Monday, November 28, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W49: Only Gold, A Man of No Importance, Fiddler on the Roof, Leopoldstadt, Sraight Line Crazy, Merrily We Roll Along, A Christmas Carol

11/21/22: Only Gold
What: MCC presents a new musical by Kate Nash, about a king of a small country who brings his wife and adult daughter to Paris in 1928 to prepare for his daughter's wedding, and the watchmaker-turned-jeweler and piano soloist whose lives are changed by the royal family's arrival.
And? If you look at this as strictly a dance piece (directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler) underscored by Kate Nash songs, then this is some absolutely stellar storytelling. If you look at this as a musical, you're in a bit more trouble. The dialogue (book by Blankenbuehler and Ted Malawer) is very not good. The story itself is built entirely of tropes we've seen many times over. The use of Kate Nash as narrator who sometimes (but not always) sings the characters' thoughts, feels too arbitrary a device to be an effective storytelling move. The placement in 1928 Paris feels even more arbitrary. Why are we here? Where is the evidence of a generation lost to the Great War, of a city rebuilding? What, besides the love stories, makes any of this demand to take place in France? The only reason I can see for why it takes place in a specific year is to make it clear why Camille, as a woman, feels unable to pursue her music career.

But let's be kind. Let's look at it as a dance piece underscored by Kate Nash. Then, oh boy.  After hearing the pedestrian dialogue I didn't expect to invest in any of these characters' journeys, but the dances--each feeling in a way like their own individual one-acts--are a true emotional journey, a clarity of storytelling that reminds us why we love Blankenbuehler's work. This production is a true showcase for Karine Plantadit and Gaby Diaz, who play queen and princess to Terrence Mann's king. They are both utterly transcendent and vividly alive through their numbers. Heck, the whole cast is great, I just really wanted to highlight these two. I wish I could list specific songs/dances that spoke to me, but it's hard to remember the songs that were sung under the dances, so even a title list doesn't help me here. From a theater historian standpoint, it's rather charming that though Terrence Mann is cast in one of the three non-dancing roles, he still comes from a dance background (early projects for him include OBC Cats and the film of A Chorus Line); and luckily he also gets to have a great musical catharsis singing--he may not dance anymore, but his voice is still as wonderful as ever. And the framework for the space is lovely too: Jeff Croiter knows how to light dancers to show off their beauty and grace, and they glow against David Korins's romantic coppery scenic design.

Hannah Cruz and Karine Plantadit as Camille and Queen Roksana. Photo
by Daniel J. Vasquez.

What: Classic Stage presents a revival of the McNally, Ahrens, and Flaherty musical about a bus conductor in Dublin, closeted and enamored of the works of Oscar Wilde, trying to stage a community production of Salome.
And? I think this musical just isn't for me. The production is fine, with some flaws (the flaws: the accent work is turrible, and the sound design isn't a lot better--I struggled to hear the cast over the instruments, and I was in the front row), but it's just not for me. John Doyle is a great actor's director, giving us fully realized humans onstage, which I always value. Jim Parsons gives a subtle and understated performance as Alfie, quietly sad and quietly hopeful. Thom Sesma, always solidly good, is a hammy delight as the butcher turned theater actor. A.J. Shively is dopeishly sweet as bus driver Robbie Fay, but the orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin don't allow his big song, "The Streets of Dublin," to soar the way it needs to. A really lovely thing to note: there is fantastic body diversity in this production, and the costume design by Ann Hould-Ward outfits them all beautifully. Yes, this, more please.

Shereen Ahmed, Da'Von T. Moody, Alma Cuervo, Joel Waggoner, William
Youmans, Mary Beth Peil, A.J. Shively, Jessica Tyler Wright, and Kara
Mikula as Adele Rice, Peter, Miss Oona Crowe, Ernie Lally, Baldy O'Shea,
Mrs. Grace, Robbie Fay, Mrs. Patrick, and Mrs. Curtin.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W48: Ohio State Murders, Chester Bailey

What: Playwright Adrienne Kennedy makes her long-awaited Broadway debut in the newly-renamed James Earl Jones Theatre. This play, originally written in 1992 as part of the Alexander Plays--a cycle of plays featuring Suzanne Alexander--shows Suzanne remembering her time as one of the few Black female students at Ohio State University, and the circumstances surrounding the violent conclusion of her time there.
And? Adrienne Kennedy is an incredible writer. She does not let the audience off the hook. This play, a poetic stream of consciousness, a monologue of memory for Suzanne where the other characters softly enter, softly exit, is unflinching in Alexander's recounting of her grief. Audra McDonald's performance is meticulous and affecting; she keeps mostly in her higher range as she speaks, in what I think is meant to be an imitation of Kennedy's own voice (pre- and post-show the sound system plays an audio of an interview with the playwright), as a nod to the acknowledged autobiographical threads in much of Kennedy's work. The design and direction by Kenny Leon echo the poetry in Kennedy's writing, with snow falling softly but unendingly through a large crack in the back wall, a space that is both a corruption of the sacred academic space and also a bird's eye view of the ravine where one of the murders took place (scenic design Beowulf Boritt).




11/16/22: Chester Bailey
What: Irish Rep presents real-life father and son Reed Birney and Ephraim Birney in the New York premiere of Joseph Dougherty's play about a young man working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1945 who suffers a catastrophic injury, and the attempts of his doctor to bring him to terms with the reality of his new existence.
And? John Lee Beatty's scenic design--creating simultaneously Chester's hospital room, Penn Station, the inside of a warship--is frankly stunning, and an excellent incorporation of Irish Rep's load-bearing columns. It's beautifully and subtly illuminated by Brian MacDevitt's lighting design and given a cavernous sense when needed by Brendan Aanes's sound design. Both Birneys gives excellent and nuanced performances. Truly, there's a lot of good here. But. I can't get past two fairly large problematic elements inherent to the writing of this play. 

One, which the NYT review also calls out, is the tired, troubling, and frankly angering bogeyman of the queer predator. Can we not? Can we please, at long last, not? Yes, when I hear a character's diagnosis in 1945 to include among his illnesses an "uncontrollable homosexual impulse," I cringe but also know that's a sign of the times. But to have it then equated without interrogation with sexual predation, I just. Can we please not?

My other issue is the romanticizing yet again of mental illness. To be clear, I'm not here to stigmatize mental illness, or to equate it with neurodiversity. But I find romanticizing delusion a rather dangerous tendency in the theater and film (areas where we have been hearing way too many stories of excusing or romanticizing toxic behavior in the name of art); it's no accident reviews keep comparing this play to Equus. That one was a problem, too.

Reed Birney and Ephraim Birney as Dr. Philip Cotton and Chester Bailey.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.


Monday, November 14, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W47: A Christmas Carol

What: Michael Arden directs man of a thousand characters Jefferson Mays in this one-person production of Dickens's classic story about a cold man's redemption and the Christmas spirit.
And? Halloween's over, bring on the Christmas ghost story! I saw the filmed version of the George Street Playhouse's version of this production in 2020 and loved it, so I was excited to get to see in person. And wouldn't you know it, for the second week in a row I found myself inadvertently at a first preview. So my small quibbles (the sound levels are too high, they haven't perfected some of the set movement so we kept catching sight of the crew when the turntable spun forward) are ones that hopefully will be fine-tuned as the show goes on. My other issue is probably something they would call a feature, not a bug: it's very dimly lit, especially at the beginning. While this allows for a few spoilery magic tricks and creates the spooky ambiance, it also means we can't really see the work Jefferson Mays is doing (it also means, when bright light finally makes an appearance, I had to cover my face because it actually hurt my eyes). Still, it's a moving show that moves along at a 90 minute clip, and Mays is always a treat to watch in his element: playing 300 characters.

Jefferson Mays as Ebenezer Scrooge. Photo source.


Monday, November 7, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W46: The Rat Trap, The Piano Lesson, What Passes For Comedy, Parade

11/01/22: The Rat Trap
What: Mint Theater presents the American premiere of Nöel Coward's play about two young writers who marry, only to learn that his insecurities don't allow her to have a successful writing career at the same time as his.
And? Sometimes you see a preview performance and it feels finished and ready for critics; sometimes you see a preview performance that really really feels like a preview performance. I hadn't quite clocked that I got myself a ticket to this production's first performance but here we are. So I don't want to speak too much to the nitpicks I have with the production (cues, line readings, timing of scene changes, etc.), because those will improve with practice. The play itself though is, I think, not for me. It's just frustrating. Good dialect coaching from Amy Stoller, though.


What: The star-studded Broadway revival of August Wilson's play about two adult siblings, the descendants of enslaved people, navigating their legacy in 1937. That legacy is embodied in an ornately carved piano--carved by their great-grandfather to depict his whole family, but owned by the Sutter family who enslaved him--which Berneice is determined to hold onto, as her father died reclaiming the property, but which Boy Willie wants to sell to allow him to buy the land he farms and no longer be a sharecropper. 
And? I like the conflict of what it means to honor a legacy, to reclaim yourself from the people who tried to treat you like property. I like that both Boy Willie and Berneice have valid points (though with his flighty, frenetic energy, it's clear in the play that Berneice's more grounded and steady side is the correct one). I don't know that the direction is serving the script as strongly as it could be: the magic isn't subtle, nor are the scenic or lighting designs, and the final tableau is tidier than it should be. John David Washington seems a bit lost in some of his longer monologues (and I find myself focusing instead on Danielle Brooks's Berneice, engaged in cleaning up daughter Maretha's hair--the difference between clear and muddy intentions), but Samuel L. Jackson is an excellent storyteller in all of his monologues, and an engaging presence. And stealing the show (as he often does, let's be honest) is Michael Potts as Wining Boy, master of palaver and always with another scheme up his sleeve.

John David Washington and Samuel L. Jackson as Boy Willie and Doaker.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Margin Notes: What Passes For Comedy


Alain Pierre as Tory Browne. Photo by Reiko Yoo.
Seen on: Thursday, 11/03/22.
My grade: B-. An interesting argument, but an uneven execution.

Plot and Background
The Chain Theatre presents a new play by G.D. Kimble, a look in the writers room of a late night talk show in early 1960s America. After the show's host Jack Harrod says a (scripted) antisemitic slur live on air, hell breaks loose as showrunner, network head, and stars all demand answers, apologies, and a new script from the show's three relatively novice writers: Tory, a Black Harvard grad hired specifically to write for the show's Black bandleader Bunny Brown; Adam/Zep, the Jewish writer responsible for the Yiddishisms in the host's monologues (as well as the slur); and Will, a blonde-haired gentile raised in privilege who's cut himself off from his wealthy family. Tensions rise as each man's insecurities and inner furies come hollering to the surface in an examination of, well, what passes for comedy.

Playwright Kimble and director Rick Hamilton workshopped this play in the 2020 Chain Play Writing Lab before bringing it to full production here.

What I Knew Beforehand
I've reviewed for The Chain before, when they were still based in Queens. 

Thoughts:

Play: Playwright Kimble has chosen a messy topic, and I respect that he deals with it as messily as it deserves. There's no clean finish, either in the early 60s or now, over half a century later. What Passes For Comedy is asking not just what jokes we can tell, but also who's allowed to tell them. It's significant that the antisemitic joke, though spoken by a gentile host, was penned by the staff's one Jewish writer. It's significant that Tory, the one Black writer, is the only one allowed to write for the show's Black bandleader (it's also significant that Tory, while inept at the style of joke they want for the bandleader, has been covertly writing jokes for the white host and having them pitched by the staff's gentile writer). The play digs into some complex issues within these marginalized identities as well: Tory, young and educated, is disgusted at the "shucking and jiving" that Bunny has to perform, but cannot see the battles that Bunny has won in order to get to his position and power, compromised though they may be; Tory and Zep's friendship began as the two Others at a greeting card company, but as Tory reminds Zep he has white privilege, even as a Jew, Zep grudgingly tells Tory of his history of getting beaten up by Black children on his walk to school. It's all messy, and it should be, and the only part of the argument I bristled at was, at least to my perception, a bit of imbalance in each side's attempt to dismiss discrimination against the other's identity. The 1960s is beyond too early to tell a Jew to get over the Holocaust, just as it's too early to tell a Black person to get over slavery, especially as both communities are still being actively discriminated against. But I do think Kimble, a Black playwright, did his best at balance, and I can't say I could have done better. What I wish had been said, however, is what both communities need to hear: It is not a contest. It's not Enslavement and Jim Crow vs Pogroms and the Holocaust. Pitting the Black community against the Jewish community is, besides erasing the intersectionality of Black Jews, falling victim yet again to White Supremacy, the actual villain here. Let's not forget that when two characters in the play finally come to blows, it's the old white studio head who storms out yelling the N word. 

And then of course the final beat (spoilers, darlings) hammers home the deeply uncomfortable truth: what passes for comedy? Host Jack Harrod can't say the antisemitic slur, but he can make as many Black stereotype jokes as he wants, the audience eating it all up, as Bunny's wide smile becomes a rictus of agony, his eyes filling with angry tears.

I think Kimble's play is a better script than is being served by director Rick Hamilton. It still needs some editing (the second act gets too lecture-y, and there are unearned reconciliations between Tory and Zep, and Tory and Bunny, an attempt at a cleaner exit than this argument deserves), but the story and characters move along at a clip--or rather they should, but they don't in this production, which flows a little too relaxed for its stakes. And especially in the first act, where the writers are spitballing jokes faster than they can write them down, this stuff should be fast and funny but most of it doesn't land. The writers are scripted to be spitting out punchlines almost in spite of themselves, those guys who just can't keep their mouths shut; but here they're just taking their turn without any internal conflict. When the whole cast is failing to make me laugh at lines that are objectively funny, that lands more in the director's lap for me than the actors'.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W45: Wuthering Heights, Monstress, A Strange Loop, Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool, Those With 2 Clocks

 10/25/22: Wuthering Heights
What: St. Ann's Warehouse hosts the NY transfer of Emma Rice and Wise Children's adaptation of the Emily Bronte novel, about the toxic love between Heathcliff and Catherine.
And? A repeat for me, since I saw the livestream via Bristol Old Vic last November. This production is a great demonstration of me falling in love with the storytelling without actually liking the story being told. I love Emma Rice's work so much, y'all. She's a beautifully inventive storyteller and is amazing at drilling into the core emotion, breaking our hearts when moments ago we were laughing at how silly everything is. If she were to direct a story I loved, it would probably land in my Best Theater Ever list.

Lucy McCormick as Catherine and the cast of Wuthering
Heights
. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

10/27/22: Monstress
What: Hunger and Thirst presents Emily Kitchens, Ben Quinn, and Titus Tompkins's bluegrass musical
And? A bit confused on its thesis, but an affecting night. Full review here.

Philip Estrera as Catch with Allison Kelly, Adam Boggs McDonald, and
Rheanna Atendido as the Sirens. Photo by Al Foote III.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Margin Notes: Monstress


Olivia Billings, Allison Kelly, and Adam Boggs McDonald,
with Jordan Kaplan in background. Photo by Al Foote III.
Seen on: Thursday, 10/27/22.
My grade: A-. A bit confused on its thesis, but an affecting night.

Plot and Background
Hunger and Thirst Theatre present a new musical by Emily Kitchens, Ben Quinn, and Titus Tompkins, a collection of myths of female monsters (Mother Nyx, Echidna, Sirens, the Graeae, Sphinx, and Medusa), interspersed with bluegrass music. Hunger and Thirst, whose past productions reviewed here include Your Invisible Corset, Strangers in the Night, and Discus, is a company dedicated to communal storytelling and retellings of old stories with new lenses.

Note: the show is prefaced by a detailed content warning, and as I will be discussing its contents, I'm going to include that same warning here: "physical violence, gun violence, bondage, sexual violence (including threats of rape and incest), derogatory language, and the word 'master.'"

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew pieces of some of the myths explored here (chiefly the Sirens, the Sphynx, and Medusa), and I knew from my previous visits to H&T productions that even when the evening isn't perfect, there's always something deeply compelling and emotional at the heart, and that I like the lenses they bring to their stories.

Thoughts:

Play: I loved so much of it. The rich aural landscape of the show is gorgeous: the cast provides sound effects with voice, with instruments, with props (the whispering story of Mother Nyx, especially the final hiss from stage left, is one that's sticking to my ribs). The show bills itself as a musical. I'd say it's more a play with music, as the songs are more interstitial than plot beats: breaths to carry us from tale to tale. The individual stories, each their own unique beast (if you will), show again and again the tragedy these monstress women actually face: if they are monsters, it is men who made them so. It is men who told the stories. If these women are violent, if they lash out, it is in self-defense against those who come to destroy them. And, tragically, that keeps happening: Echinda is imprisoned by her lover-brother so that he can continue to take his pleasure in her and force her to birth monsters; the Sphinx is executed by a man arrogantly outraged at the supposed damage she causes from her isolated home; Medusa, beheaded but still alive, is toted around by Perry for his own amusement and abuse of power, and she is denied her final rest. Again and again and again, the women lose. We lose. In the wake of the repeal of Roe v. Wade, I can't help but connect to that despair, over and over, feel the ache of it with each new loss. (the one exception is The Sirens and Catch, a tale which ends with at least the possibility of hope; but perhaps playwright Kitchens felt her hands tied by the canon of monster and vanquisher for the rest) What's strange then is the show's final song, "Look Up," which encourages us to embrace what is monstrous in us, to own that power. To not let ourselves be victims. And while that's a powerful message (and a catchy, beautiful melody), it's a left turn from everything that precedes it, everything which says it doesn't matter how we fight, they'll still win. I also find myself incredibly frustrated and a little hurt that a show that wants us to "be ugly/Be so unusual and grotesque/They have to pay heed" is cast entirely with thin, beautiful, able-bodied actors. If there was any show crying for body diversity, it was this one.

Anyone who reads my reviews knows I have a soft spot for collaborative storytelling. This production definitely utilizes that trope with its "Cump'ny" of folx, all welcoming us to the space, all playing instruments, all helping scenic transitions, singing and dancing through the interstitial songs, and creating an environment where these mythic creatures can be resurrected for another attempt to break out of their stories. I think it could be even stronger with a surer integration of these elements. I would love for the interstitial songs to exist, not in isolation, but activated as part of each transition (I cannot tell you how much I craved for the singer of "Now, Then, and To-Come Tree" (Rheanna Atendido) to free Echinda from her chains as she sings "How do I let you know about eternity," to continue to sing "Take heed and take comfort in the place that you are from" as she helps build the rocky island for the Sirens, as she herself dons her Siren robes to join that scene). The material in this play is so strong, but a bit of momentum is lost in the blue light of a scenic transition. Let the forming and re-forming of the world be part of the telling and re-telling of the stories. Activate it all. We're here for it.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W44: The Night Alive, A Raisin in the Sun, KPOP

10/19/22: The Night Alive
What: Maiden Productions and Team Theatre present Conor McPherson's play about Tommy, a Dubliner no longer young, living in a makeshift bedsit in his uncle's house, who rescues a woman from a brutal beating and shelters her in his home, not realizing the baggage she brings with her.
And? A strong play with some good performances, a bit unfocused. Full review here.

John Duddy as Tommy. Photo by Valerie Terranova.

What: The Public presents Lorraine Hansberry's tremendous play about the Younger family trying to carve out happiness in a world hostile to their presence.
And? It's not surprising, knowing director Robert O'Hara's resume, that this production contains moments intended to provoke. Intended, even, for some of us to clutch our pearls. My biggest gripe is probably that these choices and the ensuing discussion are probably overshadowing our engagement with the rest of the production. And honestly I'm mixed on the additional elements he's added here. [spoilers incoming! skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know] The ghost of Walter Sr. doesn't quite work for me, nor does the moment Walter Lee breaks the fourth wall (I think because that doesn't underline his monologue any more clearly than if he were to keep it in the scene. We're either going to hear it or we aren't). The evidence of Mama's stroke after Walter Lee finds out the money is gone, that works. But we have to talk about the final moment, the one that sucks the air out of the room: I can't say that I hate it (even if, obviously, I hate the hate it contains). My issue with it remains that, whatever else, I think Hansberry wrote a play with a heroic, defiant ending. Like Proctor in The Crucible, Walter Lee finds his strength, his dignity, and asserts that against whatever else might follow. The play as written celebrates that moment. O'Hara's production acknowledges what most assuredly comes next: we see Walter Lee's young son Travis slowly walk forward as the facade of their new yellow house appears. And then, as he stands there, embodying the hope of his family's future, the ugliest word America has thrown at Black people appears scrawled across that facade. Because for O'Hara, that heroic and hopeful ending is a facade. It's the next step forward, but he knows that every step forward is faced with an implacable march of hatred ever trying to push back, push away, push down. He knows how many years ago this play was set, and how much violence, prejudice, and institutional discrimination is still inflicted on Black people in America. Mama and Ruth want the dignity and air of a real house to live in, raise their family, and they move to a white neighborhood with their eyes open. O'Hara wants our eyes open too. So, I get it. I get why this is the ending O'Hara chooses. But a part of me (the same part that took issue with some of the choices in the Daniel Fish revival of Oklahoma!, or with the liberties Ivo van Hove takes with every revival he gets his mitts on) wonders why do a play if your intention is to tell a different story than what was written. If you want to tell a different story, write a different play. So, mixy.

[spoilers over!] This production feels a little long, but otherwise I don't have a lot of complaints (other than what I voiced above). We had understudy Bjorn DuPaty on for Walter Lee, and he's absolutely riveting, full of charisma and disappointed hopes. The whole cast is great (how many times can Mandi Masden's performance of Ruth break my heart in one night? at least three), and led by the exemplary Tonya Pinkins as Lena (Mama). It's such a powerful script and it's always a gift to see Hansberry's work on the stage.

Mandi Masden, Tonya Pinkins, and Toussaint Battiste as Ruth, Lena, and
Travis. Photo by Joan Marcus.


Thursday, October 20, 2022

Margin Notes: The Night Alive


John Duddy as Tommy. Photo by Valerie Terranova.
Seen on: Wednesday, 10/19/22.
My grade: B+. A strong play with some good performances, a bit unfocused.

Plot and Background
Maiden Productions, in collaboration with Team Theatre, makes its New York debut with this production of Conor McPherson's play about Tommy, a Dubliner no longer young, living in a makeshift bedsit in his uncle's house and performing odd jobs with his friend Doc. One night Tommy breaks up a fight to rescue a woman in distress, not realizing the baggage that may follow her home.

Per the show's website, this production was originally staged at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in October 2021. Maiden Production is founded by two Stella Adler graduates, Molly Ehrenberg-Peters and Haydn Harvey, who both costar in this production.

What I Knew Beforehand
Very little about the play itself, which is always exciting to me, though I know other plays by McPherson (including the timeless and scary The Weir and the bewildering Girl from the North Country).

Thoughts:

Play: McPherson's play is an interesting meditation on masculine virility: Tommy is built like an athlete (and played by a former professional boxer) but is hamstrung by his life circumstances--estranged from his wife and two teenage children, living in his uncle's house, perpetually out of pocket--and unable to take any step forward; Doc, his best friend, is about "five to seven" seconds behind everyone else, as well as impotent; Tommy's uncle Maurice, who needs a cane and a flask to function, weeps in grief for the monstrosities in the world he feels helpless to prevent; Kenneth, Aimee's ex, is walking menace but unleashes most of that on a woman who can't fight back; and Aimee, the sole woman, is at the mercy of men who profess to love her but can too easily break her. Theme-wise I find the questions this play and production ask interesting, but structure-wise it meanders a bit too much. The joyful song and dance that Tommy shares with Doc and Aimee never quite reaches an ecstasy, and Kenneth's entrance is too immediately menacing, so that his sudden violence is not surprisingly, only inevitable. The final question raised by Doc's insight from his dream is a particularly McPherson move in its unnerving acknowledgement of the supernatural, but at the same time I'm not clear what Tommy's final moment is telling me, or what I should take home with me, tucked in my pocket, to think about as I fall asleep.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W43: Candida, Guys and Dolls

10/13/22: Candida
What: Gingold Theatrical Group presents George Bernard Shaw's play about Reverend Morell and his wife Candida, whose lives are thrown into upheaval when a passionate young poet declares his love for her. The play has been updated to 1920s New York.
And? I'll be honest, this has never been a favorite Shaw play of mine. I don't quite see the point. Still, it was nice to see it produced on Lindsay Genevieve Fuori's sumptuously cozy clutter of a scenic design, full of treats and easter eggs for the inquisitive eye. R.J. Foster is excellent and powerful as Morell, but unfortunately this power never feels actually threatened by Avery Whitted's Marchbanks, so the stakes never climb terribly high. Avanthika Srinivasan's Candida also doesn't quite capture the imagination in such a way that she seems worthy the battle between Morell and Marchbanks. I think my favorite in the cast has to be spitfire Amber Reauchean Williams as Morell's assistant Proserpine, full of joyful competence and principles (and eventually full of joyful champagne); she's terrific.

Avanthika Srinivasan, R.J. Foster, David Ryan Smith, Avery Whitted (seated),
Amber Reauchean Williams, and Peter Romano as Candida, Rev. James
Morell, Mr. Burgess, Eugene Marchbanks, Proserpine Garnett, and 
Alexander 'Lexy' Mills. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

10/14/22 & 10/15/22 (yes, twice): Guys and Dolls
What: As part of their Broadway Center Stage season, the Kennedy Center presents Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, and Jo Swerling's classic musical about New York gamblers and their lady loves, featuring a ridiculously talented cast.
And? I wish I had known going in that this was going to be more along the lines of an Encores! production than a fully realized show, as it took me a bit to readjust my expectations. Still, it's always been a favorite show of mine, and the songs sound great when sung by this terrific cast and backed by the KC Opera House Orchestra. The choreo is a disappointment for me (not because they have to manage it around the onstage orchestra, but because it isn't telling me a clear story; I didn't know where to look). For the cast, I have to say James Monroe Iglehart is talented and funny but miscast -- he's too smooth by half for Nathan.  Steven Pasquale does great work with Sky in a role that seems tailor-made for him, and oh boy the aural bliss of him duetting with the silver-voiced Phillipa Soo. Kevin Chamberlin is fantastic as Nicely-Nicely (as we all knew he would be), but the two stars for me are Jessie Mueller, who keeps getting funnier as the show goes on (her Act Two duets, "Sue Me" and "Marry the Man Today," are mined for every moment she can find, and it's all gold); and five foot tall Rachel Dratch as Big Jule, who manages to steal scenes while barely moving.

Kevin Chamberlin, front, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, with the cast of Guys
and Dolls
. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.


Monday, October 10, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W42: Topdog/Underdog, Powerhouse

10/05/22: Topdog/Underdog
What: A revival of Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer-winning play about the rivalry of two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, nursing a deep-seated rivalry and constantly renavigating which brother is topdog, and which underdog. 
And? I saw the original Broadway run, which began my lifelong fandom of Jeffrey Wright, and was excited to now see the show with older, more seasoned eyes. Y'all, it makes such a difference when the two actors are on equal footing. In 2002, Wright acted circles around his costar, but here Corey Hawkins (Lincoln, the elder brother) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Booth, the younger) are both in the same play and on the same page. And they're fantastic. I may have minor notes (Abdul-Mateen's final monologue isn't quite there yet but I think he'll get there) but the entire scene leading up to that monologue is a perfect blend of tension, humor, one-upmanship, and the ecstasy of two performers at the height of their craft. Design-wise I want to pay special note to the way Allen Lee Hughes's lighting design interacts with the show curtains of Arnulfo Maldonado's scenic design: transforming what in one light looked dowdy and aged into shimmery satin and velvet, sudden opulence framing Booth's seedy studio apartment. On this revisit to the play I have to say it's not a story I particularly enjoy (pipe dream motifs just make me get mad at Eugene O'Neill. Just, in general), but it is still a stellar production, and watching Corey Hawkins selling the full scam of Three-card Monte with virtuosity and charisma (nod to Deceptive Practices, who consulted on the production) is really something else.


10/07/22: Powerhouse
What: Manhattan Repertory Theater presents a new play by David Harms about the power dynamics when a high-powered female law partner has an affair with a younger male associate.
And? ambitious but confused. full review here.

Laura Shoop as Regan Van Riper. Photo by Cameryn Kaman.


Sunday, October 9, 2022

Margin Notes: Powerhouse


Seen on: Friday, 10/07/22.
Dominick LaRuffa Jr. and Laura Shoop
as Guy Stone and Regan Van Riper.
Photo by Cameryn Kaman.

My grade: C. Ambitious but confused.

Plot and Background
Manhattan Repertory Theater presents a new play by David Harms, directed by MRT's co-founder and artistic director, Ken Wolf. The play flips the all-too-familiar narrative of a high-powered partner in a law firm having an affair with an associate by having that partner be a woman in her 40s in a relationship with a thirty-five year old man. When HR catches wind, Regan Van Riper must fight not only for her relationship but for her partnership in the firm as well.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew the blurbed premise, that it was about power dynamics among genders, with the twist being that the higher ranking character is female.

Thoughts:

Play: It's a bit of awkward timing to see this only a week after the Wife Guy scandal broke, the moral of which was: "Don't have sex with your employees. It's an abuse of power no matter which way you slice it." It's especially awkward because as far as I can tell, this play thinks it's okay actually, at least when Regan does it. Because female empowerment maybe? I just. I hate to invoke a meme in a review, but what I kept asking over the course of this play was "What man wrote this?" Unfortunately the play is rife with problematic or tired tropes, including Meena the HR lady who seems to irrationally hate Regan (women disliking other women without actual reasons), to the degree of breaking ethical codes to try to trap her, and refusing to believe Regan's story of an earlier assault inflicted on her by a partner. Yes, I know there are women who don't believe women, but there's just no grounding or textual justification for this. It's just there. Because women are irrational hahaha? I don't know. Couple that with the fact that the Chairman, Norris Peebles, is a Black man and would know as well as Regan the challenges faced when climbing the corporate ladder while being anything other than a white hetero cis man. And yet there's no textual acknowledgement of that either, beyond one throwaway line about expecting him "of all people" to be an advocate. So I have to emend my question now to "What white man wrote this?" Unfortunately, it's the wrong one. I don't think Harms is equipped to tell this story--which, to be clear, has an interesting premise, and I would have loved to have seen a complicated examination of what happens when someone has achieved great things but still does something bad enough that it has to end this part of their career. I wanted that story, and I expected that story, but that's not the story that's being told, and I think it's a little too proud of itself for an allyship it's not coming by honestly. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W40: Cost of Living, american (tele)visions

 9/21/22: Cost of Living
What: The Broadway transfer of Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning play about people in disabled bodies, their caregivers, and that freefall fear when there's no safety net left. Original stars Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan reprise their Off-Broadway performances, joined now by Kara Young and David Zayas.
And? I had seen the Off-Broadway run in 2018 and been impressed, but somehow seeing it again now I am even more blown away. Each individual's story is heartwrenching: the ways they're unable or unwilling to let themselves connect, and the ways they try anyway. David Zayas as Eddie does great work with his opening monologue, but delivers much of his scene dialogue facing forward, which cuts off his connection with his scene partners. Kara Young brings beautiful vulnerability with a spiny edge as her character Jess bonds with Gregg Mozgala's sarcastic, arrogant, and somehow sweet John. And Katy Sullivan, oh Katy Sullivan. She's extraordinary as Ani: vibrant, angry, grieving, wickedly funny, and all while moving only her face and two fingers. It's still very rare to see visibly disabled bodies on the New York stage. It's rarer still to see them on a Broadway stage. If for only that reason, this play would be important; but this play is also deeply moving, telling stories about disabled characters without making their disability their only defining feature. These are four fully realized characters in a world hostile to vulnerability in any stripe, and yet the possibility of kindness, of reaching out a hand, still persists. Martyna Majok is truly a gifted and poignant writer, and I can't wait to see what's next from her.

What: NYTW presents Victor I. Cazares's new play, as directed by Theatre Mitu's Rubén Polendo, about an undocumented Mexican family living in the States, and their obsession with Walmart and with the television, as a shattered prism to examine their grief at a sudden loss.
And? When I walked into the space to see the gridded white container of the stage, holding four oversized rusted boxes (scenic & costume design by Bretta Gerecke), aurally underscored by half-phrases lost in a broadcast stream (technology design by Theatre Mitu (Kelly Colburn, Alex Hawthorn, and Justin Nestor)), I remembered, "Oh yes, Rubén Polendo has always been excellent at creating an environment." That gridded container reveals itself to be a wall of screens for broadcast; the rusted boxes open to show the family's double-wide sliced in half, or the toy aisle at Walmart, or a fallen meteorite. The family, meanwhile--mother Maria Ximena, father Octavio, daughter Erica, and dead brother Alejandro (played by his friend and lover Jesse)--reveal themselves to be unable or unwilling to process their griefs, demanding filters of television screens full of telenovelas, shopping channels, Nintendo games, and homemade videos not for public viewing. Just as the family is shattered by their grief and denial, so too is the timeline shattered: Alejandro is alive and he's not, Maria has left and she hasn't, Octavio knows the truth and he doesn't, Erica can save everyone and she can't. The entire play is a bit of a Schrödinger's family until at last the facades come down and the truth is faced. Cazares's writing is both poetic and blunt somehow, allowing us an escape from reality before sending us back to the ground, like the meteorite Erica keeps wanting to find. At times it feels a bit overwritten, some language losing its poignancy upon repetition, but I can't think what of this journey I would cut.



Monday, September 19, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W39: Nothing But Thunder

What: Duncan Pflaster's new play, presented as part of the Dream Up Festival at Theater for the New City, about Dionysus and Prosymnus, and Dionysus's journey to the underworld to rescue his mother.
And? We had a bit of a rough night, as the A.C. wasn't working, but I give so many props to the cast and crew who kept it together and still delivered a good show. The cast has a playful energy and an ease with Pflaster's charming verse script. Alyssa Simon, as Dionysus's mother Semele, is particularly good, fully inhabiting her character's suffering and dissociation while also being hilarious. Amy Overman's costume design is appealing in concept, but sometimes faulty in execution (I love seeing larger bodies on stage, but it's disappointing to see them in costumes that don't fit properly). It's also quite lovely to see a queer narrative that has always been a part of Greek myth canon but very seldom seen (Pflaster's note in the program points out that we know much better the parody version of this narrative, The Frogs, where Dionysus journeys to the underworld to rescue, not his mother, but playwright Euripides).

Kenny Wade Marshall and and Spencer Gonzalez as Prosymnus and Dionysus.
Photo by Duncan Pflaster Photography and Graphic Design.



Monday, September 12, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W38: As You Like It, Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski

 9/07/22: As You Like It
What: Shakespeare in the Park and Public Works present a fresh take on Shakespeare's play about love, poetry and subterfuge in the Forest of Arden, with new songs by Shaina Taub.
And? This was my first Public Works show, an organization which employs performers from all walks of life to fill the theatrical space with community. It's certainly a good text fit for it, especially when Duke Senior is celebrating his community's pastoral life in the forest. It didn't always mean the most satisfying execution of the text, however (and if I never have to hear that herald chorus for Duke Frederick again, it'll be too soon). But it's still a highly benevolent production: glad to be here, glad to be with us, and hoping we're glad to be here too. Rebecca Naomi Jones, who elevates every production she touches, is excellent here as Rosalind (even if her voice is tired, she still belts out her songs with passion and energy, and is met with well-earned cheers). Darius De Haas has been out for the past week, which meant I got to see Amar Atkins go on for Duke Senior, and he is absolutely lovely. So full of smile, of royal presence, and his strong tenor floats beautifully above the chorus. When he's onstage, it's hard to remember he is not, in fact, the main character in the show.

Bianca Edwards, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Idania Quezada, and Brianna Cabrera
as Phoebe, Rosalind, Celia, and Silvia. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What: TFANA presents a one-man play about Holocaust witness Jan Karski, who visited a ghetto and a camp in Nazi-occupied Poland and told what he saw to leadership in the UK and US, only to be ignored or disbelieved.
And? Heartbreaking. Infuriating. Extraordinary. The story Jan Karski has to tell is incredible, that one man did and saw so much, and the work of Clark Young and Derek Goldman to adapt that story into the play Remember This does real tribute to the man, and honor to the millions of victims who did not survive, despite his efforts. David Strathairn transforms himself into not only Karski, but all the people Karski met, with some fascinating fuzzy lines (all characters are portrayed, not by Strathairn, but by Strathairn-as-Karski, his Polish accent and lilt inflecting each character), and moments that overtake Karski seem to also overtake Strathairn. See this if you can--it's one of the highlights of the Fall season, calling it now.

David Strathairn. Photo by Teresa Castracane.


Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W37: Los Otros, Back to You

8/31/22: Los Otros
What: A new semi-autobiographical chamber musical from Ellen Fitzhugh and Michael John LaChiusa about two people whose lives seem separate, and how they finally connect: a white twice-divorced mother of two and a gay Mexican accountant.
And? The resolution wasn't as ultimately satisfying as its ambitions, but both performers are still absolutely wonderful, with resonant instruments and affecting vulnerability.

Caesar Samayoa and Luba Mason as Carlos and Lillian. Photo by
Russ Rowland.



9/02/22: Back to You
What: Turn to Flesh, FUERZAfest, and the Hispanic Federation present Chris Rivera's new play about two Mexican-American childhood friends who fall in love but learn that love isn't as simple as just saying the words.
And? Just completely lovely. Alternately heartmelting and heartbreaking, poetic, deeply human. Both Rivera and Joe Montoya give honest and nuanced portrayals of their characters, tapping into their vulnerabilities with bravery, while also finding their charm and sweetness, their hard edges and their protective walls. I'm so grateful I got to see it, and I hope this play has the long life it deserves.


Monday, August 29, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W36: The Kite Runner, Hamlet

What: A new play adaptation of the Khaled Hosseini novel about a young Afghanistan man remembering a close friendship from his youth, a betrayal, and the atonement he must seek.
And? Visually beautiful, between Barney George's scenic and costume design and Charles Balfour's lighting design. Even more compelling is the use of instruments: a set of drums played by tabla artist Salar Nader, and wind-making instruments and singing bowls utilized by the rest of the company to underscore. I haven't read the novel so I can't speak to the faithfulness of the adaptation, but as a play it is a bit overwritten and over-narrated. When protagonist Amir flat out tells us the themes, I wonder what was the point of us sitting here collaboratively going on this journey together, if he's just going to tell me the answer. In overtly articulating moments that could be achieved through actual performance, the play is determined to make us forgive Amir. I'm not sure I can. Also again can we please stop using sexual violence against a marginalized person to further the emotional journey of an entirely different character? Can we please just not? To say nothing of having the one overtly queer character be a pedophile and predator.

Amir Arison, center, as Amir. Photo by Joan Marcus.


Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched
  • American Players Theater's proshot of Hamlet

Monday, August 8, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W33: Make Thick My Blood

What: A two-person one-hour deconstruction of Macbeth by DE-CRUIT, a veteran-founded theater company exploring trauma and healing through Shakespeare.
And? a mixed success. full review here.

Stephan Wolfert and Dawn Stern. Photo by Ashley Garrett.


Sunday, August 7, 2022

Margin Notes: Make Thick My Blood

 Make Thick My Blood

Stephan Wolfert and Dawn Stern. Photo by Ashley Garrett.


Seen on: Friday, 8/05/22.
My grade: B

Plot and Background
A two-person, 55-minute deconstruction of Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, presented by DE-CRUIT, a veteran-founded theater company dedicated to "treating trauma through Shakespeare." Macbeth tells the story of a nobleman just back from battle who hears a prophecy that he will be king and, with the collaboration of his wife, plots first to make that prophecy a reality, and then to remove any obstacles to keeping his stolen crown. Husband and wife are both ultimately destroyed by guilt over their actions and (in the source play) by the enemies they have created along the way.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew that it would be a very physical production, exploring trauma within the trappings of Macbeth, a play I'm pretty familiar with.

Thoughts:

Play: I regret that this review is coming out too late to actually help bring a wider audience to the production, but I am grateful I was able to see it before the run ended. Overall I would call this a mixed success. Stephan Wolfert and Dawn Stern, the DE-CRUIT founders who are both creators and performers of this piece, bring a cogent understanding of the source text as well as a clear idea of how they want to extrapolate it to explore different kinds of trauma and trauma responses. While Macbeth is shaken first from battle atrocities and then the murders he himself commits, Lady Macbeth is haunted more by the loss of their infant child, though her complicity in Duncan's death does also contribute to her ultimate unraveling. The performance opens with a movement piece that establishes both characters' trauma motifs--he gasping at some horrific sight and sinking as she holds him, then crawling across the floor; she heaving and panting until finally the stillborn birth is taken from her--before shifting into text. The script focuses chiefly on dialogs between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth or between Macbeth and Banquo (Stern playing both Lady M and Banquo), with dialog from other scenes and characters sometimes reassigned to the married couple to keep to the plot beats. Most compelling within this structure are the witches' prophecy, which here manifest in both actors' seemingly taken possession of to recite, as they move in jerky unison; and the sleeping sequence when Macbeth and his Lady attempt to defy another prophecy--that Macbeth shall sleep no more--by dreaming, and their dreams are built of their trauma cycles, relentless and torturing. Less successful perhaps is the macro story clarity for anyone not as familiar with the source text. My friend who attended with me knew the overall sense of the play but not the play-by-play of it, and had trouble following a number of sequences (especially Macbeth's recitation of the slaughter of Macduff's family, as this was the performance's first mention of Macduff at all). This failing, for me, boils down to a larger issue I've talked about before, when deconstruction or deliteralization is taken to such a degree that it obstructs story, especially for any observers not as steeped in the original text (recent examples include the revivals of CyranoOklahoma!, and Assassins). I'm of the mindset that while having extratextual knowledge (or in this case, just knowing a non-deconstructed version of the thing) can add resonance to the observer,  the piece should still stand on its own for an audience member coming to the work fresh.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W32: Between the Lines, Reverse Transcription, Seagull, Memories of Overdevelopment

What: Second Stage presents the premiere of a new musical adaptation of Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer's YA novel about a teen girl obsessed with a fairy tale who suddenly finds the hero of the story speaking to her from the pages of the book.
And?  I mean, who hasn't had a crush on a fictional character? I wanted to like this a bit more than I did, because honestly when it's good it's a damn delight and I had a huge grin on my face. The songwriters Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson are at their strongest when writing funny songs, like the teens' song, "Inner Thoughts," the mermaids' belter, "Do It For You," or the librarian's tribute, "Mr. Darcy and Me," all delightfully staged by director Jeff Calhoun and choreographer Paul McGill, under Jason Lyons's excellent lighting design and on Tobin Ost's whimsical and romantic scenic design. Caite Hevner's projection design is inconsistently effective, but it seems to be a part of theatrical design that's here to stay, so the most we can hope it that it won't hinder storytelling when utilized. Arielle Jacobs brings a sweetness to protagonist Delilah, but she is put to some comedic shame by the chops of some of her costars (Wren Rivera, who's got both a belt and comedic timing built to make us all jealous of their talents; Julia Murney, off-Broadway royalty and for good reason; the reliably wacky Vicki Lewis stealing the show every chance she can get; and Hillary Fisher's pitch perfect performances as both school bully Allie and dizzy Princess Seraphima). Is this production ready for a commercial transfer? Not yet. The production team is talented, as are the performers, but too often the show veers into such a degree of conventional story/cliche song type that I stopped listening during many of the earnest songs, and just grew impatient with many of the home scenes. I've seen this already, and I've seen it better. But with more sharpening of the text, more drive for unique specific takes, and keeping all the comedy (which really does work), this could be something.

Arielle Jacobs and Jake David Smith as Delilah and Prince Oliver.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.


What: PTP/NYC presents two one acts about gay men in "pandemics past and present," Dog Plays by Robert Chelsey, which takes place in San Francisco in 1989, and A Variant Strain by Jonathan Adler and Jim Petosa, which takes place in New York City in 2020 and 2021.
And? I knew going in that the intention was for the two plays to be in conversation, but what I hadn't realized was that A Variant Strain was written expressly as a follow up to the AIDS era Dog Plays. (I also knew going in that my friend James Patrick Nelson was in the cast but I hadn't realized he was the lead in both, so that was a lovely surprise.) Variant Strain, like Dog Plays, is about an hour, and split into three parts: a confrontation of memory and coupling; a remembrance for the dead only somewhat known; and an aching imagined conversation with a ghost. The risk with both plays is how heavily they rely on their actors' having strong monologue work. Unfortunately, that's a mixed bag here, with the exception of (I know I sound biased but it's true) James Patrick Nelson, who imbues every moment with honesty and intention, not getting lost in either poetry or vague emotion. Luckily, he's able to carry a lot of both shows, but I will confess my mind wandered a few times when some of the others were speaking. However, Jonathan Tindle as Fido in Dog Plays, a simultaneously cynical and hopeful observer, brings a beautifully specific energy to his scene. Robert Chelsey's writing in Dog Days has some stunningly poetic lines that I wanted to capture in amber and sit with for an hour after. Jonathan Adler and Jim Petosa's writing for Variant Strain never quite reaches those heights, but Petusa, who also serves as director for both productions, sculpts both plays with a sure and delicate hand, so that each touch, each gesture, each character interaction is telling a story, is breaking open a heart. (one last point: I don't know if these plays are written explicitly about only white gay men in two pandemics, or if they were just cast that way, but it needs to be pointed out)

James Patrick Nelson and Trey Atkins as Dog and Lad in Dog Plays.
Photo by Stan Barouh Photography.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W30: The Ninth Hour

What: Joe's Pub presents a concert of Kate Douglas and Shayfer James's new rock-noir musical adaptation of the epic Beowulf.
And? Really cool music and some great voices. I'll be very interested to see where this goes next. (they also gave us a brief interval of songs from some of their other projects, an adaptation of three Poe stories and one of Faust) Special giant shoutout to the two ASL interpreters who conveyed so much character, emotion and journey through each lyric repetition.

Photo source.