look closely. think twice. cut once.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Six Degrees of Nomination

Lucas Steele and Denee Benton waltz in
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
First we should start with the caveat that there are four shows of the the 2016-2017 season I have yet to see: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (seeing it tonight), Anastasia (Thursday),  The Price (next week), and Hello, Dolly! (Saturday if I have good luck in the line for standing room). This means that I won't have much opinion on the relative negligence three of these four shows received from the Tonys, nor of the effusion the fourth received.

It's been a crowded season, which has its definite advantages (more for me to seeeeeee) and its disadvantages (more shows are left out in the cold, come awards season). There were thirteen new musicals, five musical revivals, ten new plays, and nine play revivals - with only four nominees in each category, that leaves nine musicals, six plays, and seven revivals (musical and play) without the big nomination. In previous Tony telecasts in recent years (starting under Neil Patrick Harris), they found a way to let even the un-nominated musicals perform (if a more abbreviated number), since this is the best national commercial for musical theater, but it might be too dense a year to pull that off this time around. Still, one can only hope.

Full list of nominees here, and now: on with the dish!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Margin Notes: Henry IV

Marie Claire Roussel and Isaac Miller, as Hal and Hotspur.
Photo by Kevin Johnsrud.
Henry IV

Seen on: Saturday, 4/29/17.
My grade: A-/B+

Plot and Background
King Henry IV's reign is not a peaceful one. He is plagued not only with guilt over how he seized the throne from Richard II, but also the rising rebellion from his former allies, Mortimer and the Percy family, to say nothing of the negligent attention from his daughter, Hal, who would rather spend time in the tavern with the drunken Sir John Falstaff and a host of unworthies. These disparate elements come to a head when Harry (Hal) must face Harry (Hotspur) and decide the future of the realm. Henry IV is presented by Hamlet Isn't Dead, a New York-based theater company dedicated to presenting Shakespeare's works in chronological order.

What I Knew Beforehand
I've seen Henry IV, parts one and two, multiple times (both as combined and separate plays) and am by now quite familiar with the playful stylings of Hamlet Isn't Dead.

Thoughts:

Play: Once again, the HID crew delivers a swift and spirited jog down old Shakespeare Lane with its two-hour condensation of Henry IV, parts one and two. Whereas their Merchant gave us a bit of a folk vibe with their onstage band, HID's Henry IV is firmly ensconced in rock, with a Led Zeppelin poster prominently displayed, and actors wearing t-shirts for bands like The Rolling Stones and Blondie, accessorized with leather jackets and torn jeans. The story moves efficiently from scene to scene under director Megan Mahaffey's confident hand, and Gregory Pragel's fight choreography is athletic and takes strategic advantage of the intimate performance space. If I have any stipulations with this production, it is with some of the cutting of the text, and the residual side effects those cuts have on the narrative. Never before in this play have I felt that the political machinations, the actual battle, to be so distinctly the MacGuffin to the story being told. This is not necessarily bad - relationships, particularly between Hal and her titular father, and between Hal and Falstaff (and crew), are strong and clear. Less clear is the nature and cause of the rebellion by Mortimer and the Percys and, unfortunately, Hal's arc from derelict prankster to a king worthy of the crown. On the other hand, some cuts are tremendously satisfying - while typical productions of Henry IV give too free a rein to Falstaff and the clowns, leading me to grow weary of them, this cutting still manages to give us the full flavor of Falstaff and his sodden charisma - and more importantly, his appeal to Hal - without wearing out his welcome or taking over the play. This production is ultimately a fun and energetic production of a somewhat flawed cutting.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Margin Notes: The Humanist Project's Macbeth

Josephine Wilson as Hecate, with
Welland H. Scripps, Claire Warden, and
Zach Libresco as the three Witches.
Photo by Ariella Axelbank.
The Humanist Project's Macbeth

Seen on: Friday, 4/21/17.
My grade: B-

Plot and Background
King Duncan has just completed a successful battle skirmish with Norway, thanks in no small part to Macbeth, whom he honors with promotion and a royal visit. Macbeth, meanwhile, has received a prophecy from three weird sisters that he will soon be king himself. Encouraged by his ambitious wife, Macbeth murders Duncan and frames his guards for the deed. When Duncan's two sons flee, Macbeth takes the throne, but there is soon unrest and insurrection, and the new king's paranoia and guilt unravel his reign from within, while Macduff and Malcolm seek to unravel it from without. The Humanist Project is a Brooklyn-based company exploring life as the greatest piece of art. Macbeth is the third installment in The Humanist Project's Tyrant Series, "a study of politics, power and corruption through the lens of Shakespeare's work," a series which began last April.

Disclosure, 
and What I Knew Beforehand
Disclosure: I know several of the players involved, due to my association with The Shakespeare Forum. As for what I knew beforehand, I know the play Macbeth fairly well, having seen numerous productions and worked on it in school, and I knew that this production featured a cast of five.

Thoughts:

Play: By and large, I thought that while there were many compelling concepts and ideas at play in this production, not enough of them were played out to their full potential. There is something engaging and thrilling about casting such a small company of players, but some of the staging made me long for just one more actor, to help share the burden and perhaps reduce confusion. I've seen Shakespeare done with even fewer players (four), but that kind of casting economy requires distinct (perhaps even more caricatured) performances in order for the audience to differentiate which soldier, which lord, we're currently watching - because in costume, voice, and physicality, he too often bears too strong a similarity to another soldier or lord played by the same actor. And while I found the idea of the chalkboards set and chalk-as-blood aesthetic absolutely fascinating and viscerally exciting, it was tamer than I expected, for a play so stepped in blood, to paraphrase the title character. Banquo's corpse received a chalk outline, but what of Macbeth's other victims? The subtle touches that hint toward a contemporary commentary - Macbeth's red power tie, the Russian-accented murderer, etc. - were satisfyingly executed, however. What was ultimately most effective for me in this production was watching the more visceral character relationships - the power balance between Macbeth and his wife, the love and fear, and guilty resignation to follow the path they've set; the slithering mass of the three witches, kinetically exciting for each of their appearances; and, interestingly, some of the "trick" scenes, like the greasy spoon gossip scene, or the closet conspiracy, all in pantomime staging but with full spatial conviction.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Margin Notes: The Bride, a weaving

 Ella Smith and Colin Wulff as Holofernes and
Sir Nathaniel. Photo by Tessa Flannery.
The Bride, a weaving

Seen on: Thursday, 2/16/17.
My grade: C+

Plot and Background
The King of Navarre, his brother John the Bastard, and his two friends Claudio and Berowne, vow to eschew romance and dedicate themselves to their studies, just in time for a visit from the Princess of France, her sister Hero, her cousin Rosaline, and Margaret. Romantic hijinks ensue, but when the Princess receives word that her father has died, the four ladies lay aside flirtations to return home. When the characters reconvene in France over a year later, resentments brew among spurned lovers while a new romance is kindled between Hero and Claudio. Meanwhile, Constables Dogberry and Verges get up to their own hijinks, romantic and otherwise, and things don't end the way you think they will. Bottoms Dream, founded in 2013, is dedicated to reinventing classic texts, notably through their Weaving series, where they combine the text and story of two of Shakespeare's plays to form a new hybrid story. The Bride is a weaving of Love's Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing.

What I Knew Beforehand
I reviewed Bottoms Dream's last weaving, The Ghost, and was impressed with the work I saw. I was also extremely familiar with Much Ado (probably my favorite Shakespeare comedy, thanks in large part to Kenneth Branagh's film), and fairly familiar with Love's Labour's Lost.

Thoughts:

Play: I wanted to like this more than I did. There are some excellent ideas in play - the idea of combining these two plays, especially as regards the inner workings of the various different romantic matches, is appealing on its own. The liberal use of music throughout, played by the ensemble, lends a charming lightness. The framing notion of a trunk of costumes, distributed while the cast assembles the space, tells us that this is a story being told, in the old sense. Unfortunately, there's a lack of coherency among all these elements. I craved more of an intermingling of the two source texts, as was done in The Ghost - while there was some threading of Much Ado into the Love's Labour's half, and vice versa, they were largely treated as acts one and two of a larger narrative, which then ultimately felt more like two one-act adaptations of Shakespeare's plays. Most of the characters' major transitions happened over the intermission, such as Berowne's and Rosaline's twisting bittersweet resentments, or Verges's and Hero's shifting affections. The company could have gone so much farther than they did and instead couched too heavily in the narratives as they already existed. It didn't help that the production threw into even starker relief how bewilderingly large the number of characters Love's Labour's contains; though to its credit, the cast did its level best to maintain clarity across all the double- and triple-casting (this part of the troupe of players telling a story worked quite well). The music very rarely felt character-born or even comfortable to the performers (the exceptions being the haunting duet between Verges and the Queen and the final number), and sometimes contained inexplicable dissonances (a doo-wop song with acoustic guitar accompaniment?). And while I appreciated the surprising turns that concluded the narrative, these choices led me to wonder why the company chose two comedies and removed so much of the comedy within.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My 16: 2016's Top Theatrical Experiences

James Ortiz and Eliza Martin Simpson in The Woodsman.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.
This year's post has been very hard to write. In a year that looks increasingly like the prologue to a dystopian franchise, it's difficult to look back with my usual optimism and joy. It feels frivolous, like I'm one of Panem's Capitol residents, merrily engaging in trivialities. I don't always know how to reconcile the feeling of uselessness against my passion for, and celebration of, live theater. As Richard II and I try to hammer it out, with Chrismakkuh looming this weekend, we'll review what didn't suck about this past year, and appreciate the small good things hiding in the garbage.

My overall play-going count is a bit lower than it's been since I started these posts - 122 plays total, with 11 repeats, which leaves us with 111 unique shows for the year. I'm not enough of a statistician and too lazy a researcher to look at the volume of how many shows were produced this year to comment further, but I'll try to comfort all of us by saying that the list I've made of shows to see for the spring season of 2017 is terrifyingly dense. As usual, for the purposes of this list, I am not including any shows I saw in earlier years (so while yes, I did see both Hamilton and Bedlam's Sense and Sensibility in 2016 and adored them to pieces, they topped my 2015 and 2014 lists respectively, and don't get to be included again).

One further note before I begin: I'm writing this list without having yet seen the final two shows on my 2016 docket - the pre-Broadway run of Amélie in Los Angeles and NYGASP's The Mikado. If it turns out I've made a huge mistake in omitting either, I'm making a note now to include them next year.

Let's go!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Margin Notes: King Lear

Kitty Mortland as King Lear. Photo by Joseph Sebring.

Seen on: Saturday, 12/10/16.
My grade: B-.

Plot and Background
King Lear, eyeing retirement, announces that she will divide her kingdom equally among her three daughters, once they have sufficiently declared their love for her. When her beloved youngest, Cordelia, cannot bring herself to the same ornate oration as her fawning sisters, Goneril and Regan, Lear disinherits and banishes her. Intending to split her time between visiting her two remaining daughters, Lear soon finds herself instead the unwelcome houseguest of both, and goes mad in the storm, as old kings often do. Meanwhile, advisor Gloucester's bastard son Edmund frames his legitimate brother Edgar for attempted murder, and seduces both Goneril and Regan. It all comes to a head: the good end unhappily, the bad end even more unhappily, and I've left out the Fool, the blinding, and everyone going around in disguise. King Lear is presented by What Dreams May Co., in partnership with Queens Shakespeare Inc., two companies dedicated to exploring classical work.

What I Knew Beforehand,
and Disclosure
I'd seen Derek Jacobi's King Lear at BAM a few years back and came away with an excellent appreciation for the play, though I haven't actually sat down to read the script. I'm friends with director Emily C. A. Snyder, as well as several cast members.


Thoughts:

Play: In her director's note, Emily C. A. Snyder talks about the necessity for these characters to "unbecome" themselves - to break out of their prescribed identities of title and duty and reduce to their smallest, truest selves. This narrative is articulated most clearly in the title character, who begins the play all pomp and formality, but as she descends into madness - as she (literally) lets her hair down - we see at last the loving parent, the lonesome friend, the repentant ruler searching desperately for an emotional lodestone. In other characters, such as Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, this reduction reveals the petty bitterness beneath filial protestations. And in others, like Albany, Edgar, and Kent, it allows them to reveal their better nature, the heroes within that might have kept to the benches had a war not begun. While this narrative becomes easier to extrapolate now, behind the comfort of my keyboard, it was not always as clear in performance. Individual moments of transition and transformation were sometimes muddied, and the amorphous use of the intimate space meant I couldn't always place where we were. The play's strongest moments come as the King declines further and further; though King Lear is full of battle and bombast, this production finds its strength as its characters approach closer to their quiet, inner humanity.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Margin Notes: Merchant of Venice

Leo Goodman and Michael Satow as Shylock and Antonio,
with Joshua M. Riffle and Emily Loewus as Salanio
and Jessica. Photo by Andrew Arvin.

Seen on: Thursday, 12/8/16.
My grade: A.

Plot and Background
In love with Portia (whose father had set a puzzle to dissuade unworthy suitors from her hand), Bassanio entreats his merchant friend Antonio to lend him money so that he may properly woo her. Not having the money himself (but expecting returns on several ships at sea), Antonio turns to the moneylender Shylock to supply the sum. Shylock, remembering many past mistreatments at Antonio's hand, agrees to lend the sum, with the stipulation that should Antonio not repay him, he should give to the moneylender a pound of his flesh. While Bassanio goes off to win fair maiden, Antonio's ships are lost at sea, and his bond to Shylock is forfeit. Then there's a big courtroom scene, a famous speech or two, and a bit of crossdressing, because this is Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice is presented by Hamlet Isn't Dead, a Shakespeare company dedicated to performing Shakespeare's works in chronological order.

What I Knew Beforehand
I have many strong opinions about this play (it makes me really freaking angry how much glee is taken in punishing the Jew and stripping him of his religion, let's leave it at that) and have seen it done numerous times. I'm also familiar with - and have reviewed past productions by - the company Hamlet Isn't Dead.

Thoughts:

Play: Seasoned as I now am to Hamlet Isn't Dead's productions, I can summarize their style - unadorned and intimate staging (often alley or thrust playing spaces), immaculate yet disarmingly casual text work, and a sense of fluidity and play. One of director David Andrew Laws's primary goals for this production in HID's mission is to remind us all that Shakespeare intended the "problem play" that is Merchant of Venice to be a comedy - and he achieves this goal handily. Peppered throughout by song (including pre- and post-show mini concerts), squired by the guitar (or banjo or mandolin) toting pair of Solario and Solanio, and running at a bright and brisk ninety minutes, this Merchant marks the first time I was able to watch without getting angry, and actually enjoy the story and its players. I could enjoy the interplay of the smaller characters, the hyperboles of the clowns, the wit of Portia and Nerissa, and the delicate intricacies of the shifting power dynamic between Shylock and Antonio (Shylock and Antonio, by the way, are the only two characters who don't know they're in a comedy - a dichotomy that bolsters both the light and dark elements of the narrative by throwing them into relief). The answer to how Laws achieves this feat lies not only in his confident and playful staging, but in the judicious cuts made to the text. Most significant among these cuts are the grotesque extremes around the problem of Shylock - on both sides of the conflict. The antisemitic verbal abuse thrown at him by the gentiles is reserved only for his beleaguered servant Gobbo (which makes Antonio and his plight easier to swallow), Shylock's "comically" mercenary grief that his jewels were stolen, and most importantly Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity as his final punishment - all these are cut. With these excesses of nastiness removed, we can instead see only the antipathy between Shylock and Antonio, and how Shylock - a soft-spoken, reasonable-seeming businessman - can be driven to the point of bloodthirstiness he reaches in the trial. When this is the cruelest act of the narrative, rather than all the rest, somehow balance seems better restored, and it is easier to follow the rest of the characters to their happy conclusions. I am thinking, though, of the revisionist adaptations I have seen this year, such as Ivo Van Hove's The Crucible on Broadway and Daniel Sullivan's Troilus and Cressida at Shakespeare in the Park - both productions tinkered with context and with authorial intent, for better or worse. Laws's director's note in the program indicates he is aware that there are changes he is making to the play as we know it. Unlike the above mentioned examples, however, he is not adding in non-canonical content, nor recontextualizing moments. I do wonder, with the nastiness cut out, if it is still the same play. Honestly, though, I prefer this version. As Laws points out, Shakespeare wrote for his audience, and HID is performing for its audience. One of the joys of the malleability of Shakespeare is how endlessly and variably his work can be performed. HID hasn't mangled the text - they've cut, perhaps, a pound of flesh away, but it wasn't too near the heart that it did damage. Perhaps it was just shaving off some diseased tissue.