Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

‘SHAKESPEARE’S LADIES AT TEA’ AND ‘SHAKESPEARE’S DEATHS’, FROM FIRST FLIGHT THEATRE COMPANY—AT  THE 2023 LITTLE SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Who is this Shakespeare who needs to be banned in Florida public schools, who dared to write a play called Romeo and Juliet?  Was he decadent?  Was he warped?  Has he really been infecting others with degenerate thought for over four hundred years?  The 2023 Little Shakespeare Festival, now playing at the tiny underground theatre, with bright red seats, UNDER St. Marks (94 St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10009) answers with a resounding, “Yes,” in shorts awash in cross dressers, wigs, effeminate tea-stirring parties, and grotesque morbidity, ad infinitum (there are 74 onstage deaths in the so-called playwright’s works, some count 75—the pyramid death scene, from Antony and Cleopatra takes place in both of the one acts, recurring many times).  The good news is that you can see them all in fifteen minutes (if you must—the entire production takes an hour), in First Flight Theatre Company’s presentation, directed by Frank Farrell, of Shakespeare’s Ladies at Tea or I Thought You’d Never Asp, written by Kathleen Kirk, and Shakespeare’s Deaths, by the Free Shakespeare Theatre Company of Chicago.  The production continues to play on Friday, 8/18 at 6pm and Saturday 8/19 at 7pm

There is always something with which to offend in each Shakespeare play—and, truth be told, this reviewer would not relish revisiting the horrors of Titus Andronicus (although one still wants to have seen Olivier play it).  To “cancel” the work, however, to not believe that people can simply close their eyes, would mean not knowing Shakespeare’s first Black character and one of the first in the language.  Can we actually think of more boring writing than that approved under the totalitarian gaze of thought police, and now being penned by A.I. robots?  Who ever said you have to like every second of a piece of writing, anyway?  Wasn’t there a certain enticement to knowing on what pages the “good parts” were in Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  Perhaps the more we clean up, the more we leave ourselves open to seeing problems appear again and, oh, the provocation we lose.

If it would be helpful to know the kind of language that this banned playwright actually uses, Shakespeare’s Ladies at Tea gives highlights—at a bar, sometimes with a disco beat–you might even find yourself knowing a good number of the lines, which does not say much for the culture.  If providing the titles of the blasphemous works would be helpful, for future banning, here is a partial list:  Hamlet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; King John; Richard II; Othello; Antony and Cleopatra; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part II; Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3; Richard III; Romeo and Juliet.

Overzealous societal control takes power out of the hands of the individual, and leaves the gratification to the influencer, whether they be adherents of the left or right.  American theatre can only define itself in terms of politics, demonstrably of the left, but small work has a chance to not see itself in terms of powerful, dominant agendas.  Instead of hand-wringing over Romeo and Juliet, though, why not let students experience it?  Enough of them have disliked it over the years to decide, for themselves, whether they will study it or not.  That’s called democracy.

Although the content is in question, much can be said for the lively direction of Farrell and the spirited performances, in multiple roles, of Stella Berrettini, Joseph Bowen, Danny Crawford, Claudia Egli, Frank Farrell, Imogen Finlayson, Marsha-Ann Hay and Jennifer Kim with Stage Managing by Thomas J. Donohoe II.

As debauched as it all is, some might even call it fun.

 

(c) By Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Press: Emily Owens PR.

Photos: Conor Mullen/First Flight; Bob Shuman.

 

First Flight Theatre Company

presents

Shakespeare’s Ladies at Tea or I Thought You’d Never Asp

Written by Kathleen Kirk

Shakespeare’s Deaths

Written by the Free Shakespeare Theatre Company of Chicago

Directed by Frank Farrell

Presented as part of the 2023 Little Shakespeare Festival

August 3- 20 at UNDER St. Marks

 

performances on Thu 8/10 at 9pm, Fri 8/11 at 10pm, Sat 8/12 at 5pm, Fri 8/18 at 6pm & Sat 8/19 at 7pm. Tickets ($25 in person) are available for advance purchase at www.frigid.nycThe performance will run approximately 55 minutes.

 

DARK NOON REVIEW – EXTRAORDINARY OUTSIDER VISION OF AMERICAN HISTORY ·

(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/7/2023. Only the merciless survive … Dark Noon. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod)

Pleasance @ EICC, Edinburgh
South African actors replay the brutal events of the US’s formation as a catalogue of poverty, struggle, violence and pain

We know the story. We have heard it told countless times. One of the US’s great skills is in self-mythologising. Time and again, it has told the world about the first European settlers, the battles with the Indigenous people and the romantic dash for the western frontier. Everyone knows about cowboys, the gold rush, religion and commerce. Wherever you are from, you can talk about the American dream.

So it should not be a surprise to see this extraordinary show co-directed by Denmark’s Tue Biering and South Africa’s Nhlanhla Mahlangu for Fix & Foxy. On the surface, it sets itself the task of charting the birth of a nation from the arrival of its first impoverished immigrants to its early industrialisation, from lawlessness to civilisation. In a sequence of lightly narrated scenes, it plays out the key stages in the country’s development in pictorial style.

What makes it fresh, arresting and not a little troubling is who is telling the story. The seven actors are South African, six black, one white, who recount the familiar tales with the wonder of outsiders. Putting on blond wigs and daubing their faces in white makeup, they see nothing noble or romantic about this invasion of a foreign land, but a catalogue of poverty, struggle and violence. Most of the 35 million Europeans who crossed the Atlantic were as hungry and impoverished as the migrants in today’s world. Scarcely a scene goes by that does not end with a bullet.

(Read more)

OF MICE, AND MEN: NEW ‘AN AMERICAN TAIL’ BRINGS FIEVEL TO THE STAGE ·

(Colette Davidson’s article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, 5/17; Glen Stubbe Photography/Courtesy of Children’s Theatre Company.)

May 17, 2023|MINNEAPOLIS

Fievel Mousekewitz’s immigration story begins like so many others – a menacing, outside threat. The packing of bags. A tumultuous voyage at sea.

But, as the name suggests, Fievel isn’t a person, he’s a mouse. And the threat is a band of cats.

Fievel’s tale – “An American Tail” – is a story of loss, hope, rebuilding, and family. It is a story shared by many Americans, some recently, some in generations past.

WHY WE WROTE THIS

A story focused on

HOPE

Generations of American kids grew up on the story of Fievel Mousekewitz. At a time when roughly a quarter of Americans are satisfied with immigration levels, a new play looks at what it means to come to America.

Now, the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis is revisiting the 1986 film classic in dramatic form, in a world premiere from Tony-winning playwright Itamar Moses and Obie-winning director Taibi Magar. The tale of Fievel and his Jewish family’s traumatic uprooting from 19th-century Russia – in what is now Ukraine – to the boroughs of New York City is one that members of Generation X will remember from the animated film and a new generation can learn from.

In the opening act, the family of mice sing, “There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese!” The puns are abundant, but the lessons are universal.

“America is a patchwork of arrivals, but how do we welcome each new wave?” says Mr. Moses in an interview. “There are threats. But if we can work together, a better version of ourselves is always somewhere out there.”

Ultimately, “An American Tail” harks back to an era when immigration was romanticized, not politicized, in films like “West Side Story” (1961) or “Coming to America” (1988). This February, a Gallup Poll showed that Americans’ satisfaction with the country’s level of immigration had dropped to 28%, its lowest in a decade.

“This is reaching back to a happier time, a vision of immigration when it was seen simply as a part of the way this country worked,” says David Itzkowitz, a St. Paul-based historian. “Now, antisemitism is back in the media. … Immigration has become a race issue.”

(Read more)

***** ‘CYMBELINE’ REVIEW – SHAKESPEARE’S KNOTTY ROMANCE IS A FABULOUS FAREWELL FOR DORAN ·

(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the guardian, 5/4;Photo:  Peter De Jersey as Cymbeline. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz.)

Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Departing artistic director Greg Doran reinvigorates this tale of a royal family in crisis with clarity and intelligence

The president of the Royal Shakespeare Company, King Charles III, may be bemused by the company premiering, pre-Coronation, a play about an English king in a contentious second marriage and in which an “oath of loyalty” becomes an issue. Republican mischief seems unlikely: Cymbeline was scheduled as the RSC farewell to departing artistic director Greg Doran, who is finally staging the only Shakespeare play to elude him.

As a second leaving present, Doran has published a tremendous textbook-memoir, My Shakespeare, explaining how rehearsals start with the cast paraphrasing each line in modern speech, sealing meanings to be revealed in verse. That must have been tough with Cymbeline, a very late play with knotted poetry and a plot so convoluted that some productions add an onstage narrator.

A triumph for Doran’s method is that there is never doubt about who is or pretending to be whom. And his scholarly attention to text is shown by an unusual division into three sections. In The Wager, the exiled Posthumus accepts in Italy a creepy challenge that his England-held wife Imogen will not succumb to an attempted seduction by nobleman Iachimo. The second section, Wales, features the sex bet’s consequences, comic and gruesome, around a Milford Haven cave. The War somehow coheres the bizarre last six scenes where, through human confusion or divine intervention (dazzling gilded design by Stephen Brimson Lewis), identities flip and the “dead” wed.

(Read more)

 

***** ‘BEYOND BELIEF: THE LIFE AND MISSION OF JOHN HUME’ REVIEW – PROFOUNDLY AFFECTING ·

(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in the Observer, 4/9; Photo: Conor O’Kane as John Hume and Naiomh Morgan as his wife, Pat, in Beyond Belief. Photograph: The Playhouse Derry-Londonderry)

 Guildhall, Derry
This musical drama about the lives of Northern Ireland peacemakers gives a familiar story a new dimension

Beyond Belief, written by Damian Gorman and composed by Brian O’Doherty, centres on two of the prime movers in the Northern Ireland peace process, SDLP leader John Hume and his wife, Pat. Commissioned to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement (in partnership with the Hume Foundation), it is the second musical drama in Derry Playhouse’s peace-building trilogy, following on from last year’s The White Handkerchief, which marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, widely regarded as the start of the Troubles.

The thrust-stage floor is piled with rich brown earth. The gnarled trunk of an ancient oak rises from a grassy knoll, young twigs sticking out from its broken branches spattered with green leaves: “doire” is an Irish word meaning “oak grove”, which is what the place where the action is set was before it became a walled town (Tracey Lindsay’s design). Over 32 scenes, the action progresses chronologically from the late 1950s to the 2020s. Rooted in facts, it has an emblematic quality that suggests a connection to universal struggles for peace and justice.

John’s younger, fiery self is played by Conor O’Kane; his older, more weary but tenacious self by Gerry Doherty. Pat, almost always the more sure and solid, is played throughout by Naiomh Morgan. Vignettes of family life (a summer by the sea; a flight from home following a threatening phone call) are intersected by intense dialogues (a near-verbatim reproduction of John confronting a British army colonel; him telling an incredulous Ian Paisley that one day he will talk peace with Gerry Adams; Pat engaging in a coded conversation with Martin McGuinness that results in a life being saved). Violence erupts; the horror is not shirked but tempered, under Kieran Griffiths’s direction, by stylised movement. Always, the emphasis is on talk.

(Read more)

***** FOR BLACK BOYS … REVIEW – A MOVING MEDITATION ON BLACK MASCULINITY ·

(Anya Ryan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/2; Photo: Boyish energy … For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy. Photograph: Ali Wright.)

 Apollo theatre, London

Underneath the pain in Ryan Calais Cameron’s powerful play there is an abundance of light, as six Black men open up about the experiences and beliefs that have shaped them

Ryan Calais Cameron’s For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy first opened at the New Diorama theatre in 2021, and then transferred to the Royal Court for a run last year. But, it is here in its third incarnation in the West End that the play has found its rightful home, being performed on an expansive stage. Set in the rough form of a therapy session, six Black men take turns to open up about the beliefs and experiences that have shaped them into the people they’ve become. It’s a powerful and deeply moving meditation on Black masculinity and Black life in Britain. But underneath all the pain, there’s an abundance of light, laughter and boyish energy too.

Inspired by Ntozake Shange’s seminal work, For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Cameron’s writing has a similar sense of confession. The men talk of racism in the playground, run-ins with the police, romantic love, colourism and male stereotypes. The potential of suicide hangs, potently, throughout it all. But, the stories of trauma they share are all too real. On press night, the audience nod along, click and cry in agreement. While the play could never be totally encompassing of all Black men’s lives, Cameron has neatly stitched together a wealth of opposing, recognisable issues. At its core, the play asks how to play the role of the right kind of Black man. Tragic, vulnerable and honest, these are voices that are usually buried, but need to be heard.

(Read more)

 

JUSTINE CLARK BRILLIANTLY BECOMES JULIA GILLARD IN THIS HEROIC PERFORMANCE (EDITOR’S PICK, AUSTRALIA) ·

(John Shand’s article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 4/5;  Photo: The play essentially a one-hander, although Jessica Bentley is also intermittently present.CREDIT:PRUEDENCE UPTON.)

 

JULIA
Drama Theatre, April 4
Until May 20
Reviewed by
 JOHN SHAND
★★★★

 

It builds like a storm. You see the cloud-front of abuse, disparagement and disrespect lining the horizon from the outset, gradually growing closer, darker and more intense, until the last 15 minutes of Joanna Murray- Smith’s play about Julia Gillard become an inevitability: the anti-misogyny speech the then-Prime Minister delivered in the Australian Parliament on October 9, 2012. This not only scorched the hide of its direct target, opposition leader Tony Abbott, it also shook the chamber’s walls and echoed around the world as a rallying cry that enough was enough.

Murray-Smith’s new play details the appalling treatment of Gillard by Abbott and his party (including the women and infantile Young Liberals), his sycophants in the Murdoch media, the spiteful Alan Jones and even one-time feminist Germaine Greer. But the play mainly contains the imagined thoughts of Gillard along the way. The writer’s narrative skill is plain in the build-up, in the conclusion’s inevitability and in the fact a verbatim delivery of Gillard’s speech slots so seamlessly into the play.

It’s essentially a one-hander, with the Justine Clarke as Gillard, although Jessica Bentley is also intermittently present in a primarily non-speaking role. Sarah Goodes’ unfussy yet precise Sydney Theatre Company production (subtly shaded by Steve Francis’ music) casts Clarke adrift on a wide, empty stage, which designer Renee Mulder has framed with reflective screens, so the sense of Gillard being alone is infinitely compounded. If she is to survive the vitriol, she must do it unaided; must dig inside the depths of her being until out pours a speech that was extemporised, apart from some researched examples of Abbott’s sexism.

(Read more)

‘ICELAND’ AT LA MAMA (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Iceland, both the title and central metaphor for an opera by O-Lan Jones (director) and Emmet Tilley (music)–now playing at La MaMa through April 2–is like this year’s slow crawl out of winter in New York, as well as the country’s measured reawakening after COVID.  The show portrays heterosexual constraint,  the difficulties of forming social and physical relationships, oft standard musical theatre fare, to be sure, except that it gets stuck, like Stevie Nicks realizing that she has been singing the same song all night, at practice with Fleetwood Mac, none willing to finalize a song cut. Iceland, similarly, like the glaciers, echoes at the same emotional level for much of its 90 minutes; Act II does not evolve from the previous, where a young architect (Nancy McArthur), whose luggage is lost in a flight from Oslo, meets a mountaineer in Iceland (Oliver Demers), who has been caught in an avalanche (which might be more dramatic if it happens within the frame of the drama, instead of before it). All signs would point to a Rose-Marie or a hippy musical, set in the tundra (if not a show like Brigadoon; the cast includes characters of Icelandic legend, the hiddenfolk and landvaettir); here, though, the lyric is, “Come to me–I need your open arms” instead of “Come to me, Bend to Me.” The score is classically inspired, making use of four trained opera singers, as well as a chorus, with an eleven-piece live orchestra (music direction/conducting is by Robert Kahn).  Additionally, Iceland offers folk-pop songs, which may be reminiscent of the early music of Galt McDermot, Stephen Schwartz, Webber and Rice, and even Crosby, Stills & Nash.  Our time is clearly not that era, though, or the ‘40s and ‘50s and classic Broadway musicals, or of ‘20s operetta, but theatre-crafting, for now, despite incredible technological means, still must authentically find the wherewithal to figure itself out.

At times, an audience can only see how hard a show is trying and not its realization as dramatic art. Part of the issue, which may be affecting Iceland is that the tried-and-true boy-meets-girl formula does not automatically lend itself to the way life is being lived currently.  The show’s soulful self-seriousness is also reinforced by an October article in Psychology Today, by Greg Mattos, “Why Are So Many Young Men Single and Sexless,” which highlights Pew Research, indicating that “over 60 percent of young men are currently single, whereas only 30 percent of young women are.  Women, additionally, have prioritized “academic, professional, and financial goals” more firmly, solidifying men’s “generational inclination toward avoidance and withdrawal.” La MaMa has traditionally championed physical over language-based theatre, but here plot and story have been eclipsed by generalization, with lyrics that don’t automatically register. When they do, they seem sentimental, too generic, as if from a radio tune, on which anyone can be projected, and not from a character’s history and identity.  Yet, the setting, the movement and spiral dancing are well staged, with imaginative earth-toned costumes (Matsy Stinson) sets, lights, and stage pieces (Matthew Imhoff) and animation (Kayla Berry), even if they remain apart from accumulating, dramatic action. Trying to get so much right about a generation, the theatre-makers have not allowed themselves to be wrong enough to tell a specific human story.

Copyright © 2023 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Cast:

Ariel Andrew, Marieke de Koker, Oliver Demers, Perri di Christina, Clayton Matthews, Nancy McArthur, A.C. “Ace” McCarthy, Matthew Moron, Matt Mueller, Carlos Pedroza, Isabel Springer, Andrew Wannigman, Angela Yam, Daiyao Zhong

Creative Team:

Composer/Librettists: O-Lan Jones and Emmett Tinley

Director: O-Lan Jones

Music Director: Robert Kahn

Assistant Director: Livia Reiner; with production support from BARE opera

Lighting and Scenic Design: Matthew Imhoff

Costume Designer: Matsy Stinson

Projection Content Design: Melody (Mela) London

The piece is arranged for two leads with a contemporary singer-songwriter sound, four classically trained operatic vocalists, and an SATB ensemble. It is orchestrated for Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, Harp, Keyboards, French Horn, English Horn/Oboe, Flute, Guitar and Percussion.

Visit La MaMa

Publicity: Michelle Tabnick PR

Photo credits, from top: Bronwen Sharp (1, 3), Stacia French (2, 4)

REVIEW: THE MANY THRILLING FLAVORS OF A FULL-SCALE ‘SWEENEY TODD’ ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/26; via Pam Green; Photo: Dark and vengeful: Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford and ensemble members in the new Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd,” at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in Manhattan.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

Sondheim’s masterpiece, restored to its proper size and sung to the hilt by Josh Groban, makes a welcome Broadway return.

How do you like your “Sweeney Todd” done?

Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the score, favored the musical thriller take: the one that focuses on gore and shock. Blood spouts everywhere when Sweeney, “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” slits the throats of his customers; when his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, grinds the corpses into meat pies, you wince at every crunch.

Also rather nice: the social critique version promoted by Harold Prince, the director of the original production in 1979. In that one, Sweeney, seen as a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, isn’t so much a villain as a victim. The greed of the overlord class, mimicked by the grasping Mrs. Lovett, is what makes mincemeat of the proletariat.

Or perhaps you prefer your “Sweeney” intimate, with razors so close you recoil. Or psychological and stripped to the bone, with barely a set and Mrs. Lovett on tuba.

If there are so many worthy “Sweeney” options, that’s because the show isn’t just one of the greatest American musicals but several. Sondheim’s score, a homage to the sinister soundtracks of Bernard Herrmann, cannibalizes the book (by Hugh Wheeler) and the book’s remoter sources (a 1970 play by Christopher Bond, a 19th-century penny dreadful) until only their bones remain. But in return you get arias so beautiful, and musical scenes so intricately layered, that every possible genre seems to be baked inside.

Now comes a new special on the menu: the ravishingly sung, deeply emotional and strangely hilarious “Sweeney” revival that opened on Sunday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. Starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, and directed by Thomas Kail, it has a rictus on its face and a scar in its heart.

(Read more)

 

***** ‘DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD REVIEW’ – A MAGNIFICENT COMPLICITÉ CREATION ·

(Arifa Akhar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/39; Photo: ‘Beautiful moments of physical theatre’ … Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead at the Barbican, London. Photograph: Marc Brenner.)

Barbican, London
Simon McBurney directs a toweringly innovative adaptation of the eco-thriller by Nobel-winner Olga Tokarczuk

The opening night of this Complicité production was aborted at the 11th hour last week when its star, Kathryn Hunter, took ill. As the actor Amanda Hadingue walks on to a bare stage, house lights still on, and begins to speak about coughs and Covid, it seems to be leading to another postponement.

Complicité fans may recognise this unassuming start as a signature move, however, and know not to be fooled. From the simplicity of a single actor at a mic, this show directed by Simon McBurney grows like its own verdant forest. It becomes an almighty and toweringly innovative adaptation of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s murder mystery eco-noir novel, written in wry, profound and glittering prose.

With the help of an autocue (entirely excusable given the gargantuan burden of narration), Hadingue plays Janina, a beady-eyed, chronically sick animal lover living in a remote Polish village rocked by a series of inexplicable murders. The dead are all from the hunting club and Janina volubly espouses the theory that woodland animals are getting their revenge.

Her friends – Dizzy (Alexander Uzoka), a former student; Boros (Johannes Flaschberger), an entomologist; and Oddball (César Sarachu), a neighbour – are all outsiders and non-conformists. Janina is a fabulous creation, both hero and antihero. She is a thorn in the side of the authorities, shooting off messages to the police and quoting government laws at the council – a Miss Marple, lady of letters and Fargo’s Marge Gunderson in one. Hadingue inhabits her so fully that we feel her grief over the death of her dogs – “my girls” – as an epic tragedy. Though Janina is, on the face of it, an animal rights activist, the core of this drama is about the condition of being human: how we live and age, our burdens, privileges and abuses.

Theatrically, this is a masterclass in how to fill a big stage, in part through sound (Christopher Shutt) and lighting (Paule Constable). The set by Rae Smith emerges organically until it seems there are forests behind and constellations above, much of it created through Dick Straker’s astonishing video design.

Scenes flare up out of darkness, with no visible setting up or dismantling. Present and past zoom back and forth so smoothly that it looks entirely seamless. The back-screen is used to brilliant effect, Janina’s projected nightmares of her dead mother appearing almost Hitchcockian.

Metatheatricality – nothing over-excitable – brings humorous flourishes: “May I borrow your microphone?” says Boros, who proceeds to tell us his backstory. “Will you turn that fucking music off?” shouts Janina as a stage instruction.

Read more