By Karen Isaacs
Broadway has an absolutely delightful new musical, The Prom.
Even better it is an original – not based on a film, TV shw, novel or biography of a music industry legend. No raiding the song catalogue of some well-known hits and squeezing them in to fit a plot.
No it is totally original.
Part of the plot was based on a news item from several years ago about the reaction of a small town and a group of parents that cancelled the senior prom rather than let a girl bring her girlfriend.
Though that is the only one part of the plot, it is handled in a way that avoids demonizing the entire town.
Keeping it from becoming a “message musical” is the equal plot about four B list Broadway actors who arrive in the town with their agent to take up the girls’ cause. They are very funny in their inept attempts to help and their total egotism and cluelessness.
The creative team behind this, isn’t as well-known as Lin Manuel Miranda (who is?), but they have solid track records. Co-book writer Bob Martin is best known for The Drowsy Chaperone but he was also responsible for the delightful Elf – the Musical. Chad Beguelin co-book writer and lyricist has credits that include Disney’s Aladdin, The Wedding Singer, Elf and others. Composer Matthew Sklar was responsible for Elf and The Wedding Singer.
This team has skillfully treated the serious plot about Emma and her closeted girl-friend, Alyssa, as well as the Alyssa’s mother, the other senior girls and boys and the high school principal, Mr. Hawkins. But they have combined it with the other plot about Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, two performers whose egos are ginormous and their sidekicks, Trent Oliver (Julliard trained actor who’s mainly a waiter), Sheldon Saperstein (their agent) and Angie, who’s been in the chorus of Chicago for 20 years.
The four performers are shocked to learn that others view them as narcissistic so they decide that a “cause” would help their images. When they learn of Emma’s plight, they descend on the small Indiana town, to exert their power. Of course, they are horrified to learn that most of the townspeople don’t know who they are. The principal who does is also not thrilled since he was working on an agreement that the four scuttle with their activism.
It helps that the four playing the actors are deft handed when combining seriousness with a send-up of the stereotype. Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas seem to be having the times of their lives playing Dee Dee and Barry. You can’t help smiling as they sing “It’s Not About Me” knowing full well that they think it is. Despite their egos, Leavel, Ashmanskas as well as Christopher Sieber as Trent, Angie Schworer as Angie and Josh Lamon as the agent, Sheldon, also let us see a more vulnerable side to these performers. All too well, they understand how uncertain their futures are and how fleeting stability is.
It takes talent to balance the two sides of the show – the serious situation about Emma and the funny actions of the actors. The writers manage this by allowing those narcissists glimpses of their pasts.
Ashmanskas in particular manages to connect to Emma and in doing so, lets us see the man who was undoubtedly bullied as a teenager. Sieber as Trent Oliver also shows us this more vulnerable side. Leavel’s character is a harder nut to crack, but even she begins to learn something about herself.
It may be clichéd to say that the outsiders learn as much as the townspeople but it is true. The authors also haven’t projected a totally rosy ending. While there is a prom and Alyssa does “come out” there is not hint that all will be fine and dandy.
Martin, Beguelin and Sklar have managed to combine more “Broadway” tunes with songs that reflect the younger generation. Emma’s has two lovely (and heart-breaking songs) “Dance with You” and “Unruly Heart” that should become standards. Caitlin Kinnunen as Emma and Isabelle McCalla as Alyssa are touching as the romantic couple.
Of course, the show biz types have some rousing numbers from Angie’s “Zazz” to Dee Dee’s “The Lady’s Improving” and Barry’s “Barry Is Going to Prom.” Trent’s “Love Thy Neighbor” is also terrific.
Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw has added his magic touch to the production. He keeps it moving, integrates the teenagers and others fluidly. He has blended the satire of the actors with the more serious story of the two girls in a balanced way.
Are there flaws? Yes, few musicals achieve near perfection. That should not deter you from seeing The Prom. You will laugh, applaud and have a really good time.
The Prom is at the Longacre Theatre, 247W. 44 Street. For tickets contact Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Gladys Green is an elderly woman who runs a small art gallery on Waverly Place in New York City. A former lawyer, she started the gallery years so; it hasn’t had much success but it gives her a place to go each day from her apartment upstairs in the building. Her grandson, Daniel lives in another apartment.
But Gladys is exhibiting disturbing symptoms. Her short-term memory is failing, she repeats herself endlessly, and focuses on past events. Her hearing has also deteriorated and she keeps turning down or off her hearing aids.
In Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, Gladys is the center of the story as her grandson, her daughter and son-in-law and a young artist she has befriended deal with this decline over a two year period.
As played by Elaine May, making a rare stage appearance, Gladys at first seems competent with a few minor lapses that are perhaps caused by her hearing loss. She keeps thinking her grandson is a reporter (sometimes it is for The New York Times), but she remembers many details about her physician husband, her daughter (Ellen) also a physician and even that she and her husband had put Ellen’s first husband and Daniel’s father through medical school.
Early in the play, Don Bowman, stops in the gallery; he’s an aspiring artist from Massachusetts who has come to the big city to try to achieve his dream. He offers to show Gladys some paintings and when she learns he has no place to stay, she invites him to stay in a small room at the back of gallery.
As time goes by, Daniel, Ellen and her second husband, Mark must consider the options: can Gladys stay in the gallery? What if the hotel next door who owns that space wants it? Ellen and Gladys have not had the best mother-daughter relationship, so the thought of moving her into Ellen’s house terrifies Ellen.
During the two years of the play, in multiple scenes set in the gallery and Ellen’s dining room, we see the problems worsen and the tensions increase. Like so many middle-aged people, Ellen is becoming her mother’s parent. For Daniel, he is shouldering more of the burden since he lives near Gladys. As she worsens, she takes to knocking on his door at all hours of the night.
Don becomes almost a part of the family but his emotional distance provides him with insulation. He refuses to realize what is actually happening and instead keeps insisting that she needs better hearing aids. You are never sure when it dawns on him that her hearing is not the main problem.
Elaine May gives a touching performance as Gladys; she seems oblivious to her problems, and yet you sense that underneath it all, she is aware. Her interactions with her grandson are tender and real.
She is surrounded by an excellent cast. Lucas Hedges who is making his Broadway debut, is outstanding as Daniel. He is caring, concerned and, at times, exasperated. It has been said, that the play is based on Lonergan’s friend, Matthew Broderick’s experience with his grandmother.
Joan Allen is excellent as Ellen; this over-worked and over-achieving professional is concerned about her mother; she just doesn’t want her to live with them. It would, as she puts, “drive her nuts.” She also understands how much of the burden her son is shouldering. David Cromer has her husband, Mark has a less developed role. He seems to mainly be a bystander to the family drama. Michael Cera is the somewhat naive Don.
The play has some laughs and some in the audience may find these uncomfortable. Are we laughing at Gladys’ mental deterioration and mistakes? Are we laughing out of fear that we may become her someday? The situation isn’t funny, so the laughter makes us question our own empathy. Yet, if we can’t laugh at the absurdity of life, how do we get through it?
Director Lila Neugebauer has done a fine job at keeping the balance between the tragedy of a deteriorating mind and the ridiculousness of it all. Scenic designer David Zinn has created the gallery, Ellen’s apartment and the upstairs. His set is aided by the fine projections by Tal Yarden and the lighting (Brian MacDevitt) and sound (Leon Rothenberg) designs.
As the play ends, Daniel tells us about what happened after Gladys moves into Ellen’s apartment.
The Waverly Gallery is at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street though January 27. For tickets, contact Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Every parent has a nightmare about something bad happening to his or her child. As that child becomes a teenager, the nightmares often become more frequent. Drugs, car accidents, runaways, alcohol, sexual assault – so many things can derail hopeful young lives. So many possibilities can go through the mind.
In the searing new drama American Son, Kendra’s nightmares are influenced by her childhood in a violent neighborhood. She may now be a professor of psychology, but the nightmares remain. They are stronger because her son, Jamal is a 17-year-old black teenager in Miami.
When they argue and Jamal goes off in his car, (a used BMW) and doesn’t come home, his mother goes to the police station to report him missing at 4 a.m. Calls to the cell phone have gone unanswered and texts have had no replies. Jamal has been brought up in an affluent atmosphere, attending private schools, accepted at West Point; he has learned to be well spoken and polite.
What happened to this polite, young man headed for West Point?
That is how the stunning new play, American Son begins. A rainy night with thunder and lightning and her sitting alone in a police station lounge.
Officer Paul Larkin doesn’t have any answers. Apparently he’s new, but tries to help despite the fact that he should wait for the duty officer to come in which will not be until the morning. What he initially learns is that there has been an “incident” involving the car. No other details but he tries to assure Kendra that that terminology is usually used for minor things such as broken tail light, failing to stop at a stop sign, or some such.
But Kendra is not mollified and becomes more and more frantic, to the point that when Scott arrives and Larkin assumes he is the duty officer, he makes comments about her being “out of control.” To his surprise, but not mine, Scott is Kendra’s estranged husband and father of Jamal. He is white and also a FBI agent.
The tension builds as they wait. The tensions between them: why he left six months earlier. Jamal’s recent behavior. He has recently started wearing “street” clothes, dreadlocks, and has some new friends. Her tendency to see the world in black vs. white terms. She seems militant and strident. He seems almost clueless. Jamal has rebelled at being a representative of his race to his almost all white classmates.
As the early morning hours progress, the tensions continue to build. Scott’s brother who works at a local TV station sends them a link to a video and asks if that is Jamal’s car.
The arrival of the duty officer, Lieutenant John Starks doesn’t seem to help at all. A long time officer and a black man, he seems to have little empathy for the frantic parents whose emotions are out of control. In fact, he arrests Scott and tells Kendra to basically “shut up and site down.”
The play does have some stretches of credibility – why do the police have her wait in a private area? Why does the station seems so understaffed and quiet in a city? Why would the newbie officer Larkin not get a more experienced officer to assist him? Why is there no watch commander or supervisor on duty? Wouldn’t officers be more accommodating to Scott, an FBI agent? Wouldn’t he have sources he could contact?
Yet, because of the fine performances, while you are watching this you don’t really think of these.
Kerry Washington as Kendra gives a portrait of the frantic mother who is also very aware of the realities of our urban society. Steve Pasquale as Scott is her equal as he becomes more and more agitated. In their disagreements, Scott wonders why Kendra allowed Jamal to have a particular bumper sticker on his car, and she justifies it as “picking her battles” with her rebellious son.
Jeremy Jordan makes the new officer by turns helpful and poorly trained. As Stokes, Eugene Lee has the least sympathetic role; he gives us a hardened officer who has seen too much in his years on the force and in all likelihood experienced too much racism himself. He seems almost resentful of the upper-middle class Kendra and Scott.
Kenny Leon, who has directed many August Wilson plays, has done a fine job directing this. His direction and the acting covers up some of the questions with the plot. The play is written by Christopher Demos-Brown, who is making his Broadway debut.
Adding to the effectiveness is the spare waiting area designed by Derek McLane, the torrential rain (with thunder) created by Peter Kaczoroski and the sound by Peter Fitzgerald.
American Son is a drama that will totally absorb you and break your heart. That it is set “this coming June” makes it clear that this problem in our society will not go away soon.
It is at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th Street though January 27. Tickets are available through Telechargee.
By Karen Isaacs
Bravo Ivoryton Playhouse! Brava Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard! It is a big risk to produce a new play about a subject many don’t really want to think about written by a playwright who is not widely known.
Yet that is what the Playhouse and Hubbard have done with the current world premiere of Queens of the Gold Mask now through Sunday, Nov. 18.
Playwright Carole Lockwood’s play while set in the past resonates much too much in today’s world.
When most of us think of the Klu Klux Klan, we picture the white robes and hoods, the burning crosses and the resulting violence. While the hoods don’t allow us to the see faces, we think of them as men. But anyone who has seen the footage of the Charlottesville demonstration last year, or other similar but smaller gatherings, must acknowledge that some of the attendees are women. Women who might be our neighbors.
Lockwood’s play is set in Celestial, Alabama in 1961 (act 1) and 1963 (act 2). Is the town’s name an ironic joke? It seems like it. This is small town Alabama not too far from Birmingham, and the Klan has never died. The resurgent civil rights movement is leading to a resurgence in Klan activities; everyone seems to belong.
Queens focuses on the women in this small town, particular a matriarch, Ida Sage or Moma as she is called by most, her daughter-in-law, and four other women. Each is married and each husband is involved in Klan activities though details are hidden from the women.
When writing about such emotional and explosive subjects, any playwright walks a fine line between drama and melodrama, which is usually defined as type of drama that exaggerates emotion, emphasizes plot or action over characterization and often does not observe the laws of cause and effect.
This play falls well over the line into melodrama.
Every melodrama needs a villain with no redeeming qualities and that role is Moma played very well by Ellen Barry. You do not have one iota of sympathy for this manipulative, determined, evil woman. She dominates everyone.
The first act of the play is about Moma’s desire to regain the charter for the “women’s auxiliary” chapter of the Klan in Celestial that was lost when membership fell below seven. So she is determined to recruit two new members and regain the charter. One candidate is easy: Kathy (Two) Boggs is a young woman married to the mayor’s son. Moma would have considered “trash” except for the marriage. Kathy is eager to join.
But the other possible candidate is more problematic. One of the local men has recently brought home his bride, a school teacher from Ohio, after a six month courtship. So could Rose be brought into the fold?
That is left to the local Avon lady, Faith, who talks to Rose about sisterhood, fitting in, making friends. She portrays this as just a group that talks and bakes cookies but does nothing more. She even implies that the men do little. Rose is uncertain; she says she had hoped to not have a conversation about race as Faith questions her about teaching black children and her home town. Her dad was prejudiced, and she and her new husband Buddy had never discussed the issue. But she is bored and lonely and is persuaded to join.
Act two, set in 1963 shows Rose as a contented member of the group; she has adjusted to the way of small town life. She’s also befriended Martha Nell, Moma’s daughter-in-law who she treats like a servant and even physically abuses. Martha played touchingly by Sarah Jo Provost is the most sympathetic character. It seems that in the last two years, a little spark of determination and spunk has developed.
Moma has become even more hateful, if that is possible. But while all the women give lip service to “the cause,” we learn that two have courageously been giving information to the FBI who are investigating Klan activities in the area. In fact, a bug has been planted in Moma’s house. Perhaps the FBI is closing in on her involvement in the bombing of a church in the black quarter and of the high school that was about to be integrated. We see her, make a phone call and then sit waiting until she hears sirens; her look changes to one of contentment and pleasure. One of the suspected informants has been killed.
When Rose finally confronts Moma and says she is leaving the chapter (and her marriage) to return to Ohio, Moma gloats that Ohio has one of the bigger Klan memberships, that the “kiss of death” and oath of secrecy will follow her and that the Klan will continue to grow even in thirty years.
Director Jacqueline Hubbard has handled the cast and show deftly; keeping it moving as much as possible, and the melodramatic moments (and there are many) as realistic as possible. She is aided by the scenic design, a kitchen, dining room and front door of a clean but shabby house; the lighting by Marcus Abbott; and the sound design by Tate R. Burmeister that includes traditional hymns such as “Shall We Gather by the River.”
Overall the cast is excellent, creating multi-dimensional characters even where the playwright didn’t. It is hard to pick just one or two out for praise but certainly Ellen Barry totally immerses herself in the unrelenting force that is Moma, and Sarah Jo Provost is also excellent as the downtrodden Martha Nell. Anna Fagan must make the cheerful and naïve Rose believable and for the most part she succeeds.
This play has promise and certainly the subject matter, the active role of women in the Klan is one that is rarely discussed. But the work needs trimming substantially and many of the characters need to be more developed rather than recognizable stereotypes.
Go see Queens of the Golden Mask. It is well worth your time.
It is at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Nov. 18. For tickets visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com
By Karen Isaacs
I can’t stop thinking about and praising the world premiere play, Thousand Pines, at Westport Country Playhouse through Saturday, Nov. 17.
Playwright Matthew Greene and director Austin Pendleton have taken a subject that can be emotionally devastating and created a thoughtful and insightful study of how individuals and communities cope with unimaginable tragedy.
The play consists of three scenes with three different families in the same town and all on the same Thanksgiving Day. Six fine actors work as a well-oiled ensemble to create a variety of individuals so well that sometimes it takes a minute to realize who they played in an earlier scene.
This is first Thanksgiving following a shooting six months earlier at a middle school in town. Each of the scenes focuses on a different family who lost a son in the shooting.
You might think that this would be a tear-jerker. Greene and Pendleton haven’t minimized the horror but have kept the emotions under control.
It is an examination of how individuals grieve and how it affects family and community relationships. Research has shown that many couples whose child dies will divorce; the still living siblings are apt to suffer from a variety of psychological issues from guilt of survival to resentment of the family’s concentration on the dead child.
In the three scenes, each about 25 minutes in length, we see the entire range of options and of families.
In the first scene the mother is preparing to host Thanksgiving dinner, having invited her sister and husband, her late husband’s brother and her older son’s fiancée. When the son (Justin) arrives, he is angry that things are happening as usual; he thought he and his mother had agreed to “keep it simple” this year. Yet underneath the perky mother (played by Kelly McAndrew), is someone unable to truly accept the tragedy. Andrew Veenstra is excellent as Justin.
We move to another family; in this case the father sits passively in a chair wanting to eat, while the child’s stepmother (Sophie) is fixated on a law suit that they and some other parents have filed because “someone must be held responsible.” She is determined that other parents who are neighbors will give dispositions as will Deborah, a school teacher at the school, who is also a guest for dinner. An added guest is Oliver, Sophie’s ex-husband and the lead lawyer on the case. Even he is astonished at Sophie’s single-mindedness. Their daughter, Gretchen is also present, hoping for a traditional family meal only to find it so focused on the lawsuit that the meal becomes a minor distraction. She also resents Sophie’s late blooming maternal instincts that she never saw while growing up.
The third scene involves a single mom (Rita) who has invited her brother (Kyle) to dinner but he shows up in handcuffs with a police officer having punched a man at the grocery store. Also flitting around are two women (Evelyn and Tori) who volunteered to help her; though she really doesn’t want the help which she recognizes as survivor guilt. Later in the scene, a young man, perhaps a college student arrives bringing food and he and Kyle discuss the tragedy.
Each of the actors does a terrific job. Kelly McAndrews plays all three moms but they are so different and Andrew Veenstra is moving as the young men who are in the first and third scenes. This isn’t to slight William Ragsdale (Martin, Oliver and Frank) or Joby Earle (Charlie, Warren and Kyle) nor Anne Bates (Beth, Debbie and Evelyn) and Kate Ailion (Ashley, Gretchen, Tori).
Walt Spangler has created an upper middle class dining room which contains both elements of colonial style and more contemporary design. Ryan Rumery handled both the sound design and composed music for the show.
I found this moving and fascinating. As the playwright said, “to be honest, I’d love for this play to stop being ‘relevant.’”
Yes, it is a difficult subject but it is handled with such care by all involved that it is well worth seeing.
For tickets visit Westport Playhouse or call 203-227-4177.
By Karen Isaacs
Sports, championships and betting shenanigans are often in the headlines, from legalizing sports betting, to the various point shaving scandals in college basketball, to “tanking” games and sets in tennis matches.
The Nap the British play by Richard Bean is now at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre to Nov. 11.
The title refers to the nap of snooker table; snooker is a British variation of billiards that is extremely popular. Like a billiard table, the fabric on the table’s surface has a nap – touch in one direction and it is smooth, but touch it the opposite direction and it feels rough.
It’s set in a smaller English town that is hosting a national championship match. A local boy, Dylan is an up-and-coming star of the sport who hopes to break in to the top tiers – and the top money with a win. He is surrounded by dysfunction: his father Bobby, and mother, Stella as well as the mother’s boyfriend, Danny, and Dylan’s so-called agent/manager, Tony, plus his backer, Waxxy, a transgendered person with a metal hand.
Bean is known for throwing curve balls at us and approaching subjects with an off-beat sense of a humor. His hit play, Young Marx, exhibited all of these traits, and One Man, Two Governors was pure farce.
These show up in The Nap. Tony the so-called manager/agent is a typical stereotype of British comedies: the twit.
Early in the play, Dylan is visited the two investigators (one from the police, the other from a sports agency) about possible collusion with gamblers. Dylan is shocked and vehement in his denials. As his mother arrives with her boyfriend in tow, it becomes possible that she supplied some information to Waxxy. As the play goes on, we learn more about the alleged plot to fix a match while Dylan becomes charmed by the police officer. The stakes get raised substantially higher when his mother and her boyfriend are kidnapped by people working for Waxxy. It seems there are some Asian gamblers that are upset about some “mistakes.”
It’s hard to describe much more of what happens without spoiling the plot. Let’s just say that some things aren’t what they seem.
Bean has included many references to classic films, starting with Moonstruck and the Nicolas Cage character. How Bobby and Tony try to recall the names of the films from weird clues is a running joke. That’s just one example of the parallels to classic films.
The acting is excellent. Ben Schnetzer captures Dylan perfectly – he’s a young, naïve, and a snooker nerd. Johanna Day is the blowsy, garish mother, and John Ellison Conlee the profane father. The snooker opponents – yes, we do see parts of a game – are played by Ahmed Aly Elsayed, both an actor and a real life snooker champion. We can’t forget Max Gordon Moore as the agent/manager.
Alexandra Billings plays Waxxy as literally a woman with velvet glove concealing steel underneath.
The production directed by Daniel Sullivan has a wonderful set that includes the seedy club where Dylan practices, the hotel room that is an altar to a snooker great, and Waxxy’s country house. Each is just right.
Sullivan might have upped the pace a bit at times: it seemed as though things were slower than this type of comedy should be.
Some of the humor is typically British which may not appeal to everyone. But you don’t have to know snooker to enjoy The Nap.
The Nap runs through November 11. For tickets contact Telecharge
By Karen Isaacs
I wish I knew what playwright Jen Silverman intended with her new play, The Roommate now at Long Wharf through Sunday, Nov. 4.
It seems to follow somewhat in the footsteps of her earlier play The Moors which I thoroughly enjoyed at Yale Rep. That play was a mashup/satire of the novels of the Bröntes and other gothic romance writers of the period.
But this piece is harder to define. Yes, it descends into absurdity and seems to be somewhat a parody of the usual sit com set up: two people basically strangers living together. But is it meant to be more? Is something else intended?
It’s hard to describe the plot without giving too much away, since the success of the piece depends on the surprises and unexpected twists.
In Iowa City (there are several jokes about Iowa), Sharon has taken in a new roommate (Robyn) who has just arrived from New York City. Sharon is naïve – or perhaps clueless – to an extreme. When asked if she works, she replies, “I’m retired from my marriage.” She calls her adult son who lives in NYC constantly though he seldom picks up; she has never considered the idea that he may be gay, after all when she visited he introduced her to a “date” who was a lesbian. She has apparently no friends, no hobbies, no real life. Why she is willing to share her house and why she selected Robyn to be the roommate is a mystery.
Robyn is also a mystery; why is she moving to a small town in the mid-West? But we quickly sense that Robyn and Sharon are like oil and water. Robyn is amazed by Sharon’s naiveté; she seems to want privacy- not the companion that Sharon was perhaps looking for. She smokes – not just cigarettes but marijuana! In fact, she even brought her own plants.
After a revelation – and later others – the two seem almost to swap roles. Sharon becomes adventurous and daring; Robyn seems more conventional.
But the transformation of Sharon is carried to such an extreme that all plausibility is lost. It may be funny to see Sharon react to her first inhalation of marijuana, but like much in this play, it goes too far, for too long.
Silverman also relies too much on the telephone to convey messages. Every time Sharon calls her son, she leaves a long message that is obviously intended as much for the audience as for him. Silverman and the director both have taken the easy way out. When Robyn moves in, boxes are piled by the door. Though they live together weeks or more, those boxes are never moved until they suddenly disappear, announcing Robyn’s departure.
Director Mike Donahue has helped the two performers get all the laughs that are in the piece, usually about Sharon’s lack of worldliness or her misconceptions about NYC and other things.
Tasha Lawrence as Robyn and Linda Powell as Sharon are both very good, working as hard as possible to make the implausible seem possible. Yet, in the end one wonders if the audience ever truly cares about either of these middle-aged women whose lives are being turned upside down.
Silverman seems to focus her works on women and she could bring a unique perspective to their lives; in this piece her mixture of absurdity and reality don’t blend well.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zipo6.com.
By Karen Isaacs
If you don’t get the opportunity to see Bill Irwin in On Beckett at the Irish Rep, and I’m told that the remaining performances are sold out, you have missed a master class on fine acting.
Irwin conceived and performs this almost one person show (a young boy joins him on stage near end for the closing scene from Waiting for Godot). The rest of the time, it is just Irwin holding the stage.
The 90 minute show, is not, Irwin says and academic discussion of Samuel Beckett but an actor’s perspective on the Nobel winning author. He intersperse his thoughts and memories of Beckett and his works, as well as some personal memories, with performances of excerpts from Beckett’s works.
What is such a joy is that while he talks and does parts of Waiting for Godot, which Irwin has done twice on Broadway, he also brings to life \non-plays by Beckett.
I suspect that only someone who has studied the author extensively would have read the novels, The Unnamable and Watt. He gives us fine selections from each.
But three of the pieces are from Texts for Nothing, numbers 1, 9, 11. In each he brings the text to life and creates a character that you will identify with and be interested in.
Of course, Irwin connects Beckett to clowning and in addition to his fine acting, his incredibly skilled clowning is used effectively.
On Beckett is one of the finest performances I’ve seen in many years. Perhaps he will bring it back to the Irish Rep for a longer run.
y Karen Isaacs
Where is Darko Tresnjak when we need him? Tresnjak, artistic director of Hartford Stage has, during his tenure consistently directed fine productions of Shakespeare. These have been imaginative and creative while illuminating the plays and helping a 21st century audience to appreciate them.
Even before he came to Hartford, the previous artistic directors, Mark Lamos and Michael Wilson had established the theater as a bastion of good Shakespeare productions.
Unfortunately this production of Henry V directed by Elizabeth Williamson breaks that string of successes. It is a production that neither engaged me nor interested me. A number of audience members obviously agreed; lots of seats that had been filled were empty after intermission.
Henry V follows the new king, who in Henry IV parts I and 2 had gone from a carousing, over-drinking rascal to a man slowly accepting his destiny and his responsibilities.
He is now the king of England in 1415, and he has embraced that role of leadership. He is also about to take the country to war with France over his claim to the French throne. (Remember that the English crown had a strong French ancestry after William the Conquer; not only did some of the kings speak French better than English, England had held territory in France.) So in the midst of the 100 years’ war, he is once again about to send the men of England into battle.
If we accept that Shakespeare was also a playwright who introduced contemporary themes into all of his plays, not matter when they were set, England was facing some adversaries. The succession to the throne was in doubt since Elizabeth I was aging with no heirs; Spain was dangerous, the defeat of the Spanish Armada happened only a few years before; and Ireland was in turmoil.
In the prologue Chorus (a fine performance by Peter Francis James) invites the audience to imagine the various scenes that are to come – the court, the fields of France, the court of France, the battles. It is a famous speech that should set the mood for what is to come.
We begin in the English court where Henry is being urged to go to war; when the Dauphin (think Crown Prince) sends an insulting message, the die is cast. After overcoming a plot by three nobles to overthrow him, he and his army leave for France. In France, the army lays siege to the coastal town of Harfleur which eventual surrenders. After a march to Calais, the English and French prepare for battle; the English are weakened by illness and diminishing supplies; the French vastly outnumber them. But on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, Henry rallies the troops. It is an amazing victory as the outnumbered English destroy the French army, while losing very few men. Peace negotiations ensue; Henry doesn’t get the throne of France but he does get the Princess Katherine as a wife.
Now of course, Shakespeare always included subplots and usually one or more of these involve some lower class drunks and thieves. In this case it is Pistol, Bardolph and Nym who anticipate reaping profits from the war by joining the army. Pistol’s braggadocio adds a comic touch with his attempts to avoid battle at all costs while still insulting others.
Henry V has had two outstanding film versions with varied interpretations. During WWII, Lawrence Olivier directed and starred in version that emphasized the staunchness of the British and patriotism. Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film focused more on the dirt, grime and horror of war. In the 1970s, director Michael Kahn produced a controversial anti-war Henry V at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.
Among the many problems with this production is that Williamson’s point of view does not come across to the audience. It seems that many of the decisions she made did not result in an enlightening or effective production.
She sets the play in the round which means that at times, courtiers must turn their backs to the king in order to address all members of the audience; that would never be acceptable. Last year, New York Theater Works did a fine production of Othello that was almost in the round that was very effective; it also was a modern dress production,
A second choice was to minimize lighting effects. For most of the time, the lights are bright and sometimes even the house lights come up. While Shakespeare gives us many clues as to whether it is day or night, it is still disconcerting. Even more so, while the scene with the French on the night before battle is brightly lit and the scene with Henry visiting his men at night is more appropriately lit.
It is modern dress with occasional touches to differentiate characters; since many of the performers play multiple roles on both sides of the conflict, these help only some. It is easy to be confused seeing an actor who just a few minutes ago was a military leader for Henry, suddenly show up as a courtier to the French.
She also cast women in male roles and a man in one of the few women’s roles. While this type of casting can be effective, in this case it really did not work. Perhaps because the play is about rallying troops, the lighter timbre of the female voice makes it harder to accept.
The standout member of the cast is Peter Francis James who does justice to the well-known speeches of Chorus. Baron Vaughn who played multiple roles including Captain Fluellen of Wales and Mistress Quickly also was very good.
The major disappointment is Stephen Louis Grush as Henry. He has excellent credits but Williamson has not made it easy for him. In some of the most important speeches, sound effects or other actors make the first lines almost impossible to understand, even if you know they are coming. His Henry does not seem to have the charisma that would cause these men to win against over-whelming odds.
Even in the scene with Katherine (played by Evelyn Shahr) he misses the lightness and charm of this famous scene.
In the program notes, Tresnjak makes a case for the play being relevant to our times; Williamson does not achieve that.
It is unfortunate when a production of Shakespeare, particularly a lesser known and produced play is botched; too many people already avoid the Bard and this production will not change their minds.
Henry V runs through Sunday, Nov. 11. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.
By Karen Isaacs
Janet McTeer doesn’t appear enough on Broadway. This gifted actress always wins praise – whether it was as Nora in A Doll’s House, or in God of Carnage, Mary Stuart or other works. It’s great to have her playing famed actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Bernhardt/Hamlet is a new play by Theresa Rebeck that tries to capture both Bernhardt and comment on our modern era. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
But the joy is the splendid cast led by McTeer who captures all of what one suspect is Bernhardt’s mercurial temperament and artistic extravagance. It is a delight to watch an actress play an actress who was known for her acting, her outsized persona and her lavish and unconventional lifestyle.
Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanor Duse were the two great theatrical stars of the 19th century and therefore, of course, they were rivals. Bernhardt started at the Comédie Française, she played Camille well into her middle age, toured the world and believed in carpe diem.
She also was a renegade for the times. She left Comédie Française when she realized they were making huge amounts of money from her performances but paying her little. She also had the audacity of running her own company (and directing) as well as playing male roles.
Bernhardt lived into the 1920s and we have motion pictures (silent, of course) of her.
But Rebeck has wisely not tried to give us her whole life: she sets her play in the 1897; Bernhardt is producing Shakespeare’s Hamlet with herself in the title role. It’s to be performed at a large theater and the financial risk is also huge. As usual she needs money.
Just one problem emerges during rehearsals – she absolutely dislikes and cannot understand the title character. She views Hamlet as a man of inaction which she finds annoying and impenetrable. A second problem is that she is having difficulty with the verse. So, she does what any diva might: she commissions a playwright to rewrite the play into prose and to make Hamlet more decisive.
That’s the background as we see Bernhardt with her current lover – the playwright Rostand and members of her company.
She has persuaded (bullied?) Rostand, who had yet to write Cyrano de Bergerac, to work on the adaptation. He fails but two other playwrights actually do create a version that she performed.
The plays action centers on the rehearsals, her dislike of Hamlet, her relationship with Rostand and his wife’s action to derail it.
But Rebeck has attempted to make Bernhardt a mouthpiece for women’s empowerment. Dialogue talks about women being ignored, being criticized for daring to take charge and having opinions. All well and certainly true particularly in Bernhardt’s time. But the dialogue doesn’t ring true. It seems more like Rebeck talking rather than “the divine Sarah.”
So while program notes say that the play “explores the sacrifices necessary to shatter centuries of tradition, take on the untouchable and command one’s own legacy,” the play itself does not achieve those lofty goals. It is more about the outsized ego of a celebrity actress who is determined to do whatever she wants to do with a character and a play.
For some reason, Rebeck has felt it necessary to include a scene from Cyrano which starred one of Bernhardt’s company in the title role. The purpose of this scene is puzzling.
Besides McTeer, fine performances are given by Dylan Baker as the actor Costant Coquelin, Jason Butler Harner as Rostand, and Matthew Saldivar as the artist Alphonse Mucha who designed the famous art deco posters for her shows. Only Ito Aghayere as Rostand’s wife seems to be in a different production.
The rotating set by Beowulf Boritt is terrific as are the costumes by Toni-Leslie James. Bradley King’s lighting is also very good.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s work melds the various parts of the plot together.
But the reality is that this a play that could be tightened to be more effective. It seems to lose focus between act one and two.
Bernhardt/Hamlet is at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd Street through Nov. 18. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre