Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Margin Notes: The Karpovsky Variations

Barbara Broughton, Rivka Borek, J. Anthony Crane, and
Chris Thorn as Great Momma Rose, Julia Karpovsky,
Barry Karpovsky, and Harold Karpovsky. Photo by
Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography.

Seen on: Monday, 5/16/22.
My grade: C+

Plot and Background
In the wake of the death of her estranged father Lawrence, Julia tries to reckon with her memories of him, her desire to be his musical equal, and her struggle to connect with her Jewish identity, as she keeps crossing paths with her father, her uncles, and her great grandmother Rose across airport lounges. Adam Kraar's play had a reading as part a Jewish Plays Project festival, was further developed at The Playwrights' Center and the New Group Theatre, and now has its world premiere with Boomerang Theatre Company.

What I Knew Beforehand
That it dealt with themes of Jewish identity and klezmer music.

Thoughts:

Play: Julia wants to play us a song, but she can't find the notes for it: "If I could play you this song, you would love me." Her driving need in the play is two-fold: recapture the sound of klezmer music that her great grandparents knew in Poland, and through that sound gain her father's recognition and love; her father, a gifted but lapsed clarinet player who is now a nomadic journalist, able to be pinned down for conversations only in airport lounges while he waits for his connecting flight. Her father, who will never explain his antipathy toward his own musician father, nor why he can't come home for holidays, why he cannot give his brothers or his only child the space for them to exist concretely, groundedly, in a non-liminal space. Her father, who cannot even accept the gift of a pan of home-made kugel (though one should point out how inappropriate that is as a carry-on item on a transpacific flight). Julia is descended from a line of "wandering Jewish minstrels" and wants to follow that path, seemingly as nomadic as her father but pronouncedly more unhappy, less able to thrive in that rhythm.

Playwright Adam Kraar's notes on the performance style say that the transitions of the play should be "fluid, musical," that the form of the play is "jazz-like," the tone "similar to klezmer. Unfortunately what kept striking me during the performance was how decidedly unmusical the production is. There is a static stiffness, an unfamiliarity, unstructured pauses and interruptions. I wanted to feel the dialog had been choreographed, a slanting harmony and conversation of the instruments of the three brother's bombastically different personalities, the contrasting tenor of Maxine, the outsider, and somehow a combination of Julia's memories and Momma Rose, who remembers and loves them all, to bring them all together into something like music. Something like the song Julia is trying to play us. Too many scenes felt like they went on too long without making a significant enough contribution to the theme to justify their length, too many emotional beats are struck and struck again without significant contextual alteration. 

This play advertises itself as being at least in part about excavating a Jewish identity; however, I felt very few notes actually touched on that notion. Julia's fixation on her distant father is barely about how he didn't raise her Jewish, but more about how he never taught her to play the clarinet the way he could, the way he kept assuring her he eventually would.

I wanted to engage with this story. I wanted to recognize the characters, recognize myself in this family of descendants of the diaspora, of Jews who perhaps don't practice much but still hold certain tenets sacred. I wanted them to stop carrying the kugel pan sideways. I wanted more from this than I got.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W21: The LightHouse Series (Group 1), Harmony, The Vagrant Trilogy, Into the Woods, Try This On For Me

5/09/22: The LightHouse Series (Group 1)
What: SoHo Playhouse's new play competition (I'm only seeing Group 1, which includes the plays What I First Desired, In a Relative Way, Tuam, The Gospel of Efunroye, A Ladder to the Moon, and Gayby).
And? An interesting combination of styles and storytelling, from noir to hip hop to fragmented narrative to historical speculation to poetic fantasy to stand up comedy. 



5/10/22: Harmony
What: National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene presents Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's new bio-musical about the popular six-man German singing group, the Comedian Harmonists, whose success was cut short when the Nazis rose to power.
And? It felt like it was written by someone who knows nominally how Musicals About Real People are supposed to go, with workhorse dialog to get us from A to B, and then another song, applause, rinse, repeat. But for a true story with stakes this high, the scenes and songs just feel inert, the character choices generic. The singing is all truly excellent, which we definitely need for a show about a tight six-part harmony group, and even some of the dancing is fun, but overall I was underwhelmed.

Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters, Sean
Bell, and Chip Zien as Chopin, Lesh, Harry, Young Rabbi, Erich, Bobby,
and Rabbi. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.


Margin Notes: Try This On For Me


Seen on:
 Sunday, 5/15/22.
My grade: B+. Experimental and Intriguing.

Plot and Background
The New York Neo-Futurists, an artistic collective building original work, present the world premiere of Lee LeBreton's immersive/interactive play, which takes its audience through a surreal flea market on the hunt for the perfect outfit.

What I Knew Beforehand
Just the premise, which is how I like it.

Thoughts:
 
You enter a room framed with clothes on clothes on clothes: racks of them in all colors hugging each wall, a display of mannequins adorned with hats, scarves, jewelry. The performers greet you quietly as they putter about the space, sorting and hanging more clothing on the racks, inviting you to seat yourself in any of the variety of comfy chairs around the space which frame the piano and the three small platforms with additional racks of clothes, old suitcases, hat boxes. You've been told you might get to leave with something but you don't know what that means yet. And then the show begins.

The three creators/performers of this show have had to straddle multiple identities in their lifetime: queerness, transness, Blackness, Brownness, feminine, masculine, youth and maturity. The phrase "Try This On For Me" refers not only to one element of the interactive experience--audience members trying on articles of clothing on display in the space--but also to trying on new identities, and sometimes just trying on new ideas. What does it mean to put on a hoop skirt and promenade slowly through a space, shoulders back and hands wafting? What is the acceptable shoe for a young man with feet too small to fit in conventional men's dress shoes? What clothes free you? What clothes tell the world who you are? Show creator Lee LeBreton frames these questions as three criteria: is it comfortable? is it legible (does it say who you are)? is it desirable (does it make you feel sexy/attractive)? These questions Lee asks himself, and then the performers ask us as well, about the clothes we wore to the show. They tell us stories from their childhood, from their now-hood, the challenge of finding outfits to meet all three criteria, to help them safely navigate the intersections of their identities. And when the audience is invited to peruse the racks for themselves, we can ask again of a new item we might acquire: is it comfortable? is it legible? is it desirable?

The day we went one of the three performers was in isolation, unable to be in the space with us but present in pre-records of her sections, and finally on FaceTime to introduce her to the audience and what we found. I'm pretty impressed with how smoothly they made this pivot, such that I began to question if it were planned or no (I still think no, but that they had enough warning to make quality recordings of Nicole Hill's sections). The work is engaging and introspective, inviting the audience to self-examine in equal measure to their reaction to the stories we're being told.

And I love my new jacket.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Another Hundred Nominations (2022 Tony Noms)

In prep for today's Tony nominations I made a list of what shows from the season I'd seen, and was a bit blown away by just how many new plays we were lucky enough to see (even if most of the exciting new work I've seen this Winter/Spring season has been Off-Broadway, rather than On). Meanwhile, in the category of  Life Is Short, there are a few shows from this season I am missing (American Buffalo, MJ, Macbeth, Diana, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the last two thirds of Plaza Suite), so I have a lack of opinion when it comes to those specific works. By my count, for this season we had 13 new plays, 9 new musicals (I'm not sure where Little Prince resides, and it wasn't nominated for anything, so I guess it resides nowhere), 8 play revivals, and 4 musical revivals.


Anyway, let's get to it.

Plays

It's disappointing to see a few stunners shut out (Thoughts of a Colored Man, the Is This a Room/Dana H rep, Pass Over, and the fun POTUS) for Best Play. Of the list of nominated plays (Clyde's, Hangmen, The Lehman Trilogy, The Minutes, and Skeleton Crew), I'd definitely keep Lehman (which is the most nominated play of the season) and Skeleton, and add in Pass Over and Thoughts. I'm on the fence with Clyde's. For the Best Revival of a Play category, I feel mostly fine about the list (no opinion on Buffalo).

Skeleton Crew. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Is This a RoomPass Over, and Birthday Candles are shut out completely, which is a damn shame (so is Chicken & Biscuits, but eh). All three productions featured fine performances and lovely scenic (okay, the second two more than the first) and lighting designs, and the writing for Pass Over is particularly good and should be honored. Meanwhile, the Best Play nod is The Minutes's sole nod.

Musicals

The Best Musical category is slim enough this year that six out of the nine new musicals got a nomination (not up in that category are Flying Over Sunset, Diana, and Mrs. Doubtfire). Honestly I'm not overly impressed with the crop of new musicals this season, and I'd be astonished if A Strange Loop doesn't walk away with a win here (it also leads the pack with 11 nominations overall, though MJ and Paradise Square aren't far behind). Best Revival of a Musical is a similarly thin category, with Funny Girl being the only revival out of four possible contenders not nominated (in fact, its only nomination is for Jared Grimes for Actor in a Featured Role).

A Strange Loop.



Acting

People are already hot-take-ing Beanie Feldstein and Katrina Lenk being left out of the Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical category, but for how divisively both their performances have been received, it's not a big shock. Otherwise I don't see any big surprises in the Musical acting category, though it's very nice to see both L Morgan Lee and John-Andrew Morrison recognized for A Strange Loop as well as Jennifer Simard for Company. What is a shame, though, is when you have ensemble casts where are truly no weak links, like the casts of A Strange Loop or Six, but are unable to nominate the whole group because we don't have a Best Company or Best Ensemble category. Meanwhile the acting categories for plays are STUFFED: all three actors from Lehman are up for Leading, three actors from Take Me Out are up for Featured, two actresses from POTUS are up for Featured (yay Rachel Dratch!). And when it comes to Leading Actress in a Play, I find myself in the Kimmel-ish position of wanting everyone to win.

Six.



Design

As mentioned earlier, I'm bummed that the design work for Is This a RoomPass Over and Birthday Candles were left out in the cold. I'm also quietly bewildered that Fly Davis's scenic design for Caroline, or Change wasn't recognized but Beowulf Boritt and 59 Productions's design for Flying Over Sunset was. I am pleased to see the scenic design for both Hangmen (Anna Fleischle) and Lehman (Es Devlin) recognized. 


The Lehman Trilogy.

See ya at the Tonys next month!

Weekly Margin 2022, W20: Our Brother's Son, The Minutes, The Bedwetter, The Cherry Orchard

What: A new play about a family grappling with old secrets and a new medical crisis.
And? The crux of the conflict of this play is that one character who has not only failed to endear himself to his family, but has also betrayed some of them, now needs a kidney transplant, and that some of his wronged relations are viable donors--donors who are not sure they want to donate a kidney to save his life. I saw this play the day the SCOTUS draft leaked. And all I could keep thinking about is that right now you cannot force a person, even a corpse, to give up any part of their body to save someone else. It is a crime to do that. Unless, of course, the person has a uterus, and then all rights to body autonomy can be forfeit. That's what our Supreme Court is trying to do. To deny people with uteri the same rights as a corpse. We are still still paying for the 2016 election and the travesties it has wrought, and we're making so many young people who had no hand in that election pay too. This is real tangible damage and I feel as helpless and furious and depressed as I did that November.

"Why aren't you talking about the play, Zelda?" Because it was not great, Bob. It was clumsily written, clumsily directed, clumsily acted, and the biggest choice in the scenic design was such a statement, but I don't think it was a statement connected to the content of the play. Also, even if it was a throwaway line, it did feature a white man explaining to the one person of color onstage that Thanksgiving celebrates a genocide, and her being confused, and that leaves a pretty bad taste in the mouth.

Listen, if my past almost-twenty years of NY theater-going has taught me anything, it's taught me that art is subjective, that you can't removed live performance from the context of the world hosting that performance, and that the most important element any of us can bring to our subjective experience of art is ourselves and who we are in that moment.



5/05/22: The Minutes
What: Another return of a show whose initial run was cut short by the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Roundabout presents the Broadway transfer of Steppenwolf's production of Tracy Letts's play about the town council of Big Cherry conducting their weekly meeting while being strangely cagey about the events of the previous week's meeting. Very underbelly of small town (mostly) white America.
And? Letts's tone for this is simultaneously tense and folksy, as newcomer councilmember Peel tries to unravel what happened at the meeting he missed but keeps being rebuffed by every other member, each with their own agenda. I know part of the name of the game here is colonialism and appropriation (the pageantry of the councilmembers re-enacting Big Cherry's dubious origin story being the centerpiece of that narrative) but even the moments within that that are meant to induce knowing chuckles still leave a bad taste in the mouth. Of course, as the mystery finally reveals itself, that bad taste becomes the deliberate top note, if you will (Jesse Green keeps using this metaphor in his reviews this season and I'm stealing it). And I'm still reckoning with what to do with the (extremely spoilerly) denouement. Great cast, especially Austin Pendleton as the bewildered misanthrope Oldfield, and understudy Joshua David Robinson as the eely Blake.

Jessie Mueller, Noah Reid, Jeff Still, Tracy Letts, and Cliff Chamberlain as
Ms. Johnson, Mr. Peel, Mr. Assalone, Mayor Superba, and Mr. Breeding.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W19: Golden Shield, H*tler's Tasters, A Case for the Existence of God, Wedding Band

4/26/22: Golden Shield
What: MTC presents Anchuli Felicia King's play about two estranged Chinese American sisters who go after Onus, a multinational tech company who helped build China's oppressive internet censorship program, called the Golden Shield Project. Inspired by real class action lawsuits brought by Chinese citizens, King's play confronts the challenge of translation, not only across language and culture, but across individual people's boundaries and emotional defense systems.
And? Really just such a cool piece of theater. Sharply written, with a character called The Translator (played with charisma and intelligence by Fang Du) serving as our Emcee to guide us through not only the cultural challenges of translating Mandarin to English (he begins by explaining that proverbs are particularly difficult to communicate full connotation and meaning), but also legal jargon, tech jargon, and the things these two estranged sisters are somehow unable to say to each other. His use throughout the show is multifaceted: sometimes interpreting for the English speakers a scene entirely in Mandarin or--most powerfully--a scene in complete silence, where each gesture and look has layers of meaning. And of course, he runs into the challenge we all face, which is that some things quite simply can't be translated. Some things we cannot make ourselves say. A top tier cast across the board (I was quietly excited to see Max Gordon Moore again, as he always makes interesting choices; here he is a self-righteous villain, slimier and smaller than he will admit to himself), especially the aforementioned Fang Du as The Translator, and Michael C. Liu's heartbreaking portrayal of Li Dao, the only plaintiff willing to testify to the torture he suffered during his incarceration. My one big complaint is that, at least the night I saw it, Nathan A. Roberts's sound design overpowered the voices of the actors (who, even in the intimate space at City Center Stage I, were all miked). I hope this gets sorted before opening.


What: The Off-Broadway transfer of Michelle Kholos Brooks's award-winning play about a trio of young women whose job is to taste all of Hitler's meals to ensure he is not poisoned. Flush with contemporary anachronisms (the girls are constantly vying for the perfect selfie), the play examines the indoctrinated hate and the naive powerlessness of the Third Reich's most disposable commodity, even when considered "Good German stock."
And? In the talkback for the show, the panelists discussed the disposability of these young women, and an audience member pointed out that society considers older women (specifically older female actors) even more disposable. It made me readjust my lens on how the young women are treated: it's not just that they're disposable, it's that they're consumable--consumable until they're used up, and then they're disposed of. And in a play which features a thrice-daily ritual leading up to the tasting meal and the hour timer to see if the food is poisoned, consumption is the name of the game. In the spans of waiting, the girls discuss other matters of consumption: movie stars, missing neighbors, a striking red coat found "abandoned" in the woods, bearing a shadow of the star patch no longer attached. The play doesn't quite ask us to feel kinship with these girls, who gleefully swoon over the Fuhrer and celebrate the cleansing of the Fatherland, but it does allow a hint of compassion in, for the abject helplessness of their own situation. This job wasn't voluntary, and when one girl disappears they don't know how or why she did. But with their complicity never forgotten, we are instead reminded that fascism always inevitably consumes its own, once it's fed on the "enemy." Terrific production directed by Sarah Norris, and featuring a female-led creative team, balancing the WWII era context with contemporary music and language, to remind us that one dictator gone doesn't mean fascism is far away even now.

Hanna Mae Sturges, MaryKathryn Kopp, and Hallie Griffin as Margot, Hilda,
and Liesel. Photo by Burdette Parks.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W18: Wicked, A Strange Loop, POTUS

4/19/22: Wicked
What: Yes, indeed. My first return visit since Thanksgiving Day, 2003 to the musical based on Gregory Maguire's book about how Elphaba became the Wicked Witch of the West.
And? What's kind of funny to me is I still remember some of my takeaways from 2003, and those opinions still stand: 
  • The good songs are still so much fun ("What is This Feeling?," "Popular"), the bad songs are just terribly written, and "Defying Gravity" is a fantastic Act One closer. I even cried when Elphaba started flying this time. 
  • Casting Kristin Chenoweth as the original G(a)linda altered the writing of the show to such a degree that it injured the story by throwing it off-balance -- Glinda has the central change, not Elphaba, and that's a problem that becomes increasingly clear when they no longer have Cheno in the role.
  • The ending is such a stupid stupid cheat that makes no sense when you examine it for more than two minutes.
  • Damn that's a good show curtain/proscenium.
  • The Wizard's songs are so boring. I know I already had a bullet point about songs, but this bears repeating because they are so boring.
  • I'm still mad Glinda doesn't come clean to Elphaba about her role in what happens to Nessa. "Then again, I guess we know there's blame to share/And none of it seems to matter anymore" is trying to wash away a pretty big stain.
  • That aside, ELPHABA AND GLINDA ARE SO IN LOVE OMG. Fiyero is a beard.
Other thoughts, these newer:
  • Overall the machine that is Wicked holds up well.  Joe Mantello really is a good director. Wicked is an often mediocre show, but the shape of the thing, the stage pictures, all of it, is so much less crappy than the rushed-to-Broadway Frozen production that recently graced the stage.
  • The fact that they didn't build a new silver wig for the Tinman to reflect the hair texture of Jordan Barrow, the Black actor playing him, is lazy and racist.
  • I think originally casting Norbert Leo Butz, who always makes interesting and intelligent choices, hid the fact that Fiyero is extremely underwritten; however, this becomes immediately clear when they just cast ingenue men in the role who have less imagination.
  • The motif switch of "Unlimited" to "I'm limited" is so piercing and simple and just really really good, and it's frustrating that Stephen Schwartz can do that and also write the nonsense the ensemble has to sing in this show.
  • I had forgotten about the song "The Wicked Witch of the East," because it's not on the album. Some cool cool stuff in that song.
  • It's nice to see Broadway workhorses Michael X. Martin and Michael McCormick onstage; they're always reliable. Also pleased with the performance of Lindsay Pearce as Elphaba. You'd never know this was her Broadway debut. (Brittney Johnson was out the night I saw it, but her standby Allie Trimm, acquitted herself well enough)
  • I'm so glad Avenue Q won for best musical in 2004.
Lindsay Pearce as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus.


What: The Broadway transfer of Michael R. Jackson's ourobouros musical about a Usher, a Black, queer aspiring writer and composer who's writing a musical about a Black, queer aspiring writer and composer writing about ...
And? Still brilliant, though the pacing gets sloppier as the show goes on (not sure if this is deliberate or not, a form-content choice, but it's a little rough on the audience). Jaquel Spivey is wonderful as Usher, with great voice, presence, and timing. The six actors playing Usher's thoughts are all in amazing voice and making great specific choices for each character (special note for James Jackson, Jr.'s timing, John-Andrew Morrison's blindered affection, and Antwayn Hopper's basso voice and physicality). The show samples from the canon in exciting ways (the chorus of voices calling for "Usher" a clear nod to the "Bobbys" of Company, to name just one example) while also having something entirely new to say. Seeing this show (already a Pulitzer-winner) gives me confidence that musical theater can and will continue to thrive, with new voices and ideas expanding the content and palate.

Jacquel Spivey, center, as Usher, with James Jackson, Jr., Jason Veasey, John-
Michael Lyles, L Morgan Lee, John-Andrew Morrison, and Antwayn Hopper.
Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W17: The Skin of Our Teeth, Funny Girl, Hangmen, Suffs

What: Lincoln Center's revival of Thornton Wilder's play about the Antrobus family and their maid Sabina, who are sometimes the first family (Adam, Eve, and offspring) and sometimes a contemporary family and sometimes a family torn apart by war, and sometime ... well, you get the picture. It's Wilder's three-act Pulitzer winner about a family facing an ice age, then an epic flood, then the ravages of war.
And? I still really like this play, but this production did not hold up against my memories of TFANA's thrilling production in 2017. Even with how transcendently wonderful Gabby Beans is as Sabina (and she absolutely is, oh my god), the production as directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz is too messy. Far too often I didn't know where to look, and I didn't know to whom (or what) I should be listening--and I often didn't have a choice because whatever sound was undermining the dialog rendered it so I couldn't properly listen to either the dialog or the distraction. Even something as simple as a slow motion sequence is undermined by the lack of unity in the cast on the actual speed of that slow motion. Adam Rigg's scenic design has some magical moments -- particularly the overgrown garden of Act III, or the working fun slide on the Atlantic City pier in Act II -- but it too sometimes distracts too much from whatever it is I'm supposed to be paying attention to in the story. When I saw the TFANA production, I described it at intermission as "it's about all of us, about everything, about whether we deserve to survive." I can still hear that story if I listen intently to this production, but the answer to the question seems to be increasingly "nah, but maybe next world-ending event around we'll do better."

Julian Robertson, Roslyn Ruff, Paige Gilbert, and the puppeteers as
Henry Antrobus, Mrs. Antrobus, Gladys Antrobus, and the dinosaur and
the wooly mammoth. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

4/14/22: Funny Girl
What: The long-anticipated revival of the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill-Isobel Lennart biomusical about Fanny Brice's rise to fame and her ill-fated romance with Nicky Arnstein.
And? This show and its star are getting pretty torn up on the message boards, but unfortunately I don't have a lot of positives to sandbag against it. Beanie Feldstein is a talented actress with a sweet voice but she is noticeably uncomfortable onstage--uncomfortable physically, uncomfortable vocally, and uncomfortable comedically. I can hope that as the run goes on she'll attain more ease and find a way to unite the clown of Fanny with the sweet humanity she's already giving her into one coherent character. Ramin Karimloo as Nicky is all things wonderful and heartbreaking, and his chemistry with Feldstein is pretty great. Beyond that, I find Michael Mayer's direction of the show a bit inert. I can't tell how much of my meh reaction is the show or the production.

Leslie Donna Flesner, Afra Hines, Beanie Feldstein, and Ramin Karimloo as
two chorus girls, Fanny Brice, and Nicky Arnstein.
Photo by Matthew Murphy. 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W16: Alex Edelman: Just For Us, Birthday Candles, How I Learned to Drive, for colored girls ..., Cyrano de Bergerac

What: Jewish comedian Alex Edelman's storytelling piece about the time he attended a white supremacist meeting in Queens, NY, and how he grapples with his Jewish identity. After a sold-out run at Soho Playhouse, the show returns for a limited run at the Greenwich House Theater. (and it just got extended, so grab your tix!)
And? Wonderful, funny, moving, unique. I'm so grateful my friend Lauren told me about this so we could see it together. Alex Edelman is a great storyteller, and I'm glad his show is doing so well that it keeps selling out and then extending.


What: Roundabout presents Noah Haidle's new play which follows Ernestine through ninety years of birthdays, and the people she loves and loses and gains along the way.
And? I went in with my expectations in the basement (I've been burned by Roundabout too many times), but I just love this. Debra Messing is wonderful as the keystone of the show, fully emotionally present, full of love and vitality. The play's thesis, as well as its content, is a reminder that not every story needs to be epic to be important, and that making the decision to treasure the gift of an hour, of a breath, of time spent together, is just as vital to our survival. Director Vivienne Benesch does a deceptively delicate job tracing the journey of the play, with the clean but subtle transitions from birthday to birthday and year to year, as Ernestine and her loved ones go through the ritual of baking her special birthday cake. Also -- and this is super important -- Christine Jones's scenic design is a goddamn poem and I love it so much.

Debra Messing as Ernestine. Photo by Joan Marcus.


Monday, April 4, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W15: Confederates, The Little Prince, Mr. Saturday Night, London Assurance

3/29/22: Confederates
What: Signature presents Dominique Morisseau's newest play, which follows two timelines/stories: Sara, an enslaved woman fighting for freedom and fending off the advances one of her enslavers; and Sandra, a tenured professor of political science at an Ivy League school, who's recently found an incendiary photoshopped picture taped to her door, and is grappling with that while fending off accusations of bias from students and colleagues, both for and against women, both for and against Black people.
And? Dominique Morisseau is fast becoming one of my favorite playwrights. Her language and character work is crystalline precise, and her stories are incisive and deeply human. She doesn't paint the world in all-evil/all-good, but treats the nuances of character while still drawing clear lines in the sand between forgivable and unforgiveable choices. And she lets the scenes play out in such a way that even if you can figure out where it's ultimately going, you still don't know everything about the journey to get there, or who these people will decide to be: their best selves or their worst. And in this particular play, with whom do they choose to collaborate, or co-conspire with? Beyond that I don't want to give too much away, as the joy and moving nature of this story lies in how it unfolds, scene to scene. But I loved it. The cast is wonderful, particularly its two centers, Kristolyn Lloyd and Michelle Wilson. It's delicately and swiftly directed by Stori Ayers, and the ambiguous combination of Rachel Hauck's plantation-cum-university scenic design and Ari Fulton's time-bending costume design are clever.

Kristolyn Lloyd, Elijah Jones, and Andrea Patterson as Sara, Abner, and
LuAnne. Photo by Monique Carboni.



What: A new modern dance and acrobatic adaptation of the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, about a young boy who travels from planet to planet, learning about the different worlds.
And? Such beauty and poetry! I wasn't sure how I'd do with a primarily dance-based piece, as I notoriously fall asleep at the ballet (I've still never seen Nutcracker in its entirety and I've tried at least five times). But this is lovely. The choreo is vibrant and a gorgeous blend with the aerial acrobatics, and the storytelling clearly aimed at that happy medium of engaging a young audience while still entrancing the adults present. Director and choreographer Anne Tournie, in collaboration with co-director, librettist, and narrator Chris Mouron craft an elegant and entertaining adaptation, still pulling at those same melancholic strands the story has always pulled, while expanding the imagination of how to tell this story on a stage. If I had one complaint, it's that they booked the wrong theater for this show. There's so much floor work, and the Broadway Theatre has little to no rake in its orchestra seating. Both the eight year old child sitting next to me, and my own less-than-five-feet-tall self had trouble seeing a good portion of the performance. However, I recall that the mezzanine has a good rake, so if you're going, aim for the mezz and you won't regret it.

The Rose and the Little Prince. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W14: Take Me Out, Paradise Square, To My Girls

3/22/22: Take Me Out
What: 2nd Stage's starry revival of Richard Greenberg's play about a mixed-race MLB player who comes out as gay, and the reverberations of that announcement--including how it affects a quiet gay accountant who's just been assigned the newly-out player as a client and who now finds himself surprisingly invested in baseball, both as a sport and a metaphor.
And? Between this and Caroline, or Change last season, I'm officially hitting the milestone of seeing revivals of shows whose original runs I caught. Which means, inevitably, my brain's going to start making comparisons. And a few epiphanies, like how I didn't realize til I saw the play again this week how much Take Me Out influenced my playwriting voice as a college student--especially a narrator who keeps changing his mind mid-thought about how he wants to frame a story.* And speaking of segues, that leads to my biggest complaint with this revival: the script is written such that every character at some point changes his mind about what he's saying midsentence, cuts himself off, and starts a new thought. This was very clear in the original production directed by Joe Mantello, But here, under Scott Ellis's direction, the nuance of too many of these moments is missed, with only one overall thought being communicated. It doesn't obfuscate the meaning of the play, but it removes a lot of the interesting depth from it (since this is a problem across the whole cast, I'm laying blame with the director). I'm also laying blame with both him and lighting designer Kenneth Posner, for too often not sufficiently illuminating their actors' faces. Especially with this cast, where two of the three leads have more camera than stage credits and so do most of their work in their face, we need to see what those faces are doing. My final complaint before moving on to the positives is that I didn't feel like this production knew what its center was--like it couldn't decide if it was the mind (Kippy), the heart (Mason), or the enigma (Darren), and somehow landed on none of the above.

Positives! Scott Ellis has done a good job with finding verisimilitude in clubhouse behavior, what the players do while they're talking about whatever they're talking about. Jesse Tyler Ferguson is always a delight onstage and he is lovely at charting Mason's growing enthusiasm for baseball, and how much he's learning about himself. Brandon J. Dirden, who's been getting so much work lately (yay) is excellent as always, charming and aloof and ultimately shatteringly dismissive. Michael Oberholtzer and Jesse Williams acquit themselves well as the antagonistic forces in the play, sometimes trying to reach each other, but too often at such a stark divide they may as well be standing by the destruction of the Tower of Babel (the image made sense in my head, leave me alone). And at the end of the day it's still a good, if imperfect play (a friend of mine has raised some valid criticisms about how "safe" both of the gay characters are, as neither of them are sexually active), and I'm glad Greenberg got the chance to make a few minor tweaks to the text to recognize how certain conversations about both consent and race are changing.

*[Another interesting connection: both plays feature an exchange in the denouement where the white character asks if they can be friends again and the Black character either denies or questions whether they were friends in the first place.]

Jesse Williams, center, as Darren Lemming, and the cast of Take Me Out.
Photo by Joan Marcus.


What: A new musical from Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, Larry Kirwan, Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen, and Masi Asare, about the historic Five Points in lower Manhattan during the American Civil War, when free Black people and Irish immigrants lived together in harmony, and all gathered in Nelly O'Brien's brothel-pub-homebase, Paradise Square. But tensions soon rise, stirred by a local city "boss" and fears of what will happen when the war ends.
And? Before I get into my issues, I want to start off with the good this time: it is so wonderful to finally see Joaquina Kalukango leading a musical. She's a powerhouse talent, and it's been a long time coming. She brings nuance, intelligence, passion, and a tightrope balance of strength and vulnerability to her portrayal of Nelly, a Black woman thriving in a white man's world, and elevating her songs to a higher level. The choreo is an impressive contrast (and sometimes blend) of Irish Step and African Step, led by some talented Dance Captain/ringers in the cast (Chloe Davis, Colin Barkell, and Garrett Coleman, who for better or worse outshine the two principal characters who are meant to be excellent dancers). Allen Moyer's multi-level scenic design is effectively skeletal, a reminder of the scaffolding that frames so many New York buildings-in-progress, and perhaps a foreshadowing that this thriving community has a clock ticking on its existence.

Now then. There are a lot of cooks in this kitchen, even leaving out the six writers. In addition to director Moises Kaufman, there is not only a choreographer (Bill T. Jones), but also a Musical Stager (Alex Sanchez), and two people specifically for Irish & Hammestep choreo (Garrett Coleman, Jason Oremus). There is also a lot this show is trying to do. It's a very ... full show. But with this crowded atmosphere, there's not a lot of space to carve out real individualized characters. Kalukango's Nelly is fully realized, a person with strengths, weaknesses, and choices she must make and live with, but a lot of the others are very nearly stock characters with only a few flavors to play within that space (Annie Lewis, the Fiery Irish sister-in-law; Washington Henry, the earnest young idealist on the run; Frederic Tiggins, the singular embodiment of White Supremacy; Milton Moore, aka Cultural Appropriation; 'Lucky' Mike Quinlan, the Irish ally-turned-traitor, a turn that the show doesn't actually manage to earn). Once you figure out which Type each character is, there are no more more surprises to be had out of them. This is true as well for the story being told.

I can't help thinking of Ragtime, another ambitious historical musical about race in America, also produced by that ratfink Drabinsky (yes, he's back, yes he's producing this show, and no, I have no idea why anyone is still trusting him with their money. It's his fault we lost Ragtime too soon! /rant). Both shows set out to give space to a part of American history that's been erased, to confer dignity to Black people in a society that would prefer they remain invisible, and to wish quietly for a more peaceful future. But Ragtime had more variety and modulation in its score, whereas most of the songs here sound too similar--I craved desperately for a moment of quiet and instead too often I got another bombast. Even one of the more poignant plights, as sung by young Owen, "Why Should I Die in Springtime," becomes a big dance number both times it's sung (though I did like its dramatic pairing with "I'd Be a Soldier"--these two were the strongest songs for me). And though the choreo does strong work in the show to differentiate between the African Step and Irish Step for the ensemble, the music rarely reflects that cultural dichotomy. I want to honor the ambition that went into making this show, including how many talented artists are involved, but ultimately the show is often enough nearly three hours of Same. It's not there yet, but I think somewhere underneath all the bluster, there's a good story to be told, and a good show.

The company of Paradise Square at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne.


Monday, March 21, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W13: Notes From Now, Prayer for the French Republic, Help, The Life, Discus

What: Prospect Theater Company presents a song cycle about surviving the pandemic, written by a host of theater writers, and performed by a diverse cast.
And? Uneven but not unpleasant. Understudy Genesis Adelia Collado is particularly striking and poignant in their songs ("Soon" by Michelle J. Rodriguez and "Under the Snow" by Georgie Castilla and Jaime Lozano), and Josh Lamon is ticklishly funny in his ("Ovid" by Jeff Blumenkrantz and "Coming Back to You" by Peter Mills).

Ashley Blanchet, center, and cast. Photo source.



What: MTC presents Joshua Harman's new play, about several generations of a Jewish family living in Paris, France and their longstanding legacy of surviving persecution while selling pianos. The play covers both the recent present (2016ish) and during and immediately after World War II.
And? To be a Jew is to be the descendant of the survivor of a pogrom. Of a massacre. Of a genocide. This is what I kept thinking while watching Harman's powerful play, beautifully directed and staged by David Cromer, with a consistently superb ensemble (special praise for Kenneth Tigar as Adolphe and Francis Benhamou as Elodie). I thought of my own family, and what we escaped (or didn't). My great-grandmother came to America using the one ticket her family could afford, a ticket that was bought for her oldest sister. Her sister chose to stay; my great-grandmother took the ticket. That choice is the reason I exist. It is also the reason my great-grandmother lost her entire family. To stay or to go--to stay in your home with your loved ones, with the language you know, or to leave it all behind because you are not sure it is safe to exist as you are, where you are--this is the central question and argument of the play. Teenage Pierre's grandparents chose to stay during the war, as the generations of their family behind them had, and miraculously survived German occupation. Pierre and his father, who also stayed, had to watch the rest of their family be destroyed in the camps. A generation later, Pierre's middle aged daughter Marcelle and her adult children are sadly reckoning with the same question, in a France that is feeling more and more inhospitable to Jews. Her son Daniel, the only family member to wear a visible signal of his Judaism (his kipa), has been attacked more than once, and they are considering joining the 8,000 other Jews who have fled France for Israel.

Throughout the play Marcelle's acerbic brother Patrick speaks to us, not only his family's history, but also of historic moments of Jewish persecution (the smaller forgotten ones that get quiet plaques), even as in the present day his sister grapples with her  terror over the increasing count of hate crimes against Jews in Europe. I saw the show on the night of Purim, a holiday commemorating our escape from destruction by Persian vizier Haman. Purim is a night of celebration and feasting. The night I went, I sat surrounded by a denser population of Hebrew speakers than I've encountered since my last trip to Israel. The night I went (and, I assume most nights), the end of each of the three acts is accompanied by sniffling and weeping from the majority of the audience. This fear, this confusion, this recognition that this is our story, permeates the space. I do not know how it is to see this play as a gentile. But as a Jew, I felt seen, I felt mirrored, as the argumentative family delved not only into their own personal experiences and fears but the larger sociological implications of the resurging antisemitism, the overlap with any dialog regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the feeling of isolation, of having no true allies on either the Left or the Right of the political divide, of sitting terrified in the growing chasm, wondering "where is it safe for us to exist?" Wondering if we are always destined to be a wandering people.

This production's been getting a lot of acclaim, and for good reason. I'm so grateful it extended enough times that I was able to see it.

Molly Ranson, Jeff Seymour, and Yair Ben-Dor as Molly, Charles, and Daniel.
Photo by

Margin Notes: Discus


Philip Estrera and Patrick T. Horn as Apollo and Hyacinth.
Photo by Al Foote.


Seen on: Saturday, 3/19/22.
My grade: A-

Plot and Background
"I need to pray. Where am I?" Hyacinth, a mortal prince, awakens to find himself no longer in life, but somehow not yet in death. Caught in the Nether, he tries to remember how he got here, and what came before, flashing back to the time leading up to his injury. In these flashbacks we see a gala benefit hosted by the god Apollo, where the two meet and have an instant attraction, growing closer over time, to the chagrin of Hyacinth's former lover, the jealous west wind Zephyrus. Hunger and Thirst's production of Becca Schlossberg's Apollo and Hyacinth retelling was originally slated for 2020, but was delayed two years by the *gestures at everything*.

What I Knew Beforehand
Nothing of the story, which is always exciting, but I've enjoyed a number of Hunger and Thirst's previous outings.

Thoughts:

Play: This is a beautiful work. Sweet and intimate, with still the epic threads that are sewn into any myth involving the pantheon. Playwright Becca Schlossberg's work exists both in the then of the original myth and the now of contemporary mores, where Hades has a PDA and the gossiping winds sound like any young starlets at a Hollywood party, looking to score either a hook up or word of someone else's hook up. Even with this grounding, Schlossberg doesn't shy from the larger question of how do you love a monster--for a god who lives forever, even if today he is kind and generous, is the same god who a generation earlier called down a plague and jealously murdered his sister's mortal lover. Is he the same person he was, or, like the Ship of Theseus, is he constantly rewriting himself when no mortal is left to remember who he was before? Is he worthy of the sweet prince Hyacinth, and is he strong enough to wrest him back from death when disaster strikes? Can love live on when the body cannot?

Monday, March 14, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W12: Plaza Suite, The Music Man

 3/07/22: Plaza Suite
What: The Broderick-Parker revival of Neil Simon's comedy--three one acts that all take place in the same suite at the Plaza Hotel, with the two leads starring as the central characters in each act.
And? The tl;dr version is this show isn't for me, and I could have predicted that. I've never been a big Neil Simon fan, and I vaguely remembered being underwhelmed by this particular script when I saw a community theater production as a child. I'm also not a particular fan of the leads, especially Mr. Broderick, whose stage persona has been bewildering me for a few decades now. But I was graciously gifted a free ticket, and thought I might as well go. I've been told now that Act One is the weakest; I didn't end up staying to see Acts Two or Three. Watching Act One just made me tired and somewhat sad at the complete stagnant inertia of the performance. However, the audience around me was laughing and rapturously applauding, and I hope they enjoyed the next two acts even more than the first. I hope anyone who wants to see real life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker onstage sees this show and  has a lovely night out, I really do. I don't want to yuck someone's yum. But this one just wasn't for me.

Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick as Muriel Tate and Jesse
Kiplinger in Act Two: "Visitor from Hollywood." Photo by Joan Marcus.


What: That big ol' revival starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, about a conman who tries to sell a small town in Iowa on forming a boy's marching band, and gets his foot caught in the door.
And? Whenever my hometown would stage Golden Age musicals on our main proscenium stage, they adhered to the staging standard in which those shows were written: in the pre-hydraulic era of scenic design, where small talky scenes happen on the front apron of the stage while the big set is hurriedly changed over behind the closed curtains. In what is surely a deliberately nostaglia-inducing move, director Jerry Zaks's revival of The Music Man employs a similar device with a lowered barn-front flat (scenic design Santo Loquasto), as well as the use of Grant Wood style painted backdrops, which have visibly patched-together sections rather than being one large piece. So, a nostalgic throwback to an earlier style, but with some noticeable stitching on it.

Can you see where I'm going with this? If you've heard the gossip about this revival, then probably yes.

The rewrites are ... well, they feel inevitable after the slapdash revisal trend we've been seeing in the past few years, including the Gigi rewrite, which tried to rewrite its way around the fact that Gigi is a teen girl training to be a courtesan; the Kiss Me, Kate rewrite, which missed the point by trying to pretend pre-growth Petruchio is not the misogynist he is (why?); to this season's truly misguided Encores! rewrite of The Tap Dance Kid, which erased Emma's fat identity. I'm not saying there's nothing to grapple with when we revive older works with problematic content. But washing over them to pretend these issues were never there is problematic in a new and troubling way. To take it to the extreme, trying to pretend problematic attitudes don't exist, even in beloved works, is the kind of historical revisionist methodology that makes it easier for people to pretend slavery wasn't the monstrosity that it was, or that antisemitism hasn't been a problem for literal centuries. This is not woke culture. This is not even PC culture. This is people not understanding nuance, and trusting their audience to understand it even less. My friend and fellow pundit Michael Dale has also pointed out the basic problematic issue of rewriting works without an author's consent (because the author isn't alive to consent), and still selling it as the original thing, and not a new adaptation. If you don't feel safe doing the work as written, maybe don't do the show? Maybe write a new show?

To remove my Henny Penny hat though, I will say that the rewrites in this case are also just ... bad. The removal of the initial invocation of Balzac means that Marian's subsequent line to her mother, an intended laugh line, makes little sense and lands with a thud. The Mayor's dislike of Tommy Djilas is no longer rooted in Tommy's class status (and his implied first generation American status). And "Shipoopi" is now a song about "the boy who tries his best." That's ... that's a bad lyric. We can all agree that's a bad lyric, right?



Anyway. The show is okay. It's not extraordinary and it's not a total failure; it's okay. Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster are fine, but I have to make the damning admission that I enjoyed the show more in the moments they weren't onstage. I don't think Warren Carlyle's choreo is particularly effective at advancing plot or character (and it goes on too long, but I said the same thing about Kathleen Marshall's choreo for the last Music Man revival), and actually I think undermines Marian's arc in particular in "Marian the Librarian" (1, if someone was encouraging everyone to toss books in the air in MY library, that'd be a deal breaker for me; 2, it's a fine Taming-of-the-Shrew line but if you don't want Hill to come off as a complete stalker, we need to see Marian softening toward him earlier on, and this is the number to do it, and they don't do it). The kids are great, both the wee ones (Benjamin Pajak as Winthrop and Kayla Teruel as Amaryllis) and the teen ones (Gino Cosculluela as Tommy and Emma Crow as Zaneeta). The School Board barbershop quartet (Phillip Boykin, Nicholas Ward, Daniel Torres, and Eddie Korbich) sound amazing on all their numbers, and y'all, the opening number on the train ("Rock Island") is a complete DELIGHT start to finish. They nailed it. Oh and the puppet! The puppet is great.

See? I didn't hate it.

Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster as Harold Hill and Marian Paroo, center,
with the cast of The Music Man. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.


Monday, March 7, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W11: Coal Country

3/04/22: Coal Country
What: Audible Theater and Cherry Lane Theatre host an encore run of Jessica Blank, Erik Jensen, and Steve Earle's new docuplay with music about the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia and its aftermath.
And? I'm divided on how to react, because my initial criticism is that this is awkwardly staged. But then I have to remind myself that they originally staged it at The Public, then restaged at Cherry Lane, which has notoriously challenging stage access points for actor entrances and exits (to say nothing of the fact that the performance I saw was their first in the new space). But ultimately I do still think anything involving the whole ensemble is visually clunky, even as the various monologues and harrowing stories told by the survivors are powerful and engaging. Looking at the production photos on the website tells me it probably looked better at The Public. Ah well, alas, alack.

Positives: Carl Palmer is an absolute standout as the no-bullshit Goose with his quiet dignity and simmering fury. Richard Hoover's scenic design, a curving slat of boards from floor to back wall, recalls both a coal chute and a structure on the verge of collapse. When Goose spoke of the ventilation system's ineffectiveness and the danger of the methane in the mine, my eyes were continually drawn to the breaks in the wall, the cracks threatening to suddenly shatter.

The cast of Coal Country with Thomas Kopache, center, as Gary. Photo source.

 

Monday, February 28, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W10: Jane Anger

2/23/22: Jane Anger, or The Lamentable Comedie of JANE ANGER, that Cunning Woman, and also of Willy Shakefpeare and his Peasant Companion, Francis, Yes and Also of Anne Hathaway (also a Woman) Who Tried Very Hard
What: A workshop of a new play about Jane Anger, author of the pamphlet "Her Protection for Women" and--this play posits--the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets, in the time of quarantine during the plague (well, one of them), who visits Shakespeare as he struggles to break through a bout of writer's block. Playwright Talene Monahon also stars as Shakespeare's abandoned wife Anne Hathaway (not to be confused with Oscar-winning actor Anne Hathaway).
And? It's a workshop so take that with the grain of salt it deserves. I like a number of the themes, particularly toward the end, about rewriting history, and what one would be willing to sacrifice of great work to achieve some portion of happiness and peace. Shakespeare, in this iteration, is a brilliant artist and a truly bad man, and the question becomes, is he worth keeping around for the plays and poetry he writes, regardless of the vulnerable people he harms--a question we are actively grappling with as we topple the likes of Rowling and Whedon over their toxic and harmful behavior. Because yes, another big point this show is making is that none of these questions we have now are new, not even about how to survive a plague. So there are definitely interesting ideas in play here, but the play isn't fully baked and unfortunately I think it's got the wrong director. A lot of the humor grates more than amuses, especially between Shakespeare and Francis; the reason I'm laying blame on the director is that when Anne Hathaway finally appears, played by the play's author, Talene Monahon, I started to understand at last the intended tone of the piece. Monahon's Anne Hathaway is hapless but earnest, delivering ridiculous lines without assiding or irony. The jokes aren't meant to be guffaw-inducing, like they're delivered in the first half of the play, but they're funnier for it. Before we think I have a problem with asiding, Amelia Workman's sly and knowing Jane Anger begins the play with an audience address prologue and her charisma helps carry us through much of the more awkward sections of what follows. tl;dr: I enjoyed the women, tolerated with waning patience the men, and think this show has legs but it's not there yet.

Amelia Workman and Talene Monahon as Jane Anger and Anne Hathaway.
Photo by Valerie Terranova.