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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, January 8, 2003
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
 DINNER AT EIGHT
 OUR TOWN
 BAZ LUHRMAN'S LA BOHEME
 A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
 DIALOGUES DES CARMELITES
 DIE FLEDERMAUS
 THE SEAGULL
 DIE WINTERREISE
 THE HARD NUT
 WATER PASSION
 HANK WILLIAMS: LOST HIGHWAY
 IMAGINARY FRIENDS
 WHITE TIE AND TAILS
 THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER
 MAN OF LA MANCHA
 THE FOURTH SISTER
 GONE HOME
 THE MERCY SEAT
 WHAT DIDN'T HAPPEN
 BOSTON MARRIAGE
 ADULT ENTERTAINMENT
 THE EXONERATED
 NEW SHANGHAI CIRCUS
 TOY THEATRE FESTIVAL
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SURVIVING 2002 AD/CE:
WRING OUT THE OLD!This is the time of year when editors and critics are busily compiling their Ten Best Lists. But it would be far more interesting to be able to read the lists of New Year's Resolutions made by New York's producers, playwrights, directors, performers, and designers.
And RING IN THE NEW—Please!
Has anyone resolved to write, produce, direct, design, or perform better plays better this coming year?
Don't get your hopes up…
Notable Revivals/Old & New—
Fiona Shaw's MEDEA [*****]No question. The Tony goes to Fiona Shaw for her altogether remarkable and devastatingly modern Medea. This is a performance of such rapidly alternating actions & emotions that you can easily understand why both Jason and Creon have good reason to fear and want to be rid of her.
This powerful production was shown recently at BAM for a limited run. But the reviews were so glowing—and the potential audiences so eager to see Shaw for themselves—that this unusually contemporary staging was invited back to New York.
As directed by Deborah Warner, Shaw's Medea is hardly the only character spouting fireworks. The energy-level is astoundingly high. In the confrontational debates between Medea and Creon and Medea and Jason the sparks are almost visible. When the show opened at BAM, one critic suggested that it seemed set in Malibu. There isn't a hint of geography or vegetation to support this notion.
But Jason and Medea seem to have done well enough to live in a glass-walled Post-Modernist villa. In fact, they seem to be re-doing the pool-area, for it is littered with stacks of cement bricks and other building-supplies.
People who live in glass houses, it's often said, shouldn't throw stones, Jason scores a direct hit on Medea when he deserts her and their two boys to marry Princess Creusa and get a shot at her father's throne.
As any drama student knows, however, she gets her own back on him. Horribly, bloodily. Her terrible poisons destroy both Creusa and Creon, blasting Jason's hopes of advancement.
Then she kills their sons because—as Euripides had her say some 2500 years ago: "I hated you more than I loved them." But her supreme revenge is the knowledge that he will have no heirs, so she has no need to kill him. And that a rotting plank of his ship Argo will one day fall on his head and end his miserable life.
In the one short day into which all this action is packed, she has also conveniently had a visit from Aegeus, the childless King of Athens. She promises him heirs; He guarantees her safety from her enemies.
In this very up-to-date production, however, she doesn't fly off to Athens in a fiery chariot. Nor does she take the Greyhound. The lights simply die: the stunned audience doesn't need any more tying up of loose ends…
Over fifty years ago, I saw Judith Anderson as Medea in Robinson Jeffers' eloquent translation. As she played it at San Francisco's Geary Theatre—and on an extensive tour—the drama unfolded almost as a regal ritual. But it was no less shattering than Warner's staging and Shaw's performance, even without all the supercharged emotion and action.
Jonathan Cake's Jason proved a powerful foil for Medea, but his ultimate disintegration was pitiful. It was good to see a former PhD student—Joe Mydell—as Aegeus. But the Chorus of Corinthian Women looked like fugitives from a late-night Manchester cleaning-detail.
BLOODY MACBETH--Toshiaki Karasawa in Japanese vision of Shakespeare's "Scottish" Play. Photo:
Ninagawa's MACBETH at BAM [*****]The amazing power of Shakespeare's "Scottish Play" was once again demonstrated when Yukio Ninagawa recently brought his ensemble and production to BAM. After four centuries of stagings of Macbeth—many of which would appear laughable today—this ancient tale of the corruption that lust for power can engender in a previously courageous and honorable man still seems both shocking and contemporary.
No stranger to this drama, Ninagawa once envisioned the fateful coming of Birnham Wood to Dunsinane in a shower of cherry-blossoms. In his current staging, the army marching against Macbeth and his tyrannies appears holding long bamboo stalks in its hands. The rigid verticality of the image suggests the stiffness of the soldiers' resolve to topple this monster.
Bringing a Japanese visual sensibility to the text, Ninagawa is not limited by Western conceptions of how this tragedy should be staged. Indeed, the initial battle—in which Macbeth wins the first of the titles promised by the Three Witches—is fought in a patch of exotic large-leafed plants common to Southeast Asia. But very strange to anyone who knows the flora of Scotland…
In an odd way, Ninagawa's casting of attractive young Japanese stars as the Macbeths resonates with Baz Luhrman's choosing vibrant young performers to heighten the power and believability of his new Broadway production of La Bohème. Toshiaki Karasawa and Shinobu Otake are compelling in the roles.
But the entire cast is strong. And the Witches are both haunting and bizarre. Not to overlook the dangerous excitement of the fight-scenes either. Or the vision of warriors astride noble living stallions on stage!
This was both a handsome ritual ceremony and a visually potent excitement: A vivid reminder of the Dangers of Power Out-of-Control… Very Contemporary, in fact!
COMPANY CURTAIN-CALL--"Dinner at Eight" at the Vivian Beaumont. Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2002.
John Lee Beatty's DINNER AT EIGHT [*****]The Lincoln Center Vivian Beaumont revival of Kaufman & Ferber's Dinner at Eight is a brilliant achievement. And it is in no way a dismissal of the star-studded casting and powerful performances to begin by saluting stage-designer John Lee Beatty for his equally brilliant settings.
There are eight of these splendid interiors—some of them handsomely Art Deco, with others more elegantly traditional. This wonderful production is worth seeing for the sets—and Catherine Zuber's costumes—alone.
Fortunately, the excellent cast is so strong and vibrant that they are only momentarily upstaged as yet another glittering—or nobly fusty—interior glides into view.
Beaumont audiences who are used to seeing plays spread out for them on the semi-circular thrust-stage—backed by an appropriate architectural wall, as in The Little Foxes—may well be astonished, wondering where all these sets are coming from.
The Beaumont is the odd result of Theatre-Design by Committee. It was conceived at a time when the common belief was that every major American City—New York included—should have a subsidized repertory theatre, as in Europe. With the play-bill changing every night, as at the Met or the City Opera…
That meant the new theatre had to have an immense backstage area. So all the sets for all the plays currently in rep could be in-house and not have to be trucked in from storage in the Bronx or New Jersey.
And, as the beloved designer Jo Mielziner once pointed out to me—when I was preparing a feature on the new Beaumont—the Committee was divided in its visions of the proper stage for a New Age.
Some wanted a Neo-Greek Amphitheatre. Some wanted a Thrust-Stage. Some preferred the conventional Proscenium Arch conformation. Some thought a revolving-stage should be permanently incorporated in the design. As is the custom in Europe…
In fact, the Beaumont has not one revolve, but TWO. One inside the other, and they can rotate in opposite directions…
The visual problem with these revolves—and, indeed, with any proscenium-style staging in this theatre—is that the auditorium-seating is like a Greek amphitheatre. That means that spectators in the pie-wedges of seats at either side cannot see the full-stage settings those in the center can enjoy. The side sight-lines resemble a squat triangle whose apex doesn't go very far upstage in a full-stage proscenium production.
Amy Irving's dad, the late Jules Irving, did try repertory in the Beaumont. But theatre-audiences—unlike Met regulars just next door—could not get used to the idea of different shows on different nights. And different curtain-times as well…
The result was an ongoing recipe for difficulty and disaster. At one point, a group tried to take over the complex and turn its vast spaces into six Cinemathèque theatres. This was fortunately foiled, but with a lot of ill-will on both sides.
John Lee Beatty is a genius, no question. [Yes, I have also interviewed him and written about his many productions.] And he very well understands the strengths and problems of the Beaumont, both with its stage[s] and its auditorium.
So he has designed his often magnificent settings to be relatively shallow and planar. Thus they can be rolled onto the thrust as scenic-backings, with most of the action downstage where everyone can see it. Nothing is hidden behind the proscenium.
As for Kaufman & Ferber's Despression Era drama of Upstairs/Downstairs, it is an engaging but sobering bit of Time-Travel to an age when Broadway and London plays focused on the lives and loves of the wealthy and well-bred.
Frankly, it is refreshing to return to a time when good-manners and maintaining appearances were almost Civic Virtues. Of course, the situations, characters, and values are not Politically Correct.
That was Then, and this is now. But the characters & situations are still thoroughly understandable. Were Kaufman & Ferber to return, they would surely pillory our current concerns and morés far more insightfully than any of our contemporary TV-brainwashed playwrights.
What is especially intriguing about Dinner at Eight is that—while it is often very amusing, at the cost of the characters, who deserve it—its tragic denouement is not shown. The final curtain falls before the drama is fully played out. But most of the audience will have strong suspicions of how things must end. Something to talk about on the way home. As well as the sets!
The power & viability of this drama is enhanced and enforced by an amazing cast. All are very good: some are outstanding. Rather than list all 27, here are some you will surely want to see on stage in action—before the dinner-party which you will never see: Christine Ebersole, Kevin Conway, Emily Skinner, Sloane Shelton, James Reborn, Deborah Mayo, Joanne Camp, Mark Lotito Joe Grifasi, Byron Jennings, Brian Reddy, Anne Lange, Enid Graham, etc., etc.
Marion Seldes stands out as the flamboyant but fading star, Carlotta Vance. Each entrance is made more impressive by yet another astounding Fashion Statement. I hope she gets to keep all the costumes! Only Marion can wear them so well.
[We are of an age—I was just 75—so I salute a great actress and trouper who can still act rings around her juniors. Many of whom she trained at Juilliard!]
Gerry Gutierrez has directed with both subtlety and boldness. It could not have been easy integrating so many stars with so many plot-lines and costumes and sets!
Paul Newman's OUR TOWN [***]Although I had recently seen a most interesting—almost ritualized—production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town over in Alphabet City at the Connolly, it was pleasant to see a more conventional—even a bit old-fashioned—production on Broadway.
This was briefly imported from Joanne Woodward's Westport Country Playhouse. And it featured her husband, Paul Newman, as the Stage-Manager.
Because of Wilder's interest in the traditions of Chinese Theatre, the structure of Our Town lends itself to stylization, even to ritual. But director James Naughton and designer Tony Walton seemed determined to avoid that.
The ensemble at the "tiny little Booth" Theatre—as Dame Edna has so aptly described it—was not as star-studded as that at the Beaumont. That was just as well: there were no star-turns. Even Newman seemed muted: more like a backstage caretaker than an Orchestrator of Human Lives and Truths.
Among the company were Frank Converse, Stephen Spinella, TJ Sullivan, Mia Dillon, Jake Robards, Jeffrey DeMunn, Jayne Atkinson, and Jane Curtin…
Opera On Broadway—And Off—
BAZ LURHMAN'S LA BOHEME--Rodolfo & Mimi on the rooftops of Paris. Photo: ©Sue Adler/2002.
Baz Luhrman's Puccini's LA BOHÉME [*****]Baz Luhrman is right to believe that Puccini's La Bohème should be cast with talented young actor-singers. At this point, even opera-fanatics wouldn't want to see any of the Three Tenors up there on stage as Rodolfo.
But, to sell tickets & fill seats, most Opera-House Intendants have to offer Big Names, rather than young, often unknown performers. With orchestra-seats at the Met now costing as much as $220, most opera-goers—as distinguished from opera-lovers—want Proved Value for Money.
Had the Aussie Wunderkind Director seen the new New York City Opera production of Bohème before he started work on his current Broadway Hit—via San Francisco—he might have realized that there is already a very youthful, very sexy, very heart-rending, very theatrical, and musically excellent staging already available to New Yorkers.
In fact, the City Opera's Bohème is really more imaginative, ingenious, and moving than what the Broadway Theatre marquee advertises as Baz Luhrman's Production of La Bohème.
The catch is that this boldly designed and powerfully performed production isn't on view most of the New York theatre season. City Opera has two all-too-short seasons only: one in Fall, one in Spring. And Bohème has to take its turn among a generous repertory of outstanding and innovative opera productions.
City Opera's top ticket-price is comparable to Broadway musicals—unlike the Met. So it cannot be claimed that the young audiences Luhrman wants to win for opera, via the Great White Way, will be attracted by saving money.
That's not it at all. Many people who love theatre & musicals would never think of going to an opera at either the Met or City Opera. Although they will flock to the Beaumont right next door in Lincoln Center!
For many who have never had the transforming experience of a major opera, powerfully produced, and brilliantly acted & sung, the very idea of Opera is often off-putting.
And if this is so for spectators in the middle or advanced years, how much more is it true for inexperienced young viewers?
So Luhrman was entirely right to bring his Bohème to Broadway. And to cast it with three talented young sets of Rodolfos, Mimis, Marcellos, and Musettas. And to promote it as the most vibrant of musical-theatre events—especially for young audiences—in recent memory.
And, by his reckoning, this is the first time serious opera has been presented on Broadway as such, complete & uncut!
Carmen Jones doesn't count. And Max Reinhardt's Roselinda adaptation of Die Fledermaus was essentially an operetta or musical anyway. Elton John's Aida is something else altogether. And, while Rent may have been inspired by Bohème, it's a long way off from Puccini.
I've been able to enjoy the work of two sets of the principles. Both were, for me, outstanding and personally differenced: They don't copy each other. Alfred Boe is a passionate Rodolfo, but I was especially moved by the Mimi of Wei Huang.
This might have been slightly influenced by her telling me she'd studied Music at Brooklyn College—where I taught Theatre. She studied at the Shanghai Conservatory before that! [Ask yourself how many aspiring young American singers would reverse this direction? Chinese Opera? You must be joking?]
Selected members of the arts-press were invited to meet and chat with the cast, the producers, and Luhrman and his exceptionally talented wife, Double-Oscar-Winner Catherine Martin—for her work on the film remake of Moulin Rouge. A major film on Alexander the Great is in the offing! In Morocco…
This encounter—over avocado-wraps—was very helpful in changing my ideas and attitudes about a production which I had not yet seen. I'm very impressed by Luhrman's intelligence, imagination, and intensity.
And perhaps even more so by the genius and vision of Mrs. Luhrman. She should soon have a Tony or two to put alongside her Oscars!
Designing the settings with Angus Straithie, Ms. Martin has extended the visual environment out into the audience, with Parisian cafes and cat-houses built onto the proscenium and auditorium walls. Even the stage pushed out into the audience, with a walk-around stage-rim enclosing the orchestra, which now is really in a pit.
Although there is only one Big Scene in Bohème—the tumultuous holiday explosion at Café Momus—all the scenes vibrate with excitement and activity. Instead of merely showing the four artist-friends in their cramped, freezing garret—usually as big as Grand Central Station in opera-house productions—Luhrman has the small garret moved into place by stage-hands, as though this is a sound-stage and the action is being filmed.
My one quibble is with the Port d'Enfer scene, which now comes close to being another Big Scene.
Luhrman has moved the story from the last century, forward to 1957—when TB could be cured, and Mimi wouldn't have needed a candle. But by this time, there had not been a closure of Paris city gates at night for decades. In fact, there weren't any surviving city gates that actually closed. And no longer any Customs Post.
So the Luhrmans have moved this scene to the French-Belgian Border!
Sick as Mimi is, she could hardly have made it to the suburbs of Paris. Not to mention walking all that way North to the border—where she might well have ended up in Luxembourg anyway…
Nonetheless, do not miss this great show, a great production of a great opera!
Bolcom/Miller's A View from the Bridge [***]Arthur Miller crafted his drama, A View from the Bridge, along the lines of a Classic Greek Tragedy. In effect, this structure lends itself well to opera.
Instead of the traditional Greek Chorus, Miller had the lawyer, Alfieri, perform the choral function in the play. He not only advised Eddie, but he also commented to the audience on Eddie Carbone's elemental nature, his forbidden but unarticulated passion for his niece, and his betrayal of illegal-alien relatives.
In the best of the classic tragedies, the protagonist gains Wisdom Through Suffering. He has a Catharsis, in which he finally recognizes who he is and understands what he has done.
But in both play and opera—whose libretto Miller and Arnold Weinstein devised—Eddie never really Knows Himself. He dies by accident in a fight with the man he's betrayed, demanding to have his Good Name restored to him.
It remained in the drama—and now in the new opera—for Alfieri to provide something resembling Catharsis for the audience. He tells spectators—both in the play and the opera—that Eddie allowed or permitted himself to be Completely Known by his neighbors.
They've got his number, all right. But not because Eddie has had a cathartic revelation about his feelings for his niece, his neglect of his wife, his antipathy—tinged with a suspect homophobia—toward Rodolpho, or even an inkling of why and how he has lost his Reputation in the Red Hook community of immigrant Sicilian dock-workers.
Now, because this version of Miller's drama is an Opera, there is a real Chorus on hand. But it doesn't really work as it would in the classic theatre. Alfieri still has to cross the t's and dot the i's. But this gets somewhat lost in the confusing scenic-collage Santo Loquasto has devised to fill the Met's vast stage.
In fact, it's an ugly design which does not serve the action well. Nor help the audience's attention—which is also distracted by director Frank Galati's staging ideas.
Frankly, I did not much like the production—or the score—on first hearing at the Met. Only when I heard the Saturday matinee broadcast, free from visual annoyances, did I begin to appreciate the power and subtlety of William Bolcom's effectively structured score. It is a much more compelling experience audially, which should not be the case in Music-Theatre.
Much has been made of Bolcom's Hit Song, Rodolpho's aria about the wonders of New York City. This is OK, but it won't soon replace Wonderful Town. But at least it's not the modern equivalent of Mary Garden's singing I Love You, California on the opera-stage. Or Adelina Patti resting her voice with Home, Sweet Home in the midst of Mozart or Rossini…
Quoting that old popular song, Paper Doll, however, was more of a risk. Playing it on a phonograph may have been intended to distance it from the actual score, making it more of a cue to action & emotion than a major moment. Unfortunately, some critics have cited it as the most outstanding number…
The cast, fortunately, was strong—even with some replacements I saw & heard. Catherine Malfitano's Beatrice was affecting. Richard Zeller's Eddie, Richard Bernstein's Marco, and Michael Devlin's Alfieri were all admirable, considering the characters they had to play and the music set for them.
Gregory Turay and Isabel Bayrakdarian, as the young lovers, were appealing, impulsive, and innocent. What more could you want of stock-characters from the Italian Commedia?
A View from the Bridge needs to have other, rather different productions to test its potential. Hearing the score suggests it could be a much more powerful dramatic experience than the Met's mounting permits.
But then, how many recent Met productions of New American Operas find their way into the Met's repertory? Or anywhere else, for that matter?
If The Ghosts of Versailles was so outstanding—and not just a muddled Mozart Pastiche—why did it not immediately return to the repertory the following season?
Poulenc's DIALOGUES DES CARMÉLITES [*****]Years ago, when the late John Dexter was in charge of productions at the Met, I spent some time with him, learning how new stagings of old operas and premieres of new works were achieved in the very complex theatre-machine which had been created at Lincoln Center.
In fact, the Met's remarkable machinery was based on the design of the Bavarian State Opera's Munich main-stage the National-Theater. We owe these wonders to Prof. Walter Unruh—whose name piquantly translates as Unrest. Or even Turmoil.
At that time, the argument was that the more machinery a theatre had installed, the fewer stage-hands would be needed to wrestle flats around. What was soon discovered was that even more workers would be needed.
And much bigger budgets!
Revolving stages, scores of flying-lines, complex systems of wagons built into the stage, multi-elevators, and side and back-stages as big as the main-stage: All these improvements encouraged designers to excesses of elaborate scenery and magical transformations before the eyes of the audiences.
Franco Zeffirelli was one of the earliest designer/directors to load the Met's stage with such tons of scenery. Unfortunately, just before the Opening Night of the new house, the revolving stage broke under the weight of the Great Sphinx that Franco had created for Samuel Barber's new opera, Anthony and Cleopatra—with Jess Thomas and Leontyne Price.
Dexter's production of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites virtually ignored all the machinery. In fact, as Dexter then showed me, it had virtually no budget, let alone scenery. Set-elements and costumes were cannibalized from other stagings.
The amazing result, however, was that this staging was a great Met triumph. As it continues to be, when it is returned to the repertory as it was this season.
Seeing this beautifully simple but powerfully evocative production again—and again hearing that devastating score—was the best holiday gift I could have imagined.
And not just because I had long ago been told that I was beheaded during the French Revolution. I could empathize with Blanche de la Force even without losing my head. But I still don't feel comfortable around the Parisian French. They can slash you with their rapier-tongues. They don't need the blade of the Guillotine…
James Conlon conducted a strong cast including Patricia Racette as Blanche and Heidi Grant Murphy as Sister Constance, whom the timorous Blanche finally joins on the scaffold.
Strauss/Schenck's DIE FLEDERMAUS [*****]The Met was my Big Holiday Treat, in fact, although not by the design of its Press Office. Once upon a time, I was generously given press-tix, not only because I was a contributor to Opera News, but also because I wrote about performance, staging, and design for a variety of publications.
Apparently, print makes it: Websites do not. Fortunately, my friend and colleague from Belgium, Erna Metdepennighen—who is President of Belgian Music Critics—does get the press-privilege. So she kindly invited me to Bridge, Dialogues, and Fledermaus.
Although I was looking forward to the splashy grandeur of the Met's Fledermaus production, I was privately dreading that long stretch of unsung "comedy" at the Vienna City Jail. In New York, the role of the tipsy jailer, Frosch, has been played by Jack Guilford, Sid Caesar, and even Milton Berle.
And, although I admire the directorial expertise of Otto Schenk—who also staged the Met's glorious production—I have found his own version of Frosch in German in Vienna a bit wearing. He is even more of a ham when he is doing Nestroy, Raimund, or other Austrian classic comedy authors.
Imagine my surprise to find that Schenk's Frosch in English this time was a total delight! That may have had something to do with the general joyousness of the occasion and performance, for I have seen him in English before as well.
Jennifer Larmore was an admirable Orlovsky, while Solveig Kringelborn was a total delight as Rosalinde. Paul Charles Clarke was properly self-absorbed and idiotic as the unfortunate tenor, Alfred.
Louis Otey was Eisenstein to Peter Coleman-Wright's Dr. Falke. Good foils!
Seeing this marvelous production again almost erased the horror of Hans Neuenfels' recent Fledermaus atrocity at the Salzburg Festival. It was surely one of former fest-director Gerard Mortier's last acts of revenge against the festival board, the city fathers, and the very wealthy opera-goers who make Salzburg possible, given the staggering cost of tickets.
Pasatieri's THE SEAGULL [****]Peter G. Davis recently pointed out that Thomas Pasatieri was once one of the hottest young opera composers in America. Commissions rolled in. His operas were produced all over the United States.
Audiences actually liked Pasatiseri's works. Even critics said some kind words—though it was clear here was not another Mozart or Britten.
One of his most successful operas—musically and dramatically—was The Seagull. But before its recent three-day production at the Manhattan School of Music, it had never been performed in New York!
It is, of course, based on Anton Chekhov's drama. With an effective libretto by Kenward Emslie—who also provided one for Pasatiseri's Three Sisters—the opera proved fairly effective.
But, almost disdaining the titular clue that the pathetic would-be actress Nina—as the metaphoric seagull—should be central to the story, both Emslie and Pasatiseri focused instead on the unhappy Masha. Nina—even contrasting with the self-assured actress-mother of the dithering Constantine—doesn't quite come into focus in this opera.
This disjunction, I was told, was deliberate, as Pasatiseri has said he identifies with Masha. That is his problem—but it doesn't illuminate Chekhov's Seagull as Music-Theatre.
David Gilbert conducted the talented student cast, which included Amy Shoremount as Nina, Amy Gough as Arkadina, Raymond Ayers as Constantine, Matthew Worth as Trigorin, and Keri Behan as the desolately unhappy Masha.
Peter Davis believes it may be time for a re-evaluation of Pasatiseri's operas, coupled with more revivals. Pasatiseri certainly knows how to write a vocal line which is effective for the singers and intriguing for the audience.
Poet Kenward Emslie is also a librettist who deserves much more attention and credit than he has thus far received. He crafted Ned Rorem's Miss Julie libretto, as well as two texts for Jack Beeson: Lizzie Borden and Sweet Bye and Bye.
But I will always admire him for his book for Lola—or Lola Montez in Grass Valley. With a score by Claibe Richardson, he made my home-town the scene of a most unusual work of Music-Theatre! Lola's celebrated Spider-Dance will never be the same…
Other Musical Offerings—
Brown/Schubert's WINTERREISE [*****]Choreographer Trish Brown is not the only artist to believe this Schubert song-cycle has theatre performance-potential. But she is the first visionary I know who has actually made the songs "work" on stage.
One of the most embarrassing efforts to Act-Out the suicidal despair of Schubert's anguished protagonist was shown some seasons ago at LaMaMa. This was performed by a German group of very limited imagination. And not very much musical talent either…
Trish Brown is much too intuitive—and imaginative—a choreographer to attempt a literal acting-out of each of the songs. Considering that the baritone who must interpret these challenging lyrics will seldom be a Stanislavski-schooled actor, such a course would be folly. Also fairly obvious, even boring, to watch…
So the collaboration of Simon Keenlyside with Brown was a stroke of inspiration. Actually, on the opera-stage, Keenlyside has shown himself a very effective actor-singer in a variety of roles.
But in this production—recently shown at the John Jay College Theatre—his characterization is not literal, but more elementally abstract, suggestive of the powerful emotions he is feeling.
That Keenlyside can meld his own performance as a singer with the abstract movements of Brown's three supportive dancers was impressive. But even more so were his own dance-movements while singing. How many Schubert Lieder Singers would dare to suddenly drop down prone on the stage and continue singing?
At their best, you would never have seen Hermann Prey or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau make an overt and identifiable physical-movement suggestive of actual bodily reaction. Facial grimaces usually sufficed.
Not with Simon Keenlyside and Trish Brown.
Some song-interpreters would protest that strong physical action—other than diaphragmatic breathing and arm-movements—would impair the vocal quality.
Several critics—as we left the theatre—said they'd never heard this cycle better-sung!
ON YOUR TOES--Sprinkling snow in Mark Morris's "The Hard Nut." Photo: ©Peter DaSilva/2002.
Mark Morris' THE HARD NUT [*****]Christmas may be the Season To Be Jolly, but it's also unfortunately that time of year when every ensemble with toe-shoes revives—or exhumes—its Nutcracker production.
So it was doubly a blessing to have Mark Morris and his manic dancers revive—NOT exhume—his outrageous The Hard Nut. Tchaikovsky with an Art Deco Edge…
Even though this work originated in Brussels way back in 1991—and Art Deco's era is even farther back in time—this kaleidoscopically colorful production looks as fresh as a premiere.
The bold sets of Adrianne Lobel and the clever costumes of Martin Pakledinaz have a lot to do with that. But it is finally the Morris ensemble that triumphs frenetically but joyously—dancing variations on Tchaikovsky themes which make the Balanchine version seem really an exercise in Historical Preservation.
As Mark Morris now has a real home & studio for his dancers just down the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, let's hope The Hard Nut will be a regular Christmas Treat.
Until either we or Morris get so tired of it that he will create Something Entirely Different for the holiday season. Morris will surely get bored with Hard Nut before his audiences do. But at least it still gives him an opportunity to appear on stage.
MEREDITH MONK'S MERCY--Images Big & Little. Photo: ©Kevin Fitzsimmons/2002.
Monk/Hamilton's MERCY [***]I guess I really liked Meredith Monk's innovative works better when she was performing them in the rain on parking-lots illuminated with floor-lamps down near Canal Street. Was that House or Vessel?
Or scrambling up scary stairways into cramped attics to watch her squeaking and screeching at an electronic keyboard. If she was not quite In Tune with the Infinite, she was certainly drawing on inner images and emotions
At their best, her music and vocalise are truly haunting. And they were also repetitive before Philip Glass appeared on the scene.
But Monk was surely one of the very first collaborative artists to go beyond the aleatory accidents of Happenings to create works integrating and inspiring other artists and objects.
Mercy is a collaboration with Ann Hamilton, whose bold black lines and curves drawn by hand—and video-enhanced—are a central visual illumination in this curious work.
The bios of the duo in the BAM program are daunting. Is there an award or a grant either have not already won? Books, shows, exhibitions, installations, etc., etc.
As for the actual performance of Mercy, well, you really had to be there to savor it.
As T. S. Eliot was always saying: "Oh do not ask what is it. Let us go and make our visit." Or words to that effect…
WATER PASSION'S TAN DUN CONDUCTING. Photo: Courtesy of BAM & Internationale Bachakademie
Tan Dun's WATER PASSION [****]China's dynamic composer Tan Dun is the Musical Flavor of the Moment. His Oscar for the film-score of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the least of his many considerable achievements.
His ability to combine Asian modes and instruments with those of Western music certainly does add something new and especially resonant to the contemporary scene. His bio in the BAM program outdoes even Meredith Monk's.
Water Passion After St. Matthew musically and poetically surveys Jesus' Passion, Death, and Resurrection. But the BAM performance was no mere concert.
Great clear shallow bowls of water were set out in Cruciform on the Majestic/Harvey stage, with the Dessof Choirs bisected by the upper two quadrants of water-bowls. The lower two were occupied by Tan Dun's Soprano, Bass, Cello, and Violin.
The Master himself conducted, standing before the lower leg of the water-bowl Cross. At either end of the crossing of the Cross, musicians splashed in the waters of the end-bowls.
Percussions of varied types and sounds were interestingly integrated as accents. Even smooth river stones were clacked together, an Asian ritual device, apparently.
I thought the presentation was attractive, although the performance seemed a bit pretentious. The apparently improvised aleatory vocalise of the Soprano did not, however, heighten my appreciation of the Great Sacrifice Jesus Made To Redeem Mankind.
A fellow-critic condemned the work and the performance as humbug, but not in the Dickensian Sense.
Musicals New & Old—
Jason Petty in HANK WILLIAMS: LOST HIGHWAY [****]I'm not really a Country & Western type. Nor do I crave Rhythm & Blues.
But I did grow up on Saturday nights by the old vacuum-tube Zenith radio, listening to The Grand Ol' Opry on that Clear-Channel station. This was always preceded by Alka-Seltzer's National Barn Dance.
That was OK, for I had often just been out to the barn to see if the cows were settled for the night. We lived on a Small Family Farm in the Sierra Foothills, so we could all relate to old-time music. But as God-Fearing Methodists, we certainly never actually went to any Barn Dances.
I liked Cousin Minnie Pearl best of all, but she didn't sing. And Loretta Lynn had a special place in my heart. Roy Acuff and the Smokey Mountain Boys were also favorites.
Back in those dark days of the Depression, only a few hours earlier, I'd been listening to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera Broadcast. So Eleanor Steber, Lawrence Tibbett, and Claramae Turner also had already made quite a musical impression. As had Milton Cross and his invocation of the Met's "Great Gold Curtain." The Metropolitan Opera was quite a contrast to The Grand Ol' Opry!
Then I went to UC/Berkeley, into the Army, and then off to teach in Europe for four years. So I missed Hank Williams, who—it seems from the new show at MET—died entirely too soon.
As I never saw Williams in performance, I have no idea how closely Jason Petty resembles him. But his interpretations of Williams' signature-songs are apparently spot-on.
Those Who Know also say Petty's impersonation of this talented but self-destructive musician is amazing. In Petty's own right, it is an impressive performance and one you may not want to miss.
This is not one of those music-bios which features someone who has written letters to Patsy or Chuck as its narrator. Or one of those where the artist himself narrates: And-then-I-wrote & And-then-I-wrote. Randal Myler & Mark Harelik's book effectively dramatizes the highs and the very lows of Williams' doomed career.
As I have actually been on stage during a Nashville broadcast of The Grand Ol' Opry, I could well appreciate the evocation of Hank Williams on that stage. Especially with the backdrops advertising down-home products you won't find at the Food Emporium!
What really surprised me about the show—aside from how much I enjoyed it—was realizing how many song-hits Williams had actually written. Songs even I could recognize—and relate to…
This show is quite a change of pace for the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre. Their most recent achievements were Franz Kafka's The Castle and The Golem. These were certainly ambitious and impressive.
But what would Kafka have made of Nashville. Or the Golem of Loretta Lynn?
Lilias White & Ebony Jo-Ann in CROWNS [***]This charming show was inspired by a photo-book: CROWNS: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. It was the brain-child of Michael Cunningham & Craig Marberrry.
But converting this optical experience into an actual stage-musical—which director Regina Taylor has done—obviously was not easy. Nor was it entirely successful.
Because these glorious hats are only worn to church-services, Taylor wisely puts them and their proud wearers into that framework. The progression of the show is a series of worship-related rituals, such as Procession, Morning Service, Funeral, Baptism, & Recessional.
Most of the songs—often accompanied with dance-movement—are traditional spirituals, with a few, such as It's OK, by Mega Banton, almost traditional. Composer David Pleasant has also contributed two songs, notably Freedom Is a Word. He provided the Gullah/Geechee Shouts from the South Carolina coastal areas as well.
All of the splendid hats are stars in their own right. Some are even mini-architectural triumphs. Emilio Sosa is the credited costumer: what an engaging fantasy he has for headwear!
Riccardo Hernández' major set-device consists of long chains of these wonderful hats stretching up into the flies at either side of the stage. It would be even more amazing if these chains actually rotated, but the hats stay in place unless they are taken down to wear in a musical number.
Lilias White as Velma and Ebony Jo-Ann as Mother Shaw are especially impressive as proud Black Christian Women who share their sorrows and joys in song.
But to create at least the illusion of conflict—or a reason for wearing the hats and singing the songs—Regina Taylor has invented a troubled Black teenager who is sent South after a family tragedy in New York.
She is carelessly dressed, sullen and resentful: All of the Above, so to speak. But the Black women step-by-step initiate her into their world of cares and caring. At the close, however, it doesn't' seem to have had much effect on her.
LILLIAN HELLMAN READ HER STATEMENT--Swoosie Kurtz confronts HUAC and the Press in "Imaginary Friends." Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2002.
Kurtz & Jones in IMAGINARY FRIENDS [****]If you want to know more about the literary achievements of Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, you'd best go to the nearest Public Library and check out some of McCarthy's essays—including drama critiques—and Hellman's plays.
If you insist on finding out what they were really like, that won't be so easy. As Nora Ephron's cute new "musical-play" suggests, Hellman was notoriously inventive when she was talking or writing about herself. The crossovers between Fact & Fiction even inspire a song-and-dance-man musical duo in this curious show.
McCarthy was notoriously vindictive: in her criticism, she took no prisoners. But when she attacked Hellman on TV, she brought a notorious and ruinous law-suit on herself. Only Hellman's death averted a judgment.
Even after seeing this engaging show, you still won't know very much about the two women themselves. The law-suit is the mainspring, coupled with Ephron's what-if idea: Could two such powerful intellects and personalities ever have been friends?
As Hellman, Swoozie Kurtz is a delight. And she certainly looks better than Hellman did in her last days. In my few encounters with Hellman, I found her both fascinating and formidable.
I never knew McCarthy. But I did have moral support from her one-time husband, the distinguished critic Edmund Wilson, in publishing my edition of Edith Wharton's lost and forgotten drama, The House of Mirth, crafted with Clyde Fitch.
Just reading McCarthy's play-reviews can give you a cold chill. She surely was even more formidable than Hellman. In this cute little show—where they even get to play with life-sized rag-dolls of themselves—they don't seem all that terrifying. Blighted childhoods on both sides, you see…
Jack O'Brien directed with brio, to cute but forgettable songs by Craig Carnelia and Marvin Hamlisch. The cute set-designs were by Michael Levine, with the cute costumes by Robert Morgan, and lighting by Kenneth Posner.
Tommy Tune in WHITE TIE AND TAILS [***]This was not exactly Tommy Tune's Return To Broadway. He has been a long time away in Las Vegas. And it shows. But he did wear the costume promised in the title of his show, as well as some other elegant evening-wear.
And he is still elegant and spry himself, at 60-plus. He is certainly more relaxed, even laid-back. Speaking of backs, he's backed by a real live show-orchestra. And by a trio of musicians called the Manhattan Rhythm Kings.
Who crowned them—or when—I have no idea. It must have been when the Musicians' Union wasn't looking.
Tune's performance of some standards—which he rather talks than sings, accompanied by some modest hoofing—is pleasant enough. But chatting with the audience seems more like a Vegas Lounge Act than the Main Show.
Nor is the Little Shubert Theatre anything like the Real Thing. It is one of those serviceable "amenities" which permitted the destruction of the original Theatre Row playhouses. So a multi-story apartment high-rise could be constructed on and behind the site.
Moreover, this new venue is on the second-floor, reached mechanically only by an elevator and a narrow escalator. So the Senior Citizens who largely constitute the Theatre Row audiences will be in trouble if there's an electrical or mechanical failure.
But at least it's better than Second Stage's re-conformed Art Deco bank-building on 8th & 43rd. This second-story stage and auditorium can only be reached by a small elevator and a steep, narrow, winding stair. And there's no escalator.
Like Second Stage, the new Little Theatre is virtually unadorned. This helps focus all attention on the stage. It is also raked like 2nd Stage, so you are not sitting right behind someone's head.
Kids in THE PRINCE & THE PAUPER [****]This new musical version of Mark Twain's famous children's story has been playing for some time at the Lamb's Theatre. It had opened when I was away from NYC, so I had heard and read nothing about its virtues or defects.
No one phoned or wrote inviting me to review it—which is what usually happens if I am not in town on any of the press-nights. Finally, I felt a bit guilty about not checking it out.
Many decades ago—when I was about the age of both pauper & prince—I thought Twain's idea of a beggar-boy suddenly mistaken for a prince—and vice versa—was a Very Good Read. And it was a good movie as well, way back then.
As with many of my friends in the depressing Depression, we hoped that our real parents, the King & Queen, would someday come and rescue us from the the foster-families we had been trapped in.
As I also missed the press-nights for Hairspray, Movin' Out, & Dance of the Vampires—for which the respective press-agents will not now accord me the press-privilege—I decided to take a look at The Prince & The Pauper.
When I called for tickets, I made the mistake of referring to it as a "Kiddie Show." The press-agent set me straight: "No no! It is a Family Entertainment!"
Well, it's even better than that. The major adult roles are played to the hilt by really professional actors. They couldn't be more energized, focused, and motivated.
This could have been a small-scale production of Man of La Mancha. The cast generally performed as though they had a Broadway audience out front.
What's more the two boys were also very good—and amusing as well. Jimmy Dieffenbach & Dennis Michael Hall—pauper & prince—were admirable, especially in the ways they behaved when their situations were reversed.
Neil Berg & Bernie Garzia's songs are as professional as the production. They aren't the cutesy-poo kiddie lyrics—with banal tunes—endemic to most Children's Theatre.
The third-floor Lamb's Theatre stage has a handsome permanent setting which is something like the stage of Sam Wanamaker's Globe Theatre in London. Minus the columns holding up the heavens.
This Jacobean fixed-facade works very well for Prince & Pauper. And a good thing that is, as it is also the permanent setting for church-services held here on Sundays by the religious group which has saved the Lamb's from demolition and kept it alive for the midtown community!
Director Ray Roderick used the small stage-areas skillfully, while Rick Sordelet staged a rousing sword-fight. It looked as though someone might really get hurt. Brad Little and Paul Schoeffler were both strong and handsome Leading-Men, even if one was the Baddie.
DON QUIXOTE & ALDONZA--Brian Stokes Mitchell & Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in "Man of La Mancha." Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2002.
Mitchell & Mastrantonio in MAN OF LA MANCHA [****]Brian Stokes Mitchell scores another Big Broadway Success for himself as Cervantes/Quixote. But this "double-casting" is quite a change from Ragtime's Coalhouse Walker—although both Cervantes and Coalhouse were in trouble with the Authorities.
The dual role does, however, echo his playing Alfred Drake and Petruchio in Kiss Me, Kate! But the pathos of Man of La Mancha leaves little room for roistering comedy, as the Don is more laughed-at than laughed-with.
If Mitchell is certainly different from the original Don, Richard Kiley, then Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is even more of a contrast to Joan Diener as Aldonza. But both of them make these famous roles their own.
The immediate and on-going problem is that they—and all the cast—are constantly upstaged and overwhelmed by the immense hollow tower of a setting, created by Paul Brown. Its great spiral stairs move back and forth. Its upper section rises on a diagonal to reveal a world beyond the Spanish Inquisition's dark dungeons.
No question but that this set will be a major design-contender at Tony Time. It is a marvel both of scenic-design and of mechanical contrivance.
As with John Lee Beatty's multiple settings for Dinner at Eight, Brown's La Mancha set is worth the price of a ticket all by itself. But it isn't quite right for the action and atmosphere of the show. It is just too overwhelming.
Down in the old ANTA-Washington Square Theatre—where this musical had its World Premiere so many years ago— a fairly simple stairway was lowered and raised from a rather undistinguished aperture above.
The generalized playing-area below lent itself to all the fantasies of the Don and easily suggested all locales in his picaresque adventures. But that wonderful theatre was only a stop-gap.
It was only used until the Vivian Beaumont Theatre was ready for the Lincoln Center Theatre ensemble playing downtown. The company was overseen by such luminaries as Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, and Arthur Miller. Kazan believed his actors were so good as a troupe that they shouldn't wait for the Beaumont to be finished.
After the Fall also had its premiere on the Washington Square ANTA stage. And where is ANTA now? Does anyone remember what those initials stand for?
As I once had an attic-office in the ANTA building for AIDART—Advanced Institute for Development of American Repertory Theatre—I can reveal that the theatre below—now the Virginia—belonged to the American National Theatre and Academy.
The famed Broadway producer Alfred de Liagre presided over ANTA—what was left of it—and booked the theatre. Rosamond Gilder had offices below mine, presiding over ITI—the International Theatre Institute—which she had co-founded in Paris under the wing of UNESCO.
And while I'm dropping Names, I should mention Dale Wasserman, who wrote La Mancha's book. Years ago, someone had the Bright Idea that a California Great Valley truck-stop called Stratford ought to have a Shakespeare Festival.
Thanks to many thousands of dollars provided by the Irvine Family Foundation, I found myself flown out to Fresno—along with Clive Barnes, Beatrice Straight, and an altogether star-studded cast of characters—to join William Shatner, Dale Wasserman, and a Hollywood contingent in Visalia to discuss what form this Shakespeare Festival should take.
Elizabeth Taylor's long-time press-agent, John Springer, had compiled the List of Experts. I'd just written a book about all the American and Canadian Shakespeare Festivals—THE SHAKESPEARE COMPLEX, published by Drama Books—so I got to join the Glitterati.
On a scorching summer's night, we rallied round an open fireplace in the air-conditioned atrium of a multi-millionaire rancher. As Actors' Equity President Theodore Bikel regaled us with ancient Israeli folk-songs.
One of the younger Rockefellers told me he'd just been paired at dinner with "a deaf pig-farmer!" This Junior Rockefeller was an expert in giving away Family Foundation Largesse.
When I told Dale Wasserman how much I loved The Impossible Dream, he snorted. Not only was he overtired of hearing this compliment, but he pointed out that most people have never understood what those words really mean.
I thought it was inspirational: something magnificent, something to strive for…
"No! That's not it at all! The whole point—especially as it refers to Don Quixote—is that the dream is just that: IMPOSSIBLE!"
Well, that was something of a Downer…
But—if you listen closely to the music, as well as the words—your spirits will be borne aloft as the melody soars upward. And like the Don and Miguel de Cervantes—against all odds—you march to that different drummer and keep on striving upward, toward the light.
You may not attain the heights. You may never reach the Golden Door. But the Aspiration and the Journey will have been worth it all!
What did the Ancients say: PER ARDUA AD ASTRAM?
New Dramatic Efforts—It's a sad season when Euripides is the best playwright of the lot. Medea may be almost 2500 years old, but it has David Mamet beat by a Millennium.
Janusz Glowacki's THE FOURTH SISTER [**]Those ardent American Anti-Communists who couldn't wait for the Berlin Wall to fall—and all of Eastern Europe to be free to buy Western brand-names—obviously had no idea of the chaos that would ensue.
Replacing the Cold War and Reagan's "Empire of Evil" with Geo. Bush's "Axis of Evil" and his War against Weapons of Mass Destruction" thus far hasn't seemed a good trade-off.
Worse, with the collapse of Communism, those KGB or NKVD capos—who sustained the Soviet State—rapidly became the new Mafia. Some of them have migrated to Brighton Beach.
But most are busy terrorizing Moscow & Leningrad—oops! St. Petersburg!—where conditions for average citizens are appalling.
Janusz Glowacki's The Fourth Sister is obviously a satirical hommage to Anton Chekhov. Or a cheap-shot parody, depending on how you view the recent Vineyard Theatre staging.
But then Glowacki is a Polish playwright. And the Poles have suffered at the hands of the Russians for centuries! So why shouldn't he get even on stage?
Glowacki's three sisters—unlike Chekhov's—are already in Moscow. All crammed in a small room—just like the Good Old Socialist Days!—with no hope or help in sight.
But there is a glimmer. An American Documentary Film-maker has been filming teen-age prostitutes, with one of the sisters helping him with locations, contacts, and translations.
She has also dressed her younger brother up like one of the girls of the streets. He is a hit in the film. He goes off to Hollywood, but soon comes back empty-handed.
There is some hilarious Mafia Mayhem. And even some bathos worthy of Chekhov, but with a blatantly farcical rather than a wryly comic twist.
At the very last minute, when all hope is gone, things begin to fall in place for the sisters…
Daniel Oreskes made a very amusing—if incompetent—Russki Mafiosi.
Lisa Peterson staged.
Joe Penhall's BLUE/ORANGE [****]Last season, I paid good money to see this at the Duchess Theatre in London. It was very well done.
At the Atlantic Theatre—as staged by Neil Pepe—it was also taut and effective. But Zeljko Ivanek's Robert was a bit too overtly a manipulative villain.
Penhall won the major awards for this drama in London. It owes its name to the unusual quirk that causes Christopher—a black fruit-seller in a market-stall—to see oranges as blue, not orange.
As Bruce—an earnest young psychiatric resident hoping for advancement—Glenn Fitzgerald is very good. But he begins to unravel as Robert jerks him about in his therapy with Christopher—Harold Perrineau, Jr.
Gradually, it appears that Robert has an investigative agenda in which he wishes to use both the patient and the resident as his catspaws. When Bruce demurs, he becomes vicious and threatening.
Ultimately, both Christopher and Bruce are casualties.
John Corwin's GONE HOME [***]The minute you see a hospital-bed wheeled on stage in Gone Home, you may fear that it will be a replay of Who's Life Is It Anyway?. Or The Ride Down Mount Morgan.
No such luck. Our heroine is already dying. Or maybe already dead, as her fantasies about those she loves weave in and out of the action.
David Warren directed this OBE/NDE. That is: Out of Body Experience/Near Death Experience…
Neil LaBute's THE MERCY SEAT [***]Shortly after the Agents of the Axis of Evil rammed into the Twin Towers, it occurred to me that this horrendous tragedy could offer some men the opportunity to disappear and start over somewhere else: A new Name, a new Life… No questions asked!
Free of boring wives, noisy children, ruinous mortgage-payments, overbearing bosses: you name it.
Actually, considering how extensively most men's resumés are documented these days—and how many references are required—it isn't so easy to appear out of nowhere and have no provable past.
This doesn't seem to have occurred to Ben—a married man with kids—who has been having sex on the sly with his much more powerful woman-boss. He is begging her to escape with him to a New Life.
In Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat, the virtual impossibility of this is almost immediately apparent. To the audience, if not to Ben.
He seems a bit thick, in fact. But Liv Schreiber plays him so subtly that you can almost see everything that's going on inside his head: Every flicker of emotion, every twitch and fear…
His boss and lover, Abby—magisterially played by Sigourney Weaver—keeps insisting he answer his daughter's repeated calls on his cell-phone. Of course, if he really had been incinerated in 9/11, the phone shouldn't be still functioning, should it?
Abbey beat Ben out for promotion to the managerial position she now holds. As imagined by LaBute—and played by Schreiber—it's amazing he even got a job in the first place.
You might think he must be a very good fuck, or she would have fired him long ago. But no, the sex—which Abby apparently cannot do without—is only Missionary Position. Or she does a Monica Lewinsky.
He is not only dim and selfish; he's an opportunist and a coward. He has no intention of "hurting" his wife or kids by asking for a divorce to marry Abby. Well…
Usually, LaBute is showing women taking advantage of men in his plays. The Shape of Things was a notable example. This time, Ben seems to be the exploiter.
LaBute staged his drama, getting very intense performances from his stars.
Chris Noth [seated] talks to Stephen Skybell and Annalee Jeffries in "What Didn't Happen." Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2002.
Christopher Shinn's WHAT DIDN'T HAPPEN [**]What didn't happen at Playwrights Horizons was something resembling a drama with really interesting characters enmeshed in an unusually challenging conflict with a powerful resolution.
There's this house somewhere in Upstate New York. Out in the country. A young and apparently blocked—if not downright untalented—author is also blocked in his relationships to women, his unseen daughter, and the boy next door.
Back when he was an English Major, this house was owned by another blocked author who was his mentor. Who also had problems in his relations with women and people in general.
Unfortunately for someone sitting in the second row—with the house and yard on the shallow stage In Your Face—the performances were almost too close for comfort. In fact, everyone was trying so hard, it looked like they wished they were other characters in some other play. Perhaps one by Arthur Miller. Or Neil Simon?
Chris Noth, however, was very good as a drunken, truth-telling best-selling author.
Michael Wilson staged, with the house & yard designed by Jeff Cowie.
David Mamet's BOSTON MARRIAGE [**]As with Dinner at Eight, the best thing about this production was the handsome setting by Walt Spangler.
If this production didn't have David Mamet's name on it, you might well have thought it the script of some demented playwriting-workshop student.
The title is the discreet phrase Proper Bostonians used to refer to those upper-class households in which two very close women-friends shared. Everything…
Kate Burton and Martha Plimpton are Mamet's lovers, one of whom has just made a conquest of a very wealthy gentleman. This will enable the dear friends to have a more proper facade to show the world, with one of them solidly married.
Unfortunately, the other more flighty partner has just conceived a passion for a young girl—who, it soon develops, is the daughter of the potential groom, etc., etc.
Had Oscar Wilde had a hand in this dramaturgy, there would have been more than three characters on stage. And the action would have played itself out vividly, rather than have been described, debated, or deferred.
And, had Oscar written the dialogue, this might have been another Importance of Being Earnest. Or at least An Ideal Husband, if not A Woman of No Importance…
But David is not Oscar, nor will he get an Oscar if anyone is so rash as to try to make a film of this bizarre conversational exercise. Some of the verbal formulations are baroque and impenetrable in the extreme.
What was amazing is that Burton & Plimpton could actually utter these sense-defying sentences as though they were the most utterly natural ways to express themselves.
And they looked absolutely stunning in the utterly elegant costumes of Paul Tazewell!
The utterly avant-garde Karen Kohlhaas staged—also with a certain diffident degree of Back Bay elegiac elegance.
Elaine May's ADULT ENTERTAINMENT [*]Shortly before the opening—the World Premiere, in fact—of Adult Entertainment at the Variety Arts, I read that playwright Elaine May and director Stanley Donen had gone to a Porn Shop to buy some Adult Films to become more familiar with the genre.
By then, it was surely too late? Donen and May would have done better to have projected some of those films for their audiences. Even a Golden Oldie like Behind the Green Door would have been more entertaining than what was on stage down at 14th & Third.
Frankly, I felt sorry for Danny Aiello and Jeannie Berlin—who were working so very hard in this sophomoric farrago.
The idea that a would-be producer—who knows nothing about making films of any kind, let alone porn films—enlists some Porn Stars and an NYU film-school grad—or was it Yale or Cornell?—to make a break-through film which will raise hard-core sex-acts to the level of Art would be a good exercise for Playwriting 1A.
But the results were Coarse Acting and Amateur Theatre. There was nothing Adult about this venture, in any sense of the word…
Other Entertainments—In contrast to the Christmas after 9/11, this year Manhattan was flooded with tourists. So it was good that there were more openings than usual. And that the long-runs were still running, to accommodate the Out-of-Towners who just had to see a Broadway Show.
But Broadway is not the only show in town. By no means…
THE EXONERATED [*****]In the wake of the exoneration of the five Latino lads who were sent to prison for the rape/attack on the Central Park Jogger, this powerful "staged-reading" of other shocking Miscarriages of Justice took on renewed resonance.
Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen have fashioned a compelling script from the trial-records, letters, public statements, and other testimonies of wrongfully convicted and imprisoned Americans. Decent and greatly abused people who were finally—and after great struggles—exonerated.
The text also uses quotations and comments from police, witnesses, investigators, court officers, and attorneys to flesh out the various stories. And—although the excellent cast of actors is seated on stools before scripts on stands—they know their stories so well that this is very much like a play played in place.
In most of the cases, the Reasonable Doubt seems so strong that it is at first difficult to understand how these unfortunate citizens could have been convicted. Or why they were given such draconian sentences…
The authors, however, have so shrewdly integrated the comments and testimonies of the custodians of the Mills of Justice that it is fairly easy to realize what prejudices were at work. Or simply the need to Find a Perp and Close the Case…
What adds Economic Insult to the victims' Illegal Injury is the fact that they are released from prison with NO financial compensation for all the months and years they have lost in jail. Or for the reputations, friends, relationships, and jobs they have so unjustly lost as well.
On the eveing I witnessed this powerful show, at the close one of the men portrayed arrived for the curtain-call with his little child and his wife—whom he'd met when he got out of jail and was trying to re-integrate himself into what is often mistakenly called "society."
Bob Balaban has directed with insight and skill. But this is certainly different terrain from that of Gosford Park, where he was recently sleuthing…
NEW SHANGHAI CIRCUS [*****]That Jewel of New York's Historic Theatres, the New Victory—on New 42—has had a triumph, even a victory, with the engagement of the New Shanghai Circus.
Actually, some of the best of the wonderful young performers come from Mongolia, rather than Shanghai. With many more of the troupe from Nanchong.
All the standard juggling, contortionist, balancing, and acrobatic feats we have come to expect of such Asian—and primarily youthful Chinese—troupes were here shown with great charm, energy, and skill. Including work with Unicycles & Hula-Hoops!
As with Cirque du Soleil—which integrates many of the same acts & feats—this is a circus without wild animals. Fortunately, being Chinese, they can offer the traditional Lion Dance in place of real lions.
The Mongol component of the company offered, among other treats, Mongolian Archers, a Mongolian Strong Man, and the "Mongolian Unicycle Bowl Flip."
As often noted here, you can be sure that any new attraction at the New Victory will be both interesting and excellent, as well as great for both kids and adults.
HERE IS THE TOY THEATRE FESTIVAL POSTER AT HERE!
Sixth International TOY THEATRE FESTIVAL [****]Just as some were taking down the tree—and discarding it on the street—or packing away the ornaments of The Twelve Days of Christmas—not to neglect the Eight Days of Chanukah—Toy Theatres were newly on view at HERE.
This extended the Holiday Season well into January, thanks to Great Small Works' Sixth International Toy Theatre Festival. So HERE's art-gallery is now crammed with all kinds of toy-theatres.
Here are the famed printed prosceniums, settings, and paper-actors of Pollock's British Theatres, the Danish National Theatre, and other historic playhouses. Some of them are set up as they would be used in actual performances for family & friends at home.
Others are presented in more compressed form, framed behind glass, making especially intriguing pictures.
Most of the toy-theatres, however, are original artistic inventions—even Installations—often of unusual found-objects. Either in service of an actual original play-text, or of a bizarre vision of other scenes, situations, or worlds…
But this is Not All! There are seminars and workshops, as well. More important, however, are actual toy-theatre productions. Most of these—as in Eastern European Puppet Theatres—prominently feature the Movers & Shakers of the paper characters.
The first of several programs I witnessed included Brian Poulter's The Loyal 47, a toy-theatre reduction of Chushingura, or The 47 Ronin. This certainly had an Asian look & flavor to it.
Delightfully off-hand and almost improvised was the Historic Re-enactment of World War III, satirically devised by Vermont's Insurrection Landscapers. In this most amusing show, Mankind has been virtually vanquished by those household robots which were supposed to anticipate your every whim—before you could express it, or even press a button.
The hilariously terrifying robots proved to be cut-out collages from magazine-ads. When they had served their theatrical functions, they were cheerfully thrown over the Landscapers' shoulders or dropped to the floor. They had a lot of picking-up to do when their turn was over.
Most inspiring and affecting was Three Books in the Garden, imagined by the "Boston Wing" of Great Small Works. Using a large toy-theatre with Alhambra-like designs & decors, Isaac Bell, John Bell, and Trudi Cohen recalled that magical time in Al-Andaluz when Islam ruled and all faiths were not only tolerated, but respected and protected.
The wonders of the Great Mosque of Cordoba were evoked in miniature, with Christians and Jews celebrating their contributions to the life and culture of Muslim Spain. Before Muslims, Jews, and Christian dissenters were crushed or expelled by those Most Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand & Isabella. Then the Autos-da-Fé began with a vengeance…
Brian Selznick's haunting & charming The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins showed what Joseph Cornell could have done with his celebrated Boxes if he had only had a gift for performance. Selznick employs boxes, hollow-books, desk & cabinet-drawers, magnifying lenses, miniature furniture, animated cut-outs, even prop mini-bones to tell his tale. A handsomely illustrated book-version is on sale as well.
Because some of Selznick's mini-scenes and animations are so very small, the action is also video-projected to enlarge the effects. This show should now go the distance and be seen on Prime-Time TV! Loney]
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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2003. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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