A friend once admonished my grumpiness on my birthday (when I passed a certain decade figure, not to be mentioned) by saying she was glad I’d been born. Well, I’m glad you were born, Will. And I thank you.
Thank you for being an actor.
Thank you for being a writer.
Thank you for being an actor’s writer.
Thank you for writing plays for yourself and your friends to act.
Thank you for writing for your own time.
Thank you for writing those simple truths that know no century or country and make your plays speak to generation after generation.
Thank you for the histories, which taught me enough to understand Wolf Hall
Thank you for the comedies and the love and the laughter.
Thank you for the tragedies that challenge every actor to be worthy of them.
Thank you for Beatrice, Helena, Luciana, Olivia and Viola, Portia, Hermione, Kate, Bianca, for Goneril and Regan, Cordelia and Hero, Isabella and Lady Anne, for Cleopatra and Calpurnia, for Celia and Rosalind, Helena and Hermia, for the Countess, the Courtesan, Imogen and Marina, Dionyza and Lady MacB, not to mention Lady MacDuff, too many to list, even though there were so few women in each play.
Thanks for Hamlet and Richard II, Henry VI and Falstaff, Petruchio, Edmund, Edgar…Osric... and all the rest.
And although you didn’t write it, you clearly inspired it, so thanks, too, for “Something Rotten.” Happy Birthday, Will. Many, many joyous returns of the day.
~ Molly Matera, logging off to watch “Playing Shakespeare,” or Branagh’s “Much Ado,” or maybe Orson’s version of the Scottish play, or David Tennant’s "Hamlet,” or , or, or…..
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.
I like old musicals. Old songs. The soaring melodies of Richard Rodgers, cleverness of Noel Coward, the wit and anguish of Cole Porter. I thoroughly enjoyed the outlandish humor of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. But I haven’t LOVED a musical play like this in I don’t know how long.
|The company of Hamilton. (Photo Credit 2015 Joan Marcus)|
Sitting in the Newman Theatre at the Public, I saw what some friends have called the future of musical theatre. After almost three hours riveted to the stage, I was overwhelmed, overpowered, overjoyed by this musical play. Hamilton is hilarious and heartbreaking as good stories and good music always are. Of course, the story is true — Alexander Hamilton, the youngest of our founding fathers, the lowest born, with big dreams of the future of the United States. As for the music, although I don't care for hip hop or rap and didn’t know quite what I was in for — I even brought my earplugs (required for movie houses showing most modern films) just in case the show was over amplified; it wasn’t —I found myself bowled over by the depth and catholicity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical talent, not to mention his intellect.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the book, music, and lyrics of Hamilton, has given us beautiful songs, witty, erudite and heartfelt, in an innovative play. And funny. The music is perfectly modulated and styled based on which character is telling what part of the story. There’s some rap, there are lyrical ballads, songs of ambition, jealousy, anger, love, unimaginable pain. There are vivid characters created, sung, danced before us. History is brought to life. The score is varied and rhythmic and melodic, Andy Bankenbuehler’s choreography exhilarating, the performances universally excellent. Thomas Kail’s direction is tight, bright, flawless.
Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are side by side throughout the story, from Hamilton’s arrival in NYC to his death in New Jersey at Burr’s hands. The quietly seething Burr, smoothly then passionately played by Leslie Odom, Jr., is a fine foil to Mr. Hamilton as played by Mr. Miranda. From the lullabies each man sings to his child to political wranglings in the creation of the new country, their similarities and differences are built and grown through the play to its climax. Burr wanted to be in the room where it happened, but it was always Hamilton.
|Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr with the Schuyler girls: Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Renee Elise Goldsberry|
These thrilling figures are at counterpoint to one another, surrounded by the ordinary yet extraordinary people in at our country’s birth, and the actors are at the top of their game. To name but a few: Christopher Jackson as George Washington, Daveed Diggs first as the Marquis de Lafayette and later as Thomas Jefferson, the golden-voiced Renée Elise Goldsberry as Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler in counterpoint to the sweetly warm Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s wife Elizalead a marvelous cast of actors, singers, dancers. And I mustn’t forget the only performer who would not be described as a person of color, Jonathan Groff, who provided a great deal of snide humor as King George.
|Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette, Okkieriete Onaodowan as Hercules Mulligan, Anthony Ramos as John Laurens, and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton. (Photo credit Joan Marcus)|
Mr. Miranda’s lyrics are contemporary to us, not Hamilton, but everything about this play is contemporary from the musical and dance styles to the plot. On this 18thcentury-style stage, we experience remarkably intelligent and tuneful rollicking good fun showing us that nothing changes. Politics, jealousy, love, faith: people are the same.
The scenic design by David Korins was appropriately Shakespearean — a “balcony” surrounding three sides of the stage with rolling staircases. Warm wood tones glowed even in the pre-show lighting set up by Howell Binkley. It’s a good space, a not too large house to preserve the intimacy of the direct address from these characters to us, and pretty well raked (with more legroom than any Broadway house).
Lin-Manuel Mirandais brilliant and has created a work of art, just magnificent. Unbearably good, unbearably painful, I want to see it again, experience it again, hear it again. And I want to read Ron Chernow’s biography that inspired such an intelligent, educational and moving joining of music, drama, and history.
As George Washington says (in the play), "Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Your Story." Lin-Manuel Miranda is telling Hamilton's story. Lucky Mr. Hamilton. Lucky us.
Here’s to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the new king of American musical theatre. Long may he reign.
~ Molly Matera, signing off….if you miss it at the Public Theatre, Hamilton is moving to Broadway this summer.
Although Something Rotten is not a Shakespeare play, it contains snippets of his verse and a potential personality type of the Bard. I consider Something Rotten and recall it with a smile. And then I think of the CSC Hamlet and sigh. And then think of the Fiasco Theater Company’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona at TFANA and rejoice: 2 Fabulous Shows out of 3 — Shakespeare Rules!
|Christian Borle as the Bard in Something Rotten. Photo Credit 2015 Joan Marcus|
Something Rotten is a very funny musical comedy that will be most enjoyed by fans of American musical theatre. Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell’s book and lyrics are full of winks, nods, and witticisms, with sometimes lyrical and sometimes show-stopping songs by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. One must love a show that rhymes genius with penis. (I realize there are those who will complain of this imperfect rhyme, but lowbrow that I am, I laughed like hell.) Something Rotten appeals to both types of brows, as well as to lovers of Shakespeare. Characters appear with familiar names like Nostradamus, Nick Bottom, Shylock, Portia. There are musical and dance riffs reminiscent of countless modern musicals (Chicago, Cats, A Chorus Line, Mary Poppins, to name just a few…) as well as scenes that could have inspired some of Shakespeare’s most famous ones.
|John Cariana as Nigel Bottom and Kate Reinders as Portia in Something Rotten. (Photo 2015 Joan Marcus)|
Christian Borle plays Shakespeare as that upstart crow (remember those “Notes” in your Folger editions), a cross between David Bowie and Tim Curry (as Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Frank N. Furter) as the coolest strutting rock star playwright ever. The diminutive ingénue Kate Reinders is playing a role apparently written with Kristen Chenoweth in mind and doing it beautifully with charm, expert comic timing, and a sweetly powerful voice. One can readily understand Brian d’Arcy Jamesleaving the fun role of King George in Hamilton for the lead of Nick Bottom in Something Rotten. Like Aaron Burr in Hamilton, Nick Bottom reveals himself in his solo about his rival, defining himself by his enemy: Shakespeare. He tells us in “I Hate Shakespeare” about that country hick who steals other people’s ideas and glory. The cast is overflowing with funny, talented people, like John Cariana as Nigel Bottom and Brad Oscar as the scene-stealing Nostradamus. The only unimpressive performance was that of Heidi Blickenstaff as Bottom’s wife Bea, who just belted everything without modulation. Finally, the direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw was a driving and moving force celebrating American musical theatre.
|Brad Oscar and Brian d'Arcy James in Something Rotten (2012 Photo Credit Joan Marcus)|
Meanwhile, the CSC Hamlet sounded more interesting than it was. I had heard (belated spoiler alert) that director Austin Pendleton had chosen not to show us the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, which could make us wonder what, if anything, the ghost ever said to Hamlet. Peter Sarsgaard’s Hamlet was stupefying, overthought and overwrought. Even Harris Yulin was rather dull as Claudius. The Gertrude by Penelope Allen was somnolent, but Lisa Joyce’s Ophelia was feisty and Stephen Spinella played Polonius with wit and style.
|Left to right, Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia. (c) 2015 Classic Stage Company|
Austin Pendleton staged the play within a play so that more than half the audience could not see Claudius’ reaction to the murder of Gonzago, which would seem impossible in a 3-sided playing space. The set was as annoying as an overdressed floral centerpiece, such that it became all about trying to see around the furniture instead of the content. All in all, the potential excitement in removing the actual Ghost fell flat with nothing interesting from Hamlet or the director in this empty rendition. Reimagining did not occur.
But then, hope revived. Even though Julia should punch Proteus at the end — does anyone else remember the joyous moment in an otherwise tedious Cymbeline when Joan Cusack’s Imogen punched Posthumous? — I know she never will so the clever edit of the Fiasco Theater Company’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at Theatre for a New Audience was a sheer delight of sparkling wordplay, song, and fun, with nary a moment of its two hour and ten minute running time allowed to lag.
|Sylvia and Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo Credit 2015 Gerry Goodstein.|
Apparently cutting the script to the bone clarifies what the play is really about. Judicious edits inspired six actors — two women and four men — to drive the play in high gear. The doubling and tripling and quadrupling of characters played led to laughter, with all players throwing in voices from “offstage” while sitting in plain sight. In one scene, the cast’s two women were both onstage, so when Sylvia called off to Ursula, the always original Andy Grotelueschen responds in a small frilly cap, bellowing like that goat meme that went around earlier this year. Such laughter as filled the house also fills the audience with oxygen and moves the play forward after Grotelueschen stops the show. I tend to believe that he does something like this to his fellow players every night in the same spot, in addition to playing Launce, the Duke, and Antonio. Jessie Austrian was a full-blooded and funny, awkward Julia to Noah Brody’s unfaithful Proteus. Paul L. Coffee was a sharp Speed, and Emily Young played Lucetta tartly and Sylvia with passionate intelligence. Zachary Fine was a sweet and loyal dog called Crab as well as Sylvia’s steadfast and true Valentine. And the music was rollicking and sweet. Fiasco’s Two Gents as directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld was a brilliant addition to TFANA’s spring season.
|Messrs. Fine, Coffee, Brody, and Grotelueschen. (Photo Credit 2015 Gerry Goodstein)|
As luck would have it, The Two Gentlemen of Verona has been extended through Saturday, June 20, at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Lucky you!
~ Molly Matera, signing off and urging you to see the Fiasco Theater Company’s production of Two Gents in Brooklyn while it lasts. I believe you have more time for Something Rotten which may just run on Broadway forever, but just in case it doesn’t, get your tickets now!
A thickly hot night at the Delacorte Theater vaguely threatened to storm all evening, with the occasional stiff breeze suddenly ceasing as thunder rumbled. Or was it thunder? A tumble of instruments sat stage right, a great many of them shouting and singing at the touch of percussionist Arthur Solari. His finely tuned playing accompanied a tempest of a different sort in The Public Theater’s first production of Shakespearein the Park’s 2015 season: William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The flashing lights (designed by David Lander) and booming drums of the plays’ opening storm were startling and grumbled sporadically throughout the evening leaving the weather and the story on edge. Riccardo Hernandez’s set was functional in iron, hemp, and wood, bare catwalks with steps and ropes, augmented by a spiral staircase adding to illusions of airborne characters in the play.
Prospero and Ariel. Photo Credit 2015 Joan Marcus.|
This summer’s production is the second time Sam Waterston has played Prospero — the first was almost 40 years ago. He is clear, engaged, and irascible. His skilled phrasing presents us with the poetry of the play at its best. On occasion he seemed to strain to push the words out, while some sections ran together in my ears. Mr. Waterston is a crotchety Prospero until he takes the noble step to not only make peace with those who usurped his dukedom 12 years before, but to forgive them, a totally believable transformation in a man whose anger is spent and who now knows his daughter is safe and loved.
The Tempest at the Delacorte. Photo credit Joan Marcus.|
Francesca Carpaniniplays Prospero’s daughter Miranda with sweet innocence, rendering the character’s most famous lines quite well. Only the love scenes came off as dully as they are written (sorry, Will) opposite a competent but uninteresting Rodney Richardson as Ferdinand, son of the king of Naples. Charles Parnell played the kingly co-conspirator Alonso sternly and well. Cotter Smith did solid work as Antonio, the brother who betrayed Prospero and now encourages Sebastian (Frank Harts), the brother of King Alonso, to repeat history and augment it with murder. Bernard White was an engaging Gonzalo although he appeared, 12 years after Prospero last saw him, to be much too young for Prospero to refer to him as “the good old man.” Louis Cancelmi as Caliban was anything but deformed except in his odd speech.
Michael Greifdirected a smoothly building production with good performances from his cast, with particularly memorable work by:
Chris Perfetti as other-worldly Ariel, whose oddly echoing vocal delivery and off-balance stance served well;
- the sweet and funny Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Trinculo, who was well paired with
- the scruffily hilarious Danny Mastrogiorgio as Stephano.
Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano. Photo Credit: (C) 2015 Joan Marcus|
The oft-dreaded (by me) supernatural ceremonials called for by Prospero were some of the best I’ve ever seen. The dancing and singing of melodious music by Michael Friedman blessed the ceremony of union orchestrated by spirits — Tamika Sonja Lawrence’s Ceres introduced the exceptional Olga Karmensky and Laura Shoop singing as Iris and Juno respectively. The choreography by Denis Jones was lilting and adventurous and allowed the Ensemble to shine as sprites of the island. These fantastical rites were so magically beautiful I was rapt and happy in them.
Michael Greif’s production was a touch uneven, leading me to wonder if it would have been as pleasurable an evening had this production been done indoors, absent the atmosphere of Central Park, the breeze through the trees, the view of Turtle Pond and Belvedere Castle beyond the set ….we will never know. The play filled the Delacorte Theatre, running about two hours forty minutes with nary a drop of rain. A fine night out in Central Park at the Delacorte celebrating Shakespeare.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the enchanting verse of this oh so quotable script.
Many years ago, I was enraptured by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby on its second visit to Broadway — while I did not see the late great Roger Rees in the title role, it was a splendid, surprising, and enthralling production. I later saw the RSC’s imaginative production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses with a fabulous script by Christopher Hampton and a gorgeous death scene by Alan Rickman.
You might understand, then, why my complete faith in the RSC led me to purchase two tickets, a matinee and an evening performance, to see the dramatization of newer books I’d read. My faith was not misplaced.
Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels is sterling, as is the RSC’s production. Wolf Hall (the Play’s Part I is based on Hilary Mantel’s novel of the same name, Part 2 on the second novel of the series, Bring Up the Bodies) is enormous, crowded with characters and history, politics, religion, and emotions. Poulton weeded carefully without sacrificing vital story lines that drive the action. Plaudits to him and to director Jeremy Herrin who made around six hours of theatre riveting and coherent.
The RSC & Mr. Poulton took a dense book with many characters, family trees, decades, and told its story with empathy and grace. This is history with action, passion, fury, fear, and courage. For the theatregoer, this is immersion theatre that doesn’t ask you to walk up and down the stairs and take part in the scenes. The audience in both the matinee and evening performances I saw were attentive and punctual, laughing or gasping in response — a fine double-helping of theatre.
The production design by Christopher Oram is all encompassing, realistic to the period and yet theatrically viable. Fires spring up from grates in various parts of the stage to serve as natural lighting in the design by Paule Constable (Part 1) and David Platers (Part 2). The lighting is intimately soft in the smaller scenes, while the court scenes seem to glow naturally. Many scenes remain artistically dim, a heightened reality of the 16th century darkness allowing the audience to settle in to the past.
This story is peopled by many familiar names and as many unfamiliar ones. Those who know their Shakespeare will recognize more characters, although the take on the same historical characters will vary all the way to oppositeness in different plays with different points of view. Suffice to say, the “noble” families of England were as powerful as American mob bosses in the 20th Century and frequently with morals as lax. The nobility of England, however, all too often had what law there was on their side. What no mob boss or “noble” will accept is a challenge to its power base. Thomas Cromwell was a challenge to the old guard’s power base, because he was trying to set the government on a path of sanity and logic. These things are always threats. And then, of course, there were the religious battles of the break from the Church of Rome. Thomas Cromwell was in the midst of upheaval on all fronts. Some considered him the cause.
The red-clad Cardinal Wolsey walks in and out in life and death, the past ever present. Peter Eyre’s Cardinal is witty, urbane, vain and tall. Mr. Eyre then played Wolsey’s successor Archbishop Warham as a small old man, dim and muddled. The splendor of Roman Catholic Church garb of Mr. Eyre’s first role contrasted with the drab habiliments of his Warham and his final character, Keeper of the Tower. Mr. Eyre’s three totally different characters, clearly delineated, each deeply grounded in a whole person, were indicative of the doubling and trebling of characters played by this wonderful company.
Ben Miles is superb as Thomas Cromwell. I am a huge fan of Mark Rylance, whose small screen performance — in the PBS miniseries based on the same books — as Thomas Cromwell was inward. Ben Miles gave us the Thomas Cromwell of the novels. Not merely a dour-faced man, a man who knew when to be subservient and when to be a thug, but a man of intellect, wit, and humor. There’s no denying Thomas Cromwell was a thug. Mind you, his bad acts were committed for king and country. Interestingly, he’s more respectful to and considerate of women than any other character in the story. In the books this is clear and that contributes to our affection for him.
Hilary Mantel’s books tell the story of England’s break from the church of Rome from very personal points of view: Henry VIII, who wanted a son and heir for his kingdom as well as younger women; Anne Boleyn, daughter of a minor nobleman who rose to marquess thence to queen. Henry’s first wife, the devout Catholic, Queen Catherine (fine work by Lucy Briers) and her daughter Mary (who would grow up to be Bloody Mary); the “nobles” who resented Cromwell’s rise as they had resented the rise of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey. This story has many characters and as many hopes, dreams, goals, and jealousies. At the center of it all was Thomas Cromwell given thrilling life by Ben Miles.
|Ben Miles as Cromwell and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn|
This story of Thomas Cromwell in the reign of Henry VIII is fictionalized for ease of digestion, telling us much more about the man than historians know. Despite his “low” beginnings — the son of a blacksmith from Putney — Cromwell took on the burdens of a feudal lord, grew an enormous household and looked after everyone, making a lot of enemies and money doing it. He refers to himself as a lawyer or a banker, perhaps an accidental statesman. Miles draws the audience into Cromwell’s world, his plans, his feelings, his intentions. We are complicit.
Nathaniel Parkeris a genial, hearty, gruff and sane Henry VIII, unlike Damien Lewis’ more manic portrayal of the monarch on the PBS miniseries. Parker’s Henry was a moon-faced pup who never grew up, whose mood swings were those of a spoilt child — except that the downside led to executions. Sweet and kind turned to a ravening dog on a dime.
Anne was a manipulative scold, greedy for the power that could protect her from the caustic court. Lydia Leonard’s final scenes were run through with fear and made Anne suddenly pitiable. Most of the women portrayed onstage were unpleasant creatures, until we remember what a horrid life of minimal choices they led. Any port in a storm.
The production’s doubling is skillful and clever – Chapuys and Stephen Gardiner are both played by Matthew Pidgeon, the former emotional and wild, the latter distant and repressed, utterly different ways to play anger. Terrific doubling, nay, tripling by Leah Brotherhead as Princess Mary, Jane Seymour, and Lady Worcester. One might have thought that it was three actors except that no one else on the stage was as petite as she. John Ramm was unrecognizable in each of his three roles — Thomas More, Henry Norris, and Sir John Seymour. Pierro Niel-Mee personified the ruffian (as Cromwell was himself in his youth) Christoph, Cromwell’s loyal French servant, then changed course and also played the insensitive courtier Weston. Olivia Darnley was delightful and earthy in her short lifespan as Thomas Cromwell’s wife Lizzie, then reappeared as Mary Boleyn with the same lust for life, as well as portraying a third lady.
I could name the whole cast, so pleased was I with each and every one, but then I expect that of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC’s Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2, exemplified the joys of theatre — which should not be mistaken for history.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to go back to the books….
Cymbeline is a late play by William Shakespeare, meaning he’d done with the histories, the straight comedies and romances, and was ready for riskier works to be produced indoors in more intimate venues than the Globe. I decided, as I was ruminating on this production, that this play’s theme has to do with false reports and betrayal. May I assure you, no one onstage or in the audience noticed.
The play has its “problems,” but no one cares, for if it is approached from askew, hilarity ensues. Daniel Sullivan’s production for The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park (that is, at the Delacorte in Central Park) fits the bill.
Director Sullivan did judicious cutting in his production and incorporated delightful doubling and imaginative additions. The program lists 14 characters and assorted gentlemen, lords, ladies, soldiers, messengers and captains, all played by nine actors (seven men, two women).
Let’s consider the main character and her love: Imogen and Posthumous Leonatus. She the heiress to a kingdom in Wales, he an orphan raised by Imogen’s father, King Cymbeline, the two married in secret. Also vying for Imogen’s love is Cloten, the cloddish son of the present Queen — who is not mother to any child of Cymbeline. In comparison to Cloten, Posthumous is a catch. However, judged on his own, Posthumous is a cipher until he becomes an ass.
Lily Rabe as Imogen, Hamish Linklater as Posthumous. Photo credit (c) 2015 Carol Rosegg.
Thanks to the bravura performance of a problematic role by Hamish Linklater, once in Rome we see the shallow, rudderless fool Posthumous is, and from being a cipher he becomes a fool then turns into an ass. The utterly charming Mr. Linklater makes him almost pitiable, had he not attempted to pervert his good servant Pisanio (played to perfection by Steven Skybell) to kill his wife Imogen based upon false evidence (from Iachimo, more on him anon) and his own lack of faith. Not to mention intelligence.
Once her father banishes her husband, Imogen’s only ally at court is Posthumous’ servant Pisanio. Steven Skybell is punctiliously if oddly dressed, adores his master and his mistress, abhors the Queen and Cloten, and fears the King.
The wonderful Lily Rabe is Imogen, feisty and foolish, faithful and fierce — she has a temper which delights us as she physically punishes Iachimo for his lascivious behavior in Cymbeline’s court…. In Wales or in Rome, Iachimo lies like a dog on a rug. But the traditional servant, smarter than his “betters,” saves the day by judicious misleading and lying as any good servant must.
Banished from Wales, Posthumous does not appear to be suffering overmuch. Among his playmates in Rome is Iachimo, a viscous Italian with money but no work, except perhaps as a nightclub warbler. Daniel Sullivan made a rather tedious scene of male braggadocio into a musical number using Raúl Esparza perfectly. In a suit a little too shiny, with song stylings a little too slick, this Iachimo crooned like a cross between Sinatra and Dean Martin. He was sleazy, he was oily, he was brilliant. Then a woman dressed like a flapper in a slinky dress and short black wig joined him, and they danced sensuously together. One does not expect a show-stopping number a third of the way through a Shakespeare play, but we got one.
|Imogen with Iachimo played by Raúl Esparza. Photo credit (c) 2015 Carol Rosegg.|
Meanwhile back in Wales, the other fool, the loutish Cloten (also played by the brilliant Linklater with a pageboy blond wig that brings to mind a series of dumb movies) attempts to crudely and tunelessly woo his stepsister, since both his mother the queen and his stepfather (clearly on drugs) want the two to marry.
Cymbeline, King of Britain, is a grumpy old pill-popping monarch played gruffly by Patrick Page, who also lends his voice to Posthumous’ patron in Rome, Philario. Cymbeline’s second wife, the present unnamed Queen and mother of Cloten, is joyously played by Kate Burton, who has a marvelous time with the traditional wicked stepmother. She also slips into a male identity (alas not a powerful performance), Morgan, who is actually Belarius, long banished from Cymbeline’s court due to false report.
Hamish Linklater as Cloten, Imogen's stepbrother. Photo credit (c) 2015 Carol Rosegg.|
Belarius and Posthumous, both loyal to Cymbeline, are both banished from court doubtless due to the machinations of the comic book evil, poison-dabbling queen, whose little white dog doesn’t even like her — it spends its entire stage time trying to wriggle out of her arms. Happily the dog is rescued by Cornelius the court doctor played by Teagle F. Bougere, except when he’s playing the Roman ambassador, Lucius. Or at the same time….
In Rome, there are two layabouts who look rather like the two sycophantic gentlemen in Cymbeline’s Court, and the same two actors are those mountain folk whom Imogen-disguised-as-a-boy falls in with, who are also her long lost brothers. These multiple characters are snidely, brutishly, and sweetly, respectively, played by David Furr and Jacob Ming-Trent.
Back in Rome, Iachimo finagles a foolish promise from the annoyingly naïve Posthumous that causes all the ruckus with Imogen, which causes her to disguise herself as a boy escaping the court and traveling to Milford Haven. Whereupon she chances to meet old Belarius, a.k.a. Morgan, and his two sons, who are not his sons at all, but Cymbeline’s missing heirs whom Belarius kidnapped twenty years before when he was wrongly banished from Cymbeline’s court. And then she mistakes a headless dead guy for her husband.
It’s that kind of play.
And I left out a whole lot of stuff.
Back and forth and round and about, the cast members are doubling roles and watching each other as if it’s a play within a play. And the scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez suggests it is. David Zinn’s costume design and Charles G. Lapointe’s hair and wig design help bring it all together.
All the absurdities of the plot upon plot intertwined with a trope and a meme make light of the heartbreak of Imogen and Posthumous. The actors do not. There is funny work done by all, and some heartbreaking work as well. This production of Cymbeline most certainly works; just don’t think too hard, it tangles the brain.
As tradition happily has it, all the confusing plots and sub-plots are tied up by evening’s end, and celebrated with an antic and acrobatic dance choreographed by Mimi Lieber, making for a wholly delightful evening in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre with a fine company of players.
~ Molly Matera, apologizing for taking so long to write this – there is a bit more than a week to go in the run of this summer production, so get yourself to the virtual or actual line for Shakespeare in the Park!
Last year I wrote a reasonably well-prepared post about William Shakespeare and his plays in celebration of his birthday on this very blog. Alas, this year, well, I’ve been a bit lax in gathering data and thoughts and such, so I may be a bit doddery (Lear creeps in already) in these scribblings. I will now stop procrastinating, for as Will said, “In delay there lies no plenty.” Or Good’n’Plenty. Off we go.
The thing about Shakespeare is that we go to hear the words. We see the same plays over and over again because the same play can take a different path when someone new directs it or acts in it or designs it or thinks about it and puts it all together to communicate their interpretation to us, the willing audience. And if we disagree, we get to argue about it. Who could ask for anything more.
We will see their spiffy production values and costumes and themes and such, but still we go to hear. Hear the same sentence sound remarkably different because a different actor is saying it to yet another actor. Let’s take King Lear, for example; it’s a year for Lears. There’s your Lear, and there’s your Lear talking to your Regan. Or your Goneril. Or your Cordelia. And your Lear has different feelings about each of these daughters depending on the actor playing Lear, the actor playing Goneril, the actor playing Regan, the actor playing Cordelia. So many dynamics to play with, so many possibilities. And each time we hear this Lear we haven’t seen before speak the same lines another Lear did to his daughters, the words are new and fresh.
Everyone wants to do Lear — the play has very fine male roles, of course, but also two excellent female roles and one possibly impossible female role — so there’ll be plenty more to come and to compare. All of this applies to many of the plays, of course. Lear is an easy example this year.
|Diana Rigg as Regan|
Last month I saw Theatre For a New Audience’s (“TFANA”) production of King Lear in which Michael Pennington undertook the role of Lear under the direction of Arin Arbus. His Lear was a pretty angry fellow in full control of his faculties when he makes all the foolish assumptions and foolhardy decisions of his first scene. Later he goes a bit dotty and becomes softer and more understanding. He notices things then — things like there were subjects (people) to be cared for, to be protected, in his kingdom, and he hadn’t done his job well. It was a very socially-aware Lear. I’m told, although I didn’t see it myself, that Frank Langella’s Lear performed the month before at BAM, started off that same first scene practically doddering and then became clearer in his madness. Utterly different men, utterly different choices, utterly different relationships. In the TFANA Lear, my favorites were the Regan (a marvelously sharp and cynical Bianca Amato) and her husband Cornwall (a delightfully perverse Saxon Palmer). I decided to re-view a Lear still in my memory from the 1980s for its fabulous Edmund and Edgar pairing of Robert Lindsay and David Threlfall. The Lear was Olivier. The Fool, oh the Fool, was John Hurt! Next week I’ll be seeing a live broadcast from London of a production directed by Sam Mendesin which Simon Russell Beale takes on Lear.
But I digress.
In the past year I saw some splendid productions of Shakespeare plays, including —
- London’s Donmar Warehouse’s production of Julius Caesar1 set in a women’s prison transferred handily to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Directed by the fabulous Phyllida Lloyd, Dame Harriet Walter as Brutus and Frances Barber as Julius Caesar led an all-female cast to the heights and depths and yes it worked. This was the perfect example of familiar lines carrying all new meaning based on the interpretations of different direction, actors, genders, and styles.
|Harriet Walter as Brutus|
- TFANA’s inaugural production in its new home in another part of Brooklyn was of A Midsummer Night’s Dream2directed by Julie Taymor. It was as magical and delectable and high-flying as you might expect from Ms. Taymor.
|Tina Benko as Titania|
- In addition to more snow than we’re accustomed to, winter brought us two plays in repertory3 from Shakespeare’s Globe, not in its usual visiting venue in lower Manhattan. Rather, these two gorgeous (costumes, set, music, everything), all-male Globe productions traveled to Broadway.
- Twelfe Night starred Mark Rylance as Olivia in what might be the most extraordinary performance I’ve seen him give yet, and he’s always remarkable. Stephen Fry’s Malvolio was also delicious.
- Richard III starred Mr. Rylance again in the title role, but the play showed itself as it is — so much about Richard that the other characters and the story are short-changed. Not by the actors, however. For just one example, Samuel Barnett (a fine Viola in the Twelfe Night) was a fabulous and powerful Queen Elizabeth in Richard III.
At a movie-house I saw the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Coriolanus4broadcast live from Covent Garden, London, to Kew Gardens, Queens. The live broadcast was almost as exciting as being there live to see Tom Hiddleston’s performance as a youthful and disdainful Coriolanus. It was an interesting production of a problematical play. And, to follow up, I also watched the Ralph Fiennes film version. Two views of Coriolanus in one year is quite unusual.
The long-awaited JossWhedon black-and-white modern day Much Ado About Nothing5opened on a rainy night last summer. It was fun, and there were some delightful performances, but the mores and manners of Much Ado do not lend themselves well to modern settings, in my opinion. Viewing that film did, however, inspire me to re-view Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film of the same play, which was a polar opposite to the Whedon film. It’s all a matter of interpretation, not to mention mood.
How far afield can one go in interpreting Shakespeare’s words? From The Tempest played on an Elizabethan stage in which the sea and sand and cave are all artfully explained in poetry because they cannot be physically brought into the old Globe, all the way to a science fiction film that introduced Robby the Robot as a sort of Ariel and Dr. Morbius as Prospero, with Anne Francis— in remarkably skimpy outfits for 1956; there is clearly nothing new under the sun — as Miranda on the planet Altair IV instead of a desert island. Shakespeare: Passport to the Universe.
Among my theatre goings this year, I saw an interesting new play that echoed themes of A Doll’s House, which I also saw this year in an excellent production directed by Carrie Cracknell with Hattie Morahan as Nora. But I won’t be seeing either of those plays again. It’s Shakespeare that bears repeating, that we go to year after year, wondering how will that director show it, that actor interpret it, what will it look like to an audience that can never get enough of Shakespeare. How will it sound this time?
Right now, for mood music, I’ve got a DVD of “Theatre of Blood” playing in the background — the story of a Shakespearean actor who decides that first he must kill all the critics, all by methods found in the Bard’s plays. Vincent Price, Diana Rigg— full of Shakespearean quotes and plots and a cavalcade of British actors of stage and screen. Such fun.
Happy Birthday, Will. Many exciting returns of the day. And thank you for your never-ending gifts.
That King Lear is a great play is evidenced in how many ways it can be played and still work to bring out its audience’s fears, fury, loathings, loves, sorrows, and laughs.
Laurence Olivier brought a filmed version of the play to American broadcast television in 1984. I remember seeing that broadcast and videotaping it. It told the story in an even-handed manner, strictly by the book. Foggy days and dark nights kept people in their fort-like homes and the landscape was bare but for the Stonehenge-like formations people and dogs ran around in the mist. This was ancient Britain, pre-Christian, as was the Theatre for a New Audience (“TFANA”) production this year. The National Theatre (“NT”) production that was broadcast live around the world this week was set in the twentieth or twenty-first century in what is presumably a modern dictatorship.
Traditionally Lear goes mad at his cruel treatment by his daughters and a night spent unsheltered in a wild storm. Director Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale did not go the traditional route for this NT production.
As Lear, Simon Russell Beale clearly played a man slipping into the dementia he feared, and it was that fear that decided Lear to give up his kingdom. This makes his foolishness as he divides his kingdom appear to be a noble act, even if badly done. At what point does responsibility for one’s past actions end? When he starts to lose his mind, is Lear no longer guilty of his pastbad acts that we can reasonably assume from his present bullying actions played out before us from the moment we meet him? This Lear is feared. Is he the cause of Goneril’s coldness — did he force her into a loveless political marriage? And Regan’s blatant instability, her inappropriate flirtation, her ill-timed giggles, her sudden shouts, were these also due to Lear’s earlier actions? Jane Smiley theorized so in her novel A Thousand Acres.
Do, should we forgive bad men because they’ve grown old? Do we stop hunting criminals when they reach a certain age?
Simon Russell Beale is a very subtly expressive actor. After his truly shocked surprise at Cordelia’s refusal to embellish her filial love as her sisters had done, his hissy fit diminished his power in its childishness. He forced her to stand on a chair, as if on a slave auction block, humiliation compounding his cruelty, thereby proving that he is brutal with the self-centered and thoughtless viciousness of a spoilt child. While we feel for him at Goneril’s home and in his reception at Gloucester’s by his second daughter, we have to wonder how much of this he has deserved.
The NT production’s second daughter Regan behaved like a child seducing an older man, sitting on her father’s lap, kissing him, all to Lear’s delight. It was grotesque, particularly when Lear laughed as he reached out and smacked her bum the way uncouth men smack waitresses’ behinds.
The Duke of Albany is often played as quite stoical. At the NT, Richard Clothier played a more emotionally available Albany, furious with his wife not merely disapproving or disinterested. Although I generally like Anna Maxwell Martin, her Regan’s giggles did not excite as the glares and leers of Bianca Amato’s Regan had at TFANA this season. The NT Cornwall was a barrel-chested bully, who was brutal as we believe Lear had been (which is attractive to Regan, of course). Michael Nardone played him with gusto and malignity.
|Bianca Amato as Regan and Michael Pennington as Lear in the TFANA King Lear.|
Stanley Townsend’s Kent could be seen as a bully as well, with Oswald being the nerd that is mocked and pushed and tripped. Oswald’s no innocent, of course (certainly not in the TFANA production), but Lear’s men clearly pick on him.
|Stanley Townsend as Kent in the National Theatre King Lear.|
Everybody loves a Fool. The Fool for TFANA was quite young and his interpretation was not interesting, but the fact that I did not recognize him as the Lysander I’d seen a few months before does say something about his ability to inhabit a character. The Fool in the Olivier production was rather frightened and ultimately lonely as played by John Hurt. The Fool in the NT production was the right Fool for this Lear, quite excellent, saucy, wise, not a “boy,” yet not as old as Lear. Adrian Scarborough’s Fool has worldly wisdom, never sounding mad as Fools sometimes do. His relationship with Lear was solid and real, making his death all the more shattering. I generally find the Fool’s death confusing because I don’t know why he “hangs himself.” Well, in this production, the most shocking and distressing incident was the Fool’s death in the hovel. When this Lear says later that the Fool hanged himself, he knew full well what he had done. If this Fool had hanged himself, it would not have been until after the crazed Lear had beaten him bloody and broken his heart as well as his head.
|Simon Russell Beale as Lear and Adrian Scarborough as The Fool|
Playing off the parent/child story of Lear and his daughters is the parent/child story of Gloucester and his sons. Gloucester seems to have raised his sons similarly, but harps on the illegitimacy of his youngest, Edmund, right in front of him. At best this is rude, and Edmund pays him back with interest. Edgar is, to Edmund, too noble to recognize evil when it’s coming right at him, but to me he always seems a bit of a fool until he loses everything and becomes Poor Tom.
Edmund/Edgar. I’m just prejudiced, I guess. I saw my favorite Edmund in 1984 in Robert Lindsay opposite David Threlfal’s Edgar in the Olivier Lear. The Edmund in the last two productions I’ve seen were nothing to write home about. Same with the Edgar I saw in TFANA, although Tom Brooke’s Edgar in the NT production was deeply layered.
I expect Gloucester to look like Rumpole of the Bailey, since Leo McKern undertook him in the Olivier version. Stephen Boxer in the NT production does not look like Rumpole of the Bailey, and plays his Gloucester quite differently. He, too, was crueler than usual (not just verbally), less controlled. Boxer’s Gloucester was a man who has a great many right instincts and got inordinately punished by his gods (by way of Edmund, Cornwall and Regan) because of a past bad act: adultery. I heard that word late in the play louder than I’ve heard it before when the gently mad Lear spoke it to the blind Gloucester.
As in many of my theatre experiences (this is not limited to Shakespeare, it plays for Ibsen, Chekhov, all the classic works that are produced and heavily attended by people like me over and over) there were things that were marvelous in the Arin Arbus-directed King Lear at TFANA, as well as this Sam Mendes-directed King Lear at the National, so I start to think ‘give me this Regan and Cornwall from TFANA, this Gloucester and Fool from the National, this Oswald, this Kent…’ but they wouldn’t all belong in the same production, and chemistry and dynamics would change the very different interpretations.
In the NT’s large production in the large Olivier theatre, Lear’s followers seem to be a huge bunch even though there can be no more than twenty of them on stage. They’re all fit, wearing black, a bunch of rowdy, arrogant young men. Their presence in Goneril’s home can be perceived as a threat. Although we never see them at Regan’s, surely 100, or 50, or even 25 of them could readily be a disruptive force in any household.
|Kate Fleetwood as Goneril and Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan at the National|
Sometimes it’s easy to see Goneril and Regan’s points, particularly in a production set in modern times. The National Theatre’s production made these issues clear. This is not to say other productions didn’t show the same actions. But Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale may not be altogether sure their Lear is redeemed after adversity…and no one carried the bodies off stage at the end of the play. Must give us pause….
All in all, we come back to “what is this thing called King Lear?” Is it about the ages of man, from helpless infant through adolescence, adulthood, all the way to the helpless elder. Do we forgive our elders for the evils they did us when we were powerless and they empowered? Does Lear get what he deserves? To modern sensibilities, it appears his two eldest daughters go too far, but should he have 100 rowdy men following him around the countryside with nothing to do? Would we feel so much sympathy for Lear if his followers went off on a rampage raping and pillaging?
This is why plays as good as King Lear are produced over and over again. The questions it engenders are open-ended and can be explored in too many ways to enumerate. Once is not enough.
Continuing from what I wrote about Shakespeare last week, we go to see Shakespeare plays to hear them. I heard differing interesting things in the TFANA and National Theatre productions of Lear. Nobody’s “wrong.” Each production has its point of view, its jumping off place, and the execution of both the productions I’ve seen this year were very fine. I tend to think the smaller TFANA production was more in the spirit of the production in Shakespeare’s own time, but the NT production was remarkably powerful and memorable.
As Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear built its world, body by body, it grew into a remarkable whole. And I will remember Simon Russell Beale’s Lear longer than I’ll remember those of the excellent Michael Pennington or the legendary Laurence Olivier. Check this site to see if a re-broadcast of the NTLive production is playing near you: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/44084-king-lear. Highly recommended.
|Olivia Vinall as Cordelia in the NT Lear|
P.S. In my last post I referred to the role of Cordelia as possibly impossible to play. This, like all other roles, will be dependent upon how the rest of the characters are portrayed, but the one that made most sense to me — in context — was that of Anna Calder Marshall in the Olivier Lear. And speaking of Cordelia, someone sent me a copy of Garson Kanin’s novel Cordelia. It arrived yesterday with no indication of who sent it, so I thank you and look forward to reading it.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to view yet another DVD of another Lear, re-read the play (folio, quarto, conflated? I know not), and search my bookshelves for my copy of A Thousand Acres.
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….
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.
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…
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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|