective tiles, with bright lighting, by Philip S. Rosenberg, can project fissures of red and blue.  Shakespearean comedy is not often seen so unconventionally, with secrets of the interpretation, known only to the auteur, kept intact, yet a love of absurd eccentricity and lyricism on the verge of slapstick are apparent; very dry, of course.  Elizabeth Heflin, as Olivia, seems Californian, an American with a pioneering spirit–a self-assured woman who might roll the dice for love in the city of angels or star in a silent-era two-reeler.  Stephen Pelinski may be the one Malvolio who has found a way to recite his speeches without eliciting impatience.  Others in the cast are also actors to take note of, if they are not known to readers already: Kate Forbes, John Skelley, Michael Stewart Allen, Hassan El-Amin, Mathew Greer, Mic Matarrese, Antoinette Robinson, Joshua David Robinson, and Mickey Theis.  They add credence to the idea that the best way to enjoy Shakespeare is to not think about him . . . or Donald Trump . . .  or the number 1 train on weekends . . . or the rain.

Copyright © 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.   

Photos: The New York Times; University of Delaware.  All rights reserved.      

Twelfth Night

Directed by Maria Aitken 

Visit The Polonsky Shakespeare Center:

262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY, 11217

 

About The Acting Company

Founded in 1972 by John Houseman and Margot Harley, The Acting Company (Ian Belknap, Artistic Director; Elisa Spencer-Kaplan, Executive Director) is “the major touring classical theater in the United States” (The New York Times) and the only professional repertory company dedicated to the development of classical actors. The Company has reached 4 million people in 48 states and 10 foreign countries with its productions and education programs, and has helped to launch the careers of some 400 actors, including Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Rainn Wilson, Jesse L. Martin, Keith David, Frances Conroy, David Ogden Stiers, Harriet Harris, David Schramm, Jeffrey Wright and Hamish Linklater. Over a dozen commissioned new works and adaptations include plays by Lynn Nottage, Tony Kushner, John Guare, David Mamet, Beth Henley, Rebecca Gilman, Maria Irene Fornes, William Finn, Ntozake Shange, and more. The Company received a special Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater in 2003 for its contributions to the American theater.

About Resident Ensemble Players

The Resident Ensemble Players (REP) is a professional theatre company located at the University of Delaware, headed by Producing Artistic Director Sanford (Sandy) Robbins. The REP offers frequent productions of outstanding classic, modern and contemporary plays performed in a wide variety of styles that celebrate and demonstrate the range and breadth of its resident acting company.  The REP is committed to create future audiences for live theatre by offering its productions at low prices that enable and encourage the attendance of everyone in the region, regardless of income.

Press: Sam Parrott, Blake Zidell & Associates

CHEKHOV: ‘PLATONOV’ FROM BLESSED UNREST (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

When the eye-catching actress, Becca Schneider, tells Platonov, the title character in Chekhov’s first unfinished drama (1878), he needs to “slow down,” she’s explaining the directorial concept of Jessica Burr’s production from Blessed Unrest, now playing at the New Ohio Theatre until March 11.  The momentum of her version is fast, and for a while, the speed, the mobility and the fluidity, along with the loose physicality of the actors, seems like a way to bring the early modernist playwright into the postmodernist world of downtown theatre–the way Eric Tucker did for Shakespeare, in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, as an example. Platonov gets away from Burr, though, because Chekhov depends on connectivity, not fragments, in a way that Shakespeare’s mostly second-hand materials don’t. She emphasizes mechanics, and ultimately, the pace seems like a refutation of this supremely empathetic author.

One miscalculation may have been underestimating how much people want to listen to him—they want to see a significant Platonov (even if its five hours are cut), not a literalized one or one that feels truncated, especially given the potential of the cast (of multiple races and ethnicities, playing multiple parts, some across genders). Probably most notable are a tantalizing Irina Abraham, as Anna, a general’s daughter, and the handsome Darrell Stokes in the title role, a womanizer, subdued by female vigilante justice.  Many could argue that he is a product of soul-destroying ennui, but this production, apparently politicized,  has been timed to echo the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein case—in a reductionist assault, perhaps too gratified in taking Chekhov apart and setting him whirling. 

The author, however, may have simply been learning to tell a story and creating a multidimensional world, not a legal brief, just as Ibsen did not think A Doll’s House was a feminist tract. What happens to Burr is that her center gets lost—the play arrives at one hundred minutes (the translation, with slangy colloquialisms, is by Laura Wickens) and the piece is skeletal, missing the connective tissue of character development and builds.  Working in the round, the director uses a minimal set, by Matt Opatrny, based on vodka bottles, chess pieces, and an oriental rug, and her staging is especially physicalized; her Russia, spinning and kaleidoscopic, can’t be still and can’t be bored. The last moments of the play aren’t prepared for, and they don’t shock or surprise in the way that a well-directed version of The Seagull can. Perhaps to contemplate the play, we have to comprehend the playwright—understanding his own time and his own purposes more fully–not our own–in slow motion.

Platonov by Anton Chekhov

with

Irina Abraham, Ashley N. Hildreth, Javon Q. Minter,
Becca Schneider, Darrell Stokes, Taylor Valentine

Production Stage Manager
Darielle Shandler

Set Design
Matt Opatrny, Teddy Jefferson, Anna Alisa Belous

Costume Design
Sarah Thea

Lighting Design
Miriam Nilofa Crowe

Sound Design
Fan Zhang

Dramaturg
Jessi Blue Gormezano

Fight Choreographer & Assistant Director
Ben Peterson

Publicist
PR-ism, Kamila Slawinski & Ivan Talijančić

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© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Production Photos: Blessed Unrest

 

ADRIENNE KENNEDY: ‘HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

For those who have lived in the South, Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Boxfrom Theatre for a New Audiencenow playing, until February 11,  at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, offers the recognizable.  Donald Holder’s lighting captures a Georgia morning–where there are perhaps some of the most beautiful mornings in the world–and the period drama, set in the 1940s, does not exploit racial violence (Christopher Barreca’s unit set features the utilitarian chairs, stairs, and doorway of a high school). Kennedy’s two-character play, written using the ambiguous imagery of a poet, is made up almost entirely of monologues, and the director, Evan Yionoulis, allows the audience to listen to the young actors, to want to listen and watch their fine abilities, which includes Tom Pecinka’s splendid singing. Kennedy’s story is as old-fashioned as the plot of an operetta:  a mixed-race schoolgirl (Juliana Canfield) accepts a declaration of love from a young white opera singer (Pecinka), whose family has helped build their town.  He hopes she will come with him to marry in Harlem and live in New York and Paris–but to tell more would give away too much. What can be said is that the characters are allowed innocence, unrushed, and history.  “Dear Little Café,” from Noël Coward’s Bittersweet, is heard during the evening (the score was written in 1929, although a movie was made in 1940). When this correspondent lived in Georgia, in the early 1980s, two older maiden sisters, one a lawyer, helped the poor and black in the town do their taxes, free of charge—one favorite topic of conversation for them was speaking of the beautiful voice of American soprano Geraldine Farrar.  Jazz, of course, was not the only song of the South, despite the fact that its birthplace was New Orleans, yet the great form is what is stereotypically heard on soundtracks.  Eudora Welty also talks about hymns and popular classical music in her autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings, where, as a child, she listened, and “moved” to:  “Overture to Daughter of the Regiment,”  “Selections from The Fortune Teller,”  “Kiss Me Again,” and  “Gypsy Dance from Carmen,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam.”

 

In an interview in BOMB magazine, with Suzan-Lori Parks, Kennedy explains that she writes “little scenes” about “what’s going on in life,” yet her Georgia contains “contradictions,” which is how she describes her white grandfather in her poem “Forget”:  He  sent her African-American sister and half-sister “to college, bought them beautiful things/but still maintained the distance. They called him by his surname and he never shared a meal with them.” Part of the dilemma, in talking about the South today, remains its contradictions and “complexities” (another word that Kennedy uses in “Forget”), ones that may not be present in other areas of the country, at least not to the same degree.  Even Southern literature is a tangle of styles: gothic (Flannery O’Connor) and mythic (William Faulkner), literary historic (Alice Walker) and real (Tennessee Williams), comic (Mark Twain) and tragic (William Styron), and ideological (Thomas Jefferson) and MGM (Margaret Mitchell), to give a sampling.  Yet, someone from outside the South may believe the media: that its inhabitants are dishonest, bigoted, deplorable or worse: stereotypes repeated until they appear to be true.  Kennedy, fortunately, continues to hope, for what can be found in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, is the aspiration to live side by side. Activists may not want the South to have had its past, but instead of attempting to erase it, to take down Confederate monuments and change state flags (South Carolina did this after the Charleston church shootings of Dylann Roof), Kennedy places markers within her work, which may be used for explication:  the rise of Nazism, for example, or Segregation, the underworld in The Aeneid, and even the mass murder of the Huguenots.  Patrick J. Buchanan has written that, “Since the ’60s, there has arisen an ideology that holds that the Confederacy was the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany and those who fought under its battle flag should be regarded as traitors or worse,” yet Kennedy does not seem to be advocating for retaliation, although she may be inferring that she is watching, noting.   Likewise, her opinion of the industrial North is also not without suspicion, for this is where the overt continental violence in her play takes place.  While historians may decide to write on the continued complexities of agrarianism vs. modernity in the history of America’s South and North, what theatregoers will observe, in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, is how such complex subject matter can find this kind of formal clarity and simplicity:  as simple as a Georgia morning.  

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. Photo (top to bottom): The New York Times; Bob Shuman 

ADRIENNE KENNEDY’S

HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX

Cast

Juliana Canfield (Kay)

Tom Pecinka (Chris)

Creative Team

Adrienne Kennedy (Playwright)

Evan Yionoulis (Director

Christopher Barreca (Set Designer)

Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Designer)

Donald Holder (Lighting Designer)

Justin Ellington (Composer & Sound Designer

Austin Switser (Video Designer

Press: Blake Zidell

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STEVE COSSON: ‘THE UNDERTAKING’ FROM THE CIVILIANS (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

In Steve Cosson’s stage documentary on dying , The Undertaking (conceived in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani)–playing until February 4, at 59E59–vibrant, theatrical life comes from Aysan Celik and Dan Domingues jumping in and out of characters, like ones possessed, “ventriloquizing.” The term, discussed by philosopher Simon Critchley, who is impersonated in the show (and has been interviewed for it) posits that actors, in character, are  haunted by ghosts (the dramatic role itself), “a being about whom we cannot know for sure whether it is alive or dead.  It seems to be both.” Because Cosson provides a number of varied personalities in the work, The Undertaking highlights the transformative abilities of its two actors, speaking verbatim dialogue and imitating the playwright’s interviewees (whom the audience hears in recordings), whether they be Critchley or a South American who has eaten hallucinogenic plants, the actor and director of the Ridiculous Theatre Everett Quinton, or a woman recounting a near-death experience, among others. 

Yet, despite his “palpable fear,” Cosson, who approaches current secular, perhaps faddish, thinking on dying, does not mention popular writers of the recent past, such as Harold M. Sherman and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (what Ms. Celik would do with a German accent), who could actually help him. Whether or not Marcel Duchamp has a pithy quotation about death on his gravestone only helps people think about death fashionably, and Cosson seems to limit his discussion by not incorporating wider religious or spiritual perspectives.  Obviously, the subject is uncomfortable for many, yet probably most maintain thoughts similar to the writer’s:  “I feel like my particular relationship to [the] fear is that it’s so constant and so integrated that I rarely even experience it as fear. I just experience it as this, uh, this sort of, u uh, disquieting presence.”  Still, Cosson can’t dramatize his feeling, beyond constructing a combine and describing it.  Whereas Williams, Albee, Beckett, or Bergman would show the cold terror–maybe even solemn grandeur–in moving close to death, Cosson decides to throw a blanket over his head and hide.

Director, as well as a writer, he also uses footage of classic film, a technique, in the avant-garde toolkit, overused today (also in January, Split Britches  rolled  clips from Dr. Strangelove for Unexploded Ordnances, for example).  Orpheus, the film referred to in Cosson’s piece, can be seen as parallel to the events of The Undertaking and is also drawn from an earlier story: the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Cocteau sets his version in the modern day (the middle of the last century), and the script is the product of imaginative dramatic writing. Comparatively, Cosson has so overintellectualized his search for an understanding of dying that his performance piece can seem like a dramatic lecture or nonfiction book, a well-paced, well-produced evening of staged footnotes.  He also misses dramatizing the story of his mother, not portrayed,  whom the audience is told is currently in a nursing home with MS.  Like Hamlet’s father, however, she may be the ghost demanding to be remembered most.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Photo:  Dan Domingues and Aysan Celik in THE UNDERTAKING at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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THE UNDERTAKING

CAST

Aysan Celik*
Dan Domingues* 

CREATIVE TEAM

Written and directed by Steve Cosson
Creative Collaborator and Psychopomp: Jessica Mitrani
Set and Costume Design: Marsha Ginsberg
Lighting Design: Thomas Dunn
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel
Projection Design: Tal Yarden
Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda*
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachael Gass*
Production Manager: Ron Nilson
Producer: Margaret Moll 

ADDITIONAL STAFF FOR THE UNDERTAKING

Assistant Set and Costume Designer: Blake Palmer
Sound Design Associate: Lee Kinney

Dramaturgy: Jocelyn Clarke and Jacey Erwin

Interviews conducted by Steve Cosson, Jessica Mitrani, and Leonie Ettinger.

*appearing courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association
member of United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829

Press: Karen Greco

SPLIT BRITCHES: ‘UNEXPLODED ORDNANCES (UXO)'(REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Theatregoers may be wondering whether La MaMa follows the news or whether the news is, in fact, following La MaMa—a paranoid insight pertinent to its two current productions, running until January 21,  both part of the Public’s Under the Radar Festival.  Downstairs, because of the comprehensiveness of its creators’ theatrical and artistic understanding, Panorama, in which its cast is told not to “act,” transcends being sensitivity training on the immigrant crisis (read this author’s review of that show).  Upstairs, in the Ellen Stewart Theatre, Split Britches (Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw), popular downtown (and international) feminist/lesbian artists, detonate unexplored desire, H-bombs and communal anxiety in Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), a Dr. Strangelove-inspired end-of the-world scenario—this article is being written a day after mass panic in Hawaii, when the state was put on a ballistic missile alert, by mistake.

In addition to showing prescience, the Split Britches play lets viewers consider forum theatre, a style, theorized and employed by Augusto Boal, which allows spectators (in this case older audience members, who are brought to glowing tables of a Pentagon-like war room) to participate in the themes and  questions posed by the play.  The creators also relate that the gathering follows the meeting example of Lenni Lenape and Canarsie Native-American leaders–other peripheral observers are invited to actively engage in the content, too, permitting the work to be composed of what’s in the air and who’s in the room—an “elder” giving a one-night-only, dead-on imitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, for example.

Every evening can provide such an anomaly—in fact, performances have the potential to be very different from each other.  Split Britches, however,  is probably too uniform in its audience demographic to make Unexploded Ordnances (OXO) into an evening of scintillating debate—one unsatisfying answer to what needs to be done, given the world’s current state of affairs (from the old lefties in the East Village, the bleeding hearts who are willing to actually bleed), is “end capitalism” and replace with “Marxism.” Nevertheless, the most surprising takeaway, in entertaining the question, “How do we change?,” which is asked during the play, is the degree to which the audience can veer into the self-lacerating. “It’s too late,” comes one reply, explained as the result of too much guilty consumption, addiction, and ease. Protests are needed, is seen as a solution, or a strike against the government, and the complete breakdown of the rule of law. Then, a reality: “I’m too tired to strike.” 

Ordnances, weapons such as cannons, grenades and military materiel, is apt as part of the show’s title and its overriding metaphor, because the creators want to emphasize what can be buried inside and exploded—personally and politically.  The signature Split Britches routine, along with a fascination regarding finishing sentences, has, traditionally, been women-loving-women tripping up into the flirty awkwardness and Freudian slips of falling in love.  By extension, they are now playing generals and presidents who can flub into destroying the planet, even as the audience has the potential to be more interesting than the broad, satiric characters being portrayed (in a necessarily broad outline for a show). 

Weaver, Shaw, and Hannah Maxwell, the writers, might actually miss, and endorse the ways of a sinning, older America, a point made in the title of their 2008 show, Miss America.  You can feel this in Unexploded Ordnances (OXO), as well, when a popular song, by the Dominoes, is played and snippets of the Cold War drive-in movie, Dr. Strangelove are shown. Whatever the case, whether the audience gives thoughtful or knee-jerk reactions to current social considerations, the chance to engage with and contemplate community issues and action is rewarding:  Someone has to be thinking about whose finger is on the button.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. Photos (top to bottom): Theo Cote; Roosevelt, History.com; Matt Delbridge; Matt Delbridge (Peggy Shaw)   

Split Britches
Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)
Written by Peggy ShawLois Weaver, and Hannah Maxwell
Performed by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver

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MOTUS: ‘PANORAMA’ AT LA MAMA (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Panorama, a burning expression of lives disassociated from the American overculture, is playing at the Downstairs at La MaMa, as part of the Public’s Under The Radar Festival, until January 21. Using audition tapes, from the Great Jones Repertory Company, to introduce six live actors (as well as ten on video), who identify or resonate with the immigrant experiencethe cast contends with American oppression in forms such as inequality and racism.  Motus, the Italian theatre company, which devised and directed the work, under Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicolò, with dramaturgy by Erik Ehn and Daniela Nicolò, has based its interviews and discussions on 40 questions, such as “Have you ever had to start your life over?”; What is your strongest understanding of the term ‘far away’, based on your experience?”; “When have you been welcomed by a stranger?” and when were you lost . . . and found?”  The multicultural cast, who physicalize the results include Maura Nguyen Donohue, John Gutierrez, Valois Mickens, eugene the poogene, Perry Yung, and Zishan Ugurlu, who can be intentionally blurred, in the play between video and stage action, as if a Psychology experiment is being conducted, where the color blue is called red.  The creators are using the technique to give expression to human, as opposed to individual, experience in the work, which is ferociously timely, given that Trump is seeking negotiation of his “bill of love,” regarding DACA, U.S. border security, family-based “chain migration,” and the visa lottery program.

Fluidity is salient in terms of the play’s views on national identity and  borders, but not on Capitalism, anathema to the collective.  None of the creators get around to saying how they might actually build businesses or make the economic situation better on their own, but Motus, as a touchstone of contemporary truth-telling, is ferocious and unflinching.  Examples, beyond politics, would include use of frontal nudity of both sexes (without being exploitive), and even the use of drugs.  Yet, the directors are able to counter controversial, perhaps shocking, stage elements by, for example, showing Donohue’s orgasm as she gets ready to eat Cheez Doodles (which may remind of Tina Turner’s Acid Queen) or recreating a ridiculously smoky world of crystal  meth.  Most piercing is Mickens’s close-up reaction to sexual harassment (the technical designs are by Sangmin Chae & Billy Clark, Seoungho Jeong, Bosul Kim, Varie Vazquez, and Youngsun Lim). 

 

The effective script may remind of the stories told by the dancers in A Chorus Line or the schoolchildren in The Me Nobody Knows.  Because an Aristotelian plot is not key in the show, the similarity in using monologues and question-and-answer formatting is aided by the virtually continuous pacing of Heather Paauwe’s nonintrusive music (Chorus Line also used a score that rarely stopped).  This bold evening, which uses minimal props and tight, specific, often solitary physical action, such as doing the Moonwalk or blowing up a balloon, does move nomadically, even if, ultimately, the artists yearn for a place to call home.  Where they find that is not so much in a country, which has offered aid—and is expected to supply more—but, rather, in the theatre, poor and ephemeral.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. Photos: Perry Yung, Valois Mickens, and eugene the poogene by Theo Cote.

PANORAMA

World Premiere
Devised and Directed by
Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicolò
Dramaturgy by Erik Ehn and Daniela Nicolò
With the actors of the Great Jones Repertory Company

CAST & CREATIVE TEAM

CAST
Maura Nguyen Donohue, John Gutierrez, Valois Mickens, Eugene the Poogene, Perry Yung & Zishan Ugurlu

Assistant Director: Lola Giouse
Music: Heather Paauwe
Set Design: Seung Ho Yeong
Visual Design: Bosul Kim
Video Design: CultureHub with Sangmin Chae
Technical Direction: Yarie Vazquez

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