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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney
 New Life for the American Musical?
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
 Phantasmal "Follies"
 "42nd Street" at the Ford
 Faith Prince in "Bells Are Ringing"
 Paper-Mill "Funny Girl"
 Best-Ever "Producers"
 MisAdventures of "Tom Sawyer"
 Having a "Blast" on Broadway
 Tabloid Musical "Bat Boy"
 Janis Joplin at Village Gate
 Modern Mountings of Modern Operas
 Brand New "Baby Doe"
 "Dead City" at Lincoln Center
 Britten's "Rape" at Manhattan School
 Juilliard's "Dialogues of the Carmelites"
 Latin & Greek Roots of "Invention of Love"
 Lost Lives Reconstructed in "Mnemonic"
 Holocaust Drama: "Judgment at Nuremberg"
 Holocaust Drama: "The Gathering"
 Irish Whimsey: "Stones in His Pockets"
 Wilson's "King Hedley II"
 "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs"
 Amy Sedaris as Sweaty Betty
 Macaulay Culkin Returns in "Mme. Melville"
 Sir Peter's "Troilus & Cressida"
 "Misanthrope" at Cocteau Rep
 Steppenwolf "Cuckoo's Nest"
 Southern Comfort: "Crimes of the Heart"
 "Passion Play" in Greenwich Village
 Booth Award to Anne Bogart
 Peking Acrobats Victorious at New Victory
 More Acrobats in Cirque du Soleil's "Dralion"
 Dante at DUMBO: "So Long Ago I Can't Remember"
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Vita Nuova of the American Musical?Recently, there was a Certified Panel of Experts on view at New Dramatists. They assembled to debate the Proposition: "This is a New Golden Age of the American Musical."
Despite the excited claims of the Pro-debaters—that the plethora of long-runs and revivals was a sure sign of a Golden Age—I sided with the Nay-Sayers, who suggested that this is not even a Gilded Age of the American Musical.
But then, I thought that even before I arrived at the New Dramatists' HQ, a former church. It—like so many other old churches in Manhattan—has survived only as a theatre-venue.
Will the day come, I wondered, when Organized Religion will make a Big Comeback and reclaim these shabby old sanctuaries? That lovely musical theatre, the Mark Hellinger, has been a Fundamentalist Church for some time now. [Who remembers who Mark Hellinger was? Or John Golden?]
If Chicago finally runs out of steam, could the Shubert be converted into a Satmar Synagogue?
Obviously, these are but idle speculations.
On the evidence of two wonderful new musicals—one based on a movie, the other a revival of a musical based on a movie—I do believe the American Musical Is Alive & Well.
If this is neither a Golden nor a Gilded Age of the Musical, it is at least The Age of the Gold-Wash Musical. Both The Producers & 42nd Street are awash in Gold Sequins.
Musicals Old & New—
Ghosts of Rocky Horror Show Linger On!
Phantasmal Follies at Battered Belasco [****]
Some recent Follies spectators were surprised to discover how much apparent damage had been done to the interior of David Belasco's once fantastical faux-Venetian auditorium in his Belasco Theatre.
NOSTALGIA TIME--Donald Saddler elegantly partners Marge Champion in "Follies." Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2001.
But most of the savaging of the walls and stage-boxes had been done some years ago, when The Rocky Horror Show had its Broadway premiere in this long-jinxed venue.
Rocky got its long-running start in a London cinema that was being torn down.
To recreate that effect in Manhattan, it was decided to strip the Belasco auditorium of some of its more distinctive decorative details: Such as Venetian Lanterns on long striped poles, which flanked the proscenium. The box-fronts were smashed.
Regular seating was replaced with very small tables and chairs, so Rocky Horror fans could have drinks & snacks. But the show didn't catch on and soon closed.
This left the Shuberts with a virtual wreck of a theatre, a ghost of what it once had been. Even David Belasco's palatial apartment above the theatre foyers was a ruin.
It was rumored that the Shubert management hoped the theatre could be sold, torn down, and replaced with another high-rise, adjacent to all those already on the Avenue of the Americas.
Landmarking foiled such projects, also in the case of Daniel Frohman's Beaux Arts Lyceum Theatre.
There is a kind of shadowy folklore about those theatres between Broadway and Sixth Avenue: the Belasco, the Lyceum, the Cort, the Hudson—now a conference-center, Henry Miller's—converted to Xenon and its successors, and the long since demolished Ziegfeld Theatre, designed by Joseph Urban.
For some reason, audiences didn't seem to want to see a show unless it was in a theatre between Seventh & Eighth Avenues. Until the success of Dracula at the Martin Beck, they didn't even want to cross over to the "wrong" side of Eighth.
Even now, the Cort, the Lyceum, and the Belasco are virtually the last to be booked in a busy season. And they are most often rented out to not-for-profit companies like the Roundabout and the Lincoln Center Theatres.
Announcing a new production as booked for the shabby Belasco is almost an advance warning of early closure or an advertisement for a Limited Run.
So it's entirely appropriate that the current revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies should be set in this long-doomed theatre. The velvet drapes which had concealed the shattered boxes during recent short-run bookings have been stripped away.
And distressed walls and decorations have been even more distressed to complete the illusion of a great musical theatre, rather like the formerly fabulous Ziegfeld, on the last night of its life as a stage.
Set-designer Mark Thompson has provided a bare-bones bare-stage which rightly focuses attention on the characters—and their ghostly younger selves. But he has cleverly scattered the light-bulb-illuminated letters for F O L L I E S against the backstage wall, as a throw-away reminder of what's lost & gone forever.
I was rather surprised to hear young Sondheim fanatics around me on press-night complain about the shoddiness of the show, about its artistic inferiority to the Hal Prince original. Some of them couldn't even have been born then.
As Hal Prince and the young Michael Bennett came to my CUNY Grad Center Musical Theatre Seminar to talk about their vision for Follies and the problems involved in realizing these fantasies on stage, I believe I have some expertise about this marvelous theatrical masterpiece. I also wrote a major feature on Florence Klotz and her fabulous Follies costumes for Theatre Crafts, not to overlook conversations with Boris Aronson about his own vision of a ruined-theatre setting.
But with all these memories, I am not about to join the chorus of those who currently disparage this challenging production. Some, it's true, are not really concerned about physical production details, as much as they are about the casting.
But I found the entire evening a nostalgic enchantment, even more satirically sad than the original. This is partly because the Roundabout production—staged by Matthew Warchus and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall—is so minimal. So bare-bones, so lacking in Harold Princely opulence and elegance.
Even the psycho-fantasy Ziegfeldian Follies settings—which descend out of a ruined fly-gallery to flesh-out the regrets & dreams of the four mis-matched principals—are more effective in their parodic crudity, than were Aronson's lush Erté/Joseph Urban panoramas.
Blythe Danner, Judith Ivey, Gregory Harrison, and Treat Williams are all admirable, each in his or her own way. But there is no profit in comparing them with the original talents who created these partners in blighted marital bliss.
And it was wonderful once again to see that great choreographer Donald Saddler dance with elegance and aplomb, partnering the sublime Marge Champion. Like Polly Bergen, Betty Garrett, Joan Roberts, Jane White, and Carol Woods, they are not ghosts of the Past, but Living Legends. And it is a theatre-blessing—even an Historic Occasion—to be able to see them together on the Belasco stage!
Be Blinded By All That Golden Glitter!
Fabulous 42nd Street at Ford Center [*****]
I saw the stunning revival of 42nd Street from the fourth-row-center and was nearly blinded by the gleaming golden glitter of some of the chorus costumes. So I cannot honestly say costume-designer Roger Kirk should sew on more sequins.
BUSBY BERKLEY TIME--Big Hollywood-Style Chorus Sequence in "42nd Street." Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2001.
This sparkling new production is celebration of Broadway Excess. The stage is often crammed with super-energized and super-sexy chorus-girls & boys. What's more, they all have personalities and can dance, act, & sing like pros.
This may be a revival—long after the heyday of the legendarily overstaffed & overstuffed Broadway musical revues—but no expense seems to have been spared to recreate the effects of both the mega-hit old-time Broadway and Hollywood Musicals.
Gower Champion has program-credit for his original direction & dances. But Randy Skinner has devised new choreographies which are bright, fresh, & hyper, but at the same time, entirely evocative of the period & genre of the original. Mark Bramble also has staged the conventional backstage drama with an endearing urgency which makes its simplistic tropes seem really humanly important.
They have wisely left the camp parodies of this great movie-musical to Dames at Sea.
The unquestioned star of the show is the dynamic Kate Levering. Unlike the unfortunate Faith Prince in Bells Are Ringing, she does not have to "carry" the show. But she never lets it carry her along, either.
Every minute on stage, she is tremendously vitalized, focused, and totally tremendous. How she can endlessly dazzle in those breath-devouring dance-routines—without seeming to turn a hair, or pause for a gasp of air—and then pour forth her heart in now legendary songs is absolutely amazing.
Michael Cumpsty is just fine as the tough, demanding director, Julian Marsh. But it's the bumptious Mary Testa who gets the laughs as Maggie Jones.
Everyone in this show should get an Ensemble Award!
But only if they promise to pay for their own plates at the Awards Dinner. Otherwise there would be some thirty actor-singer-dancers to feed. At $75 a plate, that's a tab most critics' groups cannot afford, alas. It's different for the TONYS™, of course.
"Take It On Faith!"
Faith-Full Bells Are Ringing at Plymouth [***]Theatrical punsters are digging deep for slogans & phrases with the operative word "faith," in order to say something clever about the current revival of Bells Are Ringing.
With Faith Prince gallantly attempting to recreate the PBX-operator role the legendary Judy Holliday made so uniquely her trade-mark, audiences are being asked to "Take it on Faith," or "Put your Faith in…," or even to approach the new show as "An Act of Faith."
And the plain truth is that Faith Prince is giving it her considerable All, carrying this now rather trite, dated musical comedy. Recent efforts to revive such similarly Manhattan-oriented shows as Wonderful Town & On the Town—despite vintage Bernstein scores—have seemed more effortful than wonderful.
Bells, however, has a fine Styne score, but Jule Styne was no Bernstein. "Perfect Relationship" and "The Party's Over" still have their separate charms.
But most of the Comden & Green lyrics could be less expensively—and possibly more painlessly—re-experienced in concert or the City Center Encores series. The evening I attended, Betty Comden did not look like a Happy Camper. And the venerable Adolph Green seemed to be mumbling discontentedly at the stage now and then.
Part of the problem may be that Faith Prince is simply working too hard? That she is showing the audience her idea of Ella Peterson, not inhabiting the role? She is experienced enough to know that no one should attempt to recreate Judy Holliday as Ella. But she does need to make Ella her own…
Nonetheless, despite some smaller elements of theatrical-delight—like the song-writing dentist—Faith Prince is the storm-center of the entire production, not just its linking, unifying principal.
Although I have admired director Tina Landau's previous avant-gardist experiments as writer/director, musical comedy staging does not seem her forte.
Perhaps she should have asked scenic-designer Riccardo Hernandez to set Bells in Grand Central Station's mysterious tunnels, to give it a new and special Look?
Or possibly move the action to contemporary Jerusalem? Sandor could be a secret PLO organizer, instead of a bookie. Ella's PBX office could be near the Wailing Wall!
Unfortunately, the production is rooted in the ugliest of 1950s Modern, an especially shabby-minimalist period in American Interior Decoration. And the visualization is unfortunately also Shabby-Minimalist. Alas, this sets the tone for Jeff Calhoun's derivative choreography as well.
A New Garland? A New Streisand?
Frantic, Antic Funny Girl at Paper-Mill [****]
So you've never heard of Leslie Kritzer?
FANNY IN THE FOLLIES--Leslie Kritzer as Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl," performing her World War I comic-specialty, "Private Schwartz." Photo: ©Jerry Dalia/2001.
That may soon change. Certainly Paper Mill Playhouse regulars have been astounded by her energy, pizzazz, and dynamic ability to belt out a song to rock the rafters.
Of course miking amplifies all musicals now, but this little Jersey dynamo can surely fill any musical theatre in the event of a California-Style Power-Outage. Leslie Kritzer has the wattage to light up the stage, and the lungs to engulf the auditorium.
But you have only until May 20 to check her out as Fanny Brice in the Paper Mill's handsome new production of Funny Girl. She is more like Judy Garland than Barbra Streisand—and that's certainly no handicap, even in a role so closely identified with Streisand.
Like Brice—who was more a stage-comic than a Ziegfeld Beauty—Kritzer is manic, frantic, & antic in her eagerness to wow her audience. But she does it wonderfully in character, not as a stand-up comic who also sings.
"People" and "Don't Rain on My Parade" are show-stoppers in themselves by now, but Kritzer makes them something special.
Even though Paper Mill revivals are limited short-runs, Funny Girl has been ingeniously designed by Michael Anania to suggest the lavishness of an old-time Broadway musical. The Ziegfeld Pregnant-Bride production-number—Fanny's idea, not Flo's—is every bit as parodically wonderful as "Loveland" in the current Follies.
Robert Cuccioli—recently both Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway—is sleekly suave and dangerously handsome as Fanny's folly, gambler Nick Arnstein. The actual facts of their tempestuous relationship and Arnstein's shady career were of course given strong cosmetic treatment for the Broadway book, by Isobel Lennart.
Director Robert Johanson has not seen fit to tinker with this. But he, Leslie Kritzer, and company have certainly done well by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill.
If you live in Manhattan, Millburn, New Jersey, may seem as distant as Wilkes-Barre, or Baltimore. Actually, it's only about 30 minutes by train from Penn Station on the NJ Transit Midtown Direct Line. And right at the foot of the Playhouse hill is Charlie Brown's, great for Prime Ribs!
Nathan Lane Channels Zero Mostel!
Mel Brook's Zany The Producers [*****]Even the excited pre-opening word-of-mouth reports didn't do the impressive actuality of Mel Brooks' The Producers justice. This is one of the Best of Broadway ever!
Those cinemaddicts who view the original Mel Brooks film as a Minor Masterpiece are in for an astonishing surprise. Before the previews, some fans were audibly horrified that Brooks would not only consent to—but actually himself preside over—making the movie into a musical.
It is hilarious & hectic, glamorous & glorious, and tartly tastelessly trendy from start to finish.
Nathan Lane unquestionably comes into his own as a musical comedy star. He may even be channeling Zero Mostel as the appalling producer, Max Bialystock, but he brings much much more than Zero's shtick to the role.
As his nervous, nebbishy side-kick & partner-in-crime, Leo Bloom, Matthew Broderick is shyly, craftily charming. He has come a long way from his promising Broadway stint in How To Succeed. What once seemed like vocal insecurity, or musical unsureness, now serves him very well in character.
Cady Huffman is a splendid comic foil—and luscious Sex-Object—for the two scheming producers. She comes to audition and stays as an inspirational mainstay for the duo.
As in the film, their ploy is to make a lot of money by getting angels to invest heavily in a new Broadway show that is so awful it is sure to fail. Then they will abscond with the rest of the investment, very little having been wasted on "production-values."
When the film first appeared, no one knew what it would one day mean to be "Politically Correct." But many knew enough to be very uneasy with the Bialystock Concept of a big-time Broadway musical about Adolf Hitler & Eva Braun in Berteschgaden.
But even some of those who should have been most shocked and appalled at the musical's climactic Busby Berkley choreographic number, "Springtime for Hitler," were caught off-guard. It was in such hilarious Bad Taste—and so totally awfully improbable—that it convulsed even spectators full of Moral Rectitude.
Holocaust Survivors should not go to see Mel Brooks movies for a Good-Time-Out, in any case.
If NEVER AGAIN is your Guiding Life-Motto, sprint off to Judgment at Nuremberg—if it hasn't already closed. Stay strictly away from The Producers!
It's over half a century since the Holocaust, so the greatly enhanced physical production of the Hitler Epic now onstage at the St. James seems no longer to have the power to offend that it once had. If anything, it would have offended the Nazi Hierarchy more than any other group.
Nor are Militant Gays mobbing the theatre to protest Mel Brooks' aggressive use of the most swishy stereotypes of Drama Queens on stage. Roger Bart and Gary Beach are Out-of-the-Closet Outstanding.
It may be taken as a mark of new-found minority-group security that it can laugh along with the crowd at such outrageous stereotypes. That they are over-the-top exaggerations of some actual Tribal Behavior patterns makes them all the more amusing.
That Max Bialystock's previous failures have included such turkeys as The Breaking Wind—noted on a wall-poster—sets the tone for most of the humor. Max raises cash by sweatily pleasuring desiccated old ladies, almost literally dying for It.
In addition to the "Springtime" Storm Trooper Ballet—in Swastika-Format, reflected in a slanting mirror as in Chorus Line—there is an amazingly spry choreography with Little Old Ladies tapping their Walkers about the stage.
Just when you think you've seen it all, another twinkling Broadway backdrop comes zooming out of the flies. The Producers has enough "Production Values" for any two other Broadway shows.
Susan Stroman seems a sure shoe-in for even more Tonys as director-choreographer. But there ought also to be awards aplenty for designers Robin Wagner, William Ivey Long, and Peter Kaczorowski. Brooks created the new songs all by himself, but Thomas Meehan deserves kudos for his collaboration with Brooks on the book.
Musical Comedy fans are now booking for next spring and summer. You may just have to catch the National Company—there is sure to be one soon!—in Detroit or St. Louis!
Bring Back Big River?
Un-Adventurous Tom Sawyer [***]
Mark Twain always wanted to write for the stage. In fact, he had a modest success as a collaborator on his fictional satire, The Gilded Age. But it remained for others to make A Connecticut Yankee a Broadway Hit.
MARK TWAIN MOMENT--Painting Aunt Polly's Fence in "Tom Sawyer." Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2001
His masterpiece—as judged by no less an authority than T. S. Eliot—made it to the Great White Way decades after his death as a musical called Big River. It had a modest run and toured, but the spectacle of Huckleberry Finn singing did not capture the National Imagination.
Now Ken Ludwig—of Lend Me a Tenor & Crazy for You—has crafted a simplistic & boring book for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Don Schlitz has provided predictable musical numbers. This is not the brew that Made Milwaukee Famous.
Samuel Clemens was writing of small-town Life on the Mississippi at a time when it was forbidden by law to teach Blacks to read & write. Nonetheless, in this Politically Correct musical, there is a PC-Obligatory duo of a black boy & girl students in Tom's one-room school.
Even more unusual is the spectacle of Southern White Folks trooping off to Church, presided over by a Bible-Thumping Black Preacher. So much for Authentic Period Flavor.
Political Correctness does not extend, however, to disenfranchised Native Americans. Injun Joe is still a vindictive, lying, malicious, menacing, murderous Villain—as in the novel. [He should get a transfer to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, where dramatist Dale Wasserman knows how to respect American Indians!]
It's good to see Jane Connell—a fellow UC/Berkeley graduate— again in a Ludwig show. She was also previously featured in Ludwig's Tenor & Moon Over Buffalo—as Widow Douglas, who wants to civilize Huck Finn. Veteran character-actor Tom Aldredge, however, doesn't have much to do as Muff Potter, the village-drunk.
None of the songs or the choreographies is especially innovative or memorable. The production is entirely family-oriented, palatable & predictable. Were it not for all the furious energy expended on stage, it would verge on the boring.
But there is one very big reason not to miss this show!
That is the remarkable stage-designs of Heidi Ettinger, who also, incidentally, designed Big River. That show made much of Huck & Jim on the Raft.
Tom Sawyer, on the other hand, seems a magnificent celebration of the Treasures of the American Craft Museum!
There are so many colorful mobile set-pieces which are greatly enlarged versions of American Folk Art Gates, Weather-Vanes, Flags, and such-like that I want to have them all permanently preserved at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Meanwhile, see them come alive on Broadway!
The late great critic, Yvor Winters—my American Lit professor at Stanford University—insisted that Mark Twain's only good work was Tom Sawyer. "Which he ruined by that ridiculous incident in the cave at the close!" So much for T. S. Eliot & Huck Finn!
Next time Ken Ludwig thinks about making a musical out of a masterpiece, he might do well to begin with a play, instead of a novel. Avoid Mark Twain's version of the Joan of Arc Saga and take a look at Shaw's Saint Joan. He could call it Lend Me a Dauphin. Or Crazy for My Voices. Or Moon Over Orleans…
Not Your Basic STOMP!
Having a Brassy Percussive Broadway Blast [***]
It now seems years ago that I was deafened by Stomp—which is still running strong down at the Orpheum in the East Village. It is widely on tour as well. It was at the Old Opera House in Frankfurt—Germany, not Kentucky—recently.
WAVING THE RED FLAG--The "Malaguena" as performed in "Blast!"
So, on my way to see and hear Blast on Broadway at the theatre of the same name, I wondered if I would be deafened again. And whether I would see this unusual show again this summer in Frankfurt. Or Berlin—where I recently enjoyed another remarkable Heidi Ettinger set: This one not for Tom Sawyer, but for Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Fortunately, the Broadway is a much, much bigger theatre than the Orpheum. Even with the ubiquitous miking of musicals now, the joyous sounds of the many brasses and the throbbing rhythms of the drums, rattles, wood-blocks, and other percussions was never less than melodious and exciting. Never deafening.
If you have been thrilled by the almost-76-trombones finale of The Music Man, you will certainly savor Blast. And from all the visual and audial indications, the many talented performers are certainly having a blast performing this eclectic show for their enthusiastic audiences.
For those who need Narratives, there is none. For those who need Messages, try Western Union or e-mail. If there were any Messages, they flew right by me.
What is essentially on offer at the Broadway is an ensemble of young, attractive, black-clad musicians who move choreographically as they play various instruments with pattern & passion.
There is also some colorful flag-waving & flag-tossing. If you have ever seen such displays at the Palio in Siena, or at Holy Week in Seville, you will know what to expect. If not, you will have to settle for flags in solid colors, rather than rich in Medieval Heraldry.
This is a show which makes no Mental Demands. Mayor Giuliani and His Decency Panel should find nothing in it worthy of complaint.
This Baby-Musical Has Four Singing Heads!
Small Town's Intolerance of Freakish Bat Boy [***]If you have been stuck in supermarket checkout lines often, you are surely overfamiliar with those weekly tabloids with headlines which scream: MY BABY WAS BORN WITH THREE HEADS! Or: TOM CRUISE SECRET SPACE ALIEN!
In case you have never read one of those hysterical gossip & superstition-crammed rags, you can get complimentary copies of the WEEKLY WORLD NEWS in the lobby of the Union Square Theatre to prepare you for the shocks of the new musical, Bat Boy. In fact, the Playbill program proclaims the show as "Licensed under agreement with WEEKLY WORLD NEWS."
This show is not exactly The Laramie Project set to music, but—aside from its more bizarre elements and plot-developments—its subtextual plea is for Community Understanding of the Other: the person who doesn't look and act like his neighbors. The One Who Doesn't Fit In…
The seemingly subhuman Bat Boy is discovered in a local cavern by terrified teenage Spelunkers. The town Vet is summoned to put the monster down, but his wife and daughter plead for the pointy-eared boy's life.
Aside from his periodic thirst for warm red blood—inherited from the bats who Hitchcocked his human mother—Bat Boy soon is transformed into a very well-bred young man. Not at all like the louts around town.
But there are dark secrets about his spawning which lead to almost unseemly hilarity in the comedic-melodramatic climax which leaves the small stage littered with corpses. Only Hamlet has a higher body-count.
Scott Schwartz's antic staging—in the bizarre settings of Richard Hoover & Bryan Johnson—totters along a fine line between Soap-Opera Tragedy and Comedy Central Parody. Lawrence O'Keefe's ingenious lyrics for his own generic tunes are entirely apt for the stereotypical characters & plot.
Devin May is funny, fantastic, and even touching as the very athletic Bat Boy. Kaitlin Hopkins, Sean McCourt, and Kerry Butler are the other three singing heads in this amazing Monster Musical.
At least we were spared singing tabloid depictions of headlines like: ALIENS ATE MY PUSSY-CAT! Or: NOSTRADAMUS & ALBERTUS MAGNUS ALIVE IN ANTARCTICA!
Cathy & Catherine Cloning a Legend!
The Village Gate Lives Again: Love, Janis [****]The very real danger in creating one of these singing bios of dramatically deceased Pop Icons is that it will be little more than a concert-survey of their Greatest Hits, glued together with a narrative on the order of: "And then I wrote…" or "And then I sang at the Fillmore…"
But even the hook of once meeting Patsy Kline at the airport kept one of these shows running and even being remounted nation-wide. I'm still waiting for the Country & Western celebration of the Grinder's Switch comedy of Cousin Minnie Pearl, longtime—but non-singing—star of the Grand Ol' Opry.
Now Love, Janis has just opened at the former Village Gate, renamed the Village Theatre. Janis Joplin fans are flocking to savor the show and clap-along with not one but TWO Janis surrogates: Cathy Richardson & Catherine Curtin.
I'm no expert, but a Joplin connoisseur—who was my guest, and had even more advance misgivings about the show—assures me They Got It Right. Janis' three phases—or performance incarnations—are all here.
As are such Joplin-penned specials as "Turtle Blues," "Down on Me," "Women Is Losers," and "Move Over."
What's more, they are performed with passion and abandonment by the lovely Cathy Richardson who has her own band in Chicago. Andra Mitrovich alternates with her some performances, as this is a really taxing gig.
Sporting identical outfits and long blond hair, Catherine Curtin is the Talking Joplin, the living, breathing incarnation of a vintage Sixties Haight-Ashbury Hippie. Her lines are drawn from plaintive letters she wrote home to her apparently indifferent, even disapproving, mom. And from frequent and frank interview responses.
The letters appear in sister Laura Joplin's book, which shares the show's title: Love, Janis. This dynamic Joplin Fest has been shrewdly conceived, cleverly adapted, & adroitly directed by Randal Mylar.
Modern Operas in Modern Mountings—The Metropolitan Opera has a state-of-the-art Wagon & Chain system for shuffling huge box-settings from side-stages to the great main-stage in a matter of minutes. This is based on a prototype installed in the National-Theater of Munich's Bavarian State Opera.
Such systems are great for Zeffirelli Scenic Spectaculars, with tons of solidly-built scenery. Unfortunately, at the opening of the New Met, the turntable failed. And Zeffirelli's huge revolving Sphinx center-stage had to be inched around by stage-hands inside it.
The Opera Bastille in Paris is also outfitted with sophisticated machinery for shifting great masses of three-dimensional settings. But the need for such devices is on the wane.
Not only do modern operas often not require acres & tons of scenery to heighten illusion, but too much scenic visualization can be damaging to the mood and overall effect of such operas in performance.
Not only is the vogue for 3-D scenery on the wane, but, in Europe, slashing of state subsidies to operas and theatres dictates less costly means of production as well. And the most brilliant of continental stage-designers now favor dramatically dazzling, or subtly suggestive stage-environments, rather than postcard realism.
As the New York State Theatre has never had all the technical apparatus of the Met stage, the New York City Opera has always had to find simpler scenic solutions. But these have frequently been visually & psychologically more effective than the solidity of Met productions.
Even less technically outfitted are the opera-stages at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. But both schools consistently mount new productions—often of modern operas—which are elegant and stunning, yet basically simple and even economical.
Theatre buffs who love Production Values—but who fear they "wouldn't understand an opera"—are really missing some great theatre-events by not checking out NYCO, Juilliard, and the Manhattan School every season.
I can say nothing of the Met in these matters as its Press Office refuses to extend the Press Privilege to ink-stained—or should that be "laser-jet-stained?—wretches who write not for printed publications but for the Internet & Outer/Cyber Space.
Leadville Lives Again!
City Opera's New Ballad of Baby Doe [*****]
Not many modern operas have found a secure place in performance repertories. This obviously has something to do with the widespread public taste for the lush Romantic Opera War-Horses of yore.
FREE SILVER FOREVER!--Colorado Rally for William Jennings Bryan in City Opera's "Ballad of Baby Doe." Photo: ©Carol Rosegg/2001
But this failure to find a permanent home is also a function of modernist composers who are determined to Write an Opera, having already conquered most other forms of musical composition. But with no concept of Dramaturgy, Narrative Structure, Compelling Content, Fascinating Characters, or even Singable Texts.
And, when there's an avant-gardist score that renders the text virtually unsingable—even unlistenable—it's no wonder the work is seldom heard beyond its premiere season.
Douglas Moore's Ballad of Baby Doe, however, is a modern opera which has found a home at Lincoln Center, where it has long been a special care of the New York City Opera.
It's not constantly in the repertory, but, thanks to its handsome new production and the musical and dramatic talents of the radiantly beautiful Elizabeth Futral as Baby Doe, it should become a staple of the NYCO rep.
Initially, way back in 1958, Baby Doe was Beverly Sills' role at NYCO, and she totally inhabited it. Now Futral, quite different from Diva Beverly, has made it her own.
There are several reasons for the opera's distinctively American appeal, for it has not won a place in European repertories. It is rather like a Grand Broadway Musical, but with a tragic ending.
In fact, after its Colorado premiere at the historic Central City Opera, it was intended for Broadway, where Gian Carlo Menotti's operas had already demonstrated their viability for a popular audience. But the backers got cold feet.
Baby Doe, in its score and onstage, offers not only the excitement of a Wild Western Mining-Camp—Leadville, Colorado—but also the boosterism of Pioneer Denver and the Gilded Age of Washington, DC.
It celebrates American themes in music, taste, and attitudes. Mining Magnate Horace Tabor's unshakable faith in William Jennings Bryan and Free Silver provide a powerful moment before the debacle of the Gold Standard.
Most potent of all the attractions of Baby Doe, however, is the true love story of Horace [Mark Delavan] and Baby Doe. Locked into a stern, loveless marriage with his severe wife, the repressed, hard-working Augusta Tabor, Horace finds a new reason to live & love when he meets the initially fortune-hunting Mrs. Harvey Doe.
Their love—as Douglas Moore and librettist John Latouche develop it—is joyous to behold on stage, and it's deeply moving to hear their passions sung. But just as affecting is the tremendous loss and sorrow of the abandoned Augusta, magisterially sung & acted by Joyce Castle.
Tabor never faltered in his belief that Free Silver would eventually triumph. Before he died, he swore Baby Doe to: "Never sell the Matchless Mine!"
She died an old sad bag-lady, frozen to death, at the shaft of the Matchless. True to Tabor and Free Silver to the end. It's a distinctly American Story, an American Dream Defeated.
Colin Graham directed with sensitivity, and George Manahan conducted with sure feeling for Moore's sense of drama and passion. The new production—different, even better than the original NYCO mounting—is the work of designers John Coyne/sets, Susan Benson/costumes, and Tom Munn, long lighting director for the San Francisco Opera.
This powerful new production could hold its own on Broadway now!
Dead, Live, & Holy Blood in Bruges!
Haunting Tote Stadt Revived at NYCO [*****]
Not only has your reporter written frequently about new productions of the San Francisco Opera, but he's also done a special feature on Thomas Munn's lighting there for the former Theatre Crafts. [Now Entertainment Design!]
BRUGES' MISTS & SHADOWS--Multimedia projections in Korngold's "Die tote Stadt," or "The Dead City." Photo: ©Carol Rosegg/2001
Back in 1975, when the New York City Opera premiered Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die tote Stadt, he also wrote a feature for Theatre Crafts on the then highly innovative multimedia projections used.
Now, after a very long—too long—absence from the NYCO repertory, The Dead City is back, and in that same haunting production.
A generation ago, I was less impressed with the actual visual images artist/designer Ron Chase employed than I was with the techniques of using both still projections and film-sequences on front and rear scrims. I had gone to Washington, DC, to talk with Chase and to see what he had done for a fascinating, even surreal, staging of Britten's The Turn of the Screw.
In Die tote Stadt, the transparent front & rear projection-screens effectively "sandwich" the performers and some elemental set-props into a ghostly evocation of Medieval Bruges, with its strange annual Pageant of the Holy Blood.
Seeing Ron Chase's projected still & moving images once again, I can now appreciate—as I did not then—how lyrically effective they are in evoking the emotional atmosphere generated by the central characters of Paul, Marie—who is dead, and Marietta.
The Belgian Symbolist story—based on Bruges-la-morte—is wonderfully suited to this multimedia treatment. It could even become an astonishing innovative film, preferably made by the Brothers Coen, rather than by Disney Enterprises.
Old before his time, Paul has made his beloved dead wife's bedroom into a veritable Shrine. He thinks only of her and of his unquenchable loss. Then one day, quite by chance, he sees a vibrant young beauty who looks exactly like her.
She is a talented carefree dancer in a Commedia troupe just arrived in Bruges to perform during the Easter Season and the famous ritual parade of the Precious Reliquary containing Jesus Own Holy Blood On The Cross. [Why & how this Sacred Relic came to be preserved in Bruges is another story—or opera…]
But the lovely Lauren Flanigan, as the flamboyant, coquettish Marietta, is nothing like the sedate beauty Marie, his Lost Love. He is both attracted and repelled.
There is a wonderful period pastorale sequence—recalling Pierrot & Columbine fêtes at Versailles' Petit Trianon—in which Marietta displays her considerable abilities to charm, entice, and drive men wild.
What Paul experiences—mingled with his pious observation of the Holy Blood Pageant—is almost Proustian. Between the time that Marietta has departed from her initial & invited visit to Paul's home and her return to reclaim her forgotten umbrella, Paul lives through an agony of emotional conflicts caused by the claims of the memory of Marie and the lures of Marietta.
This Surreal/Symbolist Dream, however, frees him from his deathly thrall. At last, he can leave Bruges, the Dead City.
Although Korngold had to escape from Greater Germany, owing to the Nazi proscription & persecution of "Degenerate Artists" [Read this as "Jewish Artists."], his score for Tote Stadt has nothing of the Nazi-detested musical avant-garde about it. It is, instead, lushly Romantic. Perhaps the last flowering of a Viennese style which even Richard Strauss had left far behind when he began to compose works like Salomé.
Unfortunately, Korngold had to survive as a composer by writing Hollywood film-scores. Which—even more unfortunately—encouraged critics to describe his music as "More corn than gold." At NYCO, conductor George Manahan treats his Tote Stadt score like the gold it is!
[On a distinctly minor note: I have seen the Shrine of the Holy Blood in Bruges. But I have never witnessed the Procession. In 1956, I drove my little VW Beetle all the way from Verdun—where I taught English & Speech to US Army personnel—to Bruges for Palm Sunday weekend I left my small hotel late Saturday night to attend Midnight Mass in the Cathedral. When I returned, the hotel was locked & shuttered, then a common practice in European small towns. Especially Dead Ones. The doorbell was broken. Stones flung against windows aroused no one. So I spend the night at the local Police Station on a bench. The station was also locked, but the doorbell was fortunately working! So, on Palm Sunday, I went my way and have never returned to the City of the Dead.]
At the Manhattan School of Music:
Britten's Rape of Lucretia Relived [*****]At both the Manhattan and the Juilliard Schools, customarily both the Autumn and the Spring opera productions are distinguished not only by outstanding young singer/actors, the Stars of Tomorrow, but also by thoroughly profession production values which would not look out of place on the stages of the nearby Met or the New York State Theatre.
Curiously, this Spring both schools mounted new opera productions that were really bare-bones cost-cutters. Both served their respective operas adequately artistically. But they left something to be desired in terms of imagination and inspiration.
Neil Patel designed the spare set-box for Britten's Rape of Lucretia, which wasn't much enhanced by Mimi Gordon Sherin's lighting or Elizabeth Hope Clancy's somewhat slapdash costuming.
Fortunately, Ronald Duncan's equally spare libretto and Britten's taut, elemental score could as well be performed as an oratorio, so the simplicities of the visual production helped focus attention on the three main characters, the virtuous wife Lucretia—who kills herself from the shame of the Tarquin's violation, the Regal Rapist himself, and Lucretia's stalwart Roman husband, like Prince Tarquin an Etruscan General, combating the invading Greeks.
These principal roles were admirably sung [Friday cast] by Amanda Nisenson, Brian Dore, and John Bischoff.
There was also a tremendous personal ovation for the white-haired conductor Julius Rudel. Long the Artistic & General Music Director of the New York City Opera, Rudel is now a magisterial 80 years old. But he continues to have a full schedule of conducting for major operas and symphonies!
At the Juilliard Opera Theatre:
Powerful Dialogues of the Carmelites [*****]Only a week later, there was Julius Rudel once again in the pit, but this time at the Juilliard Opera Theatre. He was vigorously conducting the Juilliard Orchestra in the powerful new production of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites.
This was also a bare-bones staging, with some sharply angled flats used as projection-surfaces for images. Designed by the famed Franco Colavecchia, with Ina Mayhew, the visuals suggested locations, fleshed out with some elemental set-props, rather like City Opera's Die tote Stadt.
This shouldn't be surprising, for the venerable stage-director Frank Corsaro created the original City Opera Korngold production, as well as staging the new Juilliard Dialogues.
When the late John Dexter was production-director at the Metropolitan Opera, he mounted a splendid open-stage production of Dialogues which cost very little, as he told me at that time. He "cannibalized" three other Met productions for usable set elements. Otherwise, the constricted Met budget wouldn't have permitted this stunning premiere of a very dramatic modern opera.
Based on a drama by Georges Bernanos, with Poulenc's own libretto, the opera tells the tale of the last-minute courage of the always timid Carmelite nun, Blanche de la Force—sensitively sung at Juilliard by Lauren Skuce.
There is an intended irony in the title, for Carmelites are a Cloistered Order who observe the Rule of Silence, the better to meditate on the Mysteries of the Cross and Jesus' Holy Passion. And to pray silently for the Sins and Sorrows of Mankind…
With the sudden outbreak of the French Revolution and its violent attacks on Authority of all kinds—including both the Aristocracy and the Church—priests and monks and nuns were driven out into the streets.
Many were killed, but those who tore off their habits and donned the clothes of peasants and workers could blend into the blood-thirsty crowds. In Blanche's cloister, however, there is a senior nun, Mother Marie [Guang Yang], who ardently desires martyrdom.
She incites her sister nuns to vote for martyrdom on the scaffold of the dread Guillotine, if the Revolutionary Assembly refuses to permit them to continue serving God as they have been doing.
The fearful Blanche escapes into the mob. Mother Marie, also in civilian garb, goes in search of her.
The ultimate irony is that Marie—who urged all the others to become martyrs—looks on as Blanche emerges from the crowd to be the last and possibly bravest of the Carmelites to go with great dignity to the scaffold, as Poulenc's music emphasizes the deadly dropping of the blade for each valiant nun.
Even in an elemental production, this is and remains very powerful Music-Theatre. The Juilliard student singers and musicians have done very well by it.
Plays New & Old—
Stoppard & Styx at Lyceum!
Passion Prevented in The Invention of Love [*****]
Those critics who complain that playwright Tom Stoppard is "too intellectual"—or "just showing off his smarts"—should be grateful for something really challenging, provocative, and interesting in the modern commercial theatre.
A VOICE FROM THE FUTURE TALKS TO THE PAST--Richard Easton as the newly dead poet, A. E. Housman, giving advice to Robert Sean Leonard as young Housman at Oxford, in Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love." Photo: ©Paul Kolnik/2001.
In the current season, neither Edward Albee's Play About the Baby nor Neil Simon's Dinner Party has any real weight, mystery, or challenge. Though both disappointing dramas aspire to all three.
I first saw Stoppard's Invention of Love in San Francisco at Carey Perloff's ACT. As she did not feel compelled to upstage the play with directorial or design flourishes, it came across both directly and forcefully.
But, for some Bay Area critics, it was indeed a puzzlement. Several colleagues complained to me after the performance that they hadn't understood one word of "all those Latin and Greek quotes."
As with some reviewers in New York, they were baffled: Was Stoppard just showing off? Or trying to intimidate his audiences?
Does anyone know how to listen anymore? Either before or after uttering a classical citation, Stoppard has his sadly divided hero, A. E. Houseman, share the quote in clear English.
The fact that A. E. Housman was one of the most brilliant classical scholars of his time also really demands some demonstration of his expertise. What is really ingenious, however, is the way in which Stoppard has selected his classical mottoes & tags to illustrate or emphasize points in the progression of the drama.
An important through-line in the drama relates to the problems, confusions, and misunderstandings caused over the ages by continual re-copying and re-translating of ancient texts. By the time they come down to us, the original meaning may have been entirely lost, or completely transformed into its opposite.
By now, there can be few au courant theatre-buffs who do not know that Housman was a very repressed homosexual. Hopelessly in love with an athletic fellow-student, Moses Jackson.
Housman, expected to achieve a brilliant First at Oxford, instead failed. He went down to London to work in Her Majesty's Patent Office. This job made it possible to share digs with Jackson and his brother.
There, he was rebuffed by Jackson—at least as Stoppard imagines the scene—with offhand, uncomprehending indifference.
Housman's subsequent outlet for that unrequited Oscar Wildean "Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name" was poetry. It's ironic, however, that generations of young swains have since wooed their girl-friends with verses from A Shropshire Lad, which is subtly, pastorally homoerotic.
[Even way back in 1946, at UC/Berkeley, when we had no idea about famous poets being "homos"—would anyone have published them?—we did chuckle over lines like "By brooks too broad for leaping, the lightfoot lads are lain…"]
Stoppard's dramaturgy is especially brilliant in counterpoising the just deceased Housman—being ferried over the Styx by a Music-Hall-Comic Charon to the Underworld—with his passionate undergraduate self.
Richard Easton and Robert Sean Leonard are impressive in these demanding roles. And they articulate and project their lines so effectively no miking is needed. No excuse for not understanding what is said, unless one is dozing off, intimidated by the mental & emotional challenges of the drama.
Stoppard also offers the counterpoise of a flamboyant Oscar Wilde, who was already at Oxford when Housman arrived. He even has Wilde appear on a mini-stage as Bunthorne, Gilbert & Sullivan's parody of this brilliant young Aesthete.
While Housman buried his feelings and longings deep inside, Wilde flaunted everything—his wit & his tastes—to the point of his public disgrace, a debasing prison-sentence, and disintegration in continental exile.
Who was finally the one who lived and loved most fully?
Certainly not Housman, although he—at least in the play—is able to isolate the time when Love was invented. At least the Greek poetess Sappho and the Roman Catullus—unlike Houseman—experienced the loves and heartaches of which they so passionately wrote.
Stoppard also shows Housman and Wilde in the social, political, and cultural context of their time, with some deft, quick scenes involving the likes of Frank Harris, Henry Labouchère, and Jerome K. Jerome. [Who now remembers Jerome's Passing of the Third Floor Back?]
Although Jack O'Brien's Broadway staging is much more accomplished than the ACT production, I am grateful I saw Invention of Love initially in San Francisco. Bob Crowley's ingenious set-props for the New York version are so fascinating, my attention was often diverted to them from the texts and passions. That is no fault of the drama, but of my years of reporting on technical theatre for Theatre Crafts!
Reconstructing Lost Pasts!
Out of the Glacier: Mnemonic [****]
Simon McBurney's last performance-adventure adventure on the New York scene, The Noise of Time, was created in semi-darkness with the collaboration of the Emerson Quartet.
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY--Via Cell-Phone & Imagination, Katrin Cartlidge & Simon McBurney look across distances at each other in "Mnemonic."
Although I applaud the Lincoln Center Great Performers Series for its very serious dedication to cutting-edge performing-arts experiences, I thought that odd experiment not only did not work—and did a dis-service to the music performed—but was also Pretentious in the Extreme.
Encountering McBurney's latest work, Mnemonic—on the stage of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice—I feared an evening even more extreme and pretentious. I thought: If there were any justice, some of these events would be condemned as criminal. Or at least censured by Mayor Giuliani's Committee for Decency in the Arts.
What initdially set my teeth on edge was the gratuitous repetition of speeches, actions, & scenes, a now hoary device of Avant-Garde Theatre. It dates at least as far back as Joe Chaikin's re-enactments of the Abe Zapruder film-footage of the Kennedy Assassination. If not quite as far back as Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo…
Nonetheless, some of the repetitions began to make dramatic sense, as a kind of visual & textual cantus firmus to the process of trying to reconstruct the life, death, & diet of a prehistoric corpse found frozen and virtually intact in an Alpine glacier.
That both Austria and Italy were trying to claim the remains as their own—and rival scientists were ardently pushing their own agendas & expertise—added tension and interest. [The actual corpse is now in a museum in Bolzano/Bozen in Italian Alto Adige, formerly Austrian Hoch Tyrol.]
But this fascinating Reconstructive Quest was only half the Search. Mnemonic also intertwines the obsessive search of a woman [Katrin Cartlidge] for her father, a Jewish Survivor, lost or gone to ground somewhere in Eastern Europe after World War II. McBurney played her lover, frustrated and separated from her by her desperate searching, but linked via mobile-phone. Only those mobile-phones in the audience had to be turned off.
Projected visuals were a powerful enhancement for the occasionally confusing events.
Keeping the Holocaust Alive!
Judgment at Nuremberg on Trial [***]
A fellow-critic recently assured me that this new stage production of Abby Mann's film, Judgment at Nuremberg, was not as good as the original Broadway staging. As I have seen virtually everything since I first came to New York in 1960, I was alarmed by this remark.
WAR CRIMES TESTIMONY--Joseph Wiseman as a Nazi victim, testifying in "Judgment at Nuremberg." Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2001
Had I missed something in Manhattan some summer when I was abroad? Often, in fact, spending a day or two in Nuremberg, where I photographed the ruins of the Nazi Party Congress grounds…
Not at all. This is the first time—and perhaps the last—this drama will be played out in Prime Time at a Prime Broadway Venue. In fact, a Closing Notice was posted, then rescinded when the cast took salary-cuts.
On entering the Longacre Theatre, I was surprised to see the gleaming steely outline of a Fascist Art Deco Teutonic Eagle, clutching a Swastika in its talons.
I was once again chagrined at the somewhat demented fascination such Nazi emblems seem to inspire in theatre-people. Especially those who have more reason than most to Hate the Holocaust and to abominate everything the Nazis stood for. Including their sleekly powerful symbols: the Eagles, Swastikas, and Shiny Black Boots.
Snappy Nazi uniforms and bright red banners are also often a sickening Hollywood visual fetish. Thank G-d Melanie Griffith escaped the Gestapo!
Never Forget! and Never Again! are powerful slogans. But isn't it just possible that there's more to these periodic [Anti] Nazi films, TV dramas, and Broadway productions than basic concern that the Holocaust not be repeated.
Could there be something like Nazi Fetish Porn?
Or is it just that there are producers out there who believe such shows are surefire lures for Jewish audiences? The Max Bialystocks of Racial Shock Schlock?
In any case, Maximilian Schell was appropriately aristocratic and unbending as the once respected German Judge—on trial at Nuremberg before an Allied War Crimes Court—who bowed to Nazi pressure to condemn innocent men.
George Grizzard was admirable as a kind of foxy grandpa Southern judge, whose humanity and common-sense more than make up for his lack of Harvard or Yale Law School credentials. [An old friend of mine, now deceased, was once just such a judge in Nuremberg, but he came from Virginia City, Nevada, not Faulkner's Old South.]
Also excellent in quite different roles were the estimable Joseph Wiseman and Marthe Keller—whose patrician Prussian lady was most offended by Hitler's commonness and vulgarity, rather than by his Genocide of the Jews and Destruction of Germany.
Can This Wound Ever Be Healed?
The Gathering: Judgment at Bitburg [***]It's one thing to offend Zeus and be chained to a rock where eagles eternally peck at your liver: A Wound Which Will Not Heal. Wagner's Amfortas had the same problem, but for a different reason. Not because he dared to share the Gift of Fire with Mankind…
But to prevent a desperately deep wound from healing, by constantly clawing at it yourself, seems the depths of dementia. Am I the only theatre-goer who feels that—more than half-a-century after the horrendous Holocaust—it is time to let the wounds heal and move on?
At Broadway's Cort Theatre, Arje Shaw's Post-Holocaust drama, The Gathering, is described as a "New Play." But I already saw it uptown at the Jewish Rep—where else? The Irish Rep perhaps?—on East 91st Street.
In that incarnation, it was good to have seen Theodore Bikel as the ex-Communist, permanent Atheist, "cultural Jewish" grandpa. A Zayde who goes to that infamous Bitburg Cemetery to confront President Ronald Reagan—who was bowing to the political demands of the now also infamous former Federal German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl.
This time around, gramps is the irrepressible Hal Linden. Max Dworin plays his insufferably bright grandson, Michael. His even more insufferable son has become a buttoned-down speech-writer for the Reagan White House: IF THOSE WALLS COULD TALK!
At Bitburg, however, Gramps meets an ordinary German soldier, too young to know of the horrors symbolized by some of the graves in this cemetery.
So, maybe The Healing Can Begin?
Should Bush Embargo Quaint Irish Dramas?
Dazzling Duo in Stones in His Pockets [****]
If I had written a quaint Irish play in which grave-diggers smash seven skulls on a kitchen-table, maybe I'd want to put stones in my pockets as well and walk out into the ocean off Mayo or Galway.
MANY ROLES/ONLY TWO ACTORS--Conleth Hill & Seán Campion in "Stones in His Pockets." Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2001
Playwright Marie Jones shouldn't give this form of suicide a further thought. Virginia Woolf didn't need any stones in her pockets when she hit the water. Her stones were metaphoric, emotional.
The funeral & wake for this Irish village suicide—not, thank God, in Martin McDonagh's Leenane!—threatens to hold up the final shooting of a budget-threatened Major Hollywood Motion-Picture. A costume-epic about Revolting Irish Peasants, under the grim pastoral heel of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy.
What's most impressive about Jones' achievement is that her large cast of wildly diverging characters can be played by just two male actors. Seán Campion & Conleth Hill are those thoroughly talented Irish lads.
Several colleagues have complained that we've had quite enough Irish plays recently, especially about making films in Ireland. But the only other movie-oriented Irish drama I can recall that one about The Cripple of Innish-whatever…
But, as a regular at the Dublin & Wexford Festivals, I'd be the first Yank to agree that a little Irish whimsy goes a long long way. Even to Tipperary! And even with the comic efforts of such masters as Sean O'Casey and John Millington Synge…
Nonetheless, I have now seen this production three times, In three seasons, in three cities. I missed it in Dublin, but much admired it in a tiny theatre-space of the Traverse Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
A year later, in London, I was looking around for new shows. I thought the title sounded familiar, but I couldn't quite remember if I'd seen it. Or what it might be about. The brochure didn't ring the Proverbial Bell.
As soon as I entered the theatre and saw that row of shoes across the upstage projection-screen, it all came back to me. Too late to get a refund. But I was astounded anew at the virtuosity of this amazing duo.
So I was eager to see their work again on Broadway at the Golden. Long may they multiplay multiparts! And soon may we see an equally clever—if whimsical—new Irish play by Marie Jones. Ian McElhinney directed.
Another Pittsburgh Decade Recalled!
August Wilson's King Hedley II [****]Fresh from his triumphs in Kiss Me, Kate, Brian Stokes Mitchell is quite a different kind of man in August Wilson's 1980's installment of his African-Americans in Pittsburgh Play-Cycle. Not so fresh after a stint in prison, King is determined to make something of himself finally.
He is unfortunately uneducated, deluded, often out-of-control, and not very bright. His dream of opening a Video Rental Shop is doomed, not only as a concept in this poverty & crime-stricken area, but also as something he can even hope to finance.
As in Wilson's Seven Guitars, the entire drama is played out in the shabby backyards of decaying Black tenement houses in the Hill District. As in the previous play, there is a crazy old man—this time the Bible-quoting "Stool Pigeon"—dominating backyard events.
He has buried a dead cat and needs fresh blood to raise it from the dead. At the close of the play, he gets it unintentionally from the dying King Hedley who has been accidentally shot by his mother.
All the performances are powerful, but especially that of Viola Davis as Hedley's common-law wife, Tonya, who has an unforgettably passionate outburst: almost an aria!
Leslie Uggams is moving as the woman who has long concealed her true relationship from King. She even gets to sing "Red Sails in the Sunset," recalling the character's former club-singing career. Not to mention Uggams' own Broadway musical career!
If Wilson's many admirers had thought his initial director/mentor, Lloyd Richards, should have made him cut more of his strongly poetic dialogue in earlier dramas, it's now clear that his current muse, Marion McClinton, is even less disposed to edit.
This is a long evening—packed with powerful people and odd events—but it can wear out audiences in the long haul, even if the actors never slacken their pace or dilute their passions.
My favorite in Wilson's decadal Pittsburgh Panorma is still Joe Turner's Come and Gone. It should have won a Pulitzer Prize—much more so than those which have done so…
Closed Minds, Closed Hearts, Closed Doors!
Redwood's No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs [***]At Primary Stages—which has previously honored playwright John Henry Redwood with an honorable production—the astonishing encounter between an Orthodox Jewish social researcher and a poverty-stricken rural Black family has proved even more potent.
Jack Aaron plays Yaveni Aarensohn, studying patterns of prejudice and discrimination among North Carolina White "Red-Necks" against their Black neighbors. As a Jew who has also experienced scorn, hatred, and even harm from White Christians, he is interested in comparisons.
But the time is 1949, when local signs still warn against Blacks, Jews, and Canines. In that order. A century before, the signs would have read: " NO IRISH NEED APPLY." But the Irish assimilated more easily, and soon joined the persecuting Moral Majority, alas.
At the outset, the small Cheeks Family cabin is visited daily by a haunting specter: a tall figure in a wide black hat, dripping "Widow's Weeds."
This is the mysteriously silent Aunt Cora [Rayme Cornell], come for her basket of food. It develops that she was brutally raped by a white man, who even boasted of what he'd done. It destroyed her sanity.
This appalling crime is repeated, but not on Aunt Cora. There is no appeal, no redress. Shooting the White who did it is no solution.
Israel Hicks directed the admirable Adrienne Carter, Marcus Naylor, Charis Wilson, & Elizabeth Van Dyke.
Sweaty Betty Amy Sedaris!
Drama Dept & Talent Family's Book of Liz [***]Down at Greenwich House, Amy Sedaris has been playing a rebellious member of the Shaker-like sect of the Squeamish. Her cheeseballs are famous and the mainstay of the Squeamish domestic economy.
She's rather like that legendary monk who discovered how to concoct Grand Chartreuse and make his monastery rich. He didn't ask for rewards. He just got drunk.
But Amy/Liz gets angry that no one thanks her for her recipe and skills. Worse, a new male member of this Religious Community insists on taking over the daily hands-on manufacture of cheeseballs.
So she runs away, finding momentary employment as Mr. Peanut beside a freeway. And later at a Pilgrim-Themed restaurant-motel, run by addled gay Twelve-Step recovering Alkies. She sweats a lot, and there are complaints.
The Twelve-Steppers' regimen is almost as severe as the devotions of the Squeamish. Who track her down, now that the cheeseballs no longer please the public.
Wonderful Disclosure: Liz's copious sweat is what gave the cheeseballs their distinctive Smoky Flavor.
I never miss a clever production by the Drama Department, but the David & Amy Sedaris "Talent Family" had better look to their laurels. This show is nowhere near their Obie-winning One Woman Shoe for virtuosity.
My favorite David Sedaris satire, however, is that Christmas-time treat, the bitchy monologue about training to be one of Santa's Elves at Macy's. It is an annual antidote to the sentimental molasses of A Christmas Carol.
Macaulay Culkin Returns!
Is Nelson's Madame Melville An Autobio? [***]
For those cute-kiddie-movie fans who have run their videos of Home Alone into tatters, the Real Thing is back and on stage on Broadway. Not exactly Broadway Midtown, however, as the Promenade Theatre is further uptown, a stone's throw from Zabar's.
NOT HOME/NOT ALONE--Macaulay Culkin as Carl, lingering late in the apartment of his unmarried teacher, "Madame Melville." Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2001.
As the shy young virgin Carl, Macaulay Culkin still has a boyish blondish softness about him. Although he opens Richard Nelson's possibly autobio drama with a long, long monologue looking backward from the vantage of his fifties, no attempt has been made to age him.
Carl is an especially innocent and clueless teenager—thirteen or fifteen, depending—who is seduced by one of his French teachers at the American School in Paris, circa 1966. Despite her titular Mme. , Claudie Melville [Joely Richardson] is unmarried.
But the Headmaster believes the appellation will disarm any parental fears that something awkward might occur between so young and attractive an instructor and one of her students. It does not prevent her from having an affair with one of the married male teachers.
Carl connects with her on an evening when she is furious with her lover. He lingers after his fellow-students have left a film-discussion in her apartment. He's lonely, unsure, unloved, directionless.
As Claudie artfully draws Carl out—using both Bonnard reproductions and an illustrated Kama Sutra—Nelson's bittersweet comedy of nostalgia begins to heat up. The sexual temperature is raised by the sudden incursion of Ruth [Robin Weigert], a wacky American expatriate musician also in search of love.
From an unpromising beginning, the play develops into a serio-comic meditation on coming-of-age and what might have been. Nelson also staged his drama, so the interesting dimensionality of his two women is surely a credit to both the director and the performers.
Culkin-Carl is generally bland, uninteresting, a fairly clean-slate. But that is also the part as written. When Mme. Melville's own conflicted emotions confuse him, however, he begins to find his own voice and a taste for rebellion.
The play has already had a West End success in London, but it can do quite as well on Upper Broadway in New York. The Promenade is also near Citarella, as well as Zabar's.
A Sequel To His Denver Tantalus?
Sir Peter Hall's Troilus & Cressida [***]
At the virtually defunct American Place Theatre, the main-stage has been recently rented out to Jeffrey Horowitz's Theatre for a New Audience. Good to have the handsome house in use!
GET OUT OF YOUR TENT, ACHILLES!--Phillip Goodwin, as Ulysses, urges Idris Elba, as Achilles, to challenge the Trojan Hero, Hector, in "Troilus & Cressida." Photo: ©Ken Howard/2001.
TNA's controversial production of Edward Bond's Saved has been followed by an even darker—and much, much older—indictment of Man's Inhumanity To Man: Shakespeare's Troilus & Cressida.
The scabrous Prologue and effective Master of UnCeremonies, Thersites [Andrew Weems] repeatedly emphasizes the dark drama's themes of Lechery & Lust, just as Shakespeare has set them down for him. Even as he clutches and strews various skeletons and corpses about the circular stage.
But there are bigger, deeper issues also at stake in this late Bardic drama.
Of course, it's at least legendarily true that the spark that ignited the Trojan War was Prince Paris' Lust for Helen, wife of King Menelaus—and her subsequent abduction.
But the flames of that disastrous conflict were fanned by the deep sense of Wounded Honor—and thus Questionable Manhood—of the Greek Leaders. In Sir Peter Hall's new production, the strongest subtext seems to be something much more terrible and threatening than Lust or Lechery.
It is the stubborn pride, the ignorant Male Vanity, which forces both the Greeks and the Trojans forward toward a conflagration that will destroy a great city-state and enslave its women, while wreaking less visible permanent moral and emotional damage on the apparent winners.
While Thersites is not quite a pre-classic precursor of Sir John Falstaff pillaging a battle-field, Shakespeare gives them both the same understanding of what Military Valor & Honor really mean.
Of course Euripides understood that two-thousand years before the Bard, but it obviously needs to be re-emphasized over the centuries. Are the New War-Lovers in the White House aware of The Trojan Women? If they know the Iliad at all, is it only as a case-study to duplicate the Greek's duplicity with the Trojan Horse?
How about a Wooden Surveillance Plane, set down & abandoned outside the Great Wall of China? Would Maoist Cadres breach the Wall to bring in the plane for thorough study?
Hall's Epidaurus-like arena looked very much like the one he recently used in Denver for his epic production of Tantalus. But then Troilus & Cressida is a kind of footnote to John Barton's grand summary of Greek Myths & Pre-History.
Tony Church was venal, vain, and finally very sad as the voyeuristic Pandarus, the go-between for the Trojan Prince Troilus and the lovely young virgin, Cressida.
But they were to have only one night of love, for her father—the renegade Trojan Priest Calchas—demanded her presence in the Greek Camp as his reward for his pregnant prophecies. He it was who had Agamemnon sacrifice his beloved daughter Iphigenia on the altar so the Greek ships could sail to Troy. A real Religious Menace to Young Virgins!
In Hall's production, Troilus seemed a boy drafted to do a man's duty, a real light-weight, hardly the Future Hector heralded by his princely brothers. He did mature somewhat toward the close, but by that time, the casting-damage was already done.
Cressida was quite a different case, although seen by some as quite as light-weight as Troilus. But this is a very difficult role: newly arrived among the Greek Kings & Heroes—all who wish to greet her with kisses—how is she, or the actress playing her, to behave?
Like an angry teenager, suddenly torn from a new-found love and a long-known home? Like a desperate, frightened girl, searching among the chiefs for the man who will best protect her? Like an instinctive tart or whore, available to any attractive or powerful man?
Ulysses, the cynic, certainly views her as the latter. But he may not be speaking for the Bard here. Then again, he might just be a stand-in for the Bard as Misanthrope!
From The Subject Was Roses to Molière!
Christopher Black as The Misanthrope [****]It is quite a stretch from playing Timmy—Frank Gilroy's young World War II American soldier returned home to his eternally bickering Irish-American family—to being Molière's 17th century Parisian Alceste, a gentleman-scourge of hypocrisy, pretension, falsity, and ardent foolishness.
But the resourceful Christopher Black has demonstrated, at the Jean Cocteau Repertory, that he's equal to this daunting stylistic & character challenge. In fact, Molière's Misanthrope is a tonic stretch for the entire company
To see—and hear—the ordinarily earnest Harris Berlinsky as a terminally foppish flyweight marquis is a surprise & delight. And, as in the ideal of repertory company casting, the customary Leading Man, Craig Smith, has a tiny but wonderful cameo as an officer of the guard who has come to arrest Alceste. His fantastic costume is alone worth a trip down to the Bouwerie Lane Theatre.
The Cocteau's usual Leading Lady, Elise Stone, this time plays the falsely concerned gossip & trouble-maker Arsinoé, with designs on the impossible Alceste. Actually, they deserve each other, for he earnestly & constantly denounces the same hypocritical manners and conduct which she only derides to provoke scandal.
Angela Madden is bewitching and marvelously fluid in manner & movement as the lovely Célimène, the teasing temptress who drives Alceste wild with desire and equally wild with anger at her inconstancy and superficiality.
In this production, staged by Rod McLucas—who has also provided a witty new translation—Black is something of a revelation as Molière's titular Misanthrope. A character who may well be a stand-in for the playwright himself.
In most productions I have seen, although Alceste rails continually against the manners & morals of Parisian Society, he has himself always been fashionably dressed and has behaved himself with restrained decorum. He clearly belongs among his social set, even though he despises them. Without them, indeed, he'd have no proper audience for his rants.
Black's Alceste is rougher and angrier than an elegant Misanthrope such as Brian Bedford has shown New York audiences. In fact, he's really more like an angry English gentleman, surrounded with falsely fawning French fops. This interpretation is salutary, but it makes one wonder why Célimène puts up with him at all.
Scenic-designer Robert J. Martin has transformed the tiny Cocteau stage into an elegant 17th century Paris Salon with some artfully draped fabrics. Robin I. Shane's lavish costumes are a Fashion Historian's dream.
Back to the '60s: Lobotomy Lives Again!
Cracked Eggs: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [***]
For the Record: I never liked Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It seemed a totally calculated appeal to young Hippies, already infatuated with the idea of Saving the World by Destroying Authority.
GARY SINISE IN "CUCKOO'S NEST"--R. P. McMurphy ruffles the feathers of the Psychiatric Hospital's staff. Photo: ©Tristram Kenton/2001.
But then I was also never an admirer of the rambling screeds of Kerouac. Nor a great fan of the Beat poetry & philosophy of Ginsberg—though much later we were both professors at Brooklyn College.
The truth is that I was already Too Old to join either the Beat or the Love Generations. But I did write a report for LIFE magazine in the 1960s about Hippies Living in Caves.
They were strung out—literally—along the Yuba River near my family's ranch in the High Sierras. I brought them food, in exchange for druggy quotes. But I passed up the opportunity to contract venereal diseases at their nightly orgies.
When Dale Wasserman's adaptation of Cuckoo's Nest opened on Broadway, I saw no reason to change my opinion of the deliberate and melodramatic manipulation of Kesey's characters and plot. But I respected the technical proficiency of Wasserman as a playwright.
After doing an interview with Billy Bibbit/Brad Dourif for After Dark, I did come to have greater respect for what the actors had to do to make the play work.
In the current Steppenwolf Theatre revival at the Royale, one also has to respect the tremendous energy and concentration of the actors, trying to make the play come alive.
Fortunately for them, they've been directed by Steppenwolf's talented Terry Kinney. And inspired by the dynamic performance of Gary Sinise as the rebel, Randle Patrick McMurphy.
Only a prefrontal lobotomy can quell his spirit! As it did rather differently with Tennessee Williams' beloved sister, Rose.
But this drama is no Suddenly Last Summer, and neither Kesey nor Wassserman could lay claim to the poetic gifts of Tennessee.
[Years later, at a Shakespeare Conference in Visalia, CA—invoked to create a Shakespeare Festival in a curve-in-the-road called Stratford—I finally met Wasserman, who proved a brainy man of the theatre.
[As I was doing research for a DANCE magazine series on the Broadway/Hollywood dancer/choreographer Jack Cole, he shared some production secrets of Jack's work on the musical, Man of La Mancha—with book by Wasserman, no less.
[What has stuck with me from that long-ago meeting was his surprise & chagrin that so many people had over the years thanked him effusively for the hope they found in his lyrics for "The Impossible Dream."
["No one got it," he complained. "The whole point of the song is that the Dream is Impossible! It's not about Hope…"]
Beth Henley's Mississippi Three Sisters!
Southern Discomfort in Crimes of the Heart [****]It would be a real crime if you don't get to see the new Second Stage mounting of Beth Henley's madcap Southern Family Drama, Crimes of the Heart. Unfortunately, all Second Stage revivals are limited runs.
Still, its production of August Wilson's Jitney was so well received it moved Off-Broadway. The new staging by Garry Hynes is so totally joyous and crazy that it should prove a long-running commercial delight.
Oddly enough, I didn't much care for the original Broadway production. Partly because of the casting—actresses pretending to be zanily dysfunctional—and partly because of the obvious contrivance of the characters and plot.
Now, however, I have surrendered completely to the unpredictable whims and strange ways of the Three McGrath Sisters: Lenny, Amy, and Babe—who has just shot her powerful but hateful lawyer-husband in the stomach.
Enid Graham is wryly comic as the Plain-Jane Lenny, while Amy Ryan, as Meg—The Favorite who left home for a failed career as a club-singer—is an impulsive, selfish, thoughtless, maddening, but disarming, charmer.
As the would-be husband-killer, Mary Catherine Garrison's Babe is a Child-Woman right out of Tennessee Williams. Lucky for her that she's got the eager young local lawyer, Barnett—who is smitten with her—to save her from solitary. Jason Butler Harner is earnestly hilarious in this role.
To top off this incendiary mixture—and occasionally ignite it—there's Cousin Chick [Julia Murney] who is the terminally stylish Steel Magnolia from Hell!
Do Not Miss This Hilarious Comedy: Be Southern Comforted!
Time: The Present/Place: London/Venue: Minetta Lane
Renfield Revives Peter Nichols' Passion Play [***]The recent revival of Passion Play in London proved a great success—perhaps the right time for Peter Nichols' drama of disillusion, loss, and betrayal has come at last?
But this is not the London production. I understand that my one-time colleague—and talented stage-director—Elinor Renfield long ago acquired the American production rights.
So it was her call to stage this interesting revival. It might have seemed more authentically English had it been imported from London. But its essence is about human relationships in and out of wedlock. Not merely about being British.
Fortunately, Renfield was able cast Simon Jones, a veteran of Peter Nichols' plays in local productions. He was hilarious in Privates on Parade, also seen at the Minetta Lane, but some time ago.
Also able additions to the cast were Maureen Anderman, Leslie Lyles, Lucy Martin, and Natacha Roi. Narelle Sissons designed the effective setting, with costumes by Christine Field.
CUNY Grad Theatre Students' Favorite for 2001!
Anne Bogart Chosen for the Edwin Booth AwardA favorite at Louisville's annual Humana Festival, conceptual director Anne Bogart has just been given the annual Edwin Booth Award. This honor is a recognition by the City University's PhD-in-Theatre candidates for outstanding & innovative achievement in the theatre.
Past winners have included JoAnne Akalaitis, Richard Foreman, Ellen Stewart, Joe Chaikin, Joseph Papp, and performance ensembles such as the Wooster Group, En Garde Arts, and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.
In fact, CUNY's theatre students—the Professors & Critics of Tomorrow—were honoring Ms. Bogart's impressive SITI performance ensemble as well with the Booth Award. At the ceremony—in the new Martin Segal Theatre, in the old B. Altman's at Fifth & 34th—members of her troupe were on hand to discuss their collaborative work with Ms. Bogart as teacher, mentor, and muse.
They not only create such impressive new performance-works as War of the Worlds and Cabin Pressure—both big hits recently at the Edinburgh Festival—but they constantly train together and give classes for aspiring creative performers.
Among the SITI ensemble on hand at the Segal were Akiko Aizawa, J. Ed Araiza, Will Bond, Ellen Lauren, Kelly Maurer, Barney O'Hanlon, and Stephen Webber—who portrayed Orson Welles in War, developed at the Actors Theatre Louisville and performed at Brooklyn's BAM, as well as at the Edinburgh Fest.
Blood, Sweat, & Smiles!
Peking Acrobats Are Victors at New Victory [****]The New Victory Theatre on New 42 scored another coup by booking the fabulous Peking Acrobats recently. Those adults who avoid the New Victory—under the mistaken impression that the shows are all kiddie-oriented—missed some breath-taking feats and dazzling performers.
But the show wasn't all balancing, leaping, & juggling. There were some stylishly ferocious Dancing Lions as well.
What is especially engaging is the resolute good-cheer of the troupe. No matter how difficult the feat, wide smiles are resolutely fixed on the acrobats' faces. Even the performance disaster of dropping a hoop is shrugged off with a smile.
But when Chairman Mao was still alive—and even more so under the Gang of Four's fearsome Chiang Ching—reprisals could have been enforced on the company's return to Beijing.
This amazing troupe—recruited from the most skilled acrobats in Mainland China—is making its 15th North American tour. Considering the longtime insistence that the proper spelling of China's capital-city is BEIJING, it seems odd that the outmoded British form is used by the ensemble.
An astounded colleague commented on the fact that none of the troupe seemed of normal American adult stature. Some even look like teenagers, but appearances are deceiving in the Orient.
The fact is that training of acrobats—whether destined for circus-performances, or for the Peking or Cantonese Operas—begins when they are still tiny tots. The smaller & lighter they are, the better for those towering acrobatic pyramids and balancing-acts.
I have visited training schools in both Taiwan & Hong Kong and was amazed to see what six-year-old kids can achieve. It was also something of a shocker to see how strict the training-regimen is. And how rigorous the instructors are with the kids.
So, when you next have the opportunity to see Chinese Acrobats, remember the Blood, Sweat, & Tears that were shed to earn them the right to Smile so radiantly at you when doing the most gravity-defying specialties!
Dragons & Lions Cloned=Dralion!
Cirque du Soleil: Oriental Pageantry & Acrobatics [*****]
Many of the amazing feats of ingenious juggling, pyramidal balancing, complex contortion, lightfoot leaping, dynamic dancing, thumping drumming, & flamboyant flag-waving that are standard features of the Peking Acrobats—and, indeed, most similar Chinese, Hong Kong, or Taiwan-spawned ensembles—are now magnificently on view over in New Jersey!
ORIENTAL ACROBATICS & FANTASY--Flag-Waver in Cirque du Soleil's new pageant/circus "Dralion."
The difference between the two shows—which is visually tremendous—is in the scale and spectacle of their diverse presentations. The Peking Acrobats are astonishing in their skills—and they have their own Dralions: a mythical cross between Dragons & Lions—but they lack the imagination and showmanship of Montreal's Le Cirque du Soleil.
In its sparkling new show, now in Liberty Park on the Jersey Coast, Le Cirque's superspectacular Dralion raises the voltage & wattage of the recent New Victory presentation 1,000-fold. All of the acts are bigger and better, accompanied by music which is by turns haunting or primally surging with Afro rhythms.
Every event on the program is choreographed—even the hilarious clowns, on occasion. Everything is swathed in lushly colored & patterned fabrics—or skin-tight leotards in many colors.
Acrobatic acts are enhanced with fantastically costumed dancers.
Acrobats are also made more secure with wires on performers who are catapulted to the top of a five-woman column or similar stunts—as there are no safety-nets. This detracts slightly from the customary breath-catching suspense of hoping the topmost balancer won't fall: But also anticipating the horror should she do so…
With the wires, such feats of balance become more like graceful aerial choreographies. And, thanks to a great silver ring overhead—which descends, ascends, and tilts—aerial acts and flamboyantly costumed singers can float & pirouette in space with abandon, trailing colorful long swathes of fabric.
Among the astonishments on view—aside from the fantastic displays of costumes, choreographies, and brilliant lighting variations—are such staples of Chinese Acrobatics as: Teeterboards, Bamboo Poles, Juggling, Double Trapeze, Hoop-Diving, Rope-Skipping, and the marvelous manipulation of the Clanging Spear.
The secret of the most amazing achievements in such acrobatics is to have begun training very young, to have a small, slight body, and not to put on weight. Dralion's 50-person ensemble, accordingly, has some very young performers—though the ages range from 12 to 45.
But its female acrobats look more "matured" than those at the New Victory. Great figures, in fact!
Its amazing young male juggler, however, is definitely not Asian. Were he not already so skilled in balancing as many as five balls—in the air or down his spine—he could be a balletic star, so sinuous and brilliantly controlled are his body-movements.
This fabulous new Cirque du Soleil production is not as strongly themed as some have been. And others have drawn more heavily on the circus-skills of talents from Eastern Europe.
The Chinoiserie of Dralion's costumes—by François Barbeau—and its fantastic props provide most of its theming. The show's theme-emphasis—especially with the Dragon-Lions—may be on Chinese Arts. But the effect is almost Pan-Asian when great Japanese Kodo Drums begin to beat near the finale.
As with all great European Circuses, Cirque du Soleil performs in one ring, not three or five, as Barnum & the Ringling Brothers "improved" the form. Audiences flank the raised ring from both sides of an immense rear entrance-grid, on which acrobats and dancers perform vertically.
At intermission, a giant semi-circular cylindrical curtain descends to hide the ring—and make possible wonderful shadow-plays. A couple near me went home when the curtain came down: they thought they had seen the whole show. Indeed, the first act alone is worth most Broadway spectaculars.
Le Cirque is French-Canadian in origin, even if its productions now roam the world and have found permanent homes in Las Vegas & Florida. Guy Caron staged this spectacular.
And how do island-bound New Yorkers get all the way over to New Jersey's Liberty State Park? Do they have to take PATH and then change to other trains & buses?
Does the trip require a Visa? If you have a Visa, or other credit-card, you simply call 1-800-53-FERRY. You will save $5 on the regular $15 round-trip by booking ahead.
The special Dralion Ferry leaves from the NY Waterways pier outside the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center. The trip takes less than 10 minutes, with spectacular views of Downtown Manhattan & the Battery!
Divine Comedy at DUMBO!
Multi-Stage So Long Ago I Can't Remember [****]Once again, it may need to be noted that DUMBO in New York has nothing to do with that Walt Disney animated cartoon, dissing dumb little Elephants With Big Ears. Not at all: It is an anagram standing for Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass!
Here, where once virtually forgotten loft-buildings proudly stand between the grand spans of Brooklyn & Manhattan Bridges—one of the most striking views in all New York City!—Michael Counts and his GAle GAtes et al. ensemble were lucky enough to find an immense floor-through loft-space. Before the rentals began zooming upward, and artists were being priced out of their light-filled loft-studios.
Microsoft Word hates titles like GAle GAtes because of the odd typography. [It also cannot stand a name like Oscar Wilde, which is instantly transmuted to Oscar Willed.]
But Counts is honoring his beloved grandmother with this special GAGA anagram.
He also specializes in honoring Landmarks of Culture with grandly conceived and innovatively executed riffs on their concepts, characters, and circumstances. Before moving to Brooklyn, Counts & Company had a big Wall Street Area loft where an Homeric Epic was hauntingly recreated.
In Brooklyn, recent loft-filling shows have included The Field of Mars, To SEA-Another Ocean, 1839, and Tilly Losch.
The current extravaganza, So Long Ago I Can't Remember, has been nominally inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy.
But Kevin Oakes' spooky text includes expressions not to be found in even the loosest of modern translations of Dante. I cannot anywhere in my Modern Library edition find the phrase "pussy-shit." But then, it was printed before the 1960s, 1970s, and so on… [ Both POPULAR TASTE and] TIME MARCHES ON!
Audiences assemble either at bar-tables or in two rows of theatre-seats facing a boat. It is Charon's Ferry Across the River Styx—also in currently use on Broadway in The Invention of Love! It is crowded with legendary & historical personages, among those visited by Dante & Virgil as they explored the regions of the variously damned.
A black-clad Dominatrix gives the walk-through spectators their marching-orders. Even touching the sets will result in instant expulsion!
Instead of experiencing Dante's Inferno, Purgatorio, & Paradiso in concentric circles, the audience is introduced to them—and led through them—in sequential Cinerama-wide installation-scenes.
In some sequences, performances occur in proscenium-frames at either end of the long corridor. And also in the midst of the spectators—especially intriguing when naked women are involved!
Dante, the Pope, various clerics, saints, & sinners are seen against a long horizontal wall, pierced with Roman Arches. There is another long horizontal stage, fronted with theatre-seats. This is a hotel-corridor, with mysterious goings & comings. Suddenly, the entire corridor wall—doors & all—hinges up to permit riotous dance-routines, worthy of the chorus of 42nd Street.
There are two impressively convoluted walkways, elevated above floor-level. In the first, the floor below is massed with long white fluorescent tubes, blindingly reflected in mylar. This installation could itself be the major feature of a SoHo gallery show.
The other walkway winds downward toward the exit. This is Paradise, where the walking audience pauses to stare at Dante, high up on a podium, and watch a naked lady acrobat do her stuff on a swing.
In yet another horizontal space, this one also equipped with seating, a raked hillside, covered with dark tree-trunks confronts the audience. Legendary figures slink across this strange terrain.
Joseph Diebes composed the special music, with choreography by Ken Roht. Monica Kilkus and Andrew Hill created costumes and lighting, respectively. The ingenious technical effects were devised by Michael Anderson, Tom Fruin, Jeff Sugg, and Peter Warren.
Say what you like about the seminal importance of the early "Happenings," about Robert Rauschenberg's innovative events so very long ago at Judson Memorial Church: Michael Counts has gone far beyond this kind of avant-garde happenstance foolery.
Of necessity, the astonishing performances of his works at DUMBO must be limited. Even if the large ensemble involved is getting paid peanuts, or nothing at all, it must cost a great deal to mount and perform works like So Long Ago I Can't Remember.
So, when one comes along, it is NOT TO BE MISSED!
enn Loney: Please email invitations and personal correspondences to Mr. Loney via Editor, New York Theatre Wire.
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