Friday, February 27, 2015

Margin Notes: John & Jen

Connor Ryan and Kate Baldwin as John and Jen.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.
John & Jen

Seen on: Friday, 2/13/15.
My grade: B. A solid enough production of a rather thin show.

Plot and Background
Told almost entirely through song, Andrew Lippa's two-hander musical follows the story of John and Jen (and other John), as told against the ever-changing times of the second half of the twentieth century. Jen watches out for her little brother from his infancy, trying to protect him from their quarreling parents and controlling father; but when she leaves for college and discovers the psychedelic lifestyle, he falls more under his father's influence, enlists, and is killed in Vietnam. In Act Two, Jen, now a single mother raising a son named after her late brother, tries to keep the memory of her brother alive in her son, not noticing how smothered he feels by his mother's clinging protectiveness. When he decides to forego college to stay home and look after her fragile emotional state, she has to confront whom they've both become. john & jen was originally produced Off-Broadway in 1995 at The Lamb's Theatre and briefly revived there in 2006. This production marks the show's twentieth anniversary.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd heard the cast album years ago and remembered being unimpressed by what felt like a rather predictable and derivative narrative.


Play: Seeing this production didn't drastically change my opinion of the story itself - it's not, at least for me, a terribly interesting narrative - but there was something about the storytelling, something that didn't translate to the cast album I'd listened to as a teen, that made the story more palatable. It wasn't just getting to see it staged, the songs removed from their vacuum - largely it was the charisma of the two performers, as well as being able to see the transitions within and around the songs, as the characters age and grow. Maybe it was even that patch of green grass at the center of the stage - the place where Jen could be alone, where John leaves her, and leaves her again.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Margin Notes: The Nether

Sophia Anne Caruso and Frank Wood as Iris and Papa.
Photo by Jenny Anderson.
The Nether

Seen on: Saturday, 2/14/15.
My grade: B +.

Plot and Background
Mr. Sims, also known as Papa, is being interrogated by Detective Morris, as to his activities within The Nether (future-language for the internet) - an escape into virtual reality in a world where actual reality is dull, cold, and hard. What seems at first like the persecution of a man with a sophisticated code - his realm is more realistic in sensation and detail than most others - soon turns into an examination of the morality of a world without consequences. Has Sims created a haven for the sexually deviant to act out their worst impulses in a way that harms no one, or is he fostering and awaking impulses in previously healthy individuals? Is what happens in The Nether more real or less than what happens in what's left of the real world?

What I Knew Beforehand
Almost exactly nothing. I knew the director Anne Kauffman, as she was one of my teachers at NYU. That's pretty much it.


Play: This play was fascinating, if only because it kept me internally debating, the entire time and in parallel to watching the narrative unfold, what exactly are the moral lines we need to draw on our behavior online (or as it's called in the near-future, The Nether). This isn't just a question of the fact that we can create entirely fictional personas online - it's about the culpability of what those personas accomplish. If the issue with pedophilia is age of consent, and these children are constructs being controlled by adults well over the age of consent, is there still a violation being perpetrated? And if the answer is no, then the new question is, is Papa's realm not a refuge for people with a mental illness, but an enabling environment that encourages deviant behavior? These questions are not answered definitively by the play itself, but I have a lot of admiration for a play that has me asking these questions, and changing my mind with each new piece of information, the entire performance.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Margin Notes: The Iceman Cometh

Nathan Lane and cast as Theodore "Hickey" Hickman.
Photo by Richard Termine.
The Iceman Cometh

Seen on: Saturday, 2/14/15.
Ticket purchased: Full price
My grade: C, with a full acknowledgement that I just don't like O'Neill as a writer. (and an extra side acknowledgement, that my seat was directly behind a very wide column and this is a five hour play) Great design though.

Plot and Background
Harry Hope's saloon plays host to the dregs of humanity - here, men (and a few women) come to rot, nurse their pipe dreams, and whatever drinks they can bum off the bartenders or proprietor. As they play opens, most of the characters sit slumped over tables, awaiting the arrival of popular traveling salesman Hickey, who blows into town every year for Harry's birthday, a roll of cash in hand, and bankrolls everyone's drinks. This time, however, Hickey shows up sober and with a mission - to save his friends from their pipe dreams, from their refusal to know themselves. Although he remains mysterious about his catalyst for most of the play, he claims that his final epiphany of self-knowledge, his abandonment of his pipe dreams, led to a sudden pure happiness he wants to share with his friends. They receive this news with resentment, though each eventually gives it a try - and ends in despair. Eugene O'Neill wrote Iceman in 1939 and it was first performed seven years later, after he'd lost the ability to write due to illness. This production, much of the cast in tow, transferred to BAM after a much-lauded 2012 run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd read the play in high school and hadn't cared for it. I remembered the gist, if not all the particulars, of the plot. I was persuaded to catch this production anyway, as I heard it was a game-changing performance for Nathan Lane's already varied career.


Play: I just don't like this play, you guys. I'm sorry, I don't know what else to say. I tried to find more interesting analysis of the cast and design (I did love the design) below, but the play itself ... I just don't understand why it's a classic. Most of the characters don't feel like characters - they're cutouts, each reciting their pipe dreams in their turn, then subsiding back into their seats as the next character takes over. The degree of despair and denial is palpable, but that alone is not enough to make it a play (nor to make it one I have much interest in seeing). Perhaps if the anticipation of seeing Hickey had seemed like an actual driving thing, the disappointment of what he brought on his arrival would have been more detectable. Instead, everything just drifted along, act to act. It's a horrible non-plot full of non-characters with just a dour world view. Why are we watching this?

Margin Notes: Hamilton

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos
and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules
Mulligan, John Laurens, and Alexander Hamilton.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Seen on: Sunday, 2/1/15.
My grade: A++. This was spectacular, from start to finish. A truly extraordinary new musical.

Plot and Background
Lin-Manuel Miranda's biographical musical, inspired by Ron Chernow's book Alexander Hamilton, follows Hamilton from the rising of America's revolution, to Washington's presidency (with Hamilton as his right-hand man and Secretary of Treasury), through to Hamilton's death in a duel with Aaron Burr. Running parallel to the narrative is Hamilton's lifelong friendship/rivalry with Burr - the first an outspoken activist, the second a man more comfortable with the non-committal middle ground, but both vying for immortality and power. This is the show's world premiere and the run has already extended three times.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew In the Heights quite well, as well as Miranda's other Broadway ventures - Bring it On and the Spanish translations in the revival of West Side Story. I knew some of Hamilton's story, due mostly to high school history class and that milk commercial. And I knew the production was going for racial diversity in a big way - as it happened, the only white cast members were either in the ensemble or Brian d'Arcy James as King George.


Play: Miranda reunites with much of his In the Heights team, including director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and brings back his signature mix of hip hop, rap, and love of old school musical theater to tell this story in a vivid, pulsing rhythm. It was truly thrilling to see just how much Miranda's skills have developed since ItH. I liked that show a lot, the score was incredible, but the story, such as it was, sort of meandered - it was about a community more than a narrative. Here in Hamilton, the story is crisp, clear, and with a distinct purpose in its telling. There's a driving rhythm, not just in the score, but in the characters themselves. There are moments of hilarity, like King George's light pop songs of cynical dismissal, or Jefferson's taunting of Hamilton's downfall after the Reynolds Pamphlet. And there are moments of absolute beauty and poignancy, such as the parallel Schuyler numbers of "Helpless" and "Satisfied" (that staging gave me feels, man), and Hamilton's climactic duel with Burr, as both their streams of consciousness are dilated out into a long desperate frozen moment in time. It was truly thrilling to watch this show unfold - it felt like we were all on the brink of something historic, something that could actually change musical theater and the way we tell stories, and whom we allow to tell them. It legitimized so many voices that have been traditionally marginalized, and there was nothing self-conscious or didactic about it. It was unapologetic, proud, and joyous - much like Hamilton himself (or at least as he's portrayed here). I can already tell this will make my top theatre list for the year.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Margin Notes: Between Riverside and Crazy

Stephen McKinley Henderson as Pops.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Between Riverside and Crazy

Seen on: Friday, 1/23/15.
My grade: B -. Well enough done, but a rather inconclusive narrative for my style.

Plot and Background
Walter "Pops" Washington, a retired cop and widower, is living out his remaining days in a bit of a siege - refusing to settle on an 8-year-old suit against the city for some friendly fire that forced his retirement, ignoring threats of eviction, and providing shelter for his ex-con-current-small-time-criminal son, his son's shadier friend, and his potential daughter-in-law. Tensions rise as his old partner and her ambitious fiance try to leverage a settlement against his family's home and freedom, and question the truth behind his claims. Stephen Adly Guirgis's play had its New York premiere in 2014 at Atlantic Theater Company with a sold out run, and has now transferred to 2nd Stage.

What I Knew Beforehand
Pretty much nothing about the play itself. I knew it had transferred from a run last year at Atlantic Theater Company, and that it was Stephen McKinley Henderson's big break into leading role (he's been in every TV show and play ever, but often in sidekick or supporting roles). And I knew some of Stephen Adly Guirgis's other work - The Motherf*cker with the Hat, primarily, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.


Play: While the play was definitely well-structured, with turns and reveals at every step that were both surprising and also somehow inevitable, I didn't find myself connecting particularly strongly to the story itself. Maybe it's that I kept feeling let down by characters I initially liked - no one quite living up to their potential, no one whom they professed initially to be. Manipulation is not an attractive trait to me. That being said, I didn't find myself bored or tuning out - I wanted to see how all this would fadge, even if I didn't necessarily emotionally invest in particular characters' outcomes. And it was worth it to see Stephen McKinley Henderson just exist onstage - a full, nuanced, vulnerable and abrasive performance.

Margin Notes: The Ghost, a weaving

Seen on: Wednesday, 2/11/15.
My grade: B. Some really exciting ideas here.

Plot and Background
Bottoms Dream is an NY-based theatre company dedicated to reinventing classic texts. This production is the second in their Weaving series, following The Dream, which wove Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. This production weaves together Hamlet and Macbeth, utilizing the language and story of both plays to construct a new hybrid narrative, shading new colors onto certain characters. So here, Macbeth's struggle and narrative are laid on Claudius's shoulders, while Hamlet acquires the surname Macduff and all that that entails. Polonius and her offspring, meanwhile, carry the last name Banquo, and so provide a double threat to Claudius Macbeth. The plot, while shuffling around dialogue and subplots, is still largely faithful the core of both of its source plays - a soldier kills his king and brother to acquire throne and wife and, in his paranoia, begins knocking off anyone else he sees as a threat. Hamlet, meanwhile, is infirm of purpose but wants justice for his father's death.

What I Knew Beforehand
Mostly I knew that Bottoms Dream had begun exploring these Shakespearean interweavings, and that this - a weaving of Hamlet and Macbeth - is their second venture in that regard. Beyond that, I've studied both Ham and Mac (we're on nickname terms) numerous times, seen multiple productions of both, and have done scene work on both plays in the past.


Play: What a clever idea. Honestly, I wasn't quite sure what to expect - though I'd been warned not to exert too much energy focusing on where each line came from, and rather to pay attention to the story being told now, there was still some delight to be had in that game: to hear a familiar line, removed from context, turn into something entirely new (My two biggest - and most embarrassing - laughs were R&G's drunken toast, which turned out to be Polonius's brevity/mad speech, and the greeting of sisters Ophelia and Laertes - "Where have you been, sister?" // "Killing swine."). While the narrative in large part seemed to alternate which source play was taking dominance, the most compelling moments were often the moments of true weaving - such as the dual soliloquies of Claudius and Gertrude, taken from Macbeth, as they psyche themselves up for killing Duncan, Gertrude's husband; or the (noticing a pattern here?) dual soliloquies of these two again, at an empty banquet table, both consumed by guilt for what they have done, wondering, with the text from Hamlet, "May one be pardon'd and retain the offense?" The other fascinating element at play is how the new context for seemingly-familiar characters, sheds new - and often horrifying - light on them. Gertrude not only married her husband's killer, she helped in the killing; R&G, no longer incompetent lackeys, assist in scheming on both sides - performing in Hamlet's Mousetrap, but also serving as Macbeth's murderers to take out Polonius Banquo. In this narrative, no one's hands are clean (though Hamlet's are cleaner than usual) and no one, with the stink of death and tragedy coming from all directions, is safe.