Monday, April 16, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W15: Lobby Hero

4/13/18: Lobby Hero
What: Second Stage finally has a Broadway house in the newly renovated Hayes Theater, and commemorates it with a revival of Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero, a play about what we're willing to sacrifice - career, family, friendship, integrity - to get what we want.
And? Lonergan is not a playwright I particularly care for, but this is probably the work of his I hate the least. The cast is good, including the Hollywood guests (Michael Cera is surprisingly well cast as Jeff; and Chris Evans is actually pretty great as Bill, and doesn't try to charm his way around his unlikeable character), with Brian Tyree Henry a particular standout as the upright William with a moral dilemma.

Brian Tyree Henry, Bel Powley, Michael Cera, and Chris Evans as
William, Dawn, Jeff, and Bill. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Twenty Years a Theater Junkie

Twenty years ago, I visited my sister - then a freshman at Columbia University - for my spring break. We had a fun first-visit-to-New-York planned: Central Park, Empire State Building, New York pizza, Staten Island Ferry, and my first Broadway show. Twenty years ago, my life changed forever.

Let's be clear, I was already a theater fan. Both my parents grew up loving live theater, and they took us to a lot; as well as playing All the Cast Albums on road trips and at home (and let's not forget that fateful day Dad showed us the VHS of Into the Woods). My Mom is such an advocate of supporting live theater that we saw all the community theater my small town had to offer, some of which was great and some of which was ...  you know, not great. But I was predisposed to have my life changed, I suppose.

Seventh grade is a bad year for many people, and it certainly hadn't been a good one for me so far: nearly all my friends from sixth grade and beyond suddenly stopped talking to me (I still don't know why), my best friend and sister had left for college, and I was feeling a bit rudderless. Two big things happened that year: Mom took me to audition for my first community theater youth show, and Mom sent me to New York to visit my sister.

I'd seen, at this point, a range in quality of live theater: school shows, community theater, non-Eq tours, and the occasional quality Equity production (I can think of three: the Broadway company of Beauty and the Beast in their LA run; a lovely production of She Loves Me playing in Roanoke; and one of the tours of Les Miserables, starring the future Tony-winning Alice Ripley as Fantine). But sometimes the right thing has to find you at the right time.

Weekly Margin, 2018 W14: Yerma, Saint Joan

4/04/18: Yerma
What: Park Avenue Armory hosts The Young Vic's production of Simon Stone's modernized adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca's 1934 Yerma: a woman's fixation on conceiving, and whose perpetual inability to do so poisons her pysche as well as her relationships with all of those around her.
And? I'm of two minds on this. I thought the performances were, across the board, excellent. I thought the stage craft was impeccable - like a magic trick, those scene changes. The staging concept - the characters interacting within an enclosed glass box, their voices piped out to us - gave the whole performance an air of a scientific experiment observed, or of pets in a terrarium (I did think the interstitial music was, in general, too overbearingly loud). However, I don't think I particularly like the play itself, or the story it's telling. It's not just that it's contributing to the Hysterical Woman trope; it's that I'm not sure what they intend for me to take away from what I saw. Was I affected? Yes. But the final moment is one of horror, and it comes at a moment when the main character has lost all sympathy already. Miserable People Being Miserable has never been a favorite narrative of mine.

Brendan Cowell and Billie Piper as John and Her (Yerma).
Photo by Stephanie Berger.

4/05/18: Saint Joan
What: MTC's revival of George Bernard Shaw's play about Joan of Arc, a woman of conviction, courage, and integrity, one whom the world was not yet ready to embrace, and whom the world would still prefer remain a dead saint, rather than a living woman.
And? An adequate production of an excellent and moving play. I don't know that it has anything new to tell me beyond what I'd already gotten from the last two excellent productions I'd seen (National Theatre Live and Bedlam). There are a few tonal inconsistencies for me, namely that we have period costumes, but some of the performances are incongruent with that aesthetic, favoring instead distinctly contemporary inflections and delivery. Had the entire cast made this choice, it would be a statement; when only some do, it looks like carelessness. Scott Pask's scenic design is pleasing, with rows of large hanging flutes, reminiscent of a church organ, or of wind chimes. Condola Rashad is excellent as Joan, and the ensemble also includes good performances from Max Gordon Moore, Patrick Page, and Jack Davenport.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W13: Children of a Lesser God, The Lucky Ones, Yeomen of the Guard, Kings, Pygmalion, Jesus Christ Superstar Live

3/28/18: Children of a Lesser God
What: Revival of Mark Medoff's Tony-winning 1979 play about the professional and personal relationship between a speech therapist and a deaf student, exploring the interpersonal dynamics within the Deaf community, and the divides between them and the hearing world.
And? Unfortunately, this play has not aged particularly well. Lauren Ridloff is mesmerizing; Joshua Jackson is serviceable.

Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson as Sarah and James.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

3/29/18: The Lucky Ones
What: Rock duo The Bengsons tell the true story of Abigail's childhood: of an extended and interlocked family that shatters into pieces when tragedy strikes.
And? I loved it. The narrative could use some tightening, but I loved this. It was heartbreaking without being sentimental, and it kept shifting its shape, as Abigail examined the tragedy from different angles, trying to understand, and trying to reconnect the scattered pieces of her childhood and memory. There's a piercing quality to the lyrics of these songs, and that poetry is grounded by the everydayness of the dialogue. Shaun starts the show by telling us that everything is true, even the parts that didn't happen (a phrase-flipping of an Ann Patchett quotation in the program), and we need that reassurance. Some things are so unbelievable they have to be true.

3/30/18: Yeomen of the Guard
What: Blue Hill Troupe's production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta about the various topsy turvy machinations to rescue a man falsely accused of sorcery.
And? Unfortunately, not a very compelling performance, and the voices were generally not good enough to compensate, though Zina Ellis gave an excellent standout performance as Phoebe.

3/31/18: Kings
What: Lobbyists and politicians play a game of chess as they negotiation power, sway, and ideals in Washington, D.C.
And? I don't know that the play has a specific point it's trying to make, aside from American politics being a garbage fire of compromise and corruption (which, fair, but also we know that), and most of the scenes feel a bit dormant even as the characters negotiate (aside from the televised debate, which is fiery and with clear stakes). It's well-performed, however, with a satisfyingly modular set.

Gillian Jacobs and Eisa Davis as Kate and Representative Sydney Millsap.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

4/01/18: Pygmalion
What: Bedlam presents its rather timely production of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, about flower seller Eliza Doolittle who takes dialect lessons with phonetic expert Henry Higgins, so that she may earn a better living in a more refined environment (you bet your mother hubbard I recycled my synopsis from My Fair Lady last week).
And? It was an interesting experience, seeing this. My Bedlam-viewing forays have been uneven of late (their Saint Joan and Sense and Sensibility remain among some of my favorite things I've seen in New York, but their other work has been more mixed; and I greatly disliked their Peter Pan last season). Bedlam's approach to Shaw's play is more straightforward than many of their others: I said afterward that it had less "play" than their plays usually do. So in a way, it feels less signature Bedlam, aside from the delightful opening scene, and the somewhat overplayed hat-switching visit to Mrs. Higgins. Largely, though, I thought it was well done, and solidly anchored by the excellent Vaishnavi Sharma as Eliza Doolittle and the surprisingly subdued Eric Tucker as Henry Higgins.

Annabel Capper, Edmund Lewis, Vaishnavi Sharma, Eric Tucker, and Nigel
Gore as Clara Eynsford-Hill, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza Doolittle, Henry
Higgins, and Mrs. Eynsford-Hill. Photo by Ashley Garrett.
Of note: both this revival of Pygmalion and the Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God feature the female pupil portrayed by a woman of color, and the teacher by a white man, drawing allusions to the White (Male) Savior trope.

4/01/18: Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert
What: NBC's live concert staging of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical about Judas and his best friend, Jesus.
And? (no, I didn't attend, but I watched it and I have thinks) I love the growing trend of televised musicals, mostly because I love musicals, even though most of them so far have disappointed in one way or another (and then there's the Christopher Walken Peter Pan, which still feels like a horrible fever dream). My friend Marissa and I had been eagerly anticipating JCS, though, for two main reasons: 1, we love our trash show; 2, a BIG problem with all the other televised musicals so far has been the clunky pacing of all the (under-rehearsed) non-musical scenes -- but JCS doesn't have any of those. It's a sung-through show, which means pacing is entirely at the discretion of the music director.

On the macro level, I thought this was terrific. It was energetic and well-filmed, featuring fantastic voices (mostly) and great design. Brandon Victor Dixon was fan-freaking-tastic, as were Norm Lewis and Ben Daniels. Sara Bareilles and John Legend were weaker on the acting side, but great on vocals (the weirdness in "Gethsemane" aside). On the micro level, this concert staging had issues. Too many songs had no internal arc or journey, and no forwarding action to them. They were done as if this were just a concert of songs as opposed to a concert staging of a story. JCS may not be lauded for its story beats, but it does have them, and they were often neglected. I'm grateful they at least cast a good actor as Judas, since he has most of the emotional weight of the narrative.

John Legend and ensemble as Jesus and the Apostles. Photo by Virginia Sherwood.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W12: My Fair Lady, Harry Clarke, Grand Hotel, Julius Caesar

3/20/18: My Fair Lady
What: Bartlett Sher/Lincoln Center's lush revival of the Lerner & Loewe classic, about flower seller Eliza Doolittle, who takes dialect lessons with phonetic expert Henry Higgins, so she may earn a better living in a more refined environment. Adapted from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion.
And? It's fine; neither definitive nor disgraceful. Lauren Ambrose has great presence and charm. Fuller review/defense of the show's merit here.

3/22/18: Harry Clarke
What: David Cale's one-man show starring Billy Crudup in an encore run after its stint at Vineyard. A shy midwestern man creates an alter ego, London-born Harry Clarke, insinuating himself into the life and family of a man he randomly sees on the street.
And? There's a lot to admire here. The noir of it all is satisfying, the writing is tightly structured, and Billy Crudup is absolutely wonderful at transforming himself physically and vocally among all the characters (and among Philip's various personae). I will admit that I am bothered that the narrative is playing into some unfortunate stigmatizing tropes about queer people and about mental illness. I don't think it's deliberate stigmatization, but it's there.

Billy Crudup. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

3/23/18: Encores!: Grand Hotel
What: Encores! presents a concert staging of 1989's musical adaptation of a 1929 novel and 1932 film about various eccentric guests staying at the titular Grand Hotel in Berlin in the roaring '20s.
And? Great cast, top to bottom, and excellent staging (a concert in name only), but the story beats didn't make a lot of sense to me. Not my favorite show.

Foreground: Guadalupe Garcia and Junior Cervila as
the tango dancers, The Countess and The Gigolo.
Background, upper level: William Ryall and Natascia Diaz as
Colonel Doctor Otternschlag and Raffaela Ottannio;
lower level: Brandon Uranowitz and Helene Yorke as
Otto Kringelein and Flaemmchen. Photo by Joan Marcus.

3/25/18: National Theatre Live: Julius Caesar
What: National Theatre Live broadcast of their production of Julius Caesar.
And? I'd seen that there were some Trump presidency-inspired influences in the concept, and was geared up for echoes of what the Public Theatre's production did, but it was really only there at the beginning. The cast was good, and I liked the pivoting of the scholarly Brutus against the athletic Mark Antony. Embracing the fact that this is a play where what matters is the sway of public opinion, the set was a series of platforms that would raise and lower amid a teeming crowd of groundlings, so that danger or validation was always just a few steps away.

David Morrissey and Ben Whishaw as Mark Antony and Brutus. Photo by
Manuel Harlan.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

My Fair Lady Doesn't Hate Women. Henry Higgins Hates Women.

On March 20th, I saw a preview of the newest revival of My Fair Lady. This production has been lately included in lamentations over the reviving of dated and sexist material; I find its inclusion in the conversation misguided chiefly because people are lumping it in with Carousel, an unfair and inaccurate coupling. Entering a This-Is-Zelda's-Opinion Zone, I'll start by saying Carousel is a bad show.

How is Carousel bad?
  • It's a bad story
  • It has a bad protagonist
  • It's full of bad messages romanticizing abusive and unhealthy relationships (some of which the current revival tries to mitigate)
  • I can stand only half the score
  • It's angered me since I saw it as a child. Even child-me knew it was bad
  • It's bad, you guys
My Fair Lady is a good show, with some problematic characters. There's a difference.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W11: A Brief History of Colonization, Much Ado About Nothing, Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craiglist

3/16/18: A Brief History of Colonization
What: Kal Mansoor's one man show, as part of Emerging Artists Theatre's New Work Series, is part epic movie pitch, and part a humorous survey of India's colonial history.
And? Kal Mansoor is a good writer, and the piece was entertaining and informative. The frame could use some tightening, and the presentation would benefit from a director, but the work is solid and shows good potential.

3/17/18: Much Ado About Nothing
What: Hamlet Isn't Dead's latest installment, a musical and playful take on (full disclosure) one of my favorite comedies.
And? Truly delightful and hilarious. Full review here.

James Michael Armstrong, Noah Ruff, and Joe Regan as Leonato, Claudio,
and Don Pedro.

3/17/18: Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist
What: Rejected and depressed, Walt is on the brink of suicide when Tilda Swinton - supposedly answering a craigslist ad placed by Walt's ex-boyfriend - arrives to upend his life as she pursues what is sure to be her next Oscar-winning performance.
And? This was so dang silly and fun. Full review here.

Byron Lane and Tom Lenk as Walt and Tilda.

Margin Notes: Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craiglist

Byron Lane and Tom Lenk as Walt and Tilda Swinton.

Seen on: Saturday, 3/17/18.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
Rejected and depressed, Walt is on the brink of suicide when Tilda Swinton - supposedly answering a craigslist ad placed by Walt's ex-boyfriend - arrives to upend his life as she pursues what is sure to be her next Oscar-winning performance. Playwright and star Byron Lane brings his farce to New York after a successful run at LA's Celebration Theater.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'm a big ol' Buffy nerd (see: my other blog), and was very excited to see Tom Lenk be silly in something.


This was exactly the ridiculously fun and silly play I thought it was going to be. While there is a narrative of growth and change for poor Walt, beset on all sides by neglectful parents and a callous ex (to say nothing of his new Oscar-winning roomie), most of the fun to be had comes in the person of Tom Lenk's outrageous performance as Ms. Swinton. Tilda here seems to a glorious melding of the eccentric and celebrated film star, the absurdist/dadaist twitter account @NotTildaSwinton, and Tom Lenk's own social media fashion brand, LewkBewk. Which delightful eccentricity of Tilda's to choose as your favorite? Is it when she declares that she was in the movie Die Hard (she played Christmas)? Is it when, upon being told that someone has merely read The Chronicles of Narnia but not seen the film, and she hastily averts her eyes, muttering "Trash!" Is it when she tells literally everyone she meets that they remind her of someone, who just happens to be a role she has played, and how many times they seen that movie? Is it when she steals a patron's flagon of beer and painstakingly downs the whole thing? Or is it her entrance in a hooded cape made of bubble wrap? That's rather hard to beat. Tom Lenk is perfection in a role he seems born to play, delivering the most absurd lines with conviction and deep gravitas.

Margin Notes: Much Ado About Nothing

James Powers, Morgan Hooper, and
Megan Greener as Balthazar, Verges, and

Seen on: Saturday, 3/17/18.
My grade: A+

Plot and Background
Leonato plays host to the prince, Don Pedro, and his soldier friends, and love is in the air: Claudio, with the prince's aid, woos and wins Leonato's daughter, Hero. When the verbal sparring between too-witty-for-their-own-good Beatrice and Benedick gets out of hand, Don Pedro leads the others in persuading the two combatants of each other's unspoken affection. Complicating matters is Don Pedro's bastard brother, Don John, who is set on ruining as much happiness as he can. Hamlet Isn't Dead presents Much Ado About Nothing as part of its ongoing journey to present the entire Shakespeare canon in chronological order.

What I Knew Beforehand
I've seen (and reviewed) several Hamlet Isn't Dead ventures, and I know a few of the artists involved. I also have Much Ado accidentally-half-memorized, because the Branagh film is one of my favorites.


Play: I always enjoy a Hamlet Isn't Dead production, and this one may be the most fun I've seen. Evident in every moment is the company's affection for the text and joy in playing. Director James Rightmyer Jr. leans full tilt into the title's meaning - there is, indeed, much ado along the journey the characters take, but as things wind to a happy end and the company joins in (very catchy) song, there is the most joy and release as they hit the nonsense refrain of "hey nonny nonny." Shakespeare sticklers may note the combining of several roles for economy here - servant Ursula and Leonato's brother Antonio become Leonato's wife Ursula; Balthazar, Don Pedro's musician, absorbs some smaller roles, like Conrade and the messenger; the Friar, too, is merged with the Sexton - this economizing largely works, though it makes the argument over grief and anger between Leonato and Ursula a bit confusing, stakes-wise (Ursula's passivity might make more sense regarding a niece than a daughter). This is a small quibble, though - I thoroughly enjoyed myself during this high-quality performance.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W10: Carousel, Escape to Margaritaville, The Signature Project, The Bloody Deed of 1857

3/06/18: Carousel
What: Since Lincoln Center and Bartlett Sher are busy with My Fair Lady this season, Jack O'Brien is in charge of the current prestige Rodgers & Hammerstein revival. Fiercely independent Julie Jordan falls in love with charismatic rogue and carnival barker Billy Bigelow. They marry, but it's a tense partnership, with his violent temper making everyone fear for Julie's happiness and safety. After learning of Julie's pregnancy, Billy agrees to aid in a robbery that would help him support his family, but when it goes south, he commits suicide to avoid imprisonment. In the afterlife, he is given the chance to redeem his existence and help the family he left behind, fifteen years later.
And? I don't like this show. I never have. I saw it as a young child and had an instantaneous recoil against a narrative about a man who foolishly ruins the lives of his entire family, but then the show wants to redeem him. I wanted none of it. I still don't want much of it. So my repulsion to the content aside, I will say: I respect the craft I see Hammerstein the bookwriter doing, experimenting with form, having scenes that seamlessly shift between song and spoken word - a clear antecedent to Sondheim and his collaborators. This production is solidly anchored by the heartbreaking earnestness of Jessie Mueller's Julie, the perfectly-delivered soliloquy of Billy by Joshua Henry, and the amazingly hilarious and heartfelt Carrie as performed by Lindsay Mendez (my GOD, these three). The rest of the cast was uneven - neither the ballet dancers nor the opera star are particularly good actors, but they're good at the dancing and the singing, respectively. Outside of a few isolated small personal interactions, I was not particularly fond of the staging of the show ("Blow High, Blow Low" was a high point, however), or of the set design. Also it's Carousel. [further note: it's still in previews, and I've been told they're experimenting with different revisions of the script, so the production that opens might be different from what I saw]

3/07/18: Escape to Margaritaville
What: A new musical based around the song catalog of Jimmy Buffet (some classics, some new material, if my understanding is correct). Workaholic Rachel takes her bff Tammy on a week-long bachelorette holiday to a tiny island with a volcano which may or may not erupt. While there, both women find romance in unexpected places. Also everyone drinks a lot.
And? I mean ... if you want to see a brightly-colored musical with songs by Jimmy Buffet and don't care if there's an actual story or conflict, this is a show you might enjoy. It was kind of fun seeing it on blizzard night - we hardy few who made it there were invited to move in close and enjoy. The show is harmless; I was mostly bored. Also, I managed to make a lot of my friends hilariously angry when I announced on Facebook that until that night I didn't realize Jimmy Hoffa and Jimmy Buffet were two separate men. So that was fun.

Andre Ward, center, as Jamal. Photo by David Gordon.

3/09/18: The Signature Project
What: Dubliner Patrick Dunning has been working on a massive mural for the past twenty-five years, made entirely out of 171 4x4 canvases covered in signatures. He tours these canvases around, gathering further signatures and stories to tell, in this multimedia performance of visual art, storytelling, music, and dance, in the ongoing quest to complete his magnum opus.
And? A striking examination of art, what we see, and what is "beyond the visible light." Full review here.
Patrick Dunning in front of a projection of his vision for the final work.
Photo by Ingrid Butler.

3/10/18: The Bloody Deed of 1857
What: in 1857, Dr. Harvey Burdell was violently murdered in his home, and his betrothed, Emma Cunningham, was accused of the crime. In a parlor on the posh Colonnade Row, patrons are invited to a seance where the ghosts of the Burdell and Cunningham linger, trapped by their unresolved relationship and the truth of Burdell's death. Playwright Elise Gainer adapts and stars in this environmental true crime story.
And? Ultimately, I think I liked the aesthetic more than the content and performance of this piece. It's a very intimate space, and the control of light and the audience's eye is well-crafted, as well as the use of sound and space by the ensemble of Shadow Actors. But there was an under-rehearsed quality to some of the scenes which made it hard to invest in the characters and the mystery they were trying to solve. The performance also has a pretty cool framing element - both a pre- and post-performance ghost tour of the neighborhood by the engaging Meghan Sara Karre.
The cast of The Bloody Deed of 1857. Photo by JJ Ignotz.

Margin Notes: The Signature Project

Patrick Dunning with musician Cat Patterson and
dancer Melissa Maricich. Photo by Ingrid Butler.

Seen on: Friday, 3/09/18.
My grade: A-

Plot and Background
Dubliner Patrick Dunning has been working on a massive artwork for the past twenty-five years, made entirely out of 171 4x4 canvases covered in signatures. He tours these canvases around, gathering further signatures and stories to tell, in this multimedia performance of visual art, storytelling, music, and dance, in the ongoing quest to complete his magnum opus.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew loosely that this was a multi-media performance somehow related to an artwork, but not much else, as I wanted to let myself be surprised.


In telling the story of his life and of his art, Patrick Dunning speaks of passing "beyond the visible light." Sometimes this means when people, such as his father - immortalized in a metallic paint portrait visible only under an X-ray of Square 43 - pass away. Sometimes it means that you need to reexamine a thing to see its full nature; look at it from a different angle, or, more literally, from a different light (ultraviolet, infrared, and X-ray, to name a few) to see what's there. The mission to make each moment of life and of his work worth this reexamination is at the heart of his mural, and of the performance piece around it, The Signature Project. From a distance, his massive mural is a celestial celebration, with Earth, the stars, the crescent moon, the galaxy, framing a shining sun with a heart at its center. Up close, each 4x4 square within the work is a tapestry of signatures in different colored acrylic inks. Up close, he can tell you the story of individual signatures on his mural. Some squares have hidden within them metallic paintings seen only by X-ray. Some squares are overlaid with sections of an ornately flowered silhouette of a man embracing the painting, the central heart in his chest, but visible only under ultraviolet light. Every inch of his mural is crafted and planned, and Dunning has so many stories to tell. He doesn't know when the work will be finished. He doesn't know where the work will go. But perhaps it is the journey of the work, his travels, his stories, and the stories he collects along the way, which make this memorable: it is a work of memories set to outlive every person whose name is but a piece of its whole.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W9: Three Tall Women

3/01/18: Three Tall Women
What: Three ages of women (A, 92; B, 52; C, 26) look back on A's life, its bitterness and its sweetness, looking for how she became who she is. The first act/half is realism, the second half/act, more an imagined deconstruction.
And? Honestly, I had a really tough time focusing during the first half. The second half, though, was terrific, with a gorgeous set concept by Miriam Buether (so much poetry in its reveal), and stunning performances by Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf. I saw the first preview, so there was a technical snafu at the transition, but otherwise this is in pretty good shape.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W8: Ghost Story

1/10/18: Ghost Story
What: Three women deal with the grief, pain, and growth that cancer leaves in its wake.
And? While I don't fully agree with the play's philosophy, I like the structure of it, and the performers are quite good. Full review here.

Randa Karembelas, Chelsea J. Smith, and Elissa Klie as Lisa, Meryl, and Hannah.
Photo by David Fletcher.

Margin Notes: Ghost Story

Elissa Klie and Chelsea J. Smith as Hannah and
Meryl. Photo by David Fletcher.

Seen on: Friday, 2/23/18.
My grade: B

Plot and Background
Three women - Meryl, a healer; Lisa, her client facing a return of her breast cancer; and Hannah, Meryl's girlfriend - are haunted by the spectre of illness, and by questions they cannot answer. Little Spoon, Big Spoon partners with Cancer Hope Network to present this one-act by Mark Ravenhill, with 20% of the ticket sales going to CHN.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd seen (and reviewed) an earlier Little Spoon, Big Spoon production, which included two of the same cast members as this show. Otherwise, I knew very little of the play going in.


Play: I like very much the idea of these women sharing strength with each other - giving when they see another is weak and needing support, and accepting that support when it's given. The play is an interesting sort of skirt to the gritty and mundane unpleasantness of illness, dealing instead with its emotional scars, the worries and fears, but skipping ahead past the actual dying. However, I remain troubled by a recurring theme in this play, which is the characters' choosing a lie over the truth, albeit with good intent. Lies wait to be found out; truths simply are. And this action is a bit too central to the play for me to completely look past it. Looking near it, though, I like the non-linear fluidity of the narrative, the idea that these three women perpetually haunt the same space, whether they are physically in the room together or no. The play's tagline is "We are the stories we tell ourselves;" I would addend that with "and the people we carry with us."

Monday, February 19, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W7: At Home at the Zoo, Chess (twice)

1/10/18: At Home at the Zoo
What: Edward Albee's famous The Zoo Story is paired with a prequel, Homelife, to show Peter's relationship with his wife, Ann, prior to meeting a strange man, Jerry, on a park bench, who seems determined to unsettle him.
And? I saw this the last time it was done in New York, at Second Stage, and was disappointed at the time - Homelife seemed to have been written for the sole purpose of giving us a clue who Peter was prior to Jerry, but I was just bewildered by it. This time, however, I was mostly won over by Homelife. Yes, aspects of it are still bewildering (it's Albee), but the relationship felt real, and was affectingly performed by Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard. I had a sense of what could be lost in the next act. But then, for the first time, The Zoo Story half didn't work for me. It was working for a while, mind you - Paul Sparks did great work with the dog story. But the final escalation felt inorganic, and so I felt nothing at the conclusion, because I didn't trust it. I'm not sure what went wrong here, but something did.

Top: Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard as Ann
and Peter. Bottom: Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks
as Peter and Jerry. Photos by Joan Marcus.

1/10/18: Chess (twice)
What: Kennedy Center, a la New York City Center's Encores! series, presents a concert staging of Chess with newly revised script by Danny Strong. Florence, a refugee from Hungary, is poised at the epicenter of an East-West rivalry during the height of the Cold War, as two chess champions, one Russian, one American, vie for the title amid geopolitical machinations and romantic entanglements.
Why Twice? Well, Raul Esparza, Ramin Karimloo, Karen Olivo, Ruthie Ann Miles, and Bryce Pinkham.
And? One of musical theater's famous problem shows, Chess once again attempts to fix itself and find its "final" version. It's still Chess. It's still got its infectious score with its lyrics that don't always make sense or sit comfortably on the melody, and a story that never quite works. But the cast is great, strong acting and strong vocals (the unfortunate exception to this turned into a moving moment of live theater: Raul Esparza has been battling an infection all week. We could hear him struggling with the notes at the top of his register on Saturday; on Sunday they delayed curtain 15 minutes, then announced that he was sick but would perform regardless. His Sunday Freddie shouted a bit less, took a good deal of his stuff down an octave (the high stuff just wasn't there when he reached for it), and was aided and supported by Florence/Karen Olivo. He was conserving what limited access he had to his high range for his big act two number, "Pity the Child," and while it was still rough, it was incredibly performed. When he finished, the entire cast burst into applause along with the audience, and I saw several wiping tears from their eyes. It was a wonderful reminder of the camaraderie and support that is built in a company of players). Back to the show: It's a well-staged concert, and this was probably the funniest version of the show I've encountered, so I assume that's part of what Strong added, along with more specific ties to contemporary conflicts between the USSR and the US.

Karen Olivo as Florence. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W6: Relevance, Hey, Look Me Over!, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box

1/10/18: Relevance
What: At a literary conference, Lifetime Achievement honoree Theresa goes head to head on the topic of feminism with newcomer (and grant winner) Msemaji, and when their panel debate goes viral, both must reckon with the value of the individual voice versus the cacophony of social media.
And? I caught this early enough in previews - and rewrites - that several scenes had actors with script in hand. That being said, I found this a compelling exploration of the importance of the individual, as opposed to being defined solely by othering labels. I don't know that the playwright has as yet presented as balanced an examination as he ultimately wants, since it's so clear in the opening scene that Theresa starts out in the wrong, and never quite recovers enough for us to consider she might have the higher ground. The cast was pretty great, particularly the two leads, Pascale Armand and Jayne Houdyshell.

Jayne Houdyshell and Pascale Armand as Theresa and Msemaji. Photo by
Joan Marcus.

1/10/18: Hey, Look Me Over!
What: Bob Martin revives his Man in Chair persona from The Drowsy Chaperone to curate a revue  in honor of New York City Center Encores!'s 25th anniversary, selecting songs from eight musicals (and an overture from a ninth) of the past they haven't yet visited. (Wildcat, All American, Jamaica, Milk and Honey, Mack & Mabel, Greenwillow, Sail Away, George M!, and the overture from Subways are for Sleeping)
And? Listen, I had fun. Was it a coherent revue? Not really. But I knew to expect that going in. I got what I love to get out of the Encores! series: a glimpse at shows I probably won't get to see full production of, with a full orchestra and top notch talent. In this case, the only music I knew ahead of time was Mack & Mabel, "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" from Sail Away, and "Give My Regards to Broadway" from George M! - everything else was new to me. Highlights: Bob Martin's sweet and off-beat Man in Chair, Carolee Carmello's robust "Hey, Look Me Over!," Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha completely charming us as the titular Mack and Mabel, Clifton Duncan bringing the house down with "Never Will I Marry," and Bebe Neuwirth reminding us why she's a legend with "Why Do the Wrong People Travel."

Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha perform from Mack & Mabel.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

1/10/18: He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box
What: Kay, a young black woman, a child of persecution and segregation in 1941, loves and is loved by aspiring actor (and young white man), Chris. With the shadow of impending war, the two write letters between New York and Georgia, planning their future and telling stories of their families, terrible stories rendered more terrible by their straightforward telling.
And? Piercing and brief, Adrienne Kennedy's delicate new work doesn't overexplain itself or its characters, but rather lets us see their inner hearts, their dreams and limited understanding of their own history. Juliana Canfield, making her professional New York stage debut, is particularly compelling as Kay, haunted and hopeful. The design is powerful as well, with Austin Switser's projections taking us on train rides, into snow, and everywhere else the two character journey or remember. Christopher Barreca's set, a long staircase leading up to closed doors, gives haunting finality to the play's final moments. Impeccable work.

Juliana Canfield and Tom Pecinka as Kay and Chris. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W5: Jerry Springer - the Opera, The Chekhov Dreams

1/31/18: Jerry Springer - the Opera
What: Jerry Springer's show is going normally - full of broken angry people telling terrible secrets and riling up the audience - when a disgruntled ex-employee shoots him dead. When Jerry arrives in Hell, Satan requests he hosts one last show, featuring Jesus, Adam, Eve, Mary, and possibly the big man himself.
And? The first half, pre-murder, was basically the same joke, over and over: people saying horrible things but singing them operatically (including the recurring refrain "What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fucking fuck"). The second half also felt pretty labored, honestly, and the fact that after the parade of awfulness, the show seemed to be shooting for an actual moral message, felt unearned. The cast is talented, but it wasn't enough. That being said, to quote Michael Bluth, I don't know what I expected.

Will Swenson and Terrence Mann with company as Satan and Jerry Springer.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

2/02/18: The Chekhov Dreams
What: A depressed Jeremy is shaken from his three-year stupor by his hedonistic brother, who prompts him to join an acting class. Now he no longer dreams of his dead fiancee Kate; Anton Chekhov is there, too.
And? Some problematic stuff, but I had a mostly fun time watching it. Full review here.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Margin Notes: The Chekhov Dreams

Elizabeth Inghram and Dana Watkins as Kate and Jeremy.
Photo by Arin Sang-urai.

Seen on: Friday, 2/02/18.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
Jeremy, still deeply depressed three years after the death of his fiancee, is reclusive, sleeping all the time, and blocked on writing his modern-day fairy tale novella. Forcibly shaken from his routine by his party-hard brother Eddie, Jeremy joins an acting class and begins work on a scene from The Seagull with classmate Chrissy, only to find that his dreams are no longer haunted solely by the spectre of Kate - there's a long-dead Russian playwright paying him visits as well.

What I Knew Beforehand
Next to nothing. Well, I suppose I knew enough of Chekhov's theatrical canon to have an opinion while Jeremy and Chrissy debated his merits.


Play: I definitely had my trepidations based on the title alone - I, like Jeremy, am not overly in love with the plays of Chekhov. But this turned out to be quite a charming romantic comedy with a twist. There are things I could pick apart - a somewhat inconsistent engagement with mental illness, or how the women still rather felt like props to the male narrative - but these are things which came up more for me after the show rather than during it. During the show, I was engaged and amused, laughing and investing in the characters on their journey, frequently questioning - and changing my mind just as frequently - what Kate's true agenda might be, and whether she was a true ghost visiting, or a manifestation of Jeremy's grief and broken psyche. That line of tension can be hard to maintain, but this production pulled it off winningly, and even made me consider giving Chekhov another try.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W4: The Undertaking, Miles for Mary, In the Body of the World

1/24/18: The Undertaking
What: The Civilians' founder, writer-director Steve Cosson, interviewed a variety of figures - a philosopher, an artist, a cancer survivor, and a woman who momentarily died - and assembled a multimedia two-actor dialogue exploring these perspectives, as well as the bounds of the artifice of theater, while he himself goes on his own undertaking to confront his fears connected with death and loss.
And? I really liked this one, you guys. The two actors, Aysan Celik and Dan Domingues, are excellent, imbuing each character (including the play's auteur) with such natural and understated humanity that each seems like the way they must always stand, speak, think, as opposed to one of several roles in only eighty minutes. I found the interweaving of the various perspectives on death with the ongoing dialogue between Steve and Rita compelling and engaging (and now I really want to see Cocteau's Orpheus), and the ideas explored stayed in my mind such that I went home and wrote a story about a child's rudimentary engagement with death. Definitely worth catching.

Dan Domingues and Aysan Celik (with a scene from Jean Cocteau's Orpheus).
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

1/25/18: Miles for Mary
What: In the gym room of a high school in Garrison, Ohio in 1988-1989, five teachers (with a sixth on speakerphone) plan an upcoming annual fundraising telethon.
And? Honestly, this just wasn't for me. It was well-acted and an adept demonstration of passive aggressive negotiation, but not something that I ever got into. Several of my friends were raving about it, though, so this is just one Zelda's opinion.

Stephanie Wright Thompson, Marc Bovino, Michael Dalto, Stacey Yen, and
Joe Curnutte as Sandra, Ken, David, Julie, and Rod. Photo by Sara Krulwich.

1/26/18: In the Body of the World
What: Performance artist and activist Eve Ensler explores her disconnection and eventual retaking of ownership of her body, in the context of her work in the Congo building the City of Joy, her history of abuse, and her journey through cancer treatment, in this adaptation of her memoir.
And? This woman is an absolute force of nature, and I'm so glad I finally got to see one of her works. Her piece was shocking, moving, and intimately familiar. She stands as a challenge to artists to be brave enough to be scared.

Eve Ensler. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W3: Fire and Air, Mankind, Hangmen

1/17/18: Fire and Air
What: A bioplay about Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, founder and producer of the Ballets Russes, following his complicated relationship with dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinksy, and the struggle of those around him to live up to the beauty and vision only he fully sees.
And? It was okay? It was the first preview, and I don't know if rewrites are in the works. It had the John Doyle stamp, with seamless transitions between scenes and non-literal space and staging, as well as an embrace of the minimal listening style of performance. The production is polished, but I didn't care a whole lot about what I was being shown. I don't think it was a story, so much as a series of things that happened.

1/18/18: Mankind
What: One hundred years after the last woman has become extinct due to over-regulation and bad treatment, two men who have been casually hooking up find out one of them is pregnant - and attempt to have an illegal abortion. Things then pivot pretty extremely out of control in ways I don't want to spoil.
And? I had a lot of trepidation going in, both from being concerned that I was seeing a play about how horrible men had been to women, without any women there to speak for themselves; and because I'd been hearing mixed reviews. I think, ultimately, this play really isn't about feminism. It doesn't feel like it's about gender politics at all, except for the absurdity of laws regulating women's bodies still being on the books, a century after their extinction. The disappointing part is probably the conviction that seeing this same treatment inflicted on men is the only way for some men to grok the injustice. But what I think this play is actually about is the dangers of extremism, fanaticism, and the removal of context and humanity. Arc-wise, it reminded me very much of another Playwrights Horizons prod, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, in that we keep returning to rehash earlier moments, each time farther from true understanding, each time farther from the actual people, and (spoilers?) each time approaching more the behaviors of a religious rite. This play isn't quite about people, and it's a satire without being funny, and maybe that's why it got some pushback. I see what it's doing without necessarily liking it, if that makes sense.

Ariel Shafir, Anson Mount, Bobby Moreno, and David Ryan Smith as
Bob, Mark, Jason, and Bob. Photo by Joan Marcus.

1/1918: Hangmen
What: In 1960s Lancashire, England, hanging has just been outlawed as a means of execution, and local hangman Harry must reckon with the messy aftermath of his career when a stranger enters his pub.
And? Martin McDonagh is really an excellent craftsman of storytelling, keeping steps ahead of his audience even as we race to catch up. That element is always satisfying in a McDonagh yarn for me, and I was engaged the entire time. That being said - and perhaps this is just in the context of seeing it back to back with Mankind - it was fairly irritating how the only two female characters were props to the story. The cast was uniformly excellent, particularly Mark Addy as Harry.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W2: Hansbury & Slack, Improvised Shakespeare, Cardinal

1/10/18: Hansbury & Slack
What: Brian Hansbury and Beth Slack perform an improvised hour-long musical based on a suggestion from the audience, exploring an important moment in someone's life.
And? These two (three if you count their pianist Jody Shelton - and you should) consistently blow me away with their talent, humor, and heart. This particular rendition of a couple anticipating the birth of their child while Ocean's 11 plays on the television was both touching and hilarious.

1/12/18: Improvised Shakespeare
What: A troupe of five players improvise a ninety-minute play in iambic pentameter (ish), based on a suggestion from the audience, using familiar Shakepearean tropes, style, and structure.
And? These guys are absolutely phenomenal and I don't know how they do what they do. "The Globe and the Shell" was hilarious, weird, bloody, and full of weasels.

1/13/18: Cardinal
What: Young mayor Jeff gets persuaded by former classmate Lydia into painting downtown red, in the hopes of putting their small town on the map, revitalizing outside interest, and boosting commerce. When the outside interest comes in the form of a bus tour full of made-up stories, they have to decide if what they love is the town or those who inhabits it.
And? I think whatever message playwright Greg Pierce was trying to convey was muddied at best. It is a good question, but there's a lot of excess noise, to the degree that I ultimately didn't know why we were here. (I also got a bit annoyed by the set design, but it's a bit of a petty rant that would probably be appreciated only by my fellow PHTS alum)

Monday, January 8, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W1: John Lithgow: Stories By Heart, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Farinelli and the King

1/2/18: John Lithgow: Stories By Heart
What: A one-man show in which John Lithgow shares two of his favorites from a short story anthology prized by his family, framed by connected anecdotes from his life.
And? An excellent vehicle for Lithgow's talents as a storyteller. I was more engaged by the first act, where he enacted Ring Lardner's "Haircut," which had some good pantomime in addition to the charisma of the conversational style, even as the story got nasty. The second act, featuring P.G. Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred Flits By," was funny though less compelling to me in its content; however, he framed it well within his family's story.

John Lithgow in Stories By Heart. Photo by Joan Marcus.

1/5/18: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
What: A deconstruction of Mary Shelley's classic, interspersing the journey of the creature with Shelley's grief at losing her children to illness and miscarriage. The performance is a mix of text and scene with live music, aria, and dance.
And? Meh. Neither the creature's story nor Mary Shelley's were interestingly told. Redeemed only by Robert Fairchild's dancing (The Monster) and the live music provided by Krysty Swann (Mezzo-Soprano), Steven Lin (Piano), Parker Ramsay (Organ/Harpsichord), and Kemp Jernigan (Oboe).

Krysty Swann and Robert Fairchild as Mezzo-Soprano and The Monster.
Photo by Shirin Tinati.

1/6/18: Farinelli and the King
What: A London transplant of a new play, told in Shakespeare/Globe style, starring Mark Rylance and written by his wife, Claire Van Kampen, about how the friendship between King Philippe V of Spain and celebrate castrato Farinelli restored the king some of his mental and emotional acuity, while also enriching the singer's existence.
And? A lush design and a top-notch cast (particularly Rylance as the King, Melody Grove as the Queen, Sam Crane as Farinelli, and Iestyn Davies as Farinelli's voice). There ended up being less to the story than I anticipated, with set ups for familiar tropes from history plays built but then dropped (scheming courtiers, a love triangle, etc.). Worth it for the performances, but not a script for the ages.

Iestyn Davies and Sam Crane as Singer and Farinelli.
Photo by Joan Marcus.


Note: I'm attempting a new weekly digestible digest of my playgoing, to better track my initial impressions of shows even if I'm not writing full reviews. Fingers crossed I can keep this up!