Tuesday, 31 December 2013


     Shortly before the show began, I hear a young woman behind me ask her father, "OK, fill me in on who Bacharach is." If you asked me who the current pop or hiphop star is, I probably would draw a blank, so I shouldn't be surprised at this young woman's question. Burt Bacharach is very much a product of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, associated particularly with the wonderful voice of Dionne Warwick. There was one Broadway musical, PROMISES PROMISES, and a lot of hit songs from movies, particularly "What's New, Pussycat" and "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." I particularly love his zany score for the 1960s oddball version of CASINO ROYALE, including "The Look of Love." Bacharach's work looked back more than forward. It is't rock, though it definitely had a beat. Most of all, it had a unique sound.
      What Kyle Riabko has done in WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT is to give Bacharach a contemporary sound. He and six versatile young singer-instrumentalists playing a variety of acoustic and electronic instruments (none of the brass and sax one associates with Bacharach), give these wonderful songs a new sound, sometimes folksy, sometimes rocking. However, the most masterful aspect of Riabko's work (with David Lane Seltzer) is to take two dozen or so Bacharach songs and turn them into a song cycle with a clear narrative of love, loss and recovery. There's no ironizing here. Riabko and his colleagues seem to love this music. Of course, the narrative Riabko gives these songs is possible because of the brilliance of Hal David's lyrics. I guess I never thought about David when I listened to Bacharach. Some of the lyrics are pop nonsense ("Do You Know the Way to San Jose"), but many of them are good storytelling. WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT simply wouldn't work without the excellence of David's lyrics. They make it possible to create a story out of these songs.
     Yes, this is another "greatest hits" show, but it is a masterful one, even, surprisingly, deeply moving. Riabko's arrangements are varied and excellent. He and his fellow performers are virtuosic and charming. Steven Hoggett has created staging that is quite elaborate but seems simple and natural. The set design (Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis) first looks like a warehouse of grubby used furniture (some of the audience sit on old sofas onstage), but transforms into magical effects, enhanced by Japhy Weideman's imaginative lighting design, which cleverly uses dozens of table and floor lamps in addition to conventional theatrical lighting. The show begins with that low-tech look of New York Theatre Workshop productions, but becomes quite elaborate. It looks informal and improvised, but is really a brilliantly constructed theatre piece.
     The final encore takes place out on 4th Street as the audience leaves the theatre. I won't give away the surprise, but it is the capstone of a delightful evening.
     After seeing WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, I'm going to revise my Top Ten List. I'd love to see it again.
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT: BACHARACH REIMAGINED. New York Theatre Workshop. December 30, 2013.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Julie Taymor's production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the new Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre

     After watching scores of Shakespeare productions, as well as teaching and directing Shakespeare for decades, I have a clear philosophy about contemporary Shakespearean production. Though the acting is usually excellent, particularly after Dominic Dromgoole took the artistic reins from Mark Rylance, I don't like the approach toward Shakespeare exemplified by the productions at Shakespeare's Globe in London. I think the interplay with the audience can be very effective, but all the Elizabethan drag just places Shakespeare's work in some other world. We can look and enjoy, but we don't have to think about it. I prefer productions of Shakespeare that are geared to expressing what the play is about for us in the twenty-first century. Shakespeare should be both timeless -- not necessarily rooted in his historical past -- but also timely. If I think about great Shakespearean productions I have seen recently, I recall Nicholas Hytner's production of HAMLET with Rory Kinnear, for instance, a production that not only set the play in the present, but also made us see its title character in a new way. A production of Shakespeare doesn't have to be set in the present, but it should make its audience think about the play, not merely watch it. Of course, however one does the play, it needs to be spoken well. Everything one needs in Shakespeare is in the language.
     Julie Taymor's new production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, now on view at the brand new Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre in Brooklyn (the new home of Theatre for a New Audience), is without doubt the most visually beautiful production of Shakespeare I have ever seen. From beginning to end, one is surprised and awed by gorgeous visual effects, all at the service of the play. Es Devlin's simple but visually arresting sets, Constance Hoffman's costumes, Sven Ortel's projections, Donald Holder's lighting -- all of these elements cohered in Taymor's appropriately dreamlike and often scary production. This was far from a mindless, ornamental production. Taymor had clear ideas about the play. The woods at night was a place where chaos could and did break out at any point. The central character in Taymor's vision of the play is Puck, the central agent of chaos. Played by the androgynous, amazingly flexible British actress Kathryn Hunter with a croaky voice and a body that can do just about anything, Hunter is the agent of magic, which can be good or bad. Fairies, after all, were mischievous creatures. The army of fairies -- called Rude Elementals --  are played by twenty or so talented children.
     Every moment in this production is clear story-telling. Time is relative. If Theseus and his court seem to be of a different time, Bottom (Max Casella) and his fellow actors are definitely from Brooklyn or a nearby borough. Oberon (David Harewood) and Titania (Tina Benko) are definitely from another realm. Trap doors and stage elevators as well as some magical aerial effects underscore the difference between the earthbound mortals and the non-humans who rule the woods. Emotional stakes are always high in this production as they should be.
     Shakespeare demands large casts (though in his time thirteen or so actors played multiple roles), and acting in Shakespearean productions on either side of the Atantic is seldom consistently excellent. In the United States, this is in part because young actors don't get enough chance to play classical roles in training or in their early careers. Duke, where I taught for eons, hasn't mounted a full Shakespearean production since I retired in 2008. Any good training program should mount a Shakespeare production at least every other year. It is not surprising that this cast had actors with less technique than others. This was particularly evident in the four young lovers. Demetrius and Helena (Zack Appleman and Mandi Masden) simply had better control over their voices and bodies than Hermia and Lysander (Lilly Englert and Jake Horowitz). I'm not always crazy about Kathryn Hunter's acting, but she was perfect as Puck. Veteran British actor David Harewood and Tina Benko brought both power and sensuality to Oberon and Titania. I was particularly impressed with Nick Bottom and his cohorts who found affecting contemporary counterparts for their characters, and who played the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe honestly instead of obviously playing it for laughs. Zachary Infante, acting Young Francis Flute who is assigned the role of Thisbe, actually performed the tragic heroine as if he were playing Juliet, a surprising and moving choice.
     I like to be surprised by a revival of a classic, but also feel that the surprises are justified by the text. From beginning to end, Taymor's DREAM was surprising, but also an act of understanding and love for this oft-performed play. Awesome.
     The design for the brand new Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre, right across the street from BAM in Brooklyn, has obviously been influenced by the former Cottesloe Theatre of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon, though this theatre is more intimate than these spaces. The audience sits on three sides of a deep thrust stage. There are two balconies, each with one row of seats (elevators for those who can't handle the stairs). Everyone has an excellent view of the stage. The lobby areas could be a bit roomier, but this is an important new theatre. Taymor's DREAM gave it the opening production it deserves.
 A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre. December 28, 2013.

Friday, 27 December 2013

MY TOP ELEVEN (Well, really twelve) OF 2013

In no particular order:
While I totally enjoyed KINKY BOOTS, there are only two musicals that I thought were really brilliant in 2013, all products of downtown non-profits.
     FUN HOME. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's brilliant musical about celebrating one's sexuality and dealing with the death of one's father is brilliantly written, composed and performed. Far and away the best musical of the year -- probably the best musical in many years.
     HERE LIES LOVE. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's techno, disco musical about Imelda Marcos was a successful experiment with totally immersive theatre.
      WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT: BACHARACH REIMAGINED (New York Theatre Workshop). In general, I'm skeptical of jukebox musicals. This one, however, takes the wonderful songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David and turns them into a moving song cycle of love, loss and recovery. Kyle Riabko's arrangements are surprising and winning and he and his troupe of young singer-instrumentalists are impressive and winning. I came away with a new respect for Hal David as a lyricist.

     After years of seeing revivals of classics in London, I now try to catch most of the new work in New York. I'm not so interested in revivals, but…..
      ALL THAT FALL (59E59). Trevor Nunn found an effective way to stage this Samuel Beckett radio play and Eileen Atkins gave one of the best performances of the year.
     THE GLASS MENAGERIE (Broadway). John Tiffany's brilliant rethinking of the Tennessee Williams classic is both intelligent and deeply moving. Everyone -- Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith -- is superb. I've seen this great play at least a dozen times. This is the best version by far.
     A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre). Julie Taymor's beautiful production is visually ravishing but, surprisingly, a coherent, intelligent take on the oft-performed classic. The first production in the beautiful new headquarters of Theatre for a New Audience.

I wish the list of excellent new plays were longer. This has not been a banner year for new work.
     CHOIR BOY (Alliance Theatre, Atlanta). Tarrell Alvin McCraney's music-filled tale of a gay boy leading the choir at a prep school for African-American boys is more a study of friendship than of prejudice. A lovely play.
     BUYER AND CELLAR (Rattlestick). I'm not usually a fan of one-person shows, but Jonathan Tolins's delightful comedy about a gay man hired to staff Barbra's private shopping mall is sheer delight. Michael Urie is absolutely charming as the protagonist, his bitchy boyfriend, Barbra, her husband, and a few other characters. I've seen it twice and would go back. I'm happy to see that it is on most critics' ten best lists. It deserves to be.
     OLD FRIENDS (Signature). Horton Foote's study of the bickering elite of a small Southern town is good, old-fashioned playwriting performed brilliantly by a terrific cast led by Betty Buckley as a fascinating monster. Great acting all-round.
     FROM WHITE PLAINS (Fault Line Theatre at the Signature). Michael Perlman's well-crafted play shows us the aftermath of teenage bullying. Ten years later, a talented gay film-maker cannot get over the suicide of his high school best friend. Unfortunately he can't see how he is now being a bully.
AND HONORABLE MENTION TO -- TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY ((Roundabout). One is left with a few too many unanswered questions, but Meghan Kennedy's play is deeply moving and eloquently written. The four actors couldn't be better, particularly James Rebhorn, who give us a harrowing picture of a man sinking into dementia.



     Like most of the recent plays I have seen at Playwrights Horizons, Madeleine George's THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE falls in the "interesting but flawed" category. Her model seems to be Tom Stoppard's historical fantasias (like ARCADIA and TRAVESTIES) that blend different historical eras, but not all of George's historical eras really blend well. While Stoppard can write brilliantly witty long speeches that are fascinating, George writes long speeches that are just long. She doesn't have Stoppard's wit or his facility with language. Moreover, like the rants of garrulous drunks, the harangues tend to go off in tangents rather than stay on topic. Every time one of her characters goes into rant mode, and they often do, one feels the speeches are twice as long as they need to be. But, yes, there is an interesting play in there trying to get out.
     Through its use of three actors playing a variety of characters with the same names: Eliza (Amanda Quaid), Watson (John Ellison Conlee) and Merrick (David Constabile), George dramatizes our need for and fear of complicated human connection and emotions, particularly the messy complex of feelings we call love. The key phrase is the first sentence ever uttered on a telephone, "Come here, Watson, I need you" (or was it "Come here, Watson, I need to see you"?). Watson was the devoted servant, willing to sacrifice his needs to those of the famous inventor. Watson is also the devoted friend, assistant and chronicler of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Attempting to be a sleuth without Holmes, Watson is totally inept. In our own era, Watson is the computer that became a contestant on JEOPARDY, but can such a computer ever replace a human being?
     The central character is not Watson but Eliza, a brilliant expert on artificial intelligence, who wants to develop a computer that can really meet a person's emotional needs -- that can replace the need for human companionship. Eliza has just cut off all relations with her husband. She won't answer his phone calls or emails. When we first see her, she is trying to explain her feelings to Watson, the computer. Of course, her emotions don't compute. He can't help. When her angry, jealous husband asks a computer repairman named Watson to spy on Eliza, things really go awry. Yes, one might ask why he doesn't hire a detective, but THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE is filled with such lapses in logic that pull one away from involvement in the action. Are they examples of the alienation effect or just sloppy playwriting? At any rate, this Watson, like Holmes's friend, is a terrible sleuth. Eliza confronts him and they end up falling in love. Eliza is immediately attracted to him when he echoes her computer, "I'm just trying to give you what you need." Unfortunately, the overpowering feelings of love terrify Eliza. Meanwhile, back in Victorian England, Holmes's Watson follows a man who is trying to create a mechanical, totally compliant simulacrum of his wife, Eliza, that will only serve his will. See, neither men nor women can deal with a real relationship with another person.
     The scenes with Eliza and her mechanical and human Watsons are well written and absorbing. The Victorian and contemporary husbands are the most serious problem. Poor David Constabile has been given these long winded speeches that are merely tiresome. Because Merrick is more a mouthpiece than a character, the final scene between him and Eliza isn't as conclusive as it should be.
     Leigh Silverman's production moves the play along, though THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE, like so many Playwrights Horizons offerings, would be better if it were shorter. The split-second costume changes are virtuosic. Amanda Quaid is wonderful as Eliza. Conlee, who at times bears an uncanny resemblance to the British character actor Jim Broadbent, is charming. Poor David Constabile does what he can with the turgid prose he has been given.
      Not a great play, but one that has enjoyable, absorbing moments.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE. Playwrights Horizons, December 26, 2013.    

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Dennis Kelly's TAKING CARE OF BABY at the Manhattan Theatre Club Stage 2

     In the manner of the best British contemporary television drama, Dennis Kelly's fascinating play, TAKING CARE OF BABY, combines two stories that seen too disparate to mix. One is the "did she or didn't she" story of a young woman accusing of killing her two small children, then being exonerated. Did she kill them? If she did, was it because of a mental disease? Was it a mistake to free her? Certainly Donna (Kristen Bush) is unstable with moments of being totally unhinged. The second narrative focuses on the rise of  Lynn (Margaret Colin), a very savvy female politician. On one hand, these narratives are linked because Lynn is Donna's mother and Lynn has used the media attention of Donna's trial, imprisonment and exoneration to her own benefit. Is Lynn the devoted mother she seems to be or a bit of a monster? Her son died of a drug overdose, so if Lynn hasn't killed her children, she may be a source of their problems. Donna is certainly eager to get away from her. Television would interweave these yarns to create an effective melodrama, which Kelly deftly does; but Kelly has a larger topic -- truth. Dr. Millard, a smug psychiatrist, tells the audience that human beings can tell truth from lies, but sometimes choose not to. He also states that the cause of much contemporary malaise is our being swamped by falsehood. We're much more content if we can believe what we hear, but can we do that anymore? Politicians like Lynn lie. Journalists lie. Psychiatrists lie. Parents lie. We all know it. How do we live with it?
      To emphasize this idea, TAKING CARE OF BABY is presented as if it were one of those docudramas in which facts are edited, condensed and reshaped to make an effective theatre piece (another falsification). As in many of these works, the actors come on stage and seat themselves in a row of chairs. A voice repeatedly tells us that what we will see is the truth with only the names changed. But is anyone in the play capable of telling the truth? Donna's ex-husband insists that he only answer an interviewer's questions with "yes" or "no," but ultimately this is impossible. What does that say about courtroom procedure? Lynn is offered a place as the Republican's candidate and turns it down ("I'd rather eat broken glass"), thus winning the hearts of a New York liberal audience. Ultimately she accepts the Democrat's nomination and wins, but does just what the Republicans wanted anyway. The scenes of political doublespeak are particularly brilliant.
     TAKING CARE OF BABY is intelligent, funny in places, but also unsettling. It is spot on about the world we live in -- about the lies we choose to live with. Director Erica Schmidt has captured just the right tone and tempo for the play and the eight member cast couldn't be better, particularly Bush and Colin.
     Well worth seeing.
TAKING CARE OF BABY. Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II, December 4, 2013

EVERY DAY A VISITOR at the Harold Clurman Theatre

     When one looks at the demographics of the New York theatre audience these days (mostly senior at the non-profits), one can lament the future of serious drama, but one can also wonder why there aren't more plays about the lives of senior citizens. This year we have TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY, a lovely picture of grief at the end of a long, loving marriage and Samuel Beckett's ALL THAT FALL, giving us a loving, crotchety elderly couple facing the usual Beckett bleakness. Over the past few seasons, the Manhattan Theatre Club, which seems to specialize in plays about troubled middle-aged women, has given us the occasional widowed mother of the heroine. Are there no dramas in the lives of us seniors in the audience? Perhaps we don't want to see our lives on stage.
       What about the denizens of those warehouses known as retirement homes. Richard Abrons' EVERY DAY A VISITOR, an adaptation of a short story he wrote some years ago (the play was first produced in 2000), gives us a particularly bleak version of such a home. This Jewish retirement home is somewhere in the Bronx surrounded by a neighborhood that has gone downhill. The home, too, is in bad shape. There are few residents and the management is scrimping on the heat and the food -- lots of beans and cabbage rather than a balanced diet, leading to too many senior fart jokes. Indeed what we get in this play is a compendium of  comic senior types: the oversexed lady (a Jewish Betty White), the very ladylike farter, the deaf one who mishears everything, the hot-tempered Italian, the Black orderly. We see these folks attempting to playing bridge in the common room -- arguing overwhelms the game. The gimmick here is that suddenly the residents decide to take on alter egos -- Henry Kissinger, Bella Abzug, Fiorello LaGuardia -- people in powerful positions. Playing this game allows them to take some control over their lives. They argue less and become a community, this staving off individual loneliness.
     No one in the small audience found the stereotypical humor very funny. I found it difficult to care a lot about what was going on on stage. The transition to the "game" seemed too abrupt in part because characters had not been established well enough. Perhaps this is part of the problem the play is trying to deal with -- the diminution of personality in these institutions, the loss of self. I see it when the busloads of seniors arrive at my local supermarket. They seem anesthetized. There must be a way to dramatize this in an interesting way. Despite the energetic performances of the cast, I found EVERY DAY A VISITOR dull.
EVERY DAY A VISITOR. Harold Clurman Theatre. December 3, 2013.  


Monday, 2 December 2013

Herman Cornejo, Alessandra Ferri and Amy Irving in MARTHA CLARKE'S CHERI at the Signature Theatre

     Martha Clarke's CHERI is an adaptation of Colette's 1920 novel about the six-year affair of a young man (18 when the affair starts) and Lea, his mother's forty-something best friend. The affair ends when the young man, nicknamed Cheri, enters a "good" marriage arranged by his mother. Six months later, realizing he felt more deeply for Lea than he thought, he sleeps with her once more, but in the morning light realizes how much they are separated by age. In a sequel, Colette depicted Cheri's return from the war. Psychologically scarred, he finally commits suicide. Dance sequences between Cheri and Lea, played by ballet stars Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri, are separated by speeches by Cheri's mother (Amy Irving), which give some narrative context. The dance sequences are set to piano music of the period (mostly Ravel, I believe) played by Sarah Rothenberg.
      How is one supposed to evaluate this work, being performed in a theatre that celebrates playwrights' words? This is a dance piece and can only be evaluated on the basis of its choreography. After all, it's Martha Clarke on the Signature Theatre Playbill cover, where a playwright's picture usually appears.
      I am a dance fan, but ballet gets into murky territory when it tries to recreate specific psychological states that require words. Once in a while, as in Frederick Ashton's setting of Turgenev's A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, one sees a ballet that gives us some sense of what is going on in the heads, as well as the hearts, of its characters. As a rule that takes words and the kind of facial acting ballet dancers aren't always good at. Now Herman Cornejo is a handsome man with a very expressive face. I kept thinking this guy could have a second career as an actor (he's thirty-two, not a young man in dancer's years). His face shows us Cheri's changing moods while Ferri, alas, has that relatively blank ballerina face and, like most dancers, acts only with her body.
      The problems with Cheri cannot be blamed on the dancers. I'm not sure it was a viable idea to begin with. Each episode between Cheri and Lea was supposed to show a different facet of their relationship, but the choreography was too much the same. Cheri would lift, carry and whirl Lea around in the same steps over and over, ending, usually on the bed. There was little differentiation except the most general -- some moments seemed happy, some sad -- but for the work to be interesting we need more differentiation than that. Clarke used the space well, but her work was too repetitive. Nor did it show off Cornejo's virtuosity. Anyone who attends American Ballet Theatre performances knows that Cornejo is a spectacular dancer who can leap and twirl in breathtaking ways. His only rival is the young Russian, Daniil Simkin. Like Simkin, Cornejo is short even for a dancer, but can be an excellent partner. One waits, however, for his solo moments in which he can really show his stuff. For dance fans, Cornejo seems wasted lifting and carrying Ferri around for an hour. Finally, at the very end, he gets a solo that shows some of his abilities. Ferri looks older as she must, and still has the sylphlike grace that made her special. However, the brief narration speaks of her joie de vivre and all we see is melancholy, which is more Clarke's fault than Ferri's. Irving, playing Cheri's grande dame mother, has a total of abut six minutes of stage time, offering just enough language (written by Tina Howe) to give the dances some context, but the dances don't really dramatize Colette's work.
     David Zinn's set evokes a Paris apartment of the period and Chrisopher Akerland's lighting gives us the variety of mood lacking in the choreography.
CHERI. The Pershing Square Signature Center. December 1, 2013.