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

Tag: Sean McNall

Review | And Away We Go by Terrence McNally | Directed by Jack Cummings III | World Premier | Pearl Theatre Company

… all the stage’s a world …

The back stage magic of And Away We Go makes me think of the wonderful song about a dogged and devoted itinerant theater group in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, “We Open In Venice” (“then on to Cremona …. and on to …. and on …”).  And Away We Go, too, is on the move — with the feel of a story about an equally valiant itinerant theater troupe only here the wanderings take them not just through Northern Italy but through time, back and forth.  This  imaginative, mind stretching extravaganza is beautifully pulled off by the Pearl Theatre group.

The play takes us behind the scenes from the Theater of Dionysos (not Dionysios as printed) in Ancient Athens to today, with stops at works-in-progress at the Globe in London and Versailles’s Royal Theater, and first productions of Chekhov and Beckett.  As we weave through time, through plays, and through personal as well as public dramas, the leading character is everywhere and anywhere the theater itself and the chancy, chaotic, demanding and disciplined process that makes plays happen.

An aspect that makes And Away We Go particularly strong is McNally’s inclusive vision of all who make “theater.”  Actors, directors, authors, mask makers, tech people, angels, artistic directors, food deliverers and audiences have roles.  No in-group snobbery here — fun is made of wannabe-a-part-of-it donors, and of everybody else — great fun, thanks to marvelous comic performers in the Pearl Theatre’s troupe!

There’s a total human inflection — theater as family, theater as loss of loved ones, theater as a tension between “advanced” plays and audiences who haven’t gotten there yet.

I wish that in roving through theater from antiquity, and from Russia to Coral Gables, Florida, McNally had included forays into the great theater traditions world wide.  I suppose “you can’t do everything,” but, in the spirit of what works and what doesn’t, the focus on the traditions you’d find in “A History of Western Theater” course came across as narrow.  I also found the AIDS episode seemed a somewhat forced inclusion.

In keeping with the joyous boisterous play, the set’s a riotous wonder of costumes, lights, manikins, and props — it’s a wonderful work of art in itself — and the costumes are entrancing.

At the start, each actor introduces himself or herself with personal and self-invented words — thus the theme that the great illusions are based on real people with specific lives and contexts is sounded — and never forgotten.  Since the play is a continuing flow of segues, it demands perfect timing, remarkable versatility on the part of the actors and comic and dramatic gifts.  Jack Cummings III firm hand on this non-linear romp through time and space is a directorial tour-de-force .

Micah Stock as the delivery man who doesn’t “get” Godot provides one among many comic high points.  Donna Lynn Champlin’s huge round eyes are hilariously expressive, whether she’s pushing a mop as a stolid Russian cleaning lady or catching up as a donor groupie in-love-with-theater.  Dominic Cuskern ranges with power and humor from a perfectionist mask maker in ancient Athens to perfectionist actor at Louise XIV’s Versailles — ever since I saw him as Malvolio in the Pearl’s Twelfth Night, I’ve thought of him as particularly outstanding in roles of men who take themselves too seriously.

Rachel Botcham is vibrant (as well as humorous — just about everything comes with a strong dose of humor) as the woman who wants to act on stage — in epochs when the idea of a female actor was an absurdity.  Carol Schultz is touching and instantly persuasive as, for instance, the Russian Countess who doesn’t want her association with a theater group known.  Sean McNall is energetic and touching in his roles as actor and actor’s lover.  These are just snippets — this play’s a feast!

The breadth of imagination of And Away We Go is invigorating.  This ambitious, perfectly fulfilled production is a fine evening of that challenging, joyous and essential aspect of existence — theater.

And Away We Go plays at the Pearl Theatre on Manhattan’s west side through December 15, 2013. Now extended through December 21, 2013.

Review | This Side of Neverland, Rosalind and The Twelve Pound Look | Two One-Act Plays by J. M. Barrie | Directed by J. R. Sullivan | Pearl Theatre Company

… beyond Peter Pan …

Best known now for Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie was a popular playwright in early 20th-century London and here’s a chance to see two of his witty and enjoyable comedies — about grown-ups.

The first of these, Rosalind, is a real gem.  A beautiful, popular actress has donned a shapeless housedress and floppy slippers, and lets her hair go, holed up in a rural boarding house where she takes on the persona of her own mother just to get away from it all, to find respite from her frenetic London life where she’s relentlessly the center of attention.

Having happily loosened her stays, she bothers to chat with no one except the amiable, ordinary owner of her boarding house, until coincidence draws to the boarding house one of her adoring London swains, an upper class recent university graduate.  Over the course of a revelatory conversation, he discovers that this frumpy, pleasant 40-year old he’s talking with is not the mother of the glorious young actress he fancies himself in love with but very the actress herself, whom he’s failed to recognize under her housecoat.  As she plays it for all it’s worth, he scrambles to figure out what to do with his ardor?  Be true to the 40-year old?  Or to his 23-year old self?   He believes in love.  He wants to do the right thing.  And what will happen when a telegram arrives offering the actress the role of Rosalind in As You Like It?

One thing is sure:  there will be a stunning transformation of a 40-year old frump into a dazzling 20-something … well, she’s actually 29:  Barrie takes care to keep the play totally plausible.

Rachel Botchan is enchanting as the dowdy “mother” and equally so as the glamorous young actress — she’s so amused, so in control — and her transformation from old and plain to young and glamorous (Miss Botchan looks beautiful both ways) is a powerful reminder, as Barrie surely intended it, of the joys and ironies of appearance and illusion.  I’ve seen Miss Botcham is several roles — she’s always compelling but here she’s a wonder.  Sean McNall brings his own amused charm to the double part of playwright Barrie moving in and out of the play and the young man in love.  As the boarding house owner, Carol Schultz is a solid foil of middle-aged realism for the actress whose life is a bouquet of possibilities — even at the “advanced age” of 29.

In the second play, The Twelve Pound Look, Sir Harry is about to be knighted, and both he and his wife, who is heavily loaded with bling, are delighted at the prospect.  Kate, a typist arrives to prepare his “thank you” letters and it turns out that she, through coincidence, is Sir Harry’s former wife, who’d left him years before.

Sir Harry is one of those men who cannot grasp why any woman upon whom he’s lavished everything costly, including his high position, would leave him (I wondered about it, too), but nevertheless he’s assumed all along that she left him for another man.  Who was he?  is the imperious question repeated in Harry’s accustomed-to-answers voice.  With some amusing game playing, the truth is revealed — she left Sir Harry not for a man but for a typewriter, cost 12 pounds, or more truly, she left him for the independence of making her own living.  It could happen.  But in this play it doesn’t ring true.

The Twelve Pound Look is nearer to farce than Rosalind.  This is not A Doll’s House, though it comes thirty years later than Ibsen’s iconic play of a married woman struggling for independence.  Still, The Twelve Pound Look is entertaining, and good to know about.  And the episode in which Sir Harry, before the adoring eyes of his wife, practices his moves for the ceremony of Knighthood is one of the great comic scenes, performed with flawless timing and wit by Bradford Cover.  Rachel Botchan — in another of her evening’s magic transformations — is appropriately peppery as Harry’s liberated ex-wife.  And Sean McNall, in the role of J. M. Barrie on-stage, conveys an author’s ironic distance and insight, while playing also a punctilious butler.

Live piano with tunes like “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” performed by Carol Schultz, send us pleasantly to the past.  And, for its own touch of the past, a stage curtain is used in This Side of Neverland.  I love the immediacy of current plays with stages open to the audience but the curtain opening onto that other world of the imagination is a pleasure of its own.

This Side of Neverland  plays at The Pearl Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through May 19th now extended through May 26th.

Review | Henry IV Part 1 by William Shakespeare | Directed by Davis McCallum | Pearl Theatre Company

If you’ve never seen Henry IV Part 1, the Pearl’s production will bring you close to it and if you’ve seen it before you’ll love it all over again.

This last assumes you’ve loved it in the past which is probable because it’s one of Shakespeare’s best loved plays, for good reasons.  Among them, it’s hilarious.  Falstaff is so vivid and original a character, so complex and real, that it’s hard to believe he’s a creative invention;  and, in the character of Prince Hal, the play deals with issues of fundamental fascination and importance for all of us, growth to maturity.

The play moves between the broad canvas of politics and war–a Scottish rebellion against King Henry IV–to the intimate–father and son, husband and wife, and that unforgettable friendship that doesn’t quite fall into any one category between Hal and Falstaff.

What makes this so delightful a production of Henry IV Part I  is Dan Daily as Falstaff.  He’s superb—big bellied, of course, taller than anybody else around, with the vitality, wit joie de vivre and touch of sultry wickedness one wants in the character.  He’s an epicurean, with the allure and paradoxes that idea contains.  It’s fascinating to see this large man–and I mean really large–completely light on his feet, leaping on a table, doing a jig.  One sees and feels Falstaff’s thoughts–calculating or willful, assertive or accepting of a reversal–for a compelling cognitive instant before he speaks.

The question of Prince Hal’s maturity makes one pause, though.  What does it really mean in this particular play?  We meet Hal as a a wayward libertine under Falstaff’s spell, but that changes when his royal father is faced with imminent war.  Then Hal buckles down, putting his easy pleasures aside to support his father’s cause and become a fighter.  One could call this “taking on responsibility.”  Or one can question human purposes, and the meaning of responsibility.

Bradford Cover as King Henry IV conveys the tension in this powerful personality aswarm with conflicts:  his threatened yet adamant royal authority, and his disappointment with his pleasure loving son melded with underlying love.  Shawn Fagan captures the eruptive and wry personality of Hotspur, though the character could use more physical heft.  John Brummer is less original as the libertine and then chastened Prince Hal.  He isn’t Daily’s match, which limits the rapport between Hal and Falstaff.  As the Scottish rebel Douglas, Sean McNall gets the prize for the most authentic and charming Scottish accent.

Though not usually my favorites, the battle scenes in this production are a high point, staged with passionate and convincing one-on-one duels, metal on metal.  They’ve been  exhaustively rehearsed to the point of total actors’ ease, so the fights seem completely spontaneous.

Above all, though, this Henry IV Part 1  is about Dan Daily’s Falstaff, which I think Shakespeare would have enjoyed.  I sure did.

Henry IV Part 1  plays at the Pearl Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through March 17th.

Review | Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw | Directed by Jeff Steiter | Pearl Theatre Company

.. an update on Hypatia …

What a lark!  What delicious wit!  What a pleasure to see the Pearl’s production of Shaw’s Misalliance!  It would be hard to have a better time.
All the events of Misalliancetake place one summer day in the conservatory of the Tarletons’ English country mansion.  John Tarleton has made a fortune in underwear, “rags-to-riches” you might say, yet in this play written in 1909 one of his guests is a British Lord, along with the Lord’s son who wants to marry Tarleton’s daughter, Hypatia.  Thus one of the themes of the play is about the new melding among the classes in England, as the upper class gets poorer and the upper middle class gets richer and buys them out.

The name, Hypatia, is a clue to another theme, women’s struggle for independence and the opportunity to engage in meaningful activities in the world at large — to have a career.  Hypatia is a feminist exemplar from the ancient world, a philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, inventory, administrator and lecturer in Alexandria, Egypt, tragically murdered as a heretic and for not knowing her place as a woman.  We find out quickly Hypatia Tarleton is longing for some unformulated adventure to fall from the sky and free her from her penned-in existence.  Unlike the earlier Hypatia, though, she doesn’t dress mannishly like a scholar:  she’s delicate, pretty, and aware of her feminine allure so romance — as well as ideas — are in the air.  She selects her husband — not the other way around — so in that, at least, she’s one of Shaw’s “new women.”

And who has named her “Hypatia,” her father, of course, who can’t help making money but is also a great reader, drenched in the world of ideas, and ready to suggest at the drop of a hat which author you’d best read to solve whatever your current dilemma might be … until in a critical moment in his own life it occurs to him what he should read, in one of the most amusing lines in all theater.  To think of how Shaw leads up to that moment is thrilling!  John Tarleton, big, blustering, rich, sensuous, realistic and idealistic is a great character, and holds the play together — one doesn’t want to lose him, and Dan Daily plays the part to a T.  The moment the play was over I wanted to see it again — to spend more time with John Tarleton, and see what author to fit what life issue he would come up with next.

The physically weak but brainy aristocrat’s son, Bentley Summerhays, is played off against the no nonsense, fist ready Johnny Tarleton … but Johnny has his sensitivities, too.  No character is two-dimensional.  Of the women, Mrs. Tarleton comes closest to seeming like an old-fashioned, nurturing, well-domesticized wife but she goes along with that radical new idea — an open marriage!  The advent of three newcomers — two of whom actually do fall from the sky in what is surely the first plan crash in theater sets the plot in motion.  Joey Percival and Lina Szczepanowska (what fun Shaw — and the characters — have with pronouncing that name) bring various and inventive new love interest, Lina an archetypal tough career women in boots with a sexy Eastern European accent.   The Man who enters this garden of earthly delights near the end of Act I, the product of one of John Tarleton’s flings with the women in his factory, does his part as the representative of the embittered lower classes, but he’s tenderly co-opted by Mrs. Tarleton, for all his anarchist fury.  In Misalliance, the manufacturing Middle Class is winner-take-all.

The play has a few loose ends but why complain in the face of Shaw’s wonderful stream of characters and wit … or was I co-opted by wit?  I don’t care — it’s a total delight!

Misalliance plays at City Center’s Theater 2, in midtown Manhattan, through January 24th.

Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Jeff Steiter, the Pearl Theatre Company

L-R:  Dan Daily (John Tarleton), Lee Stark (Hypatia Tarleton), and Sean McNall (The Man). Photo by Sam Hough

Review | Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge | Directed by J. R. Sullivan | Pearl Theatre Company

… not all ‘classics’ are classic …

J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is an overrated classic. It’s a well constructed play hinging on a preposterous idea: that an entire isolated Irish village, particularly the women, would become totally infatuated with a young man who appears suddenly among them because, according to him, he killed his father in an act of rage. It doesn’t hold water.

No wonder the Irish were enraged when it first played at the Abbey Theatre in 1907: this characterization of the Irish villagers, by the well born and highly educated Irish playwright, is early modern primitivizing — Gauguin in the South Seas — with the remote villagers the “natives,” whom Synge depicts as gullible and violent as if that adds up to some kind of naive purity. It was the literary avant garde, not the Irish populace whose spirit Synge claimed to celebrate, that nudged Playboy into the modern canon. No wonder it doesn’t hold up well today, even when given an earnest and competent production by Pearl Theatre.

The down and out young man who arrives in town, Christy Mahon, embellishes his tale of patricide as he sees the enchantment it casts on his listeners, particularly Pegeen Mike, the pub owner’s daughter whom he plans to marry, with all the promise of security and prosperity that good match holds for him. Things fall into place so well for him that Christy only wishes he’d “killed his father sooner.” Augmenting his larger-than-life image in the village, he also begins to win horse races, though these take place off-stage and are puzzling rather than convincing for the audience. But the villagers go gaga.

Ultimately Christy has his great comedown. It turns out he’s no dashing superman but a wimp, dominated by a very large and brutal father who appears in town quite alive, much to everyone’s amazement, with only a bloody head wound from Christy’s blow. To salvage his reputation Christy tries to kill him a few more times but the father just won’t go down, heightening Christy’s humiliation. Unable to kill him, Christy finally leaves town with him, having reached a degree of father-son understanding. Since this is a “well made play,” Pegeen Mike changes, too: after having turned on him in a particularly horrible way, she loses him totally, emerging with a deeper though now hopeless love.

Sean McNall as Christy, who recently gave a memorable performance as the sensitive, indecisive narrator in Tennessee William’s Vieux Carre, isn’t convincing as Playboy’s swashbuckling liar. Lee Stark is the charming and feisty pub owner’s daughter who falls in love with Christy; and the open flirtatiousness of all the girls is an interesting counterpoint to the mature sexuality of Widow Quin, played by Rachel Botcham. All the actors do a good job of capturing Synge’s Irish language but in the rough and tumble of the play, a lot of words are missed. In general, the play is at its best when the ordinary moments of living are taking place, not in the moments of excess.

The Pearl Theatre has just moved from a proscenium theater to this one with seats on three sides but Playboy was staged to the center as if still in the old theater. I imagine as they warm up to it they’ll do more with the exciting possibilities of the audience surrounding the playing area.

The Playboy of the Western World plays at New York City Center, Theater II, through November 22.

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