Category Archives: Commentary

PINTER: ‘THE BIRTHDAY PARTY’ (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/18.)

“The first test of any work of art,” claimed George Orwell, “is survival.” If that is true, it is one Harold Pinter’s play passes with flying colours.

Derided on its debut in 1958, 60 years on The Birthday Party has lost none of its capacity to intrigue. In Ian Rickson’s starry production, it emerges not simply as a rep thriller filtered through a European sensibility – a cross between Agatha Christie and Kafka, as a German director once said – but as a play of intense psychological realism.

It is well known that the action concerns the abduction from a seaside boarding house of a recalcitrant lodger, Stanley, by a pair of visitors. But Rickson immediately establishes the plausibility of the situation. Meg and Petey, who own the house, are often played as cartoon grotesques. Here, however, there is a key moment when Zoë Wanamaker’s trim, doting Meg and Peter Wight’s sturdily reliable Petey exchange wistful glances over the breakfast table about the son they never had. Instantly this establishes Stanley as their surrogate child, and explains why Wanamaker drops her shopping bags in terror on first encountering the visitors.

(Read more)

 

SIMON CALLOW: THE EMPEROR ROBESON ·

Paul Robeson as Othello, 1944; photograph by Carl Van Vechten

(Callow’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 2/8.

Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary

by Gerald Horne

Pluto, 250 pp., $18.00 (paper)

No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson

by Jeff Sparrow

Scribe, 292 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Paul Robeson as Othello, 1944; photograph by Carl Van Vechten

When I was growing up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, Paul Robeson was much in evidence, on records, on the radio, on television. His name was haloed with the sort of respect accorded to few performers. The astonishing voice that, like the Mississippi in the most famous number in his repertory, just kept rolling along, seemed to carry within it an inherent sense of truth. There was no artifice; there were no vocal tricks; nothing came between the listener and the song. It commanded effortless attention; perfectly focused, it came from a very deep place, not just in the larynx, but in the experience of what it is to be human. In this, Robeson resembled the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier: both seemed less trained musicians than natural phenomena.

The spirituals Robeson had been instrumental in discovering for a wider audience were not simply communal songs of love and life and death but the urgent cries of a captive people yearning for a better, a juster life. These songs, rooted in the past, expressed a present reality in the lives of twentieth-century American black people, citizens of the most powerful nation on earth but oppressed and routinely humiliated on a daily basis. When Robeson sang the refrain of “Go Down Moses”—“Let my people go!”—it had nothing to do with consolation or comfort: it was an urgent demand. And in the Britain in which I grew up, he was deeply admired for it. For us, he was the noble representative, the beau idéal, of his race: physically magnificent, finely spoken, fiercely intelligent, charismatic but not at all threatening.

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REVIEW: A WONDROUS ‘PINOCCHIO’ WITH THAT ‘LION KING’ MAGIC ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/ 4; via Pam Green.)

LONDON — The most uncanny thing of all about the National Theaterproduction of “Pinocchio” — a show that is wondrously strange from top to bottom — is how simple it appears. This may seem an unlikely characterization of an obviously expensive musical, replete with special effects that brim well over the edges of the National’s vast Lyttelton stage.

Yet this adaptation of the 1940 animated Walt Disney classic, directed by John Tiffany and designed by Bob Crowley, exudes the rough magic of a world that seems shaped, by hand and before your eyes, from rudimentary elements. Step ladders, strings and ropes, blocks of wood, the letters of the alphabet: Such is the basic visual vocabulary that is deployed to retell the familiar story of an existentially challenged puppet’s quest to become human.

In this regard, “Pinocchio” comes into being as if through the eyes of a child, whose gaze transforms the mundane into whatever the imagination (and perhaps the Jungian subconscious) wills. The show’s scale, too, is that of a little boy for whom the world looms dauntingly and tantalizingly large, where grown-ups appear as giants who are not entirely real. Or not as real, in any case, as a child’s own sovereign self.

For while the marionette of the title is portrayed by a fully grown adult actor (the perfectly cast newcomer Joe Idris-Roberts), he is less than half the size of many of the figures with whom he shares the stage. That includes the artisan father who carved him into life, Geppetto (Mark Hadfield), and the mysterious, otherworldly guardian known as the Blue Fairy (Annette McLaughlin).

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ADRIENNE KENNEDY, PLAYWRIGHT: STILL QUIET, STILL BOLD, STILL FURIOUS ·

(Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/10; via Pam Green.)

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — The playwright Adrienne Kennedy never wanted to move to Virginia. She spent 30 years living on the fourth floor of a brownstone on West 89th Street — her “little Victorian palace,” she called it. But the rent went higher. Her breath on the stairs came shorter. Just before she turned 80, she traveled down to Williamsburg, Va., to visit her younger son, Adam Kennedy, and she stayed.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been here six years,” she said of her new city. “I hate it.”

The move to Virginia cost Ms. Kennedy her shelves of books and her walks down Broadway. But it has given her a poem, a memoir and a play, “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” which begins performances at Theater for a New Audience on Jan. 18. It is her first new play in nearly a decadeand the first that she has written without a collaborator in 20 years.

Ms. Kennedy, one of the American theater’s greatest and least compromising experimentalists, was speaking at a table in a genteel hotel lounge near the Colonial Williamsburg living history site. Her dramas are sites of living history, too, where personal stories of racism’s unhealed wounds mingle with dark tales thieved from the Brothers Grimm and 1940s Hollywood.

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Photo: American Theatre

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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Visit Split Britches

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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A PHILADELPHIA THEATER HEADING, AND SWEATING, IN A NEW DIRECTION ·

(Elisabeth Vincentelli’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/3; via Pam Green.)

PHILADELPHIA — Blanka Zizka, the artistic director of the Wilma Theater here, had reached a breaking point.

About seven years ago, she was putting on a new play featuring actors from New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and “the room was filled with egos and fears,” Ms. Zizka said. It felt all too familiar: “starting a production trying to get the fear out of people.”

“It takes a long time to build trust,” explained Ms. Zizka, who defected from Czechoslovakia in 1976 with her husband, Jiri, and joined the fledgling Wilma three years later. “That sense of discontinuity was really painful. I thought, if that’s what theater means in the United States, I don’t want to do it. One possibility was to retire, and the other was to change things.”

Ms. Zizka did not retire — she went rogue.

The Wilma now has a three-year-old resident acting company and welcomes shows whose daring aesthetics depart from the factory-setting naturalism of most American stages, especially regional ones.

In November, for instance, the Hungarian director Csaba Horvath’s adventurous production of Federico García Lorca’s “Blood Wedding,” from 1932, started with high-energy Eastern European folk dancing. The rest of the show was similarly devoid of stereotypical Spanish signposts, betting instead on visceral physicality and complex tableaux. It looked like the kind of stylish Euro import one would see at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or the Park Avenue Armory.

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Photo: The New York Times

JOHN FORD: ‘TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE’ (LISTEN NOW ON BBC RADIO 4–LINK BELOW) ·

 

 

Listen    

Compassionate and disturbing, John Ford’s great story of doomed love between a brother and sister in this new, visceral production for radio, intercut with the music of Jimi Hendrix and Nick Cave.

Annabella ….. Jessie Buckley,
Giovanni ….. Damien Molony
Signor Florio ….. Niall Buggy, 
Putana ….. Fenella Woolgar, 
Friar Bonaventura ….. Oliver Cotton. 
Lord Soranzo ….. Matthew Pidgeon, 
Vasques …… Enzo Cilenti, 
Hippolita ….. Indira Varma.
Grimaldi ….. Gary Duncan, 
Cardinal ….. Neil McCaul, 
Officer ….. Adam Fitzgerald 
Dorando ….. Tayla Kovacevic-Ebong.
The original song – In Deep – composed by Jules Maxwell, and sung by Jessie Buckley, Indira Varma, and Abby Andrews
Introduction by Professor Emma Smith from Hertford College, Oxford.

Adapted and directed by Pauline Harris.

Further info:-

Jessie Buckley stars in her first radio appearance as Annabella. Credits include War and Peace for BBC One, The Last Post – BBC One and Taboo.
She played Anne Egermann in the West End revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Buckley played the part of Emily Strong in Rosamunde Pilcher’s four-part TV adaptation of her book Shades of Love. 
She appeared opposite Jude Law in Michael Grandage’s West End production of Henry V at the Noël Coward Theatre, and played Perdita in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale.

 

ARS NOVA TO PARTNER WITH GREENWICH HOUSE AND OPERATE 199-SEAT GREENWICH HOUSE THEATER ·

Following a year-long search, Ars Nova “one of the most adventurous Off Broadway companies” (New York Times) has been selected by Greenwich House as the new tenant of their historic, 199-seat Greenwich House Theater, which opened in 1917 and is located at 27 Barrow Street. In addition to operating and filling the beloved venue with new work by its emerging artists, Ars Nova will partner with Greenwich House on new community engagement and educational initiatives that will deepen the mission of both non-profit organizations.

In early 2019, the Greenwich House Theater will become the primary venue for Ars Nova’s award-winning, Off-Broadway premiere productions. This strategic decision allows Ars Nova to expose its emerging artists to a growing audience base, increases the technical capabilities of its home theater to keep pace with the big dreams of its world premiere artists, and fully dedicate its intimate theater on 54th Street to the discovery and development of new talent.

“Ars Nova is thrilled to have been selected to operate the Greenwich House Theater, which will become our new home base for our Off-Broadway premieres,” said Jason Eagan, the Founding Artistic Director of Ars Nova. “This will, in turn, stimulate our work of discovering and developing talent by freeing up space in our own jewel-box theater on 54th Street, where we will be able to increase our services to our artist community and expand our year-round programming. At the same time, this mission-driven partnership gives us an ideal platform to partner on arts education initiatives. Together, Ars Nova and Greenwich House can ensure that our resources are used to launch the careers of extraordinarily deserving early-career artists; as well as foster and develop arts appreciation and aspiration among the youngest of our next generation.”

“For over 100 years, Greenwich House has fostered community through the arts, and we’re excited to bring Ars Nova into the fold,” said Roy Leavitt, the Executive Director of Greenwich House. “Not only does Ars Nova have a strong vision for the Greenwich House Theater, they have a track record of fostering new artists and creating diverse audiences. We’re looking forward to partnering with them on new initiatives for theater lovers of all ages.”

Opened in 1917 as the Greenwich House Theater, Greenwich House’s Children Theater program occupied the space beginning in 1921. For over 65 years, under the leadership of children’s author and playwright Helen Murphy, the theater not only provided a constructive outlet for children of the area’s mostly Italian immigrant families, but its productions received widespread recognition. Beginning in the 1970s, a series of professional theater companies began operating in the space. The now defunct Sanctuary Theatre, whose members included voice artist Rip Torn and film star Geraldine Page, began productions in 1979. In 1985, Soho Rep. moved in, followed by the non-profit Drama Dept. in the 1990s. Since 2003, the theater has been occupied by the Barrow Street Theatre company and is currently home to a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, whose tickets are on sale through May 27, 2018.

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THERESA REBECK: ‘THE WAY OF THE WORLD’ MAKES ITS D.C. PREMIERE AT FOLGER THEATRE (1/9-2/11) ·

‘THE WAY OF THE WORLD’

Adaptation of the Restoration classic by William Congreve features

Tony Award®-nominated actress Kristine Nielsen

Produced as part of The Women’s Voices Theater Festival

(Washington, DC) – Folger Theatre continues its 2017/18 season with The Way of the World, a new comedy freely adapted from the classic play by William Congreve. Written and directed by renowned author Theresa Rebeck (Mauritus and Seminar and Broadway; co-creator and head writer of TV’s Smash), the production will star Tony Award® nominee Kristine Nielsen (Present Laughter, You Can’t Take It With You, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike on Broadway). 

The Way of the World, part of D.C.’s second installment of The Women’s Voices Theater Festival highlighting new works by female artists, is on stage from January 9 through February 11, 2018. Tickets are available online at www.folger.edu/theatre or by calling the Folger Box Office at
(202) 544-7077.

Mae is a sweet-natured woman with just a little baggage—a $600 million inheritance. When her womanizing boyfriend Henry seduces her aunt, both women become the object of scandal. But Henry has a plan to win the heiress back. In the lush and opulent land of the Hamptons, where money and status determine everything, can love conquer all? This comedy of manners—with no manners at all—is a sparklingly witty physical comedy illuminating the foibles of the upper class.

Alongside Kristine Nielsen, who plays Mae’s ever-watchful Aunt Rene, the cast of The Way of the World features Eliza Huberth as the altruistic Mae, and Luigi Sottile as her inconstant boyfriend Henry. Rounding out the klatch of friends are Brandon Espinoza, Elan Zafir, Erica Dorfler, Ashley Austin Morris, and Daniel Morgan Shelley.

“I am thrilled to bring The Way of the World to Washington, D.C. to be a part of the momentous Womens Voices Theater Festival initiative,” says playwright and director Theresa Rebeck. “For this play, which could most easily be subtitled Lady Wishfort’s Revenge, we have assembled a remarkable, knock-out creative team as well a remarkable cast led by the comedic talents of the incomparable Kristine Nielsen. I am proud of this new work and cannot wait to begin working on it in the intimate surroundings of the Folger Theatre.”

The celebrated creative team includes prolific designers who have worked throughout the D.C. area, across the country, as well as numerous productions Off-Broadway and on Broadway, including Tony Award® nominee Alexander Dodge (scenic design), Tony Award® winners Linda Cho (costume design) and Donald Holder (lighting design), and M.L. Dogg (sound design).

“Continuing Folger’s 2017/18 season of epic tales of power, passion, and politics, it is such a pleasure to welcome the wonderfully insightful work of the remarkable Theresa Rebeck,” Janet Alexander Griffin, Folger Theatre’s Artistic Producer, says. “Adapted from one of the great Restoration comedies, first performed over 300 years ago, this modern-day The Way of the World remains a thought-provoking and hilarious satire of the absurdities and follies of high society. Folger Theatre is once again proud to participate in The Women’s Voices Theatre Festival.”

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