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    The third production of the Theatre for a New Audience’s (“TFANA”) first season in its new Brooklyn home, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, is the rarely produced The Killer by Eugène Ionesco as translated by Michael Feingold.  The first two and a half acts of this production are marvelous.  Director Darko Tresnjak has purposed his cast to be alternately ordinary and menacing.  They come together to portray a society that, although originally written in 1957, seems frighteningly like our own -- loud, intrusive, ill-mannered, and everyone has ADD.  There are the haves (who usually live in Radiant City, a climate- and municipally-controlled neighborhood with one little problem:  a serial killer) and the have nots, the majority, who live in a dull part of town best known for damp, chilly homes and gray skies, buildings, streets, sidewalks, people.  This dank majority is represented by Ionesco’s oft-used everyman, Berenger.  He is us, he expresses all his thoughts aloud whether there’s someone else to hear them or not.  In the latter part of the play he frequently addresses us directly as if he acknowledges there’s no one else around to hear him.  And we respond.  Even in the painfully over-long third act, when he walks slowly on a turntable and says he feels like he’s “walking in place,” we dutifully laugh.

    Michael Shannon as Berenger and Robert Stanton as the Architect.  Photo credit Gerry Goodstein.
    This Berenger is played by the extraordinary Michael Shannon, whose face moves from angled to soft and back, looking like everyone then only himself, as his voice mutters down and shrieks upward.  A perfect “everyman,” he gazes about the stage, talks to himself, to The Municipal Architect (a finely repressed performance by Robert Stanton), and falls immediately in love with the Architect’s secretary Dennie as she quits the protection of the Municipality and immediately falls victim to the serial killer.

    Kristine Nielsen is hilarious and powerful in her two roles: the first as Berenger’s busybody concierge, who sweeps the gray dust constantly, knows everybody’s business, and gets upset to learn there are things she does not know.  In the vibrant beginning of the third act, she switches roles to become Ma Piper, a politician surreptitiously running a grass roots campaign for change.  Her change would be to change the names of things so as to not change the status quo at all, but "free soup for all."  Ms. Nielsen knows how to run a rally.  She has a following of geese whom we can hear offstage, and eventually her human followers will goosestep. 

    Kristine Nielsen as the Concierge.  Photo credit Gerry Goodstein
    Mr. Tresnjak’s production engages the audience physically as well as emotionally.   Characters (citizens) surreptitiously pass out fliers for Ma Piper’s political rally, and when the police come and beat citizens, said citizens reach out to the audience, even holding the hands of some, looking for comfort and support they will never receive.  The space, a thrust with audience closely surrounding three sides on the same level as the stage, with shallow balconies wrapped around the second and third levels, is intimate without seeming small, and Mr. Tresnjak and the designers have created a remarkable reproduction of the playing area Ionesco apparently described minutely in his stage directions.

    Berenger, never at ease,always full of repressed energy.  Photo credit Gerry Goodstein.
    Mr. Tresnjak directs his actors in a naturalistic style in an absurdist play, but for one actor, who could be from the Grand Guignol, he is so heavily made up and caricature-like.  Paul Sparks’ performance as Edward, who may or may not be a killer, is obvious, out of synch, off-key.  It jars. Until the second half of the last act, it was my least favorite part of the play.

    Berenger, thinking he has discovered a clue to the identity of the serial killer who haunts the only beautiful place available for people to live, heads toward the police station. He gets caught in a effectively realized traffic jam, instructs lost people to talk to the policeman, who beats them. Berenger tries to interfere in police beatings only to be beaten himself.  When the traffic jam clears, he is alone on the stage, walking past dusk and twilight into night on a lonely road leading, we hope, to the police station, which apparently closes overnight. He walks on turntables so gets nowhere. He finally comes upon a man who stands in the shadows, a man who does not speak but sometimes laughs, and once or twice shrugs. Berenger asks him questions, accuses him of being The Killer, interrogates him, tries to psychoanalyze him all the while revealing his own reasons to kill, which he clearly suppresses. This goes on for about 25 minutes that feel like 45.  It starts off almost intriguing, but becomes tedious because it goes nowhere very slowly. Sometimes playwrights are wrong about their own work  ̶  Brecht considered his characters to be symbolic of issues, and not real people at all, but any actor can tell you that Brechtian characters are solid, three-dimensional creatures.  Ionesco may be wrong about this extremely lengthy meandering and hopelessly lost ending to an otherwise fascinating and funny piece of theatre. Because the second part of the last act runs the play to well over three hours with a disappointing ending, I can firmly place The Killer into the file of plays I need never see again.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off, wondering how the play reads….

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    As far back as high school, I learned that a good director sits in every section of the house to see what the audience can see and hear.  She or he may then re-stage bits, scenes that are blocked from the view of certain sections of the house. Theatre, after all, is not a solitary art, nor is it meant only for the people in the first five rows.  Theatre does not exist until the audience joins. The audience is the final piece of the ensemble — any good director knows that.

    Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford may, individually, be good directors.  But as their co-direction of Macbethat the Park Avenue Armory demonstrates, as a team they are not good directors.  They set the scene for the “theatrical experience” to start as soon as tickets were scanned.  Based on their ticketed section numbers, audience members were given wristbands marked with the name of their clan, which groups were to gather before the performance so that all clans would enter the performance space (The Drill Hall of the Armory) together.  Sweet.
     
    We Were MacDuffs.  Photo by Matt Hennessy
    Alas, the seating ritual is the best part of the evening.  Walking down the stone path, between vast areas of the Scottish heath that fills the first half of a hall the size of a football field, is a sensory delight, peaty and dense, and thrillingly dark. 

    The path ends at the Stonehenge-like formation at one end of the playing area, and there the clan veers left or right to the back stairs and climbs 5-6 flights to get to the seats.  Once there (my clan was seated first or second), we waited and watched for 35 minutes as the rest of the clans were brought in.  That made the play start 20 minutes later than scheduled, and made it clear that exiting the performance space would take a half hour as well. 

    The Stonehenge Goalpost.  Photo by Matt Hennessy
    Christopher Oram’s set and costume design are without doubt marvelous.  However, by the time most of the audience was seated, we knew that our view of the proceedings would be more than partially obscured (no we did not purchase “partially obscured” or “impaired view” seats).  The muddy central playing area was largely blocked by the row of heads of people in the seats ahead of us, and in the seats ahead of them, and on and on on, rather like the repeating series of Banquo descendants we would try to see later in the play.

    From our $90 nosebleed seats, we could see that the goalpost on the far end of the performance space was loaded with candles and a cross and so must be an altar opposite the pre-Christian stone formations.  Clever.  Between these two extremes was a long dirt corridor separating two sets of bleachers, rather like an untended bocce court.  What was clear was that we’d have a hard time seeing anything or anyone between the goalposts.

    Reviewers who liked this production presumably sat in the first five rows on either side of the performance area, near the 50-yard line, else how could they have seen all the spiffy staging? The Armory is a fascinating place, but it is not a theatre space.  The producers and directors and designers set it up well to get us into the mood for the Scottish play the way an art gallery might.  For a theatre-goer, the production of the play itself was wanting for all but the 1%.
     
    Things We Could Not See(Photo by Sara Krulwich (c) 2014)
    The atmospheric setting was gorgeous, but the action of the play and the players were barely visible to over 75% of the audience.  There was also the tennis match aspect, with characters speaking to one another from the altar end of the stage to the Stonehenge.  I would tilt my head one way and another in order to occasionally see a tiny head between the mass of heads before me.

    When you cannot see anything, you listen.  After all, the root of the word audience is not about our eyes.  So we listened.  Listening without seeing is not something most of us are practiced in.  Our culture is not filled with radio plays or fireside chats.  Listening takes work.  And listening reveals a good deal.  And since most of what I did that evening was listen, I will note that the sound design by Christopher Shutt was excellent.
     
     
    Macbeth was not a clever fellow, he was a brute.  Despite his always brilliant line readings (Mr. Branagh as an actor invariably finds a new way to say an old line and reveal its depths and shadings ̶ that, I believe, is his genius), I did not believe Branagh was Macbeth. Maybe if I could have seen him…. Alex Kingstonfared better as his unladylike Lady – her initial ignorant enthusiasm for the thorny path on which she and her husband set out eventually twisted and spiraled out of control for her, physically and mentally.  She, at least, had the good sense to play her most famous scene upon a high platform over the altar so even we peasants in the $90 seats could see her. 
     
    Alex Kingston as Lady MacB.  Duncan dead on the altar....Photo by Sara Krulwich.
    While I liked Alexander Vlahos’ Malcolm most of the time, his very difficult and lengthy self-denigration in IViii rang false such that the wise MacDuff engagingly played by Richard Coyle would not have fallen for the subterfuge.  Jimmy Yuill’s Banquo was tough and hard and yet amusing.  Real live human being, that Banquo.

    Other highlights in the cast that sounded very good were:
    • Scarlett Strallen as Lady MacDuff
    • Edward Harrison as Lennox
    • John Shrapnel as Duncan

    Servants were full of life, the three sisters were weird indeed, with high-pitched voices that were annoyingly fitting.  I hear that they levitated.  That would have been nifty to see.  Alas I could not.
     
    Alexander Vlahos as Malcolm.Photo credit Sara Krulwich
    I have seen many performances from the last seat of the last row of the highest balcony of the BAM Harvey Theatre, and while I may have needed binoculars to see facial expressions, I could see the whole stage and all the action of the play or dance program I was attending.  The Armory is not a theatre space.  It treats the audience as necessary evils to fill the seats and pay the bills and bamboozle with minimal views and too few ways out.  The play runs a brisk and correct two hours, but the audience is stuck in the space for closer to three.

    This “review” is about the entire theatrical experience of this Macbeth at the Armory, not just the play, mostly because I could not see enough of the production to review it.  For this, Messrs. Branagh and Ashford are not forgiven.

    What I can say is this --

    • Setting:  Cool. 
    • Staging:  Impossible to tell since we could not see.
    • Therefore, Direction:  Abysmal.
    • Acting probably good, but actors use their bodies as well as their voices, so as I could not see their bodies, my data is incomplete.

    P.S. The following day, my friend Matthew got himself to Central Park at 6:30 in the morning, acquiring FREE seats for a marvelous production of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Jack O’Brien for the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park. (More on that anon.) Free seats from which we could see the entire play, instead of $90 seats from which we could see Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane, but not much more. 

    ~ Molly Matera, recommending NO ONE EVER waste time or money going to see an alleged theatre piece at the Park Avenue Armory.

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  • 08/26/13--19:19: Conjuring the World's End


  • I saw two movies in August, one for which I’d had a smidge of hope and one for which I had high hopes.  The one for which I’d had only a smidge of hope in the first place, The Conjuring, was quite disappointing.  Director James Wan gave us a few startling jumps, but nothing really frightening.

    Lesson the First:  When the family dog refuses to enter the big isolated house they bought at auction, the human family shouldn’t enter either.  Alas, humans never learn.

    In The Conjuring, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren discover the real thing in a secluded farmhouse that the Perron family bought with the last of their savings.  The clothes and hair are the first clue that we’re in the 1970s.  The music seems occasionally out of time.  The mentality is older — God and Demons are one thing, but the Warrens believe unhappy women were witches and could control the actions of the living centuries after their own deaths.

    While there are plenty of frights and gasps and starts, this movie talks too much, shows too much, and tries to make believe it’s practically a documentary.  I’ll see Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor in just about anything, but I hope they pick better going forward.  A good cast did what they could with the material, but when it devolved to absurd records of a woman called Bathsheba (Lesson the Second:  If you want your daughter to be a good girl, there are certain names you oughtn’t stick her with) accused of consorting with Satan and centuries later she was the evil presence in the house in which, for some reason, we could see as well as hear clapping hands.  For goodness’ sake. 

    Just a note re witches: Everyone knows that women accused of being witches were not consorting with Satan; they merely had property or power that the local men wanted.  Real witches were entirely different:  Read Roald Dahl’s The Witches. He explains it all.

    Now for the good movie of August:  The World’s End, which is the name of a pub.  A good start.  Director Edgar Wright introduces us to 1990 Newton Haven, a cozy-looking small town somewhere in England, then passes by a little real life that’s not fun at all, and brings us back to Newton Haven 20 years later.  1990 is amusingly narrated and yet what we see rather conflicts with what the narrator recalls.  Five friends somehow graduated from school and went on a pub crawl called “The Golden Mile” in their home town — yes, Newton Haven — which includes 12 delightfully named pubs at which the boys had intended to have one pint each.  That’s twelve pints per boy.  As anyone might imagine, it didn’t work out.

    (c) 2013 Focus Features
    Twenty years later, a sadder but no wiser Gary King (the scathingly brilliant Simon Pegg) wants to get the band back together, as ’twere, and do the Golden Mile.  Life didn’t go so awfully well after high school (or whatever they call it in England), and Gary thinks re-living this epic night with his old pals will save him. His pals (whom he hasn't seen in many years) disagree, but go along because he lies to them.

    Simon Pegg as Gary King and the Map
    This is Simon Pegg and Nick Frost at their hilarious best, having a fine time with Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman as all five pals grown up.  The touristy map that could pass for a hotel placemat shows the route through town to the 12 pubs, and Gary marks off each one as they achieve it.  The present attempt is as doomed as the first, but not for the same reasons as the 1990 crawl.

    Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Eddie Marsan in a pub.
    The brisk script by Pegg and Edgar Wright (co-writers of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) builds and grows under Wright’s whimsical direction.  The humans are all totally real, dreaming of a barely recognizable past that did not prepare them for adult life they don’t really know how to live, with Gary in particular compounding his unhappiness with foolhardy dreams of reliving past glories.  Bruce Springsteen sang about it, and Pegg & Wright have written a sweet, thoughtful, and incredibly funny film about it all.

    And then there’s the darkness. 

    The men gradually realize that not only have they changed, so has their home town.  Rediscovery of all this is a jolly journey for us, not so much for the guys.  In lesser, duller hands this would just be about 5 merely chronologically adult males behaving foolishly and getting gutter laughs.  Pegg & Wright go much further, touching on dreams of freedom, lost youth...and then they take a roundabout turn into crazy.

    Frost, Rosamund Pike, Considine, Marsan, Freeman, and Pegg.  In a pub.
    From the quickest shot of a passerby to the leads, the cast is formidable.  I’ll just list a few:
    Simon Pegg as Gary King
    Nick Frost as Andy Knightley
    Martin Freeman as Oliver Chamberlain
    Paddy Considine as Steven Prince
    Eddie Marsan as Peter Page
    Rosamund Pike as Sam Chamberlain (Oliver’s kid sister, love interest for both Gary & Steve since childhood)
    Pierce Brosnan as Guy Shephard, the cool teacher
    David Bradley as Crazy Basil
    With a special non-appearance by Bill Nighy

    The World’s End has two lessons:  1) you cannot go home again, and 2) if your high school memories are warm and fuzzy, you’re probably misremembering.  The World’s End has a terrific script well directed by Edgar Wright, and its cast is top notch and pitch perfect.  I will see this again and again and find more to laugh about.  Because humans are funny.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off and purchasing another ticket!

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    At the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park last Friday, Jack O’Brien’s production of Much Ado About Nothing tripped the light fantastic. Nature cooperated with clear skies and a balmy evening. Only the helicopters interfered.
     
    The home of Leonato.  Photo credit Matt Hennessy
    Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing is a delightful play but carries no guarantees. If there’s no chemistry between the romantic leads, Beatrice and Benedick, the play will fall flat. Even if they sparkle, the play can still be brought down by bad timing among the clowns. The most difficult obstacle the play must overcome for a modern audience is the cruel (not to mention unfounded) behavior of Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato toward Hero. This was the downfall of the Joss Whedon film, set in modern times. O’Brien’s production is set in a non-specific (probably late 19th century) past, when rules of behavior were strictly enforced, at least for women. The problem of how to like or respect a Hero who could forgive the idiotic Claudio without appearing to be a dishrag can only be solved by the actor.
     
    Don Pedro masked
    Having cast the right Beatrice and Benedick, O’Brien went on to solve problems the play hadn’t had when Shakespeare wrote it: Our 21st century world is a far cry from that of the 16th Century. We wonder how on earth the Prince and Claudio could be outside Hero’s window and mistake Margaret for the young heroine, even though both Imeria Mendes (Hero) and Zoë Winters (Margaret) are petite brunettes?  A lightning storm momentarily distracts us, until we realize it’s part of the production -- an O’Brien solution using the expert lighting design by Jeff Croiter. We wonder how people hear disparate rumors about for whom Don Pedro is wooing Hero, so Mr. O’Brien – in conjunction with dramaturge Dakin Matthews - has Leonato’s slightly dotty brother Antonio overhear only part of the conversation, therefore report it inaccurately. Now we understand perfectly.  Bravo O’Brien and Matthews.

    The next problem was solved by the director and actor’s belief in Shakespeare’s world. The portrayal of Hero by Imeria Mendes was the best I have ever, ever seen. As the most innocent and forgiving of Shakespearean ingenues, Hero’s obedience and malleability often come across as foolish, making her seem a born victim. Ms. Mendes’ interpretation shows us a young woman living her faith in her (and Shakespeare’s) belief system. When accusations against her are proven false, Hero’s forgiveness is gracious and righteous. The purity of Imeria Mendes’ Hero makes forgiveness, and therefore hope, possible.

    Having seen the fine work of Lily Rabe previously (as Rosalind in As You Like It), I knew she’d make a sharp and sparkling Beatrice. After all, both Beatrice and Rosalind have the verbal wit to best any man.  Ms. Rabe’s elucidation of complex language while getting every laugh available was on point throughout the evening. Hamish Linklater as Benedick was goofy as well as witty, and an excellent foil to Ms. Rabe’s Beatrice. Mr. Linklater is physically and verbally hilarious.  They are a well-matched comedic couple.

    John Glover as Leonato was overflowing with emotion, liltingly Italian while precise in his verse; Brian Stokes Mitchell was sophisticated and lusty as Don Pedro. A high point of the play was when he sang along with Balthazar (Steel Burkhardt) on “Sigh No More,” holding that last note of Hey Nonny Nonny for a strong, long and beautiful coda to the joyous interlude.
     
    Imeria Mendes as Hero and Lily Rabe as Beatrice.  Photo Credit Joan Marcus.
    The evening’s entertainment began in Italian, the residents of Leonato’s estate sounding warm and light, their musical chatter dancing on the breeze. Geraniums, tomatoes and pepper plants (with a light scent of insect repellant) lent their color and juices to the morning duties of the people dressed in relaxed yet period costumes by Jane Greenwood. In the opening idyllic scenes, we learn that the handsome young man lackadaisically tending to the tomato plants is Borachio (Eric Sheffer Stevens). He’s part of Leonato’s household, and as he is a bit lazy, we know he’d enjoy coming into some easy money. Mr. Stevens’ early, silent character work sets up the plot point that will so affect the fate of the main characters later on.

    The gentle movements of characters performing morning chores in the garden and petite villa designed by John Lee Beattyshape and color the world of the play. Each member of the household is revealed at the windows and balconies as they hear the day’s news. Leonato speaks the first English words of the evening as reads Don Pedro’s message that he has won his war and is returning home.

    A potential problem of any Shakespeare play is unfunny clowns bogging down the comic scenes. In Much Ado, the clowns are the police. Happily John Pankow is a fine Dogberry, that great mangler of the English language. Pankow plays the Constable of the Watch naturalistically, funny in Italian and English.  With David Manis doubling as a hilariously fragile and pugnacious Antonio as well as the almost intelligent Verges, Dramaturge Matthews’ judicious editing cut Verges and some ineffective dialogue out of two scenes. This allowed Pankow’s Dogberry to drive solo through conversations with the Sexton and then Leonato, thereby keeping those scenes lightly tripping along.
     
    Lily Rabe as Beatrice and Hamish Linklater as Benedick (Photo Credit the Public Theater)
    Finally, many a Don John — the bastard brother of Don Pedro, the villain of the piece — is a dull dog, merely angry.  Pedro Pascal’s Don John was lithe and witty and his pleasure at the misery of others closed the first act with a big grin, leaving the audience laughing.

    Technical aspects were good but for the level of Lily Rabe’s microphone, which was disconcertingly louder than the rest of the cast’s the night I saw the play. Worthy of mention are the excellent hair and wig design by Tom Watson, movement design by Danny Mefford, and music direction by Nathan Koci.  The whole cast deserves praise, for the only false notes in the evening came from those helicopters.

    The sweetly romantic and very funny Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothingruns only through July 6th, so take a day off and wait in line for this one.  It’s worth it.
     
    The cast on John Lee Beatty's set(c) 2014 The Public Theater

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to listen to some happy Italian singing…

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  • 06/29/14--07:42: Words and Pictures Fail Us


  • The under-advertised film Words and Pictures boasts two fine actors on its poster:  Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. It looked vaguely like a love story between two not-young people, a second-time-around sort of love story. 
    Juliette Binoche as artist/teacher Delsanto.  (Photo Credit Roadside Attractions)

    Both characters are artists and teachers: she a painter teaching fine arts (Honors class), he a writer teaching English (ditto). They share the same very bright high school students.  They share one more thing:  Each of them is broken.  Jack Marcus (Mr. Owen) and Dina Delsanto (Ms. Binoche) spar over the strengths of their art forms – which becomes a “war” between words and pictures.

    He needs a war because he is broken by his disease, alcoholism, which is an immediate threat to his job.

    Her disease is rheumatoid arthritis, which keeps her from painting as she used to.  She must recreate herself because her body has betrayed her.

    Words and Pictures holds no surprises. Any film with an alcoholic as a main character requires that he hit bottom, which he does. The road to true love never did run smooth, and this one had sinkholes. Still we have confidence that the sparks would not be put out by common sense or guilt or anything else.

    While I am not a poet, it seemed odd to me that a literature teacher who chastised his students for researching online instead of using books (which have the advantage of turning the pages, so students can come across odd bits of information as they search through the books to fulfill the assignment) would stare at a computer screen attempting to write a poem. I should think he’d prefer pen or pencil on paper for some tactile connection. (Poets out there, feel free to tell me the medium is irrelevant.) A man staring at a computer screen is no more interesting — rather, less — than a man scribbling by hand, reading, and crumpling the paper.  Yes, it’s a clichéd image, but Words and Pictures is a cliché itself. 

    Since Dina’s problem is physical, we can be sure she has a friend to look after her.  We meet Dina’s protective sister Sabine, well played by Janet Kidder. Ms. Kidder even looked something like Ms. Binoche, if a bit harder, which was suitable for her role.  Fellow teacher Walt, who, not surprisingly, appears to be Jack’s only friend, is warmly played by Bruce Davison. A bullied student, Emily, as sweetly played by Valerie Tian, goes from fragile and frightened, to crushed, to a blossoming young woman who can help an adult – Dina – move forward.

    The scenes of Dina Delsanto struggling to paint when her body could not do what it had in the past were moving and believable.  Her passion continues despite her body’s deterioration.  Dina Delsanto’s paintings were in fact painted by Ms. Binoche, which is the most interesting part of this movie.

    I generally do not try to guess outcomes, preferring stories to unfold themselves on their own terms and in their own time. Yet even I knew where this one was headed, how the romance would be derailed, and pretty much how it would be repaired. (By their students, of course.) This is a pleasant film, but it offers no questions, merely easy answers.

    Fred Schepisi’s direction improves Gerald DiPego’s script.  Mr. Schepisi provided interesting views of Ms. Binoche working and struggling to overcome her disability, leading step by step through the character’s changing path.  Unfortunately Mr. DePego’s script did not afford similar opportunities for Mr. Owen’s regrettably stock character.  We’ve all seen far too many scenes of people in AA, although Jack did start off wrong:  not with his name and his addiction, but his profession, illustrating his continuing egotism.  Both director and screenwriter have a long track record, yet this appears like an early effort of an inexperienced writer. 

    Despite its good cast, these Words and Pictures just don’t tell us a new story.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to find a better film with any of these actors.

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    Shakespeare’s Globe is in town, and instead of performing one play at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University downtown as they usually do, they brought two to perform in repertory for a few months on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre.  The Belasco is gorgeous, but with this company, it’s difficult to appreciate the beauties of the interior because as the audience enters the theatre, the actors are onstage dressing and being dressed.  Watching this fascinating process is riveting — observing the way period costumes are built, layer upon layer, onto the human body; some actors are sewn into their costumes; and seeing men turned into women. 

    As in Shakespeare’s time, the female roles are not played by women, but rather by men.  Each man playing a female has a diverting way of walking, almost gliding across the stage, sometimes mincing, swinging the heavy skirts to their best advantage.  Watching them before the play even starts is mesmerizing.

    Twelfe Night deserves its own glowing review.  Alas, I bubbled over with praise of it to friends and didn’t write down a word, so its mentions here will essentially be comparative.  I saw the plays a month apart — Twelfe Night (as named in the First Folio and printed in the program) on Friday the 6 December and, to start the new year off right, Richard III on Thursday the 2 January (yes, the night of the first snowstorm of 2014, nicknamed “Hercules”).  Perhaps we should have seen the Richardin this program first, so our expectations for the next play would not have been so high.  The Twelfe Night was deliriously funny, a pinnacle for all others to attempt.  As it was, the near perfect Twelfe Night left us with high expectations that were dashed the night the snow fell outside the performance of The Tragedie of KingRichard the Third. 
     
    Sebastian and Olivia, Orsino and Viola in Twelfe Night.  (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)
    What is it about Richard III?  I am often dissatisfied with productions of the play, no matter who excels in the leading role.  Is it just poorly written?  Well, with all due respect to the incomparable Bard, compared to other plays, it is, rather.  (He had to be careful, of course.  The late-arriving protagonist/hero of the play, Richmond, would be the great grandfather of Shakespeare’s Queen, so the War of the Roses had to end on a particularly redeeming note for the ancestors of the ruling monarch.)  This production from the Globe is well cast but that isn’t enough — especially not with someone as strong and magnetic as Mark Rylance prancing about the stage as Richard of Gloucester.
     
    Rylance as Richard and Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth
    Once costumes are donned and the musicians applauded, Mark Rylance as Richard seduces us immediately.  Rylance found every hint of humor in the play, and made us as guilty as Richard by making us laugh with him throughout the evening.  The problem — and it may be the play as much as director Tim Carroll— is that the good actors working with Mr. Rylance fade in his aura, with two exceptions:  Samuel Barnett (a fine Viola in theTwelfe Night) as Queen Elizabeth (mother of the princes in the tower, wife of the sickly then late King Edward IV) gives as good as he… she… gets and is marvelous and powerful, every inch a queen; and the Buckingham as played by Angus Wright (last seen in one of the most delightful performances of Andrew Aguecheek I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience) could more than hold his own with Rylance. 


    Often we see a star turn in a play like Richard III, and often we just think we got the second string touring cast in all but the lead role.  This time, though, we have very recent evidence of the finely honed skills of this company of players.  Which leads back to the play, which needed some judicious cutting, but perhaps not the cutting it did, in fact, receive.  More on that anon.
     
    Joseph Timms as Lady Anne and Mark Rylance as King Richard III.  Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus.
    Let’s look at the actors in this company.  Peter Hamilton Dyer’s Catesby was better than his often incomprehensible Feste, but Liam Brennan’s Clarence partook in one of the longest and dullest death scenes (and very poorly staged, Mr. Carroll) in Shakespeare despite his sexy turn as Orsino in Twelfe Night.  Paul Chahidi was a marvelous Maria in Twelfe Night, but his Hastings seemed stock and his Tyrrell seemed… well, rather mad.  As if he were speaking in tongues, his delivery rang through the theatre without cohering. 

    Colin Hurley’s King Edward IV and his Lord Stanley were well defined and differentiated.  After his wild and woolly and hilarious Toby Belch in Twelfe Night, he was happily not a disappointment in Richard.

    Joseph Timms was an unusually good Sebastian in the Twelfe Night. Generally a rather thankless role seemingly cast because of a resemblance to the Viola, his Sebastian had verve and vigor. Timms’ turn as Lady Anne (one of the most difficult roles in Shakespeare since her actions make no sense at all) in Richard III was interesting in large part due to his physical behavior.  That the character is ultimately unconvincing based on the famous wooing scene is the fault of the playwright more than the actor.

    Kurt Egyiawan was not as interesting a Valentine in Twelfe Night as he was in his two roles in Richard III:  His Duchess of York (that is, King Richard’s mother) was basically cranky, but his physical work was good.  In the second half of the play he was Richmond, quite believable as the virtuous prince, a just man, a tad dull (Richmond always is), a fitting founder of the Tudor dynasty leading in a direct line to Shakespeare’s real life monarch, Elizabeth I.

    Someone missing, you say?  Yes indeed.  There was one queen missing from this production of Richard III:  Margaret, termagant, widow of the dead Lancastrian King Henry VI who was ousted by the Yorkists (Richard’s family), and mother of the slain Prince Edward (who was the husband of Lady Anne, later Queen Anne – get it?).  This character should be the canker, the boil on Richard’s butt, an enraged victim of the Yorkists who teaches all others how to curse.  She was a major character in the Three Parts of Henry VI, and she’s fun.  She plays a major role in the conversation of the once powerful now powerless women of the play, leaving only the ineffective Queen Anne written in to join the bereft Queen Elizabeth, and the cranky Duchess of York to lament in Act IV scene iv, the traditional wailing women scene.  Perhaps the embarrassment of riches of too many queens in the script was seen as too confusing?  The long feud between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists certainly does not come as second nature, particularly to an American audience.  Nevertheless, Margaret is a vital part of the chemistry of the players.  Her absence contributed to the lopsidedness of the production, leaving out chunks of the politics, oversimplifying the changeable loyalties, essentially eliminating the history of each individual in the story, as if their own actions or inactions hadn’t brought them to this very place.  Richard III is the culmination of generations of internecine warfare; neither he nor his England sprang from nothing.  Ignoring what came before for the rest of the characters makes Richard III a showcase for Mr. Rylance instead of a play with intricate plotting and storylines.  What goes around comes around, that’s the moral of the story, but you won’t get it in this production.

    Losing Margaret is short-sighted on the part of the producers and director.  I am far from a purist, but cutting Margaret’s character and its function diminishes the play — and even without her the production ran three hours!

    Gentle reminder:  Twelfe Night was well nigh perfect.  Its subtitle is “or What You Will” and we will, we will.  Liam Brennan’s Orsino fell in love with the girl disguised as a boy played by an actor disguised as both, the wonderful Samuel Barnett.  Their chemistry was sparkling, ready to burst into flame.  The old gang at Olivia’s place were naughty and lusty, with superlative performances by Colin Hurley as Sir Toby Belch, Paul Chahidi as Maria, and Angus Wright as Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
     
    Rylance as Olivia and Fry as Malvolio in Twelfe Night (Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus)
    Mark Rylance proves he does not need to edit a play to make himself the star — his Olivia is timid, brittle, then giddy and lusty and wild, his powdered face malleable, his body alternating between stiff and yearning, girdled and rubbery.  His line readings will overpower my mind whenever I re-read the play.  He’s a comic genius with brilliant timing — which shows up in his Richard as well, of course.

    The member of the company who appeared in Twelfe Night but not in Richard III is the estimable Stephen Fry, whose Malvolio was articulate, witty, arrogant, and deserved what he got — until he didn’t.  Suffice to say, Fry was an excellent Malvolio and I hope he returns to the New York stage soon.
     
    Samuel Barnett as Viola and Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfe Night (Photo credit Joan Marcus)
    In general this is a marvelous company.  The scenic and costume design by Jenny Tiramani merge into a whole that is magnificent.  The audience members on the stage may see a lot of backsides, but their proximity to the players makes them part of the experience, and the players’ connections to living audience is just thrilling to see.  Music by Claire van Kampen is period, fitting, and well played and well utilized in both productions.  Director Tim Carroll worked wonders with the great Twelfe Night but fell down on the job with Richard.  That said, I have no knowledge of the script he was handed, since no dramaturge is mentioned in the program. 

    Editing Shakespeare isn’t easy, though often necessary.  The wrong bits were edited out of this Richard.  Thankfully the Twelfe Night was so extraordinary it entirely redeems the problems of the Richard.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off and urging you to see at least one if not both of these plays in repertory.  (If just one, you know the Twelfe Night is the better!)

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    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 Kelleris 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….

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  • 07/27/14--07:37: 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 48thStreet 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.

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    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 (http://www.mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2014_05_01_archive.html), 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 [http://www.mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2014/06/much-ado-about-summer-shakespeare.html].  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’swell-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.

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    A Most Wanted Man is an old-fashioned spy story with all too current stakes.  Based on the John le Carré novel of the same title, the characters are weary but dogged — if we like them.  The others….slither.

    In his last film, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a German spy named Gunter Bachmann who acknowledges that he commits acts against the German constitution while trying to keep tabs on and track down potential terrorists.  He is the quintessential John le Carré spy, ever out in the cold, sad, lonely, probably an alcoholic, and dedicated to protecting the world, his contacts, and his own belief in what is just, which is not the same as legal. 

    Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gunter  Bachmann.  Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions
    The time is now, the city is Hamburg, and it is shocking.  I haven’t been to Germany since before 9/11, but I cannot recall litter except in the vicinity of U.S. army bases, or graffiti anywhere. In today’s Hamburg, both are everywhere.  The light is harsh — the sun doesn’t shine, it glowers in a garish show of illumination without warmth.

    Gunther trusts no one in the German political arena and certainly not the American (represented with chilling arrogance here by Robin Wright, her façade clean, modern, even chic). Gunter will use entrapment, extortion, blackmail, cajoling and hugging to get what he wants from the informants he has cultivated into his network.  This is all for the greater good, and he at no time wishes to use violence in his network.  That’s for the Americans.  He will use threats of deportation, he will kidnap and intimidate. He coerces young Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi) to sneak and spy on his own family and mosque, and just how far Gunter expects his network to go is shocking.

    Robin Wright as the  American, Hoffman as the German. Photo Credit:  Roadside Attractions.
    The tension level is consistently high as we follow the slightest facial expression of each of the driven, intense members of Gunter’s clandestine team:

    • Irna (Nina Hoss)
    • Maximilian (Daniel Brühl)
    • Rasheed (Kostja Ullman)
    • Niki  (Vicky Krieps)

    Performances are low key, realistic, frightening.  Claire Simpson’s editing carries us along, shocks us, stops us, tosses us forward into the sliced and slivered scenes.  The shots are stark, the lighting cold, the river lifeless.  This is a new cold war and it drains the color out of everything in Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography.

    We become part of Gunter’s team, so it is “we” who are following two men — a wealthy philanthropist who may be funneling money to terrorists and a Chechen Muslim who has entered Germany illegally, seeking asylum.  Abdullah, the philanthropist, appears to be suspected just because he’s Islamic.  He is sophisticated, kind, and beautifully played by Homayouin Hershadi.  The other subject of surveillance, Issa Karpov, appears like a homeless person on the brink of a psychotic break.  He is suspected of being a terrorist, particularly since he confessed to committing terrorist acts when tortured by the Russians.  But, as Irna states, who wouldn’t, when under torture by the Russians.  We are all breakable.  Issa (born Ivan) reveals himself extremely slowly in Grigoriy Dobrygin’s searing portrayal.

    The Chechen finds refuge with another Muslim family seeking asylum in Germany, a Turkish mother and son.  Another network.  These people reach out to their lawyer, Annabel Richter played by Rachel McAdams, to try to get asylum and make contact with a banker who has something belonging to Karpov.  The lawyer is left wing and idealistic, or she’s just doing the opposite of what her family wants her to do.  She rides her bicycle all over Hamburg but can go to high or low society.  The character and her actions are totally predictable and Ms. McAdams does nothing to make it more.

    Rachel McAdams and Grigoriy Dobrygin.  Photo Credit:  Roadside Attractions.
    Rainer Bock is chilly as the angry German agent Dieter Mohr, working for an agency that is not clandestine.  To fend off this short sightedness, Gunter even talks to the Americans in hopes of gaining an ally for his longer-term and much smarter intentions.

    Willem Dafoe is a well-heeled banker, angry, beautifully dressed even without comparison to the slovenly Gunter.  The banker’s wife sits at home, seen from outside as if on display before floor-to-ceiling windows, dressed for an evening out in a tight sheath and high heels, or perhaps for a photo shoot. She is not going anywhere.  This is a house not a home, an artist’s lifeless rendering of high fashion and just as stiff. Everything’s a pose, roles for the playing in the proper setting. 

    Modes of transportation helped delineate character:  Issa came to Hamburg by mass public transportation, Annabel rides a bicycle, Gunter drives an inconspicuous old sedan, and the banker has a beautiful sleek machine that screams “Look At Me!”  One wonders if he’ll change cars at the end of the story.

    Willem Dafoe and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions.
    Delhomme’s cinematography combines with Sebastian T. Krawinkel’s production design which engenders claustrophobia in both tightly enclosed spaces and open ones with long, empty views.  The images contrast the work done and lives lived in the shadows — Gunter retreats to the underground world of rathskellers — with the not-clandestine German government and the glamorous American meeting in high rise offices and restaurants with plate glass windows and strategic views.  There’s nothing pretty to look at no matter how high. 

    Director Anton Corbijnskillfully manipulates us as Gunter manipulates his network and his team.  It’s exhausting.  Corbijn takes his time, lays out the story, lets us come to know his people. We care about them.  This is no typical American thriller.  Occasionally some driving is rather fast, but nothing else.  Except the abrupt ending.  Andrew Bovell’s screenplay (based on le Carre’s novel) is brusque, brisk, and as chilly as the cinematography, lending layers to each individual we meet. 

    The actors do finely detailed, subdued work in this subdued world.  Grigoriy Dobrygin’s Issa allows us in as carefully as an abused animal, shaming our assumptions about him.  Robin Wright’s American is that brittle sophisticate, cold as ice, an adept listener with unfathomable eyes.  I recently read an article about le Carré and his ever-growing dislike of America.  Believe it. It’s right there on the screen.

    As for Mr. Hoffman.  His performance is so naturalistic, he is so subsumed into the person of Gunter with Gunter’s entire life always alive in him, he becomes Gunter.  Consequently Gunter becomes our representative in the story, his view becomes ours.  We are in Gunter’s head, we become him.  Betrayal of Gunter is betrayal of us.  That is the power of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He is already missed.

    The power of le Carré and Corbijn and Bovell is the niggling feeling that the next time you’re in a pub or on a train or getting into a taxi, you will look around you and wonder who’s watching.  Or you should. 


    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to read le Carré’s novel, which I assume will leave me as depressed as this thrilling film did.


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  • 09/04/14--19:48: NTLive Medea: Phase I


  • The National Theatre Live rebroadcast (the original live broadcast was at 2 pm NY time, and I caught the re-broadcast of the recorded live broadcast at 7 pm NY time) of MEDEA was a bit disappointing.  Was it because it was modern?  Was the problem the new adaptation by Ben Power that, at about 90 minutes running time, felt longer?  Was it the enforced “director’s notes” by Carrie Cracknell (good director of the very good production of A Doll’s House at BAM earlier this year) that were foisted on the audience in lieu of movie trailers?

    Note:  I never read theatre programs’ director’s notes before the production because they invariably set up the production to fail to meet what the director thought s/he was doing.  Don't tell me what you meant.  Speak the speech I pray you.

    Was it people talking about the play itself and the history of Greek theatre (all men, no women, onstage or off) and Euripides and women killing babies and the British legal concept of The Medea Complex?  Or was it when the wondrous Helen McCrory said she’d talked to two shrinks who’d worked with women who’d killed their children — generally within14 days of the father leaving….



    Upshot:  I do not want to know the actors’/director’s/playwright’s/dramaturge’s homework, any more than I want to read the rough drafts and back-stories of stories or novels.

    Present the play to me, right here, right now, and tell me no tales of how hard you worked to be able to present it. (For one thing, the whole production is likely to come off as way too cerebral.)

    Just Do It.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off for now – there may be more particulars another day….


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  • 10/09/14--18:16: "It's Only a Play" Is Not


  • It’s Only a Play is funny. Extremely funny.  And it ought to be.  Some of the funniest actors in the American firmament get together and do comedy routines one after another, get a lot of laughs, and call it a play. But no. The actors are polished professionals with heart, and if the audience had a lick of sense the comedy might not be as painfully long as it is, but the starstruck audience applauds when the curtain opens, when the wonderful but unknown Micah Stock enters and they’ve no idea who he is.  They applaud some more when Nathan Lane enters, and when Megan Mullallyenters, when Isabel Keating enters (stepping in for Stockard Channing), when Rupert Grint enters, when F. Murray Abrahamenters, and when Matthew Broderickenters.  The annoying audience stops the action every time they do that, and when you blow the timing in comedy, you blow the whole routine.  I swear, if they just stopped treating the theatre like a comedy club or a cabaret, It’s Only a Play might come in at two hours instead of two and a half.

    But for all my grousing about it not being a play, were it not for the multi-star contracts doubtless in place, It’s Only A Play would probably run forever.  The audience loves it. The cast is superb and Jack O’Brien’s direction sharp and brisk and right on the mark.

    As the wunderkind British director of the play that thankfully does not appear within the play,Rupert Grint enters dressed as a Carnaby Street peacock with a crested carrot top.  The character sometimes crawls under a large black net — shades of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak — in order to disappear, and at one point in the second act, that worked so well that I forgot he was there, thinking he’d left the stage.  Not a good sign.  But Mr. Grint — as well as Isabel Keating, understudy to Ms. Channing — is not at the level of Ms. Mullally or Messrs. Abraham, Broderick, Lane, and even young Mr. Stock.

    Matthew Broderickdid himself charmingly, Megan Mullallywas pitch perfectly annoying and lovable and sweet and dizzy.  F. Murray Abraham played opposite to his usual villainy and was very funny as a foppish, foolish, envious theatre critic.  Nathan Lane takes a character with a tired premise and rises to the heights of great comedic acting.

    Essentially the playwright wrote a formulaic comedy with stock characters: a typical playwright from another time, a typical TV actor who left the theatre ten years before, a typical drug-addled movie star exiled from Hollywood and trying to make a comeback on Broadway, an obnoxious, foul-mouthed, British wunderkind director, a star-struck actor looking for his big break collecting coats at a Broadway opening party.  All in all, it’s rather like, hey my dad has a barn, let’s put on a show in black tie and tails.

    But it’s funny.

    After the first quarter hour, I started to suffer from snide name-dropping overload and wondered how often Terence McNally will have to rewrite to keep the names topical.  This was all nastily funny, but made me think more of a weekly comedy show on television than a star-studded play on Broadway.

    When it’s said that a play must have a beginning, a middle and an end, that doesn’t mean it begins at 8 o’clock, ends at 10:30 and has a break for booze and bathroom visits somewhere in the middle.  No, it’s the story that needs to begin and progress to a conflict thence to a point of crisis around the middle then fall apart or resolve itself by the end of the story.  It is certainly the case that with some plays it’s hard to immediately recognize the ending, partly because we’re unaccustomed to hearing it ourselves after years of watching films that go black, credits rolling, music swelling and sometimes even the words “The End.”  Onstage it’s not necessarily as blatant as these slaps in the face, especially Irish plays that may end in irresolute resolutions.  But within a moment of that uncertainty, it’s an ending. 10:30 p.m. is not an end.

    At any rate, the dog was genius, the actors perfect and hilarious, the direction brisk, the play slowed down primarily by the annoying audience …although the last scene does go on a bit longer than it ought.

    The scenic design did not rate applause at the opening, but was perfectly serviceable.  Again, the actors and direction are terrific, but Mr. McNally, funny as all his lines are, was a tad disappointing, because It’s Only a Play is not.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read Aristotle’s Poetics.

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    I have been lax.  I’ve seen several things, some plays, some dance programs (of a sort), some….well, here they are.  You decide how to label them.

    Valley of Astonishment at Theatre for a New Audience (“TFANA”)
    The season opener at TFANA in Brooklyn, the Peter Brook/Marie-Hélène Estienne (with the C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord) production called “Valley of Astonishment” continued to dramatize Mr. Brook’s fascination with what he calls the “labyrinth of the brain.” He previously explored this onstage a number of years ago in The Man Who based on Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book of the longer name The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. 
     
    Marcello Magni, Kathryn Hunter, and  Jared McNeill.
    Interestingly, despite the lack of a light or sound cue to make us all hush, the audience fell silent and still just before the actors and musicians entered the performance space — as if there had been a signal only dogs could hear that all the people should shut up and pay attention.  In this theatrical study, Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill played various doctors, a newspaper editor, a newspaper reporter who didn’t need a notebook (Ms. Hunter as a mnemonist), an emcee, a painter with synesthesia who loved and painted jazz (Mr. McNeill), a one-armed magician (I didn’t really get what that one was doing in there but for the comic relief when he brought audience members up to participate in card tricks) and a man who could only move his limbs when he could see them (Mr. Magni).  The performances were uniformly excellent, three actors inhabiting different characters in seamless transitions. Ms. Hunter switched from a confident doctor to the mnenomist who could remember anything effortlessly, but this power bit back just as powerfully.  The set was remarkably sparse, as was the lighting. Portions of the 12th century Persian poem The Conference of the Birds were recited in performance and cited in the program as an influence, but I didn’t get the connection even after I leafed through the gorgeous 2011 rendition of the epic poem with beautiful artwork by Peter Sis (who acknowledged the influence on him of Dr. Sacks and Mr. Brooks at the end of his illustrated book — synchronicity).  I still didn’t get it, but any excuse to explore Mr. Sis’ world is a good one.

    As with The Man Who, I wouldn’t quite call this a play so much as a contemplation with dramatizations to aid our search for understanding of receptors that are incomprehensible to the majority of us who do not receive numbers, letters, or words as colors, shapes or feelings. Nevertheless, Valley of Astonishment was a compelling if sometimes confusing evening.

    Indian Ink at the Roundabout Theatre
    Tom Stoppard wrote a beautiful play back in 1995.  I missed it.  Thankfully the Roundabout Theatre has brought it back in a gentle and lovely production directed by Carey Perloff.  Indian Ink is perfectly structured, presents us the story in the present, to past, to present and back again, with all the disparate parts coming together in an emotionally satisfying experience.  Well-drawn characters filled the stage and the mind and drew us into the play beyond the duration of the evening. The main character, Miss Flora Crewe, was so real to me that I looked her up so I could read her controversial poetry; alas, to no avail.  Flora Crewe is a marvelous creation of Mr. Stoppard, whose puzzle pieces fit together smoothly yet not predictably.  By the end we understand each little throwaway line and reference about “Sasha” and “Eric” and Modigliani (yes, that Modigliani) and what role they played in the lives of these two women, sisters, separated by fifty years and death.  Romola Garai as Flora in the past is a worthy partner to the great Rosemary Harris, who plays her surviving sister Eleanor in later life (the present).  Mr. Stoppard’s play is finely wrought, details sketched then filled in, shaded, colored, polished — never varnished. Water color and oils and pencil appear onstage and stay in our minds.  Quick rough sketches lead to lush Indian paintings.  Ms. Garai has joined Ms. Harris in the pantheon of goddesses of the theatre.   

    As in all good theatre, everyone and everything is part of the whole, and Ms. Harris and Ms. Garai are much more than ably abetted by Firdous Bamjias Nirad Das, Flora’s portrait painter and so much more, then Bhavesh Patel as Anish Das, the son who goes to meet sister Eleanor in the present.  A large and marvelous cast was expertly directed by Carey Perloff in a beautiful set by Neil Patel dressed in costumes to die for by Candice Donnelly.
     
    The gorgeous set by Neil Patel.  Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus.
    The play only runs through November 30, 2014. This one is worth your time and money, so get your ticket(s) now.

    Alan Smithee Directed This Play:  Triple Feature at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater
    Big Dance Theater returned to BAM with a mash-up of three screenplays from different times, styles, and genres:  Terms of Endearment, Doctor Zhivago, and the French film Le Cercle Rouge.  Annie B. Parson playfully rewrote screenplays and directed her company with long-time theatrical partner Paul Lazar.  The company members spoke different roles in gender-bending repetitious rehashings, some of the scenes immediately recognizable since they’re embedded in our sub-conscious memories.  The production utilized “multi-media,” meaning a long wall covered in window blinds was cleverly transformed into a screen at the back of the stage to display oddly cut, snipped and sliced scenes of the French film.  In Ms. Parson’s revised script, the onstage cast responded and spoke for the actors frozen on the stuttering screen.  This chopped salad was jagged and odd.  While entertaining for a while, it eventually pushed the director’s conceit a little too far and a little too long.
    Big Dance Theatre -- Photo: Julieta Cervantes

    King Lear by Shakespeare’s Globe at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
    If you have been reading this blog over the past year, you likely know that I had seen Shakespeare’s (Tragedie?  Historie?) King Lear three times already in 2014:  In Brooklyn, TFANA’s production directed by Arin Arbus and starring Michael Pennington as Lear, then a live broadcast from London of the National Theatre’s Sam Mendes production starring Simon Russell Beale, and finally the Delacorte’s summer production barely directed by Daniel Sullivan.  Why a fourth, you ask? 

    Because Shakespeare’s Globe is in town. 
     
    Joseph Marcell as King Lear
    Since 2009, I have enjoyed the Shakespeare’s Globe touring company — which is not quite the same as the star-company that played a double bill on Broadway last winter.  The touring company tours the world, is small and compact like its set.  Previously I’ve seen them set up their figurative tent at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University in lower Manhattan, but this year they’ve come up to Greenwich Village to play in NYU’s Skirball Center.  This is the company that presented the only production of Shakespeare’s early play Love’s Labour’s Lost that I have ever liked [http://www.mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2009/12/delightful-dalliance.html] as well as a brisk Hamlet a few years later [http://mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2012/10/a-wee-hamlet.html].  Having toured a bit and put up traveling sets on disparate stages myself, I’d love to see how this company’s set is put together and struck.  As explained by Professor Michael Hattaway before the performance the night I attended this production, “booth” sets travel anywhere and can be put on a stage, in a courtyard, at a fair, indoors, outdoors, anywhere.  This company is like the traveling players Hamlet wished to join (don’t we all) and they did not disappoint.

    The Globe Lear was a speeding bullet; unusually this production packed laughs and music and a jig into its three hours before I noticed the time flying by.  As I asked over two years ago at their production of Hamlet, was this jolly evening’s entertainment King Lear? I don’t know now any more than I did when that short and amusing Hamlet played downtown, but I’m not altogether sure I care.  Judicious and wild doubling highlighted the mad skills of the cast, who played all manner of musical instruments in addition to their own voices — drums, concertina, trombone, guitar, bells, planks of wood, and anything that they could lay their hands on.  All except the mighty, regal, fretful, warm and childish King Lear of Joseph Marcell doubled other roles.  A cast of eight — yes, eight — played everyone.  Gwendolen Chatfield played Goneril, various servants and soldiers, and musical instruments, Shanaya Rafaat played Regan as well as various servants and soldiers, even Bill Nash doubled not only the obvious Earl of Kent and “Caius,” but other servants of various lords.  John Stahl as the Duke of Gloucester doubled as the Duke of Albany and the rest of the roles appear to have been played by the actors portraying Edmund and Edgar. Their doubling was just hilarious:  Daniel Pirrie played Edmund as well as Goneril’s servant Oswald and the King of France, and the servant to the Duke of Cornwall who strikes the fatal blow to Cornwall and is killed by Regan.  Alex Mugnaioni played Edgar and the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Burgundy.  This allowed the two brothers to fight with one another three times!  Wild.  Mr. Mugnaioni took his Edgar on a journey from a foppish young man to a desperate one to the powerful potential king.  Nicely done.

    Finally, Cordelia doubled as the Fool and Bethan Cullinane was splendid in both roles.  Yes, you heard it here first:  I loved this performance of a natural, straightforward and still soft Cordelia, neither simp nor sap but a strong confident young woman.  That Cordelia and the Fool do not appear onstage together lends credence to the idea that Lear refers to Cordelia when he says “And my poor fool is hang’d” in his final scene — meaning his dear daughter, not his jester, “fool” being a term of endearment at the time, not a disparagement.  Ms. Cullinane’s Fool was witty, brave, frightened — a youthful fool, but one that pleased me more than young fools generally do.

    Bill Buckhurst directed this delightful cast through to the final jig by choreographer Georgina Lamb, all on the compact and multi-purposed “booth set” designed by Jonathan Fensom (which looked an awful lot like — and probably was — the one used in the Globe’s Hamletperformed two years ago.  The cast interacted with the audience before the play began and would probably have been happier with their “booth” set on a thrust performance space than on a proscenium stage, but these actors could have done this production absolutely anywhere.  I realize, of course, that the depths of “tragedie” are not plumbed in a production such as this, but I saw three other Lears this year, so that just didn’t concern me.  The Globe Shakespeare provided an entertaining, funny, musical, theatrical evening.  This company is welcome back to NYC any time, anywhere. 
     
    The Hamlet set -- looks the same to me.  Photo credit:  F. Stop Fitzgerald.
    Unfortunately this play’s NYC run ended on the 12th October, but check Globe Shakespeare’s web site to see if it’s coming your way.

    Shakespeare’s Sonnets at Brooklyn Academy of Music – the Opera House
    Robert Wilson& Rufus Wainwright’s presentation of “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” with the Berliner Ensemble — or, more accurately titled “Circus From Hell” — took over the stage of the Opera House and transformed it into a torture chamber for the audience at whom lights as bright as halogen high beams were shot throughout the evening.  Several years ago I sat in that same Opera House when a choreographer, having decided that dawn should be enacted in real time, forgot that theatre is not reality and that many of us have already noticed that the sunrise is not, happily, instantaneous.  Back then, the stage and theatre were dark for a wasted 20 minutes.  At the Opera House this time, Mr. Wilson decided he had to do dawn one better by providing 7 minutes of crickets and early morning birdsong, very gradually rising in volume.  Then the most godawful light you could imagine, which bore no resemblance to a warm and gentle dawn, came up as footlights across the length of the stage. This was a repeated effect for Mr. Wilson, who apparently had decided to blind us with his…intellect?  Wit?  Neither.  A woman dressed in colorless hues and a jester hat entered, giggled, and recited a sonnet.  Number 43.  She was rather charming, and I had hope, especially if they would turn off that light.  But then the truth revealed itself.  This was a circus, with masked characters I’d seen in nightmares speaking disconnected lines from the same sonnet.  One sonnet over the course of twenty minutes and various “clowns” who looked like those characters in the Twilight Zone episode in which the greedy heirs became their horror masks.  Remember this? 
    Well, that was what it was like.  No wonder it took three hours to do 25 sonnets.

    Oh, and since this was the Berliner Ensemble, the Sonnets were spoken in German with English supertitles.  I’ve seen several of the plays in several languages, and they work just fine. The Sonnets, however, need to be spoken in their native tongue, which would make the inappropriateness of Mr. Wilson’s vision perfectly clear.  Mr. Wainwright’s music, on the other hand, would fit another, radically different, performance of the Sonnets and I hope that occasion does arise to salvage his compositions in various musical styles.
     
    Angela Winkler, Anke Engelsmann, Jürgen Holtz, and Traute Hoess in Shakespeare's Sonnets, directed by Robert Wilson with original music by Rufus Wainwright, at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House. (© Stephanie Berger)
    We left at intermission with aching heads and eyeballs.  Feel free to exhale a sigh of relief at having missed it

    Not I, Footfalls, and Rockaby at BAM Harvey Theatre
    Last week, BAM’s Harvey presented three one-act, one-actor plays by Samuel Beckett, all performed by Lisa Dwan as directed by Walter Asmus.  The brief evening was very dark in every sense of the word.  I’ve never experienced such a dark theatre — even the exit lights were dimmed, there were no lights on the stairs or in the aisles, and the ushers stood close together by the curtains to shield the auditorium from the slightest glimmer of light leaking in.  Ms. Dwan did not quite “appear” in the first play — only her mouth was lit in the totally darkened theatre.  In the second play, we could see her dimly in the pale, tightly contained lighting. Ms. Dwan paced (creating “Footfalls”), then stopped.  Paced then stopped. This went on, silent but for her footfalls, for a while, until her face lifted into the light as she spoke to her mother, and her mother responded.  That, too, was Ms. Dwan, in a totally different, deeper, ragged voice of an elderly woman.  We could barely see Ms. Dwan’s mouth move when she spoke as the mother.  Her work was truly impressive.  In the third play, darkness still reigned, with a narrow focused light on Ms. Dwan’s hands and face and the occasional glitter of something on her bodice as she slowly rocked to a repetitious monologue.

    Lisa Dwan in Rockaby.  Photo Sara Krulwich.
    This was pure Beckett, and I’d guess (without being a Beckett scholar) that Ms. Dwan was utterly loyal to his wishes (despite the fact that her dress in the second play did not appear “ragged” in the soft light, which I believe was his stage direction).  While I admired Ms. Dwan’s mellifluous voice and her vocal technique, as well as the musicality of Mr. Beckett’s plays, still I was unmoved by this evening of theatre.  Perhaps that was because the theatre’s darkness combined with the script’s rhythmic repetitions mesmerized me toward somnolence — as if Messrs. Beckett and Asmus and Ms. Dwan wished to push their audience toward nightmares…. 

    I’d be glad to see the talented and highly disciplined Ms. Dwan’s work again with more light, visual and emotional.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off, closing her eyes to replay the good and erase the bad…..

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    Last week I went downtown again. 

    In the ‘90s and early ‘00s, come winter my colleagues and I would sojourn to South Street Seaport, meet up with some husbands and some kids and shiver as the Big Apple Chorus, bundled up in matching hats and scarves, climbed up the steps to wrap around the tree and sing Christmas Carols, conducted by a swell Santa who gave candy canes to the star-struck children.  It was a highlight of the season for us, year after year.  Even when I no longer worked down there, it was worth the trip.

    Then in 2012 came Sandy, and the South Street Seaport has been trying to recover.  So this year, I went downtown, but you really can’t go “home” again.  The simplicity of the Singing Tree and people milling about, standing in the cold to listen and sing along with familiar carols is apparently a joy of the past.   


     In 2014, the tree is big and beautiful (48 years on Long Island, now on Fulton Street), a new ice skating rink is in place, and a small stage is slightly sheltered from the elements as individuals with names people younger than I may recognize sing unrecognizable melodies that blast out of huge speakers bawling all over downtown.  And they’re onscreen as well, of course.  Half the space is taken up by the “Talent Green Room.”

    But at least you can learn to curl on Thursday nights.

    My friend and I retired to a place engagingly named “NYC Stout” and recalled the fun it used to be. 

    ~ Molly Matera, trying to get into the spirit of the season....


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     Brooklyn Academy of Music

    The last week of November, my friends and I traveled underground to BAM Opera House (rain, rain, rain, but that evening the MTA did its job) for a program by Philip Glass: The Etudes.  There are twenty of them, and they were played in chronological order starting with Mr. Glass himself followed by nine virtuoso pianists.  The first act was spectacular, downright awe-inspiring.  Mr. Glass’ music requires advanced technique (apparently he wrote them to force himself to play better) but they’re not just exercises.  There is depth, intricacy, and passion. By the 14th etude they start sounding rather alike, but just watching the very different styles of the pianists was fun.  I am a new fan of Timo Andres, Jenny Lin, Bruce Levingston, and Tania Leon.

    Philip Glass surrounded by great pianists. Photo credit Stephanie Berger, courtesy BAM

    The Vineyard Theatre

    For my friend’s autumn visit to the city, we went to the Village to see “Billy & Ray” at the Vineyard Theatre.  It’s about the writing of a screenplay for the great Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (based on book by James M. Cain which everyone disparaged as trash).  The play was written by Mike Bencivenga and directed by Gary Marshall, who of course knows how to direct in any medium, so it was put together well.  The play was a lot of fun for me since I got the in-jokes about the movie, the actors, the ways of the studio.  My companion’s brother would have enjoyed it.  While my friend enjoyed the play somewhat, she definitely looked at me questioningly each time I laughed at something she didn’t get.  It was only at intermission that I discovered she’d never seen Double Indemnity; and that she didn’t know Fred MacMurray had played a sweater-wearing dad named Steve Douglas in My Three Sons (one of the laugh lines for old folk like me).  I tried to explain what Double Indemnitymeant to me, since I knew MacMurray as that dad and seeing him in Double Indemnity was mind blowing, realizing that the middle-aged actor was once sexy and seriously noirish in the film that started noir. I compared the experience to seeing Robert Young, seen in the same decade as My Three Sonsplaying the kindly Dr. Marcus Welby — a family doctor who still made house calls — and the shock of seeing him as a Nazi in a Hitchcock film. My friend had never seen Marcus Welby either.  Clearly I watched way too much television in my youth.

    The play’s fun for those of us in the know and reasonably well structured until the end, when it runs into the problem any “fact” based story has in winding up — telling the audience what happened to Chandler afterward and Wilder and the movie, etc., and film noir itself.  Larry Pine was more than competent but not quite on as Chandler and Vincent Kartheiser, while better than I expected as Billy Wilder, was still not the Billy in my head (even though Billy must have been young once).  Still I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was good. The scenic designer used the space well, and the period music was spot on.  So it was a pleasant if not scintillating evening, and I was delighted to know that Chandler was well aware that doors open into rooms, not out into hallways, so that great, nail-bitingly tense scene in which Barbara Stanwyck hides from Edward G. Robinson behind the open hallway door was “grammatically” incorrect.  Billy Wilder didn’t care for reality, but rather for the dramatic moment.

    Do see Double Indemnity, the film, if you haven’t — or even if you have.  The play’s fun, but does not hold a candle to the film it holds up for examination.
     
    Kartheiser as Wilder and Pine as Chandler. Photo credit (c) 2014 Carol Rosegg

    A Delicate Balancing Act at the Golden Theatre

    Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is back on Broadway, but this one does not compare to the 1996 production, despite Pam McKinnondirecting.  While I loved her production of Who’s Afraid ofVirginia Woolf, this evening is well staged, but not well directed mostly because it’s not well cast.  I hesitated to see this production because I did not want to sully the memory of the perfect production of the play we saw on Broadway in the 1990s — with the brilliant George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch and Rosemary Harris.  Sometimes — well, often — one should follow the gut.

    The Leading Lady, Agnes, is a tough creature to play: she is the delicate balance.  Glenn Close doesn’t get it, coming off as merely officious.  John Lithgow is also rather shallow and dull as her husband. As their daughter, Martha Plimpton is also loud and shallow and dull.  

    Lindsay Duncanis downright brilliant in addition to being courageous for taking on a role we all remember Elaine Stritch doing.  Ms. Duncan does a great deal more than hold her own. Bob Balaban (pitch perfect, tonally and physically) and Claire Higgins(mad and rather hateful, meaning perfect) as the frightened neighbors Harry & Edna are fabulous.  It made me happy just to see them enter the stage.  They nailed it.

    One of my favorite aspects in the scenic/lighting design were the shadows of people about to enter – down the stairs, from the kitchen area, toward the front door, all the visual “foreshadowing” was marvelous.  The staging and design elements were cleverly “off balance.”

    I know A Delicate Balance, and it’s not a dull play.  I should never have timeto sit and think, “I am so bored with these rich people, they should go out and work, why is the drunk the only interesting thing onstage, what is the issue with the bedrooms with these people, they have servants and no guest room??”  But that’s how I felt the evening I saw this production.  The last 3-hour play I saw was Stoppard’s Indian Ink at the Roundabout, and I wasn’t bored for a moment.  Big difference. 

    Six actors, of which three do fine work — really, Lindsay Duncan is the epitome of alive onstage, living as a whole person (however broken as an alcoholic, or, as Claire insists, a drunk) with relationships, history, power, humor, and guts.  To see her work, and that of Clare Higgins and Bob Balaban, is a delight.  But there must be a better way.

    Save your money on this one.
     
    Lithgow and Close.  Photo Credit (c) 2014 Brigitte Lacombe.

    The Last Ship at the Neil Simon Theatre

    Sting’s new musical (music & lyrics by Sting, a.k.a. Gordon Sumner) has a terrific book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, is directed by Joe Mantello, and rather thrillingly choreographed by Steven Hoggett.  When we saw it, we predicted: The Last Ship will be touted as and win awards as the best new musical of the year.  Unfortunately, the wrong people wrote reviews on it.  If you like Sting’s musical progression over the years, you’ll like the score. This is not what he did with The Police, this is later Sting, which leans more toward older music, music of the working people, which is pretty much the play.

    The critics are wrong about The Last Ship.  It’s musically exciting, emotionally engaging, and different from the usual Broadway.  The choreography is suited to the characters doing the dancing, and the scenic and lighting design (David Zinn and Christopher Akerlind, respectively) are fabulous.  Michael Esper as Gabriel returned to his hometown and Rachel Tuckeras the girl he left behind lead an excellent cast. We had a wonderful evening.  The play does not need Sting to appear onstage, he’s already there in its heart and sound, although he will join the cast as a means to bring more people into the theatre.  Unfortunately, this means those who see Sting will miss the hearty and heartfelt performance of Jimmy Nail. 

    A fine Christmas gift it would be if this musical play’s box office turns around and it runs on, despite foolish critics.
    A scene from The Last Ship.  (C)2014  Sara Krulwich/NYT


    ~ Molly Matera, hoping everyone is enjoying their preparations for holidays, which should include seeing some live theatre.

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    Theatre for a New Audiencecontinues to use its new space at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center well.  This time they’ve provided the opportunity to see Marlowe’s Tamburlaine for the first — and presumably last — time.

    For some gladsome reason Michael Boyd decided to cut the two 3-4 hour plays that comprise Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, Parts 1 and 2, into one play that runs about 2 ½ hours with 30 minutes in the middle to give the stage crew time to mop up all the blood during intermission.  The play may not be so bloody as Evil Dead the Musicalnor The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and yet it holds its own.

    The play follows a chronological and geographical structure as Tamburlaine (a Scythian shepherd who has turned to raiding and marauding and gathering followers along the way), goes from territory to territory in Africa and Asia to conquer and control. While this pointless continuation of killing for titles appears illogical to a modern audience, that doesn’t keep the playwright from moving from one place on a map (he loves place names!) to the next, so Tamburlaine can kill one king, regent, prince after another.  It’s mad.  And it’s bold.  The battle between religious groups is nothing new — Marlowe has some Christian king breaking his word to Muslims, Muslims betray one another, and the only one who wins is the Scythian marauder Tamburlaine, who claims the title of every man he kills — King of Persia, Emperor of Turkey, Kings of Fez, Morocco, Argier, the map expands as the play continues.  It certainly sounds like nothing much has changed since Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine around 1587 and the present.  The maps have merely expanded to more land and changed some names.

    I offer immense kudos to director/editor Michael Boyd as well as gratitude since I’m not likely to sit through two nights of four hours of bloodletting however heightened the language.  The theatricality of the blood-letting is admirable, the effects horrifying — although the gallons of blood did not compare to the tossing of a single cut-off tongue, which left us all aghast.  Tamburlaine goes beyond beyond, and even the come-uppance of dis-likable characters goes too far.  Mind you, there are a lot of laughs in this production of Tamburlaine, particularly from the ever off-kilter Saxon Palmer.  Add to him the delightful Steven Skybell, Matthew Amendt, Chukwudi Iwuji in an extraordinary performance going from the heights to the pits... really the whole cast is marvelous.

    John Douglas Thompson and Chukwudi Iwuji (Photo Credit Gerry Goodstein)
    The brilliant, amazing, lovably terrifying John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine the Great is a requirement for a play like this, and Mr. Thompson can carry it.  Although I cannot understand quite how his (or anyone’s) rhetoric could lead Theridamas (Andrew Hovelson) to betray his country or king (etc.), nor to persuade his captive to happily become a wife, Thompson’s Tamburlaine was magical and funny and oddly down-to-earth.  And quite mad, of course.  No resting on his laurels, no matter how many he conquered — he just liked the conquering.  Merritt Janson did fine work as Tamburlaine’s other conquest, the unlikely wife, Zenocrate (daughter of the Soldan of Egypt).  Nilanjana Bose was more than convincing as Olympia, the conquered woman still loyal to her husband even in death. 

    Of all the wonderful actors in this play, I think my favorite was Paul Lazar, who set us up to laugh from the opening, so we knew it would be OK to laugh through the bloodletting as he played the doomed King of Persia, later the Soldan of Egypt, and finally Almeda the Jailor. 

    Finally, the choreography by Sam Pinkleton, music by Arthur Solari, fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth all worked together to bring us this remarkable piece edited and directed by Mr. Boyd with dramaturgy by Jonathan Kalb.  Rather than rolling over in his grave at the massive cuts to his scripts, I suspect Mr. Marlowe is grinning ear to ear at this modern re-telling.  After all, everyone but writers know that less is more.

    Alas, I saw this play near the end of its run so recommending it is practically a pointless exercise — EXCEPT that run has been extended through January 4th.  http://www.tfana.org/season-2015/tamburlaine/overview Do your darnedest to make it there — otherwise, just keep an eye out for anything edited or directed by Michael Boyd, and anything in which John Douglas Thompson appears.  Well done, TFANA.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off, probably for the last post this year….or maybe not….

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    I have been lax.  I’ve seen several things, some plays, some dance programs (of a sort), some….well, here they are.  You decide how to label them.

    Valley of Astonishment at Theatre for a New Audience (“TFANA”)
    The season opener at TFANA in Brooklyn, the Peter Brook/Marie-Hélène Estienne (with the C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord) production called “Valley of Astonishment” continued to dramatize Mr. Brook’s fascination with what he calls the “labyrinth of the brain.” He previously explored this onstage a number of years ago in The Man Who based on Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book of the longer name The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. 
     
    Marcello Magni, Kathryn Hunter, and  Jared McNeill.
    Interestingly, despite the lack of a light or sound cue to make us all hush, the audience fell silent and still just before the actors and musicians entered the performance space — as if there had been a signal only dogs could hear that all the people should shut up and pay attention.  In this theatrical study, Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill played various doctors, a newspaper editor, a newspaper reporter who didn’t need a notebook (Ms. Hunter as a mnemonist), an emcee, a painter with synesthesia who loved and painted jazz (Mr. McNeill), a one-armed magician (I didn’t really get what that one was doing in there but for the comic relief when he brought audience members up to participate in card tricks) and a man who could only move his limbs when he could see them (Mr. Magni).  The performances were uniformly excellent, three actors inhabiting different characters in seamless transitions. Ms. Hunter switched from a confident doctor to the mnenomist who could remember anything effortlessly, but this power bit back just as powerfully.  The set was remarkably sparse, as was the lighting. Portions of the 12th century Persian poem The Conference of the Birds were recited in performance and cited in the program as an influence, but I didn’t get the connection even after I leafed through the gorgeous 2011 rendition of the epic poem with beautiful artwork by Peter Sis (who acknowledged the influence on him of Dr. Sacks and Mr. Brooks at the end of his illustrated book — synchronicity).  I still didn’t get it, but any excuse to explore Mr. Sis’ world is a good one.

    As with The Man Who, I wouldn’t quite call this a play so much as a contemplation with dramatizations to aid our search for understanding of receptors that are incomprehensible to the majority of us who do not receive numbers, letters, or words as colors, shapes or feelings. Nevertheless, Valley of Astonishment was a compelling if sometimes confusing evening.

    Indian Ink at the Roundabout Theatre
    Tom Stoppard wrote a beautiful play back in 1995.  I missed it.  Thankfully the Roundabout Theatre has brought it back in a gentle and lovely production directed by Carey Perloff.  Indian Ink is perfectly structured, presents us the story in the present, to past, to present and back again, with all the disparate parts coming together in an emotionally satisfying experience.  Well-drawn characters filled the stage and the mind and drew us into the play beyond the duration of the evening. The main character, Miss Flora Crewe, was so real to me that I looked her up so I could read her controversial poetry; alas, to no avail.  Flora Crewe is a marvelous creation of Mr. Stoppard, whose puzzle pieces fit together smoothly yet not predictably.  By the end we understand each little throwaway line and reference about “Sasha” and “Eric” and Modigliani (yes, that Modigliani) and what role they played in the lives of these two women, sisters, separated by fifty years and death.  Romola Garai as Flora in the past is a worthy partner to the great Rosemary Harris, who plays her surviving sister Eleanor in later life (the present).  Mr. Stoppard’s play is finely wrought, details sketched then filled in, shaded, colored, polished — never varnished. Water color and oils and pencil appear onstage and stay in our minds.  Quick rough sketches lead to lush Indian paintings.  Ms. Garai has joined Ms. Harris in the pantheon of goddesses of the theatre.   

    As in all good theatre, everyone and everything is part of the whole, and Ms. Harris and Ms. Garai are much more than ably abetted by Firdous Bamjias Nirad Das, Flora’s portrait painter and so much more, then Bhavesh Patel as Anish Das, the son who goes to meet sister Eleanor in the present.  A large and marvelous cast was expertly directed by Carey Perloff in a beautiful set by Neil Patel dressed in costumes to die for by Candice Donnelly.
     
    The gorgeous set by Neil Patel.  Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus.
    The play only runs through November 30, 2014. This one is worth your time and money, so get your ticket(s) now.

    Alan Smithee Directed This Play:  Triple Feature at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater
    Big Dance Theater returned to BAM with a mash-up of three screenplays from different times, styles, and genres:  Terms of Endearment, Doctor Zhivago, and the French film Le Cercle Rouge.  Annie B. Parson playfully rewrote screenplays and directed her company with long-time theatrical partner Paul Lazar.  The company members spoke different roles in gender-bending repetitious rehashings, some of the scenes immediately recognizable since they’re embedded in our sub-conscious memories.  The production utilized “multi-media,” meaning a long wall covered in window blinds was cleverly transformed into a screen at the back of the stage to display oddly cut, snipped and sliced scenes of the French film.  In Ms. Parson’s revised script, the onstage cast responded and spoke for the actors frozen on the stuttering screen.  This chopped salad was jagged and odd.  While entertaining for a while, it eventually pushed the director’s conceit a little too far and a little too long.
    Big Dance Theatre -- Photo: Julieta Cervantes

    King Lear by Shakespeare’s Globe at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
    If you have been reading this blog over the past year, you likely know that I had seen Shakespeare’s (Tragedie?  Historie?) King Lear three times already in 2014:  In Brooklyn, TFANA’s production directed by Arin Arbus and starring Michael Pennington as Lear, then a live broadcast from London of the National Theatre’s Sam Mendes production starring Simon Russell Beale, and finally the Delacorte’s summer production barely directed by Daniel Sullivan.  Why a fourth, you ask? 

    Because Shakespeare’s Globe is in town. 
     
    Joseph Marcell as King Lear
    Since 2009, I have enjoyed the Shakespeare’s Globe touring company — which is not quite the same as the star-company that played a double bill on Broadway last winter.  The touring company tours the world, is small and compact like its set.  Previously I’ve seen them set up their figurative tent at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University in lower Manhattan, but this year they’ve come up to Greenwich Village to play in NYU’s Skirball Center.  This is the company that presented the only production of Shakespeare’s early play Love’s Labour’s Lost that I have ever liked [http://www.mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2009/12/delightful-dalliance.html] as well as a brisk Hamlet a few years later [http://mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2012/10/a-wee-hamlet.html].  Having toured a bit and put up traveling sets on disparate stages myself, I’d love to see how this company’s set is put together and struck.  As explained by Professor Michael Hattaway before the performance the night I attended this production, “booth” sets travel anywhere and can be put on a stage, in a courtyard, at a fair, indoors, outdoors, anywhere.  This company is like the traveling players Hamlet wished to join (don’t we all) and they did not disappoint.

    The Globe Lear was a speeding bullet; unusually this production packed laughs and music and a jig into its three hours before I noticed the time flying by.  As I asked over two years ago at their production of Hamlet, was this jolly evening’s entertainment King Lear? I don’t know now any more than I did when that short and amusing Hamlet played downtown, but I’m not altogether sure I care.  Judicious and wild doubling highlighted the mad skills of the cast, who played all manner of musical instruments in addition to their own voices — drums, concertina, trombone, guitar, bells, planks of wood, and anything that they could lay their hands on.  All except the mighty, regal, fretful, warm and childish King Lear of Joseph Marcell doubled other roles.  A cast of eight — yes, eight — played everyone.  Gwendolen Chatfield played Goneril, various servants and soldiers, and musical instruments, Shanaya Rafaat played Regan as well as various servants and soldiers, even Bill Nash doubled not only the obvious Earl of Kent and “Caius,” but other servants of various lords.  John Stahl as the Duke of Gloucester doubled as the Duke of Albany and the rest of the roles appear to have been played by the actors portraying Edmund and Edgar. Their doubling was just hilarious:  Daniel Pirrie played Edmund as well as Goneril’s servant Oswald and the King of France, and the servant to the Duke of Cornwall who strikes the fatal blow to Cornwall and is killed by Regan.  Alex Mugnaioni played Edgar and the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Burgundy.  This allowed the two brothers to fight with one another three times!  Wild.  Mr. Mugnaioni took his Edgar on a journey from a foppish young man to a desperate one to the powerful potential king.  Nicely done.

    Finally, Cordelia doubled as the Fool and Bethan Cullinane was splendid in both roles.  Yes, you heard it here first:  I loved this performance of a natural, straightforward and still soft Cordelia, neither simp nor sap but a strong confident young woman.  That Cordelia and the Fool do not appear onstage together lends credence to the idea that Lear refers to Cordelia when he says “And my poor fool is hang’d” in his final scene — meaning his dear daughter, not his jester, “fool” being a term of endearment at the time, not a disparagement.  Ms. Cullinane’s Fool was witty, brave, frightened — a youthful fool, but one that pleased me more than young fools generally do.

    Bill Buckhurst directed this delightful cast through to the final jig by choreographer Georgina Lamb, all on the compact and multi-purposed “booth set” designed by Jonathan Fensom (which looked an awful lot like — and probably was — the one used in the Globe’s Hamletperformed two years ago.  The cast interacted with the audience before the play began and would probably have been happier with their “booth” set on a thrust performance space than on a proscenium stage, but these actors could have done this production absolutely anywhere.  I realize, of course, that the depths of “tragedie” are not plumbed in a production such as this, but I saw three other Lears this year, so that just didn’t concern me.  The Globe Shakespeare provided an entertaining, funny, musical, theatrical evening.  This company is welcome back to NYC any time, anywhere. 
     
    The Hamlet set -- looks the same to me.  Photo credit:  F. Stop Fitzgerald.
    Unfortunately this play’s NYC run ended on the 12th October, but check Globe Shakespeare’s web site to see if it’s coming your way.

    Shakespeare’s Sonnets at Brooklyn Academy of Music – the Opera House
    Robert Wilson& Rufus Wainwright’s presentation of “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” with the Berliner Ensemble — or, more accurately titled “Circus From Hell” — took over the stage of the Opera House and transformed it into a torture chamber for the audience at whom lights as bright as halogen high beams were shot throughout the evening.  Several years ago I sat in that same Opera House when a choreographer, having decided that dawn should be enacted in real time, forgot that theatre is not reality and that many of us have already noticed that the sunrise is not, happily, instantaneous.  Back then, the stage and theatre were dark for a wasted 20 minutes.  At the Opera House this time, Mr. Wilson decided he had to do dawn one better by providing 7 minutes of crickets and early morning birdsong, very gradually rising in volume.  Then the most godawful light you could imagine, which bore no resemblance to a warm and gentle dawn, came up as footlights across the length of the stage. This was a repeated effect for Mr. Wilson, who apparently had decided to blind us with his…intellect?  Wit?  Neither.  A woman dressed in colorless hues and a jester hat entered, giggled, and recited a sonnet.  Number 43.  She was rather charming, and I had hope, especially if they would turn off that light.  But then the truth revealed itself.  This was a circus, with masked characters I’d seen in nightmares speaking disconnected lines from the same sonnet.  One sonnet over the course of twenty minutes and various “clowns” who looked like those characters in the Twilight Zone episode in which the greedy heirs became their horror masks.  Remember this? 
    Well, that was what it was like.  No wonder it took three hours to do 25 sonnets.

    Oh, and since this was the Berliner Ensemble, the Sonnets were spoken in German with English supertitles.  I’ve seen several of the plays in several languages, and they work just fine. The Sonnets, however, need to be spoken in their native tongue, which would make the inappropriateness of Mr. Wilson’s vision perfectly clear.  Mr. Wainwright’s music, on the other hand, would fit another, radically different, performance of the Sonnets and I hope that occasion does arise to salvage his compositions in various musical styles.
     
    Angela Winkler, Anke Engelsmann, Jürgen Holtz, and Traute Hoess in Shakespeare's Sonnets, directed by Robert Wilson with original music by Rufus Wainwright, at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House. (© Stephanie Berger)
    We left at intermission with aching heads and eyeballs.  Feel free to exhale a sigh of relief at having missed it

    Not I, Footfalls, and Rockaby at BAM Harvey Theatre
    Last week, BAM’s Harvey presented three one-act, one-actor plays by Samuel Beckett, all performed by Lisa Dwan as directed by Walter Asmus.  The brief evening was very dark in every sense of the word.  I’ve never experienced such a dark theatre — even the exit lights were dimmed, there were no lights on the stairs or in the aisles, and the ushers stood close together by the curtains to shield the auditorium from the slightest glimmer of light leaking in.  Ms. Dwan did not quite “appear” in the first play — only her mouth was lit in the totally darkened theatre.  In the second play, we could see her dimly in the pale, tightly contained lighting. Ms. Dwan paced (creating “Footfalls”), then stopped.  Paced then stopped. This went on, silent but for her footfalls, for a while, until her face lifted into the light as she spoke to her mother, and her mother responded.  That, too, was Ms. Dwan, in a totally different, deeper, ragged voice of an elderly woman.  We could barely see Ms. Dwan’s mouth move when she spoke as the mother.  Her work was truly impressive.  In the third play, darkness still reigned, with a narrow focused light on Ms. Dwan’s hands and face and the occasional glitter of something on her bodice as she slowly rocked to a repetitious monologue.

    Lisa Dwan in Rockaby.  Photo Sara Krulwich.
    This was pure Beckett, and I’d guess (without being a Beckett scholar) that Ms. Dwan was utterly loyal to his wishes (despite the fact that her dress in the second play did not appear “ragged” in the soft light, which I believe was his stage direction).  While I admired Ms. Dwan’s mellifluous voice and her vocal technique, as well as the musicality of Mr. Beckett’s plays, still I was unmoved by this evening of theatre.  Perhaps that was because the theatre’s darkness combined with the script’s rhythmic repetitions mesmerized me toward somnolence — as if Messrs. Beckett and Asmus and Ms. Dwan wished to push their audience toward nightmares…. 

    I’d be glad to see the talented and highly disciplined Ms. Dwan’s work again with more light, visual and emotional.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off, closing her eyes to replay the good and erase the bad…..

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