Monthly Archives: April 2020


(Charles McNulty’s article appeared in the Los Angeles Times, 4/23; photo: Variety.)

Luminous is an overused word in theater criticism, but the word is aptly applied to Shirley Knight, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actress who died at age 83 on Wednesday in San Marcos, Texas.

A product of the Actors Studio heyday, she is linked to those Method stars who may have burned brighter but probably not as consistently. There was never a part, small or star, she didn’t illuminate from the inside out.

After receiving an Oscar nomination for her performance in “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” in which she played a teenager while in her mid-20s, Knight was cast as Heavenly Finley in the 1962 film version of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth,” directed by Richard Brooks. Her beauty had a celestial quality that might have seemed to earn her the part. But there was more to the actress than Hollywood glamour. There were contradictions worthy of a Williams heroine. Her Heavenly combined porcelain fragility with bitter strength. The movie belonged to Geraldine Page and Paul Newman, but Knight’s Heavenly clarified the drama’s tragic stakes.

In his book “A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio,” Foster Hirsch captured the vital paradox that was Knight’s presence: “Blonde, with dainty features and a translucent complexion, she might have become the conventional ingénue, playing a string of decorative roles. But anger churned beneath that pretty facade, and a sour expression — a stingy smile tinged with irony — promised thunder.”

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Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

(Matthew Aucoin’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 5/14.)


an opera by Aribert Reimann, at the Paris Opera, November 21–December 7, 2019


an opera by Manfred Trojahn, at the Vienna State Opera, November 14–20, 2019

Heart Chamber

an opera by Chaya Czernowin, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, November 15–December 6, 2019


Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

Last November, having just put the final touches on Eurydice, the opera I’d been working on for several years, I paid a visit to Europe to hear operas by three fellow composers, none of whose stage works are performed in America with any regularity. In spite of the uncanny ease with which music can be distributed online, and in spite of the popular notion of music as a “universal language,” contemporary opera in America can feel like an insular endeavor: the flip side of many American opera companies’ laudable support for homegrown composers is a cautiousness that verges on xenophobia. When it comes to new works, the thinking goes, why import a challenging piece in a foreign language when a local composer could write one in English? In past centuries, American companies almost exclusively imported European works; these days, new European operas are sometimes assumed to be excessively strong meat for the teeth of American audiences.

The chaos of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made the following essay, written before it began, feel suddenly like an artifact from a distant time. This crisis will wreak havoc in all sectors; for the world of the arts, it is already a devastation. Classical music has long been an art form centered on live performance, ever more so since the collapse of the classical recording industry, and it’s hard to imagine when music lovers will again be willing to form the human petri dish that is a concert audience.

Out of generosity, out of necessity, artists and institutions worldwide are broadcasting their work online, in many cases for free. An astonishingly rich world of music is more in evidence and more readily available than ever. It’s hard to imagine any positive side effects to our current state of emergency, but perhaps, in our newfound state of isolation, we can learn new ways to listen across borders, with open ears.

Composers who adapt Shakespeare must inevitably perform surgery on the Bard’s lengthy, poetically exuberant plays: Verdi cut an entire act to turn Othello into Otello; Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes condensed the winding rhythms of Shakespeare’s pentameter into clipped doggerel for their adaptation of The Tempest. The German composer Aribert Reimann, who composed his Lear in the late 1970s at the request of the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, performs his surgery with a sledgehammer. He and his librettist, Claus H. Henneberg, burn away nearly all traces of compassion and complexity from the play’s more sympathetic characters, including Lear, and abandon the play’s essential trajectory, of a tenuous political order unraveling into chaos, instead depicting a world that is darkly chaotic from the outset. The leveling winds of the heath blow all night through Reimann’s score.

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Mikhail Baryshnikov as Benedict XVI and Kaspars Znotiņš as Georg Gänswein in The White Helicopter at the New Riga Theater

(Joan Acocella’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 5/14.)


The White Helicopter

a play by Alvis Hermanis, at the New Riga Theater, Riga, Latvia, opened November 21, 2019, with additional performances planned for 2020

(The theater is temporarily closed.)

In 1967 Clive Barnes, of The New York Times, flew home from a trip to Russia and reported that in a class at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute, the Kirov Ballet’s school, he had encountered “the most perfect dancer I have ever seen.” That was a weighty announcement. Barnes, the Times’s lead dance critic, had seen a lot of dancers, and this one, Mikhail Baryshnikov, was only nineteen. Because Baryshnikov became an extraordinary dancer so young, many people failed to realize he was also an extraordinary actor. One of the earliest performances I ever saw him in was a Soviet movie, Fiesta (1971), an adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. He played Pedro Romero, the teenaged matador whom Brett Ashley seduces, and he was a thrill: handsome, open, and innocent, a flower awaiting the scythe. Acting was not new to him. It was part of his training, as it was, and is, for almost all serious ballet students in Russia. And dramatic inventiveness was central to his breakthrough role at the Kirov, as Albrecht in Giselle, where he turned the male lead, traditionally played as an aristocratic cad—an interpretation that supported Soviet ideology—into a lovestruck boy.

Once he defected to the West in 1974, Baryshnikov again and again triumphed as an actor-dancer, in new ballets such as Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove (American Ballet Theatre, 1976), in which he played a sort of confused hipster, and also in nineteenth-century ballets such as the Russian Don Quixote, of which he made a new production for American Ballet Theatre in 1978, dancing the part of Kitri’s lover, the barber Basilio, himself and shocking that tired old piece back into life.1 He bit off those assignments with gusto. Good ballet, bad ballet—it didn’t matter. He filled each role to its very skin. When, in 1978–1979, he abandoned his opera-house repertory to go to New York City Ballet and dance in George Balanchine’s largely nonnarrative works, he was sometimes scolded by critics for doing too much acting—for making faces, as they say in the trade.

Some critics, when they could, described his achievements in the classroom vocabulary,2 not, I believe, because they thought the reader would understand those words but because the words sounded rich and fine enough to convey the critic’s astonishment that Baryshnikov could draw out of his body so elaborate and poetic a response to his dramatic situation. After all, he was only a Sevillian barber (Don Quixote) or a boy in love (Giselle) or something like that. Yet when he performed those beautiful, clear, fantastically difficult steps, he was no longer just a barber or even just a dancer—even a great dancer—but a metaphor, for all the intelligence, energy, and allure that a human being might aspire to.

Baryshnikov returned to ABT in 1980, now as the company’s artistic director, and remained there until 1989, at which point, having had several operations on his knees, he pretty much abandoned classical dance. This was not shockingly early. He was forty-one. Most ballet dancers quit by the age of forty-five or so, for the same reason he did. They can’t hack it anymore, physically. Then, typically, they go on to something less interesting. If they are big stars, they may be asked to direct a company. Far more often, they simply teach, or find a hedge-fund manager to marry.

But Baryshnikov, though he retired from ballet, did not retire from dancing. He just switched to other kinds of dance. Practically the minute he left ABT, he got on a plane and flew to Brussels, where he went to work as a guest artist for his friend Mark Morris, whose modern-dance company was headquartered at that time at Belgium’s royal theater, the Monnaie. (At one point, Baryshnikov was to have been the Nutcracker in Morris’s Hard Nut, which premiered at the Monnaie, but his knee problems scotched that plan.) In 1990, together with Morris, he founded the White Oak Dance Project, a small, rather deluxe modern-dance company (live music; private planes, if they needed one). He also did tours with people he admired—Tharp, the postmodernist Dana Reitz, the kabuki star Tamasaburo Bando—and he made guest appearances with Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, and, above all, Morris.

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(Chris Wiegand’s article was updated 4/24 and appeared in the Guardian; photo: Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian.)

From live-streams of new plays to classics from the archive, here are some of the top shows online now or coming soon – this page is updated daily

12 of the best Shakespeare productions online


Hampstead theatre and the Guardian

Hampstead theatre and the Guardian have teamed up to stream a series of acclaimed productions for free. Tiger Country, written and directed by Nina Raine, is available to watch until 10pm on 26 April. The play follows a group of doctors and nurses at a London hospital one December and stars Indira Varma. It will be followed by #AIWW: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, directed by James Macdonald. Howard Brenton’s play is based on a book by Barnaby Martin about the 81-day detention and interrogation of Ai Weiwei by the Chinese authorities in 2011. Benedict Wong stars as the artist and activist. The production will be available to watch for a week from 10am on 27 April.


The brilliant Berlin theatre run by Thomas Ostermeier is streaming free productions, many with English subtitles, available for one night only. On 25 April, there’s a rare chance to see Lenin, created by Milo Rau, one of the hottest European theatre directors working today.

On a knife-edge: Tiger Country lays bare the ferocity of life in the NHS

North Country

Tajinder Singh Hayer’s play brought a postapocalyptic vision of Bradford to the basement of an abandoned Marks & Spencer when it was staged in 2016. Created for Freedom Studios, it follows three teenagers grappling with the aftermath of a plague. A live cast of the production was created for mobile devices and that version will be available on YouTube for free until 7 May. Director Alex Chisholm says that when they started “making digital live performance via mobile phones easy and low cost, we had no idea how urgent that might feel right now”.

National Theatre at Home

The NT has risen to the occasion by unveiling a mighty lineup of some of its greatest hits, to be streamed online on Thursdays at 7pm and then available for seven days. Twelfth Night, directed by Simon Godwin and starring Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, is online until 30 April. Next is Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, staged in 2011, with the inspired idea of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating between the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature on different nights. Audiences will be able to see both actors in each role, as two versions will be shown on consecutive evenings (30 April and 1 May). Simon Godwin’s epic 2018 production of Antony and Cleopatra, starring Fiennes and Okonedo as the tragic lovers, will be streamed on 7 May.

English National Ballet

Tamara Rojo’s brilliant company have announced weekly streams from their archive, available free for 48 hours. On 29 April you can see a 2015 staging of Dust, created by Akram Khan, from ENB’s first world war quartet Lest We Forget and famously performed at Glastonbury a year earlier. Inspired by the workforce of women mobilised during the war, its mesmerising imagery includes a line of dancers shrouded in dust that bursts from their clapped hands.

Royal Shakespeare Company

Our revels have temporarily ended in theatres but you can watch a groundbreaking effects-laden version of The Tempest, with Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, with a subscription (or 14-day free trial) to the online service Marquee TV. Antony and Cleopatra with Josette Simon and Richard II with David Tennant are two of the other gems in the selection of Royal Shakespeare Company plays available. But there are also six RSC productions available to watch free on BBC iPlayer: Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, Macbeth with Christopher Eccleston, Much Ado About Nothing with Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry, Othello with Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati, Romeo and Juliet with Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick, and The Merchant of Venice with Makram J Khoury.

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By Bob Shuman

SCENE: In the woods. A small clearing, off a parking lot–hardly more than a triangle where two parallel felled logs act as benches.

MARY JANE, early 70’s, sits on a log.  As at the dog run, using a launcher, SHE plays fetch with the dogs, primarily with her spaniel, LANTERN (who is missing at the beginning of this scene). CHRISTIE, late 50’s (male), stands, holding the leashes of his two Jack Russell terriers, JASPER and JUNO. He is wearing a mask, which itches, so he pulls it up and down on his face.  Chilly April. Both MARY JANE  and CHRISTIE wear gloves—CHRISTIE’s are surgical gloves.  MARY JANE does not wear a mask.

MARY JANE:  I’m usually on this bench or the next one over, and there’s another, after that, that I can still get to.

CHRISTIE:  (Joking, after a long walk with his dogs.)  Very . . . sylvan.  I just wish it didn’t take a helicopter to get here.

MARY JANE:  Lantern is reverting to his two-year-old self.  He disappears—and then I don’t see him again for half an hour.  It’s very frustrating.   He’s started ranging.

CHRISTIE:  I wondered where he went.  

MARY JANE:  After a while, he’ll come check to see if I’m still here and then go off again—usually dragging back some disgusting thing from the swamp.  (Pointing.)  It’s right down there.


CHRISTIE:  Natan says the run should be open again in a few weeks. 

MARY JANE:  It will be longer than a few weeks.  More like two months, if they open it again at all.    

CHRISTIE:  Dogs can go without leashes at the park until 9:00 in the morning—I think the same thing happens at night. 

MARY JANE:  That doesn’t do me any good.


MARY JANE:  (Zipping up her coat, because she is cold.) Doesn’t anyone know it’s April 22? Maybe the people  upstairs still think we’re in the middle of March, too.

(CHRISTIE drops his leashes and begins throwing a ball to Jasper.  He continues to hold JUNO’s leash, and she sits by him.)

CHRISTIE:  Jasper.  Don’t you go too far away.  I don’t want you going to the swamp.

MARY JANE: They can still ticket you here, if a dog isn’t on a leash—but what are they gonna tell me?  I can’t have one?

CHRISTIE: (Muttering.)  My wife will kill me.

MARY JANE:  If these dogs were left to go wild, we’d be seeing some serious food.  

CHRISTIE: (Joking.)  Squirrel.  Rabbit.

MARY JANE:  Chipmunks. 


CHRISTIE:  (Surveying.) I wondered where you took Lantern (during the last week).

MARY JANE: I used to walk here all the time when I was younger.   The only problem is it gets really dark at 7:30—all of a sudden it’s pitch black.  

CHRISTIE: Come on back, Jasper.  Don’t you go over there.

(Jasper trots back to CHRISTIE.)

MARY JANE:   I’m going to have to get Lantern an e-collar to shock him, when he goes too far, like when he was little.  I’ve been putting off ordering it. (Pause, noticing one of the dogs.Hello, Juno.

CHRISTIE:  Welcome to the Bronx.  Epicenter of the coronavirus in the city.

MARY JANE:  And the state–and the country.


MARY JANE:  Are they going to give you your job?

CHRISTIE:  Six are enrolled and they need eight to run the course.  Not having enough students in the winter was a blessing in disguise because I would have been taking five mass transit buses a day, back and forth to White Plains.

MARY JANE:  (Meaning the virus.) You would have gotten it.

CHRISTIE:  We’re lucky we don’t live farther south now. (About Jasper.) He still wants to put the ball between my feet.


MARY JANE: I was watching Dark Victory, with Bette Davis last night. 

CHRISTIE: I don’t even know if I’ve ever seen it.  This mask is really itchy.

MARY JANE: That’s the way I want to go.  Three months.  Won’t be painful. She lies down on the bed–and dies.  Nice and neat.  

CHRISTIE: I should really see that.

MARY JANE: (Mary JANE is interested in the Spanish flu)   With the Spanish flu, they turned blue. Lungs filled with fluid.  Wilson didn’t do anything.  He wasn’t expected to. The only thing good about it was that you went fast. Twenty-hour hours.  But then people stopped researching it when it was over.  Let me see what time it is. (MARY JANE checks her phone.)   7:08.


MARY JANE:  People don’t understand how much stress there is.  I was cooking dinner and when I was cleaning up I accidentally turned on the gas on the stove.  My next-door neighbor came over to see if I smelled anything. I had fallen asleep. I’ve never done that in my life.  Then I did it again the next night.  I’d been out with Lantern. Now the Super is at my door.  He thought I was trying to commit suicide.


(Suddenly, Lantern rushes in carrying something in his mouth and drops it near MARY JANE.  Overlapping: )     

MARY JANE: Oh, my God.                                CHRISTIE: Jesus        


MARY JANE: What does he have?         CHRISTIE: That is so gross.




MARY JANE: It’s a bat.                           CHRISTIE: It’s a banana.


MARY JANE :  Bird’s wing.                 CHRISTIE: Piece of rotting meat.          

MARY JANE:  It’s a scalp! (Upset.) Get it away.  Get it away from me.   Christie, take it away.  Get it out.

(End of Scene)

Copyright (c) 2020 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.


(Maureen Lee Lenker’s article appeared in Entertainment Weekly, 4/21; photo: EW; via Pam Green.) 

It’s time for a virtual celebration of 90 years of Stephen Sondheim being alive.

EW can exclusively reveal that Broadway veteran Raúl Esparza will host a star-studded online special commemorating the legendary composer and lyricist’s birthday, “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration.” It will stream this Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on and’s YouTube channel.

The concert will bring together some of Broadway and Hollywood’s best to honor Sondheim, with performances by Meryl StreepBernadette PetersPatti LuPoneAudra McDonaldChristine BaranskiDonna MurphyKristin ChenowethMandy PatinkinSutton FosterBrian Stokes MitchellKelli O’HaraAaron TveitStephen Schwartz, and more. Katrina Lenk will also appear; she, alongside LuPone, was meant to star in a gender-flipped Broadway revival of Company (itself turning 50 this year) slated to open on Sondheim’s actual 90th birthday in March, but that was derailed due to the coronavirus crisis.

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(Natasha Tripney’s interview appeared in the Guardian, 4/21.)

Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin explain how political exile prepared them for lockdown and why their latest project is about fairytales

The coronavirus outbreak has forced theatre-makers to change the ways in which they collaborate, with many starting to make work remotely. But Belarus Free Theatre’s founders, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, have had to work this way for years. Exiled from their home country for a decade, and living in London, their circumstances have obliged them to find creative new ways of continuing to make work. “We were one of the first theatre companies to use Skype,” explained Khalezin when we spoke earlier this year, “but this was a necessary measure. In 2011, when we ended up here and our cast was back in Belarus, we still needed to make shows, so we started trying out different technologies.”

Their latest production is an adaptation of Alhierd Bacharevic’s 2017 novel, Dogs of Europe, a 900-page dystopian political thriller with a section written in a language of Bacharevic’s own design. It is considered one of the most important literary works ever published in Belarus. Kaliada and Khalezin, who are married, have been working with a composer in Toronto, one in Berlin and a video director in Kiev. From their kitchen in London, we watch a scene play out in a warehouse in Minsk, before Khalezin embarks on a discussion with one of the cast members about the feasibility of him running around the stage naked for the duration of the interval.

In the last few weeks, BFT has doubled its activities. When the UK went into lockdown they instructed their company in Minsk to self-isolate, though there had been no official guidance in Belarus about doing so. They then set about creating the Love Over Virus project, an attempt during a time of fear to “let people dream again”. Actors will be reading fairytales they were told as children, or that they tell their children, with contributions from trustees and supporters, including Juliet Stevenson and Samuel West, as well as Kaliada’s own actor father, Andrej.

They are also resurrecting their Kitchen Revolution project, an online space for provocation, conversation and communal dining. A recipe is shared with participants, before they debate, among other things, how it is possible to survive our current situation, survival being an area in which the theatre-makers have considerable experience.

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(from The New York Times, 4/16; photo: The New York Times;  via Pam Green.)

The Belarus Free Theater, founded in 2005 by dissident artists in the former Soviet republic, has operated clandestinely in the capital, Minsk, and in London, where the artistic directors, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, have lived in exile since 2011. For performances in Belarus, where most of the 12-person ensemble is still based, the troupe rehearses its provocative productions over Skype and puts them on in changing “underground” locations, in defiance of a government ban.

Their plays, which often lay bare political corruption and social decay in the authoritarian country, have been raided by the K.G.B., Belarus’s secret police. Audience members and actors alike have been jailed.

The Belarus Free Theater has nevertheless been able to present its productions abroad, and it has performed in over 40 countries. The troupe was getting ready to celebrate its 15th anniversary with an ambitious lineup of productions and workshops and the premiere of a documentary film. But then the coronavirus struck.

With its performing activities on hold for the foreseeable future, the company has opened its digital archive. (A spokeswoman said it hoped to reschedule as many of the anniversary events as possible for later in the year). This month, it began streaming 24 productions, roughly half its repertory, on YouTube, with English subtitles.

Although recordings often fail to capture the excitement of live performance, these documents of the troupe’s intimate performances convey what makes the Belarus Free Theater such a unique and artistically thrilling company. New videos will be made available each week until late June.

In the early works that have streamed so far, all of which predated the government’s ban in 2010, you have to marvel at the troupe’s ability to achieve startling theatrical effects with extremely modest means. Performing in underground clubs and black box theaters, the actors often have little more than a chalkboard, bed or chair to work with. This is theatrical minimalism born of privation and necessity. Eschewing flashy stage effects, the four productions I saw achieved a remarkable theatrical purity.

While the political situation in Belarus looms large in the productions, the country’s specific struggles take on a degree of universality that all revolutionary art strives for. Politically urgent though they are, these productions are not agitprop.

A stark staging of the British playwright Sarah Kane’s feverish “4.48 Psychosis,” the Belarus Free Theater’s first production, from May 2005, kicked off the online programming. It premiered at the Graffiti Club in Minsk, a bar in an industrial neighborhood that hosted the group’s first three productions before the authorities pressured it to stop.

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