look closely. think twice. cut once.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Sung-Through ... Book? (in defense of Hamilton, as if Hamilton needs my defense)

I've had several friends reach out to me recently to ask me to explain why Hamilton is up for Best Book of a Musical. There's literally only one scene with dialogue - the rest is sung- (or rapped-) through. Even New York Times critic Charles Isherwood (who really should know better - this is his field) said as much on May 3rd:
I do find it slightly puzzling that it was nominated in the book of a musical category, since the show is almost sung-through, but it's the kind of juggernaut that we haven't seen in years.
Suddenly my impatience with past Tony telecasts with presenters pedantically explained what is the book of a musical seems poorly directed. It's time to check my premises - not everyone is the same level of nerd as me.

So let's look at this.

My Anomalously Accurate Tony Predictions

Lin-Manuel Miranda and company in Hamilton
I'm rather disappointed I didn't get to use one of the funny titles I have stocked up for this year's Tony predictions, but I think we all know where the majority of the awards (for musicals anyway) are going this year. My only hope for consistent inaccuracy is to get the play predictions entirely wrong. Let's see how out of touch we are! (or how far my anti-O'Neill bias tends). Previous season predictions here.

It was a strange season for Broadway this year, or at least for new musicals. I began the season thinking we'd have all these massive risk-taking productions, knowing they can't actually contend for the big awards, but wanting to make a splash anyway. And in certain ways, we did get that - we certainly saw a vastly more diverse season this year than, say, Hollywood. But with the premature closings of a number of shows (some deserved, some not), from Amazing Grace and Allegiance in the first half of the season, to the ill-advised Forrest Whitaker Hughie mid-season, and the recently-closed (or imminently closing) Disaster!, Tuck Everlasting and American Psycho, there's a sense that Broadway audiences are less willing to settle for Not!Hamilton - or at least that producers are more willing to cut their losses and get out while the getting's good; usually shows will wait til the awards season is over to announce their closing, but with little to no Tony love for Tuck or Psycho, perhaps I shouldn't be as surprised as I was.

Let's go see how badly I can predict play awards, shall we?

Friday, May 13, 2016

Regarding Eugene O'Neill and the Scarcity of Time

Last night I saw Roundabout's revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, and boy did it live up to its title. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm not an O'Neill fan, but last night was my breaking point. At around the three hour mark, I assumed (foolishly) we were near the end, and then spent the final hour with my thoughts caroming among various foci of:

  • imagining disaster scenarios,
  • wondering why they were still talking,
  • debating if I could pull off a pixie cut, and
  • resenting everyone in that theater.

So we're done. I'm drawing a line in the sand. Life is too short and O'Neill plays are too long. I've seen his two "greatest classics," both in much-lauded productions, and if I don't love him from those, I never will.

And now for some lighter fare:

In 2012, following a debate with a friend on the merits of this playwright, I penned a little A-B dialogue summing up Every Eugene O'Neill Play. At the time I had only seen one of his plays and read another. Having seen three O'Neill plays this past year, I can say with conviction that my playlet holds up.


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

HamilTony Nominations (and other related contenders)

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton
As with last year's reaction to the nominations, I will begin with the caveat that I have not yet seen Waitress or Long Day's Journey Into Night (seeing them both next week, never fear). I also didn't see China Doll, but that's only because I really really really didn't want to.

It was a surprise to no one that Hamilton swept the nominations, getting at least one in every eligible category, and now breaking the record for most nominations with a grand total of 16 (I actually hadn't quite expected that - I was hoping Chris Jackson's Washington would get a nod but hadn't expected Jonathan Groff's George III to also get one). With Hamilton expected to also sweep the awards with wins (we'll get to that closer to the big night), the Plays categories may actually be the more heated and divisive come telecast time.

So below are my general thoughts on nominations and those not nominated. Let's go!

Friday, April 1, 2016

Margin Notes: The Crucible

Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan, Tavi Gevinson, Ashlei
Sharpe Chestnut, and Erin Whilhelmi as Betty Parris,
Abigail Williams, Mary Warren, Susanna Walcott, and
Mercy Lewis. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.
The Crucible

Seen on: Monday, 3/7/16.
My grade: A

Plot and Background
In the Puritan village of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, even dancing is considered unwholesome. So when young Abigail Williams and her friends are caught dancing in the woods, they divert attention away - to the specter of witches bedeviling them. What starts as one lie spirals into a wildfire hysteria, as more than 400 are arrested and many executed when they refuse to confess. Farmers John and Elizabeth Proctor, who dismissed Abigail from their service after John's indiscretion seven months prior, fear the vengeance of a spurned girl, while newcomer Reverend Hale tries to decipher the truth from the lies. Arthur Miller first wrote The Crucible in 1953 as both a dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials and as an allegory for McCarthyism. Though received with some critical hostility, the play won the Tony, and is now considered a classic, performed and studied in high schools across the country. It has been revived several times, and adapted for film, television, and even the opera.

What I Knew Beforehand
My high school, like every high school in America, did the show when I was a sophomore (I played Mercy Lewis and have been disappointed in the milquetoast portrayals I've seen of her in every subsequent incarnation).


Play: It's difficult to watch a play you've worked on before - I actually find it nearly impossible to see productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream at this point. You go in with so many preconceptions of how it should be done (or sometimes emotionally scars for how badly things went that one time), that it can be hard to separate the experiences. However, this production was so consummately well done, that my main moments of "Hey, wait a sec!" were reserved for the two small deleted scenes (for those who care, Abigail and John in the woods; and Sarah Good in the prison). The physical space is both gritty and nonrepresentative (a schoolroom's furniture rearranged to be used as a farmhouse, a court, a prison, etc.), the aural space alternately dreamlike or nightmarish. There are a lot of choices being made here, and I find the majority of them effective - dressing the girls in school uniforms, having the actors playing the Proctors use their own accents to show their otherness to the rest of Salem, making it clear that while the intellectual conflict is between Hale and Danforth, the emotional center of the piece lies in the Proctors and their very human relationship. However, there is one choice to which I still can't reconcile myself, as it seems completely counter to the author's intent - the manifestation of magic (or hysteria?) in Betty's flight, and the destruction of the courtroom. My mom suggested a reading of it that it is the perception of the townsfolk, seeing witchery where there is none; my initial read was the deliberate question by the production of: "but what if magic?" and that's ... that's not what's going on here. And if my mom's reading is correct, then that lens needs to be made a heck of a lot clearer to the audience, so we know whether we're intended to be seeing something canonically in the narrative, or a hallucination. We're not given that lens, and I don't think I buy it. It's an aesthetically dramatic choice, to be sure, but it's not dramaturgically sound. However, I think it's quite the feat that - ignoring these missteps - I was completely enthralled and horrified by a script I knew all too well. This production is excellent.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Margin Notes: King John

Isaac Miller as Bastard. Photo by David Andrew Laws.
King John

Seen on: Wednesday, 3/23/16.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
King John, recently inheriting his throne from his deceased brother Richard the Lionhearted, holds his crown with a tenuous grasp - challenged by France and Austria, who back his nephew Arthur as the rightful heir to follow Richard to the throne. Through a mixture of force, diplomacy, a bad run in with a Cardinal, and some underhanded manipulation, John struggles to maintain his power against overwhelming odds. King John is presented by Hamlet Isn't Dead, a Shakespeare company dedicated to performing Shakespeare's works in chronological order. They are partnering with Mary-Mitchell Campbell's organization, Artists Striving to End Poverty, on this production.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd read the play but never seen it, and I've worked on one of Constance's monologues fairly recently. I knew that the company had cast a woman in the title role here, intending to explore how the threats to her crown played against her role as a woman surrounded by men in this production. I've also seen a few of Hamlet Isn't Dead's productions (and reviewed their Richard II).


Play: It's rather a strange play, I realized midway through. Perhaps not atypical of Shakespeare's histories (I'd have to research it), the force and flow of the various players takes precedent over any intense character study of the titular monarch. Perhaps Richards II and III spoiled me for thinking I'd be getting some soliloquies from our King, but I was disappointed to realize how little I was being let in to John's rationale. Most of what we see of John is her public role, that of courtly behavior and kingly proclamations - only in the latter half of the play, when she first schemes for Arthur's death and then regrets that scheming, do we get any sense of the inner workings of John as a person. We get more of the Bastard's inner thoughts than any other character onstage (so perhaps it's appropriate he and John share the final bow here). Moving along from this, while King John may not be the most engaging of Shakespeare's histories, this is a thoroughly engaging production of it - streamlined to just over two hours, it is efficiently-paced, clearly presented, and overall entertaining. Director Lisa LaGrande stages it in my favorite style (thrust), and effectively crafts dynamic stage pictures where everyone has a good view of the action. Each act begins with a throwback - a dumb show, a gestured dance on the worship of power - and she finds a moment of poetry within the narrative, too, in young Arthur's attempted escape from prison. The battle is perhaps the least effectively staged, in terms of communicating either danger or a narrative, but that is a minor complaint in a highly competent production. For those who haven't seen this rarely-produced history, this is definitely worth catching.

Monday, December 21, 2015

15 for '15 - My Top Theatrical Experiences This Year

Daniel N. Durant as Moritz in Deaf West's Spring Awakening.
Photo by Kevin Parry.
We don't need no stinkin' rules! Especially not rules that limit me to choosing only 10 shows for 2015. That's just cruel and unusual punishment. And, as I'm not an accredited journalist, and this is my house, we're doing 15 for 15 this year.

I'm quite proud to report that my attendance bumped up from last year - I saw 130 shows in 2015, and when we remove the repeats, it comes out to 121 unique shows - only one fewer than I saw in 2013, and 24 up from last year. It's been an odd mix this year - some truly extraordinary theater, including the groundbreaking work by Broadway's biggest nerd, Lin-Manuel Miranda - but the Fall season on Broadway, at least in terms of straight plays, was oddly disappointing. However, Off-Broadway picked up the slack, there's still plenty of good work to remember from this past Spring, and loads to anticipate for 2016.

So let's get started. (and before anyone calls the dogs out on any shows I omitted, the list started at 32 for the year, which I then had to painstakingly cull down to its present length)

Honorable Mention: I can't officially include Hedwig and the Angry Inch on this list, since the production made my '14 list last year, but if I didn't include John Cameron Mitchell's incredible performance in the role he created, I'd be doing a disservice to all of us. I saw him only after his injury early in his run, but even hobbled as he was by multiple knee braces, his Hedwig was a terrifying and heartbreaking force of nature. The role (and the show) transformed under his care, running a good twenty minutes longer from all the riffing and adlibbing. This was Hedwig as I knew her from before - bitingly cruel one moment, sweet and loving the next. A deeply-bedded river of bitterness ran through her, even as she valiantly soldiered on, crutch tucked under her arm. And oh god, the moment JCM opened his mouth in the first song, sounding just like he did twenty years earlier, I started to cry. (I feel it would be remiss if I did not also mention the fact that my friend Marissa received the infamous car wash treatment when we attended together - without a doubt, an unforgettable evening).