Monday, March 30, 2015

Margin Notes: Twelfth Night & What You Will

Susannah Millonzi, Andrus Nichols, Eric Tucker,
Edmund Lewis, and Tom O'Keefe in 12N. Photo source.
Twelfth Night (or what you will) 
& What You Will (or twelfth night)

Seen on: Thursday, 3/26/15 and Friday, 3/27/15.
My grade: 12N: B-. WYW: B+.

Plot and Background
Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated in a sea wreck, and presume the other is dead. Washed ashore in Illyria, Viola disguises herself as a young man and goes to work for the Duke Orsino, with whom she falls in love. He sends her to woo Olivia, who in her mourning will receive no petitioners. She, of course, falls in love with "Cesario" and hijinks ensue. Meanwhile, Olivia's cousin Sir Toby and his cohorts run afoul of Olivia's steward Malvolio, and set out to humiliate him. Hijinks, etc. And then Sebastian appears and confuses everyone, including himself. Twelfth Night is believed to have been written in 1601 or 1602 by William Shakespeare. Bedlam here presents two different cuttings of the text with two very different styles (and genderings of roles).

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew the source play, of course, having seen it countless times (including the quite good film version with Imogen Stubbs and the near-perfect Globe transplant with Mark Rylance). I also knew, having seen their productions of Saint Joan, Hamlet, and Sense and Sensibility, that Bedlam produces some breathtakingly honest work, with a good spirit of play to it.


Play: I saw WYW first, so I think that's how I'm going to structure this section. First impressions and all that.

WYW is a joyful, giddy flight in white (see design notes). Even as it starts with a tear-stained Viola mourning her brother's death, and Orsino obsessively listening to music to sooth his wounded heart, a sense of joy and play permeate this production. There's a bit of text flexibility here - not only shifting pronouns to reflect a woman playing Sir Toby, but a shuffling of lines to speakers (when, say, minor characters have been excised from the play altogether), a shuffling of soliloquies within scenes - nothing feels particularly foolhardy or unearned, because it's still in service of the story. They've also added an interesting duality to the performance of Viola/Cesario. While Susannah Millonzi carries all of Viola's role, she more often than not shares Cesario's interactions with Tom O'Keefe - performing Cesario as the others perceive him. This pays off extremely well, of course, when O'Keefe appears later as her missing brother Sebastian. For, even if O'Keefe and Millonzi look nothing alike, of course Sebastian and Cesario look the same! Why, they could be twins! Other fun highlights include ice cream cones as pacifiers (you'll see what I mean). There was one choice I couldn't quite reckon, which was the use of paint. The show takes place in a white-painted void, and all the characters are wearing white clothing. So when the first character suddenly has bright paint smeared across him, my first instinct was to read into that paint, some - what? introduction of emotion, perhaps, or a new immersion in love. However, the moment that actor - not changing his costume - switches to a different character, the entire meaning of that paint smear is lost. It can't mean the same for every character he's playing, and thus the specificity of the painting is lost. Unless the real intent of the paint is just to messy up what was a pristine world. If that's the case, it's still a bit of a murky choice, but I guess I can understand the rationale.

If WYW is the first few giddy sips of champagne, a world semi-consequence-free, 12N is three or four cups of gin into a night of melancholy drinking. Here Toby is a mean and dour drunk, Andrew a soused and compliant fool (rather than the primping dandy of WYW), and Olivia is still deeply in mourning for her brother. The change in Malvolio's character (see cast notes) may have had one of the larger tonal effects, however. The subplot of the gulling and humiliation of Malvolio is typically one of the comic highlights of the show, despite its nastiness. But with this Malvolio, a man less mean than merely proper, Toby's cruelty is thrown into sharper relief, and the whole thing is just nastier. It's harder to side with anyone in that particular conflict, and you long for it to be over. For all that 12N is a more serious take on the matter, it does descend into its own brand of chaos and absurdity - turning the would-be duel between Andrew and Cesario into a puppet show, or the scene with All the Reveals into a frantic game of hat-changing and glasses-tossing. Unfortunately, this production ultimately didn't work for me. The tone in general felt off, the comedy felt forced whereas in WYW it flowed easily. And there was something weak in the love triangle and the portrayal of Viola's conflict.

Margin Notes: The Liquid Plain

Kristolyn Lloyd and Ito Aghayere as
Adjua and Dembi. Photo by Joan Marcus.
The Liquid Plain

Seen on: Wednesday, 3/25/15.
My grade: B-. Excellent cast, beautiful design, somewhat bewildering story, but Naomi Wallace's gift with language and character relationships ran strongly through this.

Plot and Background
Bristol, Rhode Island, "A possible 1791." Escaped slaves Adjua and Dembi hide out on a dock, mending sails and ransacking drowned corpses, saving money towards passage back to Africa. They rescue a nearly drowned amnesiac, Cranston, who brings more trouble than anticipated. Act Two takes place in 1837 when Adjua's child Bristol returns to America in search of the man who killed her aunt. This play was originally commissioned in 2013 for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for their American Revolutions cycle, with Kwame Kwei-Armah. It is the second play in Naomi Wallace's season as one of Signature's resident playwrights.

What I Knew Beforehand
I've read a number of Naomi Wallace's plays (in fact, I used a monologue from The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek when I was auditioning for colleges 300 years ago), and I'd seen her last offering at Signature, And I and Silence.


Play: It's rather a strange story, if only because the narrative we thought we were tracking in Act One is largely abandoned in Act Two; or at the least, it's picked up many years later when nearly all the characters we knew are long dead. And then there's the randomness of William Blake inhabiting corpses and losing appendages. It's a strange play. But for all that, it's so very much a Naomi Wallace play, that once you adjust to how she tells stories, how she lets us into her characters, it all seems just how things are in the world. She's always had such a gift for language, for finding a strange and yet entirely truthful way for her characters to express themselves, that even the absurd and fantastical seem completely grounded. There's no one else quite like her, and I'm glad Signature has chosen her for residency so I can finally see her work live in New York.

Margin Notes: An Octoroon

Amber Gray and Austin Smith as Zoe and
M'Closky. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
An Octoroon

Seen on: Sunday, 3/22/15.
My grade: B+. Absolutely fascinating production of a show I probably didn't fully understand.

Plot and Background
BJJ (stand-in for playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins) tells the audience of his struggles with depression and his role as "a black playwright," and his decision to re-examine Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's 19th century melodrama The Octoroon. He is soon interrupted by the Playwright (Boucicault), and the two begin the retelling of the play - with a few twists. It seems they couldn't find any white actors willing to play slave owners, so BJJ, a black man, puts on whiteface make-up to portray the white characters; Playwright, meanwhile, paints his face red to take on the role of Native American stereotype Wahnotee; his assistant in turn wears blackface. The narrative of the play within the play is the melodrama of the kind-hearted plantation owner, in love with the octoroon, and the machinations of M'Closky to seize the plantation and all its slaves. There's murder, stolen letters, a mock trial, and even an explosion. This play ran previously at Soho Rep in 2014, where it won an Obie for Best New American Play.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew what the term octoroon meant (thanks Blacksburg High School and mr. dee!). I knew somewhat what a 19th century melodrama was like, though I haven't been exposed to much in practice. And I'd heard this play was not to be missed.


Play: So while I understood I was watching something truly interesting - I do like the deconstructionist approach to the narrative, and the breaking down of the trial scene and its subsequent events was really quite wonderful - with an immensely talented cast, intelligent director, and sharp and creative design team, at the end of the show I wasn't entirely sure what I was meant to take away from it. Maybe I got too mired in the actual events of the melodrama when I should have been paying more attention to everything around it. It wasn't, after all, about the story. It was about the story around the story, about the struggle to tell the story - not just the racial components, but the very trappings of melodrama and how they fail to move today's audience (BJJ and Playwright apologizing profusely that the pivotal piece of evidence was a photograph, something that would have been far more innovative back in the day). And while the story around the story is fascinating, and the way in which it's told is delightful, I guess at the end of the day I still don't understand why this is the story Jacobs-Jenkins wanted to deconstruct in the first place.

Margin Notes: Paint Your Wagon

Alexandra Socha and Justin Guarini as
Jennifer and Julio. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Paint Your Wagon

Seen on: Friday, 3/20/15.
My grade: B+. Delightful production of a fun if problematic show.

Plot and Background
Ben Rumson and his 16-year-old daughter Jennifer lay claim to gold in California and Rumson town is born - 400 men and one underage girl. However, she's got eyes only for the young Mexican prospector forced to live outside the town's borders, Julio. Throw in a Mormon trio, some Fandango girls, a dried up gold supply, and the wanderlust that plagues all prospectors, and you've got yourself a musical. Written in 1951 by Lerner and Loewe, Paint Your Wagon predates their larger hits My Fair Lady and Camelot. A heavily-revised film adaptation was produced in 1969, starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Another revised production opened in Los Angeles in 2004. This production was presented as part of New York City Center's Encores! series.

What I Knew Beforehand
Pretty sure I saw the utterly bewildering film version of this, featuring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin in some sort of threesome of people who can't sing. As this film adaptation heavily revised the script and score, I went into the show with only a vague notion of some of the songs I would hear.


Play: What I love about the Encores! series is that it gives us a chance to see rarely-produced musicals with high quality performers and a full orchestra. Sometimes these lead to full Broadway productions (Chicago, anyone?); often they demonstrate why the show probably won't get a full production, even while it has something to offer. In this case, the show was truly a lot of fun - clever, funny script, catchy score (I've been humming "I'm On My Way" since I saw the show), and some lovely performance opportunities. It was definitely Encores! at its finest. But that still can't hide how absolutely messed up the sexual politics in this show are. First we've got 400 men lusting after a teenage girl; then there's the auctioning off of the "spare" Mormon wife. Then there are the Fandango ladies who arrive later. There isn't a female character in this show who isn't treated largely as a commodity. Even Jennifer, who has more agency and characterization than the rest, still sings, after her transformation from tomboy teen to well-dressed little educated lady, that she did it "All For Him." I shouldn't be surprised, I know, since this show came from the same men who brought us "How To Handle a Woman," "A Hymn to Him" (aka Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man), and whatever the hell is going on in Gigi. And the show was fun. But damn is it problematic as hell. Much like "A Secretary is Not a Toy" from H2$, this stuff just does not age well.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Margin Notes: The Heidi Chronicles

Elisabeth Moss as Heidi Holland. Photo by Joan Marcus.
The Heidi Chronicles

Seen on: Friday, 3/13/15.
My grade: B-. Some strong performances, but an overall underwhelming experience.

Plot and Background
The Heidi Chronicles follows Heidi Holland, an art historian, from her school days until her 40s, tracking not only her progression through various feminist movements, but also the turgid decades of the 1960s through the 1980s. The story also follows her on-again off-again romance with Scoop, a journalist slash lawyer who makes safe choices, and her lifelong friendship with Peter, a gay pediatrician who is bold without seeming to have a choice in the matter. This play was originally produced in 1988 and starred Joan Allen in the title role. There was a film adaptation in 1995 starring Jamie Lee Curtis. The Heidi Chronicles won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play in 1989. This production is the first Broadway revival of any of Wendy Wasserstein's plays.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd read the play once or twice a number of years ago, and didn't retain much beyond the basic structure.


Play: While the cast was solid enough, and the production not obviously flawed, I came away vaguely underwhelmed by this production. It might be the script, it might just be that it's gotten itself a bit dated, or it might just be one of the vaguely lackluster revivals we seem to get every season. One wants, especially in today's newly toxic climate for gender politics (perhaps the new toxicity levels are due in part to the Internet's ability to make even the obscure crackpots visible), to be galvanized by the recognition that this is still a fight we're having. But this was never a galvanizing play. Wasserstein is not Larry Kramer. It is, instead, an examination of one woman (and various satellite women of her life), saddened by her generation's disappointing show at a fight she thought they were all in together. "It's just that I feel stranded," she says in a speech to young undergrads. "And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was we were all in this together." That's the feeling at the center of the play, that vague sense of loss and abandonment, that sadness. And all I can feel in response is a similar sadness.