Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

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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FOR GERMANY’S THEATERS, A RELUCTANT INTERMISSION ·

(A. J. Goldman’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/12; Photo: Credit…Sandra Then; via Pam Green.)

MUNICH — Before a second nationwide lockdown went into effect in early November, Germany’s theaters — and their audiences — had been adjusting to measures that allowed a semblance of normal cultural life in the midst of the pandemic. Mandatory masks, spread-out seating plans and pragmatic program changes all ensured that the country’s playhouses were operating safely.

But after two months of performing under these changed circumstances, theaters seemed taken aback when, on Oct. 28, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced they would have to close again. This time around, they have not gone gently.

Officially, the second lockdown will last only a month, but few companies expect to return to the stage in early December. Faced with the threat of indefinite closure, they have reacted with refreshing chutzpah, challenging politicians to consider live performance as an essential service rather than a leisure activity.

“There is no danger of infection if you maintain the minimum distance of six feet and properly ventilate the auditorium,” said an open letter to lawmakers signed by arts administrators in the state of Bavaria. “So far, not a single case of infection has been proved to come from a theater visit,” the letter added.

I’ve been impressed with the precautions that playhouses have taken, although I’d be lying if I said that my much-curtailed theatergoing has not been attended by anxiety every step of the way, from riding the subway and avoiding audience members in the lobby to carefully filing out of the theater after the show.

Sometimes, that sense of unease was magnified when a production hardly seemed to justify the risk, like Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson’s staging of “The Oresteia” at the Volksbühne in Berlin. The show, scheduled to return when the lockdown is lifted, makes for a loud and cluttered evening that has surprisingly little to do with Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy.

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IN AVIGNON, SNATCHING THEATER FROM THE JAWS OF NEW LOCKDOWNS ·

(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/30; Photograph:  Kaori Ito in “The Damask Drum” during the abbreviated “A Week of Art in Avignon.” Credit…Christophe Raynaud de Lage; via Pam Green.)

Delayed from the summer, France’s biggest stage celebration was further curtailed as restrictions again hit the country. That made the moments of grace that were possible all the more powerful.

AVIGNON, France — Festivalgoers who cross the medieval ramparts of Avignon are used to being greeted with a riot of activity. Every July, thousands of posters cover the city’s walls to advertise stage productions as the official Avignon Festival and its Fringe compete for attention. Seemingly every street corner brings hopeful performers ready to pitch their work to passers-by, day and night.

Not this year. Like so many other events, France’s biggest theater celebration was canceled because of the pandemic, leaving the city and local businesses with a major revenue shortfall. As some consolation, the director of the festival, Olivier Py, rescheduled seven of the productions originally planned for the 2020 edition over a week in late October.

The name he picked for this surrogate festival had historical resonance: “A Week of Art in Avignon” was the event’s original moniker upon its inception in 1947. At the time, its founder, Jean Vilar, staged just three productions around the city. While many of this year’s attendees could be heard complaining about the dullness of Avignon in the fall, the low-key atmosphere was certainly much closer to Vilar’s vision than the juggernaut — over 1,500 Fringe productions were presented last year — that usually overwhelms locals.

Still, looking back, Py and his team are likely to curse their timing. With confirmed Covid-19 cases surging again in France, a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was announced in the region of Avignon the day before the Week of Art was to start. Like most theaters in Paris and other major cities, the festival opted to work around the regulations. All start times were simply moved forward by three hours, to allow audience members time to get home before curfew started.

It wasn’t enough for some shows. First, one production, Yngvild Aspeli’s “Moby Dick,” was canceled when a case of coronavirus was confirmed in the creative team. Then, midway through the week, the French government announced a new nationwide lockdown, meaning that the festival was cut short.

Yet some live shows did happen, across multiple venues in Avignon. Perhaps any review should include a mention of the herculean amount of planning, precautions and uncertainty that getting to the stage currently involves. Critics would be remiss to ignore the wider theater landscape: When an industry is fighting for survival, the aesthetic shortcomings of a lighting choice start to seem less consequential.

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***** ‘FAITH HEALER’ REVIEW – THIS VIRTUAL FRIEL IS THE STUFF OF MIRACLES ·

 

(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/27. Indira Varma, David Threlfall and Michael Sheen in rehearsals for Faith Healer at the Old Vic. Photograph: The Old Vic/Getty Images.)

Does faith healing come about thanks to the faith of the healer, or the faith of the healed, or through faith in faith itself? This question haunts “the fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer, One Night Only”, as his publicity poster presents him; it troubles his wife, Grace, and perplexes Teddy, his manager. Brian Friel’s 1979 play places the audience, too, in a state of doubt. Over the course of four separate soliloquies, these three characters build conflicting impressions of their relationships and their village hall tours of Wales and Scotland. Their slippery accounts do not tally. Only a few features hold firm: place names, a couple of events – and the act of questioning. Are the characters misremembering or deliberately misleading? Who and what should – can – we believe, or believe in?

In our own destabilising times, the Old Vic’s “scratch” production is itself an expression of faith – part of a season of performances played on stage before an empty auditorium and simultaneously livestreamed to an audience that must pay to Zoom in. Given how much recorded work is being put online free, will people find sufficient added value in being connected with performers in time although not in space? Will they stump up for tickets?

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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