Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Photo: Strictly Arts

‘WARS OF THE ROSES: HENRY VI & RICHARD III’, DIRECTED AND ADAPTED BY AUSTIN PENDLETON, AT HB STUDIO, 124 BANK STREET (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Although Queen Elizabeth, the unpretentious Johanna Leister in Austin Pendleton’s Wars of the Roses, now running at 124 Bank Street until August 19 (he co-directed with Peter Bloch), asks Richard III, “Shall I be tempted by the devil?” all the characters in this unbound adaptation of Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III might wonder the same. Each of the characters plays with evil and, because of the widened scope of bringing the two plays together (both feature Richard), their choices are horrifying and riveting, despite the fact that the bravura role of the humpbacked king (passionately played by Matt de Rogatis, in a hoodie), allows room for smaller roles to pop. Pendleton himself portrays a reticent Henry, wearing a black t-shirt with a red cross, his hand to his mouth or hand to his face—even sitting on his hands at one point.  Such are his skills that he can appear relaxed on stage, while, at the same time destroying any illusion that he is playing a role at all. Of course, going to one of his productions, whether that be in a black box, church, Lincoln  Center, on Broadway, or even the National Theatre in London, means reflecting on acting, perhaps more seriously than with work shown by virtually any other current director.  Here he seems to want the audience to reach out to the work artistically, rather than be steered by it, which, after so many busy shows–with projections and music and politics and computerized scenery changes–can take a minute to adjust to. His set, perhaps like one in a company meeting room, is made up only of chairs, a table, and a white backdrop, spattered with red to suggest blood (there isn’t even a credit for the scenic designer in the program, although the lighting is by Steven Wolf); the costumes are largely dark street clothes (Maya Luz consulted on them); and this powerful distillation and fusion, lasting three hours, with intermission, disregards pomp, coronets, or even much in the way of any props or technology. 

Wars of the Roses doesn’t offer much in the way of role models, either, unless one wants to sharpen his or her Machiavellian skills. In The Stranger, Camus writes about cinemagoers leaving the theatre, after an American movie, walking like John Wayne. Here, because the characters are compromised, the reflection on them must run deep and does not encourage imitation. The ensemble of fifteen (some play multiple roles), examine the dark characters intensely.  Debra Lass’s Queen Margaret is a strong, almost Nordic or Teutonic, warrior queen, a “she-wolf,” wearing a studded motorcycle jacket, her hair in a braid down the back; Pete McElligott’s real tears, as the imprisoned Clarence, are indicative of the inner truth this production is striving to reveal—and, while discussing eyes, watch the mourning, mesmerizing ones of Carolyn Groves, playing the Duchess of YorkGreg Pragel delivers his lines with speed, pacing, and command—and he can be humorous, too—although his rebuff by de Rogatis, with a prayer book (into his face), is swift and malicious.  Michael Villastrigo has found the manner of an assertive young king (Edward) and Adam Dodway (Tyrell and Ratcliffe), because of his naturalness on the stage, makes an impressive appearance.  Rachel Marcus is a strong, intelligent actress, forced to make sense of Richard’s mystifying behavior, finally succumbing to him (like Ophelia must do with Hamlet).  Excellence is also seen in Jim Broaddus’s York, Milton Elliott’s Warwick and Murderer,  John L. Payne’s Backenbury and Catesby,  Tomas Russo’s Rutland and Dorset,  and  John Constantine’s Prince Edward and Murderer, twirling a chair. 

During intermission, one gentleman, several rows back, stood to describe Wars of the Roses as “intimate,” which seems appropriate but also recalls Strindberg’s theatre.  Because of this production’s smaller scale, lack of castle scenery, for example, military action, and smoky battlefields that playwright seems to be watching over The Wars of the Roses, maybe more closely than even Shakespeare. The three imprisoned women (Lass, Leister, and Groves) mourning their lives, turning into mummies, might be part of The Ghost Sonata—and even Richard has a counterpart in Hummel, the handicapped man in that chamber play.  Both works examine cycles of suffering in communities—one explosive moment of pain, for example, in Wars of the Roses comes with Richard’s shocking kiss of Elizabeth, who has been asked to make her daughter a queen.  She is being hounded by a recognizable devil: part Weinstein, part Moonves, part Spacey.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

The playing schedule for THE ROSES: HENRY VI & RICHARD III is as follows: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7PM, with Sunday matinees at 3PM through August 19th.  Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by visiting  www.proveavillain.com

Press: Glenna Freedman PR.

Photos: de Rogatis: Chris Loupos; Pendleton: Playbill.

 

REVIEW: HIT SONGS TO SIN BY IN A SMASHING ‘MOULIN ROUGE!’ (SV PICK, BOSTON) ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 8/5; via Pam Green.)

BOSTON — The jukebox has exploded.

Its pieces zoom through the air like candy-colored shrapnel, whizzing by before the memory can tag them and making the blandly familiar sound enticingly exotic. I’m talking about the recycled pop hits, mostly of a romantic stripe, that make up the seemingly infinite song list of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” at the Emerson Colonial Theater here.

By the end of this smart, shameless and extravagantly entertaining production, adapted from Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie, you’ll think you’ve heard fragments of every Top 40 song of lust and longing that has been whispered, screamed or crooned into your ear during the past several decades. You may even believe that once upon a time you loved them all.

Part of the genius of Mr. Luhrmann’s original version — which starred Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor as doomed lovers in a Bohemian, fin-de-siècle Paris — was that it put mainstream, latter-day radio songs into the context of a verismo costume opera like “La Traviata.” Not for nothing was Elton’s John’s “Your Song” the ballad most memorably shared by the film’s leading lovers.

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Photo: Carpe Diem

‘BRECHT ON BRECHT’ FROM POTOMAC THEATRE PROJECT (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Resisters who see a parallel between Trump’s America and Germany and Italy in the 1930s and ‘40s are making a misjudgment, even if they have grievances against the current administration.  Hitler and Mussolini were pursuing forms of Socialism, anathema to the Capitalist agenda of the president–and to the founding principles of this nation, for that matter.  But because some theatre professionals insist that the terror and evil of the Nazi period can be analogous to today’s burgeoning U.S. economy, Bertold Brecht (1888-1956) has found the renaissance he deserves, with recent New York productions of Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Good Person of Szechwan, Mother Courage and Her Children, and, currently, the anthology revue Brecht On Brecht, from Potomac Theatre Project (the PTP/NYC season runs until August 5 at Atlantic Stage 2).  In 1962, critic Harold Clurman’s discussion of the show, which includes music by Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, and has been adapted by George Tabori, noted the dearth of representation of the playwright on American stages—he described the work, which Ethan Mordden says “began as a special matinee one-off, that launched an open run,” as “a full evening, yet it offers only a smattering of Brecht’s scope.  Still, it is better to have a bit of Brecht than none at all—especially since we have had so much discussion of Brecht, while the production of his work is still largely confined to foreign shores.”

Brecht, the poet, playwright, and director, a Marxist, did not always write his theatre pieces, in part or in total, yet out of a political crucible of horror and poverty, Epic Theatre was birthed, an achievement provoking awe, even if its cost was far too great.  Clurman encapsulated the show as: “devoted to [Brecht’s] life, short poems, anecdotes, a recording of his testimony at the hearing before the Un-American Activities Committee (1947), passages from diaries, epigrams, quips, and the readings of several songs (in the first part).  “Part Two—is composed of speeches and scenes from plays (also some songs).” The current director, Jim Petosa, reminds us of some of the writer’s slogans in his program note: “Sometimes it’s more important to be human, than to have good taste”;  “Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life”; “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” An uncanny thought that occurred to this reviewer, during the evening, was that Brecht might have gotten along with Saul Alinsky.   Yet the performers, in the current production, do not seem to be coming out of deep, radical experience.   Brecht On Brecht demands a knowledge of harsh life, his canon, as well as the ability to give oneself over completely to the discordant material—things one might not wish on anyone.  The young, well-trained cast, staged in front of a grand piano on oriental rugs (set by Hallie Zieselman), excel most in musicality (the music director and pianist is Ronnie Romano) and they are clear in voice (soloists are Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Harrison Bryan, and Jake Murphy–and the cast also includes Miguel Castillo, Sebastian LaPointe, Olivia Christie, and Ashley Michelle)–but the edge is largely missing. No matter the quality of the ensemble–and their diligence—however, there is a difference between the singer’s voice and an actor’s art—and adapting both to a production (despite Petosa’s clean direction) is no small challenge.  Adding to the dilemma is the fact that in its initial run, Lotte Lenya, star of Threepenny Opera, and wife of Brecht’s collaborator Kurt Weill, was part of Brecht On Brecht—she automatically gave the evening authenticity and authority.  

Clurman said that Brecht On Brecht recalls a time of “strong feeling, witty eloquence, high aspiration, struggle, and fortitude.” In 1962, he felt those qualities were absent in American society—and, ultimately, he thought the show offered a “note of nostalgia.”  Today, America seems to be playing out a fantasy, with less and less people who can even remember the toxic brew of World War II.  If Brecht were escapist, the evening might be a way to get away from it all—but he’s not; he is always more than that.  Even so, the audience is left, after a largely illustrative performance, with the merely incomparable:  “Barbara Song,” “Mack the Knife,” “Pirate Jenny,” “Surabaya  Johnny” to  only name  four of the songs.  Forget Rodgers, Loewe, Porter, Lloyd-Webber, and Sondheim.  The evening makes a rock-solid case that the finest of them all is Weill.    

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

BRECHT ON BRECHT

Directed by Jim Petosa

Harrison Bryan, Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Jake Murphy, Miguel Castillo, Olivia Christie, Sebastian LaPointe and Ashley Michelle.

The production team for BRECHT ON BRECHT includes Ronnie Romano (Music Director and Pianist), Hallie Zieselman (Set Design), Joe Cabrera (Lighting Design), Annie Ulrich (Costume Design) and Alex Williamson (Production Stage Manager).

Brecht On Brecht photos:  Stan Barouh

Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity

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TAMING ‘THE TAMING OF THE SHREW’ UNDER A TENT (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York  Times, 7/19; via Pam Green.)

GARRISON, N.Y. — When last we dropped in on Kate, Petruchio, Bianca and the gang, they were contestants in some kind of surreal beauty pageant, riding around on bikes and making no sense. That’s what “The Taming of the Shrew” had come to in a 2016 Shakespeare in the Park production directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

To be fair, those were end times for “Shrew”; no one knew what to do anymore with a comedy that turns on the humiliation, torture and probable rape of an “irksome brawling scold.” (In Anne Tyler’s novel “Vinegar Girl,” released that same summer, Kate tames herself.) Ms. Lloyd evidently hoped that an all-female staging — the men were played by women in drag — would pluck the stinger from the wasp, to paraphrase Petruchio. Instead, the sweaty desperation of the effort exacerbated the problem and made it look intractable.

Two summers later, with the #MeToo movement having exploded in the interim, it seemed time to say that “Shrew,” for all its perverse pleasures, should be left alone, in either of that phrase’s meanings. Do it as written and live with it, or don’t do it at all.

I’m happy to see that in adapting the play for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, the director Shana Cooper felt differently. Her “Shrew,” playing through Aug. 24 under a tent on the grounds of the Boscobel House and Gardens here, finds an exhilarating new way to look at the comedy through modern eyes while remaining true to its language and, arguably, its intent.

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