Thursday, July 31, 2014

King Lear is a Meme This Year

So far in 2014 I have seen three live productions of King Lear: one in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan, and one broadcast live from London to Queens.  My friend Horvendile has seen those plus one more.  The latest is the undercooked production that had its first performance on a hot summer night at the Delacorte.  The weather was well programmed, with hard, hot winds whipping through the tree tops around the theatre in time with the light- and sound-designed storm at the end of the first half and beginning of the second. 

This King Lear is the production of the New York Shakespeare Festival directed by Daniel Sullivan.  However, the first night’s performance showed little evidence of direction after the opening scene.

John Lee Beatty’s scenic design (an elevated square with raw wooden steps, a textured back wall, all in tan) in combination with the magical lighting design by Jeff Croiter and video design by Tal Yarden, was absolutely splendid, imaginative, vital, and exciting.  Costumes designed by Susan Hilferty were lived in, earth toned, suited to characters and their times.  Unfortunately the play did not play as well together as did its design elements.

Did I mention that the play was over three hours long? And that every minute was felt? The production needs at least another week of rehearsal — and some cutting.
Jessica Hecht as Regan, John Lithgow as King Lear.  Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich, NYT
I am not tired of King Lear.  As I wrote earlier this year about a bunch of Lears (, each combination of actors and director and space brings a different dynamic to the familiar scenes.  For all those chemical reactions to work together to create theatrical magic requires tight oversight by a director with a vision.  It would have seemed that, if Mr. Sullivan had a vision, he did not share it with his actors, but John Lithgow’s ill-advised blog about the production belies that notion.  Nevertheless, performances were uneven and timing was awry. The interesting choices made by Jessica Hecht as Regan worked solo but not in conjunction with her fellows.  The rich voice of Clarke Peters as Gloucester did not vary in tempo or texture; perhaps he did not know his lines well enough to live, rather than recite, them.  And Annette Bening, whose early professional experience was stage work, forgot how to live in her body onstage — she backed up, she shilly shallied, she never stopped moving and tossing her arms about as if she were drowning.  Seemingly uncertain of her lines, she came off as insecure and leaning toward panic. She had not found Goneril.

The most certain, solid, real performance came from Jay O. Sanders as Kent.  He and John Lithgow at least appeared to be in the same play, although Mr. Lithgow’s Lear has not dropped from his head to his gut — that is, he’s still thinking instead of being.
Steven Boyer as the Fool, John Lithgow as King Lear, Jay O. Sanders as Kent.  Photo Credit Sara Krulwich, NYT  2014

Edmund is well played by Eric Sheffer Stevens, recently seen as Borachio in last month’s Much Ado About Nothing at the same theatre [].  Mr. Stevens may need a little aging, like cheese and wine, but he has great potential.  He has facility with language, he has timing and presence.  Notably, his attention to the world around him is vital in live theatre, especially when a particular movie star kept getting too close to Rick Sordelet’s well-staged final duel between Edmund and Edgar. 

Speaking of Edgar, apparently he’s the star of this production.  Chukwudi Iwuji takes his own sweet time playing Poor Tom as totally sane, stopping the story cold as the characters on stage with him must hold until he stops talking, which he does clearly, succinctly, and slowly.  Someone should tell Mr. Iwuji that the play is called King Lear, not Poor Tom.

As for the Dukes (husbands of the two elder sisters), I was spoiled by the TFANA production which provided the most marvelous, wicked, and creepy Cornwall and Regan I have ever seen. Both Goneril’s husband Albany (Christopher Innvar) and Regan’s husband Cornwall (Glenn Fleshler) were solid if unimaginative.

What about Cordelia, you ask.  Jessica Collins’ speech and voice are clear.  She cries; we do not.

Steven Boyer as Lear’s Fool was too young and did not overcome this obstacle by creating a believable relationship with his King no matter how hard John Lithgow tried.  Mr. Boyer enunciates well.  The Fool’s death was done onstage so no one would wonder what happened to him.  This is called dotting I’s and crossing T’s without writing whole words to contain them.  Mr. Sullivan’s vision has disconcerting gaps.

All in all, a disappointing (and long) evening.  It may well be that all this production’s disparate characters and actors will gel in a few weeks. Some judicious cutting of the script (which should have been done a month ago) could help it all come together.

For those of you who may think I’m being harsh, I have seen the first performance of a play at the Delacorte in the past.  One lovely summer evening, a cast and crew came together and, for the first time, put together all the technical and creative elements, right there in front of the first night’s audience.  It went extremely well.  The first performance before an audience should be ready for an audience, even if that audience paid with its time not its money. Daniel Sullivan’s production of King Lear should have been much better prepared for its first night than it was.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to dream of perfect combinations of Lears and Gonerils and Regans and even Cordelias, coming in at under three hours.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Cripple Is No Lieutenant

The problem with writing a remarkably and inappropriately funny play like The Lieutenant of Inishmore is the high expectations left for any Martin McDonagh play making its way west to New York City.  The Lieutenant of Inishmore was riveting and funny and altogether human, largely in its lack of human kindness.  Not to mention “that fecking cat.”

Alas, The Cripple of Inishmaan is not in that class, despite the expert direction by Michael Grandage, bolstered by the scenic and costume design by Christopher Oram that immediately place us on a cold damp island in another time.  The play has a similar group of denizens of Ireland down on their luck living isolated lives on a similar craggy island.  But the immediacy of Lieutenant’s travails is missing.

The production of The Cripple of Inishmaan just finished its limited engagement at the Cort Theatre — and practically closed 48th Street due to the mass of Harry Potter fans impeding the exits as they clamored for their golden boy, Daniel Radcliffe.  The balcony at the Cort Theatre was filled to creaking with young women and men, 20-somethings, with some representation of an older generation along for the ride.  We are thankful to these young people for filling the house and can only hope that 1 in 20 of them will actually discover the magic of the theatre, realizing that it is not about seeing a movie star in relative close proximity. The Cripple of Inishmaan is an ensemble piece of which Daniel Radcliffe as Cripple Billy is a major part, but not the only part.  To his credit, Mr. Radcliffe is well aware of this and, at the curtain call, seemed quite reluctant to step forward from his ensemble as if he were the lead.  Nevertheless, with an audience of silly girls demanding it, to step forward is the safest route.

Curtain call: Aunt Kate, Helen, Billy, Johnnypateen, Aunt Eileen.  Photo credit:  Walter McBride, 2014
Mr. Oram’s revolving stage set opens on the storefront of Kate and Eileen Osbourne, the traditional off-kilter sister act, where the two are worrying about “Cripple Billy,” a boy they have taken in and raised.  On a rock like Inishmaan, where the news is delivered orally by Johnnypateenmike (a vulgar, funny, oddly loving performance by Pat Shortt) and consists largely of gossip about geese and catfights that extend to their human owners, everyone knows that Cripple Billy’s parents drowned when he was an infant.  It takes the length of the play to learn the whole story about that incident and then we re-learn what may (or, considering the source, may not) be the true history of the parents.  The daffy sisters as played by Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna, respectively, are hilarious and heartwarming, welcoming all into their shop — the front room of their home — to share the days and the gossip and whatever food may be available.  And, of course, tea.

Johnnypateen’s news today is that an American film director is on the next island over, searching for people to screen test for roles in his epic about the people of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland.  The chosen discoveries would go back to Hollywood for screen tests and maybe, just maybe, American film stardom.  This causes quite a ruckus amongst the young people who want to leave the island to go anywhere else, any way.  Helen McCormick would trade at least kisses for her fare.  What has Billy to trade?

Daniel Radcliffe  as Billly, Sarah Greene as Helen. Photo Credit:  Sara Krulwich/NYT
Siblings Helen and Bartley McCormick are daily visitors to the sisters and Cripple Billy.  Helen ostensibly to deliver eggs for the eggman, Bartley to buy “sweeties” (particular candies) that the sisters never seem to have.  What they do have in the little shop is an overabundance of canned peas. 

Helen is a wild and pretty thing sharply played by Sarah Greene.  She’s vain, bored, violent, and too adolescent to admit to anything resembling emotions, except anger.  She enjoys anger.  Her annoying younger brother (played wittily by Conor MacNeill) is marked forever, though not physically, for his childhood tendency to fall into holes in the road.  This is the thing of growing up in a tiny place where everyone knows everybody and everything about one another:  There’s no escaping the past, no future to look to or even dream of.  Every person on the island is trapped by his fellow residents’ knowledge of him.  Or her.  But the obvious example is Cripple Billy, who is not above wanting to escape the island and go to Hollywood either.

The revolving stage reveals a cove where widower Babbybobby (a darkly romantic portrayal by Pádraic Delaney) is preparing his boat to row to the next island over.  Babbybobby’s young wife died of TB.  Billy leads Babbybobby to believe that he, too, is dying of TB, and needs to get over to Hollywood for whatever time he has left.

Harry no longer
The setting revolves again inviting us into Johnnypateen’s native habitat with his drunken mother (a nastily funny June Watson) in a rather tedious scene with the island’s only doctor, played with humanity and exasperation by Aidan Redmond.  The scene goes on a few minutes too long and we are at last brought back to the sister’s shop.

In the second act we revolve to another part of the island where the sisters, bereft in Billy’s absence, and Babbybobby, Helen, Bartley, Johnnypateen, and his drunken mother watch a grainy and dismal bit of film about the Man of Aran on a bedsheet.  Helen is, as always, angry that Billy took her rightful place and went to Hollywood.  When Billy returns, a failure — apparently Hollywood would rather cast a young blond Floridian who can act as a cripple than an actual Irish cripple who cannot — the sisters are angry but relieved, Helen is angry still, and Babbybobby is furious at the cruel ruse Billy pulled on him to gain passage.

Of course we close in the sisters’ shop where we began, with the doctor tending Billy’s bruises and listening to his shallow wheezes.  Billy makes peace with his “aunts,” learns the truth about his parents, and even makes progress with Helen, but all for naught. This is an Irish comedy, after all, and must end darkly.  (Since this production has closed, and it is a Martin McDonagh play, I cannot consider that a spoiler.)  McDonagh is a playwright, but I tend to think The Cripple of Inishmaan would have worked better as a short story.

The original West-End cast does fine work together, yet Daniel Radcliffe does not appear to have their level of skill.  While I admire his hard-working drive to carve an adult career beyond the Harry Potter films, he has some time to go to deserve the adulation those 20-somethings give him at the end.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read some Harry Potter stories.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

An Evening in the Life…: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

There’s not much time left for you to spend the evening with Billie Holiday as personified by the remarkable Audra McDonald in the tightly written play, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, by Lanie Robertson.  The production at the Circle in the Square Theatre is well directed by Lonny Price and lit by Robert Wierzel with a clean, full sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, and a marvelous costume for Ms. McDonald by Esosa.  The musicians are thrilling:  pianist Shelton Becton playing “Jimmy,” bassist George Farmer and percussionist Clayton Craddock.  The evening’s music coordinated by Michael Keller is a mix of standards that sound non-standard in Billie’s signature style. 

Just as Billie Holiday’s audience would have demanded and waited for those certain songs she must always sing, so a theatre audience behaves more like a club audience, encouraged by the set consisting of an oval lounge space designed by James Noone with café tables & chairs, and a small stage elevated barely a step on one end for the piano, bass player, and drum set. A standing microphone, a small table, and a tall stool await Billie.  This 1950s dive is surrounded by a rail setting it off from the rest of the auditorium that rises in a sharp incline from the three quarter stage, so the view for all is spectacular and intimate.  Billie enters from a tunnel opposite her performance platform when the pianist, Jimmy, introduces her.  In this instance, the applause for a performer just because she appears was neither misplaced nor annoying:  Ms. McDonald accepted the applause as Billie, graciously acknowledging the audience that loves her because, as she states repeatedly, they’re her friends. 

Audra McDonald has a glorious voice, but we don’t hear the real thing. She has subsumed her voice into her impersonation of Billie so that we hear Billie.  We see Billie.  I expected this to be good, but was overwhelmed by the simple story of one evening near the end of a complex life.  Good writing — not to mention Ms. McDonald’s brilliant delivery — induced me to have warm feelings for some of Billie's long-gone friends and relations, and a distinct dislike of her first husband, Sonny. 

“Lady Day” would step down from her elevated stage and walk among the tables, chatting, touching, mooching a cigarette, a drink.  Each time up or down that single step to and from the stage is more difficult than the last.  Lady Day disintegrates before us and our hearts ache for this lonely, broken, disappointed woman.

It’s a poignant and powerful evening, in which Ms. McDonald’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” was pure Billie and more. It shook us to our roots as her deep tones shook the rafters.  And let us not forget Lady Day’s dog, Pepe, beautifully played by Roxie, a rescue dog trained by William Berloni. 
Audra McDonald as Billie, and Roxie as Pepe
The play includes one moment that continues to live with me, near the end, when Billie leaves the stage unexpectedly to go back to her dressing room.  Her face, stunned, hazily driven, just freezes the blood, and then she returns with that evening glove rolled down…. The gentle diligence with which “Jimmy” rolls her long glove back up her arm is heartbreaking.  Well done Messrs. Price and Robertson.

If anyone wonders why Ms. McDonald won a record sixth Tony for this performance, there’s only one way to know for sure.  Get your tickets for a 90-minute performance at the Circle in the Square Theatre before this limited engagement ends on September 21st.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to listen to Billie sing….