REVIEW: ‘COME FROM AWAY’ LOSES NONE OF ITS FOLKSY CHARM ON SCREEN ·

(Charles McNulty’s article appeared in the Lost Angeles Times, 9/9; Petrina Bromley, from left, Emily Walton, Jenn Colella, Sharon Wheatley, Astrid Van Wieren and Q. Smith in the musical “Come From Away.” (Sarah Shatz / Apple TV+)

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, as the world confronts another zeitgeist-defining emergency, it’s good to be reminded of simple human kindness, the kind of charity too modest for fanfare, something as basic yet profound as a stranger bearing a blanket or plate of food in an hour of need.

“Come From Away,” the 2017 Broadway musical with a heartwarming story set in the immediate aftermath of that September day, follows the advice that young Fred Rogers received from his mother when frightened by events in the news: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, this lovably hokey show, which has been successfully recorded on film, is available for streaming on Apple TV+ starting Sept. 10. It turns out that the screen provides a surprisingly hospitable frame for a musical that is quite purely and unabashedly — at times even downright earnestly — a work of theater.

The staging, which earned Christopher Ashley a Tony Award, retains its gallop even on a laptop. Despite my slight fatigue with a musical that has tenaciously hung around longer than I would have expected, I was stirred once again by a real-life 9/11 tale that takes place far away from ground zero, the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania where brave passengers brought the final hijacked plane down.

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***** ‘FROZEN’ REVIEW – STUNNING MUSICAL EXTRAVAGANZA CREATES ITS OWN MAGIC ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/8/2021; Photo: Dazzling coups de theatre … Samantha Barks as Elsa in Frozen. Photograph: JohanPersson.)

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London
Beyond the visual thrills and powerful ballads, this adaptation brings an unexpected depth to the relationship between two tortured sisters

This musical extravaganza about estranged sisters, an icy kingdom nd unharnessed supernatural powers arrives in the West End from Broadway as part of a plan to stage five Frozens around the world this year. As canny as that seems commercially, a mega-successful animation does not always translate into a stage hit, even with Disney money thrown at it.

The 2013 film was met with acclaim, Oscars and delirium. Does this adaptation live up to that hefty legacy? Yes, and perhaps it even exceeds it. This is a show every bit as magical as the animation, packed with visual thrills and gorgeous choreography (by Rob Ashford) alongside signature ballads that gain greater power in their live incarnation. It is big on spectacle yet never loses control with special effects that yield some dazzling coups de theatre.

Directed by Michael Grandage, it has music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-

Lopez and Robert Lopez – who created the songs for the film – and a book by Jennifer Lee, who wrote the screenplay. The production takes a few scenes to come into its own and the opening appears like a too-exact replica of the animation. Young Anna (Asanda Abbie Masike in the performance I saw) wistfully sings about building a snowman with her sister outside the room in which Elsa (Tilly-Raye Bayer) has barricaded herself, playing out the same tics and vocal inflections of her cartoon counterpart. It carries that ersatz feel even as the older versions of the sisters are introduced: Stephanie McKeon’s Anna (bold, goofy, full of yearning) and Samantha Barks’s Elsa, a melancholy ice queen from the off.

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CHICAGO: THEATER AND OPERA FOR FALL 2021: WITH OUR TOP 10, A CAUTIOUS RETURN TO DRAMA ·

(Chris Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune Theater Loop, 9/8; Photo: Carrie Coon and Namir Smallwood star in the Tracy Letts play “Bug” at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo/Handout)

No sentient Chicagoan needs to be reminded that the fall of 2021 is far from a normal autumn when it comes to the performing arts. At least it eclipses 2020, when the curtains remained closed as leaves fell. May we never go back to that.

This year, especially in the second half of the fall season, we’ll see some boffo attractions on an overall theatrical slate that still looks to be less than half as expansive as the usual offerings. Some of the regular players (especially the smaller storefront companies) aren’t amping up their in-person shows until 2022, preferring the safety of a longer pause or strictly digital programming. But others are coming back live and in person as safely as they can, which means insisting under a blanket agreement arranged by almost all Chicago-area theaters that patrons are both vaccinated and masked.

So you’ve got your shots and your N95 and you’re ready to venture out again?

Here, in the return of a September tradition, are 10 shows that should help you remember why Chicago theater is such a crucial part of this city. Plus one more for the holidays.

  1. “American Mariarchi,” Goodman Theatre: A much-postponed show with multiple producing partners including the Dallas Theatre Center and the Destinos: Chicago International Latino Theatre Festival, José Cruz González’s “American Mariachi” is billed as an exuberant and warm-centered new musical. The show is set in the 1970s and the action revolves around a young woman’s idea to create an all-female Mariachi band.  18 to Oct. 24 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; 312-443-3800 and www.goodmantheatre.org
  2. “As You Like It,” Chicago Shakespeare Theater: We’ve previewed this much-postponed attraction several times now, but new Navy Pier dates are finally set for what looks likely to be an exuberant Chicago Shakespeare Theater staging of the justly beloved Shakespearean comedy with the added attraction of some 20 songs made famous by the Beatles. It’s adapted and directed by Daryl Cloran and features an all-star Chicago cast. Oct. 6 to Nov. 21 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier; 312-595-5600 and www.chicagoshakes.com
  3. “Bug,” Steppenwolf Theatre: It’s a reprise, but the length of the original run was cut short by the pandemic. And it’s a stunner. Director David Cromer’s staging of the Tracy Lett’s tragicomedy about mysterious government goings-on in a seedy Oklahoma motel room features knockout acting from Carrie Coon and Namir Smallwood, not to mention one of the greatest scene changes in Steppenwolf history. If you missed it the first time, don’t make that mistake again. Nov. 11 to Dec. 12 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; 312-335-1650 and www.steppenwolf.org

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CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (127) ·

The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

I have told you how we were educated in our childhood and youth. Compare our life with the life of the present generation of youth brought up on a regime of poverty and danger. We spent our youth in a Russia that was peaceful; we drank from the full cup of life. The present generation has grown up amidst war, hunger, world catastrophe, mutual misunderstanding and hate. We knew much joy and did not share it with those near to us to any great degree, and now we are paying for our egotism. The new generation does not know the joy that we knew, it seeks and creates joy in agreement with the circumstances of life, and tries each moment to regain and make its own again those years of youth that it has lost. It is not for us to condemn them for this. It is for us to sympathize with them, to follow with interest and good wishes the unrolling evolution of the new art and the new life created by the laws of nature. (MLIA)

ICONIC FRENCH NEW WAVE ACTOR JEAN-PAUL BELMONDO DIES AGED 88 ·

(from France24, 6/9; via the Drudge Report; Photo: French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo poses at the 23rd Lumières awards ceremony in Paris on February 5, 2018. © Francois Mori, AP.)

Actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, one of postwar French cinema’s biggest stars, whose charismatic smile illuminated the screen for half a century, has died aged 88 in his Paris home.

With his devil-may-care charm, Belmondo was the poster boy of the New Wave, France’s James Dean and Humphrey Bogart rolled into one irresistible man. With his boxer’s physique and broken nose, his restless insouciance chimed with the mould-breaking French cinema of the 1960s.

Director Jean-Luc Godard, the New Wave’s brilliant enfant terrible, cast Belmondo in his breakout role as a doomed thug who falls in love with Jean Seberg’s pixie-like American in Paris in “Breathless” (1960).

The film floored critics and audiences worldwide and, with François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows”, changed the history of cinema.

Time magazine in 1964 declared Belmondo the face of modern France. 

“The Tricolour, a snifter of cognac, a flaring hem – these have been demoted to secondary symbols of France,” it said.

“The primary symbol is an image of a young man slouching in a cafe chair … he is Jean-Paul Belmondo – the natural son of the Existentialist conception, standing for everything and nothing at 738 mph.”

A boxer’s charm

Yet Belmondo was far from a sauve intellectual and spent most of his career in he-man roles that played on his raw sex appeal.

Despite making his name as a charming gangster, the actor was brought up in the bourgeois Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, the son of a renowned sculptor, Paul Belmondo. 

Born in 1933, he performed poorly at school during World War II but was a talented boxer, winning three straight round-one knockouts in a brief amateur career.

He then trained at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art.

His first foray into cinema in 1957 in the forgettable comedy “On Foot, on Horse and on Wheels”, ended up on the cutting-room floor.

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COLUMN: ACTORS, GET VACCINATED OR GET OFF THE PUBLIC STAGE ·

(Charles McNulty’s article appeared in the Los Angeles Times, 8/19; “Hamilton’s” Javier Muñoz, shown in 2016, had a thoughtful response to a performer’s Instagram post concerning vaccination. (Walter McBride/Getty Images)

Broadway performer Laura Osnes’ exit from a one-night concert performance at East Hampton’s Guild Hall over a COVID-19 vaccine requirement has provoked an uproar in the theater world. Vaccination advocates and resisters have been thrashing it out on social media, echoing the conflict between personal autonomy and collective responsibility that has been playing out across America since the start of the pandemic.

In a nation as divided as ours, it’s only natural that policy is vigorously debated. But our polarization has reached a lethal form of decadence when governors, to score political points, are blocking mask requirements in their school systems and the misinformed and rationally unreachable defend their decision to remain unvaccinated even as ICU units reach capacity in their hometowns.

The writer Isaac Asimov, decrying “the cult of ignorance in the United States” in a 1980 column for Newsweek, identified a “strain of anti-intellectualism” running through our politics and culture that’s “nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” This strain has been especially virulent during this pandemic, when even in the face of a common mortal coronavirus enemy, our citizenry has fallen back into the usual partisan camps or taken refuge in an American individualism that isn’t so much rugged as selfish and stupid.

I don’t know about you but I don’t have the energy for a listening session with actors who want to explain, through fuzzy math and fuzzier logic, how they decided that it was the better choice for them to put their collaborators at risk than get a shot that has saved countless thousand lives. Delta has taken over, and the fall theater season is hanging by a thread. Or more accurately, it’s relying on the incomplete bulwark of vaccinations to allow us to move forward with some semblance of normality.

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IRELAND: LAETHANTA SONA/ ‘HAPPY DAYS’: A DARING, BOLD VISION, BRILLIANTLY REALISED ·

(Éilis Ní Anluain’s article appeared in the Irish Times, Sep 3, 2021; Photo: Bríd Ní Neachtain in Happy Days: the play’s theme, the need for everyone’s voice to be heard, takes on a new meaning when a major work is heard in the language of the people where it is performed. Photograph: Andrew Downes/Xposure.)

 

Beckett sa Chreig: Laethanta Sona/

Beckett in the Rock: Happy Days

Creig an Staic, Inis Oirr
Galway International Arts Festival

“Trompe-l’oeil backcloth to represent unbroken plain and sky receding to meet in far distance,” Samuel Beckett’s stage directions say. Here no backcloth to represent but the very thing. As Yeats told Synge to go to Aran, Beckett sa Chreig: Laethanta Sona/Beckett in the Rock: Happy Days, produced by Company SJ and directed by Sarah Jane Scaife, is immersed in the landscape and language of Inis Oírr.

Having assembled at Áras Éanna, the audience proceed together, walking between high stone walls, anticipation building, to see for ourselves the limestone mound already iconic from its image subtly reproduced in monochrome on a full page on the back of the programme notes.

Seated on blocks of stone placed in a chequerboard pattern, made by the island men who constructed the mound designed by Ger Clancy, we wait for Winnie to wake. No colour is specified for Winnie’s parasol. In this production it is red, like the skirts still generally worn by women on the island when this play was written.

Of Winnie’s dress we only see the low bodice, the fabric chosen by Sinéad Cuthbert for the rare flowers that grow in the fissures between the flagstones, on which and out of which the mound is constructed. Not the low mound of stage directions but just the right size, just the right slope, to make an impact on the landscape and to support Winnie, her head resting on her bare arms.

The play’s theme, the need for everyone’s voice to be heard, takes on a new meaning when a major work is heard in the language of the people where it is performed. The dialect, in Mícheál Ó Conghaile’s translation performed by Bríd Ní Neachtain, both of them from Connemara, soars. The everyday phrases echo and reverberate.

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10 ICONIC FEMALE CHARACTERS IN RUSSIAN LITERATURE YOU NEED TO KNOW ·

(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond, 9/3.)

Actress Tatiana Drubich as Anna Karenina

Actress Tatiana Drubich as Anna Karenina

Sergei Soloviev/Solivs, 2008

These unconventional heroines stand out from the crowd, inspiring millions of readers with their sexuality, ingenuity and determination.

 

1. Liza of ‘Poor Liza’

‘Poor Liza’ made a revolution in classic Russian literature when it saw the light of day in the early 1790s.

Oil painting reproduction of 'Poor Lisa' by Orest Kiprensky.

Nikolai Karamzin broke new ground when he elevated a young girl’s journey of “moral decay” into a heartbreaking love story. The writer exposed a powerful weapon in his arsenal – tragedy – and spiced up his ‘Poor Liza’ with a devastatingly sad ending. Karamzin’s title character has become synonymous with unrequited love, deep sorrow and social injustice.

A wealthy nobleman falls in love with a 17-year-old peasant girl and seduces her. This marks the beginning of an end of their doomed misalliance. Tender and timid, Liza blindly trusts Erast, but the young lady-killer soon betrays her. He gambles away his estate and marries an old rich widow to rescue the situation. In contrast, Lisa, who is unable to survive the loss of her lover, walks into the pond and drowns herself. “… Remember your poor Liza, who loves you more than herself!”

2. Tatyana Larina of ‘Eugene Onegin’

Tatyana Larina of Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ is definitely one of the most captivating female characters in Russian literature. 

 

Illustration of Tatiana Larina by Elena Samokich-Soudkovskaïa.

Tatyana is an open-hearted provincial young girl full of high expectations and willing to sacrifice herself. She falls in love with the self-centered Onegin. As is often the case, it’s a one-way street. 

I write to you… when that is said

What more is left for me to say?

Now you are free (I know too well)

To heap contempt upon my head.

Onegin rejects her love, under the pretext that he doesn’t want to have a family. Life goes on and Tatyana marries another man. That’s when Eugene falls in love with her. It’s too late, though. Tatyana is no longer blindly in love with him and prefers to stay faithful to her husband and moral principles. By the end of the novel, she transforms from a naïve provincial dreamer into a full-fledged lady, the embodiment of grace, intelligence and aristocratic dignity. 

3. Lyubov Ranevskaya from ‘The Cherry Orchard’

 

‘The Cherry Orchard’s Ranevskaya is the head of the high-society family on the brink of bankruptcy.

Renata Litvinova as Lyubov Ranevskaya in 'The Cherry Orchard' staged at the Moscow Art Theater.

Flat broke, Lyubov Andreevna is ruined by her prodigality. She is about to lose her estate and, most importantly, her favorite cherry orchard. Ranevskaya’s head-in-the-sand policy with respect to her lose-lose situation is worrisome. She continues to splash out, although she literally can’t afford it. “Oh, my sins… I have always spent money like water…” Madame Ranevskaya is ready to share her last penny with those in need. And that’s what she really is, a big spender with a huge heart. She is the epitome of procrastination, levity and naivety. The (typically Russian) woman lives in her distant rosy past and hopes that things will somehow resolve themselves. And, even though Chekhov described ‘The Cherry Orchard’ as a comedy, alas, this time around they won’t.

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NEW ACTORS’ EQUITY ASSOCIATION POLICY SHOWS HOW MUCH SOCIETY FAILS BAY AREA ACTORS ·

Actor Ed Gonzalez Moreno (right) rehearses the play “Exit Strategy” with fellow actress Gabriella Fanuele (left) at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, California, on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019.

(Lily Janiak’s article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, 8/31.)

Open Access came after a year of what many describe as the union’s slow or insufficient adaptation to the pandemic.

In July, the union Actors’ Equity Association surprised the theater industry, including many of its own members, with a new “Open Access” policy. Effective immediately, it said, any actor or stage manager who has been paid for any gig could join — no matter the theater company, no matter how meager the wage or honorarium.

Previously, one way members could join was by working a certain number of weeks (for many years, 50 weeks; then, starting in 2017, 25) as an Equity Membership Candidate. That process could take a very long time — actor Ed Gonzalez Moreno, who recently moved to New York from the Bay Area, said it took him a year; Oakland actor Brennan Pickman-Thoon said it took him two years.

In an email to members, the union framed the change as a racial justice issue. The old system gave too much power to employers who pick which shows to mount and which actors to cast, according to the email. The new policy came from the union’s Diversity and Inclusion Retrofit, an anti-racist initiative created following the murder of George Floyd.

“Equity theaters, and indeed all entertainment industry employers, are disproportionately led by and populated with white people,” the email read. “Our membership rule has created a disproportionately high barrier to access for actors and stage managers of color.”

But the new membership policy also follows more than a year’s worth of dire-sounding emails sent to members about paying their dues.

“We understand that many of you have a long list of competing financial obligations and very little income,” said one email from April 3, 2020, which was shared with The Chronicle. “If you can pay your dues, or even a portion of your dues, it is especially urgent that you do so.”

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SOPHOCLES GONE WILD! ·

(Henry Alford’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 9/6.)

For a nude production of “Antigonick,” a translation of the Greek play “Antigone,” performers for Torn Out Theatre dodged the crazies and the lookie-loos during rehearsals in Prospect Park.

Ogods! Let us take measure of the many vagaries of performing Greek drama outdoors in Prospect Park in the nude; let us dare to glance behind the behinds. For Torn Out Theatre’s recent nude production of “Antigonick,” Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” the show’s director, Britt Berke, and an intimacy director named Cha Ramos outlined measures that would be taken to insure the performers’ safety: Torn Out would provide robes for them to slip into offstage, a security guard would be on site for performances, and photography would be banned. Berke and Ramos also encouraged the nine cast members—mostly in their twenties, and mostly queer—to talk about their characters in the third person (Berke: “Character naked, actor not”), and to feel free to decide, at any point, not to be nude (Ramos: “True consent is reversible”).

Earlier this month, the company rehearsed both at Prospect Park’s music pagoda and in a Brooklyn studio. Because of legal restrictions, fully bare rehearsals could only take place inside; outdoor rehearsals saw cast members shirtless, or in underwear. El Yurman, a trans actor who played Teiresias, the blind prophet who was once transformed into a woman, said, “We were more nervous being naked around each other than around the audience. The performer-audience relationship is clear. You never have to see the audience again if you don’t want to.”

But three days before the première, during a rehearsal at the music pagoda, the company experienced what Torn Out’s artistic director, Pitr Strait, called “a trifecta of harassment.” First, a man on a bike screamed at the actors that they were immoral and headed for Hell; then a man lurking in the woods started filming them and masturbating; then a homeless man who sleeps in the pagoda threatened them and spit at them. Antigone pays a huge price for her decision to bury her brother’s naked corpse against Kreon’s edict, but the Torn Out gang seemed to be paying a huge price simply for spouting poetry in their underwear.

Although performing the classics outdoors, for free, is part of Torn Out’s mandate—the company aims to explore questions of body politics for a diverse audience—the group decided to switch venues, to a Presbyterian church on Eighty-sixth and Amsterdam Avenue, in Manhattan, which houses a performance space called the Center at West Park. One actor then balked at nudity. Sha Batzby, a Black musician and comedian performing the role of the Messenger, had enjoyed rehearsing in the buff in the studio: “It called for a higher level of focus. It’s, like, ‘Oh, now you’re naked and I’m supposed to engage with you like you’re not.’ You’re trying not to derail the car you’re driving amongst all these other cars onstage that are intentionally trying to cause accidents.” Batzby, who describes himself as a “radically reformed” Jew, had reacted to the homeless man’s outburst by mounting the music pagoda with his siddur, a prayer book, and trying to “reclaim the space” with prayer. But the move to the church tripped him up. “Something about being naked there didn’t sit right with me,” he said. He conferred with Berke, who supported his decision to be clothed.

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