October 20, 2018

Turning on The Fall Ghost Light

It happens almost every fall and this year, it’s even more intense than usual. There are so many shows opening that seeing them on top of making plans to celebrate the birthdays of my niece, my sister and my beloved, and very patient, husband K; teaching my course and running the arts journalism program at the newly-named Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism; and, this year, preparing to moderate a panel for the annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association is making it hard for me to find time to write about any of the shows I’ve seen. So, I’m turning on the ghost light that theaters use to signal when they’re temporarily empty. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to write again soon cause there’s a lot of good stuff going on right now.  And I do have time to say this: go see some of it.

October 13, 2018

Why "On Beckett" is the Best Show in Town

Bill Irwin is a genius. And it’s not just me saying that. The folks at the MacArthur Foundation made that official 34 years ago when they gave him one of their famous five-year fellowships that have become known as genius grants. 

And Irwin has also shown that he’s theatrically ambidextrous by winning Tonys for his clown show Fool Moon (he got his graduate degree from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College) and for his wrenching portrayal of George in the 2005 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 

Yet even with all that, I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to On Beckett, Irwin’s tribute to the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett that is playing at the Irish Rep through Nov. 4. So I’m relieved—and grateful—to say I was wrong. And if you’re hesitating, you should put your worries aside and go. 

Irwin won me over within the first five minutes with his deep knowledge of Beckett’s work. He’s appeared in several productions of Waiting for Godot, including as Lucky in the legendary 1988 revival directed by Mike Nichols and starring Steve Martin and Robin Williams, and as Vladimir opposite Nathan Lane’s Estragon in 2009. And then there's this show's motivating desire to share his passion with the rest of us (click here to read more about the show’s origins).

Irwin, who not only conceived the show but impressively directed himself in it, acknowledges that Beckett’s non-linear language, bleak outlook and pitch-black humor can be tough sledding. But for 80 minutes, he makes us almost believe that we can plumb the depths of Beckett’s recondite musings.

Donning a series of the bowler hats that have become a trademark for Godot (and yes he gets into the debate over whether it should be pronounced Guh-do or God-o; click here to read about our continuing fascination with this absurdist classic), Irwin slips back and forth between baggy-pants antics and existential angst as he explores Beckett's texts. 

At 68, his body is still loose-limbed enough to do audience-pleasing but still relevant clowning tricks. And his voice is equally supple, massaging Beckett’s words into lyrical incantations.

It’s a master class in acting and as apt an encapsulation of Beckett’s mind as you’re likely to find outside a college classroom. Only it’s far, far more enjoyable. If you're a theater lover, you shouldn't miss it.

October 6, 2018

"What the Constitution Means to Me" Stands Up for Democracy, But Stumbles as Theater

They say that timing is everything. And the timing could hardly be better for Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, which opened at New York Theatre Workshop last weekend, just three days after Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, which, of course, has the ultimate job of determining the meaning of this nation's constitution.

Schreck reportedly began working on this performance piece about 10 years ago (click here to read more about the show’s derivation) but she’s been thinking about the constitution for much longer than that. As her piece details, she earned the money to pay for college by participating in speech competitions on the meaning of the country’s founding document sponsored by American Legion chapters around the country. 

Accordingly, set designer Rachel Hauck has created a replica of an old-fashioned Legion hall, complete with scores of photos of old white men looking down from the walls. It’s an apt metaphor because while What the Constitution Means to Me includes segments of Schreck’s old scholarship-winning speeches, it devotes far more time to her present-day musings on whose privileges the constitution has always protected (white property-owning men) and whose rights it only later covered (people of color and women who were once regarded as the property of those white men and, more recently, gay people). 

This is important stuff and Schreck is an amiable guide but there’s an amorphous quality to this show that struck me as making it less like a theatrical piece and more like a TED Talk, albeit an engaging one.

Schreck pretty much keeps to the script she’s written but with the apparent blessing of director Oliver Butler (click here to read more about him) she regularly strays into asides that add to the official 90-minute running time but don't add much to the message she’s trying to get across.

There are some attempts to inject a little drama. Schreck movingly recounts the experiences of the women in her family, including a great grandmother who died in a mental institution and her maternal grandmother who was regularly beaten by her husband. But their connection to the constitution seems strained.

Toward the end, Schreck brings out one of two high-school debaters and faces off against them on the question of whether the constitution should be replaced with a more contemporary expression of the country’s values. It was inspiring to see Thursday Williams, a senior at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, deliver a passionate defense of the constitution at the performance I attended but it was a little gimmicky too.

I saw the show the day after the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings and even before the lights dimmed, the audience was buzzing as people hashed over Ford’s earnest recollection about how he had assaulted her when they were teenagers and Kvanaugh’s furious denial.

It was a downtown theater crowd in New York City, where 79% of the electorate voted for Hillary Clinton so you can imagine on which side they came down—and how they feel about the hearing's final outcome.