Thursday, December 28, 2017

My Favorite Theater of 2017

Paul Hilton and Anna Francolini as Peter
Pan and Captain Hook in Peter Pan.
Photo by Steve Tanner.
It's been an odd year (in many, many, many ways). On the theater scene, one of those many oddnesses was the top-heaviness of it - the 2016-2017 season was so jam packed, I can't quite hold it all in my head. And then here at the tail end of the first half of the 2017-2018 season, we've had instead a rather spare (and unfortunately largely uninspiring) autumn. I still managed to find plenty to love, however: my initial attempt at building a Top list started at 35 which I then whittled to 26, then 21 (the task becoming more challenging with each culling), before landing at the current list. Some shows culled from the list made a strong impression on first viewing, but perhaps haven't etched themselves in my memory enough to warrant place here.

Part of why, even with a sparse autumn, the whittling was so difficult, lies in the fact that I hit a personal record this past year: 151 shows total (ho-ly merde), with 16 repeats, leaving 135 unique shows, besting last year by 24 unique shows and besting my highest year (2013) by 13.

So we should probably get started. I've had such a difficult time cutting the list down, and at this point, I don't even know how to rank them, so instead for a change of pace, I'm presenting them in chronological order of when I saw them.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Margin Notes: Pericles: Born in a Tempest

Jacques Roy and Kathryn Metzger as Pericles and Thaisa.
Photo by Al Foote III.

Seen on: Friday, 11/3/17.
My grade: A

Plot and Background
A new mother, mourning the death of her father, opens his parting gift: a handwritten story in a leather-bound journal. A story of Pericles and his adventures, a story from her childhood. Her family and friends take on the task of enacting the story within, summoning the spirit of her father to play the role of Pericles on his seafaring voyages, and eventually leading her to a reconciliation of her memories and grief. Hunger & Thirst Theatre, which specializes in modern updates to classic works, reimagines Shakespeare's romance as a story within a story, building parallels from the tale of Pericles and his daughter Marina to the contemporary woman grieving her father.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd seen a production of Pericles at TFANA, but didn't retain a lot of specifics, beyond the memory of an episodic structure and a father and daughter separated and reunited.


Play: While the play is a little slow to start, with the grieving characters fumbling for action, shifting boxes and juggling a squalling infant, it bounds into liveliness once Pericles himself joins the party. The spell cast by the storytellers then reaches its full potency, and doesn't wane. Weaving easily together the makeshift playfulness of puppetting dolls to simulate a fight, and a full-out duel, director Jordan Reeves synthesizes what should be disparate styles into the only elixir which could coax this woman out of her grief - the joy of play, and the romantic sweep of the story her father told her so many times. We are wooed as she is wooed, slowly but surely, to see what in the story of Pericles reflects her memories of her father, and her relationship to him. We, too, feel the loss of a great spirit. In addition to its cuts - mostly cinching in of the story to a tight 90-minute narrative - this production makes a few distinct shifts to the story of Pericles itself, outside of its framework of the grieving family telling an old story. Thaisa is not revived and ultimately reunited with her family; and Marina's reunion with Pericles, though achieved, is short-lived - here the play of storytelling crashes into the framework, as the daughter attempts to reconnect with her fading father, a man in the deep stages of dementia. He is able to speak the scene with her, recognizing and embracing her as his child, but the joy is short-lived, and he soon retreats once more into bewilderment and catatonia. While this shift adds a poignancy, particularly to the framing narrative, it is also a deliberate departure from the intention of the source material, and it's perhaps an individual audience member's prerogative to decide whether or not that matters.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Margin Notes: Rhinoceros

Eli Rosen and Luzer Twersky as Jean and Berenger.
Photo by Pedro Hernandez.

Seen on: Wednesday, 9/13/17.
My grade: B+/A-

Plot and Background
Berenger, an aloof drunkard, meets his ambitious friend Jean for drinks, but the two are soon interrupted by the shock of a rhinoceros running down the street. The number of rhinceroses in the village grows, and Berenger witnesses his colleagues and friends capitulating one by one to become rhinoceroses themselves. Eugene Ionesco, considered one of the fathers of Theater of the Absurd, lived through the Nazi occupation of France, and wrote Rhinoceros in 1959 as a response to the rise of fascism he observed. New Yiddish Rep, whose mission is to perform "modern treatments of Yiddish classics and Yiddish interpretations of modern masterpieces," presents a new Yiddish translation of Ionesco's play by Eli Rosen (with English supertitles).

What I Knew Beforehand
I studied Ionesco's oeuvre in a Theater of the Absurd course in college. I'd also seen an incredibly powerful production of Rhinoceros at Virginia Tech when I was a teenager that still stays with me.


Play: It feels not only appropriate but inevitable to see a revival of this play done by a Jewish troupe - the ethnic group most specifically targeted and slaughtered by the Nazi regime. They've been here before, and they know the landscape. Despite, or perhaps because of, its absurd premise - that people are turning into rhinoceroses and stampeding about the town - Ionesco's play is able to make its point so clearly. We know we wouldn't want to turn into rhinoceroses, we know what destruction they're callously wreaking in this village; it's so clear, and yet the villagers refuse to see it. This is the parallel drawn to the rise of fascism - an inevitable destruction so plainly obvious to some it seems foolish to have to point it out, and yet people find excuses to allow, to permit, to try to meet them on their monstrous level. The new translation, both its Yiddish and English versions, is acutely aware of the frightening parallels to be drawn to the political climate today - so Botard, intent on denying the very existence of rhinoceroses, cries "Fake news!" while Jean and the Gentleman deliberate on whether the rhinoceroses had one or two horns - a distinction that not only doesn't matter, but puts further emphasis on wanting to classify between "acceptable" rhinoceroses and ones to be shunned, indicating a racist bias even before conversion to rhinoceroses. Director Moshe Yassur and translator Eli Rosen are aware of the obvious parallels, and so treat them with a light but conscious hand, so that the play feels neither didactic nor trivial. This has happened before, and we should all know the landscape.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Margin Notes: A Piece of My Heart

Poster design by Rachel Ely.

Seen on: Friday, 9/7/17.
My grade: A

Plot and Background
Shirley Lauro's play, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Keith Walker, follows six women from different backgrounds who journey to Vietnam during the war - as soldiers, as nurses, as performers - and examines the toll it takes on them, both during and after the conflict.

Disclosure, and
What I Knew Beforehand
I'm vaguely sure I'd seen a ten minute cutting from this play in speech and debate tournaments in high school, so I knew loosely that it was about nurses in the Vietnam War. Disclosure: I am friends with director Reesa Graham (we met when I reviewed another show she directed, May Violets Spring).


Play: It's easy to think that going to a play about a war over forty years past might feel stale or dated. What's remarkable about this production is how immediately urgent it feels, how presently now each moment is - and how desolating it is to realize how little some things have changed in the ensuing decades. My main exposure to the Vietnam narrative has been history classes, a few films, and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Those stories are about the men in combat. The stories here are about the women in a combat zone. They're not getting blasted with grenades, but it's their job to try desperately to repair what's left of the men who are. Director Reesa Graham conducts this symphony of the unsung women - a blending of six women's stories (with help from one All American Man) through words, song, the stamping of feet, the biting clack of the banging of sticks, the stillness of silence - with grace and subtlety. The text of the play is powerful in its own right, without adornment, and Graham doesn't try to gussy it up - she lets the play speak honestly, lets the characters be frank - open and vulnerable, hardened and hurt. These women have been forgotten and ignored. Here they have their space, to remember, to be, and - hopefully - to heal. A Piece of My Heart isn't an easy play to watch - but it is an essential play to witness.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Margin Notes: Cloud 9

Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican as Cathy and Lin.
Photo by Russ Rowland.

Seen on: Monday, 7/3/17.
My grade: B-

Plot and Background
Cloud 9 follows a family and some of its satellite personalities across what is either a century or only twenty-five years - the first half finds Englishman Clive and his family living in Africa in 1880 as social unrest against the colonizers is on the rise; the second half shows us what remains of the family twenty-five years on, but in 1980s London. Both halves are riddled through with commentary on gender and sexual politics, infidelity, racism, entitlement, and the savages of violence among humans. The Seeing Place is a company which uses Brechtian devices in its productions to confront the desensitized trajectory of society.

What I Knew Beforehand
I think I'd read the play at some point in college. That's about it. I brought with me a friend who'd acted in it, to be my resident expert.


Play: The performance begins with a narrator explaining that we will be seeing Caryl Churchill's play, not only completely uncut, but with stage directions (particularly those indicating when a role is cast genderbent or racebent) read aloud and the full trappings of theatricality, such as costume changes, on full display. Sometimes these devices are quite powerful - when the narrator indicates a mother slapping her child, and the actors don't even gesture at the violence, but stare into each others' eyes; when an embrace is instructed, and obliged only grudgingly by the players - other times it seems more a hindrance to performance than an enabler, stepping over the dialogue to indicate exits and entrances we can see quite clearly without narrative aid, or robbing us of what is only narrated as a moment of quiet stillness. And I can't quite reconcile how some costume changes still happen out of sight - chiefly those involving two of the men putting on or taking off the wigs when they're playing female. This above all seems to be something they would want to highlight for that distancing effect. Another sometimes powerful element added to performance is the set of chalkboards across the back wall - Survival Tips 1880 and Survival Tips 1980. At various times during performance, a character will walk to one of these boards, select a piece of chalk, and write down a survival tip ("Pretend to be normal," "No pain, always smile"). There's a poignancy to this device, though I could wish for more craft in the framing of it - had it perhaps happened when characters leave the playing space, as the lesson they've taken from the scene, rather than a somewhat distracting motion happening while something else is going on. There's a barely controlled chaos to a lot of the proceedings, which adds charm, particularly to the first half of the play, but I start wishing rather desperately for a moment of honest stillness.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Margin Notes: Titus

Antonio Disla, Whitney Egbert, Fahim Hamid, Denny
Desmarais, and Andrew Barrett. Photo by
Lauren Eliot Photography.

Seen on: Saturday, 6/17/17.
My grade: A-

Plot and Background
The program alerts the audience that this production, performed by eight actors sharing all the roles, follows its source material, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, loosely. It is instead a one-hour exploration and examination of humanity, specifically the plight of refugees and the endless cycle of vengeance to which humanity is too often prone. Titus, recently victorious against the Goths in battle, ignites the cycle by executing Tamora's oldest son. Blood will have blood, as Billy Shakes said, and by the end of the play all sons have been murdered, and few people are left standing. The Shakespeare Forum presents Titus after an extended period of exploration dating back to last autumn, and as a continuation of the process they began with its Henry V of 2015, to examine why and how they tell stories.

Disclosure, and 
What I Knew Beforehand
I have been attending The Shakespeare Forum's open workshops since 2009, recently served on its Advisory Board, and I've blogged about - and reviewed - Forum and some of its past productions. As for Titus, this was actually my second hour-long production of it I've seen, and I've seen the Julie Taymor film, though beyond that I wasn't overly familiar with the particularities of the text.


The performance begins with a pre-show (one normally performed outside, but due to the rain, was conducted indoors at my performance) of a chorus of women singing "Pie Jesu" over six shrouded corpses. This sets a contemplative, elegiac mood for the audience - we're not coming in at the start of a bloodbath, but after there has already been substantial life lost. So when Tamora pleads with Titus not to kill her son, too, we feel the weight of that plea. That weight is carried equally by the cast, who rotate in and out of all the roles, sometimes mid-line - so all are murderers bent on revenge, all are victims, wronged and mutilated. The violence and cruelty escalate, from cold execution to torture and mutilation, from rape and trickery to cannibalism and slaughter. As the dominoes fall faster, the play suddenly spirals and once again Tamora begs Titus for clemency - and we hold. Can the cycle be broken? Not easily, says this production. Not easily, but it is possible, if we can but remind ourselves what is important about our time here on earth. It's not the message I expected, frankly, especially in our current climate, where each military or diplomatic misstep seems to presage the next world war. But it is a message very much in keeping with what has been a primary tenet of The Shakespeare Forum since its inception: "Love is the strongest choice." Love, not despair. Not an inevitable and inescapable path to destruction. We can break the cycle.

Not everything in this experimentation works. The sharing of roles across the eight actors is unevenly conveyed - sometimes it's clear when a character has shifted performers, but sometimes it's not clear until a minute or so into a scene, when names are spoken, or when my imperfect memory of the story informs me who this must be. Perhaps that's part of the intention, that it doesn't matter who's speaking the lines, that nearly every character is bent on vengeance, and so differentiation is less of a priority - the motif of scheming savagery is more important than clarity of narrative. But I can't help but seek a story to follow, and some of this confusion took away from my total immersion in the moment.

However, there is one very striking scene where the sharing among the cast takes on a hypnotic power: all eight actors share Titus's soliloquy where he crafts his final revenge upon Tamora, and they are not in accord. In a Pirandellian nod, the group's unity shatters for the first time in the performance, as seven of them must convince the eighth to get past his despair and his exhaustion, to screw his courage to the sticking place, commit to their plan, and return to the script. This, then, is Titus's second chance to say "no more," and his second failure to do so.

When Titus misses his third chance, inciting a hyperspeed distillation of the slaughter of the past hour, there is, finally, a palpable release when - on Tamora's third plea for mercy - the players choose, at last, love. Singing first singly, then together, they reaffirm love as the most important legacy - both hearkening back to the elegy which began the show, and looking forward to what we will leave behind.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

My Annually Inaccurate Tony Predictions

Looking over how my votes go on this year's ballot, it's clear the message I took from the Year of Hamilton: show me something new. And while Broadway hasn't stepped up its diversity game as quickly as we might like, I do think it's taken the challenge of finding new stories to tell, and new ways to tell them. It was a season bursting at the seams with new work, and much of it was exciting and boundary pushing - from the aural hypnosis of The Encounter to the dinner club at the edge of a war in The Great Comet, from the exploration of a lesbian romance in 20th century Yiddish theater in Indecent to the collapsing infrastructure of factory towns in the 21st century in Sweat, from Newfoundland to Oslo to Vietnam, from revisiting Nora Helmer to examining the scope of a single lie writ large in the viral world of the internet. We were very lucky with how much good work there was this season, and - unlike last year - I don't have a lot of certainty over who will win come Tony night. I do know that I'll probably be pleased with whatever happens.

Let's get to it!

The cast of Come From Away.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Six Degrees of Nomination

Lucas Steele and Denee Benton waltz in
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
First we should start with the caveat that there are four shows of the the 2016-2017 season I have yet to see: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (seeing it tonight), Anastasia (Thursday),  The Price (next week), and Hello, Dolly! (Saturday if I have good luck in the line for standing room). This means that I won't have much opinion on the relative negligence three of these four shows received from the Tonys, nor of the effusion the fourth received.

It's been a crowded season, which has its definite advantages (more for me to seeeeeee) and its disadvantages (more shows are left out in the cold, come awards season). There were thirteen new musicals, five musical revivals, ten new plays, and nine play revivals - with only four nominees in each category, that leaves nine musicals, six plays, and seven revivals (musical and play) without the big nomination. In previous Tony telecasts in recent years (starting under Neil Patrick Harris), they found a way to let even the un-nominated musicals perform (if a more abbreviated number), since this is the best national commercial for musical theater, but it might be too dense a year to pull that off this time around. Still, one can only hope.

Full list of nominees here, and now: on with the dish!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Margin Notes: Henry IV

Marie Claire Roussel and Isaac Miller, as Hal and Hotspur.
Photo by Kevin Johnsrud.
Henry IV

Seen on: Saturday, 4/29/17.
My grade: A-/B+

Plot and Background
King Henry IV's reign is not a peaceful one. He is plagued not only with guilt over how he seized the throne from Richard II, but also the rising rebellion from his former allies, Mortimer and the Percy family, to say nothing of the negligent attention from his daughter, Hal, who would rather spend time in the tavern with the drunken Sir John Falstaff and a host of unworthies. These disparate elements come to a head when Harry (Hal) must face Harry (Hotspur) and decide the future of the realm. Henry IV is presented by Hamlet Isn't Dead, a New York-based theater company dedicated to presenting Shakespeare's works in chronological order.

What I Knew Beforehand
I've seen Henry IV, parts one and two, multiple times (both as combined and separate plays) and am by now quite familiar with the playful stylings of Hamlet Isn't Dead.


Play: Once again, the HID crew delivers a swift and spirited jog down old Shakespeare Lane with its two-hour condensation of Henry IV, parts one and two. Whereas their Merchant gave us a bit of a folk vibe with their onstage band, HID's Henry IV is firmly ensconced in rock, with a Led Zeppelin poster prominently displayed, and actors wearing t-shirts for bands like The Rolling Stones and Blondie, accessorized with leather jackets and torn jeans. The story moves efficiently from scene to scene under director Megan Mahaffey's confident hand, and Gregory Pragel's fight choreography is athletic and takes strategic advantage of the intimate performance space. If I have any stipulations with this production, it is with some of the cutting of the text, and the residual side effects those cuts have on the narrative. Never before in this play have I felt that the political machinations, the actual battle, to be so distinctly the MacGuffin to the story being told. This is not necessarily bad - relationships, particularly between Hal and her titular father, and between Hal and Falstaff (and crew), are strong and clear. Less clear is the nature and cause of the rebellion by Mortimer and the Percys and, unfortunately, Hal's arc from derelict prankster to a king worthy of the crown. On the other hand, some cuts are tremendously satisfying - while typical productions of Henry IV give too free a rein to Falstaff and the clowns, leading me to grow weary of them, this cutting still manages to give us the full flavor of Falstaff and his sodden charisma - and more importantly, his appeal to Hal - without wearing out his welcome or taking over the play. This production is ultimately a fun and energetic production of a somewhat flawed cutting.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Margin Notes: The Humanist Project's Macbeth

Josephine Wilson as Hecate, with
Welland H. Scripps, Claire Warden, and
Zach Libresco as the three Witches.
Photo by Ariella Axelbank.
The Humanist Project's Macbeth

Seen on: Friday, 4/21/17.
My grade: B-

Plot and Background
King Duncan has just completed a successful battle skirmish with Norway, thanks in no small part to Macbeth, whom he honors with promotion and a royal visit. Macbeth, meanwhile, has received a prophecy from three weird sisters that he will soon be king himself. Encouraged by his ambitious wife, Macbeth murders Duncan and frames his guards for the deed. When Duncan's two sons flee, Macbeth takes the throne, but there is soon unrest and insurrection, and the new king's paranoia and guilt unravel his reign from within, while Macduff and Malcolm seek to unravel it from without. The Humanist Project is a Brooklyn-based company exploring life as the greatest piece of art. Macbeth is the third installment in The Humanist Project's Tyrant Series, "a study of politics, power and corruption through the lens of Shakespeare's work," a series which began last April.

and What I Knew Beforehand
Disclosure: I know several of the players involved, due to my association with The Shakespeare Forum. As for what I knew beforehand, I know the play Macbeth fairly well, having seen numerous productions and worked on it in school, and I knew that this production featured a cast of five.


Play: By and large, I thought that while there were many compelling concepts and ideas at play in this production, not enough of them were played out to their full potential. There is something engaging and thrilling about casting such a small company of players, but some of the staging made me long for just one more actor, to help share the burden and perhaps reduce confusion. I've seen Shakespeare done with even fewer players (four), but that kind of casting economy requires distinct (perhaps even more caricatured) performances in order for the audience to differentiate which soldier, which lord, we're currently watching - because in costume, voice, and physicality, he too often bears too strong a similarity to another soldier or lord played by the same actor. And while I found the idea of the chalkboards set and chalk-as-blood aesthetic absolutely fascinating and viscerally exciting, it was tamer than I expected, for a play so stepped in blood, to paraphrase the title character. Banquo's corpse received a chalk outline, but what of Macbeth's other victims? The subtle touches that hint toward a contemporary commentary - Macbeth's red power tie, the Russian-accented murderer, etc. - were satisfyingly executed, however. What was ultimately most effective for me in this production was watching the more visceral character relationships - the power balance between Macbeth and his wife, the love and fear, and guilty resignation to follow the path they've set; the slithering mass of the three witches, kinetically exciting for each of their appearances; and, interestingly, some of the "trick" scenes, like the greasy spoon gossip scene, or the closet conspiracy, all in pantomime staging but with full spatial conviction.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Margin Notes: The Bride, a weaving

 Ella Smith and Colin Wulff as Holofernes and
Sir Nathaniel. Photo by Tessa Flannery.
The Bride, a weaving

Seen on: Thursday, 2/16/17.
My grade: C+

Plot and Background
The King of Navarre, his brother John the Bastard, and his two friends Claudio and Berowne, vow to eschew romance and dedicate themselves to their studies, just in time for a visit from the Princess of France, her sister Hero, her cousin Rosaline, and Margaret. Romantic hijinks ensue, but when the Princess receives word that her father has died, the four ladies lay aside flirtations to return home. When the characters reconvene in France over a year later, resentments brew among spurned lovers while a new romance is kindled between Hero and Claudio. Meanwhile, Constables Dogberry and Verges get up to their own hijinks, romantic and otherwise, and things don't end the way you think they will. Bottoms Dream, founded in 2013, is dedicated to reinventing classic texts, notably through their Weaving series, where they combine the text and story of two of Shakespeare's plays to form a new hybrid story. The Bride is a weaving of Love's Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing.

What I Knew Beforehand
I reviewed Bottoms Dream's last weaving, The Ghost, and was impressed with the work I saw. I was also extremely familiar with Much Ado (probably my favorite Shakespeare comedy, thanks in large part to Kenneth Branagh's film), and fairly familiar with Love's Labour's Lost.


Play: I wanted to like this more than I did. There are some excellent ideas in play - the idea of combining these two plays, especially as regards the inner workings of the various different romantic matches, is appealing on its own. The liberal use of music throughout, played by the ensemble, lends a charming lightness. The framing notion of a trunk of costumes, distributed while the cast assembles the space, tells us that this is a story being told, in the old sense. Unfortunately, there's a lack of coherency among all these elements. I craved more of an intermingling of the two source texts, as was done in The Ghost - while there was some threading of Much Ado into the Love's Labour's half, and vice versa, they were largely treated as acts one and two of a larger narrative, which then ultimately felt more like two one-act adaptations of Shakespeare's plays. Most of the characters' major transitions happened over the intermission, such as Berowne's and Rosaline's twisting bittersweet resentments, or Verges's and Hero's shifting affections. The company could have gone so much farther than they did and instead couched too heavily in the narratives as they already existed. It didn't help that the production threw into even starker relief how bewilderingly large the number of characters Love's Labour's contains; though to its credit, the cast did its level best to maintain clarity across all the double- and triple-casting (this part of the troupe of players telling a story worked quite well). The music very rarely felt character-born or even comfortable to the performers (the exceptions being the haunting duet between Verges and the Queen and the final number), and sometimes contained inexplicable dissonances (a doo-wop song with acoustic guitar accompaniment?). And while I appreciated the surprising turns that concluded the narrative, these choices led me to wonder why the company chose two comedies and removed so much of the comedy within.