Category Archives: Bob’s Theatre Reviews


By Bob Shuman

Kid Victory, now playing at the Vineyard Theatre through March 19, is an Ordinary People without a shrink—or, to put it in a theatrical context, the musical is an Oklahoma! without a Curly.  It’s a dark hometown show set in modern Kansas—which draws on cases like Elizabeth Smart’s and Natascha Kampusch’s kidnappings and captivities.  Maybe William Inge or Lanford Wilson could have made sense of such sources dramatically, but the ending of John Kander’s and Greg Pierce’s work, directed frustratingly by Liesl Tommy, sits unsatisfactorily with a father (Daniel Jenkins) who accepts his son’s sexuality and who is also complicit in the year-long absence of the young man.  That Kid Victory, the story of sex abuse and pedophilia, premiered while the Milo Yiannopoulos Breitbart resignation and book cancellation stories were breaking, shows how timely and shocking the material is—and how far away the execution of the musical is from an in-depth dramatic examination of the subject. Kander, of course, set a musical in Nazi Germany and in Chicago’s penal system, one ablaze with syncopated “merry murderesses.” But now, with a missing, balancing character and an inability to heighten the material, he’s writing workmanlike numbers, which are really too small for him.  Artists may want to revisit their roots—and might even feel that they that have to (Kander is from Missouri)–but they could end up gagged, as if they are living the lives they would have lived if they had never left.

As the young man who has been abducted, Brandon Flynn is shakingly sensitive and may remind of a kid James Dean.  Audiences are not told why he has not been given immediate and lasting psychological help after release; he does get religious guidance, which only seems anachronistic.  Karen Ziemba plays the chilly and daffy mother, who does not understand the depth of trauma imprisonment would entail—in fact, neither does the whole town, with characters such as the young girlfriend (Laura Darrell) and a church friend (Ann Arvia). Kander has been playing with musicalizing Americana at least as far back as The Act, where he turned a plain, pious Shaker-inspired “Turning” into an up-tempo boogie for Liza Minnelli.  But Kid Victory doesn’t show us anything to sing about (in fact, Luke does not sing):  The book doesn’t take us far enough into the tragedy, and it’s not light enough for standard musical comedy. Thankfully, there is a Liza-like role in Kid Victory—played by Dee Roscioli, as a kooky garden-store owner.  She helps leaven the woes one feels that the show is up against:  Roscioli even sings a good Liza-like number: “People Like Us.”  That’s when we’re in heaven. A hookup of Luke’s is the talented dancer, Blake Zolfo, who tap dances like Tulsa in Gypsy.

But this is John Kander.  The dangerous, controversial subject and themes need to be detonated.  His trade book with Fred Ebb is called Colored Lights, not The Fluorescent Light, which is part of David Weiner’s design–the setting is by Clint Ramos.  Hal Prince was the one who saw that Cabaret was reflecting ‘60s America; after the critics hadn’t understood it, others realized that Chicago is talking about trash, corrupt celebrity culture–before the country even recognized the phenomenon.  Prince and Fosse would have, no doubt, seen the metaphor, the concept of Kid Victory. They probably wouldn’t have discussed it much in the way of an old-fashioned book musical, even if Kander is trying to write chamber work.  Doubtless, they would have pushed the book’s Thornton Wilder elements out into the cold, sarcastic, frightening, and Brechtian—remember Fosse filmed his own heart attack as a musical number in All That Jazz. Whether they would have seen this as the hallucinations of a sexual prisoner, which reflects the current state of the nation, is up for debate.  Or maybe they would have thought that all of America is going through Stockholm Syndrome,  which is part of this musical book—but, doubtless, the subject matter would have been attacked, acidly, head on.

And there would have been a musical vamp: a riveting, mesmerizing, penetrating vamp.



Press: Shane Marshall Brown/Sam Rudy Media Relations

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Photos: The New York Times; Bob Shuman.

© 2017 by Bob Shuman.


Richard Maxwell:GOOD SAMARIANS
mit: Rosemary Allen, Kevin Hurley

By Bob Shuman

Nothing’s invisible or spiritual in Richard Maxwell’s plays.  He only ascertains what’s lumpish, material, and corporeal. Then he so overemphasizes them that they seem like a downtown arts insider’s cool, coercive manipulation.  The insistence on flatness, awkwardness, and mendacity defines a Brutalist vision of an industrial, institutional, and overly socialized worldview, which only Maxwell and his odd artist or misfit can survive.  The vision is so promulgated that it comes across as a tic or fetish—it’s not so much an indictment of society but a sealed truth.  Fortunately, characters and actors can get away from a creator, as Ingrid Bergman does in Bergman’s Autumn Sonata–she had trouble empathizing with the recriminations of her frumpy daughter (Liv Ullmann). Although Ingmar Bergman had written the script to show the “bad” parent, finally, the issue remained unresolved.

Finding the characters who don’t accept their sentences can make work more compelling, because they contradict the dramatist’s universe—and, they can give it more complexity, and, especially in Maxwell’s case, more accessibility. His troublemaker is Rosemary (Rosemary Allen), a hulking coordinator for the homeless in Good Samaritans, which is just ending a short run at Abrons Arts Center on February 25.  She’s interesting because she can survive in a dumbed-down, utilitarian, proto-Orwellian world—as well as breach the rules, like a Sixties anti-hero.  Her disregard would drive others—such as her new resident, the vagrant, Kevin (Kevin Hurley)–out of the system. He can’t sing (she can’t either), and he has problems telling the truth.  Lacking sincerity, without polish to the point of amateurness–which is part of the postmodernism—the play wants to tell a love story for the unindividualized masses, under fluorescent lights.  

Rosemary is like the tough, great-hearted big Catholic women who somehow survive in nursing or teaching, serving the poor with bad pay—O’Neill’s Josie is a relative.  That such a character should find physical gratification—because that’s about all she’s allowed–is the trajectory of Good Samaritans. Maxwell, with such a clinical interest in documenting the species, cannot make her into a complete slab of meat, though.   Allen won an Obie, in 2004 for her role in the original production—her performance is an artistic triumph and Maxwell’s opposition between romance and the mundane is made believable. His solution to being gouged and flattened by impersonal, undifferentiated society is not protest, not finding meaning through work, but delinquency.  The audience may feel frighteningly fat and old by the time they get out of the theater—Maxwell and his company have transmitted his vision, to be worn and lived in. Fortunately, it will wear off after a few days.

Visit Abons Arts Center:

Abrons Arts Center and New York City Players present

Good Samaritans

Written, directed and with songs by Richard Maxwell

Set, lights and costume design by Stephanie Nelson

Starring Rosemary Allen and Kevin Hurley

Musicians: James Moore and David Zuckerman

Press: John Wyszniewski/Blake Zidell

Photo: New York City Players.

© 2017 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.  



By Bob Shuman

Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi, Predictions Past Present and Future, is an evening of five short plays by Robert Patrick, now in a run at La MaMa’s Downstairs (66 E. 4 St. , NYC).  In the early 1990s, Patrick moved to Los Angeles–you’ll get glimpses of Hollywood screenwriting in the first segment on the current program—but downtown New Yorkers will remember him for numerous works, including the internationally acclaimed Kennedy’s Children in 1974, My Cup Ranneth Over (for Marlo Thomas) in 1976, T-Shirts in 1979, starring the adult-rated film star Jack Wrangler, Blue Is for Boys, and The Trial of Socrates. They’ll also acknowledge him as out, in the era before AIDs and in it, and, as such, he is part of the vanguard of twentieth century gay playwrights.

Whether or not Patrick believed that being homosexual would become accepted in the U.S. during his New York writing career—or whether he thinks it has–we do see a call for humanity in “All in the Mind” (1981), probably Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi’ s central piece, a work of science fiction on the subject of telepathy (the show is directed by Billy Clark and Jason Trucco, in association with the Seoul Institute of the Arts).  Despite the use of hard technology, huge live-action flat screen video monitors, and strobe lights, the section—followed by  “Simultaneous Transmissions,” a brief play about war–speaks of other values, amid today’s corporate insatiability.  Patrick’s messaging shows how hopeful the era really was and may remind of the Oscar Hammerstein of “A Hundred Million Miracles,” as well as mid-century sentiments like “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” or “We’re all connected.”  Focusing on a baby becoming enmeshed in a natural worldwide Web, this one-act, without the technology, may have been of more interest to those in the twentieth century rather than people now.

Then, the idea of one world, one mind, was sound idealism, supported by the human potential movement: “every birth is your birth.”  On a larger, political stage during the time, “precognition” was being studied by the American government, as tensions and competitiveness with the Soviet Union escalated during the Cold War.  Coincidentally, one of the pre-eminent researchers on the subject, Ingo Swan, lived up the street from La MaMa (he also absconded to California, but returned, and continued working as a writer, sometimes in science fiction, too, and as a painter, often of gay themes (La MaMa exhibited his work last fall).  Today, the government program he helped create has been rebuffed, despite the fact that it warranted funding from the ‘70s to the ‘90s and was part of 26,000 missions.  That was part of how investigators saw the potential of the human mind, during the era.  Today, analogous spy programs may be the NSA—and the human potential movement is probably dead.

People think in terms of the potential of machines, not humans, now.  Workers think about how much longer their job will last until it is taken over by robots.  No one talks much about the fact that most of the tasks that they do are accompanied by machines.  This is why Patrick’s most accessible piece, “Camera Obscura,”  in Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi, is about human love and a machine that hasn’t been perfected—the huge video screens work with delayed reception, as if the characters are talking to someone on Facetime.

One way to describe the production, as a whole, is to talk about the emphasis on flow and evolution of ideas, as in Beckett monologues, rather than in terms of plots.  Theatregoers might also call the work a gathering, instead of a “ticket”—we view the scenes in the way one might come to theatre if it weren’t so expensive and if there weren’t so many other entertainment opportunities.   Most of the audience is standing up most of the time, and move through three rooms. After an experiment like this, one feels more creative and human.  Like humans, too,  plays breathe, unlike drones and rigidly well-made dramas.  Technology, as conceptualized by Erwin Piscator, is an asset to the stage—but let’s stop producers before casts are replaced by digital actors.  Much better to see Robert Patrick himself, with a twinkle in his eye, watching the performance among us and singing a ditty, as he does as a finale. Despite the pony-tailed hipster behind glasses in this show, mesmerized by virtual reality, theatre constantly reminds us that we are in one—probably a last outpost and enclosure  where we can, among others,  still judge for ourselves.

Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi
Predictions Past Present and Future

In association with the Seoul Institute of the Arts

Written by Robert Patrick
Directed by Billy Clark and Jason Trucco

The cast includes John Guttieriez, Yeena Sung and downtown veterans Valois Mikens and Agosto Machado.

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Press: Sam Rudy, Miguel Mendiola, Joe Trentacosta

Photos: La MaMa.



By Bob Shuman

My Name Is Gideon—I’m Probably Going to Die Eventually is a traveling one-man magic act–with songs and stories. The evening, which closed at the Rattlestick on December 11,  is equal parts hippie medicine show–the music may remind of a Cat Stevens album–and German gothic tale.  Gideon Irving is the too-talented banjo-picking and harmonica-playing (sometimes both at the same time) cousin or uncle whom families send their kids to visit during holidays, while dinner is being prepared.  Sometimes these kinds of creatives get locked in the basement. Lately, they’ve caught grief from politicians for moving back home after college graduation—but it usually doesn’t stop their ingenuity.  Gideon’s opening song is actually one that was written by a five-year-old friend, Bella, called “Sea Lion Cow,” who, like the soloist himself, is also precocious. Gideon talks about his mother’s running away to the circus, grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies (they’re excellent), his brother’s absurdist disability, and his first girlfriend—interspersed with site-specific gags and tricks.  The imaginary carnival has been written largely to entertain new-found acquaintances, who have put the author up during his world travels over the past nine years. This home circus, or form of Jewish musicale, is inventive and showcases a talented artist who has taken production into his own hands. Theater goes on, even in inhospitable economic times and even if the audience is only a handful of people. Gideon proves that artistic types don’t need to be discovered or even be locked up in a basement—the urge to create happens everywhere and can’t be stopped.  In fact, it’s not too late to see Gideon–don’t be surprised to find the latest iteration of his show in your own living room.

Visit Gideon Irving’s Web site:

Press: Glenna Freedman

© 2016  by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.


By Bob Shuman

Since before election day, Theatre for a New Audience has been improvising unexpected contemporary commedia dell-arte, along with Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center (now playing until December 4).  Adapted by Constance Congdon, from a translation by Christina Sibul, with further adaptation by Christopher Bayles and Steven Epp, this classic was written in the 1740s and published in 1753, but has not been presented in New York City since the 1970s, except as One Man, Two Guvnors, a 2012 modern adaptation.  The play uses bold, stock commedia characters of primary colors, like the aged Pantalone (Allen Gilmore) and a variation of Harlequin, Truffaldino (Steven Epp), and situations that are comparable to those found in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. The new-old show, which is set into rollicking motion when a young bride-to-be (Clarice Verson)—and her father and circle–are told that her betrothed has died, uses half-masks, onstage musicians (Christopher Curtis and Aaron Halva), and ad-libbing, with topical references that Bayes, the director of the current production, believes keeps commedia alive by “not treating the text preciously but by remembering its roots in improvisation”—the conviction was put to a test in the last month, when The Servant of Two Masters needed sudden readjustment.  Most in New York City, if not in the country, via fake news, media bias–including skewed coverage from The New York Times–as well as other attempts at voter suppression, like on Facebook, believed that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. Even Goldoni’s new adaptation had been brought into the hype, employing the easy nightly probability of skewering Republican figures, such as Rudolph Giuliani, Chris Christie, and Satan (Donald Trump).  Then, the vote didn’t turn out in swing states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina had stopped playing along. Overnight, the nation went from blue to red and Republicans, from deplorable to predominant. servant2

The educationally entitled, left-leaning theatremakers,  animating an eighteenth-century art form, usually more talked about than seen, were caught up short.  They had found their way into a production that, past its due-date, immediately showed its age and obsolescence. Like a bride left at the altar, other arrangements needed to be made–fast.   Desperation, as some have noted, is one definition of comedy; however, in altering the emphasis of the show—Bayles said in a New York Times interview that “Our job changed . . .  from being provocateurs to being healers”—the production, drowning in a tri-state sea of grief and incomprehensibility, only found . . . joy and laughter.  Instead of wearing its politics on ruffled cuffs and sleeves, as so many theatrical ventures are wont to do most of the time, not just in an election year, audiences were allowed to examine the play for itself; its intricate design clearly a writing challenge for any dramatist. The Servant of Two Masters incorporates pratfalls and mismatches, alibis and duels, clowns and proto-vaudeville, and its execution requires classical acting, trained singing, physical theatre, as well as the delivery of one-liners. The actors may be appreciated more now, especially when thinking about the totality of their work—which necessitates operatic emotions and singing, as well as the sound and turn-on-a-dime technique and timing of a Robin Williams. (Others in the ensemble are: Liam Craig, Aidan Eastwood, Andy Grotelueschen, Eugene Ma, Orlando Pabotoy, Sam Urdang, Liz Wisan, and Emily Young.) Their version continues to retain remnants of election eve’s satirization of Republicans, via The Crucible, but they are also “theatre-kid” encyclopedic, regarding lyrics from musical comedy, including Oliver!, The Music Man , and Fiddler on the Roof. The characters’ improbabilities and fallibilities, songs and love-yearning may seem more believable and human after electoral heartbreak—and the multicolored lights that hang around the auditorium, the operetta-like setting (the sets are by Katherine Akiko Day, the costumes by Valerie Therese Bart, and the lighting by Chuan-Ci Can), and the ephemeral nature of the improvisations themselves speak to transitoriness.  On a recording there is a circus trumpet and Italian folk songs, which may remind of a Charlie Chaplin film or childhood holidays.  Having been reborn, from accidents of happenstance, the new-old-new play is proof that Goldoni’s vision of perplexity, if not bewilderment, is ageless–and accurate.  He must be smiling somewhere. Unpredictable life goes on with small reprieves in the company of actors and songs, yet The Servant of Two Masters remains festive, in this jewel of a production.


© 2016 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Press:  Bruce Cohen

Photos: New York Events and Theatre for a New Audience

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PARTY PEOPLE By UNIVERSES: Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz aka Ninja Composed by UNIVERSES with Broken Chord Choreography by Millicent Johnnie Developed and Directed by Liesl Tommy Featuring Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Blue); Michael Elich (Marcus, FBI Agent); Gizel Jiménez (Clara); Ramona Keller (Amira); Christopher Livingston (Malik); Jesse J. Perez (Tito); Sophia Ramos (Maruca); Robynn Rodriguez (Donna, Fina); Horace V. Rogers (Solias); William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja (Jimmy “Primo”); Mildred Ruiz-Sapp (Helita); and Steven Sapp (Omar). Scenic and Lighting Design Marcus Doshi Costume Design Meg Neville Sound Design and Vocal Direction Broken Chord Projection Design Sven Ortel Wig Design Cookie Jordan

By UNIVERSES: Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz aka Ninja
Composed by UNIVERSES with Broken Chord
Choreography by Millicent Johnnie
Developed and Directed by Liesl Tommy
Featuring Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Blue); Michael Elich (Marcus, FBI Agent); Gizel Jiménez (Clara); Ramona Keller (Amira); Christopher Livingston (Malik); Jesse J. Perez (Tito); Sophia Ramos (Maruca); Robynn Rodriguez (Donna, Fina); Horace V. Rogers (Solias); William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja (Jimmy “Primo”); Mildred Ruiz-Sapp (Helita); and Steven Sapp (Omar).
Scenic and Lighting Design Marcus Doshi
Costume Design Meg Neville
Sound Design and Vocal Direction Broken Chord
Projection Design Sven Ortel
Wig Design Cookie Jordan

By Bob Shuman

The two young Black Panther wannabes, Malik (Christopher Livingston) and Jimmy (William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja) in Party People, now playing at the Public Theatre through December 11, are “snowflakes,” the jargon used for those unprepared to deal with social or political realities.  Obnoxious, unfunny, and immature, they might be in need of–especially after the outcome of the presidential election–therapy dogs, disaster counseling, Play-Doh, and coloring books (to borrow language from Fox news).  Yet the black nationalist movement of the ‘60s, recruited from those younger than them—kids who were in their mid-teens.

Members of the Black Panthers line up at a rally at DeFremery Park in Oakland, Calif.

Members of the Black Panthers line up at a rally at DeFremery Park in Oakland, Calif.  Photo: Stephen Shames.

Maybe the musical is commenting on the fact that all youth can be rather puerile or perhaps it is bluntly saying that they don’t make revolutionaries like in the day. Party People, however, developed and directed by Liesl Tommy, is probably the best idea for a musical, or drama, or opera that never happened–one that could take us into the ‘60s U.S., like audiences have been drawn into Peronist Argentina (Evita) or Nazi Germany (Cabaret), although, of all musicals, Party People seems most comparable to Sondheim’s Follies. Besides lacking a riveting, intriguing or sympathetic central character–like an Evita or Sally Bowles–Party People hasn’t been tightly plotted (in fact, no credit is given for a specific book writer, although nonspecific work is attributed to Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja). The show wants to mainstream and celebrate the Black Panthers, but, no surprise, not all people deem the group worthy of accolades, nor do they accede that its evolution into the newer movement Black Lives Matter, is all that praiseworthy either.

Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election after using the July Democratic convention to endorse BLM; Trump has proclaimed law and order and won—Party People comes at us on the wrong side of the historical moment and was probably counting on a more favorable political space to inhabit after rehearsals, even if it is playing in New York. It won’t get one based on its naïve attempt at revisionism, though. That’s part of the challenge—to make the evening less propagandistic. Audiences will have a hard time believing that the Black Panthers were not militants and that they did not arouse fear. It should be all right that the general public may not feel the same way about the Panthers as its creators do—but a partial reconciliation might have happened at Party People if  more conflict from opposing points of view were expressed within the crucible of the performance space (the show does incorporate the opinions of the movement’s elders, and, at the end of Act I, the wife of a dead cop finds her way into a celebration for interviewees of a Black Party documentary).

PARTY PEOPLE By UNIVERSES: Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz aka Ninja Composed by UNIVERSES with Broken Chord Choreography by Millicent Johnnie Developed and Directed by Liesl Tommy Featuring Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Blue); Michael Elich (Marcus, FBI Agent); Gizel Jiménez (Clara); Ramona Keller (Amira); Christopher Livingston (Malik); Jesse J. Perez (Tito); Sophia Ramos (Maruca); Robynn Rodriguez (Donna, Fina); Horace V. Rogers (Solias); William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja (Jimmy “Primo”); Mildred Ruiz-Sapp (Helita); and Steven Sapp (Omar). Scenic and Lighting Design Marcus Doshi Costume Design Meg Neville Sound Design and Vocal Direction Broken Chord Projection Design Sven Ortel Wig Design Cookie Jordan

By UNIVERSES: Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz aka Ninja
Composed by UNIVERSES with Broken Chord
Choreography by Millicent Johnnie
Developed and Directed by Liesl Tommy
Featuring Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Blue); Michael Elich (Marcus, FBI Agent); Gizel Jiménez (Clara); Ramona Keller (Amira); Christopher Livingston (Malik); Jesse J. Perez (Tito); Sophia Ramos (Maruca); Robynn Rodriguez (Donna, Fina); Horace V. Rogers (Solias); William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja (Jimmy “Primo”); Mildred Ruiz-Sapp (Helita); and Steven Sapp (Omar).
Scenic and Lighting Design Marcus Doshi
Costume Design Meg Neville
Sound Design and Vocal Direction Broken Chord
Projection Design Sven Ortel
Wig Design Cookie Jordan

The context and historical specifics for the show are fuzzy—although the audience is dismissively told to “Google that shit.” The creators have not been brave enough to undertake a tougher accounting of the times (where are the assassinations of Martin Luther King, which accelerated Black Panther membership, or Bobby Kennedy?). Like the diarist in Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg, who forgot to write about the ‘60s, the chaos, the passion, the blood of the era, including the riots, political outrage, and the Vietnam War, aren’t spilling in. Party People, with atmospheric music, including rap and acapella songs, by Universes with Broken Chord and the strong work of invested performers, is more centered on Huey Newton’s social concerns than Eldridge Cleaver’s call for armed insurgency. The musical has scrubbed the intimidating radicalism of the Panthers and not put us on the ground and into the streets where challenging Brechtian solutions could have informed and electrified the audience, especially since the Anspacher Theater is equipped with all forms of theatrical technology, including multiple video screens. Such design elements are underutilized here, and the show, which is wary of history, yet wants to rewrite it almost as a pseudo-documentary, could have included a more intricate video immersion.  This would have let the audience see the era for themselves in real footage, words, and stills.  Part of the intent of Party People is to underline the fact that the Black Panthers were normal, ordinary people trying to improve lives through community outreach—to many, as well as J. Edgar Hoover, however, they were dangerous, secular Socialists.  Lorraine Hansberry—who wrote about police brutality in To Be Young Gifted and Black–Amiri Baraka, and Brecht aren’t around, of course—but instead of a continuation of the party line through agitprop theatre, Party People needs more specificity, more character work, more depth, and less self-approval.

Malik and Jimmy aren’t prepared to be unfollowed on Twitter, much less face a liberal loss in the election.  They’re puff-piece propagandists, trying to revise and water down the history and legacy of black nationalism through social media hashtags and technology, scarily reinforcing reports of the dishonored and dishonest New York Times showcasing positive articles on Hillary Clinton and her candidacy, not negative ones.  Facebook, additionally, was not checking for fake news during the 2016 election cycle.  While propaganda might be impossible to separate from theater, or journalism, or media, general audiences may be more attracted to different elements in drama—like character, plot, deep human meaning and connections. That’s the sobering truth.


Press: Julie Danni, Laura Rigby, the Public Theater.

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Text (c) 2016 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. 




By Bob Shuman

John Fleck might say that America has just elected a simulacrum as president, a “place marker for the real item.”  The concept, discussed by French post-structuralist Jean Baudrillard, has a spectrum of meanings:  one, the “perversion of reality,” which probably interests Fleck the most, since, as a member of the NEA4, he was called obscene (by conservative politicians led by Jesse Helms).  The artist sued (and won, with three other performance artists) in federal district court, regarding “‘the so-called ‘standards of decency’ provision,” which grant recipients, at the time, were forced to accept.  But that was the ‘90s.  Today, the Internet may be in danger of further censorship and Americans wonder if they are being politically correct. Fortunately, Fleck is still obscene, and is performing now at New York’s Dixon Place, 11/12, 18, and 19.  nea4

He’s also oral: time the speed of his delivery or watch him open his mouth to do imitations of motors, dogs, birds, or squeaky doors in the night. He simulates oral sex, too. Maybe he’s just been mentally arrested at the entry point of early adolescence, at a fevered place of sexual confusion, where hormones are teeming and aren’t quite adjusted to the bloodstream. He cannot be liable to any societal norms, or else he’d break them, whether there is a philosophic argument behind his work or not—in fact it may remind of gay porn in the ‘70s, and maybe thereafter—when rebellion is what matters; rebellion is all that matters, against women, especially. flecky

That’s the mood of Fleck’s new gothic horror one-man show called Blacktop Highway, which is an unsold movie script, narrated aloud, with video footage and Matchbox cars, and which includes camera angles and sound cues.  The story takes place in Maine, but a creepy-clown, low-budget, black-and-white, Psycho Maine, where a young girl is being raised by sexual predators and is corrupted herself—of course, it’s a comedy. Baudrillard might say the story has become so far removed from truth that it becomes its own truth, which some say this political season has also been.  Outside, Fifth Avenue is blocked for the third straight day, as chanting protesters are walking to Trump Tower–policemen are carrying rifles–and The New York Times has written a letter to its readers saying that it will be telling the truth in the future, after presenting skewed information in favor of Democrats during this political season. In theatre, which is a lie, John Fleck has become interested in virtual reality, but, actually, all of us have had to.  

Visit Dixon Place:

Press: Glenna Freedman

Art:  NEA4–Nerd City Guides; Fleck: LA Weekly.

Copyright © 2016 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.



By Bob Shuman

Kings of War, Ivo van Hove’s and Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s anti-heroic, anti-Romantic, anti-poetic staging of adaptations of Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, defines political leaders as small and ordinary, anxious and neurotic, much like WikiLeaks does in revealing the e-mails of current politicians.   One can lead, one can’t, and one moves further and further into evil, but none of the characters in this modern-dress reassessment can escape the monumentality of what surrounds them, whether that be Britain’s foreign conflicts and civil wars, or the expansive stage of the BAM Opera House. With the compositional eye of an academic painter, or fellow lowlander Rembrandt, van Hove fills it and then begins overflowing onto the backstage corridors. At the same time, live video and film are shown, along with placard information and English super-titles (the acting is in Dutch), which gives viewers simultaneous long-shots and close-ups. 43b1f2ca-4cc9-11e5-_965813c

Kings of War is cinematic, cold, and shockingly and methodically accurate in its detail and depictions—van Hove is a director in two mediums really, and he is also a relentless visual editor, precise in theatrical suggestion and manipulation (the lighting and cavernous, adaptable settings are by Jan Versweyveld).  Van Hove does not want audiences to feel as much as think, though—and he has taken the theories of Piscator and Brecht as far as current technology can lead (Bergman is acknowledged, too, in terms of rigorous pacing, as well as in the footage of the various kings melding into one, as do the famous faces of Bibi Andersen and Liv Ullmann in Persona). The acting seems closer to mime or expressionism or even dance than the realistic work Americans are typically used to seeing–in fact, these actors rarely play to the audience;  instead they are seen in profile–and it was virtually flawless last night, with special consideration for the work of Hans Kesting, as Richard III, and Aus Greidanus Jr., as Gloucester and Buckingham.  These are arbitrary shout-outs, however, as the entire cast and musicians are excellent, including a counter-tenor, rarely seen (the two parts of Henry VI are seldom revived, too). Much more will be written about Kings of War–from staging the patriotic Henry V St. Crispin’s Day speech without actors to Richard III’s call for any horse,  almost in slow motion, building to a physical trot and running in circles–because the production about medieval heads of states does nothing if not give an overwhelming example of the current state of theatrical art.  There are only four New York performances and the production will close on Sunday, November 6.  Attend if you still can, because, like the presidential election, no one’s going to stop talking about this for a  long time.

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Press: Christian Barclay, BAM

Photo of Ivo van Hove: The Times.

Text © 2016 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.  




By Bob Shuman

Kevin Confoy’s staging of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui should be seen for nonpolitical reasons, even if it fits in well with attempts to paint Donald Trump as a fascist.  The inflammatory descriptor probably has less to do with American conservatism and more to do with Socialism, but the media has worked hard during the last year to make the label stick. The current production, from Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, which plays in the East Village until November 13 at the Wild Project, is thoughtful, complex, and informative, not only regarding Brecht’s solidly structured Chicago gangster retelling of the rise of Hitler, but also in its appreciation of the work of Erwin Piscator, a name that may seem remote to today’s students of drama.  The producer, in the vanguard of German political theatre, during the first part of the twentieth century, was a sometime collaborator of Brecht (although not on this play), who brought film into the medium and, as C. D. Innes states, “made it possible to shift viewpoints, so that the action could be extended to global scope and [allow] the ‘epic’ the ability to comment on itself.”  Piscator’s innovations (both he and Brecht were Communists) included revolving and simultaneous stages, treadmills, multiple platforms, projections, placards, marionettes, simultaneous scene work, sound, and more. Obie winner Confoy, who worked with Piscator’s wife, Maria, has made this Brecht outing seem especially authentic (as well as timely with flashes of current music and even the spoutings of conservative commentator Mark Levin).  


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By Bob Shuman

Theatremakers, who have decided to forgo political issues, such as immigration, refugees, radical Islam, Benghazi, and Trump’s wall, may want to consider the words of ninety-one-year-old Peter Brook, whose seventy-minute companion piece to his classic nine-hour 1987 Mahabharata (which is available on disk and YouTube) recently played at BAM’s Harvey Theatre (Battlefield ended October 9). Brook said he wanted his new work to “find something relevant for today” and, perhaps counter-intuitively, returned to the classic ancient Indian poem, not out of nostalgia, but because of its ability to see “all aspects of human existence”; it includes an apocalyptic war, which leaves ten million dead. “It could be Hiroshima or Syria,” Brook says, “When one watches the news one is angry, disgusted, furious.” So also may be the informed public, not just of today, but also those who will look back at what was being produced during our time and question why so many essential parts of the national dialogue were BleachBitted from our stages, despite a public disposal toward interest in history, demonstrated by the mega-hit Hamilton.

From left: Sean O’Callaghan; Jared McNeill; Ery Nzaramba & Carole Karemera in US Premiere of BATTLEFIELD C.I.C.T.—Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord Based on The Mahabharata and the play written by Jean-Claude Carrière Adapted and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne selected scenes photographed: Wednesday, September 28, 2016; 3:00 PM at the BAM Harvey Theater; Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC; Photograph: © 2016 Richard Termine PHOTO CREDIT - Richard Termine

From left: Sean O’Callaghan; Jared McNeill; Ery Nzaramba & Carole Karemera in US Premiere of
C.I.C.T.—Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Based on The Mahabharata
and the play written by Jean-Claude Carrière Adapted and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
selected scenes photographed: Wednesday, September 28, 2016; 3:00 PM at the BAM Harvey Theater; Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC;
Photograph: © 2016 Richard Termine
PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

Battlefield is Brook in shorthand, overshadowed by the real theatre of the moment:  the American election. Nevertheless, he says he is speaking to power “in a space of concentration” regarding “what happens after the battle,” for both winners and losers. He knows who he specifically wants to appeal to, as well:  “Obama and his successor, Hollande and his successor, Putin, and all the presidents.” Are they actually listening?  Probably not, largely because arts leaders have allowed theatre to become inconsequential, overwhelming audiences with immature and merely entertaining work, but if art can instead be entertained, Brook’s modest piece might be taken as seriously as any. He has been in the public eye for approximately 70 years and although his techniques do not seem cutting edge, or dangerous, anymore, his stagings and his books, most famously The Empty Space (1968), are essential to understanding experimental theatre. Brook’s influence is seen everywhere, from Broadway to La Mama, both places which would be impossible to understand without him. With regard to The Mahabharata,  Brook has been accused of “exoticism,” by uprooting the sacred  text without understanding it as would an Indian—but he might also make a case about the appropriation of his own theatrical research and methods.  In his defense, in respect to the 200,000 line poem, he has said, “It is a failure of us to have spent so long to recognize that it [The Mahabharata] is for humanity.”

Straightforward, with a central black box as a focal point, Battlefield makes use of brilliantly hued fabric and bamboo sticks as props in a setting the color of blood. Its ancient story regards a blind king, who has lost his sons.  He is meeting his nephew, who does not know how to accept the responsibilities of having won a war. “The winners say ‘victory is a defeat’ and the ones who lost admit that ‘they could have prevented the war’.  More than asking for an imitation of behavior or psychological depth, Brook is most interested in storytelling—as was the American avant-garde he began influencing, including Ellen Stewart and Elizabeth Swados. Here, mortality seems to consume Brook most, even more than war:  “What you have planned to do tomorrow must be done today.  Only death is certain.  Readiness is most important.”  Wisdom, perhaps, from a creator who has been called “our greatest living theatre director,” having won Tonys and Emmys, the Praemium Imperiale and the Prix Italia. His four actors, in Battlefield (Carole Karemera, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba, and Sean O’Callaghan), play for seventy minutes, telling folkloric parables, sometimes comically and from the point of view of animals, such as a snake, mongoose, worm, and monkey. The cast makes use of simple pantomiming, and is often staged in a circular pattern, accompanied by Toshi Tsuchitori (who performed in the original Mahabharata) on African drum—the co-director and co-adapter is Brook’s long-time collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and the text is by the writer of the stage version, Jean-Claude Carrière. Brook, the impresario, went around the world to find the essence of theatre and some may say he found the ingredients of a good children’s play—what they forget is how difficult the proposition of simplicity is.

Those who saw Brook’s film of Lord of the Flies (1963)–and have read about his redefining, symbolic version of Titus Andronicus (1958)know of the director’s facility with horror, which infused the American avant-garde, along with Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty. Lone Wolf Tribe’s  The God Projekt, a domestic history of God–from lifelike primordial spit to today’s suicide of the West–is close to a gross-out show, written by Kevin Augustine and Edward Einhorn (it closed at La Mama on October 16). The team follows similar concerns as those in Battlefield, including the idea of repeated apocalypses, interest in ancient civilizations, ingesting of another person, and even animals—in this case a monkey.  Kevin Augustine, the leading player (the show is virtually a monologue) displays a talent for disguise. He and Einhorn (with puppeteers Joseph Garner and Emily Marsh), are like pre-meds who have studied Darwin too long, sniffing formaldehyde, or like kids boiling a frog or eating worms; they’re politically incorrect heralds of the  grotesque tradition. Unlike Brook, however, they haven’t found minimalism, even if in terms of form, all find themselves telling large mythic tales.  Incorporated here are the stories of Adam, the Queen of Heaven, and even Christ—which, in a seeming counterculture template, move toward audience participation.  The God Projeckt may be an ur text, or part of one anyway, which holds the motherload of themes for the partnership. Of special interest is the anatomically correct and wet and squishy war between Christianity and Paganism: La Mama, Ellen Stewart herself, may have liked the emphasis on polytheism in The God Projekt, supplemented by bygone tunes such as “Isn’t It Nice to Have a Wife Around the house?” and “My Blue Heaven.” Such work might have inspired her to produce a new puppet Frankenstein—or Augustine’s and Einhorn’s own version of Titus, complete with internal organs.

Even if the title reference to theoretical physics is inflated, Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club until December 11, uses minimalism in set (two tables and two chairs) and props (virtually none) and confirms Brook’s notion that “if you [take] away the big scenery . . . we listen more purely.” He’s right–theatregoers will hear Stephens’s engaging script and be impressed by the tight acting of Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker (even if her pronunciation makes the character seem slow at the start).  The creative team, including director Mark Brokaw with scenic designer Mark Wendland, seem to be appropriating the technique of working with absence, as well as TV news alert scene starters, in order to make contemporary a vehicle, which in the 1960s, would have gone to Sandy Dennis. During that era, Stephens’s central male character did forget to write about Vietnam in his diaries, and the English playwright’s “average people” love story has chosen not to mention our own searing current events, except in a jab at Garden State Republicans, apparently in order to pander to Manhattan Theatre Club audiences.  Stephens’s work was especially raw in his short A Canopy of Stars, where a young English mother rages against the Afghanistan War—calling the Mideast country “a hole in the bottom of the world.”  Here he is less successful in finding his chatty Jersey girl’s idiom: how many women have you met from the state called Georgie, to begin with, and how often would you hear them say, that suits me “down to the ground”?  Even if Stephens doesn’t convince that he’s figured out how the American character translates abroad, there was appreciation for this two-hander in the house, which might recall the way people reacted to Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly.  Our section of the theatre was disrupted twice during the performance when a woman first exclaimed, “This is charming,” and, later, “This is fabulous.”  If commercial stage work can elicit this kind of on-the-spot euphoric word of mouth, then there really is no reason for a critic.  Whether one has left the theatre, “nourished by his own thoughts,” as Brook would hope, is subjective.


© 2016 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Visit BAM:  Press, Battlefield: BAM: Sandy Sawotka.

Visit La Mama:  Press, The God Projekt: La Mama: Miguel Mendiola/Sam Rudy.

Visit Manhattan Theatre Club:  Press, Heisenberg: BBBway: Michelle Farabaugh and Melissa Cohen.


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