Saturday, April 21, 2018

Martin McDonagh in a Hanging Mood at the Atlantic Theater Company

Hangmen made me thirsty, especially after the shock of the first scene.  I had read scenic designer Anna Fleischle’s comments on the challenge of this three-setting play, first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London, then here in New York to occupy the small space of the Atlantic Theater Company (formerly a church on West 20th street where I’m 99% sure I saw a delightful Much Ado something like thirty years ago).  Each setting had to be independent of the other two, and yet permanent in a limited space. 

The first scene is a humdinger.  A young man is about to be hanged (it’s England in the early 1960s, Lancashire), screaming his innocence every step of the way.  There are arguments and recriminations and accusations and a rope and a noose and a WHOOSH —- from the stage and then from the audience as the air rushed out of them when a trapdoor dropped the protesting young man and he disappeared below the stage.  Hanged.  Horror.

After that opening, the scene is handily turned into a pub — the comfy corner sort with a warm wooden bar and a landlady truly pulling those pints of ale — with the jailhouse set rising to hover above as the pub’s ceiling while the memory of that gallows never leaves anyone in the pub.

As is the norm with playwright Martin McDonagh, there is laughter, guilt, laughter, guilt, horror and fear.  Hanging is now a punishment of the past in England, although the hangman the audience saw doing his job in that first scene — and whose wife runs this pub — doesn’t believe the moratorium on hanging will last.  A young reporter tries to get numbers from him — how many men — maybe women –— had he hanged?
Hangmen Syd and Harry (Photo Ahron R. Foster)
Harry the hangman’s former assistant Syd, played by Reece Shearsmith, with whom Harry had fallen out, shows up casting doubt on the guilt of that last pathetic young man hanged, who had been convicted of killing a young woman on a beach.

Harry the hangman is a guy next door sort of fellow and is played by the wonderful Mark Addy.  He’s a hale-fellow-well-met sort of hangman in the pub:  bigoted, bitter, judgmental but funny. Everything that happens onstage is played with simplicity and realism, from the ridiculous conversations among the pub’s regular drunks to the searing doubts cast by the former assistant Syd.  Harry’s wife Alice (Sally Rogers) owns the pub and has a complicated relationship with her husband — similar, perhaps to any difficult transition when one spouse’s retirement creates chaos at home.  Harry and Alice live above the pub with their teenage daughter Shirley, whom Harry calls “Mopey.”  And they have a spare room.
Mooney and Shirley (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)
The entire small cast is superb, from Gaby French as Harry & Alice’s teenage daughter to an unrecognizable Maxwell Caufield as the hangman’s greatest rival, also now a publican. 

McDonagh, in concert with his sharp director Matthew Dunster, heats it up at the end of the first act, when the creepy Mooney (who prefers the term “menacing”), a southern stranger (as in from down London way), tries to rent the spare room from Alice.  Johnny Flynn does fine work as Mooney insinuates himself in with the ladies of the family, while scaring the bejesus out of the audience. Instead of becoming a boarder (which thought fills the audience with dread), Mooney has a one-sided shouting match with Alice and storms off.  Meanwhile the “mopey” daughter has gone out without a word. 
Mark Addy as Harry and Johnny Flynn as Mooney (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)
Was the last hanged man truly innocent and is this menacing Mooney the real killer?  Where’s daughter Shirley gone?

Act 2 opens with Syd fanning the flames of fear. The police are called in when Shirley does not return, and the young reporter Harry had treated so rudely in the first act comes in to assist in finding the girl.  In return for a newspaper story about Shirley, he gets all those numbers he wanted. Connections, relationships, false or misleading, confuse us all as the tension mounts with everyone wondering where’s Shirley?  Mooney returns and …. No, I cannot tell you that.  Suffice to say that all the stops are pulled out in Act 2, with another rope, another noose, lightning (courtesy Joshua Carr, lighting designer), thunder, and another hanging question.

Hangmen is oddly lacking in blood (my first McDonagh was The Lieutenant of Inishman, which was the bloodiest play I’d ever seen) and may not be McDonagh’s best, but this mystery thriller is a roller coaster ride of a good evening in the theatre.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to watch In Bruges.

Molly is Musing .... a 2018 update

2018 has been a tough year for Molly so far.  January brought a death, as January is wont to do.  My eldest cousin — firstborn of my generation as well as first to die.  He comes to mind frequently.  There is always much to talk to him about.  Maybe he’s listening somewhere, but we’ll never know until it’s too late to blog about.  My personal fantasy is that he has joined family members who preceded him to a golf course somewhere (at least two foursomes hovering about), from which exercise they return “home” where my Nana is eager to feed them.  It’s a choice.

Update on Cats:  Millie lost a few teeth to the dentist, but otherwise my little three-some is well. 
Chick and Millie watching ....

Little Grey

Little Grey escaped her former captor and insists on living free so long as I feed her twice a day.  She claimed my garden and chased away a big black cat in the warm weather, but they are now buddies, sharing food and lodgings.  Of late there’s a third DSH daily, and an occasional visit from a mixed breed who appears to be part Siamese.  Later in the evening there had been an opossum, but most recently there are two young raccoons.  The opossum always walked or ran off in a different direction from the cats, but the raccoons seem to be sharing the same squat as Little Grey and her feline friends.  What next, this human wonders.  The animals are all getting along fine.  Humans, on the other hand….

2018 is not fun. And I’m not even thinking about politics!  Perhaps it’s because Spring refuses to actually Spring but rather hide away from these chilly days.  
barely budding

My job, which is a very good job, is nonetheless trying to kill me.  I keep trying to get rid of things at home so that my “heirs” will only inherit good things, not clutter.  I’ve barely written a word since my last post here in early March, until last night when I went to my local for a couple pints.  Thus inspired, I scribbled based on barely legible scratches and kept going from memory of the theatre I’ve seen this year.  Little by little, bit by bit, I’ll post Molly’s musings on those.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to talk theatre.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

What will we tell the Children?

Last month, I saw the Friday night performance of the closing weekend of The Children at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club.  It was a limited run from London’s Royal Court Theatre, and I am grateful to have come to my frugal senses in time to order a ticket.  Like the last production I saw that was directed by James McDonald — at BAM, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone the set was in a box of sorts, so while I was slightly concerned with the height of my rear mezzanine seat (would I miss any downstage action?), once the play began, I got it all.  The box, rather like an adult-size diorama, was designed by Miriam Buether and represents the downscale home away from home where a long-married couple, Robin and Hazel (played by Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay) have lived since parts of the coast of England fell into the sea and what was left was irradiated by a failed nuclear power plant.  It just so happened that the couple who inhabit the diorama formerly worked at said nuclear power plant before their retirement to a lovely country house where they kept cows and chickens. All of which are now irradiated.

Into this kitchen/living area comes an unexpected visitor with whom the couple had worked decades before. This is Rose, played by Francesca Annis.
Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay, Francesca Annis.  Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich (NYT)
For the next hour and three quarters, we wonder what the visitor is doing there, so close to the irradiated land.  The dynamics between the threesome vary between old friends and old enemies, particularly when it’s just the two women.  When the man enters the picture box, well, that’s interesting.

They reminisce, they argue, they tell tales of children and cows.  When we finally learn why Rose is there, we’re shocked, but not appalled.  Fair’s fair.

The playwright, Lucy Kirkwood, was unknown to me. She will be no longer, as this was fine, intricate writing with interesting living characters (all of them in their 60s) telling a layered story of personal relationships, personal loss, and personal responsibility, as well as societal predicaments.  This is a thoughtful play with plenty of laughs since, after all, people are pretty funny, and the actors are terrific as is the precise direction by Mr. McDonald.
Rose, Robin, and Hazel (Credit:  Royal Court Theatre)
Scenic design by Ms. Buether and lighting by Peter Mumford are fitting and fabulous, atmospheric, and, on occasion, frightening.  I especially liked the surface between the set diorama and the orchestra, which I slowly realized was filled with water, rather like a moat.  Reflective water, still, and then rising water.  Rising and rising…. 

Back in February 2017 at BAM [], the last James McDonald-directed play I saw shared similarities with The Children, in another Miriam Buether scenic and Peter Mumford lighting design, as well as in attitude toward the future.  Fallible and arrogant humans have made a mess of things and will suffer the consequences.  No zombies, no robots, no aliens.  Just humans and the results of their hubris.  Terrific stuff. 

~ Molly Matera, signing off to continue scribbling about some other performances this winter....

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Magic of Music at the Belasco

Music is mysterious.  It pulls emotions out of us, it urges us to remember for good or ill, pleasure or pain.  It riles us up, it calms us down.  Among other neurologists, Oliver Sachs particularly has written about music’s healing capacity.  Music therapy for people with dementia has been shown to awaken lost energies and memories.

The odd story of Farinelli and the King is an example of music’s magical power.  King Philippe V of Spain, while some days brilliant, was just as often deeply disturbed, hiding in his room, fearful of other people, holding conversation with his goldfish Alfonso.  When his wife Queen Isabella heard castrato Farinelli sing she believed he could help her husband, so the two made the arduous journey (this was early in the 18th century) from England to Spain for this great experiment.  Surely hearing Farinelli’s glorious voice could awaken the king from his coma-like state.

This play is based on the real relationship and real story that Farinelli, a great castrato of the 18th century, gave up his opera career to live with the king and queen of Spain for nine years, singing to keep the king’s humors level.  In addition to my interest in the subject matter, the play itself more than held my attention and I cared very much for the characters as written by Claire Van Kampen.  It is most beautifully produced with fine musicians and actors gracing the stage.  Ms. Van Kampen is also the musical arranger, so clearly knows her subject.  Jonathan Fensom’s designs immediately draw us into the London theatre, the Madrid palace as well as the house in the forest we experience later.  

John Dove’s direction pulls all these marvelous elements together for a musical and engaging evening.

Mark Rylance plays King Philippe V.  Mark Rylance is a genius. Funny, endearing, sometimes frightening and heartbreaking. Philippe is at his best away from the responsibilities and clutter of court and city life, out in the forest where he wants to hear the stars singing. Don’t we all. When Jonathan Fensom’s scenic design transports us to the forest, we too wish to stay.
Mark Rylance as King Philippe V
Queen Isabella as played by the engaging Melody Grove is practical, powerful and passionate.  She is the one who brings the audience along on this journey, making us root for her goals to save her husband.

Dan Crane acts Farinelli with sensitivity and grace, while Iestyn Davies, a countertenor, sings Farinelli. 

It’s an interesting conceit:  When the scene calls for Farinelli to sing, Mr. Davies enters the stage dressed exactly like Crane’s Farinelli, and begins to sing and act his aria, prowling the stage.  Crane’s Farinelli remains, silent, not too close to his alter ego, not too far, communing with the inner spirit of the singer Farinelli.  At least that’s what it looked like to me, and I was riveted.  Crane seems to be subtly reflecting what’s going on inside the singer Davies.

This was oddly fascinating to watch and oddly not disruptive to the action.

Conflict external to the king’s distress is largely supplied by the King’s wily and seemingly advanced Doctor Cervi, deftly played by Huss Garbiya.  The doctor (and Isabella and the King) are in constant conflict with the king’s minister De La Cuadra, coldly and beautifully played by Edward Peel. 

Queen Isabella originally found Farinelli performing for London theatrical manager John Rich, who is wittily and convincingly played by Colin Hurley

Like the Globe’s last production here at the Belasco Theatre, the set design is in two levels, the gallery wrapped around and above the playing area on three sides so that audience members may sit on the stage surrounding the players, while the upper back gallery is occupied by the excellent musicians.  We can see all, yet they don’t draw attention from the players.  It is imaginative and impressive and very well used.  In the second half, Mr. Rylance adds a third level as the King chats with the audience as if they were denizens of the forest. 

If you’ve read what I’ve written in past months about the musical passions of Indecent and The Band’s Visit, you may wonder about the music in Farinelli and the King.  A harpsichord plays the audience in, and is joined in the half hour before the play starts by a violinist, a cellist, and a lute player.  These and more musicians accompany much of the action for the evening and afford great pleasure. 

This play was not as effective for me as it will be for opera lovers.  The formal style of operatic singing awakens no passion in me.  Although I intellectually know how powerful the music is (and I know we cannot know what a castrato really sounded like), I was not brought to any emotion by the singing.  Mr. Rylance’s performance as the troubled king showed me, however, all I needed to know about that music’s effect.

Finally, I must mention the fabulous hair and wigs by Campbell Young that helped set us in Madrid or the forest and truly complemented the character development.

Farinelli and the King plays at the Belasco only until March 25, 2018.  Performances are marvelous in a brilliant design, and the play stands on its own without plays of a similar “type” to compare it to — in any case, nothing and no one compares with Mark Rylance.  If tickets are still available, get to the Belasco and hear the singing of the stars.
Mark Rylance as audience at the Delacorte in 2015.  Photo:  Matt Hennessy

~ Molly Matera, signing off to contemplate a new year.  Be happy and healthy.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Seasonal Treat Until Epiphany

Fiasco Theater is playing Shakespeare’s great comedy Twelfth Night at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street) until Saturday January 6, 2018.  Run don’t walk to catch this exciting, funny, musical, lyrical, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, pastoral-romantic comedy best suited to this season. 

Twelfth Night is often described as a perfect comedy and it may well be so.  But for that twin thing.  The romance is restrained (what with people in disguise), the comedy is not.  And in this production, the cast is superlative.  May I present:

Andy Grotelueschen as Sir Toby Belch
Jessie Austrian as Olivia
Emily Young as Viola/Cesario
Noah Brody as Orsino (also co-directed)
Ben Steinfeld as Feste (also co-directed)
Tina Chilip as Maria
Paul L. Coffey as Malvolio
Paco Tolson as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (among others)
Javier Ignacio as Sebastian (among others)
David Samuel as Antonio (among others)
Fiasco Theater at CSC (Photo by Joan Marcus)
John Doyle’s scenic design is flexible and creative, as is costume design by Emily Rebholz

Andy Grotelueschen’s Sir Toby may well be the best funniest and most consistently alive I’ve seen, with a real relationship between him and Tina Chilip’s happily hilarious Maria.

Ben Steinfeld as Feste shows himself as a fine comedic actor and musician and singer, quite romantic, and apparently a good director, since he and Noah Brody directed this production.

Noah Brody is a well-developed and believable Orsino (although I will always remember the delicious Orsino of Paul Rudd at Lincoln Center).

Jessie Austrian’s Olivia is a sex-starved delight.

Emily Young’s Cesario/Viola is witty, strong and quite marvelous.

As is their custom, when not actively onstage, the members of the Fiasco Theater sit or stand on the sidelines watching their colleagues and laughing along.  And accompanying one another on musical instruments and vocals, which makes for a funny, musical, delightful evening.

As always, the twins bit in the last scene goes on too long — how dense are these people — but that’s just a momentary annoyance that may only happen to people (like me) who’ve seen the play many times.

So go to 13th Street, go online, get a ticket, celebrate a well-over-200-year-old play.  Just because it’s done all the time doesn’t mean it’s always done as well as this.  Trust Fiasco Theater.  Go!

~ Molly Matera, signing off to go bake Christmas Cookies....

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

An Enchanting Evening of Song and Dance at City Center

Last Spring I bought tickets to a "City Center Encore” of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s Brigadoon. City Center typically does “concert” stagings — that is minimal staging, some costuming, broad stroke choreography.  After all, these shows run less than a week and don’t have much time for rehearsal. Stage actor union rules for staged readings were stated in the program — performers might have “scripts in hand.”  

Not this time. This production was put together for a Gala on the Wednesday, so what I saw that Thursday night was highly polished.

A wonderful scrim separated the onstage orchestra from the action (sometimes down, sometimes not) on which projections showed NYC, Scotland, heather on the hills, a forest, all in watercolor softness, with soft or bold colors depending on the scene.  Each scene was gorgeous, naturalistic without being in the slightest bit photographic.  A steep rounded staircase representing any number of hills separated the onstage orchestra from the action (except when the conductor handed a branch of heather to Fiona).

Kelli O’Hara as Fiona has the voice of an angel but doesn’t leave it at that. She breathes life into her character — her Fiona is real and warm and alive.

Choreographer and director Christopher Wheeldon was respectful of the original Agnes DeMille choreography, which even I could recognize (women’s hands), but enhanced, streamlined, and strengthened it.  The women dancers were delightful, and the men … Oh my....

Men in kilts. Dancing. Leaping. Twirling. Gasp.

Robert Fairchild (formerly of the NYC Ballet, who danced American in Paris, which I now regret not seeing just to have watched his performance) played the sad and angry “villain” of the piece, Harry Beaton, who is a much more interesting character than the Americans from the 20th century. Ballet dancers have played Harry in the past on stage, as well as in the film. Fairchild was magnificent, every movement sublime.  He has not yet developed much vocal guts as an actor, but his body does it all.

As the second romantic lead, Charlie Dalrymple, Ross Lekites sings smoothly and sweetly.  He sang two of my favorite songs, “Go Home With Bonnie Jean” and “Come to me, bend to me,” breaking my heart in the process and moving his fiancée Jean (Sara Esty) and her friends into their lyrical dance.  Ms. Esty is not much a vocal presence, but that hardly matters. She was totally present and graceful, telling her love story with the lines of her body, giving Charlie and us her heart.

Stephanie J. Block was a big vocal presence as Meg Brockie, singing the hilariously tongue-twisting “Me Mother’s Wedding Day.”  Once the Americans came to Brigadoon, Meg pined after Jeff, the sad-sack drunken friend of the leading man, Tommy.  Aasif Mandvi played Jeff with wit and warm sarcasm. As the object of Meg’s affection/lust, Mandvi totally embodied this potentially depressing character all the way to his last moments onstage.

Patrick Wilson was Tommy, the romantic lead opposite Kelli O’Hara. I’m not a Wilson fan, I’m afraid. Whenever I’ve seen him he’s perfectly competent, he just doesn’t interest me.  He did his job well here; a strong singer, performing fine duets with Fiona, and he actually did more than justice to the overly expository songs of the second act.  I always enjoyed Gene Kelly’s depiction of Tommy in the movie, but then I always enjoy Gene Kelly.  Perhaps the role is just poorly written.

Dakin Matthews was excellent as Mr. Lundie, who explains the (utterly absurd but who cares) premise of the play.  Patricia Delgado was expressive as the woman who clearly wanted Harry Beaton and danced the thrilling funeral dance.  This was far from morose, rather full of passion and very beautiful.

It was a truly joyous evening at the beautiful City Center.

~ Molly Matera, signing off still hearing the lovely music and thrilling to Robert Fairchild dancing in my dreams.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Midnight at the Oasis, or Bewitching Omar Sharif

The Band’s Visit, lovingly directed by the wonderful David Cromer, is a beautiful piece of theatre with delicious music and characters in a handsomely constructed evening.

Based on the Israeli film of the same name, the play’s book is by Itamar Moses with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, music that soared and made us dance in our seats and our souls. Music and love, that’s what The Band’s Visit is about. It is seductive and charming, sweet but not treacly.

Patrick McCollum’s delightful and elegant choreography grows from the characters’ movements and feelings, easily making its way around Scott Pask’s imaginative scenic design.

While its music put me in mind of the brilliant Indecent earlier this year [], The Band’s Visit is much simpler, a snippet — more of a short story than the full novel Indecent resembled. Nonetheless, The Band’s Visit gives deep satisfaction with interesting characters we can identify with in ordinary and extraordinary social situations. A small town visited by unexpected strangers, foreigners. In a small American town, would these foreigners have been taken in and enjoyed? I may be grumpy and downright depressed about the state of our nation, but I’m very much afraid not.

The basic story is simple. An Egyptian band is invited to visit an Arab Cultural Center in an Israeli city to play a concert of traditional music. There are two towns in Israel with names that sound, to non-Israelis, extremely similar. The city expecting the band is Petah Tikva. The aforementioned Egyptian band gets on the wrong bus to the wrong town — Bet Hatikva. According to its residents, said wrong town not only has no Cultural Center but no culture at all, although it does have a roller skating rink. It’s a dusty desert town with people who are terribly bored and hopeless, yet somehow the best humans you could hope for. The greeting the lost band received was musical and hilarious led by the thrilling Katrina Lenk, as a local café owner named Dina. A taste:   Dina and the Egyptian bandleader, Tewfiq, charmingly played by Tony Shalhoub, explore one another as they while away the evening, gently discovering each other’s past and present.

The cast is sublime, featuring actors who are musicians, actors who dance or skate, music everywhere. There’s John Cariani as a young father learning to be a husband and Etai Benson as a lonely young man who befriends a sax player with a passion for Chet Baker. Unlikely friendships form, and music arises from them all. A running theme of what appears to be a hopeless long-distance romance gives us Adam Kantor staring at a pay phone for hours, awaiting a call from his girlfriend. When that young man sings, he breaks hearts.

Tony Shalhoub, Ari’el Stachel and Katrina Lenk (Photo Sara Krulwich)
The Band’s Visit is a seductive musical evening, an exquisite short story with far-reaching themes to which we’d be wise to pay attention.

~ Molly Matera, signing off and offering this:  If you have lost faith or hope, go to The Band’s Visit, then share the joy.