Monday, July 30, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W30: Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, Gettin' the Band Back Together

7/25/18: Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope
What: New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center summer series concludes with Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll's Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, an ecclectic revue from the early 1970s covering a wide spectrum of experience within the Black community in the States.
And? Helmed by Savion Glover as both director and choreographer, and with a few pointedly updated references mixed in, Don't Bother Me is at times joyous, at times defiant, playful, contemplative, but always full-throated and dynamically staged. Particularly memorable were the strident "They Keep Coming," the proud "My Name is Man," and the titular finale.

Wayne Pretlow and the company. Photo by Joan Marcus.

7/26/18: Gettin' the Band Back Together
What: A new musical by Ken Davenport and The Grundleshotz (a group of performers and writers) about an unemployed stockbroker who returns to his mother's house in Sayreville, New Jersey and is goaded by his old nemesis and current slumlord into getting his old high school band back together to challenge him in the Battle of the Bands.
And? Two perspectives: one, the crowd around me laughed and gave an almost immediate standing ovation during curtain call; two, I mostly didn't care. The story was too derivative, which could be fine if the jokes were more surprising. As the villain Tygen Billows, Brandon Williams is very funny, and I think if the show were a bit better written, he could really make something memorable out of it. I try not to get too snarky here (except if I'm trashing Annie or Eugene O'Neill, but both of them are old as velociraptors, and they can take it), so I'll just say that during the bulk of the show I remained indifferent, which is a pity.

Manu Narayan, Jay Klatitz, Paul Whitty, Sawyer Nunes, and Mitchell Jarvis
as Rummesh "Robbie" Patel, Bart Vickers, Sully Sullivan, Ricky Bling,
and Mitch Papadopoulos. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W29: The Boys in the Band, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, As You Like It, The Damned

7/16/18: The Boys in the Band
What: Fifty years after its Off-Broadway premiere, Mart Crowley's groundbreaking play about the homosexual lifestyle in the 1960s makes its Broadway debut. Michael and his friends throw a birthday party for Michael's frenemy, Harold, but the party is crashed by Michael's straight and conservative college roommate, Alan. Alcohol flows freely, and resentments and jealousies rise to the surface.
And? At the time of its initial production, this play went a long way toward building empathy for the gay community from the larger heteronormative world. Today, it is more of a time capsule, especially when we consider just how much this lifestyle was demolished by the AIDS crisis less than twenty years later (five the original cast members, as well as the director and one of the producers, died during the crisis). The cast is excellent, with Robin de Jesus as a particular standout (when isn't he?), and the humor is biting and funny, but it's also got a caustic and unpleasant edge to it, and it's very hard to get past some of the slurs the characters toss off carelessly. I get it, and I know people talked (and still talk) this way, but it's hard for me to maintain empathy for someone who calls his friend the N word multiple times.

Robin de Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington, Andrew Rannells, and
Jim Parsons as Emory, Bernard, Larry, and Michael. Photo by Joan Marcus.

7/18/18: On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
What: Irish Repertory's revival of Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner's 1966 musical about Daisy, a young woman with a slight case of ESP who, under hypnosis, becomes Melinda, an elegant and romantic woman in 18th century England. Dr. Bruckner, her psychiatrist/hypnotist becomes infatuated with Melinda, while Daisy develops a crush of her own.
And? Talk about a show not aging well. The romance in this story, such as it is, is unpleasant, unearned, and ethically gross. And because it's an Alan Jay Lerner show, the male lead has a monologue bemoaning the irrationality of women. I have to wonder how palatable this was in the 60s, because it sure wasn't palatable to me when I saw it, lovely music or no. I read online that there was a revised production seven years back, which I missed, that split Daisy/Melinda into David and Melinda (casting a man as David, a woman as Melinda). This sounds interesting, and perhaps a cool touch to add the queer bent to it, though it means losing the virtuosity of the Daisy/Melinda doubling, which I imagine was the primary charm of the original production, with Barbara Harris in the role. As for Daisy/Melinda, Melissa Errico is delightful, on another level from the rest of the company. There's a definite pleasure in hearing the cast sing the score sans mic (and they sound terrific), but the acting is inconsistent otherwise.

Stephen Bogardus and Melissa Errico as Dr. Mark Bruckner and Daisy
Gamble. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Margin Notes: As You Like It

Lily Waldron and Caroline Aimetti
as Phebe and Celia. Photo by
Andy Ingalls.

Seen on: Saturday, 7/21/18.
My grade:  A+

Plot and Background
Rosalind and Celia are close as two cousins can be, even though Celia's usurping Duke father sent Rosalind's usurped Duke father into exile in the Forest of Arden. However, Duke Frederick is temperamental and banishes Rosalind soon after, as well as a young man named Orlando. Luckily for all of us, Orlando and Rosalind have recently fallen in love with each other, so when they meet again in the forest (she now in disguise as young man), she tutors him in the proper ways of wooing. And that's just the A plot. Hamlet Isn't Dead presents As You Like It as part of its ongoing mission to present the entire Shakespeare canon in chronological order.

What I Knew Beforehand
As we all know, I am a habitual and enthusiastic audience member/reviewer for Hamlet Isn't Dead's playful and music-filled productions. I've seen a few productions of this play, so had an idea of what to expect.


Play: Another tight, terrific, and tuneful comedy from the Hamlet Isn't Dead crew. Director David Andrew Laws stages the show in the round, with twinkle lights strung overhead and a squishy moss floor below, and keeps the pace swift and free-wheeling, as characters cross - and skirt - paths throughout the forest while accompanied by live music (courtesy of Anna Stacy's Amiens and others). He achieves a sweet and joyful condensing of the comedy (the most significant cut, for any purists, is anything involving Touchstone and Audrey; and the biggest shuffle is a reordering of much of Jaques's material to allow him to be our shepherd through the show), keeping Rosalind at the center as the unassuming mastermind of much of the goings on in a place she barely knows.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W28: Gone Missing, Straight White Men, The Play That Goes Wrong, Head Over Heels

7/11/18: Gone Missing
What: New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center summer series continues with Gone Missing, a musical based on interviews with real people about lost items, by The Civilians's Artistic Director Steve Cosson and recently deceased Michael Friedman.
And? I really do enjoy The Civilians's style and aesthetic. This was enjoyable, funny, and often touching, taking me by surprise a few times. Glad I caught it.

Susan Blackwell, with John Behlmann, Deborah S. Craig, and
David Ryan Smith. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

7/12/18: Straight White Men
What: Downtown playwright Young Jean Lee's Broadway debut, Straight White Men attempts to find an empathetic insight into the plight of the Straight White Man, as organized and framed by two Persons in Charge, both of whom are genderfluid or nonbinary. The plot of the play tracks a family at Christmas, three grown sons visiting their father; aware of their privilege as Straight White Men, they work to stay #woke (including playing a game called Privilege, built from the skeleton of a Monopoly board), but can't seem to reconcile the seeming failure of the eldest brother who, rather that capitalizing on his early potential, has moved home with their father and is working a temp job.
And? At a recent conference, I heard someone cite this adage about American theater (I can't find the source right now): if a man is unhappy, it's society failing him; if a woman is unhappy, that's her own failing. What's interesting here is the reversal: younger brothers Jake and Drew have decided that since Matt is unmotivated, unambitious, he must also be unhappy, and that the fault for that unhappiness lies in him. What's frustrating is how they repeatedly try to explain him to each other, not letting him speak for himself. What's charming (when everyone's not fighting) is the family dynamic: these boys love playing their games, calling back to old jokes and routines, and the performers are at their most delightful and charismatic in these moments. There's a lot in this show that works, and it's a well-moving ride, but I wonder if the thesis is fully realized yet. It's still an interesting examination, that no matter how progressive these men strive to be, they're still holding themselves to standards of performance and male ambition where growth is the only success and stagnation the truest sign of character fault.

7/13/18: The Play That Goes Wrong
a repeat visit (taking a friend)

7/14/18: Head Over Heels
a repeat visit (taking a friend)

Monday, July 9, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W27: Pass Over, Log Cabin

7/04/18: Pass Over
What: Moses and Kitch, two young black men, pass the time on an empty street under a lamppost, sleeping in shifts, sharing a hoodie and keeping watch. When the night comes, they banter, they dream, they plan for their escape to the promised land, and they keep alert for any passing policemen - the only danger they fear, and one that keeps them trembling. Per the program, this play takes place "Now. Right now. But also 1855. But also 13th century BCE ... A ghetto street. A lamppost. Night. But also a plantation. But also Egypt, built by slaves."
And? The program includes an insert with a note from playwright Antoinette Nwandu, listing some of the play's influences. Waiting for Godot, obviously, makes the list. Also listed are Exodus 7-12, Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th, Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine, and the "Dashcam Video of Philando Castille Shooting." This play has a lot of humor and heart, but there is no escaping that it is fundamentally about institutionalized violence against black men. And there should be no escaping that confrontation. It needs to be confronted. As I left the theater, I saw two women discussing it: the white woman asked the black women what she thought; the black woman raised her eyebrows and said wryly that it was nothing she didn't already know. If theater is a place for creating empathy, then this is a play that more people, especially white people, need to see. The fear that keeps Moses and Kitch trembling and still, arms raised, at just the hint that a policeman might be near, is as shocking to some as it must be self-evident to others. Empathy must be built, both in the theater, and especially in the world, so that the same helpless rage fills everyone, when Moses demands of the policeman, "Stop killing us!"

Not listed among the influences, but another clear reference, was the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood; and as I watched, I thought of how stories about the Big Bad Wolf led to wolves landing on the endangered species list. A creature is labeled a menacing predator and a danger to all, is hunted, is killed. Here in Pass Over, a white man (a walking embodiment of optimism, he sings "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin" with no irony, confident that "everything's goin' [his] way") accidentally wanders onto Moses and Kitch's block, carrying a picnic basket full of food for his mother. But it is clear that Moses and Kitch fear his presence far more than he could ever fear theirs (also, notably: the red hood in this case is the hoodie shared by the two men).

Clearly this play gave me many thoughts. It's devastating. It's excellently crafted and carefully built. Nwandu is a gifted voice directed impeccably by Danya Taymor. The three actors, Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood, and Gabriel Ebert, are perfect. The design, too, is brilliant, simultaneously pointed and subtle (Wilson Chin, Sets; Sarafina Bush, Costumes; Marcus Doshi, Lighting; Justin Ellington, Sound).

Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood as Moses and Kitch.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

7/05/18: Log Cabin
What: Speaking of empathy, that's a capitalized word in Log Cabin, which tracks the friendship between two married couples (two gay men, two lesbians) and their trans friend in the halcyon years just prior to our current administration. Tensions arise as empathy is tested and privilege is confronted.
And? In the context of the current Scarlett Johansson nonsense, I was very pleased to see that at least New York theater is making some strides, casting actual trans actors in trans roles. The play itself, while witty and quick-moving, left me a bit tired: I wouldn't want to be friends with any of these people, competing to see who is the most marginalized, who has the least privilege.

Ian Harvie, Dolly Wells, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Phillip James Brannon,
and Cindy Cheung as Henry, Jules, Ezra, Chris, and Pam.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W26: Head Over Heels, Conflict, Songs For a New World, Mary Page Marlowe, Godspell, Hamilton

6/25/18: Head Over Heels
What: In Arcadia, King Basilius rules with a stubborn but benevolent-ish hand. But when Arcadia's new Oracle warns of four prophecies which could bring ruin to the land, Basilius flees the kingdom and the curse (with his entire family and court retinue in tow). Hijinks (sooooo many hijinks) ensue when his daughter's shepherd suitor Musidorus secretly dons an Amazon's costume to join the royal progress and basically the entire family falls in love with him/her. Head Over Heels takes its score from the songs of the groundbreaking punk group, The Go-Go's (known for "We Got the Beat" and "Heave Is a Place on Earth," among others).
And? Let's go on a journey. You hear there's another jukebox musical coming, this one using the Go-Go's song catalog. You roll your eyes, but it's on tdf and you like when people break into song in general, so you buy a ticket. You think you know what you're in for: another Margaritaville with a bland, cliche-ridden story and an audience filled with people who know the songs they're about to hear waaaaaay better than you do (you're right about the second part only). Guys, this thing was so joyous, so delightfully intersectionally queer, so downright silly, and I had a fantastic time. I laughed really loudly, I clapped enthusiastically (instead of merely politely), I even teared up at one point (NO ONE saw that coming). Sporting a book by Tony winner Jeff Whitty, directed by also Tony winner Michael Mayer, and featuring a fucking hilarious and talented cast (including Broadway's first principal role originated by a trans woman), Head Over Heels is a giddy fever dream of a Shakespeare-meets-Greek-comedy, full of cross-dressing, sapphic love, and absolutely zero invalidation of anyone's gender or sexuality (did I mention the non-binary plural Oracle, Pythio?). I didn't realize until I saw this show how thirsty I've been for a feel-good musical that wasn't shit. It's been a hot minute since Come From Away, you know?

Taylor Iman Jones as Mopsa, with the company. Photo by Joan Marcus.

6/27/18: Conflict
What: Conflict begins when the privileged decadence of the 1920s is confronted with the harder truths of poverty and desperation. Major Sir Ronald Clive is running for office on the conservative ticket, and is surprised to see a former Cambridge classmate, Tom Smith, less than two years after being reduced to begging for food and lodging, cleaned up and running against him for the labour party. The Lady Dare Bellingdon, sometime-paramour of Clive, begins to question her long-held but barely examined convictions as she befriends and confronts Smith.
And? Mint Theater Company's mission is to produce "worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten." This yields, in general, a rather mixed bag. This production, however, though it showed the same creaking signs that a lot of the old plays at Mint do, also felt timely in a rather bittersweet way: a longing for the days (did they exist?) when politicians ran on principles rather than personalities, leaving pettiness at the door. I found myself more invested than I expected, especially considering that this was more an ideas-play than anything else (particularly as each side of the political conflict argued his point). But I credit the even hand in the writing of both sides, the belief in integrity which underlines much of the worldview, and the earnestness of the performers, particularly Jeremy Beck and Henry Clarke as the two candidates, and Jessie Shelton as the woman who begins to think. And I was impressed that, though this play is focused on the affairs of men, it is the woman at the center who grows and changes, who truly pushes the action of the play forward. Not bad for a play almost 100 years old.

Jessie Shelton, Jeremy Beck, and Graeme Malcolm as The Lady Dare
Bellngdon, Tom Smith, and Lord Bellingdon. Photo by Todd Cerveris.