Thursday, August 24, 2017

June was busting out all over…and I went to the theatre.

In June I went back to Brooklyn for Cirkus Cirkor at the BAM Opera House. 

It was not our first time enjoying this wonderful Swedish troupe, nor will it be the last. The Cirkus excels at death defying acrobatics.  These people are awe-inspiring (and always inspire me to exercise, if only for a few days).  One of the astounding acrobats, at the opening of the second half, came forward and told us all to stand up, put our feet together, and close our eyes.  She also advised those of us on the edge — by which she meant the first row of the Mezzanine — to be careful!  Our bodies would be constantly moving in tiny jerks to retain balance. When you’re not reading an e-mail or walking or driving or anything, stand still and close your eyes, and you’ll feel it — your new balance.  It was a pleasing exercise in the middle of a thrilling evening.

Check their scheduled appearances here — in 2017, they’re in Europe, but they usually play the U.S. every year or two!


Kristine Nielsen, Kate Burton, and Kevin Kline in Present Laughter.

Then back to Broadway for Americans playing Brits:
Present Laughter at the St. James is not Noel Coward’s best play, and this production seemed almost set in stone. Of course, Kevin Kline was brilliant; and yet, the piece so lacked spontaneity that it just rode around him, like stationary horses on a merry-go-round.  Still, Cobie Smulders made an excellent Broadway debut. Kate Burton was quite fine as the “estranged” wife, Kristine Nielsen hilarious if formulaic as Kline’s long-suffering secretary, and they all made Susan Hilftery’s costumes look fabulous on David Zinn’s gorgeous set, where I would be happy to live. And Reg Rogers was marvelous.  The production, directed by Morris von Stuelpnagel, was expertly done for what it was; however, I felt there was a desperation to the play. Perhaps influenced by the cameras filming it that evening. Perhaps because it was a play Noel Coward wrote for himself to play in ...  Perhaps it was all about the danger of me looking forward to something too much. I left the theatre a bit disappointed. 


The Joyous cast of INDECENT (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

Later in June, Indecent at the Cort Theatre was threatening to close.  I’d walked by the theatre all spring, more and more interested.  Suddenly it was the weekend the play was scheduled to close, so  I broke my own rule and trucked into Manhattan for a Saturday matinee.  Theatre instincts won out over MTA dread.  

The play Indecent by Paula Vogel and this production created by Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman combined their radiant talents and hearts to create sheer brilliance:  This is what theatre is about. Indecent is light years beyond other plays of the season.  Its subject matter ranges over religious life, pogroms, homosexuality, immigration, prejudice in all its forms, life in the theatre, censorship, and love.  Oh, the love.  Indecent is not a musical, but it has music and flowing, aching choreography by the scintillating David Dorfman, on top of imaginative story-telling that brought us into the lives of human beings in frightening times.  My absolute favorite play of the season, Indecent is heart breaking and joyous at the same time.  I was overcome.  The play extended another 5-7 weeks past its closing date, but it is gone now, and I’m so sorry for everyone who did not see it. 
Photo by Carol Rosegg
I must call out Richard Topol’s gorgeous work as Lemml, the Stage Manager, and yet that's misleading because every performance was sterling, between actor/musicians and musician/actors. Oh hell, I’ll just list them all:  Cheers to exemplary work by Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Adina Verson, Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva.

Also outstanding were Christopher Akerlind’s Tony-winning lighting design, Matt Hubbs’ sound design, scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez, costume design by Emily Rebholz, projection design by Tal Yarden, hair and wig design by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bosa, and the soul-baring and joyous work of Co-Composers and Co-Music Directors Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva

And oh, the rain.

Molly Matera, signing off BUT I do have good news:  For those who missed INDECENT onstage, it will be aired on PBS Great Performances on November 17:  Mark your calendars and DVR!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Julius Caesar Meets Fox News

In early June, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater (The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park) was fun but imperfect, although not for any of the reasons Fox News and their followers thought.  It is always a political play, of course. Theatre companies of the past four centuries have used it to do theatre’s job of holding that mirror up to “nature,” reflecting whatever the current leadership, in any country, was doing.  The play did its job of throwing a spotlight on the ambition of the current power base and its adherents.  This time the right wing was terribly upset by a production that showed an actor resembling Donald Trump as Julius Caesar, the deliciously slimy Gregg Henry keeping the production's promisesThose very same right-wing pundits were not at all bothered, in fact they were utterly silent, when the Guthrie cast an Obama lookalike as Julius Caesar a few years back.  I trust we can all judge the significance of that.
Tina Benko and Gregg Henry as Calpurnia and Julius Caesar onstage at the Delacorte.  (Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus)
For those who do not know, back in 44 B.C.E., Julius Caesar was stabbed in the Roman Senate house.  That’s history.  In Shakespeare’s play there are just a handful, perhaps two hands, of conspirators.  Really there were more like 60, but that’s too large a cast for most stages or theatre companies.  Shakespeare was no fool.

Fox News thought it highly significant that “everyone” who stabbed Caesar was a minority or a woman.  In fact, Brutus was played by a stalwart of the Public Theater (and now television), Corey Stoll, who is a white male.  Really their response just shows that the right wing does not read the classics or attend the theatre in NYC or anywhere else, where color-blind casting has been the norm for years.

Some aspects of Oscar Eustis’ production were sharp and funny, but some pushed the play a bit off course.  It’s all very well to cast the marvelous Tina Benko as Calpurnia with an oddly Melania-like accent and Elizabeth Marvell as Marc Antony, playing it as a cross between a southern politician and C.J. from The West Wing.  Most of the performances were highly effective.
Elizabeth Marvell as Marc Antony at the Delacorte.  (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

However, the war in Rome after Caesar’s assassination was not between hippies and storm troopers, but a civil war between relative equals. Cinna the Poet was murdered by an ignorant and easily manipulated mob, not by state police. Veering off-book in the second half struck the wrong note after the humor of Gregg Henry’s characterization of Julius Caesar.  Sometimes it’s not about taste, but about logic. Just telling Shakespeare’s story of Julius Caesar is quite significant enough.

~ Molly Matera, signing off until the next remembered evening of theatre....

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Back in the Pre-USSR, Natasha Pierre and plenty more

In May, I entered a Russian samovar or the interior of the Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street.  Onstage and everywhere, the Broadway production of Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 has transformed the theatre into Napoleonic era RussiaWhile I have nothing against Josh Groban, I chose to see Dave Malloy (who returns to the role next week) as Pierre while Mr. Groban took a well-deserved vacation.  It was a fabulous and exhilaratingly different evening.

Scenic Designer Mimi Lien redesigned the entire interior of the theatre to create the Russia of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”  Paloma Young’s costumes fit each character like a bespoke glove, accompanied by fitting hair and wig design by Leah J. Loukas. With the complementary arts of lighting (Bradley King) and sound design (Nicholas Pope), this production and the fabulous characters and atmosphere and social politics actually inspired me to once against attempt to read that hefty Tome.  Sam Pinkleton’s choreography took flight all around us and director Rachel Chavkin brought it all together in a wondrous whole.
a highly unusual seating chart

Dave Malloy, the composer, lyricist, book writer and orchestrator of the piece and originator of the role Pierre Off Broadway, has a gruff, bearlike demeanor and voice, and his Pierre was a grounding force in that extraordinary cast.  They are an athletic bunch, from leads to chorus and ensemble, moving among and around the audience at all levels.  This production has no second or third wall let alone a fourth.

After Malloy as Pierre (no, he hasn’t got Groban’s pipes, but his solid presence lends Pierre the gravitas he deserves) my favorite performer and his inseparable character was Lucas Steele as the roué and cad, Anatole, in a flamboyant performance as that despicable creature we adored.  Denée Benton's Natasha was a delightfully lusty and foolish ingenue with the voice of an angel, whose best friend Sonya was well played by Brittain AshfordAmber Gray is marvelous as Pierre’s wicked wife Hélène.  There is no weak link in this astounding cast.

Denee Benton as Natasha
And the music.  It soars it sings it dances it bounces it pines it weeps.  Mr. Malloy is sensitive to every nuance, multi-talented, capturing the flavor and rhythms of Russia in a very American musical.

I don’t generally care for environmental theatre after a day of working —I do not want to work as audience as well.  But the ensemble of Natasha Pierre…. are psychic — they knew instinctively which audience members just want to sit and enjoy the experience and which want to take part.  They left me alone but sat on the step next to me.

I cannot say too much about this production of this wonderful musical play.  I absolutely loved it and recommend it to all and sundry.  Go.  Bring your in-laws.  Soon.  It closes September 3, 2017!

~ Molly Matera, signing off to listen to the score in peace….not war

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What I Did Those Missing Months of 2017...

It has been brought to my attention that I’ve not posted anything — about cats or gardens or theatre, nada — in months.  Apologies.  I’m here, my cats are here, my garden is growing, and I’ve seen a number of plays and dance programs and such in New York City in the past six months. 

To catch you up, in January I saw….

Beauty Queen of Leenane at BAM
This was Martin McDonagh’s first produced play, which played in Europe and Broadway twenty years ago, directed then and now by Garry Hynes.  I did not see it then.  The first McDonagh play I saw was The Lieutenant of Inishmore, one of the funniest, most macabre and bloody plays I’ve ever seen.  And, I believe, the play that taught me the word “fecking.”

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is hard to describe: it’s dour and depressing and dismal.  People are mean, and yet a lot of it comes out funny.  That’s what McDonagh does, he makes you laugh and feel guilty for laughing.  As a McDonagh play, I expected some violence, and pretty crazy people, which he provided.

The second act was directed to run so slowly that all the echoes of Act I that may have been fabulous from a literary point of view were totally predictable theatrically, which is annoying and made the act very long.  Mind you, when we got to the big reveal, it was astonishing, and Aisling O'Sullivan, who played Maureen, was just marvelous.  As was the woman who played Maureen twenty years ago, who plays the mother this time around, Marie Mullen

While I enjoyed most of it, I did get bored during the second half and overall was rather disappointed. 

In February, I went to Carnegie Hall and enjoyed
Bamberg Symphony.  It was just wonderful, I so enjoy being at Carnegie Hall.  In the first half, the solo violinist did a little “Caprice” as a sort of encore (after he snapped his bowstring and had to borrow a bow from the First Violin), and at the end of the second half the orchestra did a brief encore as well. The sound is awe-inspiring in this magnificent place.  The program was Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and finally Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.  A lovely evening.

Then came Man of Good Hope at the BAM Opera House (from South Africa’s Isango Ensemble and Young Vic, based on a book by Jonny Steinberg and directed by Mark Dornford-May).  The evening began with a bang as the full cast played half a dozen marimbas joyously, then ran around the steeply raked stage trading places. The audience, wide awake, left their dull days behind.

The conductor stepped on to the playing space with a tall man in traditional Somali garments and white skull cap.  This was Assad Abdullahi, whose story we followed for two hours, from the age of 8 in Somalia when his mother was murdered in front of him, traveling across borders throughout Africa with different groups until he ended up in Capetown, South Africa, in his adult life.

Performances were marvelous across the board.  While the singing and dancing were uplifting, the play needs cutting so as not to bludgeon the audience.  We saw refugees treated like refuse, beaten, killed, driven away.  Terrifying.  The pounding of the repeated indignities visited on the main character and his family and friends, while the audience was shocked and appalled, that same pattern, over and over, does beat the audience into shutting down. The unvarying story of misery: attack, move on, find clan, family, even a wife, lose them:  In a life, this is all devastating.  An audience (at least an American audience) will turn off with the repetition.  All in all, an exciting and memorable piece of work.

The last February theatre outing was to BAM for
Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill, from London’s Royal Court Theatre, well directed by James McDonald.  Odd, interesting, often funny, almost Pinteresque.  Beckettesque?  Excellent performances by Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, June Watson.  It appears to be, perhaps, the end of the world, and four women sit in a back garden talking about ordinary things, ordinary life, and some unusual bits as well. This idyllic scene is interrupted by Ms. Basset’s character, Mrs. Jarrett, stepping to one side as the curtain falls to show garish screens of horror. She tells stories about the first days, the third weeks, how humanity survives whatever it is we’ve done to ourselves.  Then she’s back in the garden. Which is the real world?

This pattern repeats -- garden, chat, the horrors of the after....apocalypse?  WWIII?   garden chat, horrors, garden chat....Four women on a nice summer afternoon.  Maybe.

Escaped Alone is hilarious, frightening, and more than worth your time if it shows up at a theatre near you.

March was busy, starting with
Joan of Arc: Into the Fire at the Public Theater.  This was, at best, disappointing.  Its 95 minutes felt like more than 2 hours.  The absurdity of a teenage girl with religious mania singing about “freedom” in the 15th century started the evening off badly.  The good news is that the woman who played Joan was fabulous:  Jo Lampert.  See her, hear her do anything.  David Byrne’s music was uninspired and his lyrics were simplistic and puerile.  Effects were great.  They burned her at the stake.  Onstage.  Unfortunately, this extraordinary visual was destroyed because the play wasn’t over.  There was one more tedious scene, which took place 24 years after Joan’s death when her mother (played by Mare Winningham) goes to the cardinals and bishops to plead for Joan to be retried and found innocent so she can go to heaven where she belongs.  Dull final scene with a remarkably dull song with eight guys looking at her dumbly.  Dreadful.

Just remember the name Jo Lampert.

Latin History for Morons at the Public was pointless. Even its 90 minutes were too long.

A gift of a production of The Skin of Our Teeth, written by Thornton Wilder in 1942, at Theatre for a New Audience was delightful and imaginative.  Director Arin Arbus captured the madness in the wild crazy funny evening at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, imaginatively enlivened by excellent music.  Mary Wiseman was a marvelous Sabina. A great time was had by all.

One flaw by TFANA of which I must disapprove – something my friend experienced recently at the Guthrie – the program listed performers NOT in order of appearance but in alphabetical order by their last names.  Not helpful to a curious audience member and not respectful to the performers and musicians.

The Play That Goes Wrong played at the Lyceum.  It is hilarious, ridiculous, tight, well-staged (though marred by some visibility problems due to the transfer of venue from its original London home). The Play That Goes Wrong written so well by Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, and Jonathan Sayer that I could not believe it was written at all, was directed by Mark Bells and is about set pieces breaking, actors doing or not doing things at the wrong times in the wrong places, and tech crew interacting with the audience.  Every actor’s nightmare (except being nude) came alive in wakefulness.  I laughed hard for the whole play. Some people thought it was a poor man’s version of Noises Off, but they must have been grumpy at the time.  Just laugh.

Linda by Penelope Skinner at the Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, directed by Lynne Meadow.  Set in the beauty industry, it follows the disappointment of a woman who fought for female equality in her career, sacrificing family relationships without even noticing, only to find after two decades that nothing changed.  Interesting and depressing. Wonderful performance by Janie Dee as Linda, and the entire cast.  A thought-provoking evening.

Sweat by Lynn Nottage moved from the Public Theatre to Studio 54 where I saw it after it had won the Pulitzer Prize.  The play was exciting, poignant, topical.  Sweat has a chuckle or two because human beings are funny, but it is depressing as all hell.  Brilliantly acted, it is Theatre that Holds a Mirror Up to Society and is consequently infuriating, sad, and damn good. 

The play’s action starts in 2008 and goes back to 2000 so we know how everyone got here. It’s a slow build.  The actual, single “incident” that changed everybody’s lives happens more than halfway through Act 2.  An incident of some sort has been expected since the beginning of the first act.  It raises far more questions than it answers because life is not simple with heroes and villains, black and white, or linear action.  The play is riveting, important, stimulating, and so well acted that I was really angry and almost shouted back on occasion.  Very tight cast and excellent direction by Kate Whoriskey.

Pacific Overtures @ Classic Stage Company was wonderful. Never having seen the original, I was not bothered by the differences — the traditional all-male cast was augmented by one woman, and the play was edited to run 90 minutes with no intermission.  Soaring voices told a fascinating, little known story.  The narrator sounded just like George Takei, and then there he was, onstage!  That was oddly thrilling.  Very glad to have experienced this play live, and now I understand and love the songs much better than I had just listening to a Sondheim album.

Well, that’s quite enough after months of nothing.  Next week:  May, June and July.  Promise.

Signing off to write the next batch….

Molly Matera, 13 August 2017