Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

CHICAGO REVIEW: ‘OTHELLO’ AT COURT THEATRE HAS ALL THE CHILL OF THE LAST YEAR, PACKED INTO A SHAKESPEARE TRAGEDY ·

(Chris Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 10/19. Photo: Kelvin Roston, Jr. and Amanda Drinkall in “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” at Court Theatre in Hyde Park. (Michael Brosilow photo / HANDOUT)

When theater historians seek to know the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the arts in Chicago, the wisest heads will pay some attention to Court Theatre’s 100-minute cutting of “The Tragedy of Othello.”

It won’t be because this production of the Shakespearean tragedy celebrates the pleasure of being back together, as we’ve all heard in curtain speeches in recent weeks elsewhere. There is nothing whatsoever joyous about this chilly, fractured take on “Othello,” a conception that has a dystopian sensibility running through its core.

The show was conceived when it seemed likely that capacity in theaters would remain limited, so just 81 seats are being sold for each performance. Much of the auditorium at the University of Chicago is unused and is covered in a cloth, even as people are seated, masked but without being socially distanced, in a section of the theater.

If this was not a conscious commentary on the shared experience of the last 18 months, then it sure was permeating the subconsciousness of the co-directors, Charles Newell and Gabrielle Randle-Bent.

Some of the audience is seated on the stage in swivel chairs, isolated even from their most immediate companions, rocking and swaying like nervous competitors in a quiz show. Much the same could be said for the conceptions of the characters in what is typically William Shakespeare’s most intimate tragedy.

Most of the time here, they appear to be consumed by their inner thoughts and trapped by barriers of their own construction on John Culbert’s set, a design that wants to embrace not being a design at all. They watch each other as if at a sad and sculptured remove; the stylized movement makes it appear as if they are no longer alive, at least in the usual humanistic sense. The sensuality — this typically is Shakespeare’s most sensual play — is mechanical and cold.

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REVIEW: IN ‘THE LEHMAN TRILOGY,’ A VIVID TALE OF PROFIT AND PAIN ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/14; Photo:  From left, Adam Godley, Adrian Lester and Simon Russell Beale in “The Lehman Trilogy,” at the Nederlander Theater.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

The play, tracing the rise and fall of the fabled financiers, finally opens on Broadway after

Much of what happens in “The Lehman Trilogy” is invisible to the eye, which is not the way prestige drama usually works onstage.

Directed by Sam Mendes, this British import, which reaches across 164 years of American history to trace the family saga behind the fallen financial powerhouse Lehman Brothers, was a scalding-hot ticket during a brief prepandemic run at the Park Avenue Armory. Yet it offers almost nothing in the way of spectacle, and only the slightest of costume changes: a top hat here, a pair of glasses there.

In the captivating production that opened on Thursday night at the Nederlander Theater, it relies largely on an unspoken agreement between actors and audience — to imagine together, and let fancy crowd out fact.

Sort of the way that heedless investors looked right past all warning signs in the faith-based run-up to the stock market crash of 2008. Illusion is illusion, after all, and financial markets, like the theater, require a certain suspension of disbelief — though when the fantasy bursts in theater, the fallout is less ruinous. When investors halted their collective game of make-believe 13 years ago, mammoth financial firms like Lehman Brothers met their swift demise, and the world’s markets suffered the aftershocks.

“The Lehman Trilogy,” though, is not actually a number-crunching play; reports that Jeff Bezos took in a recent performance should not cause you to infer otherwise.

Written by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, it is a vividly human tale, nimbly performed by three of the finest actors around: Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester, who, in making his Broadway debut, has replaced the original cast’s Ben Miles. (I did not catch Beale, Godley and Miles at the Armory; it was too scarce a ticket, and too pricey.)

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***** ‘DRACULA: THE UNTOLD STORY’ REVIEW – A WILD GOTHIC THRILL RIDE ·

(Nick Ahad’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/30; Photo:  Hi-tech horror … Riana Duce as Mina Harker. Photograph: Ed Waring.)

Leeds Playhouse
For a tale of the undead, Imitating the Dog’s inventive blend of live theatre and tech is bursting with life

Having tackled zombies in its most recent production, Night of the Living Dead – Remix, the Leeds company Imitating the Dog now takes on Dracula. The smart money would be on Frankenstein next to complete a diabolical trilogy.

For a show about the undead, this is bursting with life: theatre as intensely popular culture, with influences from movies such as Sin City, graphic novels including Watchmen and Constantine, and a sensibility heavily redolent of the Cumberbatch Sherlock.

The company, made up of co-artistic directors Andrew Quick, Pete Brooks and Simon Wainwright, has always pushed the boundaries of technology and theatre. Here the blend of live performance and digital is perfect. In their version of Night of the Living Dead, the balance was out of whack, the tech getting in the way of the show. In Dracula: The Untold Story, a co-production with Leeds Playhouse, equilibrium is achieved.

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***** ‘MASTERCLASS’: A MAGNIFICENT SEND-UP OF THE ANXIETIES OF THE AGE (SV PICK, IRELAND) ·

(Chris McCormack’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 9/13; Materclass: Adrienne Truscott plays opposite Feidlim Cannon.)

Dublin Fringe Festival 2021: Brokentalkers and Truscott’s fruitful collaboration feels like a direct response to #MeToo

MASTERCLASS

Project Arts Centre: Space Upstairs
Dublin Fringe Festival

★★★★★
This magnificent send-up of James Lipton’s Inside the Actors Studio is the latest play to feel like a direct response to #MeToo. What sets Brokentalkers and Adrienne Truscott’s fruitful collaboration apart is how it resembles an outward sign of inward changes: an industry reckoning with its own direction.

On the set of an absurd talk show, Truscott appears as a laughably macho playwright whose adversarial new drama is igniting the gender wars. (The sideburn-scratching pretentiousness of early 1990s Greenwich Village will feel like a specific flashpoint for anyone who remembers the depressing uproar accompanying David Mamet’s Oleanna.)

If anything is to be gained from the skewered machismo of a male artist bleeding at his typewriter, inscribing quotes on penknives and carrying a shotgun like an accessory, it might be the desire to purge a broken system. Opposite Truscott’s playwright sits a bluff interviewer (Feidlim Cannon) whose questioning devolves into a bungling pep talk, as if art criticism is complicit in preserving myths about male geniuses.

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***** ‘CINDERELLA’ FROM ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER (REVIEW) – NOT SO MUCH A BALL AS A BLAST ·

(Chris Wiegan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/18;  Photo:  Rebecca Trehearn as the Queen, with Sam Robinson (Dorian), Vinny Coyle (Arthur) and Giovanni Spano (Gawain) in Cinderella. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

Gillian Lynne theatre, London

Bewitching melodies abound as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s terrifically OTT but warm and inclusive musical finally arrives

Delayed by a year because of the pandemic, and with last month’s opening night postponed at the 11th hour, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical is finally up and running. It arrives late but in high fashion with outre gowns, bare-chested swordplay, brutal high heels and whip-smart humour. It’s worth the wait.

The original story and book by Emerald Fennell have heart and a torrent of barbed wit, exposing the faulty morals in traditional fairytales without scrimping on glittering trimmings. David Zippel’s crystalline lyrics are attuned to Fennell’s dialogue, cheekily satirical yet wistful and uplifting too. Lord Lloyd-Webber’s richly enjoyable orchestrations range from grand waltzes, courtly processionals and marches to deftly pastiched and deeply felt romanticism, power-balladry, a splash of chanson and rollicking guitar riffs. Bewitching melodies abound: some refrains are practically iridescent, revealing new tones from scene to scene.

Laurence Connor’s production starts with a salvo against fairytale bunkum: the shock news is that Prince Charming is dead. Moreover, someone has graffitied his memorial statue. Fennell is up to something similar as she defaces and rewrites myths about femininity, masculinity and heroism, with the keen eye for gender politics she showed in Promising Young Woman.

Our setting is the immaculately preened Belleville. “There’s no town that can compete – frankly if they could we’d cheat,” boast the well-honed citizens in an exuberant opener marked by fanfares and comically fussy staccato. Belleville is famed for sweet roses and creamy milk: a town buffed to perfection where hot buns are not solely the preserve of the bakery.

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BERLIN: THE PLEASURES OF REVENGE: ‘MICHAEL KOHLHAAS’ AT SCHAUBÜHNE ·

(Sandra Sarala’s article appeared on ExBerliner, 7/15; Photo from Exberliner.)

Michael Kohlhaas is relentless. Just as the character – based on a version of 16th-century merchant Hans Kohlhase that appeared in Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 novella – is relentless in his pursuit of cross-border justice, the play reflects his hellish quest with its brutal pace. Starting with the premise of a staged reading, the actors go all-out to the end, switching clothing, personas and species while posturing, pleading for clemency, fighting battles and burning villages. Essentially nobody wins, but as an audience we’re nevertheless happy to reap the spectacular rewards.

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***** ‘ANYTHING GOES’ REVIEW – SUTTON FOSTER DAZZLES IN COLE PORTER’S FIZZING TONIC FOR OUR TIMES ·

(Lyndsey Winship’s article appeared in the Guarddian, 8/5;  Photo: Full-beam lustre … Sutton Foster, centre, with, from left, Robert Lindsay, Jack Wilcox, Haydn Oakley and Samuel Edwards in Anything Goes. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

Barbican, London
Blissful songs and dance and spirited performances from a virtuoso cast make a preposterous plot into a delightful musical escape

Descriptions of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes seem to pour out in drink metaphors: it’s sparkling, bubbly, a tonic. It’s certainly got the giddy hopefulness of the night’s first champagne bottle popped, suspended in that state when the world is full of bright delight and possibility. The auditorium is fizzing, too, a buoyantly full house. This 1934 show is Depression-era escapism fit for post-Covid times. If you want to remove yourself from the world for a few hours, this is the place to do it.

The genius of Anything Goes lies in the combination of seriously good music with a plot so gloriously inconsequential that a state of blithe, uncomplicated bliss is reached. PG Wodehouse co-wrote the original book but this version, by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman was the basis for a triple-Tony-award-winning 2011 Broadway revival, led by choreographer and director Kathleen Marshall, who takes the reins again here.

The story has shifted a little over time – and new songs added, like It’s De-Lovely, originally from Red, Hot and Blue – but it matters little what happens. There’s an ocean liner heading to London from New York, a jaded nightclub singer, a mid-range gangster, a young debutante and her mismatched English fiance, a love triangle, misaken identity, bad disguises, farce and wordplay, bias-cut satin and resplendent deco designs (by Derek McLane, costumes by Jon Morrell).

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SHAKESPEARE AT THE DELACORTE: ‘MERRY WIVES’ ·

MERRY WIVES
By William Shakespeare
Adapted by Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Saheem Ali
Featuring Abena, Shola Adewusi, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Pascale Armand, MaYaa Boateng, Phillip James Brannon, Brandon E. Burton, Joshua Echebiri, Branden Lindsay, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Jarvis D. Matthews, Jacob Ming-Trent, Jennifer Mogbock, Julian Rozzell Jr., Kyle Scatliffe, David Ryan Smith, and Susan Kelechi Watson

By Bob Shuman

Shakespeare in the Park returns to the Delacorte with a new version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, called Merry Wives, which is suited less for the outdoors than for small screens, reflecting the cramped quarters of the last 16 months: the neighborhood and its regulars; the local laundromat and fading signs for Biden-Harris.  COVID goes unmentioned, despite the fact that one former cast member had tested positive (social distancing protocols are in place), amid street drumming, lip-syncing, helicopter propellers (not part of the show, although overhanging air-conditioners are), and hair-braiding salons.  The Public’s staff has never seemed as accommodating (many thanks) or probably given as thankless a job, in asking audiences to keep their masks on;  despite a rainy weather forecast, Oscar Eustis, the artistic director, is emphasizing how the theatre belongs to the audiences in his introductory speech—volunteers and employees at Shakespeare in the Park have, over time, displayed de rigueur meanness with the bourgeoisie–and taxpayer largesse. After a year in the dark, because of the pandemic, this summer’s production, still wants to cancel, in accordance with current societal trends, dealing those in attendance an adaptation, which ultimately asks the public, and artists, what it will take to pull beyond sit-comming the Bard and art, and envisioning work as something other than variations on the broken record of one-party New York political thinking.  

The performers are ebullient, however, playing West African immigrants in South Harlem—and, as a homecoming to the theatre, the vehicle, with a popular Shakespearean character, who receives his just desserts for premeditated womanizing, is a sunny, colorful, becoming segue back into live work, even if these creatives  seem to have been binging on “Roadrunner” cartoons, as artistic inspiration.  Were our times not so dangerous (speaking now beyond infectious diseases), a light review could be left, guiltlessly, but Merry Wives, is also “shrunk,” like clothes might be in Mistress Ford’s laundry, simplified with easy stereotyping, which can impose meanings and facilitate inaccurate appraisals of communities and original art (recall that one of Verdi’s outsized masterpieces, Falstaff, is based on the same play, more complex and psychologically examined). The issue of how adaptors and adaptations change meaning by becoming overly obvious, direct, and simplified—by changing words and calling it free speech–is worthy of examination, where even a play by Shakespeare might be misapprehended and erased, for our own good.

In Central Park, on July 14, the predicted rain never comes, although it is explained that a cast member had been injured the night before, reminding of the almost forgotten physical reality of theatre and the Herculean effort of putting up plays, especially after a postponed opening and at this time.

Merry Wives may be all it wants to be.  And, for the moment, after so long, maybe it is all it needs to be.

with AbenaShola AdewusiGbenga AkinnagbePascale ArmandMaYaa BoatengPhillip James BrannonBrandon E. BurtonJoshua Echebiri, Branden LindsayEbony Marshall-OliverJarvis D. MatthewsJacob Ming-TrentJennifer MogbockJulian Rozzell Jr.Kyle ScatliffeDavid Ryan Smith, and Susan Kelechi Watson

MERRY WIVES
By William Shakespeare
Adapted by Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Saheem Ali

Tickets are reserved through the Public in online lotteries

Visit the Public 

© 2021 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

***** ‘COPPELIA’: A MYSTERY REVIEW – SUPERB ADVENTURE VEERS FROM SWEET TO SINISTER ·

(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/22; Photo: Michael Hugo, Kira McPherson and Corinna Brown in Coppelia: A Mystery, directed by Theresa Heskins. Photographer: Jenny Harper.)

New Vic theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
This delightful promenade show uses pretty-as-a-picture design, undercut with creepy asides, to bring ETA Hoffmann’s famous tale alive

Who knew there was a Victorian village round the back of the New Vic? Where you thought there was just a car park and a 1980s edifice, there are now shop windows stuffed with antiquarian books, caged birds and jars of sweets. Someone has been constructing children’s toys in a workshop and the cakes have yet to be consumed in the teashop. Overhead are rows of fairy lights and colourful bunting. Sheet-music butterflies settle on the plants.

It would be chocolate-box idyllic if it were not for one thing. The longer you look at the bric-a-brac, the more you spot the eyeballs. Counting them is fun, but sinister as well.

That contradiction between the delightful and the troubling sums up this superb promenade adaptation by Theresa Heskins. At any moment, you could be in for a jolly adventure or led up a morally dubious path. Lis Evans’s exemplary design, with its pretty Slavic costumes and creepy hanging limbs, only adds to the ambiguity.

Drawing on the original ETA Hoffmann stories and the famous ballet, Heskins retells the story of Dr Coppelius and his amazingly life-like puppet daughter. Our entry point is Corinna Brown’s Swanhilde who, armed with curiosity where cash fails, helps us commit a daring raid on the main theatre to discover more about the ultra-realistic doll.

Bouncing excitedly on her toes, she wins us over with her high-pitched laugh and zest for life. She also gives us permission to think Michael Hugo’s Coppelius is a bit of a weirdo. We need that because there is something peculiar about him. Who else would wine and dine a mechanical doll – even one as mesmerising as Kira McPherson? He puts Coppelia through her stiff-jointed paces as if he expects her to come to life. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to play a trick on a man like that.

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IRELAND: ‘WAITING FOR POIROT’ REVIEW: A CELEBRATION OF LIMERICK’S LOCAL TALENT ·

(Sara Keating’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 7/26; Photo: Waiting for Poirot performed at the People’s Park, Limerick. Photograph: Keith Wiseman.)

The daring murder mystery is full of action and keeps families entertained throughout

WAITING FOR POIROT

The People’s Park, Limerick
★★★★☆

It is 1925, the early days of Irish Independence and the newly established Garda Síochána is still finding its feet. In Limerick city, Sir Montague Garrick’s Travelling Theatre & Electric Cinematograph has taken up residence at the People’s Park to entertain locals with a daring murder mystery play. With the sudden death of the leading man, however, the drama spills off stage, and the audience is held hostage until the murderer is found. Will the elusive detective Hercule Poirot, expected any minute, solve the case, or can detectives Maguire and Patterson get to the bottom of the strange events?

Mike Finn’s script is embedded in both the site and broader setting for this enormously ambitious ensemble production, directed by Tara Doolan and Pius McGrath. The script is crammed with local lore that feeds off both the history and contemporary reality of Limerick city, as well as clever Covid puns that are integrated easily into the players’ rhyming welcome to the audience as it assembles for the beginning of the promenade piece, which is also the start of the show within the show.

Finn’s play is in open conversation with Beckett’s famous play in which nothing happens. However, the meta-theatrical dialogue is not overdone and there is plenty of action to keep a family audience entertained throughout the 90-minute experience: comedy chases, a changing cast of suspects, messenger boys coming to and fro on bikes, news of a theft from the nearby Limerick City Gallery of Art.

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