Monday, December 19, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W52: the bandaged place, Little Women

What: Roundabout presents a new play by Harrison David Rivers (and directed by my former classmate David Mendizábal), about Jonah, a dancer balancing raising his daughter with the help of his grandmother, struggling with a knee injury, and recovering from surviving an abusive relationship with his ex, who is trying to worm his way back into his life.
And? Anyone who reads my reviews knows how particular I am about alley, thrust, or arena staging. I love that they open up possibilities of more dynamic staging, if the director knows what they're doing. Friends, David Mendizábal knows what they're doing. The Black Box Theatre at Roundabout has a low ceiling, and yet the production is not only well-lit by Nic Vincent, it also doesn't feel at all claustrophobic on Wilson Chin's set design. The walls are mirrors to reflect the dance studio in both Jonah's mind and Ella's reality, and give the audience new angles as well: some staging which might have originally just presented an actor's back now gives us a deep personal insight to the expressions they think they're hiding (Nic Vincent's lighting also cleverly reflects off the mirrors to facilitate this). The play itself, beautifully sketched by Harrison David Rivers, is a nuanced examination of how hard it is to reconcile the knowledge that someone you love deeply can also be a deep emotional and physical danger to those around them. The cast is all uniformly excellent, especially Jhardon Dishon Milton as the beleaguered Jonah. I'm so grateful I got a ticket before the rest of the run sold out.

Jhardon Dishon Milton as Jonah Irby (with Stephanie Berry as Geraldine
Irby visible in the reflection on the left). Photo by Joan Marcus.

12/18/22: Little Women
What: Chance Theater in Orange County, California presents the Howland-Dikstein-Knee musical adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel, about four sisters and their mother in Concord, Massachusetts during the American Civil War.
And? I wish this were a stronger script. I think my somewhat muted response to this story and its adaptations in general all stem from this musical being my first exposure to the story, and though some songs do soar, a lot of it doesn't feel as special as I think those who love the novel deserve it to be. Still, The Chance is always good at making a strong production out of the scripts they choose, and director Casey Long (also doing great work on sound and projection design, for the record) keeps the story running swiftly enough that we don't linger on the weaker elements of the script. Sarah Pierce is a fantastic Jo, feisty and loving, her heart worn proudly on her sleeve (and what a voice!). Camie Del Rosario also does great work as Amy, not letting her turn into the cartoon she could very easily be in less nuanced hands.

Camie Del Rosario, Emily Abeles, Maggie Randolph, Katherine Chatman,
and Sarah Pierce as Amy, Beth, Marmee, Meg, and Jo. Photo by Doug Catiller,
True Image Studio.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Yesterday is Done: Best Theater of 2022

Hey, old friends, what do you say, old friends? Another exhausting pandemicky year of theater: vaccine and masking restrictions have mostly lifted, so of course my anxiety has doubled down. I saw fewer shows than usual this year, partly because of burn-out, partly because see above, and partly because I am trying to be more selective regarding what on Broadway deserves my time, attention, and money. So I saw less. And a lot of that less felt less than whelming, especially in the Fall season. But, as always, there's still worthwhile work happening. Looking at my shorter-than-usual list of top theater for the year, and at the overall list of everything I saw, there are some clear themes of stories being produced: examinations of anti-Black racism, historically and currently; examinations of antisemitism, historically and currently; and the damaging effects of the patriarchy, rape culture, and toxic masculinity on all genders.

My overall theater tally, before we get into the list itself: 23 streaming productions, 63 live plays, and 32 live musicals (+2 repeats), totaling to 118 (+2 repeats). And for those who might ask why certain shows didn't make the cut below, I'm not counting things like A Christmas Carol (either one), A Strange Loop, the Yiddish Fiddler, or the new Merrily We Roll Along, as none of them were new productions for me, just slightly new iterations.

My top theater, in viewing rather than ranking order:

Skeleton Crew (MTC/Friedman, B; watched January): Dominique Morisseau is a terrific writer and this play is a symphony of good notes (humor, aching pain, anger, shame, hope) with a terrific cast.

Joshua Boone and Chante Adams as Dez and Shanita in Skeleton Crew.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Original Theatre (Regional/Digital): Into the Night (watched February) & Tikkum Olam (watched August): Into the Night is a heartbreaking live-shot studio play about the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster in 1981 in Cornwall. Tense and heroic and so ably choreographed as the whole thing seems to be happening live in front of us. Tikkum Olam was presented as a staged reading in conversation with two other plays and is a compelling and thought-provoking examination of the complicated intersectional identity of a Black Jewish woman in the U.K.

Prayer for the French Republic (MTC/City Center, Off-B; watched March). Probably my favorite show I've seen this year. In terms of ambition and scope, I'd call it an Angels in America approach to the Jewish identity (except calling anything the new Angels in America is setting yourself up for mockery of one kind or another, either for hyperbole or cliche).

Molly Ranson, Jeff Seymour, and Yair Ben-Dor as Molly, Charles, and Daniel
in Prayer for the French Republic. Photo by Matt Murphy

Confederates (Signature, Off-B; watched March): Did I mention how amazing Dominique Morisseau's writing is? She's got two plays on my list this year, and well-deserved. This play is absolutely brilliant.

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

How I Learned to Drive (MTC/Friedman, B; watched April): Mary-Louise Parker helped me cross something off my time travel bucket list by returning to this role so I could finally see it how it was meant to be performed.

Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse as Li'l Bit
and Uncle Peck. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (, B; watched April): This gorgeous production deserved a much longer life than it got, with an incredible communal ensemble building a space for vulnerability and strength.

Tendayi Kuumba, Kenita R. Miller, Okwui Okpokwasili, Amare Granderson,
Alexandria Wailes, Stacey Sargeant, and D. Woods as Lady in Brown, Lady
in Red, Lady in Green, Lady in Orange, Lady in Purple, Lady in Blue, and
Lady in Yellow in for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the
rainbow is enuf
. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

A Case for the Existence of God (Signature, Off-B; watched April): God, I loved this one so much. Odd and intimate, a study of two lonely men learning how to become friends even as they both struggle to keep their families from falling apart. I would love for this one to come back in some capacity. My second favorite, after French Republic.

Will Brill and Kyle Beltran as Ryan and Keith in A Case for the Existence
of God
. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Back to You (Turn to Flesh/FUERZAfest/Hispanic Federation, Off-Off-B; watched September): A lovely two-hander written by and starring my friend Chris Rivera, tracking two young gay Mexican American boys who fall in love but aren't sure they can sustain a relationship with their conflicting life plans and access.

Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski (Theater for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Off-B; watched September). My third favorite of the year. Infuriating and inspiring, and incredibly performed by David Strathairn.

David Strathairn as Jan Karski in Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski.
Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Monstress (Hunger and Thirst/New Ohio Theatre, Off-Off-B; watched October): Although I had an intense reaction to what felt to me a contradictory message in the show, I can't deny what affecting theater it was. Hunger and Thirst keep getting better and better.

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

Wilma Theater (Regional/Digital)Those With 2 Clocks (watched October) & School Pictures (watched November): I'm so grateful Wilma Theater is continuing to put content online, especially original works like these two. 2 Clocks deconstructs toxic masculinity and how it informs humor in a series of satirical sketches that suddenly break into an aching, moaning catharsis of agony released and comfort given. School Pictures is Milo Cramer's song cycle about tutoring children in New York, a collection that seems at first whimsical but ultimately breaks down how truly broken the school system is here.

Top: Jenn Kidwell, Mel Krodman, and Jess Conda in
Those With 2 Clocks. Bottom: Milo Cramer in School
. Both photos by Johanna Austin.

Parade (City Center Encores!, Off-B; watched November): Another bucket list show for me, finally getting to see Parade performed onstage. A flawless cast, intelligently staged, beautifully sung. I really hope it comes back (I hear it might).

Ben Platt, center, as Leo Frank, with the company of Parade. Photo by Joan

Ain't No Mo' (Belasco, B; watched November): As I said in my write-up at the time, holy shit. This is the kind of satire we need to be seeing, one that makes us laugh until it's extremely no longer funny. Jordan E. Cooper is a talent to watch (as is his costar Crystal Lucas-Perry). I'm devastated the production seems to have been cut off at the knees.

Fedna Jacquet, Shannon Matesky, Marchant Davis, Crystal Lucas-Perry,
and Ebony Marshall-Oliver as Passenger 1, Passenger 3, Passenger 2,
Passenger 5, and Passenger 4 in Ain't No Mo'. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W51: Downstate

12/07/22: Downstate
What: Playwrights Horizons presents Bruce Norris's new play about four sex offenders living in a group home in downstate Illinois, and a confrontation with a survivor.
And? The thesis of the show, and it walks a very careful line, is not that we should feel sympathy for these sex offenders -- each of whom molested at least one minor -- but that we should recognize they remain human. Or at least that's what I walked out with. Because as charismatic and compelling as the four actors are, we are continually reminded of the abhorrent acts each character has committed, including how unrepentant some of them are about those acts. I understand Norris's intent to shine a light on how broken the system is, the lack of dignity and access available to ex-cons, particularly those without money or white skin. But, as with his Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park, I find myself questioning some pretty basic and troubling decisions he has made about the stories he wants to tell. (with Clybourne it was his explanation that the impetus to write it stemmed from seeing A Raisin in the Sun and feeling recognition once the white character showed up. I'm paraphrasing, but that's squicky to me) Here, it's not that I'm questioning his depiction of the four offenders, but rather that of Andy, Fred's victim, who is portrayed as self-righteous and unreliable. I'm sorry, but with victims still constantly not being believed when they tell their stories, I am not here for a perpetuation of the narrative of victims lying about their experiences. This isn't the play being edgy. This is the play telling the same infuriating story we keep seeing when victims, especially male victims, come forward. K. Todd Freeman's Dee is the sharpest and cleverest person onstage but his refusal to either own up to his own crimes or give any space to Andy's processing of his trauma, makes him the clear villain of the play to me, though from the structure I'm certain he's the intended protagonist.

It's hard. I don't think I can like this play, well-crafted though it is, because its basic stance is to me not a helpful addition to the discourse. But I can still say this is an impeccable production. Todd Rosenthal's scenic design of a seedy apartment littered with too many insufficient light sources (track lighting, ceiling bowl lights, wall sconces, at least four lamps, and sunlight filtering thinly through vinyl blinds) and in collaboration with Adam Silverman's lighting design add a dim yellow tint to every moment. Freeman, as I mentioned, is absolutely extraordinary (he often is, but it's worth highlighting each time), and the rest of the cast is also great: Francis Guinan as the fuddy-duddy Fred, understudy Matthew J. Harris as the fast-talking glad-handing Gio, Eddie Torres as the broken-hearted reclusive Felix.

Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Susanna Guzmán, Eddie Torres, and K. Todd
Freeman as Fred, Gio, Ivy, Felix, and Dee. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W50: Ain't No Mo', The Collaboration, School Pictures

11/30/22: Ain't No Mo'
What: A Broadway transfer from The Public of Jordan E. Cooper's comedy, a series of vignettes wrapped around the premise that America's solution to reparations to Black people for centuries of abuse is to send them all back to Africa for free--so long as they don't miss the last flight out, piloted by Barack Obama.
And? Holy shit. This play is so sharp, so smart, biting and hilarious, and at the last--devastating. Because the hand that seems to giveth will most assuredly taketh back. Playwright Jordan E. Cooper, who also stars in the play as flight attendant Peaches, is at 27 the youngest playwright in Broadway history, and this is a fucking hell of a debut. I can't wait to see what he does next, and I hope this production, which opens this week, gets the accolades it so well deserves. Also also I am now obsessed with Crystal Lucas-Perry, who is extraordinary in every scene, but particularly in the posh scene and the prison scene.

Fedna Jacquet, Shannon Matesky, Marchant Davis, Crystal Lucas-Perry,
and Ebony Marshall-Oliver as Passenger 1, Passenger 3, Passenger 2,
Passenger 5, and Passenger 4. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What: Manhattan Theatre Club presents a new play by Anthony McCarten about the artistic collaboration between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
And? It's fine. Not terribly deep, but not cringingly bad. I like Anna Flieschle's scenic design.

Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.
Photo by Marc Brenner.

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