Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

‘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.

(Read more)

 

‘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.

(Read more)

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

Visit Lincoln Center

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.

(Read more)

Photo: Credit…Rachel Papo for The New York Times

 

“TONYA PINKINS’ TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION: WOMYN WORKING IT OUT!” AND “THE GLASS MENAGERIE” (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·


By Bob Shuman

Director Tonya Pinkins asked six American women of multi-cultural backgrounds to compose one-acts on the theme of women oppressing women—her seven actors are all women, too—a counterintuitive assignment given the age of #MeToo and #TimesUpNow, as contraindicated as hearing Meryl Streep observe, in May, that “women can be pretty fucking toxic.” While the unexpected results appeared as Tonya Pinkins’ Truth and Reconciliation: Womyn Working It Out! for three days, at The Tank in early October, concurrently, The Glass Menagerie, directed by Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch, opened at the Wild Project–which some might conclude is a play about a woman oppressing her daughter (especially if the work is considered biographically). Both open a larger discussion about how men and women dramatists think about domination, even if each would recoil from the issue itself: for the women, the subject is considered in a social and political light, a topic which can—and should—be placed under authority and governance; noticeably, none of their plays take place in homes. For Tennessee Williams (and Ibsen, in Hedda Gabler, or Ingmar Bergman, in a film like Autumn Sonata, to name three—white men of different nationalities and sexualities) the issue is familial, taking place in the homestead; any oppressor, whether one has been exchanged for another, is too many, even if goals are esteemed necessary for the common good. The distinctions do not end there, though, because of the importance of political issues to the Arts today, where many have come to believe that theatre is politics—an idea which would have been anathema to the still highly relevant acting theorist Constantin Stanislavki (1863-1938), who in My Life in Art writes, “Everyday cares, politics, economics, the larger part of general social interests—these make the kitchen of life. Art lives higher, observing from the height of its birdlike flights all that takes place beneath it.” The idea is still alive in his Russia today, expressed by Evgeny Mironov, one of that country’s acclaimed contemporary actors, who agreed with the thought that art is above politics, while talking about his portrayal of Ivanov, in June 2018. Even at the time of the 1900 massacre in Kazansky Square, when he was playing Dr. Stockman in An Enemy of the People in St. Petersburg, Stanislavski felt, “We who knew the true nature of the theatre, understood that the boards of our stage could never become a platform for the spread of propaganda, for the simple reason that the very least utilitarian purpose or tendency, brought into the realm of pure art, kills art instantly.” If he is right, most of today’s Off-Off Broadway theatre is a parade of ghosts.

Stanislavki considered the subject of politics further when he was evaluating Gorky’s The Lower Depths, in 1902. He believed that the spectator could make his own conclusions . . . from what he receives in the theatre”—yet today’s world of clear, automatic, correct answers, from behind the proscenium arch and on social media, are didactic, even for those who have a tendency to agree with them. An example of this is apparent in, but not limited to, Jaisey Bates’s “To History,” in the Pinkins’ project, a presentational piece on the personal damage wrought by misappropriation of mascots, emblems usually based on power symbols. Even though female participants would probably wear a pink pussyhat to a reading of this play, if requested, the presentation of the work is timely given the response of St. Louis Cardinals rookie Ryan Helsley, who is part Cherokee, and needed to pitch after hearing the Atlanta Braves’ “Tomahawk Chop,” a chant he found to be “a disappointment” and “disrespectful,” as did the Georgia native tribes.  Subsequently, when it was announced that he would be playing again, plastic tomahawks were not placed on seats for fans.  Another example is Lucy Thurber’s retro and injured writing in “Bank,” about a teller, a Georgian, from the country, who never met a lesbian before. Pieces like these are faits accomplis, which do not allow contemplation within the safe confines of theatrical experience and seem strident to those who are not part of the communities involved—and who would be excluded from voicing opinions about them, in any event. There is something of the Living Newspaper, from the Depression’s WPA Theatre, in at least three of the evening’s plays, as well, perhaps acting as substitutes for disappearing History classes in colleges and schools. “Tierra De Las Flores,” by G. Kadigan, describes a hidden, vengeful solution for wife beating in St. Augustine, Florida, during the early 1800s; “Law 136,” by Carmen Rivera, chronicles forced sterilization of women in Puerto Rico, during the twentieth century, in a dramatic situation that is reminiscent of sickening moments in a Tennessee Williams play, and “The Grandmothers,” by Kristine M. Reyes, which confronts the legacy of comfort women in Korea during World War II–a subject this reviewer included in a 2009 scene book, in writing by Lavonne Mueller, because the horror of the subject had been going virtually uncovered. Two more one-acts make up Truth and Reconciliation—one, “The Proposal,” by Nandita Shenoy, about the legacy of sexual abuse re-emerging on a school campus after many years and a two-part piece by Jasmine McLeish, “Other,” on the dubious nature of racial characterization. Pinkins incorporates dance (Briana Reed is the choreographer), song (by Amanda Green and Shaina Taub), and whimsy into the show, which allows moments of lightness, but the point that emerges is that when women oppress other women, there is a man, institution, or government entity behind it, which a feminist like Camille Paglia would find unacceptable (“stop blaming men”). Males can be fired, devastated, and brutalized, too, and their careers shattered, but in dramatic terms, at least, they may respond differently than women, even if they have become universal scapegoats.

Amanda Wingfield is not afraid to say that she knows “all about the tyranny of women” in The Glass Menagerie, a drama that Pendleton and Bloch have not chosen to embalm, in their current production, which plays until October 20. Their Tom, Matt de Rogatis, is not playing a great artist-in-the-making, as some would perceive the role to be. Instead, he seems like someone who can actually work at a warehouse, even if he isn’t a very good employee—he may not even be able to write that well, either. Jobs, however, can dumb a person down, and they can be boring—and one would go to the movies, or drink, or find illicit sex, or yearn for adventure or the Merchant Marines. This is the only production of the play in memory where one might actually think, “I hope he sends money back to the family when he leaves.” Ginger Grace’s Amanda may be providing the least gothic interpretation, too—and, for once, you can actually believe that she was really a popular debutante. An interesting parallel, a kind of family resemblance emerged, by noting that just as Amanda does not go to her DAR meeting, Laura has not been going to Rubicam’s Business College. But the constructions, in this RuthStage production, want to be contemporary–Sean Hagerty‘s music refers to Mike Oldfield‘s score for The Exorcist. You can not believe that Amanda has never talked to Laura about finding a man to marry before, maybe in any production–and one wonders if history, the Depression, of older ways of being parents and children need to be informing the text more and causing rifts. If you want to see Stanislavski in motion, though, go. There is the restraint, there is the natural pace. Alexandra Rose makes a lovely, oversensitive Laura—and the directors’ concept of keeping her onstage while other actors are playing is arresting. Spencer Scott, as the Gentleman Caller stays in tune with the production’s naturalism.

Of course, Tom leaves St. Louis, and does not send money home, and it is naive of me to imagine that it could be any other way. Looking at the male dramatists, escape from oppression must be total.

(c) 2019 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

 

Visit “The Glass Menagerie”: http://www.theglassmenagerieplay.com/

Visit The Tank: https://thetanknyc.org/

Photo Credits–Pinkins: (From top) ShowShowdown; SkinthePlay; The Tank; Menagerie: Chris Loupos; Wild Project 10/5/19, Shuman

 

Truth and Reconciliation: Womyn Working It Out! is a collective piece of theatre that includes multiple 10-minute plays and songs by and about womyn. Each play contains different ways womyn oppress each other and how we find ways to heal.
The performance will run approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Directed by
Tonya Pinkins

Written by
Jaisey Bates
Glory Kadigan
Jasmine McLeish
Tonya Pinkins
Kristine M. Reyes
Carmen Rivera
Nandita Shenoy
Lucy Thurber
Choreography
Briana Reed

Featuring
Mary Teresa Archbold
Siho Ellsmore
Akiko Hiroshima
Tonya Pinkins
Lina Sarrello
Lili Stiefel
June Ballinger

The Glass Menagerie

The cast, led by Ginger Grace as the iconic Amanda Wingfield, consists of Matt de Rogatis as her son Tom Wingfield, Alexandra Rose as Laura Wingfield, and Spencer Scott as The Gentlemen Caller. Set designer Jessie Bonaventure, who was the assistant Set designer on the Broadway musical Hadestown, which garnered four Tony Awards, including Best Scenic Design, collaborates with lighting designer Steven Wolf to create a version of Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece that borders on horror.

Dimly lit and surrealistic, the set itself will consist of props made of glass and the actors will live in a chilling, dreamlike world. Taking inspiration from The Exorcist soundtrack, Sean Hagerty writes the score for this “Wes Craven meets Tennessee Williams” production. Allison Hohman designs the sound for the Wingfield house of horrors.

Press, “Womyn”: Emily Owens; “Glass Menagerie”: Karen Greco

REVIEW: ‘CAESAR & CLEOPATRA,’ DRESSED DOWN YET WISED UP (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/3; via Pam Green.)

George Bernard Shaw gets sensitively streamlined in a briskly entertaining production with winning performers at its center.

At first glance, Cleopatra seems every inch an ordinary teenager. In a ponytail and sneakers, her white pants rolled up below her knees, she’s hiding from Caesar’s approaching army. A stranger appears, and she urges him to save himself.

“Climb up here,” she says, “or the Romans’ll come and eat you.”

She has no inkling that the mild man before her is Caesar himself. In George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar & Cleopatra,” adapted and directed by David Staller in a briskly entertaining, winningly down-to-earth revival for Gingold Theatrical Group, the young queen of Egypt is charming in her naïveté.

Of course she is, right? Much like Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s later play “Pygmalion,” she’s raw female material, ready for molding by an expert male hand. Shaw liked that dynamic. But he also genuinely liked women as human beings, intellectual sparring partners and actors. The parts he wrote for them have real substance.

Teresa Avia Lim digs into this role with a vengeance, delivering a smartly calibrated comic performance. A blustering, artless kid as the play begins, Cleopatra is amused by her new mystery acquaintance, who stays mum about his identity as she mulls how to get the upper hand with the Romans.

(Read more)

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

A BLACK ACTOR’S UNREQUITED LOVE FOR SHAKESPEARE ·

 

(Patricia Storace’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 10/5.)

Keith Hamilton Cobb in American Moor

The first recorded African-American theater troupe, the African Company, was founded in New York City in 1821, a company that the white theater establishment was determined to crush. A contemporary report describes the police shutting down a performance, hustling the actors off to jail, “whereupon they were released by the magistrate only after they pledged never again to act Shakespeare.”

The works of Shakespeare were a contested possession in the United States, often used by white America to reassure itself of the country’s Anglo-Saxonness, assuaging its fear of being a creole nation, a mulatto people. In 1835, for example, former President John Quincy Adams wrote: “the great moral lesson of the tragedy of ‘Othello’ is, that black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the Law of Nature.” Nearly a century later, in 1932, his descendant Joseph Quincy Adams, the first director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, remarked in his inaugural address, “Shakespeare and America,” that Shakespeare’s works functioned, as they had during previous challenges, “during the period of foreign immigration, when the ethnic texture of our people was seriously altered,” to maintain the United States “in bonds of a common Anglo-Saxon culture.”

In the nineteenth century, Othello was a role played by white men, with only rare exceptions. An African-American actor named Ira Aldridge, who had made his debut with the African Company, emigrated to England in 1824 as the backstage assistant to an English actor. There, he not only practiced his craft, but won lasting acclaim and recognition as one of the great Shakespearean actors of the period, celebrated throughout Europe as the first black actor to play Othello, along with other leading roles in Shakespeare he couldn’t dream of playing in the United States. You can see one of the many portraits painted of Aldridge as Othello in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. He is described as having changed the very declamatory style—stylized and operatic—in which Othello had been played. Aldridge seemed to live the character rather than perform him.

(Read more)

Photo: OnBostonStages

REVIEW: A SPELLBINDING ‘ANTIGONE,’ BOTH TIMELESS AND URGENT (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/26; via Pam Green.)

An easily legible production of the ancient Greek tragedy borrows from the tradition of Noh theater at the Park Avenue Armory.

They make the gentlest rippling sound, these candlelit figures gliding ever so slowly through the water, perambulating around a spare scattering of boulders. In a vast, shallow pool, beneath the high-arched ceiling of the Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall, the hems of their filmy white kimonos trail along the surface.

The tableau is so tranquil that you might not even notice, as you take your seat, that you’re already being drawn into the ethereal, meditative otherworld where Satoshi Miyagi’s spellbinding “Antigone” will unfold.

An ancient Greek tragedy by way of Japan, it is visually and aurally splendrous — a large-cast spectacle, with hypnotically paced choreography borrowed from the tradition of Noh theater. Most of the principals here are played by two actors: one, kneeling in the water, to speak the dialogue; the other, on a nearby rock, to perform the movements.

(Read more)