Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

PINTER: ‘BETRAYAL’ WITH TOM HIDDLESTON (SV REVIEW PICK, NY) ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/5.)

How can a naked space seem so full? Feelings furnish the stage in the resplendently spare new production of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” which opened on Thursday night at the Bernard Jacobs Theater, and they shimmer, bend and change color like light streaming through a prism.

Directed by Jamie Lloyd — and acted with surgical precision by Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox — this stripped-down revival of Pinter’s 1978 tale of a sexual triangle places its central characters under microscopic scrutiny, with no place to hide. Especially not from one another, as everybody is on everybody else’s mind, all the time. They are also all almost always fully visible to the audience.

This British version is the most merciless and empathic interpretation of this much performed work I’ve seen, and it keeps returning to my thoughts in piercing shards, like the remnants of a too-revealing dream. I had heard good things about this “Betrayal” when it debuted in London earlier this year, but I didn’t expect it to be one of those rare shows I seem destined to think about forever.

“Betrayal” was dismissed as lightweight by Pinter standards when it opened at the National Theater in London four decades ago, and hearing it described baldly, you can sort of understand why. The high concept pitch could be: “Love among the literati in London leads to disaster, when a publisher discovers his wife is having an affair with his best friend!”…

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Photo: Merlin, The New York Times

LARRY TODD COUSINEAU:  ‘ALL THAT HE WAS’ (REVIEW PICK, CHI)  ·

(Chris Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 8/21.)

I find myself haunted by the funerals of the AIDS era.

I attended too many of them and the creative lives they celebrated were far too young to end.

Moreover, in the agony of loss you often could discern veiled conflicts: it was hardly unusual, for example, to see pained parents not accepting lovers at the time when we most need to feel a sense of community. It was hardly unusual to look over at a bereaved family and wonder why someone wasn’t there.

The so-called call-out culture is often seen as a contemporary phenomenon, because social media puts so much outrage in our feeds. But we quickly forget how much blame was flung around in the early 1990s. It just came directly out of people’s mouths back then. Time and time again, the unknowing and the innocent were blamed for death.

At what other moment in American history were the deceased so widely perceived as being culpable in their own demise?

“All That He Was,” a piece of theater that I found inestimably difficult to watch on Sunday night, was not the first show to flood my mind with these thoughts. That was “Mothers and Sons,” the vastly under-rated Terrence McNally play that made a brave attempt to reconcile AIDS, death, love and blame by exploring all of the different ways in which people hurt and understanding that pain often is expressed as anger.

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Photo: Rick Rapp, Joe Giovannetti, Sarah Hayes and Matthew Huston in “All That He Was” at the Pride Arts Center’s Buena stage. (Nicholas Swatz photo / HANDOUT)

***** LUGHNASA FRIELFEST REVIEW – ART OVER TROUBLED BORDERS (VARIOUS VENUES, DERRY AND DONEGAL) ·

(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/25.)

The annual celebration of the work of Brian Friel carries powerful reminders of the work of building community

“Politics are so obtrusive here.” The great Irish playwright Brian Friel (1929-2015) was being interviewed in the Guildhall in Derry in 1980. Gesturing to the Ebrington barracks beyond the window, on the other side of the River Foyle, he continued: “For people like ourselves… definitions of identity have to be developed and analysed much more frequently [than in England]. We’ve got to keep questioning until we find… some kind of generosity that can embrace the whole island.”

The cross-border FrielFest, now in its fourth year, invites audiences to participate in both the questioning and the embrace. In doing so, it reflects Friel’s own strength – making works particular to time and place that express our universal experiences. The quest for answers to shifting questions is reflected in the peripatetic form of the festival, with dramatic readings of Friel’s works presented in and around Derry and Donegal – and audiences, on occasion, visiting multiple venues in the course of one performance.

First produced in 1973, The Freedom of the City is set in Derry’s Guildhall, where, poignantly, this production is staged. A few hundred yards away, people are gathering around a makeshift music stage to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bogside. On the night I attend, the audience meets outside the Museum of Free Derry (on other evenings, the rendezvous point is the Ebrington barracks). We are sung to the Guildhall by Nigerian-born, Liverpool-based performer and playwright Tayo Aluko, and walk in the wake of his resonant spirituals. Where some of us see city streets, others see invisible barriers crumbled (“I would never have crossed this road when I was young,” says one). The play is partially based on events around 1972’s Bloody Sunday. Its action unfurls in double-time. The fictional experiences of three civil rights demonstrators, who stumble into the Guildhall, fleeing a tear gas onslaught, are interspersed with the official inquiry into their subsequent deaths (shot leaving the building by the army, which maintains they were armed terrorists).

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Photo: Guardian

 

***** SCHNITZLER: ‘THE DOCTOR’ FROM ROBERT ICKE, WITH JULIET STEVENSON (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/21.)

Juliet Stevenson delivers one of the peak performances of the theatrical year in Robert Icke’s striking reimagining of Schnitzler

As a director and writer, Robert Icke specialises in updating the classics. But where his version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck struck me as an impertinence, this adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi is a brilliant expansion of the original’s themes. Icke’s production also yields a performance by Juliet Stevenson that is one of the peaks of the theatrical year.

First performed in 1912, Schnitzler’s play offers a devastating portrait of Viennese antisemitism in showing a Jewish doctor attacked for refusing a Catholic priest permission to administer the last rites to a patient. Icke retains Schnitzler’s premise while subtly rewriting it. His protagonist, Ruth Wolff, is a secular Jew who runs a prestigious institute specialising in Alzheimer’s disease. But when Ruth prevents a priest seeing a 14-year-old girl dying from a self-administered abortion, the incident acquires a toxic publicity. It goes viral on social media, provokes petitions and TV debates, and jeopardises not only Ruth’s future but that of the institute and a government-bankrolled new building. 

Stevenson beautifully portrays the human cost of making medicine one’s god

Impressively, Icke enlarges the original to take on not just religion but also race, gender and class. He even adds a creative dissonance in casting women to play male roles, black actors to play white characters and vice versa.

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Photo: London Theatre

ON ADJACENT STAGES, TWO HAUNTED HOUSES, CIRCA 1882 AND 2019 (SV REVIEW PICK, MA) ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 8/12; via Pam Green.)

A sumptuous Ibsen revival starring Uma Thurman and a knockout premiere by Adam Bock close the Williamstown season with a metaphysical “boo!”

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two ghost stories are running side by side here at the Williamstown Theater Festival, but only one has “Ghosts” as its title.

That’s the headliner, on the festival’s main stage: Ibsen’s classic about a family and a society possessed (and literally sickened) by inbred amorality. To the play’s already overflowing grab bag of symbols and hot topics circa 1882 — syphilis, incest, arson, euthanasia — the director Carey Perloff adds gorgeous stage pictures, eerie live music and a glowy Uma Thurman giving a creditable performance in a famously difficult role.

Just across the lobby, on the festival’s Nikos Stage, is the other ghost story, as stylistically distant from Ibsen as a play could reasonably get. In Adam Bock’s “Before the Meeting,” the walking dead are recovering modern-day alcoholics and drug addicts, setting up a church basement for a series of 12-step meetings. They don’t discuss abstract philosophy; their chief concerns appear to be the maintenance of the coffee urn and the arrangement of the chairs.

But over the course of eight days, as the play digs deeper, its naturalistic trappings drop away. Eventually Mr. Bock takes us dangerously close to the glowing core of Ibsenism, giving the Off Broadway treasure Deirdre O’Connell a stupendous 25-minute monologue that rips open the story with heartbreaking self-reproach. Phantoms, she demonstrates, do not come unbidden into our lives; we invite them, over and over.

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Photo:  Troy Record.com

PTP/NYC (POTOMAC THEATRE PROJECT):  ‘HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT’ AND STOPPARD’S ‘DOGG’S HAMLET’ AND ‘CAHOOT’S MACBETH’ (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Historians, looking back at contemporary American theatre, will have to evaluate whether our stages were reflections of society or partisan distortions. Were our artists “living in the truth,” as former Czech president Václav Havel would ask, or were they politically motivated, sold out, blindsided, outfinanced, or unable to speak due to silencing opinion-makers, the market, or even Google, facebook, or twitter.  A work like Rob Ackerman’s Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, from The Working Theater, which played off-Broadway, during June and July, sees America’s employed as powerless and compliant–and the boss as original and supremely intelligent, even while he demonstrates only basic knowledge.  In Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, which ran at Second Stage this spring and summer, the highlight is the storytelling, although the characters are types—the smart, contemporary woman, the sensitive, uncloseted gay actor, and the disturbed soldier—all meeting progressive expectations.  What audiences may not be questioning, though, is to what degree the arts in the U.S. are really free—and this is where a writer like Havel, whose rarely performed Vanek plays (three of them here, of four; banned during communism), are now running at PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) until August 4, alongside two short pieces by Beckett and Pinter, in Havel: The Passion of Thought.  Even if most Americans can not know the horror of life in Czechoslovakia, in the last century, one of the short plays in the evening, a two-hander called “Protest” is a pros-and-cons checklist for the conscience, universally true for anyone who must challenge authority, in any of its guises–or even only intends to send a tweet.  America itself has powerful censoring mechanisms, despite the First Amendment, strongly expressed in 1978 by Russian Nobelist and Soviet labor camp survivor, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom Thomas Farnan, in Human Events, reminds us, wrote that the media, Western news reporting,  “[endorses] ‘fashionable trends of thought and ideas’ while suppressing ‘independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.’” Solzhenitsyn was severely criticized—in fact, told to go back where he came from, like “the Squad” today–but his observation regarding “fashionable trends of thought and ideas” is essential when thinking about American arts.

 

“The Protest” is set in Prague, outside a lovely garden home, marked by flowering magnolias and gladiolas–in thirty-two shades–of a television and film writer (played robustly by Danielle Skraastad), who admits that she is “pushing fifty.” She must make a decision on bold action, regarding a court decision, thinking aloud to an old theatrical friend, a dissident (a non-judging David Barlow): “When the rest of us want to do something of ordinary human decency, we automatically turn to you as though you were some sort of agency for the conduct of moral matters.  Perverse, isn’t it? Sickening, isn’t it?”  Her choice is to regain her self-esteem, lost freedom, and honor, even if it means losing her job—or to continue living on “the path of accommodation” and “shameful compromise.”  She realizes that she must be made an example of, and punished cruelly, if she chooses the first option.  She would be the bad conscience of people who do not act, and who will smear her, ultimately thinking her decision stupid, nothing more.  The dilemma is not simply Eastern European, of course, and must be made not only by the accommodating characters in Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson (also set in the television industry), but also in other contexts, such as teachers’ rooms in academia, validating disproven conclusions on Darwin’s theory, for example, the Hollywood of #MeToo, and at publishers and theatre companies, among various jobs throughout the country, adherent to the common wisdom, as opposed to critical, independent thinking.

“Interview” may remind of Chekhov’s short story, “Misery,” where the need to express thoughts, explain oneself, becomes so urgent that the central character begins confiding in a least likely figure.  In Chekhov, this is a horse.  In Havel’s short play, the character is Vanek, who is asked to inform on himself.  Havel’s plays can have elements of absurdism—as they drink and munch peanuts–but he is not whimsical, and his writing can even sound like O’Neill’s realism. It is not lost on viewers, at Atlantic Stage 2, that the playwright does not advocate socialism, part of the current U.S. national debate (what other son of a builder do you know who does not advocate socialism and became president of his country?).  Havel’s characters are bored and drunk, living futile lives, without work ethic and devoid of meaning: “What about me?” says the crass, tormented brewmaster (Michael Laurence), “I’m only good enough to be the shit on which your fucking principles can grow so you can be a goddamn hero. . . . You’re gonna show off  . . .  about the way you handled barrels in a brewery! But what about me?  What can I go back to?  Huh? What future have I got?  What?”  In the plays, Havel works full circle—climax and catharsis always lead back to stagnation, point zero; contradiction (Vanek, for example, is expected to make friends but not become “chummy”) and repetition. The characters can never progress psychologically, much less spiritually, which they appear to want to do, even if they can only make pretense to commercial mimicry.

In “Private View” a couple (Christopher Marshall and Emily Kron) looks toward the West for its cues on everyday life, such as food, art, sex, parenting, and purchase of consumer goods.  The ideas have not grown organically out of their own culture, however, and the characters come across as earnest and empty fakes.  Although the PTP/NYC season 2019 centers on four writers, known for their contributions to the subject of human rights, the chief among them are Havel and Tom Stoppard, both of Czech origin (although Stoppard, for much of his life, has been a British citizen).  In “Private View,” the playwright most invoked, in Havel’s one act, is Ionesco, another Eastern European (in this case, from Romania, who settled in France).  Students and readers can sometimes not understand why artists will speak figuratively–in symbol, for example (a rhinoceros) or metaphor (a cabaret to represent Nazi Germany—the sad news of the death of Hal Prince has just been announced), instead of being direct and exposing the thing itself.  The explanation is usually, “Because it would be too painful”; another reason may that it is too dangerous.  The Vanek plays may seem to talk around what’s really going in a Communist satellite fifty years ago, which had led  PTP’s Co-Artistic Director Richard Romagnoli, in 1991, to add two further short plays in creating Havel: The Passion of Thought, by Pinter and Beckett.  Yet, even so, you may be able to hear the screaming: “Life is hard and the world is divided. Our country has been written off by everybody, nobody’s going to help us, we’re in a very bad way, and it’s only going to get worse–and you can’t change it!”

Pinter’s sobering play, “The New World Order,” takes the audience into a torture room, where assumptions are dismantled, as a hooded man listens to his captor’s threats, spoken as banalities: “He hasn’t got any idea at all of what we’re going to do to him.” Although the assassins are about as bored as the brewery workers in “Interview”—in fact, one seems to maliciously echo the brewmaster’s monologue in Havel’s play: “Before he came here he was a big shot, he never stopped shooting his mouth off”—the leader explains that they are “keeping the world safe for democracy.”  Beckett’s play, “Catastrophe,” actually written in honor of Havel—a work in which Pinter had also played as an actor–has especial bite and edge at PTP/NYC (the consummate direction for the Havel evening is by Richard Romagnoli).  The play (here, the speaking roles are, nontraditionally, played by two women, Madeline Ciocci and Emily Ballou, whose forward-march pacing give the play a fascist edge)–seems to be questioning how the media distorts—and makes fashionable–human rights’ victims—Havel and Solzhenitsyn, for examples, and Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, from Belarus Free Theatre, and Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, to only begin a listing—who might say that what they were doing had nothing to do with becoming celebrities.

Although this review is being finished, at the end of July, during the second night of the Detroit Democratic debates, it should be mentioned that people can be fearful of socialism, despite its current fashionableness in the United States. One need only look at Sir Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet (known for its 15-minute rendition of Hamlet) and Cahoot’s Macbeth, probably a director’s nightmare (ably undertaken here by Cheryl Faraone), a complicated mosaic of different languages (Early Modern English, Modern English, as well as one the playwright has completely made up), utilizing a large cast. Additionally, as if a new society is being constructed during the plays, there are different settings and shifting set pieces, including huge, brutalist alphabet blocks, created for a Stalinist era (the design is by Mark Evancho; the three costume designers for the evenings are Glenna Ryer, Chris Romagnoli, and Rebecca Lafon;  and Hallie Zieselman designed the lighting). Amit Prakash, visiting assistant professor, Middlebury College,  has written, “In a society dominated by ideology, words are completely untethered from their meanings, shared human experience is always up for debate, and truth is as evasive as a hunted animal.”

Stoppard seems to see dislocation and language reconstruction as occurring due to changing ideology, and these plays appear to be giving a Stoppardian mirror image of Czechoslovakia, during the 1970s and 1980s (Ed Berman, who worked with the playwright at Almost Free Theatre in London, has also been consulted for Potomac Theater Project’s Stoppard plays). Although based on Shakespeare, the work is also influenced by Beckett, Havel, Wiggenstein, Pavel Kohout, detective novels, Ionesco, and the Theatre of the Absurd, to start.  One setting for Cahoots Macbeth is a home, which can seem unusual, given that plays are being performed there, instead of at a theatre.  Faraone writes, “forbidden to practice their art in public, one survival strategy (for artists, in Czechoslovakia) became performing Shakespeare in ‘apartment theatre.’” Such playing areas affirm what Kaliada has said, in interviews about stagings in another Eastern European country, Belarus (performances are given in apartments or at birthdays or weddings, to elude authorities).  Havel discusses how to evade them in “The Protest”–by hiding in a department store:  “You mingle with the crowd, then at the moment when they aren’t looking, you sneak into the bathroom and wait for about two hours. They become convinced you managed to sneak off through a side entrance and give up.”

What happens if you are caught?  Stoppard’s detective/government inspector (Tara Giordano, in a trench coat) explains:  “I must warn you that anything you say will be taken down and played back at your trial.”

For more info visit http://PTPNYC.org, Like them on Facebook at https://www.Facebook.com/pages/Potomac-Theatre-Project-PTP/32709392256, follow on Twitter at @ptpnyc (https://twitter.com/ptpnyc), and on Instagram at @ptpnyc.official (https://www.instagram.com/ptpnyc.official).         

The Atlantic Stage 2 is accessible from the A, C, E, L trains to 14 St./8 Ave. or the 1, 2, 3 trains to 14 St.

 © by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.  Production photos: Stan Barouh.

Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity

The cast for HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT includes David Barlow (PTP: No End of Blame, Victory, The Castle), Emily Kron (PTP: The Europeans, Sweet Tooth at Cherry Lane), Michael Laurence (Broadway: Talk Radio, Desire Under the Elms, NBC’s “Shades of Blue”), Christopher Marshall (PTP: The Possibilities, The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History), Danielle Skraastad (Broadway: All My Sons, Hurricane Diane with Women’s Project & NYTW, The Architecture of Becoming with Women’s Project), Emily Ballou and Madeline Ciocci (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke).

The production team for HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT includes Mark Evancho (Set Design), Hallie Zieselman (Lighting Design), Glenna Ryer (Costume Design), Sam Tompkins Martin (Props Design), Peter B. Schmitz and Adam Milano (Movement) and Devin Wein (Production Stage Manager).

The cast for DOGG’S HAMLET, CAHOOT’S MACBETH includes Matthew Ball (PTP: Pity In History, Pentecost), Denise Cormier (Broadway national tour The Graduate, Showtime’s “The Affair”), Tara Giordano (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Vinegar Tom, Serious Money), Christo Grabowski (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History, No End of Blame), Christopher Marshall (PTP: The Possibilities, The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History), Peter B. Schmitz (PTP: Lovesong of the Electric Bear, Therese Raquin), Lucy Van Atta (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Serious Money, Spatter Pattern), Olivia Christie (PTP: Brecht on Brecht), Will Koch, Emily Ma, Katie Marshall, Madeleine Russell (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, The Possibilities), Lior Selve, Zach Varicchione and Connor Wright (PTP: Pity In History).

The production team for DOGG’S HAMLET, CAHOOT’S MACBETH includes Mark Evancho (Set Design), Hallie Zieselman (Lighting Design), Chris Romagnoli (Costume Design Dogg’s Hamlet), Rebecca LaFon (Costume Design Cahoot’s Macbeth), Sam Tompkins Martin (Props Design), Peter B. Schmitz and Adam Milano (Movement) and Alex Williamson (Production Stage Manager).

*****LIFE OF PI REVIEW – TRIUMPHANT TIGER BURNS BRIGHT IN A STUNNING SHOW (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/9.)

Crucible, Sheffield

Transformative puppetry, design and direction, and a great human lead, make this adaptation of Yann Martel’s book unmissable

5/5 stars  

A tip for playwrights: when you want to field a formidable character, make sure you give them a good build-up. Do as Lolita Chakrabarti does in her theatrically savvy adaptation of the Yann Martel novel and keep us waiting. By the time Richard Parker, the accidentally named Bengal tiger, slinks on stage, she has primed us to expect something awesome. We already believe in his animal power and carnivorous appetite.novel and keep us waiting. 

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***** ‘THEATRE FOR ONE’ (REVIEW PICK, IE) ·

(Peter Crawley’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 6/25.)

Thought-provoking theatre where the audience is just you

Review: Theatre for One’s six microplays are bracing, intimate-as-a-whisper performances

THEATRE FOR ONE

Outside Cork Opera House
★★★★★
Annie Ryan of Corn Exchange once described her Car Show, which played to no more than three passengers at a time back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as “the best show you never saw”. Now, conspiring to populate Octopus Theatricals’ tiny collapsible venue with microplays from the nation’s finest writers and performers, Landmark Productions has a new claim to that title. The only thing these bracing, thought-provoking and intimate-as-a-whisper five-minute, one-on-one performances can’t satisfy is demand.

The structure that greets you outside Cork Opera House (which is presenting the show with Cork Midsummer Festival) is something between a giant gig case and a magician’s box. That seems appropriate. Srda Vasiljevic and Eoghan Carrick, their directors, make the plays feel as immediate as a song, revealing and then concealing their performers, as a kind of conjuring act. Now you see them. Now you don’t.

In that blink of intensity neither the playwrights, the actors nor the audience ever seemed so electrically aware of each other or, for that matter, themselves.

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Photos: Irish Times

ROB ACKERMAN: ‘DROPPING GUMBALLS ON LUKE WILSON’–THROUGH JULY 6 (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK)  ·

By Bob Shuman

Rob Ackerman’s Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson is a cute fake out, with all the commercial patter of a Tootsie or Neil Simon–even David Ives—comedy, but on larger issues, it can only shadowbox: like the Advertising sales phrase, in the business where it is set, it serves the sizzle, instead of the steak.  The generic characters (audiences will recognize them from at least as far back as The Mary Tyler Moore Show) are trying to survive in the entertainment world herd, while making a dissing, nonsensical 2010 AT&T commercial, apparently now considered a classic.  The over-glorified director of the shoot (David Wohl) may be putting an actor at risk, though—and the crew could be deemed complicit, for employing what the play believes to be a startling concept:  Naturalism. The script, which provides more waffling than a presidential impeachment hearing, is indecisive regarding its ending, as well, like it’s Rashomon, yet the obvious solution, which is not done, is to grab the director and throw gumballs at him.  A comparable step would have been a no-brainer for a character like Dorothy Gale, in The Wizard of Oz (1939), who flings water at the Wicked Witch—and kills her.  Marlon Brando stands up against union bigs in On the Waterfront (1954), only to become badly beaten, bruised, and battered.  In 9-5 (1980), three women fantasize, slip up, and take action against their sexist boss. Only in contemporary America are workers, in the entertainment industry, so afraid of their shadows.

The play, from Working Theater, may have provided more insight into artist coercion—such as the car accident in Kill Bill (2003) from Tarantino and Weinstein (his trial is currently set to take place 9/9)—but Ackerman wants to present provocation without ever having to stop being clever.  Uma Thurman, against her better judgment, as many will recall, also performed naturalistically, in unsafe working conditions, from which she sustained neck, head, and knee injuries–never fully recovering: “I went from being a creative contributor and performer to being like a broken tool.”  In Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, Ackerman can’t match such stakes:  his climatic event is too small (and maybe not so dangerous, given the amount of money the actor is being paid) and his dramaturgy slippery–he ends up seeming like an apologist for gross behavior on set. Where the evening succeeds, however, is in its timing and brisk pacing–the show is only an hour and fifteen minutes, a one act really, which can deliver on old-fashioned laughs, such as a pie throwing montage (the video design is by Yana Biryukova; sound design is by Bart Fasbender, costumes are by Tricia Barsamian, and the all-important properties, by Addison Heeren).  The likable comic actors, almost as recognizable as figures out of commedia dell’arte, include: the eager, young propman (George Hampe), the “pro” electrician (Dean Nolen); the fraught assistant director (Ann Harada), the narcissistic star (Jonathan Sale), and the genius demon manipulator (Wohl).  Watch them at the Mezzanine Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 W. 53rd Street), through July 6, because the smaller, open studio set (by Christopher Swader & Justin Swader; lighting design is by Mary Ellen Stebbins), allows good space for viewing vivid and lively acting (to be transparent, this reviewer attended workshops, at the Lark Play Development Center, where director Teresa Rebeck—also the playwright of Seminar and Bernhardt/Hamlet, among others–was one of the co-leaders, in the early 2000s). 

People will probably enjoy Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson–and be interested in the truth behind it–but, disappointingly, the script recedes to default cultural talking points (even the show’s advertising has the look of a blue Dem campaign poster), such as the need for feminism, disgust with white men (the spewing has gotten so bad an unlikely Meryl Streep has felt the need to come to the defense of boys: “Women can be pretty fucking toxic”), and realization that Verizon sucks.  Of course, in real life, proles aren’t so generic or innocent—position is cemented, in the competitive arts world, through talent and money, politics, legacy, or tribe.  Likewise, people can probably count on two hands the number of creators who are actually original and masters of their crafts.   Ackerman, who inflates the abilities of his fictional director–who does have power–sees the ineptness of the workers who don’t, simply preserving the status quo.  In another play (and movie), Network (2017, 1976), one more entertainment insider, also in TV (an anchorman), shouts, iconically, in exasperation and rage:  “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  Why will the characters in Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson?  What has happened in American culture, where people can’t say no?

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

WORKING THEATER

WORLD PREMIERE OF

“DROPPING GUMBALLS ON LUKE WILSON”

BY ROB ACKERMAN

DIRECTED BY THERESA REBECK

Cast:  REYNA DE COURCY (Film: Wetlands), GEORGE HAMPE (MTC’s REGRETS; TV: “Madame Secretary”), ANN HARADA (Broadway’s CINDERELLA, AVENUE Q), DEAN NOLEN (Broadway’s MAMMA MIA!. NY: OMNIUM GATHERUM, TABLETOP), JONATHAN SALE (NY: HANDLE WITH CARE. TV: “God Friended Me”) and DAVID WOHL (Broadway’s FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, DINNER AT EIGHT).

Photos: The New York Times, Playbill

BYUNGKOO AHN: ‘13 FRUITCAKES’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Byungkoo Ahn’s distillation of the lives of Leonardo da Vinci, Alan Turing, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hans Christian Andersen, among others, works so effectively—and is so different from other documentary biographies–because the director and author is more interested in high art than formulaic journalism or encyclopedic profiles.  His 13 Fruitcakes, which recently played at La MaMa for four days–June, 13-16–employs aria and poetry; couture and dance en pointe, never decadently, and always with understated, impeccable taste.  The show’s thirteen musical vignettes (a fraction of the material that could be chosen, of course) are replete with crisp original songs (typically classically oriented, with musical settings that can also recall Stephen Sondheim, Philip Glass, and even the American Old South), composed by Gihieh Lee–in a virtual embarrassment of riches, the  lyrics are by Lorca, Wilde, Whitman and other Queer poets. Intricate video arts, using period photographs and contemporary illustrations, are by Jui Mao, Julie Casper Roth, and Kevin Price; electronic music is from the Los Angeles Laptop Collective and the set designer is Jung Griffin; the lighting design is by Erin EarleFleming.

Watch the production’s care regarding color (the opulent costumes are by Leon Wiebers, and memorably include striking tunics–his luxurious palette contains deep green and muted orange, cream, and neon yellow–feather headdresses, punk wigs, top hats, and even angel’s wings.  The visual richness is never mindlessly flamboyant or even excessively sexualized—in fact, part of Ahn’s point seems to be that gay love, often stereotyped as jaded, is based on innocence, not lasciviousness. From a historical perspective, as opposed to a psychological one, he apparently finds LGBTQ+ love simply an alternate response to life.  Of course, a self-identifying Eleanor Roosevelt would be the best kind of validation of her passions,  as well as primary-source records for the others–simply an impossibility–but this has nothing to do with the injustices made against the communities, as a whole, in the ancient world, the Sixth century, the East and West or, of course, now. (13 Fruitcakes is performed in Korean with supertitles—but some of the wording can be missed because of length, timing, density, or even because what goes on elsewhere, on stage, seems more vital).

The performance, an object of rare, complex and dark beauty, which unfurls from a dressing room, presents the superbly talented leading South Korean drag artist, ‘More’ Zimin, a thin, muscular dancer-singer-follies girl-lip-syncher Christ figure, who plays the central character, named Orlando (it is no coincidence that Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West also enter the narrative). He “encourages people to start fighting against social injustice and oppression by telling them stories about great gay ancestors.” The impressive vocal talents of Jayoung Jeong are also on display, as well as a surprising, anachronistic modern nightclub singer.  The young supporting cast, of eleven, “the Fruitcakes,” include Jiung Kim, Kyungrok Kim, Gihyun Lee, Junghoun Jun, Nayeon Kim, Hyunhee Kim, Yoojung Park, Jieun Lee, Bookyung Chung, Daegwon Hong, and Joowon Shin.

The evening, part of the Stonewall 50 at La Mama, begins in 1969, after the death of Judy Garland, a time especially resonant in this reviewer’s mind, because he was drawn to begin reading The Wizard of Oz, days before her suicide; apparently, the time was also important to others: “I did research on the Stonewall Riots,” Ahn writes, “people say somehow the air that day was different from before, even though it was a routine police raid, and on this occasion they did not submit to the police.” Wanting to recreate that “different air” for the stage, perhaps the stirring winds of change, Ahn has stayed at La MaMa, a living museum to the avant-garde, for two short a time—yet his work and activism, will be remembered, in chiaroscuro.

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photos: Theo Cote

13 FRUITCAKES

Director/Playwright: Byungkoo Ahn Composer: Gihieh Lee LA Laptop Collective Artistic Director: Martin Herman Music Director: Hanul Chae SARC General Director: Jayoung Jeong Associate Director: Kimun Kim Choreographer: Jaseung Won Open call curator/Video Arts Head: Inhye Lee Video Arts: Juyi Mao, Julie Casper Roth, Kevin Price Set Designer: Jung Griffin Lighting Designer: Erin EarleFleming Costume Designer: Leon Wiebers Production Assistant: Samara E. Huggins Orchestrator: Jiwon Hahn & Gihieh Lee Producer: Sujin Kim Gayakeumist: Rami SeoPianist: Yeseul Yoon, Eunbin Kim The Los Angeles Laptop Collective Martin Herman, Alysia Michelle James, Cameron Johnston, Tobias Banks, Glen Gray, Sean Martineau Jones, David García Saldaña, Seth Shafer

Tiger Party Interactive Agency Singing Actors Repertory Company Orlando: More Zimin Mighty Orlando: Jayoung Jeong Fruitcakes: Jiung Kim, Kyungrok Kim, Gihyun Lee, Junghoun Jun, Nayeon Kim, Hyunhee Kim, Yoojung Park, Jieun Lee, Bookyung Chung, Daegwon Hong, Joowon Shin

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