Sunday, 19 November 2017

HARD TIMES FOR THESE TIMES at Lookingglass Theatre

     I remember having to read Charles Dickens' HARD TIMES as a college freshman. I have never been a Dickens fan. His coincidence-filled stories have never seemed credible to me. His characters are often cardboard. And there's the sentimentality. Give me George Eliot or Anthony Trollope any day but, please, don't make me read Dickens! Yet, over the years, Dickens has been the source of some brilliant theatrical adaptations. The novelist loved theatre and loved the conventions of Victorian drama--or should I say melodrama. His villains are villainous, his heroes and heroines virtuous and beset with troubles they nobly endure. They make fun theatre.
     HARD TIMES is a satire on rampant capitalism, utilitarianism and the fact-based education it espoused. Capitalist Mr. Bounderby, who professes to be a proud exemplar of rags-to-riches, is a ruthless materialist. He made his money the hard way and has no sympathy with the rights of his workers. With Bounderby's money Gradgrind has founded a school, run by Mr. McChoakumchild, which offers a totally fact-based education. There is to be no imagination, no creativity, no feeling. During the course of the novel and the play, we watch the effects of this education on Gradgrind's son and daughter and on the ruthless pragmatist, Bitzer. The school is set against a traveling circus where young Sissy was raised until she is taken into the school and into the Gradgrind home. Sissy fails at facts but excels at compassion. Add a noble laborer, his ailing wife and woman friend and you have a celebration of principle over pragmatism. The men are nasty, the women have heart. The play is an entertaining mishmash of story lines and one-dimensional characters. It's also based on Dickens's shortest novel, so easy to condense into two-and-a-half hours of stage time. It also seems particularly timely in the age of Trump. Bounderby's crass, vulgar personality and pride in his ignorance makes him kin to the current President. The current downturn in the popularity of humanities courses shows how "practical" knowledge is prized over creativity. Unlike the workers in HARD TIMES, many in the American working class have chosen to believe the propaganda of the plutocracy.
     Adapter and director Heidi Stillman has crafted an absorbing, entertaining theater piece out of HARD TIMES. The excellent circus work is a colorful foil to the polluted air and harsh world of the fictional northern English town in which the play takes place. The cast, most of whom play multiple roles, is uniformly fine. The movement of the simple sets is choreographed to be an essential part of the production. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Circle in the Square

     I tend to get notes from press representatives when I review a show in previews although I firmly believe a show is fair game when it charges an audience money to see it. ONCE ON THIS ISLAND didn't to do well on its first Broadway outing in 1990, but musical aficionados love the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Arenas score. The show is a kind of fairy tale set on a Caribbean island with a charming quasi-calypso score. The brilliant young director Michael Arden has cut the show to ninety minutes and made it more about storytelling as a group of islanders tell and enact the story for a young girl. The story is a romance of star-crossed lovers whose fates are sealed by the battling gods (goddesses, actually) of the island. It's a simple story but the telling couldn't be more inventively staged. Arden's production is an antidote to the impersonal Disney spectacles that have been the rage for the past twenty years. It would take a heart of stone not to be moved and charmed by Arden's production. The costumes here are clever but ragtag, the scene a few simple elements on a sandy beach. The show is performed in the Circle in the Square, a theatre-in-the round and Arden has used every inch of the space for his production. This is immersive theatre. The cast is uniformly excellent but I have to praise the amazingly talented Hailey Kilgore who plays the girl who is the central character in this romance. She's beautiful, she sings magnificently and is an amazing dancer. She's a star in the making but everyone is a joy to watch and hear.
     If I had kids, this is the Broadway show I would take them to. It's a celebration of the magic of theatre.

Michael Urie in Harvey Fierstein's TORCH SONG at Second Stage

     This is a season of revivals of the canonical American gay dramas. First Harvey Fierstein's somewhat shortened version of his TORCH SONG TRILOGY, which, after runs Off-off- and Off-Broadway,  ran a thousand performances on Broadway in the early 1980s and was made into a film. In 2018, the National Theatre of Great Britain's production of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA will play at the Neil Simon, followed by Mart Crowley's controversial picture of gay self-hatred, the 1968 play THE BOYS IN THE BAND, will come into the Booth with a cast of gay actors who have become stars including sitcom favorite Jim Parsons as the miserable Michael.
     TORCH SONG may have moved beyond being dated. We may wince at the backroom bar anal sex scene played for easy laughs, as if the AIDS crisis never happened, and be slightly discomfited in the light of all the Kevin Spacey revelations, at the lead character's love for a teenage boy in the second act. Fierstein's easy wit and Michael Urie's brilliance as a comic actor allow us to enjoy the ride through the life of a drag queen in the 1970s. There actually isn't any drag beyond the first few minutes, so "straight-looking and acting" gay men don't have to be uncomfortable with such violations of masculinity. What ensues in the almost three hours of the play is a pleasant combination of sitcom and seriousness. TORCH SONG TRILOGY is the gay version of good Neil Simon, the playwright who was still the king of Broadway when Fierstein wrote the play but has since gone out of fashion. FIerstein's weakness was his penchant for cloying sentimentality, which this production successfully overcomes. The many good lines are still very witty--it's still a very funny play.
     Basically,  TORCH SONG is three related one-act plays centering on ten years in Arnold Beckoff's (Urie), relationship with Ed, a bisexual man (Ward Horton). Each playlet is in a different style. The first is mostly alternating monologues of Arnold and Ed. The second, most inventive, depicts a weekend at the country house of Ed and his wife Laurel with Arnold and his new eighteen-year-old lover, Alan (Micael Rosen, gorgeous), a hustler turned model, as house guests. The third, more realistic in style, has Arnold battling with his mother (the magnificent Mercedes Ruehl), over his adoption of a fifteen-year-old gay boy, (Jack DiFalco (As my mother would say, I'd hate to be hanging since DiFalco was fifteen), and negotiating a relationship with Ed, who has left his wife.
     It's Arnold's play, one Fierstein wrote for himself to perform. Urie, a brilliant casting choice, is svelte where Fierstein was hefty, tenor where Fierstein was gravelly bass. The joke with Fierstein was that with that voice and figure he was an unlikely drag queen. Good-looking Urie makes a great drag queen. He's also a much better actor than Fierstein who was always more a "performer" than an actor. When Urie's Arnold explodes at his mother's homophobia, it's a real emotional explosion. He never wants pity, which Fierstein often demands. He wants to be respected and loved. Urie is both more sensitive and tougher than Fierstein. Going for the easy laugh is always a defense mechanism. Mercedes Ruehl wisely underplays the schtick as Arnold's monster mother (the original Mother was Estelle Getty who went on to play the mother in GOLDEN GIRLS, that favorite sitcom of gay men). She's less a monster than merely clueless. Ed is in a way a thankless role, a man without a sense of humor. At least, in this production, Ed isn't just a punching bag for Arnold, unlike unhappy bisexual Joe Pitt, the whipping boy for Kushner and his characters in ANGELS IN AMERICA, Ed is treated with some understanding in this production and Ward Horton makes a humorless character charming. The question in this production is not just "What does Arnold see it Ed?" but also "What does Ed see in Arnold?" Michael Rosen makes all he can of Alan's half hour on the stage. Jack DiFalco works a bit too hard as Arnold's adopted son. Moises Kaufman has given the play more depth than I have seen in previous incarnations.        
     This production gives TORCH SONG more substance than I have seen in other productions and Michael Urie, one of our best comic actors, gives another terrific performance.

J.B. Priestley's TIME AND THE CONWAYS at the Roundabout

     I saw  revival of this 1937 gem by British novelist, playwright and essayist J.B. Priestley at the National Theatre of Great Britain a few years ago and fell in love with the play. Priestley loved to begin his plays with a familiar genre, then turn everything on its head halfway through. Here we begin with a typical British drawing room drama. The time is 1917, the end of World War I, and one of the Conway daughters, Kay (Charlotte Parry), is celebrating her twenty-first birthday with her mother (Elizabeth McGovern), two sisters and two brothers. There are welcome friends like Joan Helford (Cara Ricketts) and the family lawyer (Alfredo Narcisco), who is smitten with the Conway matriarch and an unwelcome visitor, the ambitious Ernest Beevers (Steven Boyer), a working class man eager to move up in the society of this English town. Not much happens in Act I except introduction of the characters. Mrs. Conway is a charming monster who is brutally frank about the faults of her children and her preference for the youngest son Robin (Matthew James Thomas), who is charming but feckless. At the end of Act I in Rebecca Taichman's brilliant production, the set rolls back and another, less substantial version of the same living room descends from the fly loft. We are now in 1937 and we see what has become of all the characters. The family, now out of money, is anything but harmonious. Hazel (Anna Camp), has married Ernest, who treats her badly. Ernest, now the richest man in town, despises the Conway family who has treated him with snobbish contempt, and will not help them out of their dire financial straits. Robin has deserted his wife and children but still is the apple his mother's eye. Eldest son Alan (Gabriel Ebert),who still lives at home,  is content with his life as a bank clerk. This is what an upper-middle class family has come to during the depression and on the eve of World War II. At the end of the Act, Clare and Alan have a discussion about time--about how we don't live a linear progression from one moment to another. One can experience present and past or even present and future. Deja vu isn't a trick of the brain--it's being two places at once in time. Act III takes us back to 1917 and we see the events that will lead to the family collapse we see in Act II. Clare clearly has a vision of what this future will be as the play ends. Like a seer, she is in limbo between present and future.
     So the play is both a fascinating social satire and a philosophical rumination. It's brilliantly written and always intriguing. Rebecca Taichman, who so ingeniously directed Paula Vogel's INDECENT last year, has captured all of the play's dimensions and supported the actors' rich characterizations. Everyone is.excellent, particularly Gabriel Ebert as the unambitious Alan and Steven Boyer as the working class man on the way up. Ebert and Boyer are two of the best actors currently working today.  It's always exciting to watch them. I have never been impressed with Elizabeth McGovern's rather dull performances on the London stage but she is on fire here as a self-centered, impractical and not particularly loving matriarch, the opposite of her nice matriarch on Downton Abbey. Everyone else is fine, particularly Charlotte Parry as Kay, who grows from a debutante to a cynical woman of the world to a kind of visionary. Credit is due, too, to Neil Patel for his beautiful versions of the Conway drawing room--one realistic, the other more expressionistic.
     This is a fine production of a very special play.
     

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Menotti's THE CONSUL at the Chicago Opera Theater

     I haven't done many opera reviews on this blog so far but Menotti's THE CONSUL is a special case. It was first produced on Broadway in 1950. Perhaps the only revolutionary thing about Menotti was his desire to be a commercial opera composer. He was commissioned by NBC to write an opera for radio (THE OLD MAID AND THE THIEF) and for television (AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS), and many of his works were produced on Broadway (THE MEDIUM, THE TELEPHONE, THE SAINT OF BLEECKER STREET [his best work, I think] and MARIA GOLOVIN, which was also produced on television. It was only in later years that he wrote for opera houses.
     THE CONSUL was written at a time when Broadway was the site for works that blurred the lines between opera and the musical--Kurt Weill wrote STREET SCENE (with lyrics by Langston Hughes), in 1947. Marc Blitzstein's REGINA followed shortly after. Both works are now the province of opera houses and both deserve to be included in the standard repertoire. THE CONSUL has some good music but a turgid, dreadfully written libretto (also by Menotti). Everyone's English in the Chicago Opera Theatre's production could be heard perfectly but still we had surtitles and I couldn't take my eyes off of the awful, purple imagery and strained-to-the-breaking-point metaphors. The story is a real potboiler. The setting is some unnamed European police state. John Sorel has been a freedom fighter but has to leave the country or be killed. The opera focuses on his wife, Magda. Because of John's exile, the Magda and her mother live in stark poverty. Magda and John's baby dies of malnutrition. Many scenes are in the office of the consul of another country, perhaps the U.S., where a very punctilious secretary insists on correct paperwork from the group who want to leave the country (what's so awful about that?). Magda is desperate to leave but has a breakdown when she sees the secret police coming out of the consul's office. Have they told the consul not to let her go? There are further trials and tribulations and a couple of dream sequences. It's all silly, over-wrought and very repetitive. My husband was correct in saying that the work would have been more effective if it had been cut in half.
     Director Andreas Mitisek and designer Alan Muraoka have decided to present the opera as a kind of expressionist work with angular, distorted scenery and a giant, high desk from which the secretary rules her bit of bureaucracy. I'm afraid the approach to this piece of verismo only confused things more. The orchestra sounded scrappy but that may have been a result of the overly harsh acoustic of the Studebaker Theatre. Sounds don't blend in there. The raison d'ĂȘtre of the co-production with Long Beach Opera seems to be the presence of Patricia Racette as Magda. I was never the greatest fan of Racette's voice. She has been a favorite artist at the Met for a couple of decades and has specialized in verismo roles. At this stage of her career, the top has problems. In this over-wrought work perhaps one can pass off the spread notes as an excess of emotion. She's a game performer who was always dramatically involved but would have benefitted from a more coherent production. As the mother, Victoria Livengood got the best music and the most coherent role to play. I directed Livengood three decades ago as Rosina and Dorabella. She has moved from a being charismatic agile mezzo to a contralto specialist in character roles. She has the biggest voice of the cast and brought great authority and pathos to her role. The rest of the small cast was perfectly competent.
     This revival of THE CONSUL only showed that it is not a work that deserves revival.  There are far better works from this period that deserve to be seen and heard.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

CHOIR BOY by Tarrell Alvin McCraney at the Raven Theatre

     How does one react to being the brightest kid in the room and the most talented but also the most hated? How does one deal with the hate of others and the hate of oneself? That's the dilemma facing Pharus (Christopher W. Jones), a student at a Southern prep school for African-American boys. Pharus's way is to want to lead the most important arts institution at the school, the choir that sings at all the major school functions. Like many gay men of an earlier time, Pharus turns to the arts for self-expression and refuge. In the first scene of CHOIR BOY, Pharus, now a junior, sings the school song at the graduation ceremonies. He stops and turns around when his nemesis, Bobby (Patrick Agada), audibly whispers "faggot" and Bobby's friend Junior (Julian Terrell Otis), laughs. The rest of the ninety minute play gives us key moments of the year between graduations. Pharus' way of handling the homophobic sneers is to play the bitchy queen, returning nastiness for nastiness. Pharus keeps asking, "Which is better, to be feared or to be respected?" He wants the latter but feels that he has to settle for the former. He can be as cruel and insensitive as his enemies. Bobby and Junior represent the general attitude of the school toward "sissy" Pharus whose effeminacy is even a problem for his mother. He has some comfort from his kind roommate A.J. (Tamarus Harvell), and sex from an unlikely partner. There's a strict headmaster and an elderly white teacher who can't help spouting what we nowadays call microaggressions but who does have the boys' best interests at heart. There's another gay boy who can't deal with his gayness.
     CHOIR BOY is a beautifully written play that economically but richly offers us vivid pictures of its characters, particularly prickly Pharis, who reflexively employs the responses of embattled gay men, particularly effeminate ones -- lacerating wit and lots of irony. It's a fine play in its own right and also the best gay play of this century. Richness is added by the great a cappella numbers that separate scenes.
     The Raven Theatre's production, directed by Michael Menendian, was a good representation of the play with one crucial flaw. It was a mistake to dial back Pharis's effeminacy and prickliness. In many ways, Pharis is an old style queen. This makes him problematic for straight and gay audiences but I think the playwright wants us to confront our feelings about effeminacy and the performative responses to homophobia that gay men who can't look or act straight employ. In this production, Pharis is played as a nice guy who happens to be gay. Because of this, his character loses its arc from hostility to sensitivity in the penultimate scene with his loyal roommate. This is a major reservation but my only reservation about a fine performance from all the actors who also sing beautifully.
     An admirable performance of an excellent play.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

HIS GREATNESS by Daniel MacIver at Pride Films and Plays

     This is going to be a season of plays about Tennessee Williams in Chicago. In the Spring, the Raven Theatre will be producing Philip Dawkins' new play, THE GENTLEMAN CALLER about a meeting of Tennessee Williams and friend, rival and perhaps onetime lover, William Inge. Now at Pride Plays and Films, we have HIS GREATNESS, a well-crafted play about Tennessee Williams toward the end of his life; broke, depressed about the loss of his artistic power and desperate for spiritual and physical rejuvenation as well as a jump start to a failing career. Since Daniel MacIver is a Canadian playwright, it is not surprising that his play depicts Williams' visit to Vancouver in 1980. A theatre there is opening a new play of Williams--actually a revision of a recent script that failed in London. Williams (Danne W. Taylor), is there for the opening with his former lover who for fifteen years has been his assistant (Andrew Kain Miller). Actually, given Williams current psychological condition, the assistant is more of a caretaker to a self- destructive old man who is dependent on liquor and drugs to keep going. Their relationship is now like a bad marriage. Whatever love the assistant felt for the playwright has been lost but there is still a strong co-dependency. At one point the Assistant quotes Edward Albee, a gay playwright who was much more of a survivor than Williams. The relationship of Williams and assistant has become like something out of an Albee play.  Enter the gorgeous hustler (Whitman Johnson), the assistant has hired to be Williams' companion at the opening. Williams sees the hustler as a new muse who will rekindle his imagination and the hustler foolishly thinks he has just gotten aboard a gravy train. He turns out to be a male Eve Harrington and manages to drive a wedge between Williams and his assistant. Like Tom in THE GLASS MENAGERIE, the Assistant, who also narrates the play, finally has to courage to escape.
     Loneliness and financial desperation are the subjects of much of Williams work and MacIvor has given us a powerful picture of those forces at work in this Vancouver hotel room. In Vancouver Williams faces another horrible defeat but he is desperate to find a way back to life as an artist. One is reminded of that brilliant self-portrait of Williams, Alexandra del Lago in that Mississippi hotel room in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH with her beautiful hustler. You don't have to know anything about Williams to enjoy this picture of dreams and a soured relationship but the echoes of Williams' work are there.
     David Zak has been for decades the champion of gay drama in Chicago at Bailiwick Repertory and now at Pride Films and Plays. He has given the play the tone and rhythm it needs and gotten very good performances out of his actors. Danne W. Taylor and Andrew Kain Miller work well together as playwright and embittered assistant. This is a version of a bad marriage with both trying to break free but neither having anywhere to go. Handsome Whitman Johnson looks too healthy and needs some rough edges to be the hustler. He's a bit too sweet and refined but he captures the man's ruthlessness. Like Chance in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, he's getting too old to continue as a hustler and dreams of getting out.
     This production is well worth seeing. I was saddened by the very small audience last night. The play and production deserve a bigger audience.