August 19, 2017

A "Hamlet" Without a Semblance of Majesty

Hamlet is hands down the world's most famous play. People who have never been inside a theater quote its lines "To be, or not to be" and "To thine own self be true." And parodies and homages have been done by everyone from Tom Stoppard to The Simpsons (click here to see the latter's).

Yet every time I see a production of Hamlet, I tell myself it's the last time I'm going to sit through four-hours of watching Shakespeare's grieving Danish prince decide if and how to avenge the death of his father. Then an intriguing actor gets cast in it or an interesting director signs on to helm it and I find myself wooed back to Elsinore Castle once more.

But Sam Gold's current production at the Public Theater, starring Oscar Isaac in the title role and running through Sept. 3, may be the straw that finally breaks the camel's back for me. I don't know if it's just my exhaustion with the play itself or my aversion to Gold's eccentric interpretation of it but I liked almost nothing about this production, even though it's become the must-see show of the summer for the hipster set.

Gold is a master at collaborating on new works such as Annie Baker's early plays, the Tony-award winning musical Fun Home or Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2, one of the few straight plays currently running on Broadway. But Gold, who spent several formative years as an assistant director and dramaturge for the proto-experimental theater company The Wooster Group, also likes to bring his modernist sensibility to classic plays.

 Alas, the stripped down approach he's taken to plays such as the Roundabout Theatre Company's 2012 revival of Look Back in Anger or last season's Broadway outing of The Glass Menagerie haven't worked for me at all. His reinterpretations come off as though he is far more interested in showing off his own cleverness instead of the play's.

As is his want, Gold has reduced the main set for his Hamlet to a folding table and a few chairs that hardly merit the services of a gifted scenic designer like David Zinn. Similarly, he's instructed costume designer Kaye Voyce to dress the actors in jeans, T shirts, hoodies, cargo shorts and other leisure wear, although I dare anyone to tell me why since his concept doesn't extend to drawing any parallels between Shakespeare's world and the contemporary one in which people wear such outfits.

More distinguishing costumes might have served another purpose too. For Gold has cut the cast down to nine actors, which means everyone, with the exception of Isaac, has to take on double and even triple roles. It not only makes it hard to keep track of who is being whom but at times that casting decision really mucks up the storytelling. 

Hamlet famously stages a play within the play so that he can gauge the reaction of his stepfather Claudius, whom he suspects of having poisoned the prince's father. But neither he nor we in the audience can see Claudius' response because the actor playing Claudius is at the moment playing someone else.

Gold tries to make up for the confusion by having an onstage musician play various instruments to signal how we should respond to major moments in the play. But sometimes the music drowns out the dialog. Other times, it's just annoying. There's even gratuitous underscoring during the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. If an actor can't convey the emotion of that speech on his own, he shouldn't be cast in the first place.

Isaac is totally capable of doing so and gives an intense and intelligent performance but its power is often undercut by all the folderol, including his having to take off his pants and play large chunks of the role in his underwear, Gold's too on-the-nose way of indicating when Hamlet is pretending to be mad (click here to read more about the actor's decision to take on the role).

The rest of the cast is uneven, ranging from a mystifying turn by Gayle Rankin who plays Ophelia as though she were the robust captain of a girl's hockey team instead of a fragile noblewoman driven mad by grief and unrequited love, to Peter Friedman's full-bodied performance as the vainglorious chief counselor Polonius, conveying the character's inherent humor but also his dignity as well, despite the fact that Gold stages a long scene with the counselor sitting on a toilet.   

Somewhere in the middle is the comedian Keegan-Michael Key, whose primary role is Hamlet's bestie Horatio. Although probably best known for playing President Obama's angry alter ego Luther on the sketch comedy show "Key & Peele," Key trained as a classical actor and handles the Bard's lines with finesse (click here to read an interview with him).

However Key also portrays one of the players in the play within a play and has clearly been directed to give a go-for-the-belly-laughs performance that fits in with Gold's determination to present Hamlet as part comedy. The schtick clearly delighted the audience the night my friend Ellie and I saw the play but I found it to be just a few degrees short of ludicrous.

But even getting tickets to see this Hamlet proved to be a pain in the ass. Seduced by what Isaac might do with the role, I hopped online the moment the tickets went on sale back in March and got seats for a couple of weeks after the show was scheduled to open on July 14.  But a few hours before my performance, I got an email telling me that night's show had been canceled because of an actor's illness.

When I called to exchange my tickets, the reservationist tried to persuade me to take a Saturday matinee performance. I insisted on a weeknight and it's a good thing I did cause a week later, the Public canceled all Saturday matinees (click here to read more about that). According to press reports, the Public said that "the intensity that Hamlet requires of our actors over the four-hour show is starting to take a toll."

I understand exactly how they feel.

August 12, 2017

"Curvy Widow" Plays to its Demographic

Women of a certain age (which usually means between 50 and 75) make up the majority of the theater's ticket buying audience. And Curvy Widow, the new musical that recently opened at the Westside Theatre, is made for them.

Now I don't want to oversell this. Curvy Widow is basically a vanity project that showcases its book writer Bobby Goldman's personal story of how she made a life for herself after the sudden death of her husband the playwright James Goldman, who wrote The Lion in Winter and the book for Follies and died in 1998 at the age of 71.

And yet, the show's strong sense of the you-go-older-girl message it wants to deliver and the forthright amiability with which it delivers it won me (a card-carrying member of the certain age set) over. 

Goldman was 55 when she lost her partner of three decades. Like many women of her age and class (money is not a problem for our heroine and the play is rife with references to big-dollar places like Hermès and Per Se) she had built her life around her husband's needs and desires. Once he was gone, she had to figure out how to satisfy her own needs and desires.

The onstage Bobby jettisons her East Side apartment for a downtown loft and trades in her Chanel suits for Eileen Fisher slouchy wear. But most of the show—and nearly all of its jokes—centers on Bobby's efforts to revive her sex life, ranging from the vagaries of online dating in her 50s (the show's title is her dating sites screen name) to finding a remedy for the vaginal dryness that often plagues women after menopause.

All of it is set to chirpy but forgettable music by Drew Brody, whose most prominent earlier credit is the interstitial score for Nick Kroll and John Mulaney's Oh, Hello. And, with the exception of the sleek and versatile set by Rob Bissinger, the rest of the production has an amateurish feel as well.

It's easy to imagine that most of the notes director Peter Flynn gave his cast must have been along the lines of "play it bigger." Having each of the six ensemble members play multiple roles doesn't help either. At one point I wondered why Bobby was dating her therapist until I realized that the actor was now playing another character.

What saved the evening for me was the game performance by stage vet Nancy Opel. She looks age-appropriately great, is in fine voice and doesn't take herself or the material too seriously (click here to see her perform a number).

And yet, there is an underlying warmth to Opel's performance that clearly respects the fact that lots of women—widows, divorcées, the never-marrieds—are going through some variation of Bobby's experience.

Women in the audience at our performance hooted out their support for her as Bobby endured one bad date after another. And, judging from the conversation in the lady's room after the show, they seemed content with how she ends up as well.

If you're looking for an intellectually stimulating evening, then Curvy Widow won't be for you. But for women born near the middle of the last century, it could be a fun evening to share with a group of longtime gal friends. 

Although you don't have to be an old broad to enjoy it; from the way they laughed and applauded, two young guys sitting a few rows away from my theatergoing buddy Bill and me seemed to be having a good time too.

August 5, 2017

"A Parallelogram" Doesn't Play It Straight

Whimsy has never really been my cup of tea. And alas, A Parallelogramthe Bruce Norris play that opened at Second Stage Theater this past week, is reeking of it.  A dark comedy, it tells the story of a woman named Bee who, as a result of some metaphysical mumbo jumbo, may have encountered a future version of herself that no one else can see. Or she may just be losing her mind.

The future Bee, a dumpy Oreo-eating sixtysomething year-old (played with determined brio by Anita Gillette) arrives with a remote control device that allows her to rewind and revise actual life events. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the question the present-day Bee asks her boyfriend Jay about what someone might do if she could go back into the past and prevent bad things from happening.

This is the kind of existential query (punctuated with pointedly allegorical character names) that's supposed to appeal to those of us who fancy ourselves to be serious theatergoers. But it's hard to take it seriously when Bee is so solipsistic that she hardly stirs from her bed when her future self tells her that a coming plague is going to wipe out most of the earth's population.

Still, Norris, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Clybourne Park, is a master of the snappy line and the largely silver-haired audience at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended ate up his wry observations about growing older.

Director Michael Greif is a master stager of all kinds of material, from the original production of Rent to the acclaimed 2010 revival of Angels in America, and he's adept here as well, working hard to delineate the time shifts as Bee bounces back and forth between moments in her life. Hats off, too, to scenic designer Rachel Hauck and the stage crew for the fast set changes.

The show also has a top-notch cast, with a doughty Celia Keenan-Bolger as Bee, Stephen Kunken as Jay, an older guy who's left his wife and kids to be with Bee; Gillette as the mysterious older Bee (click here to read an interview with the actresses) and Juan Castano as JJ, a hunky younger Mexican-American man who befriends Bee while cutting her lawn.

But neither the good acting nor the jocular dialogue made me care about either of the Bees or the men in their life. In the end, the only takeaway the play could offer up is that life is better when people are nice to one another. Which, and forgive me if I'm being too pragmatic here, I knew going in.

July 29, 2017

"The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin" Didn't Get Time to Show Off Its Star

It may seem silly to talk about The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin because it was scheduled for just two performances this past week, half the usual five or six-show run for productions in the Encores! Off-Center series. But I'm going to talk about it anyway because the show deserved more time, if only for Nikki M. James' scintillating performance in the title role.

The Off-Center series specializes in musicals that had short runs off-Broadway. Bubbly Black Girl, a semi-biographical show that debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 2000, was completely written (book, lyrics and music) by Kirsten Childs, one of the few black women to have any success as a creator of musicals (click here to read an interview with her).

Her show tells the story of a middle-class black girl who grew up in Los Angeles sheltered from the heat of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and dreaming about a career on Broadway. But she's still traumatized enough by events like the Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls her age that she fantasizes about becoming white and safe.  

In the second act, our heroine, whom everyone calls Bubbly, moves to New York intent on becoming a Broadway dancer, as Childs herself once was. Through it all, she struggles to deflect any hostilities (be it a belligerent cop or a casting director who wants her to act more black) by smiling and being agreeable. Until one day she can't keep up the pretense any longer.

The show's score is a pleasing pastiche of show tunes and soul jams that aptly capture the African-American experience during the latter half of the 20th century, from an amusing paean to the blonde talking doll Chatty Cathy to a silky seduction number "Come With Me" that Motown's Marvin Gaye might have recorded during his sexual-healing phase.

But the book is a patchy collection of vignettes that director Robert O'Hara couldn't find a way to knit into a satisfying whole. The ending seemed to come out of nowhere. And like apparently just about everyone else in the opening-night audience, I didn't know how to react when the bouncy number about the white doll ended with photos of the actual little girls killed in Birmingham.

I'd blame that clunkiness on the short week or so of rehearsals that Encores! shows typically get, but O'Hara had similar problems when he staged Childs' even more whimsical musical Bella: An American Tall Tale, which had a month-long run at Playwrights Horizons in the spring (click here to read about it).

And yet so many of Bubbly Black Girl's individual parts were so enjoyable in themselves that I almost didn't mind the herky-jerky nature of the overall show. Plus, I got a kick out of its loving send-up of Bob Fosse, with whom Childs worked.

The production, which included completely different costumes for Acts I and II and a simple but witty set, seemed particularly polished for a two-night venture, which I suppose might suggest a future for the show. Which would be great because as I've already said more people should get to see James' performance.

The Tony she won for The Book of Mormon already attests to James' talents but her singing, dancing and comedic chops are even more ingratiating here, making Bubbly someone you truly root for. The character's idol is Gwen Verdon and I think James would be terrific in some of Verdon's iconic roles, particularly the title character in Sweet Charity.

Bubbly Black Girl brought out more black folks than I usually see at Encores! performances, including what looked to be a group of some older church ladies who surrounded my sister Joanne and me and laughed as heartily as the rest of us at the show's raunchiest lines.

It's really a shame that the show closed before they could get to church on Sunday and urge other members of their congregation to check it out.

July 26, 2017

Drifting into Summer Vacation Mode

It's that time of year again: temperatures have heated up, show openings have cooled down and I've succumbed to summer sloth. So while I'll continue to see a few shows and to share my thoughts about them with you, these posts will be less frequent than usual until the season picks back up in the fall. In the meantime, I'll continue to add interesting theater-related articles I come across to the B&Me magazine on the Flipboard site, which I hope you'll check out by clicking here.


July 22, 2017

"Ghost Light" is a Love Letter to Theater

Although he's usually game for just about anything, my theatergoing buddy Bill declined when I suggested that we see Ghost Light, the immersive theatrical experience that the experimental theater company Third Rail Projects is presenting at LCT3's Claire Tow theater through Aug. 6. I suspect that may be because Bill was once an actor and later a stage manager and felt he didn't need the behind-the-scenes, in-the-wings view of the theater that Ghost Light promises. But the idea of it delighted me.

Ghost Light takes its audience members on a literal journey through theater history and through the Claire Tow, the tiny theater that sits atop the Vivian Beaumont. Over two intermissionless hours, scenes play out in its dressing rooms, its costume shop, hallways, stairwells, the flies overlooking the stage and even the lobby bar area.

Audience members are lead in small groups through the theater as performers enact scenes from Shakespeare, melodramas, musicals, an absurdist farce and other genres of theater.

Sixteen actors race from place to place. A scene in one room takes on new meaning when the same actors appear in another. The split-second timing of the choreography, directed by Zach Morris and Jennine Willett, who also conceived the show, is astonishingly impressive.

Regular B&Me readers know that the ghost light is the light bulb on a pole that theaters place on the stage when they're temporarily empty. The light is supposed to make sure no one trips over anything in the dark. But, according to theater lore, it also signals the ghosts of the theater that they are free to roam.

As Ghost Light would have it, all kinds of spirits from theater's past are haunting the Claire Tow, desperate to have one more moment in the spotlight. And yet while I enjoyed their individual glimpses into how shows get put together it's hard to connect those scenes into a satisfying narrative.

If you're going, you might want to pick one or two characters and pay extra special attention when they appear so that you can piece together their stories. But even that could be tricky since a few of the actors seem to play multiple roles. 

I'll admit I was also disappointed that the one black actor in the company seemed to have one of the smallest parts. But then it later occurred to me that she may have appeared in scenes that my group didn't get to see.

Audience participation has been built into the performances. I usually try to avoid shows like that or at least to avoid participating but Ghost Light's actors are so charming about it that I didn't mind doing the few things I was asked to do (hold a prop, move some scenery) at all.

What I did mind was the hammy guy in my group who tried to compete with the cast members. His girlfriend laughed uproariously at his antics. I thought he was just a pain in the ass and was delighted when, as occasionally happens, our group was split in two and they went one way and I another.

We all came together in the end for a finale that stretched on a bit too long. But despite the above carps, I still left the theater with a smile on my face. What can I tell you.  It's impossible for someone like me to resist this kind of theatrical magic.

July 19, 2017

"Pipeline" is Unsure of Where It Wants to Go

Dominique Morisseau's reputation as both a lyrical and thoughtful playwright has been growing for a few years now. Detroit '67, the first in a three-play cycle she wrote about her hometown, won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama in 2014. And the third, Skeleton Crew, created such a sensation when it played at Atlantic Theater Company in January 2016, that it was brought back for an additional run six months later, which is when I saw it and loved it so much that it made my list of last year's Top 10 shows.

But this is shaping up to be Morisseau's true breakthrough season. Signature Theater has named her one of its resident playwrights and will present her play Paradise Blue next spring. And last week, Lincoln Center Theater opened her Pipeline at its Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. I'm happy to see such a gifted writer getting such mainstream exposure, but I also wish Pipeline had shown her work off to greater effect.

The play is a rumination on what it means to raise a black son when even the slightest wrong decision could result in his being killed by police or sent away to prison. Nya, the mom in Morisseau's drama, is a public school teacher who has tried to safeguard her own son Omari by sending him to a prestigious prep school. But as the play opens, she gets the news that he's about to be expelled—and possibly worse—for assaulting one of his teachers.

Did Omari snap because, as he claims, he was baited by the teacher? Or is he acting out because his parents are divorcing and he feels neglected by his dad, an affluent exec whose chief contact with the teen has been through the checks he sends each month?  Or is he simply a victim of the conventional image of black boys described in the 1960 Gwendolyn Brooks poem "We Real Cool," which is dramatically rendered in the play? (Click here to read the poem).

Morisseau attempts to answer these questions and some others as well but she bites off more than she can comfortably chew in 90 minutes. She also overwrites some of the arias she's created for Nya, Omari, his girlfriend Jasmine and even for Laurie, a white colleague of Nya's in a public high school where even teachers run the risk of becoming victims of violence.

But the main fault in this production is less with the text than with the direction. Morisseau's work cries out for the kind of vibrant naturalism that Ruben Santiago-Hudson gave Skeleton Crew. But Pipeline has been staged by Lileana Blain-Cruz who tends to favor a more stripped down expressionism.

Here, she and set designer Matt Saunders have created a big white wall that could be found at either institutional end of the school-to-prison pipeline from which the play takes its title but, under Yi Zhao's intentionally harsh lighting, it dwarfs the stage.

Similarly the intense video projections by Hannah Wasileski double down so hard on images of the volatile atmosphere in public high schools that they took me out of the play.

Directors of new plays also have a responsibility to help the playwright weed out their play's undergrowth but Pipeline is seriously under-pruned. And the casting is also a bit off.

The always-dynamic Karen Pittman is strong and sympathetic as Nya, who is overwhelmed by her efforts to protect her son. But although Namir Smallwood gives an equally committed performance as Omari, the actor is in his mid-30s and I just didn't buy him as a high-school aged teen.

Heather Velazquez and Tasha Lawrence provide high energy (and some humor) as Jasmine and Laurie but their performances have been amped up so high that they verge on caricature. Meanwhile, the issues their characters represent (the challenges of being a minority kid at a predominantly white school; the demands of being a caring teacher at an understaffed inner-city school) detract from Pipeline's main plot. These subjects deserve their own plays.

But those lapses are somewhat emblematic of this play. Despite a literal list of recommendations that one character reads at the end, it was never clear to me what Morisseau wants to say about the way society is treating young black men, other than that it should do a better job. 

I thought we already know that but lots of reviews suggest that the play is providing a wake-up service (click here to read some of the praise) and it's hard to argue with that so I'll just end here.