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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, January 2004
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
 Anna in the Tropics
 The Story
 Nothing But the Truth
 The Violet Hour
 Bobbi Boland
 Frame 312
 Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks
 Right You Are
 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
 The Caretaker
 The Beard of Avon
 Henry IV/Parts 1 and 2
 The Musical of Musicals
 Never Gonna Dance
 Fame on 42nd Street
 Jackie Mason
 The Hanging Man
 The Oldest Living Confederate Widow
 The Last Letter
 Private Jokes/Public Places
 The Flight Project
 Circus OZ
 Midsummer Night's Dream
 Benvenuto Cellini
 La Juive
 Die Frau ohne Schatten
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Plays New and Old
Anna in the Tropics [****]Playwright Nilo Cruz is on a roll! His Lorca in a Green Dress was premiered this past summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Cruz's Two Sisters and a Piano was recently given a very sensitive staging in Manhattan at the Public Theatre. Last spring, he was feted at the Humana Festival in Louisville—at Actors Theatre—when he won the American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award for Anna in the Tropics. This was premiered at the intimate New Theatre in South Florida, which will also premiere his Beauty of the Father in January.
As a member of the ATCA Foundation Board, I don't have to read all the new American plays nominated for the above award. But as a donor to the awards fund, I do take a personal interest in the winners. After all, they receive $15,000! Each year, two runners-up receive $5,000 each. Arthur Miller was a 2003 second-runner to Cruz and Anna. When Anna opened on Broadway, some of my colleagues were dismissive, or they insisted that they didn't understand this poetic drama, which is inspired by a reading of Tolstoy's great tragic novel, Anna Karenina.
After some of the less then rave reviews, I feared there might be a sparsely populated orchestra at the Royale Theatre, especially two days before Christmas. I'm happy to report that the theatre was crowded with spectators who seemed riveted by the unfolding drama in a Cubano cigar-factory in Tampa in 1929. This is a family-factory in which the proud women strip tobacco leaves and roll the cigars alongside their menfolk. They have always done this by hand, but the owner's ambitious brother Cheché [David Sayas] wants to introduce cigar rolling-machines. He also wants to save money by doing away with the traditional Lector, who reads to the workers as they make the cigars. This is long before 24-hour TV broadcasts.
Family affairs come to a boil when a handsome new Lector [Jimmy Smits] gets off the boat from the islands, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in hand. The mater-familias, Ofelia [Priscilla Lopez], is charmed with the reader, while her younger daughter is totally—but fitilely—smitten. Her older daughter Conchita [Daphne Rubin-Vega]—whose indifferent husband has taken a mistress—begins to see herself as Anna and begins an affair on the factory-floor with the Lector, Juan Julian. Obviously, considering the inspirations of Tolstoy's novel, this cannot end well. But the telling of their story is sadly poetic and visually beautiful.
Emily Mann has staged with great feeling for the milieu, the people, and their tangled emotions. Nonetheless, there are some problems with Cruz's script, which make it seem adapted from some other novel, with linkages left out. The head of the family, Santiago [Victor Argo], is shown initially as a drunken, reclusive, no-luck gambler who is losing the family-factory by degrees to his brother with bad bets. Later in the play, he appears stone-cold sober, paying off his debts, and launching a new cigar, named for his younger daughter. This astonishing transformation is in no way explained.
If you hear critics and theatre-fans complain that there are no good new American plays on Broadway, assure them that there is at least one. It is called Anna in the Tropics. I loved the play and the cast, especially Jimmy Smits. But then he was a theatre-student in our drama-department at Brooklyn College, so I know him from when…
The Story [****]The new and acclaimed film, Shattered Glass, recaps the brief, but disastrous, career of Stephen Glass as a writer of fictions published as facts. But, instead of discrediting Glass as a writer forever, his print-misdeeds and the film have oddly rehabilitated him. When the many fictions of Jayson Blair at the New York Times finally brought down Editor-in-Chief Howell Raines and the African-American managing-editor, Gerald Boyd—both of whom protected Blair, despite warnings from staff about his unreliability—the unrepentant Blair gave interviews in which he promised a book, and possibly a film, about his exploits as an inventive—rather than an investigative—reporter. The 21st Century has begun with the long-standing standards of American Journalism being dangerously undermined by a new generation who think nothing of downloading someone else's term-paper from the Internet and submitting it as their own work.
At the Washington Post, a young African-American woman reporter of fictions as facts even won the Pulitzer Prize—which had to be returned when her fakeries were exposed. This sad story is the basis for Tracey Scott Wilson's new drama, The Story, at the Public Theatre, staged by Loretta Greco. The play deftly intercuts characters and events, revealing the ferociously ambitious young reporter as a pathological liar who is determined to actualize all her dreams, even if she has to invent her resumé and her reportage. As presented in the drama, however, she takes as fact a black teen-ager's inventive fantasies, creating a sensation. When she discovers she's been deliberately, playfully deceived, she doesn't recant, insisting she's talked with a young teen-age girl gang member who has murdered a white man. The tense drama closes with her identifying the "killer" in a police lineup. The entire cast is admirable, but Erika Alexander as the inventive reporter is excellent. And frightening in her performance as a black woman, driven by personal demons to exploit anyone who tries to help her.
Nothing But the Truth [****]No, this is not a stage-version of Preston Sturges' film comedy. Instead, it is actor/author/director John Kani's very serious family-drama about Closure in the wake of South Africa's horrific years of Apartheid.
Kani plays Sipho Makhaya, a black assistant-librarian who has just been passed over for Chief Librarian by the new post-Apartheid black government. His years of dedicated service and his knowledge of South African literature have counted for nothing, now he is near retirement.
His exiled brother has just died in London, so he is preparing for the funeral when his niece arrives with the body. But when she enters his tidy home, she carries a plastic canister of his ashes. This goes against all tribal traditions, as do the animated fashion-designer niece's attitudes and actions. His own daughter, wary of him and of her new-found sister, tries to mediate.
Sipho believes his entire life has been about taking things away from him, beginning with his deceased brother, who was always favored by their father. Later, his brother got all the girls—and all the praise as an anti-Apartheid leader. When it is time for Truth-Telling to the two young women [Warona Seane and Esmerelda Bihl], he reveals an even deeper hurt: his brother stole his wife. And his daughter may actually be his brother's child as well. He finally has to come to terms with his life-long envy—even hatred—of his brother.
But he resists the new government's efforts at Truth and Reconciliation between whites and blacks in having those who were responsible for Apartheid's racial crimes to come forward and admit responsibility and face the survivors of their victims, to seek some form of repentance and absolution. He wants Justice against the man who killed his only son, but his daughter points out that what he really wants is revenge—which is no answer, and certainly not Closure. At the close of the drama, Closure is achieved, thanks to a very moving performance by John Kani, who was recently at BAM in a revival of co-author Athol Fugard's The Island.
Incidental Note: I should have seen Nothing But the Truth at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, when it was premiering last November, but our tour-group was not theatre-oriented.
And we were actually forbidden to go alone to any evening events, as central Johannesburg is now virtually a white No-Man's-Land, its great skyscrapers empty except for black squatters and street-gangs. Whites live and work in gleaming new skyscrapers in the white perimeters which ring the once great city. It's a new form of Apartheid.
For that matter, tours are not encouraged in the hearts of historic Durban or Pretoria either. I insisted on making photos of major monuments in both cities, but I was surrounded by tour-members for the few minutes we were allowed in downtown Pretoria. This was not a cowardly precaution, for we were ringed by somewhat hostile locals. I had been mugged on my first day in Cape Town, by three black teenagers who tried to take my cameras and wallet, attacking me from behind on a main street at high noon. Back at my hotel, the black concierge told me never to go out alone and especially not with costly cameras around my neck.
The managing-director of Cape Town's state-of-the-art Performing Arts Center—with theatre, opera-house, concert-hall, and art-galleries—warned me against coming alone at night on the open street. Audiences usually drive to the center and park in the great garages beneath. There is no longer an English-language theatre-ensemble, either, as South Africa now has eleven official languages! Too fractured a potential audience for a troupe with only one language.
Violet Hour [**]After the critical and commercial success of Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out, this fey fantasy of love and publishing, circa 1919, is something of a surprise: a throwback, rather than an advance. It is closer to Greenberg's self-indulgent The Dazzle than to his early and excellent Three Days of Rain. Christopher Barreca's wonderfully realized loft setting is almost the best thing about this inaugural production in the Manhattan Theatre Club's new Broadway home, the handsomely restored Biltmore Theatre. Jane Greenwood's period costumes are also elegant adornments to the proceedings.
Robert Sean Leonard earnestly struggles with the thankless role of John Pace Seavering, a wealthy young Princeton grad who is also weak and dithering, embarking on a career in book-publishing. His initial Major Dramatic Question is which of two manuscripts shall he publish: the autobiography of his mulatto mistress, opera diva Jessie Brewster [Robin Miles], or the three crates of The Violet Hour, written by college chum Denis McCleary [Scot Foley]? Poor Irish-American Denis needs some mark of success in order to marry heiress Rosamund Plinth [Dagmara Dominczyk]. This pairing is said to mirror the relationship of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his schizoid wife Zelda. But to what dramatic or satiric purpose?
Seavering is assisted by Gidger [Mario Cantone], who even way back in 1919, might have been called a Screaming Queen. These fairly uninteresting characters and their relationships make for a tepid first act. But the delivery of The Machine changes all that. It begins spewing out reams of printed sheets, showering them over the stage. These pages prove to be books published many years later, describing what was happening in 1919. Essentially, this proves to be a Time Machine Play, but even with foreknowledge, Seavering cannot change what will be. What a shame the Machine didn't cough up some good plays written at the end of the 20th century! Or maybe even as far in the distant Future as 2003? Evan Yionoulis staged.
Juvenilia [***]Forget Jane Austen! Wendy MacLeod's new Coming-of-Age Comedy at Playwrights Horizons is a long way off from Austen's idea of Juvenilia. It focuses on four teen-age students at a small, culture-starved liberal arts college. They are close to graduation, but they have no idea what they will do with their lives. In fact, what they have been doing in college is something of a mystery as well. Henry [Ian Brennan] is the nicest and possibly the most clueless, as he has not been laid, although he has had charity blow-jobs from the rich, privileged, controlling Meredith [Aubrey Dollar], who is either in love—or entangled with—the sexy, irresponsible Brodie [Luke MacFarlane].
On a dull Friday evening in the dorm, Meredith urges the boys to trick Angie [Erica N. Tazel], a lonesome black Christian girl in the next room, into a three-way coupling, which Meredith will watch. We learn, in passing, that college teens no longer Date: They Fuck. The three-way fortunately does not occur, but various humiliations are aired before some shreds of self-awareness are achieved at the close. Rites of Passage!
David Petrarca directed forcefully. The young performers are very convincing and certainly attractive. Nonetheless, I am relieved that I was able to retire from college-teaching before having to deal with students such as these. But then, Brooklyn College is not a mid-western dorm-school!
Bobbi Boland [?]When I called to ask about press-night for Bobbi Boland, I was told it had already closed in previews! How much did investors lose on this one? $2 million, apparently, and show-fans lost the chance to see Farrah Fawcett [formerly Majors] have difficulty with her lines. Producer Joyce Johnson is on record as having closed the show before it opened because the tiny Cort Theatre was "too big." Too big for Fawcett's talents?
Frame 312 [**]Does playwright Keith Reddin have some secret knowledge that Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy Theorists should know about? And Oliver Stone, as well? If so, he has just made it very public, not at the Public Theatre, but over on the West Side at the Atlantic Theatre. His title refers to a crucial frame of the all-too-brief Abraham Zapruder film of JFK's shooting in Dallas. LIFE magazine immediately bought the footage and sent a copy to the FBI, via a fearful blonde young editorial assistant. She has studied the film with her editor, making notes, and they both see clearly that there had to be two shooters, not one. But when the official version of the film is released, she realizes it has been doctored. There is also a suggestion that Lyndon Baines Johnson was in on the conspiracy. After all, he had invited Kennedy to Dallas! Her editor at LIFE—could he have been Charles Wertenbaker, subject of the play, A Gift of Time—has her promoted to Asst. Editor. But he is dying, so he gives her the original film to protect until years later.
She retreats from LIFE, from Manhattan, into suburban wife and motherhood. When she finally decides to show it, on her birthday, to her screwed-up and contentious children, she is aging and alone. Her knowledge of the truth is a burden she cannot really unload on them, so she burns the film in her suburban barbecue. Mary Beth Piel is long-suffering as Lynette in age, with Mandy Siegfried very ingenue-ish as the young Lynette. Larry Bryggman is sympathetic as the doomed LIFE editor.
Incidental Note: Speaking of JFK, LIFE, and LBJ—
My Aunt Kate Loney was LBJ's first school-teacher, so I asked her for an exclusive interview about those days back in Johnson City, Texas. Initially, the President prevented LIFE from publishing this report. But, when things were going very badly in Vietnam, I submitted the feature directly to the White House, which finally approved it. Although LIFE published it in two pages of all its International editions, it was never published in the United States. Here is the transcript of a letter about this I wrote to Robert Caro, LBJ's definitive biographer:
Dear Robert Caro!
I've enclosed my report on my "Exclusive Interview" with my aunt, Kathryn Loney, published in LIFE INTERNATIONAL. But NOT in the US Edition!
The Preface to the report gives some—but not all—background. Just after Johnson signed the Education Bill in front of Miss Kate's old school-house in Johnson City, she and my Uncle Chester Loney were flown to NYC, so she could be on "I've Got a Secret." Or something like that: the one where you had to guess who the real LBJ teacher was. No Million Dollar Prizes, either. But more New Yorkers must have watched that show than I had any idea…
As we walked down Fifth Avenue the day after the broadcast—even out at Coney Island—strangers stopped to congratulate Miss Kate on having been Johnson's first teacher. I had warned her that New Yorkers were very self-absorbed, so I was astounded at the interest in her. So I asked her for an interview—as a favorite nephew—and she was eager to talk about the early days when LBJ toddled off to school.
Miss Kate had no photos of those days—nor the letters Johnson wrote her when he began teaching and asked her advice on how to deal with students and subjects. All had been destroyed in a tornado—which is why she came to stay with her sister in California. But she told me she was sure Johnson had some photos in the Family Album and could make them available for the proposed article. My agent showed the piece, and LIFE immediately was interested.
But suddenly, they dropped it cold. And my agent couldn't peddle it anywhere else. I was baffled. Then Aunt Kathryn called me and begged me to put the story away and forget about it. She wouldn't tell me why. "Someday, I'll explain, but right now, just say nothing at all about it!"
Later, I found out that President Johnson's press-secretary, George Reedy, had flown out to Beale Air Force Base—near Uncle Chester's Penn Valley home. He appeared on Miss Kate's doorstep, asking for an interview, which was to be interlaced with Johnson's Memories of her.
Can you imagine! She curtly told him she'd already given me the Exclusive. And she refused to talk to him. I believe she didn't even offer him a cup of coffee…
Obviously, the White House was furious.
Things got worse when Johnson proposed naming Miss Kate TEACHER OF THE YEAR. Juanita Roberts—an old Johnson City chum—phoned to say that Air Force One would be at Beale on Friday to fly her to the White House for the ceremony.
She told Juanita she couldn't come, as she and Chester had to drive the herd of Loney cattle to the High Sierra pastures for summer. They did it with pick-up and horseback, the two of them, with some help from the family.
Ms. Roberts—as Aunt Kathryn later told me—said: "Miss Kate, you don't understand. The President's wish is your command!"
Miss Kate retorted: "Not as long as we're still living in a Democracy!"
Ms. Roberts: "Miss Kate, the President wants me to tell you how honored you will be all this coming year. And how much good this will do for teachers, schools, and education across America!"
Miss Kate: "Tell him to find someone else. Unless he can scare up some cowboys to help with the cattle-drive! With wages what they are now, we can't afford any hired-hands anymore."
She also once told me: "Never tell Lyndon I never voted for him." As I never met LBJ, there was no danger of that. Oddly enough, she had a virtual Five-Foot-Shelf of books on LBJ. No, she didn't buy them herself. Johnson sent her every book published about him—even the ones attacking him. What an ego!
When she died of cancer, he sent a special telegram to the funeral. And a blanket of roses to cover her casket!
I hope this may be of some use to you in the final book in your study of LBJ!
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks [*]Watching a valiant Polly Bergen struggle to breathe life into a cardboard-stereotype role in Richard Alfieri's Six Dance Lessons, a colleague wondered aloud: "Why don't all these young playwrights write some serious, interesting plays for talented actresses who are no longer young?" He had apparently forgotten that we'd just seen one of those, starring Eileen Atkins. We certainly did not need another Retreat from Moscow so soon.
Polly is old, a widow, lonely, and in remission from cancer. She engages a pert screamer to give her dance-lessons, which she doesn't really need. With almost every cliché in relationships explored, the six lessons permit them six repetitions of orchestrated character-clashes which seem more manipulated than a Commedia in a puppet-theatre. The scene of all this noisy tedium is St. Petersburg, but, unfortunately, not the one on the River Neva. Mark Hamill works very hard as an aggressive-passive homosexual, or at least that's how he describes his character in action. You could see the sweat roll down his face, wetting his hair. Ms. Bergen looked stylish in a variety of outfits. Arthur Allan Siedelman staged.
Penny Fuller, Jurian Hughes, Mireille Enos in "Right You Are" by Luigi Pirandello. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Right You Are [***]Tony Randall is to be congratulated on his determination to produce admired classic dramas as the mandate of his National Actors Theatre. It has moved from the midtown Lyceum Theatre to the Schimmel Center at Pace College, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. The NAT's previous production in this venue, Aeschylus' The Persians, was admirably mounted and acted. Pirandello's tragi-comedy of ambiguity and small-town gossipy meddling, Right You Are, also is handsomely set. But James Noone's imposing stage-environment—with huge white marble Fascist Art Deco statues and black and white checkerboard floor—looks more like the ante-chamber to Il Duce's offices in Rome, rather than an upper-middle-class home of self-important Italian bourgeoises.
Fabrizio Melano has directed a hard-working cast including Penny Fuller and Herb Foster. But the unquestioned star is Maria Tucci as Signora Frola, the role Dame Joan Plowright/Lady Olivier has been playing at Wyndham's in London, in a Franco Zeffirelli production. Pace is a long way off from Zeffirelli and the West End, but the Manhattan staging does make visually clear that the time is the Fascist 1930s, so local Italian officials can question public employees—and their families—with impunity. Pirandello's raisonneur, Lamberto Laudisi, could be an older—and wiser—man, but Tony Randall is considerably older than Laudisi usually is played. He now moves with difficulty, but his voice is still that of an intelligent young Tony Randall.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [***]The late Maria Bjornson [Phantom of the Opera] designed the practical white-slatted setting for the late Tennessee Williams' drama, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It is the Theatre's loss that neither of them is still with us. Had Williams been on hand, he might have cautioned director Anthony Page to restrain the actor-hysteria and overblown melodramatics, especially by Gooper and Family. Some sly Southern subtlety would have done wonders for this supercharged revival at the Music Box. Best of Cast were Margo Martindale as Big Mama and Ned Beatty as Big Daddy. Beatty can't top Burl Ives in the role, but he is fine as he is. Ashley Judd's Maggie the Cat is so strident, it's a wonder Brick didn't hit her with his crutch long before this. Jason Patric's Brick has good arms, but his drunken haze soon becomes wearing. But then, when this drama was new, I thought Williams could have spent more time on the script: the title recurs in the dialogue once too often. Amy Hohn and Michael Mastro could be villains in The Drunkard, so overt are their machinations. Nonetheless, there was enough energy on stage—and enough quasi-poetry—to hold the audience for all three acts.
The Caretaker [*****]Many moons ago, I saw the original Broadway production of The Caretaker from the upper reaches of a cramped balcony. This may have had something to do with my lack of appreciation for the subtleties of the play itself. But it in no way diminished my admiration for Donald Pleasance as Davies, the shifty, demanding old tramp. Now, however, even my fond memories of Pleasance as the putative Caretaker are dimmed by the brilliance of Patrick Stewart, crabbed and feisty as he inhabits the character. He makes it his own—and quite a nice change from Sci-Fi and Christmas Carols. In fact, Stewart's Davies is a study in Aggressive Ingratitude. Kyle MacLachlan is touching as Aston, the seemingly simple brother whose visions earned him a stay in mental-hospital and electric-shock treatments. But Aidan Gillen is electrifying as his sardonic, bullying brother Mick, who turns Davies metaphorically inside out. David Jones staged in John Lee Beatty's wonderfully cluttered setting.
The Beard of Avon [*****]Seeing Shakespeare on stage will never be the same after Amy Freed's hilarious exposé in drama, The Beard of Avon. By that, I mean both seeing productions of plays commonly attributed to the Bard of Avon, but also seeing Shakespeare as a character on stage. Tim Blake Nelson is wonderful as the under-educated and over-enthusiastic village dreamer, Will Shakespeare. Trapped into a loveless marriage with the shrewish Anne Hathaway [Kate Jennings Grant], he runs off to London with a troupe of strolling players. Initially a bit of a twit, but eager to please, he's allowed to shake a spear on stage, but not to act. Freed draws on Shakespeare Scholarship for much of her comic hysteria, so Bardolators will surely be amused by her ingenious interpretations of what little is known of Shakespeare. He admits himself that he has little Latin and less Greek! And he is a slow-reader and writes only with difficulty. [That may explain those few Shakespeare signatures, in which he cannot even manage to spell his own name the same way each time.]
Freed's dialogue abounds in famous lines and play-titles, uttered with no awareness of what they will come to mean to future generations of theatre-fans and Shakespeare scholars. The mainspring of the action is the need of the licentious lord, Edward De Vere [Mark Harelik], to see his plays published and on stage. He needs a beard, and Shakespeare is the Man. Gradually, however, Will's mother-wit and intuitive poetic genius improve De Vere's originals so much that he begins to give Shakespeare mere outlines and characters, leaving him to fill in the poetic blank-verses. This works so well that other lords seek to enlist Will as their beard as well. The usual suspects line up, including Sir Francis Bacon, who hasn't a prayer as a playwright. Unfortunately for Marlovians, Chris is only mentioned in Freed's screed. He does not appear, but his patroness, The Virgin Queen, makes frequent Royal Progresses to the center of the stage. Mary Louise Wilson out-denches Dame Judy Dench in her superb and acerbic Queen Elizabeth. As a charming romantic dividend, Anne disguises herself as a boy to pursue Will to London, where she is fitted out like an East Cheap courtesan. She not only becomes Will's mistress—he hasn't a clue who she is—but catches the lustful eye of De Vere.
Neil Patel's wonderful wooden-beam set is a charming echo of the much larger wood-beam set up at Lincoln Center in Henry IV. Like the larger version, it has amusing variations and accessories. Catherine Zuber's costumes are also a triumph, including Will as the spit and image of the Droeshout Portrait of Shakespeare. His baldness is transformed when De Vere loans him his own flowing wig. Doug Hughes has staged with a keen eye for comic pacing and hilarious historic character impersonations which just skirt travesty—but which, at the same time, are wonderfully human. The entire cast is admirable, but David Schramm, Jeff Whitty, and Alan Mandell deserve special notice.
The play was commissioned and premiered—way out in Schwarznegger Territory—by the South Coast Repertory. I doubt not that it will soon return to the West Coast in many productions at the many Shakespeare Festivals. It would be a crime not to produce it in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Considering how many Shakespeare Festivals there are now are at home and abroad, Amy Freed should soon be rolling in royalties. The Reduced Shakespeare Company has been showing its potted versions of the Bard's plays in London's West End for several seasons now. Perhaps the Royal National Theatre will want to upstage them with The Beard of Avon? The RNT can surely give it even more Production-Values than the New York Theatre Workshop has been able to do on a small open stage with a limited run. After the modest Edinburgh Fringe Festival production of Jerry Springer: The Opera, the RNT adopted the show and has made this odd musical into a West End Hit.
Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 [*****]Almost any professional production of Shakespeare's Henry IV would seem acceptable, even admirable, after that disastrous and deliberately amateurish Henry across the East River at BAM. And its misguided director Richard Maxwell only attacked one of the drama's two Parts.
But this sprawling historical chronicle has always posed directorial problems. The ultimate royal transformation of Prince Hal into King Henry V requires his dissolute doings with questionable London rabble—the better to show off his magisterial rejection of such a past and his rapid redemption to become the unifying English King his father could not be. But the Crown Prince's mentor in his backstreet pranks, Sir John Falstaff, usually tends to dominate the drama and overshadow the royal pageantry.
What a wonderful surprise, then, to find a remarkably powerful and integrated and balanced production of Henry IV at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont. Not at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theatre, where such wonders have long seemed impossible to achieve. Nor even at the Royal National Theater in London, nor with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
I have seen both parts of this problematic play performed in various productions by the RSC and the National. Never has this drama seemed as potent and ingeniously crafted as in the current Lincoln Center mounting. Jack O'Brien deserves all the available awards for his magisterial and exciting staging. He has understood the mainsprings of the action, the passions and projects of the characters, and their inter-actions as no previous director.
But even with such understanding, this production would not have worked nearly so well without an excellent cast, notably with the nuanced Falstaff of Kevin Kline. This is not the usual padded-belly comic sot, but a deeply sensitive man with an antic sense of humor and imposture. King Henry V's final rejection of his old tutor and father-substitute is crushing and infinitely sad. I have never seen a finer Falstaff than Kline—something I'd never have expected of this old Juilliard grad.
Other characterizations in action are almost as magisterial and moving. Richard Easton's King Henry IV is a furious passion. Dakin Matthews, who adapted this stage-version, is subtle as Chief Justice Warwick. He's also the comically vain Glendower. Dana Ivey is a lively comic scold as Mistress Quickly and a fearfully wise Lady Northumberland. Audra McDonald's furious attack on Percy, after the death of her beloved Hotspur, makes this speech more meaningful and memorable than it has ever been before. She should do more serious drama and give the musicals a rest!
Michael Hayden seems rather lightweight as Prince Hal, but as his counterpoise, Harry Percy, Ethan Hawke is almost unpleasant to watch and certainly annoying to hear. He does not know how to use his voice, which is constricted by the awkward postures of his body in motion. Nor can he articulate his thoughts and passions effectively, especially in this classic, by a contemporary delivery style, totally at odds with the Shakespearean formulations and intents. Hawke substitutes squeaky fury for power and passion. Indeed, he often seems to mimic effeminate postures and attitudes, which are quite wrong for Hotspur's character and emotions.
Greatly enhancing the performances is the massive wood-beam Piranesi-Carceri-style mobile setting of Ralph Funicello, a sure nominee for design awards this season. Jess Goldstein's costumes relieve the set's brooding browness with touches of majesty and color. Brian MacDevitt's lighting is almost as powerful as the ambling setting and period costumes it illuminates.
This is a Shakespeare staging no one should miss, including members of the Royal Shakespeare ensemble and the Royal National Theater. All US and Canadian Shakespeare Festivals should make a pilgrimage to Lincoln Center on Broadway to learn from this magisterial production.
Musicals Old and New
The Musical of Musicals: The Musical [***]This is a cute little show, with music by Eric Rockwell and lyrics by Joanne Bogart, both of whom animate their amusing musical parodies, in concert with Craig Fols and Lovette George. The artistic concept is five parodies of the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman, and, of course, Stephen Sondheim. Thus, Rockwell's scores are ingenious pastiches of popular musical phrases and styles of the Fabulous Five. Bogart's lyrics also pillage more famed lyrics, but she is almost as clever as Sondheim in some of her lyrical formulations.
Unfortunately, the basic concept is welded to an ancient melodrama plot-device—which is the mainspring of all the parodies. This is the Villain threatening the Heroine with a Fate Worse Than Death [Marriage with him!] if she does not Pay The Rent. This was fairly annoying in the first Oklahoma-style travesty, and it did not become more attractive or amusing in the following four.
This is, however, a potentially popular new musical show which should appeal very widely to regional, community, college and high-school theatre groups. It would be interesting to see it move to Off-Broadway with a younger cast, though its current creators certainly are not deficient in energy or ardent mugging. This is being showcased by the York Theatre, in the sub-basement of St. Peter's Church in the CityCorp Building on Lex Avenue. The York was founded by the late and entirely wonderful Janet Hayes Walker, as a second-chance showcase for fascinating musicals of the past which did not make it first-time-round on Broadway. Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle was a memorable revival, as was 110° in the Shade!
Wilder: A New Musical [**]Wilder, an Alternative Musical at Playwrights Horizons, runs only 80 minutes. But the wet-dream sexual fantasies and Coming-of-Age agonies of a poetic lad in the Great Depression that it reprises seem endlessly replayed. Nonetheless, it must be a welcome change for John Cullum—after being in Urinetown so long—to find himself in old age [in his character, at least] returning after many years to a whorehouse in Denver, Colorado! He is the Older Self of Wilder Jr. Jessup [Jeremiah Miller], who is sleeping in the attic of a bordello because his con-man father [also Cullum] has been sent to prison and his mother [Lacey Kohl] has become a street-walker. Kohl also plays the whore Melora, in the bedroom beneath Wilder's lair. She initiates the addled young Wilder into the mysteries of fast-track Eros.
Composer-musicians Jack Herrick and Mike Craver play Jack and Mike, on piano, guitar, and mandolino. They open with twangy Country and Western, but their score becomes more melodic as images take flight. Erin Cressida Wilson, as co-author, must surely be responsible for both the high-flown poetic imagery and the down and dirty sex moments. She is an English prof at Brown, in Creative Writing, and her works have been produced at the Mark Taper, BAM, Joe's Pub, MCC, and CSC—and even the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh! Now that I think of it, I must have seen her show at the Traverse, but I cannot remember its title at the moment…
This odd work is quite a contrast to Playwrights Horizons' experiment with the Floyd Collins musical, but that work was also unusual in its topic and treatment.
Wicked [*****]Out-of-town reviews suggested that this new Oz-based musical was a dubious offering for Broadway. Some deft doctoring must have been done along the road to the Great White Way! But even the admiring New York reviews did not prepare me for the amazement that is Wicked. This is one of the most colorful spectacular musicals in years. Immediate Tony Nominations for the ingenious mechanistic cog-wheel settings of Ralph Lee, the super-fantastic costumes of Susan Hilferty, the imaginative lighting of Kenneth Posner, and the expertly manipulated sound of Tony Meola.
And those are just technical kudos. As if monkeys with spiky wings flying over the audience, fire-breathing dragons, and other wonders were not visual treats enough to keep audiences breathless, there are the remarkable performances of Idina Menzel—late of Rent—as the green-hued witch, Elphaba, and Kristin Chenoweth, as Glinda the Good, a relentlessly cheery and ambitious cheer-leader type, with no real aptitude for witchery but lots of lust for power. Carole Shelley is wonderful as the Headmistress of a Public School just this side of Hogwarts. Joel Grey is a fey delight as the Wizard of Oz—and the unknowing real father of Elphaba. Norbert Leo Butz is admirable as the handsome wastrel Prince who finds love outside the bounds. In fact, the entire cast is an energized delight.
Winnie Holzman's book works brilliantly to tell this new prequel story to L. Frank Baum's original masterpiece of metaphor, and it effectively ties into the Baum storylines and characters with some satiric twists. Although Stephen Schwartz's score may sound derivative of other Schwartz scores, it is thoroughly enjoyable, and his lyrics are much more than that. They are often ingenious—even Sondheim-style—exploring development of characters and advancing the plot. Joe Mantello staged ingeniously, with super-charged musical numbers devised by Wayne Cilento, and an energized Stephen Oremus in the pit. They are all to be loudly applauded and awards-nominated. At the Wednesday matinee I attended, the entire audience leapt to its feet at the stunning close. This is a show you can see again and again. And it's an ideal treat for the Holidays!
Never Gonna Dance [****]Vintage Operettas and Between-the-Wars Musicals pose real problems in revival, for their books are frequently too dated, ridiculous, or superficial to serve as attractive, attention-riveting frames for their often wonderful and beloved songs. Various attempts to create new and more up-to-date books for such scores seldom work. Pastiche-artiste Jeffrey Hatcher, however, had no such problems, as his book is based on the Rogers/Astaire movie-musical, Swing Time. And he has done wonders in creating the "new" Depression Era Jerome Kern Musical, Never Gonna Dance. The film has only six Kern songs, but Hatcher has managed to cleverly integrate Kern songs never intended for such a show-biz fable. Lyricists on Parade include Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach, and Jimmy McHugh, among others.
If you still believe that Taps Are Tops, this is your show. Noah Racey is fine as Lucky Garnett, the hoofer with a really lucky quarter, but he is no Fred Astaire. He sweats too much. Nancy Lemanager is his dance-instructor true-love, but, alas, she is no Ginger Rogers. The wonderfully comic Karen Ziemba—as her chum, Mabel Pritt—almost steals the show. Peter Gerety is lovable as a bum who was once a Wall Street stock-broker, and makes his way back up the ladder with Lucky and his quarter. Unfortunately, there is also an exceptionally crude and swishy impersonation by the Dance Studio manager which should be picketed by Gay Rights Activists. Nonetheless, the audience laughs like jackals at this screaming queen.
Awards-nominations are also in order for the stunning Art Deco New York sets of Robin Wagner, the colorful costumes of William Ivey Long, and the ingenious lighting of Paul Gallo. Kudos also to director Michael Greif and choreographer Jerry Mitchell.
Despite critical misgivings before this musical opened, it has proved to be a charming, handsome, and highly energized production, against the odds. This is an absolutely super show, less spectacular than Wicked, but no less a surprise, considering the risky premises of both.
Taboo [***]From some of the acerbic comments of fellow-critics—not to mention press-reports of producer Rosie O'Donnell's various problems with the show and her former publishers, Gunnar and Jahr—I feared Taboo would prove a costly mistake and quite possibly a wasted evening in the theatre. Virtually Reviving and Revisiting the Club-Scene, whether in New York or London, holds no great appeal for me. I am now so old that my first experience of popular music was Rudy Vallee singing Red Sails in the Sunset on radio. We even had the sheet-music, and this ditty was one of the first I learned to play on the piano. Way back then, every home had a piano, and kids had to have piano-lessons.
So neither the songs of Peter Allen—also the subject this season of a bio-musical: The Boy from Oz—or Boy George were very high on my charts. At both shows, as much younger people around me burst into applause, as they recognized pop-favorites, I sat unmoved, deafened by the megawatt miking which masks most vocal deficiencies. Actually, the club-scene didn't pass me by, although I never dressed odd to win entrance to Studio 54 or Limelight. As a Contributing Editor to the late, lamented AFTER DARK magazine, I received regular freebie invitations. Something I never got when I was writing for Opera News!
When in London, I promptly went off to Covent Garden, ENO, or the National Theatre. It would never have occurred to me to check out Taboo in its heyday. But now, thanks to Rosie and Boy George himself, I have had a sanitized version of the experience. Along with a lot of other people who packed the seats of the Plymouth on a Tuesday night in bad weather!
Those critics who smugly forecast a speedy closing of Taboo may be proved wrong, if the enthusiastic response of this early-in-the-week audience is any measure. In addition to some super-amplified and flamboyantly staged renditions of Boy George's often affecting and/or dynamic songs, the show has the added attractions of a kinkily handsome cast, fabulous fantastic costumes by Bobby Pearce and Mike Nicholls, and Natasha Katz's constantly changing lighting-effects. Tim Goodchild's scaffold-set could serve as well for Urinetown or Cabaret.
One thing is certain: audiences will not be bored with the glitzy, supercharged production of Taboo. But those dramaturg-impaired viewers who are concerned about Dramatic Structure may, however, be a bit baffled by the dual-focus of the musical. In Charles Busch's book—based on Mark Davies' original—Taboo seems to be more about Lucien Freud's favorite nude model, Leigh Bowery, more famed at Club Taboo for his fantastic costumes and make-ups. This must surely be because Bowery is impersonated by the show's star, Boy George. But Euan Morton is very effective as the Boy in his pop prime. Raúl Esparza as Boy's envious friend and Brooke Elliott as Big Sue, who wants to be Bowery's exclusive muse, are co-compéres of the show, narrating and commenting when they are not involved in the action. They are all very good. Christopher Renshaw—who developed the show-concept with Boy George—directed. The dynamic choreography is by Mark Dendy.
Busch's book is less than forthcoming about Boy George's very serious drug-addictions. His would-be-photographer lover tips off the tabloids—taking no money for this betrayal, as he really wants to force the Boy to get clean. Boy is arrested, and the next thing the audience knows, he is back from a trip to India, robust, glowing, drug-free, in a big floppy hat. Bowery's losing battle with AIDs is more effectively dramatized. But there was a time, not so long ago, when Pop Ikons with the Lifestyles of George and Leigh would not have had their sexual exploits graphically exposed on stage. A row of men's urinals would not have been an important set-prop. Is this all because of the social and artistic break-throughs of Urinetown?
Fame on 42nd Street [***]The kids in this from-screen-to-stage adaptation of Fame are all talented and variously attractive. But why did anyone want to do this? Are we all so nostalgic for that old Public School building in midtown that was once the High School for the Performing Arts? As recreated on the stage of the Little Shubert, it is even more grim and forbidding than the real structure, which caught fire after the PA moved to its new home at Lincoln Center.
There is a very real sense of Deja Vu in this production, and it is not very interesting. Somehow the stereotypical teen-characters and the standard plot-devices become very ho-hum very fast. As a musical climax, the Graduation of the Class of 1984 is so formulaic—and not well staged, owing to awkward double staircases for the grads to negotiate—that it seems overkill to have to watch each student get his or her diploma. Except for the talented and dyslexic Tyrone—who does not graduate with his class. Drew Scott Harris staged, with energetic if derivative choreography by Lars Bethke.
Program Note: David De Silva, known to his admirers as "Father Fame," conceived, developed, and produced the MGM motion-picture Fame, which won an Oscar for its theme-song. He was consultant on the TV Fame series, which ran for six years and was broadcast in 68 countries. Mr. De Silva believes Fame will truly "live forever" in the world of theatre. Its youth-oriented idealism of pursuing the performing arts in education will always be an inspiration to young people everywhere.
Editor's Note: Judging by the production and the audience at the Little Shubert—not to mention some of the more dismissive reviews—this edition of Fame may not actually live forever.
PPS: Shortly before the events now shown on stage at the Little Shubert, I had received a call from Marjorie L. Dycke, the much-admired Principal of this justly famous school. She was a wonderful and inspiring teacher, very caring about nurturing young talent. She was also a valued colleague in the World of Educational Theatre. She called me in despair, to ask if there might be an opening in our Brooklyn College Theatre Department. The students at that time, she reported, were not so interested in careers or excellence as they were in drugs, sex, and clothes.
JACKIE MASON: Laughing Room OnlyI was so looking forward to Jackie Mason's bold-face satiric "take" on American Current Events in his new show, complete with Musical Revue Production Values. But I had booked a two-week tour of Rajasthan in India last spring and had to leave New York before the opening. In the event, it rapidly closed before my return. Has Jackie worn out his Broadway Welcome with his rough-shod abuse of his audiences?
The Hanging Man [*****]This astonishing Theatre Experience suggests a Medieval Morality Play—with some of the amazing and magical effects of Initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries—as performed by an Italian Commedia troupe, as drawn by Tiepolo, and as made flesh and spirit by the fantastic ensemble of the Improbable Theatre. Even though it is metaphorically set in an unfinished—even doomed—cathedral, it is swathed in the mists of ancient Pagan rites, only superficially adapted by the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church.
It is the story of the successful and self-sufficient architect, Edward Braff, who hangs himself from a beam above the chancel of the cathedral. But he is not dead; his neck is not broken. In fact, Death—played by a wonderful pint-sized comedienne—will not take him until he has come to know Death. Until that time, no one dies. This is terrible for the generals: no one knows who has won a battle. Saint Edward even heals the diseased and dying, as he hangs above the altar.
This unusual narrative—with its very serious spiritual and philosophical overtones—is also often very amusing. Death may be no laughing matter, but here he, she, or it does get some hearty guffaws. Stephen Snell created the bold white costumes, including the tall cylindrical hats of Tiepolo's Clowns. This was an effect Martha Clark also has used in an equally haunting performance-piece. For that matter, Robert Wilson could be envious of some of the impressive stage-pictures, but this troupe is so energized and choreographed—Steve Kirkham devised the movement—that the production makes both Wilson and Clark's creations seem static by comparison.
Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson, and Julian Crouch co-directed, designed, and scripted The Hanging Man, with design-credit also for Phil Eddolls, who must have realized the skeletal cathedral and the tech-devices for many visual surprises from up above and down below. The admirable players: Lisa Hammond, Nick Haverson, Richard Katz, Catherine Marmier, Rachel Spence, Ed Woodall, and Tim Preece.
This is a production that ought to be shared with students and faculties all over the United States. For once, they'd have some real substance—and Oracular Mysteries—to discuss in the post-performance seminar! If you are on the board of your regional theatre, insist that this company be invited to perform for your community. It could awaken the brain-dead…
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All [?]Why anyone wanted to revive this property will remain a mystery to me. I hoped to see it after I returned from India, but I can't find even a "closed" listing in my monthly Performing Arts Insider guide for reviewers. Did Ellen Burstyn disappear without a trace?
The Last Letter [**]Did anyone really need to be reminded once again of the horrors of the Holocaust during Chanukah—or on Christmas Eve, for that matter? Jeffrey Horowitz, Artistic Director of Theatre for a New Audience, and film-documentarist Frederick Wiseman obviously think so. Kathleen Chalfant gives a moving performance as Ukrainian-Jewish doctor—imprisoned in a ghetto and facing death at the hands of the Nazis—as she writes a last letter to her son who is beyond the reach of the Final Solution. Wiseman adapted and developed this sad monologue for the Comédie Française from Vasily Grossman's Russian novel. At the Lucile Lortel Theatre, Wiseman has directed the English version of his Parisian Never Again reminder.
Unfortunately—despite varying lighting-angles, throwing a variety of shadows on the neutral gray unit-set—the monochromatic production itself is even more a downer than the undramatic material. This is not a play, nor even a potent monodrama, alas. The substance of the doctor's letter is not nearly as arresting as many other surviving testimonies of doomed Öst-Jüden which have been adapted for the stage. A solo-reading of The Diary of Anne Frank would have been much more interesting, even though that affecting tragic testimony is now so very familiar.
At the Theater at the Center for Architecture — Private Jokes/Public Places [***]The most interesting presentations at the new Center for Architecture on LaGuardia Place are the colorful card-displays of new architectural projects in the Five Boroughs of Manhattan. These include a number of stunning designs for improving MTA subway junctions and decorating notable subway-stations. Schools, museums, and parks are also on parade, with some ingenious adaptations of historic buildings. Strung out on strings are impressive renderings of architectural proposals for the proposed 2012 New York City Olympics.
On the ground floor of this reworked older structure—not entirely successful, even though it's now home to the AIA—are displays of Waterfront Development Projects. On computers, visitors can even virtually-drive down Brooklyn streets to new waterfront parks. Anyone who has been across the East River to DUMBO—Directly Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass—knows how fabulous Manhattan looks from Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, and the Bronx. At DUMBO, you stand at the figural base of an isosceles triangle whose sides are composed of the great spans of the Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridges. Their apex is City Hall and Chinatown, and at night this triangle is glittering with lights.
Downstairs, wedged in between show-walls with the architectural projects on view, are rows of chairs facing a lecture-platform. This is the Theater, and it does have some spotlights overhead. It has just been inaugurated with Oren Safdie's architectural critique, Private Jokes/Public Spaces. The playwright is the son of noted architect Moshe Safdie. And he even studied architecture at Columbia, "to get closer to his father."
The mainspring of his amusing insider-satire is the critiquing of an architecture student's project model and designs by two self-important and obvious stand-ins for a famed American and a noted European architect. The project and the judges are introduced to his class by a feckless young professor [Anthony Rapp] who has never even designed a building. He has only worked on his uncle and aunt's condo…
Sebastian Roché is a devastating Germanic architect, full both of himself and abstruse psycho-philosophical theories, which have no clear relation to the practice of designing structures for use by real people. Geoffrey Wade is a Wasp-ish East Coast architect, bristling at any attacks on Modernism or the International Style.
They both show off for the imaginary class—the paying-audience—and devastate the student, a Korean woman [M. J. Kang] who has made great sacrifices to come to America to study and create spaces for people to live and work in. This is obviously not the current concern of a number of famous architects. Anyone who has spent time in Daniel Liebeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin—or one of Frank Ghery's externally flamboyant, but internally infernally difficult, constructions—will know what this debate is all about.
No-one is the winner in this artful confrontation—which will surely be of more interest to those with some background in design and architecture—but the sympathy vote certainly goes to the young woman who strips bare at the close to make her point. Perhaps on purpose, the model of her project looks a real mess. It was, we are told, made in three days, after she scrapped her original—but derivatively Post-Post-Modernist—design. Nonetheless, I'd hate to see this project built. Maria Mileaf staged this critique.
At the Brooklyn Academy of Music— The Flight Project [****]This is the hundredth anniversary of the first sustained airplane flight—Icarus doesn't count—made by two brothers from Dayton, Ohio. The fact that Wilbur and Orville Wright made that historic—if rather short—flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, rather than Dayton, does not diminish Dayton's rightful pride in the Wrights. So it was a stroke of artistic and programming genius for DCDC to commission five black choreographers to celebrate that event in dance.
Founded 35 years ago by the late Jeraldyne Blunden—and now directed by Kevin Ward—The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company is currently touring the nation with its two programs of simulated-flight choreographies. Oddly enough, none of them makes even a passing reference to the Wright Brothers or Kitty Hawk. But most of them magnificently and athletically evoke images of soaring flight, notably with wonderfully curved extensions of arms in air and darting, leaping feet.
These dancers are so brilliant—and ensemble-trained—that their movements are pure poetry, but these verses are powerfully punctuated with passion. Their movements in the various choreographies are visual lyrics. Do not miss either of the two programs in The Flight Project when they come to your nearest Performing Arts Center.
The commissioned choreographers are Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Bill T. Jones, Dwight Rhoden, Bebe Miller, and Doug Varone. There is also a company premiere on the program by Sir Warren Spears, a former Alvin Ailey dancer and now chief of a Danish modern-dance ensemble. Sir Warren calls this flight of fancy: On the Wings of Angels.
Alladeen [***]Everywhere I went in India—during the two weeks preceding my exposure to this interesting Multi-Media Entertainment at BAM—India's national newspapers [in English] were filled with news about the problems created by Out-Sourcing of communications and information services which were formerly handled in their originating nations—in the United States, Canada, and Europe. It was reported, for instance, that Dell was dissatisfied with the verbal facility in American English of Hindi-speaking telephone operators and telemarketers.
Several reports—in the Hindustani Times and the Times of India—explained that the out-sourced phone-requests for computer advice, bank-balances, plane-bookings, and travel-packages had to be handled by young Hindus who could fake not only American accents—or British, as required—but American personas and knowledge of major cities and customs in the United States. They even have to have American or English names.
Alladeen, as a result, was like dejá vu all over again, but only three days after I was in the midst of English-speaking Hindus, Parsis, and Sikhs with almost unintelligible accents. The core of this unusual show are training-sessions of young male and female Indians in phone-solicitations and information calls by a rigorous American project-director. These are played live, with a stylishly designed video counterpoint, also featuring the Bangalore Telemarketers, plus Talking-Head Interviews with trainers and trainees. The computer-generated graphics and images in the video accompaniments were a show in themselves. This innovative production was devised by The Builders Association/motiroti, whose name is almost as cute as its show.
Meanwhile back in India—or, in fact, in America—it was reported that one major US concern was considering moving its out-sourcing operations from India to Scotland. Scots accents will seem more American than Hindi ones?
At the New Victory Theatre — Circus OZ [****]It's Oz-Time on Broadway! First, The Boy from Oz, then the prequel to the Wizard of Oz, Wicked. And now, Circus Oz. But this hilarious, even boredom- and death-defying, entertainment has nothing at all to do with L. Frank Baum, Dorothy, or Toto. All the wonderfully talented young people in this lively show are from Oztralia, but with nary a kangaroo or wombat in sight.
Actually, there is a kind of Toto-Connection, as a metal robot-dog scoots around the stage at times and even talks to kids in the front rows. There is also an older clown among all the athletic young fun-makers: Tim Coldwell. He is a founder of Circus OZ, all the way back to 1978. He opens the show by walking on the ceiling, upside down at the top of the proscenium arch, followed by the Pole Act.
All the jugglers, acrobats, tumblers, dancers, comics, and musicians—everyone seems to be able to do anything—are very skilled and also very attractive. All the daring stunts of skill and nerves you can see on display at Cirque du Soleil are here with OZ, but without the arty Production Values. They have glitzy, sexy, and crazy costumes, but no aerial-ballets or Production Themes. Nor do they have all the trucks and trailers of Cirque and Big Apple Circus. They travel from theatre to theatre and perform on conventional stages—as well as in arena-spaces.
Do Not Miss Circus OZ when next it comes to your town!
At the Manhattan School of Music— A Midsummer Night's Dream [**]Usually, the Opera Theatre productions at both the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music are exemplary, showcasing new young talents who have often already had some professional experience. So it was a bit of a disappointment to experience the recent revival of Benjamin Britten's fey Midsummer Night's Dream. One of the joys of this libretto is its thoughtful adaptations of the original text, with musical settings that echo a sense of the English countryside—rather than the Forest of Athens.
The basic problem was visual, as the voices of the leads were generally admirable. The production itself looked a bit tacky and low-budget with its fake flowers and strobe-lights on construction columns. Even some of the fantasy costumes seemed Halloween leftovers. Most impressive in costume, makeup, and vocal and physical performance, however, was the magisterial John Gaston as Oberon.
With its intermingling of real and fairy-worlds, as well as craftsmen with aristocrats, both the play and the opera offer wonderful directorial opportunities. These were not explored, so the staging looked rather like an energetic college effort. And effort is the keyword, as some of the singers were contorting their faces to produce the sounds they obviously admired themselves. Teachers and coaches should watch them more closely when they are singing texts! Correct the grimaces!
As Bottom, strong-voiced Charles Temkey rather overshadowed his fellows. He is clearly a young singer to watch, as is the Helena, Emily Ford Dirks. She could become a marvelous opera comedienne, if she does not succumb to performance-tricks. David Gilbert conducted, but the tempos seemed slow, and the performance almost endless. Two long intermissions did much to vitiate any sense of urgency in the production.
At the Metropolitan Opera—
Benvenuto Cellini [***]Poor Hector Berlioz! It it's bad and sad enough that he did not live to see his Magnum Opus, Les Troyens, produced in its full majesty in his life-time. Or that he never lived to see his charming comic-opera, Benvenuto Cellini, presented in the way he initially imagined it.
Now—so very long after his death—more indignities are being heaped upon him and his memory. At the Metropolitan Opera, avant-garde ex-LaMaMa stage-director Andrej Serban has enlisted this dead composer to play himself—in a non-singing role—in the Met's first-ever Cellini staging. A red-wigged priggish young Berlioz stand-in wanders about the stage, jotting down his score as he observes his characters in action. At the close, like Bea Arthur in Auntie Mame, he glides down from the flies and across the wide, wide stage in an acrobat's hoop, holding his completed score open for all to admire.
This is only one of the "cute" visual touches Serban and his designers have devised—apparently in desperation, to please the Zeffirelli-tainted Met audiences who expect the spectacular in every new production. Set-designer George Tsypin is in his scaffolding-prone element, with an immense hour-glass foundry-form that rotates both horizontally and vertically, half a Colesseum which also rotates, and matching swooping staircases which also circle the stage. His triumph comes at the close, when the great hour-glass swivels to reveal the successful casting of Cellini's greatest masterpiece, the Perseus, with the severed head of Medusa. This immense gleamingly pearly nude figure is also colossal: easily 20 times larger than the real Perseus, which is always on view in the Loggia in Firenze.
I must admit that this is a tremendous, even unforgettable stage-effect, well worth waiting for, although some Met stalwarts had already voted with their feet much earlier. I think I'd even be willing to sit through some of the massed visual excesses earlier in the production to experience again this impressive scene. [Not so long ago, playwright John Patrick Shanley offered his own visually arresting version the crucial Perseus-casting at 2econd Stage, where he gave his own special spin to The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini.]
The Met's Cellini costume-designeGeorgi Alexi-Meskhishvili—r sounds Georgian, doesn't it?—obviously has a brilliant imagination. His Vision of Papal Power in Rome is embodied in tall thin Cardinal-red cones: four of these are topped with stylized red faces and miters and are moved about the stage as Great Ikons. Chorus-members and extras—including some midget-clerics—swamp the stage also swathed in cone-like robes and long pointed Penitenti cone-headgear. But there were also fantastic costumes for major Commedia dell'Arte characters, plus dark angels of red, green, yellow, and blue hues, and monks and clergy in acres of handsome habits. Major characters in the drama wore dazzling outfits which would have made any Renaissance Medici prince jealous.
And Cellini's foundry seemed to employ enough leather-apron-clad strong-man metal-workers to staff a steel-mill. Their jerky unimaginative Modern Times choreography, by Nikolaus Wolcz, was not only boring, it was also repeated, from left to right and from right to left. Although Berlioz' opera is nominally set in Italy—specifically Rome, so the Pope can drop in on the casting of Perseus—there is a wonderfully French touch just before the fateful pouring of the molten bronze: the underpaid workers strike. This was visualized with the aid of a great banner, announcing: grève générale, or General Strike.
As I no longer get press-tickets from the Met—print-media are OK; websites are not—I usually see the Met's new productions from way up in the Family Circle. The voices carry all the way up into the stratosphere very clearly. But the performers look like prancing ants in costume, playing across the Hudson River in Newark. My great good fortune with the new Cellini was the gift of an orchestra-ticket from my great good friend in Munich, the Bavarian State Opera's Kammersänger David Thaw, He had seen a new production of Cellini in Zürich and was so delighted with the ingenuity and wit of the production that he insisted I see the Met's version and make a full report.
But it wasn't only the brilliance of the Zürich production and the skills of its performers that amazed my American-in-Munich colleague: the discovery was the that opera itself, so seldom performed, was an amazing achievement. But why had it failed so miserably in Berlioz' own lifetime?
That it broke with some hallowed traditions of Opéra Comique and that its Berliozian musical variety and invention severely challenged singers and musicians of his day would have been reasons enough. But Berlioz also made ends meet by functioning as one of Paris's most incisive and acerbic music-critics. He made enough enemies with his critiques to last several lifetimes. His reviews in Evenings in the Orchestra are almost as enjoyable—if in a different way—as his music.
David Thaw had sent me a sheaf of reviews and production-photos of the Zürich Cellini, so I already knew how ingeniously and stunningly this opera could be staged. And, as I had seen most of Serban's early opera-stagings—and interviewed him about them years ago, in Washington Square Park, in fact—I also knew he was capable of an even more astounding Cellini mounting than that in Zürich.
Sadly, in the event, that did not happen. If anything, the main plot-actions were leadenly explicated, although the singing was loud and clear. The main characters—with the exception of Cellini [Marcello Giordani], his beloved Teresa [Isabel Bayrakdarian], and his boy/girl apprentice Ascanio [Kristine Jepson]—were playing the most stereotypical buffoonery. No wit, satire, or insight here…
A large part of Serban's problem as a stage-director in this house and in this show—aside from being bereft of really ingenious ideas about imaginative staging and insightful character inter-relationships—was clearly the size of the great stage, the monumentality of Tsypin's moving set-elements, and the vast armies of Met choristers, dancers, and supers. Much of the time, the central characters and their actions were simply swamped by swirling platoons of priests and monks, in acres and acres of colorful costumes. One did not know where to look next…
It was also a disastrous cop-out to bring down the front-curtain in the midst of the action to focus on an aria or a reaction on the forestage. This defect broke the visual, emotional, and musical continuity of the production. It is a distinctly 19th century staging-strategy, in vogue at a time when there were virtually no stage-directors as yet. Performing "In-One" is out-of-place at the Met.
Robert Lloyd was tetchy and imperious as a wheelchair-bound Pope Clement VII. John Del Carlo was the Pope's self-important Treasurer. They all sang strongly, but only Ascanio and Teresa showed much passion and intelligence in their arias. But surely Serban could have urged them to more potent physical performances? James Levine conducted. He might have given Serban some helpful hints during rehearsals, but no results were apparent on stage.
La Juive [***]Never have so many yarmulkes been seen at the Met as at recent performances of the controversial revival of Fromental Halévy's La Juive. The score is a powerful pot-pourri of musical forms dear to French Grand Opera way back in 1835. In its original and in subsequent 19th century productions—premiered at the Met in 1885—the opera demanded grand spectacle, often with a Middle Eastern flavor. Indeed, well into the 20th century, Belgium's Ghent Opera was still using the lavish—if somewhat tattered—settings from Palais Garnier!
La Juive was last seen at the Met in 1936—just as Hitler's Final Solution of the "Jewish Question" was taking shape—probably because its central characters, the pious Orthodox Jew, Eléazer, and his daughter Rachel, are defiant of Christian demands that they convert or suffer horrible deaths. This, in fact, they do: Rachel is thrown into a boiling cauldron of oil, condemned by the Council of Constance [1414-18] for refusing to convert to Roman Catholicism. Her destruction and martyrdom is set in motion by falling in love with the Christian Warrior-Hero, Prince Leopold, who has just vanquished the heretic Protestant Hussites in Prague. The Constance Council reaffirmed the Heavenly Mandate of the Keeper of the Keys of St. Peter by burning both Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague at the stake. Unfortunately for both Rachel and Leo, he is also beloved by Princess Eudoxie, an exemplary Catholic noble.
Cardinal Brogni, a prime-mover in the Council, is ultimately responsible for the deaths of Rachel and Eléazar, who refuse to bend their knees to the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church. But, before he became a great Prince of the Church, Brogni was a married man in Rome, where he knew Eléazar. After the terrible death of his wife in a fire and the loss of his infant daughter, he became a cleric. What he does not know—and what the taunting Eléazar refuses to tell him—is where his grown daughter now is. Any addict of 19th century Romantic Opera knows the answer—as with babies switched in the cradle, etc., etc. Eléazar has raised Brogni's child as his own beloved Rachel. So, the ultimate irony, in his religious fervor to serve his Church and his God—in that order—the father has condemned his own daughter to a most hideous and painful death.
In the Met's long-overdue revival, Neil Shicoff is powerful as the flint-hard and vengeful Eléazar. He has good reasons to hate Christians and Brogni, who exiled him from Rome and made him an outcast in Constance. The Cardinal also burned his two sons at the stake. Eléazar's final aria, however, is heart-breakingly passionate and human, not the rant of a melodramatic villain.
As Rachel, the Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski is wonderfully moving, her radiance overwhelming her frumpish black dress. Indeed, she looks so determinedly plain and dowdy, it's a wonder Prince Leopold fell in love with her at First Sight. Both Rachel and Eudoxie have marvelous coloratura flights, with Elizabeth Futral almost more impressive as Eudoxie. Eric Cutler is able as Leopold, but Ferruccio Furlanetto was magisterial as Cardinal Brogni, a broken man at the close. Marcello Viotti conducted with a keen ear for the changes in mood and style.
What unfortunately seriously damages this revival is Günter Krämer's Vienna State Opera production, imported to the Met. It would be have far better to have impounded Gottfried Pilz's ghastly set on the docks—especially as this staging was funded In Honor of Beverly Sills. Is the Met so strapped for cash that it could not invite American designers to re-imagine La Juive?
Herbert Wernicke's designer-visions of opera classics are revelations, not EuroTrash. But Krämer and Pilz are unfortunate exponents of a hideous Post-Modernist EuroTrash Aesthetic which is all about Design as Artwork, with no reference to the needs and demands of the libretto. Not to mention the safety of the performers. If Met audiences had not read the program-synopsis—or were not watching the Met Titles—they would have very little idea of what was supposed to be happening on stage.
The immense basic-setting consisted of a gloomy cramped Black Underworld of the Jews and a glowing spacious White Upper-world of the Christians. Naked Obvious Symbolism: almost Anti-Semitic in its visual suggestion. These two worlds were divided by a slanting white platform, headed stage-left by two immense doors. There was virtually no set-decoration except for a huge stage-filling crystal chandelier. When Christians had to deal with Jews, they often had to lean over the edge of the inclined flooring at their peril. At one point, Leopold was roughly pushed over the edge, falling on the floor below. Very dangerous, even for able young tenors… This is an almost impossible set for singers to function in, even ignoring its total lack of adaptability to the dramaturgic demands of Halévy's great opera. This is one of those EuroTrash settings which could be as easily and interchangeably used for Fidelio, Carmen, or Idomeneo. But it really isn't right for Hansel und Gretel.
Die Frau ohne Schatten [*****]This season's revival of Herbert Wernicke's brilliant staging and designs for Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten is dedicated to his memory. It was his Met debut and his only staging for New York. There surely would have been more, but Wernicke died all too soon last spring while staging a new Wagner Ring for the Bavarian State Opera. Last summer at the Salzburg Festival, he was also remembered, notably with an exhibition of his designs for memorable Salzburg stagings such as his fantastic Boris.
Wernicke's magical vision of Frau at the Met is one of the very few recent productions to use all of the Met's remarkable stage-machinery and state-of-the-art lighting-instruments. To see the spirit-world of the Keikobad revealed inside an empty mirror-cube is a visual amazement. As is the proscenium-filling Dyer's Shop which rises slowly from the stage-floor to eclipse the Neverland of the spirits. You will not see such stage-magic anywhere else in the United States. No other opera-theatres are capable of it, nor do they have geniuses like Herbert Wernicke to design for them. Now, sadly, no one has his genius, except in revivals. Unfortunately, when his Met Frau production premiered, it was dismissed by some of my critic colleagues as EuroTrash. In fact, it is even more brilliant than his Munich Elektra or his Salzburg Rosenkavalier.
The current cast sings and acts wonderfully, with great sensitivity, making Hugo von Hofmannsthal's allegorical libretto of two quite different women discovering the true meaning of love and Family Values through the bartering of a poor woman's shadow for an Empress, who was once a spirit and who casts no shadow. The Two Debs, Deborah Polaski and Deborah Voigt, were heart-breaking as these passionate and noble women. Jane Henschel was powerful as the Empress's manipulative Nurse, with Wolfgang Brendel magnificent as the Dyer, Barak. Glenn Winslade, making his Met debut as the Emperor, seemed almost as wooden and stressed as he has been two summers at Bayreuth as Tannhäuser. Fortunately, the Emperor is turned to stone for most of the opera. Philippe Auguin conducted with great sensitivity for the fable and the almost tragic characters.
What a shame there were so many empty seats in the Met's orchestra for Frau. But there are a lot of philistines among Met subscribers. They can afford top-price orchestra seats, but "difficult" operas in avant-garde productions intimidate them. Maybe it's their fear of EuroTrash? Or operas with real metaphoric meaning?
Wernicke Notes from the Archives—
Salzburg's Salute To the Late Herbert Wernike:What a wonderful way to celebrate the stunning achievements of the late Herbert Wernike as director/designer of memorable Salzburg Festival opera-productions! Not just the handsomely designed foyer exhibition in the Festspielhaus, but also the revival of his monumental Post-Modernist Don Carlo. Would that the Festival could bring back his magical Rosenkavalier, with offstage set-elements reflected on stage in tall mylar panels.
Magnificently Panoramic Don Carlo Returns!
Outside the Festspielhaus, two immense shining cone-like spikes were suspended horizontally over the plaza, almost meeting, but leaving a spark-gap. Having seen Wernicke's Don Carlo before, I recognized these as menacing symbolic elements in his stage-design for the oppressive Spanish Court of King Phillip II. But only when I looked at program illustrations of Penitentes in Holy Week in Seville and victims of the Spanish Inquisition did I realize that their conical hoods—much later favored by America's Ku Klux Klan—had been adapted by Wernike into these gleaming metal-spikes. On stage, from either side or from above and below, they are constant reminders of the grim grip of the Roman Church, the Holy Catholic Inquisition, and King Phillip's own fanatical religiosity on his Court and People.
Valery Gergiev conducted with subdued power, supporting an impressive cast including Olga Borodina as Eboli, Ferruccio Furlanetto as the King, Kurt Rydl as the blind Grand Inquisitor, and the dashing Dwayne Croft as Posa. Although Johan Botha is vocally strong as Carlo, his girth works entirely against the image of singer-as-hero. Stocky isn't quite the word for it. More suited to Don Carlo in concert…
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