Tuesday, July 31, 2012

‘Black Milk’: From Russia with Loathing

Move over, Chekhov.  There’s another Russian playwright in town. 

His name is Vassily Sigarev, and, at the tender age of 35, he is raising a lot of ruckus in Europe (and picking up admirers like Tom Stoppard along the way) for his brutal plays about the brutality of life in post-Soviet Russia. 

If you have seen one or both of the well-received productions of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (the Sydney Theater Company’s version which just closed at City Center and the still-running and all-but-sold-out production at the Soho Rep), you may be interested in expanding your horizons by going to see Sigarev’s Black Milk, a nasty little taste of home-brewed vodka that is on display at the 13th Street Theatre. 

I’ve got to warn you, though, that this production is considerably overwrought and pretty much unrelenting in its foul-mouthed, rage-filled portrayal of the ugly side of life.  Chances are you are not going to enjoy it much, but you still might want to go just to get a sense of this rising star of a writer, whom Stoppard has likened to Dostoevsky and in whose work I saw more than a few hints of Chekhov himself, even if they are nearly lost under the heavy-handed direction of Michel Hausmann. 

Hausmann, who is a theatrical director in his native Venezuela, recently came to Sigarev’s work as a graduate student in directing at Columbia University.  This does have the feel of an exuberant student production, in which every outrageous moment is exploited to its fullest.  Unfortunately, the play’s not inconsiderable humor—and thus its balance—is virtually lost.

Black Milk centers its tale on a married couple, a pair of hustlers from the big city who have descended on a backwater town in the middle of nowhere in order to fleece the gullible locals by selling them electrical appliances (in this case toasters, a nod, perhaps, to the toaster thief in Sam Shepherd’s True West) that they neither need nor can afford.   The action takes place in a shabby train station, where the pair, Lyovchik and his very pregnant chain-smoking, vodka-swilling wife Poppet, are forced to wait for the rare passenger train to come along so they can escape back to “civilization.” 

In the right hands, Lyovchik and Poppet could be viewed as distorted, foul-mouthed versions of Didi and Gogo from Waiting for Godot.  But here, as directed by Mr. Hausmann and portrayed by Josh Marcantel and Liba Vaynberg, they start out as shrill and vicious and get increasingly so as the play progresses, save for an interlude during Act II in which Poppet decides she is “tired of being bitch” and wants to give up their world where it is “trendy to be hateful.”  (Not to worry though; with some ugly prodding from her husband, she gets over it.)

The comic moments, such as they exist, come from some of the other characters in the play:  the vodka brewing ticket agent (Anna Wilson); the town’s own homegrown hustler and rival vodka seller (Emily Ward); and a madman of a townie (John Brambery) who comes tearing after Lyovchik and Poppet with a shotgun, wearing only a flapping jacket that fails even remotely to cover up the fact that he is naked. 
That encounter, which everyone survives owing to the fact that the shotgun is loaded with blanks, is enough to send Poppet into labor. 

It is during the interlude, in which the kind-hearted if overbearing Auntie Pasha (Rachel Murdy) cares for Poppet through the birth and postpartum period, that Poppet “finds God” and decides she wants to stay—a suggestion that does not sit well with the scornful Lyovchik, who reminds his wife of the power he has over her (she is called “Poppet,” after all).   And so it’s back to the big city.  Good riddance!

So what to make of all of this unpleasantness?  I still say there is a lot of Chekhov to be found in Black Milk. There’s the clash that occurs when city dwellers and country folk come together, the tension between religion and atheism, and even the gun-toting madman—who, save for the gun toter’s state of undress, comes straight out of Uncle Vanya

Some of this is potentially quite funny, something the Sydney Theatre Company played up royally (perhaps overplayed to the point of slapstick; balance, please!) in its production of Uncle Vanya.  There is a line in that production, in which the nanny reacts to all the brouhaha:  “All that shooting and shouting.  It’s something for the stage.”  

Indeed it is, which is why I think Vassily Sigarev is on to something that is worth cultivating.  Meanwhile, Black Milk is the only production of his work in town, which alone makes it worth the visit.

If you crave more of ProfMiller, check out the column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at BroadwayShowBiz.com.  Recent reviews include "How Deep Is The Ocean?," "Triassic Parq The Musical," and "Closer Than Ever." 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

‘Bullet for Adolf’: Snack Food for the Mind, But Great Fun

Bullet for Adolf, the new play by Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman, is a screwball buddy comedy in which the pair of novice playwrights have thrown everything but the kitchen sink into relating a tale from the heady days of their youth, when the two became friends while working as part of a construction crew in Houston in the summer of 1983  

Who knows the truth of it, but Harrelson, best known as a television and movie star, has said he had always wanted to find a way to tell the story of this time in his life.  One day, during an appearance on The Tonight Show, Harrelson mentioned Hyman’s name, and shortly thereafter the two reconnected.  The result is Bullet for Adolf, now in previews at the New World Stages following a run in Toronto last year. 

To be honest, there is not much that resembles a coherent plot, but if you can get past that, you are likely to find yourself caught up in in the steady stream of one-liners and gags, as well as in the performances by a well-tuned ensemble of actors, all but two of whom are new to the New York production.

Mr. Harrelson has maintained a personal hand in the play, which he directs with a rapid-fire pacing aimed at keeping the audience constantly entertained. He keeps the action pumping with upbeat dance music of the era (Billy Joel, Elton John, Donna Summer), video images (shots of President Reagan and iconic TV shows like M*A*S*H and, of course, Cheers), homages to Sammy Davis, Jr. and Judy Garland, plus a couple of filmed sequences, including a very funny one that takes place in the backseat of a police car.    

The plot, such as it is, involves the theft of a luger that allegedly had been used in an unsuccessful effort to assassinate Hitler.  But that’s really only a gimmick to give the play some sort of purpose—what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a “MacGuffin,” the thing that is being pursued by everyone but which really serves the purpose of setting the action in motion. 

What Bullet for Adolf really is about is the relationships among a group of friends. To begin with, there are Zach (Brandon Coffey) and Clint (David Coomber), for whom the summer in Houston serves as a stopping off point to earn some money towards a planned acting career in New York. 

Coffey, as Zach, is the slacker’s slacker, seemingly serving as stand-in for Harrelson, while Coomber’s Clint is a deliciously neurotic extrovert.  Coomber embraces the role with manic intensity, running around like a headless chicken, often clad only in his underpants.  He and Coffey, who originated these roles, play off each other like Abbott and Costello, with great comic timing.

The pair is joined by Frankie (Tyler Jacob Rollinson, presumably the surrogate for Frankie Hyman), a street-wise transplant from New York’s Harlem, who finds himself a tad lost in the culture of life in Houston. 

All three work under the watchful eye of Jurgen (Nick Wyman), master mason, Hitler admirer, and owner of the stolen gun.   They are joined at various points in the proceedings by Dwight (a very quirky Lee Osorio), who calls himself “Dago-Czech” and considers his whiteness to be a mere inconvenient mismatch with his inner [N-word].   The men have their counterparts in Jackie (Shamika Cotton), who is gradually won over by Frankie’s not-inconsiderable charms; her friend Shareeta (Marsha Stephanie Blake), whom Zach is most attracted to; and Batina, Jergen’s 18-year-old daughter who used to be Zach’s girlfriend but who is now interested in Clint. 

As you might surmise, the play finds its humor among topics that are not exactly politically-correct or appropriate for family audiences.  Among the subjects of jokes are race, sexual orientation, gender, Nazis, pedophiles, and placentas, and all of the gags and jokes are fueled by beer, pot, and endless teasing.

In the hands of another playwright (e. g. David Adjmi, whose play 3C has been deemed off-putting by many viewers for its deliberately offensive jokes), Bullet for Adolf might have taken a dark turn, indeed.  Yet it is not within Harrelson and Hyman to treat any of their characters with anything but affection, and while they set up some potentially serious moments, these quickly dissipate. 

Call it snack food for the mind if you wish, but all told, Bullet for Adolf is a romp, offering up zany characters, a great ensemble cast, and Mr. Harrelson’s whomp ‘em stomp ‘em directing.  In short, the perfect mid-summer’s fare!

If you crave more of ProfMiller, check out the column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at BroadwayShowBiz.com.  Recent reviews include "Triassic Parq The Musical," "Closer Than Ever," and "An Ideal Husband."  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Sublime Production of 'The Most Happy Fella'

Imagine going into the attic and finding a box of old photos you haven’t looked at in many years.  You open it, and even though everything inside is familiar, this time you see them through different eyes and recognize them for the treasures they always were. 

That’s how it felt for me the other day as I sat, watched, and fell in love with the Dicapo Opera Theatre’s exquisite production of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella.

I was only nine years old when The Most Happy Fella opened on Broadway in 1956, the same year, by the way, as My Fair Lady, Bells Are Ringing, Candide, and Li'l Abner.    Some time would pass before I would see any of these on stage, but the music from the original cast albums quickly became part of the background sounds that surrounded me from the radio, the television, and the phonograph in the living room. 

For a pre-teen, even one who enjoyed listening to show tunes, The Most Happy Fella boiled down to a couple of catchy songs:  “Big D” and “Standing On The Corner.”  And over the years, I came to think of Frank Loesser essentially as the composer of two popular hit shows—Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

Then, last year, I was fortunate enough to see the Encores! production of Where’s Charley?, Loesser’s first full-length musical, and found it to be an absolute treat from start to end.  This was followed by the recent revival of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

And now we have The Most Happy Fella, performed by a talented and blessedly unamplified cast (helmed by the glorious baritone Michael Corvino in the title role), backed by a 33-piece orchestra, and presented in a cozy, comfortable, attractive 200-seat theater in the basement of St. Jean Baptiste Church rather north and east of Broadway. 

Who knew?  (Well, I suppose a lot of people knew, but I wasn’t one of them!)

Let me tell you, tears welled up in my eyes through much of the performance—not due to the story The Most Happy Fella relates (though a sweet and touching story it is), but in response to wave after wave of the beautiful music that Loesser composed for this masterwork—not just Broadway rousers, but solos, duets, trios, quartets, and choral work (“Song of a Summer Night” is every bit as moving as Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday” or Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow.”) There’s not a dud in the bunch. 

So, is The Most Happy Fella a musical or is it an opera?   No one has ever given a definitive answer to that question, and there is no way I am going to try to resolve it.  Let’s just say that there are elements of both, with straight-out show tunes and music that would fit in just fine in an “official” opera by Puccini, including the delightful Italian language numbers such as “Abbondanza,” performed by a winning trio of chefs, Paolo Buffagni, Brian Carter, and Neil Darling.

Of course, it’s not easy to find singers who can deliver both styles.  What director Michael Capasso has done is to make sure that each cast member is allowed to play to her or his strengths. 

The principal roles of Tony, Rosabella, Joe, and Marie are given over to strong operatic performers:  Mr. Corvino (magnificent as Tony); Molly Mustonen as his “mail order bride,” whom he dubs Rosabella; Peter Kendall Clark as the foreman Joe whom Rosabella significantly mistakes for Tony; and Lisa Chavez, in the thankless role of Marie, Tony’s sister and the thwarter of all things good. 

The director also has found two terrific musical comedy personalities in Lauren Hoffmeier (somewhat reminiscent, I thought, of Patti LuPone in style and mannerisms) as Rosabella’s waitress friend Cleo (“Ooh!  My Feet”), and Brance Cornelius, a real charmer as Cleo’s happy-go-lucky beau Herman (“I Like Everybody”). Their numbers together, especially “Big D,” are crowd pleasing showstoppers.

The on-stage orchestra, under the baton of Pacien Mazzagatti, does a fine job of backing the singers without ever drowning out the voices, and the choreography by Francine Harman and set design by John Farrell are just right for the relatively small performance space.  

If you are at all interested in seeing this production, you’ve got to shake a leg, as it closes on July 8. 

Meanwhile, mark your calendars for next May 16-19, when the company is performing Robert Wright and George Forrest’s Kismet.  I intend to be there!

If you can't get enough of ProfMiller, check out his column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at BroadwayShowBiz.com.  Recent reviews include "Triassic Parq The Musical" and "Closer Than Ever."