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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Storefront Church – Review

The Atlantic Theatre has had a recent facelift.  And like a lot of us small unassuming people when having 8.5 million dollars at one’s disposal, they have rendered themselves unrecognizable.  There is a lobby now, and a box office, and that odd musty smell is gone, and that’s nice.  But the house now looks like every other house.  Gone are the oddly pitched bleacher seats, the modest stage and what made the space so unique; the public restroom in the wings.  The stage is now massive, there’s a fly (or perhaps two) and the seats are brand new and set somewhat below the apron.  It looks shiny and new, but it’s lacking in character.

Aptly, the new space is being christened with Storefront Church.  Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley’s, Storefront Church is the final installment in his “church and state” trilogy.  (The first two were Doubt and Defiance.)  Storefront Church would not be recognizable as part of this trilogy, except we are told that it is.  Doubt, about the Catholic Church, and Defiance about the military (both directed by Doug Hughes) were tightly told tales of imposing institutions.  It’s difficult to put the same dramatic significance upon banking.

The story is about faith and the mortgage business.  (That’s “AND” not “IN”) and is as creaky as it sounds.  Issuing a second mortgage to a poor risk doesn’t seem to have the same resonance as that of child molestation or the moralistic labyrinth of the military.  If we are to extrapolate the insidious racism at work in the refinance industry, why is the recipient of the second mortgage married to a white Jewish man?  That may be just too “riddle wrapped in an enigma” for me. The first act is at times a demonstration of the new technical toys at the theatre’s disposable.  The stage crew seemed to be on stage as much as the cast.  (Doubt and Defiance were simply staged powerful pieces.)  There are so many scene changes in the first act that whatever power was there, was part of what got swept up by the crew (I’m not kidding, they come out and sweep the stage while we watch.)  There are (massive) set changes twice, to stage soulful staring on a bench.  A song plays for each of these stareathons.  “Snow” falls for one of them, which may provide a nice wink for The Hunchback of Notre Dame riff, but is distracting as it keeps accidentally falling throughout the play.  (That’s not a technical problem, fake snow always does that.)  The Hunchback reference is interesting but is a bit belabored.  When the play opens on a bug-eyed droopy-lipped Reed Van Druyten (the stunning Zach Grenier) and Ethan Goldklang (the powerful Bob Dishy) is holding the book and talking about it; we get it.  There is one reference in Act II that should stay because it’s funny, but the others?  Well that’s why you shouldn’t necessarily direct your own new work.

Another director might not bring out the beauty that Mr Shanley does in his actors, but he might have also had a little heart-to-heart with the playwright.  The theme of the play is far too vague to burden it with superfluous scenes and lumbering set changes.  This becomes even clearer during Act II.  There are only two scenes and they are perfectly written.  They are clear, powerful, engaging and terribly moving.

The cast includes Tonya Pinkins who (much to the audience’s delight) sings a spiritual.  That voice!  Her role is not large, but she is absolutely delightful.  Giancarlo Esposito (Donaldo) and Ron Cephas Jones (Chester) are incredibly convincing as the Bronx Borough President and Pastor.  Their (lengthy) scene in the first act is clunky and far too esoteric, but they do a splendid job with it.  The wonderfully smarmy Jordan Lage (Tom) rounds out the cast.  You know Tom, you’ve worked with Tom, you want to hurt Tom.

Storefront Church is in previews and will be open June 11 – June 24.  If Act I can more resemble Act II this will be a stunning play.  As it is now, it should be seen for the performances.  It is rare to see a collection of seasoned actors like this in such an intimate space.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2012 in Theatre

 

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Peter And The Starcatcher – Review

Peter and the Starcatcher is the most innovative, rollicking, sophisticated, silly, magnificent new show to come along in a very long time.  A musical derivation of Peter Pan, this show simply soars.  This is not a musical in the traditional sense.  At most there are four songs, or songletttes.  However, it is the best orchestrated show you may ever see.  Musical punctuation is used at every turn and to great effect.

Before the house lights dim, the audience is tipped off to the treat in store.  The proscenium arch of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre is subtly, yet garishly festooned for the show.  Subtle, because the festooning is styled to blend into the theatre’s decor.  Garish, well because it is.  There are two musicians positioned in the boxes (left and right.) They are surrounded by percussion instruments of every variety (on the right) and keyboard, woodwind and magic soundboard (on the left.)  Yes, there are only two musicians, but they are live and in full view!  The other technical anomaly in play is the extremely judicious use of amplification. It is initially jarring, but the audience can in fact identify who is speaking by following the sound emanating from an actor’s mouth.

The play, by Rick Elice, is smart and funny and simply pun-tastic.  The dialogue is rapid paced and plentiful.  And smart.  Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, with movement by Steven Hoggett, the wonderful cast is in essence a dance ensemble.  The choreography of the show is simply staggering.  There are no dance numbers.  (A kick line performed by a shabby group of men dressed as mermaids, doesn’t count does it?)  The movement in this show creates a magical world.  Often with little more than a piece of string, artistic lighting (Jeff Croiter) and sound (Wayne Barker,) ideas become realized.  Look it’s a ship, it’s a mirror, it’s a cabin, it’s a crocodile.

Despite it’s brilliance in design, this show would falter without a first-rate cast.  The show teeters between slapstick and sincerity (in the best of ways) and in lesser hands, we would not see the extremes or worse, we would only see one extreme.  This cast works as a seasoned ensemble.  In a show as physical as this, a less unified cast could result in some injuries.  While without this ensemble, there might not be this show; there are two actors who must be singled out.  Celia Keenan-Bolger, who tore up the stage in City Center Encores! Merrily We Roll Along, is the glue that is Molly.  Playing a 13-year-old bright feminist child with a good sense of humor (think Hermione Granger with a playful side) Ms. Keenan-Bolger has us in the palm of her diminutive hand.  She stands her own even against the over-the-top (in the best of ways) Christian Borle as Black Stache.  Mr. Borle’s performance can best be described by picturing a reality in which Ray Bolger and a young Tim Curry could create a biological child together.  There are several extraordinary performances in this cast, but the roles of Molly and Black Stache are large and demanding and are served wonderfully by Mr. Borle and Ms. Keenan-Bolger.

This production is not cheap.  It takes money to make something look plausibly shabby.  But it is not excessive or lavish.  There are no hydraulics or pulleys, yet there is plenty of flying.  It takes buckets of creativity to do more with less than it does to throw money at things.  Until I saw this show, it did not occur to me that you could simulate a bird flying away with four rubber gloves.  I never would have imagined that simple pennants, presumably made of discarded bed sheets, could become a crocodile.  There are dozens of these tiny moments that came from enormous amounts of creativity.  These miniature moments, collectively add up to a Faberge Egg of theatre.  While this is not a children’s show per se, seeing it would be a gift to any child.  In a world where so much is made of so little, to see what little can be made with so much is a gift.

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2012 in Theatre

 

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Clybourne Park – Review

The power of Clybourne Park is not immediately evident, but instead it creeps up and takes hold; a stranglehold.  The construct of the play seems so simple, almost a graduate thesis on: Raisin In The Sun Ever After?  Written by Bruce Norris, the first Act takes place “apres Raisin” in 1959 and the second Act is in 2009.  Seven actors play the act’s different roles (or are they different?)  The second Act characters are often shadows of the 1959 characters.

The story (in 1959) is that Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood) are preparing to move from their Clybourne Park home.  Their housekeeper Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton) lend a helping hand.  Ms. Dickinson and Mr. Gupton’s posture and demeanor portray more about the life of African Americans in 1959 than any narrative.  They are simply magical.  Soon Karl (Jeremy Shamos) and his wife Betsy (Annie Parisse) show up to confront Bev and Russ.  It seems the house has been sold to a Negro family (unbeknownst to the owners.)  Tensions are high and things get a bit ugly.  It is uncovered that the owner’s son killed himself upstairs (this is seen as a real estate set-back for some reason.)  Karl threatens to spill the beans to the new owners.  The minister (Brendan Griffin) makes the ensemble less coupled.

The second Act curtain rises to the sight of the set ransacked, abused, neglected and abandoned.  Graffiti scrawls the (once updated) wallpaper.  Empty beer bottles, trash, and a baseball bat are the only decor.  A neighborhood meeting is taking place to review the architectural plans for a new house in the place of the crumbling one before us.  It is 2009 and the concerns over racial infiltration have been turned upside down.  The African American couple is (somewhat) challenging the plans of the white couple and everyone has a lawyer.  There are tremendously powerful (and often funny) moments, as Mr. Shamos’ Steve gets more and more defensive.  Personal narratives unfold and we discover the modern characters connections to the neighborhood and each other (perhaps too tidily.)  There is a lovely synchronicity at times.  The day of the week in Act I is the same as Act II.  There are several other references that make things feel solid.  A great takeaway moment is the reversal of outrage (between acts) when one male character touches another male character.  It is a bit confusing to see the new owners (of a house they’re going to raze) become distraught with the news of a suicide occurring upstairs (fifty years ago.)  We expect to discover a horrific incident in the new owner’s past.  But no.  Just the idea that someone once killed themselves in the same latitude and longitude that their media room will inhabit is enough to send them around the bend.

At times, Pam MacKinnon’s direction is slightly halting and a bit overwrought.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the roles played by Christina Kirk.  Her characterization of Bev in the first Act brought to mind Corky Sherwood (Murphy Brown) in her flailing mannerisms and extreme annunciations.  This was no doubt intentional and brought a point home that was lost on me.  Ms. Kirk is brilliantly delicate in her moments with Betsy (Annie Parisse.)  Ms. Parisse is unrecognizable as a (deaf) neighbor great with child.  Speaking (convincingly) as a woman deaf since birth (and being thoroughly ignored) she creates a telling vignette of her own upstage with Ms. Kirk.  (It is mildly disconcerting to have this plot device alongside Ms. Kirk and her real, if slight, speech impediment.  It’s distracting trying to determine if there’s intention behind the casting.)  Jeremy Shamos certainly has a great role and knows exactly what to do with it.  He is simply wonderful.

Clybourne Park is the story of power; who has it, who’s losing it and who desperately needs it.  Race is part of that story.  These are large issues Mr. Norris is discussing.  Their power transcends the sometimes awkward delivery system in play.  What is magnificent is how the characters (in both acts) speak and interact with each other. The dialogue is jammed packed and often tumbling out and over in competing conversations.  There are painfully accurate vignettes (some involving capitals of countries) that demonstrate just how myopic we really can be, and tragically, how we probably always will be.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2012 in Theatre

 

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The Personal Is Political

During the rare moments I was cognizant of a presidential election occurring in France, I wondered why we never heard of the candidate’s personal life.  I chalked it up to my own media feed not being as international as it should be.  Being an American, my experience with presidential races is that the public is wildly interested in high school antics, college-age romantic dalliances, inhaling, spouse’s income sources, how the dog travels, etc.  If you aren’t assured that a candidate watches the same television shows as you do or eats the same snack foods, how in the world can you make an informed decision?

Now that President Hollande is in office, a bit of his personal life is finding its way into our media.  His first lady (Ms. Trierweiler) is a twice-divorced mother and works for Paris Match.  They (somewhat surprisingly) will be the first non-married first couple of France.  This seems to be of interest to the French from the perspective of protocol.  After all, the highest offices are nothing if not bastions of antiquated protocols.  President Hollande was not living in secret; the voters knew of his marital status and voted for him.  It’s hard to imagine this happening in the United States.  Yes, the governor of New York is living with his partner without benefit of marriage.  But would voters have been disinterested in this arrangement if he wasn’t the son of a former governor and she didn’t have her own television show?  Doubtful.  Americans love a good scion story as much as they love celebrity.

Who one chooses to whisper goodnight to at the end of every day has nothing to do with job qualifications.  The only time when one’s personal life should become public is when his/her position and/or office are involved.  So why is it that we obsess over such things?  Why do we care whom and how people love?  I’m not so sure we actually do.  I think it is far easier to understand someone’s personal life (we all presumably have one of those) than to wrap one’s brain around the complexities of the issues.  International economics, national security, international relations, national economy, higher education, medical care, aging nation, worker readiness, jobs, housing, climate… Need I go on?  The issues are endless, particularly during a time of economic uncertainty.

If our candidate’s messages are being parceled out into lunchable size (and quality) it’s because we buy them and gobble them up.  If there really was a time that we sat down and read lengthy narratives about a candidate, it’s long gone.  Are we just lazier now; our attention spans withered into nubs?  Maybe.  Is it that with globalization comes too much information?  Probably.  Perhaps I’m romanticizing, but to my mind fifty years ago, the most one had to know about the rest of the world was; “we can kick their ass, right?”

If we’re lucky there will be one presidential debate in which the candidates discuss their ideas and what their plans are for implementation.  Will we watch it (either in real time or streamed?)  Or will we rely on what others tell us?  Can a candidate really be blamed for going for the soundbite when it stands to reason that is what the greatest majority of voters will actually hear?

There’s so much noise now living along side so many vital issues.  These are not the makings of a good marriage.

 

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The Pious Doth Protest Too Much

There’s an awful lot of talk about equal marriage being incompatible with religious beliefs.  The president has even been speaking with religious leaders to alleviate their (and his) fears.  I’m not entirely sure I buy it.

I believe that people have found comfort in defending their stance with their religious convictions.  I mean who would argue with someone’s religious convictions or even suggest that religion, by its definition, is a way to exclude people who are not like us?  Not I.  But does anyone, even the most pious of Americans, believe that legal civil rights have anything to do with religion?  I can’t begin to understand how.  I’ve heard people claim a fear that their religious institution will be “forced” to perform marriages.  How?  They are not forced to perform marriages now.  I can’t walk into a religious institution with a willing heterosexual accomplice and force clergy to perform a marriage ceremony.  Religious institutions, again by their very definition, are allowed to exclude whomever they please.  (If you don’t believe me, just try getting married in a conservative synagogue without paperwork verifying your worthiness.  Even then it will be up to the discretion of the rabbi whether to cue the chuppah.)  So no one is going to be forced to do anything.

Then does just the idea that people are doing something that you believe your religion does not celebrate send a person ’round the bend?  Maybe.  People are entitled to interpret their religious doctrine anyway they please.  Whether I think intolerance has never been the teaching of any religion is immaterial.  But ya know what?  It turns out that church and state are in fact separate. There are several religions that ban pork from the human diet.  Yet the U.S.D.A. gives legitimacy to pork producers, manufacturers and distributors.  What would help anyone feeling that the United States government is on the verge of offending his or her religious sensibilities is to cease from seeing marriage as a religious rite, and see it as a civil right and legal construct.

Consider that in many religions the birth of a child is celebrated in a house of worship.  Not all babies are welcomed into that house of worship.  They must be of proper lineage and deemed worthy.  Yet, our government issues all babies birth certificates.  Why?  Because we have chosen, as a people, to have a government that ensures basic rights and freedoms of every citizen.  It all starts with the birth certificate.  Having a birth certificate is not a ticket to the alter/bihma it is a ticket to; social security, public education, voting and, with any luck, a marriage license.

 
 

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