The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Sunday, January 31, 2010

A feminist wreaks revenge on author of porn play, “Venus in Fur”

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 5:18 pm

By Lucy Komisar

In David Ives’ ingeniously clever play, a feminist avenger turns the tables on a playwright conducting auditions for a work based on “Venus in Furs,” a novel of sexual domination and submission by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the 19th-century Austrian writer.

Sacher-Masoch had fantasies about dominant women wearing fur. He signed a contract with one mistress making him her slave for six months; she would have to wear furs whenever possible. He divorced his wife, who did not like the games, and she wrote a tell-all memoir under the pseudonym of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch.

In Ives’ inspired invention at the Classic Stage, which might for the first time be putting on a work referencing classic porn, a fellow who seems to think of himself as a Sacher-Masoch meets a woman who goes “Wanda” one better. And the audience is a clear winner.

Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley, photo Joan Marcus.

An actress curiously named Vanda Jordan (Nina Arianda) arrives in a rush at the studio rented by young playwright Thomas Novachek (Wes Bentley). She’s wearing a black leather skirt and a tight black lacey underwear top, stiletto-heeled boots, and a silver-studded dog-collar. Her conversation is ditzy. She’s late, the auditions are over, and she’s not on the list. But she persuades Thomas to let her read, and suddenly she is Vanda von Dunayev, charming, articulate, and outrageous in the white flouncy dress she pulls over her grunge-wear.

In this steamy play-within-a-play, it is 1870, and we are learning about the pleasures of degradation. Thomas line-reads Severin von Kushemski. When he is 12, Kushemski’s aunt beats him with switch. It teaches him “that there can be nothing more sensuous than pain or more pleasurable than degradation. The Countess had become my ideal…” Since then, he seeks “a woman of her delicious cruelty.”

Vanda, playing the woman to whom he’s transferred his kinky desires, warns him, “I’d be careful if I were you. When you obtain your ideal, she maybe crueler than you care for.”

As the play in a play goes on, the truth about Wanda collides with the truth about Vanda. And the truth about Thomas is exposed. In fact, it’s Thomas’s fantasy that is at the heart of the reality of this play that plumbs men’s psychological connections between sex and power and their view of women. And it’s Vanda’s assertiveness that issues the feminist challenge to their notions.

Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley, photo Joan Marcus.

Her character, Dunayev, declares, “In our society, a woman’s only power is through men. Her character is her lack of character. She’s a blank, to be filled in by creatures who at heart despise her. I want to see what Woman will be when she ceases to be men’s slave. When she has the same rights as he, when she’s his equal in education and his partner in work. When she becomes herself. An individual.” Vanda comments that she is “really ahead of her time, isn’t she.”

“Women’s rights, yadda yadda,” remarks Thomas. His fiancée, who he chats with on the phone, seems assertive enough, presently studying for a doctorate. Is there an undercurrent of male resentment here?

There turns out to be a back story to the play and the audition. Thomas starts getting suspicious that Vanda seems to know the script by heart, though she says she just thumbed through it on the subway. And she appends a running commentary about the text, switching between herself and the character as the play goes on.

Kushemski declaims that he wants to be dominated by Dunayev, “to be less than nothing, to have no will of my own. To be your property and vanish in your sublime essence.” And he explains, “In love as in politics, one partner must rule. One of them must be the hammer, the other the anvil. I willingly accept being the anvil.”

Vanda declares, “This ain’t about love.  It’s about getting a piece of me.”

Wes Bentley and Nina Arianda, photo Joan Marcus.

Then suddenly there’s a switch. Dunayev says, “I could imagine giving myself to one man for life, if he commanded my respect. If he overpowered me with his strength. Overwhelmed me with the force of his being. If he enslaved me. I’m going to tell you a secret, Severin. I would submit to a man like that – and I would be faithful, too. I’d kneel to him and bend my neck to him and be his slave.”

“He’s an oddity. She’s a commodity,” Vanda comments. “Like all women in eighteen-seventy-whatever.”

Kushemski shows his true feelings about “the cruelty of women.” When Dunayev admits, “Severin, don’t you see? Don’t you understand you’ll never be safe in the hands of a woman? Of any woman?” Vanda declares, “Now this part is so sexist it makes me like scream. She says, ‘You’ve corrupted me…..’ This is like some old Victorian Teutonic tract against Das Female. He forces her into a power play and then he blames her.”

Thomas is furious, “How can you be so good at playing her, and be so fucking stupid about her? You fucking idiot! You fucking idiot woman. Yes. Idiot woman. Idiot actress.”

Nina Arianda is terrific as she shifts on cue between Wanda and Vanda. She is perfect as the slightly scatterbrained young woman who can’t manage to keep her belongings from slipping out of her hands, uses street language and becomes increasingly indignant about the “sexist” aspects of the play. Her voice and carriage are equally perfect as the self-assured aristocrat. Wes Bentley is a fine foil as Thomas Novachek, though Arianda is clearly the center of attention. Director Walter Bobbie styles and guides the past-paced fantasy so skillfully that you forget you are in a bare “studio” with little more than a table and chair.

The conflict escalates on page and on stage. The power and domination paradigms shift several times. I can’t tell more or that would spoil it. Suffice it to say that Ives writes a startling and satisfying feminist end to a famous bit of male pornography.

“Venus in Fur.” Written by David Ives, directed by Walter Bobbie. Classic Stage, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY. 212-352-3101, 866-811-4111. Opened January 26, 2010, closes March 28, 2010. Revival with Hugh Dancy as Thomas Novacheck at Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45thStreet, 212-239-6200. 2011-2012 season.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

“Wormwood” is stunning 1985 Polish underground theater attack on Communist repression

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 2:49 pm

By Lucy Komisar

For about 20 years, from 1964, when Communists ruled Poland and dissidents went to jail, a very extraordinary underground theater troop bucked censorship and pelted the regime with avant garde works inspired by the director Jerzy Grotowski. It played to full houses at shipyards and churches and other opposition stages until the actors in 1985 were forced into exile.

Ewa Wójciak, Tadeusz Janiszewski, photo by Archiwum Teatru Ósmego Dnia

Now, decades later, the Theatre of the Eighth Day – with actors who joined the troop in the 1970s — travels internationally to reprise the astonishing and subversive plays that described and denounced life under repression and roused and nourished the opponents of the Communist regime. The company’s name comes from a line by a Polish poet who said, “On the seventh day, the Lord God rested, and on the eighth, He created theater.”

“Wormwood” the name of a star, is a vivid, ironic and satirical attack on the Polish Communist system. First staged in 1985 at the church in Mistrzejowice, near Krakov, it is composed of pointed skits whose double meanings and metaphors were clear to audiences.

As the censors cracked down, the company became more physical, which you can see in this play. They also shifted into fantasy. Both were techniques to avoid saying the words the regime didn’t like – though the meanings are so apparent, that nobody could be fooled. Sometimes the music in “Wormwood” is dark or funereal as in a church service. Sometimes it is a gypsy hurdy-gurdy sound.

Adam Borowski, Tadeusz Janiszewski, photo by Joanna Helander

A man is knocked to the floor and kicked. A woman tells him to run. He declares, “Poland, I love traveling around Poland, in the prisons.”

She says, “Poland is a country crisscrossed by poisoned rivers.” He: “Homelands in captivity. Poland, all rise. Your trial is now in session.”

In a mock court, the defendant carries a sail boat and puts it clown-like on the scales of justice.

A man asks, “Where are my documents?” He holds the boat. “Wasn’t I supposed to leave today?”

Ewa Wójciak, Adam Borowski, photo by Archiwum Teatru Ósmego Dnia

The protagonists dream of escaping and pull up sheets for sails. They imagine being in Rome where they have escaped to joyous days. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt. She holds a wine bottle and glasses.

The man declares, “Can you hear me? It’s been two years now since I’ve been free.”

A man shooting a machine gun cries, “They ordered me to fire at civilians. But I swear I didn’t know they’d given me live ammunition.” They sing the hymn of the national army reserves.

The venue is a bathroom. “Forever occupied,” the characters declare. “Is it ever going to be free?”

Adam Borowski, Ewa Wojciak, Tadeusz Janiszewski, photo by Archiwum Teatru Ósmego Dnia

The style is in-your-face and confrontational. It’s a stunning production. The four actors, who have played together for more than 35 years, move seamlessly together, as if they were four parts of one body.

They performed in New York in Polish with English supertitles and occasional lines of English. One of the actors explained to me after the show that they speak English and could do the play in English, but Actors Equity forbids foreign companies from putting on shows in English if American actors can do the parts.

What a foolish decision in this case! The play and the actors who created it are part of theater history and should be allowed to perform all over America to show audiences the imagination and courage the Theatre of the Eighth Day had in a perilous time.

“Wormwood.” Written and performed by Adam Borowski, Tadeusz Janiszewski, Marcin Keszycki, Ewa Wojciak. Directed by Lech Raczak. Music by Arnold Dabrowski. The Theatre of the Eighth Day, co-presented by Polish Cultural Institute in New York, at Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, New York City. 212-598-0400. Opened November 11, 2009; closed November 15, 2009.

Friday, January 15, 2010

“Zero Hour” is fascinating look at an actor’s time of political and personal truth

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:32 pm

Jim Brochu, photo Stan Barouh

By Lucy Komisar

Zero Mostel — consummate actor, painter and personality — was a presence in American films and stage for decades, except for a brief hiatus called McCarthyism. Zero was iconoclastic, cynical and flip. He scowled and shouted in a voice that was stentorian.

Jim Brochu’s one-man show, directed by Piper Laurie, brings him to life, eyes piercing out of a gray-bearded jowly face, recreating his physical presence and attitude, and most importantly his passionate political commitment to honor at a time when theater people and others were selling out their colleagues.

The story Brochu recounts is fascinating, and his performance is riveting. The device is an interview with a New York Times journalist. “I don’t want to know your name,” Zero snarls. “It’s an interview not a relationship.” The interview takes place in a studio on West 28th Street, the top floor of a building Zero owned in what was once known as Tin Pan Alley. Zero wears a blue artist’s smock and dabs at a painting. The set creates intimacy at the same time that it highlights a central and not widely known element of Zero’s life.

Zero Mostel was devoted to art. He had no training in theater and became a performer by accident. In the thirties, he was hired by the WPA (Works Progress Administration, for those who don’t know history) – along with such painters as Jackson Pollack and Moses Sawyer. Later, he gave art lectures filled with jokes. That led him in 1941 to appearances at the night club, Café Society, in Greenwich Village. He was wildly funny, on stage and off. He was manic. He got people helpless with laughter. Some of that comes through in Brochu’s performance.

But most of the stage story is political. Zero was a Marxist. Brochu/Zero says that “Anybody with half a brain was, because of what was going on in Europe:  fascism.”

Jim Brochu, photo Stan Barouh

That made him a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s crusade against free speech in 1955.  “Are you a communist?” he was asked at a hearing. “Well, you certainly don’t beat around the borscht belt, do you? No, I am not a communist, ” Zero replied.

“Are you in favor of the violent overthrow of the government?,” he was asked, in a question that violated the First Amendment protection of free speech, not to mention thought.

Zero replied, and the text is from his testimony, “Well, sir, as our fourth president, James Madison, for whom they named a lovely hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach once said, “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by silent and gradual encroachments by those in power rather than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

Zero and a handful of artists stood up to the Committee. But the people who ran Broadway and Hollywood were men of little courage. Zero was blacklisted, along with prominent actors such as Lee Grant, Burgess Meredith and Jack Gilford. He excoriates those who named names: the director Elia Kazan, the actor Lee J. Cobb, the choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Zero says, “Robbins only went to communist meetings to make connections; to further his career. Hell, he would have joined the Girl Scouts if they let him choreograph a number. He was so weak. And they go after the weak ones you know. He named us to save himself….Why were they targeting actors,” he wondered. “What did they think we were doing – giving acting secrets to the enemy?

Zero tells how the Committee targeted actors and Jews. He declared, “That committee of lily-white Protestants marched us in front their firing squad of fear and pulled the trigger on our lives and our work. It was an intellectual final solution to eliminate thought; they couldn’t kill our bodies – they had done a damn fine job of that already – so they decided to obliterate our minds. And they targeted Jewish minds.”

Jim Brochu, photo Stan Barouh

Zero tells the appalling story of Phil Loeb, the actor who played Jake on the TV serial, “The Goldbergs.” He recounts, “He lived his life practicing the greatest principal of America – that all people were created equal and should be treated that way. Even actors.”

“Outrageous! Do you know what his “Un-American activities” were? He was fighting for black actors to be able to use the same stage door as white actors, he was fighting for equal pay for men and women, paid rehearsal time, hot running water in dressing rooms. Horrible! Despicable!”

“So the Committee subpoenaed him and they blacklisted him and they destroyed him and then all of America sat back and said, “Of course he shouldn’t work. He’s evil. He’s the Jewish devil!” And the man lost everything. And Kate and I took him in and he lived with us. We cared for him. We fed him and we clothed him and then we watched him disintegrate.”

“So one morning, Kate made him breakfast, he put on his coat, he said bye-bye, checked into the Taft Hotel and jumped out the window.”

Later, Burgess Meredith found a tenement on the lower East side, turned it into a theater, and starred Zero as James Joyce’s hero Leopold Bloom in “Ulysses in Nighttown.” The play was memorable, and Zero was so good that producer David Merrick called him to do a Broadway play, “The Good Soup.” But tragedy struck in 1960, during rehearsals for that play, when Zero’s leg was crushed by a bus that careened out of control on an icy street. The leg was saved, but he would endure frequent pain thereafter.

Still, he continued on the stage and was a triumph in “Rhinoceros,” the absurdist play by Eugène Ionesco. It had resonance for him: “It’s about conformity. It’s about not becoming a Berkeley [a prominent informer] or a Robbins. It’s about being true to yourself,” he says. Zero virtually morphed from a man into a snorting rhinoceros, mesmerizing audiences and critics.

Jim Brochu, photo Stan Barouh

His next triumph was full of irony. The show doctor brought in to fix “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which would be a smash hit, was Jerome Robbins. The producer asked, “Will you work with him?” Zero said, “Of course I’ll work with him. We of the left do not blacklist.”

But he wasn’t forgiving. He welcomed Robbins: “Hiya, Loose Lips. How ya been? Haven’t seen you since 1953 when you gave all those names to the Committee. You haven’t aged very well, Mr. Robbins. Sleeping poorly from a bad conscience? Did you say hello to Jack Gilford over there. Say hello to Jack. You remember Jack – whose wife’s career you destroyed.”

“No, don’t apologize, Mr. Robbins. What do you have to apologize for? You’re a hero. You saved America with your testimony. They’ll give you a state funeral when you die. But you won’t be able to be buried in hallowed ground, did you know that? Because the Torah says that informers can’t be buried in sacred ground. Your soul is going to twist and turn forever in the limbo of your dishonor and your spirit will roam the earth for all eternity like a golem. Like a feared and hated golem.”  (Then, all smiles) Now, shall we do the opening number?”

Zero’s triumph was complete in 1964 when he played Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” The next year, he got an invitation to a state dinner hosted by President Lyndon Johnson.

This is a fascinating and important play, not only for its dramatic heft, but for the story it tells about America’s dark days of ideological repression.

Zero Hour.” Written and performed by Jim Brochu; directed by Piper Laurie. Peccadillo Theater Company at Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened November 22, 2009; closes January 31, 2010.

Continues from March 7th at DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

“The Emperor Jones” showcases John Douglas Thompson in stunning psychological thriller

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 2:45 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Director Ciaran O’Reilly has done a brilliant job in staging O’Neill’s 1920 psychological thriller about the self-appointed emperor of a Caribbean backwater whose “subjects” suddenly turn on him. In this Irish Repertory Theatre production, John Douglas Thompson is overpowering as Brutus Jones, a black American who has fled from a southern chain gang and, persuading the locals that he can be killed only with a silver bullet, takes over in a “revolution” that removes the erstwhile chief.

John Douglas Thompson, photo Carol Rosegg

Dressed as he assumes befits an emperor, Jones wears a blue coat with gold epaulets, jeweled pins, brown boots, and a crown of silver leaves. He speaks illiterate black English and exudes brutality. Figuring his tenure is limited, he squeezes his subjects with taxes and stashes the loot in foreign banks.

As crooked as Jones is Henry Smithers (Peter Cormican), a white British trader who helped the newcomer get his start and now sucks up to him.

O’Neill’s Emperor may be an untaught chain gang escapee, but the author makes it clear that there’s not a lot of difference between him and the big-time white crooks back home.

Brutus explains to Smithers, “Dere’s little stealin’ like you does, and dere’s big stealin’ like I does. For de little stealin’ dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o’ Fame when you croaks. (reminiscently) If dey’s one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca’s listenin’ to de white quality talk, it’s dat same fact. And when I gits a chance to use it I winds up Emperor in two years.”

John Douglas Thompson, photo Carol Rosegg

But when Smithers reveals that the local blacks have disappeared from his “court” and are meeting to devise charms against the silver bullet, reality shifts. Brutus must make his escape through the forest to the coast, where he hopes to be picked up by a French gunboat that can take him to Martinique.

The trip through the forest tracks Jones’s psychological disintegration as he progresses from arrogance to fear to terror and madness. His imagination transforms every shape and sound into a threat. In his stage direction, O’Neill writes, for example, “From the formless creatures on the ground in front of him comes a tiny gale of low mocking laughter like a rustling of leaves. They squirm upward toward him in twisted attitudes.”

The forest of floating blue and green striped fabric tree trunks (by Charlie Corcoran) hide and reveal giant puppets and masked actors that haunt Jones with representations of his real and historical past. The puppets (by Bob Flanagan) embody one of Jones’s victims as well as a chain gang overseer and convicts who wear striped pants and wield pick axes. The guard strikes Jones with a whip.

He is threatened by the crocodile god (Michael Akil Davis) and the terrifying beaked witch doctor (Sinclair Mitchell) who he fears will demand payment for his sins.

John Douglas Thompson, photo Carol Rosegg

His hallucinations take him back in race memory to imagine whites – puppet-headed men squiring women puppets –attending a slave auction. And he is on the block. In hatred and fear, he demands, “Is dis a auction? Is you sellin’ me like dey uster befo’ de war? And you sells me? And you buys me?” He shoots his pistol at the visions of auctioneer and the planter.

O’Reilly creates a surreal mood with the help of Flanagan’s supernatural puppets and masks, Antonia Ford-Robert ‘s fantastical costumes, and eerie evocative music by Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson. The apparitions move to Barry McNabb dreamlike choreography.

But the soul of the production is Thompson’s powerful, expressionistic and disturbing performance.

“The Emperor Jones.” Written by Eugene O’Neill; Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly. Choreographed by Barry McNabb. Irish Repertory Theatre at Soho Playhouse 15 Vandam Street, New York City. 212-691-1555. Opened December 22, 2009; closes January 31, 2010. http://www.sohoplayhouse.com. http://www.irishrep.org.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

“Finian’s Rainbow” is a smashing fantasy musical that skewers racism and tweaks capitalism

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 2:21 pm

By Lucy Komisar

This charmingly radical musical by Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy – given a smart, lively, delicious staging by Warren Carlyle — was a shot across the bow of conservative America when it opened on Broadway in 1947.

It showed black and white sharecroppers in solidarity against the tax foreclosure sale of a farm. It depicted the corruption and racism of a white politician who is buying up local real estate so he can block cheap public electric power. And it satirized capitalism by declaring that digging up some gold buried in the ground would remove an incentive and wreck free enterprise. Even the famous “If this isn’t love” has the pointed line, “If this isn’t love, it’s red propaganda!”

Harburg of course was a socialist. So with his collaborator Saidy, he created a fantasy and love story to wrap around the political heart of the show. But strip away the fluff about a leprechaun’s pot of gold and the romance between an Irishman’s daughter and a young man of the farm community, and you have one of the most radical plays on Broadway in its time. For style and substance, it is a winner.

Kate Baldwin, Jim Norton, photo Joan Marcus

The story takes place in the 1940s in Rainbow Valley, Missitucky, somewhere around Tennessee and Kentucky. Finian McLonergan (a twinkling Jim Norton) has arrived from Ireland with his daughter Sharon (the charming Kate Baldwin) and a pot of gold he has stolen from the leprechaun Og (the very appealing Christopher Fitzgerald). He plans to bury it near Fort Knox so it can grow and assure his daughter’s prosperity.

When the McLonergans arrive, they discover that Susan Mahoney (Leslie Donna Flesner in the production I saw), is about to lose her farm in a tax sale. Susan can’t speak; she “talks” by toe dancing. and Flesner’s movements are indeed eloquent. Her brother Woody (Cheyenne Jackson) arrives back from the merchant marine in the nick of time with cash to save the farm.

Kate Baldwin, Cheyenne Jackson, photo Joan Marcus

Then when Buzz Collins (William Youmans), the flunky of the racist blowhard bad-guy Senator, demands interest, Sharon, perched in a tree, drops the cash she’s brought from Ireland.

The love interest allows for some memorable songs by Sharon and Woody, “Old Devil Moon” and “If This isn’t Love,” among them. Kate Baldwin’s bell clear soprano is the benefit you get when you cast real singers in Broadway musicals, not film stars. She shines in “How are things in Glocca Morra?” Cheyenne holds his own in the production numbers, though he is too laid back to have theatrical presence as an actor.

Fitzgerald’s “Something Sort of Grandish” and “When I’m Not Near The Girl I Love” are magical enough for any leprechaun.

Terri White and Guy Davis & Ensemble, photo Joan Marcus

Terri White’s “Necessity” brings down the house. And Carlyle’s choreography is inspired, from down home country to Irish jigs.

But the engaging story is not the romance, it’s the clever, witty political one that attacks racism and the privileges of the rich. Buzz instructs Howard (Tyrick Wiltez Jones), a young black college student who has been hired as the Senator’s butler, about how to serve a julep. He inquires, “You’ve seen ‘Gone with the Wind,’ haven’t you?” The message is to shuffle, because it “makes for kindly feelings between master and servant.”

Paige Simunovich and David Schramm with Ensemble, photo Joan Marcus

Congratulating himself on buying up the local land, the Senator Rawkins (a well-cast David Schramm), speechifies, “Gentlemen, the festering tides of radicalism are upon us!” And “Forward to the sweet tranquility of the status quo.” But then he discovers he hasn’t gotten Susan’s farm. The Senator suddenly needs a bromo seltzer, and as he pleads and groans, Howard does a riotously slow shuffle: “I’s a-comin’ Masa….Jus’ as fas’ as I kin.”

The deus ex machina is a magical pot of gold which Finian has buried. Seems it has the power to grant three wishes made by anyone standing over it. Rawkins is spouting off his usual racist blather, in this case about “the law of the South forbiddin’ certain kinds of people, namely them (he points to the blacks) from buildin’ homes next to certain other kinds of people, namely us. Depreciates property values.”

So he’s going to take land from the blacks because they are “the wrong color.” At which point Sharon, disgusted, declares, “It’s the world that you and your kind have made that’s wrong. Oh I wish you could know what their world is like. I wish you were black….”

Since she happens to be standing over the buried gold, there is lighting, thunder, and the rotund pale-faced senator in a white vested suit becomes a portly black Senator. In the original staging, blackface was used on a single actor, but in this production, the black Senator is another actor, Chuck Cooper.

'Come and Get it Day,' photo Joan Marcus

The politics of this play are so up to date, that Harburg and Saidy get in their licks on the matter of financial credit. It seems that with his gold, Finian is able to get unlimited credit from Shears and Robust, so the sharecroppers can buy tractors and bring in a tobacco crop. In a concession to modern sensibilities, when the farmers sing that tobacco is “easy on the throat,” they cough.

My favorite number is “When The Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich,” with lines like: “When a rich man doesn’t want to work, he’s a bon vivant….But when a poor man doesn’t want to work, he’s a loafer, he’s a lounger, he’s a lazy good-for-nothing.” The sharecroppers sashay around the stage in the exotic costumes they have ordered from Shears and Robust.

James Stovall, Chuck Cooper, Bernard Dotson, Devin Richards, photo Joan Marcus

Another show stopper, the gospel singers whom the black Senator joins, do a jazzy “Begat” number about the peopling of the world since Adam and Eve, including the revelation that “They begat” the Daughters of the D.A.R., the Babbits of the bourgeoisie and the misbegotten G.O.P. Maybe the latter owes something to Arthur Perlman’s contemporary adaptation!

Actually, it’s pretty hard to pick a favorite when the show is so full memorable songs and clever satire. “Finian’s Rainbow,” rich in ideas and memorable music and lyrics, counts among the best of American musicals.

Book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy; Adapted by Arthur Perlman. Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; Music by Burton Lane. Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle. St. James Theatre 246 West 44th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened October 29, 2009; closes January 17, 2010. http://www.finiansonbroadway.com/

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

“Circle Mirror Transformation” creatively turns acting inventions into real life dramas

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 3:23 pm

Tracee Chimo, Deirdre O'Connell, Heidi Schreck, Reed Birney, Peter Friedman, photo Joan Marcus

By Lucy Komisar

In Annie Baker’s fascinating and inventive play, acting exercises morph into real life for an instructor and four people who sign up for a community theater workshop in Shirley, Vermont.

Not much seems to happen at first. They lie on the ground and count in a circle; they walk around and shake hands. In dialogue, each pretends to be one of the others. But as the talk and interactions evolve, they become personal dramas. And sometimes group therapy.

Deirdre O'Connell, Tracee Chimo, Peter Friedman, photo Joan Marcus

Marty (Deirdre O’Connell), 55, is co-executive director of the community center and teaches adult creative drama. She does much of the class sitting on a large blue yoga ball. James (Peter Friedman), we learn obliquely, is her husband. We suspect this when he delivers a dialogue in which he is Marty.

James went to law school, studied Marxist philosophy, and is afraid of being like his abusive father. Except, he doesn’t express those thoughts; they are said by Theresa (Heidi Schreck), a seductive woman of 35 who wanted to be an actress in New York and now is studying for a certificate in acupressure.

Reed Birney, Heidi Schreck, photo Joan Marcus

The characters are revealed not only by the dialogues of the others, but by their movements and body language. Theresa, for example, wears tops that bare her midriff and has a hula hoop that she uses to do sensual hip movements.

Shultz (Reed Birney) a divorced carpenter, 48, gets interested in Theresa, though he’s still wearing his wedding ring. Lauren (Tracee Chimo) is a 16-year-old high school student who seems buried in a red hooded sweatshirt. (Sets and costumes are by David Zinn.)

Deirdre O'Connell, Heidi Schreck, Tracee Chimo, Reed Birney, photo Joan Marcus

Slowly, the theatrical games turn into life games. Director Sam Gold moves seamlessly between acting exercises and real life drama so that the characters’ stories, said by others, are expressed and “acted out,” as it were, by themselves.

As the pretenses get more detailed, the actors confuse their own feelings with the sentiments “expressed” by the characters they represent. The cast members are excellent in their portrayals. And suddenly a series of make-believe exercises are very real.

Circle Mirror Transformation.” Written by Annie Baker; directed by Sam Gold. Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York City. 212-279-4200. Opened October 13, 2009; closes January 31, 2010.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

“Wishful Drinking” is Carrie Fisher’s autobiography, a stage version of bad tell-all late night TV

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 7:40 pm

By Lucy Komisar

I have to start out by saying that I despise everything about “celebrity” and the attendant fawning over people in the public eye, generally in movies or fashion, just because they are in the public eye. That doesn’t include criticism of their art – of acting or design, for example – just the intense interest over every personal detail of their lives. “Get a life!” I want to scream. “Your own!”

Carrie Fisher and parents and friends, photo Joan Marcus

So, I was very likely to hate Carrie Fisher’s self-referential one-woman staged pop autobiography that is based largely on the famous people she interacted with through her life, starting with her parents, Eddie Fisher and what’s her name? Oh, Debbie Reynolds. It’s been so long.

No surprise. I did hate it. It’s rather like bad tell-all late night TV. Fisher is dressed in blue silk PJs, set off in the second act by a long robin’s egg blue sweater, and is barefoot. I suppose the idea is to evoke intimacy. She starts out with the story of her parents’ careers, which segues into her hostility to her parents. Self-centered celebrities are often bad parents. But they can yield jokes. She remarks about Fisher, “My father has had so many facelifts that he looks Chinese himself.” Or “celebrity is obscurity biding its time,” an aperçu that, when you think about it, means absolutely nothing.

Carrie Fisher and lineage chart, photo Joan Marcus

We will in time hear about her parents’ divorce and remarriages and other related divorces and marriages, helped in the telling by a very large chart that reminds one of the diagrams that show the lineage of royal families.

In all fairness, she’s as brutal to herself. She’s an alcoholic. She is bipolar. She’s been in a mental hospital. But none of this leads her to share self-awareness. Except that it must be bad to have famous parents and husbands.

She calls a male audience member onto the stage as a foil. Even when she jumps on the guy as he is stretched out on a chaise longue, he appears pleased at the humiliation – after all, it’s making him, briefly, a celebrity. She takes questions from the audience about a friend who died in her bed.

Carrie Fisher and Leia from Star Wars, photo Joan Marcus

Her main beef is that George Lucas, the director of “Star Wars,” has merchandised her character, Princess Leia, as a Pez dispenser and other common artifacts. Lucas, who developed the film, gave up his director’s fee in exchange for licensing rights, which earned him millions. Her character? The Pez “Leia” has a flat planed face that could be anyone. And Fisher would be nothing without Lucas. It’s his character.

As a merchandiser impinging on other people’s personal territory, Fisher can’t be beat. She tells us about the failure of her 12-year relationship with singer Paul Simon, for whom she appears to retain some affection. He must have been a saint.

Fisher says in a promotion, “Don’t you hate it when celebrities, bla bla bla, just talk about themselves?” When it’s about their personal lives and not their art or creativity? Yes.

Wishful Drinking.” Written & Performed by Carrie Fisher. Directed by Tony Taccone. Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54,  254 West 54th Street. 212-719-1300. Opened October 4, 2009, Closes January 17, 2010.

“The Understudy” a clever spoof of what happens when film stars get top theater roles

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 6:49 pm

By Lucy Komisar

This gem of a play by Theresa Rebeck is a theater aficionado’s delight. A stage manager and two actors – one an overpaid film star and the other a struggling “pure” artist –connect in a rehearsal for a Broadway production of an “undiscovered masterpiece” by Franz Kafka. As the run-through proceeds, celebrity film actors who get starring roles in theater are deftly and comically skewered. The play, given light-hearted and subtle direction by Scott Ellis, is one of the best of the season. The cast is excellent.

Justin Kirk, photo Carol Rosegg

Harry (Justin Kirk), the understudy for movie star Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), is fiercely resentful of the big money that writers and actors like Jake pull down for film garbage. He riffs on an audition where he yells, “Get down in the truck!” for a mindless action movie. “Get down, get down!” It’s very funny. He didn’t get the job. Jake did. Justin’s Harry appears generally intelligent and Kirk plays him low key to capture our sympathy.

Gosselaar’s Jake seems like a hunk who one is surprised can learn his lines. Jake thinks the Kafka play is “awesome.”

Harry, however, turns out not to be as solid a guy as he portends. The very competent high-energy stage manager Roxanne (a delightful Julie White) is revealed as the actress girlfriend Harry ditched some years ago two weeks before their wedding.

Justin Kirk and Julie White, photo Carol Rosegg

One of the best lines occurs when Roxanne challenges Harry (who had changed his name) to prove his identity. He pulls out his Equity card. She questions its authenticity. Harry ripostes, “Who would steal an Equity card?” Like, what value is there to being a stage actor? Rebeck’s one-liners are very clever.

Almost as good, Jake, who in turn is understudy to the top star of the play, muses, “Bruce could leave the show, he could get mercury poisoning” That elicits a roar, because actor Jeremy Pivena a year ago left the hit Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow,” blaming a high mercury count. Gosselaar does a good job as the savvy but not too smart star.

The status divisions are subtly expressed by the fact that Harry wears a brown suit (he has to appear businesslike) and Jake wears jeans and a blue T (he can dress as he pleases).

Mark-Paul Gosselaar, photo Carol Rosegg

Rebeck throws in some semi-literate pretentiousness by Jake who complains of a translation that “just doesn’t have the quality of disaster, the impending catastrophe cause if you ask me, the Castle is like, it’s death, man. It’s time itself. It’s the Nazis bearing down.”

Jake exudes enthusiasm: “Man I love this set. See the castle looming? Gorgeous, right?  It just says Kafka to me. Castle. Trial. Kafka!  All we need is like a giant bug in the middle of it, we’d be–oh!  And we have a giant bug!” We also have an enormously talented playwright who has written a very clever and entertaining play.

The Understudy” Written by Theresa Rebeck; Directed by Scott Ellis. Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels Theatre 111 West 46th Street. Opened November 5, 2009; closes January 17, 2010. 212-719-1300.

Monday, January 4, 2010

“Burn the Floor” presents exciting competitive ballroom dancing with a contemporary edge

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 4:18 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Pasha Kovalev and Anya Garnis, photo Joan Marcus

It starts with a light ball setting off two figures; she is in black underwear. Hot Latin drums keep a frenetic double time. Then for a change of pace comes a Lady in white silk and a man in a tux; they waltz and execute twirls through the air in a way you hadn’t seen.

After that, 20s/30s jazz dancing; the guy wears a fedora and vest. A sailor and his partner jitterbug. A woman in pink is squired by a guy in a black leather jacket. (Costumes are by Janet Hine.)

Clockwise from top left Trent Whiddon, Patrick Helm, Damian Whitewood, Robin Windsor, Sasha Farber, Peta Murgatroyd, Henry Byalkov, photo Joan Marcus

The choreography is sophisticated and sensual. Some of the sounds are swing, some are brassy. The production is gorgeous. In one subtle exciting number, the female dancer is blindfolded and she dances with six men, then walks away seductively. A tango is campy.

“Burn the Floor” is an exciting review of ballroom dancing through the decades, from Latin and Afro-Brazilian rhythms to modern jazzy idioms. Through you never saw any of this in a real ballroom. The numbers, the wild fast movements, come out of competitive dancing that these couples have done all over the world. Their origins span the globe from Australia to Russia and Latin America.

The group has been touring since 1999 to over 160 cities in 30 countries. Some met on the competition circuit. They are ballet trained and do ballroom with a contemporary edge. The duos change. Most of the dancers are 18 or 19 years old. It’s a high energy craft. They insist it’s not jazz dancing, though in some cases I’d beg to differ.

In any event, it’s a thrilling genre, not to be missed for those who love the dance.

Burn the Floor.” Created and directed by Jason Gilkison. Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY. Opened August 2, 2009, closes January 10, 2010. 212-239-6200.

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