Tuesday, October 16, 2018

THE OPEN GATE: Inventive New Musical About Jewish Life in Poland at the End of the 19th Century.




THE OPEN GATE
Cast photo by Steven Pisano




In 1964, Broadway theatergoers saw the first performance of Fiddler on the Roofthe much loved musical about life in the Jewish shtetl in czarist Russia. It was adapted from a series of stories written in Yiddish by Sholem Aleichem. At its center is the bigger-than-life character of Tevye, a man torn between the traditions of life as he had always known it -- tied to his upbringing, his community, and his religious faith -- and the incursion of the modern world into that life.  

Three years later, in 1967, while Fiddler was still filling seats on Broadway, another author writing in Yiddish, Isaac Bashevis Singer, published a novel titled The Manor, which also focused on Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the latter part of the 19th century. The Manor is a sprawling saga, this one centered on a Polish-Jewish businessman named Calman Jacoby, who, likewise, is caught is the intersection between two worlds. The Manor, however, weaves a far more complex and ambiguous tale, one in which the possibility of upward mobility is a temptation too hard to resist. 

Now, playwright David Willinger has adapted The Manor into a sprawling musical called The Open Gate, with music by Arthur Abrams, a cast of 17, and five musicians. Equity actor Joel Martin heads up the company in the central role of Calman Jacoby. 

Like Tevye, Calman is in the throes of a personal conflict between strictly adhering to the traditional values of his Jewish faith, and participating in the wider world outside the physical and metaphoric gates that both protect and isolate him and his wife and four daughters. The Open Gate is being touted as a "historical mosaic" about the tug-of-war between the simple and pious life on one side of the gate, and the intellectual and worldly temptations waiting on the other side. 


Photo by Steven Pisano







You can catch The Open Gate now through 
Photo by Stevan Pisano
October 27 at the Theater for the New City on 1st Avenue at 10th Street. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00, with matinees on Sundays at 3:00. 
Tickets are $20, discounted to $10 for seniors and students. They can be purchased by visiting www.smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444.


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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.






Wednesday, October 10, 2018

THE HYSTERIA OF DR FAUSTUS: Gutsy, Small Theater Company Takes the Next Leap with This Original Work Based on the Faust Legend






Brandon Walker (right) as Dr. Faust solidifies a pact
 to sell his soul to Mephistopheles (Eric Cronican)
in exchange for a life of pleasure, fame and fortune.
Photo by Russ Rowland

The Seeing Place Theater is unique among the treasure trove of (sadly) underfunded small companies that occupy various corners of New York City, making theatrical magic out of sheer willpower, talent, and bottomless imagination. Where others come together, sometimes just for a single production, The Seeing Place is now entering its ninth season, bravely taking on everything from Shakespeare to Martin McDonaugh, to John Osborne, to Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill.  

What makes The Seeing Place well worth keeping an eye on is not just that they go out of their way to select challenging works, and not even that they always strive to place a new spin on them. It's that they keep challenging themselves to avoid repetition or predictability, while keeping true to their mission of offering visceral, intimate, and honest productions that carry with them the edginess of actor-driven improvisation. This is not something you can fake, and it is the reason I make room on my calendar to check them out as often as I can.  

So what do you do after eight seasons of classics, contemporary, and experimental works?  In this case, what you do is come up with an original play, an adaptation of the oft-told tale of Faust, a man who sells his soul in exchange for experiencing the pleasures that have eluded him for his entire life: money, power, fame, and sex. 

Titled The Hysteria of Dr Faustus, the play, in performance at the Paradise Factory through October 21, was written by The Seeing Place's producing artistic director Brandon Walker. In it, Walker examines the famous story through contemporary eyes, while staying true to its origins and various interpretations by, among others, Goethe, Marlowe, and Gounod.  

In this iteration, Walker plays both the elderly Heinrich Faustus, a physics professor fed up with having to deal with bored, self-absorbed and disaffected students, and the younger, transformed "Henry Faust," who has happily signed away his soul to Mephistopheles. The latter is played by Erin Cronican, the company's executive artistic director, who also directs the production. 

The plot follows the traditional Faust storyline, from the title character's initial unhappiness, self-loathing and attempted suicide; through his pact with the Devil's minion; the wooing and seduction of Gretchen, the innocent woman (Broghanne Jessamine) whose life he will ruin; and his own final downfall.     Walker places a modern spin on things, not just by setting it in today's world, but by emphasizing the #MeToo elements within the story.  

Faust  is readily caught up in the power that seems to come with the territory of being an attractive and wealthy young man. Supported by the overseeing Mephistopheles, Faust blithely shatters the lives of the play's female characters, the virginal and pious Gretchen, her aunt (Candice Oden), and his own loyal assistant (also played by Ms. Cronican). More pointedly, no matter how much harm he does, he denies culpability at every turn, a familiar trope to anyone who has followed the drama surrounding the likes of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Brett Kavanaugh. 



Broghanne Jessamine and Candice Oden
Photo by Russ Rowland

Brandon Walker as Faust
Photo by Russ Rowland










The Hysteria of Dr Faustus works best when it focuses on this major theme, in which the Faust character becomes more and more like Robert Louis Stevenson's "Mr. Hyde," or  the kind of predatory, self-important, entitled man of wealth and power whose misdeeds have been subjected to much public scrutiny of late. 

Truthfully, there are a few tangential plot elements that pull the play in too many directions and weaken its overall impact.  A tour of hell and an overlong seduction scene, for example, weigh down the first Act. A twenty-minute trim would sharpen things significantly.  Still and all, The Seeing Place Theater is to be commended for its continuing efforts at exploring new territory. This play is well-worth seeing, and, more importantly, it represents the next great leap forward for this always-exciting company.  





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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.
  


Monday, October 8, 2018

POPCORN FALLS: Funny Play with Lots of Heart




Popcorn Falls, opening tonight at the intimate Off-Broadway Davenport Theater, is a clever, fun and delightfully unpretentious play about small town folks with big dreams and even bigger hearts. It also is, blessedly, a snark-free breath of fresh air at a time when it seems that everywhere we turn these days, we are faced with raised fists and angry rants. The worst you'll get from the citizens of Popcorn Falls (who like to refer to themselves as its "kernels") are a few quibbles.  

Written by James Hindman and directed by two-time Tony winning actor Christian Borle,  Popcorn Falls is the saga of a town that is hovering on the brink of bankruptcy; its one tourist attraction, the waterfall after which it is named, has dried up, thanks to a dam that was built upstream.

With two performers bravely playing 21 different characters, along with a minimal set design (there's a perfect explanation for why both of these are so), Popcorn Falls is bound to have a long and successful life at regional and community theaters around the country. In fact, it had its premiere at the Riverbank Theatre in Marine City, Michigan, with the playwright himself in the role of the beleaguered new mayor of the beleaguered title town, one Mr. Trundle. 

Here, that part is being played by Adam Heller.  He also plays a few of the other "kernels," but the bulk of the mayhem of quick changes is carried out by Tom Souhrada, who has been with the play from the start. He has perfected the chameleon-like role that requires him to morph among individuals of varying ages and genders on a moment's notice.   


Tom Souhrada and Adam Heller
Star in POPCORN FALLS
Photo by Monique Carboni 


The fate of Popcorn Falls lies precariously in the hands of the greedy Mr. Doyle, who heads up the county's budget committee and who intends to take advantage of the situation by letting the town collapse and then putting up a sewage treatment plant. The only thing that stands in the way of his scheme is a previously-approved arts grant that is tied to establishing a community theater and putting on a play. Doyle can't stop the grant directly, but he can attach a requirement that will allow him to yank the money by setting a deadline for getting both the theater and the play up and running within one week. 

Small problem: There is no actual theater. There is no play. There is no one with more than minimal acting or directing experience or, really, anyone who knows much of anything about how to make this happen. 

The bulk of the play becomes a farce-like race to make the impossible come to fruition. There is lots of slapstick fun as things unfold, but more than that, there is a real warmth behind the fun as we get to know the characters. 

As calm and in control as Mayor Trundle seems, we learn he is a recently divorced recovering alcoholic who has come to Popcorn Falls to get back on his feet.  But we also get to know many of the other residents. Among them are Joe the flustered janitor, whose wife is expecting their third set of twins; Ms. Parker, the cat-loving town librarian who has dramatic pretensions and whose conversations include blithely tossed about quotes from such unexpected sources as Angels In America; Floyd, the owner of the local lumberyard who is drafted into building the sets; and a very sweet young woman named Becky, who has reluctantly returned to her hometown after a failed attempt at attending an acting program. 

Thanks to the performances by Heller and Souhrada, who sometimes have to trade off characters in order the keep the juggling of roles going non-stop, the stage seems to be filled with the entire population of Popcorn Falls as Mayor Trundle attempts to build up everyone's enthusiasm to pull off the impossible.  

When all is said and done, you will realize there has been a great deal of creative magic going on before your eyes, with a cast of two most impressively creating a world of characters with nothing but their talent, the playwright's lovely script, and Christian Borle's direction. Popcorn Falls makes for an altogether charming, fun, and pleasurable evening of theater.   



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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.
  


  











Wednesday, October 3, 2018

THREE ACTRESSES WHO ARE BURNING UP BROADWAY AND OFF-BROADWAY STAGES

If you want to see some humdinger performances on or off Broadway these days, better turn to the women.  Here are three you won't want to miss:




First up:  Janet McTeer in Theresa Rebeck's Bernhardt/Hamlet at the American Airlines Theatre, one of the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway houses. This one is smack dab in the heart of things, on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. 

Ms. McTeer is mesmerizing as the great 19th French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who is preparing to perform the title role in Hamlet. Of course, she is surrounded by idiotic naysaying men who want to "protect" her from what they assume will be a public humiliation and the ruination of her career. Not hard to guess where this will go.



Anyone looking for a straightforward and historically accurate portrait of the actual Bernhardt had best visit the library. But this isn't a biography, it's a play. And a damned good one at that. 

No bones about it. Janet McTeer is ideally cast and gives a
performance that -- although it is ridiculous for me to make this prediction so early in the season -- will surely bring her a Tony nomination. Ironically, her stiffest competition might be last year's winner, Glenda Jackson, who is returning in the title role of yet another Shakespeare tragedy, King Lear.  




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Let us move Off-Broadway next, with the fabulous Edie Falco starring in Sharr White's heated political drama The True, a production of The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, further west on 42nd Street close to 10th Avenue. 

In The True, Ms. Falco plays the real-life Polly Noonan, the long-time adviser and close personal friend to the mayor of Albany, New York. The play takes place in 1977, when, after more than three decades in office, the mayor and the woman behind the throne are heading into a primary election battle that promises to be a fight to the death.


Ms. Falco is giving a truly powerhouse performance as Polly Noonan, who, as it happens, was the grandmother of U. S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. They way she charges forth like a fire-breathing dragon,  the guys who try to get in her way don't stand a chance in the world.  

A word of caution:  Polly Noonan's was known for lacing her conversations with profanity, and Ms. Falco drops F-bombs like they were breadcrumbs being fed to the pigeons. But, wow, what a performance!  They don't give Tonys for Off-Broadway productions, but they do give Obie and Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards. Expect to hear the name of Edie Falco come nomination time. 

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Last, but by no means least, is the equally wonderful Mare Winningham, who is giving a knock-out performance as  one of the lost and broken victims of the Great Depression, in the Conor McPherson/Bob Dylan collaboration Girl from the North Country. This one is downtown at the Public Theater, but it really is easy to get to by public transportation. Or you could take the risk based on whispers that the show may move uptown to a Broadway house. But if you miss it, it's on you! (Remember, a little thing called Hamilton started out at the Public.)

Girl from the North Country is an ensemble piece, and it boasts an altogether excellent cast and musicians who perform songs from Bob Dylan's vast trove. But rising above the rest is Ms. Winningham. 

Her character, Elizabeth, is said to be suffering from dementia. My take is, that's just a two-bit diagnosis that allows her husband to self-justify an affair he is carrying on right under her nose. I actually found her to be as sharp as a tack and hope you will as well. 

I have seen Ms. Winningham in many plays before, but this is the first time I've heard her sing. So let me end by saying that when she performs Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" at the end of Act I, and "Forever Young" at the end of the evening, you might want to have some tissues ready; you or the person sitting next to you may very well need them. 


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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.
  




NEW YORK INNOVATIVE THEATRE AWARD WINNERS 2018








 For several years now, it has been my privilege to serve as a judge for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. The organization brings recognition to the great work being done in New York City's Off-Off-Broadway, honors its artistic heritage, and provides a meeting ground for this extensive community. 

For me, however, the great honor of being a judge is that it gets me to all sorts of out-of-the-way spaces, where I have had the thrill of experiencing the magic that creative, dedicated, and highly talented theater artists are able to conjure, generally with very limited resources.   



















Outstanding Premiere Production:
THE SNOW QUEEN
The 2018 IT Award winners were selected from a pool of nominees that include 157 individual artists, 53 different productions, and 52 different theatre companies in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. 

Kudos to the winners listed here and, indeed, to all who work so diligently to bring live theater to all corners of the city. 













Outstanding Production of a Musical:
1917-2017: TYCHYNA, ZHADAN and the DOGS











Outstanding Play Revival:
DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA

Outstanding Ensemble:
FOLLIES










Outstanding Revival of a Play
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea    
Sea Dog Theater

Outstanding Premiere Production
The Snow Queen    
Blessed Unrest in association with New Ohio Theatre

Outstanding Production of a Musical
1917-2017: Tychyna, Zhadan & the Dogs    
Yara Arts Group in association with La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club

Outstanding Performance Art Production
Soot and Spit    
Our Voices Theater in association with New Ohio Theatre and IRT Theater

Outstanding Ensemble
Follies    
Astoria Performing Arts Center

Outstanding Original Full-Length Script
Eric Avil├ęs 
Where You From? What You Be About?    
Liberation Arts Collective    

Outstanding Original Short Script
Joseph Hefner 
Agency    
The Company Ink in association with Michael Johnson    

Outstanding Director
Mark Lewis 
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea    
Sea Dog Theater    

Outstanding Choreography/Movement
Sara Brians 
Follies    
Astoria Performing Arts Center    

Outstanding Set Design
Maruti Evans 
Precious Little Talent    
Shea Delves Productions    


Outstanding Lighting Design
Stacey Boggs 
AMP    
Goode Productions    


Outstanding Sound Design
Dan Bianchi & Wes Shippee 
The 9th Annual H.P. Lovecraft Festival    
Radiotheatre in association with Theater At St. John's    


Outstanding Costume Design
Jennifer Jacob 
Follies    
Astoria Performing Arts Center    

Outstanding Innovative Design
Lisa Renkel 
Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home    
Poetic Theater Productions    

Outstanding Original Music
Julian Kytasty, Serhiy Zhadan & the Dogs 
1917-2017: Tychyna, Zhadan & the Dogs    
Yara Arts Group in association with La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club    

Outstanding Solo Performance
Valerie Redd 
You / Emma    
Wandering Bark Theatre Company in association with IRT Theater    

Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role
Ryan McCurdy 
Greencard Wedding    
Goode Productions    

Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role
Maggie Low 
Chickens in the Yard    
Adjusted Realists    

Outstanding Actor in a Featured Role
Todd Ritch 
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee    
5th Floor Theatre Company    

Outstanding Actress in a Featured Role
LaDonna Burns 
Follies    
Astoria Performing Arts Center    



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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.