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Murky Waters: ‘Pacific Overtures’

May 8th, 2017 Comments off
'Pacific Overtures' at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Pacific Overtures’ at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Is less more, or is less simply less? John Doyle (Broadway’s The Color Purple and Sweeney Todd)—who has made a career of stripping shows down to their essence—this time attempts to cast his magic spell on Pacific Overtures, the problematic musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book) that tells the tale of mid 19th century Japan and the impact of western civilization.

The original production, directed by Harold Prince, opened in January 1976 and lasted a mere 193 performances. A 2004 revival fared worse, lasting only 69 performances. This is not to say that a show’s credibility should be judged by its commercial success, but in this case—including Classic Stage Company’s pared-down staging—it raises some flags about Weidman and Sondheim’s stylistically complex piece.

Set against the backdrop of Japan’s Edo Period, when the country was under Shogun rule, Pacific Overtures follows the tale of a samurai and a fisherman who are forced to confront Commodore Matthew Perry and his troops as they attempt to open up trade routes through gunboat diplomacy. The nature of this conflict, both on a global political scale as well as its intimate underpinnings, has plenty of theatrical potential. But it requires an astute ear to appreciate Sondheim’s score.

'Pacific Overtures' at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Pacific Overtures’ at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

There are a few cherished musical moments, including “Someone in a Tree” and perhaps the show’s most notable song, “Pretty Lady,” but most of the score requires a pedagogical undertaking. Doyle does little to elevate or clarify the complex script, instead, stripping it down to an ensemble of actors playing multiple roles (but no instruments, thank goodness, in this case).

The original production was criticized for its hybrid of Kabuki and western styles. And while the extremes aren’t present in this production, it’s still a muddy convergence as the actors—dressed in what looks like a close-out sale from a Banana Republic factory store (costumes by Ann Hould-Ward)—perform on a tatami mat with Japanese draperies and props for accents.

Doyle’s staging, heavy on processionals and other stylized movements, traps the acting company in choreography that squelches any instinct for emotion, which is a shame given the immense onstage talent.

Martin Gottfried, author of Sondheim (1993, Harry N. Abrams), wrote of the original production, “The musical theater is a hot place, offering emotional transport for the price of admission. This show was as cool as a Japanese watercolor. Perhaps its downfall lay in that very intention and its creators’ ingenuity in achieving it.”

Unfortunately, not much has changed.

Classic Stage Company Pacific Overtures Book by JOHN WEIDMAN Music and Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM Additional Material by HUGH WHEELER Directed and Designed by JOHN DOYLE With KARL JOSEF CO, MARC DELACRUZ, STEVEN ENG, MEGAN MASAKO HALEY, ANN HARADA, KIMBERLY IMMANUEL, AUSTIN KU, KELVIN MOON LOH, ORVILLE MENDOZA, MARC OKA, THOM SESMA, GEORGE TAKEI Music Supervisor ROB BERMAN Music Director GREG JARRETT Costume Design ANN HOULD-WARD Lighting Design JANE COX Sound Design DAN MOSES SCHREIER Hair & Makeup Design J. JARED JANAS

George Takei in ‘Pacific Overtures.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Here’s what other critics have to say:

This revival ought to be just as divisive as Doyle’s other stabs at Sondheim. Some will find that Doyle brings clarity and intimacy to a challenging work, and others will be angry over the textual omissions or the lack of visuals. Personally, I found the production to be a plain and unexciting affair that, for the most part, drained away rather than enhanced the musical’s impact. AM New York

The sometimes-glorious, sometimes-lackluster revival that John Doyle has staged in Classic Stage’s 200-seat Off Broadway home takes that less-is-more proposition nearly to a point of no return. Unlike Harold Prince’s original production at the 1,500-seat Winter Garden, with its jaw-dropping Boris Aronson scenery and costumes by Florence Klotz, Mr. Doyle starts from zero and adds only what he feels he must. He’s an essentialist, not a minimalist. The New York Times

Doyle stages each song and story interlude with exacting precision and a graceful sense of spatial dynamics, continually reshaping the mood with a deft assist from Jane Cox’s lighting. And while each musical set piece feels distinct from the one that preceded it, there’s a mesmerizing fluidity to the pared-down production — an uncluttered harmony that’s both enchanting and mournfully sad. The story may be confusing at times to those unfamiliar with the show, but the overall effect is transfixing. The Hollywood Reporter

Pacific Overtures
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Through June 18

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo

Pants Smoking But Not on Fire: Classic Stage Company’s ‘The Liar’

January 26th, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

1. Tony Roach, Christian Conn, and Carson Elrod in 'The Liar' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

1. Tony Roach, Christian Conn, and Carson Elrod in ‘The Liar’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

The gods of irony must have been smiling as I left the Women’s March in midtown to trek down to East 13th Street’s Classic Stage Company in time to catch the matinee of a play called, of all things, The Liar. This is David Ives’s spirited version of Pierre Corneille’s 1643 comedy Le Menteur, set in its original time period but sprinkled with contemporary references. Ives’s verbal liberalism allows for the interpolation of at least one political zinger when the eternally fibbing hero, Dorante, says, toward the end, “I’ll emigrate and become a politician.” It gets the purest laugh of the show.

The Liar is the only comedy by Corneille, who, with Jean Racine, is one of France’s two greatest neoclassical tragic dramatists. Rarely done in English, it has experienced a spate of American productions since Ives prepared what he calls a “translaptation, i.e., a translation with a heavy dose of adaptation,” written in rhyming pentameter for Michael Kahn’s 2010 production at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Ismenia Mended and Amelia Pedlow in 'The Liar.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog)

Ismenia Mended and Amelia Pedlow in ‘The Liar.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog)

The chief enjoyment lies in Ives’s notable deftness at writing entertainingly clever rhymes, often with corny groaners accompanied by a self-deprecating tone showing just how much he’s aware of his own outrageousness. He also doesn’t hesitate to make the punny language thoroughly contemporary by using expressions like son of a bitch and schmuck.

The plot circles around Dorante (Christian Conn, of the 2010 production), newly come to Paris, who immediately falls for Clarisse (Ismenia Mendes) but confuses her name with that of her friend Lucrece (Amelia Pedlow). This leads to a series of conventional complications involving another suitor for Clarice’s hand, Alcippe (Tony Roach).

Meanwhile, a third young dandy, Philiste (Aubrey Deeker), finds himself involved, partly as a raisonneur and partly as a lover. The presence of Dorante’s anxious father, Geronte (Adam LeFevre), helps increase the tension until, in one of those classic examples of tying multiple plot strands together, the play concludes with smiles, hugs, and the imminent promise of wedding bells.

Kelly Hutchinson and Carson Elrod in 'The Liar.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Kelly Hutchinson and Carson Elrod in ‘The Liar.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Like so many other commedia dell’arte-influenced plays of its time, The Liar is replete with romantic mix-ups, confused identities, twins (two pairs, in fact, including one of the long-lost variety), and a silly servant who is actually one step ahead of his master.

In addition to Clarice and Lucrece, the female characters (whose portrayals are all first-rate) include temperamentally opposite twin sisters played by the same actress, Kelly Hutchinson: Isabelle is sexually voracious while Sabine is puritanical. All, happily, are vividly outspoken. Clarice’s frankness, in fact, resembles that of Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. And speaking of the Bard, be it noted that Ives’s dialogue is rife with lines mirroring those from his plays and sonnets.

The Liar’s central conceit is that its title character, Dorante, is congenitally unable to tell the truth, thereby inspiring reams of imaginative dissembling that give the actor playing him delicious opportunities for displays of verbal and physical dexterity. Dorante’s manservant, Cliton (Carson Elrod), on the other hand, is incapable of mendacity; he, too, gets juicy chances to humorously express his defining trait.

Michael Kahn, again at the helm, makes attractive use of Alexander Dodge’s three-quarters-round set of a pale blue parquet floor backed by an elegant wall painted with pixel-like dots and enhanced by flown-in chandeliers and romantic portraits. Kahn’s staging is full of bright ideas, a memorable example being a sword-less duel between the rival lovers.

Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting helps bring out all the charm in the pretty period costumes of Murell Horton, most of the men in dashing, plumed-hat, high-booted, musketeer-like fashions, the women in silks, lace, jewels, and décolletage. (Both Dodge and Horton also designed Kahn’s 2010 version.)

Kahn’s sprightly troupers, attacking the play as high farce, race along with energy and flair, getting the fun from every pun, and making the two hours pass agreeably enough. Truth be told, though, for all the skill and effort expended, The Liar remains on the pleasantly amusing side of the comedy scale, rarely tipping toward hilarity.

The Liar
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th St., NYC
Through February 26

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

Incomplete Assignment: CSC’s ‘Dead Poets Society’

November 17th, 2016 Comments off

By Jon L Jensen

'Dead Poets Society' at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Dead Poets Society’ at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

You’d be hard-pressed to find an American who does not recall seeing Dead Poets Society for the first time.

The inspiring and heart-breaking film burned an impression into the minds of anyone who was ever shown the film in high school English class. Say the phrases “Suck out all the marrow of life,” “Carpe diem,” or “Oh, Captain, My Captain,” and most will think not of Thoreau, Latin class or Walt Whitman, but of the 1989 movie starring Robin Williams.

A new play version of Dead Poets Society at the Classic Stage Company (CSC) seeks to reinterpret the classic for theatergoers, directed by Tony Award-winning John Doyle and adapted by Tom Schulman, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay of the film. Unfortunately, the stage version unfortunately suffers by comparison.

Jason Sudeikis in 'Dead Poets Society.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Jason Sudeikis in ‘Dead Poets Society.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The production stars Jason Sudeikis as the rule-breaking teacher, John Keating. Sudeikis, whose film credits include Hall Pass and Horrible Bosses 1&2, does an admirable job. He avoids impersonating Robin Williams’ indelible performance. He is believable as a Rhodes scholar who has chosen to return to his rigid alma mater to inspire a new group of boys to rebel against the constraints of Cold War America. But what Sudeikis lacks is the charisma and vulnerability that make his character’s story arc pack a punch.

Most of the fault in the production lies not with the Sudeikis or the six actors cast to play Keating’s students, but with the script and its direction.

For the play, which runs about 100 minutes without intermission, Schulman cut major chunks from his screenplay. The setting of the formidable preparatory school is reduced to a library that serves as classroom, auditorium, cafeteria, dormitory and cave. A staff of dozens is reduced to one character, the head master (played masterfully by David Garrison). A student body of hundreds is reduced to six boys.

Paring down is familiar ground for director Doyle, whose revivals of The Color Purple, Sweeney Todd, and Company, each excelled under his minimalist hand. Regrettably, the approach does not work for Dead Poets Society. The last third of the play is jumbled and confusing. Consequently the tragic climax of the story feels unmotivated and slightly empty.

Like the film, the main role is not Keating’s, but by the six boys who form the Dead Poets Society under his inspiration. The actors cast in the roles often read less like 1950s teenagers and more like 20-something millennials.

Two performances excel above the rest. William Hochman, who plays the hormonal Knox Overstreet, brims with adolescent verve as he pursues his love for a local girl. Likewise, Cody Costro stands out as Charlie Dalton, whose humor, passion and risk-taking bring the boys’ secret society under the administration’s scrutiny.

The story’s climax depends, however, on two other students: the shy Todd Anderson (played by Zane Pais) and Neil Perry (played by Thomas Mann), who disobeys his oppressive father to pursue acting. The pair has little material to work with in Schulman’s script. Key scenes between the boys in the screenplay were cut. The pressure put on them to succeed by parents and the oppressive school culture is almost absent.

The movie version ends triumphantly with a simple act of defiance. Todd musters the courage to stand atop his desk, followed by the others. But the desks in the stage production are just a knee-high pile of books. The gesture requires little effort and leaves little impression in the audience except a desire to watch the film again.

Dead Poets Society
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street, NYC
Through December 18

Jon L Jensen is a poet and educator. His forthcoming novel-in-verse attempts to give his native Wyoming an epic makeover.

 

 

 

Three to See: November

November 7th, 2016 Comments off

Big or small, the theater scene is getting a major wake-up call this November with three production that deliver award-winning stars, Broadway transfers, and film-to-stage adaptations. Here are our three picks for the month…

The Great Comet Broadway

Natasha, Pierre and THE GREAT COMET of 1812
Move over, Hamilton, there’s another epic, historical musical coming to town. The Great Comet has been kicking around for several years and those who saw earlier incarnations at Ars Nova or the American Repertory Theatre may be intrigued by its Broadway bolstering, which includes a massive overhaul of the Imperial Theatre and the arrival of ballad-belting superstar Josh Groban.

The story is extracted from a small excerpt of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Natasha is a beautiful ingénue visiting Moscow while she waits for her beloved fiancé Andrey to return from the war. In a moment of indiscretion, she is seduced by the dashing (but already married) Anatole and her position in society is ruined. Her only hope lies with Pierre (Groban), the lonely outsider whose love and compassion for Natasha may be the key to her redemption… and to the renewal of his own soul.

Natasha, Pierre and THE GREAT COMET of 1812
Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th Street
Opening night: November 14

dead poets society

Dead Poets Society
Who can forget Robin Williams’ stirring performance as Professor Keating in the 1989 Academy Award-winning film? Tom Schulman adapts his own screenplay for this much-anticipated production. which follows the trials and tribulations at a rigorous all-boys preparatory school renowned for its ancient traditions, where the unconventional Professor Keating inspires his students to defy conformity and to live passionately.

Classic Stage Company’s artistic director John Doyle helms the production starring Jason Sudeikis.

Dead Poets Society
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Opening night: November 17
(Through December 18)

 

sweet charitySweet Charity
Musical theater fans have officially gone mad in anticipation of Sutton Foster’s casting as Charity in Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Dorothy Field’s 1966 hit. She’s got quite a legacy to follow, including Gwen Verdon and Debbie Allen. This production, presented in an intimate setting by The New Group, features original choreography by Joshua Bergasse (On the Town) and promises a fresh, modern perspective by Tony-nominated director Leigh Silverman (Violet, Well).

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the classic musical Sweet Charity, the musical follows Charity Hope Valentine, the sassy, diehard romantic dancehall hostess whose naivety and overeager embrace of every man she meets keeps getting her in hot water.

Sutton Foster, Ryan Worsing and Joel Perez in rehearsal for The New Group's production of 'Sweet Charity.' (Photo: Hunter Canning via The Broadway Blog.)

Sutton Foster, Ryan Worsing and Joel Perez in rehearsal for The New Group’s production of ‘Sweet Charity.’ (Photo: Hunter Canning via The Broadway Blog.)

Sweet Charity
The Romulus Linney Courtyward Theatre
at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Opening night: November 20
(Limited run through January 8, 2017)

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo

 

 

 

 

Jason Sudeikis to Star in CSC’s ‘Dead Poets Society’

August 17th, 2016 Comments off

Dead Poet's Society

Classic Stage Company has announced that Jason Sudeikis will star as John Keating in the world premiere of Dead Poets Society, a new play based on the beloved 1989 film. Written by Academy Award-winner Tom Schulman, adapted from his screenplay, and directed by John Doyle, Dead Poets Society is set at a rigorous all-boys preparatory school renowned for its ancient traditions, where the unconventional Professor Keating inspires his students to defy conformity, and to live passionately.

Performances for Dead Poets Society will begin Thursday, October 27 at CSC (136 East 13th Street) with an official press opening Thursday, November 17.  Additional casting will be announced in the coming weeks.

John Doyle said, “I’m thrilled that Jason Sudeikis is taking on this iconic role in Dead Poets Society. I felt it important that we find an actor like Jason who brings a fresh perspective, and all at CSC are delighted that he will be joining us for this unique venture.”

Jason Sudeikis (Photo provided by Classic Stage Company via The Broadway Blog.)

Jason Sudeikis (Photo provided by Classic Stage Company via The Broadway Blog.)

Following two years as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” Jason Sudeikis became a regular cast member on the show in 2005 where he starred in hundreds of sketches during his eight years, including his spot-on impersonations of Joe Biden and Mitt Romney.  His film work includes Race and Tumbledown, as well as Mother’s Day, Sleeping with Other People, Masterminds, Horrible Bosses and Horrible Bosses 2We’re the Millers, Epic, The Campaign, Hall Pass, The Bounty Hunter, Going the Distance and What Happens in Vegas.

Upcoming films include the sci-fi thriller Colossal starring opposite Anne Hathaway and Kodachrome with Ed Harris. Jason’s television work includes a multi-episode arc on Fox’s hit comedy “The Last Man on Earth” with his fellow SNL alum Will Forte; multiple episodes of the HBO series “Eastbound & Down” and multiple appearances on “30 Rock.” Jason also portrayed the voices of two principal characters on Fox’s hit animated comedy series “The Cleveland Show.”

A Life Worth Living? ‘Peer Gynt’ at CSC

May 26th, 2016 Comments off
'Peer Gynt' at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Peer Gynt’ at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Fans of classical theater are probably most familiar with Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House — and if you’re a diehard, PEER GYNT may be on your radar. Written in 1867, the five-act, epic verse play follows Peer Gynt  on an existential journey as he searches for some sort of meaning through the course of his life.

Director John Doyle has adapted the piece for Classic Stage Company (where he takes over as artistic director next season), pairing down the text to a lean, intermissionless 90 minutes in which Peer (Gabriel Ebert) coyly dances through relationships with his mother (a miscast but nevertheless entertaining Becky Ann Baker), scorned bride (Jane Pfitsch), unrequited love (a meek Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and others. The cast of seven is employed on a simple platform set designed by David L. Arsenault, bleak lighting by Jane Cox, off-the-rack costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, and a bucketful of buttons that are sprawled across the stage within the first 15 minutes and can be heard crunching underfoot like a necessary wake-up call for the next hour or so.

Gabriel Ebert in 'Peer Gynt.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Gabriel Ebert in ‘Peer Gynt.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

In the program notes, Doyle states, “People say I’m a minimalist. I quite like that notion, but it’s not something I’ve ever called myself. I have an interest in how you get to the essence. Because my job is to do everything I can to clarify the story, but not get in its way and let it breathe.”

In the case of PEER GYNT, there’s so much oxygen in the room that it has displaced other key elements needed for an evening of engaging theater, such as a sense of place and emotional resonance.

Gabriel Ebert throws down the gauntlet in a performance packed with physicality and vocal inflection, but it’s cast into an abyss that swallows him whole. By the end of the play, as Peer faces his final calling, I felt equally depleted.

Here’s what other critics had to say:

If this production lacks the teeming, motley exuberance that pulses in Ibsen’s text, it definitely distills the intriguing philosophical essence of a play that still seems unsettlingly relevant. And you may wind up filling in the blanks left by Mr. Doyle’s stark staging with contemporary scenes from, among other sources, the current presidential race. New York Times

Boredom, in fact, is operative throughout this undramatic, highly symbolic “phantasmagory,” as an early translator, William Archer called it. Based on Norwegian folk tales, Peer Gynt is essentially a dramatized philosophical inquiry into and satire of Peer’s search for his true self. (The famous scene of Ibsen’s analogy of Peer’s centerless self to an onion is intact.) It includes both real and fantastical elements, although the fanciful here has been reduced to everyday dullness. Theatre’s Leiter Side

PEER GYNT
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Through June 19

Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo

‘Nathan the Wise’: A Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew Walk into a Play

April 13th, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

F. Murray Abraham and Caroline Lagerfelt in 'Nathan the Wise.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

F. Murray Abraham and Caroline Lagerfelt in ‘Nathan the Wise.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

One of the most important works of its time, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s German “dramatic poem” (which premiered 1783), Nathan the Wise, is now in a rare American revival directed by Brian Kulick at Classic Stage Company. Its first stagings failed but after a successful 1801 production by Goethe and Schiller it grew in prestige, was translated into many languages, and became so popular at home that it received 45 productions in 1900-01. Its argument against religious intolerance made it anathema to the Nazis, but it was the first play produced in Germany when the war ended. Kulick’s staging is less than scintillating but the great F. Murray Abraham (Academy Award winner for his portrayal of Antonio Salieri in Amadeus) provides a distinguished performance in the title role.

Nathan the Wise bravely posits the idea that no religion can claim superiority over any other regarding its claim to the true faith. It honors the religious rationalism of Nathan, a wise, noble, and wealthy Jewish merchant (inspired by philosopher Moses Mendelssohn). The locale is Jerusalem in 1192-93, when it was ruled by the Muslim sultan Saladin (Austin Durant), then under attack by Christianity’s Crusaders.

F. Murray Abraham in 'Nathan the Wise.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

F. Murray Abraham in ‘Nathan the Wise.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

The play’s relevance to current world conditions couldn’t be more apparent, but Tony Straiges has provided a red herring of a set to underline it. We see a mostly bare stage distractingly backed by a life-sized black and white photograph of a bombed-out Palestinian (presumably) street occupying the upstage wall. Its one-sidedness apart, someone must have thought we needed this reminder of today’s Middle Eastern conflict before we could appreciate the universality of Lessing’s message.

Nathan, whose own family was wiped out by the Christians, is the adoptive father of Rachel (Erin Neufer), a Christian orphan he raised. She falls in love with a Templar named Conrad (Stark Sands), whose own life was saved by Saladin because of his resemblance to the latter’s late brother, Assad. Various plot contrivances eventuate in the lovers discovering they’re actually siblings, the offspring of Assad, a Christian convert. There are various subsidiary events, including the threat by Jerusalem’s Patriarch (Caroline Lagerfelt, who also plays Rachel’s Christian servant), to find and punish the local Jew he learns raised a Christian girl. In his bigoted narrowmindedness, he deems this charitably Christian act to be sacrilegious enough to warrant burning at the stake.

Edward Kemp’s translation, originally performed at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in 2003, is actually more like an adaptation, for much of which we should be grateful; it compresses Lessing’s original five acts into two, cuts its time from four hours to two, alters its verse to prose, and uses modern language. More questionable are the interpolations of minor metatheatrical scenes, including bits in Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. There’s also an unnecessary Arabic prayer serving as Act II’s prelude; no similar rites for the other religions are offered.

F. Murray Abraham (l) and George Abud in 'Nathan the Wise.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

F. Murray Abraham (l) and George Abud in ‘Nathan the Wise.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Overall, the style resembles a Brechtian parable play. Kulick uses the tired convention of having the cast remain visible on chairs as they watch scenes they’re not in, although actors sometimes look directly at those they’re referencing in their dialogue. The actors first appear in street clothes and then dress before us in simple white robes adorned with (mostly) black designs (the costumier is Anita Yavich), while their regular garments remain visible underneath. Apart from its tight sleeves, Nathan’s robe and sash are no different than a yukata and obi.

Act I, relying heavily on exposition, slogs along, but Act II picks up interest as the complications pile up, with the highlight being Nathan’s famous Parable of the Rings (adapted from earlier sources) in response to the sultan’s question about which is the true faith. Its story concerns a father’s bequest of copies of a blessed ring to each of his three sons, the rings symbolizing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with a judge suggesting that it will require a trial of many ages to determine which is the blessed ring. During that time the brothers are admonished that the true ring will be revealed if they “Vie with each other to prove the power of your ring, through gentleness, tolerance, charity, and a deep humility before the love of God.”

Nathan the Wise’s company offers satisfactory but not especially illuminating support for Abraham’s Jew. His is not a bravura performance, but, except for a few angry or frightened moments, it’s pervaded by Abraham’s unique blend of deep intelligence and impish humor. This production, Kulick’s last before John Doyle takes over the CSC leadership, leaves something to be desired, but the chance to see F. Murray Abraham in a play of such historical (if not dramaturgical) importance should be sufficient for serious theatergoers to trek to East 13th Street.

Nathan the Wise
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street, NYC
Through May 1

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

Breaking: John Doyle Named as New Artistic Director at CSC

October 1st, 2015 Comments off
The cast of "The Heir Apparent" at Classic Stage Company (photo: Richard Termine) via The Broadway Blog.

The cast of “The Heir Apparent” at Classic Stage Company (photo: Richard Termine) via The Broadway Blog.

Changes are in store for one of New York City’s preeminent classical theater companies. Brian Kulick will step down as the Artistic Director of Off-Broadway’s acclaimed Classic Stage Company following the current 2015-16 season. Kulick will be succeeded by the company’s current Associate Director, Tony Award-winner John Doyle, who will assume the position in July 2016.

Kulick, who has led Classic Stage Company for twelve seasons, will direct two of the current season’s mainstage productions: Mother Courage and Her Children, starring Tonya Pinkins and Nathan the Wise, starring F. Murray Abraham. Doyle is directing the season’s final offering, Peer Gynt.

Said Brian Kulick, “CSC is one of New York’s essential cultural institutions, and I’ve had the honor and good fortune to serve as its Artistic Director for the past 12 years. Thanks to the confluence of extraordinary artists, a devoted audience, a stellar staff, loyal funders and a dedicated board, CSC is well positioned for me to pass the baton so that I can devote more time to my own independent directing, my work at Columbia University and my ever-patient family. I am grateful to my friend and associate John Doyle, who will carry on the responsibilities of Artistic Director as of next season. I will stay on for that year as a consultant to make sure that John’s transition is a smooth one. After that I look forward to returning to 13th Street as an ardent audience member of one of our nation’s most intimate and electrifying theatrical spaces.”

"Allegro" at Classic Stage Company (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

“Allegro” at Classic Stage Company (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Kulick was named Classic Stage Company’s sixth Artistic Director in 2003. In its 48-year history, Mr Kulick’s length in tenure is second only to the Company’s founder Christopher Martin. While tripling the theater’s subscription base and general operating budget and substantially increasing CSC’s profile, Mr. Kulick also directed a dozen of the theater’s defining productions including Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Mandy Patinkin, Brecht’s Galileo with F. Murray Abraham, Ostrovsky’s The Forest with Dianne Wiest and commissioned and co-directed poet Anne Carson’s An Oresteia.

Kulick returned the theatre to its roots with critically acclaimed productions of Shakespeare and multi-year programs like the Chekhov and Brecht cycles. He instituted CSC’s popular Musical Theatre Initiative with productions of Sondheim’s Passion and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro (both directed by Doyle). He brought new work to CSC with such important writers as David Ives, whose Venus In Fur transferred to Broadway and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. He also created The Young Company, which brings Shakespeare to young and underserved audiences in all five boroughs of NYC.

Said Lynn Angelson, Chair of the Board: “All of us at CSC are grateful to Brian for the extraordinary range of classical work he brought to our Company and for the stellar teams of great actors and distinguished theater artists that he attracted to our stage. While we respect his decision to pursue his career beyond CSC, we look forward to the two productions he will lead in our upcoming season.  Brian will leave a legacy of established relationships with the New York theatre community. We are so fortunate that Brian introduced us to John Doyle several seasons ago, and thrilled to have John continue to build on those relationships and our expanded programming.

The cast of "The Visit" (photo: Thom Kaine via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of “The Visit” (photo: Thom Kaine via The Broadway Blog.)

John Doyle joined CSC in 2013 as the company’s Associate Director. For CSC, he directed the highly-acclaimed productions of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion (2013, Drama Desk Nomination, Outstanding Director of a Musical) and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro (2014, Drama League Nomination, Best Revival of a Musical).

Additional theatre in the US includes: Sweeney Todd (Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, Best Director of a Musical; Drama Desk Nomination Outstanding Set Design of a Musical), Company (Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Awards Best Musical Revival; Tony and Drama Desk Nominations, Outstanding Director of a Musical), A Catered Affair (Drama League Award, Best Musical Production; Drama Desk Nomination, Outstanding Director of a Musical), The Visit (Tony Nomination, Best Musical; Drama Desk Nomination, Outstanding Director of a Musical), Ten Cents A Dance (Williamstown/ McCarter), The Exorcist (The Geffen, LA), Road Show (Public Theater/Menier Chocolate Factory), Where’s Charley? and Irma La Douce (Encores!), Wings (Second Stage), A Bed and a Chair (City Center), Kiss Me Kate (Stratford), Caucasian Chalk Circle (ACT), Merrily We Roll Along and The Three Sisters (Cincinnati).

Said John Doyle, “I am delighted to have been invited by the board of CSC to become their next Artistic Director. To follow Brian Kulick’s remarkable tenure is an honor, as he has done so much to develop a challenging audience and repertoire. I look forward with gratitude to this new chapter in my relationship with the New York theatre community.”

Review: Doctor Faustus

June 19th, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

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Last autumn, New York theatergoers had the rare opportunity to witness Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine; now, another of that infrequently revived Elizabethan playwright’s dramas of grandiose aspiration, Doctor Faustus, is available on a local stage. I had some reservations about Tamburlaine, but, when compared to this uninspired, ploddingly paced, dully designed, and weakly acted production directed by Andrei Belgrader for the Classic Stage Company, it seems, as someone once said in another context, “Hyperion to a satyr.”

Belgrader’s staging uses his and David Bridel’s shredded adaptation in which Marlowe’s language is modernized, scenes are radically rewritten, iceberg-sized chunks are deleted, characters are excised or conflated, and, among other liberties, Faustus’s servant Wagner (Walker Jones) becomes a winkingly self-conscious chorus.

Chris Noth in 'Doctor Faustus' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Chris Noth in ‘Doctor Faustus’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Chris Noth (Sex and the City) struggles unsuccessfully to embody the eponymous scholar, a Marlovian superman so hungry for power and world domination he finds philosophy, medicine, law, or theology insufficient for his goals; disregarding the Good Angel (Carmen M. Herlihy) he abides by the Evil one (Geoffrey Owens) and finds his answer in magic. Faustus ignores all warnings and, by signing a deed in blood, sells his soul to Lucifer (Jeffrey Binder) to maintain his power for 24 years. During that time the prince of darkness’s servant, Mephistopheles (Zach Grenier, The Good Wife), will be his helpmeet so that he may “live in all voluptuousness” and “be emperor of the world.” Finally, realizing that his reach has exceeded his grasp, Faustus fails to save his blasted soul.

The play is filled with opportunities for fanciful theatrics, including magic tricks (which reportedly made Orson Welles’s 1937 production memorable) and comedy, but the CSC production, despite occasional flourishes such as masks and puppets, is so flatfooted and pedestrian, its effects so cheesy, its comedy so forced, and its acting so shallow, that you need the fortitude of Jove to keep your eyes from spinning out of their sockets. Marlowe’s original contains a great deal of clownish tomfoolery, but Belgrader places so much emphasis on it that the title might as well be Doctor Faustus: The Farce. For a small example of how painfully unfunny it is, consider that Marlowe’s foolish Ralph has been renamed Dick (Ken Cheeseman) apparently so that sophomoric jokes can be made at his name’s expense.

As so often in today’s budget-conscious Off Broadway classical revivals, everyone except the two leads plays multiple roles or participates in ensemble scenes. But if you’re going to go that route, you’d better be sure your cast is versatile enough to make more of their character changes than simply offering broad cartoons with exaggerated voices. What’s worse is that the leads here, Noth and Grenier, both respected actors, are out of their depths.

Zach Grenier in 'Doctor Faustus' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Zach Grenier in ‘Doctor Faustus’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Grenier’s relatively short stature is underlined by an ugly, ruff-collared, nearly floor-length, brown medieval gown (the unimpressive costumes are by Rita Ryack and Martin Schnellinger) that looks nothing like the friar’s robes Marlowe calls for; he looks and acts about as evil as a Devil Dog. In one of many missteps, Belgrader allows Mephistopheles to play with audience members during part of the Seven Deadly Sins sequence, either at their seats or by actually drawing them onto the stage; one turns out to be a plant from the company itself. Such clichéd fourth wall-breaking shtick is neither clever nor amusing enough to warrant its inclusion. At the performance I saw, an embarrassed woman pulled from her first-row seat never returned for Act II, nor did the people sitting next to her (others defected as well). Audiences pay to be audiences, not actors.

As Doctor Faustus, Chris Noth looks authoritative but lacks the vocal, interpretive, and visceral potency required for this classical role. Belgrader’s staging doesn’t help, especially when he has Faustus face upstage to deliver his famous “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships” speech about Helen of Troy (Marina Lazzarato, who does the scene nude).

Doctor Faustus is a hell of a difficult play; perhaps only a pact with the devil could make it work.

Doctor Faustus
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street, NYC
Through July 12

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

Review: Hamlet at Classic Stage Company

April 17th, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Penelope Allen and Peter Scaarsgard in "Hamlet" (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Penelope Allen and Peter Sarsgaard in “Hamlet” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

In 1989, when he was forty-nine, Austin Pendleton tackled the title role in Hamlet in an Off Broadway production. Despite stretching credibility—he was too old for the role and encumbered with a comic presence that made him less than ideal for the melancholic Dane—he gave what a New York Times critic called “an intelligent, articulate and reasoned reading”; notably, he excellently captured Hamlet’s sardonic sense of humor.

Except for a few fleeting moments, however, chiefly stemming from Stephen Spinella’s smugly bureaucratic Polonius, there’s very little to laugh at in Pendleton’s own staging of the tragedy for the Classic Stage Company, in which Peter Sarsgaard’s wearily petulant Hamlet seems not to know a joke from a handsaw. Hamlet, of course, is a brilliant wit, but Sarsgaard throws most of his potential laughs away by racing through them and speaking as conversationally as possible, ignoring the meter, and—like the entire cast—performing as if this were a contemporary domestic drama. While he often delivers insight and feeling, he’s rarely more than a shadow Hamlet, lacking the prince’s romantic nobility as his trademark sleepy-eyed persona shuffles uneasily through a colorless and problematic production only fitfully pulsing with life.

Peter Sarsgaard in "Hamlet" (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Peter Sarsgaard in “Hamlet” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Pendleton, who, even at 75, remains one of New York’s busiest actor-directors (his staging of Between Riverside and Crazy was a recent cause célèbre), offers a Hamlet with only ten actors. This radical slimming down, while not original (the Bedlam Theatre does a four-actor version), is done without costume changes (other than the inconspicuous removal or donning of a jacket). Constance Hoffman’s modern dress designs provide the nobility with formal clothing while offering not a stitch of eye-catching theatricality for the drably dressed visiting Players. Even at Ophelia’s graveside, Gertrude (Penelope Allen) must stand there in her silver evening gown and high heels.

The production is rife with tics. Actors morph from role to role before our eyes, only rarely assuming identifying characteristics; if, like Hamlet, you’ve always had trouble separating Rosencrantz (Scott Parkinson) from Guildenstern (Daniel Morgan Shelley), there’s little here to help you, not even that one is black and one white. (You’ll be interested to know that R and G have a coke habit). Glenn Fitzgerald’s graying Laertes could be Claudius in another production, while casting senior citizens Harris Yulin as Claudius and Penelope Allen as Gertrude diminishes the possibility that—for all Hamlet’s ravings—passion played a role in their nuptials (or that Hamlet might harbor Oedipal urges).

Lisa Joyce in "Hamlet" (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Lisa Joyce in “Hamlet” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The music-deficient sound design (by Ryan Rumery/Soundscape) is mainly ominous droning. Hamlet, despite Sarsgaard’s full beard on the program cover, sports smooth cheeks and a freshly shaved head, not unlike Yorick’s skull, into whose cavity Hamlet echoes some of his lines, skull to skull. There’s no grave, thus forcing Laertes to writhe about on the floor, with Hamlet following, as the dead Ophelia (Lisa Joyce) stands blandly by with the funeral party at graveside. The battlement scenes are so dimly lit by the usually reliable Justin Townsend you’re tempted to help with your pocket flashlight. And principals (one at a time) invade scenes in which they play no part to become distracting pieces of human statuary, waiting to come to life in the following scene.

Walt Spangler’s simplified setting sits on a white Lucite floor capable of being lit from beneath; it’s dominated throughout by a dining table and chairs, a huge wedding cake up center, and an impressive, white floral canopy overhead. This is fine for the opening wedding celebration, but why is it still there for the fatal duel?

During that dully executed (pun intended) conventional fencing match (in the course of which Claudius poisons himself), the dead Polonius walks calmly by. Polonius, in fact, is more a zombie than a corpse, since when he’s slain in Gertrude’s bedroom, he simply takes a long, leisurely stroll through the scene, perhaps on his way to take one last pee before shuffling off this mortal coil. Could his addition be compensation for the complete absence of the play’s actual ghost, who appears to have gotten stuck on the LIE coming from Beth Moses?

Volatility is too infrequent in this lugubriously paced, low-keyed, unexceptionally acted rendering of a play requiring full-blooded, and emotion-packed vitality. Only Penelope Allen’s dignified Gertrude gives us a taste of Shakespeare’s classic flavor. After three hours and ten minutes (despite many cuts), one prays that the outmoded way of ending the play will be used—even if destructive of its political intentions—by concluding with Horatio’s “Goodnight, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”; the Fortinbras business be damned. Our prayers are answered. Finally, Pendleton, for the audience’s sake, if not the scholars’, has chosen wisely, if not what scholars would call well.

Hamlet
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th Street
Through May 10

 Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).