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Loney's Show Notes
By Glenn Loney, November, 2005
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Please click on " * " to skip to each subject in this index:
New Musicals & Old-- *
JERSEY BOYS [*****] *
IN MY LIFE [***] *
FIVE COURSE LOVE [**] *
SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE [**] *
BEOWULF: Remember My Song [***] *
SWEENEY TODD [*****] *
THE LITTLE PRINCE [***] *
Plays New & Old-- *
THIRD [***] *
BACH AT LEIPZIG [****] *
WALKING DOWN BROADWAY [****] *
MR. MARMALADE [***] *
TRAPPED [***] *
HILDA [**] *
MANIC FLIGHT REACTION [*] *
MASSACARE [*] *
A SOLDIER’S PLAY [****] *
ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR [**] *
Other Entertainments-- *
RFK [*****] *
LATINOLOGUES [**] *
PUSH: An Amplified Reading [*] *
Celebrating ABRAHAM GOLDFADEN [****] *
Two Evenings At The New Victory-- *
CATHAY: THREE TALES OF CHINA [*****] *
THE MOUSE QUEEN [**] *
Five Evenings At BAM-- *
BRIGHT ABYSS [***] *
RAISE THE RED LANTERN [***] *
THE WINTER’S TALE [***] *
4.48 PSYCHOSE [*] *
New Musicals & Old--
JERSEY BOYS [*****] (Buy Jersey Boys tickets)
Believe it or Not, but I had no idea who Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons were before I saw this dynamic show. Nor was I looking forward to it: Would it be as disappointing as Lennon? As bad as Good Vibrations and the Beach Boys? Not at all: It is a super-charged show, with an ingenious book by the witty Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. None of this "And then I wrote, and then I wrote…" It is very effectively staged by Des McAnuff, who premiered it at his La Jolla Playhouse. Klara Zieglerova’s chain-link fence setting looks like Dead Man Walking, but various neon-signs and set-props difference the scenes. As two of the Four Seasons are initially in and out of Rahway Prison for B&E--Breaking & Entering--the fence is an appropriate visual metaphor for the gangland aura that always hangs over the group. As soon as I heard such beat-throbbing songs as Earth Angel, Cry for Me, and Walk Like a Man, I realized that I did know Frankie Valli after all. Who in that era could have escaped these potently banal lyricas and that stratospheric falsetto? John Lloyd Young is remarkable as Valli. One of my colleagues told me: "You know, that falsetto is not his real voice!" Maybe that’s why they call it a falsetto? The rest of the cast is great, and this is the ticket you want for the Holidays!
IN MY LIFE [***]
At the close of this unusual show, a huge lemon appeared on a dropped panel behind the performers. As we wended our way up the aisle of the newly-named August Wilson Theatre, I pointed to it and said to our severest critic, John Simon: "Well, there’s your review!" "Too easy," he responded. My seat-mate, in fact, had said: "This is the worst musical ever!" But she had said that twice the previous week [see below]. Oddly enough, I liked its impressive Production Values and some of the songs: they are tuneful, with suitably banal lyrics: the stuff of old-fashioned Popular Songs. Fifty years ago, you would have bought the sheet-music and learned to play them on your family piano! The show’s hero--like its creator, Joseph Brooks--suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. We are always being told this is no laughing-matter, but Brooks does get some shocked laughter from J. T.’s sudden outbursts of uncontrollable and inappropriate language. Christopher J. Hanke is fine as J. T., but his life is being stage-managed from Heaven--which descends to Earth from time to time in impressive flown-scenery. David Turner is hilarious as the flamboyantly-dressed Winston, who is devising the show from Up Above. Brooks--who staged as well as creating book, lyrics, and music--has given him all the limp-wristed Gay Clichés. God is a guy called Al, which may be short for Allah? For the record, Brooks has sold over 80 million records and won every award there is to win, also scoring great movies and writing for great singers. He has also made a bundle writing ad-jingles: A Tribute to Dr. Pepper is included in this show! Allen Moyer, Catherine Zuber, and Christopher Akerlind also give great design! A lot of people would enjoy this show, but many of the critics scorned it…
[NOTE: What is now the August Wilson Theatre began life as the Theatre Guild’s Guild Theatre. Later, it became the ANTA Theatre--of the American National Theatre & Academy--presided over by the genial producer, Alfred de Liagre, jr. Your reporter manned an archive in the ANTA attic for AIDART--the Advanced Institute for Development of American Repertory Theatre--creating in effect a Theatre Library for the International Theatre Institute, under the late, beloved Rosamund Gilder. When the theatre was sold, the new owner named it The Virginia Theatre, after his wife, no less. Now it honors a distinctive African-American poetic voice in the theatre.]
FIVE COURSE LOVE [**]
My seat-mate said: "This is the worst musical ever!" Not true: at least I’ve seen worse. But I couldn’t wait for it to be over. The Minetta Lane Theatre is a very small venue, and a midterm departure would be noticed. Naturally, there was No Intermission. The trio of performers--Heather Ayers, John Bolton, & Jeff Gurner--are all obviously talented and attractive, but Greff Coffin’s DOA concept proved equally deadening for me as both critic and spectator. The Idea is that there are these five different restaurants: Bavarian, Chinese, Mexican--or was it Spanish?--well, you get the idea. In every one, at a tense moment in an approach to a Romantic Event, a horrendous crash is heard in the kitchen. Among the songs are Doomed and You Never Quite Get What You Paid For. Very true! This puzzling show is from the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, home of Eastman Kodak and the Eastman School of Music. Possibly they offer Post-Graduate courses in creating musicals?
SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE [**]
John Michael LaChiusa is an ardently admired composer of serious musicals. His critic-fans are almost as adulatory of his works as they are of Adam Guetel’s. LaChiusa cannot claim Richard Rodgers as a grandfather, but he does keep trying to devise new works for the musical stage. The House of Bernarda Alba is promised for Lincoln Center in 2006. His scores for The Wild Party and Marie Christine both won Tony Nominations. Frankly, neither of the latter worked for me, either as story or song. His new Public Theatre offering is oddly fractured: See What I Wanna See opens with a Kabuki Encounter of two disaffected and murderous lovers, featuring the Green Witch of Wicked, Ida Menzel, and Marc Kudish. Then there’s a sort of Rashomon up in Central Park, titled R Shomon. For most viewers, the most effective section was the last: Gloryday. A disaffected Priest announces a fake Miracle To Be, seeking to disillusion hundreds or thousands of the Faithful when it does not come to pass. Oh oh! It does indeed come to pass. Henry Stram is very convincing as the angry cleric.
BEOWULF: Remember My Song [***]
As I told Charlotte Moore--Artistic Director of the Irish Rep and director of this musical version of the Sixth-century Saga, Beowulf--before the performance, we Irish have to stick together. Fortunately, the musical is set in Denmark of the Vikings, not on Irish Soil. But the ensuing almost mythic events made it once again clear that the Gaels, Celts, & Anglo-Saxons have a long history of internecine strife. It was not easy on the intimate stage of the Irish Rep to evoke the primitive tribal world of the boastfully Heroic Beowulf and such characters as Hrothgar, Grendel, and Grendel’s Mother. Richard Barth, as Beowulf , was required--both by the original saga and this libretto--to praise himself ceaselessly. This became tiresome, but composer-librettist Lenny Pickett, with Lindsey Turner, did their best to offer high points in the tale of the Doomed Hero, who at last was set out to sea in a burning funeral-boat. All the male cast had fine voices and stage-presence. The apparition of Grendel was problematic.
SWEENEY TODD [*****]
At first it may seem only a cute or wage-saving stunt that the entire cast of John Doyle’s stripped-down Sweeney Todd plays a variety of musical instruments onstage. With no pit-band! Actually, this is a stroke of genius, integrating the action and the songs in a very special way. Patti LuPone proves an accomplished instrumentalist and a very sexy Mrs. Lovett--black mesh stockings!--in contrast to the dumpy, motherly Lovett of Angela Lansbury. Similarly, Michael Cerveris--John Wilkes Booth, in Stephen Sondheim’s recent Broadway Assassins--plays both the guitar and the Demon Barber. Doyle designed as well as directed: on a bare-boards platform, his cast is interestingly upstaged by the tallest Victorian Hutch--or What-Not--in the world. Symbolic objects on its shelves are highlighted at appropriate moments. The entire cast is splendid, especially Lauren Molina as Johanna and Benjamin Magnuson as the young sailor-savior Anthony. The New York City Opera’s epic Industrial Revolution production of Sweeney Todd--based on Hal Prince’s original Broadway staging--is enhanced, rather than diminished, by this powerful new vest-pocket production. But Doyle’s Sweeney is not a footnote to the City Opera vision: it is a different almost Talmudic Commentary on the Original Text.
THE LITTLE PRINCE [***]
Rachel Portman is certainly not an unknown or inexperienced composer: nonetheless, adapting famed aviator/author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved children’s fable, The Little Prince, for the opera-stage took some courage. Not to mention Vision. As I no longer am accorded the Press-Privilege at the New York City Opera, I have no obligation to report on its premiere production of the Prince. But it does demand a word or two: Portman has devised some charmingly melodious settings for the necessarily simplistic lyrics of Nicholas Wright. The problem they both faced was the original book--and its drawings. There is no real plot, only a series of mini-adventures as the Little Prince--on earth, away from his Home-Star--visits various plants, animals, and odd people. Encouraged by the stage-director Francesca Zambello--who functioned as a kind of Dramaturg early in the project--they opted to introduce some tension by giving the doomed pilot, his plane crashed in the heart of the Sahara, only water enough for eight days. Just enough to recount the Little Prince’s picaresque discoveries before he returns to his Star and the Pilot-Narrator is left standing in the vast sandy waste, ready to pass over, although that is not stated nor shown. Thanks to the childlike quality of the songs--and to the simplicity of the late Maria Bjørnson’s sets & costumes, echoing Saint-Exupéry’s own drawings--the NYCO production provided a special Holiday Treat, with a darker downside. This is no Nutcracker. In fact, during rehearsals for the Houston Grand Opera world premiere in 2003, one of the chorus-children asked Zambello: "This is really about dying, isn’t it?"
Plays New & Old--
Would-be Authors are often advised to: "Write about what you know." In her new drama, Third, award-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein seems to be trying to follow that advice. But it has brought her back into Seven Sisters and Uncommon Women Territory. Dianne Wiest plays Laurie Jameson, a take-no-prisoners Feminist Professor of Literature at a "small New England college." But things are not going well with her, her classes, her marriage. A real Mid-Life Crisis. Into which comes the handsome charming Woodson Bull III, a male student in what was long a girls’ school. In her left-over 1968 Leftist Vision, Bull--is that a pun?--represents all that Laurie resents about Men, Privilege, and the Rich. She baits and taunts him, but, in an odd--or not so odd--way, she’s also attracted to him. Woody is attractively played by Jason Ritter, grandson of Tex Ritter. When he submits a thesis-paper with a masterly analysis of Moby Dick, she accuses him of plagiarism. Although he’s obviously intelligent, his previous work has not indicated this level of critical appraisal or linguistic mastery. Woody is both chagrined and furious: he happens to have made himself an expert on this topic. He did not crib it from the Internet. OK. And I am glad that, in my long years as a professor, I never had the challenge of students stealing their papers from websites. There weren’t any around then, although one sneak did turn in an A-paper to which I gave an F. Reason: it was my own paper from a previous semester that some frat-house had stolen. My problem with Third is that Laurie is not interesting enough--either as a Monster-Teacher or a seriously disappointed woman--to merit all this fuss. Charles Durning plays an Alzheimer’s Afflicted grandpa, who adds to Laurie’s worries--although Alzheimer’s, like Tourette’s Syndrome, is always good for an unearned and illicit laugh…
BACH AT LEIPZIG [****]
Even before this delightful parody of 18th Century Organ-Auditions in Saxony gets underway, the audience--or most of them, at least--already knows who won: Johann Sebastian Bach. Part of the ingenious fun of Itamar Moses’ outrageous "musical" comedy is that the audience never sees Bach in action at the organ, or even in person. It is enough that his lesser rivals talk about him while scheming and intriguing either to win the post of Kantor to the famed St. Thomas Church--the Thomaskirche --in Leipzig. Or to ensure that others do not. Messenger-pigeons--unseen but heard--play a major role in misleading the leading candidates, as well as instigating a war between Zwickau and Merseberg [which, by the way, also has a famous organ !]. Boyd Gaines--as Johan Friedrich Fasch, organist of Zerbst--is excellent as the central contestant, up against the wily Georg Balthasar Schott of Michael Emerson and the Always Second, Johann Christoph Graupner, of Andrew Weems. Reg Rogers plays the wastrel musician & thief & con-man, Georg Lenck, like Johnny Depp, in Pirates of the Caribbean. Richard Easton is magisterial as a foolish foppish noble. And Jonathan Donahue plays "The Greatest Organist in Germany," Hamburg’s Georg Phillip Telemann--who has come only to triple his salary back home. Moses has great fun with the idea that all Germany’s composers are named either Johann or Georg, with wives called Anna or Maria. This is a very simple, but very stylized, production: set in the ante-chamber to the Sanctuary of St. Thomas--which is never seen. Pam MacKinnon staged to the edge of knockabout-farce, with stunning set by David Zinn and fine period costumes by Mathew J. LeFebvre. Telemann’s splendid red outfit is a setting in itself!
WALKING DOWN BROADWAY [****]
Dawn Powell’s charming period-piece, Walking Down Broadway, is as nicely realized at the Mint Theatre as was the recent revival of Elmer Rice’s Counsellor-at-Law in another venue. But Powell did not write it as a period-piece: she was interpreting something of what she knew about striving young people from Out of Town, trying to Make It in Manhattan and find attractive and decent partners as well. Only now, in the wake of the Dawn Powell Rediscovery has this modest social drama received a production. Two small-town girls share a tiny room--with a bathroom between their space and that of a brassy Broadway blonde. Decent girls, with no mad-money, they are desperate to meet some nice boys. No one goes to Single Bars in this era. Instead, the boys and girls walk up and down Broadway, hoping to strike up conversations. They are in luck: they meet a pair of fine lads. But our heroine gets pregnant, and well-meaning but very bad advice from the next-door-neighbor nearly leads to tragedy. Steven Williford staged the able cast, which included Christine Albright, Denis Bukis, Amanda Jones, Ben Roberts, and Carol Halstead.
MR. MARMALADE [***]
As the precocious Lucy, Meryl Streep’s talented daughter, Mamie Gummer, is both fantastic and frightening. A lonely child, she has an Imaginary Friend, Mr. Marmalade [a suave, deceptive Michael C. Hall], who has a charming valet, Bradley [David Costabile]. In the real world, she meets her baby-sitter’s boy-friend’s step-brother, Larry [Liev Schreiber’s able brother, Pablo Schreiber], who has just slashed his wrists. Also a lonely child, his Imaginary Friends are both potted: a Cactus & a Sunflower. As this is a Children’s Play for Grownups, the language and situations involve Strong Language & Obscene Objects. Strong Stuff for Senior Subscribers of the Roundabout. And for your astonished scribe: So that’s what they meant by Playing Doctor! Michael Greif staged, with great Production Values provided by designers Allen Moyer, Constance Hoffman, and Kevin Adams.
Bowing under the weight of so much French Theatre Culture in one month, I would probably have missed Trapped, a simply-staged but provocative two-character drama at the Ohio Theatre. This was not, finally, possible, as a beloved former student and current colleague, Ellen Lampert-Greaux, urged me to attend. Ellen and our mutual colleague, Philippa Wehle--also a New York Theatre-Wire correspondent--had translated José Pliya’s original French text for use as super-titles, projected on a screen behind two excellent French actresses, Sylvie Chenus and Hyam Zaytoun. At the opening, Zaytoun--as the head-scarved servant Vido--says farewell to her apparently sleeping mistress, whom she has been trying to leave for some time. Moving back in time, we see Madame loading Vido down with household-work and servile responsibilities, and also reproaching her for poor performance and neglecting her work. She also reminds her how she has saved Vido from unnamed persecutions outside her home, which involved the disappearance--and perhaps death--of Vido’s parents. She could be talking about the plight of the Jews under Vichy France, or North African problems today. Madame will not hear of Vido leaving: she is herself psychotically desperate. She takes rat-poison, so she is not asleep when Vido departs. What unjust vengenance may await Vido is beyond the play. The performances were brilliant and very affecting. How curious that Hilda--another French drama about a manipulative Madame and her servant--was on view at the same time, with a somewhat similar situation!
John Simon and other leading critics have showered enthusiastic praise on Carey Perloff’s production of Marie Ndiaye’s all-too-schematic French drama of Mistress & Servant, Hilda. Hilda--like Bach at Leipzig--never appears on stage. But Ellen Karas, as the patronizing, pretentious mistress, Mrs. Lemarchand, certainly does. Her role is virtually--but not quite--a monologue, as she does most of the talking. Unlike Isabelle Huppert’s utterly depressed mental-patient in Psychose 4.48--yet another French play--the man on the scene, Frank, actually gets to talk now and then. In monosyllables, for the most part. Madame has come to engage his wife, Hilda, as a servant. She won’t take No for an answer. As she gradually but metaphorically devours the helpless Hilda, she makes sexual advances to Frank which he rejects. When his finger is cut off in a work-accident--with no medical-plan and no work--he still refuses her. OK. But the relentless way Perloff--head of San Francisco’s ACT--has staged the tight little scenes and the fiercely lacquered way she has Karas confront both Frank and Hilda’s sister, Corinne, come closer to Parisian Grand Guignol than to serious drama, French or otherwise.
What was really needed--and sadly overlooked--in planning this quasi-Festival of French Theatre was a revival of Jean Gênet’s Les Bonnes, to complement the two Mistress & Maids dramas above. For once, let the abused employees get even?
MANIC FLIGHT REACTION [*]
This "new comedy" by Sarah Schulman annoyed and bored me more than it amused me. Too formulaic, too contrived. Too much like a TV Pilot. Its heroine [Jessica Collins] is a flakey survivor of the Woodstock Generation, much given to Fast Foods & Comfort Snax. She stands in awkward contrast to Wendy Wasserstein’s dedicated but confounded Feminist professor in Third. She has tenure at Champagne-Urbana--which is certainly not at all like any of the Seven Sister colleges--but she seems the unlikeliest of teachers: flighty and disorganized. [Or is she only an Adjunct Professor? She seemed to have a Health-Plan.] Unlike Diane Wiest’s uneasy relationship with her student, Woody, in Third, Schulman’s lady-prof has been sleeping on and off with an agreeable but feckless male student. Gender is important, as his teacher once had a torrid affair with a Power Woman who may become the next First Lady. The prof’s daughter turns up unexpectedly at Christmas with a very focused young man--son of a major major CEO--who’s looking forward to a High Tech Career. They have brought a mini-video-camera and manage to record an encounter between the two former lesbian-lovers. Well, you just know what Fox would pay for footage like that… Problem is that too many younger playwrights derive their ideas, plots, and characters from TV, not from Real Life. Reality TV does not count. How about a "new comedy" about Mayor Bloomberg at Ground Zero? Or Arnold Schwarznegger doing a remake of The Wizard of Oz, playing the Tin Woodman to Nancy Reagan’s Dorothy?
Although played at the Public Theatre, José Rivera’s Massacre (Sing To Your Children) was an independent production by the LAByrinth Theatre Company and supposedly a kind of work-in-progress. After horrendous noises, bangings, and thumps behind the wall of a shabby room, blood-spattered actors staggered through the shabby doorway. Apparently they have just violently slain some kind of horror [which--or who--may not yet be dead, but no one is willing to take a peek]. They represented offshoots of the Woodstock Generation, with the usual clichéd assortments of genders, racial minorities, and sexual preferences. Just as the first part was drawing to a talkative close, there were disturbing sounds outside the room on the stairs. Having had enough of stage-blood and pointless argument, I rushed to relieve myself more urgently of a different body-fluid. Then I recalled that I had a bloody Patricia Cornwell forensic-detective novel only half-read at home. So that was my Second Half, and I never found out what was behind that bloody door:
A SOLDIER’S PLAY [****]
Staged by Jo Bonney, this revival of Charles Fuller’s admired A Soldier’s Play proved as riveting as its New York premiere some time ago. But it was less shocking, as racial attitudes have undergone some notable changes, not entirely due to Political Correctness. A drunken black sergeant has been shot dead and apparently lynched. But the Military seems in no hurry to solve the murder. A young black lawyer-officer is sent to Louisiana’s Fort Neal to investigate. He is stonewalled by white officers, who seem to fear that the crime was Ku Klux Klan-initiated and do not want to tangle with red-neck white-crackers in the local community. But the officer will not be shoved aside. Ultimately, he discovers two black soldiers were involved, one of whom the sergeant taunted endlessly. And who has gone AWOL. Amopng the excellent cast: Teagle F. Bougere, Taye Diggs, Mike Coulter, Joe Forbrich, James McDaniel, Steven Pasquale, and Joaquín Pérez-Campbell.
ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR [**]
There are other, better Alan Ayckbourn plays than Absurd Person Singular that the Manhattan Theatre Club could have chosen for a signature revival in their brightly restored Biltmore Theatre. How about the really dark, dark comedy, A Small Family Business? Almost all Ayckbourn’s plays are developed at his Stephen Joseph Theatre in Yorkshire’s Scarborough, with a trusted company who understand very well the kind of English characters and situations he brings to life. Early on, Ayckbourn’s comedies subtly mocked the pretensions and obsessions of Brit villagers and suburbanites, but over time the characters have become so obtuse and obsessed that the laughter can often be close to tears: Ayckbourn as a Chekovian! Were he a Shavian, he’d surely have to shelve Absurd Person as an Unpleasant Play. The cumulative Lack of Self-Knowledge in the three section of Person are less laughable than painful and sad. Among the hard-working cast: Sam Robards, Mireille Enos, Allan Ruck, Clea Lewis, Deborah Rush, and Paxton Whitehead--for once very restrained in a very difficult role. The big visual bonus, however, was three contrasting sets by the redoubtable John Lee Beatty. John Tillinger staged.
Jack Holmes is an amazing Robert F. Kenney Look-Alike. What’s more, he even sounds like him, generates some of that Old Kennedy Energy, and powerfully suggests some of the conflicting passions and emotions which drove JFK’s Younger Brother. He also wrote his own script, ingeniously interweaving the public & private lives of Bobby Kennedy, Attorney-General and, later, Senator from New York. The tragic assassination is only hinted at, as Bobby leaves LA’s Ambassador Hotel through the kitchen. Larry Moss staged for the Culture Project, continuing its outstanding program of challenging presentations at 45 Bleecker Street.
Cheech Marin--of Cheech & Chong fame--staged Rick Najera’s kaleidoscope of Hispanic Monologues at the Helen Hayes. Najrera, Rene Lavan, Eugenio Derbez, and Shirley A. Rumierk were all engaging performers, but the Latinos they briefly embodied seemed very much like Urban Legend stereotypes or cinematic clichés. Najera lacks the ingenious introspection of John Leguizamo into Latino Livess & Dreams. At the close, the audience was asked, if Latino, to tell their friends to see it. Or, if not: "Tell your employees!"
PUSH: An Amplified Reading [*]
This Autumn in New York, dedicated & hard-working theatre-lovers are being subjected to a Lot of French Theatre. There have even been special programs related to various offerings at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the CUNY Grad Center. Some talents & projects have been more rewarding than others. Isabelle Huppert, in Psychose 4.48--at BAM--was a brain-deadener. At PS 122, the damage was more to the ears and eyes. PUSH: An Amplified Reading was an unnecessary curiosity, concocted by Alexia Monduit & Thomas Rannou. The stage--half the tiny room, the other half being tiers of seating--was crammed with loudspeakers, lying on the floor, on racks, hanging from the ceiling: all controlled by a silent lad--Fabrice Moinet--on an electronic board at the side. There was a roast-chicken in the foreground. This was smashed at one point, for no apparent reason. In the background, various bits of the original novel by Sapphire were softly read in English. This was stridently over-ridden by Monduit screeching bits of the text in French into various microphones. Even for Francophones, she was difficult to understand, but Understanding was clearly not the Purpose or Aim. To stay on the Leading Edge of the Avant-Garde--especially in France, apparently--it is necessary to Eternally Imagine Anew. Happenings are now virtually forgotten, but every new genereation has to Invent the Wheel--in Performance Art, at least--all over again. Unfortunately, wheels are Round, and these kids have made one with three sides…
Celebrating ABRAHAM GOLDFADEN [****]
Fortunately, CUNY’s Martin E. Segal Theatre Center has not been over-run by French Regisseurs & Intellectuals. Many voices are invited to speak in its three auditoria. Recently, the Yiddish Theatre and its essential creator, Abraham Goldfaden, were celebrated in the Harold Proshansky Auditorium. The centerpiece was Radu Gabrea’s fascinating documentary-film, Goldfaden’s Legacy: The Origins of Yiddish Theatre. This was its American premiere. The story began in Rumanian Jassy, where Goldfaden’s experiences in the Purimspel--the only form of theatre permitted Orthodox Jews--led to a new form of theatre and in Yiddish, not Rumanian. Gabrea’s footage showed vintage photographs and documents, modern Yiddish productions in Tel Aviv and Jassy, plus interviews with both scholars and practitioners of performances in Yiddish. Zalman Mlotek, of the Folksbiene, was especially charming, both on film and live on stage. Yiddish songs were wonderfully brought to life by Elizabeth Schwartz and Eleanor Reissa--with lively Klezmer-like accompaniment by Peter Stan. For your reporter, however, the star of the evening was Moshe Yassur, who has been reviving Yiddish Theatre in his native Rumania--where he has also been staging sold-out performances in Rumanian and in Bucharest of such modern works as Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw. I should mention that Moshe is not only my dear friend, but that he also studied with me when he won his MFA in Directing at Brooklyn College. Moshe escaped the Nazis to flee to Palestine--soon to become divided into Israel and Palestine: but that is another story…
Two Evenings At The New Victory--
CATHAY: THREE TALES OF CHINA [*****]
Ping Chong’s latest exploration of the outer limits of Puppet Possibilities was brilliant, beautiful, and bitter-sweetly sad. The ultimate sadness, however, is that its last appearance was at the New Victory, after playing in China--where it was devised and produced with the Shaanxi Folk Art Theatre-- in Seattle and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The three tales of Cathay involved some 60 puppets, several styles of puppetry, and mingling of videos, vintage film-footage, and magnificent miniature three-dimensional settings. The frame for these varied shows was a large modern Chinese Tourist Hotel lounge, guarded by two immense ceramic talking Tomb Lions. The back wall was a horizontally-paneled screen. Sections of this became video-screens or opened to become mini-settings. The first tale unfolded as the Emperor in Xian became infatuated with a beautiful young girl. As Empress, however, she angers the People, who demand her death. She commits suicide to save her Beloved’s throne, but vows to be reunited with him in another life. In Little Worm, the second tale, Japanese bombers fly over China in newsreel clips. As Japanese soldiers slaughter entire villages, one saves Little Worm from death. In the third tale, Modern Xian--also seen in film-clips--overwhelms and spills into the hotel-lobby. Ugly American tourists, Japanese businessmen, and High-Tech young Chinese abound. The aged Little Worm has invited back the old soldier who saved him. His grandson meets the lovely hotel-receptionist--whose colleagues are intriguing to get rid of her--by the elevator. And somehow they know they loved each other once long ago… Ingenious, Moving, Astounding!
THE MOUSE QUEEN [**]
Possibly the Little Angel Theatre--an honored UK puppet-troupe--was hoping for another Shock-headed Peter when it created The Mouse Queen. Peter was a big success at the New Victory, after which it moved to London’s West End, at the Piccadilly Theatre, and on to a World Tour, returning in due time to 42nd Street at the Little Shubert! Despite the charms and talents of the human-handlers and their puppet-stars, however, this queen is rather too mousey, not up to the standards of a puppet Leonard the Lion King. In performance, it all seemed desperately cutesy. And some of the songs--though pleasant--don’t seem to have been created to advance the meandering plot of this show. Surely the composer had them laid away in his desk-drawer? At least Nice Mice and Cheese are germane.
Five Evenings At BAM--
BRIGHT ABYSS [***]
The initial image of this quasi-Cirque Éloise is brilliant, almost unforgettable. From stage-right a cold white light glows through a sheer stark white expanse of fabric, furiously rippled and furrowed by a powerful gust of wind. Into this blinding Whiteness classic warriors charge, with shields and spears. They are constantly driven back by the force of the gale. Bright Abyss is the creation of the incredibly supple, flexible performer James Thiérrée, who comes by his talent naturally: His grandfather was Charlie Chaplin. There is also an interesting exploration of the visual possibilities for inventive movements of what looks at first like a table, but in fact seems to be a cable-drum, when revolved on its edge. Other novelties you may have already seen in such shows as Cirque du Soleil or Le Cirque Imaginaire. Indeed, when I saw the latter some years ago in Europe, I was impressed with the acrobatic & mime talents of Victoria Chaplin, Thiérrée’s mother. She is credited for the costumes in Bright Abyss. Also among the talented troupe is Niklas Ek, descended from Birgit Cullberg, founder of Sweden’s innovative Cullberg Ballet. [Incidental Intelligence: Hal Prince’s son Charlie is named after his great-grandfather, Charlie Chaplin.]
RAISE THE RED LANTERN [***]
In the Era of Chairman Mao & His Celebrated Thought, his feared wife, Chiang-Ching, ordained that the centuries-old Peking/Beijing Opera had to abandon the traditional tales of Emperors, Monkey-Kings, Warlords, Penurious Students, and Virtuous Maidens. They were replaced by sung & danced dramas dealing with the Heroic Struggles of the Chinese People to overcome their chaotic Past and establish a Communist Paradise: Red Detachment of Women, The East Is Red, The Taking of Tiger Mountain by Strategy. The Beijing troupe became the National Ballet of China, Now, the much admired Chinese cinema-director, Zhang Yimou, has adapted his award-winning film, Raise the Red Lantern, as a lavishly set & costumed and brilliantly danced ballet. Nonetheless, it still contains a Maoist Critique of corrupt wealthy Chinese before the advent of The Long March. The virtuosity of his dancers is matched by the ingenuity of his designers: including giant Mah-jong playing-pieces and cascades of red lanterns. The abused heroine claws most of them to shreds at one point! Score by Chen Qigang, choreography by Wang Xinpeng & Wang Yuanyuan. [Chinese Family Names precede the given-names.]
THE WINTER’S TALE [***]
Last season, Edward Hall’s Shakespearean Wars of the Roses--which he titled Rose Rage--was impressive at the Duke on New 42. As with his recent BAM Winter’s Tale, all roles were played by men. Rage was initially staged on the pier for the Chicago Shakespeare Festival. Tale emerged at the UK Watermill Theatre, peopled by his Propeller troupe. Hall had a previous BAM triumph: Midsummer Night’s Dream. [A colleague was certain he’d also staged As You Like It, seen recently at BAM. But no, that was directed by his father, Sir Peter Hall, starring his sister, Rebecca Hall. One longs for the day when Sir Peter is further ennobled, to become Lord Hall of the Multi-Halls!] In Shakespeare’s day, women’s roles were played by comely young boys--except for comic Nurses and Old Women, played by older male actors. Hall’s men-playing-women doesn’t always work to the advantage of the play: sometimes it seems more of a stunt. Adam Levy, as the sagacious scold, Paulina, was the most effective. Simon Scardifield’s Queen Hermione and Tam Williams’ Perdita were less successful, although Perdita played a mean slide-trombone at one point. Winter’s Tale is a late, dark comedy, and it is not easy to play the sudden murderous rage of King Leontes against his childhood friend and brother-king and especially against his chaste queen. Propeller revolved around the stage, doing its collective best. The peasant feast-day in Bohemia was the most raucous scene, and Hall’s super-flexible & sexy Autolycus, Jason Baughn, could surely find steady employment as a Go-Go Boy. Fortunately, as with another of the Bard’s comedies, All’s Well That Ends Well!
4.48 PSYCHOSE [*]
Surely the promise of French film-star Isabelle Huppert live on stage at BAM brought out the crowds for Sarah Kane’s mind-numbing two-hour monologue, 4.48 Psychose? Before she wrote this final linguistic/psychotic curiosity, she was already suffering from deep Depression--which culminated in suicide. Nonetheless, Kane has become something of an Ikon, not only among Parisian Intellectuals, but also as far East as Berlin, where all five of her difficult Minimal Meister-dramen are in the repertory of the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz! In the Claude Régy staging shown in Brooklyn, however, Mme. Huppert stood stock-still front & center, reciting or intoning Kane’s rhythms and sounds. Behind a curtain lurked a shadowy figure, possibly a dangerous mental doctor, possibly a lover, possibly an Imaginary Man. Regy has said of the play: "It’s not a play, no characters, no storyline, no action." He has also noted that 4.48 can be taken--in Sarah Kane’s own words-- as "a chaotic depression… an apparently broken and schizophrenic structure which presents material without commentary and expects the audience to create its own response." Some spectators responded by noisily leaving BAM’s Peter Brook-style Harvey Theatre. Obviously they did not agree with Sarah Kane’s Mini-Manifesto: "Just one word on a page and there is theatre."
The most wonderful thing about the BAM performance of Shelter was the quasi-canon singing of Oslo’s Trio Mediaeval. Sopranos Anna Maria Frigman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, & Torunn Østrem Ossum make a most remarkable sound, even intoning repetitions of banal lines like "I want to live where you live," or "Before I enter my house/I touch the door frame/before I enter my house/I bow…" One section of this tri-partite composer-showcase was titled American Home, with red building-material specifications scatting across the cinema-screen behind the musikFabrik band: "concrete--20 yards/reinforced steel--1000 feet/plywood--500 sheets," etc. Deborah Altman crafted the quasi-cryptic libretto lines. The importance of Physical Shelter--and Shelter Endangered--was visually evoked by fuzzy footage of hurricane-waves crashing over a boardwalk and spotted vintage film-sequences of floods in gingerbread gothic streets and possibly also in far off Europa. Brad Lubman conducted the musicians, who were under four post & lintel frames, that later supported a cloth-cover. Michael Gordon, David Lang, & Julia Wolfe all contributed Minimalist Scores for the texts, but the total effect made one long for the tunefulness of a John Adams or Steve Reich. Most of the audience admired both the works & the performances, however.
Copyright Glenn Loney, 2005. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: email@example.com.
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