Category Archives: Theatre Reviews


(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/8.)

As it is so rarely seen, this early play by Tennessee Williams feels like a major discovery. Williams began it in 1945 and endlessly revised it. Now a young director, Rebecca Frecknall, has given it a complete makeover. Eschewing realism, she adopts the expressionist tactics favoured by the Belgian director Ivo van Hove and palpably builds the production around Patsy Ferran, who confirms her status as one of the most exciting actors on the British stage.

Frecknall, designer Tom Scutt and Angus MacRae, credited with composition, join forces to give the action an unusual setting: a circular pit of sandy earth ringed by nine pianos that the ensemble periodically play to create atmosphere. The text tells us we are in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, between the turn of the 20th century and 1916. But here the focus is on the primal nature of a conflict between spirit and flesh.

Alma, who constantly tells us her name means “soul” in Spanish, is a parson’s daughter and singing teacher whose undeclared love for a neighbouring doctor, John Buchanan, has driven her into a state of neurosis. If Alma represents the soul, then John, both professionally and socially, stands for the body. But after a melodramatic shooting, Williams shows their roles ironically reversed.

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By Bob Shuman

When the eye-catching actress, Becca Schneider, tells Platonov, the title character in Chekhov’s first unfinished drama (1878), he needs to “slow down,” she’s explaining the directorial concept of Jessica Burr’s production from Blessed Unrest, now playing at the New Ohio Theatre until March 11.  The momentum of her version is fast, and for a while, the speed, the mobility and the fluidity, along with the loose physicality of the actors, seems like a way to bring the early modernist playwright into the postmodernist world of downtown theatre–the way Eric Tucker did for Shakespeare, in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, as an example. Platonov gets away from Burr, though, because Chekhov depends on connectivity, not fragments, in a way that Shakespeare’s mostly second-hand materials don’t. She emphasizes mechanics, and ultimately, the pace seems like a refutation of this supremely empathetic author.

One miscalculation may have been underestimating how much people want to listen to him—they want to see a significant Platonov (even if its five hours are cut), not a literalized one or one that feels truncated, especially given the potential of the cast (of multiple races and ethnicities, playing multiple parts, some across genders). Probably most notable are a tantalizing Irina Abraham, as Anna, a general’s daughter, and the handsome Darrell Stokes in the title role, a womanizer, subdued by female vigilante justice.  Many could argue that he is a product of soul-destroying ennui, but this production, apparently politicized,  has been timed to echo the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein case—in a reductionist assault, perhaps too gratified in taking Chekhov apart and setting him whirling. 

The author, however, may have simply been learning to tell a story and creating a multidimensional world, not a legal brief, just as Ibsen did not think A Doll’s House was a feminist tract. What happens to Burr is that her center gets lost—the play arrives at one hundred minutes (the translation, with slangy colloquialisms, is by Laura Wickens) and the piece is skeletal, missing the connective tissue of character development and builds.  Working in the round, the director uses a minimal set, by Matt Opatrny, based on vodka bottles, chess pieces, and an oriental rug, and her staging is especially physicalized; her Russia, spinning and kaleidoscopic, can’t be still and can’t be bored. The last moments of the play aren’t prepared for, and they don’t shock or surprise in the way that a well-directed version of The Seagull can. Perhaps to contemplate the play, we have to comprehend the playwright—understanding his own time and his own purposes more fully–not our own–in slow motion.

Platonov by Anton Chekhov


Irina Abraham, Ashley N. Hildreth, Javon Q. Minter,
Becca Schneider, Darrell Stokes, Taylor Valentine

Production Stage Manager
Darielle Shandler

Set Design
Matt Opatrny, Teddy Jefferson, Anna Alisa Belous

Costume Design
Sarah Thea

Lighting Design
Miriam Nilofa Crowe

Sound Design
Fan Zhang

Jessi Blue Gormezano

Fight Choreographer & Assistant Director
Ben Peterson

PR-ism, Kamila Slawinski & Ivan Talijančić

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© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Production Photos: Blessed Unrest



(Chris Jones’s article appeared in The Chicago Tribune, 2/13.)

Kelly Felthous, who plays Sally Bowles in the Paramount Theatre production of “Cabaret” did not get a lick of applause Saturday at the end of the show’s famous title number, despite this being opening night. Was it down to frostbite?

No. That is also what happened when I saw Natasha Richardson do Sally in the 1998 Broadway revival, the one directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, the one that made a star out of Alan Cumming, the one that has influenced every subsequent staging of the title, even to the point of blending into our perception of the material. Richardson’s drugged-out Sally was desperate and despairing; she turned the number into a furious cry of nihilistic anguish, shocking an audience expecting Liza Minnelli-like resilience into total silence.

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By Bob Shuman

For those who have lived in the South, Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Boxfrom Theatre for a New Audiencenow playing, until February 11,  at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, offers the recognizable.  Donald Holder’s lighting captures a Georgia morning–where there are perhaps some of the most beautiful mornings in the world–and the period drama, set in the 1940s, does not exploit racial violence (Christopher Barreca’s unit set features the utilitarian chairs, stairs, and doorway of a high school). Kennedy’s two-character play, written using the ambiguous imagery of a poet, is made up almost entirely of monologues, and the director, Evan Yionoulis, allows the audience to listen to the young actors, to want to listen and watch their fine abilities, which includes Tom Pecinka’s splendid singing. Kennedy’s story is as old-fashioned as the plot of an operetta:  a mixed-race schoolgirl (Juliana Canfield) accepts a declaration of love from a young white opera singer (Pecinka), whose family has helped build their town.  He hopes she will come with him to marry in Harlem and live in New York and Paris–but to tell more would give away too much. What can be said is that the characters are allowed innocence, unrushed, and history.  “Dear Little Café,” from Noël Coward’s Bittersweet, is heard during the evening (the score was written in 1929, although a movie was made in 1940). When this correspondent lived in Georgia, in the early 1980s, two older maiden sisters, one a lawyer, helped the poor and black in the town do their taxes, free of charge—one favorite topic of conversation for them was speaking of the beautiful voice of American soprano Geraldine Farrar.  Jazz, of course, was not the only song of the South, despite the fact that its birthplace was New Orleans, yet the great form is what is stereotypically heard on soundtracks.  Eudora Welty also talks about hymns and popular classical music in her autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings, where, as a child, she listened, and “moved” to:  “Overture to Daughter of the Regiment,”  “Selections from The Fortune Teller,”  “Kiss Me Again,” and  “Gypsy Dance from Carmen,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam.”


In an interview in BOMB magazine, with Suzan-Lori Parks, Kennedy explains that she writes “little scenes” about “what’s going on in life,” yet her Georgia contains “contradictions,” which is how she describes her white grandfather in her poem “Forget”:  He  sent her African-American sister and half-sister “to college, bought them beautiful things/but still maintained the distance. They called him by his surname and he never shared a meal with them.” Part of the dilemma, in talking about the South today, remains its contradictions and “complexities” (another word that Kennedy uses in “Forget”), ones that may not be present in other areas of the country, at least not to the same degree.  Even Southern literature is a tangle of styles: gothic (Flannery O’Connor) and mythic (William Faulkner), literary historic (Alice Walker) and real (Tennessee Williams), comic (Mark Twain) and tragic (William Styron), and ideological (Thomas Jefferson) and MGM (Margaret Mitchell), to give a sampling.  Yet, someone from outside the South may believe the media: that its inhabitants are dishonest, bigoted, deplorable or worse: stereotypes repeated until they appear to be true.  Kennedy, fortunately, continues to hope, for what can be found in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, is the aspiration to live side by side. Activists may not want the South to have had its past, but instead of attempting to erase it, to take down Confederate monuments and change state flags (South Carolina did this after the Charleston church shootings of Dylann Roof), Kennedy places markers within her work, which may be used for explication:  the rise of Nazism, for example, or Segregation, the underworld in The Aeneid, and even the mass murder of the Huguenots.  Patrick J. Buchanan has written that, “Since the ’60s, there has arisen an ideology that holds that the Confederacy was the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany and those who fought under its battle flag should be regarded as traitors or worse,” yet Kennedy does not seem to be advocating for retaliation, although she may be inferring that she is watching, noting.   Likewise, her opinion of the industrial North is also not without suspicion, for this is where the overt continental violence in her play takes place.  While historians may decide to write on the continued complexities of agrarianism vs. modernity in the history of America’s South and North, what theatregoers will observe, in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, is how such complex subject matter can find this kind of formal clarity and simplicity:  as simple as a Georgia morning.  

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. Photo (top to bottom): The New York Times; Bob Shuman 




Juliana Canfield (Kay)

Tom Pecinka (Chris)

Creative Team

Adrienne Kennedy (Playwright)

Evan Yionoulis (Director

Christopher Barreca (Set Designer)

Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Designer)

Donald Holder (Lighting Designer)

Justin Ellington (Composer & Sound Designer

Austin Switser (Video Designer

Press: Blake Zidell

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By Bob Shuman

In Steve Cosson’s stage documentary on dying , The Undertaking (conceived in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani)–playing until February 4, at 59E59–vibrant, theatrical life comes from Aysan Celik and Dan Domingues jumping in and out of characters, like ones possessed, “ventriloquizing.” The term, discussed by philosopher Simon Critchley, who is impersonated in the show (and has been interviewed for it) posits that actors, in character, are  haunted by ghosts (the dramatic role itself), “a being about whom we cannot know for sure whether it is alive or dead.  It seems to be both.” Because Cosson provides a number of varied personalities in the work, The Undertaking highlights the transformative abilities of its two actors, speaking verbatim dialogue and imitating the playwright’s interviewees (whom the audience hears in recordings), whether they be Critchley or a South American who has eaten hallucinogenic plants, the actor and director of the Ridiculous Theatre Everett Quinton, or a woman recounting a near-death experience, among others. 

Yet, despite his “palpable fear,” Cosson, who approaches current secular, perhaps faddish, thinking on dying, does not mention popular writers of the recent past, such as Harold M. Sherman and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (what Ms. Celik would do with a German accent), who could actually help him. Whether or not Marcel Duchamp has a pithy quotation about death on his gravestone only helps people think about death fashionably, and Cosson seems to limit his discussion by not incorporating wider religious or spiritual perspectives.  Obviously, the subject is uncomfortable for many, yet probably most maintain thoughts similar to the writer’s:  “I feel like my particular relationship to [the] fear is that it’s so constant and so integrated that I rarely even experience it as fear. I just experience it as this, uh, this sort of, u uh, disquieting presence.”  Still, Cosson can’t dramatize his feeling, beyond constructing a combine and describing it.  Whereas Williams, Albee, Beckett, or Bergman would show the cold terror–maybe even solemn grandeur–in moving close to death, Cosson decides to throw a blanket over his head and hide.

Director, as well as a writer, he also uses footage of classic film, a technique, in the avant-garde toolkit, overused today (also in January, Split Britches  rolled  clips from Dr. Strangelove for Unexploded Ordnances, for example).  Orpheus, the film referred to in Cosson’s piece, can be seen as parallel to the events of The Undertaking and is also drawn from an earlier story: the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Cocteau sets his version in the modern day (the middle of the last century), and the script is the product of imaginative dramatic writing. Comparatively, Cosson has so overintellectualized his search for an understanding of dying that his performance piece can seem like a dramatic lecture or nonfiction book, a well-paced, well-produced evening of staged footnotes.  He also misses dramatizing the story of his mother, not portrayed,  whom the audience is told is currently in a nursing home with MS.  Like Hamlet’s father, however, she may be the ghost demanding to be remembered most.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Photo:  Dan Domingues and Aysan Celik in THE UNDERTAKING at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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Aysan Celik*
Dan Domingues* 


Written and directed by Steve Cosson
Creative Collaborator and Psychopomp: Jessica Mitrani
Set and Costume Design: Marsha Ginsberg
Lighting Design: Thomas Dunn
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel
Projection Design: Tal Yarden
Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda*
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachael Gass*
Production Manager: Ron Nilson
Producer: Margaret Moll 


Assistant Set and Costume Designer: Blake Palmer
Sound Design Associate: Lee Kinney

Dramaturgy: Jocelyn Clarke and Jacey Erwin

Interviews conducted by Steve Cosson, Jessica Mitrani, and Leonie Ettinger.

*appearing courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association
member of United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829

Press: Karen Greco


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Bob Shuman

Theatregoers may be wondering whether La MaMa follows the news or whether the news is, in fact, following La MaMa—a paranoid insight pertinent to its two current productions, running until January 21,  both part of the Public’s Under the Radar Festival.  Downstairs, because of the comprehensiveness of its creators’ theatrical and artistic understanding, Panorama, in which its cast is told not to “act,” transcends being sensitivity training on the immigrant crisis (read this author’s review of that show).  Upstairs, in the Ellen Stewart Theatre, Split Britches (Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw), popular downtown (and international) feminist/lesbian artists, detonate unexplored desire, H-bombs and communal anxiety in Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), a Dr. Strangelove-inspired end-of the-world scenario—this article is being written a day after mass panic in Hawaii, when the state was put on a ballistic missile alert, by mistake.

In addition to showing prescience, the Split Britches play lets viewers consider forum theatre, a style, theorized and employed by Augusto Boal, which allows spectators (in this case older audience members, who are brought to glowing tables of a Pentagon-like war room) to participate in the themes and  questions posed by the play.  The creators also relate that the gathering follows the meeting example of Lenni Lenape and Canarsie Native-American leaders–other peripheral observers are invited to actively engage in the content, too, permitting the work to be composed of what’s in the air and who’s in the room—an “elder” giving a one-night-only, dead-on imitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, for example.

Every evening can provide such an anomaly—in fact, performances have the potential to be very different from each other.  Split Britches, however,  is probably too uniform in its audience demographic to make Unexploded Ordnances (OXO) into an evening of scintillating debate—one unsatisfying answer to what needs to be done, given the world’s current state of affairs (from the old lefties in the East Village, the bleeding hearts who are willing to actually bleed), is “end capitalism” and replace with “Marxism.” Nevertheless, the most surprising takeaway, in entertaining the question, “How do we change?,” which is asked during the play, is the degree to which the audience can veer into the self-lacerating. “It’s too late,” comes one reply, explained as the result of too much guilty consumption, addiction, and ease. Protests are needed, is seen as a solution, or a strike against the government, and the complete breakdown of the rule of law. Then, a reality: “I’m too tired to strike.” 

Ordnances, weapons such as cannons, grenades and military materiel, is apt as part of the show’s title and its overriding metaphor, because the creators want to emphasize what can be buried inside and exploded—personally and politically.  The signature Split Britches routine, along with a fascination regarding finishing sentences, has, traditionally, been women-loving-women tripping up into the flirty awkwardness and Freudian slips of falling in love.  By extension, they are now playing generals and presidents who can flub into destroying the planet, even as the audience has the potential to be more interesting than the broad, satiric characters being portrayed (in a necessarily broad outline for a show). 

Weaver, Shaw, and Hannah Maxwell, the writers, might actually miss, and endorse the ways of a sinning, older America, a point made in the title of their 2008 show, Miss America.  You can feel this in Unexploded Ordnances (OXO), as well, when a popular song, by the Dominoes, is played and snippets of the Cold War drive-in movie, Dr. Strangelove are shown. Whatever the case, whether the audience gives thoughtful or knee-jerk reactions to current social considerations, the chance to engage with and contemplate community issues and action is rewarding:  Someone has to be thinking about whose finger is on the button.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. Photos (top to bottom): Theo Cote; Roosevelt,; Matt Delbridge; Matt Delbridge (Peggy Shaw)   

Split Britches
Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)
Written by Peggy ShawLois Weaver, and Hannah Maxwell
Performed by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver

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Visit Split Britches


By Bob Shuman

Panorama, a burning expression of lives disassociated from the American overculture, is playing at the Downstairs at La MaMa, as part of the Public’s Under The Radar Festival, until January 21. Using audition tapes, from the Great Jones Repertory Company, to introduce six live actors (as well as ten on video), who identify or resonate with the immigrant experiencethe cast contends with American oppression in forms such as inequality and racism.  Motus, the Italian theatre company, which devised and directed the work, under Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicolò, with dramaturgy by Erik Ehn and Daniela Nicolò, has based its interviews and discussions on 40 questions, such as “Have you ever had to start your life over?”; What is your strongest understanding of the term ‘far away’, based on your experience?”; “When have you been welcomed by a stranger?” and when were you lost . . . and found?”  The multicultural cast, who physicalize the results include Maura Nguyen Donohue, John Gutierrez, Valois Mickens, eugene the poogene, Perry Yung, and Zishan Ugurlu, who can be intentionally blurred, in the play between video and stage action, as if a Psychology experiment is being conducted, where the color blue is called red.  The creators are using the technique to give expression to human, as opposed to individual, experience in the work, which is ferociously timely, given that Trump is seeking negotiation of his “bill of love,” regarding DACA, U.S. border security, family-based “chain migration,” and the visa lottery program.

Fluidity is salient in terms of the play’s views on national identity and  borders, but not on Capitalism, anathema to the collective.  None of the creators get around to saying how they might actually build businesses or make the economic situation better on their own, but Motus, as a touchstone of contemporary truth-telling, is ferocious and unflinching.  Examples, beyond politics, would include use of frontal nudity of both sexes (without being exploitive), and even the use of drugs.  Yet, the directors are able to counter controversial, perhaps shocking, stage elements by, for example, showing Donohue’s orgasm as she gets ready to eat Cheez Doodles (which may remind of Tina Turner’s Acid Queen) or recreating a ridiculously smoky world of crystal  meth.  Most piercing is Mickens’s close-up reaction to sexual harassment (the technical designs are by Sangmin Chae & Billy Clark, Seoungho Jeong, Bosul Kim, Varie Vazquez, and Youngsun Lim). 


The effective script may remind of the stories told by the dancers in A Chorus Line or the schoolchildren in The Me Nobody Knows.  Because an Aristotelian plot is not key in the show, the similarity in using monologues and question-and-answer formatting is aided by the virtually continuous pacing of Heather Paauwe’s nonintrusive music (Chorus Line also used a score that rarely stopped).  This bold evening, which uses minimal props and tight, specific, often solitary physical action, such as doing the Moonwalk or blowing up a balloon, does move nomadically, even if, ultimately, the artists yearn for a place to call home.  Where they find that is not so much in a country, which has offered aid—and is expected to supply more—but, rather, in the theatre, poor and ephemeral.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. Photos: Perry Yung, Valois Mickens, and eugene the poogene by Theo Cote.


World Premiere
Devised and Directed by
Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicolò
Dramaturgy by Erik Ehn and Daniela Nicolò
With the actors of the Great Jones Repertory Company


Maura Nguyen Donohue, John Gutierrez, Valois Mickens, Eugene the Poogene, Perry Yung & Zishan Ugurlu

Assistant Director: Lola Giouse
Music: Heather Paauwe
Set Design: Seung Ho Yeong
Visual Design: Bosul Kim
Video Design: CultureHub with Sangmin Chae
Technical Direction: Yarie Vazquez

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(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/17.)

His Majesty is not himself today. His most unserene highness, the King of Spain, does not know who or what he is, except that he’s not where he belongs. Approach him with caution: He bites. And allow me, if you will, to advise you never to take your eyes off him.

Not that you’ll want to.

As was observed of another stark raving royal (named Hamlet), “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” This is especially true when a great one is portrayed by one of the greatest actors on the planet.

Uncork the Champagne and unfurl the straitjacket. Mark Rylance is once again ruling audiences at the Belasco Theater, where the strangely enchanting “Farinelli and the King,” Claire van Kampen’s shimmering fairy tale for grown-ups, opened on Sunday night.

Mr. Rylance, a three-time Tony winner (and an Oscar and Olivier Award winner) was last seen at the Belasco four years ago, during the triumphant residency of the London-based Shakespeare’s Globe. At that time, he alternated in the roles of the uncertain Countess Olivia (in “Twelfth Night”), for whom falling in love becomes an existential crisis, and the demonically assured title character of “Richard III.”

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