THE NEW YORK THEATRE WIRE sm

CROYDEN'S CORNER
by Margaret Croyden

 

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Reviews of the Season: 2011-2012

1. A MAGIC FLUTE
2., 3., 4., 5. ROYAL SHAKESPEARE
6. LOVE FOR LANGELLA
7. FOLLIES
8. NOTES FROM "A MAGIC FLUTE"
9. PRIVATE LIVES
10. FRAGMENTS
11. KRAPPíS LAST TAPE
12. BONNIE & CLYDE
13. HUGH JACKMAN
14. ATHOL FUGARD-A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
15. "SEMINAR" BY THERESA REBECK
16. "THE COLUMNIST" BY DAVID AUBURN
17. "DEATH OF A SALESMAN"

 

1. A MAGIC FLUTE

The first thing Iíve seen this season was "A Magic Flute," directed by Peter Brook. The production is not your usual Magic Flutes, it is simply a story of lovers. It has been pared down to an hour, keeping most of the music in it, but the simple tale is one of a love story. Brook said he would no longer like to do large productions and I gather that his main interest right now is in finding simplicity, quietude, and the meaning of love. The production is on a bare stage as usual and the only thing that is used is long, wooden sticks in a remarkable way to signify time, place, and action. Some people were disturbed that Brook gave up his idea of large staged, big productions as heís done in the past, but Brook is his own man. He looks for different aspects of life, which few directors can do.

The same idea is coming out now in a production of three one act plays of Beckett at the Mikhail Baryshnikov theater on West 37th Street. I will review the Beckett plays later on.

 

2., 3., 4., 5. ROYAL SHAKESPEARE

The next big thing that went on during the beginning of the season was the import of the Royal Shakespeare Company. They reconstructed the armory and built a replica of the original Stratford Shakespeare Theater and presented four Shakespeare plays in repertoire: As You Like It, Winterís Tale, Romeo & Juliet, and King Lear. Having seen all of these plays years ago in Stratford, England, this was not something new for me. In fact, the whole thing was a big disappointment in New York City. None of the actors were really great. The great British Shakespearean actors have unfortunately all passed away, and Iím sorry to say they have not been replaced. The directors think that they are doing modern productions of Shakespeare always try and do better than the master Ė such as putting sneakers on Julietís feet, which is preposterous, though they think itís avant garde. To my mind, spending all of this money to reconstruct the armory was a cute idea, but stupid, wasteful, using money that could have been put toward something far more serious. Nothing was really changed by seeing these plays in this environment because the fact of the matter is the play is the thing, as Shakespeare himself has said. People ran to see it (because of the so-called avant garde) the tickets were over $100 a seat, hardly what the masses of Shakespeareís time would have paid to see his plays. Sitting through four plays which in themselves are magnificent played by inferior actors was no picnic.

 

6. LOVE FOR LANGELLA

Frank Langella is one of my favorite actors. Everything he does he does with fire and strength. Tall, handsome (he looks like heís in fine health), has a deep voice, tremendous energy, he eats up the stage with his presence, and is always wonderful to watch. In Man and Boy, he has picked a rather cheap melodrama about a nasty financier who wants to use his estranged son to regain his power. Of course, Langella, even in this crumby play, eats up the stage and his energy carries the play, very much like when he played Nixon in both the play and the film Frost/Nixon. Langella is one of the last of our great leading men and I hope he doesnít waste his talent in anymore schlock. Stick to important stories and youíll be okay; not that he would take my advice, but itís a good piece of advice anyhow. These days with tickets on plays being what they are, go to the movies instead (still, I would vote for him as one of the best actors we have).

 

7. FOLLIES

If you want to have fun, and you donít mind the Broadway crowds, go to the Marquis Theater to see The Follies. The play is a reminiscent of the good old days where the "Follies" were the thing, now however it seems hackneyed. All the same, for a lot of young people it would be fun, though it is a relic of the past. If you love Stephen Sondheim, this is for you. If you donít love him, itís a bore. For me, I could never remember one melody heís ever written aside from "Send In The Clowns." Still, people love him, so now in his eightieth year, it wouldnít be a very nice thing to put him down. Bernadette Peters, whom everyone thought was too old for the part, was a surprise. For me, no surprise, because Peters always does the same thing for which sheís noted. She looks good, young, lively, she still sings well, and surprisingly carries off the part very well. Itís a fun show if you want to be around Broadway at the Marquis Theater, which by the way is one of the worst theaters in New York because itís in a hotel and a nuisance to get to. However, the show is still going and may be would make a nice holiday gift for your Grandmother.

 

8. NOTES FROM "A MAGIC FLUTE"

This is an interview that was published in the program for A Magic Flute. Interview not conducted by Margaret Croyden.

Here are things that Peter Brook said about his production A Magic Flute:

Q: Most people think they know Mozartís Die Zauberflöte, but after watching this production I saw things I didnít know were there. Is this what you wanted to achieve?

A: For me theater exists only in the present and there is no reason to look at how things have been done in the past. Most directors and designers who approach this opera today ask themselves: "what will be new? What effects does this opera need that havenít yet been used?" Over the centuries there have certainly been extraordinary productions, but this attitude has created an accumulation of ideas that are not necessarily in line with the essential aim of the creators. For me, it works best to go back to the original. Within the intimate space of the Théâtre des Bouffes, I had the opportunity to work with a group of young singers who were open and willing not to be intimidated by tradition. Marie-Hélène Estienne, Franck Krawczyk, and I worked with the greatest love and respect on our adaptation; we tried to find what had gradually accumujlated to block, for the singers, the intimate relationship with the melodic line and the German words.

Q: How did you do that?

A: We experimented every day and little by little the roots of the lyricism revealed themselves to us. It was a journey o f discovery. Because of this I called it A Magic Flute not The Magic Flute since this production was not created to compete with other stagings by using spectacular effects, video and set changes. I respect them, but here we try to suggest something else.

Q: Is this how you search for the beauty in the opera?

A: In todayís world, it is necessary to pull yourself up by the straps and find beauty where you can. An opera like Flute allows us to get in touch with a different dimension of life. It helps us find ourselves inside ourselves. I am not a Mason and consequently to juggle with the different levels of symbolism [in this opera] is both pretentious and useless. All that Mozart wished to express about what had touched him so deeply is in the music. Mozart and his librettist donít preach; they didnít create a philosophical opera like Goethe could have done. This is a pure language of story, people, and sound.

Q: You have said that you wanted to do this Magic Flute for a long time. Why did you decide to do it now?

A: The answer to this question is as mysterious as the opera itself. In my career, I have done different works when the time felt right. Our experience at the Bouffes and on tour has shown how deep the need is to be in touch with a quality we canít find in the daily accumulation of miseries that life brings our way.

Q: How is the music of Mozart theatrical?

A: Mozartís music can explain the unexplainable. It goes beyond words and opens us up to a feeling of amazement. He brings us to a new dimension and gives us a new perspective.

(Translated by Barbara Sartore and edited by Charles Sheek from a recent interview by Peter Brook with Parisí ARTE television.)

 

9. PRIVATE LIVES

If youíre in a dark mood and want to travel back in time to the 1930s in a frivolous world of glitz and glam, cocktails, and Englandís upper crust, then go see Private Lives by Noël Coward.. In this production, directed by Richard Eyre, glamour is the word. Set and costume designer Rob Howell coupled with lighting designer David Howe did a fabulous job setting the stage for glamour. Everything on the set: the clothes, people, lighting, it all sparkles with attractive colors, lights, and, of course, cocktails. Cowardís Private Lives is a nonsensical play with plenty of laughs. A master of so-called sophisticated comedy, Coward had on his mind the sophisticated people and their style before anything else.

Private Lives is an old play. Itís about two people whom were once married to each other, but have now divorced and both found new partners. The two couples find one other in adjacent hotel rooms and it is there that the formerly married pair realizes they were much happier with each other than they are with their new spouses. So, they decide to do something about it: escape and reunite with each other. Itís a crazy plot with plenty of laughs, or so the audience thought.

Richard Eyre, a well-known, brilliant director who has done great work in London has now produced a quick-moving, silly, dated play. I guess he did it for the money. While it moves fast, the clothes are great, and the audience seems to really enjoy themselves, there is one thing: the stage is poorly designed to accommodate those in the first several rows of the audience. The couples are on a split balcony, and placed before them is a tall fence. If youíre in one of the front rows, such as I was, the combination of a split balcony and tall fence makes it a strain to view the action on the stage.

A strange question that Private Lives raises is the intention behind Noël Cowardís wit. Itís a story about the posh upperclass, and openly depicts how ridiculous they are. Was Coward a master of irony or did he really admire these people? Keeping in mind that while he lived this lifestyle, it was not a class he was born into.

 

10. FRAGMENTS

In thinking about Review of the Season, which started with Peter Brookís "A Magic Flute," it is fascinating to see another production by Brook, which recently closed. It was a dramatized version of some of Beckettís plays in a production entitled "Fragments." As usual the excerpts of the Beckett plays were depressing, but the production, directing, and acting were superb. The play is in Association with Baryshnikov Arts Center and features Jos Houben, Kathryn Hunter, and Marcello Magni. Brook steered away from his past brilliant productions in choosing to take on "Fragments."

In this production, the stage was virtually empty with only two paper bags and a pole. Two guys came out of the paper bags and proceeded to reenact their miserable existences with ironic humor. Later a woman joins them on a park bench. The dialogue of the play is typical Beckett: depressing. Life for Beckett was not beautiful. A miserable existence in every way sprinkled with black humor. The audience seemed to adore it. There was constant laughter in the theatre. The performance lasted only one hour, but Brook managed to get across everything he wanted. This was achieved with the brilliant work of the actors. Truly this production is the only thing worth seeing this season. Unfortunately Theatre for a New Audienceís artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz could not extend the production because the actors had other commitments.

Interestingly enough, "Fragments" played to full houses even though there was not much PR. Word of mouth is everything. Then again, a Peter Brook production will always attract audiences who really love the theatre.

 

11. KRAPPíS LAST TAPE

Another very interesting production is Samuel Beckett is "Krappís Last Tape," at the Brooklyn Academy of Musicís Harvey Theater. British actor John Hurt did an outstanding job in the title role: one can always rely on a British actor to get every ounce of the language perfect. Numerous actors have tried, however this was an unforgettable performance. The success of this show was not only in the actor himself but the language of the play. The text is well known: a man at the end of his life listens to a tape recorder that reflects his past. It is another chilling and depressing Beckett play, but also a brilliant depiction of a personís end.

 

12. BONNIE & CLYDE

In contrast to original plays of this season like Beckett, we have the idiotic revival of Bonnie & Clyde as, of all things, a musical. These two killers have been glamourized in the movies, which was bad enough, and now theyíre being glamourized on Broadway, adding to the dreadful atmosphere in America and abroad. Killing seems to be in, even in the world of musicals. By the time you read this, the production will have closed, and rightly so.

 

13. HUGH JACKMAN

One of the big sellers on Broadway this season is Hugh Jackman. Alongside the many duds and stupid revivals is Jackman, who in my opinion is like a male slut. Yes, he has a good body. He wiggles his behind and does other such insinuating actions onstage and it attracts crowds. Those who pay $400 a ticket must be sex-crazed. In this time with people outraged about jobs and the economy, I find it funny that someone would pay hundreds of dollars for a seat to see him. Is this crazy or what? The public is clearly sex-starved and this is a pity. There is no overhead to his show, "Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway," at the Broadhurst Theater, and no expenses. Jackman collects his weekly pay and a good percentage of the playís gross. There are enough fools who go to see this sort of stuff to help him out. The play ended its run on January 1st which is surprising given the audienceís overwhelming support.


14. ATHOL FUGARD-A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

Seeing the revival of Athol Fugard piece, “Road To Mecca,” brings back a lot of memories of this fine writer. I met Fugard when he was an actor performing in the Peter Brook film: “Meetings with Remarkable Men,” when I was on the film set doing a story for the New York Times. We became good friends in those days. Athol was a drinker, and a man of fun. A great conversationalist, but he could be quite serious about the world around him. More importantly, Fugard was a fighter, and remains one of the few artists who will survive for noble mention. The revival of “Road To Mecca,” may be considered an old play, but it is as relevant as a new one for it reminds us of universal truths.

His favorite and only topic—Africa and its freedom—is brought into sharp focus in this play, set in an isolated town of Karo. An elderly woman, Helen, is the main character and has spent many years alone after he husband’s death. She has created a home different from what is ordinary and common place. A conflict occurs among the townspeople, who only love and appreciate what they know too well. To them, her world is too removed from their own regimented, common existence.

The special fruit of this production is Rosemary Harris, an exceptional actress and a seasoned and original craftsman deepens the character of Helen. She dominates the stage and is a joy to watch. She reminds us that old does not mean ancient, erudite but not self-satisfied.

Athol Fugard remains for me the same. This play is yesterday, but it’s today, as well. He is devoted to a special mission to tell the story of Africa, and its victims, black or white. He never allows the humanity of Africa to be forgotten.

Bravo, to a timeless master!

 

15. SEMINAR” BY THERESA REBECK WITH ALAN RICKMAN


Alan Rickman is an actor who likes to be bitchy onstage. In the play “Seminar,” he gets his chance. In this very unlikely plot his character, Leonard, is hired by some so-called collegiate intellectual writers who give him $5,000 to establish a seminar in a rich kid’s apartment. In this story, Alan Rickman is supposedly the master teacher of writing. As a “master” he is nasty, bitchy, insulting, and stupid. He barely reads a kid’s short story piece before telling him he’s a failure. Leonard is an exaggeration of a neglectful professor to the point of it being insulting. The professor’s rude quips and ignorant harshness repeats. And repeats. We get the idea. Every line Rickman said was bitter and full of resentment.

The students, meanwhile, are a nasty bunch of oversexed kids. If this is a true representation of our intellectuals, we are circling the drain as a creative, intelligent, inspired country. In short: the cast of students and the professor are all repulsive. Writer Theresa Rebeck has created a soap-opera story – contrived and senseless. This dreadful depiction of our educated elite are portrayed at a very low level, and that was extremely insulting. Are we saying that today’s young writers can’t write and that they are passionless, nasty, empty, privileged kids with too much money? As you can see, I hated this play.

16. "THE COLUMNIST" BY DAVID AUBURN

If you want to experience what acting can be on Broadway, run to see John Lithgow in "The Columnist" at the Samuel Friedman Theatre. Every move, every jester, every line, even the pauses are perfect. Lithgow’s total command of the stage and his portrayal of the journalist, Joseph Alsop, a bitchy, nasty egomanical power broker is not an easy assignment. One wonders why David Auburn wrote the play in the first place. To be sure we all like gossip and this is one play where you will find it—including the events leading up to the Kennedy assassination. Director, Daniel Sullivan is swift and sure and Lithgow’s delivery of the lines are perfectly timed. It’s not easy to portray a nasty egomaniac, closet queen (surprise for the time) and a close friend of the mighty US government. To watch this mover and shaker of the powerful --- is somewhat of a burden. The story, like a soap opera, had no real purpose or no important point of view. One wonders, what Lithgow’s interest was portraying the role. Nevertheless, I was sometimes transfixed to watch Lithgow give life to a dead soul.

17. "DEATH OF A SALESMAN"

I have seen the play "Death of a Salesman" many times on the Broadway stage, including the groundbreaking original production with Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman. I also recall Dustin Hoffman and Brian Denehy tackling that same role but neither could compare with the original and this production, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, is no exception. No one could ever match Lee J. Cobb and unfair as it sounds, Philip Seymour Hoffman is too young and psychologically looks too contemporary to ever be Willy Loman.

By now everyone knows the story of “Death of a Salesman”, a story of a man with illusions of grandeur, imprisoned by a socioeconomic system that ensures his failure. Willy, no longer useful for making money, is tossed away, and left to suffer feelings of failure and worthlessness because he was unable to accomplish the American dream of success within a Capitalist society.

To be sure, “Death of a Salesman is one of our great American plays and the best by Arthur Miller. Revived many times since its opening in the 1940s, it offered a wake-up call to an audience who, like Willy Loman, believed that Capitalist success was the essence of American life. It was clear that Miller had struck a chord and it remains painfully relevant today. Perhaps this recent production by Mike Nichols, like the original, is set to awaken a younger audience, the new generation, who may not understand a life dictated by consumerism and illusions of grandeur. Attention must be paid says Willy’s wife. Indeed – and hopefully these words will reverberate and reach the 1% who so badly need to see this play.

 

Margaret Croyden's new book is The Years In Between – A Reporters Journey: World War II-The Cold War.


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