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Loney's Show Notes
By Glenn Loney, October 15, 2005
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Please click on " * " to skip to each subject in this index:
Plays New & Old-- *
Gurira & Salter's In The Continuum [*****] *
Rolin Jones' The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow [****] *
James Lapine's Fran's Bed [**] *
George Saunders' Pastoralia [**] *
Richard Greenberg's Naked Girl on the Appian Way [*] *
Somerset Maugham's The Breadwinner [***] *
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Emilia Galotti [****] *
Musicals Old & New-- *
Lennon [*] *
Dr. Sex [**] *
The Great American Trailer Park Musical [***] *
Miracle Brothers [**] *
Two Gentlemen of Verona [****] *
Some Nights at the City Opera-- *
Capriccio [****] *
Madama Butterfly [*****] *
Patience [****] *
Other Entertainments-- *
BAM's Tall Horse [*****] *
New Victory's Black Grace [****] *
Plays New & Old--
Gurira & Salter's In The Continuum [*****]
This is a brilliantly conceived drama of inter-cut monologues, brilliantly performed by its very talented creators, Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter. Its action spans two hemispheres, with one anguished black woman in Harare, Zimbabwe, and the other in South Central Los Angeles.
The tragedy of AIDS--both in Africa and in the United States--afflicts black women, with the highest rate of new infections, more than any other affected group. It is especially horrendous in Africa, where an infected woman will be rejected by her husband--who may have himself infected her--and often by her family and her tribe, who should in fact help her in this dire need.
In LA, a black girl has been made pregnant by a childhood friend, now a champion high-school athlete. Before she discovers she and her unborn child have HIV, she imagines herself the wife of a rich professional player. After, she imagines her revenge--which she does not have the courage to take.
Similarly, in Zimbabwe, the unfortunate pregnant wife imagines how she will accuse and humiliate her errant husband--who has been infected by one of his many "women." In much of Black Africa, the men are in denial, notably Black Leaders. And many tribal cultures are not supportive of women with AIDS. So much for Hillary Clinton's ingenuous notion: "It Takes a Village."
Both these women's stories are heartbreaking, but they are made even more so by being constantly inter-cut. And by being told not only by the doomed women, but also by various relatives, friends, and professionals. Both Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter are impressive monologists, switching in an instant from one character to another, often quite different in temperament and thinking.
In the Continuum is a drama that should be very widely shown, at home and abroad. It is, of course, powerful theatre, but it also underscores a powerful threat to women and children at a time when Attention Must Be Paid!
What is especially astonishing is the fact that both of these outstanding young actress/playwrights developed this drama as third-year students in NYU's Graduate Acting Program.
Of this play, they both say: …it is a representation of the humanity behind the statistics and an invitation for more unheard stories to be brought "In(to) the Continuum." Bravos for Gurira and Salter!
Rolin Jones' The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow [****]
The misleading phrase "Intelligent Design" is currently much in the news. As a cover for Creationism, in the wake of Hurricane Katerina and the recent devastating earthquakes in the Indian Sub-Continent, it now seems inadequate to describe what Insurance Companies are pleased to call "Acts of God."
Rolin Jones' Obsessive-Compulsive heroine, Jennifer Marcus [Julienne Hanzelka Kim], is almost terminally Agoraphobic--an unusual dramatic device which oddly enough turned up the same week in The Great American Trailer Park Musical, no less!
Not only can she not step outside her frustrated parents' home, but she also has to walk in patterns in her own computer-terminaled bedroom. And she has hair-twirling tics and other obsessive mannerisms that are distressing enough to read about, but more annoying to watch on stage. Unless one is a Licensed Clinician…
But all is not lost: Jenny is Internet-Connected and she is a Hacker-Genius. So she strides the Wide World, in close & constant contact with authentic scientific geniuses, helping the Department of Defense perfect its Weapons of Mass Destruction, and, in return, constructing her very own SciFi Jenny Chow Flying Robot [Eunice Wong].
Jenny's Designs are so Intelligent that the DoD is delighted and her robot begins to function. In the process, she is aided and abetted by Remy Auberjonois in a quartet of zany impersonations: notably a Mad Professor and a Maudlin Mormon Missionary.
Jenny was adopted by her white American parents [Michael Cullen & Linda Gehringer] as an infant from an unmarried Chinese girl. She longs to find her natural mother back in China, but, of course, she cannot step outside the front-door. So she sends her Robot-Self off to China. With predictable results…
Completing the excellent cast--riotously staged by Jackson Gay--is Ryan King as Jenny's quasi-boyfriend and physical contact with the Outside World. But her computer-keyboard also deserves a bravo for the pummeling it takes night after night at the Atlantic Theatre. Design credits to Takeshi Kata, Jenny Mannis, and Tyler Micoleau.
James Lapine's Fran's Bed [**]
The newest arrival in New York's Theatre Hospital for The Fabulous Invalids is Mia Farrow in Fran's Bed. This comatose drama of the terminally afflicted joins Marvin's Room, Wit, Whose Life Is It Anyway and Arthur Miller's Ride Down Mount Morgan. And wasn't there someone virtually Dead in Bed in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women as well?
A wax likeness of Ms. Farrow lies in a hospital-bed, carefully cared-for by her loving care-giver. [Senator Bill Frist, where are you now that Mia Farrow needs you more than poor Terry Schiavo did?]
Fran--for that is the catatonic character Ms. Farrow is impersonating--is or was the wife & mother of a seriously Dysfunctional Family, headed by the short-fused Harris Yulin and odiously daughtered by Heather Burns and Brenda Pressley.
By her hospital-bed, they talk about her as though she cannot hear or understand what they are saying. But they do not realize that Mia Farrow is lurking on the other side of the bed, taking it all in! Much good may it do her now!
There are some vicious & spiteful critics who would be tempted to say that Fran-in-Bed is more lifelike than the actual Farrow/Fran. This, of course, would be a Cheap Shot and totally unfair. There has always been something ethereal about Mia Farrow's presence onstage and off. Is she playing a role--or herself?
This is not a very interesting group of characters, and their family-problems are not at all compelling. Nonetheless, James Lapine must have had a reason to write this play: in the playing, it feels like some personal--or near-personal--experience that he had to exorcise…
Fran's Bed did connect with some Old Memories, however. Way back in 1951--on the stage of Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium--I played the Corpse of veteran Broadway actor Leo G. Carroll. He was Actor-in-Residence in the Department of Drama, starring in a new play by Anne Nichols, famed as the author of the long-running Broadway hit, Abie's Irish Rose.
Nichols' new drama was called The Man Who Woke Up. Its protagonist, Brooks/Carroll, was looking down at his dead body [impersonated by your scribe!], as his family, mistress, friends, and enemies crowded round. He "woke up" to the fact that no one felt about him in life as he had thought they did. [Farrow/Fran has a similar recognition , and she's not even clinically dead yet!]
At Stanford, Brooks' loving daughter was played by Melba Wiser Mathias, who married our Olympic Decathlon champion, Bob Mathias. As she knelt by the bedside, she tickled me, trying to make me laugh.
In the first row of the audience, the director's young daughter cried out: "Mommy, he's breathing!"
I already knew I had no future in the theatre or films, as I'd told the late Warner Leroy--a student in my Oral Interp class--that he'd have to overcome his stutter to fulfill his dream of becoming a Hollywood director like his father, Mervyn Leroy. Dickie Zanuck was another of our Celebrity Students at that time.
And there's another Fran's Bed Memory: For almost a decade, my aged Aunt Eunice Loney lay curled up, fetus-like and unmoving, in a hospital-bed in Nevada City, California. She spoke not a word that entire time, but she was spoon-fed and her eyes were wide-awake whenever my mother and I visited her.
My strong-minded mother--who never liked her much because she was so kind to my father, her brother--would say terrible things about her, as though she were no longer alive: "She's refusing to die until she outlives Uncle Chester--and the Loney Ranch will pass on to Cousin Lowell!"
That may well have been true, however. She outlived him, and Lowell got the ranch. And Chester ended up buried in my mother's grave-plot: I still have the deed for it!
Chester didn't want to be buried in the Loney Brothers plot, but in another cemetery beside his wife , Lyndon Johnson's beloved Miss Kate--who was LBJ's first school-teacher. [Does this sound like a High Sierras version of Dynasty or Dallas?]
Looking at Aunt Eunice, curled up unspeaking but bright-eyed, I was--and am still--sure she understood every word! But you can't make a very interesting play out of that, can you? Or can you?
George Saunders' Pastoralia [**]
George Saunders' fantastic fictions are apparently a Cult Fashion, and a lot of Cultists & Fashionistas turned up at PS 122 for Yehuda Duenyas' adept adaptation of Pastoralia. The very cramped space was equally divided between Life-Threatening Bleachers and an immense brown blob that revolved. This was once a New York City schoolroom, so you can imagine the ghosts lingering…
Inside the shell of the blob were a caveman and cavewoman speaking grunt-language and savagely devouring deer deposited in a wall-slot by an unseen hand. But all was not as it seemed. After a while, some obtuse tourists looked through a hole in the cave wall to ogle the savages and discuss them as though they were deaf.
Readers of the original novella already knew that these unfortunates were impersonating Early Man in a bizarre Theme Park. Other [unseen] attractions included Days of Christ, Sheep May Safely Graze, Big Durn Flood, and the Russian Peasant Farm.
The Park is not doing so well, so Nordstrom [James Stanley] is trying to make the attractions more cost-effective. Cavewoman Janet [Aimee McCormick] is in trouble. But Caveman Ed [Ryan Bronz] is protecting her, refusing to "write her up" for management. Her disastrous druggie, thuggie son [Jesse Hawley] turns up to extort money from his despairing but doting mother. McCormick is truly moving in her moments of memory of the young Bradley.
Convenience-vendor Richard Ferrone is ferociously fathering of his own son, while selling snacks to theme-park employees. The blob revolves to disclose his trailer-shop.
Duenyas staged all 18 of the play's scenes! Michael Casselli designed the blob; Kirstin Tobiasson, the costumes.
Richard Greenberg's Naked Girl on the Appian Way [*]
This is not the Worst New Play to be produced on Broadway in many years. That was the opinion of a number of my colleagues, but they may have short memories. I've seen worse.
And it is important to remember how much the critics admired Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain and the more recent Take Me Out. When I first saw the former at Manhattan Theatre Club, I was astonished and moved. I believed Greenberg was, as they say, An Important New Voice!
My admiration diminished with The Dazzle and The Violet Hour, which certainly had some clever dialogue, but which were finally deficient in character and structure.
If Greenberg's new title excites your interest, Cool Off! You won't see any nudity on stage, aside from the embarrassment of actors exposed without real characters to play. The title refers to a nude rapidly glimpsed from a passing tourist-bus outside Rome.
The entire action--if it can be called that--takes place in a huge kitchen/conservatory/living-room in "some Hampton," nowhere near the Appian Way.
John Lee Beatty's immense setting--many lime-green squared wooden pillars and cross-trusses, backed by scores of panes of glass--is the best thing on the stage of the American Airlines Theatre.
The Major Dramatic Question--if that's the correct term--is: Is it Incest if an adopted brother and sister--with different birth parents, of different racial origins--fall in love, conceive, and get married?
The initial banter of Richard Thomas and Jill Clayburgh seemed endless and uninteresting. They were obviously working very, very hard to project bright, charming, delightful, wacky, witty characters that were unfortunately not there in the writing. Director Doug Hughes went over the top, with all the actors in frenzies of energy and utterance.
This didn't seem to bother most of the audience. [Aside from some appalled critics…]
When a peculiar old lady wandered into the set by mistake and shouted for a "lazy bitch!"--or was it a "stupid bitch"?--the audience guffawed with hearty laughter. TV Sitcoms seem to have brainwashed these Roundabout Subscriber Broadwayites.
This loud vulgarity proved so effective, it was repeated--to repeated bursts of laughter. Most of the "witty dialogue" in the play didn't rise above this level.
One colleague was rapt in admiration of Greenberg's characterizations and dazzling wit. I was astonished at this reaction, until I read the virtual rave in New York magazine. Bring back John Simon!
If these are really people Greenberg knows, he does not yet know how to make them live on stage. Nor how to make them and their presumed problems compelling theatre.
Back to the baseball-diamond & locker-room. Or more Days of Rain?
Somerset Maugham's The Breadwinner [***]
Sad to say, there are now younger readers who do not remember--or even know--the name of W. Somerset Maugham: "Willy," to intimates. Even his novels are not now so well remembered.
Early in his career, however, he was a leading London playwright, with new Maugham dramas premiering fairly frequently. Only a very small canon of his plays is now produced on occasion by regional or provincial theatres: The Circle, Our Betters, and The Constant Wife.
When your reporter was compiling the two-volume Facts-on-File chronology of British & American Theatre--published as 20th Century Theatre--he was amazed to discover how many interesting Maugham plays had opened in the West End between 1902 and 1933. Among them were Caesar's Wife, The Breadwinner, Lady Frederick, Too Many Husbands, Caroline, The Letter, Jack Straw, The Sacred Flame, Penelope, Mrs. Dot, East of Suez, The Unknown, and For Services Rendered.
Recently the keen Keen Company rediscovered Maugham's 1931 London hit, The Breadwinner. Staged by Carl Forsman in an impressively Upper-Middle-Class English salon-setting at the Connelly Theatre, this amusing Social Comedy offered an interesting contrast to the current concerns of the spoiled children of New York's moderately rich.
To call the Pater Familias a "breadwinner" is itself ironic, for he is actually a very successful London financier.
There were no "Casual Fridays" at Lloyds of London or other City Banks & Brokerage Houses in the 1930s. Five days a week, this husband & father dons the stuffily correct dress of a gentleman-businessman to buy and sell stocks for his clients.
Meanwhile, his ambitiously cultural and determinedly fashionable wife is spending freely and devising events and entertainments that require his presence, even though he has no real interest in her arts-pursuits.
Nor are his self-centered, thoughtless, and high-maintenance teen-age son and daughter remotely interested in him, his possible needs as a father, or in how he keeps them in the best schools and the latest styles. They are paired with another equally heedless set of teen-agers, whose parents are best-friends of the broker and his spouse.
When a bad-call threatens to wipe him out entirely, covering investments for clients, he decides to declare bankruptcy and walk away from the City. And from his handsome house, his wife, and his quarrelsome kiddies as well.
Because his reputation is so good, however--and faith in the markets needs to be maintained--colleagues are prepared to stake him until he has recovered from the losses. To the utter amazement of his broker-friend--and his family--he is adamant.
He has a stash that will see him off to as new life elsewhere. But his wife will have to think about moving to an aparatment and getting some kind of job. The children may soon be clerking, instead of larking about up at Cambridge.
Of course, this could never happen to Paris Hilton's parents. Or to the Bush Girls, or the Olsen Twins. Their dads are already too rich to have to work as stock-brokers or bankers.
But what if…?
The Keen ensemble was admirable, especially in affecting U-accents and manners to match!
They now might want to take a look at Noël Coward's Fumed Oak! This is a one-act comic drama of a Working-Class Dad who has had it up to here and tells off his entire quarrelsome family at the dinner-table! This is one of the suite of one-acters that Coward wrote for himself in Tonight at 8:30, including The Red Peppers.
For the Record: The topic of your reporter's doctoral dissertation at Stanford University was: DRAMATIZATIONS OF POPULAR AMERICAN NOVELS: 1900-1917. In the process of hunting for actual texts of some of these plays which had never been published, I found the original scripts for both the Detroit try-out and the New York premiere of Edith Wharton & Clyde Fitch's dramatization of The House of Mirth.
My edition of both scripts was ultimately published by Associated University Presses as The Play of the House of Mirth--with the encouragement & blessing of the distinguished literary critic, Edmund Wilson. AUP still has some copies available! It was this volume of the drama that Jonathan Bank discovered Googling the Internet and subsequently successfully revived at the Mint Theatre.
For theatre-directors or producers who are interested in re-discovering undeservedly forgotten American or British plays that are no longer in print--or that were never published--there are two fundamental depositories for copyright purposes: the Library of Congress and the Stationer's Office in London.
A potential Finder for such forgotten play-titles will soon be online. It will cover British & American Theatre from 1900 into the Future. It will contain all my listings published in Facts-on-File's 20th Century Theatre, plus the thousands of entries never published--which would have required eight volumes! This not-for-profit website is called Modern Theatre Online.Info, edited and input by my colleague Professor Cynthia Allen, of New York University's Gallatin College.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Emilia Galotti [****]
Brilliant! Maxi-Minimalist! Gesturalist-Transparency! Choreographed Germanic Classicism!
If Lessing--the virtual Father of Modern German Drama--were now alive, he might well experience Coronary Arrest on beholding the astonishing new production of his cautionary costume-drama, Emilia Galotti, as recreated by Berlin's venerable Deutsches-Theater.
This was once the Berlin venue of fabled stage-director Max Reinhardt. He also might have Angina Agonies.
On the other hand, as these Giants of the German Theatre were both innovators, they might, instead, be breathless in admiration of what director Michael Thalheimer and his talented ensemble have made of this old but terrifying tale of the wiles of Absolute Princes in seducing Innocent Maidens. This stunning staging was recently on view at BAM.
Olaf Altmann has created a great wooden box--with no lid--in forced-perspective, made of tall door-panels on either side and a simple doorway upstage. Most entrances are made slowly, deliberately, from this aperture, the actors slowly proceeding down center-stage before pausing significantly. Or writhing in paroxysms of contorted frenzy…
The costumes are modern--and most of the performers seem to want to tear them off. When Emilia first enters, small floor-flames on either side follow her downstage, where she is suddenly backed by a shower of sparks.
These are visual symbols of the Playing with Fire that will end in heartbreak and tragedy.
The beautiful and virtuous Emilia [Regine Zimmermann] is to marry the forthright Count Appiani [Henning Vogt], but Hettore Gonzaga, Prince of Guastalla [Sven Lehmann], has seen her that very morning in church and whispered in her ear. He orders Appiani to leave immediately on an embassy, which he refuses.
So the Prince asks his Chamberlain, Marinelli [Ingo Hülsmann], to arrange the Count's death and Emilia's abduction. He also refuses to see his old mistress, the Countess Orsina [Nina Hoss].
At the close, Emilia is a lost woman, swallowed up in stage full of black-clad dancing couples in the Prince's court.
Although there are apt super-titles, the Very Highly Stylized nature of the production suggests much of the action and emotion through gestures--often grotesquely distorted or prolonged. There are also many long, pregnant pauses.
Then, suddenly, the characters frantically rant Lessing's dialogue so rapidly that only the super-titles can do it justice. This is done so fiercely and speedily that there is no place for phrasing, intonation, emotion, or subtlety.
It would be interesting to see the Deutsches -Theater ensemble apply this same performance-style to some of the plays of Shakespeare: say, Timon of Athens or Coriolanus?
[Incidental Intelligence: North Italian Guastalla, the nominal scene of Lessing's drama, is little-known, but well worth a detour from Gonzagan Mantua, the scene of Verdi's Rigoletto. The moated Gonzaga Castello still stands in Guastalla, but my favorite destination there is the workshop & home of the Master Buratinaio, the ingenious Puppet-Maker and Puppet-Theatre-Producer, Dimo Minozzi!]
Musicals Old & New--
The title of this recently demised Broadway musical mistake was incorrect. The show should have been labeled Yoko and John! It did no great service to the music of the late great John Lennon, nor to his memory. It seemed, rather, a celebration of the supportive & intuitive genius of Lennon's Very Significant Other, Yoko Ono.
Unlike Mama Mia!, it did not devise a complex plot into the service of which Lennon lyrics and melodies could be fitted. Nor did it, in the manner of All Shook Up, avoid Elvis Impersonators, adapting his hit songs to a small-town story, featuring the sexy arrival of Brando instead of The King. [Are there many Lennon Look-Alikes around anymore?]
Perhaps--following Goethe's example in Faust Part I & Faust Part II--a two-part libretto could have been created? Part I: Before Yoko: The Beatles Emerge! Part II: After Yoko: Lost Weekends & Odd Artworks.
What book there was the program credited to Don Scardino--who also conceived and directed this musical evening. The occasional choreography was attributed to Joseph Malone.
The generally talented cast obviously worked very hard: you could see that effort from the audience! As this was an Equal Opportunity Musical, everyone got a chance to pretend to be Lennon, granny-glasses included. This was not a very good idea, nor was it an effective Organizing Principle for the show.
Dr. Sex [**]
At least Mrs. Alfred Kinsey cannot be blamed for interfering in the development of this would-be sexy musical. If you were fortunate enough to have seen the recent biopic on Alfred Kinsey and his ground-breaking investigations of the actual sexual behaviors of various sexually repressed Americans before the mid-century, you will already know the great difficulties he encountered in finding funding and working out an acceptably scientific method for conducting his research.
Dr. Sex trivializes all this and makes the Good Doctor seem something of an academic clown in constant search of ever new and possibly even stranger sexual stimulations. Indeed, in making much of a ménage à trois, including his student research-assistant in his marriage-bed, the book and lyrics suggest that there was more hanky-panky than Pure Science in the Kinsey Lab & Household.
Nonetheless, the able and generally attractive performers gave this material their Best Shot, trying to be cute, if not downright sexy. There was a lot of energy on the stage: more than in the actual show-text. Brian Noonan worked hardest as Kinsey, trying not to be upstaged by his ubiquitous bow-tie. Jennifer Simard played Mrs. Clara Kinsey, with Benjie Randall as their in-house student-lover/researcher.
Rob Bissinger [sets], John Carver Sullivan [costumes], and Richard Winkler [lighting] provided a bright colorful stage-environment.
Recent ads have stressed that this show must absolutely close by the end of October. Whether this is a theatre-rental problem--they have been in Signature Theatre's customary venue--or By Popular Demand is unclear.
Although I thought--and still think--that this mini-musical does both Dr. Kinsey and his important researches a distinct disservice, on its own terms, it was mildly enjoyable.
Rent the video if you really want to know more about Kinsey…
The Great American Trailer Park Musical [***]
The most remarkable thing about this new show at the Dodger Theatres is not that it is set in a mythical trailer-park in a mythical place called Florida. Rather, that one of its major characters is desperately afflicted with Agoraphobia, the same psychic dysfunction that animates the script of The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow.
Alas, the results of this curious disorder are far less interesting in a Florida house-trailer than in a California tract-house, where a computer-genius is creating a Flying Robot!
Pretty Jeannie [Kaitlin Hopkins] is married to a good-natured schlumpf called Norbert [Shuler Hensley], a toll-collector. But she is so agoraphobic she cannot even put a toe on the running-board of her grounded house-trailer.
So, is it any wonder that he takes a keen interest in the sexy exotic dancer [Orfeh, as Pippi] who has just moved into the god-forgotten court? She is trying to Make a New Life, having fled a much younger psychotic lover states and states away.
Once upon a time, Norbert & Jeannie were happy young lovers, then happy young parents. But their baby--tucked into a carry-basket--was stolen in a moment of inattention! That set off Jeannie's agoraphobia. She's not been the same since the baby-napping.
She still loves Norbert, but she's afraid to celebrate their anniversary with those glittering tickets to the Ice-Capades. She can barely open the door of their over-decorated trailer.
Oddly enough, the real Centers of Attention in this curiously amusing show are a trio of court-gossips who function as a Greek Chorus: Betty, Linoleum, and Pickles [Linda Hart, Marya Grandy, and Leslie Kritzer]. They are hilarious--and they are very powerful performers as well.
Despite its labored plot, this is really a cute, colorful show about next to nothing. For me, the best moment was the discovery that the baby-nappers thought they were stealing a dog! What a disappointment for them! As the baby, now called Duke [Wayne Wilcox], has turned out, they'd have been better off with a pooch.
Betsy Kelso staged her own book, with songs by David Nehls, who also conducted. Sergio Trujillo provided mini-choreography for the very confined stage-space--with trailers by Derek McLane.
This show could take your mind off our recent reverses in Vietnam… Or wherever…
Miracle Brothers [**]
The Vineyard Theatre's last big musical success was Avenue Q, still packing them in on Broadway and scheduled for Las Vegas Paradise, in a theatre of its very own.
Commissioned by the Vineyard, Kirsten Childs' Miracle Brothers doesn't seem a likely candidate for such an illustrious transfer. It tells the picaresque tale of two brothers, both with a white plantation-owner father, but with different mothers: one a patrician white lady, the other a courageous slave-woman.
The plot is much too complex and adventitious to attempt a summary, and it seems to re-invent itself as it goes along. Including Pirates!
It is set in Brazilian Bahia, in the 17th century. But it could just as well have been imagined somewhere in the American Slaveholding South before the American Revolution. Or even before the Civil War.
Shango and Oxum were still potent deities to Yoruba slaves in both North & South America. Mandingo, the novel and the play, comes to mind, as does Gone With the Wind, but Miracle Brothers is something else again…
There is a lot of music and dance, and the cast are all very talented and attractive. And they work very hard to make this show work. Especially notable are the brothers, Tyler Maynard and Clifton Oliver. Also outstanding are Kerry Butler, Cheryl Freeman, and Jay Goede. The estimable Tina Landau staged.
One of the problems of the book--and of the physical production--is that it suffers from a curious Framing-Device: The Musical Fable is being acted-out by Brazilian River Dolphins who are said to be able to assume seductive human forms. When this fishy "game" is finished, they return through magical portals to the river, again as dolphins. Unless the portals close too soon, and they then can never return!
After being exposed to the Bahia beat and the furious frenzy of the players, I felt like a dolphin who had been trapped in the audience, with the portal closed, so I could not return to the river. Or at least to the Food Emporium next door…
Two Gentlemen of Verona [****]
Although there are still some colorful posters hanging about midtown, advertising the forthcoming musical, The Mambo Kings, it seems to have already died out-of-town. At least, some recent guests from California saw it there and were appalled that it was on its way to Broadway. Your reporter no longer reads the Trades, so he has no idea of its Ultimate Fate. Perhaps Twyla Tharp could give it mouth-to-mouth?
As Broadway lives from musicals--who wants to pay $110, or $220, for a straight play about Environmental Pollution?--the loss of Mambo Kings may well leave a programming slot that needs to be filled.
Fortunately, the summer Central Park revival of Two Gentlemen of Verona would make an excellent Broadway transfer. John Guare has even updated--or Bush-whacked--some of his clever lyrics. And Galt MacDermot's ingenious tunes are still eminently theatrical: Shakespeare Rocks!
When the late Joe Papp had the idea to invite Mel Shapiro and Guare to make a New Take on Shakespeare's problematic comedy--one of the two gents doesn't behave well in the Wars of Love--he was taking a chance. But one that paid off handsomely: the previous Delacorte Theatre Shakespeare-in-the-Park staging moved to Broadway.
And it subsequently had a number of productions at home and abroad. Not that musical versions of the Bard's dramas are necessarily risky propositions. Mendelssohn did all right with Midsummer Night's Dream, not to overlook Verdi's Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff!
Then there's The Boys from Syracuse and Kiss Me, Kate!
So let's have Two Gents on Broadway, with Norm Lewis and Oscar Isaac again as Valentine and Proteus. With Kathleen Marshall's ingenious staging and choreography, in Riccardo Hernandez' set, which could be easily adapted for a major midtown stage!
In fact, would it be such a bad idea to have a Broadway Season of Shakespeare Musicals? That could just add to the joy--and not threaten the long, long runs of Lion King and Mama Mia!
Some Nights at the City Opera--
For many years, your correspondent was accorded the Press Privilege both at the New York City Opera and at the Metropolitan Opera. In those decades, he was writing for such Print-Media as Opera News, Cue Magazine, After Dark, Opera, Christian Science Monitor, Theatre Crafts, Dance, Entertainment Design, and other Performing Arts journals.
No sooner did he begin reporting for the New York Theatre-Wire than all press-comps at the Met stopped. No press-tickets for websites: only for print-media! City Opera, however, continued for some time to extend the press-privilege. Unfortunately, that has also withered away in recent seasons.
Thus, your scribe is in no way obligated to report on City Opera productions for which tickets had to be purchased. Nonetheless, several NYCO performances this autumn were so exemplary that they deserve to be saluted!
Capriccio is autumnal Richard Strauss, with the Master and conductor Clemens Krauss drafting a period-libretto that is essentially a debate of the Old Old Musical Question: Which is more important, the Words, or the Music?
A lovely young widowed Countess is attracted to both the composer Flammand and the poet Olivier. She has a lovely Court Theatre in her country estate, complete with a theatre-director, La Roche, who is preparing for a fête, with some performers ready-to-hand. Plus a famous Parisian actress, Mlle. Clairon, whom the countess' brother is pursuing.
As the musical argument develops, it gradually becomes clear that the somewhat fustian, pretentious verses of Olivier are made much more luminous, even memorable, by the melodies of Flammand. To the listener at least, if not to Olivier, who is appalled at the musical settings.
This charming chamber-opera works best in a rococo period-staging, given the circumstances of a private court theatre, complete with staff and players. Not to mention the manners and style of the characters. One can scarcely imagine the new Mrs. Donald Trump staging an commissioned opera at Mar al Lago…
But director Stephen Lawless' decision to allow designer Ashley Martin-Davis to garb both the Countess and Clairon in very unflattering semi-modern bouffant skirt-silhouettes was unwise. They both looked like matronly versions of June Allyson.
Opening with Martin-Davis' theatre and its elegant audience-chairs draped with dust-cloths--which are gradually removed to disclose the stage and the chamber in their full glories--is an ingenious directorial stroke.
Pamela Anderson was a delightful Countess--both to see and to hear--with Claire Powell a darker counterweight as Clairon. Mel Ulrich's Olivier also provided an interesting contrast to Ryan MacPherson's more lyrical Flammand.
Eric Halfvarson was both pedantic and comic as La Roche, a Man of Theatre who has seen it all. George Mosley was both assured and charming as the young Count. Barry Banks and Lisa Saffer were hilarious as an Italian opera-duo. [The week following, Banks was on the stage of the Met, as the Prince in Cenerentola!]
George Manahan conducted. But without the Gold Baton favored by Clemens Krauss!
The most impressive mounting of Capriccio that I've ever seen was staged in Munich's actual 18th century court-theatre, the Cuvilliés-Theater, starring the late Claire Watson. By a curious coincidence, the first time the NYCO staged Capriccio, at the New York City Center, Claire's husband, David Thaw, was the Poet!
Madama Butterfly [*****]
Stage-director Mark Lamos' original City Opera production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly was a revelation in its utter simplicity. Instead of the usual attempts to recreate an elaborate Japanese house and an orchard of cherry-blossoms, designer Michael Yeargan devised a stage-wide rank of steps upstage, closed to the outside by immense sliding-screens. These screens were matched downstage.
Aside from a kimono-frame for Butterfly's beautiful marriage-robe, there was no other décor to distract. The focus was entirely on the acting/singing characters and the tragedy that was unfolding.
Every time I have seen this production I am again reminded that Less is More, especially in terms of traditional Japanese art & architecture. So it is always a painful pleasure to relive Butterfly's bitter saga.
But I was not initially prepared to be moved to tears, as Shu-Ying Li made her debut as Cio-Cio-San. It's not just that her voice is so beautiful and her phrasing so intuitively subtle, but that she really seems to be living, experiencing every moment of Butterfly's new life as the wife of the American Naval Officer, Benjamin F. Pinkerton.
Every moment breathed The Illusion of the First Time. This was especially heightened by the fine performances of the rest of the cast, notably Brandon Jovanovich as Pinkerton. It was clear that he was delighted with Butterfly and was even falling in love with her. But it was equally clear that he had no intention of taking her back to America, or returning to her, as she fondly believed.
Jovanovich previously impressed in opera-stagings at the Manhattan School of Music. Not only is he a stalwart and powerful tenor, but he's also a young, blond, vital stage-presence. His subtle body-language as he was engaged in the formalities of the wedding with Butterfly eloquently betrayed what Pinkerton must really be feeling in such a false situation.
Jake Gardner's Consul Sharpless was also wonderfully sensitive to the fragility of Butterfly, as was her maid, Suzuki, Kathryn Friest. Ari Pelto conducted sensitively as well.
But what made this evening different from all other evenings of NYCO Butterflys was the amazing acting/singing performance of Shu-Ying Li. I have never been so moved by any soprano in this role.
The Lamos staging makes her final sacrifice even more powerful than in most productions. Instead of committing ritual suicide downstage, facing the audience, Butterfly slowly climbs the upstage steps and slashes her throat the instant Pinkerton arrives to open the shoji-screens.
Her blood spatters him, the false lover who has betrayed her trust.
It is an absolutely devastating moment. Small wonder that the entire audience leapt to its feet to salute Ms. Li. This was a really spontaneous Standing-Ovation such as I have never seen in years at the New York State Theatre. The cheering spectators were not just getting up to put on their coats, for once…
Oscar Wilde sings again! Well, actually the Wildean character in Gilbert & Sullivan's operatic-spoof, Patience, is the Aesthete Reginald Bunthorne, broadly played by Michael Ball. The girls and ladies all swoon for him, but he has eyes only for the simple, demure milk-maid, Patience [Tonna Miller].
He gets his come-uppance from the impossibly self-infatuated Reginald Grosvenor [Kevin Burdette], who is even more attractive to Bunthorne's bevy of beauties--who continue to snub their ardent red-coated military suitors, Her Majesty's Officers and Male Chorus. Timothy Nolen was Col. Calverley, with Christopher Jackson as the Duke of Dunstable.
This is an engaging romp--with a handsome white neo-classic revolving country-house as its sole set-piece. But its period mockeries of Wilde, the Aesthetic Movement, and British Traditions are not only a bit dated now, but possibly positively arcane to younger audiences.
Gilbert's punning lyrics still have charm, but it helps if you know something about William Morris, Liberty fabrics, and Wilde's pre-sodomite celebrity. Sir Arthur Sullivan's tunes are apt, but not as ingenious or memorable as in other G&S staples, such as Mikado or H. M. S. Pinafore.
Gary Thor Wedow conducted. Tazewell Thompson staged, keeping the choruses of ladies and gents moving artfully or militantly, as required. Donald Eastman designed the White House, with wonderfully Art Nouveau-ish costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh.
BAM's Tall Horse [*****]
A Giraffe is not really a Tall Horse, but how else could it be described to--or by--people who had never seen one of these Central African long-necked marvels?
Seeking to cement relations with the French, the Pasha of Egypt decided to send King Charles X the gift of a Sudanese giraffe. The French Revolution had wiped out the Royal Menagerie. Accordingly, a giraffe was captured in the Sudan and sent via ship to Marseilles, accompanied by a simple native keeper.
But, from thence to Paris, this strange animal was led on foot through many French cities until it reached the delighted King in Paris. Even in unstable Lyon, the citizens were enchanted with the Tall Horse.
Using this real event, a traditional puppet-ensemble from Mali has joined artistic and physical forces with a South African troupe, accustomed to more Western forms of puppetry. The result is a marvelous amalgam of puppet-personalities, not least that of the imposing giraffe-puppet, with its winking ears, showing its pleasure and contentment.
Indeed, in performance at BAM's Harvey Theatre, the puppet giraffe seemed almost alive--with two handlers in its front and rear legs--and certainly very sensitive to the humans around it. Most of these were played by various forms of puppetry, with their handlers in plain view, unlike Japanese Bunraku.
But the Giraffe's Keeper--always eager to say goodbye to this responsibility and go back home--is played by a man, not a puppet. The wonder of the evening is not only that the giraffe finally seems real, but that the keeper finds he cannot abandon his charge. Nor will the giraffe eat or perform unless his keeper is by. A bond of trust and friendship has clearly been formed. This is simple, but very touching.
Tall Horse is such a special artistic achievement that it should tour the world. The South African Handspring and the Mali Sogolon Puppet Companies will surely continue to inter-stimulate each other in new works, but this production must be widely shown.
The puppets were created by Yaya Coulibaly--of a Malian puppetry-family--and Adrian Kohler, who also did the sets and costumes. Khephra Burns wrote the script, and the production was directed by Marthinus Basson.
New Victory's Black Grace [****]
This remarkable group of vigorous young male dancers from the Antipodes draw their dances from Samoan and New Zealand traditions and symbols. Their energy is instant and electrifying.
The ensemble's split-second timing and interactions are also amazing. This is especially impressive in works inspired by native Slap-Dances--which echo the Schuh-Pladler of Tirolean peasants. The Traditional Challenge/Hand Game looked very challenging indeed.
Neil Ieremia is the personable and very talented Founder, CEO, Artistic Director, and choreographer of the group, which has toured widely in New Zealand, Australia, and farther afield.
Among the performance-pieces shown at the New Victory were Ieremia's Fa'a Ulutao, Minoi, Deep Far, and Open Letter, which was developed by Ieremia with the dancers Abby Crowther and Desiree Westerlund. This dance explored the idea of being near someone but "mentally, spiritually, and emotionally distant."
Although Black Grace is a male dance-ensemble, it is occasionally female-enhanced, as in the current tour. The New Victory program concluded with Method, set to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. This was commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, drawing on the individualities of the dancers.
This group will surely be seen more widely and their energetic artistry certainly deserves a viewing!
Copyright Glenn Loney, 2005. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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