Monthly Archives: April 2022


(A.J. Goldmann’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/7/22; via Pam Green;  Photo: The ensemble in “Oasis de la Impunidad” (“Oasis of Impunity”), directed by Marco Layera, at the Schaubühne’s Festival International for New Drama, or FIND.Credit…Gianmarco Bresadola.)

At Berlin’s FIND festival of new international drama, several productions use transcripts to explore questions of state power and identity.

BERLIN — Outside a small stage at the Schaubühne theater here on Tuesday evening, a sign cautioned that the Chilean production “Oasis de la Impunidad” (“Oasis of Impunity”) featured strobe lights and onstage nudity.

In retrospect, that caveat seemed comical, a bit like warning viewers that a Tarantino film might be somewhat bloody. Over the play’s 90-minute run time, the audience sat in stunned silence as a band of eight performers enacted a macabre and ritualistically precise examination of violence’s corrosive effect on the individual and the social body. Scenes of torture and violence, including sexual violence, tumbled forth with balletic elegance. The production’s delicacy of feeling and theatrical finesse were disturbingly at odds with the horrors it depicted.

Created by the director Marco Layera and his company La Re-Sentida, “Oasis de la Impunidad” is a harrowing artistic response to Chile’s recent wave of social unrest, which has been described as the country’s worst since the end of the Pinochet regime. Like the other standout productions at the Schaubühne’s Festival International for New Drama, or FIND, “Oasis” takes nightmarish and surreal contemporary events as starting points for provocative theatrical explorations.

In late 2019, Chile was convulsed by social unrest after a fare hike on the Santiago subway inspired mass demonstrations and riots against rising inequality. The government declared a state of emergency and deployed the army to restore law and order. In the first weeks of unrest, 18 people were killed and nearly 3,000 detained, including hundreds of women and children, according to a report issued by the National Institute for Human Rights. Since then, there have been numerous reports of security forces torturing and raping protesters.

To develop “Oasis,” Layera held a series of theater labs and workshops in Chile. Two hundred people participated, including many survivors of state-sponsored repression and brutality. The resulting show, described as “an investigation into the origins and mechanisms of violence,” is a series of sinister and menacing episodes laced with dark comedy.

At the Schaubühne, the actors, a mix of professionals and nonprofessionals, pulled on their genitalia, pinched their teeth and flesh with tools, erupted into paroxysms of hysteria and grief, and lovingly exhibited broken, bloodied bodies in a fun house of horrors. After its world premiere in Berlin, the show will travel to Santiago, Chile, in late May.

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(Rebecca Mead’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 4/11; Mike Bartlett Illustration by João Fazenda.)

A few years ago, the British playwright Mike Bartlett offered an ingenious take on future events in “King Charles III,” a drama that appeared in the West End, and then on Broadway, about the Royal Family in the imagined wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth. Startlingly, but somehow entirely aptly, its characters spoke in blank verse: “My life has been a ling’ring for the throne,” Charles soliloquized in the first scene. When the curtain rose last week at London’s Old Vic on Bartlett’s new play, “The 47th,” a very different head of state was center stage, announcing himself to the audience in iambic pentameter: “I know, I know. You hate me. So much, right?”

In “The 47th”—the title refers to whoever will come after Joe Biden, the forty-sixth President of the United States—Bartlett again employs Shakespeare’s idiom to fashion a contemporary succession drama. “I’ve known for a while that Trump was sort of a Shakespearean archetype, in the way that Charles was,” Bartlett explained the other day, during a break from rehearsal. “Charles is the man who waited: he waits his whole life to be king, and then he’s only got a short period, so what’s he going to do with it? And Trump, as a sort of seductive, show-biz, bitter, iconic figure, is also quite Shakespearean—quite ‘Richard III.’ ” It was only after the storming of the Capitol, in January, 2021, that Bartlett felt inspired, he said, to give the former President the stage from which he had been ushered in the election of 2020, and to set the play slightly in advance of the 2024 election. “After that happened, I realized American democracy, as a project, is in jeopardy,” Bartlett said. “So it’s not just about: how does one defeat Trump? It’s: how does one engage with that?”

The cast is a mix of British and American actors: Trump is played by Bertie Carvel, who won an Olivier Award for his performance as Miss Trunchbull in “Matilda” and a Tony for playing Rupert Murdoch in “Ink”; Kamala Harris is played by Tamara Tunie, who appeared in more than two hundred episodes of “Law & Order,” as the medical examiner Dr. Melinda Warner. To capture the forty-fifth President’s distinctive speech patterns, Bartlett watched hours of rallies and debates—just kidding! “I didn’t have to listen to any—I’ve heard enough,” Bartlett said, grimly. He salted his text with Trumpisms, especially in the early scenes. “It was so beautiful, so many jobs,” Trump says of the economy during his tenure. But, Bartlett explained, “as the narrative comes through, and the characters come through, some of that drops away.”

Instead, “The 47th” playfully riffs on Shakespearean rhythms and tropes. In a “Lear”-like setup in the first act, Trump discusses dividing his fortune among his three older children: Don, Jr., who models himself on his namesake (“I am your mirror, father. Donald named / And Donald Trump in bloody nature, too”); dopey Eric, “a sniv’ling wreck with little sense,” as Eric himself puts it; and cunning Ivanka. “Your rightful heir will never beg, but trade” is Ivanka’s response to her father’s entreaty for loyalty, before Trump declares that a three-way split “feels not aligned / With my philosophy: to find the art / Within the deal.”

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(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/10; Photo:  Tom Larkin and Hiran Abeysekera in Life of Pi. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

Find out who won what at the Royal Albert Hall ceremony where Cabaret was toasted and Life of Pi proved a roaring success

Best revival

A Number – Old Vic
Constellations – Donmar Warehouse at Vaudeville theatre – WINNER!
The Normal Heart – National Theatre
The Tragedy of Macbeth – Almeida

Best entertainment or comedy play

The Choir of Man – Arts theatre
Pantoland at the Palladium – London Palladium
Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) – Criterion theatre – WINNER!
The Shark is Broken – Ambassadors theatre

Best musical revival

Anything Goes – Barbican
Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!
Spring Awakening – Almeida

Best costume design

Jon Morrell for Anything Goes – Barbican
Christopher Oram for Frozen – Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Tom Scutt for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre
Catherine Zuber for Moulin Rouge! The Musical – Piccadilly theatre – WINNER!

Best sound design

Ian Dickinson for 2:22 A Ghost Story – Noël Coward theatre
Carolyn Downing for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre
Nick Lidster for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!
Gareth Owen for Back to the Future: The Musical – Adelphi theatre

Best original score or new orchestrations

Anything Goes – New Orchestrations: Bill Elliott, David Chase and Rob Fisher
Back to the Future: The Musical – Composers: Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard; Orchestrations: Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook
Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical – Orchestrator: Simon Hale – WINNER!
Life of Pi – Composer: Andrew T Mackay


Best theatre choreographer

Finn Caldwell for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre
Julia Cheng for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre
Kathleen Marshall for Anything Goes – Barbican – WINNER!
Sonya Tayeh for Moulin Rouge! The Musical – Piccadilly theatre

Best actor in a supporting role

Seven actors who play the Tiger for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre – WINNER!
Dino Fetscher for The Normal Heart – National Theatre
Nathaniel Parker for The Mirror and the Light – Gielgud theatre
Danny Lee Wynter for The Normal Heart – National Theatre

Best actress in a supporting role

Tori Burgess for Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) – Criterion theatre
Liz Carr for The Normal Heart – National Theatre – WINNER!
Christina Gordon for Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) – Criterion theatre
Akiya Henry for The Tragedy of Macbeth – Almeida

Best set design

Tim Hatley for Design and Nick Barnes & Finn Caldwell for Puppets for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre – WINNER!
Tim Hatley for Design and Finn Ross for Video Design for Back to the Future: The Musical – Adelphi theatre
Derek McLane for Moulin Rouge! The Musical – Piccadilly theatre
Tom Scutt for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre

Best lighting design

Neil Austin for Frozen – Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Isabella Byrd for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre
Tim Lutkin for Back to the Future: The Musical – Adelphi theatre
Tim Lutkin and Andrzej Goulding for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre – WINNER!

Best actress in a supporting role in a musical

Gabrielle Brooks for Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical – Lyric theatre
Victoria Hamilton-Barritt for Cinderella – Gillian Lynne theatre
Carly Mercedes Dyer for Anything Goes – Barbican
Liza Sadovy for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!

Best actor in a supporting role in a musical

Clive Carter for Moulin Rouge! The Musical – Piccadilly theatre
Hugh Coles for Back to the Future: The Musical – Adelphi theatre
Elliot Levey for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!
Gary Wilmot for Anything Goes – Barbican

Outstanding achievement in opera

Christine Rice for her performance in 4/4 – Royal Opera House
takis for set and costume design of HMS Pinafore by English National Opera – London Coliseum
Peter Whelan and the Irish Baroque Orchestra for Bajazet – Royal Opera House, Linbury theatre – WINNER!Jenůfa at the Royal Opera House, directed by Claus Guth. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian 

Best new opera production

Bajazet – Royal Opera House, Linbury theatre
The Cunning Little Vixen by English National Opera – London Coliseum
Jenůfa – Royal Opera House – WINNER!
Theodora – Royal Opera House

Best actor in a musical

Olly Dobson for Back to the Future: The Musical – Adelphi theatre
Arinzé Kene for Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical – Lyric theatre
Robert Lindsay for Anything Goes – Barbican
Eddie Redmayne for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!

Best actress in a musical

Jessie Buckley for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!
Sutton Foster for Anything Goes – Barbican
Beverley Knight for The Drifters Girl – Garrick theatre
Stephanie McKeon for Frozen – Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Outstanding achievement in dance

Acosta Danza for De Punta A Cabo in 100% Cuban – Sadler’s Wells
Dancers for NDT2 Tour – Sadler’s Wells
Arielle Smith for her choreography of Jolly Folly in Reunion by English National Ballet – Sadler’s Wells – WINNER!
Edward Watson for his performance in The Dante Project – Royal Opera House

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(Michael Paulson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/10; via Pam Green; Photo: Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker celebrated the long-delayed opening of “Plaza Suite,” the comedy in which they are co-starring. A little more than a week later, they both tested positive for the coronavirus.Credit…OK McCausland for The New York Times.)

It will be the busiest April for Broadway openings in more than a decade. But some of its biggest stars have been sidelined by positive tests.

After a gloomy winter in which the Omicron variant shriveled Broadway’s lucrative holiday season, New York’s vaunted theater industry has been betting on a big spring, nearly doubling the number of shows on offer as the pandemic-battered business thirsts for a rebound.

Adding all those plays and musicals — 16 new productions plus three returning from hiatuses are opening over a five-week stretch — was always going to be a gamble, since no one knows, in this not-yet-post-pandemic era, whether there are enough tourists and theatergoing locals to sustain that many shows.

And now the stubborn persistence of the coronavirus is complicating matters even further. A rising number of cases in New York City, coinciding with the arrival of the virus’s BA. 2 subvariant, has once again rocked Broadway, infecting some of its biggest stars, including Daniel CraigSarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, and forcing four shows to temporarily cancel performances.

“What we thought we were entering into this spring, which was always going to be busy and crowded, over the last week has changed dramatically,” said Greg Nobile, the lead producer of a new farce, “POTUS,” which, while still in rehearsals, has had to adapt as four of its seven actresses tested positive for the coronavirus. “Somehow it feels like, ‘This again?’ The answer is yes, but this time, we need to ask the question, how do we truly keep the show on, and what are the ways we are adjusting to what is a new normal?”

Broadway’s big spring began on a cold night in late March with the opening of a revival of “Plaza Suite,” a Neil Simon comedy starring Parker and Broderick that was initially scheduled to start performances on March 13, 2020. Broadway shut down for the pandemic the day before that performance, and the Hudson Theater remained vacant, with the married co-stars’ names on the marquee and the set on the stage, for two full years before they returned to try again.

 “Our hope is that this isn’t a moment, but rather this is the way we will function now,” Parker, in a pink satin gown with a beaded tulle overlay, said opening night at the end of an 80-foot-long preshow red carpet. “We have restaurants waiting to reopen still, we have hotel employees waiting to come back, we have delis that have been hit, we have ushers who are wanting to work the front of the house.”

The crowd that came out to cheer her on, which included Mikhail Baryshnikov, Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon and Martin Short, was buoyant.

Broderick, finished with the gauntlet of camera crews arrayed inside a translucent tent, remarked how much he had enjoyed returning to the theater as an audience member, and now as a performer. “We’re learning to live with the pandemic or endemic — whatever you want to call it now — so the stronger theater and everything New York gets, the more normal life is,” he said. “This is part of the world coming back.”

But eight days later, he tested positive, and two days later, so did she.

(Read more)


(Gareth Llŷr Evans’s review appeared in the UK Guardian, 4/8; Photograph: Curtis Richard Photography.)

Bristol Old Vic
Giles Terera’s lyrical and inventive drama about a brutal episode in British history brims with urgency, pain and ultimately pride

In November and December 1781, 132 enslaved Africans held captive on the British ship Zong were thrown overboard into the Caribbean sea and murdered. This brutal event and the subsequent London court cases which energised the abolitionist movement are chronicled in The Meaning of Zong, Giles Terera’s debut play. 

‘It was shameful I didn’t know about it’: Hamilton’s Giles Terera on the Zong massacre

Originally due to be staged in 2020 and adapted for radio last year, it now receives a richly theatrical first production. Framed by a contemporary setting, the play is resolutely aware of its place in the present moment and how its resonances may differ after the events of the intervening two years. It refrains from didacticism and easy metaphors.

Although the playwright not only shares directing duties with Tom Morris but also stars as abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, it is very much an ensemble piece. Roles and scenery swiftly segue from one scene to the next: talking bookshelves become a crackling fireplace and revolutionary printing presses; slaves become judges.

Performed to music composed and spectacularly played live by Sidiki Dembele, Terera’s nimble script moves to its own rhythm. An extended and exquisitely lyrical second-act monologue might, in a less assured production, feel like it belongs to a different play. Here it feels wholly apposite, performed to devastating effect by Kiera Lester.

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(Sophia Kishkovsky’s article appeared in The Art Newspaper, 4/7/2022. Photo: Images of the performance about the Bucha massacre were distributed by the independent news site Holod© Telegram/Holod.)

The unidentified artist is pictured in front of Moscow monuments laying face down, hands tied behind his back in a pose that has become synonymous with the atrocities

An unidentified artist-activist commemorated the victims of the massacre of male residents of the town of Bucha near Kyiv by having himself photographed in front of Moscow monuments laying face down, hands tied behind his back with white cloth.

The terrifying images that emerged from Bucha over the weekend after it was freed from weeks of Russian occupation, showed many victims laying in that pose, some with gunshot wounds to the head in signs of summary execution.

The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said more than 300 people were killed and tortured in Bucha. Speaking before the United Nations on Tuesday, he showed a graphic video of the atrocities and accused Russia of war crimes. Russian officials claim Ukraine staged the massacre and that they appeared only after Russian forces withdrew, which has been refuted by satellite footage.

The artist’s pose has become synonymous with Bucha, which is being compared with other war crimes including the 1995 massacre of Bosniak Muslim men by Bosnian Serbs in Srebrenica. He strikes it against the background of four Moscow landmarks: Aleksandrovsky Sad, a garden adjacent to the Kremlin; a bridge leading to Christ the Saviour Cathedral; and the Nikolskaya and Old Arbat pedestrian streets.

The images went viral after being distributed on Tuesday under the title Bucha-Moscow via the Telegram channel of Holod, an independent news site that evacuated its staff from Russia when a law was passed that could result in up to 15 years in prison for disseminating “fake” information about Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine. Holod’s editor-in-chief fled to Georgia late last year after being labeled a “foreign agent.” The Moscow-Bucha images attracted over 226,000 views on Holod’s channel and many elsewhere as of Wednesday.

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(Lyndsey Winship’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/5/22; via Pam Green; Photo:  After Putin invaded Ukraine, the Russian dancer denounced the war, left the Kremlin-allied company – and flew out of Moscow that night. As she prepares for her debut at the Dutch National Ballet, Smirnova speaks for the first time.)

“My life totally changed in one day,” says Olga Smirnova. “In the morning, I did not know I was going to leave Russia. And in the night, I was sitting on the plane.” The 30-year-old dancer was one of the Bolshoi Ballet’s star ballerinas, a universally lauded performer at the peak of her powers, at a company that has long had close ties to the Kremlin. Earlier this month, she made a shock announcement: she had joined Dutch National Ballet (DNB), leaving Moscow behind. The move came shortly after Smirnova wrote a heartfelt post on the online messaging service Telegram about Russia’s attack on Ukraine. “With all the fibres of my soul I am against the war,” she wrote. “I never thought that I would be ashamed of Russia … But now the line is drawn on the before and after.”

Speaking via video call from Amsterdam, she explains her reason for leaving: “It did not feel safe.” Although there had been no direct threat from the authorities, she adds: “I just felt the atmosphere was tense in the country. International flights were being cancelled and there were rumours the borders would be closed, so we decided to leave. We didn’t want to risk it and wait longer.”

She knew making such a statement would put her in the spotlight. Why did she do it? “I don’t know,” she says. “I just felt I needed to speak out. I couldn’t keep it inside. There were many artists who spoke out. I admire Russian literature. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are my favourite writers and you learn from their example that you must speak honestly and openly.”

Smirnova barely heard from her Bolshoi colleagues, save for a couple of “supportive and touching” messages. “People are afraid to speak out. If they don’t have any choice but to stay, they prefer not to speak out. Everyone should be able to decide what type of society they want to live in and how much freedom one needs for living.”

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(Joe Westerfield’s article appeared in Newsweek, 3/29; Photo: Irish Repertory’s Ciarán O’Relly talked to Newsweek about the how the company got through and came out of the pandemic shutdown. From left, Belle Aykroyd, Robert Cuccioli, David Beck, David Sitler and Rex Young in Irish Rep’s 2022 mainstage production of “A Touch of the Poet.”CAROL ROSEGG.)

When the COVID pandemic hit, the Irish Repertory Theatre put everything on hold and went into full digital mode, producing several extraordinary online productions. Now the company has emerged from the shutdown pretty much where it entered, with a production of A Touch of the Poet, Eugene O’Neill’s tragic drama of immigrants in America, but this time it’s live on stage.

A Touch of the Poet, which had been well into production when the shutdown hit and received an excellent digital showing, has arrived where it always should have been—on the company’s mainstage, starring Robert Cuccioli, Belle Aykroyd and Kate Forbes, through April 17. The show has returned with three new actors joining the cast: James Russell, David Beck and Rex Young.

Producing director Ciarán O’Reilly, who talked to Newsweek about the effects of the pandemic and its aftermath on the company, said, “We were a few days away from going into the theater. The set had not been loaded in yet, but it was built. We were almost four weeks in the rehearsal room. The costumes had been thrown on a rack. The lighting plan had been designed. The sound had been designed, or was in the process of for the most part. It was we were ready to go, and then we were told to go away for a few days.”

Those days turned out to be not quite as biblical as the daily headlines, but they were not 24-hour days. There were two years’ worth of them, and they were filled with some doubt about if and when normalcy would return. The company did, however, do several excellent digital productions, including one of the Touch of the Poet.

“We hoped we could do it one day,” O’Reilly said about a live production of the play, “and then we hoped it was going to be the right show to come back with. You never quite know. We just felt like it had not been fully realized [when it was done digitally]. Even though we had done a film version, there was nothing that would match the live experience for everyone.”

Irish Repertory’s Ciarán O’Relly talked to Newsweek about the how the company got through and came out of the pandemic shutdown. From left, Belle Aykroyd, Robert Cuccioli, David Beck, David Sitler and Rex Young in Irish Rep’s 2022 mainstage production of “A Touch of the Poet.”

Aside from the shutdown, the George Floyd murder and ensuing protests touched Irish Rep, and the company has been attempting to be more inclusive. To that end, it has entered into an agreement with Fishamble, an Irish theater company, to commission an evening of plays by Black Irish playwrights.

O’Reilly told Newsweek, “In collaboration with the Fishamble theater company—they were actually founded in 1988, the same year as us, and have been around for quite some time—we wanted to try to create some content that has an Irish connection to it, because that’s what we are. We also are very interested in moving the needle as much as possible as regards to diversity—and to try to do it properly.

“We wanted to be doing the work but also part of our own vision. So, we decided that if we can’t, if it’s not out there right now—and we were having a tough time finding material we thought would fit in with us—that we need to create some material. And so to be able to create stuff that maybe reflects Ireland of today, we decided let’s go with a company in Ireland and talk to them.

“They said that they had gone down that road a little bit themselves, inviting people of color to come and write some things. So, we thought, Well let’s make it official: If they can identify up to four playwrights in Ireland, then we will give them a commission for each of them to write a play 20 minutes long and those four plays will become an evening of theater. We didn’t put any real boundaries on them as to what they needed to write about. They could write about anything they want. But just to give them something to start with, we decided that the idea would be ‘four seasons.’ Each of them could write about a season and each of them could write whatever they liked about it.

“And then we wanted a connection from here. They were all Black, brown people living in Ireland, growing up Irish basically. It’s not as if there were a lot of immigrants to Ireland. They were actually Irish people living over there. So to have a connection from over here, we asked Dael Orlandersmith, whose most famous play is probably Yellowman, to be a mentor for these playwrights because they’re all pretty young. They’re all south of 30. We asked her to come on board, and we’re currently in the midst of the project with them. They’re on the creative task at the moment. We hope to have a draft by the end of the year, enough to do a reading workshop both in Dublin and New York.”

Orlandersmith actually has a connection to Ireland. “It was Lynn Nottage who actually put us in touch with her. I knew Dael, myself. I’d met her before but hadn’t quite realized that she had such a connection to reland. She had lived over there and had several productions of her own work in and around Ireland—in Dublin, Galway and around the country. So that was pretty cool.”

Other big news that came up recently was that Irish Rep had been named in the will of Stephen Sondheim who died on November 26, 2021. O’Reilly said that he had no idea this was coming, nor did he know, as of publication time, how much that would be. “We figured we’ve already won, just to be included. It’s a bit like just to get nominated [for an ward] was enough.

“Sondheim was a good friend of [artistic director] Charlotte Moore’s. Charlotte was the connection. She had also worked with [Sondheim’s longtime collaborator and friend] Hal Prince, and Hal worked with us on his play Grandchild of Kings.”

Moore had had a famously bad audition for Prince and Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in which she attempted to sing the bench song—”If I Loved You”—from Carousel, but, O’Reilly said, “nothing came out.” Moore burst into tears, after which Sondheim comforted her. She was invited back, but eventually declined to audition again. But they remained friends. He would show up unannounced at plays, obviously a fan of Irish Rep’s work. And the mention in Sondheim’s will has burnished the company’s reputation as much as it will its coffers.

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(Sarah Larson’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 4/4/22; Illustration: Sam Rockwell, Darren Criss, Laurence FishburneIllustration by João Fazenda.)

“American Buffalo” ’s Laurence Fishburne, Darren Criss, and Sam Rockwell ruminate on junk and iambic pentameter on a visit to a thrift shop.

Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell, and Darren Criss, who star in the Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” at Circle in the Square, and Neil Pepe, who directs it, met up the other day at a West Side thrift shop called No Particular Hours (“Vintage Goods / Industrial Artifacts / Dead People’s Things”). The play, from 1975, is about three desperate characters in a junk shop; the group had planned to visit one in March, 2020, shortly before the show’s opening; two years later, there they were. The proprietor, Jerry Lerner—tall, grizzled, fisherman’s cap—let them wander, offering occasional commentary. (Of a carved statue: “I used to call that Bali Parton.”) The shop, a chockablock riot of curiosities—wagon-wheel chandelier here, helmeted mannequin head there—was a bit more festive than the “Buffalo” set, and the actors were a bit snazzier than their onstage counterparts. Fishburne (Donny, the junk-shop owner) wore an African-print-inspired combo from Moshood, of Brooklyn (“I modelled for them in the eighties”), with a drawstring waist. Criss (Bobby, Donny’s slow-witted gofer) gestured at his own plaid pants, and said, “I’m also rocking the drawstring.” Rockwell (Teach, their ne’er-do-well friend) looked mischievous—rascally mustache, sweater with “high end” in colorful letters. “It’s just a sweater I got because I’m a Hollywood phony,” he said, smirking. Criss and Fishburne laughed. “I’m a dickhead, and I wore a dickish sweater,” he said. They laughed more.

“American Buffalo,” a blunt, staccato symphony of F-bombs, haplessness, and simmering rage, centers on a scheme to steal a valuable nickel and culminates in mayhem. Pepe, a prolific director of Mamet with the presence of a director of much gentler fare, leafed through a bin of old wrenches. “We’ve been talking about what makes a lot of noise,” he said. “There’s stuff that happens physically—it will all be choreographed, hopefully, so that all is safe.” Fishburne got intrigued by an old brass fire extinguisher; earthenware jugs (“Jugs, baby! Now, that’s country”), one of which he blew into, jug-band style; and an early-twentieth-century toaster, which he picked up and carried around.

“Our shop is not as nice as this,” Rockwell said. “We don’t have a ‘Clash of the Titans’ poster. Boy, I would buy that.” He crossed to a wall of old posters. “Or ‘Carmen Jones,’ ” Fishburne said. “I have the one from ‘Black Orpheus.’ ”

“Dude, that Harry Belafonte–Danny Kaye video you sent me was awesome,” Rockwell said. They fist-bumped. Which video? Criss asked.

“It’s called ‘Mama Look a Boo-Boo,’ ” Fishburne said.

“Belafonte was a real sex symbol,” Rockwell said. A feed bag caught his eye. “ ‘Purina Goat Chow,’ ” he read. “I had that for breakfast.”

In 2020, they had rehearsed for three weeks before everything shut down, then continued for several more weeks via FaceTime. “This is the longest I’ve prepared for any show in my entire life,” Criss said. Pepe said that he hoped it would feel “lived in.” Fishburne said, “I’ve wanted to do this play since I was a kid.” When “Buffalo” first made waves, he added, “I was in the Philippines, doing ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ”—but “the talk of it . . . this play changed shit for the American theatre. Nobody had used language like this before.” Pepe said, “All of a sudden, Mamet’s doing iambic with the stuff of the streets.”

Mamet wrote “American Buffalo” while living in Chicago and hanging around with poker players in a junk shop. “Some of the guys were ex-cons, and in the business of thievery,” Pepe said. “He would hear their stories. The play has this idea of wanting a bigger piece of the pie.”

“ ‘Gatsby’s Tennis Nets,’ ” Fishburne said, reading a tag aloud.

On a counter in front, a wooden box displayed a mysterious object: ivory-like, rounded, and carved with dancing skeletons. The visitors leaned in. “I was cleaning out an apartment, and I said, ‘Oh, nice bowl,’ right?” Lerner said. “Then I turned it over and said, ‘Holy crap.’ ”

“It’s a turtle shell,” Fishburne said.

“It’s the top of somebody’s skull,” Lerner said.

“Holy shit!” Criss said. “That is intense! ”

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(Cameron Woodhead’s article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3/31/22; Photo: Old tensions surface in this rare drama. CREDIT:JODIE HUTCHINSON.)     

Heroes of the Fourth Turning ★★★★
Red Stitch, until April 10

Why do we live in such politically polarised times? The echo chambers of social media? Tribal identity politics on both sides of the fence? What about theatre? It’s no secret the art form skews to the political left. The lion’s share of vibrant, accomplished drama is filtered through a socially progressive lens … and so is the bulk of the strident, unaccomplished stuff that simply preaches to the converted.

Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a rare bird in the theatre world – a play that lets actors loose on fully fleshed-out characters of a conservative bent, daring audiences to imagine and to grapple with their perspectives and experiences.

In Wyoming, a group of young conservative Christians gathers to get drunk at a house party. They’ve returned to celebrate Gina (Margaret Mills), who’s been appointed president of their alma mater, but old tensions surface during their reunion.

Personal struggles become political as they share encounters with mainstream, socially progressive culture, and erupt into argument over glaring contradictions between their religious convictions and the belligerent rhetoric of Trumpism.

The play is a necessary complement (and corrective) to Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels, which offered a fly-on-the-wall view of a liberal household in upstate New York. That realist trilogy premiered during the 2016 presidential election and its characters used Hillary Clinton’s trick of failing to mention Trump by name – not once over nine hours – condemning it to being an instant museum piece. 

Heroes of the Fourth Turning doesn’t make that mistake. These young Catholics might hold views you find objectionable or confronting – they’re all ardent pro-lifers, for instance – but they’re hyperaware of the political and culture wars around them. They wrestle with opposing ideas and engage in searching, sometimes compulsive debate among themselves.

What makes it so riveting to watch isn’t just the rigour and rhetorical allure of the argumentation, it’s that the characters are so nuanced, their personalities so recognisable and richly drawn.

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