Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON: ‘A GERMAN LIFE’ REVIEW – MAGGIE SMITH SHINES AS GOEBBELS’ SECRETARY ·

(Michael Billlington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/12.)

Absent from the stage for 12 years, Maggie Smith returns in triumph. But this is no barnstorming performance. She plays, with just the right verbal hesitancy and moral evasiveness, a woman who worked in Joseph Goebbels’ ministry of propaganda during the second world war.

Based by Christopher Hampton on a German TV documentary shot when the woman in question, Brunhilde Pomsel, was 102, the play is a record of a life rather than a form of judicial enquiry.

Pomsel found herself at the centre of events almost by chance. Through her shorthand skills, she quickly moved from work with an insurance broker to a job at the German Broadcasting Corporation before becoming part of Goebbels’ propaganda machine.

What comes across is her apolitical naivety. Instructed by the radio company to become a member of the party, she takes a Jewish female chum along to the requisite office. Even when she was a secretary in Goebbels’ office, she suggests that she had no notion of the horrors being perpetrated by the Nazis.

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***** WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME REVIEW – A FIVE-STAR BROADWAY TRIUMPH ·

(Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/31; via Pam Green.)

Shattering, galvanizing and very funny, Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me close reads an old text in new and breathlessly exciting ways.

When Schreck, a longtime off-Broadway actor and more recently a playwright, was a teenager, she traveled around American Legions Halls, winning money for college by delivering a speech called Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution. In this mostly solo show (Schreck is joined by the actor Mike Iveson as a legionnaire and later by a teenage debater), Schreck, sunny in a daffodil blazer stands inside a re-creation of one of those halls. (The design is by Rachel Hauck.) Persuasively, she conjures both that brace-faced Patrick Swayze-swooning teenager, and the woman she became.

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A MAGNIFICENT ROAD TO RUIN IN ‘THE LEHMAN TRILOGY’ ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Time, 3/28; via Pam Green.)

In the beginning, there is nothing. And in the end, there is — nothing, once again.

Such is the way of all flesh, no? And, since the subject here is the accumulation of money, let’s say the way of all cash, too. But in this case, out of nothing there emerges such a heaving ferment of aspiration, energy, tenacity and audacity that you’re left reeling by the scope and vitality of it all.

That, in essence, is what the magnificent play “The Lehman Trilogy,” at the Park Avenue Armory, both is about and, more important, simply is. This genuinely epic production out of London, directed with surging sweep and fine-tooled precision by Sam Mendes, charts the history of the financial institution that would come to be known as Lehman Brothers, from its humble origins to its epical implosion, over a span of three centuries and many generations.

The script by the Italian playwright Stefano Massini, exquisitely adapted into English by Ben Power, follows the blossoming of a small Alabama clothing store in the 1840s, founded by three immigrant Jewish brothers from Bavaria, into an international powerhouse of the stock exchange, before its world-rattling collapse in 2008.

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SEAN O’CASEY: ‘JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK’ AT IRISH REPERTORY THEATRE (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock is a hard and beautiful play, and Neil Pepe’s staging, at Irish Rep, is lovely, as one of its characters, Joxer (a Faginlike wingman, played by John Keating) might say. The production is a soft interpretation, though, right for an American moment, where long-term unemployment is accompanied by cell phones, flat screen TVs, and food stamps—not a fierce enough reflection on the devastation with which the playwright (O’Casey lived from 1880 to 1964) ruins his characters. 

The clashing colors and pristine, hanging laundry of Charlie Corcoran’s tenement setting, for the tragi-comedy, are reminders of gauche social class, but they don’t go far enough to artistically render the economic collapse of the Irish at the beginning of the twentieth century. Maybe producers and designers, who would never allow urine fumes to waft through the audience, as did a recent French production of Ionesco Suite at BAM, believe it’s too disturbing to present much beyond the bad taste of an underclass; but, nevertheless, the creators are manipulating history mendaciously.  A 1989 Juno and the Paycock, from the Gate Theatre, in Ireland, took a much harsher tack.  Frank Rich described the set in the following, and the audience could see why the characters would borrow to claw their way out:  “The tenement in O’Casey’s play belongs to the Boyle family of Dublin, during the Civil War days of 1922. The home’s crumbling walls are caked with slime, as if sewage had been flushed through the living room. The windowpanes, cracked and sooty, are framed by the cobweb remains of lace curtains, while the meager furniture has long since spilled its guts.” 

Pepe dilutes or Americanizes his Juno and the Paycock (the drama is being performed as part of its important Sean O’Casey Season, which runs until May 25) by treating the work as if it is a middle-class play, as opposed to a working-class one, or more directly, as one about abject poverty.  As ‘Captain’ Jack, the “paycock,” the loafer, the idler on the dole, Ciaran O’Reilly, with hand in his vest pocket, leaning back on his heels, appears too stolid in the role, perhaps, out of Ibsen; he’s not a bluffer or con or strutter, from which he gets his nickname.  The Paycock actually seems akin to Alfred P. Doolittle in Pygmalion–O’Casey and Shaw became friends—who is horrified at having been roped into joining the bourgeoisie. Juno (Maryann Plunkett) is a character who doesn’t make sense in the context of today’s society—if she was ever anything other than an ideal.  Feminism has made it clear that women are not saints or martyrs—she and her daughter (Sarah Street) can not even be said to be representative personae of Ireland anymore, after divorce and pro-choice legalization. These are strong characters (and characterizations) to be booed in the public square.

Fine work also comes from the Boyle’s severely injured son (Ed Malone)–Juno and the Paycock is a war play, written by a top-tier playwright, both facts often overshadowed. The suitors of Mrs. Boyle’s daughter create clear, tiny portraits of cowardice (James Russell and Harry Smith) and Terry Donnelly works to give a glimpse of art as it emerges from the school of hard knocks. Perhaps one of the finest roles in the play is that of a woman who loses her son to the revolutionary movement.  Hers carries an aching monologue, here performed, unsentimentalized, out of earth and sorrow, by Una Clancy.  Even in a production that normalizes despair, O’Casey’s keening shrouds the eyes in mist.

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights Reserved.

Production photos: Carol Rosegg

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PETER SHAFFER: ‘EQUUS’ (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/26.)

I’ve often complained about the move towards a directors’ theatre. But directors can also renew a familiar work – which is precisely what Ned Bennett does in his exhilarating staging of Peter Shaffer’s modern classic. I was present at the first performance in 1973 but, without violating the text, Bennett’s production has enabled me to see the play through fresh eyes.

Shaffer shows a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, attempting to discover what drove a teenage boy, Alan Strang, to blind six horses with a metal spike: it is not so much a whodunnit as a why-did-he-do-it? Dysart patiently explores Alan’s parental background – a puritanical father, an obsessively religious mother – and the boy’s preoccupation with horses. But, while Dysart envies the boy’s capacity for worship, he only gets to the truth when he tricks Alan into reliving the events of the night of the blinding.

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NOW ABOUT THESE WOMEN: STRINDBERG, POST-BERGMAN—FARBER/ALI/ CLARK/ULLMANNS/MORE  (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Bob Shuman

The frantic sex in Yaël Farber’s adaptation of Miss Julie, directed by Shariffa Ali and retitled Mies Julie, now playing at Classic Stage Company (CSC) until March 10, provides a contrast to Liv Ullmann’s stately 2014 film version; but, in both, viewers are left staring at semen-stained underwear on the floor.  Other current Strindberg directors, like Victoria Clark and Arin Arbus, make Strindberg (1849-1912) conventional for our time—they can’t unleash him or really take him seriously, although Alf Sjöberg did so in his 1951 film on the daughter of a count who sleeps with a servant–a classic, which opens up the story, on the order of Birth of a Nation. Ullmann, who has directed A Streetcar Named Desire and can see Strindberg’s influence on Tennessee Williams, encloses her Miss Julie in an Irish castle, but her apparent lack of budget (this is really a filmed play) and two hour running time undermine Strindberg’s brevity and pace (Farber’s setting is a farmhouse in the Karoo of South Africa, and she relentlessly brings her inter-racial version in at 75 minutes; Strindberg timed the original at 90). 

Farber’s other changes include making the third character, Jean’s mother (Vinie Burrows, of the sheet-metal screech), instead of his intended, and giving the idea to start a hotel, to Julie, instead of Jean (James Udom).  Elise Kibler seems too young and unglamorous to be playing the title role, although a friend corrected me: “She’s not that young.”  She is a tomboy, though, who still seems imprinted from parochial school, and the audience is stunned by her voracious entry  into sex, not unlike when reading the reminiscences of Linn Ullmann in Unquiet (Norton, 2015, 2019), in which the author, daughter of  director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2017), himself no stranger to Strindberg (Americans may recall his production of Miss Julie, brought to BAM in 1991, starring Lena Olin  and Peter Stormare) pretends not to discuss the final part of the life of her father: as a teen, though, she describes wanting an older lover to keep “doing it” and when she comes, it surprises them both: “How sudden and violent it was, like shame, like betrayal.”

Ingmar Bergman in Stockholm, 1961

Udom kisses Kibler’s foot: “Kiss my foot; fucking do it!” (in The Dance of Death, also playing a CSC—the boot is kissed, the fetish Strindberg calls for in both scripts).  Udom continues up the lower leg, matching Julie’s boldness. Liv Ullmann, in her film, shows that Julie and Jean are really children, which is a point also repeated in Ingmar Bergman’s corpus; in fact, her Julie, Jessica Chastain, appears to be stunted in terms of her emotional growth, because of the early death of her mother:  Kibler and Udom, however, seem to be experimenting, “playing with fire” (they’ve known each other all their lives).  On the evening of the annual Freedom Day celebration, neither has ever been so fearless or unaware of the messiness of love.  Ali’s direction, at a kitchen table, with African drumming, music, and a ghost, however, may be one variation of Strindberg’s play that outdoes even the playwright, regarding misogyny: Farber’s reconstruction includes a death even more violent than that of the original. 

Although it does seem as though women artists trying to solve Strindberg, usually in their favor, are part of a current trend, the idea is actually not new.  The concept goes at least as far back as Trifles, the 1916 play, and curriculum staple,  by Susan Glaspell, which is an obvious riposte to Miss Julie, and also includes killing a canary; but here, the man in the relationship is killed, not the woman.  Arbus’s direction of The Father, in 2016, asked the audience to laugh at Strindberg, as she analyzed him in a multiracial context, rather than via the kind of homogeneous society he wrote in; nevertheless, Laurie Slade’s 2013 BBC production was compelling because it was brutal.  New York producers equate entertainment with comedy, but Strindberg, whose play The Dance of Death, about the death spiral of an aging couple—and which has influenced, in a hasty, incomplete tally, Bergman, Brook, O’Neill, Albee, and Ionesco–while not unfunny, poses an issue for casts, because without appropriate transitions (an actor has supplied the correct terminology), his sentiments can play like laff lines: “there are no real men today.” Actors may want the instant gratification of the audience response, but Strindberg is on to something deeper;  yet, this production’s vigorous actors, Cassie Beck, Richard Topol, and Christopher Innvar, using an adaptation by Connor McPherson, are only finding identifiable contemporary counterparts to Swedes of 1887; not essences.  Maybe a clearer way to say this is that they seem to be playing at their roles, but they haven’t become them yet. 

For a successful immersion into Strindberg-like characters, one might watch Bibi Andersson and Jan Malmsjo in Scenes from a Marriage, where Strindberg is quoted.  What the director, Victoria Clark, does bring to her production, which also plays until March 10 (this reviewer can recall an earlier production at CSC, in 1984) is an interest in movement, literally allowing the actors to present choreographed dances of death during the evening.

The mundane questions Linn Ullmann thinks to ask her father, Ingmar Bergman, during the end of his life, in Unquiet, A Novel, do nothing to illuminate an understanding of August Strindberg, by his foremost contemporary interpreter and literary inheritor.  Bergman only allowed Ullmann to see him for one month every summer–on a remote Swedish island, from which her mother successfully freed herself, in the sixties.  Unspoken depicts a daughter continuing to inhabit the isolated landscape, in an obsessively repetitive text, Joycean in some sentence lengths, and often banal in the points made, along with a bad copyedit (a lack of understanding of the difference between a comma and a semi-colon, is apparent, for example).  Nevertheless, her book (true in all of Linn Ullmann’s work) has been highly influenced by her father’s film techniques and writing, as well as her mother’s books, Changing and Choices.  Ullmann documents a man “vanishing,” as Bergman describes it, agreeing with Strindberg, in The Dance of Death, that “growing old is horrible,” passing his artistic legacy on to an observer, whom he might not even recognize.

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View Unquiet on Amazon

Production photos: Joan Marcus

Linn Ullmann photo: Berliner Zeitung

Press: Blake Zidell/Adriana Leshko

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

 

ECLIPSES GROUP THEATRE NEW YORK:  ‘HERCULES:  IN SEARCH OF A HERO’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Eclipses Group Theatre New York (EGTNY), a nonprofit that “serves as a cultural bridge between Greece and The United States,” is presenting  Hercules:  In Search of a Hero, inspired by EuipidesAlcestis and Hercules until February 10 at Abrons Arts Center.  The evening offers singing, dancing, film sequences, and two plays, by the “the most tragic of all poets,” translated by Demetri Bonaros, edited, and spliced together.  The texts present Hercules as he, first, makes the decision to bring back Alcestis from Hades (she has sacrificed herself for her husband) and, second, as the demigod inadvertently kills his own family, which may remind of The Bacchae.  But is the audience meant to interpret the latter act as retribution for the former?

As a cultural project for Greek artists, as well as others, Hercules appears a worthy locus for investigation and experiment, but talking beyond the community, to a larger audience, without the knowledge base of the company, viewers need ballast to stay centered in a cold theatre, in winter. According to director, Ioanna Katsarous, Hercules: In Search of a Hero is asking what heroism is in our times:  “Is an act heroic if it involves violence?  Where is the place of women in the modern mythology of heroism, and do we need to create new mythologies and eventually a new concept of the world?”  These inquiries may or may not be critical to considering Euripides, but would many actually reject the idea that women display acts of heroism? Was not Athena a warrior Goddess? Sometimes revisionism can seem only a caterpillar sentenced for not being a butterfly. Purely from a nonacademic, nonfeminist standpoint, though, the evening’s clarity, linearity, and meaning are what are at stake: we are in the past and present, as well as in the worlds of two plays. Aristotle would probably look at this piece and say that unity is lacking.  What’s a quick fix for that?  Study the ancient Greeks.

‘HERCULES:  IN SEARCH OF A HERO’

The cast includes Luisa Alarcón (Lonely Leela at HERE), Demetri Bonaros (The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Theatre at 45 Bleecker), Luke Couzens (Macbeth at Stages on the Sound), Helena Farhi (what she found at Frigid Festival), Alexandra Skendrou (Carnegie Hall, Bruno Walter Auditorium) and Taj Sood.

The production team includes Christos Alexandridis (Set Design), Christina Watanabe (Lighting Design), Marina Gkoumla (Costume Design), Alex Agisilaou (Video Design), Ioanna Katsarou (Dramaturge) and Anastasia Thanasoula (Production Stage Manager).

Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm with an added show on Sunday, January 27 at 6pm. Tickets are $25 and $20 (students and seniors). Purchase at http://www.AbronsArtsCenter.org or by calling 212-598-0400. The running time is 75 minutes. For more info visit https://www.egtny.com, Like them on Facebook at /egtny (https://www.facebook.com/egtny), and follow on Twitter (https://twitter.com/EclipsesGTNY) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/eclipsesgtny) at @eclipsesgtny.

Photos by Selim Cayligil: Luke Couzens as Hercules.

Press: David Gibbs | DARR Publicity

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

‘THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE’ FROM GILBERT & SULLIVAN PLAYERS (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Culturally, winter holidays and families may be more important to Arts curriculum than what is taught in schools.  During the recess, children can be exposed to The Nutcracker or Hamilton, see a movie, receive a book, or listen to show tunes—and something in them may open up.  Hopefully, they will feel surprise at what they discover, and suddenly, have a memory to savor for a lifetime.  The occasion can give a student special definition or identification, which has nothing to do with grades or societal programming, expectations or approval.  Some may even believe that such a turning point has the potential to turn the young into future ticket buyers, but that is too crass an estimation.   Building this secret place might begin with Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Lion King, or learning about the settling of New Amsterdam  or Winston Churchill.  The subject might be old-fashioned or quirky, like first reading Alice in Wonderland, going to the circus, or listening to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. What is important is that, in a nation where most people do about the same things during a day, the mundane is broken and  individualism can emerge.

Cleverly directed, as well as conducted, by Albert Bergeret and choreographed by Bill Fabris, with ballet, comic marches, and even a nod to A Chorus Line, The Pirates of Penzance, from New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (which ran at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College from December 27-30) strikes this reviewer as a production with ingredients to inspire—coming from the kind of theatre company you always hoped was out there and getting supported. The cast, on the evening of December 28, included David Macaluso, Mathew Wages, James Mills, Carter Lynch, David Auxier, Katie Dixon, Hannah Holmes, Abigail Benke, Merrill Grant, and Angela Christine Smith, among other well-trained singers in an ensemble of pirates, police, and wards, working with good humor and high spirits. The set, an old-fashioned painted backdrop with rainbow lighting—including a Celtic ruin and the dangerous clifftops of Cornwall, England–was by Lou Anne Gilleland (scenic design) and Benjamin Weill (lights)—the period costumes come from Gail J. Wofford & Quinto Ott W.S. Gilbert’s libretto is nonsensical, using Queen Victoria as a deus ex machina, but there are moments in Shaw and Shakespeare that seem about as contrived, as well.

What is noticeable, however, is how well the tuneful music continues to captivate and flow–and here its orchestration is superior to the rather tinny, electronic hurdy-gurdy sounds used for the Joseph Papp production of 1980, starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt.  Maybe this is all a way of saying that this reviewer had something of an epiphany himself regarding Gilbert and Sullivan, after assuming that such a piece would be rather moldy.  But the presentation, played at a human scale, glistens like the bright, sparkling earrings worn by Dixon’s Mabel. Tell someone about the integrity of this company and perhaps recommend it to a young person looking for purpose—maybe he or she will ask the artists what they did over their holidays as kids.

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© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.   

Production photos: Carol Rosegg   

 

FAVORITES: ‘WAITING FOR GODOT’ FROM DRUID, ‘THE PRISONER’ FROM BROOK, AND ‘NOURA’ AT PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS ·

By Bob Shuman

Camille Paglia has noted that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is part of the counterfeit legacy of the American sixties—it never belonged here, along with the academic poststructuralists, who gave it currency: “the work is shot through with callow wordplay and oafish low comedy, the defense mechanism of clammy, adolescent males squirming before the complexity of biology–the procreative realm ruled by woman.”  Paglia claimed 1960s Pop Art was the real inheritance, instead—“passionate engagement” with our art, borne out of sexual experience and emergent as: “Dionysian rock ‘n’ roll, based in African-American rhythm and blues . . . our pagan ode to life.”  Hers is not the only assessment, however—Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, who died in November, had another—one many would like to have had. She said, “The first play that amazed me (I thought it was the most powerful thing of all—not only in theatre but in painting, film, everything!) was Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.  I saw the play in Paris and I didn’t understand a word of the French, but I left the theatre as if I’d been hit over the head.  I understood every moment of it.  That play had a profound influence on me.  When I returned from Europe, I started writing.  That was 1959.”  During the 1970s and beyond, Beckett was someone to be talked about later—after a painstaking and painful anesthetizing.  The film director, Todd Solondz, at a Beckett reading, from Mabou Mines in the 1980s, noted the similarity of the set design to an Excedrin tablet—one he wished he could have taken.

Waiting for Godot 

Maybe the Irish director, Garry Hynes, from Druid Theatre Company, who brought her production of Waiting for Godot to America in October and November, as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival at John Jay College, can give helpful advice for those feeling similar distress (she apparently considered doing the project with trepidation): actually she recommends, not asking too much of yourself, as an audience member (realize that Beckett may be refusing to give more): simply witness.

(Listen to a BBC Garry Hynes interview on Beckett.)

Godot (here pronounced GOD-oh, not Good-oh, as is more common in the States) is perhaps a metaphysical name or even a curse word, linked to other informal, maybe even nonsensical names (some believe they represent nationalities): Gogo or Estragon (French), Vladimir or Didi (Russian), Pozzo (Italian; more specifically, a Mussolini), and Lucky (American)—here, played with long hair.  These can be important to the play because Waiting for Godot may reflect a state of consciousness resultant of WWII’s destruction. As noted on a BBC4 podcast on the play, Beckett, who was part of the French resistance, waited for the end of the war in France (where subsistence might have depended on the root vegetables noted in the play: “I’ll never forget this carrot.” He most likely left Ireland because of its conservativism and wrote this play in French (and also translated his work back into English) to distance himself from an overwhelming literary influence—for whom he also acted as an assistant and researcher:  James Joyce.   Hynes also contends that there is another Irish presence to be reckoned with regarding Godot, which is not reactionary:  A play by J. M. Synge called The Well of the Saints, which also includes beggars waiting in the elements for the miracle of having their sight restored (Pozzo has lost his sight in the second half of Godot).  Once it is, they see the ugliness of the world and wish they had never been able to see. 

Marty Rea is the taller Vladimir and Aaron Monaghan is Estragon, a Laurel and Hardy team (almost out of a T.V. cartoon) performing over the abyss. Instead of a vision of the cruelty of living, based on imagery of hanging, beatings, whips, killings, and humiliation, and for all the issues that the writer refutes—plot, as an example, as well as setting–Hynes discovers a warmer Godot, maybe one that can even be said to have charm.  She appreciates clever humor in the play and makes use of pantomime, mirroring and repetition with her actors, as they walk arm in arm, march, and pose melodramatically. Peter Brook, who knew Beckett and staged his pieces—including one close in subject and characters to Waiting for Godot, “Rough for Theatre I,” recalls Beckett as less severe than his public face—actually he “loved a drink, adored a joke, and loved women.” Hynes’s production  infuses the text with Beckett’s lost Irish legacy—the colors of the white-bordered set, by Francis O’Connor, are the earth tones of Irish ceramics (although the larger effect may remind of sculpture by Henry Moore or even Seurat’s paintings–from an American point of view, the costumes give an almost Amish look to the actors.  

Perhaps Godot always needed a transition from starkness to simplicity, as opposed to the concept of proving funny actors could demonstrate how unfunny the play actually is.  Hynes also seems willing to believe that there is a story and a setting, by letting the audience see the play’s pentimento–in a play that happens nowhere, outside of time and place, there are references to the Pyrenees, yoga-posture, and Rodin’s “Thinker”–which give a sense of a generalized living place.  She lets us know that the play takes place in a post-modern somewhere as opposed to a universal nowhere.  To put it in Paglia’s terminology, the work now takes place in a “procreative realm.”

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The Prisoner

Beckett’s tree for Godot is part of David Violi’s set for The Prisoner, which played at Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, from November 24 to December 16, 2018—a woman at a December 8 talkback confirmed the impression, although Peter Brook would probably dispute the observation.  The text—the language is straightforward–by Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, concerns the punishment and repentance of a young man who must weigh his own physical crime against the moral one of his father.  

The stage is open and unhyped—and the barefoot actors and mimes (the cast is made of five:  Hiran Abeysekera, Hayley Carmichael, Herve Goffings, Omar Silva, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan) wear loose, unpretentious rehearsal clothing. 

Brook is theatre’s spiritual guru—a great artist and a fabulous promoter–who pays particular attention to simplification (perhaps he might prefer the word “elimination”) and international influence and casting. The cultural atmosphere around him has changed, however, and Americans have lost their religion—philosophical debate on theatrical themes tends to end up being about dollars and cents. Theoretically, he is essential, but Brook’s recent fables are examples of his theory, not so much daring experiments, like ones he made in his past: for example, The Tragedy of Carmen (1981), and The Mahabharata (1985).  Whether because he has made such an impact on theatrical culture (he is in his nineties) or because his storytelling methods can seem obvious today—Brook might say his work is renewing and deepening—one has to ask of the material: how differently would another director, with the same story–who never had access to Brook’s enormous experience and knowledge–actually stage it? 

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Noura

Henrik Ibsen did not see himself as a proto-feminist—he was concerned about the rights of all human beings.  This, however, has not stopped him, as well as other artists, from being employed to legitimize the writing of those less famous—and less talented.  Much of the new work around the city really should be credited to two authors—the contemporary one, owning the politics necessary for a positive review, and the older, who is considered classic. Recently, besides the dour Norwegian, Hermann Melville, Camus, Chekhov, an ancient scribe, Cocteau, and Stanley Kubrick have been featured.  The practice is not new, certainly, but it is unimaginative.  Although it is the fashion, Heather Raffo really doesn’t even need Ibsen to give ballast to her play—she has materials and options enough not to set Noura (which plays at Playwrights Horizons until December 30) at Christmas (the large tree and stunning wooden, cubby-holed set are part of Andrew Lieberman’s scenic design), with a visit from someone from her past, interjections from an ardent admirer, like a Dr. Rank, and the inclusion of others of Ibsen’s concerns—for example, early paternity. Noura is too educated, wise, and  of the world, to recall Nora, symbolically, really (Mrs. Helmer does not understand money, the law, or working in a profession—“a doll” whom, during the course of her ordeal, does not want to, and can not, play house anymore (closer, might be Ibsen’s haunted, orphanage story Ghosts). 

Noura, by contrast, is a refugee, who has lost the option of being a homebody, at least eight years before.  Yet, she continues to contribute money to a convent in Iraq.  Raffo keeps adding different colors to her tale, which don’t become muddy—she’s game to take on virtually any contemporary issue, even if she doesn’t do justice to Ibsen.  She’s a formidable actress, though (and a strong cast has been assembled around her: Dahlia Azama, Liam Campora, Matthew David, and Nabil Elouahabi), but there are holes in the script and maybe it is contradictory; Raffo also holds a tin cup for the understanding of second-wave feminists.  Ingmar Bergman thought differently about A Doll’s House, actually, and has demonstrated that the play is also Torvald’s tragedy, not just Nora’s, (and you’ll see a nasty moment from Fanny and Alexander replayed in Joanna Settle’s direction).

Those who interpret the play usually pile on the husband, forcing the character to become a villain—in the ‘70s, Sam Waterston used a crutch to gain sympathy when he was playing the part. Certainly, Ibsen has been hijacked before, it is true, but perhaps without such poetic, or passionate force.

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Happy holidays from Stage Voices!

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photo: Fornes, Playbill; Godot, The New York Times; Noura, Joan Marcus 

REVIEW: A BROADWAY ‘MOCKINGBIRD,’ ELEGIAC AND EFFECTIVE ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/13; Via Pam Green.)

As this is a trial, let’s have a verdict: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which opened at the Shubert Theater on Thursday, is not guilty.

Evidence shows that it does not deface the Harper Lee novel on which it is based, as the Lee estate at one point contended. And far from devaluing the property as a moneymaking machine, it has created an honorable stream of income that should pour into the estate’s coffers for years to come.

But as any reader of the novel knows, to say something is not guilty is not the same as saying it’s innocent. And this adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” — written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Jeff Daniels — is hardly innocent.

How could it be? Every ounce of glossy know-how available at the highest echelons of the commercial theater has been applied to ensure its success, both on Lee’s terms and on what it supposes are ours.

It is, for one thing, gorgeously atmospheric, from the weathered barn-red siding that serves as the show curtain (the set design is by Miriam Buether) to Adam Guettel’s mournful guitar and pump organ music, which sounds like hymns decomposing before your ear. Mr. Sher has made sure that every movement, every perfectly cast face, every stage picture and costume tells the story so precisely that it would do so even without words.

Ah, but the words. As Mr. Sorkin has explained pre-emptively, he faced a dilemma in approaching the material. He could not alter the plot significantly lest he alienate audiences who grew up treasuring the 1960 novel or the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck. “To Kill a Mockingbird” still had to be the story of the widower lawyer Atticus Finch (Mr. Daniels) bravely standing up to racism in small-town Alabama in the mid-1930s. Defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, he could not suddenly introduce DNA evidence to win the case.

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Photo: Vogue