Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

‘CHASING THE NEW WHITE WHALE’ AT LA MAMA AND ‘36 JUNIPER’ AT TEATRO CIRCULO  (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

 

By Bob Shuman

Plays are such complicated mechanisms that they usually can never be gotten right, which gives pathos to the writer and heroism to those involved in any production.  There is always Romanticism in a theatrical endeavor, and there is probably no way that drama can’t fail on some level.  Realists might say that the Internet only speeds the futility, but it is unlikely that artists will stop trying to use it—the Web can put them together, act as a research tool, and quantify trends. Development, however, the labor, not the speed of thought, can not be rushed—and may insist on being slow-moving,  even with the foreknowledge that art rarely can inspire people to action.  Two recent plays, Chasing the New White Whale, at La MaMa until December 9, and 36 Juniper, next door at Teatro Circulo—the production closed December 8–suffer the conundrum of wanting to act fast and needing to work slow. The creators have taken issues of contemporary importance: one concerning the opioid epidemic, as seen in the New England fishing industry,  and the latter, on the effect of mass shootings on the millennial generation—but they are not fully explored plays and might be called hashtag shows; riveting concepts without the substance they need.

 

Chasing the New White Whale, which appears the more authentically infused of the two is repetitive and simplistic—taking a Chicken Little approach, when there needs to be more dramatic situation and example.  The drug issues are real and devastating, as the evening clearly points out, but, artistically, Michael Gorman and Arthur Adair (the writer and director) can only see the alarm, instead of culling a kind of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the issue.  Yeats might say that what the audience is viewing is wall paper: the ambiance is in place, with hard rock music and a fishing boat that comes onto the stage—but our exposure to the nautical context is too brief and the characters are types, stuck in a skeletal, updated version of Carousel.  Maybe flash agitprop, with passages from Melville to give the production weight, is all the creators have in mind, but is awareness their only goal? 

With Trey Adams, Khari Constantine, Chris Cornwell, Mark Daly, Mike Gorman, Rae Nelson, Alan Barnes Netherton, Meridith Nicholaev, Jim Reitz, Sabrina Fara Tosti, Victoria A. Villier

36 Juniper needs more documentary input—the real voices of those who have lived through mass shootings (here, the fictionalized story concerns survivors, who were part of such an event as teens).  In Britain, a writer like David Hare, Victoria Brittain, or Gillian Slovo would likely see this concept in terms of verbatim theatre.  Writers Jessika McQueen, Shannon McInally, and Alyssa Abraham seem to understand it in terms of celluloid—the space where their story is set might be the family room of a sitcom. They devolve into discussing teen crushes, weight issues, and marriage plans–a mishmash of Agatha Christie and The Big Chill, which doesn’t help anyone think about what seem like monthly murders today, in schools and other venues where young people meet.  In 36 Juniper, psychological examinations are not mentioned, gun control isn’t argued, and the lack of followup press stories, after the shootings, goes undiscussed, as well as the effects on the community and demands for protecting youth.  Of the six characters, only one offers a way for the audience to gain understanding of mass trauma—through a self-help book.  In the play, the most immediate death is left outside in a snowstorm and an obvious person of interest, to the police investigation, goes unexamined for years . . .   

Theatremakers want banner causes, but the path to rendering them may sometimes seem as harsh to the artists, as the subject areas they want to explore.  

Directed by Greg Pragel with  Brendan Byrne, Shannon McInally, Joe Reece, Jacob Dabby, Alyssa Abraham, Jessika McQueen  

 

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photos: ‘Whale’:  Carlos Cardona; ‘Juniper’: AK47 Division 

A GENDER SWAP MAKES SONDHEIM’S ‘COMPANY’ SOAR ·

(Matt Wolf’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/25; via Pam Green.)

LONDON — At last, “Company” has a human pulse and a proper dramatic core. And for that to happen, it took a woman.

The Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical from 1970 long ago entered the canon with its tale of a commitment-phobic Manhattan bachelor named Bobby who ricochets among multiple couples while searching for a soul mate of his own.

Now enter the twice Tony-winning English director Marianne Elliott, who has replaced Bobby with a female equivalent called — what else? — Bobbie. (I sense a trend afoot: The forthcoming film of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats” will feature Judi Dench cast in the male role of Old Deuteronomy.)

The result is entirely transformative: This production is the commercial theatrical event of the year to date. And the Gielgud Theater — where the show and its resplendent leading lady, Rosalie Craig, are on view through March 30 — is not likely to be its final resting place. (It’s just one measure of the intense interest in the show that it has already doubled the length of its run, originally announced through Dec. 22.)

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ON KAREN FINLEY IN:  ‘GRABBING PUSSY/PARTS KNOWN’ AT LA MAMA (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Karen Finley’s set design for Grabbing Pussy/Parts Known is made up of flowering plants of pink and white and pastel colors—and for an early section of one of her monologues (three are read today: one a poem, written in the hours before curtain), she speaks as a film of time-elapsed lilies and orchids break into bloom behind her.  Blown-up, they appear comic and sexual and too fragile,  which, of course, is part of what Finley is, too, but on Saturday, October 27, she finds she is someone else, as well: an artistic first responder, to the eleven deaths at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  She is playing at La MaMa, as part of the Call to Action weekend, a gear-up for the midterms and an opportune moment to publicize her new book, from which proceeds will be given to Planned Parenthood.  People who don’t believe that all actors must be liberals, as if it’s in their DNA, instead of it being more convenient or concessionary for their careers, do believe Finley’s activism, even if they disagree with her politics. They know that, famously, she has been attacked by the right, as part of the NEA4—and she still can be brought up derisively, as “the chocolate-smeared woman,” in Ann Coulter’s writing (Finley’s Tawana Brawley-inspired monologue actually goes way back to the ‘80s, however; probably a signal that the conservative columnist needs fresh material). 

Standing in front of her script, which rests on a music stand, now, in her stylish black-and-white performance shoes, pink top, black capri pants, and an academician’s glasses—her hair is loose and red–Finley seems taller than she appears in photos:  a distinguished Commissar of the left, like a Katarina Witt–not only because she also posed for Playboy.  As a veteran of the culture wars, the actress toes the party line—and she does so aggressively, fueled by the anger that has never left her, jumping on Trump’s “bleeding eyes” remark from the 2016 presidential campaign and bringing up, exasperatedly, “the obsession” with Hillary’s deleted e-mails—“30,000 of them,” should the number have been forgotten.  Unlike Camille Paglia,  Finley’s association, her alignment with the Democrat party—and mistrust of practically everything else–may not always serve her writing—which does not seem able to get above the political; above her politics–and which in Grabbing Pussy/Parts Known, could possibly be described as Beckettian punditry.  She knows how to pace a show, though—how to start and stop her work, how to move in and out of character, which may not always make for writerly, well-made theatre.   She works with tension that can explode—and she is superior as a performer and in improvisation–even as her own plays tend to invoke others, such as: Come Back, Little Sheba; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; or even her own previous work, for example We Keep Our Victims Ready.  Actually, it can be difficult to think of Karen Finley in a sustained role of length, although she should have been seen, when she was younger, as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew–as long as she could change the ending.  Perhaps she’s  really an illusionist, always impatiently waiting to direct a new mirage, although now, she states, she has been moved to use “poetic” space, where she can keep her script with her and provide minimal movement–as opposed to playing on a traditional stage, theatrically.  

Don’t think she has gone too soft, though. She’s “one angry bitch,” she cautions, “never in a good mood and that’s on a good day.” In Grabbing Pussy/Parts Known, Finley goes off on, among others, Catholic priests, Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh, and border separations: Her speech can be sarcastic, mocking, hysterical, overly hurt, decisively Midwestern, and even like that of a Southern preacher or witch hag. Yet the person she reminds one of most is . . . Rush Limbaugh.  She’s a shock jock, it’s true:  she doesn’t need to play off anyone, and she can rant and go into stream of consciousness: “It’s my body . . . not Sessions’s . . . not Jared’s . . . This body.  You’ll not own my body.  It’s my body.  Pussies speak out!”  In her public meltdown, amid free-floating anger, desperation, black comedy, anguish, outrage and outrageousness–on the day when it is learned that eight and then eleven have been slaughtered—she confides, as everyone must:  “I’m really trying to do something with this life.”

Looking at the vases and containers on the stage, the flowers seem funereal.   Yet the show must have been conceptualized weeks, if not months, ago.  This gathering couldn’t have been what was originally intended, but Finley has been working fast and doggedly to incorporate the new reality–leaving behind the remains of an event with an entirely different meaning: a memorial.  

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

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Photo credits, from top: Notey;  La MaMa;  Shuman, Mandatory Credit: Photo by JARED WICKERHAM/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9948253an)
The Star of David memorials are lined with flowers at the Tree of Life synagogue two days after a mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 29 October 2018. Officials report 11 people were killed by the gunman identified as Robert Bowers who has been charged with hate crimes and other federal charges .
Vigil for victims of synagogue shooting, Pittsburgh, USA – 29 Oct 2018Variety

REVIEW: ELAINE MAY MIGHT BREAK YOUR HEART IN ‘WAVERLY GALLERY’ (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/25; via Pam Green.)

From the moment Gladys Green opens her mouth — which is the moment that the curtain rises on Kenneth Lonergan’s wonderful play “The Waverly Gallery” at the Golden Theater — it’s clear that for this garrulous woman, idle conversation isn’t a time killer. It is a lifeline.

An octogenarian New Yorker, former lawyer and perpetual hostess for whom schmoozing and kibitzing have always been as essential as breathing, Gladys operates on the principle that if she can just continue to talk, she can surely power through the thickening fog of her old age. That she has clearly already lost this battle makes her no less valiant.

That it’s Elaine May who is giving life to Gladys’s war against time lends an extra power and poignancy to “The Waverly Gallery,” which opened on Thursday night under Lila Neugebauer’s fine-tuned direction. Long fabled as a director, script doctor and dramatist, Ms. May first became famous as a master of improvisational comedy, instantly inventing fully detailed, piquantly neurotic characters who always leaned slightly off-kilter.

Her partnership with Mike Nichols is still considered the gold standard for such quick-sketch portraiture. And their appearance on Broadway together in the early 1960s is recalled by those who saw it as if they had been divine visitations, blazing and all too brief.

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Photo: The New York Times

‘IN THE TUNNEL’ FROM GESHER THEATRE (ISRAEL) AND ‘I WAS MOST ALIVE WITH YOU’ AT PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS ·

By Bob Shuman

Leon Hadar has written, in the Spectator, that, generally, Israelis like Trump more than American Jews do. They also prefer him to Obama, with young Israeli voters favoring the political right, “raising the prospects for growing tension between Israel and America’s liberal elite and its large Jewish component.”  Hadar  explains further, “in contrast to the so, so smart and metrosexual Obama, the tough and unpolished Trump talks doogri—straight in-your-face,” and he is a “not-politically-correct kind-of-guy. What is there not to love about him?” Trump, many will recall, had tweeted that he had heard Hamilton was “overrated,” in 2016, after Mike Pence visited and had been lectured, at a curtain call, by Brandon Victor Dixon–who played Aaron Burr–as a representative of the cast. The president–apparently not uninterested in theater; he was a producer of the doomed comedy Paris Is Out! featuring Yiddish theatre star, Molly Picon, in 1970–might like In the Tunnel, from Tel-Aviv’s Gesher Theatre, however,  not only because of its Jewish bent.  The show, a political satire from the Cherry Orchard Festival, written by Roy Chen and  inspired by Danis Tanovic‘s film No Man’s Landand which played at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College on October 6 and 7–as part of its North American tour, unlike so many politically correct evenings of American Theatre, also talks doogri.

Performed in Hebrew with English and Russian subtitles, the evening becomes compelling because it not only recognizes how much bull there is in society—from entertainment to advertising and politics, for example–but also because it acknowledges that the fakery has to be there.  Israelis have to be acquiescent to the nonsense of being able to get along because it’s part of the insulation that helps prevent the country from an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian War; the deception is futile, though, because the positions can’t be negotiated.

The audience, during In the Tunnel, is led into a superficial commercial setting, as all-encompassing and chilly as a shopping spree at Zabar’s.  After a mine explosion, two Israeli soldiers and a Palestinian are buried underneath building debris, forced to cooperate as they wait in the hope of rescue.  The setting is a metaphor for the depth of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, continually becoming more and more dangerous. The young Israeli photographer, seated next to me, laughed in acknowledgment of the humor, mostly male, often puerile, and sometimes out of the gallows (“the one who dies always loses, no matter what side he’s on”).  There can be an unpretentiousness that verges on the rude in the story, but In the Tunnel is straight and authentic; the acting robust and specific.  At the center of the drama are Miki Leon (an injured Israeli soldier), Ido Moseri (the son of a peace activist), and Firas Nassar (a Palestinian fighter), who work well with and off each other; Nassar, especially demonstrates skills as a comic and mime.  The direction is by Irad Rubinstein.   

Craig Lucas wants his characters to “bone up” on the Old Testament’s Job in I Was Most Alive with You, which closed at Playwrights Horizons on October 14.  Only to them does the story seem obscure, despite passages included in religious study, college world literature syllabi, and secular adaptations, allowing all kinds of Christians, as well as Jews, and beyond, to have familiarity with the devastating losses of an “upright” man.  (Actually cascading images and examples are emphasized more in the book, rather than complex, character-driven plot development.)  For Broadway, Neil Simon wrote a play, God’s Favorite, based on Job, in 1974. Like Lucas, he would not take steps to a final catastrophe, which is where the dramatic line heads (although, in the Bible, the Lord “blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning”).  Here, the author, decides on a “have it your way” finish, which may be his solution for pleasing the audience. 

I Was Most Alive with You doesn’t seem authentic, like In the Tunnel, because, except for many Christians, it’s a big tent of a show and wants to be adulated so much: by Jews and women; minorities and gays; deaf people and those in recovery, for example.  It can both remind of Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam on the old Dick Van Dyke Show, as well as Ingmar Bergman’s repeated monologue in Persona.  The Job role (played by Michael Gaston) is strangely unsatisfactory, in writing and execution–not the least of which because he doesn’t try to communicate with God–although the fine deaf actor, Russell Harvard, as his son, is able to lift the rendering toward tragic space; likewise Marianna Bassham, as his mother, has the power to concentrate an audience and Lisa Emery is likable as the family friend and writing partner.  If only Lucas had realized that less could be more. 

He can find it in himself to forgive drinkers and drug-takers, batterers and those promiscuous, but for the white male Christian demographic, he writes a flash tirade, spoken by Lois Smith, as family matriarch and producer:  “If someone got sick in our church, we shunned them.  Fired from a job, look away.  I don’t think my Dad would have crossed the street if you were on fire, he’d have hurried along.”  Such a horrible, if not offensive, view of Christians. 

After the play was over, this reviewer, who so memorably recalls Reckless, from the ‘80s at Circle Rep, felt drawn to dig out Joni Mitchell’s idiosyncratic, secular take on Job: “The Sire of Sorrow,” which helped her album Turbulent Indigo win a Grammy in 1994.  The same music was later recorded for her Travelogue (2002). Whether politically correct or not, doogri or not—she gets it right.

(c) 20018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

I Was Most Alive with You

With Beth Applebaum, Marianna Bassham, Tad Cooley, Lisa Emery,  Kalen Feeney, Harold Foxx, Michael Gaston, Seth Gore, Russell Harvard, Amelia Hensley, Anthony Natale, Lois Smith, Alexandria Wailes, Gameela Wright

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli

In the Tunnel 

Written by: Roy Chen inspired by Danis Tanovic’s film No Man’s Land; Directed by: Irad Rubinstein; Set design: Michael Kramenko; Costumes: Oren Dar; Music: Roi Yarkoni; Lighting: Avi-Yona Bueno (Bambi); Sound: Michael Vaysburd; Movement: Amit Zamir; Assistant director (stage speech): Yonny Lucas; Assistant director: Yanna Adamovski; Executive Producer: Roman Kvetner

Cast – Tzlil: Ido Moseri | Iftach: Miki Leon | Hisam: Firras Nasser | Mansur/Josef, stage manager VO2/The Knesset MP: Assaf Pariente| Karnit, narrator of “Sunflowers” program: Karin Saruya | editor of the program VO/Thomas Handfiller, representative of the UN: Ori Yaniv | High-ranking politician: Alexander Senderovich | Nutrition expert in “Sunflowers” | program/Ricado Cabarel, sapper from UN: Paulo E. Moura | Dickla, border Guard official on a checkpoint/Hadassa/Mother of Tzlil/Daughter of Iftach : Noa Ar-Zion.

Photos (top to bottom):   Representative of the UN (Ori Yaniv), Israeli soldier Iftach (Miki Leon) and Hisam, Palestinian Hamas member (Firras Nasser); the cast of  I Was Most Alive with You (Joan Marcus)

 

 

 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: ‘A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Four years before his death in 1983, Tennessee Williams gave critics what they wanted:  a play that wouldn’t turn their stomachs.  Even Harold Clurman, reviewer and Williams’s director for Orpheus Descending, had noted his discomfort with the playwright’s “sexual obsession,” writing, “Since The Night of the Iguana (1961), I have not cared much for Williams’s plays, though all of them bear the marks of his ‘splendid gifts.’” A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, now in a rare revival at Theatre at St. Clements until Oct 21, directed by Austin Pendleton, with a first-rate cast, is Williams as good citizen–he’s trying to clean up his act (although admittedly, the playwright confessed he had used the same characters, and some of the dialogue, for an unproduced teleplay, which he said he had forgotten about, a decade earlier). His writing concerns a Civics teacher, her scholarly discipline as obscure today as it must have seemed to the playwright then.  The drama itself is hardly more than a one act–the French translates as “bitter disappointment” and, beyond symbolism, refers to a suburb outside of St. Louis, which became known for its amusement park, as well as a nearby lake, in the shape of a broken heart.  Legend relates an Indian maiden plunged herself into the water here, after her love for a fur trader was rejected. In this novelty, only for four women, Williams is writing superbly, even if his rhythms can be off. Nevertheless, the structuring seems better than in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a more powerful play—and  his controlled, recurrent setups for heartbreak, offer echoes of Blanche and Catherine and Laura and Tom. The characters, in A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, are not exact replicas, though.  They’re on diets and doing calisthenics, discussing balanced grocery budgets and the stolid precepts of the Lutheran church–gone are the trademark booze and drugs; violence and sexual deviancy.  

Resetting the Native American lore in the middle to late 1930’s (at the time when The Glass Menagerie is also placed), Williams brought along the deplorables of the city:  the hardworking white lower-middle class teachers and store and brewery workers.  Transmuted, the legend had become what goes on behind the scenes in a workplace romance, concerning an aging woman (Dorothea) who lives in an “efficiency apartment” with her nearly deaf friend (Bodey), someone intent on dissuading the match.  Williams, however, was also signaling his behind-the-scenes surrender to theatrical convention,  despite the large aesthetic risks, which someone else might not even contemplate:  Did he really want his work to be seen as more directly comparable to that of William Inge, Horton Foote, N. Richard Nash, and Tad Mosel?   What would he lose by stripping away the elements of stifling family dynamics and sexual power, to please his detractors, albeit retaining the basic, recognizable “stranded woman” motif?  He was getting older,  68, but perhaps his theatre could not be the theatre of his time. Painfully, he decided to purloin virtually the same ending, for this play, that he had written for Summer and Smoke (1948) and its reworked companion, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1964)–which is even more amoral at its finish–although he would invert their hard-won meanings.  A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur has Dorothea subsumed into the homogeneous culture that looks down on her romantic dreams; she is socialized enough, however, to become part of the herd.  

In his 1975 Memoirs, William’s wrote: “To know me is not to love me.  At best it is to tolerate me and of drama critics I would say that tolerance seems now to be just about worn out.”  A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur was his attempt to do it their way, be conciliatory, and become socialized himself—but despite some respectable notices, including Harold Clurman’s in The Nation, the play ran for only a month in 1979, for the Hudson Guild, in New York:  Hardly worth the price of destroying a vision.

Jean Lichty plays the romantic Southerner, Dorothea, in the Theatre at St. Clements production, from La Femme, steely as a young Elizabeth Ashley.  Kristine Nielsen, impervious to a life beyond work, children, and God, is her roommate, who finds employment at a shoe factory, as did Tom Wingfield and Williams himself. Annette O’Toole hopes for upward social mobility and a clothes brush, no matter how rigid she must be to obtain them.  Polly McKie, virtually a character from Bergman, is an upstairs neighbor, unable to speak English, haunted by the “spooks” of her dead family. 

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur may be the last time Williams wrote to please anybody or in a way so recognizably comparable to his acclaimed previous work—but perhaps, he also felt he must start renouncing himself. Two of the plays to follow would be A Recluse and His Guest, where the playwright gave up his voice to channel Isak Dinesen and the dark and disturbing The Remarkable Rooming House of Mme. Le Monde, which seems a rejection of his craft as we had come to know it, absurd and idiosyncratic; extreme and without compassion.  

Larry Feiner’s design provides dappled lighting and clashing reds for the “fiercely bright colors of the interior” of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, and Beth Goldenberg‘s costumes show period fashions of poverty and acceptability.  Austin Pendleton continues in his championship of the work of Williams, who, despite an attempt like this, realized that “there is rarely a graceful way to say goodbye.”

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Tennessee Williams’s A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR

Theatre at St. Clements
423 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036

Performances until Oct 21, 2018

Tickets 

Photos by Joan Marcus (top to bottom): Kristine Nielsen, Jean Lichty, and Annette O’Toole; Annette O’Toole, Jean Lichty, Kristine Nielsen, and Polly McKie; Jean Lichty, and Annette O’Toole.

Press: JT Public Relations

THERESA REBECK: ‘BERNHARDT/HAMLET’  (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/25.)  

Is it chance or synchronicity that brings “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” a muscular comedy about a woman unbound, to Broadway at this grim transitional moment in gender politics?

Either way, Theresa Rebeck’s new play, which opened on Tuesday at the American Airlines Theater, is so clever it uplifts, so timely it hurts.

That’s a depressing thing to say about a story set in 1899 in that temple of chauvinism, the French popular theater. Janet McTeer stars as Sarah Bernhardt, then in her mid-50s and aging out of the dying courtesan roles that made her world-famous. As far as Shakespeare is concerned, she is caught in the gap between Ophelia and Gertrude.

So why not try Hamlet?

Enter the men: Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner), one of France’s greatest young dramatists; Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), the Art Nouveau illustrator of Bernhardt’s gorgeous posters; and Louis (Tony Carlin), a critic so parsimonious with praise I suppose it’s only fair that he’s given no surname.

(Read more)

Photo: Chicago Tribune

 

 

‘THE EMPEROR’ FROM THEATRE FOR A NEW AUDIENCE AND ‘ANTIGONE IN FERGUSON’ AT HARLEM STAGE (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

The Emperor, Colin Teevan’s adaptation of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s reportage on the forty-four-year reign of Haile Selassie, from Theatre for a New Audience, now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn until September 30, is more than an anti-Trump metaphor, although it does point to the impact of American politics on global theatre.  The subject is perhaps as little considered in the West today as when, in 1973, BBC correspondent Jonathan Dimbleby documented the horror of famine in East Africa, and the dramatization, cleanly directed by Walter Meierjohann, which played at the Young Vic, London; HOME, Manchester; and Les Theatre de la Ville de Luxembourg, mostly told through small monologues, offers a compelling, modern history of Ethiopia, during the early and mid-twentieth century. 

Kathryn Hunter’s Chaplinesque star turn allows her to play the “little man” as mime and social champion, which can remind of The Great Dictator and Modern Times. The audience doesn’t lose her when she talks, though, as they did when starting to turn away from Chaplin after hearing him speak literary English on screen.  They revel in her throaty, deep voice and accents, and attune to her slightly crooked, if flexible, body, a puppet clown, playing the menials and servants at the court:  from those among the pillow bearers to doormen; chauffeurs to clerks and ministers (Selassie is never shown or portrayed).  Perhaps ironically, none of her creations is a woman–of any race (Hunter is white); she is  always a man of color, which may be daring, but would be criticized if the role concept was taken by a white male in the States, opening up an Actors’ Equity nightmare.  Hunter is joined by musicians of Eastern African Krar, including Temesgren Zeleke, who spikes the evening with the sound of the electric lyre (the music is by Dave Price), unusual, penetrating, and rhythmic.

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Doubtless, other artists will see the show and want to splice together anecdotes about the Trump White House, based on books by Bob Woodward, Michael Wolff, and Omarosa, but The Emperor concerns acting out lives lived in collusion, in order for a power structure to be maintained–blinding oneself to objective reality. Contradictorily, life outside the Trump administration is not a nation on its knees—it includes high employment statistics among diverse ethnic and racial populations.  At an evening of forum theatre, called Antigone in Fergusonwhich plays until October 13 at Harlem Stagefrom Theater of War, where passages from Antigone are placed alongside powerful Gospel music, sung by, according to the program note, “diverse choirs,” who “include police officers, activists, youth, teachers, and concerned citizens from Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.” One participant was even brave enough to say, “many people like Donald Trump.”  There was also a call made to vote during the midterm elections, which was not unanimously praised, room also being given to the idea, from  one woman, that there was little interest in dismantling “a system that I did not make.”  

Sophocles’ play, “about what happens when personal conviction and state law clash”—and which includes the dictatorial Creon–is simplified but clearly translated and adapted by Brian Doerrie, with musical direction and compositions by Phil Woodmore, who works with many roof-raising singers: soloists include De-Rance Blaylock, John Leggette, Duane Foster, Gheremi Clay, and Tamara Fingal.  The cast, which will change weekly during the run, on September 15, included the following actors:  Tamara Tunie, Tate Donovan, Chris Myers and Chinasa Obguagu. The audience, speaking their own truths, responded to questions, such as: “What crossed time about the story to touch you?” and “Do people have to die to come together as a community?”  Many agreed that the arts are not involved enough in politics and that most of us see something or someone the way we are conditioned to, which may have been at issue with Michael Brown, in 2014. 

This reviewer randomly wrote in the margin of his notes, during the audience participation section: “Art allows us to feel normal.”

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Theatrical historians who look back on our period and see the current fascination with dictators may wonder why theatrical imaginations were stoked by an American president who legitimately won the 2016 election and improved the economy to the point where the nation’s middle-class income had never been higher.  What future investigators may not realize, however, is that theatregoers could have already stopped caring  about the continual subtexts of propagandistic artistic choices, with plays by Brecht and Shakespeare’s evil kings, African dictators, or Ancient Greek resisters filling stages. Instead, the current cultural metaphor about Trump and fascism might have been rejected for something more persuasive: the fun of watching actors excel at creating challenging antiheroes found in the pages and entertainments of villainy.

Copyright 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photos (top to bottom): Simon Annand; All Arts; Harlem Stage

  

 

***** DAVID GREIG: ‘TOUCHING THE VOID’ (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/19.)

Climbing high mountains is often used as a metaphor for other ominously difficult projects. So the experience of presiding, during a recession, over a £25m renovation of the Bristol Old Vic may have led artistic director Tom Morris to reopen the playhouse with David Greig’s adaptation of Touching the Void. Joe Simpson’s 1988 mountaineering memoir details how, when his co-climber Simon Yates was forced to cut their link rope, Simpson crawled, hopped and slid miles back to base-camp with a broken leg.

The book’s existence shows that Simpson must survive, and the events have already been visualised in a popular 2003 documentary. But Morris and Greig fracture this familiarity through a morbid framing device that seems daringly to have rewritten the book and by avoiding the easy option of video design for the Andes mountain.

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Photo: Bristol Old Vic

SHAW: ‘HEARTBREAK HOUSE’ (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Teachout’s review appeared in the Wall Street Journal, 9/11.)

One of the British writer’s most unpopular plays, about a family of haute-bourgeoisie eccentrics who refuse to respond to the crumbling world around them, gets a much-needed tightening in this unique staging.

 New York

David Staller is best known as the artistic director of Project Shaw, a series of semistaged concert readings of the 60-odd plays of George Bernard Shaw that he has presented monthly in Manhattan since 2006. But he has also directed fully staged off-Broadway versions of several Shaw plays, including the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 2012 revival of “Man and Superman” and a 2016 production of “Widower’s Houses” mounted in collaboration with the now-defunct, lamented TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, both of which were not merely excellent but exceptionally memorable. Now Mr. Staller has taken on “Heartbreak House,” one of Shaw’s most challenging plays, with altogether extraordinary results.

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Photo: The Wall Street Journal