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Rebel with a Cause: ‘Nat Turner in Jerusalem’

October 5th, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Phillip James Brannon in 'Nat Turner in Jerusalem' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Phillip James Brannon in ‘Nat Turner in Jerusalem’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

A headline in the Times (October 3) notes: “For ‘Birth of a Nation,’ Goal Is to Inspire, Not Incite,” pointing to the political implications of the soon-to-open movie about the 1831 slave rebellion led in Southhampton County, Virginia, by Nat Turner.

That historical figure—perhaps most familiar from William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner—is also the focus of Nathan Alan Davis’s well-acted but dramatically static Nat Turner in Jerusalem, directed at New York Theatre Workshop by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. It, too, may have inspirational aspirations, but these get muffled in its fictional depiction of Turner’s last night and morning, November 10 and 11, 1831, in a Jerusalem, Virginia, jail cell, just before being publicly hanged.

Turner, a slave/preacher who burned with the righteous indignation of a prophet, spearheaded a brutal revolt in which he and other slaves slaughtered 55 whites, including 24 children. When the insurrection was ended its participants (as well as many innocent slaves) were punished, most by execution following trials at the Jerusalem courthouse. Turner’s story has particular resonance in our racially charged climate but I’m not certain Davis’s flat treatment does a lot to alter the dynamic.

Much of what we know of the events comes from a document, transcribed by Virginia lawyer Thomas R. Gray, whose title page includes these words: “THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER, THE LEADER OF THE LATE INSURRECTION IN SOUTHAMPTON, VA. As fully and voluntarily made to THOMAS R. GRAY, In the prison where he was confined, and acknowledged by him to be such when read before the Court of Southampton; with the certificate, under seal of the Court convened at Jerusalem.”

(l to r) Rowan Vickers and Phillip James Brannon in 'Nat Turner in Jerusalem' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Rowan Vickers and Phillip James Brannon in ‘Nat Turner in Jerusalem’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The degree to which Gray’s report actually reflects Turner’s words is controversial; at one point, Nat Turner in Jerusalem suggests that Gray, who appears after having just returned from Baltimore with a copyright for his planned publication, added his own comments to those of his subject.

That, though, is not the playwright’s concern so much as a situation that attempts to probe Turner’s (Phillip James Brannon) motivations by having Gray (Rowan Vickers), who’s already taken down Turner’s confession, visit him again in order to glean any information he may have regarding other simmering conspiracies. Gray, in financial need, hopes to increase sales of the confessions by providing this information to a population on edge about additional uprisings.

The intermissionless, 90-minute play, written in 19th-century-flavored poetic prose, is structured as a series of meetings—separated by blaring, present-day music (sound design: Nathan Leigh), to remind us of the subject’s relevance, I guess—between Gray and the shackled Turner.

Additional scenes are between Turner and his friendly, but cautious Guard (also Vickers). Turner’s piety sets up a discourse with the atheistic Gray and the wise-beyond-his-position Guard, who’s both reviled by Turner and drawn to his charismatic presence. Gray’s inquiry and Turner’s metaphorically foggy responses constitute what little suspense the piece contains. There are a few mildly tense confrontations, including one featuring a drawn knife, but they reek of contrivance.

The audience watches from wooden bleachers—uncomfortable despite the cushions provided—on either side of a bare wooden platform (designed by Susan Zeeman Rogers) that is sometimes slid (inexplicably) from one end of the rectangular space to the other. Mary Louise Geiger’s stark lighting creates an atmosphere of gloom, with the actors’ shadows often silhouetted on one of the end walls.

For all his suffering, it’s hard to sympathize with the messianic Turner, who ascribes his bloody actions to the word of God, not some deeply ingrained conviction invoked by slavery’s inhumanity, although he clearly propounds such beliefs. Vickers does well with both his roles but the chief reason to see the play is Brannon’s striking portrayal of Nat Turner, whose rebellious spirit lingers in the zeitgeist.

Nat Turner in Jerusalem
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St., NYC
Through October 16

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).

 

‘Hadestown’: Her Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions

May 31st, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

'Hadestown,' New York Theatre Workshop (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Hadestown,’ New York Theatre Workshop (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

That subterranean rumbling you may feel as you walk by the New York Theatre Workshop isn’t a forgotten subway line suddenly come to life; it’s the basso-profundo voice of one of New York’s most commanding performers, Patrick Page, slick perfection itself in the role of Hades, King of the Underworld, in the tunefully delicious, theatrically tasty, but dramatically flavorless Hadestown.

This new show—a mostly sung-through musical based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, about the power of music, love, and trust—originated as a compilation of songs by folk singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell performed at various Vermont venues before becoming an hour-long 2010 concept album. “Hadestown” the album was then developed by Mitchell and the hot young director Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) into Hadestown the musical, which runs a bit more than two hours, and feels it.

Patrick Page (center) and the cast of 'Hadestown.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Patrick Page (center) and the cast of ‘Hadestown.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Set designer Rachel Hauck has gutted the NYTW to build a wooden arena with the orchestra slotted in at one point and the audience seated on uncomfortable old wooden chairs (unmoored cushions supplied). A huge, leafless tree towers in one corner but no one ever climbs it. And, aided by lots of smoke, Bradley King’s flamboyant lighting, sometimes enhanced by small lanterns in the dark, sculpts the action in rock concert style. Actors in close proximity to the spectators create a mildly immersive ambience, although far from the level of Natasha, Pierre . . .

This is the myth in which the exquisitely gifted musician Orpheus (Damon Daunno, a high tenor with middling charisma) descends to Hades to bring his dead sweetheart, Eurydice (Nabiyah Be, bewitching) back to the world of the living. Only after hearing Orpheus’ music does Hades relent, but he insists that if Orpheus looks back to see if Eurydice is following him she’ll have to stay below forever.

For a show inspired by a tale dramatized in countless films, plays, and operas (from classical to rock) it’s disappointing to see how little drama has been squeezed from it here, despite the many appealing songs and the infusion of a capitalistic exploitation theme. The songs are primarily concerned with atmospherics, their lyrics only indirectly offering exposition, revealing character, or moving the plot along.

The basic myth remains intact although Eurydice goes to Hadestown (by train, it should be noted), not because she’s dead but as a personal choice, seeking to escape the hard times up on top where, the lyrics say, “the chips are down”; her road to Hell, then, is paved with good intentions. Hadestown’s existence is intentionally ambiguous; no one there seems dead but everything’s symbolic and not meant to be taken literally.

Amber Gray in 'Hadestown.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Amber Gray in ‘Hadestown.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Hades’ wife, Queen Persephone (Amber Gray, sassily sensational), representing the seasons, is something of a snow bird, living half the year above ground, half under. The suave, black-suited, shades-wearing Hades, who wants to protect his people by keeping the enemy, poverty, away, sings about it in a song, “Why We Build the Wall”; ironically, it was written before Mr. Trump made a fuss about his own wall. The Fates, a trio of hipster women (Lulu Fall, Shaina Taub, and Jessie Shelton) comment on everything in perfect harmony, sometimes playing instruments, while the main narrative functions fall to the growly-voiced, burly but light-on-his feet Hermes (Chris Sullivan, ultra-cool), in a jazzy dark suit, swinging watch chain, and pork pie hat.

In keeping with the New Orleans jazz, blues, and folk music everyone wears hip clothes (designed by Michael Krass) ranging from the fifties to today; Orpheus, for example, dresses in James Dean-like jeans, t-shirt, and red windbreaker, while Persephone brings Billie Holiday to mind in her long, green, floral-print dress and decorative hair ornament.

Concept albums tie a number of songs together by theme or narrative consistency but, even though a number of such albums have been turned into major shows (including the new revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown), such continuity doesn’t necessarily equate with dramatic interest. Hadestown, with its extensive use of mics, and even a section where Persephone introduces each orchestra member for applause, is basically a well-staged concert. Judging by the warm response, however, many will have a hot time in old Hadestown tonight.

Hadestown
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street, NYC
Through July 3

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).

Three to See: May

May 5th, 2016 Comments off

Now that the Tony Award nominations have been announced, we can all breathe a bit easier knowing that Hamilton will likely sweep every major category… but let’s make room for some of the other successful shows this season, eh? We’ll be offering a peek at some of our favorite moments from the past season, but in the meantime, May brings us some interesting openings worth checking out:

INDECENT

Indecent Vineyard Theatre
The Vineyard Theatre is on fire this season after Colman Domingo’s DOTThe Off Broadway theatre returns with Indecent by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive). This new play with music is inspired by the true events surrounding the controversial 1923 Broadway debut of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance — a play seen by some as a seminal work of Jewish culture, and by others as an act of traitorous libel. Indecent charts the history of an incendiary drama and the path of the artists who risked their careers and lives to perform it.

Indecent
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street, NYC
Opening night: May 17

HADESTOWN

Hadestown NYTW
Put on your theatrical thinking cap… with Hadestown, celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and inventive two-time Obie Award-winning director Rachel Chavkin (Three Pianos; Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) transform Mitchell’s “phenomenal concept album” (Rolling Stone) into a bold new work for the stage. This folk opera follows Orpheus’ mythical quest to overcome Hades and regain the favor of his one true love, Eurydice. Inspired by traditions of classic American folk music and vintage New Orleans jazz, Mitchell’s beguiling melodies and poetic imagination pit nature against industry, faith against doubt, and love against death.

Hadestown
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East Fourth Street, NYC
Opening night: May 23

PARAMOUR

Paramour (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Paramour (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Cirque du Soleil comes to Broadway with this landmark production, that aims to provide a new experience for both traditional Broadway musical theatergoers and Cirque du Soleil’s fans. The show will have many of the elements beloved on Broadway: a timeless love story, live musicians, and professional actors in lead roles; but with the Cirque du Soleil aesthetic integrated throughout the show: visionary production design on a grand scale, world class entertainment, and acrobatic feats that defy the imagination. Hopefully Spider-Man has cleared the building.

Paramour
Lyric Theatre
213 West 42nd Street, NYC
Opening night: May 25

NYTW Announces $25 CheapTix

August 20th, 2015 Comments off

nytwNew York Theatre Workshop has announced a new CheapTix program, which will make all single tickets to the first two performances of every NYTW production available to the general public at $25. The program will kick off with Fondly, Collette Richland, the first production of the New York Theatre Workshop 2015/16 Season. Fondly, Collette Richland begins previews on Friday, September 11, 2015 and officially opens on Monday, September 28, 2015 at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th Street New York, NY 10003) for a limited engagement through Sunday, October 18, 2015. Tickets for Fondly, Collette Richland are now on sale at www.nytw.org.

With theater ticket prices rising to the point of excluding many in our community from experiencing the power of inventive theatrical productions, NYTW is committed to ensuring access for as many in our community as possible. At the first two performances of every NYTW production, all single tickets will be available to the general public for just $25. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis, online at NYTW.org or by phone from the NYTW Box Office at 212-460-5475 (MondayFriday Noon6pm). Standard ticketing fees apply.

Additionally, a $25 day-of rush ticket will be available for young people, seniors, artists and Lower East Side residents. Rush tickets are subject to availability and are sold cash-only at the box office, limit two per person. Proper identification is required for all rush tickets. Young people (ages 25 and under) and seniors (ages 65+) may present an ID indicating date-of-birth; Artists may present an ID and a program or union card; Lower East Side residents may present an ID that includes your address.

Single tickets for Fondly, Collette Richland are now on sale and can be purchased by visiting www.nytw.org or by calling 212-460-5475 (MondayFridaynoon-6pm). In addition, a variety of membership packages are on sale now, and are also available at www.nytw.org orby calling 212-460-5475 (MondayFridaynoon-6pm).

As previously announced, New York Theatre Workshop’s 2015/16 season will also include the world premiere of Lazarus, by David Bowie and Enda Walsh (Once, Tony Award) inspired by the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevisand directed by Ivo van Hove (Hedda Gabler, More Stately Mansions, Obie Awards); the New York premiere of Red Speedo written by Lucas Hnath (The Christians) and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Hollow Roots); and Hadestown by celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and inventive two-time OBIE award-winning director Rachel Chavkin (Three PianosNatasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812).

Review: The Invisible Hand

December 16th, 2014 Comments off

by Samuel Leiter

A scene from 'The Invisible Hand' (photo by Jery Naunheim Jr. courtesy of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.)

A scene from ‘The Invisible Hand’ (photo by Jery Naunheim Jr. courtesy of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.)

Compared to what probably goes on in actual bunkers where kidnapped victims of Muslim extremists are kept in an effort to extract ransom from their families or governments, the conditions depicted in Ayad Akhtar’s gripping The Invisible Hand seem downright cozy. Yes, the protagonist, an American banker named Nick Bright (Justin Kirk), is usually handcuffed (and later footcuffed), and yes, he’s often screamed at and humiliated. Nonetheless, his sometimes threatening, sometimes palsy Pakistani captors don’t physically torture him; when the possibility of beheading is raised, these guys say that, if the need arises, they’ll farm out the job to a group they refer to as “animals.” They disdain being called terrorists, declare that the Taliban hates them, and profess to have socially positive goals (water, roads, schools, etc.) for their people. So friendly does the relationship become between Nick and his assigned captor, Bashir (Usman Ally), that they even engage in boyish chatter about which of the girls in the comic book Archie is sexier, Veronica or Betty.

If this sounds implausible, how about the central premise? Nick—mistakenly snatched instead of his boss—convinces his dangerously passive-aggressive abductors to let him use his outstanding stock trading skills by raising the millions they demand from Citibank before they’ll let him go. Farfetched as this seems on paper, Akhtar, through his believable characters and dialogue, creates a world in whose monetary machinations you find yourself acquiescing while remaining absorbed in Nick’s ultimate fate. Along the way, though, Akhtar provides so much background on economic theory and practice that the play only narrowly escapes the peril of morphing into a lesson on global financial practices. The title, in fact, comes from Adam Smith’s 18th century treatise, The Wealth of Nations, where, as Nick explains it: “The free market is guided by the confluence and conflict of everyone’s self-interest, like an invisible hand moving the market . . .” Greed is another word for self-interest, and it spreads like cancer even among the holier than thou.

invisible2Akhtar, whose Pulitzer Prize play, Disgraced, is presently on Broadway, reveals with The Invisible Hand that he’s no flash in the playwriting pan. He produces powerful dramatic situations from topical material and then creates ironically pointed twists and turns, with deft humor seasoning the atmosphere. Akhtar’s villains here are human beings, not stereotypes, and, while we may disagree with their actions, we’re absorbed by the clash of their ideas with those of their prisoner.

Most fascinating is the London-raised and Cockney-accented Bashir, an angry bloke whose initial ignorance of market methods is quickly overcome when—using a computer under Nick’s guidance—he becomes obsessed by his newly acquired monetary power. Bashir’s potentially violent temperament, combined with his knowledge of history and his newfound economic skills, make him a magnetic figure. Usman Ally’s seething intensity in the role is matched by Justin Kirk’s astuteness and desperation as the cash cow detainee. Dariush Kashani’s Imam Saleem, the religious leader in charge of the operation, has a pious dignity that sheathes a deadly ruthlessness made all the more frightening by being understated. Jameal Ali is Dar, the subservient guard Nick teaches how to profit from his potato harvest; the scene in which he must carry out a brutal order is a chilling highlight.

Ken Rus Schmidt’s taut direction—aided by Leah Gelpe’s brilliant percussive sound design—keeps the tension high throughout the play’s two hours. Set designer Riccardo Hernandez has provided two large prison cells, one of bare concrete, the other with tall metal walls under a shiny corrugated ceiling that hangs low over the audience early in the play and then rises to the rafters for Act 2. Finally, distinctive lighting by Tyler Micoleau and convincing costumes by ESOSA help bring The Invisible Hand to very visible life.

The Invisible Hand
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th Street, NYC
Through January 4

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: “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” at New York Theatre Workshop

May 1st, 2014 Comments off

by Marcus Scott

"Red-Eye to Havre de Grace" at NYTW (photo: Johanna Austin) via The Broadway Blog.

“Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” at NYTW (photo: Johanna Austin) via The Broadway Blog.

The moment the lights go down within the intimate 199-seat theater at the New York Theatre Workshop, the audience is dropped within the illuminated mind of a 19th century paranoid schizophrenic. Luckily, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the disturbed intelligence comes from the macabre mind of legendary writer Edgar Allan Poe. Tailor-made for the downtown theater crowd, NYTW “usual suspect” Thaddeus Phillips fraternized with Minneapolis-based musical duo Jeremy Wilhelm and David Wilhelm of Wilhelm Bros. & Co to execute a stunning visual of the twilight days of America’s greatest Romantic-era wordsmith. The result is one of the most striking chromatic experiences in recent memory, with a plot inspired by the footnotes and renderings of the life of one of the most intriguing writers of all-time truncated as if an afterthought.

The story follows the trajectory of Poe (played by Ean Sheehy with twisted nerve precision) in September 1849, as the famed writer travels station to station at the climax of his last lecture tour from Virginia to New York. Red-Eye to Havre de Grace paints a familiar take on Poe: a mad genius and down-on-his-luck tortured artist searching for meaning after losing the love of his life, Virginia Clemm, to tuberculosis and creating what he believed to be his magnum opus, Eureka: A Prose Poem, a dissertation on the cosmos. Named after the city in which Poe was last seen (Havre de Grace is not far from Baltimore, Maryland), found dead with a ticket to New York in his hand and a stranger’s clothes on his body, the story takes liberties as no one knows exactly what occurred in his twilight days. Scraping by with only a few dollars to his name, while en route, Poe suffers a nervous breakdown possibly influenced by a mix of booze and laudanum. His only communication to the outside world is with his aunt, mother-in-law “Muddy,” and his wife-to-be, childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster—each letter is more disturbing than the last. It’s no wonder, especially since he seems to be haunted by visions of Virginia (played by Alessandra L. Larson, who executes Sophie Bortolussi’s robust choreography with nimble grace).

Over the course of the three-act play, Poe’s downward spiral into despondence and alcohol-fueled delirium operates as a litmus test of sorts to the audience; questioning our own inner demons. Other than that, the bus stops there. There’s almost little string to attach us to the character and the crisis at hand. But that doesn’t mean the audience is flying blind. Steering the ship is Jeremy Wilhelm in the guise of Steve, a park ranger and warden in charge of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Philadelphia, where Poe spent six years crafting his most prolific work. Wilhelm provides dry slacker hilarity and witty observations between set changes and transitions. His voice fits solidly with the score by David Wilhelm (on piano), which blends Gothic lounge jazz art folk and includes bursts of Spanish guitar flair. His impressive bari-tenor rings like a siren, singing passages from letters and stories written by Poe. Don’t worry; the audience is also treated with fan favorites “Annabel Lee,” “El Dorado” and “Ligeia” or the more abstruse, like “The Philosophy of Furniture.” And yes, there’s “The Raven,” arguably his most celebrated work.

The real rock stars of this production are that of director Thaddeus Phillips and lighting designer Drew Billiau. The brilliant ophthalmic prism of stage light mixed with Phillips’ direction and seamless set design—crafted mostly out of versatile, portable tables, chairs and fabrics—are a soupcon for the senses. Perhaps the most entertaining moment of the night included Poe’s rendition of his most memorable poem: Lit by lantern that casts binary shadows on red curtains behind him, Poe builds into a catastrophic crescendo as he laments his lost love and the uncertain death clock that ticks for all of us. This is also where character actor and star Ean Sheehy shines as his nervous energy slides into an erratic, volatile force in a stretch of a few minutes; his gaunt face and lean body evoking the heart-wrenching vulnerability of a man at the end of his rope.

Having an existential crisis? Red-Eye to Havre de Grace is beautiful nightmare for the weary kind.

Red-Eye to Havre de Grace
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4 Street (between Second Avenue & Bowery)
Through June 1

"Red-Eye to Havre de Grace" at NYTW (photo: Johanna Austin) via The Broadway Blog.

“Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” at NYTW (photo: Johanna Austin) via The Broadway Blog.

Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and Edge Media Network.

Review: Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” at NYTW

February 20th, 2014 Comments off
The cast of "Love and Information" at New York Theatre Workshop (photo: Joan Marcus) via The Broadway Blog.

The cast of “Love and Information” at New York Theatre Workshop (photo: Joan Marcus) via The Broadway Blog.

At 75 years old, British dramatist Caryl Churchill—one of the world’s premier influential voices in theater—has made a career out of crafting stories with an embarrassment of riches. This was made quite evident as she returned for her seventh American premiere at New York Theatre Workshop with the aptly titled Love and Information at the Minetta Lane Theatre, produced in association with London’s Royal Court Theatre.

But unlike Churchill’s 2002 sci-fi human cloning epic A Number, Love and Information is a night out on the town that never quite leaves the couch. It doesn’t have the vitality of her iconic 1982 play Top Girls, which is as much of a feminist theatrical gem as it is a course on sexual politics and the exploration of abuses of power in the corporate world. Love and Information, a laundry list of vignettes cut into seven parts with an epilogue, may mystify those looking for rollicking entertainment while entrancing those expecting a run-of-the-mill production.

"Love and Information" at New York Theatre Workshop (photo: Joan Marcus) via The Broadway Blog.

“Love and Information” at New York Theatre Workshop (photo: Joan Marcus) via The Broadway Blog.

At the top of the show, the exterior of a pitch-dark stage is lined in colored glowing light, forming a perfect square, seeming to box in the action of the scenes to come. In rapid fire, the audience is introduced to over a hundred different characters, all of which are trying to figure out the riddle of life.

With linguistic gen, Churchill showcases she is a rare talent when it comes to prose and broadcasting a variety of fun and refreshing situations. Each story is more provoking than the last: The conversation between two mature ladies discussing suicide bombers over cocktails; a lesbian couple relocating to the mountains to enjoy silence in the midst of the surge of social media and e-news; a young motor mouth lab physician talking about the dissection of chicken brains and their memories over a romantic first date picnic; and two clowns seducing one another while one talks about their partner’s recent infidelity.

Churchill brings the point home with the epilogue, showcasing a young lady cramming for a “Jeopardy!”-style quiz show, cruising through all of the inquiries, but hesitating to say ‘those three little words’ to her beau. With the advent of the Internet and information at our fingertips, people have become so numb and desensitized to the profusion of facts and information that as a civilization, we are lacking the obligatory skills for human interaction and feelings.

  Read more…

Review: “What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined”

December 10th, 2013 Comments off

Broadway Blog Matthew Wexler spends an evening with Burt Bacharach interpreted for a new generation.

"What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined" at New York Theatre Workshop. (photo: Eric Ray Davidson)

“What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined” at New York Theatre Workshop
(photo: Eric Ray Davidson)

It is nearly impossible not to be mesmerized Kyle Riabko, the 26-year-old musician/actor who sprang onto the Broadway stage in Spring Awakening and the revival of Hair. You can get up close and personal with Riabko in What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, playing at New York Theatre Workshop through January 5. Riabko co-conceived of this well-spun tribute to pop composer Burt Bacharach and also wrote the musical arrangements. It is a guilty pleasure so sweet your teeth may ache by the end, but peppered with enough brilliant musicianship that it’s hard not to be captivated.

Kyle Riabko and Burt Bacharach (photo: Eric Ray Davidson)

Kyle Riabko and Burt Bacharach
(photo: Eric Ray Davidson)

Riabko offers an informal introduction before the evening begins: his encounter with Bacharach, their ensuing friendship, and a cryptic phone message from the eight-time Grammy winner upon listening to Riabko’s new arrangements that simply says, “Let’s talk.” Then the evening is off to a whirligig ride of vocals, percussive riffs, guitar jam sessions and 20-something wistfulness.

Those 20-somethings — a band of seven musician/singers handpicked by Riabko (with a little help from casting agents Jim Carnahan and Jillian Cimini) — are a melting pot that brings life to the Bacharach songbook for a new generation. The evening carries on seamlessly, from “I Say a Little Prayer” and “That’s What Friends Are For” to ballads including “A House Is Not A Home” and “Don’t Make Me Over.” It should be noted that lyricist Hal David’s contribution (although credited) should not fly under the radar. One of Bacharach’s longtime collaborators, he has more than 30 gold records to his name and gives a voice to much of the song list.

artworkCreatively directed by Steven Hoggett (The Glass Menagerie, Once, Peter and the Starcatcher), the company moves with precision through Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis’s overworked set, which consists of an explosive number of throw rugs and lamps. Look hard and you might find Stevie Nicks in the corner, wondering how all those people got into her living room. Hoggett’s signature movement — pedestrian yet lyrical and so effective in Once — works here as well as an organic extension of the storytelling.

Lighting designer Japhy Weideman and sound designer Clive Goodwin also deliver the goods, creating a dynamic space that transforms throughout the evening as Riabko and company tap in to Bacharach’s playful and soaring melodies. It is a well-polished production, almost to a fault. Performed without an intermission, your mind may wander, thinking you’ve tuned in to a Bacharach-inspired episode of American Idol or The Voice. Which begs the question: does this fulfill New York Theatre Workshop’s mission to “ensuring the robust and compelling presence of the artist in our society”?

Had Riabko not mentioned the intention of finding relevance in the Bacharach songbook for a new generation, I may not have given much thought to the East Village icons of past generations such as Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna and how this production — from a theater company that gave us Rent — feels saccharine at times. It’s more of a riff than a criticism, and one that I discussed over tea after the show, which is another indication of how the neighborhood’s cultural landscape has changed.

What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined is easily digestible and charmingly realized. While it may feel a bit out of place downtown, it’s still a testament that “What the World Needs Now is Love.”

What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East Fourth Street
Through January 5

Review: “Sontag Reborn” at New York Theatre Workshop

June 13th, 2013 Comments off

Contributor Lindsay B. Davis reviews a complex new multimedia theater piece presented by New York Theatre Workshop. 

"Sontag: Reborn" featuring Moe Angelos. (photo: Joan Marcus)

“The journal gives us the workshop of the writer’s soul.”
–Susan Sontag, “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer “ from Against Interpretations & Other Essays

Famed literary critic, novelist, film director and feminist (she once told The Paris Review “That’s one of the few labels I’m content with but even so, is it a noun? I doubt it.”), Susan Sontag, had a definitive point of view about the importance of a journal. She saw it as a portal or gateway into the writer’s condition, something the “I” voice of a novel could never match in terms of intimacy and revelation. As such, she kept journals throughout her life and read others’ (Andre Gide being one of her earliest inspirations). She eventually published portions of her own that are now serving as source material for The Builders Association’s multi-media theatrical piece Sontag: Reborn at New York Theater Workshop through June 30.

Adapted and performed by Moe Angelos, this solo show imagines a high-strung Sontag in her early teens whose thoughts move quickly and deftly between subjects, emerging in staccato utterances that fly onto the page by way of her own pen. This is rather brilliantly enhanced by a multi-media installation that positions Angelos behind a scrim onto which thoughts and images are beamed in concert with her imagination. This, while an elder Sontag (also portrayed by Angelos and significantly more recognizable by way of Sontag’s trademark hair and ever-present cigarette) looks on and comments, at times adding context for the audience and otherwise engaging with her younger self:

Susan: What do I enjoy?

Young Susan: Music, Being in love, Children, Sleeping Meat.

Susan: What do I dislike?

Young Susan: Freckles, Licking envelopes, Taking Photographs, Ezra Pound.

The Builders Association is known for its experimental theater projects and avoids what could be the trap of distracting from the story, the character and the words. It’s seamlessly executed and very compelling. The directorial decision to place Sontag behind a screen (she is clearly visible, though) and large writing desk could speak to the elder Sontag’s point of view on her relationship to the published, written word. “The book is a wall, “ says the large, looming Sontag, “I put myself behind it, out of sight and out of seeing.”

The nature of Sontag’s journal writing makes for good theater, especially in Angelos and director Marianne Weems’ respectful hands—albeit for a certain kind of audience. The play moves from the late 1940s through the 70s and there are myriad references to books, authors, magazines, films, and people who comprise Sontag’s life in California, Chicago, Paris and Greenwich Village. This is, after all, a Fulbright scholar who finished Berkely by 16, went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago and eventually did more graduate work in philosophy at Harvard and Oxford.

A window into her mind means imagined conversations with Thomas Mann, critiques of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, utterances such as “I saw beyond Kant today” and other oddly specific references. What keeps things interesting, even if you don’t catch it all, is her willful, heroic, Rocky-like desire for rigorous, intellectual training. She reconciles new ideas in the interest of building up herself and her identity, and all while clearing the hurdles that youth brings, including intense emotional highs and lows.


Ultimately, Sontag: Reborn is a story about Sontag’s sexual awakening and the portions of her journal entries that touch upon female lovers and eventual heartbreak (there is one referred to as H and another, painter/playwright Maria Irene Fornes) are like a diary that could’ve been written by a modern teenager. They are youthful, emotional, endearing and timeless. Hers are the struggles to be true to herself — “My desire to write is connected to my homosexuality” — even as she takes a husband at age 18. With characteristic awareness she deadpans, “I marry Philip with full consciousness and fear of my will toward self destructiveness”. Moments of laughter and tenderness about her son, David (David Rieff, editor of the book, Susan Sontag Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, that serves as source material for the show) balance the emptiness of her marriage, which ended less than 10 years after it began.

Angelos does not quite exude Sontag’s sensuality but does bring her words to life with requisite intelligence, command, humor and clarity of storytelling. As the older Susan, she is sagelike in voice and stature. Most importantly, Angelos builds a relationship between the two that allows Sontag: Reborn to play more like a two-person than solo show and allows the audience to experience Young Susan through the knowing eyes of her older self. Overall, it captures her as a woman who created equally from the head and heart.

Sontag: Reborn
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
Through June 30

Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.

SHOW FOLK: The Creators of “Peter and the Starcatcher” (Part 1)

May 24th, 2012 Comments off

Roger Rees, Alex Timbers & Rick Elice. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Who knew a little fairy dust could be so powerful?

Like its orphan hero, the Broadway underdog Peter and the Starcatcher soared, grabbing nine Tony nominations — the most nods for any play this year. Behind the stellar cast is an equally starry creative team, led by co-Directors Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) & Roger Rees (most recently as an actor in The Addams Family) and writer Rick Elice (Jersey Boys).

As they prepare for Tony night and a recently announced Peter national tour, this “dream team” sat down to answer a few questions about the show, their collaboration and their careers. First up, the playwright (and a Tony nominee this year for Best Score) Rick Elice…

Kevin Del Aguila & Christian Borle in "Peter and the Starcatcher". Image via O&M Co.

Peter feels like such a collaborative, improvisational work and yet the script is so intricate and detailed. What was the genesis of the script?

In 2007, Roger Rees and Alex Timbers embarked on a series of workshops to adapt Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s novel, Peter and the Starcatchersan origin story of Peter Pan – for the stage.  During the first “lab,” they worked entirely from the novel. But they needed some sort of introduction that would explain how narrative voices would be used in a potential play.  They called a mutual acquaintance, me, and I wrote them a prologue.  The first workshop led to a second, for which they needed some scenes, so the actors would know what to say.  They called a mutual acquaintance, me, and asked if I would supply some dialogue and some ideas for scenes that weren’t in the novel.  Dave and Ridley came to check it out.  Dave, not one to beat around any bush, asked “Who wrote that stuff?  We really like it.”  Tom Schumacher of Disney, who had underwritten the workshops, said, “That guy, sitting over there.”  (I raised my hand and grinned sheepishly.)  Then, Tom added, “He’s going to write the play.”  And sometimes, that’s how you get the gig.  So basically, it’s important to know directors who don’t have lots of friends who are writers.

Did you participate actively in rehearsals and did the cast influence the script? Is there still wiggle room for play in the piece even now that it has been “frozen” on Broadway?

I was at rehearsals every day, or close to it – (sometimes I had to do laundry).  I wouldn’t have missed them.  In La Jolla, I was rewriting whole sections, so I often sat in the room, glued to my keyboard.  I just liked being in a room with so much great, creative energy.  And I was getting to know the actors, and enjoyed the very particular pleasure of writing to various actors’ specific talents.  Between La Jolla and New York Theatre Workshop, I did major rewriting to accommodate a change in cast size, and a conceptual change that dramatically altered the two title roles – something we only learned through La Jolla’s great “Page to Stage” program, of which we were a part.   At Theatre Workshop, I was there every day, because I was jealous of the limited rehearsal time, and, by this time, had become great friends with the actors.  So to have a free ticket into the room was a treat.  Also, like a tailor at the local laundry, it was very efficient to have me there to do rewrites, and develop new sequences “on premises” – based on our finally having a set. For Broadway, we gave the actors a new script on the first day that had some big structural changes, and over the course of rehearsals, I was able to do very specific work.  I love being at rehearsals a lot.  I have the rest of my life to be somewhere else.

Wiggle room?  Well, actors of the caliber in Peter are so alive in their roles that wiggle room isn’t necessary.  Also, the physical tasks at hand require that everybody know what everybody is doing moment to moment, or someone could be hurt.  So no – the text is the text and the production is the production.  There are one or two “cadenza” moments, where the duration of certain things may vary from night to night, at the discretion of one or two of the actors.  It’s lovely when audience members say the whole thing has this entirely improvised feel, but believe me, it’s all worked out very carefully by the extraordinary ensemble of actors, the choreographer, the directors, the stage managers.  It’s a tribute to them that the play has that improvised feel.

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