Saturday, November 27, 2021

Only Cups of Tea and History and Someone in a Tree

 Thank you, Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim. Photo by Fred R. Conrad.

On Friday morning, one of America's most important theater writers, not just of the 20th century, but of all time, passed away. Stephen Sondheim was 91. In a career spanning six decades he gave us so much work, work that has changed so many lives, including mine. I wrote my college essay about his Pulitzer Prize-winner, Sunday in the Park with George, and how it resonated with me as someone hoping to spend her life telling stories. And with the parents we had, my siblings and I grew up knowing Into the Woods and Assassins and Sunday and Sweeney by heart. A precocious child, I tried to explain the interconnected plot of Woods to anyone who would listen. By fifth grade I was doing the same with Sweeney, including a full recital of "Worst Pies in London." My dad and I discovered the TV recording of Pacific Overtures together at Paley. My mom took me to the six shows of the Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration. Sondheim appears in every chapter of my dad's musical theater books. My mom realized she was pregnant with me while crying through Sunday's act one finale. My sister and I attended (nearly) twelve hours of Sondheim at Symphony Space's Wall to Wall Sondheim event. I saw John Doyle's revival of Company ten times (possibly eleven; I lost count). Sondheim's words and music are woven through so much of my life and the thread has just snapped. Or--as he himself wrote--something just broke.

For a lyricist so often accused of austerity, of coldness, he consistently managed to write with a poignancy that spoke to our souls and spirits. He continued to honor the assignment given by Dot to George: "Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see." He gave us so much. Last year, in an April that saw my community in perpetual mourning, Raul Esparza organized an online concert to honor Sondheim's 90th birthday, and I cried through at least half of it. I'm so grateful for Mr. Sondheim. So grateful for the work he did, for the care he took. 

I can count on one hand the writers who changed my life, who changed the way I approach theater, writing, and storytelling. Sondheim's been one of them since I saw the VHS of Into the Woods, years before I knew I wanted to be a writer, wanted to be part of the theater. I'm not trying to be greedy. I know people age, they die. I just ... wasn't ready for him to go yet. His loss cannot be measured and my words are insufficient. 

Thanks for everything we did.
Everything that's past.
Everything that's over too fast.
None of it was wasted.
All of it will last.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W47: Medicine, Baby, Caroline, or Change, Clyde's, Constellations

 11/18/21: Medicine
What: St. Ann's Warehouse presents the American premiere of Enda Walsh's play about, well, about what an Enda Walsh play is about.
And? This feels very much a companion piece to Misterman, in part because while I was engrossed in the journey and feeling empathy for a character in clear crisis as he attempts to untangle the threads of his experience and tell his story, I was also waiting in vain for a moment of clarity or epiphany that never came. But listen, knowing that that's what you're often in for with an Enda Walsh play means that, to paraphrase Lincoln, for those who like this sort of play, this is the sort of play they would like.

Aoife Duffin as Mary 1, with Clare Barrett as Mary 2 in background.
Photo by Jess Shurte.

11/20/21: Baby
What: Out of the Box Theatrics presents an intimate whitebox revival of the Maltby & Shire musical about three couples of different generations and their potential pregnancies, with an updated script (in collaboration with the original authors) to reflect contemporary times and a more diverse representation of society.
And? This production doesn't just talk the talk when it comes to representation. Not only has the middle couple been revised to two women of color (Danielle Summons as Pam and Jamila Sabares-Klemm as Nicki) trying to conceive via a sperm donor, but the younger couple are both people with disabilities (Johnny Link as Danny has moderate-to-severe sensorineural hearing loss and Elizabeth Flemming as Lizzie--also OOTB's Founding Producing Artistic Director--is visually impaired). Even the older couple has been aged up to reflect the performers, as well as highlight how much Arlene (Julia Murney) has deferred her own dreams in favor of raising four children. It's a beautiful thing when the writers are still around to help revise their script for a new society, both book and score. The book remains a bit clumsy--there's a lot of characters explaining to their partners who they are (including their marginalized identities), rather than character moves, and some character moves are never even dramatized (Danny's transformation during his three month tour), but I'm giving them a lot of credit for what they're trying to do, and the score--well, that score still sings. Theaterlab is an intimate whitebox space and the production is ably staged by Ethan Paulini for an alley audience configuration with only three hard-working ensemble members, and you don't miss a word or moment, no matter where you're sitting (seriously, excellent sound design by W. Alan Waters of DimlyWit Productions).  For the cast, Julia Murney and Danielle Summons are the most adept at the emotional heavy lifting (and comedic timing), as well as in wonderful voice, but truly there are no bad performances here.

The cast of Baby. Photo by Kyle Huey.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W46: Urinetown: The Musical, Assassins

11/11/21: Urinetown: The Musical
What: Blue Hill Troupe's revival of the surprise Broadway hit about a town where the water shortage is so bad that people have to pay to pee.
And? The lovely thing about Blue Hill Troupe is you know the voices will be good--an especially nice thing when none of the cast are miked. And they're always having a lot of fun. In terms of acting and staging, they're about on par with community theater, which unfortunately means that a lot of the cast (and the directing) struggle to nail the tone of the script. However, three of their leads--Brady Lynch, Andrew F. Neuman, and Lauren Cupples, as Little Sally, Officer Lockstock, and Hope Cladwell--nail the tone, the acting, and the comedy.

The cast of Urinetown: The Musical. Photo source.

11/13/21: Assassins
What: Classic Stage Company's long-delayed John Doyle-directed revival of the Weidman-Sondheim musical about the various individuals who have tried to kill the U.S. President.
And? I should start off by saying that this is such a good show in its bones, so tight and clear, that even with the nits I'm about to pick, I still thought it was pretty good. Nit #1: while I think Doyle is more capable than a lot of other directors at staging his actors on a thrust stage so that they don't seem to be wandering aimlessly, the majority of his stage pictures still favor a minority section of the audience: the less than a third facing the front of the thrust. Seated as I was at the end of the side, I missed a number of the intended tableaux, especially in  the utilization of the projection screen bullseye (see image below). Similarly, while I don't know how the sound mixes from that minority angle, seated where I was, the instruments sometimes drown out the vocals. My biggest issue though is with Doyle's penchant for deliteralization. I still think his production of Company is the finest production of that show I've seen (don't worry, I'm seeing the newest one later this month), but I thought his Sweeney was weakened by not making it clear what particular actions were taking place. Similarly here, a number of the stakes are lost in particular scenes because we don't understand the physical threat: Booth parades around the space with no sign of a broken leg preventing his escape; Guiteau falters in his cakewalk but with no gallows for him to physically shy from, it's unclear why; Zangara screams from his chair but unless you have a good angle on the projection of the electric chair overhead, you don't realize these are his last words before his execution. And rather than being physically overwhelmed by the assassins, who shred him to transform the Balladeer to Oswald, actor Ethan Slater voluntarily surrenders his instrument and coverall.

Those issues aside, a lot works. Ann Hould-Ward's costume design is clear and clean, even against the rather unsubtle scenic design (which appears to be Doyle's work).  Will Swenson's Guiteau is twitchy mesmerizing, unable to be still even in stillness, his eyes darting in ever direction from beneath his lowered brow. Steven Pasquale's quiet dignity and charisma carry Booth well through many of the scenes, though I don't think he leans enough into the ugliness of Booth to remind us that this man is no hero. Brandon Uranowitz brings an earnest pathos to Czogosz. I could wish that Doyle brought more variety to the staging and light choreo for his ensemble--the first time they do a hopping march during "The Ballad of Czolgosz" it charms, but when that same move is repeated in later numbers, it becomes clear that there aren't a lot of tools in this particular box, and there is no staging particularity being given to the different musical styles. Final note, while the barbershop quartet harmonies still don't quite work (has anyone nailed them since the original 1991 cast?), the vocals are uniformly excellent and the orchestrations satisfying.

Regardless of the production, the thesis of the show remains chilling: the flipside of The American Dream, where Americans are born not only entitled to the pursuit of happiness, but happiness itself--and when happiness is denied, someone else is to blame and must be punished. This has always, unfortunately, resonated, but it is particularly pointed in light of January 6, 2021. 

I wouldn't mind seeing it again from a "better" angle.

Steven Pasquale as John Wilkes Booth, with Bianca Horn as the Flag Bearer,
and the cast of Assassins. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W45: GNIT, Wuthering Heights

11/06/21: GNIT
What: TFANA presents Will Eno's newest, an adaptation of Ibsen's Peer Gynt.
And? I found myself wishing I knew Peer Gynt, in order to see what was lifted and what was added/reinterpreted. For instance, this play seems a pretty clear indictment of a man with blinders so big he can never see what he has, including how privileged a position he occupies in the world, continually failing upward. Is that part of Ibsen's message, or a modern lens? And when he sees that a woman achieved peace and self-knowledge while he pursued aimlessly and failed over the same thirty years, he reacts by attempting to destroy what she built. Toward the end he looks to the audience and challenges us, if we feel sympathy, to feel sympathy for him, and bad news, Peter, I can't. Production-wise, Oliver Butler does a marvelous job crafting the play, with a poetic and appealing scenic design by Kimie Nishikawa, and a top tier cast, who all manage to deliver Eno's heightened and wry script with perfect straightforward manner (especially Jordan Bellow and David Shih).

Jordan Bellow as Stranger 1. Photo by Daniel Vasquez.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Monday, November 1, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W44: American Utopia, The Visitor, Minor Character, Sanctuary City, The Taming of the Shrew

 10/28/21: American Utopia
What: David Byrne's completely staged and designed concert/celebration.
And? I keep going back and forth on this. During the first three songs I came to the conclusion that this just wasn't for me, and that's fine. But as the stage filled with more and more musicians, as their pure enjoyment of the evening spread, it turned into a good time. I had a few disadvantages: I'm not too familiar with Byrne/Talking Head's song catalog, and during one song in which he encouraged the entire audience to their feet (and they joyfully acquiesced), I could see exactly nothing of the stage for an entire song. Which is not the most fun, y'all. It was a pretty sour note to hit near the end of the night for me, and it brought me back around to "this isn't for me, and that's fine." Back to the stuff that worked: the kinetic chemistry of the performers was consistently engaging, the design was clean, and the between-song patter didn't get in the way too much (near the end he seems to try to tie it all together into a cohesive whole, and that didn't work for me, but whatever). Byrne is a strange performer, never quite seeming at ease in his body, which looks sometimes like it's being marionetted across the stage, and his face has little affect. In spite of that, he commands the eye and attention, because he doesn't apologize for who he is or try to be what he's not. He's there, he has some songs to perform, he has a bunch of friends to help him do it, and we'll all be out of here in 100 minutes. So ... not really for me, but it might be for you?

David Byrne and the cast of American Utopia. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

10/31/21: The Visitor
What: The Public Theater presents a new musical adaptation of the 2007 film about a mild mannered economics professor awakened to the dire consequences of being an undocumented immigrant in a post-9/11 world through his surprise exposure to a Syrian drummer and a Senegalese jewelry maker.
And? Ugh. I spent most of the show wondering who the intended audience was, because it certainly wasn't for people who are already upset about the inhumane treatment of undocumented individuals in this country (and, for all that we're already upset, this portrayal is strangely cold and unaffecting). But then in David Hyde Pierce's embarrassingly written eleven o'clock number, "Better Angels," he flat out says he wants other old white men to be upset about this to. Okay then. But maybe a downtown musical isn't the right venue to reel them in? That's just one of many missteps here, in a production that delayed its opening in an attempt to decenter whiteness (mission not particularly accomplished), and lost one of its leads, Ari'el Stachel, in the process (we haven't officially been told why, but rumors are rumoring). I don't really understand casting David Hyde Pierce unless the point is that he can't sing well (and if that's the point, then I have questions ... we see him gradually get better at learning the beat of the drum, but his voice remains what it is)--and listen, I have a lot of respect for DHP and his love of live theater, but this was a mistake. Meanwhile, Tom Kitt needs to stop and think whether his melodies are actually serving the story being told, and the tenor of that story. The melody for Tarek's song about life in the prison is a great melody but it doesn't actually match the fear and desperation of the lyrics. And that's just one example. Did you like anything about the show, Zelda? Yes, I thought Alysha Deslorieux and Ahmad Maksoud were terrifically voiced, and the drum circle stuff was fun to listen to.

The company of The Visitor. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W43: Girl From The North Country, Caroline, or Change

What: A transfer from The Public Theater, a new jukebox musical using the songs of Bob Dylan, about an assortment of personalities in and around a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934.
And? I have so many questions. And, since Conor McPherson both wrote and directed this show, I'm directing them all to him:
  1. What did I just watch?
  2. Why don't you establish the language and structure of the show and how the songs work (or don't) in conversation with the dialog, so we know how to listen? I was desperately looking for some character depth or emotional dilation in the lyrics and was lost so quickly.
  3. Would I have minded this less if I knew Bob Dylan's music better?
  4. Why does each scene feel like an excerpt from a different play? Why do you introduce characters, conflicts, or the idea of an arc, only to never return to them during the next 2.5 hours? 
  5. Why are you so afraid of writing scenes that reveal character, that you have a periodic narrator to explain things instead?
  6. Why are the majority of songs so dramatically inert and disconnected from their adjacent scenes?
  7. Why is there so little coherence among the various elements telling this story?
  8. Why are scene transitions such a bland inactive character drop that distract from the scene that hasn't yet ended? (except Jay O. Sanders, who valiantly holds character even to carry a chair across the space as he exits)
  9. Speaking of Jay O. Sanders, I understand you are making some kind of statement by having Nick, the center of the story, have no music, but since you never explained to me how music functions in this play (and really, it's a play with music, right? not a musical? I mean?), I don't know what that statement is intended to be. John Doyle's revival of Company this is not.
  10. Also what is up with those scrims? Why do we have a view of an empty road behind an interior scene?
  11. What is the point of the radio mics? The performers address most of the songs straight out to the audience regardless of the presence of one, like this is a concert and not a story.
  12. Why do you put the band onstage but not light them? Also why do you have a band onstage but ask your actors to handle the drum set (and then not light them)?
  13. Speaking of not lighting your performers, why don't you light the face of the character with the final emotional beat? Hasn't she earned that?
  14. Why do you include a song with the slur for the Romani people? Is that vital to the story you're telling? Is it? I know that we have a number of classic musicals which use that word (including "Anything Goes" and the Sondheim-Styne show whose title is the word itself, and that's something we need to grapple with), but this is a new show. You get to make choices. You chose this.
  15. Why are you contributing to the harmful narrative that people with mental illness are a danger to those around them?
  16. Why do you ask me to have empathy for a character that, one scene earlier, called a grown Black man "boy"?
  17. Why does the ghost of an implied murderer get the one song of lightness and joy?
  18. This show got good reviews in London. What got lost in translation?
  19. Who is the Girl from the North Country?
Jay O. Sanders and Todd Almond and Mare Winningham are great. Most of the cast is good. The vocal arrangements and orchestrations are beautiful. But what was that, Conor McPherson?

The cast of Girl From The North Country. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Margin Notes: Assemble

Seen on: Saturday, 10/15/21.
My grade: B

Plot and Background
A return engagement of Flying Leap LLC's immersive audio journey about Jane's 40-year crisis during a pandemic.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew it was immersive, audio, and choose-your-own-adventure. Beyond that I tried to avoid reading as much as possible, for my first return to immersive theater since the shutdown.


Preface: I'm going to avoid major spoilers here, since the location of Assemble is part of the secret and the surprise. The production (performance? experience?) is an interesting idea, simultaneously isolatingly private and completely exposed. It's a promenade experience, with the audience on their feet and moving. Each audience timeslot has only four attendees (each set of four staggered at twenty-minute intervals across a two-hour span), with audience members clutching their mobile, earbuds in. You are alone. You are surrounded by people. You are surrounded by people who don't realize you're having an experience. You are surrounded by people having their own experience. No one is looking at you but you're in everyone's way. And -- yes, that's someone else in your timeslot, sharing a conspiratorial grin before returning their attention to their phone.* As you follow Jane on her journey, making choices in the app, reliving the tedium of isolation at home and the anxiety of growing older without hitting the milestones everyone told you to hit, you and Jane both begin to realize your choices were wrested from you the moment you hit play.

Parts of this experience worked very well for me, immersion-wise. I felt enveloped in the moment, in the choices, in the world being tapestried around me. But too often I was pulled out, either for fear of being in the way of someone who didn't realize they were part of the show, or trying not to overlap too heavily with my fellow time-slotters, or--frankly--window shopping. I got lost a few times. I couldn't do precisely what the app requested, for reasons outside my control. And pretending you're doing a thing for an audience of zero, as you wait for the next step to prompt, is its own weird dissociation. Especially when I wouldn't go with option A, B, or C at times.

That being said, I like the bones of this experience very much, and wouldn't mind seeing what comes next from this group. Maybe next time I can latch into the story better, and disappear for a few hours into somewhere else (though traveling between Brooklyn and Queens on a weekend is rough y'all).

Monday, October 11, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W42: Assemble, Oedipus

10/16/21: Assemble
What: An immersive audio adventure in a secret location (Brooklyn).
And? Full review here.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Weekly Margin 2021, W41: Thoughts of a Colored Man, Chicken and Biscuits

What: Playwright Keenan Scott II makes his Broadway debut with a play about what it means to be a Black man in the 21st century, spending one day with seven men as they pursue their hopes and grapple with their demons.
And? I loved it. I loved it so much. Dynamic and poignant, deeply personal and universal, heartbreaking and uplifting. All the goodies. It's such a potent mix of naturalistic dialogue, slam poetry, and even music, and each character is painted so carefully. Even with each man's name in the program listed as representing a core emotion--Love, Happiness, Wisdom, Lust, Passion, Depression, Anger--they none of them feel like symbols, but like real men trying to be the best versions of themselves. Add this to your must-see list.

What: Circle in the Square hosts Douglas Lyons's comedy about mourning, a take on "Guess Who's Coming to Dad's Funeral."
And? It was okay? It was nice to be in a theater full of laughter again. But a lot of the jokes or please-clap lines sound canned, like they could have been lifted from any sitcom script. And anyone who reads my blog knows I have strong opinions about the virtues of an arena or thrust stage, and how they can expose a director's weakness. Zhailon Levingston is working hard to keep the movement kinetic, so that no part of the audience is stuck looking at the back of someone's head for too long. But too often this movement feels like wandering rather than purposeful, and leaves actors who normally fare well on a proscenium looking a bit lost. Ebony Marshall-Oliver and Aigner Mizzelle are delightful as a mother-daughter team who can't help but speak their mind.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W40: Is This a Room, Dana H, Badass Galboss Power Hour (Mandatory Meeting - 11/18/2020), The Sitayana (Or How to Make An Exit)

What: The Broadway transfer of the celebrated Vineyard production, taken from the actual transcript of the interrogation of Reality Winner regarding an information leak.
And? I'm still puzzling through what I actually thought of this play. It's for sure an interesting experiment, including the slightly tinny sound design by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada, to remind us that this is taken from a transcript of a recorded conversation. Further verisimilitude is achieved by the inclusion of random asides that go nowhere, sudden topic shifts and non sequiturs, and other conversational sandpits that occur in real life but less so in structured drama. So it's interesting, and strange, and unnerving, especially as the two interrogators shift from friendly chat to frightening threat, as the two men tighten the net around Reality, boxing in a young woman in cutoff shorts and a loose white shirt. I was also especially excited to see former classmate Emily Davis's much-lauded performance, and she did not disappoint. She's so good at sinking into the role that you forget she's acting.

10/01/21: Dana H
What: Another Vineyard transfer, running in rep with Is This A Room, Lucas Hnath's newest work is a documentary play about the harrowing events in his mother's life in 1997.
And? My initial impulse was to go back and rewrite my Is This a Room section above, knowing now how these two plays are not only in rep, but also in conversation with each other, but I decided to let it stand, as an unfiltered reaction to the first show on its own. What's interesting about how these two plays work is they're both somewhat deconstructed attempts at documentary. While Room takes every line from the transcripts of the interrogation of Winner and plays with our senses to ratchet up tension, or to disassociate with Winner out of the reality she is trapped in, Dana comes from interviews conducted with Hnath's mother by his friend Steve Cosson--and uses the tapes of the interview for the play's audio, with actress Dierdre O'Connell lip-synching to the tape. It sounds limiting but it's instead quite liberating (as well as shutting down arguments against Samuel Beckett's prescriptive stage directions as being too confining for individual artistic expression). O'Connell's precise fidelity to Dana's words, inflections, and pauses create just enough dissociative distance to protect (in my interpretation) both performer and Dana herself from fully living in the reality of her horror twenty years previously. They also make that reality inescapable for the audience. We must sit in silent witness. We are the attention finally being paid. It's harrowing, it's devastating, and I'll warn you now it's not exactly healing. But as she speaks of her work as a hospice chaplain, of standing witness to people as they slip away from life, of the importance of her work, of the extreme empathy it demands, she asks without asking that we offer her that same empathy. She is still alive as she tells this story, but the woman she was before 1997 is gone, and this is how she died.

If you were to pick only one of the two Vineyard/Lyceum plays to see, I'd say Dana H is the one, BUT I would also say that I think both plays are so much richer for seeing them in each other's context. Room primed me to see Dana; Dana taught me how to revisit my night at Room. [Warning now, I kept my review vague, but the content of Dana H contains discussions of abduction and assault, both physical and sexual. Please take care of yourself and decide what you feel safe experiencing.]

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Monday, September 27, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W39: Moulin Rouge!, Persuasion, Stupid Kids, Tony Awards

9/24/21: Moulin Rouge!
What: The Broadway return of the adaptation of one of my favorite films (a repeat visit).
And? I saw this show for my friend Marissa's birthday back in 2019, so I knew ahead of time the weaknesses in the book, including the fact that the momentum just flat out drops when they speak more than four lines of dialogue. The changes made to try to confront some of the issues in the film, for the large part, don't know how to stick the landing (a perpetual issue of mine with adapter/playwright Logan) So putting all that aside, this was my first Broadway musical back (not first musical or first Broadway, but first Broadway musical) and it was the show's reopening, so the energy was ecstatic in that theater. Entrance applause for every ensemble member during the preshow, standing ovations to greet the entrances of Tveit and Burstein, standing ovations at the end of numerous songs, including twice during the opening "Lady Marmalade." "Backstage Romance" was as showstoppingly good as I remembered it being. The night was joyous. I cried when Danny Burstein appeared, knowing what a hard year he's had, and hearing his voice sounding gloriously healthy. Aaron Tveit continues to sound wonderful as well, and Satine replacement Natalie Mendoza is gloriously suited to the part and a gift.

Photo by Zelda Knapp.

9/25/21: Persuasion
What: Bedlam presents Sarah Rose Kearns's new adaptation of Jane Austen's novel about love rekindled.
And? I am ready for director Eric Tucker to stop using a man in a woman's wig as a joke in and of itself. I am ready for femininity to cease being a punchline. Honestly I feel like this is a play trying desperately to be good despite its director's best efforts. The random, uncomfortable, and tonally inappropriate horniness that plagued Peter Pan (Bedlam's worst outing to date) is back in mercifully muted force, and beyond that Tucker's usual bag of tricks is in somewhat effective use. Les Dickert's lighting design, which like many Bedlam productions utilizes a number of handheld lamps manipulated by the actors, is inadequate for this proscenium venue--too often the actors' faces are too shadowed for anything to be conveyed beyond maybe the first few rows. This would work fine in some of Bedlam's earlier, more intimate stagings, but not at the Connelly. John McDermott's scenic design also has a number of headscratchers (someone needs to explain the sheep to me. anyone?), but I will say Jane Shaw's sound design is effective and enjoyable, especially its utilization of the two standing mics for the actors to create ambient sound (the satisfying clink of fork against plate in the dinner scene, yum). The cast is mostly okay, with Caroline Grogan and Yonatan Gebeyehu two particular standouts in a number of roles (even if I hated every choice involving Lady Dalrymple, I still enjoyed Gebeyehu quite a bit). I didn't dislike the show so much as this review is making out--like I said, it's trying so hard to be a good play despite the questionable production choices imposed upon it, and the cast is working hard. But the degree of frustration engendered from the show's shortcomings is ... acute, especially with the memory still fresh of how wonderful Kate Hamill's Sense and Sensibility was.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched
  • Broadway's Best Shows's livestream reading of Stupid Kids.
  • The Tony Awards.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W38: Letters of Suresh, Lackawanna Blues

 9/14/21: Letters of Suresh
What: 2nd Stage presents Rajiv Joseph's epistolary play about a found box of letters to a priest in Japan, and the lives touched by the letters and their author.
And? While watching, I kept being struck by what a smart choice this was for 2nd Stage's return to live theater: the structure is largely monologue/audience address, which allows for a safer rehearsal set up, and a big theme of the play is the connections and relationships we can build, even while far away from each other. And, like the origami figures built by its title character, Rajiv Joseph's play tucks and folds its various plot threads neatly together to give a well-packaged and satisfying conclusion. The play may not be life-changing, but it's very well done, anchored by strong performances from Ramiz Monsef (Suresh) and Ali Ahn (Melody, the woman who finds the letters), as well as a final cameo-button from the ever-talented Thom Sesma. The sound design and original music by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts is subtle but powerful, and in collaboration with Jiyoun Chang's lighting design and Shawn Duan's beautiful projection design, adeptly shapes the time passing between and even within letters as they are composed and spoken aloud. If I had one complaint (and it feels so minor to point it out, but the truth is it was continually distracting to me), it would be Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams's build of the scrims which host Duan's projections. The seams in the fabric are so visible, some of them even warped, and it keeps drawing the eye away from the beauty of the origami koi fish, or even the square of yellow paper which changes Suresh's life. I tried to find a textual rationale--perhaps it represented Japanese screens or the origami paper's folds--but neither rationale sees verification in the use of space. Even with this quibble, it's lovely to be in a theater filled with people who are so profoundly grateful to be back--I hope this audience goodwill will continue for a good stretch.

What: Manhattan Theatre Club presents Ruben Santiago-Hudson's tribute to "Nanny" Rachel Crosby, the woman who raised him.
And? It's a great opportunity for Santiago-Hudson to showcase his range as a performer, vocally, physically, and musically, and it's a very loving ode to the woman who saved not just him but countless others while running her boarding houses in upstate New York. Backed by Junior Mack on guitar playing original music by Santiago-Hudson's longtime collaborator Bill Sims Jr. (to whose memory the play is dedicated), the author/performer plays over twenty different characters from his childhood (as well as a mean harmonica). Parts of this are truly very strong--virtuosic even--but the momentum drops a few times into a restlessness until the next big story or character can begin. And, even if it's a reflection of the times, I am uncomfortable with the pejorative language regarding mental illness.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W37: Sanctuary City, A Phoenix Too Frequent, Angela's Ashes

9/10/21: Sanctuary City
What: The Lucille Lortel hosts NYTW's semi-aborted March 2020 production of Martina Majok's play about two teens in a post-9/11 world with the threat of deportation looming over them. 
And? I love it. The first half of the play is a series of lightning strikes--quick fragments of scenes that quickly shift to other scenes, then shift back, and yet somehow the audience isn't lost in the journey. A beautiful demonstration of what a strong voice and good collaboration among playwright, director (Rebecca Frecknall) and actors (Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz) can look and sound like. And when the Girl finally leaves for college, three and half years go by in a prolonged moment of poetic half-light, with the Boy standing still and watching as she rotates slowly. The second half of the play is a different kind of unrelenting to the first: one long unbroken scene, with no escape from the uncomfortable truths now finally forced into light. And though even the final moments of the play are over a decade in our nation's past, the immediacy, the urgency, and the knowledge that this crisis remains just as terrifying today for undocumented minors are ever-present.

Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz as B and G. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched
APT's stream of A Phoenix Too Frequent.
Irish Rep's online presentation of Angela's Ashes.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W36: What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad

9/03/21: What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad
What: Hunter Theatre Project presents the final play in Richard Nelson's Rhinebeck Panorama as the Michaels and their friends gather in Angers, France on September 8, 2021, to mourn Rose and to witness the dance performances of her daughter and niece.
And? Last year, Richard Nelson's Apple Family plays found me at just the right time. His Zoom continuation plays for that family were one of the streaming-theater-hybrid highlights of 2020 for me. Although I haven't seen The Michaels, the predecessor to What Happened?, I knew I couldn't pass up the chance to see the final Rhinebeck play in person. I am sorry I hadn't seen any of the others live; I am so grateful I got to see this one. It's hard to describe a Rhinebeck play to someone and make it sound compelling: people prepare a meal, talk, eat the meal, and talk. At some point there is a pause to enjoy a work of art: poetry, choral music, dance. There is in Nelson's plays an appreciation for life, for the here and now. A gratitude and an awareness. That which Wilder warned us in Our Town is all too rare. This play, which takes place five days after I saw it, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah (September 8, 2021, its opening night), is grateful to be alive, while mourning the innumerable losses of this past year and a half. When the show ended I remained in my seat a few extra moments, to weep in gratitude that I was here, that I was home. 

Monday, August 30, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W35: The Last of the Love Letters, Bagdad Cafe, Viral, Cymbeline

What: Atlantic Theater Company presents a new epistolary play by Ngozi Anyanwu about two people at the end of something, unable to finally say goodbye.
And? Honestly, I'm not really sure what to make of the structure or the conclusion of this play. The first section seems wholly disconnected from the second. While both yield strong solo performances from playwright Anyanwu and her costar Daniel J. Watts, I remain unclear just what the playwright or director intended for the audience to leave with.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched This Week

Monday, August 9, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W32: Pass Over

8/07/21: Pass Over
What: Lincoln Center's Broadway transfer (and indeed the first Broadway show to perform since the shutdown) of Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu's powerful three-hander about Moses and Kitch, two Black men on a sidewalk planning to escape their circumstances.
And? I adored this play when I saw it Off-Broadway, and was so thrilled when the transfer was announced. The three actors are extraordinary (award nominations for Smallwood and Hill please!), and the expansion of Wilson Chin's scenic design is breathtaking. Playwright Nwandu has rewritten aspects of the play, particularly its conclusion, to reflect the change in dialogue in the States about violence against Black bodies over the past few years. Beyond that, I don't want to delve too deeply into spoiler territory, so I'll just say I'm so glad this play and playwright and production exist, and I think when they publish the script it would be fascinating to publish the different versions that have received major productions (the Steppenwolf run/Spike Lee film, the Off-Broadway run, and the Broadway run). Someone better credentialed than me could write a compelling article about that journey.

Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill as Kitch
and Moses. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W31: Edges, An Iliad, Rough Crossing, The Wolves

 7/29/21: Edges
What: Chance Theater presents Pasek and Paul's first collaboration, a song cycle written when they were 19.
And? I'm trying to keep the "they were only 19" dominant in my head because the writing in this show isn't there yet (wasn't there yet? tense is weird). It has strong vibes of wanting to be Songs For a New World without actually reaching those heights (there's even a semi-"Stars and the Moon" song in the last third). Too many of the songs lack a journey--they're catchy and tuneful, but they don't go anywhere new between the first and last verses. So, that aside: yes, I cried as soon as I sat down, in my first time in an indoor theater since March 11, 2020. The four performers have good voices, and Tyler Marshall and Elizabeth Curtin especially have great timing and physicality throughout, doing the most work to build an arc to the songs they sing. Bradley Kaye's scenic design is an appealing abstract space for the different songs to exist, and director James Michael McHale makes good use of the thrust space, playing to three sides without neglecting sections. There is some work done by McHale and costume designer Christina Perez to create throughlines for suggestions of characters (connecting songs out of the vacuum to be some sort of arc), but this work is so uneven and unbalanced (much more work has been done to build arcs for the women than the men, with any arc for Jewell Holloway treated more as an afterthought than any sort of plan). If this show is aspiring to be a new SFANW, this is another place it misses the mark: SFANW trusts its audience to do the work of building an emotional arc for the four performers and doesn't try to superimpose anything on top of the individual songs. I felt, watching, that I was being asked to either forgive the slight mismatches that resulted in joining up different songs to the same character, or allow myself to acknowledge that the lack of specificity of voice in the lyrics--more common in pop music than in musical theater--is what they're counting on. Still, I was happy to be back in a theater and hear songs sung live, right in front of me. That was huge.

Tyler Marshall, Elizabeth Curtin, Jewell Holloway, and Sarah Pierce.
Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments
The Broadway League is requiring all Broadway audiences to show proof of full vaccination.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W29: Merry Wives, Ride Share, An Iliad, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

7/13/21: Merry Wives
What: Shakespeare in the Park presents Jocelyn Bioh's adaptation of the Bard's somewhat obscure spin-off about Falstaff, this time set in South Harlem.
And? This was so damn delightful. I'll confess it's a play I don't know at all, but this adaptation was full of so much playfulness and joy, a truly excellent cast (especially Pascale Armand and Susan Kelechi Watson as the titular Merry Wives, oh my god so good). Other standouts include Gbenga Akinnagbe as the attempted-cuckolded Ford and Joshua Echebiri in the dual roles of Slender and Pistol. Jacob Ming-Trent's Falstaff was funny if a bit less nuanced than either of the two wives he attempts to seduce. Jocelyn Bioh's script adapt is quick and punchy, and a happy blend of Shakespeare's text and the eclectic language of the blended West African immigrant communities in South Harlem. Dede Ayite's costume design is swoonworthy gorgeous, Beowulf Boritt's set is appealingly modular, and Jiyoun Chang's lighting achieves breathtaking beauty in the climactic spirit scene. What a happy return to the Delacorte after a terrible year.

Jacob Ming-Trent and Susan Kelechi Watson as Falstaff and Madam Nkechi
Ford. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Monday, July 12, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W28: Love's Labour's Lost, A Cold Supper Behind Harrods, Dumb Waiter, Sweat

 Live theater! I saw live in-person theater! My first live theater since March 11, 2020!

What? Hudson Classical Theater Company's outdoor performance of Shakespeare's comedy (co-starring my friend Emily Bradshaw!), about four sets of would-be lovers and, well, the labours they undergo in the wooing, and then whoops it just sort of stops and the sequel is lost to the sands of time. Full disclosure: at the performance I attended, a light rain started about an hour and a half in, eventually increasing enough that the performance was called for rain before it concluded. We saw up to the prelude to the Worthies.
And? It was so thrilling to be back in a performance space again after all this time. Hudson Classical's production is fully vaccinated and semi-masked (when the performers are near the fully-masked audience). The courtyard area behind a monument in Riverside Park is a cozy and magical space, backed by trees and the sound of the city beyond. Fireflies even joined us around eight. This is a charming production of a play I'm not particularly fond of, and Nicholas Martin-Smith's direction helped remind me of the play's better parts, the charm and the banter, as well as the delights of Armado and Costard. John-Ross Winter's costume design is beautiful and appealing (including masks to match each costume), the women winsome and the men dapper. Among a generally solid cast of performers, highlights included Daniel Yaiullo's clever Berowne, Emily Bradshaw's brassy Rosaline, Bryan Bryk's Groucho-inflected Costard, Peter Sullivan's cheerfully dim Antony Dull, and Austin Reynolds's blustery and charismatic Don Adriano de Armado.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Monday, June 28, 2021

Monday, June 21, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W25: Georgie, The Floor Wipers, In the Heights Virtual Book Launch, Jesus Hopped the A Train, Aherne Sheehan School of Irish Dance concert, The New Classics

Streaming Theater-Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments
  • The Drama Book Shop has reopened at its new home.
  • Stage and screen actress Lisa Banes has passed away after a hit and run accident.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W22: Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, The Mountaintop

Streaming Theater-Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments
The "2020" Tony Awards have finally set their airdate for September 26th, 2021.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W20: An Evening with Sheldon Harnick and Friends, Bring Me to Light, The Royale, Trifles, I and You, The Last Match, Story of My Life, Miscast Gala

Streaming Theater-Related Content I Watched

Monday, May 10, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W19: Becca, The Secret Garden, Mary Stuart, Preludes, The Normal Heart

Streaming Theater-Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments
Broadway's coming back September 14th. Individual shows are announcing individual first performances and (in the case of shows like Six) opening nights, all on this date or after.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W18: Romeo & Juliet, Little Gem, Baltimore Waltz, Being Mr. Wickham, The Lucille Lortel Awards

Streaming Theater-Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments
  • De Blasio is aiming for a full* NYC reopening July 1st.

*except Broadway, which probably won't come back until September.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W16: Tell the Story: Celebrating Assassins, The Last Five Years, The Musical of Musicals: The Musical

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments
  • Karen Olivo has elected to not return to Broadway when the theaters fully reopen, citing the industry's silence of THR's April 7 article covering producer Scott Rudin's history of violently abusive and vindictive behavior. As of April 17 Rudin has issued an apology and announcement he is stepping back from active participation in theatrical endeavors ... for now. The sincerity of this statement is, at my most generous, fucking dubious. Plus he hasn't stepped back from any of his Hollywood projects, and no one here actually thinks that he limited his abuse of staff to one coast.
  • The long-running Perfect Crime resumed performances on April 18.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W15: Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, John Collum: An Accidental Star, Decision Height

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments
Following the Broadway PopsUp invite-only performance by Nathan Lane and Savion Glover on April 3rd at the St. James Theatre, New York's Off-Broadway had its first reopening with The Office: A Musical Parody at The Jerry Orbach Theater on April 9th.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W14: Amplify 2021, Broadway Backwards, Ragtime Reunion, Fully Committed, Amour, War Horse

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments
  • The 2021 Drama League nominations are out, with categories specific the socially distanced theatrical work created this past year. Winners will be announced May 21st.
  • Meanwhile, still no word on when the 2020 Tony Awards plan to actually ... be awarded.
  • The Drama Book Shop is getting ready to reopen in its new location.
  • Cabaret venues in New York are beginning to reopen.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W13: Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue, Looking Back at Contact

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments
Mayor de Blasio has announced his intention of reopening Broadway by September. Theater workers in New York are expected to be vaccine-eligible in April.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W11: Dear Brutus, Assassins Reunion Show, Stevie Smith: Black March, Daddy Long Legs, Three Days of Rain

Streaming Theater-Related Content I Watched

Blow Out the Candles, Zelda, and Make a Wish (One Year In)

Today is my birthday. One year ago today I had my last social gathering without masks: two friends came over to my apartment for Chinese food and board games. 

Four days before my birthday I had seen my last live theater, the inadvertent closing performance of The Inheritance (Broadway was to shut down completely the next day, March 12th, which marked for me the moment New York began taking this seriously).

Four days after my birthday my office shifted from skeleton crew to full remote and I had my first COVID symptoms (neither of my friends got sick). I recovered. Many did not. New York became a haunted city and I was shut up in my apartment for the transition.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Monday, February 22, 2021

Monday, February 15, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W7: All the Devils are Here, Doubt, Molly Sweeney

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments

Restauranteur Joe Allen, whose eponymous restaurant is popular among NY theater folk, has passed away.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W6: Code Black Planet, Looking Back at The Light in the Piazza, The Room of Silence, Katie Roche, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

 Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments

Another acting icon, Christopher Plummer, has passed away.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W5: In & Of Itself

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

On Hulu, Derek Delgaudio's In & Of Itself.

Theater Developments

Two longstanding icons of stage and screen, Cloris Leachman and Cicely Tyson, passed away.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W4: Patterpalooza Project, Days to Come

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Theater Developments

(I took a couple weeks off, so this is delayed, but) 

  • Broadway's Mean Girls has announced they will not be reopening.