Monday, September 16, 2019

Weekly Margin 2019, W37: The Great Society, Wives, Slave Play, The Height of the Storm

9/09/19: The Great Society
What: The sequel to All the Way, this is is playwright Robert Schenkkan and director Bill Rauch's second examination of President Lyndon B. Johnson, tracking the decline of his term, as any good intentions are stymied by his need for political maneuvering.
And? Schenkkan and Rauch have now spent two Broadway plays trying to convince me I needed to see one Broadway play about LBJ. I don't remember minding the first play when I saw it, but The Great Society ... this play is nearly three hours when it doesn't even need to be two. It's three hours about how much Johnson failed as a president, as an ally to the African American community, and in the war in Vietnam, without convincing me I should care about whether or not he deserved to fail. I couldn't for the life of me find a story in the series of events I was shown, and once we hit the two hour mark, I became increasingly disengaged and distracted, wondering how much longer this could go on. Brian Cox, though he doesn't attempt LBJ's Texan accent, is excellent, but it's not enough to make this show worth my time.

9/10/19: Wives
What: Playwrights Horizons presents Jaclyn Backhaus's new play, about women defined in history through their relationship to men, but who forge new strong bonds with each other.
And? I loved it. Weird and brilliant and funny and moving, a conjuring really of all of these things and more, in only 80 minutes. While I wasn't bowled over by Backhaus's recent play, India Pale Ale, Wives reminded me of all the things I loved in her other work at Playwrights, Men on Boats. Great stuff.

Adina Verson, Aadya Bedi, and Purva Bedi as Mary Welsh, Martha Gelhorn,
and Hadley Richardson. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Weekly Margin 2019, W36: Derren Brown: Secret, Troilus & Cressida

9/06/19: Derren Brown: Secret
What: Acclaimed mentalist Derren Brown brings his skills to Broadway.
And? He asked us at the top of the show not to reveal any of the show's contents (it's a secret, you see), so I'll just say I had a great time. Sometimes you feel the strings, sometimes you don't, but you find yourself doing the puppet dance regardless.

9/07/19: Troilus & Cressida
What: Hamlet Isn't Dead's latest installment, an all-female cast in Shakespeare's version of the Trojan War.
And? full review here.

The cast of Troilus & Cressida. Photos by Valerie Terranova.

Margin Notes: Troilus & Cressida

Seen on: Saturday, 9/07/19.
Madeline Egan Addis and Natalie Welds as Cressida and
Troilus. Photo by Valerie Terranova.
My grade: B-

Plot and Background
The Trojan War as told by William Shakespeare, including the ill-fated romance of Troilus, a sibling to Hector and Paris, and Cressida. Presented by Hamlet Isn't Dead as an all female epic.

What I Knew Beforehand
I know some remnant details of the Trojan War, and I'd seen Shakespeare in the Park's recent production of this play. And as anyone who reads this blog knows, I'm a long-time fan (and reviewer) of Hamlet Isn't Dead and their playful approach to Shakespeare.


Play: This is a weird play. It doesn't end so much as stop, and before that happens, it's this odd mix of star crossed lovers and the politics of war. A bit of Romeo and Juliet meets Julius Caesar, except neither feels finally resolved by play's end. I left the show wondering if this was one of the plays, like Macbeth, where we know we're missing chunks of text (as far as a quick internet search can tell me, nah). And that's the play itself, not a reflection on HID; it's a weird play. Sure, it's an interesting and engaging bit of battle and romance, but it's not a coherent story, and like I said, after all that it just stops. And I don't know that this particular cutting and production does anything to successfully ameliorate these issues. There were definitely times during the performance I felt I'd lost the plot, and story beats that didn't make much sense to me. And though the all-female casting of this is appealing, it's not lost on me that, in this particular cutting, all female characters except the titular Cressida have been excised from the narrative (gone is the ship-launching face of Helen, gone is the seer Cassandra). It's an all-female production with the textual female perspective all but removed. Perhaps what's more worrisome is not that they were removed (HID is good at streamlining their texts, and some male characters are also cut), but how easy it is to lift them out without affecting the narrative. Cressida may be in the title, but this is very much a story of men. 

To end this section on a positive note, hot DAMN Greg Pragel's fight choreography. From the earlier sparring bits to the final epic battle, Pragel's kinetic unarmed combat shows the performers to their most athletic and acrobatic advantage, kicking and striking and howling their warrior rage.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Weekly Margin 2019, W35: American Moor

8/26/19: American Moor
What: Red Bull Theater presents Keith Hamilton Cobb's (mostly) one man show about a seasoned black actor who loves Shakespeare, who understands the character of Othello on a deep level, and who is tired of having that character explained to him by white directors.
And? Although the central idea and argument of the play are strong, the structure lacks a bit of focus, and it begins to repeat its points. But Cobb is a wonderful and charismatic performer, compelling and interesting and my goodness, he is excellent with Shakespeare's text. I really would like to see his Othello. And his Titania.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Weekly Margin 2019, W33: Sea Wall / A Life

8/12/19: Sea Wall / A Life
What: Transfer from an earlier Off-Broadway run at The Public. A pair of monologue plays by Simon Stephens and Nick Payne, of two men telling stories of family and loss.
And? I think this production might have gotten a skosh overhyped for me. At least, on the scale of heartbreaking monologue plays from across the pond about losing children, it's very hard (possibly impossible) to beat Carey Mulligan in Dennis Kelly's Girls & Boys. That being said, I read that Sea Wall  was written specifically for Andrew Scott to perform, and though Tom Sturridge was fine, I would have loved to see Scott's version (Jake Gyllenhaal was fine and charming in his piece, too). I think ultimately both plays feel a bit underbaked to me; the first play is too close in time to the events told, but it's neither immediate or distanced enough to reach any conclusive idea (I know the point is it doesn't conclude, but that's life, not theater), while the second play does a fine job of melding the two timelines without actually communicating any ideas I haven't heard before. And then the final moment, when the two are woven together in a wordless epilogue, just does not work for me. Is the point that they are two stories among many? I already know that. This tells me nothing new. Is the point that in each window is another story of life, of death? I know that, too. The two plays already have enough thematic joiners for me to accept them as one piece. The epilogue is unnecessary and an unearned attempt at a final emotional manipulation. (rereading this, it sounds like I hated the shows. I didn't; I just think they could be better, and hope this isn't the final draft)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge as Abe and Alex. Photo by Richard
Hubert Smith.