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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, February 10, 2001
 Is the American Musical in a New Golden Age?
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
 Bates & Atkins in "Unexpected Man"
 Simon's "Dinner Party" a Last Supper?
 Foote's "Last of the Thorntons"
 Albee's Baby Play Bares All
 Jerzy, the Liar
 "Howie the Rookie"
 Tolan's "Wax" Job
 Wellman's All-Girl Don Juan Drama
 "Krisit" No "Sunset Blvd"
 Frisco's Emperor Norton I on NYC Stage
 Marlow & "Dido" on Wooster
 Casting Out "The White Devil" at BAM
 Pan-Asian "White Snake" on West End Avenue
 "Conjure Man Dies" on Grand Street
 Stoppard's "Night & Day" in the Bowery
 Langston Hughes' & Ricky Ian Gordon's African-American Art-Songs at Encompass
 Fake "Fiddler" from French Canada at LaMaMa
 Upton Sinclair Sings in New City "Utopia"
 York's Musicals in Mufti
 Regina Resnik Presents Classic Kurt Weill
 Quentin Crip's "Resident Alien"
 Apartheid Under "The Syringa Tree"
 Berkoff's Bardic Villains
 New Richard Foreman Epic: "Now That Communism Is Dead, My Life Feels Empty"
 Theodora Skipitares' "Optic Fever" Not Hard on the Eyes
 Mummenschanz Tours Mimes & Masks
 Cirque du Soliel Now [Almost] Worldwide
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How to contact Glenn Loney: Please email invitations and personal correspondences to Mr. Loney via Editor, New York Theatre Wire.
"The American Musical Has Entered a New Golden Age"This was the hotly debated topic at the New Dramatists for the first of a series of "Great Theatre Debates." Years ago, when I interviewed a much younger Edward Albee and mentioned a similar discussion at this venue, he disparagingly referred to them as "The New Old Dramatists."
Now he has become one of these New-Old playwrights himself, but he has thus far refrained from writing a musical. Still, his acerbic humor would have been welcome at this confrontation of yea and nay-sayers.
Arguing for the affirmative were composer John Michael LaChuisa and critic Peter Filichia. As last season had two new LaChuisa musicals on Broadway—both of them critical and financial disappointments—he was defending his turf. But even his opponents were eager to praise his scores, if not the productions of "Marie Christine" and "The Wild Party."
Considering the deft satirical parodies Gerard Alessandrini makes out of current and classical musicals for "Forbidden Broadway," he was an obvious choice to argue against the virtually indefensible debate proposition. Steven Suskin joined him in remembering the Golden Days of Yesteryear on the New York Musical Stage, to the detriment of what pass for hit musicals today.
The point was made that there may have been more than one Golden Age. And that—in the heyday of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter—successful musicals did not have to contend with cultural competition from 24-hour television, MTV, and other popular diversions and distractions. Even Rogers & Hammerstein didn't have to triumph over the wide range of entertainment alternatives now on offer.
Robin Pogrebin, of the NY Times, and David Finkle, of the Voice, moderated. They also permitted themselves—and the audience—questions directed to the debaters. Thanks to the so-called Presidential Debates, everyone seems to have forgotten—if they ever really knew—how a formal debate is supposed to be conducted.
This topic is still good for several more rounds, but other important theatre-issues are crying out for discussion & debate as well. This event was sponsored by the Drama Desk, the Clyde Fitch Group, and Performing Arts Resources.
It was free—and there were complimentary refreshments afterwards. But the venue has few seats, and the event had a long waiting-list. So reserve early for the next Great Theatre Debate. Unfortunately, there was no phone-number on my program, so I don't even know where to call for information myself.
Plays New & Old—
Yasmina Reza's "The Unexpected Man" [***]Without the virtuoso performances of Eileen Atkins and Alan Bates, Yasmina Reza's dual-monologue recently at the Promenade would have been a dull slog to get through.
As it was, during some rather long stretches of the Man's interior monologues, I was fascinated by the real railroad tracks and ties visible under clear plastic beneath his feet. This unusual set-piece emphasized the locale of the relative inaction onstage in "The Unexpected Man." "The Man" and "The Woman" are in a compartment on a train speeding toward Frankfurt from Paris.
Some viewers, unfortunately familiar with Frankfurt, wondered why anyone would want to leave Paris for the Wall Street of Germany.
But Frankfurt is famed for its annual Book Fair, and The Man is a famous novelist. I even had a book on display once at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but no one wrote a play about that.
The Man has never seen The Woman before, but she recognizes him and wonders what he is really like. Those delicate perceptions in his fictions: is he really so sensitive in his relations with others? So observant of the world around him?
She cannot bring herself of make the first conversational move, however.
This may seem incomprehensible to most Americans. We cannot wait—on trains and planes—to share our life-stories, medical problems, and personal anguish with the complete strangers sitting next to us.
But it has long been quite different in Europe and Britain. Even when train-coaches—especially First Class—were still divided into a series of separate compartments, joined by a corridor along one side, occupants were careful to stare at their reading-materials or gaze out the window. They never made eye-contact with the other strangers in the compartment. Nor would they want to be caught-out taking a sidelong glance at someone.
As for conversation, the most one might expect was the initial query of someone who had just got on the train, hoping to find a seat: "Ist hier noch frei, bitte?"
This used to astonish me. Here I was in a Second Class compartment, alone with five empty seats around me. Of course one of them was free!
Then we could travel for four long hours, with station-stops in between, without saying a word to each other. If the other traveler was leaving while I remained, he or she would politely say: "Auf Wiedersehen." Though it was unlikely that we would ever see each other again.
But if a couple, or a family, entered the compartment, they would chat noisily with each other as if I weren't even there.
Only when I begged for information about the hotels or landmarks of the city I planned to visit was I able to break the conversational ice. Often, as a result, we exchanged cards. And later Christmas cards. Some train-acquaintances have even dropped by for lunch on visits to New York!
Fortunately, before Reza's monologous Man and Woman arrive in Frankfurt—and the audience drifts off to dreamland—they finally make contact. Her obvious adoration of his work strikes sparks.
Now I'd like to see the play about their stay in Frankfurt, getting really well acquainted.
Most of this drama, however, seems like philosophical filler, which of course identifies the play as truly French. Christopher Hampton translated, which adds another layer of artful language-play. Matthew Warchus put this show on the rails—if not on track.
Neil Simon's "The Dinner Party" [**]Although Doc Simon's new Broadway "hit" is nominally set in Paris and peopled with stereotypical Parisians, there is very little about it that is French. Especially the dialogue: forget about Deconstructionist Theory, Existentialist Philosophy, or Gallic Wit. These one-liners aren't even Vintage Simon.
Even the elegant souper in the handsome Beaux Arts chamber—decorated with Fragonard Murals—looks more like supper at the Frick Collection.
The not-very-gripping gimmick of this sour comedy is that dinner-guests, arriving one-by-one, don't seem to know each other. Or just who has invited them, as there seem to be no host and no waiters on hand.
Unfortunately, this situation is not Vintage Agatha Christie, so no one is murdered, leaving Hercule Poirot—or Miss Marple, in Paris for a holiday at the Georges V and shopping at the Galeries Lafayette—to solve the mystery.
The mystery is why Simon bothered to write this trivial play. It is played without intermission—which is usually a sign of anxiety that the audience will flee otherwise.
Even the talents of such seasoned performers as Veanne Cox, Jan Maxwell, Penny Fuller, Henry Winkler, and Len Cariou cannot foment interest or passion where all is made of synthetics.
That this production comes from Los Angeles ordinarily would automatically make it suspect as a theatre-experience. But the fact that it more specifically comes from Gordon Davidson's Mark Taper Forum is a real disappointment. Over the years, one has come to expect innovative and important productions from Davidson and the Taper.
Horton Foote's "The Last of the Thorntons" [***]
Our National Treasure, Horton Foote, is now in his Eighth Decade. As with playwright Romulus Linney's fixation on hill-folk of North Carolina, Foote has always found new situations, characters, and conflicts on his doorstep in Texas.
TALK ABOUT TACKY!--Hallie Foote & Estelle Parsons chat in a shabby Texas hospice, scene of "Last of the Thorntons." Photo: ©Susan Johann 2001.
He has almost always focused on small-town people, with small-town problems. And he's not the only Texas writer with a "Last Picture-Show" view of life.
Foote always demonstrates considerable humanity: Maybe he is the last really Compassionate Conservative?
But it's unfortunate that he did not prefer to take on larger-than-life Texas Characters, Scandals, and Politics. He might have made a very special drama out of the lives of LBJ and Lady-Bird Johnson. Not to overlook the comic potential in a play about the two Bushes! How's "Trimming the Bushes" for a working-title?
His new local-color drama, "The Last of the Thorntons"—brought to life by the Signature Theatre recently—seems almost a dramatic valedictory, if not an obit. Can this be the Last of the Foote Texas Plays?
At least he did not write "The Texas Trilogy." Does anyone remember the name of that author? Who died soon after the multiple nation-wide productions of that now almost forgotten epic…
Horton Foote fortunately is not forgotten, and such plays as "The Trip To Bountiful" will surely be long remembered and revived.
I'm not so sure about "The Last of the Thorntons," which is overlong for what it has to demonstrate and reveal about small-town minds and family-ties.
As Alberta Thornton, the title-character, Foote's talented daughter Hallie is totally believable. Her mind is not what it once was, so she's now in a hospice-home for "troubled" people. "Alzheimer Acres" would be a good brand-name for such facilities.
Ms. Thornton-Foote also reminded me, not only of my own Alzheimer-afflicted mother, but also of a number of aged female relatives in small towns in California. The conversational tropes and bromides are all totally recognizable, as well as the various venalities and idiocies of some of the characters.
This time out, Horton Foote has given us the entire Small-town American Pie, not just a Slice-of-Life. Fortunately, the characters rang even truer than the conversational truisms. Estelle Parsons was outstanding as an unstoppable gossip.
Edward Albee's "The Play About the Baby" [***]
If Yasmin Reza has managed to create a full-length drama out of two over-extended but intercut monologues in "The Unexpected Man," Edward Albee has drawn out his thin but mysterious materials with what the Man calls "vamping."
IN TRAINING FOR TINY ALICE?--Marian Seldes, as Woman, baffles young lovers in Albee's "Play About the Baby." Brian Murray observes. Photo: ©Carol Rosegg 2001.
Is it mere coincidence that both these dramatists have named their two adult characters "Man" and "Woman"?
Actually, the new production at the Century of Albee's new piece, "The Play About the Baby," is well worth a visit, primarily for the stunning virtuoso turns of Marian Seldes and Brian Murray.
I have long adored Marian Seldes—both as an artist and as a teacher of artists of the future. She is larger than life. She is virtually a Force of Life.
There are those critics, however, who are intimidated by her stage-personas. Overwhelmed by her over-the-top identifications with her roles. Annoyed by her often furious energy…
Some even insist she is mannered. Maggie Smith is Mannered. Marian Seldes is a consummate actress with a brilliant command of her physical actor-resources: voice, diction, gesture, movement. What are really her definition and precision may be mistaken for Mannerism, but they are not.
So it is a treat not to be missed to enjoy both Seldes and a thickening Murray have a comic romp while philosophically terrorizing a young couple who think they have just had a baby.
Man and Woman—who will probably next week convince Brother Julian he should marry Tiny Alice, with disastrous results—convince the cute young lovers that there is in fact no baby, as they also attempt to take the baby away with them.
Not only do we get to see the Boy naked and slightly erect, but we also see the Girl nude. More thrills yet: at one point, the Girl suckles the insecure, immature Boy with her naked breast. Is this a first in our commercial Off-Broadway theatre, as distinguished from avant-garde venues such as PS 122 and LaMaMa?
This is a new Albee script, but it certainly harks back to his earliest Absurdist experiments. And it seems unduly padded-out with repetitions and arty mystifications. It makes the recent revival of "Tiny Alice" now seem a Masterpiece.
Is it now time for Signature, Second Stage, or even Tony Randall's Actors Theatre to revive Albee's Absurdist "Lady from Dubuque"?
Davey Holmes' "More Lies About Jerzy" [****]Is it possible that a very young Jewish Holocaust survivor could become a world-famous novelist—and Manhattan celebrity—by faking his Polish past and presenting it as thinly disguised fiction?
In Davey Holmes' fascinating new drama, a young New York journalist—smitten with this emigrant author's work, personal charisma, and apparent life-story—begins to discover serious discrepancies in that story as he researches his subject.
What he learns only later is that the attractive fact-checker he's been working with has become Jerzy's mistress. But hardly the only woman in his life, as Jerzy proves an epic cocksman.
Holmes has deftly structured this deconstruction of the Jerzy Myth to heighten tension and interest. It is no mere exposure. It's also subtly suggested that the journalist pursues his quarry even more doggedly because the fact-checker preferred Jerzy to him.
Confronted with his skein of lies and plagiarism, the novelist finally is driven to suicide. The time is 1972; the scene Manhattan. But the power of this production is such that it could be happening right now in some Tribeca loft.
Darko Tresnjak has skillfully directed an effective cast, with outstanding performances by Jared Harris as Jerzy and Gretchen Egolf and Lisbeth MacKay as his major women. Daniel London is the nagging reporter.
Mark O'Rowe's "Howie the Rookie" [****]This powerful dual-monologue involves no on-stage interaction between its two compelling young toughs from Dublin's thuggish underbelly. But, as each of these lads separately unfolds his story, their inter-relations become both grotesquely comic and ultimately tragic.
Both have the last name of Lee, but are unrelated. Among their rough chums, one is known as The Howie, the other, as The Rookie Lee. Sean O'Casey might have shuddered at the details of their sexual and other adventures, but he certainly would have understood the homes which spawned them.
These are a new breed of Dubliners. James Joyce might also have been surprised at the resourcefulness of a new generation to get into trouble.
As played by Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels, both The Howie and The Rookie are compelling characters. After seeing them perform at PS 122, you may well feel you know these lads. Even if you wouldn't want to spend a night out on the town with them. Or have sex on a scabies-infested mattress…
The current production comes from London's always challenging Bush Theatre, staged by Mike Bradwell, Artistic Director of the Bush. It was a big hit on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1999. And it's not to be missed on its visit to New York!
Kathleen Tolan's "The Wax" [**]
It is amazing how much more you can learn about a play from its press-releases and preview puff-pieces than you can from actually seeing it on stage!
FAKE FEYDEAU!--Mary Testa puts the Make on Karen Young in Kathleen Tolan's "The Wax." Photo: ©Joan Marcus 2001.
For instance, Kathleen Tolan once had a wax-treatment for removal of unwanted body-hair. The practitioner—who apparently wheeled her table into the hotel-room—was from the former Soviet Union and proved knowledgeable about both Chekhov and Pushkin. Whereas her educated American client knew only of Chekhov!
So she felt she had to write a play about this astonishment, or at least put it into a play. She has done the latter, even using the incident as the title, although the anti-climactic scene comes at the end of the listless would-be American version of a Feydeau French sex-farce.
As in classic Parisian stage sex-scandals, there are a number of doors, including ones into closets and bathrooms. But Tolan lacks the skill of a Feydeau. She doesn't know how to use these doors effectively to build suspense and surprise. Instead, she sends some characters under either of the twin-beds in the hotel-suite, to no great comic effect.
She also lacks the wit of a Wilde, or even a Neil Simon. Her dreary, unhappy people are eminently uninteresting, even when played by the zesty Mary Testa and the sadly fragile Laura Esterman.
The only spark of energy comes from the always over-the-top David Greenspan as an acid-tongued gay drama critic named Ben. Now whom could that character be based upon?
Brian Kulick directed. Had this been "Hotel Paradiso," staged by the late Jacques Charon, of the Comédie Française, the doors would have been in constant motion. And the audience rolling in the aisles.
You've surely heard the expression: "Waxing eloquent"? This text and the conversations of its characters sadly did not. As for "Waxing and Waning," as in phases of the moon, Tolan's dead star was definitely on the wane.
Mac Wellman's "Cat's-Paw" [**]The arcane & enigmatic but trendy dramas of Mac Wellman do not easily yield up their deep secrets—especially those of language—to the casual theatre-goer. But they do fortunately seem to delight awards-givers & arts-subsidizers—as well as attract the often astonished admiration of avant-garde drama critics.
At the Soho Rep—where once I saw Wellman's strongly sardonic satire about a congressional sex-scandal—"Cats-Paw" has just received an adequate production. Its cast is entirely female, although it is ostensibly "A Meditation of the Don Juan Theme," as its subtitle suggests.
The cast of Garcia Lorca's "House of Bernarda Alba" is also all women: women denied access to men, who are thus all the more present in spirit. But Wellman is no Garcia Lorca, and his women—supposedly touring New York City landmarks—are hardly repressed female Spanish gentry secluded in a rough farm village.
A real Don Juan on stage would have been welcome. Harking back to that historic Soho Rep Wellman staging—was it something like "Seven Blow-Jobs"?—it might have been more rewarding for the audience to have Bubba Bill as Don Juan and Linda Tripp as Bernarda Alba…
Y York's "Krisit" [*]A press-release—which I unfortunately read only after seeing this new would-be satire at Primary Stages—noted that it was concerned with mocking such trendy issues as lyposuction.
Although this surgically-subtractive body-enhancement process was in fact mentioned—including a small coffin for the removed fat cells—the play seemed to be more about the inane desire of an ancient movie-queen to return triumphantly to the Silver Screen. As she waits that all-important call in a silvery bubble-bath…
The cryptically named playwright—why "Y"?—has not, however, written a satire of "Sunset Boulevard," itself an acid satire. What the intent of the play was remains unclear.
The intent of the production, at least as played by the usually admirable Scotty Bloch and Larry Pine, seemed to shout all the lines as loudly as possible, as though they were fraught with Passion and Meaning.
Or possibly to substitute actor-energy for unwritten—and uninteresting—characters?
The program bio notes that Y lives in Oahu and has written plays for both family and adult theatres. "Afternoon of the Elves" is a Family-play, while "The Princess Inside" qualifies as an Adult play. Whether this means adult in the sense of grown-up, or rather that of Adult Films, is unclear. As was "Krisit."
This intermissionless but seemingly interminable play was commissioned by Seattle's ACT, not to be confused with ACT in San Francisco.
Mark R. Giesser's "Code of the West" [**]This should become a great favorite for school & community theatres in the San Francisco Bay Area—where it has already been produced.
As it features at its center the historic & eccentric local character, Emperor Norton I [Jordan Charney], local audiences—at least those over 50 years of age—will recognize the subject as more than just a romantic legend or a dramatic fiction.
In distant Manhattan, however, few know the story of Norton. And of his dogs, celebrated by no less an author than Mark Twain, a working-journalist in San Francisco during part of Norton's Imperial Reign.
In this slight farce, set in 1867, Norton has advertised for a bride and is being pursued by a bogus Russian princess. A local newspaper editor scents a scam and invokes an imaginary "Code of the West," by section and subsection, to justify his actions. As does the resourceful fake Romanov…
As a Native Son of the Golden West, with roots in San Francisco, I found the show mildly amusing. Less for the play itself than for what I know about Norton, who was also self-styled "Protector of Mexico." Unfortunately, Benito Juarez had already had the sad would-be Emperor Maximilian executed, so Norton could not save him. Nor prevent the suddenly widowed Empress Carlotta from going mad…
Now that story could make a really good drama! In fact, it already has done so. And the film was powerful, too!
But "Code of the West" is a pleasant entertainment in its local incarnation. John C. Sheffler's changeable setting and Melanie Ann Schmidt's handsome period costumes do much to set the tone, time, and place.
And Now for Something Really Older!
Chris Marlowe's "Dido, Queen of Carthage" [****]
Recently, at the Public Theatre, those Marlovians who are unwilling to believe that "Shakespeare wrote the plays commonly attributed to him"—in the words of a famed scholar of the Bard's works—got a rude come-uppance. In a new drama, "Kit Marlowe," they were shown Marlowe's death by stabbing in a tavern brawl—before Shakespeare's Italianate plays first appeared. So how could he have written "R&J" or "2 Gents of Verona" in an Italian exile, as some believe he did?
NOT THE OPERA-VERSION!--Adrian LaTourell & Nicole Halmos as Aeneas & Dido in Christopher Marlowe's "Dido, Queen of Carthage," staged bu Target Margin at the Ohio Theatre. Photo: ©Paula Court 2001.
David Herskovits' innovative, if eccentric, Target Margin Theatre is celebrating Christopher Marlowe this season. But without making any claims beyond those plays already attributed to him.
In addition to programming readings of this enigmatic Elizabethan playwright's "Doctor Faustus" [two versions] and "The Massacre at Paris," Target Margin has just offered a reading of his translation of Ovid's "Amores."
But the major Marlovian mounting of the season is a delightfully quixotic staging of Marlowe's "Dido, Queen of Carthage." Currently on view at the Ohio Theatre on Wooster Street, this Renaissance reworking of Vergil's Aeneid is both charming and strangely moving.
In addition to some funky set and hand-props, the production is distinguished by a small-scale neo-classical proscenium-stage on wheels, in which important scenes of Passion and Purpose are performed.
Given the deliberate cuteness of the semi-baroque costumes and the decors, at the outset one is prepared for a jolly parody of the Rape of Troy, the Death of Priam, the Flight of Aeneas, with old Anchises on his back, and the Love Dalliance with Dido in Carthage. While those ghostly voices keep calling: "To Italy, To Italy!"
A sturdy, studly young Aeneas [Adrian LaTourelle] soon proves to be quite serious—if also highly stylized—in his role. As is the Dido of Nicole Halmos, enraged to the point of suicide by immolation on his abandonment of her in favor of Founding Rome.
Despite director Herskovits' penchant for hermetic symbols & gestures in his productions, as well as extreme stylizations, he clearly respects both Marlowe, the dramatic poet, and the doomed lovers of this great Latin epic.
Greeted warmly by the director after the production, I seized the opportunity to ask him about the large black X painted in a cartouche on the front of his mini-Theatre Royal. I had seen this cryptic symbol in previous Target Margin stagings.
It proved to be a hold-over image from TM's production of Julian Green's drama about Slavery in the American South, aptly titled "South." Herskovits explained that slaves—forbidden by law from learning to read and write—had to sign their names with an X. This symbol was still appropriate for the later TM staging of DuBose & Dorothy Heyward's "Mamba's Daughters."
Herskovits says his set-designer, David Zinn, decided to fill the empty cartouche with that now familiar X symbol. This was not entirely captious, for Dido is indeed a Slave of Love. To Death and Beyond…
A critic-colleague—unfamiliar with the drama and not about to venture below 42nd Street to see a show—referred to it phonetically as "Deedough." The Village Voice's irreverent critic, Michael Feingold, jestingly has called it "Dildo, Queen of Carthage."
Considering the tragic queen's hopeless infatuation with Aeneas—who cannot wait to get [his ships] out of her harbor—this may be something more than a parodic title.
From April 4 to 22, Target Margin will present Marlowe's epic drama, "Tamburlaine," in five installments, at the Theatorium, 198 Stanton Street, NYC. Call: 212-358-3657.
John Webster's "The White Devil" [**]I'll never forget Glenda Jackson's performance as Vittoria Corombona years ago at the Old Vic. This trendy updating of John Webster's horrendous Jacobean Melodrama was set in a 1930s Mussolini Art-Deco Roman Hotel. Major characters even arrived—with smart luggage—through large revolving-doors.
When the lustful, deceitful, evil seductress finally met her well-deserved end, lying on her back on the raked stage, a long sword was thrust up her dress and maliciously moved about in the source of all her dramatic difficulties. Being Glenda Jackson—at least at that point in her career—she writhed, not so much in pain as in ecstasy, achieving orgasm as she found her death.
This was, of course, the innovative Theatre of Blood era in British Theatre History when Peter Brook—also at the Old Vic—had Irene Worth, as Seneca's Jocasta, impale her secret parts on a large standing glass obelisk downstage. She also seemed to find a strange release in this stylized suicide.
The Sydney Theatre Company recently came all the way from the Antipodes to show its own trendy production of Webster's "White Devil" at BAM. I am grateful that they did not try to revive and render relevant the same playwright's more powerful "Duchess of Malfi." It is also flawed and excessive, but it's a far more challenging and theatrical drama.
On the evidence of the imported "White Devil," the director, designers, and actors from Down Under would have reduced the "Duchess" to a shouting-match. The decibel-level was ear-splitting. Even very old theatre-goers didn't need those earphones.
"The White Devil" was scheduled for the Opera House—the largest venue at BAM—apparently in anticipation of hordes of eager fans of Elizabethan and Jacobean oddities, or of Aussies in general. In the event, the auditorium was only spottily filled the night I attended. And groups of spectators left noisily before the intermission.
Well, at least they also have a bizarre Opera House in Sydney. But it's admired for its peculiarities. The same cannot be said of Sydney's "White Devil" unfortunately.
Pan Asian Rep's "Legend of the White Snake" [***]
Tisa Chang's admirable Pan Asian Repertory was much more accessible when it performed on West 46th Street, at St. Clement's Church. This church/theatre venue was the birthplace of the once admired American Place Theatre, which has been dying by slow degrees over the years since it moved to Sixth Avenue—less better known as Avenue of the Americas.
PEKING OPERA DIRECT FROM BEIJING!--Authentic traditional performances of "White Snake" at Pan-Asian Rep. Photo: ©Corky Lee 2001.
Both Pan Asian and APT would have been well advised to stay on at St. Clement's. For APT, the move was understandable: it had a new purpose-built theatre waiting for it. For Pan Asian Rep, the problem must be rent-increases, for the ensemble is now hiding out on West End Avenue & 86th, in a dark, dingy Romanesque church chamber.
The lofty room itself could be quite noble with some cleaning, new paint, and drapes, but it's not a good theatre-space. And there are flights of stairs, with NO elevators. As the major component of many Off-off Ensembles' audiences are Senior Citizens, this can be very off-putting.
Excellent as the Pan Asian Rep's programming and productions have been in the past, it never seemed to attract a large Asian audience. Some of whom clearly prefer a gambling jaunt to Atlantic City to a Night at the Opera, even if it is Peking Opera.
The current staging of the traditional Chinese tale, "Legend of the White Snake," is a small-scale wonder, featuring some talented performers from Mainland China. It is, however, not performed with the handsome traditional set-pieces of the Peking—or Beijing—Opera. Even the traditional music is recorded.
To savor a really exemplary production of this ancient theatre-genre, you should watch for the impressive annual Peking Opera performances at FIT—the Fashion Institute of Technology.
But even in Beijing itself—where I recently witnessed a Tourist-Sampler of scenes from famous works—major exponents of this great theatre-art are reduced to entertaining bus-loads of jet-lagged foreigners.
Most of whom have no idea of the vocal, acrobatic, and movement skills involved in these virtuoso performances. Traditional Peking Opera players often begin their exacting training in early childhood.
But the tourists remain baffled, annoyed by the unusual music. So they nibble nuts, drink-up, and rumble out to their buses, even though the performance is not over.
Because Pan Asian's Ernest Abuba made such a big point with the audience about a new policy of "Theatre for Family Audiences," it would seem that the ensemble is trying now to lure kids and parents to their shows. This may have something to do with some new grant, whose terms they have to fulfill?
In New York, Survival is All.
But Pan Asian's previous work has been so interesting and important—not just for the Asian Community, whatever that may be, but for all theatre-lovers in New York—that it would be a real loss to devolve into a form of Children's Theatre, however lofty the dramas and artful the productions.
Tisa Chang and her fine ensemble deserve a bigger, better-informed audience, a more central theatre-venue, and the funding they need to provide a major theatre vision of Asians in Asia and in the Americas—then and now.
"Lady Precious Stream" by all means!
But also dramas about the Chinese "Coolies" building the great railroad through the High Sierras! As well as possibly satiric comedies about Asian-Americans in Flushing, at the slot-machines in Vegas and Atlantic City, and getting PhDs, ScDs, and MDs at UC/Berkeley and Yale!
WASPS may still not recognize the obvious differences between—or among—Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, or Vietnamese. Not to mention the more subtle differences… The theatre can increase knowledge, understanding, and build friendships.
Rudolph Fisher's "The Conjure Man Dies" [***]While Rudolph Fisher was not exactly another Dashiell Hammett, his Harlem detective-drama is an effective work, considered in terms of the films and plays of this genre in the 1930s. Fisher, a doctor by profession, was admired and encouraged by leaders of the Harlem Renaissance.
The amusing revival, at Woodie King Jr's New Federal Theatre, is played by an ensemble of talented and attractive performers. It in fact deserves a better venue, better seating, better entrances, better settings, and better production-values in general.
Not to give away the plot-secrets entirely, but in Fisher's drama, the kindly con-man, fortune-teller, dream-spinner [Everton Lawrence], dies not once, but twice!
How is that possible? Why are there human thigh-bones on his mantle-piece? If he's a faker, why is there a university degree framed on his wall? Is he really an African Prince?
To find out the answers to these questions—and many more—you may want to go down to Grand Street and the Abrons Art Center/Experimental Theatre at the Henry Street Settlement House—which is of course no longer on Henry Street.
A lot of Minor American Theatre History—and Social History—happened here, and the complex is appropriately landmarked and plaqued.
The problem for those who don't live in the projects nearby—or elsewhere in the neighborhood—is how to get there: How to reach the theatre by public transport? It's not easy, but you have the potential dividend, going or coming back, of stopping for a Nosh at Katz's Deli on East Houston!
The last time I saw a drama in this Community Center—something about the damage white-generated fictional Black Stereotypes have done to modern African-American women's self-esteem—a number of the seats in the historic street-level Playhouse were broken. I nearly landed on the floor when I tried to sit down.
There is, in fact, a new theatre-space in the complex, but I've not been in it for some time. I'm told by former students who have produced in it that it's not production-friendly in its design or equipment.
Unfortunately, "Conjure Man Dies" is produced in an even less adequate venue. This is a long room equipped with backless bleachers, so the snowy shoes of those sitting behind you ruin your clothes. Its large windows are partly obscured with drapes, but not entirely.
Worse, audience entrances and exits are made through an archway which is part of the elemental unit-setting. This means those who get lost trying to find Grand Street cannot be admitted, once the play has begun. Otherwise, they might be accused of murder!
Time-consuming changes of vestigial set-props—placed against the archway wall—and pieces of furniture on the arena-floor slow down the action of Clinton Turner Davis's otherwise fairly taut production.
Many in the audience are naturally Seniors. What other group in Manhattan has nothing better to do with its spare time than go to the theatre? Especially on cut-rate tickets or freebies!
When they desperately need to pee—and try to leave through the archway—they will seriously interrupt the action of this detective-thriller. Trying to Hold It until you find out Whodunit can be a bigger cliff-hanger than the drama itself.
This play should have been revived at the Public Theatre, which has a long record of admirable productions of African-American dramas. But with the same fine cast!
Can it be that the Public's Artistic Director, George C. Wolfe, is unfamiliar with the history of Black Drama in the United States? Or just uninterested in producing representative plays?
He certainly spent enough time, money, and misplaced effort on producing "The Wild Party" on Broadway…
Tom Stoppard's "Night and Day" [***]The Jean Cocteau Rep has done very well by Tom Stoppard in the past. Its productions of his adaptations of Molnar and Nestroy comedies have been hilarious. "Night and Day," however, is no laff-riot.
Set in Central Africa in the late 1970s, it is as much an indictment of "Emperor Jones-Style" post-colonial independence as it is of the thirst of the British news-media for hot stories to titillate reading & viewing audiences back home.
As a former reporter, the Czech-born Stoppard soon came to lose respect for the way in which news was gathered, reported, packaged, and even "created." Today, however, his depiction of news-gathering, at one remove from the actual scenes, seems a bit dated as an impeachment of London Press Lords. The satiric drama, "Pravda," does that much better, with the same implicit targets: the late, but not lamented, Captain Bob Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch.
Fortunately, the drama is much more about the problems and passions of the characters on stage than about unseen media puppet-masters. It is generally well animated by the Cocteau's younger ensemble, anchored by 23-year Cocteau veteran Harris Berlinsky. Angela Madden, however, is no match for Maggie Smith, who on Broadway played the role of the passionate wife of a British entrepreneur in the New Africa.
Ernest Johns staged, in Robert J. Martin's neutral colonial setting.
Next at the Cocteau: "The Subject Was Roses."
Musicals Old & New—
Encompass at the Connelly:
"Only Heaven" [****]Nancy Rhodes' elegant staging of Ricky Ian Gordon's haunting settings of Langston Hughes' poems should widely seen and enjoyed. The songs are not catchy show-tunes, but rather moving African-American Art Songs.
That means you do not leave the theatre humming easy melodies. But you won't soon forget the laments, love songs, wry humor, and joyous exuberance of the four attractive singers. Sherry Boone, Keith Byron Kirk, Michael Lofton, and Monique McDonald all have outstanding voices and admirable acting skills, which they use to interpret the varied songs. Rhodes, like the late Martha Schlamme, knows how to transform a song into a mini-drama.
The dance-duo of Whitney V. Hunter and Monique Rhodriquez, in turn, interpret some of the songs in elegant and visceral movement.
Erik Ulfers has created a striking—but simple—set of a raked diamond stage-surface, flanked by rows of grain-stalks. Indeed, the shining setting—on the bare stage before the performance began—was so handsome that it immediately raised expectations. Which were certainly not disappointed at all. Just the opposite!
In New York, however, Location, Location, & Location are the Three Keys to Success. Encompass needs a more central venue for such a handsome show as "Only Heaven."
The Connelly is a good theatre, but it's way over on East Fourth, between Avenues A & B. You almost have to get a visa to go there, as it's not easy to reach by public transport.
When you go, however, the extra dividend is a detour to Katz's Deli on East Houston. The pastrami is legendary!
In fact, I encountered Encompass producer Roger Cunningham at Katz's. I was on my way back from "Conjure Man Dies" at the New Federal Theatre on Grand Street—which is even more remote. Roger reminded me that the Connelly is only a short stroll from Katz's—so I had pastrami twice in the same week. And an admirable theatre experience with Encompass.
At LaMaMa ETC:
"FIDDLER sub-terrain" [**]This musical oddity was advertised as a satiric version of "Fiddler on the Roof." It certainly seemed high time someone desentimentalized Life in the Shtetl. As well as giving the musical version the pre-Holocaust horrors of Cossack Pogroms a more acerbic treatment. The sandbag barricades and barbed-wire promised something stronger than sentiment certainly.
But, in the event, the national flags on display were not those of Czarist Russia, Israel, or even the Star & Crescent. No, they were Canada's Maple Leaf banner and the fleur-de-lys of French Canada. To appreciate the humor and satiric concerns of this show, you really had to be a Protestant English-speaking citizen of Montreal.
Seeing that Maple Leaf flag reminded me of the Great Debate about replacing the old Dominion of Canada Union Jack. The Maple Leaf won, but a wit from Quebec insisted the correct flag would have shown "Four Beavers Pissing on a Frog!" This show could have used some of that acid humor.
At Theatre for the New City:
"Sketching Utopia" [**]
Why Laurel Hessing thought it would be a good idea to sprinkle songs through her docu-drama about Upton Sinclair and his Utopia-seeking friends is a puzzlement. The very idea of both Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis singing about their longings for an ideal community undercuts their utter seriousness in attacking Capitalism, Main Street, and American Hypocrisy. As well as trivializing their fervor to create a better way of life for their fellow-men—and women.
A HEATED DISCUSSION AT HELICON HALL -- (L-R) Primi Rivera as Bolton Hall, Craig Meade as Professor Montague, Philip Hackett as Upton Sinclaire, Victoria Linchon as Meta (Mrs. Upton) Sinclaire, Miles Angerson as David Sinclaire
Yet, oddly enough, the songs—by lyricist Hessing and composer Arthur Abrams—often offer the best moments in Crystal Field's staging of this new "Play With Songs."
There's no doubting the sincerity, energy, and enthusiasm of the large cast of "Sketching Utopia." They are especially good in several musical numbers, notably the surreal "Chiquita Banana" sequence.
The basic problem is that the work can't seem to make up its mind: Does it want to be an historically accurate account—if a digest-version—of Upton Sinclair's dedicated attempt to create a modern Utopia in New Jersey? New Jersey? He had to be kidding?
Or does this show want to be a jolly singing-and-dancing musical, a sort of Socialist "Music Man"? The historical figures involved—and their various personal and artistic concerns—invite either a very serious treatment. Or the Scalpel of Satire.
Cast members playing the meatpacking trust in a satirical musical number of "Sketching Utopia." Photo by Jonathan Slaff
In any case, Hessing is so intent on giving the audience all the background she believes they should have—to understand who her characters are and what they think they want—that the playwriting is too often wooden, even amateurish.
Thank G-d for the music, after all!
But, had this show's creators read Upton Sinclair's little-known aesthetic tract, "Mammonart," they would never have tried to make a musical of his failed Road to Utopia: "Ye cannot serve G-d and Mammon!"
Or should that be formulated: "Ye cannot serve G-d and Mamet"?
At the York Theatre:
"Musicals in Mufti"A not-for-review highlight of the season at the York Theatre in the Citicorp hi-rise is the annual Musicals in Mufti. No effort is made to compete with the City Center Encores series in terms of glittering production values, hence the emphasis on Mufti. But outstanding performers like Dee Hoty, Simon Jones, and Randall Duk Kim are on hand to animate some almost forgotten musicals.
Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt's "Celebration" was followed by "Baker Street," with Simon Jones—notTom—as Sherlock Holmes. This showcase suggested it's now time for a fully-staged revival. "Carmen Jones" followed the semi-Singing Sleuth.
At the Kaye Playhouse:
Regina Resnik Presents… The Classic Kurt WeillThat wonderful Met diva, Regina Resnik—like Jackie Horne and Beverly Sills—continues to enrich New York's musical life, though no longer in major operatic roles. In Resnik's recent tribute to Kurt Weill, she even sang along with the admirable young singers who brought Weill's songs from Berlin, Paris, and Manhattan to vibrant life. Actually, the interesting program was conceived by her able young tenor, Michael Philip Davis, with Resnik co-authoring, narrating, and directing.
Bright young soprano Jennifer Aylmer partnered Davis, and—a Jenny herself—recreated Weill's "Saga of Jenny," from "Lady in the Dark." She was also affecting in two songs from Weill's Parisian musical, "Marie Galante," now virtually forgotten.
Both she and Davis charmed the sold-out Kaye Playhouse. The program was presented in tandem with a Hunter College exhibition of the late Arbit Blatas' artworks inspired by Weill & Brecht's "Threepenny Opera."
Because Kurt Weill was born in 1900, the past year has been crammed with celebratory events. Especially in Europe, where his Broadway achievements have been little known until now.
Regina Resnik told her admiring audience she's currently interested in Jewish Vocal Music, so that may soon be another Regina Resnik Presents program.
Next season, however, she proposes to present "The Royal Family of Opera." Manuel Garcia and his amazing daughters brought Mozart's operas for the first time to Manhattan—when Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte was teaching Italian at Columbia College! The Garcia girls became celebrated as Maria Malibran and Pauline Giardot.
Quentin Crisp's "Resident Alien" [****]
Bette Bourne truly inhabits the character—and virtually the body—of Quentin Crisp. Tim Fountain has adapted a string of crispy Crispisms into a plausible and mildly amusing visit with the late aphorist, writer, and Ex-Pat Village Eccentric who had perfected his persona into a Work of [Performance] Art. At the New York Theatre Workshop, designer Neil Patel has recreated a grungy bed-sitter for Crisp that would have made W. H. Auden jealous.
BETTE BOURNE IS QUENTIN CRISP--As seen in "Resident Alien" at New York Theatre Workshop. Photo: ©Joan Marcus 2001.
Pamela Gien's "The Syringa Tree" [***]Ms. Gien's amazing performance of her own South African mono-drama is certainly a tour-de-force. It is attracting crowds way up on the East Side at Playhouse 91. That is either a tribute to her virtuosity—or to the glowing press-quotes. She is adept at suggesting all the voices and characters in her sad memoir of life for both blacks and whites under Apartheid. But I found the voice [and persona] of the small girl who is the essential narrator very annoying to listen to for very long.
This reminded me of a comment I once made to the late Jack Kroll, as he praised the plays of Athol Fugard: "Jack, the worst thing about Apartheid is all the bad plays about its evils that we have to see!"
I was joking, of course. I think…
Steven Berkoff's "Shakespeare's Villains:
A Masterclass in Evil" [***]
That latter-day Charles Marowitz—there's one in every generation!—Steven Berkoff had already previewed his one-man show of Bardic Villainy at Joe's Pub last fall. So his recent Public Theatre stint in a more Shakespearean arena was something of an encore. Some not only hate his "take" on some notable villains—Hamlet as a villain is too much for true Bardolators—but they also dislike his bravura style of presenting both himself and his creepy Shakespearean characters.
LOOK, NO BODY!--Steve Berkoff's face & hands animate "Shakespeare's Villains." Photo: ©Rahav Segev 2001.
Frankly, I thought it worked very well—and I'm no great fan of Berkoff, whose name rhymes with… The Observer's "Edgy Enthusiast" may want to award Berkoff the "Sword of Keane" for this performance, but it would pale beside the grand style of the Great Shakespeareans of yesteryear. Still, it is bracing to hear the Bard's great rhetorical set-pieces projected with such power. With Berkoff, they aren't merely uttered—or worse: muttered.
Unique Performance Experiences:
Richard Foreman's "Now That Communism
Is Dead, My Life Feels Empty" [***]
What would a new New York Off-Off-Broadway Season be without the annual innovative Art-Installation/Performance-Art novelties of Richard Foreman? Not half as much fun, certainly. And possibly much more pretentious.
Tony Torn & Jay Smith in Richard Foreman's "Now That Communism Is Dead, My Life Feels Empty." Photo: ©Paula Court 2001.
Of course, Foreman's Formalist Visions—uniquely dredged up from his bizarre Unconscious—are by now Cult Objects. And they definitely do have a Cult Following, many spectators coming from far-off Europe to view them. So there is a certain element of Pretension involved.
But who would have it otherwise?
And his latest epic has a special appeal to East Europeans, many of whom had both barren and Empty Lives under Communism. As well as after its collapse.
When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, they discovered they had been living in Central Europe, not in Eastern Europe, as they had been told for 45 years. That was a form of Culture Shock.
Foreman's current effort, however, is not concerned with any spiritual or emotional voids experienced by Europeans, East or West. Rather, it focuses on Fred & Freddie, two burnt-out American types from the Love-Generation Sixties.
So the title is satirical, as these two losers have not apparently spent the Seventies and the Eighties either admiring, or being wary of, "The Evil Empire" to the East.
European Intellectuals must have loved this in Vienna, where it was an Ontological Hysteric Theatre co-production with the Wiener Festwochen.
Now you don't have to go to Austria to experience first-hand the odd symbologies and weird decors distinctive to a Foreman Theatre-Installation. They are currently on view at St. Mark's in the Bouwerie.
These you must experience at least once in your life. But beware! Both Foreman's art-images & constructs and his texts and performance-styles are addictive!
Tony Torn, son of an illustrious theatre family, is a frantic, flabby Freddie. He actually illustrates Foreman's sub-title to the new Performance Piece: "(BAD DREAMS ABOUT THE PAST TURNING THE FUTURE UPSIDE DOWN)."
Theodora Skipitares' "Optic Fever" [****]
Despite the suggestive & cryptic quality of the title of her new work, Theodora Skipitares' "Optic Fever" is not about eye-infections.
OPTIC FEVER -- The family of painter Paolo Uccello, as played by two-foot marionettes. Photo by Theodora Skipitares.
It is, instead, a marvelously conceived & constructed exploration of the new ways of seeing explored by Italian Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Paolo Ucello. Discovery of the optical laws which make possible representation of perspective on two-dimensional picture-planes revolutionized the art of painting.
[Forget about Albrecht Dürer! He lived & worked North of the Alps, and Renaissance Nuremberg was rather different from Renaissance Milan & Firenze.]
Skipitares is marginally fascinated with the changes wrought in panel-painting by Da Vinci's experiments with perspective. But she's more importantly concerned with how these new methods of perceiving Nature, Architecture, and the Human Body also influenced the ways in which Renaissance Man—not just the celebrated artists—saw his world.
As is her custom, Skipitares moves her audience around the spacious LaMaMa Annex, providing them with an illustrated lecture on Renaissance Optics, complete with a plethora of player-puppets, some of them quite large. There are even shadow-puppets for some amusing sequences.
Theodora Skipitares is by now almost a National Treasure, which is virtually acknowledged by all the major grants and awards she has received for such imaginative dramatic-installations as "The Radiant City" and "Micropolis."
She is certainly a New York City Treasure!
Mummenschanz's "Next" [****]
This famous Swiss-based performance ensemble was recently—but all too briefly—in Manhattan at Alice Tully Hall. The lively but often invisible players are now on tour, so do check out their new show, "Next," when it comes your way.
WAIT TILL I CHANGE MY EXPRESSION!--One of the Masks & Mimes of Mummenschanz. Photo: ©Pia Zanetti 2001.
They made their first big impression in New York several decades ago, at the time when Laterna Magicka and the Black Theatre of Prague were providing some similar visual thrills.
In the current production, they make extensive use of the visual potentials of black-clad performers moving & manipulating colorful objects against black curtains. These often ordinary things take on a life of their own, as a result. Only occasionally does a spotlight-spill reveal the edge of a performer's silhouette. This can break the spell, but it also reveals the virtuosity of the performer.
In Swiss-German, the troupe's name also suggests Masks and Mime—or more essentially "Masquerade." So there are also sketches exploiting the suggestive potentials of unusual masks, In these, the faceless black mimes twist colored wires and plastic parts into novel proto-faces. Changes in the mask-components indicate changes in attitudes of these silent stereotypes.
Even when the focus is almost entirely on the masks, rather than on the black bodies beneath, the performers' dynamic movements demonstrate the ensemble's wide improvisational range. As well as the ingenuity of Bernie Schürch and Floriana Frasetto, who have devised the routines. They also perform them, supported by Raffaella Mattiolio and Jakob Bentsen.
Cirque du Soleil Preview:On April 4, the world-famous French Canadian avant-garde & artistic circus-producers, le Cirque du Soleil, will open a stunning new show in the Greater New York Area. The novelty production is titled "Dralion," suggesting a curious blending of the DNA of two heroic Asian Totems, the Dragon and the Lion.
On this visit, the show won't be in Manhattan. It will be performed in Liberty State Park, which is said to be somewhere in New Jersey, possibly Jersey City! But surely in view of the Statue of Liberty.
At present, I have no idea how one can get there without a car. But information is promised soon. There may even be boat-transport from South Ferry. Stay tuned!
It's a very good thing Cirque du Soleil will not be in Bryant Park. The recent run there of Barnum's Kaleidoscape ruined the entire lawn.
In the meantime, the Cirque du Soleil's IMAX film, "Journey of Man," is on view on giant screens at home and abroad.
Le Cirque's "Quidam" has been touring Europe since 1999. I revisited it in Berlin at Potsdam Platz, on an empty field where once the infamous Berlin Wall stood. This month it opens in Manchester, England.
"Saltimbanco" is now in Japan on its Asia-Pacific tour. "Alegría" is now touring Australia and New Zealand.
Las Vegas has two Cirque du Soleil shows: "O" plays regularly at the Bellagio, while "Mystère" is in permanent residency at Treasure Island.
Nor is Florida neglected. At Walt Disney World in Orlando, Cirque du Soleil is performing "La Nouba" in its own purpose-built theatre.
And Alexander the Great wept that he had No More Worlds To Conquer? [Loney]
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