Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

IRELAND: DRUIDGREGORY REVIEW–CAPTIVATING PERFORMANCE ROOTED IN HISTORY ·

(Ciara L. Murphy’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 9/17; Photo: The Irish Times: Druid combines representations of raw sorrow, naked nationalism, and raucous humour to honour Gregory’s legacy.)

Revival of Lady Augusta Gregory’s neglected works is of vital importance

★★★★☆

At Coole, the collision of past and present is delivered through a collection of Lady Augusta Gregory’s neglected works. Druid combines representations of raw sorrow, naked nationalism, and raucous humour to honour Gregory’s legacy at her home, the historical site of Coole Park.

Gregory’s plays have been notably absent from Irish stages for far too long. This revival is of vital importance, not only for a canon in urgent need of revision, but also because, despite the common view, Gregory’s plays provide worthy and clever snapshots of an important moment in Irish theatre history.

The nationalism that underpins two of her best-known texts, The Rising of the Moon and Cathleen Ní Houlihan, can appear a blunt instrument in contemporary times. However, these political allegories bookend DruidGregory, highlighting the political significance of Gregory’s work.

The setting of The Rising of The Moon is perhaps the most effective of the entire series, drawing fully on its surroundings. In Cathleen, Marie Mullen is striking as The Old Woman, leaning into moments of stillness and silence, presenting this well-known character as a literal monument of significance.

Standout

Francis O’Connor’s light touch approach to set design allows the natural beauty of Coole Park to take centre stage across the five short plays. Augmented by Barry O’Brien’s simple yet exquisite lighting design, the entire performance places the audience along a porous boundary line between the historical and the contemporary. These threshold spaces hold the power of this performance.

Unexpectedly, the standout performance moves away from nationalist rigour and atmospheric mystique. Gregory’s raucous comedy, Hyacinth Halvey, is the ideal centrepiece of the production. Gregory’s humour is often overlooked, and Hyacinth Halvey rivals Synge for its considered parody of rural twentieth century Ireland.

Presented as a delightful farce, it delivers comic relief and a breadth of capable performances from the ensemble. Here, the set allows for a more ostentatious addition to the traditional setting, which only accentuates its high-energy delivery.

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REVIEW: CHLOROFORM, LIES AND RACISM FIRE UP ‘THE JACKSONIAN’ ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York times, 8/28; Clockwise from top left: Bill Pullman, Carol Kane, Amy Madigan, Juliet Brett and Ed Harris in “The Jacksonian;” via Pam Green.)

This streamed reading of Beth Henley’s slice of Southern noir offers scorching portraits of bad faith from Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Bill Pullman.

Fred Weber, a proud son of Mississippi and one very scary bartender, is said to have astoundingly acute peripheral vision. Watching the immensely enjoyable (and equally disturbing) reading of Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian,” which streamed live on Thursday night as part of the New Group Off Stage series, you don’t doubt that Fred — played by a priceless Bill Pullman — can detect whatever’s beside him, behind him or above him.

It’s a gaze that penetrates straight through the screen that separates you from this human reptile. When his eyes narrow, but never quite close, into razor slits, Fred gives the impression that he’s also looking through all the kinks and corners of his own twisted interior.

Does he like what he sees? Surely not. But he can live with it. And though he lies with cavalier smoothness, he is probably the most honest person you’ll meet in the shabby hotel that gives its name to this cockeyed murder mystery, a twisty study of the discontents of living in the racist South in 1964.

When I first saw “The Jacksonian” in its New York premiere in 2013, one of the great, spooky treats of Robert Falls’s interpretation was watching Pullman — an actor I had long admired for his scrupulous portraits of conflicted Edward Albee characters — cross over to the dark side. And I am happy to report that seven years later, confined to an isolating box on a split screen, he is, if anything, even more compellingly creepy.

As for his starry, first-rate fellow cast members — Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Juliet Brett, who all originated their parts, and Carol Kane, who is reading the role created by the wonderful Glenne Headly, who died in 2017 — they too are frighteningly vital. Each offers a testament to the notion that being trapped in a certain place at a certain moment in history can cause even the freshest soul to rot. They may have scripts in front of them, but they’re not just reading; they’re being, in ways that can feel too close for comfort.

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***** ‘GHOST LIGHT’ REVIEW – A FEAST OF DREAMS FROM THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF SCOTLAND (ONLY UNTIL 8/28) ·

(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/8; Photo: Fairy glow … Ghost Light was filmed at Edinburgh’s Festival theatre. Photograph: Peter Dibdin.)

Hope Dickson Leach’s magical, flickering film of past and postponed works is a dazzling theatrical relay race

The test of a good production of Peter Pan is the scene where the audience bring Tinkerbell back to life. For her to survive, we have to prove that we believe in fairies. When a show gets it right, the audience make magic happen. Reviving the little ball of light requires the same leap of faith we take on every trip to the theatre. Its effect can be joyous and devastating.

By kicking off her exquisite film with an extract from JM Barrie’s classic, Hope Dickson Leach finds the perfect metaphor for a theatre forced to go dark by Covid-19. Filmed backstage for the National Theatre of Scotland, Ghost Light treats the company’s repertoire like the glow of a fairy: flickering, transitory, written on the wind.

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ENTERING A PARIS THEATER, WARILY, AND FINDING A WEIGHT LIFTED ·

(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/16; Photo:“Ionesco Suite,” directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota at the Espace Cardin in Paris. Credit…Jean-Louis Fernandez; via Pam Green.)

Audience members seemed to be asking one another, “Are we really doing this?” But the over-the-top physicality of “Ionesco Suite” was worth it.

After three months of coronavirus-related restrictions, the anxiety doesn’t go away readily. Setting foot inside a Paris theater for the first time in late June, I worried that it was too soon. The audience sat on three sides of the Espace Cardin’s smaller stage — with appropriate gaps — and many people looked at one another furtively, as if to ask: Are we really doing this?

Yet about midway through “Ionesco Suite,” a medley of absurdist scenes by the French playwright Eugène Ionesco, something gave. Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s production, first seen in 2005 and much revived since, piles on a series of eerily over-the-top characters, and on this occasion, the seven actors contorted their faces as if their lives depended on it. From feet away, their physical freedom was so tangible that I found myself laughing and wanting to cry; a weight was lifted that no amount of at-home live streams could have made lighter.

French artists are relatively lucky. Performers around the world are at the mercy of infection levels and public policy, and the spread of Covid-19 has been curbed enough in France, for now, that all theaters were allowed to reopen from June 22. Additionally, government funding for the arts means that playing to smaller audiences isn’t a ruinous proposition, even though viewers must leave an empty seat between themselves and other groups.

Still, only a small number of venues have opened their doors. Nearly all summer productions and festivals had been canceled because of the lack of rehearsal time and uncertainty, so many producers have elected to wait until next season.

The Espace Cardin, administered by the Théâtre de la Ville, was first. “Ionesco Suite” was part of “The Wake,” a 48-hour event that comprised performances, concerts and readings at all hours in and around the building. There is no telling who, exactly, emerged from lockdown with a pressing need to listen to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” at 3 a.m., but perhaps that was the point: At last, we could do something unnecessary.

Outside this celebration, small-scale productions are understandably getting the bulk of programmers’ attention. Through the end of July, the Théâtre de la Ville is putting on family-friendly plays with tiny casts at two venues, the Espace Cardin and Les Abbesses, while the Théâtre de Belleville opted to present one-person shows.

Under normal circumstances, all would very likely be overshadowed by more extravagant projects. Theater for young audiences, especially, tends to get short shrift. “Venavi or Why My Sister Isn’t Well,” a penetrating play about grief at Les Abbesses, was first performed in 2011 and has toured extensively since, yet it isn’t nearly as well known as it should be.

Its author, Rodrigue Norman, was born in Togo, and the plot is based on the belief there that twins are sacred beings, feared and celebrated as demigods. The only actor onstage (the highly likable Alexandre Prince) plays Akouété, who dies as a child, leaving his twin sister Akouélé behind.

A soliloquy from beyond the grave sounds grim on paper, but “Venavi,” directed by Olivier Letellier, delicately explores the need for closure after such a loss in terms that the many children in attendance could understand. Since Akouété’s parents don’t acknowledge his death, his sister’s growth is stunted as she waits desperately for him to return from “the woods,” where she is told he has gone.

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‘GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY’ REVIEW: BOB DYLAN’S AMAZING GRACE (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Ben Brantley’s review appeared in The New York Times, 3/6; photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

This ravishing and singular musical, written and directed by Conor McPherson, hears America singing — Dylan — during the Great Depression.

A nation is broken. Life savings have vanished overnight. Home as a place you thought you would live forever no longer exists. People don’t so much connect as collide, even members of the same family. And it seems like winter is never going to end.

That’s the view from Duluth, Minn., 1934, as conjured in the profoundly beautiful “Girl From the North Country,” a work by the Irish dramatist Conor McPherson built around vintage songs by Bob Dylan. You’re probably thinking that such a harsh vision of an American yesterday looks uncomfortably close to tomorrow. Who would want to stare into such a dark mirror?

Yet while this singular production, which opened on Thursday night at the Belasco Theater under McPherson’s luminous direction, evokes the Great Depression with uncompromising bleakness, it is ultimately the opposite of depressing. That’s because McPherson hears America singing in the dark. And those voices light up the night with the radiance of divine grace.

A fluent fusion of seeming incompatible elements, “Girl” occupies territory previously unmapped on Broadway, and it speaks its own hypnotic language. Technically, you could say it belongs to a genre that is regarded by some as the great blight of Broadway: the jukebox musical, which uses back catalogs of popular recording artists as scores.

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‘THE MIKADO’ FROM THE NEW YORK GILBERT & SULLIVAN PLAYERS (NYGASP)—REVIEW FROM NEW YORK ·

By Bob Shuman

The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) brought their production of The Mikado to the Kaye Playhouse over the holiday season (12/27-1/5)—perhaps especially topical now since it is about a prince who runs away from his family.   The larger issue concerning the operetta is thornier than that, though, and has been since its premiere, in 1875, because of characterizations of the Japanese (a random list of role names is telling, and includes, Nanki-PooPish TushPooh-Bah, and Yum-Yum). The dramatist G. S. Gilbert, in defense, explained that “[The Mikado] was never a story about Japan but about the failings of the British government.” Even so, the work would be impossible to create today.  

Attempting to minimize the offensive, the NYGASP spoke to the Asian-American community in 2015, upholding “The Mikado’s musical score, setting, characters, storytelling, and most of its universal Satire”—you can see the difference in multi-racial, if primarily non-Asian, casting and costumes by Quinto Ott that make use of shoulder ornamentation and flow—even gowns with their backs cut out–but which are only suggestive of the East.  Director and choreographer David Auxier-Loyola, interprets the piece openly; how a Westerner would imagine Japan, in innocence and ignorance.  He has also penned a prologue—apparently based on an almost-true story, which gives a rationale for a departure into the make-believe.

New material elsewhere injects mention of the disastrous film version of Cats, presidential hopefuls, and even Trump, but the creators ensure that the cultural misinterpretation is never as outrageous as in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, for example.  NYGASP, which might be compared to a family of loving, ardent supporters, treats the work of Gilbert & Sullivan as treasure, not merely a gold mine. They may, in fact, be giving the team more accommodation than others would, as even contemporary writers, working sensitively, are typically not allowed to give voice beyond their own race and ethnicity, in the entertainment and publishing worlds.

Still, The Mikado is considered “the most popular piece of musical theatre of all time,” and today NYGASP is a needed outpost in the arts— important for students in understanding the range and history of theatre.  The organization also allows audiences to get away from cold, hyper-tech Broadway and, beyond it, stage work that is created without access to a repertory group. For those who find Gilbert & Sullivan’s Victorian sensibilities too eccentric and psychologically weightless (The Mikado actually has a stronger storyline than The Pirates of Penzance,  which relies on counting age by leap years), there is the music–which may, in part have influenced Frederick Loewe‘s score for My Fair Lady.   Tuneful, pleasant, and rousing, the songs, choruses, recitative, trios, quartets, madrigals, and more, are all ably performed by the NYGASP orchestra, ensemble, and principals, who include David WannenJohn Charles McLaughlinDavid MacalusoMatthew WagesDavid AuxierSarah Caldwell SmithAmy Maude Helfer, and Rebecca L. Hargrove.  Cáitlín Burke brings strong emotion to her role, as an elderly lady, in love with the prince—taking this Mikado from operetta to opera.

Conducted by: Albert Bergeret and Joseph Rubin.

Look for The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, at the Kaye Playhouse,  April 18-19 2020 with The Gondoliers.

Visit The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Press: Sean Katz, Katz PR

REVIEW:  CARRIE COON IN ‘BUG’ IS THRILLING, OLD-SCHOOL STEPPENWOLF — THE GREATEST ‘BUG’ EVER (SV REVIEW PICK, CHI) ·

(Chris Jones’s review appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 2/4.)

Like a sleeping Midwestern beast loosed from its cage of self-imposed timidity and graduate-school moralism, the old-school Steppenwolf Theatre came roaring back to life Monday night with the opening of “Bug,” Tracy Letts’ seminal, skin-crawling 1996 work about, depending on how you read the play, debilitating, delusional paranoia or the government’s ongoing tendency to experiment on its own citizens.

Once again, Chicago’s most famous theater has turned to Letts, its resident playwright with two shows this season on Broadway, including a transfer of “The Minutes,” which happens to be the last show at this theater to shock its audience like this one. But this time, Steppenwolf paired Letts (building on their New York collaboration with “The Man From Nebraska”) with the director David Cromer, a theatrical genius who emerged from the very same Off-Loop milieu as Letts and is always at his best when making like an emergency locksmith with revivals of profoundly observational plays ready to burst wide open. For those of us who are longtime students of Cromer’s work, “Bug” is a thrilling addition to the Cromer Chicago canon: this is his most spectacular piece of direction in this city since his seminal “Our Town,” one of the greatest Chicago productions of all time.

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Photo: Carrie Coon and Namir Smallwood star in the Tracy Letts play “Bug” at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

 

‘MACBETH’ AT CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY–ONLY THROUGH DEC. 15 (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

John Doyle’s production of Macbeth, playing through December 15 at Classic Stage Company (CSC), should fit into the current zeitgeist exactly.  In a world of 280-character tweets and multitasking, the story, enacted in this 90-minute version, demonstrates the kind of revenge corporate staff relish:  a power couple, who are promoted too swiftly—and need more on-the-job training–get their comeuppances.  Even seemingly sensible cutting can lose an article–or book or play, however.  What sometimes seems like arbitrary writing, pared away, may actually be necessary connective tissue, even if it isn’t very good—and especially if a magic spell has been placed on it.  Macbeth is no exception—the story can grow long, as any thirteen-year-old will tell you, especially after, say, Lady Macbeth’s handwashing scene. What most people probably like best, anyway, are the cauldron and witches; forests and ghosts; battle scenes and blood: the tragedy’s elements, instead of its telling. These are also areas known generally, which actors don’t always go much further into researching (so different from the way Stanislavski would approach work, sending a team into the very environments he was working on—to learn history, seek objects for sets and design, and talk to the people who knew something of the past, place, and people).

Corey Stoll and Nadia Bowers, in the doomed central marriage of the play, as well as the other characters, too, only refract the contemporary: points made in glossy magazines about gender roles and hair and better liberal politics. Doyle, extolled for his minimalism, seems to have given us a rehearsal for a production yet to come, although he ensures racial and gender balance, he hasn’t found the universal.  Perhaps he realized, in his streamlined, fast-paced Macbeth, in the round, that after he took everything away, the center wasn’t really there. And maybe that is an astute, frightening way to describe today.

 

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Visit Classic Stage Company

Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St, New York)

Macbeth

John Doyle, Scenic Design
Ann Hould-Ward, Costume Designer
Solomon Weisbard, Lighting Designer
Matt Stine, Sound Designer
Tom Schall, Fight Director
Telsey + Company, Casting
Bernita Robinson, Production Stage Manager
Stephanie Macchia,  Assistant Stage Manager

 

Macduff, Captain………………………………………………………………….BARZIN AKHAVAN Malcolm ……………………………………………………………………………..RAFFI BARSOUMIAN Lady Macbeth …………………………………………………………………………… NADIA BOWERS Lady Macduff, Gentlewoman …………………………………………… N’JAMEH CAMARA Banquo, Old Siward…………………………………………………………….ERIK LOCHTEFELD Duncan, Old Woman……………………………………………………………….MARY BETH PEIL Macbeth………………………………………………………………………………………… COREY STOLL Ross …………………………………………………………………………………………..BARBARA WALSH Fleance, Young Macduff, Young Siward…………. ANTONIO MICHAEL WOODARD

Photos by Joan Marcus

DRUIDSHAKESPEARE: ‘RICHARD III’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Aaron Monaghan, as Richard III, in Ireland’s Druid Theatre U.S. production premiere of Shakespeare’s history–it plays until November 23 as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater–appears like Mikhail Baryshnikov’s crippled twin, obsessively jerking forward, planning, always thinking.  Probably a delight to the Tony-winning director Garry Hynes–who apparently loves the low, comic staging of old Warner Brothers and Saturday morning cartoons, he can’t stand still, amid posing royals, played by working people—here, Richard’s deformity is pronounced in his lower half, instead of in a humpback and claw hand.  As the king, Monaghan is witty, sarcastic, and sadistic—as out of touch and privileged, as a Prince Andrew, who can’t sweat.  Shakespeare calls Richard a “hellhound,” but rarely do most audiences feel the banality of mundane murder, which can be overridden, in other productions, by pageantry and towering sets; a star turn.  Hynes is interested in the earthbound: smoke and weather (actually, she has brought her Richard III to New York, during our dull and rainy fall, which coincides with mention of All Souls’ Day in the text).  She rejects the pomp, like she is knocking over Civil War monuments, although, akin to another Irish director, Maria Aitkens, she and her set and costume designer, Francis O’Connor, fall for hats, thankfully foregoing the one that American men, at least, actually do over-wear:  the baseball cap.  There is plenty else on display, though: derbies, Beckett’s bowlers (especially relevant to Hynes, given her 2018 staging of Waiting for Godot), antique military wear, puff hats, hoods, veils, and mitres. Richard is one of her rare characters who does not wear headgear—his crown is so temporary. 

In costume, whether by convention or necessity, Hynes and O’Connor want to accentuate gender, as well as class.  Men wear half-kilts and robes—Clarence plays in white, but much of the design is in black leather–and women play men, or, at least, boys: those young princes taken to the tower.  Hynes’s theatrical revolt is larger than not wanting the audience to identify with a story or character, however—she is taking on, and extending philosophies, from Beckett and the Bard, as well as Brecht.  Her audiences are aware that they are alienated, as in Epic theatre, but she also wants viewers to understand that the situation is not limited, constrained, or contained. There are cycles of life surrounding the dead wood and industrial rust of her boards and proscenium, an issue men in the house may not think or even care about (Camille Paglia has brought this issue up, regarding Beckett)Hynes’s Godot insists on asserting life beyond confines—and Richard III emphasizes, of course, death.  The metaphor for her setting is too inspired and original to spoil for anyone who will see this work, especially for those who do not automatically identify it—when the pieces come together, the revelation is at once apparent and incisive. Viewers, however, may want to investigate Conor Linehan’s Celtic-tinged minimalist music.  

On the one hand, Hynes gives futurist punk costuming and Shakespearean oration, scraped clean, and on the other, she intersperses scenes with expressionist images and horror movie chills—such as a corpse being pulled on the train of Lady Anne’s gown.  There is an indebtedness to Strindberg, as well, who also knew of a pagan, agrarian cosmos, as Hynes allows her queens to crawl, like pigs, in the dirt.

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Directed by Garry Hynes

Produced by Druid

Starring Aaron Monaghan as Richard III

Francis O’Connor, set and costume design

James F. Ingalls, lighting design

Gregory Clarke, sound design

Conor Linehan, music             

David Bolger, movement and fight choreography

Doreen McKenna, co-costume design

 

With Marie Mullen, Jane Brennan, Ingrid Craigie, Garrett Lombard, Rory Nolan, Marty Rea, Bosco Hogan, Peter Daly, John Olohan, Siobhan Cullen, Frank Blake, Emma Dargan-Reid

Performance length: Three hours, including intermission

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Photos:  (from top)  Robbie Jack, Richard Termine

Press:  Michelle Tabnick

 

REVIEW: DOUBLE, DOUBLE, BURGER AND TROUBLE IN ‘SCOTLAND, PA’ ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/23; via Pam Green.)

When “Macbeth” meets McDonald’s, a meaty new musical is born.

When classics get adapted or updated, I often find myself asking: What’s the added value? What do you get from Shakespeare with penguins that you don’t get better from Shakespeare straight up?

That’s the chip I had on my shoulder when I went to see “Scotland, PA,” a musical riff on “Macbeth” that opened on Wednesday at the Laura Pels Theater. It’s not as if the great tragedy hadn’t been plundered enough already; earlier “Macbeth” mash-ups include a “Macbett,” a “MacBird!” and even a “MacHomer,” in which Banquo is reconfigured as Ned Flanders.

And I already knew that this one, a world premiere commission from Roundabout Theater Company, was based on a 2001 film by William Morrissette that moves the action to the 1970s — not the most appealing era for updates. I worried the witches would be Charlie’s Angels.

But “Scotland, PA” — in which the witches, happily, are stoners instead — turns out to add some delicious value to both the original play and the film. Its smart book (by Michael Mitnick) and agreeable songs (by Adam Gwon) are often laugh-out-loud funny, something no one ever said about the version that opened in 1606. The show, directed by Lonny Price, is also quietly insightful, making piquant connections between Shakespeare’s drama of political powerlust and the consumerist mania of our own fast-food culture.

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Photo: Credit…Rachel Papo for The New York Times