***** ‘LIFE IS A DREAM’ REVIEW – THIS ROARING TALE OF REVENGE IS EXTRAORDINARY (SV PICK, SCOTLAND) ·

(Mark Fisher’s article appared in the Guardian, 11/3; Photo: Fierce and ferocious … Anna Russell-Martin as Rosaura in Life Is a Dream at Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh. Photograph: Ryan Buchanan.)

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Wils Wilson’s perception-bending production highlights the artifice of a prince’s world, exposing the thin veneer of riches and respectability

Segismundo has just woken up in a palace, having spent his life holed up in a tower. In Pedro Calderón’s extraordinary Spanish golden age drama, he is astonished at the luxury he is suddenly immersed in. “Me, surrounded by all these elegant-looking servants,” he says.

Except in Wils Wilson’s production, the servants are nothing of the kind. Their look could be called punk Pierrot: all back-combed hair, eccentric makeup and bare feet. In accordance with designer Georgia McGuinness’s dressing-up-box aesthetic, their outfits are a thrown-together combination of long johns and glitz.

Their elegance is as provisional as the scrawled chalk line that marks the edge of a stage that extends across the stalls and creates a hallucinatory depth of field. Emerging from the haze of Kai Fischer’s lighting is a fake proscenium arch, distressed and decaying, an expression of the play’s theme about the real and the pretend.

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ANNE CARSON’S OBSESSION WITH HERAKLES ·

 

(Casey Cep’s article appeared in the New Yorker,11/1; Illustration by Lilli Carré’.)

In “H of H Playbook,” the poet considers war, guilt, and the mythological strongman.

“H of H Playbook” imagines a demigod who wears overalls and steals a Corvette.

No woman could get away with it. Murdering her children is all she would ever be known for—ask Medea. Yet Herakles, often called by his Roman name, Hercules, is known for everything else: slaying the man-eating birds of the Stymphalian marsh, the multiheaded Lernaean Hydra, and the Nemean lion, with its Kevlar-strength fur; capturing the wild Erymanthian boar, the golden-antlered deer of Artemis, and the Minotaur’s father; stealing the girdle of Hippolyta, the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, the flesh-eating mares of Diomedes, and the red cattle of the giant Geryon; mucking the Augean stables in a single day; and kidnapping the three-headed dog Cerberus from Hades.

Those dozen labors have inspired countless playwrights, poets, and philosophers throughout the centuries, not to mention Walt Disney Pictures. In the cartoon version of the tale, from 1997, Hercules’ hardscrabble climb from the lowly farms outside Thebes where he was raised to his rightful place atop Mt. Olympus beside Zeus—who, in the myth, fathered Herakles with a mortal, Alcmene, the wife of a Theban general, Amphitryon—seems like a mashup of “Survivor” and “American Idol.” “Person of the week in every Greek opinion poll,” Disney’s Motown-style muses sing, capturing the contemporary image of the mythical figure. Neither the children’s film nor any of the other pop-culture depictions of Herakles mentions what he was famous for among the ancient Greeks: murdering his wife, Megara, a Theban princess, and their sons.

Almost everyone believed that the gods made Herakles kill his family, but exactly when he did so was the subject of some disagreement. Many people thought that his labors were punishment for his crimes, feats of strength by which the fallen hero could propitiate the gods; others claimed the labors preceded the massacre, suggesting that violence always begets violence. That’s how Euripides told the story in “Herakles,” which was first performed some twenty-four hundred years ago and which has recently been reimagined by the poet Anne Carson, in “H of H Playbook.”

Like Herakles, Carson gets away with everything in this strange and surprisingly timely book. A cross between a dramaturge’s dream journal and a madman’s diary, it features Carson’s transformed version of the Euripides play, rendered in handwritten lines and blocky paragraphs of pasted word-processor text, alongside original illustrations: marked-up maps, smears of blood-red paint, haunting sketches of human figures and tortured faces, pencil and eraser stains that resemble heaps of ash, plus the occasional glacier and lion. A facsimile of Carson’s own personal playbook, “H of H” is a performance of thought, one that speaks not only to the heroic past but to the tragic present.

Only a few dozen of the Greek tragedies remain, among them works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. These plays were the rock concerts of their era, staged not by candlelight inside small rooms but in grand theatres in the bright light of day before some ten thousand people. For a play like “Herakles,” a large chorus would sing and dance in a circular orchestra space near the audience, at the edge of the stage. Meanwhile, on the stage itself, a troupe of three actors performed all the roles: the hero, his wife, his father, his friend, and the usurper of his throne.

Without playbills, the audience relied on dialogue to know who was who, and discerned the plot partly through conventions of staging and posture. Take the opening lines of “Herakles,” which Carson first translated fifteen years ago, publishing it along with three other plays by Euripides in a volume called “Grief Lessons.” The lines are spoken by a man sitting beside an altar, surrounded by a younger woman and her children: “Who does not know the man who shared his marriage bed / with Zeus?” Even if an audience member was too far away to catch every word of that question, the actor’s low-to-the-stage position would convey his humble situation, and the next bit makes clear that it is the cuckold Amphitryon speaking: “son of Alkaios, / grandson of Perseus, / father of Herakles, / me!”

Amphitryon’s sixty lines of woe are followed by another twenty-five or so from his daughter-in-law, Megara. Herakles has left them alone, vulnerable to the whims of the new king of Thebes, Lykos, who has sentenced the hero’s family to death. They have taken refuge at the altar of Zeus, not because he is Herakles’ father but because any mortal at the altar is to be spared harm, though Lykos announces that he is willing to burn the altar down if that’s what it takes to kill them. Herakles is off laboring; as best as anyone knows, he’s still down in the underworld playing dogcatcher with Cerberus. And so these lines establish the play’s first cliffhanger: Will he return in time to rescue his family?

But Euripides is interested not so much in heroic acts as in the origins and limits of heroism. Herakles soon arrives, reassuring his family that he will save them, and when Lykos comes to kill them Herakles kills Lykos instead. As always in Greek tragedy, the violence takes place offstage; the audience learns of the murder from the distant cries of the King, and from the celebratory song of the chorus: “The once great tyrant / turns his life toward death!” Then Iris, a messenger of the gods, and Lyssa, the goddess of madness, appear, supposedly at the behest of Hera, Zeus’ wife, who is still sore at her husband over the affair that produced Herakles. Together, Iris and Lyssa drive Herakles mad, prompting him to kill the family he has just protected. Those murders take place offstage, too, in a confusion of violence that the chorus can hardly describe. (Carson calls it a “berserker furor.”) When Amphitryon orders his son to look at the bodies, Herakles says, “I’ve become the murderer of my own beloveds.” Then, setting up the play’s second cliffhanger, he adds, “Shall I not be their avenger too?”

A family rescued only to be ruined, a hero resurrected only to threaten suicide: “Herakles” hinges on such reversals of fate. The rest of the play considers whether a man who sentences himself to death can be saved, and, if so, by whom. Ultimately, it is his friend Theseus, whom Herakles has recently rescued from Hades, who comes to his aid. Seeing “the ground covered in corpses” and learning, from Amphitryon, that Herakles is responsible, he concludes, “This agony comes from Hera.” Like Herakles, Theseus has both divine and mortal parentage, and he argues that just as the gods transgress against one another, so, too, do they transgress against humanity—but just as the gods are allowed to live despite those transgressions, so should demigods and humans be allowed to live even if they sin.

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‘GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH’ CIRCUS MAY RETURN WITHOUT ANIMALS ·

(from Newsmax, 10/27; Photo: Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.)

Four years after the “Greatest Show On Earth” shut down, officials are planning to bring back the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus — without animal acts.

An announcement is expected sometime next year, according to Nicole Zimmerman, a spokesperson for Feld Entertainment Inc. of Ellenton, Florida.

The three-ring circus shut down in May 2017 after a 146-year run.

Costly court battles with animal rights activists led circus officials to end elephant acts in 2016. Without the elephants, ticket sales declined. Officials also blamed increased railroad costs, and the rise of online games and videos, which made the “Greatest Show On Earth” not seem that great anymore.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which was behind many of the protests, said it is thrilled with the concept of a circus without animal acts.

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‘EXCEEDINGLY RARE’ FOLIO EDITION OF SHAKESPEARE’S HENRY IV FOR SALE ·

(Alison Flood’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/25; Photo:  William Shakespeare Photograph: Stock Montage/Getty Images.)

An original fragment from the first folio, estimated to be worth up to $100,000, will be auctioned this week

An “exceedingly rare” fragment from Shakespeare’s first folio, comprising the whole of the play Henry IV Part One, is to be auctioned this week.

The play has been authenticated as an original fragment from Shakespeare’s first folio by Shakespeare scholar Eric Rasmussen. The first folio was published in 1623 and is the earliest collected edition of Shakespeare’s works. When Shakespeare died, in 1616, only 17 of his plays had been printed. Without the first folio, which collects 36 plays, 18 of his works, including Macbeth and The Tempest, might never have survived. The works were collated and edited by John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s actors and friends, and approximately 750 first folios were printed. Two hundred and thirty-three are known to survive today.

The fragment has been valued at $50,000-$100,000 (£36,000-£73,000) by Holabird Western Americana Collections, which will auction it on 29 October. Officially titled The First Part of Henry the Fourth, with the Life and Death of Henry Sirnamed Hot-Spurre, it consists of 13 printed antique paper pages and is one complete play in the two-part production of Henry IV.

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BROADWAY’S ‘PHANTOM OF THE OPERA’ PLOTS A CAUTIOUS RETURN TO THE STAGE ·

(Jonathan Allen’s article appeared on Reuters, 10/24; Photo: Leading actors Ben Crawford and Meghan Picerno rehearse a scene during preparations to reopen “Phantom of the Opera” at New Studio 42 in New York, U.S., October 12, 2021. Picture taken October 12, 2021. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs.)

NEW YORK, Oct 24 (Reuters) – Meghan Picerno was back at work after 18 months of pandemic limbo, overjoyed to be singing and dancing again with her “Phantom of the Opera” castmates as they rehearsed for the return of Broadway’s longest-running show.

As the musical’s late October reopening neared, sometimes all Picerno could think about was making it to the first curtain call unscathed by the breakthrough COVID-19 cases that had sidelined vaccinated actors at other shows.

Outside long days in a chilly mirror-lined rehearsal studio near New York City’s Times Square, Picerno had put herself back on what she called lockdown.

“I’m a full-on monk now,” she said during a rushed lunch break between back-to-back run throughs.

She knew her job came with risks of exposure. Playing the show’s heroine Christine required Picerno to kiss two co-stars daily and to sing full-throated love songs with them unmasked and at close range.

“Hopefully, none of us have it, because if one of us have it, we all have it,” she said.

The crowded Broadway theaters, vital to the city’s tourism industry, were the first places closed by the New York government as the coronavirus began to ravage the state. Word of the abrupt shuttering came during a “Phantom” matinee at the Majestic Theatre on March 12, 2020, as some cast and crew themselves were falling sick.

Now, after an unprecedented shutdown, the theaters are among the last workplaces to reopen. Their return this fall is viewed as a test of the city’s efforts to restore some new sense of normalcy.

Reuters watched as the “Phantom” company prepared for its return. The pandemic left unmistakable marks.

Within a few weeks of the show going dark, COVID-19 had claimed the life of a beloved dresser, Jennifer Arnold, who had been with the show for more than three decades.

After protests filled U.S. streets last year in outrage at the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer, newly unemployed Broadway workers pushed the industry to make overdue changes to increase racial diversity in theater companies.

In August, “Phantom” producers announced they had cast the first-ever Black actor to play Christine since the show opened on Broadway in 1988. The actor, Emilie Kouatchou, would make her Broadway debut as an alternate for Picerno.

For the returning cast, there were tweaks to lyrics and staging to learn, making it more straightforward to cast non-white actors in principal roles. The entire company was required to be vaccinated and twice a week went to get their noses swabbed at a nearby theater lobby repurposed as a temporary coronavirus testing site.

Picerno said she was happy to embrace whatever was needed to get back on stage.

In the dark days of 2020, living back in North Carolina with her parents and claiming unemployment benefits, she said she “almost felt like a failure.” She sang her part every day to keep it fresh in her mind until the singing made her too sad and she stopped.

Emotion again overcame her on the first day reunited with her castmates in late September. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber had swung by the studio to deliver a pep talk to the cast before they sang through the familiar score.

Picerno’s singing dissolved in tears during the love duet “All I Ask of You.”

“Sing along! Help her!” the conductor urged the masked chorus, whose voices carried Picerno until she regained her composure.

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CHICAGO REVIEW: ‘OTHELLO’ AT COURT THEATRE HAS ALL THE CHILL OF THE LAST YEAR, PACKED INTO A SHAKESPEARE TRAGEDY ·

(Chris Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 10/19. Photo: Kelvin Roston, Jr. and Amanda Drinkall in “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” at Court Theatre in Hyde Park. (Michael Brosilow photo / HANDOUT)

When theater historians seek to know the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the arts in Chicago, the wisest heads will pay some attention to Court Theatre’s 100-minute cutting of “The Tragedy of Othello.”

It won’t be because this production of the Shakespearean tragedy celebrates the pleasure of being back together, as we’ve all heard in curtain speeches in recent weeks elsewhere. There is nothing whatsoever joyous about this chilly, fractured take on “Othello,” a conception that has a dystopian sensibility running through its core.

The show was conceived when it seemed likely that capacity in theaters would remain limited, so just 81 seats are being sold for each performance. Much of the auditorium at the University of Chicago is unused and is covered in a cloth, even as people are seated, masked but without being socially distanced, in a section of the theater.

If this was not a conscious commentary on the shared experience of the last 18 months, then it sure was permeating the subconsciousness of the co-directors, Charles Newell and Gabrielle Randle-Bent.

Some of the audience is seated on the stage in swivel chairs, isolated even from their most immediate companions, rocking and swaying like nervous competitors in a quiz show. Much the same could be said for the conceptions of the characters in what is typically William Shakespeare’s most intimate tragedy.

Most of the time here, they appear to be consumed by their inner thoughts and trapped by barriers of their own construction on John Culbert’s set, a design that wants to embrace not being a design at all. They watch each other as if at a sad and sculptured remove; the stylized movement makes it appear as if they are no longer alive, at least in the usual humanistic sense. The sensuality — this typically is Shakespeare’s most sensual play — is mechanical and cold.

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LESLIE BRICUSSE, SONGWRITER BEHIND GOLDFINGER AND WILLY WONKA, DIES AT 90 ·

(Benjamin Lee’s article appeared in the Guardian 10/19;  Photo: Leslie Bricusse in 2005. Photograph: David Rose/Shutterstock.)

The Grammy and Oscar-winning songwriter, whose work drew acclaim on stage and on screen, has died

The Oscar and Grammy-winning songwriter Leslie Bricusse has died at the age of 90.

London-born Bricusse was known for writing the lyrics for the theme to James Bond adventure Goldfinger as well as songs for films including Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Doctor Dolittle.

His son Adam Bricusse announced news of his death on social media, saying he “passed away peacefully”. His close friend Joan Collins also posted on Instagram, paying tribute to “one of the giant songwriters of our time”.

Bricusse won a best song Oscar for writing Talk to the Animals from 1967’s Doctor Dolittle as well as one for best adaptation and original song score (later retitled best original score) for 1982’s Victor/Victoria.

Some of his best-known work comes from 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with Bricusse writing both Candy Man and Pure Imagination alongside Anthony Newley.

“On the next soundstage, they were shooting Cabaret,” Bricusse said of the production in an interview from June this year. “And I thought how wonderful it was. And I was a bit nervous about the amateur style of our show compared with the professionalism of Bob Fosse.”

Bricusse also collaborated with John Barry for the themes to Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice. His stage work included 1989’s Sherlock Holmes: The Musical and 1961’s Stop the World – I Want to Get Off with Newley. Their song What Kind of Fool Am I?, from the latter musical, made them the first Brits to ever win the song of the year Grammy in 1963.

The pair also wrote the song Feeling Good for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, which was later made famous by Nina Simone. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1989.

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WEST SIDE STORY AT 60: THE DAZZLINGLY MODERN MUSICAL THAT’LL BE HARD TO BEAT ·

(Guy Lodge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/18; Photo:  West Side Story: never had bodies in motion been used to shape and dictate a film’s own rhythm quite like this. Photograph: United Artists/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock.)

With Steven Spielberg’s remake almost out, the 1961 original still feels thrillingly contemporary, a tough act to follow

It’s the opening credits that do it right away. Following three eerie whistles over a black screen, West Side Story explodes into a full screen of poster-paint colour – shifting from orange to red to magenta to royal blue – as Leonard Bernstein’s four-minute overture brassily clatters into action. Over the colour, a stark design flourish: seemingly random brigades of parallel vertical black lines, only coalescing at the overture’s end into the tip of Manhattan, viewed from the air, cuing a vertiginous bird’s-eye montage of New York City in motion. That chipper yet chillingly disembodied whistle returns; by the time we finally see a human face, six coolly riveting minutes has passed.

 

This whole title sequence – from the graphics to the aerial photography – was visualised by Saul Bass, the distinctive graphic designer then favoured by such aggressive stylists as Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. It still seems, perhaps even more than anything that follows in West Side Story, sleekly and breath-catchingly modern: a coup of expensive minimalism at the outset of a splashy Hollywood production. That was no accident: in 1961, United Artists set out for the film to be something bracing and new in the movie musical, an industry staple that was looking increasingly out of step with a youth culture turning toward rock’n’roll.

The previous two years had been rough ones for the genre. In 1958, South Pacific may have topped the annual box office while Gigi swept the Oscars, but since then, the only Hollywood song-and-dance films to prove even mild hits had been minor comedies, Disney cartoons or Elvis Presley vehicles. Hopes were high for West Side Story to put the gloss back on to the prestige musical – the 1957 Broadway musical had been a hit with critics and audiences alike – but the studio knew the usual style of overstuffed Technicolor spectacle wouldn’t cut it. The film had to be as propulsively dance-oriented as the stage show, yet expansive and kinetic as cinema. It had to honour the classically romantic roots of its source – this was a riff on Romeo and Juliet, after all – while Saying Something Significant about modern youth and urban society. It had to be family-friendly yet appealing to tearaway teens; it had to court Oscar voters and high-culture critics alike.

It was, in effect, strategised and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life, down to the unusual compromise made on the directorial front. Genius choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose work had been so integral to the stage show’s success, was hired to direct the musical sequences, despite having zero film experience. Industry journeyman Robert Wise was enlisted for the straight dramatic scenes, not despite his lack of musical experience but because of that: best known for stolid black-and-white dramas on stern subjects (he had recently been Oscar-nominated for the grim death-row biopic I Want to Live!), he was intended to bring some grownup gravitas to the exercise. Not that the producers were above naked populism when casting the leads: whether or not there’s any truth to the enduring rumour that Elvis Presley was approached to be the film’s Tony, teen-idol potential took precedence over musical ability: 23-year-olds Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer didn’t sing a note in the film, but couldn’t have lip-synched more prettily.

All of which makes West Side Story sound like a desperately over-calculated, even cynical exercise. Yet as it plays out, from that Saul Bass aesthetic masterstroke onwards, the film remains a blinder: somehow checking off each of those aforementioned, contradictory boxes, it’s formally electric, musically alive and emotionally pummelling, even as its dubbed leads trade in borrowed feeling. West Side Story isn’t unflawed, in ways the show wasn’t either: its overwriting of Shakespeare to lend proceedings at least half a happy ending, with Maria alive and distraught, can’t quite touch the frenzied melodrama of Romeo and Juliet’s dual-death fiasco, and there’s no getting round the fact that its sweet, doe-eyed leads are given a lesson in musical magnetism every time their older counterparts Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are allowed to burn up the frame. (That West Side Story won 10 Oscars, including two for Moreno and Chakiris, while Wood and Beymer weren’t nominated was a harsh way to stress the point.)

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REVIEW: IN ‘THE LEHMAN TRILOGY,’ A VIVID TALE OF PROFIT AND PAIN ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/14; Photo:  From left, Adam Godley, Adrian Lester and Simon Russell Beale in “The Lehman Trilogy,” at the Nederlander Theater.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

The play, tracing the rise and fall of the fabled financiers, finally opens on Broadway after

Much of what happens in “The Lehman Trilogy” is invisible to the eye, which is not the way prestige drama usually works onstage.

Directed by Sam Mendes, this British import, which reaches across 164 years of American history to trace the family saga behind the fallen financial powerhouse Lehman Brothers, was a scalding-hot ticket during a brief prepandemic run at the Park Avenue Armory. Yet it offers almost nothing in the way of spectacle, and only the slightest of costume changes: a top hat here, a pair of glasses there.

In the captivating production that opened on Thursday night at the Nederlander Theater, it relies largely on an unspoken agreement between actors and audience — to imagine together, and let fancy crowd out fact.

Sort of the way that heedless investors looked right past all warning signs in the faith-based run-up to the stock market crash of 2008. Illusion is illusion, after all, and financial markets, like the theater, require a certain suspension of disbelief — though when the fantasy bursts in theater, the fallout is less ruinous. When investors halted their collective game of make-believe 13 years ago, mammoth financial firms like Lehman Brothers met their swift demise, and the world’s markets suffered the aftershocks.

“The Lehman Trilogy,” though, is not actually a number-crunching play; reports that Jeff Bezos took in a recent performance should not cause you to infer otherwise.

Written by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, it is a vividly human tale, nimbly performed by three of the finest actors around: Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester, who, in making his Broadway debut, has replaced the original cast’s Ben Miles. (I did not catch Beale, Godley and Miles at the Armory; it was too scarce a ticket, and too pricey.)

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