Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

‘THE EMPEROR’ FROM THEATRE FOR A NEW AUDIENCE AND ‘ANTIGONE IN FERGUSON’ AT HARLEM STAGE (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

The Emperor, Colin Teevan’s adaptation of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s reportage on the forty-four-year reign of Haile Selassie, from Theatre for a New Audience, now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn until September 30, is more than an anti-Trump metaphor, although it does point to the impact of American politics on global theatre.  The subject is perhaps as little considered in the West today as when, in 1973, BBC correspondent Jonathan Dimbleby documented the horror of famine in East Africa, and the dramatization, cleanly directed by Walter Meierjohann, which played at the Young Vic, London; HOME, Manchester; and Les Theatre de la Ville de Luxembourg, mostly told through small monologues, offers a compelling, modern history of Ethiopia, during the early and mid-twentieth century. 

Kathryn Hunter’s Chaplinesque star turn allows her to play the “little man” as mime and social champion, which can remind of The Great Dictator and Modern Times. The audience doesn’t lose her when she talks, though, as they did when starting to turn away from Chaplin after hearing him speak literary English on screen.  They revel in her throaty, deep voice and accents, and attune to her slightly crooked, if flexible, body, a puppet clown, playing the menials and servants at the court:  from those among the pillow bearers to doormen; chauffeurs to clerks and ministers (Selassie is never shown or portrayed).  Perhaps ironically, none of her creations is a woman–of any race; she is  always a man of color, which may be daring, but would be criticized if the role concept was taken by a white male in the States, opening up an Actors’ Equity nightmare.  Hunter is joined by musicians of Eastern African Krar, including Temesgren Zeleke, who spikes the evening with the sound of the electric lyre (the music is by Dave Price), unusual, penetrating, and rhythmic.

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Doubtless, other artists will see the show and want to splice together anecdotes about the Trump White House, based on books by Bob Woodward, Michael Wolff, and Omarosa, but The Emperor concerns acting out lives lived in collusion, in order for a power structure to be maintained–blinding oneself to objective reality. Contradictorily, life outside the Trump administration is not a nation on its knees—it includes high employment statistics among diverse ethnic and racial populations.  At an evening of forum theatre, called Antigone in Fergusonwhich plays until October 13 at Harlem Stagefrom Theater of War, where passages from Antigone are placed alongside powerful Gospel music, sung by, according to the program note, “diverse choirs,” who “include police officers, activists, youth, teachers, and concerned citizens from Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.” One participant was even brave enough to say, “many people like Donald Trump.”  There was also a call made to vote during the midterm elections, which was not unanimously praised, room also being given to the idea, from  one woman, that there was little interest in dismantling “a system that I did not make.”  

Sophocles’ play, “about what happens when personal conviction and state law clash”—and which includes the dictatorial Creon–is simplified but clearly translated and adapted by Brian Doerrie, with musical direction and compositions by Phil Woodmore, who works with many roof-raising singers: soloists include De-Rance Blaylock, John Leggette, Duane Foster, Gheremi Clay, and Tamara Fingal.  The cast, which will change weekly during the run, on September 15, included the following actors:  Tamara Tunie, Tate Donovan, Chris Myers and Chinasa Obguagu. The audience, speaking their own truths, responded to questions, such as: “What crossed time about the story to touch you?” and “Do people have to die to come together as a community?”  Many agreed that the arts are not involved enough in politics and that most of us see something or someone the way we are conditioned to, which may have been at issue with Michael Brown, in 2014. 

This reviewer randomly wrote in the margin of his notes, during the audience participation section: “Art allows us to feel normal.”

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Theatrical historians who look back on our period and see the current fascination with dictators may wonder why theatrical imaginations were stoked by an American president who legitimately won the 2016 election and improved the economy to the point where the nation’s middle-class income had never been higher.  What future investigators may not realize, however, is that theatregoers could have already stopped caring  about the continual subtexts of propagandistic artistic choices, with plays by Brecht and Shakespeare’s evil kings, African dictators, or Ancient Greek resisters filling stages. Instead, the current cultural metaphor about Trump and fascism might have been rejected for something more persuasive: the fun of watching actors excel at creating challenging antiheroes found in the pages and entertainments of villainy.

Copyright 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photos (top to bottom): Simon Annand; All Arts; Harlem Stage

  

 

***** DAVID GREIG: ‘TOUCHING THE VOID’ (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/19.)

Climbing high mountains is often used as a metaphor for other ominously difficult projects. So the experience of presiding, during a recession, over a £25m renovation of the Bristol Old Vic may have led artistic director Tom Morris to reopen the playhouse with David Greig’s adaptation of Touching the Void. Joe Simpson’s 1988 mountaineering memoir details how, when his co-climber Simon Yates was forced to cut their link rope, Simpson crawled, hopped and slid miles back to base-camp with a broken leg.

The book’s existence shows that Simpson must survive, and the events have already been visualised in a popular 2003 documentary. But Morris and Greig fracture this familiarity through a morbid framing device that seems daringly to have rewritten the book and by avoiding the easy option of video design for the Andes mountain.

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Photo: Bristol Old Vic

SHAW: ‘HEARTBREAK HOUSE’ (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Teachout’s review appeared in the Wall Street Journal, 9/11.)

One of the British writer’s most unpopular plays, about a family of haute-bourgeoisie eccentrics who refuse to respond to the crumbling world around them, gets a much-needed tightening in this unique staging.

 New York

David Staller is best known as the artistic director of Project Shaw, a series of semistaged concert readings of the 60-odd plays of George Bernard Shaw that he has presented monthly in Manhattan since 2006. But he has also directed fully staged off-Broadway versions of several Shaw plays, including the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 2012 revival of “Man and Superman” and a 2016 production of “Widower’s Houses” mounted in collaboration with the now-defunct, lamented TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, both of which were not merely excellent but exceptionally memorable. Now Mr. Staller has taken on “Heartbreak House,” one of Shaw’s most challenging plays, with altogether extraordinary results.

(Read more)

Photo: The Wall Street Journal

CARBERRY/PATTERSON: ‘GOOD VIBRATIONS’ (SV PICK, NORTHERN IRELAND) ·


(Fionola Meredith’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 9/6.)

GOOD VIBRATIONS

Lyric Theatre, Belfast
★★★★

This stage version of Terri Hooley’s story makes the transition from film with style

When you hear the words “stage musical” you don’t tend to imagine a posse of young punks belting out a song so fiercely that the floorboards shake. But that’s what happens on Wednesday night at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, at the opening performance of Good Vibrations. It is a glorious moment.

Adapted from the award-winning film, Good Vibrations is the story of Terri Hooley, who, with a mixture of reckless abandon and unquenchable hope, opened a record shop on “the most bombed half-mile in Europe”, Great Victoria Street in Belfast, in the 1970s. There he discovered the underground punk scene and its joyous, anarchic ability to transcend tribal boundaries and bring people together, even as the city burned. Hooley became an unlikely impresario, putting on gigs and producing records in defiance of the bombers, the police and the snooty attitude of the mainstream music industry in London.

(Read more)

Photo: Irish Times

‘HENRY VI’ FROM THE NATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN THEATER COMPANY (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 8/31.)

Halftime was ticking down at a marathon performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” when the guys in front of me returned to their seats and I fell a little in love with them. Riffling through plot points and names of characters they vaguely remembered were coming up (“Who’s Edmund? Or am I thinking of ‘King Lear’?”), they were like soap opera fans preparing to dive back into an engrossing serial.

That’s the kind of hold that the National Asian American Theater Company exerts on spectators with its oxygenated “Henry VI” at A.R.T./New York Theaters. It’s a production that asks nearly six hours from your life (yes, you can see its two parts on different days), but it repays you handsomely.

Fast-paced and gripping, this is an unusually lucid staging of a bloody history play, whose surfeit of schemes and villainy could make a daytime-drama writer blush. Yet for all the battles and beheadings in Stephen Brown-Fried’s handsomely designed production, never does it take death lightly. That’s one of the remarkable things about it.

(Read more)

Photo: William P. Steele

THE NEW YORK TIMES REVIEWS NEIL SIMON ·

(Erik Piepenburg’s and Jason Bailey’s article appeared in the New York TImes, 8/26.) 

A look at the work of Neil Simon over the decades reveals a prolific chronicler of New York City life who examined angst, romance and ambition through a comic lens, whether for the stage, film or television. Critics, like audiences in general, were mixed in their response to Mr. Simon’s comedy, which tended toward shticky one-liners and heart-squeezing monologues. Here is a look at his most notable works, how The New York Times reviewed them and (when available) where you can stream them.

‘Barefoot in the Park’ (1963)

Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford starred on Broadway in this “bubbling, rib-tickling” comedy, as Howard Taubman wrote in his review, about the strains of marriage on a young couple living in New York City. The show, Mr. Simon’s first big Broadway hit, was nominated for four Tony Awards, including best play, with Mike Nichols winning for best director.

“Mr. Simon evidently has no aspirations except to be diverting, and he achieves those with the dash of a highly skilled professional writer,” Mr. Taubman wrote.

The play inspired a 1967 film adaptation starring Mr. Redford and Jane Fonda (a “carelessly knocked-together film” with “plenty of gross exaggeration of the embarrassments of callow newlyweds,” Bosley Crowther wrote); a 1970 ABC series with a black cast; and a 2006 Broadway revival with Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet (and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi).

The 1967 film is streaming on Netflix and Starz, and is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime VideoiTunesVuduGoogle Play and YouTube.

‘The Odd Couple’ (1965)

This comedy about mismatched roommates Felix (the clean one, played by Art Carney) and Oscar (the messy one, played by Walter Matthau) was another Broadway smash for Mr. Simon. The play ran for 964 performances and received four Tony Awards, including for Mr. Simon (in the “best author” category) and Mr. Nichols for direction.

In his review, Mr. Taubman wrote of Mr. Simon: “His skill — and it is not only great but constantly growing — lies in his gift for the deliciously surprising line and attitude. His instinct for incongruity is faultless. It nearly always operates on a basis of character.”

The play was turned into a 1968 film starring Mr. Matthau, in a reprise of his stage role, with Jack Lemmon as Felix. In The Times, Renata Adler called it a “very funny, professional adaptation.” Mr. Matthau and Mr. Lemmon reunited for the 1998 sequel “The Odd Couple II,” written by Mr. Simon.

popular 1970s TV sitcom featured Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon starred in a CBS remake that ran for two seasons from 2015 to 2017. “It’s an interesting experiment,” wrote Alessandra Stanley in her review.

A female version of the play, starring Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers, opened to mostly negative reviews on Broadway in 1985. “The comedy plants itself four square on the stage of the Broadhurst and defies its author, director and players to make it make sense,” Walter Kerr wrote in The Times.

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played Oscar and Felix in a 2005 Broadway revival that received mixed reviews. Ben Brantley said the play gave the impression “of one of those latter-day sitcoms in which the characters dream they’ve been beamed into an earlier, vintage television series. Which means that the talented stars of this ‘Odd Couple’ are indeed odd men out.”

The 1968 film is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime VideoiTunesVuduGoogle Play, and YouTube. The original 1970 series is streaming on Hulu, while the 2015 show is available on CBS All Access.

(Read more)

ABI MORGAN:  ‘LOVESONG’ (SV PICK, AUSTRALIA) ·

(Cameron Woodhead’s article appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, 8/27.)  

THEATRE
LOVESONG ★★★★

Abi Morgan, Red Stitch Actors Theatre, until September 23

Abi Morgan’s Lovesong is a tear-jerker. A poignant but clear-eyed portrayal of a married couple in the prime of life (and at the end of it), the play swims like the memory of a dream between them.

The four-hander follows Maggie (Jillian Murray) and Billy (Paul English), an elderly childless couple staring down the barrel of Maggie’s terminal illness. Her decision to die looms over the intimate rhythms of their daily life, prompting remembrances of things past.

(Read more)

Photo:  Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre

 

***** ‘KING LEAR’ WITH IAN MCKELLEN (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Tim Walker’s article appeared in The New European, 8/14; via Pam Green.)

King Lear

 

Duke of York’s, London, until Nov 3

***** (Five stars)

Two kings, neither in full possession of their faculties, are currently holding dominion in the West End, and across the Thames, at the National Theatre. One is sublime, and the other is, quite frankly, a ridiculous pretender.

Let us pay court first to Sir Ian McKellen’s King Lear. The actor has played the title role in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy several times before. I saw him in Sir Trevor Nunn’s much-hyped production of 2007, when he offered a performance of dazzling technical accomplishment. I have to say that it left me stone cold.

By contrast, his latest reprisal of the role – which he has hinted may well be his swan-song on stage – has moved me almost to the point of tears. I reacted differently for two reasons. It is, firstly, difficult now not to feel the contemporary resonance of the story of a leader who, by dint of one vain and ill-considered decision, renders asunder his kingdom and then comes to bitterly regret it. The king even stands before a Union flag in the opening scene as he rips up a map of his kingdom and hands out the pieces to his oleaginous but calculating daughters Goneril (Claire Price) and Regan (Kirsty Bushell).

Secondly, Sir Ian – nudging 80 – has grown into the part, both as a man and as an actor. He seems a lot less pre-occupied with the big, hammy gestures and vocal projection that have characterised so much of his stage work. He is finally feeling the role.

When he says “let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven,” you feel the man as much as the character speaking from the heart of his worst fear. A lot of it – and this is always the measure of great theatre – doesn’t feel like acting at all. It is as a consequence almost unbearably painful to watch.

(Read more)

Photo:  Manuel Harlan

IN THE BERKSHIRES, A POWERFUL PLAY AND A CLASSIC MUSICAL ABOUT PREJUDICE ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 8/15; via Pam Green.)

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Theater seasons rarely have a theme; they come together too haphazardly for that. But there’s something in the Berkshires air right now, even aside from humidity. Last weekend, I saw three productions that all dealt, at least in part, with the life-destroying effects of prejudice. Together, they seemed to be engaged in an accidental conversation with our own time and world.

Two were at the Williamstown Theater Festival here. On the smaller Nikos Stage, I attended a matinee of Jen Silverman’s “Dangerous House,” a harrowing play about violence against lesbians and gay men in South Africa. That evening, on the larger Main Stage, I caught the festival’s revival of “The Member of the Wedding,” in which, as my colleague Ben Brantley has noted, Roslyn Ruff’s uncompromising performance shifts the center of the classic Carson McCullers story from a white girl’s tween anxiety to a black woman’s unanswerable sorrows.

The night before, 20 miles south in Pittsfield, Mass., I saw the Barrington Stage Company’s solid and satisfying, if slightly bumpy, revival of “West Side Story,” the classic 1957 musical about gang warfare between self-proclaimed Americans and recent Puerto Rican migrants. (As Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics point out, the Puerto Ricans are American, too.) Its familiar pleasures — like those of “The Member of the Wedding” — heightened the unexpected ache of its continued relevance.

But it was “Dangerous House,” the play set furthest away, that spoke most urgently. In 14 swift scenes, Ms. Silverman deftly explores, from several perspectives, the horrifying practice of “corrective rape,” in which lesbians and gay men are sexually assaulted, tortured and sometimes murdered with the stated goal of “fixing” their homosexuality. That this is happening in the first African country to legalize gay marriage makes the subject almost cosmically ironic.

(Read more)

Photo: Samira Wiley is a South African lesbian who provides refuge for victims of sexual violence in Jen Silverman’s “Dangerous House” at the Williamstown Theater Festival.Credit Sarah Sutton

***** CAMILLA WHITEHILL AND STRICTLY ARTS: ‘FREEMAN’ (SV PICK, SCOTLAND) ·

(Bridget Minamore’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/19.)

In Freeman’s first five minutes, six figures on stage grapple with one another in the low light. Their bodies twist and turn, they climb on each other, they are flung over shoulders and thrown from one person to the next. There’s a violence in their movements: at one point, a performer looks as though he is hanging from a tree. At the end of the sequence, the five black cast members lie on the floor, the sole white performer sitting on a crate. There’s a sense they’ve all been killed, died in a traumatic way. Soon we find out they have.

A collaboration by writer Camilla Whitehill and Strictly Arts, Freeman is a revelation, a piece of stunning physical theatre that deftly looks at deaths in police custody, institutional racism and mental health.

Focusing on six real-life people, including Michael BaileyDavid Oluwale, and Sarah Reed, the cast leap and tumble their way through each of their often painful stories. Danièle Sanderson’s slickly directed, fast-paced hour sometimes feels unrelenting. Projected images and music are subtle but strong, complemented by sounds made by the performers’ bodies. Claps, punches and slaps all begin to sound sickening, and the horror of being tasered or treated with electroshock therapy is not shied away from.

(Read more)

Photo: Strictly Arts