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.