Monday, February 26, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W8: Ghost Story

1/10/18: Ghost Story
What: Three women deal with the grief, pain, and growth that cancer leaves in its wake.
And? While I don't fully agree with the play's philosophy, I like the structure of it, and the performers are quite good. Full review here.

Randa Karembelas, Chelsea J. Smith, and Elissa Klie as Lisa, Meryl, and Hannah.
Photo by David Fletcher.

Margin Notes: Ghost Story

Elissa Klie and Chelsea J. Smith as Hannah and
Meryl. Photo by David Fletcher.

Seen on: Friday, 2/23/18.
My grade: B

Plot and Background
Three women - Meryl, a healer; Lisa, her client facing a return of her breast cancer; and Hannah, Meryl's girlfriend - are haunted by the spectre of illness, and by questions they cannot answer. Little Spoon, Big Spoon partners with Cancer Hope Network to present this one-act by Mark Ravenhill, with 20% of the ticket sales going to CHN.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd seen (and reviewed) an earlier Little Spoon, Big Spoon production, which included two of the same cast members as this show. Otherwise, I knew very little of the play going in.


Play: I like very much the idea of these women sharing strength with each other - giving when they see another is weak and needing support, and accepting that support when it's given. The play is an interesting sort of skirt to the gritty and mundane unpleasantness of illness, dealing instead with its emotional scars, the worries and fears, but skipping ahead past the actual dying. However, I remain troubled by a recurring theme in this play, which is the characters' choosing a lie over the truth, albeit with good intent. Lies wait to be found out; truths simply are. And this action is a bit too central to the play for me to completely look past it. Looking near it, though, I like the non-linear fluidity of the narrative, the idea that these three women perpetually haunt the same space, whether they are physically in the room together or no. The play's tagline is "We are the stories we tell ourselves;" I would addend that with "and the people we carry with us."

Monday, February 19, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W7: At Home at the Zoo, Chess (twice)

1/10/18: At Home at the Zoo
What: Edward Albee's famous The Zoo Story is paired with a prequel, Homelife, to show Peter's relationship with his wife, Ann, prior to meeting a strange man, Jerry, on a park bench, who seems determined to unsettle him.
And? I saw this the last time it was done in New York, at Second Stage, and was disappointed at the time - Homelife seemed to have been written for the sole purpose of giving us a clue who Peter was prior to Jerry, but I was just bewildered by it. This time, however, I was mostly won over by Homelife. Yes, aspects of it are still bewildering (it's Albee), but the relationship felt real, and was affectingly performed by Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard. I had a sense of what could be lost in the next act. But then, for the first time, The Zoo Story half didn't work for me. It was working for a while, mind you - Paul Sparks did great work with the dog story. But the final escalation felt inorganic, and so I felt nothing at the conclusion, because I didn't trust it. I'm not sure what went wrong here, but something did.

Top: Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard as Ann
and Peter. Bottom: Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks
as Peter and Jerry. Photos by Joan Marcus.

1/10/18: Chess (twice)
What: Kennedy Center, a la New York City Center's Encores! series, presents a concert staging of Chess with newly revised script by Danny Strong. Florence, a refugee from Hungary, is poised at the epicenter of an East-West rivalry during the height of the Cold War, as two chess champions, one Russian, one American, vie for the title amid geopolitical machinations and romantic entanglements.
Why Twice? Well, Raul Esparza, Ramin Karimloo, Karen Olivo, Ruthie Ann Miles, and Bryce Pinkham.
And? One of musical theater's famous problem shows, Chess once again attempts to fix itself and find its "final" version. It's still Chess. It's still got its infectious score with its lyrics that don't always make sense or sit comfortably on the melody, and a story that never quite works. But the cast is great, strong acting and strong vocals (the unfortunate exception to this turned into a moving moment of live theater: Raul Esparza has been battling an infection all week. We could hear him struggling with the notes at the top of his register on Saturday; on Sunday they delayed curtain 15 minutes, then announced that he was sick but would perform regardless. His Sunday Freddie shouted a bit less, took a good deal of his stuff down an octave (the high stuff just wasn't there when he reached for it), and was aided and supported by Florence/Karen Olivo. He was conserving what limited access he had to his high range for his big act two number, "Pity the Child," and while it was still rough, it was incredibly performed. When he finished, the entire cast burst into applause along with the audience, and I saw several wiping tears from their eyes. It was a wonderful reminder of the camaraderie and support that is built in a company of players). Back to the show: It's a well-staged concert, and this was probably the funniest version of the show I've encountered, so I assume that's part of what Strong added, along with more specific ties to contemporary conflicts between the USSR and the US.

Karen Olivo as Florence. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W6: Relevance, Hey, Look Me Over!, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box

1/10/18: Relevance
What: At a literary conference, Lifetime Achievement honoree Theresa goes head to head on the topic of feminism with newcomer (and grant winner) Msemaji, and when their panel debate goes viral, both must reckon with the value of the individual voice versus the cacophony of social media.
And? I caught this early enough in previews - and rewrites - that several scenes had actors with script in hand. That being said, I found this a compelling exploration of the importance of the individual, as opposed to being defined solely by othering labels. I don't know that the playwright has as yet presented as balanced an examination as he ultimately wants, since it's so clear in the opening scene that Theresa starts out in the wrong, and never quite recovers enough for us to consider she might have the higher ground. The cast was pretty great, particularly the two leads, Pascale Armand and Jayne Houdyshell.

Jayne Houdyshell and Pascale Armand as Theresa and Msemaji. Photo by
Joan Marcus.

1/10/18: Hey, Look Me Over!
What: Bob Martin revives his Man in Chair persona from The Drowsy Chaperone to curate a revue  in honor of New York City Center Encores!'s 25th anniversary, selecting songs from eight musicals (and an overture from a ninth) of the past they haven't yet visited. (Wildcat, All American, Jamaica, Milk and Honey, Mack & Mabel, Greenwillow, Sail Away, George M!, and the overture from Subways are for Sleeping)
And? Listen, I had fun. Was it a coherent revue? Not really. But I knew to expect that going in. I got what I love to get out of the Encores! series: a glimpse at shows I probably won't get to see full production of, with a full orchestra and top notch talent. In this case, the only music I knew ahead of time was Mack & Mabel, "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" from Sail Away, and "Give My Regards to Broadway" from George M! - everything else was new to me. Highlights: Bob Martin's sweet and off-beat Man in Chair, Carolee Carmello's robust "Hey, Look Me Over!," Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha completely charming us as the titular Mack and Mabel, Clifton Duncan bringing the house down with "Never Will I Marry," and Bebe Neuwirth reminding us why she's a legend with "Why Do the Wrong People Travel."

Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha perform from Mack & Mabel.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W5: Jerry Springer - the Opera, The Chekhov Dreams

1/31/18: Jerry Springer - the Opera
What: Jerry Springer's show is going normally - full of broken angry people telling terrible secrets and riling up the audience - when a disgruntled ex-employee shoots him dead. When Jerry arrives in Hell, Satan requests he hosts one last show, featuring Jesus, Adam, Eve, Mary, and possibly the big man himself.
And? The first half, pre-murder, was basically the same joke, over and over: people saying horrible things but singing them operatically (including the recurring refrain "What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fucking fuck"). The second half also felt pretty labored, honestly, and the fact that after the parade of awfulness, the show seemed to be shooting for an actual moral message, felt unearned. The cast is talented, but it wasn't enough. That being said, to quote Michael Bluth, I don't know what I expected.

Will Swenson and Terrence Mann with company as Satan and Jerry Springer.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

2/02/18: The Chekhov Dreams
What: A depressed Jeremy is shaken from his three-year stupor by his hedonistic brother, who prompts him to join an acting class. Now he no longer dreams of his dead fiancee Kate; Anton Chekhov is there, too.
And? Some problematic stuff, but I had a mostly fun time watching it. Full review here.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Margin Notes: The Chekhov Dreams

Elizabeth Inghram and Dana Watkins as Kate and Jeremy.
Photo by Arin Sang-urai.

Seen on: Friday, 2/02/18.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
Jeremy, still deeply depressed three years after the death of his fiancee, is reclusive, sleeping all the time, and blocked on writing his modern-day fairy tale novella. Forcibly shaken from his routine by his party-hard brother Eddie, Jeremy joins an acting class and begins work on a scene from The Seagull with classmate Chrissy, only to find that his dreams are no longer haunted solely by the spectre of Kate - there's a long-dead Russian playwright paying him visits as well.

What I Knew Beforehand
Next to nothing. Well, I suppose I knew enough of Chekhov's theatrical canon to have an opinion while Jeremy and Chrissy debated his merits.


Play: I definitely had my trepidations based on the title alone - I, like Jeremy, am not overly in love with the plays of Chekhov. But this turned out to be quite a charming romantic comedy with a twist. There are things I could pick apart - a somewhat inconsistent engagement with mental illness, or how the women still rather felt like props to the male narrative - but these are things which came up more for me after the show rather than during it. During the show, I was engaged and amused, laughing and investing in the characters on their journey, frequently questioning - and changing my mind just as frequently - what Kate's true agenda might be, and whether she was a true ghost visiting, or a manifestation of Jeremy's grief and broken psyche. That line of tension can be hard to maintain, but this production pulled it off winningly, and even made me consider giving Chekhov another try.