Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

IN ‘THE CHINESE LADY,’ PREJUDICE AND EXPLOITATION, SEEN FROM A STAGE (BOSTON) ·

(Don Aucoin’s article appeared in the Boston Glober, 11/14; Photo:Jae Woo (left) and Sophorl Ngin in “The Chinese Lady” at Central Square Theater.NILE SCOTT STUDIOS.)

CAMBRIDGE — When it came to the craft of writing, E.B. White’s famous dictum was: “Don’t write about Man. Write about a man.”

That’s the path Lloyd Suh took with “The Chinese Lady,” and it has yielded a small gem of a play about a person who is seen and unseen at the same time.

After premiering in 2018 at Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company and then running at New York’s Public Theater earlier this year, “The Chinese Lady” is now at Central Square Theater under the sensitive and astute direction of Sarah Shin.

Suh’s play was inspired by a real-life figure, Afong Moy, who was brought from China to New York in 1834 at age 14 and put on display in a museum. At Central Square, Sophorl Ngin delivers an expertly shaded portrayal of Afong that traces her emotional arc while also signaling the slow-but-steady dawning of her consciousness. As Atung, her translator, Jae Woo delivers a note-perfect performance.

Over 90 absorbing minutes, with only occasional lapses into overly message-y territory, “The Chinese Lady” essentially distills the history of anti-Asian prejudice and exploitation in the United States — as well as the (very) dark side of the immigrant experience — within Afong’s story.

When we first meet her, Afong is heartbreakingly innocent and chipper. Seated on an upholstered chair at center stage and smiling brightly, she explains — as if there were nothing odd about the arrangement — how her family “sold me for two years of service” to two traders from an American import company. Now she is on display “for your education and entertainment.”

At each performance, Afong enacts various rituals: eating rice with chopsticks, brewing tea, walking around a room on her bound feet. She tells us that the terms of the deal that brought her to the United States were that she would return to her homeland and her family in two years. That does not happen. In “The Chinese Lady,” her servitude lasts for decades.

Those of us in the Central Square Theater essentially function as stand-ins for 19th-century spectators, implicating us in all we see and hear in “The Chinese Lady” — a notion shrewdly underscored by director Shin when Afong tears down upstage curtains to reveal a large, circular mirror. From then on, we watch ourselves watching.

Crucially, Shin avoids the kind of ham-fisted staging decisions that seriously marred the ending of the otherwise excellent Public Theater production. What Shin has devised for the ending at Central Square is less showy and comports better with the nature of the play.

At first, Afong is touchingly eager to make a connection with Americans (she speaks glowingly of “your first emperor, George Washington.”) Afong sees her role as that of cultural ambassador, a human bridge of understanding between China and the United States. Atung, the translator, clearly knows that the museum’s goal is nothing so noble as that.

Outside that room, history inexorably unfolds: the construction of the transcontinental railroad, starting in 1863 and using primarily Chinese laborers; the 1882 passage by Congress of the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting Chinese migration to the US. Inside that room, Afong and Atung are growing older. “With each passing hour, I am less and less Chinese,” Afong says.

Their relationship evolves over time, defined by amusing byplay at the start. With the hauteur of a born star, Afong tells the audience several times that Atung is “irrelevant” to the show; his imperturbable responses, which she recognizes as passive-aggression, get on her nerves.

As years pass and they play their roles day after day, including a 40-week tour of the Eastern states, they achieve a certain solidarity, perhaps bolstered by a realization that they are both, in different ways, trapped. But are their fates as inextricably tied together as Afong believes they are?

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‘THE MOORS’ REVIEW – DELICIOUSLY DARK BRONTË PASTICHE ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/16/22; via Pam Green; Photo: Captivating … The Moors. Photograph: Steve Gregson Photography.)  

The Hope theatre, London
The characters might be the Brontës themselves or they might be from novels such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, mashed-up with wandering strays from a zombie movie

Agoverness arrives in a remote corner of the Yorkshire moors to find a household of oddballs. She has been wooed there by Branwell – the dissolute brother of the Brontë sisters – but there are only his sisters here and a house that creaks with creepy mysteries.

Inspired by the letters of Charlotte Brontë and boldly directed by Phil Bartlett, this black comedy by American writer, Jen Silverman, is a homage to the Brontës and a gothic pastiche in one.

The characters might be the Brontës themselves, stranded in Haworth and playing a sinister game of make-believe. Or they could be characters from several Brontë novels (most obviously from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights), mashed-up with wandering strays from a zombie movie.

It takes a while to realise we are enveloped inside Sophia Pardon’s atmospheric set, sitting in the round with gravel beneath our feet. The charred walls of the house are behind us and the characters sit among us, staring dead ahead. Julian Starr’s sound design brings sometimes eerie, sometimes schlocky melodrama with screeching violins and organ music. The moor outside is evocatively conjured as a savage place of quicksand and endless wilderness.

Best of all, the actors captivate with lines that waver between humour and horror. Their performances are all the more astonishing given that they are recent drama school graduates.

Emilie (Meredith Lewis) is the callow governess with a beautiful singing voice; Agatha (Imogen Mackenzie) is the head of the household in lace and black lipstick with the dark allure of a Heathcliff figure. There is a fame obsessed sister, Hudley (Kenia Fenton), a hammily dead-eyed maid (Tamara Fairbairn) and a talking mastiff (Peter Hadfield), complete with leather collar and black nail varnish, along with a moorhen (Matilda Childs). They keep us hanging on their every word, even when the plot is pushed to the furthest edges of weirdness.

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TOM STOPPARD’S ‘LEOPOLDSTADT’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Tom Stoppard’s Olivier Award-winning Best New Play Leopoldstadt—his 19th on Broadway–which opened October 2, at the Longacre Theatre, is epic, the English way, with huge scope  and significance, about the need to win,  and  to always find a way to win:  in relationships, in assimilation and even, as much as possible, against the ultimate horrors of the last century.  There is too short a glance at Eastern European absurdism that informs previous plays by the author, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Dogg’s Hamlet, which may have been appropriate (some contend the form was a reaction to the existential effects of World War II), given his devastating theme:  the destruction of a Viennese and Galician family, from their lives in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Austrian independence; from the Anschluss to immigration to new lands in the West.  Instead, in Patrick Marber’s first-rate production,  a measured cinematic approach seems to have been a guide, as if Freddie Young’s technically sharp, crystal-clear camera could be brought in for perfect scenic composition (the settings are by Richard Hudson, with Costume design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel and lighting design by Neil Austin; project design, using period photography,  is by Isaac Madge and sound  design and original music are by Adam Cork), with  allusions, in terms of writing,  to Anna Karenina, Chekhov,  Hedda  Gabler, Woyzeck, and probably more classic work–Brecht should be mentioned, as well, for some might conjecture that events of this scale, in the theatre,  may need to happen through one great Mother Courage figure, instead of a family.  The characters in the play—and there are 38 of them, including young actors—a number of whom are interested in Freud and psychoanalysis, are not necessarily likable or sympathetic, and many are cunning, perhaps due to the fact that the momentum of the story does not allow enough time with each—they’re opportunists overwhelmed by barbarity.

For theatregoers, Tom Stoppard means erudite fun at the most sophisticated levels, but although expert at keeping his play moving–with language more windy and literary than imitative of real speech (and with excellent monologues)–there’s not much intrinsically funny here, in a dark documentary-like work about survival skills, literal survival skills, probably more appropriately examined in film. There may be a comic joke about a cigar cutter, which promises to let loose mayhem, a Freudian slip or provocation to be found, a suppressed or false memory, which the Viennese doctor might find amusing, but the serious subject also forces the viewer to examine contemporary societal splits and abysses, discussed , for example, by John Murray Cuddihy in his The Ordeal of Civility (1974), whose thesis is expressed by Chilton Williamson, Jr. as:   “Jews and the modern West have been at odds with one another for [more than] the past 150 years, as a tribal and essentially premodern people confronted a civilization representing secularized Christianity . . . and . . . celebrants of the illusory “Judeo-Christian” civilization have deliberately disguised the schism . . .  prevent(ing it from) . . .  coalescing (157).”  The divide continues, in the public eye, from blatant antisemitism, where synagogues need to be monitored on holy days, to the mindless, escapism of social media chattering, chronicled as recently as the present, as celebrities like Kanye West, Candace Owens, and Whoopi Goldberg  express off-the-cuff opinion in cancel culture.  Antisemitism is an endless polarizing, immobilizing subject, in a country that, by all accounts, has been very good to and for Jews, but has never asked or expected them, to explain themselves, with self-reflection, before American society in the way that African-Americans have been asked to do, for example, in the Million Man March (and that may be a source of contention).  Yet, high profile cases, in the Jewish community, are not unknown and have profoundly upset the country, such as, in the recent past, those concerning Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and Ghislaine Maxwell.  A playwright could choose to self-identify as “British,” instead of “coming out” as Jewish, for reasons, personal and myriad, but the irony is not lost, that a largely realistic, historical drama, like Leopoldstadt, is an example of what the ‘60s and a playwright like Tom Stoppard, helped drive out of fashion, only to be refound again, now, in the present day, perhaps like his heritage.  

Bluffing, as a theme, does come up in Leopoldstadt, from a card game, to counting numbers, to a family business, and the family’s definition of its religion.  Because of Stoppard’s stature as a major artist, as well as a character in the play, who apparently knew little about his own family, theatregoers might question how much subterfuge is being used about his past and what he knew about himself. “Mathematics is the only place where one can make yourself clear,” intones one of the scholars in the play, but theatregoers may still be perplexed about how Stoppard thought of himself and when, before his admission, and to which version of the self he is referring to (of course, being Jewish in the entertainment field is nothing unusual or stigmatizing—similarly, no one raised an eyebrow when Carol Channing exposed the fact that she was of African-American lineage, in her autobiography).  There is always a hide-and-seek game in fiction with real characters—are we watching fiction or autobiography? Also,  to what extent is the fiction protective, and can one have it both ways, or many ways, when readers or audience members might be asking for less rationalized alternatives to reality and more clarity? Nevertheless, assuming that authors will write more conservatively as they age, there are real reasons to admire Leopoldstadt, none the least to “never forget”—and for the ensemble work of the actors, including David Krumholtz, Faye Castelow, and Jenna Augen, to only choose three.  A work of this sheer expanse and literary quality is so hard to find anywhere, whether an author is young or old, Jewish, Buddhist, or a Christian Scientist:  Where else today could another script be found, for example, where one would actually want to have had a traditionalist, like David Lean, render it on screen?

Recommended.

Copyright © Bob Shuman; all rights reserved.

Press:  Michelle Farabaugh, Angela Yamarone, Boneau/Bryan-Brown

(Photo from the London production.)

John Murray Cuddihy’s book The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity is discussed in The Conservative Bookshelf by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (Citadel Press, 2004).

(via BBB, Adrian Bryan-Brown / Michelle Farabaugh / Angela Yamarone )

★★★★★

“Magnificent!

Sir Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece. GO!”

The Independent

Leopoldstadt,

Stoppard’s 19th Production on Broadway,

Previews Begin Wednesday, September 14

Opening Sunday, October 2

In a Limited Engagement at the Longacre Theatre

 LeopoldstadtPlay.com

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Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s Olivier Award-winning Best New Play, is directed by two-time Tony Award nominee Patrick Marber and produced by Sonia Friedman ProductionsRoy Furman, and Lorne Michaels.

 

Leopoldstadt’s full 38-member company, which includes several members of the original West End company and 24 actors making their Broadway debuts, will feature Jesse Aaronson* (The Play That Goes Wrong off-Broadway), Betsy Aidem (Prayer for the French Republic), Jenna Augen* (Leopoldstadt in the West End), Japhet Balaban* (The Thing About Harry on Freeform), Corey Brill (“The Walking Dead,” Gore Vidal’s The Best Man), Daniel Cantor* (Tuesdays with Morrie off-Broadway), Faye Castelow* (Leopoldstadt in the West End), Erica Dasher* (“Jane By Design”), Eden Epstein* (“Sweetbitter” on Starz, “See” on Apple TV+), Gina Ferrall (Big RiverA Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Arty Froushan* (Leopoldstadt in the West End), Charlotte Graham* (The Tempest at A.R.T.), Matt Harrington (Matilda The Musical), Jacqueline Jarrold (The Cherry Orchard), Sarah Killough (Travesties), David Krumholtz (“Numb3rs,” Oppenheimer), Caissie Levy (The BedwetterCaroline, or Change), Colleen Litchfield* (“The Crowded Room” on Apple TV+), Tedra Millan (Present LaughterThe Wolves), Aaron Neil* (Leopoldstadt in the West End), Theatre World Award winner Seth Numrich (TravestiesWar Horse), Anthony Rosenthal (Falsettos), Chris Stevens*, Sara Topham (Travesties), three-time Tony Award nominee Brandon Uranowitz (Assassins, FalsettosBurn This), Dylan S. Wallach (Betrayal), Reese Bogin*, Max Ryan Burach*Calvin James Davis*, Michael Deaner*, Romy Fay* (“Best Foot Forward” on Apple TV+), Pearl Scarlett Gold*, Jaxon Cain Grundleger*, Wesley Holloway*, Ava Michele Hyl*, Joshua Satine*, Aaron Shuf*, and Drew Ryan Squire*.

* indicates an actor making their Broadway debut.

Leopoldstadt’s limited Broadway engagement begins previews Wednesday, September 14 ahead of a Sunday, October 2 opening night at the Longacre Theatre (220 West 48th Street).

Perhaps the most personal play of Stoppard’s unmatched career, Leopoldstadt opened in London’s West End to rave critical acclaim on January 25, 2020. A planned extension due to overwhelming demand was curtailed due to the COVID-19 lockdown seven weeks later. In late 2021, the play returned for a further 12-week engagement. Both runs completely sold out and Leopoldstadt received the Olivier Award for Best New Play in October 2020.

Leopoldstadt will mark Tom Stoppard’s 19th play on Broadway since his groundbreaking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead opened 55 years ago. Stoppard has won four Best Play Tony Awards, more than any other playwright in history.

Set in Vienna, Leopoldstadt takes its title from the Jewish quarter. This passionate drama of love and endurance begins in the last days of 1899 and follows one extended family deep into the heart of the 20th Century. Full of his customary wit and beauty, Tom Stoppard’s late work spans fifty years of time over two hours. The Financial Times said, “This is a momentous new play. Tom Stoppard has reached back into his own family history to craft a work that is both epic and intimate; that is profoundly personal, but which concerns us all.” With a cast of 38 and direction by Patrick MarberLeopoldstadt is a “magnificent masterpiece” (The Independent) that must not be missed.

Leopoldstadt’s creative team includes scenic design by Tony Award winner Richard Hudson (The Lion KingLa Bête), costume design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, lighting design by three-time Tony Award winner Neil Austin (Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildCompanyTravesties), sound and original music by Tony Award winner Adam Cork (RedTravesties), video design by Isaac Madge, movement by Emily Jane Boyle, and hair, wig & makeup design by Campbell Young & Associates. Casting is by Jim Carnahan and Maureen Kelleher, and UK casting is by Amy Ball CDG.

Co-producers of Leopoldstadt include Stephanie P. McClelland, Gavin Kalin, Delman Sloan, Brad Edgerton, Eilene Davidson, Patrick Gracey, Burnt Umber Productions, Cue to Cue Productions, No Guarantees, Robert Nederlander, Jr., Thomas S. Perakos, Sanford Robertson, Iris Smith, The Factor Gavin Partnership, Jamie deRoy / Catherine Adler, Dodge Hall Productions / Waverly Productions, Ricardo Hornos / Robert Tichio, Heni Koenigsberg / Wendy Federman, Brian Spector / Judith Seinfeld, and Richard Winkler / Alan Shorr.

TICKET INFORMATION

Tickets are on sale online at Telecharge.com or by phone at 212-239-6200.

For 10+ Group Sales information contact Broadway Inbound at broadwayinbound.com or call 866-302-0995.

# # # #

LeopoldstadtPlay.com

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REVIEW: IN LEA MICHELE, ‘FUNNY GIRL’ HAS FINALLY FOUND ITS FANNY ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/29/22; via Pam Green; Photo:  Yes, Lea Michele (with Ramin Karimloo) lights up like a light as the new Fanny Brice on Broadway. Credit…Matthew Murphy.)

Funny Girl

Though it can be a great vehicle, “Funny Girl” has rarely been a great ride. Even its first-rate Jule Styne songs — “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” among them — are problematic. Not only are the lyrics, by Bob Merrill, often inane (“I’ll light up like a light”?) but the challenge of the vocal writing that made Barbra Streisand a star in 1964 makes casting anyone else now a nightmare.

And let’s not get started on the book, by Isobel Lennart, which in telling the (mostly fictional) story of the early-20th-century comic Fanny Brice, and her disastrous love affair with the gambler Nick Arnstein, seems to have been assembled from a warehouse of used musical-comedy parts. They do not work well together, however well they work individually.

The revival that opened in April at the August Wilson Theater — its first on Broadway — only made matters worse. Harvey Fierstein’s meddling with the confusing book confused it further by giving Nick (Ramin Karimloo) more to do; nobody cares what Nick does. And Fanny, whom we do care about, was just too much of a reach for Beanie Feldstein, offering a pleasant performance in a role that shouldn’t be. “Without a stupendous Fanny to thrill and distract,” I wrote at the time, “the musical’s manifold faults become painfully evident.”

Lea Michele, who took over the role on Sept. 6, turns out to be that stupendous Fanny. Yes, she even lights up like a light. Both vulnerable and invulnerable, kooky and ardent, she makes the show worth watching again.

She can’t make it good, though. Michael Mayer’s production is still garish and pushy, pandering for audience overreaction. A confetti cannon tries to put an exclamation point on a dud dance. Many of the minor players overplay. The lighting by Kevin Adams would make a rat clap, and the unusually ugly set by David Zinn seems weaponized against intimacy. It looks like a missile silo.

But at least “Funny Girl” now has a missile: a performer who from her first words (“Hello, Gorgeous”) shoots straight to her target and hits it.

It has been a tortuous path to this obviously right and seemingly predestined casting, with decades of false starts involving Lauren Ambrose, Debbie Gibson, Sheridan Smith and others. Feldstein was just another in the long list of misfires; after she ditched the show in a cloud of apparent acrimony — a cloud everyone denied — her standby, Julie Benko, took over.

Benko, who is still the Thursday night Fanny, sings the role very well, so you never worry, as you did with Feldstein, that she might not make it through the songs. Then too, Benko gets closer to the dark heart of the comedy, backfilling its shtick with something like anger. Still, good as she is, her voice and the rest of her performance don’t yet match; she even has a different accent when acting the role than when singing it.

(Read more)

‘THE PRINCE’ REVIEW – PLAYFUL ROMP THROUGH SHAKESPEAREAN ROLES ·

(Kate Wyver’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/22; via Pam Green; Photo:  Exploration of transgression … Corey Montague-Sholay (Prince Hal), Joni Ayton-Kent (Sam), Mary Malone (Jen) and Abigail Thorn (Hotspur) in The Prince. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian.)

Southwark Playhouse, London
YouTube philosopher Abigail Thorn moves offline and on to the stage with an ambitious exploration of identities and the performance of gender

Using the intelligent wit that makes Abigail Thorn’s YouTube channel so popular, The Prince playfully questions the performance of gender and the roles we are all assigned. Thorn is the host of Philosophy Tube, a channel discussing philosophy in creative, accessible ways. The writer swaps screen for stage in this ambitious if slightly feverish exploration of transgression and transition within Shakespeare’s plays.

The hilarious Jen, played radiantly by Mary Malone, is our comic tether to reality. When it’s revealed that she’s trapped inside a Shakespearean multiverse and is currently wandering around Henry IV Part One – a slightly stodgy but enthusiastic version – her response is to yell “I bloody hate Shakespeare” and attempt to call the police. Her innocence serves as an outstretched hand to the audience, helping us understand the motivations of the characters she’s reluctantly stuck with.

As she searches for an escape route, Jen is drawn to Henry “Hotspur” Percy, the warrior and Prince played with smouldering dignity by Thorn. Recognising Hotspur as trans, at odds with the male role she is playing, Jen begins interrupting the action. This is when the fun really starts, as she encourages the characters to question their written roles, and the matrix starts to crumble. Softer, free-wheeling voices replace the stoic verse, and queer punk aesthetic rips apart the period clothing.

(Read more)

***** ‘MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, REVIEW – HILARIOUS, HEARTFELT SHOW IS EVERYTHING ·

(Nick Ahad’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/14; Photo: Compelling … Guy Rhys (Benedick) and Daneka Etchells (Beatrice) in Much Ado About Nothing at the Crucible, Sheffield. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

Crucible, Sheffield
Daneka Etchells is the most compelling Beatrice you might ever see in an exceptional production of the romantic comedy

Post lockdown, theatres are looking for sure things and bets don’t come much safer than the wittiest of Shakespeare’s romcoms. Sheffield Theatres and Ramps on the Moon bring this production of Much Ado to the stage just a couple of days after the National Theatre brought down the final curtain on its own. If London audiences missed out, they should head to this exceptional and exceptionally moving version of a bulletproof piece.

A number of aspects elevate the production. One is the involvement of Ramps on the Moon, which aims to normalise the presence of deaf, disabled and neurodiverse people on British stages. Another is the most compelling Beatrice you might ever see: Daneka Etchells plays this script like a maestro, somehow finding new notes in lines that are four centuries old, even making some of it feel like it was written yesterday. When Beatrice’s shield of wit is pierced by heartbreak, Etchells, who is autistic, can’t suppress her – or the character’s – physical tics and watching her resolve to remain calm is deeply affecting.

(Read more)

TWO UKRAINIAN PLAYS REVIEW – MASTERFUL FRAMING OF A NATION’S TRAGEDY ·

(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/12; via Pam Green.)

Finborough theatre, London
A ghostly tale and a potent monologue form a double bill that uses the 2014 conflict to remark movingly on current events

Because theatres schedule so far ahead, they tend to be better at marking historical anniversaries than current events. So the tiny but enterprising above-a-pub Finborough theatre deserves a bouquet of blue and yellow flowers for nimbly premiering, just over five months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, two plays from the threatened nation.

When a country gains sudden international sympathy – as writers in South Africa, Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia have found at various times – the headline emergency is seen as the only subject for discussion. It’s too soon for such plays from Ukraine yet but the Finborough has cleverly chosen scripts foreshadowing and illuminating the 2022 invasion by focusing on the period in 2014 when Russia took over Crimea(Read more and the Donbas region, a rehearsal for Vladimir Putin of his bigger ambitions and the west’s apparent insouciance to such intrusions.

Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha, translated by Sasha Dugdale, was seen in a National Theatre of Scotland version seven years ago. In Kyiv, Katya and her daughter Oksana, both clad in black, are cooking dumplings and other delicacies for the local tradition of a ritual mourning picnic. This includes a full plate and glass set in front of a photo of Sasha, a Ukrainian army colonel who died of natural causes. But Sasha’s unquiet ghost, a regular presence, maintains a desire to fight for his homeland. The spirit soldier’s urge must have seemed touching in 2015, when his surviving colleagues had lost only a portion of the nation, but is almost unbearably emotive now.

(Read more)

***** ‘MEDEA’ REVIEW – ADURA ONASHILE EXUDES AWESOME AUTHORITY IN BLOODY TRAGEDY ·

(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/14.)

 The Hub, Edinburgh
Liz Lochhead’s Scots verse spits wit and venom as male power meets female determination with operatic intensity, in this National Theatre of Scotland staging

Unerring … Adura Onashile as Medea with the chorus. Photograph: Jessica Shurte

Everybody is larger than life in Michael Boyd’s tremendous staging of Liz Lochhead’s play, still queasily contentious 2,500 years after the Euripides original. In one sense, this is literally the case. Tom Piper’s set is a catwalk that overshadows the audience as we stand like a mob gathered to witness an execution. Dissecting the main hall of the Hub, it compels us to look up at the actors, making us more like acolytes than equals.

Even the 10-strong female chorus has a grandeur. They emerge from within the crowd – a nice democratic touch – but when they climb on to the stage, talking as one, they too stand above us.

But, more than that, the protagonists in this bloody family battle are metaphorically large. No more so than Adura Onashile’s formidable Medea who, having been given a slow build-up in Lochhead’s rich and spiky version from 2000, emerges from a door in a rusting metal wall with an awesome authority. She achieves it not through grandstanding or histrionics, but an unerring air of certainty.

She seems to taste Lochhead’s poetry in her mouth, relishing each word, be it the grand statements of intent or the funny shifts in tone to sarcasm or deadpan wit. You can see why the locals regard her as an outsider, yet this is a woman who would stand out in any company.

(Read more)

PUTIN, CHEKHOV AND THE THEATER OF DESPAIR ·

(Matt Wolf’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/21/22; via Pam Green.)

In London, a new play about President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and a revival of “The Seagull” explore undercurrents of pain.

LONDON — There’s a chill in the air at the Almeida Theater, notwithstanding the record-breaking heat here. That drop in temperature comes from the coolly unnerving “Patriots,” a new drama whose look at power politics in Russia over the last quarter-century induces a shiver at despotism’s rise.

The gripping production, directed by Rupert Goold, runs through Aug. 20.

Written by Peter Morgan (“The Crown,” “Frost/Nixon”), “Patriots” surveys the sad, shortened life of Boris Berezovsky, the brainiac billionaire who died in 2013, age 67, in political exile in London. An inquest into Berezovsky’s mysterious death returned an unusual “open verdict,” but on this occasion, it is unequivocally presented as a suicide: The play ends with this balding man, bereft of authority, preparing to end his life.

An academic whiz-turned-oligarch who expedited the rise of the younger Vladimir V. Putin, Berezovsky later fell out with the onetime ally who enlarged his power base, according to the play, with promises of “liberalizing Russia,” yet proceeded to do anything but.

Morgan introduces Berezovsky, age 9, as a math prodigy whose mother hoped he might become a doctor. (A gleaming-eyed Tom Hollander plays the role throughout.) From there, we move forward 40 years to find Berezovsky an integral member of Russia’s moneyed elite welcoming to his office an obsequious Putin, then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg.

“Respected Mr. Berezovsky,” says an initially indrawn, ferret-like Putin, “one would have to live on another planet not to know you!” But it isn’t long before Putin has changed his tune, and his tone, as he rises from prime minister to president and consolidates power around himself. In one notably effective wordless scene, Putin tries out poses in front of a mirror to see which makes him look most impressive. His earlier hesitancy has given way to a man in love with his own heroism.

Berezovsky looks on at so dramatic a change in character appalled, urging the former K.G.B. operative to “know your place.” But Putin by this point simply won’t be sidelined. And besides, reasons Putin, why hold your enemies close when they can just as easily be destroyed?

(Read more)

 

***** ‘BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL‘ REVIEW – THE BOY WHO JUST WANTS TO DANCE IS BACK IN AN ELECTRIC NEW PRODUCTION ·

(Miriam Gillinsons’article appeared in the Guardian, 7/24.)

 Leicester Curve
Nikolai Foster’s new version is more like a play with dance and songs, giving ideas around love and loss, community and isolation, passion and violence room to breathe

In director Nikolai Foster’s unforgettable new version of Billy Elliot the Musical, all the lines have been blurred. When the miners strike, they run through the aisles and scream their protests just over our heads. Billy’s bedroom sits atop a portable mining shaft, the personal and political packaged as one. When Billy dances, it doesn’t really feel like a dance under Lucy Hind’s beautifully empathic choreography. It is a boxing match. A street fight. An angry conversation. Art isn’t an add-on luxury in Billy’s world. It is his life.

Where Stephen Daldry’s original production, which ran for 11 years, felt like Billy Elliot the Musical – with a capital Musical – Foster’s new version is more like a play with dance and songs. Lee Hall’s script is given plenty of room to breathe and rings with ideas around love and loss, community and isolation, passion and violence. The result is a musical of unusual depth that distils Hall’s play to its essence but also feels nuanced and truthful.

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