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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, February 28, 2004
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Plays New & Old—
BEAUTIFUL CHILD [**]
THE STENDAHL SYNDROME [****]
SEA OF TRANQUILITY [***]
UN BECOMING [***]
DROWNING CROW [**]
ODYSSEY: THE HOMECOMING [***]
THE MYSTERIES [*****]
KING LEAR [***]
Musicals Old & New—
GOLF: The Musical [***]
THEY WROTE THAT? [****]
New From Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysterical Theatre:
King Cowboy Rufus Rules theUniverse [****]
What in the World: The NEWsical Revue [****]
Two Entries at the New Victory:
The Gruffalo [****]
If You Go Down to the Woods Today [**]
Max Morath: Ragtime & Again [***]
Food for thought at Gramercy Park [****]
Roads not taken
Six Unknown Scenes From A Streetcar Named Desire—
The Original One-Act Version Of A View from the Bridge—
Plays New & Old—
Larry Bryggman and Ana Gasteyer in ROULETTE--Family Values gone wrong. Photo: ©Carol Rosegg/2004.
With this astonishing Black Comedy, Curt Dempster's Ensemble Studio Theatre makes its first foray into The Great White Way. Ordinarily, EST's adventurous program of new plays is showcased way way over on West 52nd Street. The John Houseman Theatre is quite a welcome change. And, considering the crazy inventiveness of Roulette—as well as the brilliant performances of its excellent cast—it should be In Residence for some time to come.
Oddly enough, both Roulette and Drowning Crow—over at the Manhattan Theatre Club's new Broadway venue, the Biltmore Theatre—open with the quasi-hero putting a gun to his head. That your reporter saw the first drama at 3 pm and the second at 7 pm on an otherwise placid Sunday only served to heighten the sense of synergy.
Larry Bryggman—in what is one of the best performances in his career—is the gun-toting Pater Familias playing Russian Roulette. Initially, with good luck, but at last, at a disastrous dinner-party, with a success that leaves him alive but all at sea in a Tsunami of disorientation that makes advanced Alzheimer's look like sentience.
Playwright Paul Weitz has created for Roulette not one but two spectacularly dysfunctional families. The continual hilarity invoked in the audience is the consequence of on-going on-stage visual disasters as much as it is the ditzy dialogue.
Thoreau once famously wrote: "The majority of men live lives of quiet desperation." This certainly is true of Bryggman's business-man Jon. The desperations of his family and his truly strange neighbors is, however, anything but quiet. His manic, athletic, intellectually-challenged son doesn't know his own strength and is a total failure at Anger Management.
Weitz's already blackly comedic script is made even more dynamically comic by the superb cast, briskly directed by Trip Cullman. There should be Best Actor & Actress Awards Nominations right down the cast-list: Bryggman, Ana Gasteyer, Shawn Hatosy, Leslie Lyles, Mark Setlock, and The Piano's Anna Paquin.
Applause also for the design-team: Takeshi Kata, Alejo Vietti, Greg McPherson, and Aural Fixation.
This wonderfully entertaining show doesn't have to move Off-Broadway. It is already there—and set for a good long run at the Houseman.
Mrs Fuller and Mr Grizzard. BEAUTIFUL CHILD--Nicky Silver confronts Paedophilia at the Vinyard.
Photo: ©Carol Rosegg/2004.
BEAUTIFUL CHILD [**]
April may be—in T. S. Eliot's Formulation—The Cruellest Month. But this past February surely has been the Most Family Dysfunctional Month. Nicky Silver, the Surrealist Poet of Doomed Families, had not written a new play in four years. But he has now broken his authorial silence to bring forth a tendentious Family Drama which makes his Pterodactyls look like Chicken Every Sunday.
Steppenwolf's Terry Kinney has staged Beautiful Child with a ferocious energy that leaves both cast and audience quite drained. Into Richard Hoover's suburban [Greenwich?] living-room comes Harry & Nan's thirty-something painter/teacher son, begging for Sanctuary. He has fallen in love with one of his eight-year-old students. After surreal intercuttings of Asides to the Audience and Remembrance of Things Past by Harry's deranged secretary-mistress Delia, a distraught child-therapist, the beautiful child's angry mother, and Nan herself, the parents decide Son Isaac can stay.
The price is that he must be blinded so he can no longer look on off-limits beauty. Or paint—which may be a dividend-blessing, ifDelia's amateur analysis of his depiction of a chair is on-target.
One colleague suggested that the name Isaac meant this was a modern version of Abraham & Isaac, but that mythic metaphor doesn't apply to the sexual transgression here unveiled. The Biblical Tale is about Human Sacrifice to the One God and Jehovah'sultimate rejection of it.
Another expert saw Silver's off-stage blinding of his passionate anti-hero as a loan from Socrates' Oedipus Rex. But that sexual transgression is not about Pedophilia at all. Rather, it deals with Forbidden Incest With The Mother. For that matter, the Blinding of Gloucester in King Lear could be invoked, but it also has nothing to do with Silver's Isaac. Both Lear and Gloucester exemplify the truism: There are none so blind as those who will not see. Hardly a punishment for forbidden lusts.
What Silver's fevered drama most reminded me of was Edward Albee's The American Dream. In that short but powerful dramatic metaphor, Mommy & Daddy have adopted a Bumble, which suggests both a Little Bundle of Love and a Big Mistake. Even as a tiny baby, this infant has been trying to touch its Willie or Johnson or whatever. So Mommy & Daddy have reluctantly had to cut off first its fingers, then its hands, and finally its arms, because it wouldn't stop sexual self-explorations.
That George Grizzard plays Harry in Silver's play also has echoes of Albee, for he was also an Albee metaphor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He plays Harry with some fury and bafflement—as does Penny Fuller the hysterectomied Nan—possibly because neither they nor director Kinney could find any other way to make this essentially surreal drama appear coherent, let alone significant.
If one wanted a truly topical and important play about Paedophilia—assuming one had the ability to write for the theatre—the obvious current concern is with Priestly Pederasty. Where are the many plays that could be written on that topic—including the culpability of Archbishops & Cardinals in clerical cover-ups?
Silver's drama, on the other hand, seems more about the Hypocrisy of Family Values—yet again—than about the Horror of Paedophilia. Would Isaac have seemed less of a Monster to his parents had he fallen in love with a little girl, instead of a little boy? At least that way, he would not have been a Homosexual! Or is Paedophilia an entirely different kind of sexual dysfunction?
But then, is Homosexuality really a dysfunction? And can President George W. Bush protect The American Family against this growing threat to Family Values? Will an Amendment to the Constitution forbidding marriages between people of the same sex do the trick, so to speak? What if Harvey Fierstein married Rosie O'Donnell or Ellen Degeneres? Would that be OK, Family-wise?
THE STENDAHL SYNDROME [****]
Under this mysterious rubric, Terrence McNally has just had Two World Premieres! And they featured outstanding performances by Richard Thomas and Isabella Rossellini. They also inaugurated a gleaming new Post-Post-Modernist performance-space, in the 59E59 Theatre. This has been created for the Elysabeth Kleinhans Foundation. But the theatre is also the new home of Primary Stages—which has nonetheless erected a new Primary Stages banner at its old home, 345 West 45th, where Un Becoming is now playing.
And just what is the Stendahl Syndrome? Yet another life-threatening disease?
Not at all! It refers to the extreme emotion people may feel in the presence of a Truly Great Work of Art—when there are no words to describe either the artwork or one's overwhelming awe of it…
Of the two one-acts in the bill, McNally's Prelude & Liebestod is sure to enjoy the same international currency that his Maria Callas Portrait, Master Class, has so deservedly achieved. He is one of the very few American playwrights who are equally at home in the worlds of opera and theatre—and his familiarity with backstage gossip is as expert for the Met, Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, and Symphony Hall Boston as it is for Broadway.
As one of the World's Greatest Symphonic Conductors, Richard Thomas is dynamic, demonic, and transfigured on the East 59th podium. He seems an amalgam of Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, and Thomas Schippers, among other late greats. As a man and a conductor, his Problem is that his Greatest Moments—both sexual and symphonic—are behind him. But he has to strive to keep up the front of Greatness & Inspiration, even while maintaining the facade of a loving marriage, while glancing from the corner of his eye at the besotted, sex-plotting Gay Fan in the box opposite his beautiful wife—who is musing about her London Lover.
Richard Thomas seems totally possessed by this role, as well as by Richard Wagner's Liebestod—which he conducts not once, but twice, as the first rendition was by-the-numbers. And his thoughts were often elsewhere. The Two Richards are simply overwhelming in this production.
Isabella Rossellini is radiant but reflective as The Wife. Michael Countryman is properly disrepectfuly as Concert Master, muttering "Asshole" under his breath. Or just thinking it. Yul Vázquez is adequate as the Young Man, but seems hardly astonishing enough to attract the Conductor's eye.
Jennifer Mudge is amusing as the Juilliard-trained soprano who knows the notes and the breathing, but has absolutely no idea of who Isolde might be or what she is experiencing in her Great Aria. In addition, she is outfitted in a ridiculous gown—with a balcony of green-satin ruffles at her bust-line—unfortunately typical of some famous sopranos who have no Clothes Sense and always let some courturier upstage them with a gown that is in itself an Artwork—or a Sartorial Disaster.
Leonard Foglia staged both one-acts, but he obviously had a traffic-flow problem with Full Frontal Nudity. Rossellini is an arts tour-guide in Florence, with three stereotypical American travelers. The cast of four has to move around a stone base, which represents Michelangelo's David, in Firenze's Accademia. The dialogue is by-the-numbers Basic Ugly Americans all at sea in an ocean of masterpieces. It could have been sketched out by students in Grad Playwriting.
What makes it worth watching is the ingenious way in which projections of the statue have been collaged on an immense Tondo-Window. This scenic-centerpiece also works well as the domed ceiling of a great concert-hall in the latter play. Designed by Michael McGarty, the setting suggests one of those upper galleries of the Musée D'Orsay, in which the great window is actually a huge transparent clock-face, overlooking the Seine. Elaine J. McCarthy devised the projections.
This may be Wagner's Month in Manhattan—at least in the legit theatre, if not at the opera-house. Not only is playwright Terrence McNally celebrating his genius, but also Paul Rudnick, who brings his special brand of gay irreverence to the tragic life of Wagner's Greatest Fan, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. But Rudnick'sValhalla is not only the Mad King/Queen's Story, but also the saga of the star-crossed love of a small-town Texas boy for his high-school hero. The twin tales are intertwined most ingeniously.
Although the stunning production at the New York Theatre Workshop is advertised as a World Premiere, I saw this show two seasons ago at the Juilliard School, as one of the Drama Department's showcases. I found it immensely interesting and original, not least because I have spent a lot of time in Ludwig's Munich, Wagner's Bayreuth, and photographing Ludwig's fantastic castles. I also come from a small mining-town in California where Lola Montez had the only home she ever owned. Montez—who is buried in Brooklyn's Green Wood Cemetery as Mrs. Eliza Gilbert—was the mistress of the Mad King's grandfather, Ludwig I, who lost his throne because of the "Spanish Dancer."
Ludwig II loses his crown, not because he has a mistress, or even a queen, but because he won't stop building those flamboyant castles. Peter Frechette is wonderfully over-the-top as the equally flamboyant monarch, scion of the Wittelsbach Family, until the end of World War I, the longest ruling-dynasty in Europe. Older than Austro-Hungary's Habsburgs! So it was a bitter disappointment to Bavarians that their beloved young king couldn't find a queen to his liking. He preferred lusty young peasant-boys and performing artistss.
Designer William Ivey Long has outdone himself in creating elaborate period costumes for Ludwig and his Court. He obviously referred to the famous portraits of the handsome young Ludwig in uniform and the painting in his coronation robes. Long may also have drawn on the impressive costumes devised for the Viennese musical, Elizabeth, and the Bavarian Ludwig Musical, The Dream of Paradise. Neither of these astonishing shows is apt to be seen on Broadway, however.
Sean Dugan plays the sexy Texas bad-boy James Avery, who tries to seduce the high-school hero, turning up at his wedding, dressed as the bride—after having assaulted her in her bedroom at home. He also has a bad habit of stealing objects, as well as other people's self-esteem. Later, he and his life's passion, Henry Lee Stafford [Scott Barrow], are parachuted behind Nazi lines, landing near Ludwig's Schloss Linderhof—with its underground Lohengrin Grotto carved out of a mountain and illuminated with the first Siemens electric generator ever!
The light-fingered James finds Ludwig's richly jeweled heart-shaped reliquary—which he steals and takes back to Texas. Obviously, Paul Rudnick knows all about the Burial Rites of the Wittelsbachs.
When Bavarian Dukes, Electors, or Kings died, their hearts were removed from their corpses and placed in elaborate silver, gold, crystal, and jeweled monstrances. These were then taken to the Pilgrimage Town of Alt-Ötting, where they are still exposed in the chapel: to scores of kneeling Bavarian Catholics,—who venerate them and hope for good-fortune as a result. The Royal Bodies are sealed in lead sarcophaguses and preserved in the crypts of the Michaeli-Kirche and the Theatinerkirche in Munich. King Ludwig II's immense lead coffin is just across St. Michael's crypt from that of Napoleon's step-son, Eugène de Beauharnais!
In the wake of the Nazi defeat in 1945, a number of American soldiers "liberated" valuable German heirlooms, including some very Rare Books and priceless historical objects. Rudnick may have been thinking, in having Avery steal the King's Heart—how's that for a Valentine's Day metaphor!—of 2nd Lt. Meador from Texas. This handsome young officer from a small-town—whose father had a hardware-business—stole the Golden Book of Heinrich der Löewe and other Treasures of Quedlinburg Cathedral. He told his family they were gifts from grateful Germans for freeing them from the Nazi yoke. Some small items were stolen by Meador's tricks—like Ludwig, he never married—but the best of the booty went into a bank-vault. After his death, his relatives tried to sell them in the international art-market. As they had been the objects of an on-going international arts-search as well, the sales were frustrated. And they are now back in Quedlinburg, under heavy security.
So Valhalla conflates 19th Century & Modern History & Moral Dilemmas with a distinctive comic sensibility. Christopher Ashley has directed an outstanding cast with includes Candy Buckley, Samantha Soule, and Jack Willis—each playing a variety of roles with lightning costume-changes. This delightful & colorful show should transfer, despite dismissive reviews by the Two Johns: John Heilpern & John Simon.
SEA OF TRANQUILITY [***]
The production values—with an especially fine cast—at the Atlantic Theatre are admirable in giving voice & vision to Howard Korder's Sea of Tranquility. This is no small feat, for Korder's take-no-prisoners playwriting-style projects his themes through characters who are closer to caricatures. The Playbill indicates that the Time is The Present and the Place is Santa Fé, New Mexico. Actually, given the oddballs on stage, it's more like a Time-Warp, back to late 1960s Hippiedom.
My take on this may be misplaced, for when I am in Santa Fé, I usually find myself among expatriate retired New Yorkers whose aim in life is to find a bagel with cream-cheese somewhere in the city-blocks of real and fake adobes. Of course, Santa Fé and nearby Taos have long been refuges for poets, artists, misfits, and various crazies. Think Mabel Dodge Luhan, D. H. & Frieda Lawrence, and Georgia O'Keefe, for starters.
Korder's focal-couple, Ben & Nessa [Dylan Baker & Patricia Kalember], have left Connecticut for a New Life in New Mexico. If they had read either Freud or Ralph Waldo Emerson, they would have known that they'd bring their old selves and old problems with them. Nonetheless, there are some hilarious moments as they and a vivid selection of quasi-caricatures self-destruct—and demolish others in the process.
The Good Book advises us not to build our houses upon sand, but upon The Rock. Unfortunately for Nessa, they did not build their adobe, so they could not know that it was constructed over a toxic-waste dump. Nessa develops a terrible rash and seems to be dying at the close, when she leaves Ben definitively. Not a Happy Play…
Neil Pepe staged in Santo Loquasto's revolving settings. The actors were apparently chosen by Bernard Telsey Casting. Or were they merely winnowed down for final selection by Pepe? How does this work now?
UN BECOMING [***]
Although playwright Rick Schweikert is in no danger of losing his womb to a smooth-talking, money-hungry, and totally dishonest surgeon, he has written a play about such dangers on women's behalf. This by-the-numbers drama is what used to be called a Thesis Play: It Has A Message To Impart!
Un Becoming just had its World Premiere on West 45th Street, in conjunction with the 23rd Annual Hysterectomy Conference. This event was presented by the HERS Foundation. This anagram spells out as Hysterectomy Educational Resources and Services. It provides "full, accurate information about hysterectomy, its adverse effects, and alternative treatments."
In brief, an artist has been having bleeding problems. She's living with a doctor—who is having an affair with another doctor [female] at his hospital. He and yet another doctor [male], his close friend—who will do the operation, have decided some removals are necessary, perhaps the ovaries. The latter doctor has been drinking too much. Not a promising prognosis for intensive surgical explorations.
A running-interlude demonstrates that all these doctors ask patients to sign a release, without really reading or understanding it. The threat of Cancer is a powerful motivation. When they come to—only to discover to their collective horrors that their wombs have been removed—they are urged to be grateful that no cancer was found!
The artist's formerly close friend, now a lackluster shadow of her fomer self, was operated on by the smoothie-surgeon, her own husband! Removing her womb has destroyed her ambition, energy, interest, even any vestige of sexual sensation.
Both the play and the staging need some work to prevent this from seeming an acted-out seminar. There is a tedious dinner-scene which makes Omnium Gatherum seem a masterpiece by comparison. There are overlong pauses, which could be called pregnant, were they not motivated by the total absence of reproductive equipment.
The actors all do their work very well, but they don't have much to work with in terms of character. The playwright and one of the cast co-directed.
Personal Notes: The day after this show, I met with a former student who is a dynamic actress, talented director, and dedicated teacher of acting. Faced with the threat of internal cancer, she had the operation excoriated in the drama. Before the operation, she was a shadow of her former self. After the operation, she had energy and purpose as never before. So there are more sides to this story than explored in the play.
Years ago, when my own mother was already in her eighties, she called me from California in tearful terror. This formidable and utterly courageous woman was reduced to paralyzing fear, having been told she had Ovarian Cancer. She was 81 years old! The surgeon had X-rayed her three times, to make sure his diagnosis was correct.
That was three sets of X-rays to be paid for, of course. I already knew this self-satisfied surgeon to be Country Club-oriented and the owner of some thoroughbred horses. He was always in need of additional funding to support his Big City Life Style in a small Sierra Foothills town. And, as Un Becoming suggests, Big Ticket Operations are a gold-mine.
Fortunately, the operation was scheduled so I could fly out after my weekly teaching-stint at Brooklyn College. I arrived in time to accompany my mother for a final check-up and the doctor's assurances that it was indeed cancer, but that she would make a full recovery.
The next morning, I sat in the cold reception room of the hospital for four long hours. Four Hours! What was he doing in there? Finally, he emerged, with blood up to his elbows. He had found no cancer. Her ovaries were OK, but he was going to remove them for good luck anyway. [Another billing-procedure, as well!]
The problem, it seemed was in her lower colon—which he had never suspected. He said it was—or sounded to me like—"Diverticulosis." And he proposed to remove the diseased portion of the colon and divert the end of the remainder to a hole in her left side.
Unfortunately, to carry out this procedure—unlike the doctors in the play—he would have to sew her up, wake her up, and get her signed-permission for the operation. [Another billing!] After which, in several weeks, he would open her up again and remove the offending section of her colon. That fine new horse had to be paid for!
I feared she'd never survive another operative invasion, so I signed permission for the procedure. He returned to the operating-room and was soon finished. She was very groggy when she woke from the anaesthesia. My cousin Bernice had driven all night from Southern California to be with her at home, as I had to fly back to NYC and Brooklyn College.
When I called her a day later, she was furious with me: "I hope you have to have a colostomy some day! Then you'll know exactly what it's like."
This maternal outburst was true to form. Twenty years before, she and my late father had come to New York for the World's Fair in 1965. I had to go off to Europe for the major festivals soon after they were to go back to California. But, amazingly, she liked New York so much, she decided to stay on with cousins for a while. Only two days in London, I received two airmail letters from Brooklyn,
Before I opened them—one from my cousin, one from her—I knew something terrible had happened. She was never one to waste all that money on airmail stamps! She'd had a heart-attack in the subway but didn't know what had happened to her. Long story made short: When I got back from Europe and called her, she said: "You owe me $5,000 for the hospital-bill at Methodist Hospital. You made us come to New York when we didn't want to! I just hope you have a heart-attack so you'll know what it feels like. It was like an Elephant sitting on my chest!"
Almost a year later, at Brooklyn College Commencement, I suddenly felt an Elephant sitting on my chest. I was rushed to Maimonides Hospital—"Dietary Laws strictly observed"—where nine EKG's convinced the doctors I'd had a major coronary incident.
Two days later, I should have been on the plane to festivals in Bayreuth, Salzburg, London, Edinburgh, Munich, and Bregenz. I was to cover productions for The Christian Science Monitor, for which I had been writing cultural reports. A CS Practitioner came to the hospital and told me to sign myself out and get on the plane. I was—you should pardon the expression—Scared To Death, so I didn't do it.
When I was released from Maimonides, I was told I would not be writing for the Monitor anymore. I had "Not Demonstrated Christian Science!"
I told my former editors in Boston that I was not a Christian Scientist. "But you write like a Scientist! And when you come up to Boston, you always go with us to the Mother Church or the Church in Cambridge. We all thought you were a practicing Scientist."
I explained that I have long been interested in all religions, and that I had read and re-read Mary Baker Eddy's Science & Health, With Key To The Scriptures. In fact, I have a great admiration for this remarkable and couragerous woman—and I have had Healings in Christian Science.
But what was special about Writing Like a Christian Scientist?
"Your work has always been distinguished by its clarity, accuracy, thoughtfulness, truthfulness, and compassion. Those are qualities we expect at the Monitor."
"But that's what I was taught in Journalism classes at UC/Berkeley. It's not Science especially, just good reporting…"
DROWNING CROW [**]
Actress/Playwright Regina Taylor recently delighted Off-Broadway audiences with Crowns, her charming salute to the wonderful Sunday Hats of African-American church-ladies, shown at Second Stage. Before that, she won the prestigious ACTA/Steinberg Award for Best New American Play, a jazz-meditation called Oo-Bla-Dee—which I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, not such an odd venue as you might think.
Now, however, she has unfortunately uncrowned herself with an embarrassing African-American reworking of Chekhov's The Seagull. The beautiful symbolic sea bird—slain by the frustrated young would-be playwright Constantine—has been transformed by Taylor into a hideous dead crow. It unwittingly becomes a visual metaphor for what Taylor has done to Chekhov's tragic vision.
And, for good or bad-measure, she has thrown into the Voodoo Stew some other bits of Chekhov and a famous moment from Hamlet. In Drowning Crow, it's not only the "sea-crow" that's going down for the third time. At least she refrained from titling her drama Bye-Bye, Blackbird!
Taylor is on record as feeling an affinity for Chekhov's world, as he was, she says, descended from Russian Serfs, whom she equates with Afro Slaves. There are, of course, some major differences between these two groups of indentured humans. The serfs were never transported from Mother Russia to the New World, for one.
Nonetheless, the sea-change of transporting The Seagull from Russia to the coastal islands of the Carolinas—where Gullah is the predominant dialect—has introduced Voudou, Rap, and Hip-Hop, among other ethnic expressions of spirit, sensuality, and sensibility. This results in song & dance interludes which in no way advance the plot or enrich character. They just pad out the evening. Unfortunately as well, some of the cast are vocally challenged.
Anglo couples on both sides of me were baffled at what they saw and heard: "Do you have any idea of what this is about?" One couple left at intermission.
Playwrights who decide to rework already classic dramas have to be very clever—and also very secure in their craft and imagination. The new play should be able to stand on its own, with no reference to Hamlet or The Seagull. There is even a passing reference to August Wilson's Seven Guitars!
Josh Logan managed this very well when he turned Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard into The Wisteria Trees. The danger—which Taylor has not been able to avert or avoid—is writing a play which invites constant comparison with the original, often making the adaptation look & sound like parody, rather than homage. Even a play which is clearly a satire of an original can be most welcome. Drowning Crow is neither successful homage nor ingenious satire.
Director Marion McClinton—who has done well with Wilson—indulges Taylor and puts his generally dedicated cast through some very embarrassing paces. Rising above the sea-crow waves are Alfre Woodard—a tempestuous version of Arkadina, Peter Francis James, Anthony Mackie, and Aunjanue Ellis, who—much luckier than Chekhov's unfortunate Nina—at the close is going off on a tour of Ragtime! Would that we had been watching that show rather than Drowning Crow!
Truly, the most impressive aspects of this frantic production are the cut-out settings of the brilliant David Gallo and the video-images of Wendall K. Harrington. In the final act, the stark black Plantation Mansion parlor, covered with C-Trip's chalked graffiti, is an artwork in itself, worthy of inclusion in the next Whitney Biennial!
Constrasted to the misadventures of Aristophanes' Lysistrata over in Brooklyn's DUMBO, Greek Tragic Playwrights have been crowned with honor recently. After an impressive National Actors Theatre staging of The Persians down at Pace College, the Aquila Theatre Company has produced an admirable revival of Aeschylus' Agamemnon at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. And, if ever there was a play which cried out for Criminal Justice, this bloody tragedy is It.
That grand and honored actress, Olympia Dukakis, is majestic and menacing as the murderous Clytemnestra. Her ill-fated husband, Louis Zorich/Agamemnon, unfortunately seems worn out by the Trojan War. He comes not so much as a Conquering Hero—with his booty and his new slave, the prophetess/princess Cassandra—as a battered general, looking forward to retirement.
The most amazing moments in this staging, however, are provided by the heart-rending outcries of the doomed Cassandra, wonderfully embodied in Miriam Laube. Marco Barricelli's brazen Aegisthus is also admirable & formidable. The low-key chorus of Athenian Elders could be Mafia coffin-bearers in their black fedoras and coats. Nicholas Kepros is among them.
Founded in London but now based in New York, Aquila is led by Peter Meineck and Robert Richmond—who co-directed the Agamemnon. Their marvelous version of A Midsummer Night's Dream was a recent hit on 42nd Street at the New Victory Theatre. A special edition of this production will tour 30 New York City schools. Based at NYU—in the Center for Ancient Studies, no less—Aquila now tours some 60 performing-arts centers across the US.
There are two more Aquila productions forthcoming in the current season: Othello and an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King. But these will be presented at the Baruch [College] Performing Arts Center—still in the CUNY Family, however. Both these productions are scheduled to tour 70 cities in 32 states, from Maine to Canada. So you may well want to check out Aquila and its Agamemnon.
For more Aquila information: www.aquilatheatre.com
ODYSSEY: THE HOMECOMING [***]
This Rajastani-influenced version of The Odyssey is Theodora Skipitares' second section of her projected trilogy about The Trojan War. Shown briefly in the LaMaMa Annex, it was remarkably spare, compared with previous elaborate & inventive Skipitares productions. It may be that the sands of time are wearing down her fantasy & ingenuity. Rajasthan—which I recently visited—is notoriously sandy. Or Skipitares' production-budgets may be shrinking—as with all the arts under The War President.
This spareness was no disservice to the unfolding of the tale of Odysseus. In fact, it focused more sharply on the picaresque incidents in his travels, offering a mixture of Moghul & Greek Vase imagery to provide an intermissionless overview of his wanderings, ordained by an angry Neptune.
It opened with the revelation of a colorful cloth—painted by Rajastani artists in Delhi, where this show was developed. With bold red framings, the picture-banner's compartments illustrated the story to come: a Hindi Preview of Coming Attractions. This proved a worthy extension of the Indian-influenced Helen of Troy production which preceded it.
Large head-masks, Hindu rod-operated shadow-puppets, a Bunraku-puppet Odysseus, and mini-people—whose trunks & legs were attached to puppeteers' arms—provided most of the visual fantasies. Segments of an old black & white film of Odysseus' adventures—especially those scenes of the slaughter of Penelope's suitors—seemed oddly jarring and unnecessary.
There was even a lighted model of Walter Reed Army Hospital as a visual-aid to underscore the relevance of the ancient Greek tale to the current War on Terror.
Were Skipitares not so faithful to her Original Sources, she could have reworked the old legend to make it very Topical-Satirical: Odysseus Bush is fated by the God of War to sail around the Greek Islands for many years, searching for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Unfortunately, at one off-shore tax-shelter island, All the President's Men are turned into Swine, including Donald Rumsfeld, with his Achilles-Heel.
But Theodora Skipitares is much too serious to descend to such vulgar levels of topical entertainment.
THE MYSTERIES [*****]
Every three years, the Auncient Citie of York revives its Medieval Mystery Cycle. And triennially these simple Biblical dramas—featuring ordinary people who might have walked in the Shambles of York hundreds of years ago—always prove their power to move spectators. But then they were traditionally performed by members of York's Guilds of Craftsmen, ordinary men like their neighbors in the streetside audiences.
The Mysteries have a certain power even for those for whom the legends of the Torah & Old Testament are no more than quaint allegories, as well as for those skeptics who view the Passion of Christ as little more than power-oriented Mythologising. The York Cycle is presented in the ruins of Saint Mary's Abbey—destroyed by order of King Henry VIII, who had marriage-issues with the Pope.
Records of the performances of the York Cycle, however, make it clear the various mini-dramas were performed on Pageant-Wagons which rolled through the already-ancient city, stopping at major crossings to play and re-play their cautionary tales. In modern traffic-congested York—which still retains its medieval walls—this form of reconstruction is now impossible. But a few wagons are still brought forth for samples of the plays in squares and public-spaces not crowded with cars and trucks.
The York Cycle is not the sole biblical saga to survive, however. The town of Chester's Cycle is still extant, as is the Wakefield/Townley Cycle. Some seasons ago in London, a starkly & simply set revival of The Mysteries proved an immense popular success. That success has surely been echoed in the excellent production recently staged by Bryan Kulick at the Classic Stage Company. This staging is so fresh, so imaginative, so amusing, so serious, so human, and so vital that it deserves a wider, longer life, both in New York and beyond the Hudson.
The first half of Kulick's edition of The Mysteries opens with the York Cycle's Creation—with Sam Tsoutsouvas as an almost benevolent G-d—and Adam & Eve. Chandler Williams and Jennifer Roszell appeared totally nude and entirely innocent, dazzled by what the Creation had wrought.
Until a naughty Lucifer seduced Eve, who found herself almost engulfed in apples, as the Angels dumped basket after basket of Red Delicious—or were they MacIntosh?—around the stage-space. Who could resist? Certainly not an impressionable, emotional, instinctive female like Eve—whom the priestly authors of the York Cycle—as did the entire Catholic Hierarchy for hundreds of years—blamed for Adam's Fall & Original Sin. [Actually, Original Sin is not that original—and greatly over-rated…]
From the Wakefield Cycle, Kulick selected the plays of Cain & Abel, Noah's Flood, and Abraham & Isaac. It is quite clear in the former drama that G-d is not a Vegetarian. Only red-meat sacrifices are acceptable. But Cain is presented in this play as being selfish, shifty, and completely lacking in respect for his Creator, so he deserves to have his reluctant offering rejected. Poor Abel, however, did not deserve to be repeatedly bashed with the jaw-bone of an ass.
Although Noah [Bill Buell] and his nagging, tongue-wagging wife [Ms. Roszell again] have only a small flat-bottomed boat to ride out the Great Flood, enough buckets of water are thrown on them by attendant Angels to re-float the Titanic. This is a very funny—and entirely innovative—re-staging of this Medieval Classic.
The first section concludes with the Visit of the Three Magi from the Chester Cycle, announcing the arrival of the Saviour of the World.
Kulick's second-section, however, is a totally modern vision of The Passion, often comic/satiric/sceptic, thanks to the introduction of Dario Fo's Mysterio Buffo version of the Raising of Lazarus; Borislav Pekic's Miracle at Bethany—in which the Sanhedrin wants to negate the Miracle of Lazarus for relio-political reasons; Mikhail Bulgakov's ironic re-enactment of the Judgment of Pilate, and Fo's The Fool Beneath the Cross. The evening concludes with a return to the ancient roots of the Mysteries: the Harrowing of Hell from the Chester Cycle.
This is an entirely enjoyable evening in the theatre, both for the pious and the perplexed. For theatre-students, it should prove much more interesting and enlightening than a week of Theatre History Lectures!
From Classic Greek Theatre to Medieval Mysteries and on to Shakespeare! Topped off with Chekhov Revisited & Rewritten! All that's missing this month to provide a Survey of Western Theatre History are dramas by Aphra Behn, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and George Bernard Shaw! Ireland's Dion Bouccicault was recently represented at the Irish Rep, so the 19th Century has "not been neglected neither," as Paddy would say.
Thanks to director Bartlett Sher and Theatre for a New Audience, Shakespeare-In-Performance has been somewhat redeemed across the East River at BAM. The Fall Season began with a spectacular mis-adventure in Henry IV. Fortunately, the BAM/Harvy Pericles is poles apart from the affectless, artless, awful Henry. If anything, Sher's Pericles is much too affected: over-the-top even in the comic scenes.
The BAM audience certainly seemed to savour the low comedy and the varied ship-wrecks of the hapless hero, the Prince of Tyre. Nonetheless, the cast seemed uneven, with some players needing directorial restraint or even re-direction.
In any case, Pericles is a very problematic play, not least because it is only partially from Shakespeare's pen. Years ago at Stratford-Upon-Avon, Ian Richardson invited me to his dressing-room to discuss the difficulties of acting Pericles, especially in shifting instantly from lines by the Bard to much more awkward phrases by another hand. It was intermission, and he was not looking forward to the challenge of the second part. At BAM, Tim Hopper did not seem in the least intimidated by the obvious challenges of this role.
More challenging than the actual speeches, however, is the picaresque nature of the drama, collaged out of a number of ancient tales—including the Snow White Legend of an evil queen sending the hated foster-daughter off to die in the woods at the hands of a reluctant retainer. This script is a regular hotch-potch of disparate stories, held together only by the Old Welsh Story-Teller, Gower.
Only those Pericles productions in which Gower has been made meaningfully central have—for me, at least—made the play interesting. Brenda Wehle worked very hard in this demanding role, but Sher's staging did not achieve the desired effect. In fact, Christopher Ackerlind's glass-shards, candles, and swatches of curtains did not create an effective or interesting environment for the unfolding drama. His costumes, however, had to make up for what was missing in setting. Moghul Princes of India would have loved to have these glittering gowns & robes in their wardrobes!
KING LEAR [***]
The Shakespeare Stage of Canada's Stratford Festival has been reconstructed on the thrust of the Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center. It is a symbolic/synthetic evocation of Shakepeare's Globe Theatre, but it is also a very effective unit-set for the Bard's dramas. As such, it serves the Stratford production of King Lear very well indeed. It makes an especially handsome showcase for the splendid Jacobean costumes of Clare Mitchell. And the actors generally move and pose to show these fine garments to very good effect.
Unfortunately, Jonathan Miller's staging has about it a feeling of a ceremonial, in which the costumes must play an important part, as those inside them are often not in command of the stage or their roles. Obviously, Miller had to work with Stratford's ensemble and cast from them. Otherwise, he might have made some more effective choices of actors for certain challenging roles.
Native-Canadian actor Christopher Plummer is amazingly powerful as Lear in the first section of this challenging tragedy. But the performance begins to deteriorate as Lear's madness overcomes him. He doesn't command or elicit pity or terror on the heath or after, as he should. This is partly owing to sharing the stage with a wispy weak Edgar, whose Poor Tom makes one long for the Cliffs of Dover and the end of it all.
Benedict Campell, as good old Kent, is strong and steadfast. Barry MacGregor—once a very handsome leading-man—is marvelous as the Fool. Seldom have his jests been tossed off with better comic—and tragic—effect. James Blendick's Gloucester is workmanlike, not tragic, as he might have been.
In the Gwyneth Paltrow-role, Claire Jullilen is fairly pale & wan as Cordelia. Unfortunately, instead of developing into monsters before the audience's collective eyes, Goneril & Regan are handsomely-coiffed sneering demons from the first. What could Miller have been thinking of, to permit this exercise in melodramatic caricature? As the intriguing demonic bastard Edmund, Geraint Wyn Davies lacked seriously dark & sexy power. He could have been the understudy for the part.
Musicals Old & New—
GOLF: The Musical [***]
If this cute show can find an enthusiastic audience, can TENNIS: The Opera be far behind? London already has a Big Hit in Jerry Springer: The Opera, so why not? A mutual friend of mine and Golf's producer-conceptualizer Eric Krebs assured me I didn't have to know anything about golf to enjoy the songs and the comedy. She was only partly right in that, but I believe I actually learned something about the game from composer Michael Roberts' clever lyrics.
I still have absolutely no interest in watching the Augusta or the Palm Springs Open—if those are the right venues and Open the correct term. Nor do I have any desire to get out on a golf-course and try my luck. Watching this intimate show in the tiny basement theatre at the John Houseman was sufficient.
When in Edinburgh for the annual Festival and Fringe, it always astonishes me to see little kids out in any of the many parks swinging golf-clubs. But golf is, after all, the National Sport of Scotland—when burly Scots are not Throwing the Cabar or Hurling the Stone in the Highland Games.
It's amusing to watch Bing Crosby & Bob Hope on the links again, reprising their infamous On the Road To film-series. But the jokes are appalling. Golf-jokes tend to be abysmal anyway, even when worked out in needle-point on a cushion: OLD GOLFERS NEVER DIE: THEY JUST LOSE THEIR BALLS!
In this show, four attractive performers manage to cover all eighteen holes: Joel Blum, Sal Viviano, Christopher Sutton, and Angela Madaline. And, yes, Virginia, THERE IS AUDIENCE-PARTICIPATION!
THEY WROTE THAT? [****]
Wednesday, 25 February, was a day packed with theatrical excitements. An old gent collapsed during a reading of View from the Bridge at Food for Thought's luncheon-theatre. A few hours later, Governor George Pataki was keeping time and singing along with Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil!
As well he might, because this talented team has given the world such hits as Blame It on the Bossa Nova, Uptown, Close To Heaven, Here You Come Again, Just a Little Loving, Never Gonna Let You Go, Hungry, Walking in the Rain, as well as songs with others, such as Only in America, Sometimes When We Touch, Running with the Night, Don't Know Much, He's So Shy, On Broadway, & Somewhere Out There.
Not only is this show a great Hit Parade in concert, but it's also a very interesting illustrated seminar in how songs get written, recorded, promoted, and even canonized in our popular culture. Cythina Weil gives a running commentary on the Mann-Weil collaboration and marriage. She leaves most of the singing to Barry and a wonderful trio of Daria Hardeman, Deb Lyons, and Jenelle Lynn Randall. Fred Mollin on guitar leads the combo. Richard Maltby, Jr., staged the duo and their friends in a recording-studio mock-up.
At the McGinn-Cazale Theatre, this is a limited engagement. But it's so good that the run should be extended. And it should tour. But that's probably not possible as Barry and Cynthia still have more songs to write and miles to go before their next show.
Ann Hoyt and Justin Vickers as Tom in Seymour Barab's comic opera "A Perfect Plan," at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia (Peter Norton Symphony Space). Photo credit: Mimi Lien
A PERFECT PLAN [**]
Not having had time to read the Program Notes beforehand, as I watched the peculiar narrative of A Perfect Plan's imperfect maze of plot-devices unfold—even to the point of unravelling altogether—the thought that W. S. Gilbert would have managed this affair much more adroitly and been much more witty about it as well kept nagging. Only when I read the notes did I discover that composer/lyricist Seymour Barab had "freely adapted" this from a play by Gilbert. What a shame Sir Arthur Sullivan didn't provide Gilbert with a score. It might have discouraged Barab from attacking this material.
This was the World Premiere of Perfect Plan, staged by After Dinner Opera & Encompass New Opera Theatre at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre of Symphony Space. These two worthy organizations are to be praised for their dedication to giving new works a hearing. Nonetheless, it might have helped to have an opera-dramaturg to study the score and the libretto rather more closely before deciding to produce this painful effort. The score seemed derivative when it was not repetitive. And the obvious, even clichéd, rhymes of the lyrics suggested themselves before they were sung. Oh, for a bit of Sondheim's wit. Or even the considerable cleverness of W. S. "Bab-Ballad" Gilbert himself!
The flavor, or aroma, of the plot & characters suggested Edwardian sensibilities—if not Victorian—but the program insisted the action was occuring in the 1930s in "an American City." To that end, set-designer Mimi Lien devised a simple but severely stylish & elegant black & white checkerboard milieu, including screens echoing the aesthetic of Eileen Gray. Really, more Art Deco Belgravia than suburban Cincinatti. Marianne Powell-Parker's gowns for the ladies were Deco stunning.
The generally attractive singers were in excellent voice and played their curious roles with a stylized melodrama which somewhat excused what they were asked to sing and do. Encompass's Nancy Rhodes directed, with John Yaffé conducting.
NIJINSKY'S LAST DANCE--Hamburg Ballet recreates his "Wedding With God." Photo: ©Holger Badekow/2004.
John Neumeier's Nijinsky is one of the most powerful, moving, and theatrical of modern choreographies. The wonder of it is that Neumeier's Hamburg Ballet is so brilliant and virtuosic that not only Nijinsky himself but all of his major ballet roles are regularly reprised in the kaleidoscopic context of this amazing talent's collaged memories as he descends into madness. The pity of it is that there were only three performances in New York—and that it has been such a long time since the Ballet's last visit to the city.
Alexandre Riabko was riveting as Nijinsky, required to perform remarkably athletic feats and demanding dancing while deeply immersed in the character of a great dancer/choreographer giving his farewell performance to the world in a "Wedding with God."
Not only the fascinating, constantly mutating choreography—a magical fusion of classical and modern—was Neumeier's vision of Nijinsky's genius and his madness, but also the sets, costumes, and lighting which evoked them. Neumeier was inspired by designs of Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst.
The narrative-frame of the Hamburg production is Nijinsky's last performance in St. Moritz, in the Grand Ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel—which Neumeier has partially recreated onstage. As Nijinsky begins to be inspired in his improvised movement, memories of his family, his early training, his triumphs with the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet, his artistic & sensual liason with Sergei Diaghilev, his successes as choreographer and star of the Ballets Russes, his disastrous marriage to Romola, and the horrors of The Great War all flood in upon him. Evocations of his great roles are vividly imagined and danced, but the final War Ballet sequence is devastating.
Major roles are double-cast, but the second-cast is also certainly of first-rank. Anna Polikarpova was elegant & emotive as Romola. Yukichi Hattori danced Nijinsky's brother Stanislav, with Elizabeth Loscavio as his sister, Bronislava. Ivan Urban was brilliant as Diaghilev. Heather Jorgenson was compelling as Tamara Karsavina.
Nijinsky premierd in Hamburg in 2000. Its New York performances are powerful testimony to the training, discipline, and espirit of Neumeier's company, as well as of their collective talents for dance & mime. From the founding of the Hamburg troupe, Neumeier has shown extraordinary ability to discover and develop brilliant new young dancers.
Quite likely, had the young Milwaukee-born American dancer, Johnny Neumeier, remained in the United States, he could never have achieved what he has created by going to Europe to make his career. After World War II—when the devastations of combat and massive bombing had severely depleted the ranks of young talents—young American singers and dancers were especially welcome on the stages of West Germany. Neumeier first joined John Cranko's Stuttgart Ballet. Then he was summoned to direct the Frankfurt Ballet. Finally, the late Intendant August Everding invited him to the Hamburg Opera to create an entirely new ballet company. It was my good fortune to watch Neumeier and his choreography develop.
Not only did he make the Hamburg Ballet an important new force for building an increased awareness of and interest in classical and modern dance, but he created a vital young company which absolutely astonished traditionalists. But he also took an exciting New Look at famed Classical Program Ballets, often outfitting the scores with impressive new libretti. I was fortunate to be invited to watch the development of his new Nutcracker, for Dance Magazine.
Alexandra Ansanelli and Damian Woetzel in "Rubies".Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik:
One of the most beautiful of the New York City Ballet's various tributes to its creator, George Balanchine, on the occasion of his Centenary is its stunning revival of his glittering Jewels. Premiered in 1967 to great critical acclaim—and immense public delight—it was the first three-act ballet without a narrative. Nor was it designed as an evocation of the three gem-stones which title its three sections: Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds.
Although the sparkling costumes of Karinska and the gleaming jewel-accented settings of Peter Harvey—quite different for each act—do highlight the jewel-like precision and brilliance of Balanchine's choreography, as executed by his dancer-heirs, the entire ballet is a demonstration of varied facets of classical dancing. Each section focuses on different skills and movements.
Emeralds is set to music by Gabriel Fauré, from his Pélléas et Mélisande and Shylock. Outstanding in the delicate subtleties of the Balanchine choreographies were Jenifer Ringer & James Fayette, Miranda Weese & Stephen Hanna, as well as Jennifer Tinsley, Arch Higgins, and Pascale van Kipnis.
Igor Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano & Orchestra is the musical inspiration for Rubies. Cameron Grant played the piano solo. Featured were the admirable dancers Alexandra Ansanelli, Damien Woetzel, and Teresa Reichlen.
Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3 in D Major lent its ice-blue overtones to the sparkling Diamonds, with the spotlight on the brilliant Maria Kowroski and Philip Neal. Of course, if you didn't actually see these performances and only read Robert Gottlieb's sour review in The Observer, you might be led to believe that some species of artistic misadventure had occurred onstage. But Balanchine was able to choreograph his ballets on such brilliant stars as Suzanne Farrell, Edward Villella, Violette Verdy, and Patricia McBride. The New York City Ballet is now not the company it was in the Great Days of Balanchine, alas. But its principals and corps are certainly more than adequate, much more than that.
Andrea Quinn conducted with both precision and spirit. She also has lustrous hair, which is an added treat to audiences accustomed to staring at bald pates of older male conductors.
Designer Peter Harvey understands very well how to create stunning settings for ballets—as well as for the theatre. No matter how splendid the designs, the sets should never upstage the choreography nor the stars. Harvey's sets—both for the 1967 original and for this revival—wonderfully evoke the color, clarity, and brilliance of the three gem-stones. But they also illuminate & complement the choreographies and the dancers. They do not compete. For Emeralds, the wings are pastel green, with a mysteriously abstract green fantasy background and simple swooping strings of gems suspended in the air. For Rubies, strong red and red-shadings are invoked, with verticals of red-gems. Ice-blue is evoked for Diamonds, which is a color-image appropriate to both the glittering facets of cut-diamonds and the sparkling clarity of the choreography.
These three settings achieve their maximal visual effect high above the stage, so the surface is left completely free for dancing. Set-pieces sitting on stage—like a Throne for Aurora's Wedding—may aid in creating illusion in narrative ballets, but they can also distract and create obstructions.
Personal Note: I first came to know Peter Harvey when he designed a cute little show at Café Cino, called Dames at Sea. It featured an unknown Bernadette Peters. When it moved Off-Broadway, Harvey created marvelous Hollywood Movie Musical stage-effects—which were preserved in the cinema-version—for almost nothing. I reported on his genius in Busby Berkeley on a Budget, my first assignment for Theatre Crafts.
New From Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysterical Theatre:
KING COWBOY RUFUS RULES THE UNIVERSE [****]
Richard Foreman's Annual Jewel-Box-Prettified Iconical Theatricals are always something very special in the way of integrated stage & costume-design, archly overacted performance-style, bizarrely bold lighting-effects, and darkly mysterious symbols of strange demonic passions & possessions.
Ontological-Hysterical productions seldom reverberate with resonances with the World of Reality as most audiences experience it. But this winter Foreman has imagined and realized a sort of Political Satire as a salute to the run-up to the 2004 Presidental Election.
Jay Smith—as the effete, Restoration-Foppish King Cowboy—may well be intended as an outrageous parody of the Cowboy From Crawford, shooting off his six-guns & his mouth at any target in sight. But he's actually much more like a much earlier Bluster-Prone President, the Rough-Rider, Strenuous-Lifer, Teddy Roosevelt. As a nightmarish vision of Presidential Power gone berserk, however, this show will surely delight both Bush Haters and lovers of Avant-Garde Experiments as well.
Nonetheless, it's a safe bet Pres. Geo. W. Bush would never recognize himself in King Cowboy Rufus. It's an even safer bet that VP Dick Cheney—hiding in a secret undisclosed [redundant] location—would never permit him to enter the tiny attic-theatre in historic St. Mark's-in-the Bouwerie. After all, Peter Stuyvesant's ghost still haunts the church-yard!
From time to time, it's an interesting respite to move one's dazzled eyes from the intensely & intricately decorated stage-setting and manic acting to Richard Foreman himself. He sits unsmiling in the front-row at a tiny control-board, intently watching everything in action. His virtually unchanging expression betrays no reaction to what he sees & hears. His mini-control-board may well be a symbol of his puppet-master production techniques, for Foreman is Avant-Garde Theatre's Arch Control-Freak. With always interesting & glittering & baffling results…
WHAT IN THE WORLD: The NEWsical Revue [****]
If you have enjoyed Forbidden Broadway—currently at the Douglas Fairbanks, on Theatre Row—you should be chagrined to realize that you have just missed a wonderful new satiric show that's every bit as good. This is Rick Cron's What In The World—and it has just closed almost next-door to the Fairbanks.
In a chaotic time—when impertinent political & cultural satire is in very short-supply—Rick Cron has hilariously lampooned such touchy topics as Airport Security, The War President, Michael Jackson's Sleeping-Arrangements, the Terror-Alert Color-Coded Warning System, and the IQ & Good-Taste of Anna Nicole Smith. Cron's tunes are hummable, and his clever lyrics almost Sondheimian. His spot-on flamboyant send-up of Liza with a Z makes The Boy from Oz look pale in comparison.
Operating on a very restricted Wartime Budget, Cron and his energetic producer, Fred M. Caruso, have put their Production-Values money into some colorful costumes & outrageous wigs, instead of comic backdrops and jokey set-pieces & props. The wigs work especially well as Rose, Jack, & Jackie Kennedy look down from Heaven on the new Governor of California. He is a relative-by-marriage, but he lacks the Kennedy Know-How: Arnold cannot pronounce the name of the State he is said to Govern!
Directed with verve by Collette Black, Cron's attractive & versatile cast are wonderful at Instant Impersonations. Their lightning-fast costume-changes amaze. They are Christopher Regan, Eadie Scott, Kelly Howe, and John Flynn. You will surely want to see them again and again when What In The World returns to a new venue in June!
Frankly, Cron's songs & sketches and his cast are all superior to the over-praised but under-imagined Capital Steps, which has now been seen twice on Theatre Row. At a time when the most outrageous lies are flooding the media—not to mention the most bizarre celebrity self-promotions—satirical skits and songs with Cron's distinctive flair for parody and social-critique are really what the Republic now needs! Cron and company scan the dailies to make sure their show stays on top of Topicality, both politically and celebrity-wise.
But your reporter would have missed this delightful show altogether had he not trundled down the steep steps of the John Houseman basement to see Golf: The Musical. What In The World was playing in a space even smaller than Golf's cubicle, just around the corner of the Manahttan-schist passageway. Producer Fred Caruso—you may have seen him in Big River—was enthusiastically offering people waiting to see Golf the opportunity to buy T-shirts for The NEWsical Revue.
Usually, when a show of this ingenuity, cleverness, and quality is opening, there is a lively press-release and an invitation to review the production in the mail-box or the e-mail. And an ad-campaign. When the show resumes in June, it should let the world know about What In The World!
It should also find an attractive central venue on the ground-floor. Older audiences—who have lived a little & a lot—are apt to be even more welcoming of Cron's satires, but they don't like to Do Stairs. It would also add a lot to the Production Values if Cron and Caruso could get an ingenious designer like David Gallo to create a visually satiric frame & set-props for them. The costumes & wigs are just fine as they are.
Two Entries at the New Victory:
THE GRUFFALO [****]
What's a Gruffalo? The name sounds like a Gruff Buffalo, but the actuality is really more Sendakian. In fact, if I hadn't already known that this mythic beast is the Anti-Hero of the kiddie picture-book titled The Gruffalo, I'd swear this fearsome animal was another charming creation of Maurice Sendak. Julia Donaldson devised the story, with illustrations by Axel Scheffler.
And now a tremendously talented troupe of three thespians has transformed the tale into a dynamic acting-challenge. The trio are Dereck Elroy, Sean Kempton, and Michaela O'Connor. Under the direction of Olivia Jacobs—and with the production oversight of Toby Mitchell—they animate a typical tiny-tot tale of mini-heroics.
O' Connor is Mouse, a tiny creature who dares to enter the dark forest in search of nuts. She encounters three mouse-hungry Predators—all impersonated with zest by Kempton. They are an Owl, a Snake in a bullfighter's Traje de Luces, and a foxy Fox. But Mouse out-foxes them all with her impending tea-date with an imagined Gruffalo.
When Elroy assumes the Gruffalo suit, he becomes mouse-hungry as well. Clever Mouse plays him off against her previous three victories. This is all accomplished with song and dance, so the show is really a mini-musical. And audience-interactive, as well, for kids were asked by Mouse to make huge Gruffalo-sounds to scare off the Predators. She also begged them to keep very quiet when she was in danger.
But there were a lot of little Benedict Arnolds in the audience who were only too eager to shout out to the Gruffalo where Mouse was hiding: Between His Legs! Attorney General John Ashcroft would love these Future Informers.
Fortunately for the scores of kids who loved the show—and parents as well—there were baskets of stuffed Gruffalos on sale in the lobby. And the book, and the video, and the T-shirt! A few minutes later, in the Times Square subway station, I spotted a kid clutching his Gruffalo. "I know where you've been!" I said. He grinned and shook his little Monster proudly.
Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell are the creators of the London-based Tall Stories Theatre Company. In the wings for this spring, they have productions of Mum and the Monster, and The Owl and the Pussycat. Their shows have played at London's Royal National Theatre, as well as in Warsaw and Ontario.
Tall Stories runs workshops as well as creating shows. For more information: www.tallstories.org.uk
For those who haven't seen The Gruffalo, videos can be ordered from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Films: www.dresscircle.co.uk
You can even book the actual show on its current tour from Cheryle Hansen in Toronto. Try her e-mail: cherylekidsentertainment.net
IF YOU GO DOWN TO THE WOODS TODAY [**]
Not only has Canada sent Broadway its King Lear, it has also dispatched a French-Canadienne Francophone-choreographie. This is Hélène Blackburn's If You Go Down to the Woods Today. As one entered the New Victory, one feared the staff had neglected to sweep the stage or hang the sets. The bare backwall rose above a stage strewn with dead leaves. Not a case of No Expense Spared on This Production, but rather a very French Minimalist Deconstruction.
The small cast of Canadian-French-speakers explored childish Fears of the Dark, Monsters, Night, Robbers, and so on. This they did with hand, arm, torso, and facial gestures, often in a charming synchronicity. There was not much foot & leg choreography on offer. Parents & other adults were restless. In fact, even some of the small kids in the audience were becoming bored—rather than fearful—in the woods.
For myself, I couldn't wait to get Beyond the Forest…
LYSISTRATA 100 [***]
The very best thing about going over to DUMBO to see Edward Einhorn's adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata turned out to be the delicious pre-orgy dinner served upstairs at the Water Street Restaurant & Lounge. I sampled the Roast Half Chicken w/Fruit Stuffing, Whipped Potatoes, Vegetables & Sage Sauce. It was hearty & tasty. I'll be back for dinner—and for another theatre-adventure, for Water Street is hosting The Hoffman Circus in April & May in its downstairs UnderWater Theatre.
This floor-through loft-basement space is graced with fluted columns, appropriate background for a classic Greek comedy that's some 2500 years old. One of the wonders of Lysistrata is not only that it presents its major male characters with raging erections, but that it also prevents them from enjoying explicit sex on stage. Despite the repeated and outrageously seductive temptings of their clever wives.
Of all the comedies of Antiquity, Lysistrata still seems the most modern in its ideas about War & Peace and the War Between the Sexes. Well over two Millennia ago, a male Greek playwright dared to imagine Greek women of his time—whose social position was little better than that of Middle Eastern Muslim women today—banding together to put a stop to the endless macho wars among the males of the various Greek city-states. The on-going military squabbles not only ate up the civic treasury and disrupted daily life, but it also often resulted in the irreparable loss of husbands, sons, and fathers.
So Lysistrata's Plan for Peace is to have all Greek women refuse to gratify their husbands' marital—not martial—demands. As this is a comedy—historically performed for a largely male audience—the plan succeeds hilariously. But it's still topical! Just imagine what might have happened—or not happened—in Iraq if Laura Bush, Mrs. Cheney, Mrs. Colin Powell, Mrs. Rumsfeld, and Mrs. Wolfowitz all formed a United Front and refused to lie with their husbands until they promised to make Peace, not War! Not a likely scenario, unfortunately…
Back to DUMBO and its current Lysistrata: What first attracted me was the astounding news that there would be a Chorus of 50 men and 50 women! Even in the earliest Athenian Dionysia, the choruses were limited to 50 men, later reduced to 12, then raised to 15. More manageable… This also proved to be the case in the UnderWater Theatre. The space simply could not accomodate that many performers, let alone spectators.
Director/adaptor Einhorn—the name means Unicorn—must have stumbled on that photo-book of Richard Schechner's notorious Dionysus in '69, which all those decades ago innovatively inaugurated The Performing Garage. It was somewhere between a Happening and a scripted-show. But before the action got underway, the audience, scattered about the space, was treated to the temptations and seductions of the youthful cast, attired in scanty Greek costumes.
Knowing in advance what Schechner had planned for us—especially the critics—I climbed up a scaffold to a spotlight platform. Richard saw me trying to escape the simulated orgy below and sent two of his younger nymphets up the ladder. One of them cooed in my ear that I should flee with her to Cyprus to Worship the Goddess. Actually, she had no idea where Cyprus might be, nor which goddess we were supposed to worship. For my part, I wanted to flee back to Brooklyn Heights.
Taking refuge in a dark corner of the UnderWater Theatre, once again I was sought out by a white-clad Bacchante. I asked her when Dionysus would make his appearance. She looked puzzled, as though the name were quite foreign to her. But then, this was Aristophanes' Lysistrata, not Euripides' The Bacchae…
You don't have to know much about Greek Theatre to be in a chorus of a knock-off of Dionysus in '69. For the most part, the action was on the level of a good-natured college stunt-night. It was seriously hampered by great square platforms around the fluted columns—which prevented the performers from having a clear playing-space.
Nonetheless, the sung choral interludes—with dance-movement that overcame the spatial obstructions—were quite charming, more professional than the hard-on clowning. William Sullivan Niederkorn—the name means Lower Corn: is this mere coincidence?—composed, orchestrated, and recorded the choral music.
DUMBO—the name means Directly Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass—is already a center for artists & the Arts. Several venues—in addition to Water Street's UnderWater—offer performances, and there are several good restaurants now open.
But DUMBO's Big Secret is the stunning view you will discover—standing near the East River shoreline—between the great illuminated spans of the Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridges! Well worth an exploratory journey to the Borough of Brooklyn!
MAX MORATH: Ragtime & Again [***]
It was a real pleasure to hear Max Morath once again perform those old Ragtime ditties that long ago became his performance-trademark. Over the years, I've always enjoyed his show—with variations in his patter—as he recreates a Musical Era which is now almost a hundred years old.
Just in case anyone in the notably Senior Audience might think of this production at the York Theatre as in any way Geriatric, Morath headed off such criticism by noting that he had already heard someone during an intermission suggest that he was out-of-touch. So he made the point that most of the syncopated songs he was playing had been composed by kids who were only 19 years old at the time!
But that was a century ago, after all! Even if—as Morath insists—the syncopations of Ragtime were the Modernist precursors of Rock and Rap, the program still sounded like a Parade of Golden Oldies. What was most impressive is the force with which Morath can still pound those Baldwin ivories!
In the York's lobby, colored copies of covers of period sheet-music from Morath's own collection are on display. I was surprised to discover how many women had written Ragtime Hits. Adaline Shepherd's "Pickles & Peppers Rag" was on the wall and on the bill.
More of a surprise was Carrie Jacobs Bond, certainly not an exponent of rags. But she was a woman, a composer, and of the period, so Morath asked the audience to sing along with one of her greatest hits: "I Love You Truly." I remembered her from childhood as the creator of "When You Come To the End of a Perfect Day."
You won't hear a Rap lyric in that vein any time soon…
FOOD FOR THOUGHT ON GRAMERCY PARK [****]
You can't get into Gramercy Park without a key. It's the only Private Park left in Manhattan, although London still has a number of locked & gated parks. What you can do, however, is have lunch and a show across the street from the Park in the beautiful Beaux Arts National Arts Club. From late February through May, FOOD FOR THOUGHT is staging a series of play-readings featuring such distinguished American playwrights as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.
Gramercy Park has long been a center of theatre, artistic, and literary activity and achievement. Edwin Booth's famed The Players—"club" is not part of the title—adjoins the Arts Club. The noted New York editor, Richard Watson Gilder, lived down the street in one of Manhattan's first apartment-buildings. His daughter, the late Rosamund Gilder, was for many years the editor of Theatre Arts—for which and for whom I used to write four decades ago. The Gilder Apartment was crammed with arts souvenirs: the molded golden hands of Eleanora Duse—the great Italian actress who used to baby-sit the Gilder girls, Francesca & Rosamund; paintings given the Gilders by Winslow Homer, and a John LaFarge stained-glass fire-screen—which is now in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There once was even a THEATRE OF IDEAS in the Quaker Meeting-House on the Park. During the turbulent late 1960s, passionate advocates & opponents of then current topics confronted—and often clashed with—each other before a paying-audience of Manhattan Intellectuals. On one memorable occasion, Norman Mailer, drink in hand, offered physical combat as an alternative to civilized discussion: Put Up Your Dukes! After which, members of Julian Beck & Judith Malina's Living Theatre nearly tore the old church apart.
So Food for Thought has come to the right venue for its luncheon-theatre adventures. This is its Ninth Season, no less! Susan Charlotte is Artistic Director. $45 pays for both sandwiches & shows, with money-saving subscriptions as well. The opening week was completely sold-out and extra seats had to be added. Lunch at 12:30; show at 1:30. For tickets, call: 1212-362-2560.
ROADS NOT TAKEN:
Six Unknown Scenes From A Streetcar Named Desire—
Those who have never written more than the annual holiday Family-Newsletter have no idea how difficult it can be to find an idea or a human-situation worth examining in words—especially in dramatic dialogue. Some may even think our greatest American dramas somehow flowed full-blown from the playwrights' pens—a divine gift, direct from The Muses or from G-d—with no agonies nor alterations.
Late in his career—when he couldn't seem to write a play critics would praise or audiences sit through—Tennessee Williams told me: "You can't retire from being an artist." Of course, this was not the first time he'd said that to an interviewer. But he was explaining that every day he'd work on some old or new play-in-progress. Even when the critics were hating such dramas as In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.
Although Williams' Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire seem perfectly formed, both went through a number of versions and revisions. Drama-critic Dan Isaac has been studying some of these old manuscripts and he was very surprised to discover how Williams' vision of Blanche Dubois, Stanley, Mitch, and Stella changed over time. Until the young playwright found the Final Solution.
Isaac has put together a program of previously unknown scenes for Streetcar, all of them indicating different endings to the drama than the one known to the world. Imagine Streetcar in Chicago! Williams saw his fatal duo as Italian-Americans, with Blanche called Bianca. Before he finally set the drama in New Orleans, he tried it out in his head as an Atlanta story.
These fascinating scenes were vividly recreated in staged-reading by Margaret Colin, Robert Cuccioli, Lisa Bostnar, John Doman, and Tom Lacy, with Dan Isaac providing background and linking commentary. Isaac's theatre scholarship and his skill & charm as a narrator were also admirable. This is a program which ought to be performed across the nation!
[Dan Isaac was Editor of the late, lamented OTHER STAGES, for which I was a Contributing Editor, so my admiration and appreciation of his talents and achievements go back a long, long way.]
The Original One-Act Version Of A View from the Bridge—
Just as this powerfully realized staged-reading was reaching its climax, an elderly gentleman in the back of the National Arts Club gallery collapsed. Danny Aiello's Eddie Carbone stopped in mid-passion. Paramedics from Cabrini Hospital—accompanied by NYFD personnel—hooked the pale old man to oxygen and wheeled him out. Director Austin Pendleton had wisely decided during this real-life interlude that THE SHOW MUST GO ON.
Aiello was so good in this reading that he should star in a timely revival. He was nicely matched by Barbara eda-Young as Beatrice and Robert LuPone, who reprised his Broadway role as Lawyer Alfieri, Miller's stand-in for a Greek Chorus for this Modern Red Hook Tragedy. Also admirable were Santo Fazio, Barrett Foa, Rebekkah Ross, and Michael Citriniti.
This View from the Bridge is not a lost or entirely forgotten short version of the full-length play. It premiered on Broadway, paired with Miller's A Memory of Two Mondays—which also should be revived. If anything, the shorter version is the more powerful, as this reading demonstrated. Jake Heggie's View from the Bridge opera—recently adapted from the long version—might have been much more effective, had it not gone on so long.[Loney]
Copyright Glenn Loney, 2004. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: email@example.com.
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