Monday, September 20, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W38: Letters of Suresh, Lackawanna Blues

 9/14/21: Letters of Suresh
What: 2nd Stage presents Rajiv Joseph's epistolary play about a found box of letters to a priest in Japan, and the lives touched by the letters and their author.
And? While watching, I kept being struck by what a smart choice this was for 2nd Stage's return to live theater: the structure is largely monologue/audience address, which allows for a safer rehearsal set up, and a big theme of the play is the connections and relationships we can build, even while far away from each other. And, like the origami figures built by its title character, Rajiv Joseph's play tucks and folds its various plot threads neatly together to give a well-packaged and satisfying conclusion. The play may not be life-changing, but it's very well done, anchored by strong performances from Ramiz Monsef (Suresh) and Ali Ahn (Melody, the woman who finds the letters), as well as a final cameo-button from the ever-talented Thom Sesma. The sound design and original music by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts is subtle but powerful, and in collaboration with Jiyoun Chang's lighting design and Shawn Duan's beautiful projection design, adeptly shapes the time passing between and even within letters as they are composed and spoken aloud. If I had one complaint (and it feels so minor to point it out, but the truth is it was continually distracting to me), it would be Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams's build of the scrims which host Duan's projections. The seams in the fabric are so visible, some of them even warped, and it keeps drawing the eye away from the beauty of the origami koi fish, or even the square of yellow paper which changes Suresh's life. I tried to find a textual rationale--perhaps it represented Japanese screens or the origami paper's folds--but neither rationale sees verification in the use of space. Even with this quibble, it's lovely to be in a theater filled with people who are so profoundly grateful to be back--I hope this audience goodwill will continue for a good stretch.

What: Manhattan Theatre Club presents Ruben Santiago-Hudson's tribute to "Nanny" Rachel Crosby, the woman who raised him.
And? It's a great opportunity for Santiago-Hudson to showcase his range as a performer, vocally, physically, and musically, and it's a very loving ode to the woman who saved not just him but countless others while running her boarding houses in upstate New York. Backed by Junior Mack on guitar playing original music by Santiago-Hudson's longtime collaborator Bill Sims Jr. (to whose memory the play is dedicated), the author/performer plays over twenty different characters from his childhood (as well as a mean harmonica). Parts of this are truly very strong--virtuosic even--but the momentum drops a few times into a restlessness until the next big story or character can begin. And, even if it's a reflection of the times, I am uncomfortable with the pejorative language regarding mental illness.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W37: Sanctuary City, A Phoenix Too Frequent, Angela's Ashes

9/10/21: Sanctuary City
What: The Lucille Lortel hosts NYTW's semi-aborted March 2020 production of Martina Majok's play about two teens in a post-9/11 world with the threat of deportation looming over them. 
And? I love it. The first half of the play is a series of lightning strikes--quick fragments of scenes that quickly shift to other scenes, then shift back, and yet somehow the audience isn't lost in the journey. A beautiful demonstration of what a strong voice and good collaboration among playwright, director (Rebecca Frecknall) and actors (Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz) can look and sound like. And when the Girl finally leaves for college, three and half years go by in a prolonged moment of poetic half-light, with the Boy standing still and watching as she rotates slowly. The second half of the play is a different kind of unrelenting to the first: one long unbroken scene, with no escape from the uncomfortable truths now finally forced into light. And though even the final moments of the play are over a decade in our nation's past, the immediacy, the urgency, and the knowledge that this crisis remains just as terrifying today for undocumented minors are ever-present.

Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz as B and G. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched
APT's stream of A Phoenix Too Frequent.
Irish Rep's online presentation of Angela's Ashes.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W36: What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad

9/03/21: What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad
What: Hunter Theatre Project presents the final play in Richard Nelson's Rhinebeck Panorama as the Michaels and their friends gather in Angers, France on September 8, 2021, to mourn Rose and to witness the dance performances of her daughter and niece.
And? Last year, Richard Nelson's Apple Family plays found me at just the right time. His Zoom continuation plays for that family were one of the streaming-theater-hybrid highlights of 2020 for me. Although I haven't seen The Michaels, the predecessor to What Happened?, I knew I couldn't pass up the chance to see the final Rhinebeck play in person. I am sorry I hadn't seen any of the others live; I am so grateful I got to see this one. It's hard to describe a Rhinebeck play to someone and make it sound compelling: people prepare a meal, talk, eat the meal, and talk. At some point there is a pause to enjoy a work of art: poetry, choral music, dance. There is in Nelson's plays an appreciation for life, for the here and now. A gratitude and an awareness. That which Wilder warned us in Our Town is all too rare. This play, which takes place five days after I saw it, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah (September 8, 2021, its opening night), is grateful to be alive, while mourning the innumerable losses of this past year and a half. When the show ended I remained in my seat a few extra moments, to weep in gratitude that I was here, that I was home. 

Monday, August 30, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W35: The Last of the Love Letters, Bagdad Cafe, Viral, Cymbeline

What: Atlantic Theater Company presents a new epistolary play by Ngozi Anyanwu about two people at the end of something, unable to finally say goodbye.
And? Honestly, I'm not really sure what to make of the structure or the conclusion of this play. The first section seems wholly disconnected from the second. While both yield strong solo performances from playwright Anyanwu and her costar Daniel J. Watts, I remain unclear just what the playwright or director intended for the audience to leave with.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched This Week

Monday, August 9, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W32: Pass Over

8/07/21: Pass Over
What: Lincoln Center's Broadway transfer (and indeed the first Broadway show to perform since the shutdown) of Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu's powerful three-hander about Moses and Kitch, two Black men on a sidewalk planning to escape their circumstances.
And? I adored this play when I saw it Off-Broadway, and was so thrilled when the transfer was announced. The three actors are extraordinary (award nominations for Smallwood and Hill please!), and the expansion of Wilson Chin's scenic design is breathtaking. Playwright Nwandu has rewritten aspects of the play, particularly its conclusion, to reflect the change in dialogue in the States about violence against Black bodies over the past few years. Beyond that, I don't want to delve too deeply into spoiler territory, so I'll just say I'm so glad this play and playwright and production exist, and I think when they publish the script it would be fascinating to publish the different versions that have received major productions (the Steppenwolf run/Spike Lee film, the Off-Broadway run, and the Broadway run). Someone better credentialed than me could write a compelling article about that journey.

Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill as Kitch
and Moses. Photo by Joan Marcus.