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
. 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.


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).


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.


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.