Category Archives: Commentary

IN HAMLET AND IN LIFE, RUTH NEGGA DOES NOT HOLD BACK ·

(Robert Ito’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/17; via Pam Green.)

The Ethiopian-Irish actress returns to a “completely destroying” stage role. Next: a film adaptation of a 1920s novel about passing for white.

LOS ANGELES — What stage actor wouldn’t jump at the chance to play Hamlet? Ruth Negga, for one. When she was offered the role at Dublin’s Gate Theater in 2018, her first impulse was to say thanks, but no. Too tough, too daunting, “too much,” she said. In 2010, Negga had tackled Ophelia at the National Theater in London — surely that experience would give her a leg up?

Nothing helps you play Hamlet,” she laughed.

Negga ultimately took the role, however, earning rave reviews. The Guardian praised her “priceless ability to savor the language,” while the Irish edition of The Times of London called her performance “a stunning gift for Irish theatergoers.”

If she made it all look easy, however, it was anything but. “It nearly killed me,” said Negga, who is perhaps best known for her Oscar-nominated turn in the 2016 biopic “Loving,” in which she played a woman who endures jail time and exile for the then-crime of being married to a white man in 1950s Virginia. “If you ask anyone who’s played Hamlet, it’s completely destroying,” she said. “It cracks you open, and you feel like you’re this mass of nerves and open skin.”

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Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (66) ·

In those days (1905) “The Enemy of the People” (Ibsen) had not only artistic but social meaning and was to a great extent the expression of the time. It is not remarkable that the play at once came under the surveillance of the censor and the police. Not a single performance took place without ovations that resembled demonstrations. (MLIA)

REVIEW: ARTHUR MILLER’S DYING ‘SALESMAN’ IS REBORN IN LONDON ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/ 2; via Pam Green.  Those who like Death of a Salesman may also enjoy End Zone, playing at Dixon Place, 2/25.)

An electrifying revival, starring a heartbreaking Wendell Pierce, reimagines Willy Loman as a black man in a white man’s world.

LONDON — The tired old man has had an unexpected transfusion. And he has seldom seemed more alive — or more doomed.

What’s most surprising about Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s beautiful revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which I mercifully caught near the end of its West End run here at the Piccadilly Theater, is how vital it is. As Willy Loman, the title character of this epochal 1949 drama, lives out his last, despondent days, what has often felt like a plodding walk to the grave in previous incarnations becomes a propulsive — and compulsively watchable — dance of death.

Portrayed by a splendid Wendell Pierce (“The Wire” and “Treme” on television), Willy lacks the stooped shoulders and slumped back with which he is traditionally associated. (It’s the posture immortalized in the book cover for the original script.)

This electrically alert and eager Willy nearly always stands ramrod tall in this production, which originated at the Young Vic Theater, though you sense it’s an effort. When we first see him, newly returned to his Brooklyn home from an aborted road trip, he bends to put down the sample case he holds in each hand. And for a painful second, he registers how much it hurts him to straighten up again.

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Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (65) ·

Naturalism on the stage is only naturalism when it is justified by the inner experience of the actor. Once naturalism is justified, it either becomes necessary (especially in Tolstoy’s plays, for Tolstoy loves things and the details of human life more than all other authors) or it is simply unnoticed, thanks to the inner display of the emotions of the actor and the complete mixing of inner and outer life. I would advise all theoreticians who do not know this from their own experience to see their words justified on the stage itself, as I did. (MLIA)

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (64) ·

We studied the buildings, and made plans of them, of the natural geography and topography of the courtyards, barns, outhouses, and main structures of the estate. We studied the customs, the marriage ceremonies, the run of everyday life, the details of husbandry. We brought back with us from the village clothes, shirts, short overcoats, dishes, furniture. Not only that—we also brought two living specimens of the village life with us, an old man and an old woman. (MLIA)

HOW A JERRY HERMAN SONG LANDED A TRIPLE PUNCH ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/27; via Pam Green.)

A comedy number from the flop “Mack & Mabel” found the unexpected sweet spot between Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim.

It was always a canard that Jerry Herman, the big-thump tunesmith, and Stephen Sondheim, the big-think musical dramatist, represented opposing and hostile camps.

 

In fact, they were doing the same thing: finding ways to make characters sing as they must. Herman’s Mame couldn’t have pattered a list of cannibal puns any more than Sondheim’s Mrs. Lovett could have belted a brassy ballad about the boy that got away — though both perfectly suited Angela Lansbury, who introduced “If He Walked Into My Life,” in “Mame,” and “A Little Priest,” in “Sweeney Todd,” 13 years apart. The difference was in the stories Sondheim and Herman, who died on Thursday at 88, wanted to tell, leading their songs where they had to go.

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IRISH THEATRE IN 2019: A DRAMATIC YEAR THAT LEFT THE FUTURE UNCERTAIN ·

(Peter Crawley’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 12/7.)

Theatre in Ireland this year was bookended by two crises, a state of play mirrored by the work  

It was a dramatic year for theatre, bookended by two moments of crisis. The first played out in the full glare of public attention. The other, which is happening now, has been observed more quietly, if at all.

Barely one week into 2019, Irish theatre was once again a news story. On January 7th, an open letter lambasting the Abbey’s production model, for Abbey directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren’s perceived overreliance on staging co-productions and insufficient employment opportunities at the National Theatre, among other grievances, was signed by 312 theatre professionals.

So began a turbulent year for the Abbey, which dealt with the fallout in media statements, a tense committee hearing in the Oireachtas, and a series of meetings with industry representatives, finally yielding commitments and outcomes. By the time it announced its programme for 2020 this month, with a balance between self-produced and co-produced work that did not appear radically different, the outcry had faded away, either because communication between involved parties had become clearer, or because such an explosion of protest could only immolate the building or fizzle out.

Overshadowed by the furore at the time was the kind of co-production in question, when Karl Shiels brought his dark double-bill The Ridleys to the Peacock. This might have been a breakout moment for Shiels’s Theatre Upstairs, the actor/director’s tenacious home for short-form new writing, and a launch pad for new careers.

Sadly, it turned out to be the theatre’s swansong: a couple of months later, Theatre Upstairs announced its closure after nine years in business. In any circumstances, the end of a venue committed exclusively to new work would feel unnatural, like the loss of promise. But that sensation became unbearably tragic in July when Shiels, a tireless advocate for new artists and energising audiences, died at the age of 47.

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Photo: Irish Times

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, HELLO, DOLLY! COMPOSER AND BROADWAY LEGEND JERRY HERMAN DIES AT 88 ·

(Mark Kennedy’s article appeared in Time Magazine, 10/27.)

Tony Award-winning composer Jerry Herman, who wrote the cheerful, good-natured music and lyrics for such classic shows as MameHello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles, died Thursday. He was 88.

His goddaughter Jane Dorian confirmed his death to The Associated Press early Friday. He died of pulmonary complications in Miami, where he had been living with his partner, real estate broker Terry Marler.

The creator of 10 Broadway shows and contributor to several more, Herman won two Tony Awards for best musical: Hello, Dolly! in 1964 and La Cage aux Folles in 1983. He also won two Grammys — for the Mame cast album and “Hello, Dolly!” as song of the year — and was a Kennedy Center honoree.

Herman wrote in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition, an optimistic composer at a time when others in his profession were exploring darker feelings and material. Just a few of his song titles revealed his depth of hope: “I’ll Be Here Tomorrow,” “The Best of Times,” “Tap Your Troubles Away,” “It’s Today,” “We Need a Little Christmas” and “Before the Parade Passes By.”  Even the title song to “Hello, Dolly!” is an advertisement to enjoy life.

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Photo: Jack Robinson—Hulton Archive/Getty Images

200 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE, AND STILL LEARNING ONSTAGE ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/18; via Pam Green.)

Lois Smith, Estelle Parsons and Vinie Burrows on age, agility, perseverance and steering clear of “self-pitying old” roles.

“I am rarely cast as an ingénue anymore,” Lois Smith was saying on Monday afternoon. It was a joke, obviously, and her fellow actresses — Estelle Parsons, 92, and Vinie Burrows, who recently turned 95 but rounds that up to 96 — burst into laughter.

At 89, Smith was the baby of this bunch. Between them, they have more than 200 years of performance experience, including the film “Lady Bird” and the title role in “Marjorie Prime” (Smith), the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” and the sitcom “Roseanne” (Parsons), the American premiere of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” and experimental work with the director Rachel Chavkin (Burrows).

They’re still busy adding to their résumés: Parsons currently at the Public Theater in Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day,” as a character whose name translates to “The Old One”; Smith on Broadway, with a talky role in Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance”; Burrows back Off Broadway next month in “Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories,” at the Mint Theater Company.

In the room with them, you’d never guess their ages from their appearance, only from the discussion’s vintage details — as when Burrows and Smith tried to figure out what they might have worked on together, and the closest they got was a play each of them did on Broadway with Helen Hayes. (Burrows was in the original 1950 production of “The Wisteria Trees,” Smith in the 1955 revival.)

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Photo: Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (62) ·

The spectator would not be bored in looking at us and listening to us; he would find it pleasant to believe us all of the time, for the spiritual content of Gorky and of ourselves would justify and round out the tendential parts of the play and the empty moments of the performance, which, under other circumstances, might become specifically theatrical stuffing and nothing else. (MLIA)