Monday, October 28, 2019

Weekly Margin 2019, W43: The Inheritance - Part Two, Little Shop of Horrors, Fires in the Mirror, Soft Power, Only Human

This week I saw my 100th show of 2019 with Fires in the Mirror!

10/22/19: The Inheritance - Part Two
What: Part two of Matthew Lopez's two-part epic play adaptation of E. M. Forster's Howards End (Part one seen 10/07/19).
And? As exquisite as Part One. Beautiful, honest, moving, heartbreaking, spirit-lifting. I was near tears for much of the 3+ hours. I was particularly struck this time by the musicality of the performance, by how in tune and in time with each other all the performers are, expertly orchestrated by director Stephen Daldry. Part Two is harder to watch than Part One in some ways, as characters with self-destructive tendencies deteriorate faster and faster, so I will offer that warning. We are warned in the play that "to fall in love is to make an appointment with heartbreak." But heartbreak is never the end of the story and my goodness, what a special experience to have on Broadway this season.

10/23/19: Little Shop of Horrors
What: The latest New York revival of Menken and Ashman's dark musical comedy, at Westside Theatre Upstairs (not to be confused with the current Pasadena Playhouse production).
And? Good clean fun, and a solid production of Little Shop. Nothing revolutionary, but I do appreciate the performers' dedication to finding their own rhythm and delivery to such well-known material. Jonathan Groff's casting definitely feels like Nicole Kidman putting on a putty nose, but if you ignore that, he's delightful and hilarious. Ari Groover, Salome Smith, and Joy Woods as the three urchins are terrific as well, and oh boy is Christian Borle having fun.

Jonathan Groff and Joy Woods as Seymour and Chiffon.
Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Weekly Margin 2019, W42: Cyrano, The Wrong Man, The Adventure Zone: Become The Monster Tour, Strangers in the Night, Scotland, PA, One Man, Two Guv'nors

10/15/19: Cyrano
What: The New Group presents a new musical adaptation of Rostand's play, with Peter Dinklage in the title role.
And? I'm really struggling with this. I understand that adaptations often suffer if they try too hard to be like the original while exploring nothing new (see: the 1983 Jane Eyre miniseries vs the 2006 Jane Eyre miniseries), and in fact earlier this year I read an excellent YA adap of Cyrano called We Are the Perfect Girl. For this new musical adaptation, perhaps what's making it difficult for me to let go of the original is how often they still use something like the source text, so I can't forget what it was. Or perhaps it's just that all the joy is gone. They've taken out all the playful parts of Rostand's play--Cyrano's duel ballad and his entire man in the moon sequence, Ragueneau's recipe poems, and even Christian's goading of Cyrano on their first meeting. They've taken out the fun, and all that remains is the angst. Well, that and several references to beats that no longer exist (now Cyrano praises Christian's bravery in ... entering a room). Angst with half-earned emotional beats never to heaven go. This Cyrano is brief, which is both a blessing and a curse. It suffers for its brevity, but it also means we're not sitting with it as long as we might be. Peter Dinklage, as one might expect, is a wonderfully powerful presence and a nuanced actor with a pleasing if limited baritone, but I could see him struggling to elevate the material to its poetic ambitions. Grace McLean, as Roxanne's chaperone Marie, is the only one in the cast who remembers there is fun in the world, and she is my takeaway favorite of the evening. Vocally the show is in good hands, with Jasmine Cephas Jones and Blake Jenner singing with beautiful ease notes--and beauty--beyond Cyrano's reach. I just wish the lyrics could match in interest, content, soul. I wish the choreography of the ensemble didn't so deliberately distract from the principals. Also hell no to the show's last line, but spoilers.

10/16/19: The Wrong Man
What: MCC presents a new musical which began life as a musical monologue concept album by Ross Golan, about a down on his luck man in Reno who wrong place-wrong time-wrong woman finds himself framed for murder.
And? Take away Joshua Henry's nakedly honest performance and soaring vocals, take away Ryan Vasquez's smirkingly charismatic evil, take away Thomas Kail's masterful staging of bodies in space (with Travis Wall's balletic choreography), and I'm not sure how much is left for us. Everyone I just mentioned is doing wonderful work, but. The lyrics are repetitive, the story upsetting but unsurprising: yes, we know this narrative and how it usually goes, but please show us something new about it. If it weren't for Henry and his truly special talent, I don't know how much I would have invested emotionally. The production does plenty to elevate the text, but it can't fully hide its deficiencies.

Joshua Henry, center, as Duran, with the company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Margin Notes: Strangers in the Night

Patricia Lynn as Molly in Screwed.
Photo by Al Foote III.
Strangers in the Night

Seen on: Friday, 10/18/19.
My grade: A-/C

Plot and Background
Hunger & Thirst Theatre presents two one-acts, Screwed by Patricia Lynn and Bottling Dreams of the Tearful Don't-Knower by Emily Kitchens, with connective tissue written by Philip Estrera. Screwed is an updated version of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, as governess Molly is interviewed in the aftermath of a tragedy in the house where she works. Bottling Dreams is set in the near-future as an unnamed man attempts to gather supplies for his invalid wife, but gets waylaid by the draw of a stranger who finds him bottling tears. Frank's monologues serve as a frame for the evening, greeting us, transitioning us between plays, and closing out the evening.

What I Knew Beforehand
I've seen and reviewed several Hunger & Thirst productions in the past.


Play: The ideal thing here would be to review the show as a cohesive evening of theater, but I'm struggling to be able to do that. What's especially odd is that Estrera's interstitial monologues, which ought to help the evening cohere, in fact underline how utterly disparate the two centerpieces are in form and content. Each might have been better served if presented individually. So, separately:

Lynn's Screwed is tight and tense, simultaneously gentle and frightening, luring the audience bit by bit into the gothic mystery of the house and the family, and how it's all been slowly tormenting Molly until the crisis point. The characters hold onto their secrets well, dancing between the allure of rescue and the abyss of annihilation. It's an excellent example of a good one-act, with no wasted time but still providing a full emotional journey.

Kitchens's Bottling is unfortunately mostly bewildering to me as a piece of theater. The language of it continually frustrates me, reminding me of the sort of playwriting we did in school, reaching for an abstract poetry without first grounding anything in story or character. Even putting language aside, the rules of the world and the passage of time are unclear, and the characters exist in the sort of maddening reality where they seem to matter only in their relationship to the Man at the center (the Stranger, when finally asked who he is, replies that he is the Stranger, as if he did not exist before the moment he entered orbit round the Man).

Before, between, and following Screwed and Bottling are Frank's musings, referring to humanity as marbles with the arrogance of a deity, but also finally confessing that he himself is "just a transition. What I mean to say is, I'm not that interesting." This confession is unfortunately all too true until his final quiet moment when, artifice removed, he sits and tells us a story of earlier that day, when he ordered a slice of chocolate cake. It's his only moment of real connection, completely separate from any relation to the two plays of the evening.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Weekly Margin 2019, W41: The Inheritance - Part One

10/07/19: The Inheritance - Part One
What: A transfer from The New Vic/West End of Matthew Lopez's two-part epic play, which takes the narrative of E. M. Forster's Howards End and transports it to contemporary New York City, to explore the modern male gay experience, a generation whose mentors and cultural ancestors were wiped out by the AIDS epidemic.
And? This production has been hype hype hyped on its way to Broadway, celebrated as the next Angels in America. I think it's definitely worthy of the praise it's earned, though the likening to Kushner's (also) two-part creation is an unnecessary reduction, a lazy crutching on the fact that both plays are (primarily) about gay men in New York. The ambition and scope of the two works are entirely different, as is the style of writing and performance. Angels is about the soul of a country abandoned by the celestial and on the road to ruin; Inheritance is about a generation of men defying both abandonment and appropriation, holding on to each other, to their history, to themselves. Angels has the feel of the final days before the apocalypse; Inheritance is about what came after the end of the world (obviously, both plays are about a lot more, but this is my reduction) They're both important and moving works, but to lump the two together is to not bother to examine either particularly closely.

The Inheritance wins its way into my theater nerd heart very quickly, as it uses one of my favorite theatrical devices: activating the players as storytellers, telling each other the story even as they tell it to us. Bob Crowley's minimal design -- a raised platform, a collection of floor pillows and laptops, glasses of wine -- gives the actors nowhere to hide. But with this unified and dynamic cast, as directed by Stephen Daldry, there's no need to hide. I was surprised to realize how much of the play is just people talking, and how refreshing it is to see that that can still be good theater, in the right hands. This play is funny and honest and heartbreaking and elegant and naked and poignant. And I can't wait to see Part Two.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Weekly Margin 2019, W40: Hadestown

10/04/19: Hadestown
a repeat visit (family in town). while I'm still not invested in the Orpheus/Euridice love story, I love Hades/Persephone, and every other element of the production: the muscular choreography, the marriage of scenic and lighting design, the beautifully detailed costume design, and the direction.