Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

EDWARD ALBEE: ‘THREE TALL WOMEN’ WITH GLENDA JACKSON AND LAURIE METCALF (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/29; via Pam Green.)

Her jaw thrust forward like a prow, her elfin eyes belying her regal bearing, her wide-screen mouth wrapping itself around those slashing, implacable consonants — they’re all exactly as you remember them and want them to be. Or if you’ve never experienced them, welcome to the pleasure. Either way, Glenda Jackson is back; even better, she’s back in a role that’s big enough to need her.

Aptly, the name of the role is A.

A is the oldest of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” which opened on Thursday night in a torrentially exciting production that also stars Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill. It not only puts an exclamation point on Ms. Jackson’s long-shelved acting career but also serves as a fitting memorial, which is to say a hilarious and horrifying one, to Albee, who died in 2016.

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Photo: LA Times

ENDA WALSH: ‘GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS’ (SV PICK, IE) ·

(Ciara L. Murphy’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 3/21.)

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Enda Walsh’s unlikely theatrical adaptation betters the power of the original story

****

At first glance, Max Porter’s debut novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers seems an unlikely candidate for theatrical adaption. The book boasts a frantic, pacey, and devastating experience for the reader, an experience which is not easy to echo on stage. Enda Walsh’s work often situates his audiences as meaning-maker in his work, and this, in combination with Complicité’s trademark audio-visual spectacle, ensures the essence of Porter’s story is made manifest on stage.

Grief explores the turbulent and mind-wrenching anguish experienced by Dad (Cillian Murphy) and his two sons (played in rotation by David Evans, Taighen O’ Callaghan, and Felix Warren) after the death of Mum (Hattie Morahan). Careening between careful prose, jarring poetry, and visceral, energetic dialogue, the play sets in motion a scintillating story arc which combines an intense, furious drama and a pervasive, yielding gentleness.

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(Photo: The Irish Times

STING: ‘THE LAST SHIP’ (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/22.)

Having bombed on Broadway, this musical by Sting about the shipbuilding industry is being revived on its native soil with a new book by its director, Lorne Campbell. The only mystery is why the show ever premiered in the US in the first place: it is a deeply British musical that champions Tyneside life and that leaves you in no doubt where it stands on Thatcherite economics. It was received, quite rightly, with full-throated acclaim by its Newcastle audience.

The show, which originated in a concept album by Sting, explores his complex feelings about England’s north-east, where he grew up. The hero, Gideon, rejects the idea of following his father into the Wallsend shipyards, sails the world and returns 17 years later hoping to pick up where he left off with his former girlfriend, Meg. But Gideon is not only romantically naive. This is the 1980s and the local shipyard is abruptly threatened with closure by its owners amid government refusal to sanction “a Soviet-style bailout”. The only solution to both sides of the story is for Gideon and the workers to seize control of their own destiny.

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TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: “SUMMER AND SMOKE” (SV PICK, UK) ·

(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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CHEKHOV: ‘PLATONOV’ FROM BLESSED UNREST (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

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

with

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

Dramaturg
Jessi Blue Gormezano

Fight Choreographer & Assistant Director
Ben Peterson

Publicist
PR-ism, Kamila Slawinski & Ivan Talijančić

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© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Production Photos: Blessed Unrest

 

STUNNING CHICAGO ‘CABARET’ MOVES ITS OPENING NIGHT AUDIENCE TO SILENCE ·

(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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ADRIENNE KENNEDY: ‘HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

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 

ADRIENNE KENNEDY’S

HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX

Cast

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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STEVE COSSON: ‘THE UNDERTAKING’ FROM THE CIVILIANS (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

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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THE UNDERTAKING

CAST

Aysan Celik*
Dan Domingues* 

CREATIVE TEAM

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 

ADDITIONAL STAFF FOR THE UNDERTAKING

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

PINTER: ‘THE BIRTHDAY PARTY’ (SV PICK, UK) ·

(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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REVIEW: A WONDROUS ‘PINOCCHIO’ WITH THAT ‘LION KING’ MAGIC ·

(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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