November 16, 2019

Seeing "Macbeth" Again, Again, And Again

Macbeth is a great gateway drug for Shakespeare newbies. It’s got a straight-ahead plot, some of the Bard’s most memorable lines, plus witches. Us Shakespeare oldies like it too. It’s one of my favorites and despite the well-known superstition against saying its name in a theater (you’re supposed to say “The Scottish Play”) a lot of theater folks apparently also love it. Cause I’ve seen three variations in just the last six months.

First came Red Bull Theater’s production of Erica Schmidt’s Mac Beth, a reimagining of the play as a high-school revenge drama in which a band of contemporary girls meet after classes are over to rehearse the play and settle scores with one another in truly bloody fashion. 

I found the show to be a bit histrionic (click here to read my full review) but earlier this week came word that, starting Jan. 6, it will get a seven-week encore run at the Frederick Loewe Theatre at Hunter College.  

Last month the Roundabout Theatre Company opened Scotland, PA, a musical version of an indie film that sets the Bard’s tragedy in a small Pennsylvania town where stoners step in for the witches, the thane and his lady are recast as a meek fast-food restaurant worker and his more ambitious wife and the score is filled with composer Adam Gwon's ‘70s-style power ballads (click here for more about him). 

That show, which is running at the Laura Pels Theatre thru Dec. 8, amused lots of the critics, including The New York Times’ Jesse Green who found it “quietly insightful, making piquant connections between Shakespeare’s drama of political power lust and the consumerist mania of our own fast-food culture.”

Maybe. But I found Scotland, PA to be just silly. Or perhaps not silly enough since the cast members, while talented and perfectly pleasant, lack the go-for-broke zaniness that you need to pull off a spoof like this. 

The one exception is Jay Armstrong Johnson who brings a daffy charm to Banko, the lovable loser the show’s Mac eventually betrays. In the process, Johnson’s Banko also gives the show a heart it's otherwise missing.

The final entry in the Big Mac sweepstakes, at least for now, comes from Classic Stage Company. As usual, the company’s artistic director John Doyle applies his minimalist aesthetic to the production. 

That means there is practically no set. The costumes are drab shades of black, brown and gray. And the entire cast consists of nine actors, including the two who play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which leads to all kinds of confusion about who is killing whom.

But the biggest crime is that Doyle doesn’t seem to have any reason for doing the play. The message of Mac Beth is that teenage girls can be as vicious as medieval warriors. Scotland, PA wants to show that even when the stakes are low, good people can turn into venal ones in pursuit of them.

Doyle’s take, however, isn’t sturdy enough to make the case for doing Shakespeare traditionally or offbeat enough to provide new insights into the play or telling parallels between its time and ours. 

Instead, he does some gender-bending casting with Mary Beth Peil as King Duncan, although that’s less daring after the female Lears and Henry Vs we’ve recently seen. 

He also attempts to go post-modern by changing the famous opening scene in which the witches ask “When shall we three meet again,”  so that the entire cast intones the lines. But of course that makes no sense at all: is everybody, including the Macbeths, supposed to be witches who are in on the evil game?

Perhaps Doyle did the play to showcase Corey Stoll, who, although still best known for his TV roles has been building up his Shakespeare street cred over the past few years in productions for Shakespeare in the Park.  And under surer direction, Stoll might have made a commanding Macbeth. But here, left directorially adrift, he flounders, resorting to shouting and arm flailing. 

And it’s even more obvious that Nadia Bowers, Stoll’s real-life wife (click here to read more about the couple), could have used help in shaping her wan Lady Macbeth.

Still the play has fared worst (click here to read my review of the Lincoln Center debacle of a few years ago) and odds are that Macbeth will soon be given the chance to show its might in some other production soon. 

November 9, 2019

"Seared" is Cooking on Almost All Burners

Sometimes you want a gourmet meal filled with rare or surprising ingredients. But sometimes you just want a big yummy bowl of macaroni and cheese. Seared, the latest play by Theresa Rebeck, is the latter. And to my surprise, I lapped it right up.

I say to my surprise because after having been disappointed by a string of Rebeck's previous plays, including Mauritius, The Understudy, Seminar, Dead Accounts and Bernhardt/Hamlet (she gets produced a lot), not to mention the mishmash of her theater-centric TV series ‘Smash,” I’d almost given up on her. But Seared, which is running in The Robert W. Wilson Space at MCC Theater through Dec. 15, seems to take itself less seriously than its predecessors and, perhaps consequently, is a lot more fun.

It opens in the cramped kitchen of a small restaurant in Brooklyn run by a temperamental chef named Harry and his anxious business partner Mike. New York magazine has just touted their restaurant for its seared scallops and reservations are pouring in from foodies eager to try the dish.

The problem is that Harry considers himself an artist and having now perfected the scallop recipe, he isn’t interested in cooking it anymore. At the same time, Mike, desperate to grow the business and turn a profit on the life savings he's invested in it, brings in Emily, a savvy restaurant consultant with powerful connections that can help them exploit their newfound fame.

This sets the stage for one of Rebeck’s favorite themes: the tug of war between art and commerce. But director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who specializes in both high and low comedy, keeps the tone light and the pace quick, while still showcasing Rebeck’s snappy dialogue and theme-defining monologues.

The director also nearly manages to camouflage the shallowness of the play's characters. For although created by a woman and dressed in chic designer outfits, Emily is your standard-issue manic pixie dream girl, while Harry is your basic man-child. 

But von Stuelpnagel’s masterstroke was getting Raúl Esparza to play Harry. For Esparza always projects an inherent cockiness laced with an endearing layer of vulnerability, qualities and that fit hand-in-glove with the volatile Harry (click here to read more about the actor). 

Both actor and character also share a love of their crafts that is evident in the bravura silent scene that opens the second act and that was so terrific it drew a well-deserved ovation at the performance I attended.

The rest of the cast—David Mason as Mike, Krysta Rodriguez as Emily (click here to read more about her) and a very droll W.Tré Davis as the sole waiter Rodney—is cooking with gas too.

Meanwhile, scenic designer Tim Mackabee has created a fully-operational kitchen of such detailed verisimilitude (and expertly lit by David Weiner) that it actually becomes the essential fifth character in the show.

What you get when you add it all up is the theatrical equivalent of comfort food. But there's nothing wrong with that, particularly when it's as well done as Seared is.

November 2, 2019

"Power Strip" Indicts War's Effect on Women

War stories tend to be tales about men told by men. But as the Greeks knew (check out Antigone or The Trojan Women) women have always suffered the ravages of war. 

In recent years, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed and Winter Miller’s No One is Forgotten have refocused attention on the plight of women besieged by contemporary warfare. Now joining their ranks is Power Strip, an affecting new play by Sylvia Khoury that is running at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater through Nov. 17.

Power Strip’s setting is a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece. Its central character is a 20-year-old Syrian woman named Yasmin who has fled there from the civil wars in her homeland.

Hard times have toughened Yasmin and minutes after the play begins, the former college student is wielding a knife and successfully defending the turf she has secured near the jerry-rigged series of extension cords that give the show its title.

That power strip allows her to have a space heater that keeps her warm at night and to charge the cell phone she uses to keep in touch with the brother she hopes to join in Germany. Both give her a feeling of autonomy and control in a place where people have little of either.

Her would-be assailant is Khaled, a callow but cute newcomer to the camp who after (or maybe because of) being bested by Yasmin quickly becomes smitten with her. In a less ambitious play, the consummation of their courtship would be the sole storyline. 

But while Khoury allows that romance to blossom, she’s more interested in the daily indignities inflicted on female war refugees—be it the endless queueing for inadequate food, the shame of being unable to keep clean or the constant fear of being raped.

Khoury, who is of Lebanese descent and, impressively, in her fourth year at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital here in New York (click here to read more about her) began writing her play long before Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian Kurds made it so distressingly timely. 

She eschews overt politics and instead leans into the specifics of this one Muslim woman’s struggle to navigate the emotional strip between the modern world and the traditional one that continues to circumscribe her life—and to determine what happens with the anatomical strip between her legs that men have always felt entitled to regulate. 

The self-reliance Yasmin manages to scratch out for herself makes her powerful but also tragic. All of this is underscored in director Tyne Rafaeli’s unsentimental production. And the actors, all of whom seem to be of Middle Eastern descent, bring a refreshing authenticity to the piece. Dina Shihabi is particularly heartbreaking as Yasmin. The creative team steps up too, with a special shout-out due to Matt Hubb’s appropriately unsettling soundscape.

However, the show is not without flaws. Although there are flashbacks to Yasmin's pre-camp life, I wish Khoury had fleshed out even more of Yasmin's backstory and that she had made Khaled less of a pixie dream boy. Another character who shows up toward the end of the 90-minute play also seems too convenient.

But I have no quarrels with Khoury’s message that women will always be collateral damage in wars unless they take their fate into their own hands.