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Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – Review

Why in the world would a person willingly see a (three hour) play for the fourth time? How strong a suspicion would that viewer have of seeing something completely new? Very strong, 100 proof strong. From the very first sound (Martha’s gentle laughing off-stage) it was clear that this was a new George and Martha. Amy Morton and Tracy Letts, by way of Steppenwolf (and August Osage Country fame) are so very human that watching this production, directed by Pam MacKinnon is more akin to peeking in a window than looking at a stage.

Martha is often portrayed as a braying overtly sexual ball of venom. George is frequently placid and defeated. Ms. Morton & Mr. Letts have no interest in going down that road. When George refers to Martha’s party behavior as braying, her retort is barely in an outdoor voice. It’s then that we know this George and Martha are equally matched in their ferocity. Their words and manners, so natural and true, add a dimension to the rawness of their story, their marriage. Mr. Letts’ George is strong and knowing and funny. The treatment of Martha’s sensuality is an interesting interpretation. Many a Martha has climbed Nick as a boozy floozy in a too tight top. Ms. Morton seduces Nick in the least sexy of ways. She stumbles and clinically performs the seduction in a desperate attempt to have her husband respond. Nick’s interest is seen more clearly for what it is; ambition.

Nick and Honey, perfectly cast with Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon are far less naive and childlike than we’re accustomed. Nick holds his own amidst the incoming shells. Honey is young and quite tipsy, but very real and recognizable. The play motors along via free-range party games (Hump the Hostess, Bringing Up Baby, Get the Guests) as we discover what lies beneath. With the lower volume of this production we can really hear what is and what isn’t being said.

Ms. MacKinnon’s pacing and staging is fast and fluid. A magic trick of sorts results in the three acts rushing by as we simultaneously feel the characters’ building exhaustion. (This play should always been seen at night, preferably late at night.) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opens at the Booth Theatre on the 50th anniversary of its premiere (October 13th.) This production is a poignant and powerful tribute to Edward Albee’s most popular play.

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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An Enemy Of The People – Review

Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas sparring with seething and faltering restraint may be the finest five minutes on Broadway this year. There is a moment so powerful that the full house holds its collective breath. What good fortune that there is more than five glorious minutes to An Enemy Of The People.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz has adapted this Henrik Ibsen play, which was previously adapted by Arthur Miller. While there are many sparks of modernity in the dialogue it is still clearly Ibsen’s treatises. Mr. Gaines’ Dr. Thomas Stockmann is the voice of the playwright, driven by his pursuit of truth in black and white. Mr. Thomas plays his brother and town mayor Peter Stockmann. The mayor has an enormous investment in the small town’s baths business. He is also the benevolent benefactor arranging for his brother’s employment with the baths’ administration. The bohemian medical brother with his boisterous family is in stark contrast to the restrained top hat and walking stick mayoral brother. Their differences grow starker as the good doctor receives confirmation of his suspicions of water contamination in the baths. It is then that all hell breaks loose.

Many will experience the positions and platforms of journalism, politics and economics to be achingly timely, but in fact they are timeless. The shifting positions and arguments sound excruciatingly familiar but that is because they never change. The masses are not necessarily equipped to lead. Truth may feel more important than commerce, but eating is important. Loudly chanting rhetoric doesn’t make the rhetoric true. People tend to worship the one wearing the fanciest hat. Where these powerful themes fall short is in their obvious biographical nature. It becomes challenging during some of the more heated tirades to see past an angry playwright. The ending moment of the production reinforces this response.

It is through the powerful and nuanced performances which include; Gerry Bamman(Alaksen,) Michael Siberry (Morton,) John Procaccino (Hovstad) that the whole becomes flawless. Directed elegantly by Doug Hughes, the characters and action seem to float. The staging and sound (David Van Tieghem) of the town meeting scene is simply fantastic. The audience, with very little fanfare, seamlessly morphs into the townspeople. We are not just being told how mob mentality develops we experience it firsthand. John Lee Beatty’s set is starkly apt and very cleverly designed. It’s less of a set and more of a world.

This Manhattan Theatre Club production should be seen for the very fine performances, intriguing themes, splendid production, and believe it or not; the laughs.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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The Cost Of Creativity

The playwright Sarah Ruhl (In The Next Room) has written an essay about her choice to stage a review-less production. Ms. Ruhl will direct her work Melancholy Play as part of the 13P. It is a very limited run without previews or press invitations. This aligns with 13P’s mission of producing plays versus developing plays. The goal presumably is to get a play in front of an audience without interference. Ms. Ruhl elegantly defends this artistic process in her essay. And there would be no argument with any of her assertions if it wasn’t for the fact that the audience is being asked to purchase tickets. (I would also add that using the press to promote a play in which the press is not invited could be construed as a bit designing.)

Ms. Ruhl is using 13P to its best advantage and getting experimental with her own play. The addition of live music is adding costs, complications and creativity to one of her older works. Supposedly that is why she asserts; “It didn’t feel fair to me to burden the production team with the pressure of reviews when we were already embarking on something so insanely ambitious given our resources.” There are just a few too many flaws in that assertion to ignore:

  • Working in a vacuum is rarely a good idea; art needs air.
  • Directing one’s own work is a slippery little endeavor and unchecked can often become what is commonly known as a ‘private behavior’
  • Criticism is not the enemy
  • Reviews are for the benefit of an audience

Ms. Ruhl goes on to say that “…the press desires more bravery from artists and yet, in its very call for bravery, ends up eliciting timidity because of asrtists’ fear of public opinion.” This may very well be true for many artists (poets and visual artists come to mind.) But anyone who writes for the stage, directs for the stage or gets up on a stage is doing so for an audience (aka public opinion.) Plays don’t hang on gallery walls and actors don’t live on shelves. They come alive in front of an audience. Unlike a gallery or bookstore, there hasn’t been curation for 13P. In fact the very mission of 13P is to avoid the critiquing process that often stalls a play before it can get to production. Discouraging reviews, which in essence are post-production curation, and charging patrons is the equivalent of charging people to walk through studios of random artists. An audience wants to be moved, they want to see something anew, they want to feel as if they are part of the experience not just paying for someone’s hobby.

In the end a review wouldn’t have impacted an 11 performance run of a play in any discernible way. I dare say it is not the production that is being protected here but the reputation of the creative team. Nobody likes being told that what’s important to them is not important to someone else. But real art cannot grow if artists are concerned with being liked. I agree with Ms. Ruhl that there needs to be room to try new things with limited risk. If we are to have any chance of avoiding a world in which the majority of staged productions are the result of a book-to-film-to-stage deal we need to make space for creativity. But surely we are creative enough to do so without asking strangers to blindly support the development of new work. We have workshops, showcases, readings and friends for this reason.

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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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 Uncategorized

 

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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 Uncategorized

 

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