Monday, July 16, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W28: Gone Missing, Straight White Men, The Play That Goes Wrong, Head Over Heels

7/11/18: Gone Missing
What: New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center summer series continues with Gone Missing, a musical based on interviews with real people about lost items, by The Civilians's Artistic Director Steve Cosson and recently deceased Michael Friedman.
And? I really do enjoy The Civilians's style and aesthetic. This was enjoyable, funny, and often touching, taking me by surprise a few times. Glad I caught it.

Susan Blackwell, with John Behlmann, Deborah S. Craig, and
David Ryan Smith. Photo by Stephanie Berger.


7/12/18: Straight White Men
What: Downtown playwright Young Jean Lee's Broadway debut, Straight White Men attempts to find an empathetic insight into the plight of the Straight White Man, as organized and framed by two Persons in Charge, both of whom are genderfluid or nonbinary. The plot of the play tracks a family at Christmas, three grown sons visiting their father; aware of their privilege as Straight White Men, they work to stay #woke (including playing a game called Privilege, built from the skeleton of a Monopoly board), but can't seem to reconcile the seeming failure of the eldest brother who, rather that capitalizing on his early potential, has moved home with their father and is working a temp job.
And? At a recent conference, I heard someone cite this adage about American theater (I can't find the source right now): if a man is unhappy, it's society failing him; if a woman is unhappy, that's her own failing. What's interesting here is the reversal: younger brothers Jake and Drew have decided that since Matt is unmotivated, unambitious, he must also be unhappy, and that the fault for that unhappiness lies in him. What's frustrating is how they repeatedly try to explain him to each other, not letting him speak for himself. What's charming (when everyone's not fighting) is the family dynamic: these boys love playing their games, calling back to old jokes and routines, and the performers are at their most delightful and charismatic in these moments. There's a lot in this show that works, and it's a well-moving ride, but I wonder if the thesis is fully realized yet. It's still an interesting examination, that no matter how progressive these men strive to be, they're still holding themselves to standards of performance and male ambition where growth is the only success and stagnation the truest sign of character fault.




7/13/18: The Play That Goes Wrong
a repeat visit (taking a friend)

7/14/18: Head Over Heels
a repeat visit (taking a friend)

Monday, July 9, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W27: Pass Over, Log Cabin

7/04/18: Pass Over
What: Moses and Kitch, two young black men, pass the time on an empty street under a lamppost, sleeping in shifts, sharing a hoodie and keeping watch. When the night comes, they banter, they dream, they plan for their escape to the promised land, and they keep alert for any passing policemen - the only danger they fear, and one that keeps them trembling. Per the program, this play takes place "Now. Right now. But also 1855. But also 13th century BCE ... A ghetto street. A lamppost. Night. But also a plantation. But also Egypt, built by slaves."
And? The program includes an insert with a note from playwright Antoinette Nwandu, listing some of the play's influences. Waiting for Godot, obviously, makes the list. Also listed are Exodus 7-12, Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th, Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine, and the "Dashcam Video of Philando Castille Shooting." This play has a lot of humor and heart, but there is no escaping that it is fundamentally about institutionalized violence against black men. And there should be no escaping that confrontation. It needs to be confronted. As I left the theater, I saw two women discussing it: the white woman asked the black women what she thought; the black woman raised her eyebrows and said wryly that it was nothing she didn't already know. If theater is a place for creating empathy, then this is a play that more people, especially white people, need to see. The fear that keeps Moses and Kitch trembling and still, arms raised, at just the hint that a policeman might be near, is as shocking to some as it must be self-evident to others. Empathy must be built, both in the theater, and especially in the world, so that the same helpless rage fills everyone, when Moses demands of the policeman, "Stop killing us!"

Not listed among the influences, but another clear reference, was the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood; and as I watched, I thought of how stories about the Big Bad Wolf led to wolves landing on the endangered species list. A creature is labeled a menacing predator and a danger to all, is hunted, is killed. Here in Pass Over, a white man (a walking embodiment of optimism, he sings "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin" with no irony, confident that "everything's goin' [his] way") accidentally wanders onto Moses and Kitch's block, carrying a picnic basket full of food for his mother. But it is clear that Moses and Kitch fear his presence far more than he could ever fear theirs (also, notably: the red hood in this case is the hoodie shared by the two men).

Clearly this play gave me many thoughts. It's devastating. It's excellently crafted and carefully built. Nwandu is a gifted voice directed impeccably by Danya Taymor. The three actors, Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood, and Gabriel Ebert, are perfect. The design, too, is brilliant, simultaneously pointed and subtle (Wilson Chin, Sets; Sarafina Bush, Costumes; Marcus Doshi, Lighting; Justin Ellington, Sound).

Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood as Moses and Kitch.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

7/05/18: Log Cabin
What: Speaking of empathy, that's a capitalized word in Log Cabin, which tracks the friendship between two married couples (two gay men, two lesbians) and their trans friend in the halcyon years just prior to our current administration. Tensions arise as empathy is tested and privilege is confronted.
And? In the context of the current Scarlett Johansson nonsense, I was very pleased to see that at least New York theater is making some strides, casting actual trans actors in trans roles. The play itself, while witty and quick-moving, left me a bit tired: I wouldn't want to be friends with any of these people, competing to see who is the most marginalized, who has the least privilege.

Ian Harvie, Dolly Wells, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Phillip James Brannon,
and Cindy Cheung as Henry, Jules, Ezra, Chris, and Pam.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W26: Head Over Heels, Conflict, Songs For a New World, Mary Page Marlowe, Godspell, Hamilton

6/25/18: Head Over Heels
What: In Arcadia, King Basilius rules with a stubborn but benevolent-ish hand. But when Arcadia's new Oracle warns of four prophecies which could bring ruin to the land, Basilius flees the kingdom and the curse (with his entire family and court retinue in tow). Hijinks (sooooo many hijinks) ensue when his daughter's shepherd suitor Musidorus secretly dons an Amazon's costume to join the royal progress and basically the entire family falls in love with him/her. Head Over Heels takes its score from the songs of the groundbreaking punk group, The Go-Go's (known for "We Got the Beat" and "Heave Is a Place on Earth," among others).
And? Let's go on a journey. You hear there's another jukebox musical coming, this one using the Go-Go's song catalog. You roll your eyes, but it's on tdf and you like when people break into song in general, so you buy a ticket. You think you know what you're in for: another Margaritaville with a bland, cliche-ridden story and an audience filled with people who know the songs they're about to hear waaaaaay better than you do (you're right about the second part only). Guys, this thing was so joyous, so delightfully intersectionally queer, so downright silly, and I had a fantastic time. I laughed really loudly, I clapped enthusiastically (instead of merely politely), I even teared up at one point (NO ONE saw that coming). Sporting a book by Tony winner Jeff Whitty, directed by also Tony winner Michael Mayer, and featuring a fucking hilarious and talented cast (including Broadway's first principal role originated by a trans woman), Head Over Heels is a giddy fever dream of a Shakespeare-meets-Greek-comedy, full of cross-dressing, sapphic love, and absolutely zero invalidation of anyone's gender or sexuality (did I mention the non-binary plural Oracle, Pythio?). I didn't realize until I saw this show how thirsty I've been for a feel-good musical that wasn't shit. It's been a hot minute since Come From Away, you know?


Taylor Iman Jones as Mopsa, with the company. Photo by Joan Marcus.

6/27/18: Conflict
What: Conflict begins when the privileged decadence of the 1920s is confronted with the harder truths of poverty and desperation. Major Sir Ronald Clive is running for office on the conservative ticket, and is surprised to see a former Cambridge classmate, Tom Smith, less than two years after being reduced to begging for food and lodging, cleaned up and running against him for the labour party. The Lady Dare Bellingdon, sometime-paramour of Clive, begins to question her long-held but barely examined convictions as she befriends and confronts Smith.
And? Mint Theater Company's mission is to produce "worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten." This yields, in general, a rather mixed bag. This production, however, though it showed the same creaking signs that a lot of the old plays at Mint do, also felt timely in a rather bittersweet way: a longing for the days (did they exist?) when politicians ran on principles rather than personalities, leaving pettiness at the door. I found myself more invested than I expected, especially considering that this was more an ideas-play than anything else (particularly as each side of the political conflict argued his point). But I credit the even hand in the writing of both sides, the belief in integrity which underlines much of the worldview, and the earnestness of the performers, particularly Jeremy Beck and Henry Clarke as the two candidates, and Jessie Shelton as the woman who begins to think. And I was impressed that, though this play is focused on the affairs of men, it is the woman at the center who grows and changes, who truly pushes the action of the play forward. Not bad for a play almost 100 years old.

Jessie Shelton, Jeremy Beck, and Graeme Malcolm as The Lady Dare
Bellngdon, Tom Smith, and Lord Bellingdon. Photo by Todd Cerveris.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W25: Girls & Boys, Little Rock, Fire in Dreamland

6/19/18: Girls & Boys
What: An import from The West End's Royal Court Theatre, Dennis Kelly's Girls & Boys is a one woman show, split between an audience-address monologue and memories of raising her children at home. An exploration of family, self-knowledge, and the nature of violence.
And? Absolutely incredible performance from Carey Mulligan - it seemed less a performance and more a real person speaking to us. The marriage of Es Devlin's set design and Luke Halls's video design was elegant and stunning, a beautiful physicalization of the Woman's journey. Kelly's script is well-built and well-directed by Lyndsey Turner.

Carey Mulligan as Woman. Photo by Marc Brenner.


6/20/18: Little Rock
What: A play with music about The Little Rock Nine, nine black teenagers who broke segregation at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Per the program note, the play is "based on research, numerous testimonials, and interviews conducted over a 13-year period."
And? The cast wasn't bad, but the script had the subtlety of an anvil. This was such an important moment in our country's pockmarked history of race relations and discrimination, and I wanted something more out of it than a pedestrian series of scenes explaining the conflict.

Damian Jermaine Thompson,  Rebekah Brockman, Charlie Hudson III,
Stephanie Umoh, Justin Cunningham, Peter O'Connor, Shanice Williams,
and Anita Welch as the Little Rock Nine. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W24: Teenage Dick, The Great Leap

6/12/18: Teenage Dick
What: Playwright Mike Lew adapts Richard III to a high school council election. Jointly produced by The Public Theater, Ma-Yi Theater Company, and originally commissioned and developed by The Apothetae, Teenage Dick aims for an inclusive and diverse experience, with a cast composed of two actors with disabilities, three actors of color, and only one performer who doesn't readily read as an "other" (as in, there is one actor who is able-bodied, white, and male).
And? This was a cool idea, and it had a few really strong moments, some sparks of genius. But too often, I found myself cringing at the jokes or the lack of nuance. The dramaturg's note says that "monsters are not born, they are made"; this is not the story I saw in Teenage Dick. He started off in Machiavelli Land, had a crisis of conscience, and then leaned back into the ends justifying the means. And this may be neither here nor there, but all six actors (including the one playing the teacher) seemed roughly the same age, none of which passed for teenagers, either in appearance or behavior. This play could be piercing and powerful, but it's not there yet. And while it's great to finally start seeing representation for performers with disabilities, I could wish them a better vehicle than this.

Gregg Mozgala, Shannon DeVido, and Sasha Diamond as Richard, Buck, and
Clarissa. Photo by Carol Rosegg.


6/13/18: The Great Leap
What: Eighteen years after American basketball coach Saul taught Wen Chang how to coach China's fledgling team, the two meet again for a rematch - which unfortunately coincides with the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989. Manford, an aspiring Chinese American point guard, is desperate to join Saul's team in time for the rematch in Beijing. Playwright Lauren Yee wrote this partially inspired by her father's own short-lived basketball career in San Francisco.
And? This is terrific. Fantastic cast (seriously, BD Wong. But also Tony Aidan Vo and Ali Ahn and Ned Eisenberg - they are all marvelous), tight storytelling, a well-crafted and compelling narrative that metes out its revelations with a nuanced eye. The climax of the play, the basketball game itself, is riveting. Well worth a visit.

Ali Ahn, Ned Eisenberg, Tony Aidan Vo, and BD Wong as Connie, Saul,
Manford, and Wen Chang. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.