Let's Talk Off Broadway

Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Barrow Group Theatre

Review | The Tragedy of King Arthur by Arthur Phillips | Directed by Jordan Reeves | Guerilla Shakespeare Project | Barrow Group Theatre


L-R Jordan Kaplan as Lawyer, Eric Emil Oleson as Father, Jacques Roy as Arthur, and Tom Schwans as Professor.  Photo:  Debby Goldman
Taking as its starting point that “Nobody really likes Shakespeare,” this play, adapted from Arthur Phillips’ book, The Tragedy of Arthur, is annoyingly arrogant, along with its failed humor and confused and banal “plot.”  As a Shakespeare sendup this might have worked as a ten-minute skit, but not as a three-hour play

Here’s the idea:  Shakespeare really wrote a play entitled The Tragedy of King Arthur but it was lost to posterity.  Now, an often jailed forger of petty items such as store coupons has bequeathed to his son, who is in fact the prolific author Arthur Phillips – note that Arthur — the original folio … or is it a forgery?

Which is it? that is the question.  An incredibly valuable folio of a lost play by Shakespeare? or a fake? 

In order to find out, the play is read through – semi-produced in a helter-skelter deconstructed way – by Arthur, his sister Dana, and various others.  But the answer is quite clear from Phillips’ first pseudo-Shakespearean line, heavy as lead.  Not for an instant could anyone think Shakespeare had anything to do with this play, yet the question remains “open” for three long acts.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw took on Shakespeare — but to prove his own mettle, he wrote plays like Shaw, not Shakespeare.

One gets the impression, though, that Arthur Phillips thinks he’s doing a pretty good job of writing Shakespeare (whom he doesn’t think much of anyhow, which may make it easier), since the overstressed pentameter (meant to be funny?) is filled with slack metaphors and the play throws in a bunch of Shakespearean tropes: sword play, soulful soliloquies, ducal rebellions against the anointed king, etc.  Meanwhile, the character of our modern day Arthur, Phillips, Hamlet-like, works out his relationship with his dead father who appears on stage from time to time, no surprise there.

Evidently Phillips finds repetition at the heart of Shakespeare because the play is very repetitive:  there’s not one spoof of Shakespearean sword play but three or four.  A messenger bears bad tidings and is promptly killed, a humorous (?) take on messengers in Shakespeare and on diplomatic immunity but if anybody found it funny the first time, they certainly didn’t laugh at the repeats.  Anyhow, after the intermission, there were fewer people left in the audience to laugh. 

The set, a past-present deconstruction of an author’s study and castle parapet, is cute and – advertisement for myself style — features a prominent, illuminated blow-up of Phillips’ novel, The Egyptologist.  The actors, with one exception, are competent, including Jacques Roy as an energetic Arthur.  He made three (once is never enough here) very heavy, flat footed jumps from too high a perch that made me worry for his knees;  they didn’t illuminate the character or the action, though, but seem to have been done to wake up the audience.

The Tragedy of King Arthur plays at TBG Theatre on West 36th Street in Manhattan though April 7, 2013.  For information and tickets — and a different view of the play – click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

Comments very welcome.  Scroll down, click on "comments," write in comment box and click on "post."  Emails are private — no emails ever appear with comments.

Luis Carlos de la Lombana as the strong man. Photo: Martin Fernandez Lombana

Review | La Strada | Written by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano | Adapted by Gerard Vazquez | Directed by Rene Buch and Jorge Merced | Starring Nanda Abella, Luis Carlos de La Lombana and Israe l Ruiz | Compania Artistica La Strada | Barrow Group Theatre

… prismatic perfection … 

La Strada shines like a gem.  The writing, acting, music, movement, mis en scene are perfect.  Based on Fellini’s great film of 1954, and now set in Spain, it tells the story of Gelsomina, one of the world’s extra persons, a slightly feeble-minded, dreamy young woman “with a cauliflower head”  who, in a poor family of too many women, is sold by her mother to Zampano, an itinerant “strong man” entertainer and together they set off on a bleak, Goyaesque road.

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Nightsong For The Boatman by Jovanka Bach | Directed by John Stark | Barrow Group Theatre

… departure …

What a bunch of characters!  On an isolated wharf lit by a bright moon two men are engaged in a Jacob and the Angel-like struggle shooting dice.  Murlie, with a tough-guy accent, looks like a denizen of the docks as does his soft-spoken, shaved head buddy Dunbar.  When Harry loses, he's sure the dice are loaded — we're sure, too.  But what are the stakes?  Big but undefined.  All we know is that Harry's compelled to reappear at this spot at midnight in a week.  Sounds spooky, and it is.  Even the naturalism of the dock and thuggish Murlie are surreal.  The waiting rowboat with its high Viking prow looks too small for going far or holding much — like the boat in the center of Max Beckmann's triptych in the Museum of Modern Art, Departure.  And like that painting this play is filled with mythic suggestion. 

From a scary start on the docks, the play morphs into a witty, richly drawn domestic-academic comedy.  Harry returns to regular places like apartments.  It turns out he's a poet, teaching in a university, who published a well received book some years back but now is open to nagging by anyone who wants to get at him, like his wife Emily, with "you haven't done anything important lately."  He leaves her and Jessie their small daughter — left them years ago in the current chronology of the play — and meets up with Sheila, a young poet groupie whom he lives with long enough to call her an "aging flower child."  She's also become a locally successful poet herself.  Jessie, who's grown now into a feisty, charming young woman, adores her dad, to her mother's chagrin.  An earnest graduate student, Gordon, is writing his dissertation on Harry (he'll be at it 15 years is Harry's sarcastic assessment).  Larry is on hand as (merely) acting Head of the English Department but while he comes on as a straight arrow, in a threatened pinch he grants Gordon a hurried PhD.

A week — along with all those flashback years — passes and Larry is compelled to appear again on the lonely docks with the two frightening thugs.  Instead he invites his daughter ( ! ) to see him off on a long journey (in that boat?) and arrives late, leaving the girl at the mercy of the thugs.  Talk about scary.  But just in time Harry arrives and so does everyone else looking for him and Jessie.  The thugs, it turns out, are open to resolving what turns out to be Harry's somewhat Faustian bargain by taking anyone with them to that other place who'll go willingly — shades of Alcestis — and, although this is not a place that usually attracts volunteers, for one fascinating reason or another, everyone volunteers.   Who goes?  All I'll say here is, it's the betrayer.

Nightsong For The Boatman is rewarding and joyfully funny with its rich and varied characters, all wonderfully acted.  John DiFusco runs the gamut of life experience with a tough affect but a poetic sensitivity;  this is a huge role and he carries it off with power.  I particularly enjoyed the performance of Donna Luisa Guinan as Sheila:  she has a gorgeous smile and always makes you think she's going to say something worth that smile –as she expresses life's disappointments and impasses.  No wonder Harry loves her!  J. Lawrence Landis' deadpan as Larry is a hilarious counterpoint to the passionate crew around him.  Michael Byrne as the creepily smooth Dunbar, and Alexander Wells as Murlie, the volatile tough are appealingly opposite in their "good-bad-guy bad-bad-guy" interplay.   Jaret Sacrey's set is stunning — the broken juxtapositions of the painted flats of waves harmonize with the uncertain balance of the play;  the moon seems like its own character. 

This is a skillfully crafted play, beautifully acted and designed, and a totally enjoyable and rewarding evening of theater.   

Nightsong For The Boatman plays at the Barrow Group Theatre on West 36th Street in Manhattan through January 30th.  For further information and ticket information, click on live link.

Yvonne Korshak 

Comments very welcome … scroll down, click on "comments", write in comment box and click on "post".  (FYI: emails never appear)



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