Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Woods for the Trees....

The other night I saw a children’s show at Classic Stage Company called The Stowaway, a clever compilation of Shakespeare’s words and phrases in a storyline pulling a little from here, a little from there, with pirates and shipwrecks, usurping dukes, a little magic, and a talking ship’s figurehead.  It was a lot of fun, and I was only sorry to see too small an audience.  This Trusty Sidekick Theater Company production deserved more.  The play is technically for kids 5-12, but they let me in without one!  Alas, its last performance was November 19th, so I’m afraid you missed it.  Keep an eye out for this fun company of players presenting original theatre for kids.

Also starting out from East 13th Street…

Compare and Contrast:  Double Vision of the Forest of Arden

Two productions of William Shakespeare's As You Like It reveal missing pieces in each.  For Classic Stage Company (CSC), the usurping Duke Fredrick merely serves to throw people together to fall in love in the Forest of Arden.  On the other hand, in Arden Everywherethe other As You Like It at Baruch’s Performing Arts Center, or BPAC — the new inhabitants of the Forest of Arden are refugees waiting to see what may happen next in their lives as determined by unknown others.  Banishment leads to refugees — we just didn’t call them that until Arden Everywhere’s director Jessica Bauman did.  Shakespeare’s Jaques is melancholy in this beautiful — albeit cold — place, but perhaps we should have been listening to him more closely.

CSC’s John Doyle shows us only a simplistic if charming love story — well, several love stories, which lead to marriages that silence the women who have contributed so strongly to survival in exile.

Doyle’s As You Like It, running under two hours, leaves out most of the story and conflict so that, no matter how pretty the ditties composed by Stephen Schwartz, the evening is almost pointless.  Except, of course, that it was such a pleasure to watch Ellen Burstyn’s stillness onstage and hear the simplicity of the Seven Ages of Man at her hands in her abbreviated performance of Jaques.  Abbreviated it was, as was the whole play. 

While I enjoyed the Arden Everywhere’s Jaques as played by Tommy Schrider, perhaps the actor is too young to deliver the Seven Ages of Man as well as Ms. Burstyn did.  Hers was on the spot, extempore, as it were.  His was recited.

John Doyle may think he’s stripped the play down to its elements at CSC, but in fact he stripped it to ten actors in search of a play.  The cast sang Stephen Schwartz’s ditties very well, particularly Bob Stillman as Duke Senior.  Unfortunately, the addition of jazzy music did not make up for the lack of a play. Favorite performances in this production were Rosalind (Hannah Cabell), Celia (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and Phebe (a multi-level Leenya Rideout) and the inestimable Ms. Burstyn. 

In Arden Everywhere, the Phebe over-acted terribly, as if she were in a thousand-seat house (she wasn’t) but Helen Cespedes’ Rosalind and Liba Vaynberg’s Celia were fabulous. 

Since Jessica Bauman did not cut away the entire play, Dikran Tulaine as the Dukes Senior and Frederick got to remove a coat and become either the nice or the nasty duke before our eyes.  This was much more interesting for the audience.  Not to mention true to the play even though it didn’t use the play’s name, while CSC used the name but did something else, the way films do. 

Touchstones were played by Dennis Rozee in Arden Everywhere and Andre de Shields in the CSC production.  Both performances were expert and funny while totally different from one another, which is one of most entertaining aspects of seeing two productions of the same play in close proximity.

The Oliver/Silvius in Arden Everywhere were well differentiated as played by Kambi Gathesha.  Some of the cast at BPAC were not professionals and their inexperience showed, so the play as a whole had some issues.  But at least Arden Everywhere did the whole play, not just the romantic comedy that CSC’s AYLI presented.  Both evenings were enjoyable, but Arden Everywhere was far more satisfying.

Molly Matera, signing off to think about men in kilts.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Time Dragging at the Roundabout

J.B. Priestly’s An Inspector Calls has tension and mystery, causing anxiety.

J.B. Priestly’s Time and the Conways has not.

The Roundabout’s production of Time and the Conways at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street is beautifully produced and cleverly staged.  Costuming, furnishing, sound, lights, it has all that.  And perfectly competent, often more than competent, performances by the actors.

What it doesn’t have are interesting characters.  Or, barring interesting, at least likeable characters.  All these people worry about is money they do not earn.  They’re boring.  They’re unpleasant.  Some are downright nasty.  By the end of the play, we wonder if Mrs. Conway’s late husband, who died some time before the play began, deliberately drowned himself to get away from her bad mothering.

Downton Abbey (constantly brought to mind in the production’s advertising because of Elizabeth McGovern’s presence as the matriarch and the television series’ vastly superior depiction of a family with a certain stature in the beginning of the 20th century undergoing a massive change in society in the decades that follow the first world war) worked because we had time to give a damn, to know even the villains, to watch the girls grow up.  In the three scenes of this play, the fine acting shows us a good deal but not enough to make us care. 

At least not me.

What’s most surprising here is that this production is smoothly directed by the splendid Rebecca Taichmann yet it has no life.  It is a set piece of another time, instead of being about time as Priestly apparently intended.  To read about a play and be told the author’s intent is not the same thing as getting it by watching and listening. 

The players and designers of this production gave it their all, so the problem was not with them: 
Elizabeth McGovern, Anna Camp, and Charlotte Parry.  Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
·         Anna Camp is bubbly as Hazel, the pretty one, at least to people like herself.  She is mean to her working class suitor, and predictably marries him so that she fades into a wan imitation of herself19 years later.
·         Anna Baryshnikov is excellent as the sweet Carol, the favorite who died young
·         Gabriel Ebert does fine work as Alan, the eldest son, who appears an unambitious doofus but is surprisingly wise
·         Brooke Bloom is strident and then heartbreaking as Madge the socialist daughter in a sad depiction from youthful hope to the bitter submission of age.
·         Charlotte Parry gracefully plays Kay the young writer who broke free of the family, and, despite her disappointed sadness, at least has dignity
·         Cara Ricketts as family friend Joan, obviously enamored of young Robin.  Like Hazel’s romance, this doesn’t work out too well.  Perhaps Priestley was really writing about sad upper class marriages.
·         Matthew James Thomas smartly played Robin, the pretty son who will quite obviously be a useless bounder.  Perhaps I’ve read/seen too many stories of English society between the wars, but that too was terribly predictable. 
·         Alfredo Narciso did excellent work as Gerald Thornton — the nice young man who’s not family but grows up to be the family solicitor.  He had nice moments of clear silent emotion and repression.
·         Steven Boyer was excellently unpleasant as Ernest Beevers, who creeps into a family gathering in the first scene practically stalking Hazel, returning as her husband in the later time period.  A dislikeable character, Boyer is of the working class, and while we empathize with his position, we wish he could rise above the nasty upper class family he married into.

The production has fine design work, clever and marvelous set design by Neil Patel, and his usual excellent lighting by Christopher Akerlind, and fine costumes by Paloma Young (with hair and wig design by Leah J. Loukas), respectively.

Finally, I must note the fascinating inclusion of “Hands On,” sign interpreters of the play who discreetly but clearly signed the entire performance house left.  

~ Molly Matera, looking for something more pleasing as the Roundabout season continues.