Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

‘TWELFTH NIGHT’ AT THE POLONSKY SHAKESPEARE CENTER–FROM THE ACTING CO. AND DELAWARE’S RESIDENT ENSEMBLE PLAYERS (REP) (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Maria Aitken takes the edge off overwrought Summer Shakespeare with a droll, whimsical Twelfth Night from the Acting Co. in a co-production with Delaware’s Resident Ensemble Players (REP), now playing until May 27, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn (an essential theatrical destination, which seems to transfigure for each new presentation).  Her light surrealism sets Illyria in the Thirties, maybe in California, probably not on the Adriatic and far away from traditional England or Trump’s America. What matters to her is the hair, the wigs (which go uncredited):  bouffants, bobs, punk dreadlocks, pageboys, coiffures piled high and on the verge of Versailles.  The costume designer, Candice Donnelly, provides veils, tams, netting and curlers, party hats, berets, and kerchiefs; variegated livery, period golf wear, ruffles at the neck, asymmetrical gowns, and old-fashioned black swimsuits–she even makes an allowance for nothing at all.  Some might surmise that to dwell on costumes is another way of saying that there isn’t much going for the show, but here, Shakespeare is what happens when the audience is looking the other way. 

The play has been called the finest of the bard’s comedies, and Aitken’s may be one director who can actually prove that, by insisting on lucidity–she does not clutter her stage, for example, for all her satirical idiosyncrasies, and the design, by Lee Savage, is white and clear, a little beat up, maybe a deck on a ship or the villa of a Hollywood star, a mystical swirl of eternity at the apex.  The backdrop, virtually a map, is as vivid and impersonal as the screensaver of a Dell computer.  As Viola, the page searching for her lost brother after a shipwreck, Susanna Stahlmann reminds of a young Isabella Rossellini—she’s giving a classic portrait, placing a knee up on a bench to intimidate or intimate virility or putting hands on hips to imitate manliness.  At the other extreme is Michael Gotch, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a role typically seen as secondary—however, in this Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole incarnation, he is the one through which the audience realizes it can laugh.  Gotch is thin and inventive, always in the moment, on, maybe like a Robin Williams.  Aitken and her cast are looking at what’s really comic in a Shakespeare comedy, such a Sir Tobey Belch (Lee E. Ernst) line: “She’s a beagle,” insulting and whacked out at the same time. 

The simplicity of the textual structure is allowed to be contemplated, without unnecessary stress from too much music, ham acting, and societal comment.  The director’s specific detail in scene work, one including a fake pheasant, for instance, highlights the lunacy. By the end of the evening, she will have brought in the kazoos and ukuleles, even guns and terrorists; the cold white scenic design, sometimes like reflective tiles, with bright lighting, by Philip S. Rosenberg, can project fissures of red and blue.  Shakespearean comedy is not often seen so unconventionally, with secrets of the interpretation, known only to the auteur, kept intact, yet a love of absurd eccentricity and lyricism on the verge of slapstick are apparent; very dry, of course.  Elizabeth Heflin, as Olivia, seems Californian, an American with a pioneering spirit–a self-assured woman who might roll the dice for love in the city of angels or star in a silent-era two-reeler.  Stephen Pelinski may be the one Malvolio who has found a way to recite his speeches without eliciting impatience.  Others in the cast are also actors to take note of, if they are not known to readers already: Kate Forbes, John Skelley, Michael Stewart Allen, Hassan El-Amin, Mathew Greer, Mic Matarrese, Antoinette Robinson, Joshua David Robinson, and Mickey Theis.  They add credence to the idea that the best way to enjoy Shakespeare is to not think about him . . . or Donald Trump . . .  or the number 1 train on weekends . . . or the rain.

Copyright © 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.   

Photos: The New York Times; University of Delaware.  All rights reserved.      

Twelfth Night

Directed by Maria Aitken 

Visit The Polonsky Shakespeare Center:

262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY, 11217

 

About The Acting Company

Founded in 1972 by John Houseman and Margot Harley, The Acting Company (Ian Belknap, Artistic Director; Elisa Spencer-Kaplan, Executive Director) is “the major touring classical theater in the United States” (The New York Times) and the only professional repertory company dedicated to the development of classical actors. The Company has reached 4 million people in 48 states and 10 foreign countries with its productions and education programs, and has helped to launch the careers of some 400 actors, including Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Rainn Wilson, Jesse L. Martin, Keith David, Frances Conroy, David Ogden Stiers, Harriet Harris, David Schramm, Jeffrey Wright and Hamish Linklater. Over a dozen commissioned new works and adaptations include plays by Lynn Nottage, Tony Kushner, John Guare, David Mamet, Beth Henley, Rebecca Gilman, Maria Irene Fornes, William Finn, Ntozake Shange, and more. The Company received a special Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater in 2003 for its contributions to the American theater.

About Resident Ensemble Players

The Resident Ensemble Players (REP) is a professional theatre company located at the University of Delaware, headed by Producing Artistic Director Sanford (Sandy) Robbins. The REP offers frequent productions of outstanding classic, modern and contemporary plays performed in a wide variety of styles that celebrate and demonstrate the range and breadth of its resident acting company.  The REP is committed to create future audiences for live theatre by offering its productions at low prices that enable and encourage the attendance of everyone in the region, regardless of income.

Press: Sam Parrott, Blake Zidell & Associates

***** ‘LIFE AND FATE’ REVIEW – A REMARKABLE EPIC OF SOVIET HORROR AND HEARTBREAK (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/9.)

Consciously modelled on War and Peace, Vasily Grossman’s epic novel – written in 1960 but not published in Russia until 1988 – is not the easiest to transfer to the stage. Lev Dodin, as adapter and director, and the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg have done a heroic job in encompassing the book’s main themes, including the historic parallels between communism and fascism, and in giving the complex action, including the battle of Stalingrad, a miraculous fluidity.

Wisely, Dodin does not try to give us the whole book but focuses on key issues. Central to the story is the tortured conscience of a Jewish nuclear physicist, Viktor Shtrum, who in 1943 finds himself at odds with his scientific masters. This yields two unforgettable scenes. In the first we see the exultation of the suddenly indispensable Shtrum when he receives an approving phone call from Stalin. In the second, with its potent echoes of Brecht’s Galileo, Shtrum agonises over whether, to continue his research, he should sign a letter effectively condoning the death of Soviet dissidents.

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ST LAZARE/BECKETT: ‘HERE ALL NIGHT’ (SV PICK, IE)  ·

(Peter Crawley’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 4/17.)

“I’ll fix their gibberish for them,” says the speaker of Beckett’s Unnamable, in a defiant mood, even as his mind is slowly dissolving into nothing. “I never understood a word of it in any case…”

The reader of Beckett’s prose works will know something of the feeling, alternately enthused, amused, bewildered and worn into submission by the onslaught of absurdist verbiage. Here All Night, Gare St Lazare’s interdisciplinary bricolage of prose, music, installation art and performance, decides instead that the words are neither gibberish nor fixed; finding in their collaboration the permission to jam.

To some extent you can read the results – fractured and spliced, ascetic and experimental – as Modernism: The Opera. The centrepiece on a bare dark stage is a sculptural installation by the artist Brian O’Doherty, in which a petrified body is suspended, supine, mid air, like someone laid to rest in a display case. That this artwork has been shucked from its original context is more methodology than sin: the production is all about reappropriation.

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LERNER AND LOEWE: ‘MY FAIR LADY’ AT LINCOLN CENTER (SV PICK, NY)  ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/19; via Pam Green.)

Poor Eliza. It’s not enough that her own father sells her for five pounds to the bully phonetician Henry Higgins. Or that Higgins strips her of her ragged clothes and Cockney accent so she can become a refined if useless lady.

No, the former flower girl is also a failure of feminism, if recent criticism is to be believed.

Don’t believe it.

The plush and thrilling Lincoln Center Theater revival of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” that opened on Thursday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater reveals Eliza Doolittle as a hero instead of a puppet — and reveals the musical, despite its provenance and male authorship, as an ur-text of the #MeToo moment. Indeed, that moment has made “My Fair Lady,” which had its Broadway premiere in 1956, better than it ever was.

It was always good, of course, one of the gleaming artifacts and loveliest scores of the Golden Age of American musical theater — a canon now being contested, with cause, for its unenlightened sexual politics.

Continue reading the main story

Photo: The New York Times

EDWARD ALBEE: ‘THREE TALL WOMEN’ WITH GLENDA JACKSON AND LAURIE METCALF (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/29; via Pam Green.)

Her jaw thrust forward like a prow, her elfin eyes belying her regal bearing, her wide-screen mouth wrapping itself around those slashing, implacable consonants — they’re all exactly as you remember them and want them to be. Or if you’ve never experienced them, welcome to the pleasure. Either way, Glenda Jackson is back; even better, she’s back in a role that’s big enough to need her.

Aptly, the name of the role is A.

A is the oldest of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” which opened on Thursday night in a torrentially exciting production that also stars Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill. It not only puts an exclamation point on Ms. Jackson’s long-shelved acting career but also serves as a fitting memorial, which is to say a hilarious and horrifying one, to Albee, who died in 2016.

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Photo: LA Times

ENDA WALSH: ‘GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS’ (SV PICK, IE) ·

(Ciara L. Murphy’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 3/21.)

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Enda Walsh’s unlikely theatrical adaptation betters the power of the original story

****

At first glance, Max Porter’s debut novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers seems an unlikely candidate for theatrical adaption. The book boasts a frantic, pacey, and devastating experience for the reader, an experience which is not easy to echo on stage. Enda Walsh’s work often situates his audiences as meaning-maker in his work, and this, in combination with Complicité’s trademark audio-visual spectacle, ensures the essence of Porter’s story is made manifest on stage.

Grief explores the turbulent and mind-wrenching anguish experienced by Dad (Cillian Murphy) and his two sons (played in rotation by David Evans, Taighen O’ Callaghan, and Felix Warren) after the death of Mum (Hattie Morahan). Careening between careful prose, jarring poetry, and visceral, energetic dialogue, the play sets in motion a scintillating story arc which combines an intense, furious drama and a pervasive, yielding gentleness.

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(Photo: The Irish Times

STING: ‘THE LAST SHIP’ (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/22.)

Having bombed on Broadway, this musical by Sting about the shipbuilding industry is being revived on its native soil with a new book by its director, Lorne Campbell. The only mystery is why the show ever premiered in the US in the first place: it is a deeply British musical that champions Tyneside life and that leaves you in no doubt where it stands on Thatcherite economics. It was received, quite rightly, with full-throated acclaim by its Newcastle audience.

The show, which originated in a concept album by Sting, explores his complex feelings about England’s north-east, where he grew up. The hero, Gideon, rejects the idea of following his father into the Wallsend shipyards, sails the world and returns 17 years later hoping to pick up where he left off with his former girlfriend, Meg. But Gideon is not only romantically naive. This is the 1980s and the local shipyard is abruptly threatened with closure by its owners amid government refusal to sanction “a Soviet-style bailout”. The only solution to both sides of the story is for Gideon and the workers to seize control of their own destiny.

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TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: “SUMMER AND SMOKE” (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/8.)

As it is so rarely seen, this early play by Tennessee Williams feels like a major discovery. Williams began it in 1945 and endlessly revised it. Now a young director, Rebecca Frecknall, has given it a complete makeover. Eschewing realism, she adopts the expressionist tactics favoured by the Belgian director Ivo van Hove and palpably builds the production around Patsy Ferran, who confirms her status as one of the most exciting actors on the British stage.

Frecknall, designer Tom Scutt and Angus MacRae, credited with composition, join forces to give the action an unusual setting: a circular pit of sandy earth ringed by nine pianos that the ensemble periodically play to create atmosphere. The text tells us we are in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, between the turn of the 20th century and 1916. But here the focus is on the primal nature of a conflict between spirit and flesh.

Alma, who constantly tells us her name means “soul” in Spanish, is a parson’s daughter and singing teacher whose undeclared love for a neighbouring doctor, John Buchanan, has driven her into a state of neurosis. If Alma represents the soul, then John, both professionally and socially, stands for the body. But after a melodramatic shooting, Williams shows their roles ironically reversed.

(Read more)

 

CHEKHOV: ‘PLATONOV’ FROM BLESSED UNREST (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

When the eye-catching actress, Becca Schneider, tells Platonov, the title character in Chekhov’s first unfinished drama (1878), he needs to “slow down,” she’s explaining the directorial concept of Jessica Burr’s production from Blessed Unrest, now playing at the New Ohio Theatre until March 11.  The momentum of her version is fast, and for a while, the speed, the mobility and the fluidity, along with the loose physicality of the actors, seems like a way to bring the early modernist playwright into the postmodernist world of downtown theatre–the way Eric Tucker did for Shakespeare, in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, as an example. Platonov gets away from Burr, though, because Chekhov depends on connectivity, not fragments, in a way that Shakespeare’s mostly second-hand materials don’t. She emphasizes mechanics, and ultimately, the pace seems like a refutation of this supremely empathetic author.

One miscalculation may have been underestimating how much people want to listen to him—they want to see a significant Platonov (even if its five hours are cut), not a literalized one or one that feels truncated, especially given the potential of the cast (of multiple races and ethnicities, playing multiple parts, some across genders). Probably most notable are a tantalizing Irina Abraham, as Anna, a general’s daughter, and the handsome Darrell Stokes in the title role, a womanizer, subdued by female vigilante justice.  Many could argue that he is a product of soul-destroying ennui, but this production, apparently politicized,  has been timed to echo the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein case—in a reductionist assault, perhaps too gratified in taking Chekhov apart and setting him whirling. 

The author, however, may have simply been learning to tell a story and creating a multidimensional world, not a legal brief, just as Ibsen did not think A Doll’s House was a feminist tract. What happens to Burr is that her center gets lost—the play arrives at one hundred minutes (the translation, with slangy colloquialisms, is by Laura Wickens) and the piece is skeletal, missing the connective tissue of character development and builds.  Working in the round, the director uses a minimal set, by Matt Opatrny, based on vodka bottles, chess pieces, and an oriental rug, and her staging is especially physicalized; her Russia, spinning and kaleidoscopic, can’t be still and can’t be bored. The last moments of the play aren’t prepared for, and they don’t shock or surprise in the way that a well-directed version of The Seagull can. Perhaps to contemplate the play, we have to comprehend the playwright—understanding his own time and his own purposes more fully–not our own–in slow motion.

Platonov by Anton Chekhov

with

Irina Abraham, Ashley N. Hildreth, Javon Q. Minter,
Becca Schneider, Darrell Stokes, Taylor Valentine

Production Stage Manager
Darielle Shandler

Set Design
Matt Opatrny, Teddy Jefferson, Anna Alisa Belous

Costume Design
Sarah Thea

Lighting Design
Miriam Nilofa Crowe

Sound Design
Fan Zhang

Dramaturg
Jessi Blue Gormezano

Fight Choreographer & Assistant Director
Ben Peterson

Publicist
PR-ism, Kamila Slawinski & Ivan Talijančić

Visit Blessed Unrest

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Production Photos: Blessed Unrest

 

STUNNING CHICAGO ‘CABARET’ MOVES ITS OPENING NIGHT AUDIENCE TO SILENCE ·

(Chris Jones’s article appeared in The Chicago Tribune, 2/13.)

Kelly Felthous, who plays Sally Bowles in the Paramount Theatre production of “Cabaret” did not get a lick of applause Saturday at the end of the show’s famous title number, despite this being opening night. Was it down to frostbite?

No. That is also what happened when I saw Natasha Richardson do Sally in the 1998 Broadway revival, the one directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, the one that made a star out of Alan Cumming, the one that has influenced every subsequent staging of the title, even to the point of blending into our perception of the material. Richardson’s drugged-out Sally was desperate and despairing; she turned the number into a furious cry of nihilistic anguish, shocking an audience expecting Liza Minnelli-like resilience into total silence.

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