Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

COSSON/MORRIS/FRIEDMAN: ‘GONE MISSING’ (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/12; via Pam Green.)

The two-night revival of “Gone Missing” at New York City Center is both a very good show and a very bad, very cosmic joke. Because this documentary song cycle is about loss: of minds, rings, a dog, the hour badly spent. And the irretrievable loss, the one you can hear in pretty much every plink and strum from the onstage band, is the loss of the show’s composer, Michael Friedman, who died a year ago from AIDS-related complications. Which makes “Gone Missing” an accidental and indispensable elegy.

The show, which has a book by Steven Cosson, was originally created and performed by The Civilians theater company in 2003. It was built on more-or-less verbatim interviews that company members conducted with both people who have lost things and people whose job it is to find them. Mr. Cosson arranged the interviews into a series of monologues, and Peter Morris dreamed up some public radio-style segments, while Friedman composed songs that expanded, sweetly and tartly, on the themes that emerged.

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Photo: AM NY

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.

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Photo: The New York Times

REVIEW: ‘ON A CLEAR DAY,’ ETERNALLY ODD, GETS YET ANOTHER LIFE ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 6/28; via Pam Green.)

Bizarre subjects are no deal breaker for musicals; think human meat pies and philosophical felines. But few shows have as bewildering a topic as “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” the 1965 jaw-dropper about ESP, telekinesis and past-life regression that’s a weird mix of laughably earnest woo-woo and chipper Broadway savvy.

For the savvy, we have the score to thank: a treasure trunk of standards with music by Burton Lane and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Songs like “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,” “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” and “Come Back to Me” are so catchy and well constructed that, stripped of context, you’d have no idea they were originally attached to such strange ideas. (In the musical, “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” is sung to a flowerpot.)

For the strange ideas, Lerner has to take the blame. It was he who, obsessed with the New Age fads flitting around the era, devised a story — about a love triangle among a psychiatrist, his patient and her former incarnation — that became, over the years, Broadway’s pity project: the Golden Age book most in need of rescuing.

My conclusion, based on the 1970 Barbra Streisand movie, the 2000 Encores concert starring Kristin Chenoweth, the complete rewriting of the show as a Harry Connick, Jr. vehicle in 2011 and the cute revisal that opened at the Irish Repertory Theater on Thursday, is: It can’t be fixed. The pleasures of “On a Clear Day” are so intertwined with its absurdities that no theatrical version can separate them. You have to enjoy it for what it is, or not.

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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.)

 

***** ROTIMI BABATUNDE: ‘THE SECRET LIVES OF BABA SEGI’S WIVES’ REVIEW – A SWAGGERING SPECTACULAR ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/14.)

Nuanced, charismatic performances … Marcy Dolapo Oni and Patrice Naiambana in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

“Sir, you will deposit your sperm inside,” a hospital nurse instructs Baba Segi as she hands him a beaker. He – a polygamist and paradigm of chauvinistic braggadocio – insists he does not need a fertility test and that it is his fourth wife who needs to be examined, for “barrenness”.

He is told to leave his deposit in the container anyway, and with that begins a masturbation scene of such epic and eye-wateringly Rabelaisian proportions that it becomes the definitive show-stopping moment in a production filled to the brim with sexual swagger and sensational daring.

Based on Lola Shoneyin’s bestselling 2011 novel, the play is set in an enclave of modern-day Nigeria where tribal custom and witchcraft still rub up against rationality and science. Ostensibly about polygamy in old Africa, it is a far more universal story of the shifting power-play inside a marriage and sexual envy between women. When the youngest and most educated wife, Bolanle (Marcy Dolapo Oni), enters the scene, the other three plot murderous schemes against her, like Macbeth’s witches. This adaptation by the award-winning writer Rotimi Babatunde captures the complicated gender dynamics: his rampant misogyny, their occasional misandry, and the quiet, subversive power they wield inside his household.

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***** BRIAN FRIEL: ‘TRANSLATIONS’ (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in The Guardian, 5/31.)

Brian Friel’s 1980 play has long been regarded as a modern classic. In Ian Rickson’s flawless production, it seems to expand to fill the vast space of the Olivier. Friel’s multilayered study of what Colm Tóibín calls “the clash between language and culture” is set against the epic breadth of the mist-wreathed Donegal hills, beautifully lit by Neil Austin and punctuated, in Ian Dickinson’s sound design, by the sound of steadfast Irish rain dripping into a bucket.

What strikes one is Friel’s ability to find complex meanings in a simple story and to capture Ireland, in 1833, at a moment of historical transition. A rural hedge-school, where classes are conducted in Irish, is to be replaced by a national education system in which English is the official language. At the same time, British soldiers are engaged in an ordnance survey involving the anglicisation of Irish place names. Friel explores these radical changes through their impact on individuals: in particular, Hugh, the local teacher steeped in Latin and Greek; his bilingual son, Owen, who acts as interpreter for the occupying forces; and an English lieutenant, Yolland, who readily succumbs to the romance of Ireland.

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Photo: The National Theatre

‘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

***** ‘LIFE AND FATE’ REVIEW – A REMARKABLE EPIC OF SOVIET HORROR AND HEARTBREAK (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/9.)

Consciously modelled on War and Peace, Vasily Grossman’s epic novel – written in 1960 but not published in Russia until 1988 – is not the easiest to transfer to the stage. Lev Dodin, as adapter and director, and the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg have done a heroic job in encompassing the book’s main themes, including the historic parallels between communism and fascism, and in giving the complex action, including the battle of Stalingrad, a miraculous fluidity.

Wisely, Dodin does not try to give us the whole book but focuses on key issues. Central to the story is the tortured conscience of a Jewish nuclear physicist, Viktor Shtrum, who in 1943 finds himself at odds with his scientific masters. This yields two unforgettable scenes. In the first we see the exultation of the suddenly indispensable Shtrum when he receives an approving phone call from Stalin. In the second, with its potent echoes of Brecht’s Galileo, Shtrum agonises over whether, to continue his research, he should sign a letter effectively condoning the death of Soviet dissidents.

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ST LAZARE/BECKETT: ‘HERE ALL NIGHT’ (SV PICK, IE)  ·

(Peter Crawley’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 4/17.)

“I’ll fix their gibberish for them,” says the speaker of Beckett’s Unnamable, in a defiant mood, even as his mind is slowly dissolving into nothing. “I never understood a word of it in any case…”

The reader of Beckett’s prose works will know something of the feeling, alternately enthused, amused, bewildered and worn into submission by the onslaught of absurdist verbiage. Here All Night, Gare St Lazare’s interdisciplinary bricolage of prose, music, installation art and performance, decides instead that the words are neither gibberish nor fixed; finding in their collaboration the permission to jam.

To some extent you can read the results – fractured and spliced, ascetic and experimental – as Modernism: The Opera. The centrepiece on a bare dark stage is a sculptural installation by the artist Brian O’Doherty, in which a petrified body is suspended, supine, mid air, like someone laid to rest in a display case. That this artwork has been shucked from its original context is more methodology than sin: the production is all about reappropriation.

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LERNER AND LOEWE: ‘MY FAIR LADY’ AT LINCOLN CENTER (SV PICK, NY)  ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/19; via Pam Green.)

Poor Eliza. It’s not enough that her own father sells her for five pounds to the bully phonetician Henry Higgins. Or that Higgins strips her of her ragged clothes and Cockney accent so she can become a refined if useless lady.

No, the former flower girl is also a failure of feminism, if recent criticism is to be believed.

Don’t believe it.

The plush and thrilling Lincoln Center Theater revival of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” that opened on Thursday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater reveals Eliza Doolittle as a hero instead of a puppet — and reveals the musical, despite its provenance and male authorship, as an ur-text of the #MeToo moment. Indeed, that moment has made “My Fair Lady,” which had its Broadway premiere in 1956, better than it ever was.

It was always good, of course, one of the gleaming artifacts and loveliest scores of the Golden Age of American musical theater — a canon now being contested, with cause, for its unenlightened sexual politics.

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Photo: The New York Times