Wednesday, 27 September 2017

HAMILTON in Chicago

     Since I saw HAMILTON at the Public Theatre a few years ago, the show has become a phenomenon. The first best-selling cast album in decades. Ridiculously inflated ticket prices. For almost a year now, the show has a second company playing an unlimited sellout run in Chicago. I wondered whether, in the face of all the hype, the show would look as good to me as it did at the Public. The answer is a resounding yes. HAMILTON is one of the great works of the American musical theatre. The music and lyrics are brilliant and Thomas Kail's production with Andy Blankenbuehler's almost constant choreography perfectly complement the score. Special mention also goes to Howell Binkley's lighting design. HAMILTON is a perfect example of what Wagner called Gesamptkunstwerk--a unified work of theater in which all the elements perfectly coalesce.
     Overall, I found the Chicago company to be on a par with the original New York cast. I thought Miguel Cervantes brought more to the title role than Lin Manuel Miranda did. He has a better singing voice and is a better actor. Miranda gave you Miranda playing Hamilton; Cervantes gives you Hamilton. If only his Burr, Gregory Treco, was as good. I don't know if Treco was having an off-night, but he was a dull Burr, nowhere near as powerful as the charismatic Leslie Odom was in New York. Everyone else was on a par with the original cast.
     With HAMILTON playing in the old Shubert, now the CIBC Theatre, and FUN HOME at Victory Gardens, Chicagoans can see the two best musicals of this century.

Monday, 25 September 2017

THE REMBRANDT by Jessica Dickey at Steppenwolf

     The Rembrandt is a lovely meditation on mortality and art. Henry (Francis Guinan), a former prep school art history teacher is a museum guard. His dedication to his job and his love for the art keeps him from thinking constantly about his partner Simon, who is dying of cancer. On this Monday morning, Henry has to mentor Dodger (Ty Olwin), a new young guard whose primary vocation is creating graffiti on public buildings. He also has to watch over Madeline (Karen Rodriguez), a young woman assigned to copy Rembrandt's "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer," for an art class. Madeline is grieving the recent death of her beloved grandmother and may be getting sick herself. Dodger, heavily tattooed and sporting a Mohawk haircut, has a peculiar idea of the duties of a museum guard. He goads Henry and Madeline into touching the painting. Dodger believes that people in museums are to disconnected from the art. Henry and Madeline know that Dodger's dares are crazy and destructive but the temptation is too great. Touching the painting moves the play into a different realm. Suddenly we are in Rembrandt's studio. Is this some magical transport or Henry's fantasy? Henry has become Rembrandt, Madeline his maid turned mistress, and Dodger his adoring, nagging son who worries constantly about his father's penury and his mortality. Rembrandt touches the plaster bust of Homer in his studio and the Greek poet appears (John Mahoney), to deliver a long monologue on poetry and mortality. Is it really Homer or is it Henry's terminally ill lover, a celebrated poet himself (also played by Mahoney). The final scene is a touching dialogue between Henry and Simon. Henry, now fired from the museum is terrified of losing his life partner. Simon is realistic about his death.
     On the whole, this is a beautifully written, rich play. I could have done without the scene in Rembrandt's studio. I'm always bothered by plays that reduce great artists to talented idiots (case in point Peter Shaffer's AMADEUS). The contemporary scenes in the museum and the final scene between Henry and Simon are both funny and deeply moving. It's nice to see a play or film that deals with a loving relationship of elderly gay men. Dickey is at her best in dealing with contemporary love and grief--less good at historical fiction (or historical hallucination?).
     The acting was uniformly good. Frances Guinan is superb as Henry, capturing his kindness and his fear. Note to Chicago theatergoers--for some reason, Guinan is only playing the role until October 22. He will be replaced for the last two weeks of the run). John Mahoney doesn't appear until the last third of the play. Homer's fifteen minute monologue could use a bit more energy but Mahoney is his usual charming self as the dying Simon. Ty Olwin captures both the brash, eccentric Dodger and Rembrandt's devoted but chiding son. Hallie Gordon has paced the actors effectively.
     Well worth seeing.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Ivo van Hove's production of Arthur Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE at the Goodman

     I avoided this production in New York in part because I have trouble with Miller's play--well, particularly the last lines when Miller tries to justify, even praise, his loathsome central character. Miller's great weaknesses was his uncritical view of the respect due to white patriarchs, no matter how flawed or destructive. Now in the age of Trump and the campaign on the part of some men, with Trump's blessing, to restore white patriarchy, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE seems frighteningly timely.
     Miller once wrote an essay entitled "Tragedy and the Common Man," expressing his desire to adapt Greek tragedy for ordinary American male protagonists. Eddie Carbone, the central character in A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, is a Brooklyn longshoreman who lives with his childless, sexually unsatisfied wife Beatrice and the eighteen-year-old- niece he has raised. Clearly he is in love, or at least in lust, with his niece and, naively, perhaps, she feeds his desire. Neither Eddie nor his niece Catherine are good at recognizing and acknowledging their sexual impulses. Enter  two distant relatives of Beatrice's, Sicilian illegal immigrants Marco and Rodolfo, and things in the Carbone household reach a boiling point. Catherine turns her attention and desire onto blond, handsome Rodolfo, which turns Eddie into Othello. He decides that Rodolfo must be homosexual because he is blond, likes to sing and can make a dress. All this is a way to mask his desire for his niece and perhaps a latent desire for Rodolfo. At the climactic moment, he passionately kisses his niece and, when Rodolfo tries to beak that up, kisses Rodolfo, ostensibly to prove that he isn't fully masculine. When that doesn't work, he turns Rodolfo and Marco into the immigration authorities.
     Eddie is a man who is totally unable to acknowledge his true desires. He demands his authority as patriarch and full respect from everyone in his household. His wife is not to talk to him about the fact that they have not had sex for months. When Marco accuses him of turning them in, he demands a public apology. In a Christian framework, Eddie might deserve forgiveness if he ever confessed to wrongdoing but he will not do that--it would weaken his position as patriarch. Greek tragic protagonists alway had a moment of anagnorisis, of recognition of their complicity in the horror we see. Not Eddie.
      Watching A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE is watching the inevitable damage wrought by a repellent human being. Yet the last lines of the lawyer Alfieri, who serves as a kind of Greek chorus, demand that we see "purity" in Eddie's actions, that we see his demand for an undeserved authority and respect as somehow noble. I could see Eddie Carbone marching with the other Fascists in Charlottesville or shouting "Lock her up" at a Trump rally. He's a man who demands his authority as a straight (maybe), white American male. To quote the 2016 Democrat candidate for president, he's a "deplorable." Too bad Miller, from his 1950s patriarchal viewpoint, doesn't see that.
       Oddly, Miller presents a Sicilian Catholic family with no mention of Catholicism or the influence that might have on the Carbones. There's no religion here. Wouldn't Eddie, in his need for self-justification, go to a priest rather than a lawyer? Miller's only concern is with the irrelevance of the law when faced with passion or a primal code of vengeance. The lawyer-chorus can only watch helplessly as Eddie becomes more and more destructive and one Sicilian vows revenge. Yet Eddie's ultimate weapon to keep Catherine under his control is immigration law.
      Ivo van Hove's production, played on a small, bare playing area, does away with all the trappings of realism and gives us a powerful elemental conflict. The cast was uniformly excellent. Ian Bedford caught all of Eddie's bluster, his jealousy and his domineering nature. He made Eddie interesting--it's impossible to make him sympathetic. Andrus Nichols made his wife Beatrice more tough than the usual dippy Arthur Miller wife. Catherine Combs caught Catherine's naivete and confusion.
     Given the minimalist physical production, one really notices the music and sound effects. I am still a bit baffled by van Hove's constant use of Faure's gentle, elegant Requiem as the opening and closing music. Key scenes are punctuated by ominous percussive sounds.
      All in all, a great production of a problematic play whose passions, in van Hove's hands, become truly operatic.