Tuesday, July 4, 2017

CLOUD 9: Caryl Churchill's Gender-And-Genre-Bending Comedy Performed with an Improv Vibe






British playwright Caryl Churchill's magnificently complicated comedy, which flouts theatrical conventions as it skewers our perceptions of gender, race, time, and even logic, is being given an  edgy, seat-of-the-pants production by the always-risk-taking Seeing Place Theater company at the Access Theater.  

Churchill herself has dictated that the performers cross genders (and, in at least one case, race) in taking on some of the roles, and that the same actors play different characters in each of the two acts, which are (sort of) separated by 100 years. Even the stage directions are read aloud (in this instance, by Clinton Powell and Mariel Reyes) so that we get the sense we are watching a rehearsal or backer's audition instead of a full-fledged theatrical production. Anything, in fact, to keep us focused less on the characters than on the ideas of sexuality, gender, power, and social pressure that are the underlying drivers of the play. 

Act I takes place in a British colony somewhere in Africa in 1880, a place where, as one character puts it, "the climate is very confusing." That's as good an explanation as any for the goings-on. 

To begin with, we have Clive (Brandon Walker), for whom duty and country and propriety are of foremost importance, except, of course, when he is diving under the dress of the neighboring widow, Mrs. Saunders (Jane Kahler). Then there is Clive's wife Betty (Ari Veach), who really does do her utmost to be the perfect Victorian spouse but who is equally eager to bed their friend, the explorer Harry Bagley (Robin Friend Stift)

For his part, Bagley is horny for any male who comes within reach, including Clive and Betty's loyal-ish servant Joshua (Michael Stephen Clay), a black African who is always played by a white actor; and the couple's young son, Edward (Erin Cronican), who'd much rather play with dolls than learn to play cricket, as his father wishes. And, oh yes, there is Edward's governess Ellen (Ms. Kahler again), who is rather partial to Betty.  

And so, Act I devolves into a rather raunchy version of a French sex farce, but with racial, gender, and social undertones. Only Betty's mother Maude (Sabrina Schlegel-Majia) manages to cling to her old-school values, the very model of Mother England.  

After the break, Act II takes us to 1980 London, with a set of characters living in an age of supposed sexual freedom and women's liberation. Some of the characters are newly introduced, while others seem to be the same ones left over from Act I (we're told by Ms. Churchill that, for the characters, only 25 years have passed). Again, bed swapping is de rigueur, and even more accepted and out in the open - but no less confusing and complicated to the participants.  

No one truly knows how they are supposed to act with all of this new freedom. There is a wonderful moment here, for example, where one of the male characters, proclaiming himself to be a stalwart women's libber, practically bullies his wife into taking a job opportunity away from home when she doesn't want to do so. "God knows," he says, "I do everything I can to make you stand on your own two feet. Just be yourself. You don't seem to realize how insulting it is to me that you can't get yourself together.



Cast Photo by Russ Roland

It's all marvelous stuff, even if it is at times quite head-spinning. But as much as anything, Cloud 9 is an actors' play, with wonderfully juicy roles to sink their teeth into. To a person, the cast embraces its barely tamed wildness with all the gusto they can muster, giving the whole an exhilarating improvisational vibe. 

Over the years, this still-organically-growing company has brought in some outstanding actors by living up to its mission of being actor-driven. While artistic director Brandon Walker and managing director Erin Cronican co-direct and perform in this production, they do not dominate the stage, which is shared by a uniformly strong cast, especially as they are required to leap across roles between acts. Rather than single out any individuals, kudos and applause to every last gender-race-age-and-sexually-fluid one of them!


Cloud 9 is scheduled to run through July 16 at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway. Be aware that the theatre's name is misleading, as it is located at the top of four flights of stairs.  Check ahead if you need use of the freight elevator.  


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Saturday, July 1, 2017

MEASURE FOR MEASURE: Not A "Problem Play" If You Understand That All's Well If It Ends Well






Measure for Measure is generally thought of as one of Shakespeare's ambiguous "problem plays," but if you accept that, at its heart, it actually is a comedy (its "official designation" in the canon), you will find much to like in director Simon Godwin's interpretation in the Theatre For A New Audience production, now on view at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. 

The play does have its share of fools and clowns, and Godwin puts a lot of energy into bringing out the humorous elements, with fine comic turns by Kenneth De Abrew as the drunkard Froth; Zachary Fine as the dim-witted constable Elbow; Christopher Michael McFarland as the pub keeper Pompey; and, especially, Haynes Thigpen as the self-aggrandizing, "fake news"-mongering, foot-in-his-mouth Lucio.   

But what truly makes Measure for Measure a comedy is its adherence to the age-old comic arc by carrying us on a journey from a world that is "out of joint" to one where the classically-understood natural order of things has been restored.  


The frame for Measure For Measure goes like this: The Duke of Vienna (Jonathan Cake) has allowed the city's very strict laws to fall by the wayside and go unenforced for a long time. Debauchery has become the norm, and brothels and taverns are the city's leading businesses. The time has come to clean things up. Unfortunately, the Duke is in a predicament; he does not know how he can do this on his own, since he was the one who let things get out of hand in the first place.  



Thomas Jay Ryan and Cara Ricketts
Jonathan Cake and Haynes Thigpen


Production Photos
by Gerry Goodstein




So he hatches a plan. He will turn things over to his deputy, the reliably uptight and unbending bureaucrat Angelo (excellently portrayed by Thomas Jay Ryan), who will make sure all laws are rigorously and unequivocally enforced. For his part, the Duke will pretend to go on a journey, but will secretly hang around in disguise (as a monk) in order to observe how things unfold. Once everything has been cleaned up, he will return, ready to resume his authority in a restored universe.  No harm, no foul - and the classic definition of comedy will have been fulfilled.  

Of course, the duke is no sooner out of the immediate picture, when things start to go awry. This is the "problem" part of the play. Angelo, the obedient right-hand man, is ill equipped to brandish his new prerogative. He is the embodiment of the adage that "power corrupts," and the power he now wields brings out the worst in him.  

The trigger that sets Angelo off comes in the form of Isabella (Cara Ricketts), a novice at a convent, who learns that her brother Claudio (Leland Fowler) has been sentenced to death for the all-to-common "crime" of fornication. She approaches Angelo, beseeching mercy, but he rebuffs her -- until he finds himself filled with lust for her, and he strikes a deal: Claudio's pardon in exchange for her virginity. 

Much has been made over a very long period of academic discourse regarding this no-win situation, and this production does a fine job of laying out the arguments related to either possible decision for Isabella - in moral, religious, legal, and ethical terms. Not to overanalyze things, but it is clear that Isabella, as a women in this particular place and time, has few options, not even the option of being believed should she seek redress above Angelo (a point that resonates even today; think of the hung jury in the Bill Cosby sexual assault case, among others). 

But back to Shakespeare. His genius here lies in forcing Isabella into this terrible dilemma and then taking the play back to its roots by finding a way to restore order in the nick of time (the Duke to the rescue!)  

Why the Duke takes so long to set things right, when he knows all along what is going on, is a real source of frustration for the audience.  But think of it this way. We know he's around. He interacts with the other characters throughout (albeit in disguise), and along the way, he learns what it means to be a wise ruler -- with the ability to measure the rule of law against the rule of mercy. This is the essential comic arc of the play, and in the end, when all is set right, it is the quality of mercy that emerges as the key element.  

Any director grabbing hold of Measure for Measure needs to decide which side of the equation to play up - the comic or the problematic. A true balance is difficult to come by.  In this production, Simon Godwin leans toward the comic, playing up the clowning elements and downplaying, as much as possible, the play's darkness. 

Things get a bit muddied as a result, and the production goes overboard by drumming up audience participation, including sending us on a pre-performance walk through a "bordello" (though it looks more like an exhibit at the Museum of Sex); engaging us in some flag waving; and inviting some to come onstage to sit at cafe tables while a band called "The Lusty Puddings" plays a short set of songs that use Shakespeare's words, with music by the show's sound designer Jane Shaw.  Fun stuff, but it doesn't add much to the overall experience or shed light on the proceedings.   

Still the cast is a strong one. Jonathan Cake, a classically trained actor, does a fine job portraying the growing maturity of the Duke's personality (he'd make a good Prince Hal). Cara Ricketts is quite perfect in the difficult role of the tormented Isabella, who is dragged from grief to hope to joy over the course of the evening. Haynes Thigpen excels as Lucio. And Thomas Jay Ryan, is outstanding as the conflicted Angelo, giving his hiss-worthy character a surprising degree of complexity as he falls into the trap of power.       


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Thursday, June 29, 2017

THE CRUSADE OF CONNOR STEPHENS: What God Has Joined Together...



Fathers and sons are often at loggerheads in real life, and almost always in the theater. Thus it is with Big Jim, a fire-and-brimstone-preaching rural Texas Southern Baptist minister (bearing at least a passing resemblance to "God Hates Fags" preacher Fred Phelps), and his son Jim Jr., who is gay, married to another man, and mourning the death of a young daughter, the victim of a shooting at her school.   

That's the setup for Dewey Moss's The Crusade of Connor Stephens, a play that comes roaring out the gate like a bull let loose from its corral, tearing up the stage at the Jerry Orbach Theater for two fiery hours before sending us off to think (a lot) about what we have borne witness to. 

Before the evening is up, we will be faced with so much dirty family linen that we sometimes will want to close our eyes on the proceedings. More sadly, it is the sort of dirt that seems to be showing up with greater frequency these days as xenophobia in its many guises has become increasingly in-your-face visible on a regular, often violent basis. So, even though Mr. Moss proffers some hope for humane redemption, such redemption is couched realistically in small amounts, with no phony reconciliation to wrap things up on a cheery note.  


The play unfolds at the home of Jim Jr. (Ben Curtis) and his husband Kris (Alec Shaw), as they are preparing for the funeral of their daughter.  Jim Jr. is clearly in a state of shock, hardly able to speak as his sister-in-law Kimmy (Julie Campbell) bustles around in preparation for any visitors who might come prior to the service. Kris is in the bedroom, lying down and recovering not only from his own horrific emotional trauma, but from actual physical trauma. He, too, was shot in the incident, perpetrated by the title character, a family acquaintance who acted on the deep-seated conviction that the shooting was a "crusade" against sin. (And guess where he got that idea.).  

Although the play doesn't say, it's likely that Jim Jr. and Kris would have at least a small circle of friends or decent-minded neighbors who would show up to offer their condolences. But everyone is staying away, because the house is surrounded by reporters waiting for some sort of statement regarding the shooting.  The only ones who come, apart from Kimmy and her husband Bobby (Jacques Mitchell), are Jim Jr's folks -- his Grandma Vivi'n (Kathleen Huber), his mother Marianne (Katherine Leask), and, of course, Big Jim himself (James Kiberd), the personification of that snorting bull and self-proclaimed man of God. 

Big Jim dominates the room, as Mr. Kiberd dominates the stage, every moment he is present. He is a father for whom love is always conditional, requiring absolute obeisance to his narcissism in exchange for even a begrudging bit of affection. At best, he attempts to keep a relatively civil tongue in his head, although that effort falls by the wayside more than once. What love and support Jim Jr. receives comes from Kimmy and Bobby and Grandma.  No conditions on their love.   

There is much to despise about Big Jim, and as the play progresses, he lives down to your lowest expectations of him. And Mr. Kiberd absolutely mines the role for all it's worth, turning him into a truly despicable villain. 

But you might want to spend more of your time studying Grandma Vivi'n and, especially, Marianne. Because they are the most fully developed characters, both so well portrayed by Ms. Huber and Ms. Leask, respectively.

Grandma, who is in a wheelchair and walks haltingly with a cane, clearly is dependent on her son and daughter-in-law, and feels quite frustrated as a result. We cheer, as we ought, when she dismisses their holier-than-thou attitudes in order to show her support and love to Jim Jr.  

What is more interesting, it seems to me, is the formality of the way she addresses Kris, and even Kimmy, of whom she quickly takes a liking. In her manner, you can see the layers of old Southern politesse with which she was raised, adding a richness of credibility to her character as being someone more than the prototypical feisty old lady.  

Even more compelling, however, is the character of Marianne. As portrayed by Ms. Leask, Jim Jr's mother is by far the most complex character.  It would be easy to dismiss her as merely an appendage of her overbearing husband, but she reveals depths to her personality, both ugly and potentially salvageable, that are hers alone. Watch her watching Big Jim as his behavior grows increasingly outrageous.  Then listen to her own diatribe aimed against her son and Kris's relationship. And, finally, pay attention as she prepares to go home with Big Jim, a woman who is starting to charge and someone with much to mull over. One of the most touching moments of the play involves a brief but authentic embrace of her son and a hand reached out for just a moment to Kris.  

So, yes, The Crusade of Connor Stephens, is a bit of a sledgehammer as a play, but it is equally a cri-de-coeur by the playwright, Dewey Moss, who also directs the fine company. He is a man on a mission to shine a light on LGBT issues. 

[Moss's previous work, Death of the Persian Prince (reviewed HERE) dealt with an even more difficult issue, the forced sex reassignment surgery imposed on a gay Iranian man, because, by policy and religious absolutism, "there are no homosexuals in Iran"].  

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Monday, June 26, 2017

AFTERGLOW: An Open Marriage Is Put To The Test


Alex and Josh – two men together for five years, married, expecting a child through surrogacy – are so secure in their relationship that they are certain they are perfect candidates for an open marriage. They’re young and horny, so no reason to give up their vibrant and varied sex lives as long as they are completely honest with each other and with their extramarital partners. As Alex explains, “we have one rule. No sleepovers.” 

That's the premise of S. Asher Gelman's new play, Afterglow, now at The Loft at Off Broadway's Davenport Theatre.  

What could possibly go wrong?  



AFTERGLOW - Production photos by Mati Gelman


Much, as it turns out. Neither the best laid plans nor the best planned lays of men works out exactly as they imagine they will.  

Truly, if you were to do a little gender switching, you'd see that things unfold as they often do with heterosexual couples who dabble in affairs, open or on the sly.  Because, you know  gay, straight, bi, monogamous, polyamorous – there is always another body organ that comes into play, one that lies outside the groin area. As Josh is so fond of quoting Emily Dickinson: "The heart wants what it wants."  With two, that heart thing is tough enough; add a third party, and complications are bound to arise.  

As the play opens, Alex (Robbie Simpson) and Josh (Brandon Haagenson) are lying in bed, entwined with each other and with Darius (Patrick Reilly), who has joined them for a threesome. 

Much of Act I deals with the trio's no-strings-attached sexual fun and games. (Just to get the point out of the way, there is lots of nudity and sexual situations throughout the production).  But in Act II, things grow more serious as Josh and Darius start spending more and more time together, until they gradually cross the unspoken-but-always-present line of demarcation that starts with anonymous sex and evolves into friendship, genuine affection, and love.  

Will Alex and Josh's marriage survive? And what of Darius, who is younger by a few years (he's about 25, unattached, and rather insecure and vulnerable; the other two are edging close to 30, and, of course, have been a couple for some time). 

You could argue that all three know what they are getting into, thanks to the frankness of the "open marriage" arrangement. But knowing in your head is not the same as knowing in your heart. Life is messy, and love and affection are not the only emotions involved; there are also jealousy, mistrust, and feelings of betrayal that need to be factored into the mix.  

Afterglow hearkens back to a long string of works about extramarital relationships and the third party (usually, "the other woman"). There is a certain amount of narcissism and self-deception that floats about, and all three of the characters are most definitely playing with fire when they use the guise of openness to justify their behavior.

Still, the playwright, who also directs, has painted no obvious villains here, just, perhaps, a portrait of immaturity and poor judgment. If we feel for anyone, it is the unborn baby who is soon to need Alex and Josh's undivided attention. What kind of parents will these two self-absorbed individuals be? 

The production benefits from Ann Beyersdorfer's cleverly constructed set, which includes in its design a working onstage shower. And if you care about such things, the frequent nude scenes are intensified by the intimacy of the small theater space. But the play, a first for Mr. Gelman, does not necessarily add to our growing understanding about gay relationships, except to point out how they are not necessarily any different from heterosexual ones.  


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  
  
   






















Thursday, June 22, 2017

THE ARTIFICIAL JUNGLE: Mind the Piranhas!




For a fun evening of silly entertainment, you might want to head on out to the Theater Breaking Through Barriers' revival of Charles Ludlam's film noir parody, The Artificial Jungle, at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row. Just make sure to keep an eye on the piranhas; they steal the show!






Production photos by Carol Rosegg



The play takes place in a family-owned pet store in New York's Lower East Side, run by Chester Nurdiger (David Harrell) and his wife Roxanne (Alyssa H. Chase). Chester's mother (Anita Hollander), who fusses constantly over her nerdy son, lives with them in their apartment in the back of the store.

Roxanne is fed up with her dull-as-dishwater life in which feeding and cleaning up after the animals, her chirpy and generally oblivious husband, and her irritating mother-in-law make up her tedious routine. Her opportunity for escape comes when Chester hires hunky Zach (Anthony Michael Lopez) to help out. It isn't long before Roxanne seduces Zach into killing Chester (right after she has taken out a hefty life insurance policy on her husband, of course).

That, in a nutshell, is the plot, clearly borrowed from Billy Wilder's film noir classic Double Indemnity, which starred Barbara Stanwyck as the discontented housewife and Fred MacMurray as the insurance salesman she targets to be her husband's killer. Of course, Double Indemnity was played for its melodramatic noir cynicism, whereas The Artificial Jungle is played for laughs.    

For this revival, director Everett Quinton, who played Zach in the original production back in 1986 and later took over as artistic director of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, gives us more smiles and appreciative chuckles than guffaws and belly laughs. 

The story focuses on the multiple efforts by Roxanne and her half-hearted co-conspirator to successfully bump off Chester. For one thing, they are always under the suspicious gaze of Mother Nurdiger. They also have to work around the many unannounced visits by the local cop and family friend Frankie (Rob Minutoli). But eventually, they manage to pull it off and then make it appear that Chester got chomped to death when he slipped and fell part way into the store's piranha tank (just the sort of "ridiculous" the production could use more of).   

The play also picks up a bit from another sourceÉmile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin, which comes into play when Mother Nurdiger suffers a stroke and has to sit in silence, knowing that her daughter-in-law and her lover have killed her beloved Chester. Anita Hollander handles the grimaces and eye movements with just enough spoofy exaggeration to bring the silliness to its peak, especially if you recall Judith Light's Outer Critics Circle Award-winning performance of the mother in similar circumstances in last year's otherwise painfully gothic Broadway adaptation of Thérèse Raquin.

The cast as a whole does well with their roles, but because the plot itself is predictable, there are only a few surprises.  The best of these involve the participation of the marvelous piranhas (Vandy Wood is the puppet designer and Satoshi Haga is the puppet master). Keep your eye on them as they move around in their tank and follow the action with their eyes. They are full of personality, and enrich the production ten-fold.

  

Watching the cavorting carnivorous fish makes me think that The Artificial Jungle might make for a fun and quirky musical, along the lines of Little Shop of Horrors. Now that could well be something to sink your teeth into!



Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  
  

  



  


Thursday, June 15, 2017

FAREWELL TO THE TONYS: NOW WHAT?






With the airing of the Tony Awards, the 2016-2017 Broadway theater season officially came to an end. So, let's take a look at some of the shows that are scheduled to open in the coming months.


1984

I've seen this one already, and I will have more to say about it after it officially opens on June 22.  For now, here are two things to think about:  (1) It pays to be very familiar with George Orwell's remarkably prescient book on which this production is based, and (2) The production is raw, rough, and edgy.  Look at Point 1 and think hard about the significance of "Room 101."  Not for the faint of heart.


Marvin's Room

Now in previews and opening on June 29, this is a revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company of Scott McPherson's 1990 play about estranged sisters who come together at the home of their elderly and bedridden father. One of this sisters, Bessie, has served as his primary caregiver, while the other one, Lee, has stayed far away. Bessie has been diagnosed with leukemia, so the ball is now in Lee's court. A well-received 1997 film version starred Diane Keaton as Bessie and Meryl Streep as Lee.  In this production, Lili Taylor (known primarily for her work in films at television) appears as Bessie, and Janeane Garofalo (a standup comic who has also done films and television) is the wisecracking and unstable Lee.  

The Terms of My Surrender

Provocative political filmmaker Michael Moore's one-man show begins previews on July 28.  It is scripted (by Mr. Moore) and has a well-established director in Michael Mayer (Tony winner for the 2007 production of Spring Awakening). Few will wander into the theater unaware that Mr. Moore is no fan of the current President of the United States, who is likely to be mentioned with some frequency and in less than glowing terms over the course of the evening.  

Prince of Broadway

Begins previews on August 3. This is the long-awaited production highlighting the career of producer/director Hal Prince, the winner of 21 Tony Awards. It is a revue of songs by Stephen Sondheim, Kander & Ebb, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and many others with whom the impresario has been associated over the years.  If they don't stint on talent, including (please) a decent-sized orchestra, it could be quite entertaining. The cast includes well-known Broadway stalwarts Chuck Cooper, Emily Skinner, Tony Yazbeck, Karen Ziemba, and others of that ilk. Mr. Prince co-directs with Susan Stroman, herself a five-time Tony winner.  

Time and the Conways

Don't expect a Downton Abbey look-alike with this revival of J. B. Priestley's pre-World War II play that follows an upper class British family from 1919  to 1937.  The most exciting thing about the production is that it will be directed by Rebecca Taichman, who did a marvelously creative job helming Indecent this past season, earning a well-deserved Tony for her efforts.  Previews begin September 14. 

Junk

Playwright Ayad Akhtar, who gave us the excellent high-tension drama Disgraced and (to my mind) the even better The Invisible Hand, is back with this play about the financial mess brought about by the banking/investment industry in the 1980s. Not the first play to tackle this topic (Caryl Churchill's Serious Money from 1987, and Lucy Prebble's Enron from 2010 are two that come to mind), but Akhtar is a master at writing thrillingly about serious conflicts.  I do expect this one to be a strong entry, under Doug Hughes's direction. Previews begin September 14. 


M. Butterfly

This revival of David Henry Hwang's best known play, a Tony winner from 1988, marks a first return to Broadway for director Julie Taymor since the debacle that was Spiderman. Date for first preview is not yet set, but will probably be late September.  

The Band's Visit

As long as Katrina Lenk arrives with this Off Broadway-to-Broadway transfer, the musical (book by Itamar Moses and a terrific score by Yazbek) that won much acclaim with its debut at the Atlantic Theater Company ought to be a winner.  David Cromer once again directs. Previews begin October 7. 

Spongbob Squarepants

Ya never know -- not with music by the likes of Steven Tyler, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, John Legend, David Bowie and others of that caliber. Could be a real hoot.  Previews begin November 6. 


Once On This Island

Revival of Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical fantasy from 1990 begins previews on November 9. Directed by Michael Arden, who did the honors for the recent and highly touted revival of Spring Awakening.


The Children

British playwright Lucy Kirkwood's well-received, if disturbing drama about a post-apolocyptic world is coming to New York, with a first preview on November 28.  

Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance stars.  Need I say more?  OK.  Here's more. Written by Claire van Kampen (who is married to Mr. Rylance), the play is about the power of music to heal the mind of Spain's depressed King Philip V. The celebrated castrato singer, Farinelli, provides the cure. Rylance plays Philip, in case you were wondering. Previews begin December 5. 






Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.