Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My 16: 2016's Top Theatrical Experiences

James Ortiz and Eliza Martin Simpson in The Woodsman.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.
This year's post has been very hard to write. In a year that looks increasingly like the prologue to a dystopian franchise, it's difficult to look back with my usual optimism and joy. It feels frivolous, like I'm one of Panem's Capitol residents, merrily engaging in trivialities. I don't always know how to reconcile the feeling of uselessness against my passion for, and celebration of, live theater. As Richard II and I try to hammer it out, with Chrismakkuh looming this weekend, we'll review what didn't suck about this past year, and appreciate the small good things hiding in the garbage.

My overall play-going count is a bit lower than it's been since I started these posts - 122 plays total, with 11 repeats, which leaves us with 111 unique shows for the year. I'm not enough of a statistician and too lazy a researcher to look at the volume of how many shows were produced this year to comment further, but I'll try to comfort all of us by saying that the list I've made of shows to see for the spring season of 2017 is terrifyingly dense. As usual, for the purposes of this list, I am not including any shows I saw in earlier years (so while yes, I did see both Hamilton and Bedlam's Sense and Sensibility in 2016 and adored them to pieces, they topped my 2015 and 2014 lists respectively, and don't get to be included again).

One further note before I begin: I'm writing this list without having yet seen the final two shows on my 2016 docket - the pre-Broadway run of Amélie in Los Angeles and NYGASP's The Mikado. If it turns out I've made a huge mistake in omitting either, I'm making a note now to include them next year.

Let's go!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Margin Notes: King Lear

Kitty Mortland as King Lear. Photo by Joseph Sebring.

Seen on: Saturday, 12/10/16.
My grade: B-.

Plot and Background
King Lear, eyeing retirement, announces that she will divide her kingdom equally among her three daughters, once they have sufficiently declared their love for her. When her beloved youngest, Cordelia, cannot bring herself to the same ornate oration as her fawning sisters, Goneril and Regan, Lear disinherits and banishes her. Intending to split her time between visiting her two remaining daughters, Lear soon finds herself instead the unwelcome houseguest of both, and goes mad in the storm, as old kings often do. Meanwhile, advisor Gloucester's bastard son Edmund frames his legitimate brother Edgar for attempted murder, and seduces both Goneril and Regan. It all comes to a head: the good end unhappily, the bad end even more unhappily, and I've left out the Fool, the blinding, and everyone going around in disguise. King Lear is presented by What Dreams May Co., in partnership with Queens Shakespeare Inc., two companies dedicated to exploring classical work.

What I Knew Beforehand,
and Disclosure
I'd seen Derek Jacobi's King Lear at BAM a few years back and came away with an excellent appreciation for the play, though I haven't actually sat down to read the script. I'm friends with director Emily C. A. Snyder, as well as several cast members.


Play: In her director's note, Emily C. A. Snyder talks about the necessity for these characters to "unbecome" themselves - to break out of their prescribed identities of title and duty and reduce to their smallest, truest selves. This narrative is articulated most clearly in the title character, who begins the play all pomp and formality, but as she descends into madness - as she (literally) lets her hair down - we see at last the loving parent, the lonesome friend, the repentant ruler searching desperately for an emotional lodestone. In other characters, such as Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, this reduction reveals the petty bitterness beneath filial protestations. And in others, like Albany, Edgar, and Kent, it allows them to reveal their better nature, the heroes within that might have kept to the benches had a war not begun. While this narrative becomes easier to extrapolate now, behind the comfort of my keyboard, it was not always as clear in performance. Individual moments of transition and transformation were sometimes muddied, and the amorphous use of the intimate space meant I couldn't always place where we were. The play's strongest moments come as the King declines further and further; though King Lear is full of battle and bombast, this production finds its strength as its characters approach closer to their quiet, inner humanity.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Margin Notes: Merchant of Venice

Leo Goodman and Michael Satow as Shylock and Antonio,
with Joshua M. Riffle and Emily Loewus as Salanio
and Jessica. Photo by Andrew Arvin.

Seen on: Thursday, 12/8/16.
My grade: A.

Plot and Background
In love with Portia (whose father had set a puzzle to dissuade unworthy suitors from her hand), Bassanio entreats his merchant friend Antonio to lend him money so that he may properly woo her. Not having the money himself (but expecting returns on several ships at sea), Antonio turns to the moneylender Shylock to supply the sum. Shylock, remembering many past mistreatments at Antonio's hand, agrees to lend the sum, with the stipulation that should Antonio not repay him, he should give to the moneylender a pound of his flesh. While Bassanio goes off to win fair maiden, Antonio's ships are lost at sea, and his bond to Shylock is forfeit. Then there's a big courtroom scene, a famous speech or two, and a bit of crossdressing, because this is Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice is presented by Hamlet Isn't Dead, a Shakespeare company dedicated to performing Shakespeare's works in chronological order.

What I Knew Beforehand
I have many strong opinions about this play (it makes me really freaking angry how much glee is taken in punishing the Jew and stripping him of his religion, let's leave it at that) and have seen it done numerous times. I'm also familiar with - and have reviewed past productions by - the company Hamlet Isn't Dead.


Play: Seasoned as I now am to Hamlet Isn't Dead's productions, I can summarize their style - unadorned and intimate staging (often alley or thrust playing spaces), immaculate yet disarmingly casual text work, and a sense of fluidity and play. One of director David Andrew Laws's primary goals for this production in HID's mission is to remind us all that Shakespeare intended the "problem play" that is Merchant of Venice to be a comedy - and he achieves this goal handily. Peppered throughout by song (including pre- and post-show mini concerts), squired by the guitar (or banjo or mandolin) toting pair of Solario and Solanio, and running at a bright and brisk ninety minutes, this Merchant marks the first time I was able to watch without getting angry, and actually enjoy the story and its players. I could enjoy the interplay of the smaller characters, the hyperboles of the clowns, the wit of Portia and Nerissa, and the delicate intricacies of the shifting power dynamic between Shylock and Antonio (Shylock and Antonio, by the way, are the only two characters who don't know they're in a comedy - a dichotomy that bolsters both the light and dark elements of the narrative by throwing them into relief). The answer to how Laws achieves this feat lies not only in his confident and playful staging, but in the judicious cuts made to the text. Most significant among these cuts are the grotesque extremes around the problem of Shylock - on both sides of the conflict. The antisemitic verbal abuse thrown at him by the gentiles is reserved only for his beleaguered servant Gobbo (which makes Antonio and his plight easier to swallow), Shylock's "comically" mercenary grief that his jewels were stolen, and most importantly Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity as his final punishment - all these are cut. With these excesses of nastiness removed, we can instead see only the antipathy between Shylock and Antonio, and how Shylock - a soft-spoken, reasonable-seeming businessman - can be driven to the point of bloodthirstiness he reaches in the trial. When this is the cruelest act of the narrative, rather than all the rest, somehow balance seems better restored, and it is easier to follow the rest of the characters to their happy conclusions. I am thinking, though, of the revisionist adaptations I have seen this year, such as Ivo Van Hove's The Crucible on Broadway and Daniel Sullivan's Troilus and Cressida at Shakespeare in the Park - both productions tinkered with context and with authorial intent, for better or worse. Laws's director's note in the program indicates he is aware that there are changes he is making to the play as we know it. Unlike the above mentioned examples, however, he is not adding in non-canonical content, nor recontextualizing moments. I do wonder, with the nastiness cut out, if it is still the same play. Honestly, though, I prefer this version. As Laws points out, Shakespeare wrote for his audience, and HID is performing for its audience. One of the joys of the malleability of Shakespeare is how endlessly and variably his work can be performed. HID hasn't mangled the text - they've cut, perhaps, a pound of flesh away, but it wasn't too near the heart that it did damage. Perhaps it was just shaving off some diseased tissue.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Margin Notes: May Violets Spring

Seen on: Sunday, 10/2/16.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
Briefly put (since brevity is the soul of reviewing), this is a reexamination of Shakespeare's Hamlet from Ophelia's perspective, with a few twists thrown in. A mix of language from the Shakespeare canon and original text by playwright James Parenti, May Violets Spring puts Ophelia front and center, showing us pieces of the Ophelia we think we know, and the Ophelia we never got a chance to meet. The play was previously workshopped with The Other Mirror and performed by Dare Lab. Turn To Flesh, a company dedicated to new verse plays, revives this show as the mainstage of their 2016 season.

What I Knew Beforehand, 
and Disclosure
I saw (and reviewed favorably) an earlier workshop of this play (as well as recently interviewed its playwright, James Parenti). I'm also good friends with director Emily C. A. Snyder.


Play: In my review of the Dare Lab production, I examined the question of culpability. With an Ophelia possessing greater agency than her source material counterpart, she therefore carries more responsibility for how events play out - particularly when plot points or ideas are given into her hands rather than Hamlet's (such as the idea of "The Mousetrap" play). While that was - at least to me - a dominant theme of the play at that point, it is less of a question now. It is clearer now how many of the bad turns in the plot are the result of Hamlet's recklessness, as contrasted with Ophelia's more measured approach to problem solving. In general, I would say there's an increase in clarity across the board, particularly in regards to other characters' responsibilities or shortcomings. Gertrude's position as the deceptively perceptive but coldly pragmatic would-be mother-in-law is clearly and unforgivingly etched, while Horatio's loyalty and instinctive empathy for her similarly-orphaned friend feels organic and earned. As for Hamlet, well - that boy needs to work on his impulse control. I am generally a fan of the deepened explorations of the characters I see in this new draft, although toward the end, the pacing starts to flag and I begin to feel the length of the piece. Still, the craft inherent in the writing of this play is high caliber and noteworthy, and I'm glad it's being given further life by Turn to Flesh Productions.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Margin Notes: Hedda (Gabler)

Valerie Redd as Hedda. Photo by Jeff Farkash.

Seen on: Saturday, 9/24/16.
My grade: A-. Sumptuous and intimate.

Plot and Background
Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen's 1891 classic, follows the titular character as she returns from her honeymoon, already bored with her new husband and seeking power and control over others' destinies. She is orbited by George, her smiling mediocrity of a husband; Judge Brack, a family acquaintance out for power of his own; and Eilert, a former flame - now sober, writing great works, and in love with an old classmate of Hedda's, Thea. As Hedda gathers and weaves the strands of these people's lives, she finds herself inextricably knotted in her own web. Hedda (Gabler) is produced by Wandering Bark Theatre Company, currently in residence at IRT. Wandering Bark, founded in 2011, is dedicated to exploring and adaption classical works, often with live music, multi-media design, and stylized physicality.

What I Knew Beforehand
It's vaguely possible I saw a teleplay of Hedda Gabler at some point, as the story beats felt familiar, and I definitely knew the play's final moment (and not just because of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder). And I knew I would be working through the fact that Ibsen generally leaves me cold.


Play: I don't know to whom to give the most credit - Matt Minnicino's taut 90-minute adaptation, Joseph Mitchell Parks's seamless, circling staging, or the cast, largely excellent and without self-indulgent flourishes - but this production belied my usual issues with Ibsen with aplomb. The story was gripping, full of inevitability and yet fighting its own fate with a laced-in ferality. The play still doesn't quite answer the question of just how such a person as Hedda can exist, but that seems to be an intended mystery - no one, not even Eilert, grasps the fullness of her, the hidden agendas, the plans, the manipulations. Only Hedda knows, and she's not telling. The play is staged with great economy, transitioning between scenes with stylized dances, as choreographed by Brad Landers, that give more insight into Hedda's inner motivations than her behavior in polite company. If you think you don't like Ibsen, I challenge you to take the time to go see this production, and then talk to me about it. If you do like Ibsen, then you should absolutely see it, and then talk to me about it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Someone please explain to me what this is

In a break from recent form, this little piece of flotsam is begging to be shared. I've begun a project of reading through all my old abandoned writing and scraps of discarded thoughts to see if there's anything salvageable.

And I have no idea what this is. Please enjoy.

Friday, September 9, 2016

My Digital Couch: A Conversation with Playwright James Parenti

Photo by Trish Phelps.
Playwright, actor, songwriter, and producer James Parenti has a story to tell. His play, May Violets Spring, "a new story for a new Ophelia," will be presented later this month by Turn To Flesh Productions, a company with the motto "Modern Themes. Classic Style." James and I had a seat on my digital couch this past week to chat about the play's journey and when it's okay to futz with Shakespeare. The following is a slightly edited version of our conversation.

Z: Let's start at the beginning - what prompted you to write May Violets Spring?
JP: About six years ago, I was involved with the theater company The Other Mirror. Their artistic director - the incredibly talented Katherine M. Carter - and I had known each other for years, and we were discussing doing a production of Hamlet, bouncing around ideas. I'd somehow gotten it into my head that it would be cool to have Ophelia onstage during Hamlet's first few soliloquies. In my mind, this would help solidify their relationship, and deepen the tragedy of them losing each other (I learned years later that Sir Derek Jacobi had done something similar in his touring Hamlet in the '70s). But then, what self-respecting person would sit silently while the one they love agonizes? Why wouldn't she speak up, try to help? It was really exciting to see these soliloquies as scenes rather than speeches. Ophelia's already an incredibly interesting character in Hamlet proper, but to see her bouncing around ideas with one of the most brilliant characters in the English-speaking theater was extremely satisfying.

I was also interested in a particular interpretation of Ophelia's mad scene. One of the flowers she distributes is rue, which historically was used as an abortifacient: i.e., could be used to induce a miscarriage to rid oneself of an unwanted pregnancy. Therefore: was Ophelia pregnant? Did she have a more sexual relationship with Hamlet than we had explicitly seen onstage? I don't think this is the only interpretation, but it's one I believe is supported by the text. So I took it upon myself to write a few lines in blank verse to add to the play. I thought that if they were written in such a way, they might sound enough like Shakespeare than an audience might not realize the lines hadn't always been there.

And when I brought these ideas to Katherine, she pointed out what I hadn't realized: changes like these weren't just modifications to Hamlet; they were changing something fundamental about it. This was the beginning of an adaptation, a new play. She was the first person to encourage me to not write only a few lines, but to see how far this rabbit hole would take me. Turns out, it's a pretty deep hole.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Sung-Through ... Book? (in defense of Hamilton, as if Hamilton needs my defense)

I've had several friends reach out to me recently to ask me to explain why Hamilton is up for Best Book of a Musical. There's literally only one scene with dialogue - the rest is sung- (or rapped-) through. Even New York Times critic Charles Isherwood (who really should know better - this is his field) said as much on May 3rd:
I do find it slightly puzzling that it was nominated in the book of a musical category, since the show is almost sung-through, but it's the kind of juggernaut that we haven't seen in years.
Suddenly my impatience with past Tony telecasts with presenters pedantically explained what is the book of a musical seems poorly directed. It's time to check my premises - not everyone is the same level of nerd as me.

So let's look at this.

My Anomalously Accurate Tony Predictions

Lin-Manuel Miranda and company in Hamilton
I'm rather disappointed I didn't get to use one of the funny titles I have stocked up for this year's Tony predictions, but I think we all know where the majority of the awards (for musicals anyway) are going this year. My only hope for consistent inaccuracy is to get the play predictions entirely wrong. Let's see how out of touch we are! (or how far my anti-O'Neill bias tends). Previous season predictions here.

It was a strange season for Broadway this year, or at least for new musicals. I began the season thinking we'd have all these massive risk-taking productions, knowing they can't actually contend for the big awards, but wanting to make a splash anyway. And in certain ways, we did get that - we certainly saw a vastly more diverse season this year than, say, Hollywood. But with the premature closings of a number of shows (some deserved, some not), from Amazing Grace and Allegiance in the first half of the season, to the ill-advised Forrest Whitaker Hughie mid-season, and the recently-closed (or imminently closing) Disaster!, Tuck Everlasting and American Psycho, there's a sense that Broadway audiences are less willing to settle for Not!Hamilton - or at least that producers are more willing to cut their losses and get out while the getting's good; usually shows will wait til the awards season is over to announce their closing, but with little to no Tony love for Tuck or Psycho, perhaps I shouldn't be as surprised as I was.

Let's go see how badly I can predict play awards, shall we?

Friday, May 13, 2016

Regarding Eugene O'Neill and the Scarcity of Time

Last night I saw Roundabout's revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, and boy did it live up to its title. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm not an O'Neill fan, but last night was my breaking point. At around the three hour mark, I assumed (foolishly) we were near the end, and then spent the final hour with my thoughts caroming among various foci of:

  • imagining disaster scenarios,
  • wondering why they were still talking,
  • debating if I could pull off a pixie cut, and
  • resenting everyone in that theater.

So we're done. I'm drawing a line in the sand. Life is too short and O'Neill plays are too long. I've seen his two "greatest classics," both in much-lauded productions, and if I don't love him from those, I never will.

And now for some lighter fare:

In 2012, following a debate with a friend on the merits of this playwright, I penned a little A-B dialogue summing up Every Eugene O'Neill Play. At the time I had only seen one of his plays and read another. Having seen three O'Neill plays this past year, I can say with conviction that my playlet holds up.


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

HamilTony Nominations (and other related contenders)

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton
As with last year's reaction to the nominations, I will begin with the caveat that I have not yet seen Waitress or Long Day's Journey Into Night (seeing them both next week, never fear). I also didn't see China Doll, but that's only because I really really really didn't want to.

It was a surprise to no one that Hamilton swept the nominations, getting at least one in every eligible category, and now breaking the record for most nominations with a grand total of 16 (I actually hadn't quite expected that - I was hoping Chris Jackson's Washington would get a nod but hadn't expected Jonathan Groff's George III to also get one). With Hamilton expected to also sweep the awards with wins (we'll get to that closer to the big night), the Plays categories may actually be the more heated and divisive come telecast time.

So below are my general thoughts on nominations and those not nominated. Let's go!

Friday, April 1, 2016

Margin Notes: The Crucible

Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan, Tavi Gevinson, Ashlei
Sharpe Chestnut, and Erin Whilhelmi as Betty Parris,
Abigail Williams, Mary Warren, Susanna Walcott, and
Mercy Lewis. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.
The Crucible

Seen on: Monday, 3/7/16.
My grade: A

Plot and Background
In the Puritan village of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, even dancing is considered unwholesome. So when young Abigail Williams and her friends are caught dancing in the woods, they divert attention away - to the specter of witches bedeviling them. What starts as one lie spirals into a wildfire hysteria, as more than 400 are arrested and many executed when they refuse to confess. Farmers John and Elizabeth Proctor, who dismissed Abigail from their service after John's indiscretion seven months prior, fear the vengeance of a spurned girl, while newcomer Reverend Hale tries to decipher the truth from the lies. Arthur Miller first wrote The Crucible in 1953 as both a dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials and as an allegory for McCarthyism. Though received with some critical hostility, the play won the Tony, and is now considered a classic, performed and studied in high schools across the country. It has been revived several times, and adapted for film, television, and even the opera.

What I Knew Beforehand
My high school, like every high school in America, did the show when I was a sophomore (I played Mercy Lewis and have been disappointed in the milquetoast portrayals I've seen of her in every subsequent incarnation).


Play: It's difficult to watch a play you've worked on before - I actually find it nearly impossible to see productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream at this point. You go in with so many preconceptions of how it should be done (or sometimes emotionally scars for how badly things went that one time), that it can be hard to separate the experiences. However, this production was so consummately well done, that my main moments of "Hey, wait a sec!" were reserved for the two small deleted scenes (for those who care, Abigail and John in the woods; and Sarah Good in the prison). The physical space is both gritty and nonrepresentative (a schoolroom's furniture rearranged to be used as a farmhouse, a court, a prison, etc.), the aural space alternately dreamlike or nightmarish. There are a lot of choices being made here, and I find the majority of them effective - dressing the girls in school uniforms, having the actors playing the Proctors use their own accents to show their otherness to the rest of Salem, making it clear that while the intellectual conflict is between Hale and Danforth, the emotional center of the piece lies in the Proctors and their very human relationship. However, there is one choice to which I still can't reconcile myself, as it seems completely counter to the author's intent - the manifestation of magic (or hysteria?) in Betty's flight, and the destruction of the courtroom. My mom suggested a reading of it that it is the perception of the townsfolk, seeing witchery where there is none; my initial read was the deliberate question by the production of: "but what if magic?" and that's ... that's not what's going on here. And if my mom's reading is correct, then that lens needs to be made a heck of a lot clearer to the audience, so we know whether we're intended to be seeing something canonically in the narrative, or a hallucination. We're not given that lens, and I don't think I buy it. It's an aesthetically dramatic choice, to be sure, but it's not dramaturgically sound. However, I think it's quite the feat that - ignoring these missteps - I was completely enthralled and horrified by a script I knew all too well. This production is excellent.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Margin Notes: King John

Isaac Miller as Bastard. Photo by David Andrew Laws.
King John

Seen on: Wednesday, 3/23/16.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
King John, recently inheriting his throne from his deceased brother Richard the Lionhearted, holds his crown with a tenuous grasp - challenged by France and Austria, who back his nephew Arthur as the rightful heir to follow Richard to the throne. Through a mixture of force, diplomacy, a bad run in with a Cardinal, and some underhanded manipulation, John struggles to maintain his power against overwhelming odds. King John is presented by Hamlet Isn't Dead, a Shakespeare company dedicated to performing Shakespeare's works in chronological order. They are partnering with Mary-Mitchell Campbell's organization, Artists Striving to End Poverty, on this production.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd read the play but never seen it, and I've worked on one of Constance's monologues fairly recently. I knew that the company had cast a woman in the title role here, intending to explore how the threats to her crown played against her role as a woman surrounded by men in this production. I've also seen a few of Hamlet Isn't Dead's productions (and reviewed their Richard II).


Play: It's rather a strange play, I realized midway through. Perhaps not atypical of Shakespeare's histories (I'd have to research it), the force and flow of the various players takes precedent over any intense character study of the titular monarch. Perhaps Richards II and III spoiled me for thinking I'd be getting some soliloquies from our King, but I was disappointed to realize how little I was being let in to John's rationale. Most of what we see of John is her public role, that of courtly behavior and kingly proclamations - only in the latter half of the play, when she first schemes for Arthur's death and then regrets that scheming, do we get any sense of the inner workings of John as a person. We get more of the Bastard's inner thoughts than any other character onstage (so perhaps it's appropriate he and John share the final bow here). Moving along from this, while King John may not be the most engaging of Shakespeare's histories, this is a thoroughly engaging production of it - streamlined to just over two hours, it is efficiently-paced, clearly presented, and overall entertaining. Director Lisa LaGrande stages it in my favorite style (thrust), and effectively crafts dynamic stage pictures where everyone has a good view of the action. Each act begins with a throwback - a dumb show, a gestured dance on the worship of power - and she finds a moment of poetry within the narrative, too, in young Arthur's attempted escape from prison. The battle is perhaps the least effectively staged, in terms of communicating either danger or a narrative, but that is a minor complaint in a highly competent production. For those who haven't seen this rarely-produced history, this is definitely worth catching.