By Karen Isaacs
Romeo & Juliet is so familiar to most of us, that sometimes attending a performance gives you that “what, again?” feeling.
That vanishes in the production currently at Westport Country Playhouse through Nov. 19.
Director Mark Lamos has always had a sure hand with Shakespeare and he proves it once again. Many years ago, at Hartford Stage he directed a production that has remained in my memory as one of the best I’ve ever seen.
I wondered if he could do it again. This production may not reach the heights of that previous one – or my memory may be playing tricks on me – but it is a very good production in all its aspects.
You may be surprised at the emotional response you will have to this piece; after all we know the ending. You may also be surprised because Juliet, played wonderfully by Nicole Rodenburg, is not your usual petite, very slender Juliet. She still looks like teenager, but she is taller and has some substance to her. She’s not Calista Flockhart, who was Juliet in the Hartford production.
But Rodenburg convinces us that she is that willful teenager who so easily becomes infatuated and so determinedly opposes her father’s wishes.
But what I remember most about this production is the energy of the ensemble cast, the boyishness of Romeo’s friends, the violent anger of Juliet’s father.
This Romeo & Juliet is more an ensemble piece than one focusing only on the young lovers. Felicity Jones Latta is a garrulous and funny Nurse without seeming to milk the laugh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Friar Lawrence more anguished at the outcome. Peter Francis James isn’t your doddering old monk but a man of action who is dismayed when circumstances makes plan go all awry.
You can also point to the rough and tumble enthusiasm of James Cusati-Moyer as Romeo and his friends, Cole Francum as Paris and Tyler as Benvolio. These are truly teenagers who explode with energy and immaturity.
The fights and sword play were deftly choreographed by Michael Rossmy, the fight director.
Michael Yeargan has created a set that looks like a Renaissance tapestry or painting. It is filled with incredible detail and helps compensate for the minimal furniture on stage. One small complaint is that the balcony on the right of stage is so close to the front of the stage, that the view of anyone sitting on the side is partially blocked. I was craning my neck to see some of the balcony scene, despite sitting on the aisle.
To complement the set, Fabian Fidel Aguilar has created wonderful costumes that are inspired by the period.
Lamos has lighting designer Matthew Richard use soft, misty lighting at times, and bright sunlight at others. Only the balcony scene, a night scene, was too brightly lit. You did not sense that a moon was out.
Lamos has kept this play set in 15th-16th Italy. We aren’t transported to modern day or another country.
This Romeo & Juliet is a brisk, energetic and absorbing production. No, it isn’t the “best ever” but it is well worth a visit.
For tickets, contact Westport Playhouse.
By Karen Isaacs
Every year as theaters announce their up-coming seasons, certain productions pique my interest. I circle their dates on my calendar in anticipation.
So what have I circled for this up-coming year? Connecticut theaters offer a good mixture of the new, the classics, the familiar, and the rare. I have circled some of each.
(One caveat: Goodspeed, Ivoryton and Westport have not announced their productions for the first half of 2018. I’m sure some of those would have made my list).
Rags at Goodspeed Musicals (Oct. 6 –Dec. 10). This isn’t a new musical, but one of those shows that “failed” on Broadway but has developed a devoted following. Its authors, Charles Strouse (Bye, Bye Birdie,) and Stephen Schwartz (Pippin), have worked on the show extensively with a new book writer (David Thompson) and the revised version has been performed to good reviews. This show about turn-of-the-20th century Jewish immigrants seems timely; the score is excellent.
Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story at Seven Angels Theater, (Feb. 15 – March 11). I’m not sure if this is a one-woman show or not, but it focuses on the life and career of vaudeville star Sophie Tucker.
The Bridges of Madison County at MTC (Nov. 3-19). I love Jason Robert Brown’s score for this adaptation of the novel. I’ll be interested in how director Kevin Connors handles it on the smaller stage. I suspect it will increase the intimacy and emotional impact.
Oklahoma at Goodspeed (through Sept. 27). I’ve already seen this production and while it is quite good, it disappointed me. It didn’t live up to all I had hoped it would be.
I like Shakespeare and Connecticut is blessed with two directors who have a track record of outstanding productions of Shakespeare. Each is directing a work this fall.
Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse (Oct. 31 to Nov. 19). Artistic Director Mark Lamos directed one of the best productions of this tragedy at Hartford Stage years ago. I still remember it and hope this production will live up to his earlier one.
Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage (Sept. 7 to Oct. 8). Artistic Director Darko Tresjnak has given Connecticut an almost annual Shakespeare production including terrific productions of MacBeth, The Tempest, Hamlet, Twelfth Night and a riotous A Comedy of Errors. Now he is turning his hand to this classic comedy. It’s bound to be good.
It seems as though Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is having a resurgence; there were two productions in New York last season and now it is opening Yale Rep’s season (Oct 6 -28). This play is about individual responsibility, courage, economics, and environmental health, yet it was written almost 140 years ago.
Dramas & Comedies (New, Familiar & Rare)
Matthew Lopez is a fine younger playwright, whose works I’ve enjoyed (The Whipping Man, Reverberation), so I’m looking forward to The Legend of Georgia McBride at TheaterWorks (March 15 – April 22). It’s about a young man, a former Elvis impersonator who becomes a successful drag queen.
Fireflies (Oct. 11 – Nov. 5) at Long Wharf is featuring an outstanding cast including Jane Alexander. For that reason alone, it’s on my list.
The Connecticut Rep is doing Our Country’s Good (Nov. 30 – Dec. 9). It premiered at Hartford Stage many years ago and is a fascinating look at the founding of Australia and the power of theater to transform people.
Almost all of Hartford Stage’s productions sound interesting, but if I am to pick just one it would be Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immortality Act, (May 10- June 3). Why? Athol Fugard is one of the great playwrights and this is an earlier work, plus it reveals more about life under apartheid in South Africa.
It’s also hard to pick which Yale Rep play will astound me: I am unfamiliar with many of them. But if forced to circle just one on my calendar, it would be Kiss, (April 27-May) by Guillermo Calederón. Why? The description sounds interesting: about people surviving in Damascus.
I did not get to see Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist off-Broadway, so I’m looking forward to the Playhouse on Park production, April 11-29. It’s about a young man who visits an elderly cousin in Warsaw who is a Holocaust survivor.
These twelve selections are just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the other scheduled productions, including those at the Bushnell, sound very interesting. So check them all out. Connecticut has amazing theater!
By Karen Isaacs
Lettice & Lovage is a play with a “cute” and confusing title that somehow reflects the play itself. Its current production at Westport Country Playhouse (through June 17) shows what is best in the play and also its weaknesses.
The original production of the play by Peter Shaffer (Amadeus, Equus and more) starred two of the great actresses of the British stage: the better known Dame Maggie Smith (as Lettice) and Margaret Tyzack. It was a tour de force for Maggie Smith.
Lettice Duffet is an eccentric older woman of limited means. The play opens with her giving a tour of one England’s National Trust properties, the very dull Fustian Manor House. Not much happened there except that Queen Elizabeth I almost fell down the stairs. The house itself is not very interesting either. The tourists are bored. But in a series of brief scenes, we see Lettice slowly expand on the facts about the house until they are scarcely recognizable. Each time we see the stories become more dramatic (to the point of impossibility) and additional stories appear. Of course, some tourists find her loose regard for the facts disturbing.
The personnel officer of the Trust visits and observes one of the more dramatic tellings of the house’s stories. Lettice is called on the carpet. But she doesn’t arrive in Charlotte Schoen’s office (another older, single woman) chastened or apologetic. Lettice is her own flamboyant self. She continually derails the conversation with stories of her mother, an actress who translated Shakespeare into French and toured the French countryside with a troupe of all women.
Nevertheless she is fired.
After the intermission (Acts 2 and 3 are combined), Lotte shows up at Lettice’s basement flat (equally flamboyant). Something Lettice had said about older women, has struck a chord with Lotte. She comes to offer the possibility of a job as a tour guide on one of London’s tourist boats. Lettice insists they toast with a liquor she has made from lovage (an edible member of the parsley family used in Elizabethan times.) The two women drink quite a bit and each reveals something about her life. Lotte had studied architecture and had been in love with an engineering student; they had planned on blowing up one of the examples of 1950s architecture which they viewed as particularly horrendous. They even called themselves the E.N.D. (Eyesore Negation Detachment). But she backed out and the romance ended. She was so upset, she failed her exams and instead became a personnel officer.
By the time we get to the third act, it is months later and Lotte and Lettice have become fast friends; except Lettice is charged with trying to murder Lotte. I’ll not spoil the scene with giving you the details of what happened, why or how.
It ends with the two of them going into the tour business: conducting tours of the most hideous examples of modern architecture.
Even with a last minute illness that forced a change in the central role, Mark Lamos has cast this excellently and directed deftly. But even he can’t overcome some of the problems.
First is that the play seems just too long and with too much talk. It is under two and half hours but it seems longer. The night I saw it, the production started late and the intermission seemed overly long. Still we were out of the theater by 10:20 (for an 8 pm show).
Why does it seem long? It’s just that each scene and each idea is over-talked.
So let us turn to the plusses of this production. Certainly some of the idea that Shaffer focuses on are still very current. Older women (and men) often have difficulty finding employment. Older women’s economic circumstances are more limited and precarious than men’s. Must of the architecture of the last 70 years is particularly graceless: huge concrete squares and rectangles often replacing much interesting older buildings. Prince Charles made a controversial speech in which referred to some of the post-WW II buildings as monstrous carbuncles.
But these ideas get lost in the extraneous activities of the eccentric Lettice and soon, Lotte.
Kandi Chappell stepped into the daunting role of Lettice late in the rehearsals after medical issue cause the original actress to withdraw; she will be fine. She has done a splendid job with a very long part that requires panache. She has it. Mia Dillon gives one of her regularly fine performances as Lotte. You see her liberate herself in so many ways.
Paxton Whitehead almost steals the entire show with a brief appearance as Lettice’s lawyer who must defend her on the attempted murder charge. It is hilarious, as you see him try to understand what went on and what is going on.
John Arnone has given us set that conveys the inner character of Lotte, Lettice and Faustian House. Jane Greenwood must have had a great time designing Lettice’s eccentric costumes.
Overall, Lettice and Lovage gives you fine performances in a play that you may find very enjoyable or a little long, depending on your mood.
It is at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets call 203-227-4177 or visit Westport Country Playhouse.
By Karen Isaacs
The production of Camelot now playing at Westport Country Playhouse through Nov. 5. Is a major revision/reimagining of the original large scale musical by Lerner and Loewe that opened in 1960.
Elements of this show work particularly well, the three leads are terrific and the ensemble is also good. But I had some reservations that the show has been so pared down, it has lost some of it essence.
The musical by Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady, Gigi) tells the story of King Arthur, his Queen Guenevere and the virtuous knight, Lancelot. The book of the musical, originally by Lerner, is based on T. H. White’s trilogy The Once and Future King which tells the story of King Arthur from a boy receiving tutoring from the magician Merlin to the downfall of the Round Table and Arthur’s ultimate defeat/death. It is a long book.
That was part of the problem with the original show; trying to cram all of White’s story led to a very long show. The out-of-town tryout in Canada ran over four hours; by the time the show made it to Broadway in 1960, it was down to under three hours but the result was that some elements did not seem set up properly.
In the last years, several attempts have been made to streamline the book, usually removing elements to focus on the love triangle. Lerner’s son attempted it and that version was used for the outstanding 2009 production at Goodspeed.
Now David Lee has adapted the book, removing even more elements and characters. He may have gone too far.
This Camelot is almost what would be called “a chamber musical.” Besides the three principals, there are only six other characters including a child who is used as a framing device for the show. In fact the orchestra has almost the same number of players (eight) as the entire cast. But I particularly felt the lack of other women. The ensemble is totally male. In this court, only the Queen was allowed.
The scenic design by Michael Yeargan features a looming silhouette of a castle in the back, a series of arches framing parts of the stage and minimal furniture and props. One that was annoying were two beds that were supposed to stay together, but kept coming apart. Luckily, this production does not try to overly simplify the costumes by Wade Laboissonniere. They still have a regal medieval sensibility and at times seems quite luxurious. Also a major contributor to the show’s success is the lighting design by Robert Wierzel who enfuses the rear of the stage in saturated colors.
In this version of Camlot , the haunting “Follow Me” is removed. But also several characters are missing – some are missed more than others. Merlin the magician had served a function of helping set the stage – after all he was Arthur’s teacher and a major part of the Arthurian legend; since he lived time backwards, he knew what would happen Also missing is the comic King Pellinore, though he contributed little except some laughs to a rather serious story. Morgan Le Fey, the witch is also gone; she had seduced Arthur when he was young which resulted in the birth of Mordred who engineers the downfall of Guenevere, Lancelot and the Roundtable.
Mark Lamos, who has a sure hand with musicals, opera and Shakespeare has directed this expertly. He is blessed with a fine cast and excellent voices. Though the running time is shorter than the original, he still develops the emotional impact of the piece. For this is a show where the only villain is the cynical Mordred. Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere all gain our sympathy. I do question how he has framed this piece. The show opens with a young boy in pajamas who at times returns to play with toy knights. Is this to imply that it is all a dream? It just seems distracting and reminiscent of a Royal Shakespeare film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Robert Sean Leonard is excellent as Arthur. He does not try to duplicate Richard Burton’s portrayal but develops his own. Perhaps my only complaint is that in the opening numbers where he and Guenevere meet, he doesn’t seem quite boyish enough. But he handles the scenes where he becomes increasingly aware of Guenevere and Lancelot’s love for each with finesse. His rendition of “How to Handle a Woman” and the duet ‘What Do the Simple Folk Do?” are excellent.
Britany Coleman is a delight as Guenevere. She has a light soprano voice well suited to the songs from the light-hearted “Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” to the serious “I Loved You Once in Silence” and “Before I Gaze on You Again.” But she also create a character obviously torn between two men – one she loves passionately and one she is fond of and respects.
As Lancelot, Stephen Mark Lukas is also excellent, tempering Lancelot’s sense of his perfection with awareness that he is failing both himself and Arthur. His duets with Guenevere and his egotistic song “C’est Moi” are well done.
Patrick Andrews plays the villain, Mordred, who appears in the second act looking and acting like the snake in the Garden of Eden. His two numbers, “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and “Fie on Goodness” both hit the mark.
The actors portraying the three knights who are supplanted by Lancelot create individual characterizations: Mike Evariste (Sir Dinadan), Brian Owen (Sir Lionel) and Jon-Michael Reese (Sir Sagamore). Brian Owens played Sir Lionel with a punk rock look and a Scottish accent.
Wayne Barker’s musical direction and the ensemble never overpowered the performers but added to the production. It was especially good to hear a strings (violin, cello and bass) as part of the ensemble.
Camelot may not be a perfect musical but it is blessed with wonderfully lyrical music. Though this revision may have gone too far, it is still a production well worth seeing.
It is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport through Nov. 5. For tickets visit Westport or call 203-227-4177.
By Karen Isaacs
Bierko Comes to Long Wharf: Craig Bierko, who was nominated for a Tony for his performance as Harold Hill in the Broadway revival of The Music Man and is now on UnREAL on Lifetime, has joined the cast of Meteor Shower by Steve Martin which opens the Long Wharf season. The show runs Wednesday, Sept. 28 to Sunday, Oct. 23. For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-4282
Auditions for Kids: Hartford Stage will be auditioning children 5-13 for its annual production of A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas from Tuesday, Sept. 20 to Thursday, Sept. 22. Auditions are by appointment only. For information about preparation and requirements or appointments email Auditions.
This Year in Waterbury: The season at Seven Angels Theatre has been finalized. It opens with A Room of My Own, a semi-autobiographical comedy about a writer in a wacky family; it runs Thursday, Sept. 22 to Sunday, Oct. 16. Next is the return of Jon Peterson with a one man show about Anthony Newley: He Wrote Good Songs from Nov. 3 to 27. From Feb. 9 to March 3 is George and Gracie: The Early Years about the early life of George Burns and Gracie Allen. R. Bruce Connelly and Semina De Laurentis star. Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical runs from March 23 to April 23. The season concludes with Trav’lin –The 1930s Harlem Musical which recalls the period and features the music and lyrics of Harlem Renaissance composer J. C. Johnson. It runs May 11 to June 11. Tickets are available at 203-757-4676.
King Arthur: Robert Sean Leonard will be King Arthur in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Camelot which runs Tuesday, Oct. 4 to Sunday, Oct. 30. It is billed as a “reimagined” production directed by Mark Lamos. While Leonard may be known for his work in the TV series House, he has numerous Broadway credits and received a Tony Award and another Tony nomination. For tickets – which are going fast – visit Westport or call 888-927-7529.
Chasing Rainbows: Goodspeed’s new musical, Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz which is how Judy Garland became a young star, is in rehearsals preparing for its opening Friday, Sept. 16. Of course, the show features many of the songs she made famous and also includes the making of The Wizard of Oz film which was supposed to star Shirley Temple. Goodspeed has a number of special evenings scheduled including a Saturday wine tasting (Sept. 17), teen nights, meet the cast, and others. For information and tickets visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.
Classic to Contemporary: Westport Country Playhouse has announced its 2017 season, its 87th. It opens (May 30 to June 17) with the British comedy Lettice and Lovage which was a 1990 Tony nominee. Following is the 2014-15 Obie (off—Broadway) Award winner for Best New American Play, Appropriate which runs July 11 to 29. Grounded, a solo production that won the 2016 Lucille Lortel Award in that category and an award at the Edinburg Fringe Festival runs Aug. 15 to Sept. 2. Sex with Strangers, which runs Sept. 26 to Oct. 14 is about a modern relationship in the digital age. The season concludes with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Oct. 31 to Nov. 19), directed by Mark Lamos, who is well known for his fine Shakespeare production. I still remember his production at Hartford Stage starring a young Calista Flockhart. For information and tickets contact Westport or call 888-927-7529.
Curtain Up: MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) in Norwalk opens its season with Gypsy from Friday, Sept. 9 to Sunday, Sept. 25. The iconic show features a cast of solid Broadway professionals. For tickets visit MTC or call 203-454-3883.
Investors Hard to Find: Even Barbra Streisand has problems finding investors. The most recent rumor is that the planned film version of Gypsy that has been talked about for years, is now in doubt again due to the withdrawal of an investor and distributor.
Controversy: Bay Street Theater on Long Island, had planned a concert reading of the new Stephen Schwartz and Phillip LaZenik musical Prince of Egypt, which is based on a film about an Egyptian prince who learns his true identity. Schwartz’ song for the film,“When You Believe” won an Oscar. That was the plan and the concert was cast with some high powered Broadway veterans. But the concert was cancelled after complaints that the cast was not diverse. Apparently there were not just complaints but comments on social media and online which the director termed “harassment” and “bullying.” This is not the first time recently that a controversy has erupted over casting.
New York Notes: The Berkshire Theatre Group is transferring its well-received production of Fiorello! to Off-Broadway this fall. It begins previews Sun., Sept. 4 at the East 13th Street Theater. For tickets visit Fiorello or call 800-833-3006. The Pearl Theatre is reviving A Taste of Honey, last seen 35 years ago. Austin Pendleton directs. It runs Tues., Sept 6 to Sun., Oct. 16q. For tickets visit pearltheatre.org or call 212-563-9261. Another off-Broadway Theater – Primary Stages is opening its season with Horton Foote’s The Roads to Home directed by Michael Wilson, former artistic director of Hartford Stage. The production stars Harriet Harris, Devon Abner and Haille Foot. It begins performances Tues., Sept. 13. For tickets visit Primary Stages or call 212-352-3101
New York Notes: Tickets are now on sale for Heisenberg which stars Mary Louis Parker at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. It begins previews on Tuesday, Sept. 20. Tickets are available through Telecharge. Jenn Gambatese who starred at Goodspeed in Annie Get Your Gun and has numerous Broadway credits is replacing Sierra Boggess in School of Rock on Broadway. Tickets are also on sale for the revival of Falsettos starring Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells and Stephanie J. Block. The William Finn/James Lapine musical begins previews Thursday, Sept. 29 for a limited run. Ticketmaster is handling tickets.
CRT Season: The Connecticut Repertory Theater which performs on the UConn campus in Storrs is the last of the Connecticut theaters to announce its 2016-17 schedule. It begins with an ambitious play: Shakespeare’s King Lear from Thurs., Oct. 6 to Sun., Oct. 16. This coincides with the exhibition of a rare Shakespeare first folio to the campus (Thur., Sept 1 to Sun., Sept. 25) via the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tour. Changing gears, the second show if a translation of the Feydeau farce Le Dindon, called An Absolute Turkey, from Dec. 1 to 10. In 2017, Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty will play Feb. 23 to March 5 followed by Shrek: The Musical from April 20 to 30. Please call 860-486-2113 for information and subscriptions. Tickets for individual performances go on sale Sept. 1. Information is available at CRT.
Broadway People: He’s hot! Lin-Manuel Miranda has left his show Hamilton but he won’t be resting anytime soon. He’s working on the film version of his first hit, In the Heights, which is now a “go” because of the Hamilton success. He’s also signed to co-star in the 2018 Disney film that will be a sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. Emily Blunt will play Poppins. It’s a new story (set in London in the 1930s) and a new score. Angela Lansbury is not retiring; she’s returning to Broadway in 2017-18 in a revival of The Chalk Garden. She’ll be over 90 when it opens. Joe Mantello has been directing more than acting recently; he had two well received shows on Broadway last season. But he’s pulling out his acting talents to co-star with Sally Fields in a revival of The Glass Menagerie that begins previews next February. Sam Gold will direct.
On the Road to Broadway: Lots of shows have Broadway aspirations, but few make it and even fewer succeed. Among the shows that are supposedly enroute is Josephine, about the legendary American performer Josephine Baker who was a major star in Paris. It just played in Florida and producers say the next stop in Broadway. Grammy nominee Deborah Cox starred. The musical version of From Here to Eternity with lyrics by Tim Rice has played London, but made its US debut at the Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival this summer. Who knows if it makes it to Broadway; if you’re interested, there is a London cast album. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty will have Anastasia on Broadway next spring and their other new musical, The Little Dancer is also continuing development. After a production at the Kennedy Center in 2014, extensive revisions were done on the book. It’s inspired by a sculpture by Edgar Degas.
From East Haddam to Broadway: A musical that began life at the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals in 2013 will make it to Broadway. Come From Away tells the inspiring story of the residents in the Gander, Newfoundland area who hosted thousands of stranded air travelers when their flights were diverted to Gander on Sept. 11, 2001. From Goodspeed’s Festival, the show has more recently had successful runs at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Seattle Repertory Theater and will soon open at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC before going on to Toronto and then Broadway. It’s scheduled to open in February.
By Karen Isaacs
Red by is supposedly a play about Art with a capital A and about how the artist works. But it really is much more about perception and vision: What do we see? How do we see it? Why do we see it? What do we think it means?
This play by John Logan was presented first in London and then on Broadway during the 2009-10 theater season. It starred Alfred Molina and an unknown Eddie Redmayne, winning the Tony for best play with Redmayne winning a Tony as Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play.
The play opens with the artist Mark Rothko asking Ken, a young student, “what do you see?’ as they both look out over the audience, supposedly at a painting. That sets the theme of the piece.
Rothko was one of the most prominent abstract expressionist along with Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning. When the play takes place, 1958-59, he is in his later period where he focuses on blurred blocks of color and canvases of vertical design. He has said that he wants the viewer to be enveloped by the painting and to stand close to the large works for a sense of intimacy and awe. It was also at this time that he had a commission from Seagram to provide murals for the about-to-be opened restaurant, The Four Seasons, in the new corporate building in Manhattan designed by Phillip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe.
Artistic Director Mark Lamos has paired to plays that are ostensible about art to play in repertory with different casts. Art plays on the even days and the second, Red, plays on the odd days. Each play, Lamos points out, explores the relationship between men and art: making art, viewing art, collecting art. It also points out how art can be used as validation or a status symbol. It is interesting that each of these plays features an all-male cast, though Art is written by a female playwright.
Ken is hired as a studio assistant, running errands, fastening canvases to stretchers, preparing paint and preparing the canvases which Rothko starts with a background color. Although Ken is an aspiring painter, Rothko never asks about his art and never volunteers to look at it.
At first, Rothko talks. He is amazed that Ken is not familiar with literature and philosophy. He tells him to read Nietzsche and others; that you cannot be artist without a foundation in philosophy, history, literature.
As they continue to work together – the play takes place over 18 months or so – Ken begins
challenging Rothko’s theories of art, his dislike for the new pop artists, and his political views.
Ken tells him he is being hypocritical accepting the lucrative commission for the murals at this very expensive restaurant where the moguls of capitalism will dine while still maintaining that the work will be viewed as if in a museum. It is, Ken, says, just interior design. By the end of the play, Rothko has resigned the commission.
But underneath this play, there is not only the discussion about perception and how each of us views things so differently, but also the fear that the aging artist has not only of death but also of becoming irrelevant or overlooked. Just as the abstract expressionists were young men who disdained the conventions of their elders and redefined art, the pop artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg were redefining art and rejecting the approaches of the older generations, including artists like Rothko.
In a telling moment, Rothko admits to Ken that what he fears most is that the black on his canvases will overtake the red.
Under Lamos’ fine direction, Stephen Rowe gives a stellar performance as Rothko, letting us slowly inside the man to see the fear of death emerging. Patrick Andrews as Ken goes from the admiring student to an artist willing to challenge and confront.
The scenic design by Allen Moyer creates the studio space beautifully.
Of the two plays, Art and Red, I found Red to be both the most interesting theatrically and from the standpoint of the ideas discussed; I think it also the better production. But either is an enjoyable and thought provoking theatrical experience.
Red is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport through May 29. For tickets visit westportplayhouse.org or call 888-927-7529.
By Karen Isaacs
Art by Yasmina Reza which is getting a fine production at Westport Country Playhouse through May 29 was a hit on Broadway in 1998, winning the Tony as Best Play.
Looking at it today, particularly in the context of her subsequent play God of Carnage, I see the connections to that work, it less about contemporary art and more about power in friendships. What happens when the power dynamic in a friendship shifts? Can the friendship continue? At what cost?
Artistic Director Mark Lamos has paired to plays that are ostensible about art to play in repertory with different casts. Art plays on the even days and the second, Red, plays on the odd days. Each play, Lamos points out, explores the relationship between men and art: making art, viewing art, collecting art. It also points out how art can be used as validation or a status symbol.
It is interesting that each of these plays features an all-male cast, though Art is written by a female playwright.
In Art, which is set in Paris, Serge, a dentist has spent 200,000 Euros (about $228,000) on a large contemporary painting by a well-known artist. He wants to show it off to his two best friends, Marc and Yvan. The painting, which we see, looks like a large white canvas with no visible patterns. Serge states that there are various lines on the painting in a variety of white colors.
Marc is the first of the friends to see the painting. He thinks it is ridiculous, especially that someone would spend that much money for it. He describes the painting as “a piece of white shit.” Serge is successful but not wealthy. But Marc is also upset that Serrge made this purchase without consulting him. Very quickly, we realize that Marc believes he is the arbitrator of all that is cultural or good. He doesn’t like contemporary things, so Serge should not like them either; or if he must like them, at least not to buy them.
Marc and the third friend, Yvan, who is both uncertain and eager to please, discuss the painting. Yvan obviously wants to avoid confrontation, so it is clear that he has told Serge that he likes the painting, but agrees with Marc that the cost was ridiculous.
As the men continue to meet, it gets even more contentious, with Marc and Serge nearly coming to blows and Yvan trying to mediate by waffling between the two.
In the end, Serge finds a way to salvage the longt erm friendship, but you suspect it will flare up again soon.
This play is less about whether the painting or contemporary art in general is meaningful or worthwhile. On one hand it is about the person who collects art or other things for the status and affirmation it provides. The person who may be swayed to like something only because it is valuable or trendy.
It is also about friendship. The three men have been friends for 15 years and the pattern of their relationship is well established. Marc, who may be a few years old, is the dominant one in the group. He is very sure of himself and his opinions. He wants the affirmation of the others. But now, several things are threatening the group. Yvan is getting married; he is ambivalent about it and seems already under the thumb of his wife and her mother. Serge is,, with his interest in art, also stepping away into new groups and asserting independent thinking.
Like any leader, Marc will fight to retain his position of dominance, even if it means hurling insults and demeaning comments.
Mark Lamos has done an excellent job directing this piece and letting us see the various dynamics occurring. His multi-ethnic casting adds another dimension to the play and the possible motivations of the characters. He has three fine actors to work with, as well as a spacious living room of an apartment – sometimes, Marc’s, sometimes Serge’s – designed by Allen Moyer. He is added by the lighting by Matthew Richards and the sound design by David Budries.
Benton Greene gives us a Marc who is arrogant in certainty that his opinions are the correct ones. He stalks around Serge’s apartment as though he owned it. Sean Dugan has to portray the indecisive, eager to please, Yvan. It is to his credit that we not only like this character but feel sorry for him; at times I wanted to tell him to call off the up-coming wedding.
John Skelley is adding to his fine performances at Westport with Serge. At times I wished he was a little stronger, but you see a man sure of his opinions but not wanting to have them get in the way of the friendship.
As you leave the theater following this one act production, you will certainly have much to consider and discuss.
Art is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets visit westportplayhouse.org or call 888-927-7529.
By Karen Isaacs
Roundabout Theater is doing a fine revival of the musical She Loves Me at Studio 54. And yet…..
This Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock musical, with book by Joe Masteroff, has become a musical theater classic even if its original Broadway run was much too short (302 performances). It is based on the play The Little Shop Around the Corner, which was made into successful film with James Stewart and Margret Sullavan and then a musical with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, In the Good Old Summertime. In the more modern era it was the basis of the film, You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
The story is set in Budapest in the 1930s where Georg Nowak is manager of a parfumerie. When Amalia Balash is hired over his objections, they immediately butt heads. Both are single and both are corresponding with a “dear friend” whom they met through a lonely hearts advertisement. You can guess the rest. Several subplots include the Don Juan salesclerk and the woman clerk he is on-and-off with, the shop owner and both the messenger boy and the clerk who just wants to keep his job.
I saw the original production (Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey, Jack Cassidy, Barbara Baxley, Ludwig Donath, Nathaniel Frey and Ralph Williams) at the Shubert Theater in New Haven during its initial pre-Broadway tryout. I was totally enchanted with the story, the music and the performances. The two-LP original cast recording was a favorite.
In 1993, Roundabout Theater had a successful revival directed by Scott Ellis that ran for close to 400 performances. It featured Boyd Gaines, Judy Kuhn, Howard McGillin, and Sally Mayes among others.
Now Scott Ellis is directing this revival. He has broadcast that this is “new” version of the show and certainly, the night I saw it, the audience loved it.
I wish I was as enthusiastic. The cast is very good, the set and costumes are terrific, the orchestrations are good, the voices overall are excellent, but something about this production bothered me.
Ellis has lost the subtlety of this show. Everything has been broadened out, played for hearty guffaws, overplaying moments that should be more controlled. It’s lost some of its sweetness. Maybe that’s what today’s audiences want, but for me, it subverted the real mood of the show.
Perhaps I am not recalling correctly the other productions, I’ve seen – including a fine one directed by Mark Lamos at Westport Country Playhouse in 2010. But I don’t think so.
First of all the positives. The cast is vocally terrific though some of the other aspects of
the performances are lacking charm. Laura Benanti plays Amalia but lost some of the charm of the character. I found I wasn’t rooting for her, as much as should have. Zachary Levi follows up his Broadway debut in First Date with a fine performance as the confused and reticent Georg. Gavin Creel plays the lothario Steven Kodaly with true egotism though he misses on some of the charm that Jack Cassidy brought to the role. Michael McGrath is terrific is Ladislav, the clerk who only wants to keep his job. Byron Jennings is outstanding as the owner, Mr. Marczek who is facing his own mid-life crisis. You are touched by his performance. And Jane Krakowski is excellent, if much too attractive, for Ilona Ritter, the clerk who is easily taken in by Steven Kodaly. Nicholas Barasch is also excellent as the messenger/delivery boy, Arpad.
Next, let’s applaud the set by David Rockwell. It gives us the outside of the elegant show and then reveals the inside. It is easy to see what the audience applauded the set and later when it is changed into the “romantic café” applauded again. Jeff Mahshie’s costumes reflect the 1930s in their design and sensibility. Donald Holder’s lighting has created the seasonal changes and the atmosphere of the period.
The music direction by Paul Gemignani and the new orchestrations by Larry Hochman are fine. Today’s Broadway orchestras are smaller than those in 1964 but the musicians succeed in capturing both the 1930s feel to the show and the middle-European schmaltz so much a part of the Viennese musical tradition.
My biggest problem was with the choreography by Warren Carlyle. It broke the mood and often went for broad strokes and moves rather than subtle touches. The most egregious example is the song “Ilona” in which Kodaly tries to convince Ilona to stay with him. Should the audience be laughing loudly at this a gentle and seductive tango? Should some of the moves be reminiscent of “Dancing with the Stars”? I refer to Kodaly’s imitation of a pawing bull and Ilona’s split which then results in Kodaly pulling her across the floor? I shook my head in both dismay and dislike. It broke the mood. Also, no matter how feverish or upset she is, would Amalia really jump on the bed like a five year old during “Vanilla Ice Cream”? Again, I think not.
Highlights of the production include Jane Krawkowsk’s rendition of Ilona’s “A Trip to the Library” and Byron Jenning’s entire performance, particularly “Days Gone By”. But many more of the songs were good but not as great as they could be.
If you have never seen this delightful, romantic show, you will certainly enjoy this production of She Loves Me, but for some of us, we wish it were the perfect production we were hoping for.
She Loves Me is at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street, through June 12. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre.
For the centennial of Arthur Miller’s birth, Westport Country Playhouse is ending its 2015 season with a fine production of Broken Glass through Oct. 24 directed by Mark Lamos.
Miller not only lived for many years in Connecticut but Broken Glass had its world premiere at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater directed by John Tillinger (a frequent Westport director) in 1994 before opening on Broadway for a short run. By the way, the original production featured David Dukes (Dr. Harry Hyman), Amy Irving (Sylvia Gellburg), Ron Rifkin (Phillip Gellberg), Frances Conway (Margaret Hyman) in the four major roles. Ron Silver who started as Hyman in New Haven quit the production which had some problems.
Many have said this play most directly relates not only to Miller’s own life but to the experience of Jews in 20th century America. In reality it can relate to the experience of any immigrant group who finds their acceptance problematic and the issue of assimilation versus pride for their own culture.
The play is set in November, 1938 at the time of Kristallnacht in Germany; the time of “broken glass” as roving Nazi mobs broke windows, burned synagogues, looted stores owned by Jews and humiliated Jewish residents.
In Brooklyn (also the setting of several other Miller plays and where Miller lived as a teenager.) Phillip Gelburg (Steven Skybell) a middle-aged man who is an executive with a very WASP mortgage banking firm, visits the neighborhood physician, Dr. Harry Hyman ((Stephen Schnetzer) about his wife, Sylvia (Felicity Jones.) For the past 2 weeks, Sylvia has not been able to walk, stand or feel her legs though all the tests show no medical reason. She is also obsessed with the events that have occurred in Germany, reading the papers and focusing on a photograph of elderly Jewish men being forced to clean the sidewalk with toothbrushes as Nazis look on and jeer.
Hyman is puzzled by Sylvia’s condition but believes it is psychological in onset and may be caused by anxiety. He questions Phillip about their marriage and their sex life and according to him all is well.
Phillip has brushed off Sylvia’s concerns about what is going on in Germany; he views it as far away though he does admit some concern that the events will encourage American anti-Semites. He is proud to be the only Jew ever hired by his firm and that his son was one of the few Jews admitted to West Point, albeit with the help of Phillip’s WASP boss.
While Hyman attempts to treat Sylvia, he learns more about the marriage from Sylvia’s sister. All is not quite as Phillip told the doctor, particularly in the sex department. Phillip has apparently been “unable to perform” for many years.
As the one act play progresses we see conflicts within many of the characters. Phillip is proud of making it a Christian world and at times denigrates Jews –yet he is also aware on some level that his boss views him according to the Jewish stereotype. He is both trying to deny his religion and the stereotypes and also proud when he and his son, as Jews, succeed. He is worried about what is going on in Germany but feels helpless. To use a common descriptive phrase, he is “self-loathing.”
Sylvia is more in touch with her feelings but she is not just paralyzed by the anxiety she feels regarding the Nazi menace but also is unhappy in her marriage; she and Phillip have lead separate lives and she misses the independence of her pre-marriage career.
Dr. Hyman (the name is surely significant) is also paralyzed in some ways. He attended medical school in Germany because of quotas on Jewish medical students in the US and is convinced that the Germans will not continue to follow Hitler. His wife, Margaret, is Christian but it appears that he has not been a faithful husband. In fact, he seems to develop feelings for Sylvia, although they are not acted upon.
Broken Glass is a play in which Miller throws almost too many complications – I’ve not mentioned some on Phillip’s job that unsettle him and make realize how he cannot escape being a Jew. In addition, this is a play that is heavily Freudian in its symbolism and issues.
Mark Lamos gets the most out of the play and cast in his deft direction. He and the actors in the have created a reality for us.
Steven Skybell as Phillip lets us see the duality of the man – proud in many ways of his Jewishness and achievements as a Jew but also terrified that they will be stripped away. From the moment he corrects Margaret Hymen about his name – “Gellberg” not “Goldberg” which she insists on using, perhaps indicating how Christians view all Jews as the same – to the scenes as he realizes how his boss views him, Skybell creates a character torn between pride and self-hatred.
As Dr. Hyman, Stephen Schnetzer shows us a man more in touch with his reality but also blind in some spots.
The role of Sylvia is central to the play – we must be able to accept her paralysis and understand her strengths, her longings and her fear. If we do not always totally get this, it is less the fault of Felicity Jones – who is excellent in the role – and more the fault of Miller, the playwright.
The supporting cast is also excellent: John Hilner as Phillip’s boss Stanton Case; Angela Reed as Dr. Hyman’s wife, Margaret; and Merritt Janson as Sylvia’s sister, Harriet.
Lamos has assembled a fine production team including Micahel Yeargan for the scenic design which is suggestive rather than totally realistic, Candice Donnelly for the 1930s costumes, Steven Strawbridge for the lighting and David Budries for the sound.
Yet Broken Glass leaves the audience somewhat dissatisfied; too many elements, too much Freud; a too obvious message and a melodramatic ending all combine to make this a minor Miller play. Though it is just over 90 minutes, at times it seemed endless.
Broken Glass is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport through Oct. 24. For tickets visit Westport Playhouse or call 888-927-7529.
Inside notes and comments about Connecticut and New York Professional Theater
By Karen Isaacs
Important Centennial: Arthur Miller, one of America’s most important playwrights and Connecticut resident, was born 100 years ago. Westport Country Playhouse is marking his centennial with a production of Broken Glass to Oct, 24. It is directed by Artistic Director Mark Lamos. Lamos said, “In its swift-moving, almost thriller-like action, Miller audaciously entwines a crippled marriage, in which the wife is herself mysteriously crippled in reaction to news of Nazi atrocities against German Jews, mirrored by a world on the verge of collapse.” For tickets visit westportplayhouse.org or call 888-927-7529.
At the Shubert: It’s still a big hit on Broadway but area residents can see the national touring production of The Book of Mormon at the Shubert Theater, New Haven from Oct. 13 to Oct. 18. Tickets are available at Shubert.com or 203-562-5666. If you feel lucky, you can participate in a lottery that will offer 20 tickets for each performance at $25 each. You must enter at the box office beginning two and a-half hours prior to the performance. A maximum of two tickets per winner.
World Premier: Yale Rep is presenting, in conjunction with La Jolla Playhouse, the world premiere of Paula Vogel’s Indecent, to Oct. 24. The play is written by Vogel and created by Vogel and Rebecca Taichman who directs. It is described as a “new play with music inspired by the true events surrounding the controversial 1923 Broadway debut of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance—a play seen by some as a seminal work of Jewish culture, and by others as an act of traitorous libel. Indecent charts the history of an incendiary drama and the path of the artists who risked their careers and lives to perform it.” For tickets visit yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.
Remembering: In 1998 in Wyoming, Matthew Shepherd, a gay teenager, was brutally killed. Within weeks the Tectonic Theater Project was on the scene interviewing residents – friends of Shepherd, friends of the perpetrators and citizens. What emerged was The Laramie Project which created a compelling theater piece using the actual words the project heard. The Connecticut Repertory Theater on the UConn campus in Storrs is presenting a production of this play to Oct. 18. Randy Burre, who you may know from HBO’s The Wire is a member of the cast. For tickets visit crt.uconn.edu or call 860-486-2113.
Plagiarism: It is a problem on college campuses and even high schools. Third by Wendy Wasserstein examines the issue of a college professor who accuses a student of plagiarism. But is she influenced by her stereotype of the student? Her assumptions? The increasingly polarized political atmosphere on campus? TheaterWorks in Hartford opens its season with a production of this thought-provoking play, to Nov. 8. Rob Ruggiero, the artistic director directs the cast which features Kate Levy as the professor. For tickets call 860-527-7838.
Leaving New Haven: Eric Ting, Long Wharf’s associate artistic director since 2004 is leaving New Haven for a new position. He has been named artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater. Congratulations and good luck.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.