December 26, 2020

10 Spots of Theatrical Joy in a Dire Year

This is the time of year when people like me create lists that tout the best things we’ve experienced in the areas of interest we followed over the last 12 months. But it’s hard to put the word best in the same sentence with anything connected with this year so defined by illness, death, social isolation, racial reckoning and an election that’s left the country as polarized as ever (USA Today just reported that 78% of Republicans still don’t believe that Joe Biden was legally elected president). So shows I saw before the pandemic closed all theaters here in New York now seem as though they existed in a different world. But maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing.  

The challenges of this year could force producers and artistic directors to adapt in ways that will make theater better once the quarantine ends.  Like maybe some of the online productions that sprouted up will continue, allowing theater to be more accessible to those who can’t get to a theater easily or who can’t afford to go or who haven’t felt comfortable once there.  And maybe theaters will learn to be truly inclusive, telling all kinds of stories that showcase a multiplicity of experiences and that are told by an array of voices.

In the meantime though, there have been some things that have given me theatrical joy even in this distressing year and I want to celebrate and thank them. So on this list are five shows I saw in a theater at the beginning of the year and five I saw on my computer or TV screen later on.  They are, in the order of my seeing them:

AMERICAN UTOPIA: I actually saw David Byrne’s exhilarating staged concert twice: once when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to one of its final performances at the Hudson Theatre before its scheduled close in February and then again when a filmed version started streaming on HBO in late summer. It’s kind of hard to explain why watching a dozen people of different colors and genders clad in matching gray suits play their instruments and dance around a stage could be so invigorating but each viewing made me feel so very good to be alive. An encore live production has already been scheduled for next fall but if you're an HBO subscriber, you can see the film now by clicking here.

DARLING GRENADINE: The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Daniel Zaitchik’s chamber musical about a man struggling to overcome alcoholism and the woman who loves him struggling not to be an enabler might not have muscled out bigger musicals if they’d had a chance to open but its charming performances and imaginative staging left me with a smile on my face that lingered for days.

HAMLET AT ST. ANN'S WAREHOUSE:  Worn down by seeing one so-so production after another, I’d sworn off Shakespeare for a while—and especially off seeing Hamlet. But my curiosity about the notion of the British actress Ruth Negga playing the role without regard for gender drew me to St. Ann’s where Ireland’s Gate Theatre production ran through March 6. And my reward for going was being able to witness how Negga’s intelligent and unsentimental performance turned what is too often an old war-horse into the thoroughbred that the Bard meant it to be.

THE HEADLANDS: Christopher Chen’s noirish murder mystery at LCT3 was both a meditation on assimilation, identity and the stories that define all of us and a showcase for its all-Asian cast to show off the full and impressive range of their talent.  And its inventive video projections not only provided the sets for the scene but established the mood of the entire piece.

THE HOT WING KING: Definitions of black masculinity were viewed through the experiences of a loving gay couple and their extended family and friends as they all prepared for a culinary competition in this deliciously funny but deeply affecting play by Katori Hall whose run at Signature Theatre was cut too short when all the city’s theaters closed March 12.

TAKE ME TO THE WORLD: A SONDHEIM 90TH CELEBRATION: The lockdown came 10 days before Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday, which was supposed to be celebrated with the opening of avant-garde director Ivo van Hove’s reinterpretation of Sondheim’s first Broadway show, West Side Story. So, led by Raúl Esparza, a group of the composer’s friends—AKA everyone who is anyone on Broadway—threw him a virtual party instead and filled it with heartfelt encomiums and one-of-a-kind performances of selections from his singular songbook. It’s the kind of event that I would have been unlikely to attend in person and so felt grateful that technology allowed me to revel in it, which you can do too by clicking here.

BILL IRWIN'S IN ZOOM: In the time-honored spirit of the show must go on, theater folks began performing online within days of the theater lockdown. Among the best of that early crop was an original 10-minute piece that Irwin put together with the help of San Diego’s The Old Globe. He and fellow funny man Christopher Fitzgerald explored and expanded the boundaries of the then-novel Zoom, demonstrating that theater no longer had to be restricted by geographical location and that even a safely-distanced production could offer up some great physical comedy.  You can check it out by clicking here.   

IN CAMERA: London’s The Old Vic presented this series of small-cast plays that were performed live in its empty theater for viewers who bought hefty-priced tickets that allowed them to see a specific performance on their computers at home. So far I’ve seen Three Kings, Stephen Beresford’s one-man show in which Andrew Scott gave a brilliant performance as a man coming to terms with the estranged father whose love he’s always craved, and Faith Healer, a revival of Brian Friel’s three-hander about an itinerant con man who travels around Ireland pretending—to his audiences, his long-suffering wife, devoted manager and to himself—that he can heal the afflicted. The performances by Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall left me gob smacked. You can see for yourself why if you purchase (the much cheaper) tickets for recorded encore presentations of those productions, which you can find here.

RUSSIAN TROLL FARM:  This comedy, created specifically to be seen online, has been my favorite virtual theater experience so far. Working with TheaterWorks Hartford, TheaterSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas and the Brooklyn-based Civilians, playwright Sarah Gancher imagines the lives of the Russian hackers who spread false information on social media leading up to the 2016 presidential election that put Donald Trump in the White House.  Like so many digital workers, hers are driven to get as many clicks as they can and the hilarity stems from watching how they—a terrific cast, by the way—do it. The show’s limited run has been extended through Jan. 14 and you can buy $20 tickets here.

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM: Part of Denzel Washington’s effort to film all 10 of the plays in August Wilson’s "American Cycle," this Netflix production about a day in the life of the legendary blues singer was in the works way before most of us had even heard of the coronavirus or of George Floyd, whose death under the knee of a Minneapolis cop gives poignant relevance to this rumination on how Black people have been treated in this country. Reuben Santiago-Hudson massaged the script for the screen, squeezing it down to 90 minutes and adding an effective coda. George C. Wolfe directed and Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman lead an excellent cast as Rainey and Levee, the young trumpet player in her band who wants to make a different kind of music. If you have a Netflix account you can treat yourself to it by clicking here.

December 25, 2020

Wishing You As Merry a Christmas... is safely possible this year:


December 5, 2020

A Solo "Christmas Carol" for A Solitary Time

Christmas as we know it—the tree, the cards, the carol singing—began during the early Victorian age and perhaps no one popularized those now-familiar traditions more than did Charles Dickens with his 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol.” It famously tells the tale of the miserable and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited and reformed on Christmas Eve by three ghostly spirits. The book was an instant hit and staged adaptations immediately followed; by the next year there were at least eight different productions running in London. 

Over the decades, zillions more versions have followed on both stage and screen, with Scrooge being portrayed by such diverse performers as Alastair Sim, George C. Scott,  Robert Guillaume, Jim Carrey, Susan Lucci, Vanessa Williams and the cartoon characters Donald Duck and Mr. Magoo. 

Last year, Broadway hosted a production led by Campbell Scott in a British panto-style version of the play originally adapted by Jack Thorne and directed by Matthew Warchus for London’s The Old Vic Theatre, which is presenting a fully-staged streamed version this year, starting Dec. 12 (click here to read more about it). 

The story of Scrooge, his poorly treated clerk Bob Cratchit and Bob’s crippled but generous-hearted son Tiny Tim is now a Christmas season perennial at both big and little theaters throughout the U.S. and the U.K. (click here to read how some theater companies are currently tweaking their versions in these pandemic times.)  

But from the very start when Dickens himself performed staged readings of the story, some of the most popular productions have been one-person shows in which a sole actor performs the more than 50 characters in the narrative. 

It’s hard to think of a contemporary actor more suited to that task than Jefferson Mays, a Tony Award winner for his performances in the one-man show I Am My Own Wife, in which he took on some 40 characters, and for the musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, in which he played 10 members of a highly eccentric (and hilarious) family.

And Mays is again wonderful in the streamed production of A Christmas Carol directed by Michael Arden, adapted by Arden, Mays and Mays’ wife Susan Lyons and filmed under Covid precautions in an empty theater in Upper Manhattan in October

While they’ve hewed close to the original narrative and prose, the trio has leaned into the psychology and sociology of the piece, highlighting the correlation between the way a child is treated and the man he becomes and emphasizing the ways in which the poor can be permanently crippled by the disregard of those who have money and are intent only on having more. It’s a take that Dickens, himself a progressive reformer, would have appreciated. 

A master showman himself, Dickens would also have applauded Mays' performance. Ever nimble, the actor morphs easily from one character to the next with just the twitch of an eyebrow or a change in the pitch of his voice. He hits all the poignant notes of the morality tale as Scrooge acknowledges his sins but he’s a particular delight in lighter scenes such as Scrooge’s memory of a party he attended in his youth that allow the actor to kick up his heels a bit and indulge the more antic side of his wit. The jig he does with himself as both Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig is a treat in every way.

I just wish the rest of the production around him had been as dexterous. Too many of the choices distract from rather than enhance the presentation. I get that the low lighting helps set the slightly spooky mood that the story calls for but in this case, it also makes it hard to see what’s going on. Similarly, manipulating the sound of the ghosts’ voices made it hard to understand what they were saying. 

And there was absolutely no need for the fuzzy video projections that play behind Mays at the party scene; his performance had already elegantly established the time and place. Meanwhile, the emo music by the pop-rock musician Sujfan Stevens not only seems anachronistic for the period but downright gloomy, even at the—177 year-old spoiler coming—happy ending.

Still, it’s hard to ruin A Christmas Carol and its moral of redemption through giving to and caring for others shines through. Tickets for this version of the tale, which will run online through Jan. 3, cost a hefty $50, plus fees that tack on another $7 (click here to get them) but the show can be viewed multiple times and part of the money will go to some 50 regional and community theaters across the country that are struggling because of the pandemic.  

If that’s still too dear for your pocketbook, there are many other options, including an updated musical version called Estrella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol With A Twist produced by Abingdon Theatre Company, with tickets starting at $29.99 (click here for more information) and a streamed Primary Stages benefit reading of the Dickens' tale, directed by Theresa Rebeck and starring Raúl Esparza as Scrooge that will cost $100 for the live Dec. 16 performance but will be available for free from Dec. 17-20 (find out more about that by clicking here).

As Tiny Tim might say, God bless them everyone.