Monday, September 25, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W39: Swing State, Merrily We Roll Along

 9/19/23: Swing State
What: Audible presents Rebecca Gilman's new play, about Peg, an aging widow looking after a prairie in Wisconsin in 2021, observing the collapsing ecosystem and wondering if it's worth fighting anymore.
And? In the earliest moment in the play, Peg is quietly mixing the dough for zucchini bread. Then she stops and poises her sharp knife first against her arm and then as if to drive it into her eye. When Ryan, a young man who does odd jobs for her, arrives moments later, she doesn't mention the incident. But she does show him her will. I don't want to dig too deeply into the rest of the plot here (spoilers) but I will say it was refreshing to see such a well-crafted piece of writing onstage again (it's been a dry summer). With a cast of only four (but omg, all of them truly excellent, especially Mary Beth Fisher in the main role), at first it seems like the kind of play where you can guess where it's going from moment one. But characters continue to surprise with moments that are both shocking and yet fully grounded in what we already know. And it's rather striking to see such a poignant exploration of despair that still manages, by the skin of its teeth, to find enough hope to keep on. Todd Rosenthal's scenic design is perfection, full of tiny details that make the space not a set but a home--from the abandoned dog toy near the food and water bowl, to the peeling contact paper lining the pantry shelves, this is a home that has been lived in and loved. Doing similarly beautiful work is Eric Southern's lighting design, gently sculpting the space with a scattering of table lamps stashed on bookcases, the light over the oven, wall sconces, and other subtle touches, making this house a beacon against the darkness of the prairie at night. It comes as less of a surprise to report such a solidly excellent cast and design when I see that the director is Robert Falls, of course.

An excellent, but difficult play. Pairing this with Jaja's African Hair Braiding last weekend, and I think the fall season of theater is off to a very good start for me.

Mary Beth Fisher and Bubba Weiler as Peg and Ryan. Photo by Liz Lauren.

What: The Broadway transfer of the NYTW run of Maria Friedman's production of the beloved Sondheim-Furth (flop) musical, about the friendship among three friends, traveling backward from the collapse of the friendship through to its idealistic beginnings.
And? I stand by what I said back in November. I think that by and large this is a solid, if not a definitive, production of Merrily, and it will be interesting to see if at long last Merrily can be a hit on Broadway (although bittersweet, with Furth, Prince, and Sondheim all dead). I don't hate the set design like some do, but I do feel that it limits the imagination of the director and restricts us to some less than creative staging. I think Gussie is still miscast (Gussie should be able to steal the scene with any of her lines; that's how she's written; that's what she does). What's funny to me is, casting of Gussie aside, I feel like most of my issues could be fixed if they would just let me in the room (oh, the arrogance). My issues are minor but: "Franklin Shepard Inc." should feel like someone cut the brake line, not like there's a chance to stop this debacle in action; some of the power in "Our Time" is lost when we don't see everyone else on their rooftops to see Sputnik (this is a staging limitation); the biggest offense to me: when Frank is noodling on the piano leading into "Growing Up" and acting like "oh this is a good melody I just came up with, let's keep composing go me" and it is CLEARLY the score for "Good Thing Going," which we'll hear in full in the next act. Come on, y'all. Major dramaturgical misstep, and one that wasn't there when this ran on the West End. What were they thinking?

But see? That stuff's fixable. Just listen to Zelda.

No, really, it's a solid production that mostly does right by a show I love. And it's the only production that has a promise of redemption for Frank, based on the framing device of Frank holding the script for "Take a Left." Maybe this time, he'll make the right choice.

Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez as Charley, Frank,
and Mary. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W38: Jaja's African Hair Braiding

What: Manhattan Theatre Club presents Jocelyn Bioh's new play, a slice of life day at a hair braiding salon, where women compete and bond alternatively, all on the day of Jaja's green card wedding.
And? I loved it. Jocelyn Bioh is such a fine writer with a real sense of voice and humanity. At the performance I saw there was a sudden illness and so understudy Victoire Charles stepped in, script in hand to cover the role. She did amazing work, even balancing her script with prop business in a way that felt natural. The rest of the cast is similarly top-notch, from the emotional centers of Dominique Thorne (Marie) and Brittany Adebumola (Miriam), to the more comedic turns of Maechi Aharanwa (Ndidi) and Nana Mensah (Aminata), to the three actors doing triple duty as customers or walk-in vendors: Kalyne Coleman, Lakisha May, and Michael Oloyede. As the fish out of water new client Jennifer, Rachel Christopher brings a wide eyed sweetness, and cameoing as the titular Jaja in gorgeous wedding dress, Somi Kakoma has all the presence and charisma that makes it clear how she is able to run her salon and attract all these wonderful personalities to her. Bioh wrote this play as a love letter to the women of these salons: the hair braiders and the clients, and it's a stunning tribute to them; as directed by Whitney White, this cast feels like a true community. Also props to David Zinn's perfect salon scenic design.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W37: The Creeps

 9/06/23: The Creeps
What: Catherine Waller's one person show about a seemingly disparate collection of characters, all trapped, but reaching out to the audience for help.
And? full review here

Catherine Waller as Lizardman.
Photo by Andrew Patino.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Margin Notes: The Creeps

Catherine Waller as Lizardman.
Photo by Andrew Patino

Seen on: Wednesday, 9/06/23.

Plot and Background
Following award-winning runs at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Hollywood Fringe Festival, and United Solo Festival, Catherine Waller's one person show is now running Off-Broadway. The Creeps, a one-person show created by and starring Catherine Waller, introduces the audience to a seemingly disparate collection of characters, all trapped, but reaching out to the audience for help.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew that it was probably going to be unnerving, and that some sort of audience participation was involved (reader beware).


With spidering limbs and a skeletal grin, the hunched over Lizardman (unnamed during the show, but so called in the script) welcomes the audience to the show, as sinister an emcee as Kander and Ebb ever saw. "Pay attention," he warns us, "coz the devil's in the details." We are in a nebulous space, eerily lit with far-echoing sounds. We could be in a basement. We could be in a cabaret. We could be in an abandoned hospital. After setting the ground rules--which include the warning that the audience is encouraged to talk--the Lizardman tours us to the various inhabitants of this space: Bill, the Cockney laborer, hunched over in the boiler room and mourning his daughter; Harley, an expectant mother and exotic dancer, high as a kite and murmuring to her fetus in a husky-honey voice; and Stumpy, an incorrigible child with hacked-off limbs who wants us to laugh at her jokes. The fifth character, the unseen Doctor, has a menacing whistle and a ready scalpel. The Doctor is why they're all here, but he's the last thing they want to talk about.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W36: The Cottage

8/31/23: The Cottage
What: Jason Alexander directs a new play by Sandy Rustin, an old fashioned sex comedy with changing partners, cigarettes hidden pretty much everywhere on set, and inconsistent British accents.
And?  I don't think this play (or perhaps just this production) knew whether it wanted to be a genuine sex comedy, hearkening back to Noel Coward, or if it wanted to be a parody of the genre. It's poorly enough directed that 3/4 of the jokes aren't landing properly; and the audience, though eager to have a good time, stops finding as many reasons to laugh at the same joke over and over (the surprise cigarette locations continued to amuse but oof, I could smell all that smoke from the back of the theater while wearing a KN95 mask). At the very end it seems like maybe they wanted us to care about the main character after all, but it's a hard sell, considering that up to that point no one onstage seemed to be a real person, and the stakes, though stated, are non-existent in the performance. Still, it's nice to see Laura Bell Bundy back on the boards, leading a show with perfect timing and physicality. Understudy Tony Roach also acquits himself well as Beau (normally played by Eric McCormack). It might get an awards nod for the nostalgia of Paul Tate dePoo III's scenic design, which earns immediate admiration (oohs, ahhs, and applause) from the audience as the curtain rises.

Laura Bell Bundy as Sylvia. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W35: Pay the Writer, A Will To Live

What: A new play by Tawni O'Dell about the decades-long friendship between a novelist and his literary agent, and I guess also about how the novelist was a bad husband and a bad father? I could tell you the plot beats but I couldn't actually tell you what this is about.
And? Ugh.

Marcia Cross, Bryan Batt, and Ron Canada as Lana, Bruston, and Cyrus.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

full review here

Masha King as Helena Weinrauch. Photo by David Zayas, Jr.

Margin Notes: A Will To Live

Masha King as Helene Weinrauch.
Photo by David Zayas, Jr.

Seen on: Saturday, 8/26/23.

Plot and Background
A one-woman play adaptation of Helena Weinrauch's memoir. She wrote her memoir while she was still recuperating in a Swedish hospital after surviving three concentration camps and a death march. Adapter (and Chain Artistic Director) Kirk Goskowski said of his work adapting Weinrauch's memoir that "Anything we left out was omitted for length and to make it a play. These are all her words. My only job here is to be the steward of her story."

What I Knew Beforehand
That it was adapted from a memoir of a Holocaust survivor. I'd also seen and reviewed several other Chain productions over the years.


A young woman curls up on a clean white bed, wrapped in a blanket and robe, staring away from the audience, out at the peaceful seaside view of her hospital room in Sweden. She has survived years of torment so barbaric she doesn't remember it all at first. She doesn't remember the moment her body was discovered to be alive, rather than one of many corpses found by British soldiers. She doesn't remember being turned out from a German hospital for fear of typhoid. She doesn't remember the journey to Sweden. But the times before that, they start to come back. The sweet and innocent times before, living in Germany with her mother, father, and sister. Her sixteenth birthday, her piano lessons, helping her mother squirrel away jewelry in the event they would need it for bartering. And she remembers when the war started, and what came next. How her parents and sister were rounded up and disappeared, how she was hidden, given false identification papers. How she was recognized and tortured anyway. How she spent three years in three separate concentration camps--Plaszow, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen--how numerous small kindnesses or sheer luck saved her from sudden death even as she was rescued only twenty-four hours from a slower one.

This is the story she remembers. This is the story she tells.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W34: Infinite Life

8/18/23: Infinite Life
What: Atlantic Theater Company, in conjuction with National Theatre, presents Annie Baker's newest play, about several patients staying at clinic specializing in water and juice fasts to treat chronic pain and illness. 
And? While this doesn't come close to John or The Antipodes, I still think an Annie Baker play is always worth seeing. She's so unlike anyone else, and her plays always seem to know exactly what they are, even if they at first appear to be about nothing. This is an interesting meditation on what it means to be in constant pain, and how to exist around the edges of that.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W32: The Shark is Broken

What: The Broadway transfer of the Edinburgh Fringe/West End play about the making of Jaws, starring and cowritten by Ian Shaw (playing his father, Robert Shaw), along with Alex Brightman as Richard Dreyfuss and Colin Donnell as Roy Scheider. Over the course of the film shoot, the three actors use their downtime while waiting on a broken mechanical shark to bicker, to play games, and to share stories.
And? I feel a bit terrible for saying this, because Ian Shaw is clearly doing this in tribute to his father, who died only three years after Jaws came out, but this is such a mediocre paint-by-numbers play. Every few minutes we get another wink-wink line that the audience, who knows the future, gets to chuckle sensibly at ("No one will be talking about this movie in fifty years!" is one such hackneyed example). I'm amazed the actors don't turn to the audience and hold for laughter each time they say one. The content of each character's various revelations is about as in-depth as a Wikipedia article, the conflicts are half-baked, and there isn't actually much enlightenment thrown on the troubled set (the shark may be broken--a great title, for what it's worth--but we're not gonna deal with that much). I desperately craved some kind of transformative moment, or even a moment of joy baked into all the woes and carps of the business. Instead, we're stuck on the same static claustrophobic boat these three men are (scenic design Duncan Henderson), going nowhere slowly. Literalism in theater isn't always terrible, but it's also rarely necessary. Theater is where we can do metaphors, y'all. Theater is where Jessica Chastain's Nora can stand up from the chair she hasn't left for the past two hours, open the back door of the theater, and step out into Times Square. The final beat of The Shark is Broken is a great one, and well-earned, but it deserved a bit more underlining from the design. This was our moment to break the play, and we missed it.

Additionally, we need to talk about the challenge of having period characters (or in this case, representations of actual real-life people) spouting cruelties. I'm going to pre-empt the defense of "people are complicated, people say and do bad things, this is just realism." Sure they are, sure they do, and sure it is. But there is a difference between someone saying something cruel under the play's and audience's recognition that this isn't okay (think: anytime a white character in a piece of fiction uses the N word), and that same cruel utterance being met with chortling laughs. That's punching down, and that's the audience laughing at the punching down. That's the audience agreeing that it's okay to bodyshame people, because fat bodies don't deserve as much compassion as thin bodies with alcohol dependencies. That's the play saying this behavior is okay, and the audience's complicity in that same cruelty.

Listen, I don't like Richard Dreyfuss either. But most of the digs at him in this play (which, like Robert Shaw, very much does not like Richard Dreyfuss) center around his being fat and his being Jewish, either overtly or covertly. There are ways to frame personality conflicts that do not center two things over which someone has no control. But here it seems to be "we don't like Richard Dreyfuss because he's a fat Jew, and therefore it's okay to laugh at him over it." Even his character's accusation that Shaw's play The Man in the Glass Booth is antisemitic (I haven't read it but, going by the plot description and premise, it sounds like it is problematic at best) is met with derision, like he's another Jewish person looking to be offended. When Shaw bemoans that actors like him and Scheider are being replaced by neurotics, all I can hear are dog whistles.

There are ways to frame these conflicts. And then there's this. Where the audience laughs every time Shaw is abusive to Dreyfuss.

And that's not how I want to spend my energy.

Hell, the mediocre writing didn't even make me want to go rewatch Jaws, and it should have achieved that at the very least. Aaron Sorkin could have fixed this, when he was a good writer. But unless they call in a script doctor, stat, we're stuck with this. Did no one call it out during the West End run? Are there not enough Jewish people there to say "hey maybe not with the latent antisemitism threading through this whole thing?" I don't think I'm another Jewish person looking to be offended. I think I'm a Jewish person who is tired of having to explain why things are offensive in the first place.

Um. All three actors were good. But this is a bad play.

Colin Donnell, Ian Shaw, and Alex Brightman as Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw,
and Richard Dreyfuss. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W31: Malvolio, The Half-God of Rainfall

7/25/23: Malvolio
What: The Classic Theatre of Harlem presents Betty Shamieh's sequel to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, starring Allen Gilmore reprising his wonderful rendition of Malvolio from this company's celebrated production of Twelfth Night.
And? I've been hyped to see this production since I saw Allen Gilmore's wonderful Malvolio back in February. But this play was a pretty big letdown. Too much about it didn't work for me: from the too-smirking allusions to other Shakespeare works to the beyond squicky age difference in the central romance, I did not enjoy the script. Craft-wise, Shamieh knows how to build a Shakespearean style collection of characters with odd interconnections (hearkening to the chaotic revelations in Cymbeline), but the story itself did not work for me, nor did the muddied storytelling of directors Ian Belknap and Ty Jones. The cast does the best with the material they have (Gilmore especially still manages to shine), but it's still a disappointing evening  (also feeding into my pet peeve this past season of a production claiming to be ninety minutes but actually running closer to two hours).

Allen Gilmore and Kineta Kunutu as Malvolio and Volina. Photo by Richard

What: NYTW presents Inua Ellams's new epic poem, a blending of mythologies of Yoruba and Ancient Greece to tell the story of a demigod born of the sexual assault by Zeus of a beautiful Yoruba woman. After Demi becomes a basketball star and incurs Zeus's jealousy, the gods demand punishment. But it is Demi's mother Modúpé who journeys to Olympus for a final vengeance.
And? This is why I love theater. Pieces like this, that tell new stories, or old stories with new lenses. Stories of gods that still aim to overthrow colonialist bullshit, I am here for it. Stories of women not just surviving their assault, but drawing strength from each other, strength enough to bring down the monster who tried to steal their bodies from them. Just, it's so good. This cast is so good (Lizan Mitchell is having a moment, y'all, between this and her work at The Public recently), the staging and rhythm, the physical language created by Beatrice Capote. My one (tiny) complaint is that the floor, made of a black glittering sand, creates a (specifically to me) unpleasant aural sensation when the actors cross it. But maybe it's not as bad if you're not in the second row?

Mister Fitzgerald and Kelley Curran as Demi and Perseus.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W30: The Doctor

7/20/23: The Doctor
What: Park Avenue Armory hosts the North American premiere of Robert Icke's reimagined look at Arthur Schnitzler's 1912 play Professor Bernhardi. A Jewish doctor at a private institute prevents a Catholic priest from reading last rites over a dying teenager, a conflict that snowballs into disastrous consequences for the doctor and the institute. Robert Icke reimagines Schnitzler's study of antisemitism into a critique of identity politics as a whole.
And? I'm mostly going to be talking about the ideas and arguments of the play, so let me say up front, it's incredibly effective theater, which is always impressive with such a talky (well, shouty) play. The cast is all top-notch, and drummer Hannah Ledwidge keeps the air taut under every argument. 

The casting plays an interesting trick on the audience, one that isn't immediately clear: of the many identities represented in the text of the play (gender, ethnicity, trans), most of the characters are not played by actors who represent what seems to be their most "important" identity marker. So we watch Jewish Professor Wolff, as played by gentile Juliet Stevenson, argue with a Catholic priest (played by John Mackay, a white actor), not realizing until much later that the optics are not what we assumed: the priest is a Black man. We also note as the play goes on that some male characters are played by women, some white characters are played by people of color, etc. No one is whom we think they are, at least when it comes to visible identity markers. At first I was annoyed by what seemed a too-proud-of-its-edginess gimmick by another white director. But as Professor Wolff continues to defend her actions, insisting that she doesn't do "groups" (read: identity politics), it becomes clear that these identity inversions are meant to have us engage with the other characters through her lens, where these things shouldn't matter.

But, of course, they actually do matter. When the story leaks, her name is not released, but it is known that she is a Jewish woman (which means, in the characters' reality, she is visibly ethnically Jewish). When the story leaks, it matters that a Jewish woman physically barred a Black Catholic man from administering rites. It matters that her antagonistic colleague is a white Catholic man who offers her a trade of making the story go away if she chooses a Black Catholic male candidate over a white Jewish female candidate in an upcoming hiring, regardless of their actual competence. All of these identity markers become more important than the individuals themselves. In the social media maelstrom that follows the initial altercation, identities become the story much more than the actual case of a doctor trying to shield the final moments of a dying patient from additional distress.

Professor Wolff wants to treat people as individual but faceless personalities, out of context of their lived realities. This includes refusing to engage not only with her own Jewish identity (she is non-practicing, and considers herself the child of Jewish people, not a Jewish person herself), but also with her being the widow of partner whose Alzheimer's no doubt prompted the institute's focus on curing dementia. It's a noble, if misguided, goal--to treat people in a vacuum. But it doesn't work in the real world, where the careless use of the word "uppity" triggers generations of trauma for Black people's subjugation at the hands of white people.

For me, there are several problems with how the play is executing this argument. There are some false equivalencies (Dr. Hardiman accuses the institute of being a "closed shop" for not hiring enough Christians, ignoring the history of Christians shutting out other religions/identities from many spaces and insisting they find their own space ... then knocking on the door demanding to be let in there too; though this hypocrisy is not addressed in the play). There is never quite the proper reckoning for the antisemitic attacks on Dr. Wolff once her identity is published; as if, in putting her hand on a Black man's shoulder to restrain him, she had it coming to lose her license, the institute she founded, and to have her car defaced with a swastika and her cat murdered, its blood spread over the door. In the play, as in conversations today, there seems to be an effort to pit Black people against Jewish people (ignoring, as always, the existence of Jews of color), where we must rank sufferings and decide whose pain to care about, because it can't be both. So, you know, White Supremacy doing its thing. But again, the play doesn't reckon with this either. It also doesn't reckon with the problematic racial bias in much of modern medicine, which not only treats the white male body as the default (to the detriment of accurate and compassionate treatment of both female patients and patients of color), but also built so many of its advancements on the backs of non-consensual experimentation on Black bodies. Quite frankly, a responsible doctor cannot afford to "not see race," when it comes to properly treating their patients.

And, though by the end of the play, I understand the why of the casting choices for this production, I think beyond the trick of making us reframe the opening scene into something more troubling, it may be a mistake. Professor Wolff may not think these identities matter, but we all know that they do. There's a missing nuance, here: identities matter just as much as individual selves. I am a Jewish woman, but that is not the only part of me that matters, nor am I all Jewish women contained in a monolith. And because of the casting move here, I began to feel a lack of some level of authenticity. A character here is trans, but played by a cis actor. If there were another trans actor in the cast to balance this out (as there are Black actors playing white characters to balance out the white actors playing Black characters), that would be one thing, but instead it just feeds into the already problematic history of trans actors rarely getting to tell their own stories. Same, of course, for the current conversation about how rarely Jewish women are cast as Jewish heroes. I get what Icke is doing, but it feels a bit too smug in thumbing its nose at the conversations of representation and identity, a mocking look at arguments for authenticity. The characters who insist that identity markers, or "groups," matter are portrayed as almost a parody in their panel debate with Professor Wolff.

Juliet Stevenson and Juliet Garricks as Ruth Wolff and Charlie. Photo by
Stephanie Berger Photography.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W29: Here Lies Love

What: The Broadway transfer of the immersive dance hall biomusical about Imelda Marcos, featuring songs by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim.
And? I saw this show about a decade ago, when it was at The Public. I'll be honest, I didn't take away a lot of memories, beyond how strikingly good the three leads were (Ruthie Ann Miles, Jose Llana, and Conrad Ricamora; Llana and Ricamora reprise those performances here, and honestly I'd watch these two do anything. They're so talented), that it was my first encounter with the Marcoses (I did more reading after), and that it was a rather fun idea, staging-wise. I had concerns, then and now, that buying a standing spot on the dance floor would not be a good choice for me; with my height, I not only would have trouble seeing, but I also stand a higher risk of being stepped on. So in both cases, I went for one of the elevated seats overlooking the proceedings.

So I brought only foggy memories to my return visit. I think the physical storytelling has definitely progressed, and my goodness, the designers have done amazing work transforming the rather stodgy Broadway Theatre into a dance hall with giant disco ball, LED screens, and a DJ as our Emcee (a fantastic Moses Villarama). Knowing sightlines will be imperfect from any angle in this space--whether you're on the dance floor, in the VIP floor box, on the two framing raised stage seats, or in the still-intact mezzanine overlooking all--the designers project via live-feed certain scenes and angles for those who might otherwise miss the moment. There are staff in pink jumpsuits to help guide the dance floor standers around the space, as the performer platforms rotate or shift. All in all, it's a well-oiled machine to keep the show going. And it's a really good time. If it makes anyone feel uncomfortable to hear that a musical about Imelda Marcos is a really good time, that's entirely the point of the evening. This is David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's answer to Evita. And were it not for the quiet finale "God Draws Straight," led by the DJ on an acoustic guitar, we could probably write this show off as a flippant refusal to engage with the monstrosity of the Marcos reign (now sadly revived with their son in power). But ultimately this silly, poppy, brightly-lit pop opera is reminding us not only of how charismatic despots can be on their way to power, and how absolutely cruel they are once they have it--but also that we don't have to let them stay there. "Democracy is only as strong as its people," the DJ reminds us. We can get it back. We can be better.

Some quick critiques before I wrap up: Arielle Jacobs has a beautiful voice and charming presence but she won't eclipse the memory of Ruthie Ann Miles, for those of us who saw the Public run. The storytelling is somewhat hampered by its fidelity to its score, and historical plot beats are clear sometimes only because I read the timeline insert in the program. There is also a featured soloist in the ensemble (Jasmine Forsberg as Maria Luisa) and her place in the story is still pretty unclear (a scan of the Wikipedia page for the show reveals she is Imelda's inner self but uh ... again, not clear during the actual show).

Absolutely worth seeing though. I'm always in favor of Broadway shows breaking the proscenium, and not just at Circle in the Square. And it's a big damn deal to have an all-Filipino cast on Broadway, absolutely killing it.

Conrad Ricamora (right, in white) as Ninoy Aquino with the cast of Here
Lies Love
. Photo by Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy, and Evan

Monday, July 10, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W28: & Juliet

 7/03/23: & Juliet
A repeat visit (Happy Birthday Marissa!). This show continues to be a delight, and special shoutout to understudies Rachel Webb and Michael Iván Carrier, covering for Juliet and François (especially Rachel Webb, who went on with very little notice--the stage manager came onstage at five minutes to curtain to announce it--and rocked it out)

Monday, July 3, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W27: Just For Us, Bark at the Moon

6/27/23: Just For Us
What: The Broadway transfer of Alex Edelman's storytelling piece about infiltrating a white nationalist group.
And? A repeat visit. Worth it.

What: Exquisite Corpse Company presents a reading of Ashley Lauren Rogers's new play, as part of the Drinks and Drama series at Culture Lab LIC. Bark at the Moon is about Ayla and Ed who meet outside a FurCon and--over the next few years of accidental and deliberate meetings--try to help each other process their traumas.
And? Rogers's play is clever and engaging, and Chris Rivera directs Eric Campos and Katrina Art ably. I look forward to seeing what comes next for this one.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W26: The Light in the Piazza

What: City Center Encores! presents the Craig Lucas-Adam Guettel musical adaptation of the 1960 novella/1962 film, about a mother and daughter who visit Florence, Italy. When daughter Clara finds an unexpected romance with a young man there, her mother Margaret must reckon with whether her daughter's troubled past could derail her future. This production recontextualizes Margaret as a Korean war bride, an outsider both in Italy and at home. 
And? I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Encores! is having its third Broadway transfer, thanks to the able direction of Chay Yew and the talented leads (though this time I do wish that, unlike their Into the Woods transfer, they expand the scenic design. Clint Ramos and Miguel Urbino's work is perfectly lovely for a concert staging, but for a full Broadway production, part of the lushness of the show is how we are as swept away by Florence as Margaret and Clara are). Linda Cho's costume design is beautifully tailored, nodding to the original while also making it her own. As for the cast, Ruthie Ann Miles is transcendent as Margaret (I'm not surprised, but it's always gratifying to see her wonderful and nuanced work), and Anna Zavelson, making her NY debut, is a richly voiced and sweet Clara. Andréa Burns, who always shines, makes a meal of the smaller role of Signora Naccarelli. James D. Gish, as Clara's suitor Fabrizio, is handsome and broad-shouldered, with a lovely full voice, but there's a little something missing in his acting, which unfortunately makes the central romance a steeper uphill climb than it should be. Still, it's a lush night at the theater and worth seeing.

Ruthie Ann Miles as Margaret with the company of The Light in the Piazza.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W25: The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends

What: Black Watch Theatre LLC presents a new musical by Annie Pulsipher and Alex Petti, about three teen girls hoping to take the perfect date to Prom--even if he's a little undead.
And? full review here.

Zoe Dean and Patrick Voss Davis as Madison and
Zachary. Photo by Sean Salamon.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Margin Notes: The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends

Zoe Dean and Patrick Voss Davis as
Madison and Zachary. Photo by
Sean Salamon.

Seen on: Friday, 6/16/23.

Plot and Background
Teenage best friends Madison (cheerleader), Grace (valedictorian), and Stella (archetype unclear) cast a spell so they can each find the perfect boyfriend to take to Prom, and in due time they do, though each boy is not without his complications. When the red flag about your prom date isn't that he's a vampire or a ghost or a zombie, you know you're in trouble. The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends, a new musical by Annie Pulsipher and Alex Petti, was originally presented at Carnegie Mellon, and is here produced by Black Watch Theatre.

What I Knew Beforehand
Zombie Prom!


Play: The show has a lot of fun ambition. It's campy, it's silly, it's fourth wall-breaking, it wants to empower teenage girls. Each boyfriend's supernatural nature speaks to an abusive or toxic element of his relationship with one of our three heroines. But unfortunately the execution of some of these ideas gets in the show's way in some key places. The opening of any show is so important to clue the audience in to what kind of world this is. But when, midway through a first act with no supernatural energy beyond Grace's ambition to be a witch, Stella announces her boyfriend is a vampire and that's why he can't come to Prom, it just sounds like an absurd lie, until--twist!--yep, there he is in leather pants, bouffant hair, and emo moue. Grace's subsequent announcement of her Puritan ghost boyfriend is at least more believable, now we know what show we're in. The other big roadblock for me is that not enough distinction is drawn between Lucian the Vampire and Silence the Ghost, in terms of their red flag behavior; both boil down to coercing consent, negging, and being condescending dicks. In contrast, football player Zachary's transformation into a physically abusive zombie is more clearly sketched (if prone to a few too many jokes about his inability to speak, which start to feel ableist in their repetition). I also have a few questions about when this takes place (the overhead projector and lack of cell phones point to early aughts; the references to hashtags, selfies, and Kim and Kanye point to much more recent), as well as how a prom queen, a valedictorian, and a girl whose archetype seems to boil down to horny and fat (yes, I want more for her than that, too), got to be best friends, but that wouldn't take as much rewriting to address. The bones of this piece are still a good idea, and some of the songs are a lot of fun--"Dissection Dance," Zachary's ill-advised promposal, and "ZomBaby," a girl group paean to an undead love, are right on the money--but Pulispher and Petti need to decide what kind of show they want to write. Is it full pastiche? Camp with a heart? If they lean more into their strongest choices and differentiate the girls' stories a bit more, this could become a really fun piece.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W24: Walking With Bubbles, Days of Wine and Roses

What: A new one-person autobiographical musical created by and starring Jessica Hendy (score by Brianna Kothari Barnes), about her marriage, divorce, and attempts to share custody with Adam, whose mental crises have led to his living on the streets of New York.
And? I don't really know how to talk about this show, except to say that it makes me deeply uncomfortable. I want to celebrate this woman's triumph of the things she's survived, but I can't separate that from the fact that she's sharing truly harrowing moments in someone else's mental distress. It feels voyeuristic, and a tiny bit feeding into the stigma that people with mental illness are a danger to those around them, when statistically speaking they are the biggest danger to themselves. And while one can and should hold Adam accountable for refusing treatment not only during his depression but also during his more serious psychotic break, I can't help feeling like he and his illness are being placed as the monster for Jessica to overcome (perhaps if we'd seen scenes of him when he was healthy, but the only times she gives him voice are when he's unwell, when he is cruel). Even writing that out I know I'm not being entirely fair. She spent years trying to help him, trying to get him to help himself. It's just, in the context of so many other narratives about mental illness, and the fact that in showing the worst moments of her life, she is also showing the worst moments in Adam's, I don't know how to be okay with this show.

Jessica Hendy as herself. Photo source.

What: Atlantic Theater presents a new musical adaptation of the 1958 teleplay/1962 film, reuniting the writing team behind The Light in the Piazza. The chamber musical tracks the courtship and marriage of Joe and Kirsten and their growing addiction to alcohol.
And? I will say, Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel are very good at allowing moments to breathe, to give them space and air and lift (Kelli O'Hara singing a Guettel melody, yes please, always). But it's always very hard for me to watch a story about people destroying themselves. I'll start to check out, probably in self-preservation (see: Over the Rainbow). The pacing and timeline of this show are a bit confusing--sometimes we seem to jump ahead years, and sometimes only days, with no immediate indication of which is which. Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara are incredible performers, not just their distinct and unique vocals, but also as truly committed and grounded actors, and it's a gift to see them together. But I think I ultimately don't like the vehicle they're given for it.

Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James as Kirsten and Joe. Photo by Ahron
R. Foster.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

My Dedicatedly Inaccurate Tony Predictions

Well the season itself has been a bit more of a return to pre-pandemic times, but with the WGA striking (hence the upcoming unscripted Tony telecast) and a possible SAG-AFTRA strike on its heels, I'm gonna guess we'll be in for some weirdness come June 11th. But it'll be good to see the live performances from the shows, which has been the highlight for me since I started watching the telecasts in 1998.

What's becoming clearer, though, is how much this behemoth could use an overhaul. As additional design elements, like puppetry and projection, are becoming more prevalent, they warrant their own category. I think there could and should also be space made for combat and intimacy coordination and choreography, artforms as complex as dance choreography. And then of course there's the question of gendered acting categories, which I discussed briefly here.

I still remain grateful to live in this city, and see as much live theater as I do. This Broadway season, I'm grateful to have seen Ain't No Mo' during its short run (and gratified here to have it be nominated so many times), as well as the Broadway transfers of three Pulitzer-winning plays in one season. I'm grateful that two wonderful Encores! productions got themselves the recognition they deserved, as well as Broadway transfers and cast albums. I'm grateful that, for all the clumsy missteps (and, well, a lot of backslides), I can see that there are artists in commercial theater working to make the space more inclusive, both in the stories being told and in who is telling them. I hope we continue to move in this direction.

Let's get to it!

Monday, June 5, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W23: Being Mr. Wickham

What: 59E59 hosts the unofficial sequel to Pride and Prejudice, co-written by and starring Adrian Lukis, who played Mr. Wickham in the best adaptation of P&P (don't @ me), which was first presented online by Original Theatre.
And? It was nice to get to see the performance in person, after having watched the filmed version. We were gifted with talkback after the performance, when we learned how much research and thought he put into the revisiting of his most famous role, of his Jane Austen scholarship, and aspects of his own life, and what it was like when turned sixty and started looking back.

Adrian Lukis as Mr. Wickham. Photo by James Findlay.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W22: Prima Facie, Shucked, Summer, 1976

 5/23/23: Prima Facie
What: The Broadway transfer of the National Theatre production of Suzie Miller's one-woman play starring Jodie Comer, about a criminal defense barrister in the wake of her own sexual assault.
And? While it's a tour de force showcase for Comer, who is more than up for the challenge, I guess I'm a bit tired from seeing a nearly two-hour play of someone realizing something a lot of us have known for a very long time: the criminal justice system, whether in the UK or US, is built not to protect sexual assault victims and punish their attackers, but rather to do everything it can to discredit those victims and protect their attackers. We know this. I'm glad she figures it out too, but she had to figure it out by being assaulted herself. Her entire character development in this play is predicated on her being assaulted, which is a storytelling trope I am EXHAUSTED by. It makes me stop watching TV shows. It makes me avoid books written by men. This may have been well done but the entire premise of it is one that I am tired just thinking about. Also major trigger warning for anyone who is a survivor of such an assault: she speaks in explicit detail about the assault itself. Proceed with caution.

Jodie Comer as Tessa. Photo by Helen Murray.

5/26/23: Shucked
What: It's that corn musical.
And? What I kept thinking about during this show is how subjective humor can be. And I kept wondering if I was just in the wrong mood, and that's why the humor in Shucked mostly annoyed me, while a lot of the audience around me was having a good time. I loved Head Over Heels and & Juliet, both very silly shows, but I was bored by the likes of ...One More Time. So here I probably just have to say that this show wasn't for me, but that doesn't actually speak to the competency of the production itself. The score feels a little disjointed: some songs know how to function like musical theater songs; some songs are full pastiche; and some songs function like country songs with a script mashed around them to justify their drop-in, like in a jukebox musical. The absolute failure to find a pure rhyme for Tampa besides grampa, but insisting on increasingly slanted slant rhymes instead is ... a choice. Understudy Traci Elaine Lee is great as ingenue Maizy, Andrew Durand continues his brand of loveable dope with a high belt as Beau, Kevin Cahoon knows how to handle a running joke like a pro, and Alex Newell can wail until the roof shakes (they got a partial standing ovation midshow for that fantastic voice). For me, though, Grey Henson (Storyteller 2) deserves props for his offhand manner of delivering joke after joke, most of them groaners but almost funny anyway in his hands.

Ashley D. Kelley and Grey Henson as Storyteller 1 and Storyteller 2.
Photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W21: Once Upon a One More Time

What: A new jukebox musical utilizing the song catalog of Britney Spears to deconstruct Cinderella and other fairy tales.
And? Let me preface this by saying: I am the wrong audience for this show. This show for sure has an audience, but it's not me. I was hoping the show would be so ridiculously over the top it would be fun, like & Juliet or Head Over Heels. I think if I knew Britney Spears's full song catalog better (or if the sound design was sharper so I could understand the lyrics to the songs I didn't know), I might have had a better time. Instead I was annoyed at how thin the whole thing was. The script feels plagiarized from a tumblr thread from a decade ago, "discovering" that fairy tales include a lot of now-toxic tropes. I read a review that accused & Juliet's feminism as being half-baked. One More Time is feminism tartare. I saw a very early preview so I can also hope they'll get their vocals together. While the Act Two opener, "Crazy," is flipping fantastic (vocally, choreographically), the Act One opener, "Baby One More Time," sounds truly messy. 

I am also once again tired to report that while there are two actors in the cast who are in bigger bodies, one of them (Goldilocks) mostly talks about porridge, and the other (Belinda, as played by the adorable and underused Ryann Redmond) is one of the "ugly" stepsisters. Come the fuck on. Give us a fat princess!

Pros: I got two of them, and their names are Jennifer Simard and Justin Guarini. Simard steals every one of her scenes, and Guarini steals the entire score. He dominates the stage and you cannot take your eyes off him.

(D.C. production) Aisha Jackson, Morgan Weed, Briga Heelan, Ashley Chiu,
Wonu Ogunfowora, and Lauren Zakrin as Snow White, Princess and the Pea,
Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Little Mermaid. Photo by
Matthew Murphy.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W20: Grey House, & Juliet, shadow/land, Eternal Life Part 1

 5/08/23: Grey House
What: A new play by Levi Holloway about a couple who, after crashing their car in a blizzard, find refuge in a strange house hosted by a moody woman, four teenage girls, and a quiet nameless boy. And then more strange stuff happens.
And? I'm still mulling over what I think of this. The cast is fantastic and properly creepy, the production is really well-designed (all the tricks and magic are very effective), but when the mystery of the house and its inhabitants is finally revealed, it's not quite a satisfying enough clarity. I might appreciate this more when I get a chance to read over the script, but until then, it leaves me a bit unsatisfied. Still, it's fun and rare to see a creepy play on Broadway, and I'm definitely here for commercial theater expanding its repertoire. (Representation notes: it's nice to see some Deaf representation with Millicent Simmonds as Bernie, but damn this is a super white cast, and it didn't need to be)

The cast of Grey House. Photo by MurphyMade.

5/09/23: & Juliet
What: The Broadway transfer of the West End jukebox musical, wherein Shakespeare's wife decides to rewrite the ending of Romeo & Juliet to let Juliet survive and discover herself. Husband and wife battle over control of the narrative, so many amazing hijinks ensue, and it's all set to the chart toppers by Max Martin (and friends).
And? This show is a goddamn delight, start to finish. Every single cast member is living their best life, and inviting us to join in on the fun. Somehow everyone's comic timing is spot on (props to director Luke Sheppard), their voices are top-notch, and it's just all so beautifully packaged (god, I love Paloma Young's costume design: a playful blend of Renaissance and contemporary, and every single character is wearing sneakers made to move). Lorna Courtney delivers a career-making performance as Juliet: playful, intense, empathetic, and a voice to shake the rafters. Betsy Wolfe is always delightful but she really gets to show her comedy and range as Anne/April. Justin David Sullivan shimmers with heart and joy as Juliet's bestie May, with a beautifully clear singing voice. Paulo Szot, best known on Broadway for melting everyone's hearts with his powerful performance in South Pacific, is having so much fun camping it up as patriarch Lance Du Bois, complete with ridiculous codpiece. And Melanie La Barrie as Angélique/Nurse, she just owns my entire heart for her rendition of "Fuckin' Perfect." On top of all this we've got some good gender diversity rep (not only nonbinary actor Justin David Sullivan, but also a number of ensemble cast members as well), good ethnic diversity, and at least some strides toward body diversity.

I don't want to spoil the jokes or surprises along the way, because they're such a damn treat to experience live. Jukebox Musicals, especially ones that aren't just using the song catalog to tell a bio-musical, can be such a crapshoot. (Yes, I know Mamma Mia! was a hit, but not with Zelda) Head Over Heels will probably remain my favorite of this genre of musical, but I got a kick out of & Juliet, with its self-aware and hilarious book by David West Read and its overall joyousness at being here.

Lorna Courtney, Betsy Wolfe, Justin David Sullivan, and Melanie La Barrie
as Juliet, April, May, and Angélique. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W19: King James, Good Night, Oscar, New York, New York, Primary Trust, Oliver!, Peter Pan Goes Wrong

A quick note: There's a conversation happening right now about the exclusion of non-binary performers from awards consideration when we divide acting categories into Male and Female. And it's a conversation we need to have. There were three potential non-binary nominees for performing on Broadway this year: two of them, Alex Newell and J. Harrison Ghee, submitted in the Male category; the third, Justin David Sullivan, recused themself from consideration as they did not want to choose either of the binary options. But with the current state of theater, I have major reservations that the solution to that problem is eliminating gender in the category altogether. Why? Look at the list of shows I saw this week. Every single one of them is male-dominated. The pool of award-eligible performers is male-dominated. Historically and currently, the majority of juicier and more interesting roles are for male performers (this is why the recent 1776 revival--which received zero Tony nominations--was a big deal). Until we fix that problem, the solutions on the awards end are just band-aids. For my money, I think it could behoove us to introduce a third category for non-binary performers. And if producers complain that they don't have enough contenders to be eligible, hey guess what? You can go find them. Go cast them. Maybe this is how we encourage more diversity of experience and representation in the stories we tell.

5/02/23: King James
What: MTC presents Rajiv Joseph's new play about the twelve year friendship between two men, Shawn and Matt, who first connect over their enthusiasm for the Cleveland Cavaliers, touching on four milestones of "King" Lebron James's career with that team.
And?  Rather a fun moment for me as I was reading through my playbill, to see that Glenn Davis, one of the stars of this play, also starred in Rajiv Joseph's Describe the Night, which I saw at Steppenwolf in March. This play, while ultimately satisfying, is a bit uneven. The first scene telegraphs its conclusion fairly early on; however, the second scene is full of delightful surprises and turns. As the story continues it becomes clear that we'll be seeing a see-sawing of power between the two friends, which unfortunately never reaches a contented equilibrium. Great scenic design by Todd Rosenthal.

Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti as Shawn and Matt. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

What: Doug Wright's new play starring Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant in a fictionalized imagining of the troubled comedian's four-hour leave from a sanitarium to appear on Jack Paar's show.
And? As talented as Sean Hayes is (and as talented as Oscar Levant was), I desperately wanted this to be a better show than it is. But it feels pedestrian. Sorkin-lite (if we agree that Sorkin at his best is leagues better than what he did to Camelot this season). The dialog doesn't crackle like it should (except when clearly sourcing things Levant actually said), and the pacing of the show is off, at least when Hayes isn't onstage. The characters keep telling us there are stakes here, but I don't feel them. I'd call the evening completely forgettable if we hadn't been treated to an extended excerpt from "Rhapsody in Blue" played live on the piano for the play's climax. (As an aside, I'm also deeply troubled by the fact that Levant's most offensive jokes--body shaming, sex shaming, or misogynistic--were the ones to get the biggest laughs from those around me, as if they were relieved they were allowed to laugh at punch-down humor again)

John Zdrojeski and Sean Hayes as George Gershwin and Oscar Levant.
Photo by Liz Lauren.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W18: Eleanor and Alice

What: Urban Stages presents an encore presentation of Ellen Abrams's play, spanning nearly sixty years in the friendship between cousins Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of Franklin Delano) and Alice Roosevelt Longworth (daughter of Teddy).
And? Not precisely a story, but a respectable character study, I suppose. Alice is renowned enough for her acerbic wit that a lot of her lines felt like they were lifted from reality, rather than organically part of a dialog. Both actors do good work crafting their individual characters' arcs over the years, emotionally and vocally, but I never quite feel they're in the same room as each other. Either one feels like she could exist in a one-person version of the same play and accomplish the same thing.

Trezana Beverley and Mary Bacon as Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt
Longworth. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W17: The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Leopoldstadt, Kimberly Akimbo

What: Red Bull and Fiasco Theater present Francis Beaumont's 1607 satirical romp, wherein a disgruntled grocer, his wife, and his apprentice interrupt a theater troupe's play to demand they create a heroic role for his grocer to play.
And? What a weird, fun play. A bit of Don Quixote meets Every Shakespearean Trope you can think of. If it does start to sag about an hour in, Fiasco Theater is adept at inserting musical moments to lift it back up and make the audience smile. (I should mention I'm not versed enough in Red Bull's style/voice to know what here is their brand; but with Fiasco company members Noah Brody and Emily Young directing, the voice of Fiasco is strong here) The cast is having as good a time as the audience is. It's a bit overlong (I know I already said that, but you do start to feel it in both halves), but it's still a very good time. Excellent performances particularly from Darius Pierce, Jessie Austrian, and Paco Tolson.

Royer Bockus, Ben Steinfeld, Paco Tolson, and Tatiana Wechsler. Photo by
Carol Rosegg.

4/22/23: Leopoldstadt
a repeat visit

a repeat visit