Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

SHAKESPEARE AT THE DELACORTE: ‘MERRY WIVES’ ·

MERRY WIVES
By William Shakespeare
Adapted by Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Saheem Ali
Featuring Abena, Shola Adewusi, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Pascale Armand, MaYaa Boateng, Phillip James Brannon, Brandon E. Burton, Joshua Echebiri, Branden Lindsay, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Jarvis D. Matthews, Jacob Ming-Trent, Jennifer Mogbock, Julian Rozzell Jr., Kyle Scatliffe, David Ryan Smith, and Susan Kelechi Watson

By Bob Shuman

Shakespeare in the Park returns to the Delacorte with a new version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, called Merry Wives, which is suited less for the outdoors than for small screens, reflecting the cramped quarters of the last 16 months: the neighborhood and its regulars; the local laundromat and fading signs for Biden-Harris.  COVID goes unmentioned, despite the fact that one former cast member had tested positive (social distancing protocols are in place), amid street drumming, lip-syncing, helicopter propellers (not part of the show, although overhanging air-conditioners are), and hair-braiding salons.  The Public’s staff has never seemed as accommodating (many thanks) or probably given as thankless a job, in asking audiences to keep their masks on;  despite a rainy weather forecast, Oscar Eustis, the artistic director, is emphasizing how the theatre belongs to the audiences in his introductory speech—volunteers and employees at Shakespeare in the Park have, over time, displayed de rigueur meanness with the bourgeoisie–and taxpayer largesse. After a year in the dark, because of the pandemic, this summer’s production, still wants to cancel, in accordance with current societal trends, dealing those in attendance an adaptation, which ultimately asks the public, and artists, what it will take to pull beyond sit-comming the Bard and art, and envisioning work as something other than variations on the broken record of one-party New York political thinking.  

The performers are ebullient, however, playing West African immigrants in South Harlem—and, as a homecoming to the theatre, the vehicle, with a popular Shakespearean character, who receives his just desserts for premeditated womanizing, is a sunny, colorful, becoming segue back into live work, even if these creatives  seem to have been binging on “Roadrunner” cartoons, as artistic inspiration.  Were our times not so dangerous (speaking now beyond infectious diseases), a light review could be left, guiltlessly, but Merry Wives, is also “shrunk,” like clothes might be in Mistress Ford’s laundry, simplified with easy stereotyping, which can impose meanings and facilitate inaccurate appraisals of communities and original art (recall that one of Verdi’s outsized masterpieces, Falstaff, is based on the same play, more complex and psychologically examined). The issue of how adaptors and adaptations change meaning by becoming overly obvious, direct, and simplified—by changing words and calling it free speech–is worthy of examination, where even a play by Shakespeare might be misapprehended and erased, for our own good.

In Central Park, on July 14, the predicted rain never comes, although it is explained that a cast member had been injured the night before, reminding of the almost forgotten physical reality of theatre and the Herculean effort of putting up plays, especially after a postponed opening and at this time.

Merry Wives may be all it wants to be.  And, for the moment, after so long, maybe it is all it needs to be.

with AbenaShola AdewusiGbenga AkinnagbePascale ArmandMaYaa BoatengPhillip James BrannonBrandon E. BurtonJoshua Echebiri, Branden LindsayEbony Marshall-OliverJarvis D. MatthewsJacob Ming-TrentJennifer MogbockJulian Rozzell Jr.Kyle ScatliffeDavid Ryan Smith, and Susan Kelechi Watson

MERRY WIVES
By William Shakespeare
Adapted by Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Saheem Ali

Tickets are reserved through the Public in online lotteries

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© 2021 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

***** ‘COPPELIA’: A MYSTERY REVIEW – SUPERB ADVENTURE VEERS FROM SWEET TO SINISTER ·

(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/22; Photo: Michael Hugo, Kira McPherson and Corinna Brown in Coppelia: A Mystery, directed by Theresa Heskins. Photographer: Jenny Harper.)

New Vic theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
This delightful promenade show uses pretty-as-a-picture design, undercut with creepy asides, to bring ETA Hoffmann’s famous tale alive

Who knew there was a Victorian village round the back of the New Vic? Where you thought there was just a car park and a 1980s edifice, there are now shop windows stuffed with antiquarian books, caged birds and jars of sweets. Someone has been constructing children’s toys in a workshop and the cakes have yet to be consumed in the teashop. Overhead are rows of fairy lights and colourful bunting. Sheet-music butterflies settle on the plants.

It would be chocolate-box idyllic if it were not for one thing. The longer you look at the bric-a-brac, the more you spot the eyeballs. Counting them is fun, but sinister as well.

That contradiction between the delightful and the troubling sums up this superb promenade adaptation by Theresa Heskins. At any moment, you could be in for a jolly adventure or led up a morally dubious path. Lis Evans’s exemplary design, with its pretty Slavic costumes and creepy hanging limbs, only adds to the ambiguity.

Drawing on the original ETA Hoffmann stories and the famous ballet, Heskins retells the story of Dr Coppelius and his amazingly life-like puppet daughter. Our entry point is Corinna Brown’s Swanhilde who, armed with curiosity where cash fails, helps us commit a daring raid on the main theatre to discover more about the ultra-realistic doll.

Bouncing excitedly on her toes, she wins us over with her high-pitched laugh and zest for life. She also gives us permission to think Michael Hugo’s Coppelius is a bit of a weirdo. We need that because there is something peculiar about him. Who else would wine and dine a mechanical doll – even one as mesmerising as Kira McPherson? He puts Coppelia through her stiff-jointed paces as if he expects her to come to life. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to play a trick on a man like that.

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IRELAND: ‘WAITING FOR POIROT’ REVIEW: A CELEBRATION OF LIMERICK’S LOCAL TALENT ·

(Sara Keating’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 7/26; Photo: Waiting for Poirot performed at the People’s Park, Limerick. Photograph: Keith Wiseman.)

The daring murder mystery is full of action and keeps families entertained throughout

WAITING FOR POIROT

The People’s Park, Limerick
★★★★☆

It is 1925, the early days of Irish Independence and the newly established Garda Síochána is still finding its feet. In Limerick city, Sir Montague Garrick’s Travelling Theatre & Electric Cinematograph has taken up residence at the People’s Park to entertain locals with a daring murder mystery play. With the sudden death of the leading man, however, the drama spills off stage, and the audience is held hostage until the murderer is found. Will the elusive detective Hercule Poirot, expected any minute, solve the case, or can detectives Maguire and Patterson get to the bottom of the strange events?

Mike Finn’s script is embedded in both the site and broader setting for this enormously ambitious ensemble production, directed by Tara Doolan and Pius McGrath. The script is crammed with local lore that feeds off both the history and contemporary reality of Limerick city, as well as clever Covid puns that are integrated easily into the players’ rhyming welcome to the audience as it assembles for the beginning of the promenade piece, which is also the start of the show within the show.

Finn’s play is in open conversation with Beckett’s famous play in which nothing happens. However, the meta-theatrical dialogue is not overdone and there is plenty of action to keep a family audience entertained throughout the 90-minute experience: comedy chases, a changing cast of suspects, messenger boys coming to and fro on bikes, news of a theft from the nearby Limerick City Gallery of Art.

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WALLACE SHAWN’S ‘DESIGNATED MOURNER’ FEELS LIKE WATCHING THE NEWS ·

(Jessa Crispin’s article appeared in the Spectator, 7/15; photo:  Wallace Shawn in 2004—Getty.)

Films, plays and novels can lurk, waiting for the right cultural context to resonate in a whole new way

Pity the aesthete, the flâneur and the opera-goer. Those who find the contents of their own heads so dull and mundane they must fill them instead with the fantastical inventions of our most extravagant lunatics. They have been locked out of the theaters and cinemas and public spaces that make them feel at their most alive and abandoned to the content programming of Netflix and whatever Tenet was supposed to be. They’ve been deprived, sheltered, cut off from the only thing that gives their lives meaning.

I’m describing me. I’m asking you to feel sorry for me. If I don’t, at least twice a week, have a reason to wear a ridiculous gown and watch people leaping about on a stage set to a glass-shattering score, I feel only half alive, and I have been languishing under lockdown.

There has been some experimentation with bringing the art world into everybody’s living room, but a poorly filmed opera, with the cameras right up close where we can see the pancake make-up and thick eyeliner on the tenors, watched on the same couch I slouch on to watch the Copa America matches, doesn’t really recreate the transcendent experience of the theater.

So I was a little trepidatious about how this adaptation of Wallace Shawn’s hit play The Designated Mourner into a podcast was going to work. But it works extremely well, and it is a joy to listen to. Well, ‘joy’ is overdoing it, as its story of ongoing political collapse and the rise of an oligarchic class is maybe just a smidge too much like watching the news these days, but it does take what can be the most powerful elements of a stage production and find a way to reproduce them in a more intimate setting.

The 1996 work is transformed into something halfway between a radio play and podcast, light on the Foley artist side of things, putting an emphasis on the intense monologues that feel akin to the usual bro-y discussions you get in most podcasts these days, where digressions and anecdotes litter the more serious conversations about whether or not we are living through the apocalypse. Shawn revives his role as Jack, the professor who is obsessed with his grief and disappointment as society falls apart around him.

It’s a work that has survived through many different forms and adaptations, finding new life in multiple stagings, film and now a podcast. It retains its aggressive and confrontational power, and it’s easy to forget you are listening to a work of fiction. Which probably doesn’t say great things about our political reality, but that’s fine.

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IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FIELDS (SV REVIEW PICK, IRELAND) ·

(Mary Coll’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 7/8; Photo: Kathy Rose O’Brien stars as Vera in In the Middle of the Fields.)

★★★★

West Wall Walkway, Kilmallock

Timing is everything and what better time to explore the themes of isolation, grief and loss than after a period of collective trauma such as we have all experienced in this recent pandemic.

Being back in a theatre again felt both poignant and a little surreal, especially as the theatre was an open-sided tent in a field in Kilmallock, Co Limerick, but it was a perfectly apposite setting, with a soft summer breeze blowing and horses grazing happily nearby.

This exquisite world premiere staging of writer Mary Lavin’s 1967 short story by director Joan Sheehy and Geoff Gould’s Blood In The Alley Theatre Company finds its feet with calm assurance in the shadow of the #MeToo movement, confronting as it does timeless questions about what is appropriate behaviour and who holds the power in any situation between a man and a woman. Vera (Kathy Rose O’Brien) is a young widow with small children living alone on a farm, she needs some help with the land and perhaps with more than that, which is what brings her married neighbour Bartley Crossen (Seamus Moran) to her door on the recommendation of trusted farm hand Ned (Mark O’Regan). There is a gentle undercurrent between O’Brien and Moran by day, he is the contractor and she owns the land but the temperature changes and the ground shifts when he calls to her farmhouse in the dark of night and everything that is then said or unsaid between them has a deeply unsettling tension.

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***** ‘ALL OF THIS UNREAL TIME’ REVIEW – CILLIAN MURPHY CONFESSES ALL IN POUNDING SOUND AND BLINDING LIGHT ·

(Kate Wyver’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/4; Photo:  Contrition mission … Cillian Murphy in All of This Unreal Time. Photograph: MIF.) 

Central Hall, Manchester Central, and online

In a grimy and intense film installation, the actor unleashes a torrent of regret, superbly scripted by Max Porter

Cillian Murphy, wearing a black hoodie and heavy coat, is projected on to a giant screen in Manchester’s cavernous Central Hall. On a murky, sleepless night, he walks through city streets, confessing all that he is sorry for. Around us, the space is dark and thrumming, beams of blue light sweeping and blinding. The whole room is crackling. Grimy and electric, this new film installation, a collaboration between Murphy and the writer Max Porter, is exquisitely intense.

In dripping tunnels, car parks and abandoned roads, Murphy performs with a wide-eyed despair. His apologies are wide-ranging and told without self-pity. Some funny, some sad, they encompass the violence and failures of previous generations. Under torrential rain, his unnamed character’s words are spewing, purging, searching for a way out.

Porter’s prose is recognisably strange and beautiful. His novels have played with the way sound works on the page. Here, you can feel the delight in writing to be read aloud. Working under Murphy’s barrage of regrets and missed opportunities, the score by Jon Hopkins, Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner is sublime. With binaural layers of expansive piano and breathy synths, the loud, pummelling soundscape feels as if it’s pushing its way inside you.

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***** ‘TYPICAL’ REVIEW – RICHARD BLACKWOOD IS MESMERISING IN POETIC TRAGEDY ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/25. Photo:  Richard Blackwood in Ryan Calais Cameron’s Typical. Photograph: Franklyn Rodgers. )

Available online
This superb play draws on the final hours of Christopher Alder, who died in police custody in Hull in 1998

Christopher Alder’s last moments, in April 1998, were unforgivably brutal. Injured in a fight at a nightclub, he took his final breath in police custody. It was an abject death: an unlawful killing that, for his campaigners, represented another instance of a black British man dying in a senseless way.

Yet what is marked about Ryan Calais Cameron’s astounding play, written in rap-like rhyming verse and tracing the minutiae of its unnamed character’s final day, is that it bursts with life, zest, humour and hedonism even as it hurtles towards tragedy.

First staged as a solo show in 2019 and now created by Nouveau Riche and Soho theatre for a screen version, it becomes a perfect, if eviscerating, nugget of dramatic performance in its new medium; theatrical in setting but also sharply focused and dreadful in its filmic intimacy. When the violence comes, the camera seems to throw the punches. In a claustrophobic closeup, it tightens its gaze around Richard Blackwood’s face so we cannot avert our eyes, even as his character chokes on his own blood.

Until those excruciating moments, Typical feels like a day in the life of an urban everyman, granular in its detail, Joycean in its steam-of-consciousness as he wakes up, puts on the toast, thinks about his marriage, divorce, an office flirtation, and gets going. It’s a typical day, says Blackwood, but he is determined to make it a special one with a big night out.

The language is playful, kinetic, partly in patois, with sentences that syncopate and waver between poetry and song, and fizz with wordplay: “Looking at the weather, weather looking back in anger, weather look mad, weather looking temperamental, menstrual, weather looking bad.” And later, when the police handcuff him: “I’m being manhandled … heavy-handed men, heavy-hearted men.” It moves at speed and has a polyphonic effect, making the set feel as if it is occupied by more than just one actor. Blackwood keeps up with every note, mesmerising us with every tic, smile or grimace.

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***** ‘WEG MET EDDY BELLEGUEULE’ REVIEW – A FOUR-WAY TRIUMPH (LIVE STREAM, AMSTERDAM) ·

(Susannah Clapp’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/31; Photo: The Guardian.)

Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, live stream
Playing multiple roles – and all the music – four young actors dazzle in Eline Arbo’s superb staging of Édouard Louis’s brutal coming-of-age novel

This story of an outsider looks more central each time it is told. Édouard Louis’s 2014 biographical novel The End of Eddy follows a boy growing up gay and bullied in a poverty-stricken town in north-eastern France. It has been translated into more than 20 languages and was given a sharp staging three years ago at Edinburgh, in a version by Pamela Carter. International theatre, livestreamed and subtitled, has come closer during the pandemic. Last Saturday, a 2020 adaptation of Louis’s book by the young Norwegian director Eline Arbo could be caught on screen. Performed in Dutch, but with English subtitles, at the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, it was transcendent.

Juul Dekker’s design encases the action in a shell of crinkled plastic: you can hear it crackle underfoot. It could be a collapsed parachute, a ruffled igloo – or the veined interior of a skull. It is flimsy as shelter but it hides sky and horizon: when lifted away at the end, you realise how much light it has shaded.

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***** ‘OLEANNA’ REVIEW – BRUTAL AND BRILLIANT REVIVAL OF PRE-#METOO MASTERPIECE (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/13. Photo:  Riveting … Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy in Oleanna by Mamet at Theatre Royal Bath. Photograph: Nobby Clark.)

Theatre Royal Bath
Rosie Sheehy and Jonathan Slinger are captivating in David Mamet’s 1992 two-hander about a university student and professor in a battle of power, privilege and consent

 An anxious university student meets her professor about her grades. It takes place in his room and ends up in a college complaint for his allegedly inappropriate behaviour. He believes he has done no wrong. She feels violated and seeks redress.

David Mamet’s combative two-hander might have reflected the issues and anxieties of the day at its premiere in 1992, but it is startling to see this revival following Harvey Weinstein’s watershed rape conviction. Could Mamet have written a #MeToo play long before #MeToo became a movement?

Not quite, though this brutal and brilliant production, directed by Lucy Bailey, gains new resonance in the light of all that has come to pass and perhaps says things now that Mamet did not mean it to say. There have been many recent powerful stories about sexual abuse and consent, from Cat Person to I May Destroy You. Maybe it is within the framework of these dramas that we hear current issues buzzing beneath the surface of Mamet’s script. (It is somewhat ironic that Mamet has more recently written a post-#MeToo drama, Bitter Wheat, that lacks even a fraction of this play’s complexities.)

The professor’s book-lined study has a desk at one end and a sofa at the other, the latter carrying queasy hints of a campus-style casting couch.

Like Philip Roth’s professor in The Human Stain, who feels aggrieved for his sacking over a single word carrying racial undertones, so Mamet’s professor, John (Jonathan Slinger), believes that Carol (Rosie Sheehy) is weaponising political correctness against him. But as he talks, promising her an “A” in exchange for her company, soothing her when she cries and later, questioning the veracity of her complaint even when it has been upheld by the tenure committee, his micro-aggressions and gaslighting are clear to see, though it is just this vocabulary of terms that John might today want to write off as political correctness.

Slinger plays him with such off-hand entitlement that he appears unaware of his own crimes, apparently enacting nothing more than a fantasy of paternalistic, platonic exchange in his own mind, with the under-confident Carol taking copious notes and becoming confused over his academic terms as he lectures and preens.

Though we are nudged to see his point of view – that she is mistaking avuncularity for sleaziness, taking words out of context, turning the metaphorical into the literal – it is this very reasonableness that contains the modus operandi of a stealth predator.

Sheehy reveals Carol’s powerlessness through her body language, first confused by the disappearing demarcations of the teacher-student dynamic and then subtly recoiling – tucking in her legs, wrapping her arms around herself – as he breaches the space between the desk to create new levels of intimacy.

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EAT UP! DRAMA IS SERVED AT THESE FAMILY DINNERS ·

(Maya Phillips’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/25; Photo:  The ultimate hellish family gathering: Dinner with the Westons in Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

With fewer guests at the table this Thanksgiving, theatrical reminders that food, drink and reminiscence can unsettle as well as comfort.

The stage loves a dining room table. This single piece of furniture represents sustenance and communion, and domestic dramas set at the table are — pun very much intended — the bread and butter of theater.

But for all the ways family plays reveal truths, trauma and traditions, they take on greater weight as I think about them this Thanksgiving, during a pandemic demanding all of us to figure out whether we can safely see our loved ones, and if so, how.

That’s not to say that family get-togethers onstage tend to go well. Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” is the contemporary standard-bearer for all hostile family dramas. We join the Westons, a trash fire of a family racked with bitterness, guilt and resentment, in their Oklahoma home on the occasion of the absence, then death, of the patriarch, Beverly Weston.

Fed up with the family’s cruelty, Ivy, the middle daughter, declares to her elder sister: “I can’t perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood anymore. We’re all just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more.”

Not exactly an episode of “Full House.” But she (and the play) are right that the myth of family often wilts before the real deal. The Westons twist their intimate knowledge of one another to degrade, intimidate and manipulate. Be careful what you’re wishing for this holiday season: “August: Osage County” shows us that a family around a dinner table can be a battlefield — but here the wounds are personal.

The same is true of Stephen Karam’s fantastically brutal (and simply fantastic) “The Humans,” in which the Blake family, natives of Scranton, Pa., convene at the Manhattan duplex apartment of their younger daughter Brigid and her boyfriend Richard. Erik, Brigid’s father, is remote, supposedly because he hasn’t been sleeping well, and her mother, Deirdre, tries to connect with her daughters but is often dismissed. Amy, the older daughter, is ill. And Momo, Erik’s aged mother, is barely lucid.

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