Tuesday, April 28, 2009

puppet KafKa (HERE Arts Center)

Drama of Works' puppet KafKa by B. Walker Sampson

By Kitty

BOTTOM LINE: You will be transformed and thankfully, not into a large bug.

The set of puppet KafKa looks like the inside of a dollhouse with a baby bed, a mini table and chairs, and a shrunken doorway through which splashes of red and white light spill onto the stage. The slow pull of a bow over strings can be heard as shadows move behind the paper-like walls and just as the music tucks into bed, Franz Kafka enters his writing room, accompanied by the force which makes his physical and mental movement possible: Jason Howard, an actor.

It is easy to forget there are actors present in Drama of Works' production of puppet KafKa. Each character-conveying device, from marionettes to wood-carved letters "K" and "F", to an empty suit and a broom-handed mop, speaks with such sincerity and moves with such intention that the actors become the vessels through which the people in the play communicate. Ideally, this should be a common occurance in every theatrical production from the puppet-populated to the marionette-minused. The characters should become so real to the audience that watching the play feels like an act of voyeurism, a secret look stolen through the key hole. puppet KafKa achieves this by assembling the most wonderfully creative and talented artists, cast and crew included, to explore the life of Franz Kafka, a Jewish writer from 1880s Prague, most famous for penning "The Metamorphosis" among other great works of literature.

Even though Kafka also authored such renowned pieces as "The Castle" and "The Judgment," he is most remembered for "The Metamorphosis." In it, we meet Gregor Samsa, a man who awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a large, roach-like insect. Samsa's physical reconstruction alienates him from his loved ones and his feelings of loneliness and hopelessness ultimately lead to his demise. It is believed that through Samsa, Kafka explored his feelings of separation and estrangement from his own family. The parallels are astonishing, from the similarities of Samsa's and Kafka's temperamental working-class fathers to their adoration of their youngest sisters. These likenesses are the focus and the emotional core of puppet KafKa and are beautifully revealed by B. Walker Sampson's touching script.

puppet KafKa is truly an inspiring piece of theatre. It is clear that every detail has been labored over, but not to the point of tedium. It's creative, inventive, and minus a few opening weekend technical snafus, flawlessly executed. The cast is stellar with notable performances by Scott Weber and Adam Sullivan. Weber, whose characterization of the Gregor-Bug from "The Metamorphosis," a character brought to life by what is essentially a single extravagantly embellished glove, is so remarkable that it can safely be said that Weber has more talent in one hand than some actors have in their whole being. Additionally, Sullivan sparkles as Prosecutor, an adult-sized empty suit operated by two splints shoved into the suit sleeves. It is amazing to watch Sullivan work as his suit's movements are so lifelike and individual to the character that as an audience member, one feels strange having been convinced that the suit, which is clearly not inhabited by a human body, is in fact, a real person.

(puppet KafKa performs through May 10th, at HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue between Spring and Broome Streets...entrance on Dominick Street. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $18. Visit here.org for tickets and more information.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Chicago (Ambassador Theatre)

By Ben Charles

a Broadway classic • incredible dancing • brilliant songs • outstanding showmanship • Fosse, yes, Bob Fosse.

BOTTOM LINE: Fun music, killer dancing and a great time. If you haven’t seen Chicago you need to. It’s really that simple.

As I write this a few days after seeing Chicago for the first time, all I can say is wow, what a show. It’s brilliant. There is a reason soooo many people love this musical. It has a smart story, memorable songs, a great live orchestra, very creative choreography and world class dancing.

For starters, this is a Bob Fosse show. The legendary choreographer's signature style is extremely cool and even a little badass. (Read Fosse's bio here.) It takes impressive talent and skill to pull of his choreography and when it works it’s awesome, especially on a grand Broadway stage. The cast I saw was a collection of veteran performers who owned the stage and knew how to put on a great show. This musical is still worth seeing live on stage, even if you’ve seen the 2002 film (starring Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The original Broadway production of Chicago ran from 1975-1977; this current production is the first revival and has been playing since 1996. With so many new musicals out there it could easily be passed over or taken for granted because it’s been running for so long. But Chicago presents music and dancing without anything that is overdone or hyper-produced. It’s the talent and skill of the artists that carry this show and each song and dance number is fantastic. It’s hard to believe how much quality each number possesses. You’ll recognize the songs and be singing them well after you leave the theater. The story, about showbiz, murder and society, may be hard to follow at first because there are lot of characters and no real sets, but once you get past the first few songs the plot becomes clear and it’s a nice ride through to the finale.

I can imagine that it’d be easy for this show to be passed over by New Yorkers who take it for granted or out-of-towners who fear it isn’t as fresh as many newer productions. It isn't stale by any means. As I said at the beginning, there is a reason it has been running for so long. It’s a damn good show and well worth your time and money to see. The risqué costumes and material make it a bit PG-13, but it’s still a smart choice for anyone who wants to see some live music, killer dancing, a fun story, and classic Broadway.

(Chicago plays at the Ambassador Theatre, 219 West 49th Street. Performances are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2:30pm and 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm and 7pm. The show runs 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $64-$121.50 and a limited number of $31.50 rush tickets are available on the day of the performance at the box office. Visit telecharge.com for tickets. Check out chicagothemusical.com for more show info.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Caitlin and the Swan (Under St. Marks)

By Leah
dark • surreal comedy • definitely not for kids • shock value with a point

BOTTOM LINE: This is a daring and intelligent comedy, and not for the faint of heart.

When I saw the press release for Caitlin and the Swan, I was intrigued but also a little weary. The phrase "themes of bestiality, feminism, and the twisted links between pain and love" doesn't exactly scream comedy. There was a decent enough chance, I thought, that it'd be a lot of crude jokes done purely to make people gasp. What I saw instead was a thoughtful, funny play (with a refreshing lack of pretension) that confronts some pretty uncomfortable topics with wit and bravery.

The show revolves around Caitlin, a frustrated SAT tutor, who discovers that her friend Rachel is having an affiair with a pig, and subsequently begins having her own all-consuming bestial fantasies about a certain feathered creature. Marguerite French plays Caitlin with vulnerablity and sympathy and she draws the audience into Caitlin's painful obsession. All the actors approach their characters sans judgement, which is paramount in a play that challenges some pretty deeply held beliefs. As Rachel and Priya, Caitlin's animal loving friends, Theresa Stephenson and Shetal Shah bring genuine compassion and impressive comic chops to their roles, making them into fleshed out people rather than just Caitlin's sounding boards.

It is a testament to both the writing and directing that a show with so unrelatable a topic can still successfully reach an audience. Playwright Dorothy Fortenberry doesn't shy away from asking direct and uncomfortable questions in the script itself, and while I usually dislike that rather blunt tactic, director Joshua Conkel creates this atmosphere of a heightened reality, this just vaguely surreal world, in which asking such questions over a cup of coffee doesn't actually seem entirely out of place. Throw some dream sequences in there (again, a usually off-putting tactic but beautifully executed by choreographer Croft Vaughn and dancer Elliott T. Reiland) and you've got a show that, by all rights, should sink under the weight of its own aims, but doesn't. What keeps it afloat are the underlying themes - yes it's a play about bestiality, but it's also about trying to find what makes you happy. Take that intellectually adventurous friend and debate it all the way home.

(Caitlin and the Swan runs through May 2nd at Under St. Marks, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $18, call 212-868-4444 to order.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Julie from Staten Island (Studio Theater, Theater Row)

by Leah
engaging storytelling • intimate • well-written and well-performed • quick and satisfying

BOTTOM LINE: Great show to see before drinks with your best friend.

So I want to give a quick shout-out to this great one man show I saw earlier this year called Julie from Staten Island. The show will be remounted on the 25th of each month through the summer at the Studio Theater at Theater Row. Written and performed by Julio (pronounced Julie-O), comedian and raconteur extraordinaire Vincent Gambuto, it follows his life through his childhood and early adulthood. The show is peppered with vivid characters from Julio's family (you've probably had dinner with them, too) and various social circles.

At first, what struck me most about the show was, of course, the inherent comedy of coming of age, fish out of water and worlds colliding. Julio jokes his way through his working class Staten Island neighborhood, his undergrad studies at Harvard, and his introduction into gay culture. He talks about his love of words fairly early on in the show, and the wit and dexterity with which he handles his potentially heavy-handed themes is a testament to what that love can do.

I left the theater laughing, but looking back on it what has stayed with me most is the honesty and intimacy of the tale he tells. Yes, of course, the show takes place in a theater, but it feels like the kind of interaction you would have in a living room or over a pint of beer. His performance style is always organic and simple, even when he steps into any one of the myriad characters that weave their way through his life, and the show is all the more engaging and moving for it.

The next performance is on Saturday, April 25th, 7pm. I say take the sibling you commiserated most with or that no-frills friend who prefers conversation to confetti.

(Julie from Staten Island is approximately 80 minutes long with no intermission and runs the 25th of every month at the studio theater at Theater Row in Times Square. For tickets check out www.juliovincent.com or call 212-279-4200. Call 917-841-7219 for group ticket rates and discounts.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Norman Conquests (Circle in the Square)

By Dan
trilogy of plays performed in rep • each play stands on its own, and you can see them in any order • often funny, sometimes hilarious, and always poignant • theatre in the round–all seats are good • six member ensemble cast is excellent

BOTTOM LINE: A thoughtful, well-written trilogy, The Norman Conquests gets funnier, and more profound, the more you see.

The Norman Conquestsis a trilogy by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn; written in 1973, this production is a transfer of the revival at London’s Old Vic theatre last year. The three plays all take place in one Victorian house in England over the course of a July weekend. Each play is set in a different room: Round and Round the Garden takes place in the garden, Table Manners takes place in the dining room, and Living Together takes place in the sitting room. While the plays show different times during this weekend, there are chronological overlaps, which means that sometimes, when a character leaves one room in one play, he or she appears in another room in another play. (I actually checked my watch on occasion, to see if, according to the times given for each scene, the exits and entrances actually match up in real time. They don’t- sometimes there is a delay of 10 or 20 minutes. But it is close enough so that you don’t notice unless you’re as anal as I am).

Each play deals with the same six characters. Annie lives in the house, and takes care of her mother upstairs (who we never see). Tom lives next door, and may or may not be in love with Annie. Annie’s two siblings are Reg and Ruth. Annie has asked Reg and his wife Sarah to come take care of their mother for the weekend so that Annie can go on holiday; the secret (soon revealed to everyone) is that the holiday is with Norman, who is married to Annie’s sister Ruth. There isn’t much more to the set-up; the three plays are basically concerned with the complex relationships between these six people; much of the focus centers around Norman, who just wants to be loved- by all three women.

I’ll admit- this premise sounded hokey and way-too played out when I first heard it. And I haven’t been a huge fan of Ayckbourn’s plays in the past- I thought The Norman Conquests might be all just a big conceit (wow- three plays that overlap- how clever!). But fortunately, there is a lot of substance here- the six characters are all incredibly complex, and the trilogy is not so much about finding out what happens (you know at the end of the first play you see), but about watching how it happens, and realizing how what at first seems complete is, on second (and third) glance just a small part of the picture.

Director Matthew Warchus (who also directed God of Carnage this season, and Boeing Boeing last season) is largely responsible for the hilarity that ensues- he paces each play extremely well, balancing spurts of quick comedy with moments of quiet contemplation and tension. Warchus gets a lot out of physical movement; the six actors use their bodies in interesting ways, and a lot of the character development is communicated by posture and gesture. While not exactly slapstick, this is nevertheless very physical comedy at times, and all the more hilarious for that reason. But Warchus is also not afraid of silence, which makes The Norman Conquests more than just an uproarious laugh fest. These six characters are all profoundly unhappy, and the entire trilogy might be summarized as their search for happiness.

If there is a leading role, it is Norman; played by Stephen Mangan, Norman is incredibly normal-looking for a man-whore, and he often borders on downright unappealing. He is not well-dressed, not in good shape, and needs a shave- all of which makes his seductive powers that much more interesting to watch. Amelia Bullmore plays Ruth, Norman’s wife, a woman who hates wearing her glasses- her attempts to set up her chair in the garden are a high point in Round and Round the Garden. Paul Ritter is Reg, who fights constantly with his wife Sarah, played by Amanda Root. Jessica Hynes is Annie, who is clearly exhausted and looks like she hasn’t brushed her hair in months. My favorite actor was Ben Miles, who plays Tom, a rather dim vet who often seems more concerned with Annie’s cat than he is with Annie herself. All six actors are excellent, and their ensemble work together is as good as their individual performances. Each character is strengthened by comparisons with the others; for example, as we learn more about the insufficiencies of Tom and Reg, we understand more why Norman, despite his physical appearance, is such a tempting alternative for Annie and Sarah.

The plays are staged in the round, so any seat in the house is fine. I’d suggest seats on the “sides” of the oval (the 200 sections) or else near the stage. I saw each of the play’s first NY preview performance, so the sound may improve, but there were times when the audience was laughing so loud that I couldn’t hear a few lines. But judging by the laughter, I’d say The Norman Conquests will appeal to many people- it is very definitely a series of three comedies, albeit comedies with some serious, poignant moments.

So now for the important questions: do you need to see all three plays? If you only see one, which one should you see? And if you’re seeing all three, does it help to see them in a certain order?

I saw Round and Round the Garden first, then Table Manners, and then Living Together. You don’t need to see all three plays- each stands well on its own. However, I appreciated Round and Round the Garden more once I saw Table Manners, and while I probably enjoyed Table Manners the best, this may not mean everyone will. It is just as likely that I liked Table Manners so much because I already knew these characters from Round and Round the Garden, but the characters still had more surprises than they had for me in Living Together. Which means, someone who sees all three might like the second play the best, whichever one that is. Or not. So if you just want to see one because you want to have some idea of what people are talking about, I’d say it is a toss-up- see whichever one fits your schedule the best, or whichever one you can get the best seat for.

That said, if you’re interested enough to see one, I’d suggest that you consider seeing all three. Although you might expect the three plays to become repetitive, since they all cover the same characters in the same situations, they are anything but repetitive. In fact, the plays somehow become better, and even funnier, as you see more. For example, once you see Ruth squinting around in one play, you start laughing the minute she walks on stage in the next play. If you decide to see all three, one option is the “Trilogy Day”- Table Manners at 11 AM, Living Together at 3 PM, and Round and Round the Garden at 8 PM. This might suggest that this is the “preferred order”- since this is also the order they are listed in the playbill. However, this probably has as much to do with the set demands (the garden set has a different floor than do the sitting and dining rooms) as it does with anything else.

Of course, the publicity will tell you that the plays can be seen in any order, but is this really true? For what it is worth, Round and Round the Garden both “starts” and “ends” the play- its first scene happens first in time (5:30 PM on a Saturday), and its last scene happens last (Monday at 9 AM). So I guess an argument could be made for seeing this one either first or last. But ultimately, I don’t think it matters too much. Each play tells you enough about what is going on so that any play can be seen first. I’d say it is more important to try to see all three fairly close together- if all three in one day sounds too exhausting, then maybe try to see one a night for three nights. (For those who saw Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia trilogy, this is a much less daunting prospect- The Norman Conquests is not only funnier, but shorter- by about 2-3 hours.) Because the three plays that make up The Norman Conquests work by building on each other, if you see one too far apart from the other, you might forget some of the ways in which they overlap. And while this isn’t necessary for the enjoyment of any one play, it is what makes the trilogy so enjoyable. In other words, if you are going to see the trilogy, treat it as a trilogy to get the best bang for your buck.

For those who aren’t sure, there is a discount offer in the playbill; once you see one play, you can go back to the box office and buy tickets to the other two (the box office is conveniently open during intermission and after the show). So unless this discount (when I went it was $49) goes away after the trilogy opens officially on April 23rd, it would seem as if buying a ticket to one play to see if you like it doesn’t mean you will necessarily spend more money on all three than those who buy the trilogy all at once (indeed, at $49, this would seem to actually save you money). One final note- when I left Round and Round the Garden, I was somewhat ambivalent- I would have been perfectly fine just seeing that play. It was only after seeing the second play (in my case Table Manners) that I understood what I missed in the first play- so much so that I wanted to go back and see Round and Round the Garden again after I finished the trilogy. So a note of warning- you may not love the first play you see, at least, not at first.

Ultimately, The Norman Conquests is to some extent an event- there are those (myself included) who will go if only to say that we saw all three plays. But for everyone else, The Norman Conquests is still worth seeing. Yes, some on a tight budget, or in New York for a short time, might understandably prefer to spend their money and time on three unrelated plays. So I won’t say to skip everything else to see The Norman Conquests. That said, this is an extremely enjoyable trio of plays- it is thoughtful comedy, but incredibly accessible. It is a terrific production with an all-around hilarious cast, directed by one of the best comedy directors today. Good comedies are rare on Broadway, and although I haven’t seen Warchus’s other Broadway hit God of Carnage yet, I’ve heard from several people that The Norman Conquests is better written. So if you’re looking for a comedy and don’t mind missing the “stars” in God of Carnage, The Norman Conquests is worth checking out.

(The Norman Conquests plays at the Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway, on 50th St between Broadway and 8th Avenue. The three plays are performed through July 25th, and occur on a rotating schedule, so the performance schedule varies. In general, there are shows Tue at 7 PM, Wed at 2 PM, Wed through Fri at 8 PM, and on weekends there are “Trilogy Days”, in which all three plays are performed- at 11 AM, 3 PM, and 8 PM. See normanconquestsonbroadway.com for the complete schedule. Running time for each play is approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. Tickets for one play are $107-$112, and the entire trilogy costs $256. There is also student rush for $27, available the day of the performance. Tickets are available online at telecharge.com)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Red Fly/Blue Bottle (HERE Arts Center)

By Molly
performance art
• brilliant visuals • lots of music, feels like a concert • 80 minutes, no intermission • HERE Arts Center is one cool venue

Chris Lee in Red Fly/Blue Bottle. Photo by Ryan Jensen.

BOTTOM LINE: A visual concert of sorts...for those who are into creative, unique productions.

This review was hard to write. And that's not a negative thing. Red Fly/Blue Bottle is an adeptly produced theatrical event with delightful music and visuals that nearly brought me to the brink of sensory overload. The plot and intentions, like many performance art pieces of its kind, are vague, probably on purpose to evoke active thought from the audience. Performance art is experimental and Red Fly certainly plays with the storytelling mechanisms available through its musical means. So as a result, it's hard to describe this piece in ways that do it justice. It's really almost more advantageous to everyone if I just tell you that you need to see it for yourself to understand what it's all about. And even then, I'm not convinced anyone can fully understand it.

The story involves a couple in distress (played by Jesse Hawley and Chris Lee). The details of their situation are undefined and as an audience member, you are an active participant in your own mind piecing together the specifics. The press notes state: "A clock explodes. A man departs for destinations unknown. Hypnotic songs fill up an empty house as a lone woman peers through her microscope. A theatrical event that bridges concert, cabinet of curiosities and video installation, Red Fly/Blue Bottle challenges how we listen, look and remember." And that's a pretty accurate description. This show is an intriuguing, visceral journey; taking the ride requires thought, attention and trust that you're in the able hands of narrator Christina Campanella, who also wrote the show's music.

Campanella sits toward the left part of stage at a table and another woman (the Old Lady, played by Black-Eyed Susan) sits at a table a little ways behind her, on a raised platform. Both of these characters serve as narrators and although most of the show is sung, there are moments of narration thrown in to propel the story. These words are poetic, almost written in verse, and both Campanella and Susan recite them in a soothing, tranquil voice.

Campanella also plays music through the show, with two other musicans who sit on the left part of the stage. Sammy Baker plays drums, upright bass, guitar, banjolele and stylphone, and Erich Schoel-René plays cello. Campanella sings and plays the organ and accordian. And of course, Lee and Hawley sing as well. The music has a unique sound, somewhat subdued but with a hint of the normal rock music structure we're used to from pop culture (verse, chorus, etc). It plays like an album with each song sounding a little different but maintaining the same feel.

Video projections accompany the action throughout the performance and the projections happen on all kinds of surfaces from small, tv-like contraptions on tables, to movable screens that slide from left to right and back again as the scene requires. The projections sometimes show live video like when the old lady talks and sometimes they show footage of various items and ideas that relate to the point in the story. They are constantly changing and flowing with the pace of the story and the music that's setting the tone for the whole she-bang. This visual additive along with the movement of the set's "walls" from left to right on sliders, makes Red/Fly a cool thing to watch.

Red Fly is, at its core, a wonderfully moving theatrical experience. It is experimental and most of its risks are proven successful. But at the same time, it's not for everyone and it certainly ventures into the artsy side of live theatre. But if you are into unique performances, particularly those with an emphasis on the music that play like a concert, then check out Red Fly.

(Red Fly/Blue Bottle plays through May 2 at HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue near Spring St. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 9pm, Sunday at 4pm and 7pm and Monday at 7pm. Tickets are $20 each. For more info and to purchase tickets visit here.org.)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mary Stuart (Broadhurst Theatre)

By Le-Anne
historical drama • a transfer from London's West End • powerhouse actresses • strong images • stay for the second act

Harriet Walter as Elizabeth and Janet McTeer as Mary in Mary Stuart in the Donmar Warehouse production in London. Photo by Alastair Muir.

BOTTOM LINE: It starts out slow so hit the espresso bar before the show, just in case...you do not want to miss out on the second act which is well worth the wait.

Politics, lies, murder, conspiracy, imprisonment, and a battle for power among two of the most cutthroat leaders in history...and did I mention that they are women? One of the most interesting rivalries in history (between Queen Mary of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I) is told in Friedrich Schiller’s historical drama, Mary Stuart, translated by Peter Oswald. It explores the struggle not only of women in power but women with power. Tony award winner Janet McTeer (Mary) and three-time-winner of Britain’s acclaimed Olivier Award Harriet Walter (Elizabeth) take on, perhaps, two of the strongest women depicted in history with full force. This Broadway revival, ripped fresh from London's West End, is full of bold direction, severe design elements, and fantastic acting. It is as tenacious as the women it portrays. That is, however, if you can make it through the first act.

While Act Two may be tenacious, Act One is rather tedious. Full of rambling monologues of no real interest, no real action, and not even monologues that can rest on the excuse of exposition, the first act lags. With the exception of one scene between Mary and Mortimer (Chandler Williams), in which Mortimer explains to Mary that he is her ally, not her enemy, and she reveals the Earl of Leicester (John Benjamin Hickey) as a friend and confidant, the first act is not terribly dynamic. Since I do not read German, I can only presume that Oswald gave justice to Schiller’s early nineteenth century work. So, I can only fault a dated sense of theatrical interest and style or maybe a cultural difference. The second act however, has such a modern sense of flow while maintaining the integrity of a period piece, that I wonder whether the discrepancy in style is Schiller’s handiwork or Oswald’s adaptation. But even in the able hands of McTeer and Walter, the first act falls flat. I must admit, my head bobbed a couple of times. At first, I was red with embarrassment until I noticed the orchestra of dipping heads in the dark all around me.

That being said, Act Two starts with a bang–or should I say a downpour. From the moment the torrential rain drenched the stage, with crashes of thunder, and flashes of lightning the theatre was alive. No more bobbing heads. The second act was so much more exciting it was as if it were different play. Director Phyllida Lloyd captures an absolutely gorgeous and eerie stage picture at a particular moment when Elizabeth and Mary lay eyes on each other for the first time. It happens in an instant but is an image that this reviewer will not soon forget. I find it so interesting that a single moment in a play can capture the entire collaborative process of theatre so expertly. Hours upon hours of lighting design (Hugh Vanstone), sound design (Paul Arditti), scenic and costume design (Anthony Ward), obvious manual labor behind these designs, precise direction, and fantastic acting expertly pulled together with the energy from the audience to create a flash that will live and die every night that it is performed. Moments like this is why one craves live theatre. This is where Lloyd shines as a director. There are several equally captivating stage pictures laced throughout the play, for example when Mary’s image hovers in Elizabeth’s conscience. Lloyd creates visually stunning scenes that can only be captured live.

Of course, it helps to have two equally stunning actresses leading the way. Other standouts in this stellar cast include the aforementioned Hickey as the dubious Leicester and Williams as the impassioned Mortimer. Especially entertaining is Robert Stanton as Sir William Davison. With utmost sincerity, he brings humor to a weighty moment and the tennis match of words between him and Walter is delightful. Walter and McTeer rule the stage like true royalty and the two share an explosive chemistry. McTeer is earthy and brutally honest in her portrayal of the wronged Queen. In contrast, Walter is regal, secretive, and delicate in her strength. If McTeer’s Mary is coal, Walter’s Elizabeth is a cut diamond. Born from the same elements, both are tough, beautiful, and create fire -- and never, ever, play with fire.

(Mary Stuart is currently in previews and officially opens on April 19th. It plays at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Thursday & Friday at 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday at 2pm & 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. The show runs 2 hrs. 45 min. with one 15 min. intermission. Tickets are $64.00–$116.50. Student Rush: $29.50, available at the box office on the day of the performancee, limit 2 per valid ID. For tickets go to theatermania.com. Discount tickets are $40–$45, available until May 3 at broadwaybox.com.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Belasco-LCT)

By Dan
superb direction and an overall terrific production • set is marvelous and subtly beautiful • uniformly excellent ensemble cast • some may find it boring; others will find it riveting • incredibly beautiful final moments

BOTTOM LINE: If you don’t mind a play with a lot of talking and not a lot that “happens," this production of an August Wilson play is incredibly rewarding and sends you out on an emotional high.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is one of the ten plays in August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh cycle;" each play depicts a different decade in the 20th century, and all but one are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an area once considered to be the center of African-American life in Pittsburgh. This is the first revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone since its original Broadway production in 1988. But in the last eight years, Wilson’s work has been produced somewhat regularly in New York...three of his plays have premiered on Broadway since 2001 (King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, and Radio Golf). Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was revived on Broadway in 2003. And the Signature Theatre Company devoted their 2006-2007 season to August Wilson, producing King Hedley II, Seven Guitars, and Two Trains Running. The other three plays in the cycle are Jitney, The Piano Lesson, and Fences (and Wilson won Pulitzer prizes for both The Piano Lesson and Fences).

Wilson’s plays all deal with the lives of African-Americans in the 20th century, but they have other things in common as well. All have ensemble casts of between six and eleven characters, all are very “talky” and reward those who listen to the poetry and rhythm of the language, and all are primarily realistic in tone but have a touch of mysticism and magic. That said, some of Wilson’s plays are better than others, and the success of his plays have a lot to do with the quality of the productions. Fortunately, this Lincoln Center Theater production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is stunning.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is the “1910s” play. It takes place in 1911, during a period when many African-Americans were migrating north, leaving the farms in the south and settling in urban centers of industrialization like Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh. Set in a boarding house, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone captures the transient nature of this time, in which freed slaves and their children began traveling the country in search of better lives than they had in the southern states. The play gets its name from an early blues song; Joe Turner (actually Joe Turney, brother of Tennessee Governor Pete Turney) would illegally kidnap newly freed slaves and force them to work for him for seven years. One of these kidnapped men is Herald Loomis, one of the central characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Loomis was separated from his family after being kidnapped and forced to work on a chain gang; with his young daughter in tow, he arrives at Seth Holly’s boarding house in search of his wife.

Much of the first act of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone sets out and develops the various characters; most of the play is quite talky and it may seem like not much is happening. For this reason, some may find Joe Turner’s Come and Gone a bit boring. It isn’t necessarily clear from the outset where the play is going, and some characters may seem extraneous (I don’t agree, but it is something that critics have argued in the past). If you need a lot of action to sit through 2 hours and 40 minutes of a play, you might want to look elsewhere.

But I found this production riveting. Every member of the ensemble is terrific; they all give you a clear sense of each character the minute they appear onstage, which enables audiences to enjoy the characters from the beginning. I don’t mean that the cast rests on simple stereotypes, they don’t at all. But the combination of Wilson’s writing and the excellent performances allows you to immediately sink into the world of the play, without needing a lot of background information to understand what is going on.

But as good as the cast is, this production truly soars because of director Bartlett Sher, known to New York audiences for directing the Lincoln Center Theater productions of Awake and Sing, The Light in the Piazza, and the revival of South Pacific. Sher is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors...everything he does is subtly beautiful. Sher’s choices are noticeable, but they are always appropriate and never overwhelm the piece and his direction of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is no exception. It is worth mentioning that Sher is the first white man to direct a Broadway production of an August Wilson play. Wilson’s plays are all concerned with the specificity of the African-American experience in the United States, and with the various effects of racial identity; he therefore always demanded African-American directors for the high-profile productions of his plays. While Wilson died of cancer in 2005, I’d like to think he would applaud Sher’s direction of this piece. While I don’t want to give much away, Sher’s use of the set is beautiful, and what he does with the final moments of the piece took my breath away–it was the perfect way to theatricalize both Loomis’s awakening and the magical realism of the moment.

If you have never seen an August Wilson play, go see this production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone- it is a great introduction to one of the most important American playwrights of the 20th century. If you have seen Wilson’s work before, you’ll have some sense of his style (while I always enjoy a Wilson play, I must admit that some of them can seem a bit long, especially if they are directed too didactically). I’m sure there are those who will find this production long as well...this certainly isn’t a play to see when you’re tired or at the end of a long week. But I’ve seen every Broadway production of a Wilson play since 2001 (I missed the season at the Signature Theatre), and this is definitely the best production I have seen. So as long as you don’t mind a play in which not a lot “happens," I highly recommend Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

(Joe Turner’s Come and Gone plays at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St, through June 14th. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Running time is approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets are $46.50- $96.50. Visit telecharge.com to buy tickets and visit lct.org, Lincoln Center Theater’s website, for more information.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Brunch: the Musical offers free show

Attention those in the restaurant industry! Brunch: the Musical offers Restaurant Employee Appreciation Night on Sunday April 12th. The 8pm performance is free to anyone in the industry who brings an apron to the show. Waiter, chefs, bartenders and managers can go to the Chernuchin Theatre, 314 West 54th Street, for some free entertainment that is sure to hit close to home.

Read Kitty's review of Brunch: the Musical here.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Macbeth (Hipgnosis Theatre)

By Leah

man, that lighting is an interesting choice • unevenly acted • not the best introduction to Shakespeare, but you may want to bring your literary buddy

Julian Rozzell, Jr. as Macbeth and (L-R) Rachel Tiemann, Amelia Workman and Bryn Boice as the Weird Sisters in MacBeth. Photo by Pharah Jean-Philippe.

BOTTOM LINE: The acting wasn't hot enough to overcome a deliberately cold production.

One of the bloodiest plays in Shakespeare's canon comes to the Lower East Side with the Hipgnosis Theater Company's production of Macbeth. This incarnation is set in a modern, stark, and urban world - i.e. cargo pants and combat boots, a bare stage, and colorblind casting. An excellent start. This auspicious beginning continues with the appearance of the Three Witches (Rachel Tiemann, Amelia Workman, and Bryn Boice), tightly wrapped in white plastic and gauze, whose collective presence remains wonderfully weird and delightfully disconcerting throughout the play. I respect, admire, and love daring production choices. But y'know what? This play left me really cold, and I think it only partially meant to.

The most interesting choice of the show is arguably the decision to stage it entirely in full light. And not only in full light, but with a good deal of it coming from flourecent strips and bouncing off the scuffed white vynl flooring which marks off the playing space. The concept, according to the press release, was to "propose that, in our urban society, ubiquitous light can be as much a source of terror and nightmare as darkness was in Jacobean England" and, to that end, it was somewhat successful. The monotony of the lighting was enough to drive anyone stark raving mad. Unfortunately, as one is going stark raving mad, it is difficult to pay attention to poor player strutting and fretting his hour on the stage. Furthermore, man, I like Shakespeare, and I still need it broken up by something. Don't get me wrong, the stage pictures were nice and dynamic, but really, the lack of lighting cues made the play feel a lot longer than it should have.

The reason I love bare-bones productions is because they highlight the acting. And let's face it, Macbeth is tough play to get right because the title character is a tough guy to get behind. As the Scottish Thane, Julian Rozzell, Jr. has some genuinely anguished and sympathetic moments, particularly during the soliloquies. In general though, it didn't seem like anyone in the cast was really talking to one another, nor did there seem to be a cohesive acting style. Some actors rushed through lines in rather naturalistic fashion, while others went for more traditional "Shakespearean" acting - that is, borderline declamation - and so there were some scenes when it didn't really feel like the actors were in the same play. The relationship between Mac and Lady Mac (Elizabeth Mirarchi) stands out as an exception to this; their interactions with each other are welcomed moments of genuine connection.

I think a lot of the choices of this production were interesting and commendable, but were meant to highlight acting and chemistry which, with a few exceptions, didn't really pop the night I was there. Go see it with your Bardophile buddy, not with the friend who is shaky on the whole theater experience; you won't be doing him any favors.

(Macbeth runs through April 19th at the Flamboyan Theatre, Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, 107 Suffolk St.. Performances are Wednesday through Sunday at 8pm. The show runs 2 hrs. and 15 min. Tickets are $18, to purchase visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444. For more show info visit hipgnosistheatre.com.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Brunch: The Musical (American Theatre of Actors)

By Kitty

Collin Frazier,Martin Landry & Josh Woodie in Brunch - The Musical. Photo by Peter James Zielinkski

BOTTOM LINE: Deserves the 20% gratuity and then some

As everyone who has ever worked in a restaurant in New York City knows, working brunch shifts on Saturday and Sunday mornings is absolute and utter hell. Never is there a time when customers are more demanding, inconsiderate, stingy and downright rude. Never is there a time when management is more confrontational, unforgiving, relentless and stressed. Never is there a time when the staff is more...hungover?

Brunch: The Musical explores each and every dreaded aspect of this late morning-early afternoon sitdown. In Brunch, we shadow fourteen restaurant staffers as they navigate the turbulent sea of snooty customers, kitchen chaos and inter-staff relations, all the while, rethinking their place in the restaurant, in New York, and in the world. Brunch is less a slice of life piece about the service industry and more a commentary on the people who come to the city with big dreams and small wallets. It reminds the audience of the heart, passion and courage of those who move to the city in search and fame and fortune, but who instead, at least for a time, find themselves working a job where they are constantly under-appreciated, overworked and overstressed on a daily basis.

Brunch keeps it light in the first act. Each scene is salted with service industry insider gags, but the most of the humor is lost on those who have never experienced the ordeal of waiting on hungry, hungover and therefore irritable patrons. General audiences will snort mimosas through their noses, however, during the chef's ode to culinary cacophony, "If I Vas a Vaiter." Other songs such as "I'd Say No," however, only cater to the service set.

Act II is more somber in tone and is somewhat a letdown following such a high-energy first act. Although the second act does dig deeper into the characters as people, the result is overly dramatic and unbelievable. Brunch seems to struggle with identity. Is it a silly musical with catchy pop numbers and laugh-out-loud comedic scenes? Or rather, is it a musical that hopes to share the struggles of the young, bohemian New Yorker searching for security and self while relying on the kindness of strangers? Brunch: The Musical has amazing potential to achieve both, but requires a couple more re-writes to do so. The number, "City," for example, nicely and evenly blends the two, but is unfortunately, placed in Act I where its energy and passion is not needed.

The cast is fantastic vocally, but appears slightly under-rehearsed in regards to dancing. Like the singing, however, the acting is spot-on with remarkable performances by Judah Frank and Kevin Thomas Collins. The ensemble is strong and the band is flawless and each does their part to accurately define the reality of the play. The producers and creators of Brunch, Rick Kunzi and Adam Barnosky, present a four-star experience.

(Brunch: The Musical performs every Thrusday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8pm until April 25th at the American Theatre of Actors, Chernuchin Theatre, 314 West 54th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. Tickets are $18 and are available at the door or online at www.brunchthemusical.com.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Rock of Ages (Brooks Atkinson Theatre)

By Dan
well-constructed jukebox musical...the book isn’t as dumb as you might think • great sound design...you can hear everything • fun characters • the cast all sing their faces off • should appeal to everyone except theatre snobs

BOTTOM LINE: An intelligently silly musical full of '80s rock hits...tons of energy onstage and off. Go, rock out, and have a great time.

I had heard a few things about Rock of Ages before I saw it. I knew it was a jukebox musical (like Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys), but instead of using music from just one group, Rock of Ages expands its reach to a genre: rock music from the '80s. I knew that Rock of Ages features, among others, Constantine Maroulis, of American Idol fame. And after a run off-Broadway last fall, the producers decided to move the show to Broadway. In doing so, they decided to lower the standard top price (making Rock of Ages the cheapest musical now on Broadway) and to sell drinks during the show. Clearly, the producers had guts...but was the move to Broadway a wise choice?

Although reviews haven’t come out as I write this, I suspect that Rock of Ages will be a hit. I had a great time, and from what I could tell, everyone around me did as well. To be fair, this may be partly due to the familiar tunes, including “More Than Words,” “Sister Christian,” “Shadows of the Night,” “We Built This City,” and “The Final Countdown." Audiences like familiar music which is why revivals and jukebox musicals are so popular on Broadway...they seem less risky to producers. Of course, not all jukebox musicals work; I still recoil at the wretchedness that was Good Vibrations. And I suspect that the key to a successful jukebox musical has less to do with the specific choice of songbook than one might think.

Of course, Rock of Ages also has alcohol, and tipsy audiences may be more easily pleased. Given my tendency to glare at fellow audience members who unwrap candies, and all but bludgeon those who have their cell phones out, I had wondered if I’d be bothered by the whole selling-drinks-during-the-show thing; I wasn’t at all. In fact, I hardly noticed it. A sheet in the playbill explains that to buy a drink during the show, you need to buy chips before, alleviating the need for any financial transactions. So the server merely runs down the aisle with some drinks and hands them to audience members in exchange for chips. While I would hate for this practice to become a trend on Broadway, I have to say that for this show and this show only, it seems to work. The experience feels more like a rock concert than a “Broadway musical," and if Rock of Ages succeeds (as I suspect it will), it will be because of this feeling.

Rock musicals are tough...so often, the performers are on stage trying to “melt your face," and audiences are sitting politely in their seats, because they are at a musical, and that is how one behaves. Rock of Ages, on the other hand, is more of a musical-rock concert hybrid, one that thrives on the energy of the audience. While I missed the off-Broadway run, my guess is that Rock of Ages works even better on Broadway, since a bigger audience means more energy. The energy was palpable as soon as I entered the theatre, and continued to build as more people came in. Rock music plays as the house fills, and this helps create the feeling of a concert; the recorded tunes work as a kind of opening act. So when the house lights go down, the audience is primed and ready to rock. And they do. From talking to someone I know who is involved in the show, audiences are going crazy every night. And it isn’t just limited to people in their 30s and 40s–the woman in front of me must have been at least 65, and bopped along to every song in the show.

So is Rock of Ages just a silly, mindless piece of entertainment, Broadway junk food, so to speak? Perhaps, but if so, it is done very well. Some might claim that the book by Chris D’Arienzo is dumb, but I disagree, I'd say it is intelligently silly, in the style of many “traditional” musical comedies. It is funny when it should be (which is a lot), but D’Arienzo also draws from the lyrics of the songs in the show. For example, a line in which one character is said to be “taking the midnight train” anticipates the final song, Journey’s “Don’t’ Stop Believin'.” But because the line and the song are separated by at least 20 minutes, it doesn’t come off as a clumsy joke (as one might expect), but rather a natural part of the script.

One of the best things about the book is that every character is likeable and you enjoy watching them. Of course, the actors all have a lot to do with this, every one is terrific (and they all sing their faces off). I always love watching Amy Spanger, who plays the heroine Sherrie; she is lovably naïve and tantalizingly sexy at the same time. Constantine Maroulis plays the hero Drew, and is surprisingly sweet, with a constant “aw shucks” quality about him. James Carpinello is suitably sleazy as the famous rocker Stacee Jaxx, and Mitchell Jarvis is great as Lonny, a barhand who also narrates the show. Jarvis will likely be compared to Jack Black, but I most enjoyed his character’s sexual ambiguity; Lonny does not seem strictly straight or gay (in many ways he is like the Emcee in Cabaret) and I think this makes a staple character like Lonny that much more enjoyable. However, my favorite is Wesley Taylor, who plays Franz, the son of the German developer who wants to tear down the rock club in which the show takes place. Taylor adorably livens every scene he is in, and when his big number comes in Act 2, the house goes wild.

The set is suitably large scale with an upstage screen on which various projections are shown. (A warning to those attempting the lottery: the lottery seats are apparently on the extreme sides of the orchestra, and I’m told you miss most of these projections. You may also feel a bit left out of the energy of the audience). Overall, the show looks fantastic. But I was even more impressed by how it sounded. Of course, one expects a show like this to be loud, and it is. But never uncomfortably so. But more importantly, I understood every single lyric, and heard every single spoken word. Even when the girls behind me were singing along with the songs, I could still hear the singers on stage. This is not a small feat in a show like this, and I think Peter Hylenski’s sound design does a lot to make this show work as well as it does.

While most people will love Rock of Ages, if you’re a true theatre snob- one who eschews anything that smacks of popular entertainment this may not be the show for you. And a warning to parents: some of the material is a bit racy, I’d give it a PG-13 rating. Personally, I enjoy all types of theatre, as long as they are done well and Rock of Ages is a silly collection of '80s rock tunes that is also a surprisingly enjoyable piece of musical theatre. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of anything I would change about it. As a girl behind me said to her friends during intermission, “It’s the '80s, it’s happy hour, it’s the best time of my life!” While I wouldn’t go quite so far, I have seen almost every new Broadway musical this season (except for the two still in previews), and will say that if you want to see a fun new musical and come out with a smile on your face, I’d definitely recommend Rock of Ages.

(Rock of Ages plays at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. The general performance schedule is Mon at 8 PM, Tue at 7 PM, Thur and Fri at 8 PM, Sat at 2 PM and 8 PM, and Sun at 2 PM and 7 PM. Running time is approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. Tickets are $50.50-$99.00, and there is a lottery for $26.50 seats held 90 minutes before each show. For tickets visit ticketmaster.com, and visit rockofagesmusical.com for more information.)

Friday, April 3, 2009

Next to Normal (Booth Theatre)

By Molly
rock musical • original • kick-ass performances by the powerful but tiny cast of 6 • really depressing • missing something

Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer in Next to Normal. Photo by Joan Marcus.

BOTTOM LINE: An exciting new musical with a lot to like...and well, a lot to dislike.

Musical theatre fans rejoice–a brand spanking new, modern musical starring the irresistible Alice Ripley is now on Broadway! Everyone else, remain seated. I know Next to Normal will amass a following of devoted fans who connect with this rock musical as if it was written for them. And I know I will get flak for not jumping on board. It's not that I don't understand, and it's not even that I don't like the show because really, there are a bunch of fantastic things about Next to Normal. There's just something missing for me, some nagging disconnect in the reality, perceived reality, and the way the plot unfolds. I want to believe these people are real but unfortunately I just can't get there. Let's start with a little background.

Next to Normal premiered off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre last year and then played for a while at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Before this, the show was crafted on a smaller scale in New York and also ran for a bit in Seattle. All this time, the creative team and producers worked to perfect the show, getting it ready for the inevitable Broadway production we have today. I'm sure it's gone through a lot of changes in that time. Next to Normal is the story of a dysfunctional family; Diana (Alice Ripley) is a mother with mental illness, Dan (J. Robert Spencer) is her stable husband, Gabe (Aaron Tveit) is their son and Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) is their daughter. Diana's condition is getting worse and rendering her all but unable to maintain a normal life. The family is left to deal with their mother's addiction to meds, visits to various shrinks, suicide attempt, and eventually electroshock therapy which leaves her unable to remember much of the past.

Directed by Michael Greif (Rent) and with music by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt (High Fidelity), Next to Normal is a rock opera that never stops rocking. Nearly every word is sung and the band sits on stage next to the action. And the music is hands down the best part of this theatrical experience. Next to Normal feels very much like Rent in the sense that the music rocks hard and the pulsating score is consistent through the story, changing with the tone of the moment. And like Rent (which also tackles a sad and gritty storyline), the music is there as an outlet for these characters' emotions, not just for theatrical show. You'd never call these songs "numbers" or "dittys" as they hold much more weight than that. Check out the songs on the show's website for a taste of the score.

Another positive of this production are the performances, specifically the vocals. Everyone sings this show with absolute perfection, equally weighted and important to the story. It's wonderful to listen to. Acting-wise, Ripley and Damiano are riviting. Ripley is charmingly disturbed and Damiano, as the 16-year old just trying to make it through adolescence, evokes such pain and weakness through a collected, determined exterior. To their credit, Tveit and Adam Chanler-Beret as Natalie's boyfriend Henry do their best to create unique characters that support the story even though they aren't given much to work with in the script. Louis Hobson as the various doctors is adequate although his part isn't very deep at all. Spencer, as Diana's husband, lacks adequate emotion; the ex-Jersey Boy sounds supurb but I never believed he was anyone's husband or father, doting or otherwise.

If you're a already a musical theatre fan, stop reading now and go see Next to Normal. You'll like it, you'll connect, you'll cry, you'll appreciate the uniqueness this show has to offer in a consistently cookie-cutter genre. It deserves credit for breaking the norm. But if you're interested in the other side of the coin, I'll be happy to tell you why this show doesn't work for me. It mostly has to do with the minimalist, representational approach to the story-telling (which actually, I'm usually all about). The set (also like Rent) is a three-storied structure of scaffolding representing the family's home. The ground floor includes furniture that gets pushed to the front of the stage when it's being used and pushed back when it's not. The other scenes take place in the bare area in front of the house with a few set pieces or props to indicate the setting. Basically, the scenes are "suggested" to the audience and we use our imaginations to connect the dots. In theory, this technique should work, and if the characters were as real and grounded as the plot lends, I wouldn't have had a problem with the minimalistic interpretation...it would've been an artsy storytelling choice that didn't muddy the plot.

But sadly I didn't, for one iota of one second, believe that any of these characters were real or their story true. The gravity of this situation, especially at the end of the play, wouldn't make anyone sing, let alone look on any bright side of life. The plight this family goes through is so damn depressing I'm not sure one could just soldier on and look on the bright side, and at least not be severely screwed up. Seriously, it's a downer. Maybe this story requires stronger acting choices, more depth to these characters to bring their drama to life. Next to Normal introduces a profound set of circumstances and never really delves into how the characters feel about them. Sure, we hear the lyrics and feel the drive of the music, but the actors don't truly personify people going through a struggle (Damiano not included, she's mostly dead-on with her character's emotion). Maybe they're too busy singing. And maybe this story would be better told without music. I really wanted to connect with this show, and through the music I did feel somewhat attached. But in the end, Next to Normal didn't leave me feeling resolved or restored, it simply left me feeling sad and disjointed.

(Next to Normal plays at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm and Sunday at 3pm & 7:30pm. The show runs 2 hrs. 20 min. with one 15 min. intermission. Tickets are $36.50-$111.50 with a limited number of $25 rush tickets available at the box office starting at 10am. For tickets visit telecharge.com. For more show info visit nexttonormal.com.)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Our Town (Barrow Street Theatre)

By Scott
minimalist • moving • engaging • all elements come together perfectly

BOTTOM LINE: Less is sometimes so much more.

Our Town is one of those plays that bears the sometimes unfortunate burden of superlatives. All too often, I have found, that expectation has out-shined actuality. I began to wonder if the play was really as good–if it really was as simple and as profound and as simultaneously singular and universal–as legend would have you belive. My curiosity was borne out of productions that simply did not reveal to me all the wonder I had been told this play possessed. And then I went to see the current production playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, and all my concerns melted away in about three minutes.

David Cromer’s magnificantly realized production literally and figuratively strips away all the excess and distractions that have plagued so many productions and in so doing sets free all the beauty and wonder of this play. It is so simple really. You have a great play as your foundation. You hire a group of talented, committed actors and a director that, for lack of a better term, “gets it,” and then get out of the way. Let it do the work for you. Impose nothing on it, just tell the story and let the play speak for itself.

For the first time I understood, viscerally as well as intellectually, what Our Town is about. It is about everything. It is about common people living common lives doing common things experiencing common emotions and doing it with their family and friends around them. It is, quite simply, about all of us. About the universality of our emotions and experiences. About the beauty of love and the temporary and transitory nature of life. About our desire to understand more than we can see and to hold on to things that we must let go. It is about our basic desire to know and to understand why. And accepting that we probably won’t ever really know.

Every aspect of this production is fully engaging, literally involving all the senses. The theatre is set up as a black box so that the audience sits on three sides. The set is two small dining room tables with chairs set around them. That is it. Everything else must be filled in by your own imagination. The house lights do not dim when the play starts, because, metaphorically, the lights do not dim when your life starts. Each piece of the puzzle has been so well thought out, and executed so subtly that audience members are invited to participate in the telling of the story by filling in all the lines in their own head. And it happens so naturally, without ever giving it a second thought. This, to my mind, is theatre at its most valuable and rewarding level.

All of this would not work as brilliantly as it does were it not for, as mentioned, director David Cromer (who also plays the Stage Manager) and his amazing, amazing cast. They were all so fantastic that I hate to mention anyone in particular for fear that it might suggest an heirarchy in my mind (which there isn’t), but at one point during the scene between George Gibbs and Emily Webb when they discover they are in love I actually forgot I was watching a play. Because I was watching life.

(Our Town plays at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30pm and Saturday and Sunday at 2:30pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $69 or $40 for onstage seating and a limited number of $20 student rush tickets are available at the box office day of. To purchase tickets visit smarttix.com. For more info visit ourtownoffbroadway.com.)

Above photo is David Cromer as the Stage Manager. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Bus Stop (Theatre HAN)

By Kitty

BOTTOM LINE: If you are short on patience, the wait at this Bus Stop will be very, very long.

Controversy has surrounded The Bus Stop, by Gao Xingjian, since its Beijing premiere in 1983. The Chinese people, weary of conforming to the rules of communism, embraced The Bus Stop and lauded writer Gao, much to the displeasure of the Chinese government. Less than five years after the play's premiere, Gao fled China and settled in Paris as a political refugee.

The play begins with two men in the countryside. Neither is aquainted with the other, but eventually, one begins to converse with the other in an attempt to pass the time. Soon, others begin to arrive, each with their own story, their own identity, and their own reason for hopping the bus to the city for the day. For each bus engine they faintly recognize in the distance, their excitement and anticipation jumps. It is this reoccurring renewal of faith that keeps them waiting. But the bus never stops. Should they go home? Should they take their chances and walk several miles into the city? Or should they continue to wait for something that may never come?

The strength in this production of The Bus Stop is in the design. The Theatre HAN team transforms the Sanford Meisner Theater into a small, cramped space using four plastic-draped cabanas, one in each corner, to house the audience. This creates a theatre-in-the round effect of which the actors take full advantage. Often, the actors address the audience directly and it is not uncommon for the actors to brush an audience arm or graze a crossed leg, all of which adds to the discomfort of waiting in an enclosed space with strangers.

The weakness, however, is in the direction. The actors do make the best of what they're given, with stand-out performances by Gabe Belyeu as Glasses and Adam Bedri as Hothead. Unfortunately, though, each character comes off as more cartoonish than capable which suggests an emphasis on "playing" a character rather than being the character. If actor and director can find a compromise between the two, the overall picture of the play will provide more interesting shade.

(The New York premiere of Gao Xingjian's The Bus Stop, produced by Theatre HAN, performs through April 19th at The Sanford Meisner Theater, 164 11th Avenue. Performances run Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm with matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday at 3pm and an evening performance on Sunday at 7pm. Tickets are $15, available by calling 212.352.3101 or visiting theatremania.com. For more show info check out theatrehan.com.)