July 29, 2015

"Three Days to See" is Too Nearsighted

The title of the new play Three Days to See comes from a 1933 magazine article in which Helen Keller, blind and deaf since she was a toddler, wrote about what she’d do if given just 72 hours of sight (click here to read what she wrote).

Born to a landed southern family (her father fought for the Confederacy) Keller contracted a disease when she was 19 months-old that left her unable to see or hear. When she was six her desperate parents hired a young teacher named Anne Sullivan to help find a way for the child to communicate with her family.

Sullivan famously worked miracles and by the time Keller was 24, she had graduated from Radcliffe, become friends with people like Mark Twain and Alexander Graham Bell and written the first of what would turn out to be three autobiographies.

But the Transport Group’s look at her life, which opened at Theatre 79 on Sunday, is no traditional bio-play. Instead, Transport’s artistic director Jack Cummings III, who devised and directed the piece, has cast seven actors to play Keller.

Differing in gender, ethnicity, size and even acting ability, they take turns reciting dialog based on the writings she published over the years, plus a prologue of bad-taste Helen Keller jokes like “'How did Helen Keller meet her husband?' 'On a blind date.'"

I’m not sure why Cummings decided to do this piece. Although Keller, who died in 1968 at the age of 87, was once a prominent inspirational figure in popular culture, she is probably now best known as the subject of The Miracle Worker, William Gibson’s 1959 play, and its subsequent movie, in which Anne Bancroft and a young Patty Duke enacted the breakthrough moment when young Helen realizes that the signs her teacher is tracing in her hand are the word for the water that is running across her arm.

Three Days to See has no such cathartic moments. Instead, Cummings seems to feel it important that the audience know more about the grown-up Keller and he hits hard on the facts that she had a sex life and leftist political views that included feminism, socialism and workers’ rights (click here to read more about how he put the show together).

But Cummings, whose sympathetic reimagining of I Remember Mama was one of the best things I saw last year (click here for my review of it,) somehow seems to have forgotten that most theatergoers expect more than a recitation of lines on a bare stage, except for some folding chairs and tables, and delivered by actors wearing modern-day street clothes. 

He tries to make up for the lack of action with some busy stagecraft. Self-consciously choreographed movements are set to an eclectic underscore that includes snatches of Arlen, Ellington, Ravel, Satie and Rodgers and Hammerstein. 

A bit of tension is introduced in a food fight as Sullivan struggles to teach her young charge how to eat properly. And an attempt at humor comes in intermittent references to Keller’s fondness for the novel “Gone With the Wind.” 

All of it is repeated over and over, until the intended effect is pretty much muted. The play lists its running time as 100 minutes, ran two hours at Friday night’s performance and felt a whole lot longer. 

However the final moments, taken from the title essay, were moving. And in the days following, I have begun to look at the world slightly differently, grateful that I have the ability to see it.

July 25, 2015

"Amazing Grace" is Far Too Ordinary

Whatever happens to Amazing Grace, the first musical to open in this new Broadway season, Christopher Smith, the main creative force behind the show, should consider himself a winner. For against the odds, Smith a former cop who had never written anything professionally, not only co-wrote the show’s book and composed its music and lyrics (click here to read about how he did it) but got people to pony up a reported $16 million to get it on Broadway (a full-page ad in the Playbill is devoted to thanking his angels).

The resulting show, however, hasn’t been so blessed. The major critics have been almost unanimous in condemning it (click here to read some of what they had to say). Regular theatergoers have been equally unenthusiastic. Nearly a third of the seats at the Nederlander Theatre where Amazing Grace officially opened last week are going empty. And so many folks left during intermission at the performance my sister Joanne and I saw that we ended up with an unobstructed view of the stage when half the row in front of us failed to return.

There are several reasons for all of this—the show's earnest attitude at a time when swagger is more prized, a score that shows some promise, especially for a novice, but that also shows how it takes more than promise to write truly distinctive lyrics and music—but the biggest reason may be the mishandling of the show’s themes of race and redemption.

Amazing Grace tells the story of John Newton, the 18th century British slave trader who was temporarily enslaved himself, later became a preacher and abolitionist and then wrote the titular song, which over the years has become probably the best known and most beloved hymn of all time. Its redemptive power was invoked most recently when President Obama began singing it at the funeral of the black minister shot inside his church alongside eight of his parishioners by a white supremacist.

Smith and Arthur Giron, who co-wrote the musical's book, don't actually say much about how Newton came to write the song. Instead, they have turned his story into a quotidian coming-of-age tale about a callow young man’s quest to win the approval of his disapproving father and the love of the childhood sweetheart who persists in seeing the best in him.

History has been scrambled to suit their purpose. While the show’s young Newton becomes an ardent abolitionist in time to lead an audience sing-along of “Amazing Grace” at the curtain call, the real-life Newton continued to invest in the slave trade until he was in his 60s and only began speaking out against slavery—and writing his famous hymn—after he’d secured his fortune from it.

Like so many others before them, Smith and Giron have also chosen to tell a story about the indignities of racism from the perspective of a white person. They do take pains to include black characters and a few are given backstories as well as stirring anthems to sing but they’re still depicted primarily as loyal servants willing to sacrifice themselves for their masters or mistresses, campy villains or nameless slaves and natives.

To be fair, director Gabriel Barre does make a good-faith attempt to show the horrors of slavery. In a scene set at a slave auction, a small cage crammed with actors portraying slaves is rolled onstage and then, one by one, the actors are yanked out, displayed, bid on and then branded. I knew I was supposed to feel empathy for the characters but I felt more anxious about how playing that scene night after night might affect the actors.

Another scene set in Africa made me equally uncomfortable as black dancers performed stereotypically chest and butt jutting movements that were supposed to represent African dance. I expected more from Christopher Gattelli, the Tony-winning choreographer for Newsies, or I expected the producers to bring in someone who had a better feel for that style of dancing, which can be as nuanced and narrative-illuminating as any other.

The producers did manage to make some smart choices in other areas however and you can see where they spent their money. There are over 30 people in the cast and even though Smith’s music may be unmemorable, all the principal performers, lead by Josh Young as Newton, Erin Mackey as his lady love Mary, Laiona Michelle as Mary’s servant Nanna and Chuck Cooper as Newton’s manservant Thomas sing the hell out of their songs (click here to read an interview with Cooper).

This is also a gorgeous show to look at. Eugene Lee and Edward Piece have designed a set that is elegant and flexible, as is the lighting by Ken Billington and Paul Miller. One scene, set underwater, creates a moment of almost transcendent grace.

The whole show could have used more of that.

July 22, 2015

Summertime is Theater Festival Time

Summer was once a slow time in the New York theater world but the number of summer theater festivals has been rising so fast that even the most avid theatergoer would have a hard time keeping up. But the shows in these festivals—cheeky offerings from up-and-coming theater makers, avant-garde productions from abroad and lots of outdoor Shakespeare—tend to be different from those that fill the city’s stages during the rest of the year. Plus the ticket prices are usually far cheaper. So it’s worth sampling a few. Below are 10(+) festivals, some of them already underway, that you might want to check out:

Now in its 68th year, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that takes over the Scottish capital every August is the granddaddy of theater festivals, drawing more than 3,000 shows from countries around the world. For the past few years, the American shows heading to Edinburgh do a final run-through at the 59e59 Theaters. There are 17 of them this year and although the performances began on July 11, you can still catch a few before this pre-festival ends on July 25, including Trans Scripts, a piece about gender and identity as seen through the eyes of transgender women.

Welcoming artists from around the globe, this celebration of LGBTQ culture features performances that include full-scale musicals, 10-minute plays, stand-up routines and what’s billed as an “erotic cabaret.” All the performances, which began July 13 and run through July 26, are at The WILD Project in the East Village. One of the world premieres still playing is Rachel, a musical about Rachel Carson, the author of “The Silent Spring,” that combines environmentalism, feminism and the loving relationship between Carson and her Maine neighbor Dorothy Freeman.

As regular readers know, I have a love-hate relationship with our local Fringe festival. I hate the fact that there are SO many shows to choose from and yet I inevitably end up loving at least one of them. There will be around 200 shows in this year’s festival, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 14 and run through Aug. 30 at venues all around the East Village. I’m still sorting through info about the various productions but I already have my eye on one or two.
For more information: http://fringenyc.org/

The tickets for this month-long extravaganza of music, dance and theater that began July 6 and runs through Aug. 2  ain’t cheap. But the productions at various venues around the city are all world-class and audaciously ambitious, including a reimagining of the absurdist classic Ubu Roi by the innovative British company Cheek by Jowl and the Ninagawa Company’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s surreal novel “Kafka on the Shore,” which will be performed in Japanese with English supertitles.

Celebrating its sweet 16th year, this festival, which runs through Aug. 2. at the Davenport Theatre, specializes in small-scale productions. So the play is truly the thing for the more than two dozen in this year's lineup, which includes classic plays, comedies, solo shows, two bills of short plays and several political dramas ranging from a look back at the Black Panthers in the 1970s to a consideration of what it means to be gay in current-day Iran.
For more information: http://www.midtownfestival.org/index.html

Currently running through July 27, NYMF, as it’s familiarly known, prides itself on being the largest musical theater festival in the country and a nurturing incubator where Altar Boyz, Next to Normal and title of show got their start. Twenty full productions were on the slate for this year in musical genres ranging from gospel to rock opera and dealing with subjects from superheroes to Olympic figure skaters. Those last two have finished but still on view are a musical about being stuck in a subway car and another about finding love in a trailer park.
For more information: http://www.nymf.org/

The renowned publisher and licensor of plays is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its showcase for fledgling playwrights. Some 1,500 plays were submitted and 30 have been chosen for full productions that will be mounted at Classic State Company’s theater from Aug. 4 through Aug. 9.  A panel of established playwrights and other theater professionals will choose six of those semifinalists to be published and licensed by Samuel French. It’s a chance to be present at the creation of a career in the making.
For more information: http://oob.samuelfrench.com/

Seeing this annual festival of new American short plays, which began on July 17 and runs through July 29, has become a summer tradition for my husband K and me (in fact, we’re going tonight). Each year offers two series, composed of three plays each and the playwrights are a changing mix of well-known names and newcomers, although Neil LaBute is pretty much a constant. The works vary in type and quality but there’s always at least one that makes a visit to the 59e59 Theaters worth the trip.

Over 60 plays will debut between July 13 and Sept. 24 in this festival of never-before-seen plays at the Hudson Guild Theater. Each production gets at least three performances and at the end, two playwrights, two actors and a director also get to take home cash prizes. But in an environment in which it’s tough for newbie playwrights to get more than a reading, all the shows, ranging from musicals to solo turns, are actually winners.

Since it started in 1954 on the campus of Williams College, this venerable summer camp for the New York theater world has offered a mix of classic plays and new works performed by everyone from Nathan Lane to Gwyneth Paltrow. Still to come this year are Paradise Blue, Dominique Morriseau’s new play with Blair Underwood as a jazz trumpeter at a crossroads in his life; Unknown Soldier, a musical created by Daniel Goldstein and composed by Michael Friedman; and a new production of Eugene O’Neill’s classic A Moon for the Misbegotten, starring the husband-and-wife team of Will Swenson and Audra McDonald.
For more information: http://wtfestival.org/

Even people who profess not to care about Shakespeare seem to get a kick out of seeing the Bard in the outdoors and there are lots of opportunities to do that—and to do it for free:

Shakespeare in the Park
Cymbeline, the second of the Public Theater’s free productions at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park, starts on Thursday and runs through Aug. 23, with a top-of-the-line cast lead by Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Raúl Esparza and Kate Burton under the direction of Daniel Sullivan.

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot
Fans had worried when the Drilling Company was evicted last year from the Municipal Parking Lot near Ludlow and Broome Streets, where it had given free performances of Shakespeare for 20 years but the company has found not one but two new homes. The first is in the parking lot behind the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Education Center at 114 Norfolk Street, where its production of As You Like It ends on July 26 and a Latino version of Macbeth begins on July 30. Its second venue is in Bryant Park, where an updated version of Rome and Juliet (Mercutio is a woman) is playing on weekends through Aug. 2. 

Manhattan Shakespeare Project
This young and racially diverse all-female ensemble has been performing The Taming of the Shrew at public parks all over the city since June 3. The run ends this weekend with performances at Morningside Park in Manhattan and Sunset Park in Brooklyn.
For more information: http://manhattanshakes.org/2015-taming-of-the-shrew/       

Uptown Shakespeare in the Park
The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of The Tempest, starring the fierce Ron Cephas Jones as Prospero, will finish up its three-week run this weekend at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park, between 120th and 125th Streets, off Madison Avenue.