Monthly Archives: November 2013


(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/13.)

The most liberating laughter to be heard these days cascades from 59E59 Theaters, where a staged version of Samuel Beckett’s radio play “All That Fall” opened on Tuesday night. That raucous, wide-open sound comes from the mighty throats of two of the finer actors on the planet, Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon.

The cause of this incontinent mirth? The dirtiest joke of all time. I mean life itself.

No playwright of the 20th century, and quite possibly ever, has told this joke with the clarity, simplicity and richness of Beckett. And though a starry Broadway revival of his masterwork “Waiting for Godot” opens later this month, you’re unlikely to find a more salty or succinct embodiment of his fathomless sense of humor than this 75-minute production, directed by Trevor Nunn and first seen in London last year.


(On September 3, 2013, in his review of the Derek Ahonen/Amoralist play ‘THE CHEATERS CLUB’, Bob Shuman discussed his fear of self-censorship, primarily among writers and artists, due to NSA surveillance–read that article here:

Now, a report from the Pen Center and the FDR Group confirm the contentions.) 

(Read the full PEN report:  

(Benjamin Fearnow article, below, appeared on CBS DC, 11/12.)

WASHINGTON (CBS DC) – In the wake of revelations about intrusive government surveillance, many American authors are worrying about the freedom of the press and some simply are avoiding controversial topics.

A new report from the PEN Center and the FDR Group entitled “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor” finds that 85 percent of surveyed writers are worried about government surveillance of Americans, and nearly three-quarters (73 percent) “have never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today.”



(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/10.)

We are used to director's Shakespeare. This production, which plays 32 performances in
Chichester before moving to Brooklyn, is unequivocally actor's Shakespeare. It is staged with great clarity by Angus Jackson as a timeless moral fable. But what impresses is the spellbinding power of that fine American actor, Frank Langella, best known in Britain as the disintegrating president inFrost/Nixon, who plays Lear and wins.

Langella has that mysterious quality known as "weight". It is not merely that he is tall, has a voice that could be heard in Bognor Regis and is more oak than ash: it is that he has an authority that compels our attention. This is palpable from the start when he needs help ascending the steps of Robert Innes Hopkins's set, which looks like a miniaturised version of Chichester's hexagonal main
stage with appropriately crazy paving. Langella even cups a hand to his ear to hear Goneril's fake protestations of affection. But, despite his slight stoop and white thatch, this is a Lear who looks born to command.



(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/12.)

The man dressed as a woman dressed as a man declares, with understandable agitation,
that disguise is truly “a wickedness.” But don’t ask anyone lucky enough to be at the Belasco Theater, home to a peerless production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” to agree with him. I mean her. I
mean him.

In this imported production from Shakespeare’s Globe of London, deception is a source of radiant illumination for the audience, while the bewilderment of the characters onstage floods us with pure, tickling joy. I can’t remember being so ridiculously happy for the entirety of a Shakespeare
performance since — let me think — August 2002.



(Robin Pogrebin’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/10.)

His musical pitch, vocal range or favorite aria did not come up much when B. R. McDonald, a tenor, was kicking down doors and jumping out of planes in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the Army’s Joint Special Operations Command.

“At 12,000 feet, the last thing you’re going tell somebody is: I was an opera singer,” he said.

Mr. McDonald, who has a vocal performance degree from the University of North Carolina and sang in an a cappella group — the Clefhangers — put that side of himself aside during eight years in the military.



Openings and Previews

Event: And Away We Go

Venue: Pearl Theatre

At the Pearl, Jack Cummings III directs the world première of a comedy by Terrence McNally, a backstage melodrama that skips through historical time periods. In previews.

Event: The Commons of Pensacola

Venue: City Center, Stage I

Manhattan Theatre Club presents a new play by Amanda Peet, starring Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker, about a woman whose husband’s Wall Street scandal has caused her to move to Florida and her daughter, who comes to visit with her boyfriend. Lynne Meadow directs. In

Get Tickets

Event: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre

Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham star in a new musical comedy, with a book by Robert L. Freedman, music by Steven Lutvak, and lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak, based on the novel “Israel Rank,” by Roy Horniman. In the story, set in Edwardian England, Monty Navarro (Pinkham) stands ninth in line to become an earl, and sets about eliminating each person before him (all played by Mays). Darko Tresnjak directs. In previews. Opens Nov. 17.

Event: How I Learned What I Learned

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center

Signature Theatre presents a solo autobiographical play by August Wilson, about his early life, starring Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Todd Kreidler directs. In previews.

Event: Little Miss Sunshine

Venue: Second Stage Theatre

Second Stage kicks off its season with this adaptation of the 2006 film, with a book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by William Finn, about a family working out their problems on a trip to their preteen daughter’s beauty pageant. Starring Stephanie J. Block and Will Swenson. Lapine also directs. In previews. Opens Nov. 14.

Get Tickets

Event: Macbeth

Venue: Vivian Beaumont Theatre

Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff star in the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, directed by Jack O’Brien. Also starring Richard Easton, John Glover, Malcolm Gets, Brian d’Arcy James, and Byron Jennings. In previews.

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Julie Taymor follows the Jan Kott playbook in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the inaugural production of Theatre for a New Audience–through January 12, 2014–at the new Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn.  Kott, a Polish critic, who wrote about the comedy in his 1964 seminal text, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, throws the Bard to the Surrealists.  Kott’s reasoning for doing so is compelling reading, even if it’s hard, cold, and dirty. The lovers are freed from societal convention, lost to their hormones; in heat. When they finally come to their senses, they will feel guilty, abused, doing the walk of shame. Cruel Nature, blowing milkweed across fields, cares only about the interchangeability of youth, the odds of propagation.

There’s probably also a more personal reason as to why Taymor would want to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream, beyond putting Kott into practice—she’s already directed the play once.  Taymor, of course, was publically ousted from Broadway’s Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark in 2011, and she  understands more than a little about feeling disgraced.  She also knows that the humiliations in A Midsummer Night’s Dream come down especially hard on women. Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, as most know, wakes up to vaguely recall that she’s slept with an ass; Helena, “as ugly as a bear,” barking like a dog (“What worser place can I beg in your love . . . Than to be used as you use your dog?”) feels mocked by two men suddenly fighting for her love.  The perverse hitman and henchman (Oberon, the King of the Shadows, and Puck), whom we tend to traditionally think of as merely magical (usually from Romantic productions of the play we know from our youth and Mendelssohn—Shakespeare really did write the play for a wedding celebration), sadistically use power to control the women for their pleasure.  Oberon and Titania (played by David Harewood and Tina Benko come ready-made from Kott: “I visualize Titania as a very tall, flat, and fair girl, with long arms and legs, resembling the white Scandinavian girls I used to see on the rue de la Harpe or rue de la Huchette, walking and clinging tightly to Negroes with faces grey or so black that they were almost undistinguishable from the night.” What might surprise Kott is Puck, the trickster, a demon—just what he calls for.  Here, however, the role is, uncharacteristically, played by an older woman (Kathryn Hunter, limber, raising her foot to her head like a seven-year-old).  Shakespeare, the writer, does not survive without us seeing his own complicity or guilt, either.  That Traymor cannot ground or pace the production are obvious criticisms; this is a dream so stampeding, so trampling, that it could only have come from someone listening too intently to her monkey mind. What remains, as a lasting impression, is that she has directed a beautiful allegory, whose coded meanings are for herself–and who needs a Bob Fosse to help coordinate the punctuation.

Despite the indebtedness to Kott, Taymor really does her best work out of the forest, when the dream is over, and she’s back at court with her clowns—doing an atrocious staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. (Joe Grifasi, Max Casella, William Youmans, Jacob Ming-Trent, and Brendan Averett are very, very funny, with special regard for Zachary Infante’s Thisbe). We can inspect and reflect on the lacquer—at the start of the play you might feel like you’re at a Chinese restaurant–the containment, ruffles, and Freudianism now—actually, after the intermission, we do feel like we’re in a dream.  At last, too, we can accept the industrial feel of the set and the technology, although I’m not sure Kott would be sold on those two.  Most importantly, we can finally make sense of the story.  The laughs flow naturally from the text and Taymore stops challenging a wordy playwright, like Shakespeare, with her visual imperative as an avant-garde director, who has done time at LaMama. Whether she means to or not—and she might have meant to—she has come off as the Bard’s upstager, by placing too many images, too frequently in competition with the text. Taymor makes so much happen—children run, botanical fabric billows, puppet animals walk with puppeteers, Acrobats spin, crazy circus car music whizzes, and gravelly voiced actors are nearly impossible to understand—but none help much in elucidating the text. Rather, they invalidate it. A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be hard to follow in any production because of the sameness of the young characters, and its lack of a dramatic, “Shakespearean” opening. When I realized that I thought Taymor was making her actors into puppets—that they couldn’t respond naturally to one another—I felt that she had worked too hard at trying to sell a show that she didn’t trust to simply play.   

Some, like me, will be grateful to see the Kott interpretation staged as closely as this, despite the pimping.  Others might be glad that Taymor is finding a metaphor to express her own demons.  The day before I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after the morning rain, I took a walk in Riverdale Park, along the Hudson in the Bronx. It was windy enough so that leaves seemed to rain and pods discharged their fibers and seeds. All the dog walkers talked about the strangeness of this dark, super-real day.  When I passed a small clearing, what came to mind was that a play should be done there, probably in the summer.  This is where the randomness and bestiality of A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be understood.

(l to r) Zach Appelman, Lilly Englert, and Jake Horowitz. (Photo by Gerry Goodstein, via Bruce Cohen. All rights reserved.) 

Text copyright © 2013 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

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(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/8.)

Timberlake Wertenbaker has been inspired by Sophocles's Ajax to write a play about the stresses of modern warfare. The result, as always with this writer, is sharp, witty and intelligent, but Wertenbaker's adherence to much of the form and content of the Sophoclean original inevitably produces occasional anachronistic oddities.

In Sophocles's version, the Greek warrior goes berserk when the armour of the dead Achilles is awarded to his deadly rival, Odysseus. In Wertenbaker's version, Ajax is a modern military hero who loses his mind in a desert training exercise when passed over for promotion. But although, as in Sophocles, his frenzy takes the form of slaughtering cattle, this is only the cue for an examination of the crackups that are a feature of contemporary war. This Ajax is brought down by a combination of factors: parental expectations, length of service, individual hubris and, above all, what Athena calls "a barrage of blood-soaked memories".



(from France24, 11/8; via the Drudge Report.)

AFP – The Russian prison service said Friday that jailed Pussy Riot punk Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was still en route to a new penal colony after her long disappearance prompted concerns among supporters.

"At the current time, she is being convoyed to the institution where she will serve her sentence," the Russian prison service said in a statement, the Interfax news agency reported


(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/7.)

Mourning becomes Beth Henley. The humor in “The Jacksonian,” her delectably lurid new play on Theater Row, is as black as widow’s weeds. But with the aid of a crackerjack cast, directed by Robert Falls, this twisty study in murder, Mississippi-style, finds bright fireworks within shades of noir.

About that cast, which numbers a precise five: It is made up of four top-tier veterans (Ed Harris, Glenne Headly, Amy Madigan and Bill Pullman) and one young newcomer (Juliet Brett), who bring unblinking conviction to parts that ask them to go out on limbs and hang there