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‘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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TAMING ‘THE TAMING OF THE SHREW’ UNDER A TENT (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York  Times, 7/19; via Pam Green.)

GARRISON, N.Y. — When last we dropped in on Kate, Petruchio, Bianca and the gang, they were contestants in some kind of surreal beauty pageant, riding around on bikes and making no sense. That’s what “The Taming of the Shrew” had come to in a 2016 Shakespeare in the Park production directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

To be fair, those were end times for “Shrew”; no one knew what to do anymore with a comedy that turns on the humiliation, torture and probable rape of an “irksome brawling scold.” (In Anne Tyler’s novel “Vinegar Girl,” released that same summer, Kate tames herself.) Ms. Lloyd evidently hoped that an all-female staging — the men were played by women in drag — would pluck the stinger from the wasp, to paraphrase Petruchio. Instead, the sweaty desperation of the effort exacerbated the problem and made it look intractable.

Two summers later, with the #MeToo movement having exploded in the interim, it seemed time to say that “Shrew,” for all its perverse pleasures, should be left alone, in either of that phrase’s meanings. Do it as written and live with it, or don’t do it at all.

I’m happy to see that in adapting the play for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, the director Shana Cooper felt differently. Her “Shrew,” playing through Aug. 24 under a tent on the grounds of the Boscobel House and Gardens here, finds an exhilarating new way to look at the comedy through modern eyes while remaining true to its language and, arguably, its intent.

(Read more)

AT AVIGNON FESTIVAL, LOTS OF IMAGINATION ON SHOW, BUT FEW WOMEN ·

(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/19; via Pam Green.)

AVIGNON, France — The biggest productions of the 2018 Avignon Festival did not skimp on dramatics. Thomas Jolly presented a mythological king who feeds his brother his own sons; Milo Rau recreated the murder of a gay man in Belgium in 2012; and the festival director Olivier Py cast three men in turn as violent prison inmates, as poets and as coldblooded bankers.

Amid the boundary-pushing moments, there was one glaring omission: women, both as directors and as protagonists. The lack of parity in French theater is nothing new, but Mr. Py unwittingly drew attention to his own blind spots with the overall theme he selected for this edition of the Avignon Festival: “Gender.”

Out of 28 directors or collectives in the theater division, there were just seven women in the lineup at Avignon, the most important event in the French theater calendar. Three of them were credited in tandem with a man; two presented their work in the small Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, a venue Mr. Py has set aside for family-friendly productions.

Carole Thibaut, an experienced director who is at the helm of a National Dramatic Center in Montluçon, summed it up in an impassioned speech, her anger as potent as any of the stage performances on show. She was appearing as a guest during a series of daily performances and lectures directed by David Bobée that took place in the Ceccano Garden in Avignon and were called “Mesdames, Messieurs et le Reste du Monde” (“Ladies, Gentlemen and the Rest of the World”).

(Read more)

Photo: The New York Times

 

***** EAST WALL REVIEW – HOFESH SHECHTER’S DANCE ARMY LAYS SIEGE TO TOWER ·

(Sanjoy Roy’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/20.)

It sounds like a sterling idea for a community artwork: a collaboration between East London Dance, Hofesh Shechter Company, Historic Royal Palaces and Lift, who paired four choreographers with youth groups to create an open-air performance at the Tower of London celebrating the history and diversity of the East End and its people.

Four years in the making and directed by Shechter, East Wall turned out to be much more than that, something far more convincing: an expression of human complexity that combined community with conflict, vitality with violence, civilisation with its discontents. At the start, the Gold Vocal Collective sang a surreal, harmonised version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Then an entire brass band of guardsmen in full livery rounded the corner and marched across the stage. Was this already a dance performance? It was costumed entertainment, it was a blend of sound and motion, and it was – as the band marched off, leaving a solitary civilian on the floor, as if trampled – a ceremonial display and an embodiment of militarism. Early on, our sense of place and perspective was becoming complicated.

There were subtler but no less deep ambiguities in James Finnemore’s section with Incognito and Shift dance companies, featuring a kind of queen bee in a hive of courtly activity. Finnemore’s finely crafted group-work showed the surrounding dancers guiding her steps, parting before her, stabilising her leans. Arrayed in front of her, hands held open, they could be passive drones awaiting her bidding – or was she the reluctant figurehead for an expectant crowd?

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IN CONSERVATIVE MUNICH, A THEATER TURNS RADICAL AND DEFENDS REFUGEES ·

(A.J. Goldmann’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/13; via Pam Green.)

MUNICH — In the summer of 2015, the world watched in astonishment as Germans cheered crowds of refugees streaming into train stations throughout the country. Scenes from that unprecedented — and short-lived — moment of welcome form part of “What They Want to Hear,” one of two current productions about exile and its ordeals at the Münchner Kammerspiele, one of Munich’s, and Germany’s, most important theaters.

Since 2015, Matthias Lilienthal, the company’s artistic director, has turned the theater into a forum for creative experimentation, social engagement and political inquiry. The spotlight that these productions shine on the struggles of refugees seems especially urgent given that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open border policy is under attack, especially here in the state of Bavaria.

One of Mr. Lilienthal’s recent initiatives has been the Open Border Ensemble, a group of five Syrian actors who have been invited to realize projects at the Kammerspiele. “What They Want to Hear,” a collaboration between Raaed Al Kour, a Syrian archaeologist, and Lola Arias, an Argentine director, is the ensemble’s second major production this season.

Mr. Al Kour arrived in Germany four years ago and has been caught in bureaucratic limbo ever since as he waits for his application for refugee status to be decided. Directed by Ms. Arias, he presents the story of his absurd saga in “What They Want to Hear.”

(Read more)

Photo: Andrea Huber

FIRST NIGHT OF THE PROMS: HOLST, WILLIAMS, MEREDITH: BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND CHORUS, NATIONAL YOUTH CHOIR AND PROMS YOUTH ENSEMBLE CONDUCTED BY SAKARI ORAMO ·

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Live at BBC Proms: BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, National Youth Choir and Proms Youth Ensemble conducted by Sakari Oramo in music by Holst, Vaughan Williams and Anna Meredith.

From the Royal Albert Hall, London
Presented by Georgia Mann and Petroc Trelawny

Oliver Knussen: Flourish with Fireworks, Op 22
Vaughan Williams: Toward the Unknown Region
Holst: The Planets

  1. 9.20 pm
    Live Interval: On the opening night of the 2018 BBC Proms, Georgia Mann and Petroc Trelawny look forward to two months of world-class music-making in the company of guests, and go backstage to chat to some of the performers in tonight’s Prom.

c.9.50 pm
Anna Meredith: Five Telegrams
BBC co-commission with 14-18 NOW and Edinburgh International Festival

National Youth Choir of Great Britain
BBC Proms Youth Ensemble
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)

An all-British season launch, featuring two major figures who composed responses to the First World War. Holst’s much-loved The Planets (premiered in 1918) and Vaughan Williams’s choral masterpiece Toward the Unknown Region contrast with a new work by Anna Meredith, featuring the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble. Five Telegrams draws on communications sent by young soldiers in 1918, taken from a British Field Service Postcard.

REVIEWS:

FIRST NIGHT OF THE PROMS, REVIEW:  A BOLD AND IMAGINATIVE MUSICAL EXPRESSION OF THE END OF WWI

(Ivan Hewett’s article appeared in the Telegraph 7/14.)

The First Night has two important jobs to perform: to make a big splash, and to set the tone and signal the big themes of the coming season. The second half of this year’s first nightpromised to do both, spectacularly.

It was a brand-new piece named Five Telegrams, commissioned in commemoration of the end of the First World War, a major theme of the season.

It was a big bold statement, involving two choirs as well as a BBC Symphony Orchestra heavily reinforced with extra trumpets of the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, and moving imagery projected onto the curved walls and hanging mushrooms of the Albert Hall by the co-creators of the piece, 59 Productions.

(Read more

PROMS 2018 REVIEW – OPENING NIGHT DUTIFULLY HONOURS MUSICAL GREATS                                

(Andrew Clements’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/13.)

The visuals were mostly abstract, but here and there one caught a hint of something more concrete, a suggestion of maps and gun placements in one movement, a tangle of lines suggesting messages running down telephone wires to the front.

Meredith’s  musical idiom is a pop-flavoured minimalism with hints of Steve Reich, which doesn’t lend itself to lyrical effusion – an advantage in this piece, where feelings tend to be obliterated by the machinery of war.

Even so, one sometimes felt her usually buoyant inventiveness was hampered by the need to serve a symbolic purpose.

As for the  visuals, they were so beautifully decorative that one sometimes forgot their sinister implication. Nonetheless this was a spectacular and brilliantly conceived start to the season.

(Read more

(Photos–top to bottom–Classical Iconoclast, Telegraph, BBC)

 

 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: ‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE’ (LISTEN NOW ON DRAMA ON 3–LINK BELOW) ·

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‘The Glass Menagerie’

By Tennessee Williams

The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams’ first big success when it opened on Broadway in 1945, and has remained the most touching, tender and painful of his works. Closely based on the playwright’s own life and family in St Louis in the 1930s, Williams breaks away from naturalism to create a dream-like atmosphere. The narrator Tom conjures up recollections of the cramped and claustrophobic tenement home he shares with his often over-bearing mother Amanda, and his painfully shy sister, Laura.

The play simmers with frustration as each character is trapped in their own unhappy situation. Tom (also Williams’ birth name) works in a warehouse but dreams of being a poet and escaping his mundane life supporting his mother and sister. Laura hides at home lacking the confidence to engage meaningfully with the outside world, preferring instead to get lose herself in her collection of fragile glass animals. Amanda sells magazine subscriptions over the phone and commits herself to finding a match for her daughter. One day, Tom succumbs to his mother’s pressure and brings home a gentleman caller to visit his sister, and their quiet existence is shattered.

The programme is introduced by John Lahr, author of the acclaimed biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.

Amanda . . . . . Anastasia Hille
Tom . . . . . George MacKay
Laura . . . . . Patsy Ferran
Jim . . . . . Sope Dirisu

Music for violin arranged and performed by Bogdan Vacarescu.

Director: Sasha Yevtushenko.

Photo: BBC

 

ADAM RAPP: ‘THE SOUND INSIDE’ WITH MARY-LOUISE PARKER (SV PICK, MASS.) ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/3; via Pam Green.)

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — It’s pretty easy to stun an audience into the kind of silence about which people say, “You could hear a pin drop.” Just a well-timed slap will do it.

But there’s a deeper kind of attention in the theater: the kind that comes from withholding the blow. When an audience is focused on what might be coming instead of what already came, you can hear a pin not drop.

That’s the silence — a beautiful hush of dread and wonder — that envelops “The Sound Inside,” Adam Rapp’s astonishing new play now receiving its world premiere, under the masterly direction of David Cromer, at the Williamstown Theater Festival. For its entire 90 minutes you are dying to know what will happen even while hoping to forestall the knowledge.

So is Bella Baird, the 53-year-old fiction writer and Yale professor who narrates much of the play. As the action starts she has received a terrible cancer diagnosis with little chance of survival.

(Read more)

Photo: The New York Times

***** OBISESAN/ISANGO ENSEMBLE: ‘SS MENDI: DANCING THE DEATH DRILL’ (SV PICK, UK)  ·

(Bridget Minamore’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/6.)

Zamile Gantana takes a crate, sits in the middle of the stage, and gives a straightforward but lyrical explanation of what happened to the SS Mendi. In 1917, a total of 823 South African men boarded the ship to aid the British war effort; a month later, more than 600 of them drowned after a collision. “This is our lament for the souls of the dead, to bring them peace,” Gantana says. From this opening scene, the South African theatre company Isango Ensemble transfigure the idea of lament, turning grief into something poignantly beautiful, darkly funny and, at times, sharply angry.

The script follows a dozen or so men on the ship including an outspoken priest, a teenager told his presence brings bad luck, a mixed-race recruit and a white officer. Adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan alongside the 14-strong ensemble, the play shows the racist indignities the men faced on board before their tragic deaths.

Mark Dornford-May’s direction, combined with Lungelo Ngamlana’s choreography and Mandisi Dyantyis’ musical direction, is extraordinary. Using few instruments and scant props, the world around the Mendi, from train journeys to bird sounds, is realised using movement, music and voice work.

(Read more)

Photo: The Times of London

BIZET/ HAMMERSTEIN: ‘CARMEN JONES’ FROM JOHN DOYLE AT CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/27 via Pam Green.)  

By the time the woman in the cafe starts to sing that the music has taken over her body — her bones, her stomach, her heart — you’re in no position to question the diagnosis. You’ve been feeling that same, gut-deep response almost since the first notes were sounded in “Carmen Jones,” which opened on Wednesday at Classic Stage Company.

This may also be the moment at which you accept for good that John Doyle’s transformative revival of this once-shunned, sui generis work from 1943 — a strange hybrid of opera (the score is that of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen”) and musical theater (the lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II) — isn’t going to be embarrassing. It is, on the contrary, sublime.

There’s no point trying to resist such sheer, distilled beauty. Your chances would be about as good as those of our helpless hero in escaping the erotic pull of the show’s title character, thrillingly embodied here by Anika Noni Rose.

And it all could have gone so wrong.

 (Read more)