Monday, February 27, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W9: Crumbs from the Table of Joy, The Coast Starlight, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, Phèdre, Kiss, The Gondoliers

What: Keen Company presents a revival of Lynn Nottage's memory play about two young Black teenage sisters in the 1950s whose born-again father relocates them from Pensacola to Brooklyn.
And? Perhaps not my favorite Lynn Nottage play, but her writing is always worth my time. Shanel Bailey and Malika Samuel are especially good as the two sisters, Ernestine and Ermina.

Shanel Bailey and Malika Samuel as Ernestine Crump and Ermina Crump.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

What: Lincoln Center presents a new play by Keith Bunin, about six strangers on an overnight train to Seattle, and their imagined interactions as they wrestle with what to do with their lives.
And? I loved it. I don't want to get too much into plot, because spoilers but also because part of the treat of this play is the slow unpacking of each character. I love when theater plays with liminal space, the heartbreak of the what-if moments that never happened, the endless possible futures spiraling out. With each beat I found myself investing more. The cast is a bit uneven, but not enough that it detracts from the performance itself. The lighting design doesn't always offer the full coverage the show needs (if you're going to have actors address all angles of the curving thrust stage, you need to light their faces when you do it), but still makes some compelling and affecting choices. If I had one bigger complaint about the play, it would be that for all that we have a diverse cast, at the end it is the white male's story and its outcome that are held as the central focus for the rest of the characters. It's still a really cool play and it's the first new-to-me show I've seen since the new year that I've fallen hard for.

The company of The Coast Starlight. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W8: A Doll's House, Twelfth Night, (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling

What: Jamie Lloyd directs Amy Herzog's new adaptation of Ibsen's play, starring Jessica Chastain, about a woman, petted and coddled her whole life, who must realize the power and the cost of her own autonomy.
And? First preview! Woop woop! A few line flubs, a show pause while they fixed the turntable, but otherwise a smooth first preview. And my playbill has a sticker on it, so I feel extry special. Jamie Lloyd's production is predictably "dressed down": the actors in neutral black clothing, sitting in chairs, speaking quietly the dialogue of the play with little to no physicalizing of the actions of the script (besides a twitching fit for Nora's rehearsal of the tarantella). What this means is that the meat of the effectiveness of the storytelling lies in the actors' facility with their voices (I suppose there is also something happening in the cast's face acting, but the Hudson is a huge theater and from the Dress Circle I could see they had faces and that was about it). But Dionysus bless us, this cast is up for the challenge. The excellent cast of six gifts us diversity not only in ethnicity and physical abilities (Michael Patrick Thornton, who plays Dr. Rank, is an actor with a disability), but also in vocal timbre. If this were a radio play you would never have any question of who was speaking. Also, A+ to the sound design team of Ben & Max Ringham for the crystal clarity of each syllable uttered by the cast. Even with the cast speaking quietly in that barn of a theater, there is a very intimate quality to the evening.

Of course, as my show buddy Katie pointed out, this intimacy has its pluses and minuses. While the line of tension leading up to Torvald finally reading Krogstad's letter is finely tuned (and actualized by a tightening of the space with Jon Clark's lighting design), we miss some of the peaks and valleys in emotional intensity, some of the actual high-energy climaxing in the play itself. On the plus, I remarked to Katie during the mid-show pause that I was desperately craving a transformation of the space, and the audience was, too, whether they had the language for it or not. I am happy to report that this transformation did occur, and the audience lost their damn minds. I love live theater, y'all.

Final verdict: I don't know if this is the production to see if it's your first exposure to the play (but hey, maybe I'm wrong), but for myself, who's a bit wary of Ibsen at this point due to overexposure, I found this a refreshing and emotional take, even if the denouement felt a bit too long.

2/14/23: Twelfth Night
What: Skirball hosts an encore presentation of The Classical Theatre of Harlem's celebrated production of Shakespeare's play about love, grief, twins, and a trick.
And? My initial thought was that this was a bit too cartoonish a take on the play for me, but you know what, they won me over by the end. This cast is having a great time, Christina Sajous is giving her best Vanessa Williams as Olivia, Kara Young is an adorably panicked Viola, Israel Erron Ford is a charismatic Feste, and Allen Gilmore is a damn delight as Malvolio (a flyer in the program tells me that Classic Theatre of Harlem is producing a sequel called Malvolio, starring Gilmore in the title role, and this production definitely just convinced me to get myself a ticket to see it in July). I'll say, though, the one character this production doesn't think is much fun is poor Orsino. William DeMeritt does a lovely job but they don't let him clown around like they let everyone else. Oh and omg the costume design by Mika Eubanks is absolutely gorgeous, I loved it. A really fun take on the play.

Kara Young and Christina Sajous as Viola and Olivia. Photo by
Richard Termine.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Margin Notes: (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling

Seen on: Thursday, 2/16/22.
My grade: feels very much like a work in progress

Photo by Jarrett Robertson.
Plot and Background
Refugees across time and place gather in an abandoned theater space, connecting through their trauma and their will to survive. Representing the countries of Ukraine, Poland, Iceland, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Scotland, Italy, Cuba, and the US, (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling seeks to connect the current crisis for Ukranians to crises of both the near and distant past, through a liminal moment of rest for these people on the run. AnomalousCo is a "predominantly queer-woman-led, feminist, transdisciplinary performance collective" presenting this work devised by its company of performers.

What I Knew Beforehand
Loosely the premise of refugee women in a devised theatrical space. I tried not to read too much more than that, so I could go in and be surprised.


Sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs, the refugees find their way to an abandoned theater, to a bunker space within that theater. At first huddled in separate corners, they start to come together, communicating even as they have no common language, to construct the space to tell the stories that must be told. It is not Noah's Ark (though it is, a little), it is not the Tower of Babel (though it is, a little), but it somehow something both ancient and modern, their need to bear witness to what they have seen and survived. Periodically an air raid siren will sound (stunningly performed merely with the actors' voices and a violin) and the refugees will retreat to huddled positions, but often they are bolder, singing their anger, airing their grief, guarding the precious few belongings and memories they still carry.

There are some strong ideas here, but the piece feels very early in its development, as it has not yet cohered into one driving unifying push. Some sequences are staggering, like Ylfa's speech about the city she lost, the birth-to-orphanage pipeline, or the farewell phone calls; others are either confusingly executed or aurally upstaged by activity elsewhere in the space. Even when I don't understand the language being spoken, I want to be able to hear the person speaking as the dominant sound, not wonder whether I should be paying more attention to the laundry being washed, or a squabble over supplies. Quiet intimacy still needs to be audible to be effective.

I think this piece needs further development to reach its true potential; right now it feels more like a workshop for the people within it than a performance for the audience watching. I hope in future they can also expand their population a bit: right now the cast and refugee stories being explored are primarily European, with only one representative from Cuba, and an acknowledgement of both the Syrian crisis and the border between the US and Mexico. I find myself wondering where are the Tutsis, the North Koreans, the Pakistani? To be clear, I think these are good questions to ask. I want this group to keep exploring the unfortunate universality of the refugee with a wider representation.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W7: Pictures From Home, The Wanderers, The Tempest

What: Roundabout presents Sharr White's adaptation of Larry Sultan's photographic memoir, framed here as Sultan and his parents presenting his project, all the while arguing the project's merits, the definition of success, and the nuances of their relationship.
And? Not terrible, but less than the sum of its parts. I loved White's play The Other Place, so perhaps I brought the wrong expectations to this piece. The three actors are fantastic, but for all that the characters insist Sultan's father Irving is a contradictory cypher, I find the character as portrayed by Nathan Lane pretty understandable. Contradictory, yes. A mystery, no. The strongest impression I took away with me was the way Michael Yeargan's scenic design, intentionally or not, interfaces with one of the play's themes: the question of truth versus a posed version of truth, and how much authenticity lies within that distinction. So sitting in the audience, seeing the shape of the beams that back the canvas walls of the set, or the folds in the fabric for the outdoor backdrop, noting the seams in the sheets thrown over the furniture, or witnessing (from my side section seating) props being gently placed within or removed from the actors' reach, all reminds me of the artifice of theater, of the presentational style of this play in particular. It's all a posed version of reality, every piece of the stage frame is as specifically planned as Sultan's inclusion of a postcard in a shot of his parents at the kitchen table. The shape of Yeargan's scenic design is the shape of the Sultan's house. But it's a stage set, and we all know it is. Is it still true? Is it still honest? 

Zoë Wanamaker, foreground, and Nathan Lane, background, as Jean and
Irving Sultan. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

2/08/23: The Wanderers
What: It's a Roundabout week! I can't help it if they keep producing playwrights I like. Anna Ziegler's play follows two married Jewish couples in Brooklyn, a generation apart: Esther and Schmuli in the 1970s, in an arranged marriage; and Sophie and Abe in the present day, both the children of mothers who left their Hasidic community. Esther and Schmuli reckon with Esther's desire for more freedom and exposure to the outside world, and the effect that has on their family. Sophie and Abe are both writers struggling to start their next books, when Abe finds distraction and validation through an email correspondence with an actress he idolizes.
And? I keep trying to separate the play itself from the performance, because I think the play is better than what I saw onstage. I have difficulty believing either of these couples have known each other for years, or that there is love nestled beneath the resentments and barriers. The most effective parts of the performances are the audience-addressed monologues, as no relationship besides a sense of self is required. Lucy Freyer is particularly good as Esther; the rest are fine. I do still like Ziegler's writing, but I fear this may be the Roundabout Curse rearing its head. After all, her play The Last Match didn't leave a huge impression on me when I saw it at Roundabout in 2017, but when I saw the Writers Theatre's filmed production of the same play four years later, I thought it was truly excellent. Don't worry, though! I have praise! Marion Williams's poetic scenic design--overlapping walls made of open-faced books, their pages fluttered out--is beautifully and mercurially lit by Kenneth Posner to be sometimes the many books in Esther's or Abe and Sophie's library, or backlit to be the phone and computer screens of Abe's illicit conversations, or--most stunningly--the cobbled walls of Esther and Schmuli's closed community. Honestly, this design is so poetic without being overbearing, and I hope it wins some awards.

Katie Holmes, Eddie Kaye Thomas, and Sarah Cooper as Julia Cheever, Abe,
and Sophie. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched
  • Round House Theatre's magic-infused production of The Tempest, as adapted and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller.

Monday, February 6, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W6: Henry IV, Between Riverside and Crazy

What: TFANA is hosting experimental workshops of both Henry IV and Richard II, directed by Bedlam's Eric Tucker.
And? Usually my biggest issue with Eric Tucker's direction is he overdoes all his choices, with no one to keep him in check, now that Andrus Nichols is no longer his collaborator. Here, my issue is he barely commits to any of his choices. This production is advertised as an experimental workshop, a sort of open rehearsal. To be clear, I have no problem with the minimal design; that lets the text breathe, and I'm here for it. But the one moment we get of an actor stopping a scene to ask if they can run it again with new choices, feels more artificial than anything else happening that evening. Other choices, like characters announcing their exits and entrances, are inconsistently used. My other recurring issue with Eric Tucker (and what might finally be a deal breaker for me) is his devoted penchant for "teehee man in a dress." I thought here we were finally avoiding that issue until Thomas Jay Ryan appears in a tattered rehearsal skirt to play Lady Northumberland and the audience obligingly titters. It makes me so fucking tired. Tucker needs to do better.

I have one other issue I want to discuss, and then we'll get to the praise and wrap this up. Falstaff is written to be a fat man. His fatness, and everyone else's mockery of it, is about a third of the play's humor. I'm not here to yell that Shakespeare was fatphobic because that conversation is a waste of time. I won't even spend much time on the fact that most men cast as Falstaff are padded out to be fat, rather than the production casting a truly fat person. But I do want to say that this particular cast is primarily thin people, and Jay O. Sanders, though not thin, is also not fat. And to have all these skinny people continually mock him for his corpulence, when the man is demonstrably not so, is enough to give the audience watching severe body dysmorphia. Just. Again, I'm tired.

Okay, the praise. Jay O. Sanders. What a damn blessing this man is. He's so gifted at language, at modulating his voice and his body to catch every nuance. He makes a truly splendid--if decidedly not fat--Falstaff. My other big praise is seeing how much the cast are enjoying themselves, and each other. Throughout much of the show they are seated in among the audience when not onstage, and they laugh and cheer each other on. I don't know if the whole show is worth the nearly four hours we spend in the theater, but it's still worth it to see Jay O. Sanders's wonderful turn as Falstaff.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched