Monday, March 27, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W13: Describe the Night, Improvised Shakespeare, Villette

Chicago Week! Very excited that on my first visit to Chicago I was able to see plays at both Steppenwolf and Lookingglass Theatre!

What: Steppenwolf presents Raijv Joseph's play, a ninety-year span that revolves around the lost notebook of Isaac Babel. An examination of corruption and suppression and the importance of noticing: noticing difference, noticing beauty. Noticing life, and how one chooses to put that noticing into words.
And? I loved it. It's a continually surprising play, subverting expectations of where the story is going or what is next for each character in each time. It's a heartbreaking trading of scene partners, moment to moment, each character in search of meeting someone in the same moment they're in. That sounds more abstract than the play itself is, but it's what I kept thinking about. About how each conversation is an interrogation of sorts, how each interrogation feels too uncomfortably like a simple conversation with fatal consequences. It's a story of spies and psychics, of missed chances and unspoken needs.

Readers of this blog know what a champion I am of unconventional stages, of stepping away from the confines of the proscenium. They also know how frustrated I get when directors don't know how to activate those sorts of spaces. I am delighted (though not surprised) to report that director Austin Pendleton is well at ease on the arena stage at Steppenwolf. It's a small rectangle of squares, a gameboard perhaps, but who is king and who is pawn are not easily guessed. I keep thinking of one moment in particular, when Vova is questioning journalist Mariya. She had her back to me, seated in a chair, but in a moment of realization, she stopped speaking and turned away in grief and understanding. That turn, a 270 degree rotation, allowed every audience member to see that private moment. It wasn't a self-conscious spin, it wasn't wandering the stage (like some misuses of Circle in the Square have done). It was organic, it was honest, it was heartbreaking, and it was the move of someone who knows their stagecraft.

A fantastic ensemble (particularly Sally Murphy as the bewildered yet insightful Yevgenia), a great director, and a stunning play. What more could a Zelda ask from her first play in Chicago?

Yasen Peyankov and James Vincent Meredith as Nikolai and Isaac.
Photo by Michael Brosilow.

What: The Chicago-based troupe improvises a ninety-minute Shakespeare play.
And? I love this troupe. I've seen them a few times when they've come to NY, and they're always a delight. While "The Plight of the Tugboat" may have lost the thread of the actual tugboat's plight, it was still a delight of shipwrecks, fanfic cartographers, and magically hurled rocks.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W12: Bob Fosse's Dancin', Life of Pi, The Secret Garden

What: A reimagining of Bob Fosse's celebration of movement, featuring his original choreography.
And? A good show to see on a night when I didn't have the brainspan or spoons for emotional investment. It's purely a dance show, and the dancers are all extraordinarily talented. The "Sing! Sing! Sing!" sequence is probably the highlight of the evening.

3/16/23: Life of Pi
What: The Broadway transfer of the National Theatre adaptation of Yann Martel's novel about a teenage boy and a tiger who survive a shipwreck.
And? Now THIS is why we go to the theater! For living, breathing, happening-right-in-front-of-us, gasp-worthy moments! For moments when the space transforms, for revelations, for human connection (or tiger connection; or puppet connection). This is extraordinary theater and it's for sure one that should be seen if possible. It deserves so many design awards (although it's a shame we don't yet have a Tony category for projection and video design because Andrzej Goulding's work to create the roiling ocean is extraordinarily effective). Come to that, there should also be attention paid to the puppet design by Nick Barnes & Finn Caldwell, though a debt here is clearly owed to the National's earlier War Horse. Tim Hatley's deceptively simple but highly mobile set complements these two elements for a truly dynamic staging of this fantastical story. Hiran Abeysekera is perfection as the title character: desperate, wry, industrious, and a little bit broken. I think ultimately I don't agree with the show's thesis, but then it is based in religion and belief, and that's not really my thing. It's still a great piece of theater and a fantastic adaptation.

Hiran Abeysekera and puppeteers as Pi and Richard Parker (London run).
Photo by Johan Persson.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W11: Leopoldstadt, Sweeney Todd, Parade, Camelot, The Jungle, Philip Goes Forth

3/07/23: Leopoldstadt
a repeat visit, this time in the second row. worth it.

What: If you don't know what Sweeney Todd is, there's a chance we're not real friends. Anyway, this is a revival of a show I was obsessed with in fifth grade (and not much has changed since then), this time starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, and featuring the return of the original Broadway orchestrations.
And? I've been very lucky in my life to see many productions of this show, including videos of the original tour, the concerts, and the film. With each production I'm able to find something to appreciate, and it can be hard to pick a favorite. Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton might be my favorite for the two leads, but we shouldn't let that erase Stokes or Hearn, Dame Angela or Elaine or Emma or Carolee. The immersive pie shop production was such an amazing experience and I loved it so much, but after seeing this revival, oh, I don't think anything can compare to hearing a full ensemble in full harmony over a full orchestra. My god, this score is tremendous. The joke everyone's telling is that while the tourists are excited about Groban doing another musical, the nerds are excited about the original orchestrations returning. And, well, guilty. All we were missing was the no-longer-in-existence factory whistle. If nothing else, seeing this show was worth it to hear that score live, finally in its fullness again.

I do have some critiques (for I am Zelda, and I love this show), but I want to temper some of them with the acknowledgement that it's previews yet and there is time to hone. Annaleigh Ashford is a trip as Mrs. L, as we knew she would be: a brilliant comedian in both body and voice. But she's facing a challenge maintaining a line of tension with Groban's too-contained and -generalized take on Sweeney. The entire point of the song "Wait" is for her to calm him down enough so he will sit and let her take the open razor out of his hand. But Groban saves his break for "Epiphany," which means one feels little to no danger from him the rest of the time. Moments of change and reaction, turns in Sweeney's strategy, if they're there, are happening too subtly for those of us in the mezzanine to catch them (this is petty but it's bothering me: during "Epiphany" he reaches for his razor during the Johanna keening section. Logistically, I know he's grabbing it for his next break, but it makes no character sense for him to reach for it while grieving his lost daughter. Grab it on "but the work waits," my dude. It's a stronger character choice). Okay I'm going to leave him alone now. Listen, he's got presence and charisma and my god, that voice. I love love love to hear him sing this score. And I hope as the run continues he's able to sharpen his character arc into something a little clearer.

My comment about the lack of tension is, at the moment, a production problem as a whole. Right now we feel that tension only when the score is playing: it's all in the music. But we need to bring that same urgency to the unscored scenes as well. I'm also not sold on the choreo yet. Some of it--the machinery chugging--works, but other sections aren't adding to narrative and for me distracted from the emotional beat happening elsewhere onstage. Mimi Lien's scenic design, a bridge inside a sewer tunnel, reinforces both the Industrial Age motif of Hal Prince's original production (also reflected in Sondheim's lyrics) while firmly placing us in Sweeney's view of London and humanity: we're all shit in the gutters, and we deserve to stay here. I also love how the backlit backdrop is sometimes an overlarge looming moon and sometimes a light at the end of the tunnel our characters will never reach.

Other quick popcorn notes before we go: The accent work is beyond inconsistent, to the degree I half-wish they hadn't bothered trying. Jordan Fisher isn't there yet with his take on Anthony. His songs don't seem to sit comfortably in his range, and he's a bit marble-mouthed on his dialog. I've really enjoyed him in everything else I've seen him do, so I hope this gets better. Maria Bilbao is a fantastic Johanna, sweet and sly, and ugh her voice is absolutely dreamy. That's a performer who knows how to use her instrument. Also predictably wonderful is Ruthie Ann Miles as the Beggar Woman, hitting the character's sudden turns and operatic vocals with ease. Oh and Nicholas Christopher is a marvelously peacocking Pirelli. And the ensemble! Those voices! That cohesion! The harmonies! Stars, all of them.

Oops I wrote a lot. I'd like to reiterate that it's previews, and things can change. Thomas Kail is an intelligent director who knows what he's doing.

3/09/23: Parade
What: The Broadway transfer of the wonderful City Center Encores! revival of the Uhry-Brown musical about the trial and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank.
And? I'm going to guess that this, Sweeney, and Into the Woods will be the front-runners for Best Revival of a Musical come Tony season. My vote goes to Parade. The revival is timely, it gives a second chance to an excellent show that closed too early due to the Drabinsky shenanigans, while also showing a decidedly new take on the text. Michael Arden is a wonderful director, and all the intelligent and powerful choices he made for the Encores! production are here but sharpened, and with new elements added to truly underline the circus that was Dorsey's prosecution of Leo Frank. The choreo by Lauren Yalango-Grant and Christopher Cree Grant is precise and perfect without overwhelming the show. Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond continue to absolutely deserve the accolades they're receiving, and they are backed by a strong supporting cast of Alex Joseph Grayson, Sean Allan Krill, Howard McGillin, Paul Alexander Nolan, and Danielle Lee Greaves. Each of these performers is doing nomination-worthy work, and I love to see it. The production is coherent, each element all working toward telling the same story. Okay, I have one note: something is off with Jon Weston's sound design. I can't speak for the orchestra's experience but in the mezzanine we often struggle to hear a soloist over the ensemble and the orchestra in some of the louder songs, even with singers who I know have powerful voices. This is a well-written score, and we should be able to hear the words as well as the powerful music. Technically the show is still in previews but I'm pretty sure the critics are showing up now, so ... get on it, sound design!

3/10/23: Camelot
What: Lincoln Center revives (sorry, revises) Lerner and Loewe's musical about King Arthur and an idyllic if unsustainable ideal.
And? I was gearing up to say "oh right, this will also be a front-runner for Best Revival" but damn. This is an utter embarrassment. The tl;dr of what I'm about to talk about is: if you want to write a new adaptation of the story of King Arthur, write a new adaptation of the story of King Arthur. Don't rewrite an existing show and then pretend it's still Lerner and Loewe's show just because it uses the same score.

Anyone who knows me knows I have historically liked Aaron Sorkin's writing, but this is a man who cannot mold his voice to blend with someone else's. So not only do we have dialog that is completely discordant with the lyrics (not just tone and diction, but also core aspects of the characters in the score are not reflected in how they are written in the book. It's Little Orphan Annie all over again), we are also rife with contemporaryisms and Sorkinisms (yes, you've heard right, Guenevere hates Lancelot's "breathing guts," and yes, this is "the age of King Arthur and we reach for the stars." I did an actual facepalm in the theater after that self-plagiarism). Moreover, the dialog often treats the songs themselves with derision--even treating the idealism and heroism, the thing that made this show beloved by the Kennedys in the first place, with derision--which is a super weird energy to bring to a script you're rewriting.

So problem one is the book and score are now beyond incompatible. What else is embarrassing here? Well, we all know Sorkin's been having trouble writing women lately. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Guenevere's main tactic in any scene is to flirt with everyone around her (except for Arthur and Lancelot, which is a choice, I guess). For someone who in Sorkin's new script makes it clear to her ladies in waiting she would not have an affair because she's not that kind of woman (also treason), the flirting thing is just really strange. And beyond that, she's not much more fleshed out than she was in the original script, so behold our lack of improvement. Meanwhile, Sorkin can't seem to make up his mind whether Arthur is A, a sweet but simple fool who can't think straight unless he's pacing and has someone smarter than him to talk him through it; or B, a quietly intelligent man with keen insight into his fellow humans, and just a touch of ADHD. There's just no coherency to either of these characters, and they are the damn center of the show.

Jordan Donica's superbly performed Lancelot is the only character who still feels like Camelot. Everyone else feels a little embarrassed to be here, undermining the idealism and heroism for a cheap laugh at every turn. For that matter, while they seem to know how to activate Sorkin's undercutting humor, they've completely missed the jokes in the actual score. The entirety of "Simple Joys of Maidenhood" is a JOKE and no one onstage or behind the scenes seems aware of that fact. They think they're doing something new by playing "C'est Moi" straight but that's the only way the song works. Lancelot cannot laugh at himself. And while Sorkin has built an extended new montage sequence in Act Two around the repetitive "Fie on Goodness," director Bartlett Sher has failed to activate the already-a-montage song "Guenevere."

Oh and let's talk about lazy writing and bad research (where is the dramaturg?)! The production is full of timeline supertitles, like we're in a Marvel movie, and they tell us early on this show takes place just before the Enlightenment. Why, then, does Arthur make a joke about The Gilded Age, an age that hasn't happened yet? For that matter, why is he talking about being in the Middle Ages? It would take a lot of work to convince me people in that time walked around going "oh we're in the Middle Ages," like they're characters in a John Mulaney bit. Then we have Arthur's obsession with seeing bald eagles, a bird native to North America and not so much Europe. It's just, so much of this stuff is googleable. I googled it just now. If this were an essay I'd give it a D.

I'd like to add: I don't actually think Camelot as originally written is that good a show either. It's got some lovely songs but it's not Lerner's best work. But I went into this prepared for the weaknesses I already knew about, and maybe some Sorkin-y back and forth. I wasn't expecting the show to be so much worse. Yes, this was the second preview, but the writing problems in this show are in every beat, and I don't see how it can be fixed in time for opening. This terrible writing is what we're stuck with, and we'll see if people lap it up anyway because they have nostalgia for the score, or if they're noticing what I'm noticing too: Sorkin and Sher dropped the ball.

3/11/23: The Jungle
What: St. Ann's Warehouse brings back the much-acclaimed immersive production from A Good Chance/National Theatre/Young Vic: Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson's play about the refugee camp in Calais called The Jungle, where refugees from Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, and elsewhere try to cohabitate and survive, all hoping to someday claim asylum in the UK.
And? Extraordinary and infuriating. This immersive production, conceived and written by two men who ran a theater in the Calais Jungle, shows the everyday concerns the refugees faced while in The Jungle (coexisting in small spaces with peoples with whom they were historically in conflict with, or building houses instead of tents) and the larger dangers (smuggling themselves across the Channel to the UK, or fighting the French government's threats of eviction and demolition). Too, they all carry the traumas and little deaths experienced on their escape from their homelands to where they have landed now. There are small hopes here, there are places for joy and celebration, there is insistence on human dignity and pride, but there is so much despair. These are people who cannot go home, but who are not welcomed anywhere else. And yet they've managed to build a home, with its hub being the restaurant Salar has built in which the audience sits to eavesdrop on the unfolding story. I wish I had better words to describe the nature of this show. It's something you have to be in yourself, sit there and go on the journey (though I will say, buyer beware: many of the seats are backless benches and I went home with a twinge in my back afterward). Incredible cast, led by Ben Turner as restauranteur Salar and Ammar Haj Ahmad as the kind narrator Safi, both of whom are giving vulnerable and vivid performances.

Ben Turner and Jonathan Nyati as Salar and Mohammed.
Photo by Marc Brenner.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Monday, March 6, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W10: LOVE, Becomes a Woman, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

2/28/23: LOVE
What:  Park Avenue Armory hosts Alexander Zeldin's semi-immersive examination of the people who fall through the cracks. Not unhoused but homeless, these individuals live in cramped rooms in shelters where dignity and privacy are in short supply. 
And? The semi-immersive element--having a section of the audience sit in risers and scattered chairs in the space of the common area of the shelter--achieves several effects. One, it's a reminder that many of us are only one or two lost paychecks away from losing homes ourselves. Two, it contributes to the lack of privacy for the characters in the play, surrounded as they are by silent witnesses. Three, for those of us on the outside of this immersive element, the uncomfortably voyeuristic aspect is increased tenfold. There's a heartbreaking and deliberate lack of closure to this play. No one here knows when they'll be placed in real housing, when they can escape the indignity of having to beg for their turn in the restroom, of confronting someone who may have taken their dishes, of having to clean up someone else's mess with the very last of their paper towel roll. It's terrible. It's humiliating. But then why is the play called LOVE? Because in and among these unsolved despairs, there is space for a man gently washing his mum's hair. For a couple to reaffirm their love for each other and their unborn child. For a Sudanese immigrant and a Syrian refugee to connect over a shared language. It's not much, it's barely enough, but it can keep them going til tomorrow, and the day after.

Janet Etuk, Oliver Finnegan, Alex Austin, and Amelia Finnegan as Emma, 
Jason, Dean, and Paige. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

3/04/23: Becomes a Woman
What: Mint Theater presents an early play by Betty Smith, best known for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, about a 1920s shopgirl who learns a lesson in who is worthy of her trust and love.
And? I'm pretty mixed on this. On the one hand, it's kind of remarkable to see a play this old lay waste so defiantly to the idea that a woman needs a man's approval in order to have happiness or self-worth (and to the idea that the only way for a woman to have a character arc is through sexual trauma). On the other hand, it's infuriating that it's been a century and plenty of people still don't believe that. On the other other hand, the writing in act one was so presentational and packed to the gills with exposition, I was irritated the entire time. Things get much heavier in the second two acts, and it feels like a different play; this is especially jarring after how frothy the first act was. But oh well. Part of the point of the Mint is we see these rarely- (or never-) produced plays from an earlier era and see what there is to excavate from them. Emma Pfitzer Price is striking as the shopgirl in question, ably building Francie's arc from scared colt to defiant woman willing to do what she needs to stay alive and autonomous. Also a standout in a smaller role is a favorite on this blog, Jason O'Connell as the affable but awkward Max.

Peterson Townsend and Emma Pfitzer Price as Leonard Kress Jr. and Francie
Nolan, with Pearl Rhein as Florry. Photo by Todd Cerveris.