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

Category: Off-Broadway Theater Page 1 of 30

Yvonne Korshak writes Let’s Talk Off-Broadway fired by the sense that the best theater in New York City is off-Broadway and she wants to spread the word. She conveys the essence of the show – what’s this play about? What would it be like to see it? How is it wonderful? And where might it be stronger?

Review | Shakespeare’s As You Like It | Directed by John Doyle | Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor, Long Island

…  without enchantment …

As You Like It is a wonderful play so that, even with this disappointing production, it’s not a wasted evening.  The language is so powerful and some of the scenes so funny that they surpass the flat interpretations they receive here, and in particular two actors —  André de Shields and Leenya Rideout – are satisfyingly perfect!

But all in all, this is an As You Like It without enchantment.

The play rests on a contrast between life at court with its envies, intrigues, and self-protection and, as Shakespeare envisioned it, life in the magical Forest of Arden, free and close to nature.  In these ways it’s like Midsummer Night’s Dream.

We spend just enough time at court to learn that the younger son, Frederick has usurped the right of his older brother, Duke Senior, to the duchy and sent him into exile.  While Frederick tolerated having Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, around for a while, the play begins as he sends her into exile, too, shortly after she and Orlando briefly meet and fall in love at first sight.  The Forest of Arden (think Eden) quickly fills up as Rosalind flees there along with her beloved cousin Celia who is Frederick’s child, and with them Touchstone the court fool.  And — as Shakespeare’s wonderful chance would have it – Orlando, sent away by his mean, jealous older brother, heads there too.

It should be easy for Rosalind and Orlando to discover one another in Arden and enjoy their love, right?  Wrong.  Because Rosalind disguises herself as a young man, and takes on the name “Ganymede,” so that when Orlando, love-sick over that very Rosalind, meets up with her, he believes she is the young man she appears to be.  And she doesn’t disabuse him.  She’s also in love but — coy? testing? seeking experience? ambivalent?  — sticks to her disguise as Ganymede.  She doesn’t let him off the hook, though.  Instead, Rosalind says she will allow Orlando to woo “Ganymede” as if she were Rosalind, and the young man agrees to play the game — to act at wooing the person he believes is a young man.  With this game, Rosalind/Ganymede claims she can cure Orlando of being in love, while she gets to be wooed by the man she loves.

At any rate, the situation in which Rosalind/Ganymede and Orlando play the courtship game with a her as a him and he doesn’t know it opens up the play to hilarity, suspense, and gorgeous love poetry.

Their impassioned if eccentric romance is only one of the wonders in Arden, Shakespeare’s characters being among the greatest wonders of all.  As so often, the fool has some of deepest insight.  Touchstone, played by the actor, dancer, and man of theater André de Shields, lets us sense the truths that lie behind his sprightly mask, dancing away with a jester’s wariness when his hits come too close to home. He speaks his lines with strength and clarity and lets us hear all the poetry.  He fairly dances his way through the part and is fascinating to watch as his movements express his character and emotions.  His costume is a witty combination of argyle and knickers in keeping with the more or less modern (1950’s ?) costuming of the play by Ann Hould Ward.  De Shields is the most powerful presence on stage.

Among the denizens of Arden is another of Shakespeare’s great characters, Jacques, the melancholy courtier.  The award winning actress Ellen Burstyn plays the role, and while it’s impressive to see her move herself to tears by the end of the tragic monolog on the ages of man (“All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players…” ), her thin voice , here and elsewhere, is at odds with the depth of the character and resonance of the language.

A special feature of this production is that the very well-known composer and writer for musical theater, Stephen Schwartz has written music for it.  The nearest to enchantment in this production’s mundane Forest of Arden is when Phoebe, the shepherdess, circles the stage with her solo violin, playing insinuatingly lovely Schwartz music, all the more because Phoebe  is played by the enchanting actress Leenya Rideout.

The easy listening jazz grooves well with the theme of freedom in the forest, and when the ensemble comes together to sing it radiates a sense of joy.  It’s pleasant to listen to Bob Stillman, who plays Duke Frederick and Duke Sr., performing cocktail bar music at the spinet on stage.  The idea of setting Shakespeare’s songs and song-like passages to music is a wished for and welcome idea.  At most times, though, when there is singing, solo or ensemble, the words can’t be heard well or fully understood, and when it comes to Shakespeare, you don’t have to be a “purist” to want to hear all of the words.

Beyond those I’ve mentioned, others of the performers are able and others need more experience.  As for “chemistry” between these famous lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, you won’t find it here.

The set design is somewhat experimental.  The backdrop looks like a wall of red bricks, as if we’re in a theater without a set – not a forest for sure, but perhaps an interesting element for teasing the relationship between illusion and reality which is a theme of the play. The main design features, however, are many globular lights above the stage that, at certain points, change color, but the overall effect is not enchanting but, unfortunately, barren.

As You Like It plays at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, through September 3, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Thoroughly Modern Millie | Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan | Music by Jeanine Tesori | Lyrics by Dick Scanlan | North Fork Community Theatre, Mattituck, Long Island

A delightful musical filled with laughs — that’s Thoroughly Modern Millie, presented with youthfully energetic and thoroughly enjoyable performances at the North Fork Community Theatre.

We’re in the flapper age!  Millie Dillmont, the girl from Kansas, arrives in New York City in 1922 with her head filled with a “modern idea” — she’s going to get a job and marry the boss so she’ll be rich.  If you think about it, marrying for money rather than for love isn’t a very modern idea to say the least but marrying the boss — that takes us to the time when women were first entering the work force in force.  And Millie is an independent modern woman — we’re drawn  to her self-confidence, practicality and determination to set her own course – to say nothing of the adorable modern hair bob cut she gets for herself soon after arriving in what today’s called “The Big Apple” – and it was a big bite back then too.

We follow Millie through her exciting experiences – speakeasy bars and high society cocktail parties — and we share in her disappointments – the boss she has her eye on to marry can only think of her as a typist/stenographer.  She skirts danger in the form dreaded “white slavers” ready to prey on young girls and spirit them away to the mysterious orient for horrible reasons.  And everywhere we go with her, we’re enchanted by wonderful singing, dancing, and some of the funniest scenes written for musical comedy.

Specifically, if you’ve never seen the scene in Millie’s office with the bank of tap dancing typists, here’s your chance, and if you have seen it, here’s your chance to laugh again!

The cast is by-and-large excellent.  In particular, Ashley Hilary gives an all-out terrific performance as Millie.  Aria Saltini is enchanting as Miss Dorothy Brown, the sweet, long-curly-haired foil to feisty Millie.  Kiera Prentiss is beyond perfect as the wily, wicked Mrs. Meers – what a character!  And what a character actress the North Fork Community Theatre has in Kiera Prentiss.  And what a makeup job!

And if you’ve never laughed – or laughed before – at the shenanigans of the two Chinese men who – with varied enthusiasm — assist Mrs. Meers in her nefarious white slavery plot, here’s your chance to see Eric Momente as Bun Foo and Alex Bradley as Ching Ho on their knees singing with all their hearts like that early 20th century all-time popular singer A – But no, I won’t mention his name so as not to spoil the – hilarious – joke.

The dancers are a highlight of this production – some among them dancing on an exciting professional level though their names aren’t separated out in the program for me to mention – but Thank You!  The dancers and others provide a feast for the eyes of glamorous flapper dresses and 1920′ style.

And where else but at the outstanding North Fork Community Theatre will you have a fine, live twelve-person orchestra, led by Musical Director and pianist Karen Hochstedler!

Ad for the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967.

1967 Ad for the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie.

The stage production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which first opened on Broadway in 2002, has an interesting history in that the movie — with quite a cast — came first in 1967 (see the illustration), based on a British musical, Chrysanthemum, of 1956.

The North Fork Community Theatre production of Thoroughly Modern Millie is directed by John Bradley.  It plays Thursday through Sunday in Mattituck, Long Island, through August 6, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.


Review | Intimate Apparel | By Lynn Nottage | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

… spinning a play from a photograph …

Intimate Apparel is a good play, worth seeing, though it’s not a you-must-see-it play like Lynn Nottage’s Ruined (2008) or her more recent Sweat, both of which won the Pulitzer Prize. Nottage is a fine, intelligent playwright and to spend the evening with her through the medium of this play, written early in her career (2003), is satisfying and thought-provoking.

For Intimate Apparel, the playwright’s imagination spins off from a vintage photograph of an African American seamstress in New York City in 1905, and other photos of African American women of the time.  The central character, Esther (Kelly McCreary), a quiet, hard-working African American who lives in Mrs. Dickson’s (Portia) boarding house in New York City and sews fine lingerie for wealthy white women.

Though inward and retiring, Esther has friends, including the motherly Mrs. Dickson, and the prostitute and would-be serious pianist, Mayme (Shayna Small).  And Esther’s open to conversation, as with Mr. Marks (Blake DeLong), the orthodox Jewish fabric seller on the lower East Side from whom she buys her silks.

But Esther feels alone.  And at thirty-five, she feels the passage of time and slipping away of opportunities.

In the charming and endearing irony of the play, this quiet, modest-dressing, no frills woman who makes fancy lingerie for other women is longing for love.

Until a dark-skinned Hispanic man, George (Edward O’Bienis) a laborer working on the Panama Canal, starts writing to her from Panama.  As in Athol Fugard’s play Blood Knot, the correspondence between a lonely man and woman who don’t otherwise know each other becomes increasingly romantic and sexually tinged. And like Zachariah in Blood Knot, Esther is illiterate, so she has to turn to someone else to hold up her side of the correspondence: her letters are written by her customer, the wealthy white woman, Mrs. Van Buren (Julia Motyka) for whom Esther sews beribboned bustiers with waist-cinching drawstrings.  In some fine staging, George, spot lit, proclaims his side of this correspondence in a rough Anthony Quinn-like voice from various points in the aisles of the theater.

“I love you,” he finally says, and — we sense his opportunism — makes his way from Panama to New York.

Once they meet, how will they live up to each others’ expectations?

Act I has many touching and illuminating moments – for awhile I thought we were on board for a great play.  The second act, however, is overloaded with coincidence and some unconvincing characterizations.  It provides some pleasant and original surprises among the sad inevitabilities, but doesn’t always ring true.

The actors for the most part do justice to the complexities of Nottage’s richly written characters.  Kelly McCreary reveals the passionate determination of modest Esther although at times her inwardness becomes a mask-like lack of expression. Edward O’Biennis brings out George’s mix of awareness of decency and brutal self-centeredness.  Julia Motyka as Mrs. Van Buren shows us the unsettled tension in this woman who seems to have it all, though the playwright throws in a red herring about the nature of her conflicts.  Blake DeLong conveys well Mr. Marks’ tender and remarkable inner conflicts.  Portia’s Mrs. Dickson is a woman of welcome humor who will never let you down.  Shayna Small, though she speaks too softly for the size of the theater, is a sweet Mayme.

The plays by Lynn Nottage that I know, Ruined (2008) and the more recent Sweat, both — with some staging detours — unroll fundamentally in the single space of a bar where the characters come and go and the story unfurls.  In Intimate Apparel, we move around and I missed the effective unity of place of the other plays.  On the other hand, in this play, a central bed is a visual unifying focus: it’s slept in, argued on, made, unmade and remade according to dramatic locale.  The focus on the central bed underlines the issues of love and sex in Esther’s life, and by implication, the traditional centrality of “the bed” in women’s life in general.

Intimate Apparel is set in an historical context, with the photograph of the Black seamstress in 1905 a projected image, but the play seems more interested in Esther’s emotional odyssey than in her time and place.  The effects of Esther’s race on her life, and on her relationship to the White Mrs. Van Buren, are certainly made clear.  The historical note in the program lets us know that in the period there were considerably more African American women than African American men in New York City, providing a context for Esther’s romance through correspondence.  But issues of gender and private life, even more than the larger vistas of cruelty, injustice and race of Nottage’ better known plays, are the focus of Intimate Apparel.  It is indeed an intimate play.

Intimate Apparel is directed by Scott Shwartz, the Artistic Director of Bay Street Theater.  It plays at the Bay Street Theater, on the wharf in Sag Harbor, Long Island, NY, through July 30, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Jules Feiffer's "The Man in the Ceiling" at Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor, L.I., NY

Review | The Man in the Ceiling | Book by Jules Feiffer | Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

… segregation … 

The idea of this new musical show is that the world can be rough on for a little boy with a big imagination. Unfortunately this show can be rough on the audience.

“Inca Binca,” Jimmy’s imagined character inspired by Father.  Outside Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor

Young Jimmy has a talent for drawing comics, creating fantastic characters like Inca Binca and Lightning Lady.  A boy busily making up characters and drawing comics — this show, based on Feiffer’s book The Man in the Ceiling is autobiographically inspired

Jimmy’s conventionally-minded father is impatient with this childish and artistic pursuit and pushes Jimmy to become a regular guy who plays baseball and studies for his school tests.  Jimmy’s mother is a busy professional woman who offers weak protection– when she has time, and his older sister Lisi, though she has moments of sympathy mainly dwells in a teen-age manic state.  Charley Beemer, a loose-limbed teenager who’s good at baseball, is a threat as he tries to exploit Jimmy’s talent for his own benefit.  Only Uncle Lester, with a history of writing unsuccessful songs, understands Jimmy, artist-to-artist style.

“Horror Head” — Jimmy’s imagined character inspired by his sister Lisi

The show has some positive aspects.  Jimmy’s imagined comic characters, drawn from his family and his (false) friend Charley, are Jules Feiffer’s witty exaggerations of the types each of the characters represents.  The way Father, Mother, and the other characters alternate between donning their cartoon selves they carry like a shield when Jimmy’s imagining, and their real selves, is effective.  The drawings are charming and sophisticated– well, you’d expect that.  After all, they’re the drawings of a mature artist who has a career based on the allure of his drawings — Jules Feiffer – and not those of a little boy, a talented child, whether Feiffer or otherwise.

Also on the plus side, there’s a funny skit in the second act based on taking the words of a love song Uncle Lester has written to their literal, humorously absurd conclusion.

The set by David Korins, with clever projections by Daniel Brodie and Feiffer, is witty – I enjoyed the effect of torn-out-of-the-book pages from a spiral notebook, magnified.

Jimmy’s imagined character “Lightning Lady,” inspired by Mother.

The performers do their professional best with the material.  Young Jonah Broscow is impressive as Jimmy, going well beyond being “cute” in his believable emotional responses to the highs and lows of his quest to create. Danny Binstock as Father has a beautiful singing voice. Nicole Parker is believable as frantic Mother.  Brett Gray as charismatic the sly teen-aged neighbor Jimmy looks up to and has a fine singing voice.  Erin Kommor is vivacious as Jimmy’s sister Lisi – I’d guess the eye-popping hysteria of her performance was the director’s idea.  Andrew Lippa is amusing as Uncle Lester.

Jimmy’s imagined character ” Toledo Jackson” inspired by Uncle Lester

The show’s book as a whole, however, is disjointed and there’s a loud and garish tone throughout that’s tiresome.  Except for Jimmy, the characters seem there just to make a point about what Jimmy’s up against to protect his talent, and don’t give any sense of having lives of their own.  This is probably intended, as suggested by the fact that Jimmy’s parents are unnamed, just called Father and Mother – which leads to Jimmy addressing his father as “Father” where we expect “Dad.”

When the “man in the ceiling” finally appears as a visualization of Jimmy’s imagination, he’s rendered as a puppet high up maneuvered with sticks by the actors on stage, dynamically less complex than many other puppets used in theater.  Above all, what what the man in the ceiling says doesn’t amount to anything.  The music is sing-song repetitive, with banal lyrics and rhymes are of the “moon/June variety.”  The choreography – such as some ancient Egyptian art stylization to represent imagined Maya gods – is flat.

Jimmy’s imagined character “Winman,” inspired by his neighbor Charley Beemer.

And I found it troublesome the tricky neighbor Charley, the one really bad guy (Father gains redemption but not Charley), is cast as a “cool cat” Black.  Even at the curtain call, most of the cast was posed together stage right as in a family photo, and Charley was isolated stage left, far off on his own. That seemed pretty gratuitous.

The Man in the Ceiling is directed by Jeffrey Seller.  It plays at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, through June 25th, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Rotterdam | by Jon Brittain | Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain | 59E59 Theaters

… love and gender …

Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman) and Alice (Alice McCarthy) are two young women lovers, expatriate Brits living in Rotterdam.  On the very evening that Alice is composing an email to her parents to finally let them know that she is gay, Fiona drops a bombshell:  she tells Alice that she, Fiona, is truly a transgender man, and that she intends to transition to being physically male.

“I like girls!” Alice exclaims – but Fiona is planning to become the man she really is.  Will Alice love Fiona as a man? Or, more to the point, will Alice love Adrian?  Because Fiona, at the start of her journey to fulfil her true male identity has already chosen a new name:  Adrian.

Although Adrian has a long way to go to physically becoming a male, he immediately binds his chest and puts himself together as a very good-looking young man.  His open acknowledgement of his true self is liberating for him and he gives no thought to the effect his transition may have on Alice.  He insists and assumes that everyone will now call him Adrian.  Alice’s slip-ups on using his old name anger him.  He’s temporarily despondent when he realizes that, out on the street, in spite of male dress and manner, he’s can still be seen as a girl.

Alice, who has a restrained personality and trouble making difficult decisions, doesn’t know what to do.  She’s perfectly clear, though, about her female gender, and lesbian orientation.  As Adrian fights to become accepted as a man, Alice struggles with the conflict between her love for him and her sexual preference.  She had earlier been the lover of Adrian’s older brother, Josh (Ed Eales-White), who is currently living with them, but that ended when she chose Fiona/Adrian over Josh.  Alienated by the man she now knows Adrian is, she allows herself to be drawn to the seductive Lelani (Ellie Morris), a ditsy lesbian with a wardrobe of hot pants and shining tights, whom Alice knows from the office.  Lelani seeks to liberate the relatively uptight Alice – who even tries a pair of hot pants herself.

It is a great strength of this play that the characters are richly written with a full complement of complexities and idiosyncrasies.  We really get to know two human beings in emotionally intense and conflicted situations.  Through the gender mismatch faced by this loving couple, the playwright not only illuminates issues of transgender, but investigates with great delicacy and understanding the nature of love.  Is the ending of the play convincing?  I’m not sure, but then, there are many varieties of love.

The acting and directing are outstanding.  Alice McCarthy brings an engaging thoughtfulness and lovely womanliness to the character of Alice.  Anna Martine Freeman is convincing as Fiona, the skinny girl with a boyish haircut, and equally so as Adrian – Adrian is dashed when someone takes him for a girl  but he sure looked like a guy to me.  Ellie Morris plays Lelani with vitality and wit.  Ed Eales-White is appealing as Fiona/Adrian’s brother, Josh, who can’t quite get his act together but who, in easily loving Adrian as a sister or a brother, contributes to our enlarged sense of the meaning of love.

I saw Rotterdam at the very end of its run from May 17th through June 10th, 2017, at 59E59 Theaters.  For more information about the play, click here.

Review | The Antipodes | By Annie Baker | Signature Theatre

… bored room …

The Antipodes is a distasteful play.

I’d found Annie Baker’s play The Flick as dull as dishwater, with no discernible redeeming merit.  Still, I went to this one, The Antipodes, because I was snuckered in by the intriguing publicity art work and because I knew that The Flick had won the Pulitzer Prize, that Baker’s plays had won other prizes, and so I had to ask myself whether I was missing something about dramatist Annie Baker.

My conclusion is that I’m not missing anything:  this is banal, pretentious theater that delivers plays whose interest is based on the audience’s recognition of character types and commonplace actions and speech.  Commonplace life is rarely as tedious and repetitive as in these plays – thank heavens!

For The Antipodes, we’re in a board room with a long central table surrounded by chairs and with a large ink board.  As the characters come in, we learn that this is a team commissioned to come up with a new story (for a movie?), with the boss, Sandy (Will Patton), at the head of the table.  They haven’t been getting anywhere in coming up with a story, so Sandy asks each of them to tell a story drawing upon their personal lives.  One by one they do.  And on and on it goes.  None of these stories makes the grade.  Although Sandy says he never fires anybody, Danny M2 tells about his love for chickens on a farm and he shortly disappears from the group.

What is a story anyhow? — in fact, any of these stories could be profound/exciting/illuminating in the hands of a fine writer.  By the same token, any of these individuals, truly known, would have fascinating depths because that’s how people are when you really get to know them, but there are no fine writers here and that’s not how these stories are meant to be told.  And we’re not meant to even think about depths of character.  We’re meant to see banality, frustration and dead ends.  There’s some implication that civilization is at a dead end, and there are no more stories.

There are always stories — just looks like Annie Baker couldn’t think of one.

Borrowing from the Book of Genesis and combining it with visual images from the medieval world and exotic sources, she finally hands a story that’s got “breakthrough” potential to one of the quieter members of the team, Adam (Phillip James Brannon) – the story he tells is forced, a synthetic pastiche but sufficiently surreal to wake them up (if not the audience).

Will anything come of it?  Take a guess.

Beware of plays that are two hours long with no intermission:  they’re afraid that if you had the chance, you might leave in the break.

The Antipodes, directed by Lila Neugebauer, plays at the Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through June 11, 2017. For more information and tickets, and a view of the publicity art work, click here.

Cast of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, adapted merging text and opera by Eilin O'Dea. Translated by Lewis Galantiere

Review | Antigone | By Jean Anouilh | Translated by Lewis Galantière | Fusion Theatre

                                                … the force of destiny …

Here’s an amazing experience!   You walk into a small off-Broadway theater.  The stage is about as minimal as can be – mainly there’s a baffle board at the back and an upright piano to the side.  Early on  Antigone, kneeling, agonized by Creon’s order forbidding burial for the body of her rebellious brother, expresses her anguish with an operatic soprano aria, “Pace, pace, mio Dio”  from Verdi’s La Forza del destino.  What a shock!  And what a way to convey intense emotion in a play.

Eilin O'Dea as Antigone, holding dirt from the burial of her brother in Antigone by Jean Anouilh, presented by Fusion Theatre. Photo Jonathan Staff

Eilin O’Dea as Antigone, holding dirt from the burial of her brother. Photo Jonathan Staff

The Fusion Theatre, originated by Eilin O’Dea, who directs the production and plays Antigone, is dedicated to the idea of merging classical theatre and opera.   This production  presents the text of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone of 1944 with the addition of four arias, and choral music from Saint-Saëns’ opera Antigone.   The impact is powerful.  The story, that Anouilh drew from Sophocles’ great drama written in the Fifth Century B.C., is famous for pitting the will of a girl against a king.

According to the ancient legend, Antigone, her sister Ismene, and their brothers, Polynices and Eteocles are the children of the fateful marriage of Oedipus with his mother.  Now Oedipus is dead, and his rivalrous sons have killed one another fighting for mastery of the city of Thebes.   Creon, now King of Thebes, has decreed that the insurgent brother who rose up against the city, Polynices, be deprived of the important rite of burial.  Antigone rebelliously contrives to bury him, incurring Creon’s wrath and risking dire punishment.

I knew that Anouilh’s Antigone had been written during World War II and produced in France as a protest against the German occupation, the censors not recognizing in the garb of a “classical” play that Creon’s dictatorship was a stand-in for the fascist occupation, and that Antigone stood for the spirit of resistance.  I didn’t expect, though, that to get the play past the censors, Anouilh had altered Antigone’s character.  Instead of the high-minded woman that she is in Sophocles’ play, challenging Creon with her brilliantly wrought arguments, here Antigone is quixotic, not principled.

Antigone’s statements of how she makes her decisions and why she acts as she does range from unclear to unconvincing.  I’ve heard her rationales in this play called “existential” but by the time Creon has earnestly, even desperately said everything he knows to save her from disaster and she ignores him, she seems just plain nutty.  Creon, on the other hand, and to my surprise, comes across as a sympathetic character, anguished by the conflict between what he thinks he ought to do for the safety of his city and his unwillingness to harm Antigone.

Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, singing Ella Giammai from Verdi's Don Carlo in Fusion Theatre's Antigone by Jean Anouilh. Photo Jonathan Staff

Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, singing Ella Giammai from Verdi’s Don Carlo: “If the Prince sleeps, the traitor is awake.” Photo Jonathan Staff

The sympathetic Creon brings us to a high point of this production– Paul Goodwin Groen, the magnificent bass, singing “Ella Giammai,” the aria sung by an equally distressed King Philppe II in Verdi’s Don Carlo.  Omigosh.  What an experience, to hear this full, operatic bass not in a vast opera house but in the intimate setting of, yes, off-Broadway!  Groen’s interpretation of the aria, his acting, his strength and his pathos – again, seen close – are thrilling.  If there were no other reason to see this play – and there are many others – Groen’s “Ella Giammai” would be of itself worth all.

The acting is for the most part of high caliber.  In particular, the multi-talented and creative Eilin O’Dea brings the maximum of dramatic tension to the role of Antigone. Byron Singleton

L-R Byron Singleton as First Guard, Adam Shiri as Second Guard, Jason Wirth, Music Director and Accompanist. Photo Jonathan Staff

combines down-to-earth self-interest with a touching sympathy in his role as First Guard, and with his fine tenor voice he provides a thoroughly enjoyable rendition of Manrico’s aria, “Deserto Sulla Terra,” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.  Sue Ellen Mandel is touching as the Nurse, and Igby Rigby is cleverly insinuating as the Page/Chorus – the young “innocent” boy who’s already wise to the world.  Music Director Jason Wirth provides strong accompaniment to the singing, and plays a solo, on an upright piano to the side of the stage.

I can imagine that some may find it a little jarring for Fusion Theatre to pull in operatic arias to Anouilh’s script – perhaps, one may say, rather than “borrowing,” the group should have a composer write the music specifically for this play.  That would be a great idea if there happens to be a Verdi around – one willing to do it on a shoestring.  The operatic music was  thought-provoking, enriching and a pleasure to hear, and did a good job of advancing the Fusion Theater’s point that there’s value of merging classical theater and opera.

After all, we don’t even know what the music was that accompanied Sophocles’ Antigone around 441 B.C. – but we know there was music!

Fusion Theatre’s Antigone plays at the Studio Theatre on Manhattan’s Theatre Row, West 42nd Street, through May 28, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Cast of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, adapted merging text and opera by Eilin O'Dea. Translated by Lewis Galantiere

Antigone cast. L-R Allison Threadgold as Ismene, Pauline Yeng as Messenger, David Gran as Haemon, Sue Ellen Mendel as Nurse, Eilin O’Dea as Antigone (foreground), Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, Igby Rigney as Page/Chorus, Adam Shiri as Second Guard, Byron Singleton as First Guard. Photo Jonathan Staff

Review | Vanity Fair | By Kate Hamill | Adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Novel | Pearl Theatre Company

… all the world’s a vanity fair … 

This is a mind-expanding production of Vanity Fair.  It’s also funny, extravagant and visually fascinating.

The play, like the novel, focuses on a clearly motivated creature of her time, place and situation, Becky Sharp – a poor girl armed with smarts and wiles she’s determined to use to rise to the top in the affluent (sometimes) world of the British aristocracy.  Played by author Kate Hamill, you can’t take your eyes off Becky because her face fluidly – and humorously — reflects her moment to-moment assessment of precisely where her self-interest lies.

The play begins as the Manager (a vibrant and insinuating Zachary Fine) plunges through a red satin curtain and, like a barker at a fair, introduces us to this stylized, mordant satire of society – high and low.  Here it’s British society during the Napoleonic wars but it could be any time any place in “Vanity Fair” – a parable of the world, where innocence is adrift and most people will stoop to anything to get what they want – money, sex and high status – I think in that order.

Becky and her friend Amelia (Joey Parsons) are graduating finishing school where Becky’s been a charity case and thus exploited and badgered by a nasty school mistress — and readily giving it back in spades. Becky, slated to become a governess, a mighty humiliation for a finishing school girl, is invited to stay at Amelia’s fine house where she encounters her first rich man, Amelia’s  absurdly dull brother (Brad Heberlee). In no time she focuses her allure on him, and there’s the first of her seductions which make the play go round!

But oh fortune-hunters:  beware of second sons.  After many goings-on, Becky and her husband – she married Rawdon Crawley (Tom O’Keefe), second son of a family that employed her – are living a fashionable life but on what funds, since Rawdon was disinherited by his rich aunt (Zachary Fine, again), when she learned he married Becky. The couple is living the high life — on credit.  As the bills pile up, Becky’s solution is a liaison — “unconsummated” — with a rich marquis but her plan backfires. Rawdon, believing her unfaithful and unwilling to get him out of debtor’s prison, leaves her, and so begins her downward fall into degradation.  She redeems herself in a way, and that involves the parallel story of the good girl, Amelia, her losses, and her gains.

Thackeray framed the novel as a puppet play, a device that the playwright, like the novelist, exploits for its all-the-world’s-a-stage philosophical impact.  Becky is a complex character of mixed motives and a subtle mind.  The rest are exaggerated types, the domineering aristocratic father-of-the-family, the disappointing sad-sack son, the nasty rich aunt, the lecherous marquis, and so on.

The pace is hectic and parts are played broadly – recalling Thackeray’s conceit of the puppet show.  A lot’s always going on: the first act is somewhat disjointed and the second act has clearer dramatic force.  The actors play their type roles true-to-form, driving home with humor the ritual-like inevitabilities of the lust for wealth, sex and status.  Debargo Sanyal, playing several roles as most of the actors do, wittily works his jaw as if its attached to his face with a wooden hinge, exactly like a puppet!  It’s quite a feat, and heightens the stylistic strength of the production.

Miss Hamill has discovered the Berthold Brecht in Thackeray — in Vanity Fair’s frank display of social inequity, individual self-interest, hypocrisy, degradation and stubborn belief in innocence, colored by hyper-theatricality and ironic sense of inevitability.

Vanity Fair, directed by Eric Tucker, plays at the Pearl Theatre Co. on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through May 27, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

L-R Carol Starks, Derek Hutchinson, Annie Jackson, Brian Protheroe and Richenda Carey. Photo Carol Rosegg. In J. B. Priestley's The Roundabout at 59E59 Theaters

Review | The Roundabout | By J. B. Priestley | Directed by Hugh Ross | 59E59 Theaters

… fun! …

See this play and you’ll have a good time!

L-R Hugh Sachs as Churton Saunders and Emily Laing as Pamela. Photo Carol Rosegg. In J. B. Priestley's The Roundabout at 59E59 Theaters April 20 - may 28, 2017

L-R Hugh Sachs as Churton Saunders and Emily Laing as Pamela. Photo Carol Rosegg.

Lord Kettlewell, at his home in the English countryside, is on edge because his financial investments have turned sour.  Kettlewell is not alone:  lots of investments had turned sour at the time the play was written, in 1931, early in the Great Depression.  Still, as his friend Churton responds to Kettlewell’s sputters with laid back wit, it comes across as all very funny.  And the more Kettlewell sputters – he’s also upset his paramour, Hilda, has announced she’s arriving, uninvited, that afternoon – the funnier it gets.

We don’t have to wait until afternoon though, for the unexpected arrival of his daughter, Pamela, whom he hasn’t seen for so long he can barely recognize, and who falls upon him dressed in unisex scruffy.  He has no interest in her – since their separation ten years ago, his wife has taken care of Pamela.  That this Oxford educated young woman has just returned from Russia where she joined the proletariat in doing factory work does nothing to lift Lord Kettlewell’s mood.  Even worse, she has in tow a skinny young man, Staggles, who insists on being called “Comrade.”  Thus, the young British idealistic Communists meet the British capitalist nobility – at a bad moment for that nobility.

L-R Steven Blakeley and Emily Laing. Photo Carol Rosegg. in J. B. Priestley's The Roundabout at 59E59 Theaters April 20 - May 38, 2017

L-R Steven Blakeley as Comrade Straggles and Emily Laing as Pamela. Photo Carol Rosegg.

At any rate, Pamela announces that she’s moving in with Daddy.  Why?  We really don’t know but luckily there’s plenty of time before we find out for amusing confrontations among political opposites – funny but with underlying meaning — as well as Malvolio-like romantic misunderstandings involving the self-described “austere” but randy Staggles.

But most of all there’s Pamela, a feisty, self-confident, manipulative and generally amused young woman played with compelling wit, charm and bounce by Emily Laing.  She – both as character and actress – is half the show and worth every minute.

L-R Derek Hutchinson and Richenda Carey. Photo Carol Rosegg. in J. B. Priestley's The Roundabout at 59E59 Theaters April 20 - May 28, 2017

L-R Derek Hutchinson as Parsons and Richenda Carey as Lady Knightsbridge. Photo Carol Rosegg.

Well, maybe not quite half because there are some other wonderful characters, all humorous but connected, with the lightest of touches, to the sense that Capitalism is in trouble at this moment while Russia’s factories are humming along. The dream of Parsons the Butler is to purchase the big house from the financially pressed Lord Kettlewell,  and run it as an inn for weekend visitors.  Lady Knightsbridge drops by (peace and quiet are not in Kettlewell’s karma today): she disapproves of Pamela’s breezy breaches of  protocol with aristocratic hauteur – while  trying any way she can to make a pence or a pound.  Hilda, the Lord’s paramour, arrives – you’ll like the way Pamela makes short shrift of her.  And (oh the machinations of Pamela) the long-separated Lady Kettlewell arrives.

The direction is tone-perfect and the cast without exception excellent.  To mention only some, Brian Pretheroe as Lord Kettlewell maintains a fine line between a lordly charismatic presence and current befuddlement.  As the cool-in-the-midst-of-the-storm friend, Churton, Hugh Sachs delivers some of the funniest lines in the play with perfect timing.  Derek Hutchinson is touching as he threads the needle between a butler’s  proper behavior and down-to-earth readiness to take advantage of Kettlewell’s difficulties.  Richenda Carey is particularly wonderful as Lady Knightsbridge – that grim, tough mouth:  you need to see the way her face alternates between high class superiority and practical profit motive!  Steven Blakeley plays Comrade Staggles as a Cassius with a lean and hungry look you have to love.  And making the plot go round is Emily Laing as Pamela – star power in action.

L-R Carol Starks as Hilda, Derek Hutchinson as Parsons, Annie Jackson as Alice, Brian Protheroe as Lord Kettlewell and Richenda Carey as Lady Knightbridge. Photo Carol Rosegg. In J. B. Priestley's The Roundabout at 59E59 Theaters

L-R Carol Starks as Hilda Lancicourt, Derek Hutchinson as Parsons, Annie Jackson as Alice, Brian Protheroe as Lord Kettlewell and Richenda Carey as Lady Knightsbridge. Photo Carol Rosegg.

J. B. Priestly called The Roundabout “a very light comedy … a little less intellectually negligible than most very light comedies.”*  That’s exactly right: it’s very funny but its underpinning of the effects of the great recession as played out among a capitalist English aristocracy and idealistic young left-wingers gives it a particular strength and historical interest. The play ends a little too quickly:  we’re left with a sense that some explanations are needed about why things resolve as they do.  But that’s only after a thoroughly delightful time spent at Lord Kettlewell’s country home.

The Roundabout is produced by Cahoots Theatre Company, The Other Cheek & Park Theatre for Brits Off Broadway.  It plays at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan through May 28, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

*  Quoted by J. B. Priestley’s son Tom Priestley, in the program note.





A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin Milne. Photo Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1926. rightsandimages@npg.org.uk

Review | The Lucky One | By A. A. Milne | Mint Theater Company | Directed by Jesse Marchese

… not so lucky … 

Set in a well-to-do English environment of the early twentieth century, The Lucky One is a story of two brothers:  Gerald (Robert David Grant), the younger, the parents’ favorite, is blithely successful at everything, from sports, to girl friends, to his big job in the foreign office.  Bob (Ari Brand), farmed out to a barrister’s office where he never should have been (but then, where should he be?), seethes with jealousy and bitterness.

And now the primal insult: Gerald has stolen Bob’s girl, Pamela (Paton Ashbrook).

That’s a good set-up for a play, and the dialogue is crisp and often amusing, but there are many loose character ends.  Ultimately we don’t understand who the characters really are or why they act as they do.

The mother, Lady Farrington (Deanne Lorette) and father, Sir James (Wynn Harmon) are cliché uptight ciphers, obtusely favoring their “best” son.  A live-in great aunt descends on occasion but plays no role in the action.  Why is she in the play?  Her heart-to-heart talks with whoever’s around lead us to think she has the wisdom of age and understanding of the characters that they lack for themselves but it turns out she misses the point as much as everyone else.  So, except for cute character color, played charmingly by Cynthia Harris, she’s superfluous.

Thomas (Andrew Fallaize) and Letty (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) engage in peppy, youthful romance shenanigans – the playwright may have included them as a healthy contrast to the tortured threesome romance of Gerald, Bob and Pamela, but when we realize they have no effect on the action either, interest wanes.

And who is this Pamela anyhow, the object of both brothers’ attention?  In this socially calculating world, we’re given no clue to her background or her parents.  What does she do for a living?  Or to pass the time?  No idea.  It’s easy to see why she’s attracted to Gerald but what on earth does she see also in that dull, untalented, incompetent Bob?

A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin Milne. Photo Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1926. rightsandimages@npg.org.uk

A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin Milne. Photo Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1926.

Maya Cantu’s fine, brief biography of Milne in the program quotes him as saying, “Every human is a mystery, and nobody knows the truth about anybody else.”  But if the audience hasn’t a clue about the characters and their inconsistencies, they drift off from engagement with the play.

With all its disappointments, The Lucky One has a magnificent episode near the end.  Gerald, having for once come out on the wrong side of winning, has a long speech in which he anguishes over the contrast between the rosy view people have of him and his inner insecurity and conflict.  Who knew?  Not Great Aunt Farrington, for sure, though she’s supposed to be an insight maven.  Still, it’s a beautifully written episode, magnificently inflected and performed by Robert David Grant as Gerald.  A true character change emerges before our eyes.

The Mint gives The Lucky One an appealing production in terms of set, costumes, and for the most part acting. Uncharacteristically for this brilliant theater company, the character of Bob is miscast and misdirected.  Milne fell short in giving Bob no distinguishing brilliance of wit or intellect to serve as a counterweight to Gerald’s glamour.  Still, the spastic movement and staring pop-eyed facial expressions Ari Brand adopts for the role make it all the harder to believe that Pamela could be possibly be attracted to him.  But then, we don’t have anything to go on where she’s concerned.

Milne was a prolific author and, as the program notes, was a highly successful playwright for many years before slipping from favor.  In 2004, the Mint produced what is said to be one of his best plays, Mr. Pim Passes By.  The Lucky One, first produced in 1922, is quite autobiographical:  sometimes that works for the author, sometimes not.  In any event, the best reason to see this play is to learn that A. A Milne, so well known as the author of Winnie-the-Pooh and other children’s stories, also wrote plays.

The Lucky One plays at the Beckett Theatre in Manhattan’s Theater Row on West 42nd Street through June 25th, 2017.  For more information and tickets,  click here.

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