December 9, 2017

How I Got Stranded by "Once on This Island"

It's no fun being a party-pooper. But that's the role I find myself in when it comes to the revival of Once on This Island, the Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flahaerty musical that opened this week at Circle in the Square to rave reviews.

Based on a 1985 novel by the Trinidadian-American writer Rosa Guy (you pronounce her last name like the word key), it's a fable set on a Haiti-like island that is uneasily shared by a small set of mulatto grand hommes, a larger group of dark-skinned peasants and the gods who play with all their fates.

The show's Romeo-and-Juliet plot derives from the romance that develops when the aristocratic Daniel has an accident and is rescued and nursed back to health by the peasant girl Ti Moune, who falls in love with him so deeply at first glance that she offers the god of death her soul in exchange for sparring Daniel's life.

It was a dubious premise back in 1990 when the show debuted at Playwrights Horizons and quickly moved to Broadway. But its Calypso-inflected score and a lovely performance by LaChanze won it a run of 469 performances and eight Tony nominations.

Today, nearly 30 years later, the idea of a poor dark-skinned woman sacrificing herself so that a wealthy light-skinned guy can live annoyed me so much that I sat there during the  entire 90-minute running time asking myself the words of a famous lyric from the show "why do we tell this story"?

Yeah, I get that it's supposed to be a testament to the unconditional love that we all want.  But how come the guy doesn't have to give up anything? Some people are calling this show an example of female empowerment but the idea of a woman dying for a man is empowering primarily to men. And yeah, I know it's just a story but is this really the message that we want to tell girls?

And things only got worse for me when the production indulged itself in another of my bugaboos: the rousing gospel aria delivered by a large black woman. As usual, the number brought down the house. But I sat there with my head in my hands, wondering "Why this again?"

I suppose the creative team thought it was breaking the stereotype by having a large black gender-fluid performer (Alex Newell of "Glee" fame) sing the song.  But wouldn't it be more radical to have a thin black woman (cis or trans) do it? Or even more radical still if a large black woman (cis or trans) were allowed to do something else?

I can't complain about the performances, which were all very good, lead by the newcomers Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune and Isaac Powell as Daniel and anchored by the stage vets Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller as Ti Moune's adopted parents. 

Tony-winner Lea Salonga gets special billing (and the prettiest costumes) for playing the god of love and she sings her solo sweetly but still comes across as the least memorable of the play's four deities (although to be fair it's hard to compete with Quentin Earl Darrington's commanding physique).

Meanwhile, director Michael Arden has worked hard to add contemporary flourishes to the new production. As he notes in the Playbill, he's drawn a sharp parallel between the climate disasters of recent years and the storms in the play. 

Much of the action takes place on a sand-filled environmental set that seems barely recovered from a previous calamity, with clothes strung out to dry around the theater and livestock (including a real goat) being rounded up.

Arden has also cast two of the gods against gender (Merle Dandridge plays the god of death) and paid tribute to the narrative traditions of the islands by nearly doubling the original cast with an ensemble of storytellers. 

It's also nice to see the young African-American choreographer Camille A. Brown getting a chance to show off what she can do on Broadway (click here to read an interview with her).

And lots of people seemed to be enchanted by all of it, including my sister and the two men in the first row who waved white handkerchiefs high in the air to signal their surrender to the show's charms. 

I wish Once on This Island had charmed me too. But although I'm a theater lover, I'm thinking that something like Wonder Woman's home island of Themyscira might be more my idea of a paradise for those of us seeking powerful female role models.

December 2, 2017

"School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play" Scores High Grades Across the Board

The actress Jocelyn Bioh was a total delight in such shows as An Octoroon, Men on Boats and Everybody, bringing an extra zip to every line she spoke. So I figured a play Bioh wrote might be equally delightful. And I was right. School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, whose run has just been extended to the end of the year at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is a total pleasure that tickles the funny bone, warms the heart and gives you something substantial to think about on the way home.

Inspired by both the Tina Fey film (itself soon to be a Broadway musical) and her mother's experience as a student at a boarding school in Ghana (click here to read an interview with the playwright) Bioh's play centers on a group of girls at an exclusive school in 1986 who are vying to be contestants in a national beauty pageant that offers a chance—albeit slim—at the even bigger prize of becoming Miss Universe.

It seems a foregone conclusion that Paulina, a haughty beauty and the school's bullying queen bee, will be the winner until a newcomer named Ericka comes onto the scene. The daughter of a wealthy local industrialist, Ericka arrives with the cachet of having grown up with a white American mother in the U.S., the kind of singing voice that will triumph in the talent portion of the competition and, most importantly, the light skin, long wavy hair and other physical features that fit the more western standards of beauty that the contest organizers seem to be seeking.

Paulina's refusal to go down without a fight provides both the show's humor and its heartbreak. It's a fresh spin on the high school comedy trope. And it's also refreshing to have a show set in Africa that doesn't focus solely on war, famine or other adversities that have plagued the continent.

Bioh's play joins a growing number of works by artists such as the novelists Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ayobami Adebayo and the playwrights Danai Gurira (In the Continuum, Familiar) and Mfoniso Udofia (Sojourners, Her Portmanteau) who are telling new stories about contemporary African lives, both in their ancestral homelands and here in the U.S.

That doesn't mean pretending the continent's problems don't exist. The school in School Girls has barely enough money to keep running. And the girls tangle head-on with the sexism and colorism that have made skin bleaching such big business throughout Africa. The debate over how to define African beauty echoes the controversy over the choice of a biracial Miss Ghana in 2011 (click here to read about that).

Still, Bioh is at heart an optimist and her play pulsates with good humor, much of it delivered in sharp one liners. Some of the jokes might seem mean-spirited or even politically incorrect in some other hands. But Bioh's love—and respect—for her characters is palpable. Plus she knows that the best humor often masks deep pain.

She shares the success of this MCC Theater production of her play with a pitch-perfect cast, lead by a fierce Maameyaa Boafo as Paulina and Nabiyah Be as a not-so-gentle-as-she-seems Ericka. Meanwhile, stage vets Myra Lucretia Taylor and Zainab Jah are equally effective as the school's headmistress and the pageant's recruiter.

But under the sure-handed direction of Rebecca Taichman, last season's Tony winner for staging Indecent, everybody shines. People at the performance I attended got a particular kick out of Paige Gilbert and Mirirai Sithole as the Timon-and-Pumba-like sidekicks who manage to be both mousy and mouthy.

In fact, School Girl's pervasive good-heartedness was so infectious that the audience roared with laughter throughout much of its brief 75-minute running time and cheered even more at the end. You'll probably do the same.

November 25, 2017

Too Pooped to Turn on the Ghost Light

No post today. And I'm too pooped to even turn on the ghost light that usually indicates I'm taking a break. Here's why: Over the past week, I've:
•taped my first episode of TheatreTalk (it's scheduled to air on public TV stations across the country the week of Dec. 4— and will later be available online at theatertalk.org/)

•recorded another session of "Stagecraft," my BroadwayRadio podcast, which this week features a conversation with Rajiv Joseph that you can find at bit.ly/stagecraftpodcast)

•set up two more "Stagecraft" interviews

•seen three thought-provoking shows

•attended an out-of-town memorial service for one of my mentors

•edited stories for the journalism class I teach

•shopped for, cooked and hosted (along with my always-supportive husband K) our extended family's annual Thanksgiving dinner

I'm exhausted just typing that list. So I'm taking time out to recuperate.  But I'll be back next week and I hope you will be too.

November 18, 2017

"The Portuguese Kid" is Totally Juvenile

Nobody bats a thousand. It's unfair of us theater lovers to expect our favorite writers and directors to knock one out of the park (last sports metaphor, I promise) each time they come up with a new show. And it's commendable when a theater company sticks with a playwright through the ups and downs that come with any theatrical career. 

So I suppose I should be more gracious toward The Portuguese Kid, the new comedy by John Patrick Shanley that is being given the most supportive production possible by Manhattan Theatre Club, which has been producing Shanley's work since 1986. But I can't be: it's an awfully disappointing show.

As if paying homage to his own Oscar-winning movie "Moonstruck," Shanley, who is also the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning Doubt, has written (and, compounding the problem, directed) a romantic comedy about people who have settled for relationships of convenience although their passions clearly lie with someone else.

As in the movie, the central character in the play is an attractive and still randy widow, here named Atalanta Lagana. She's sleeping with a much younger dimwit named Freddie but truly longs for Barry, the childhood friend whom she once saved from being bullied by the titular but never seen Portuguese kid.

Barry, who is now the second-rate lawyer overseeing her late husband's estate, has the hots for Atalanta too but he is married to a Latina Barbie doll named Patty, who also happens to be Freddie's ex.

Sexual hijinks are supposed to ensue but what we get are lame jokes that lean heavily on the low humor of ethnic and gender stereotyping, lots of yelling and a few Trump references thrown in for good, or not so good, measure. 

Even a cast that includes such comic heavyweights as Sherrie Rene Scott, Jason Alexander (click here to read an interview with him) and the redoubtable Mary Testa as Barry's overbearing and overprotective mother can't get this one off the ground.

The true star of the production is John Lee Beatty's revolving set, which presents one faux-elegant setting after another and drew the loudest applause at the performance I attended and fidgeted my way through.

November 11, 2017

"People, Places & Things" is a Good Thing

The story that British playwright Duncan Macmillan tells in People, Places & Things isn't new. But the brilliant way in which this tale about a woman's struggles with alcoholism and addiction is told deserves all the accolades that the production running at St. Ann's Warehouse through Dec. 3 has been getting.

Much of the praise has been heaped on Denise Gough who portrays an actress called Emma who hits rocks bottom onstage during a performance of Chekhov's The Seagull, enters rehab with a bottle in one hand and some grams of coke in the other and then tries to bluff her way through recovery. Until she's forced to face her demons.

It's a demanding role that requires the actress playing Emma to be simultaneously funny and poignant and, as the Olivier Award she won for her performance during last year's run at London's National Theatre attests, Gough totally delivers.

The actress has said that she hadn't worked for a year before getting the part and had even considered quitting the profession. She smartly uses all that disappointment and desperation she must have felt back then to fuel her finely tuned portrayal of Emma  (click here to read an interview with her).

Still, I'm saving my loudest hurrahs for the totally imaginative staging by Jeremy Herrin that includes dance-club music and choreographed segments. And for the inventive set design by Bunny Christie that mimics the stark white-tiled interior of a hospital but regularly erupts into psychedelic fever dreams.

Equally dazzling are the lighting by James Farncombe, video projections by Andrzej Goulding and sound design by Tom Gibbons. All of it made all the more impressive because St. Ann's has been transformed into sports-arena style seating that places the audience on both sides of the playing space.

The Brits excel at this unabashedly flamboyant style of storytelling (Herrin also wrote the visceral adaptation of 1984 that ended its run last month) and the kinetic stagecraft is well used here as the onstage action moves in and out of Emma's mind.

Similarly, although some actors double in roles, the choice to have them do so seems more dramaturgically driven than economically motivated. The entire cast is excellent, although a special shout-out must go to Barbara Marten, whose main role is as Emma's therapist but most affecting one comes later in the evening (don't look at your program until after the show).

Herrin tacitly acknowledges the clichés that come with telling a story about the struggle to overcome substance abuse but he spices up his version with truly witty dialog. He also juxtaposes Emma's addiction against the backdrop of her theatrical career, drawing parallels between the artifice essential to each.

"Truth is difficult when you lie for a living," Emma tells the members of her therapy group as they all practice the behaviors they want to perform in the outside world. The make-believe serves as an insulation from pain for Emma, which makes the final two scenes of People, Places & Things all the more devastating for her and the play all the more memorable for those of us lucky enough to see it.

November 4, 2017

"After the Blast" Finds Uplift in a Dystopia

In these challenging times, a play that makes a convincing argument for why it's important to continue on despite overwhelming odds is especially welcomed. And that's exactly what LCT3's production of Zoe Kazan's After the Blast does.

Set in some unspecified future when environmental or man-made disaster has made the earth uninhabitable, it creates a world in which a curated group of humans live underground, technology has advanced to the point that robots can serve as companions and virtual reality allows people to escape into simulations of a better life. But all real resources in this society, from drinking water to the ability to have a child, are rationed.

As the play opens, Anna, a journalist, and her husband Oliver, one of the subterranean colony's leading scientists, are very much in love and desperate to have a child. But they've failed to pass the qualifying tests because of Anna's mental condition, a depression that deepens each time the couple is turned down. Now, when they have just one more chance to make the cut, Oliver tries to distract Anna from her mounting anxiety by bringing home a robot for her to train to work with the disabled.

Anna resists at first but gradually grows fond of the R2D2-style contraption, whom she nicknames Arthur in homage to the iconic "Star Wars" character it resembles. And as time goes on, her deepening bond with Artie, as she nicknames it, threatens her relationship with Oliver.

The fact that none of this seems at all silly or campy is a testament to Kazan, an accomplished actress who has matured as a playwright since her shaky authorial debut with We Live Here back in 2011 (click here to read my review of that one). This time out, she's in impressive command of both the text, which is smart and witty, and the subtext, which is heartwarming and inspirational.

But credit also must be shared with the sensitive staging by Lila Neugebauer, who in just the last three years has become one of New York's most astute directors (click here to read more about her). And still even more praise must go to the excellent cast, lead by Cristin Milioti and William Jackson Harper—and including Will Connolly who supplies the voice for Artie.

Milioti emerges as first among equals with a fine-spun performance that weaves together the desperation that haunts Anna and her determination to live life as honestly as she can.

 Plus Milioti gets bonus points for managing to be so authentic opposite an inanimate—albeit irresistibly cute—scene partner (click here to read an interview with the actress). Meanwhile, Harper runs a close second as a man ready to do anything, even betray her, to make his wife happy.

After the Blast, which runs 2 hours and 15 minutes, has its longeurs but they're leavened by its humor (much of it supplied by Anna's interactions with Artie) and by the play's resolute conviction that the sacrifices we make today are necessary if we want to build a better future for those coming after us—but also so that we can make life worth living for the people we love now.


October 28, 2017

"The Home Place" is Underfurnished



All the comments I overhead at the Irish Repertory Theatre Company's revival of Brian Friel's The Home Place seemed to be about the set. Decorated with prettily painted flats and lots of imitation greenery to simulate the fictional village of Ballybeg where Friel located so many of his plays, it is a nice set, especially for a company with a limited budget. Still, it might have gotten so much attention because it was hard to think of anything as complimentary to say about the rest of the production.

Back in 2007, the original production won London's Evening Standard Award but although the play deals with Friel's familiar themes of identity and oppression, be it on the basis of ethnicity as in Translations or gender as in Dancing at Lughnasa, this rendering of The Home Place seems unfocused.

The play's titular homestead is owned by Christopher Gore, an Anglo-Irishman who sees himself as a benevolent landlord but it's 1878 and he worries that his tenants will succumb to the growing demands for home rule that have caused locals in a nearby village to murder their squire.

It doesn't help that Gore is being visited by his arrogant cousin, a eugenicist who is conducting psuedoscientific tests on the townspeople in an effort to prove that the Irish are inferior to the British. And further complicating matters is the fact that the widowed Gore and his grown son David are both in love with their housekeeper Margaret, a local beauty who aspires to a better life than her neighbors.

The Home Place calls for a large cast, some appearing only in a scene or two, and the Irish Rep gets points for casting 11 actors instead of having some double as has become the custom for companies trying to stretch a dollar. The problem is that too few of those actors are up to the task of walking the fine line between grit and whimsy that defines so much of Friel's work.

And even some of the better actors are miscast. The lovely Rachel Pickup exudes grace, making it easy to see why the Gore men would be taken with her Margaret. But Margaret is not only torn between the father and son but between the town's social classes and Pickup's performance doesn't convey that inner turmoil. Nor does it get anywhere near the dramatic-rich question of whether Margaret is simply an opportunist trying to figure out the best deal for herself.

Meanwhile under Charlotte Moore's shaky direction (characters show little regard for where walls should be as they make their entrances and exits) several of the male actors make eccentric choices that undercut not only their characters but the narrative of the play. One mugs endlessly.

The Irish Rep has put on a Friel play almost every season and so it makes sense that it would want to mount this one, the last original work by Friel, who died two years ago at the age of 86. But alas, this production suggests that you can't always go home again.