The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Saturday, November 26, 2016

“Fiddler on the Roof” still brilliant political musical theater

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:37 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Danny Burstein as Tevye, photo Joan Marcus.

Danny Burstein as Tevye, photo Joan Marcus.

When can it be more relevant to look at the politics of theater? In this year of bizarre reaction, “Fiddler” continues to be the quintessential representation of popular struggle. This is a brilliant production by Bartlett Sherr. Lucky to see it with Danny Bernstein and Jessica Hecht, major actors of our time. They are supported by an excellent ensemble cast.

In Russia of the early 1900s, a Jewish community in Russia is confronting the challenges of social modernization and the political threat of the Czar.

We are in the imaginary village of Anatevka, where Chagal’s fiddler flies up to musically comment on events. And such crucial matters as, “Why does a girl have to read? Will it get her a husband?”

Jessica Hecht as Golde, photo Joan Marcus.

Jessica Hecht as Golde, photo Joan Marcus.

Tevye (the compelling Danny Burstein), charming but of a past century, is the head of the family. He has to confront state repression and the need to marry off five daughters.

And to deal with the life he’s been dealt, as the memorable songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick describe it: “If I were a rich man” and “Tradition.”

Jessica Hecht is terrific as Golde, the wife and mother of the family, who cares about “tradition” but also those daughters. Is anyone thinking about where politics is leading them?

Adam Kantor as Motel the tailor and Alexandra Silber as Tzeitel, photo Joan Marcus.

Adam Kantor as Motel the tailor and Alexandra Silber as Tzeitel, photo Joan Marcus.

The matchmaker Yente (Alix Korey, with a perfect New York accent) considers the prospects of Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber) who is in love with Motel, the taylor (Adam Kantor). But is that an economically desirable match? It turns out that girls are people with their own desires, quite a radical thought.

When she is promised to marry an old guy, Lazer Wolf, the butcher (Adam Dannheisser), we see Tevye’s surreal dream vision of the butcher’s late wife, Fruma Sarah (Jessica Vosk), who appears to attack the match!

Fruma Sarah arrives in a dream, photo Joan Marcus.

Jessica Hecht as Golde, Danny Burstein as Tevye and Jessica Vosk as Fruma Sarah, who arrives in a dream, photo Joan Marcus.

The ghost fantasy figure with long fingers is set against the brown and black earth colors. Colors are important in Donald Holder’s lighting. A rose colored sky means hope, then it changes.

The Jewish men dancing, photo Joan Marcus.

The Jewish men dancing, photo Joan Marcus.

Hofesh Shecher’s vivid choreography moves from the Jewish men’s traditional movements to the dances of the military. And then troops attack the wedding party and steal candles. Joy changes to darkness.

Hodel (Samantha Massell) and Perchik (Ben Rappaport) the radical student, photo Joan Marcus.

Samantha Massell as Hodel and Ben Rappaport as Perchik, the radical student, photo Joan Marcus.

Perchek, a student (Ben Rappaport), warns of pogroms coming. He talks politics and falls in love with and promises affection and solidarity to the daughter Hodel (Samantha Massell), who has a lilting soprano. Ah, love and politics. He is a harbinger of what is coming.

And about love — in the older generation, feelings were often not expressed. Tevye asks Golde, who has always put herself and her needs in the background, “Do you love me?” The duet creates an exquisite moment.

Politics intervenes. Perchek is arrested and sent to Siberia. Hodel will join him.

The departure, photo Joan Marcus.

The departure, photo Joan Marcus.

The community will escape, by train and boat. Because this story is about the origin of Russian Jews in America.

There are elegant visuals, with moving trees and silhouettes. At one point Golde urges them all to, “Behave ourselves. We are not in America yet.” This wonderful iconic play will always be in America.

Fiddler on the Roof.” Book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Bartlett Sherr, choreographed by Hofesh Shechter, inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York City. Opened Dec 20, 2015; closes Dec 31, 2016. 11/26/16.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Mayor and Greenwich Villagers organize against Trump

Filed under: Blog — Lucy Komisar @ 10:23 am

By Lucy Komisar
Nov 20, 2016

Mayor DeBlasio talking to crowd, photo Lucy Komisar.

Mayor de Blasio talking to crowd, photo Lucy Komisar.

My neighborhood: Sunday night, and the meeting room of a community center on West 13th Street in the Village was jammed with hundreds of people, standing room only, all quite passionately opposed to what President-elect Donald Trump threatens to do to the country – especially hurting various identity groups and entrenching extremists in a space for the newly powerful to which (nobody mentioned it) the Clintons and Obama had opened the door, put in plush rugs, etc.

Mayor Bill de Blasio stopped by to commit himself to the struggle. Which he defined largely in terms of identity liberalism. He predicted a national political uprising if Trump attempts to appoint a Supreme Court justice who would overturn Roe v Wade or repeal marriage equality. He said, “In New York we are not going to participate in the deportation of our fellow New Yorkers.”

He said, “If you are Latino, New York City stands with you. If you are Muslim, New York City stands with you. If you are LGBT, New York City stands with you. If you are an immigrant, New York City stands with you.”

Crowd applauds DeBlasio, photo Lucy Komisar.

Crowd applauds de Blasio, photo Lucy Komisar.

I didn’t hear anything about poor people or income inequality or disappearing jobs. Is anyone thinking about why the Clintons lost? Sorry, Clinton, singular, but I think of them as a policy couple as Bill started the pro-Wall Street deregulation, end of Glass-Steagall separating deposit-taking banks from the casino, etc., that helped bring on the crash of ’08. And which Hillary didn’t want to reverse.

The mayor got enthusiastic applause.

As people in the audience called out what should be done, somebody wrote ideas down on large white sheets that were posted to a wall. I didn’t stay for the next hour to see how the ideas would be turned into actions.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler addresses crowd, photo Lucy Komisar.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler addresses crowd, photo Lucy Komisar.

Except that one action was announced. Somebody stood up to say that in the 60s she had gone to Washington to march against the Vietnam War, and invited people to sign up for the bus she was organizing for a demonstration on inauguration day plus one.

Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler said that New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer wanted to use corporate money repatriated by tax havens to pay for building infrastructure. That means that multinationals, who have stashed money abroad to evade taxes, can now bring it back at a minimum rate, maybe 5 or 6 percent.

Actually, they already have the money for use here (collateral for loans, etc.), so that is just a bookkeeping arrangement the government winks at. They just can’t use it openly to pay dividends to investors, buy back stock, jack up the share price and increase CEOs’ pay, as they did in the 2004 repatriation.

When I asked him about Schumer, he said, “He has expressed support over the years for repatriation and using that for infrastructure. If you’re for repatriation, using that for infrastructure is a good idea, but you shouldn’t be for repatriation.”

I asked, “Has he said this again?” Nadler said, “I don’t know when the last time he spoke about it was. He’s been in favor of it for a long time.”

OK, Schumer is the senator from Wall Street, but you need more evidence to accuse him of this ploy now, when the Trump side is talking about it.

TV reporter interviews DeBlasio, photo Lucy Komisar.

TV reporter interviews de Blasio, photo Lucy Komisar.

Still, nobody at the meeting said they needed to throw the Wall Streeters, banksters and plutocrats out of the Temple the Democratic party.

Outside, a local TV reporter, clueless as always, asked the mayor about his feud with Gov. Cuomo. Hey, don’t bother mainstream TV with real issues that concern the country, not to mention the subject of the event he just attended. Let’s look for sexy political conflict. The mayor politely deflected the question.

Monday, November 7, 2016

“The Cherry Orchard” is brought up to date in Simon Godwin’s engaging production

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:28 am

By Lucy Komisar

Simon Godwin’s staging of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” with Stephen Karam’s adaptation is modern in mood, without changes of costumes. Except that hanging Calder sculptures represent the eponymous trees.

This is a very diverting production, especially a gorgeous costume ball that has a bit of a Fellini-style carnival in it, with characters in tights and glitter, and a clown with a bulbous nose. It suggests surreally the disintegration of society. Or the society as Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya (the excellent Diane Lane), head of an unraveling aristocratic ménage, has known.

Harold Perrineau as Lopakhin, Diane Lane as Ranevskaya, John Glover as Leonid Gaev, photo Joan Marcus.j

Harold Perrineau as Lopakhin, Diane Lane as Ranevskaya, John Glover as Leonid Gaev, photo Joan Marcus.

The family are upper class neurotics. Leonid Gaev (John Glover) the brother, is sad, funny, “Why am I alive, I have no one.” His pass-time is billiards. Anya (TaviGevinson), the daughter, is so contained that no emotion pours through.

Ranevskaya needs to pay interest on a loan taken on the estate. But there isn’t the cash. Lopakhin, a business man, the child of serfs, is here played by a black actor, Harold Perrineau. Smart choice. It’s not color-blind casting. Note that Chekhov, the son of a serf, became a doctor.

In this case, attuned to economic changes, Lopakhin wants to put some summer cottages on the space the orchard occupies. Ranevskaya, in flowing white dress and diaphanous jacket, obviously a person of taste, says summer cottages are tacky. But Lopakhin is ascendant. He declares, “If my father and grandfather could see me now. My father and grandfather were slaves.”

Kyle Beltran as Petya, Tavi Gevinson as Anya, Diane Lane as Ranevskaya, Celia Keenan-Bolger as adopted daughter, Varya, photo Joan Marcus.

Kyle Beltran as Petya, Tavi Gevinson as Anya, Diane Lane as Ranevskaya, Celia Keenan-Bolger as adopted daughter, Varya, photo Joan Marcus.

Though the conception makes sense, slaves not serfs, making a dated piece seem current, the execution sometimes is hokey, like a soap opera, with a bit too much rushing around. But maybe that’s another way for saying lively.

My favorite characters were Petya (Kyle Beltran), the student, and Charlotta (Tina Benko), the terrific over-the-top redheaded governess.

Petya puts down the rich intelligentsia. “They call themselves the intelligentsia, and — yes, they now address their hired help by their first names, very progressive — but they still treat poor people like they’re animals.” (Remind you of today’s corporate CEOs and bankers?) He says, “They’ve all got their serious faces perfected for discussing important issues, philosophizing, but meanwhile, right in front of them, the working class is starving.” He represents idealism before the 1905 revolution.

As if to make the modern day point, a raggedy, slightly drunk passerby declaims, “…Want to hear something from across the o– ” He has a coughing spell, then recites:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse –.”

Ranevskaya gives him a gold coin and Varya (Celia Keenan-Bolger) protests that they have nothing at home to eat. Ranevskaya says she will ask Lopakhin for a loan. It’s a way of saying, more starkly than Chekhov did, that the aristocrats will be replaced.

Lane heads a wonderful ensemble cast in a production that gives most of them a chance to shine. There is even a self-effacing Joel Grey in a cameo as Firs, a servant, who might have been in a play by Beckett.

The Cherry Orchard.” Written by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Stephen Karam, directed by Simon Godwin. Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, NYC. 212.719.1300. Opened Oct 16, 2016; closes Dec 4, 2016. 11/5/16.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Post-War would bring peace and “Plenty;” David Hare’s disappointing play suggests why it didn’t.

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 1:00 am

By Lucy Komisar

Is David Hare’s play “Plenty” about the personal or the political? A confusing muddle.

We first see our heroine Susan (the very fine Rachel Weisz) at 17 in occupied France where her job is to work with other resistance fighters to divert Germans from the front. In a black cap and trench coat, she is waiting for a drop.

Ken Barnett as Codename Lazar and Rachel Weisz as Susan Traherene, photo Joan Marcus.

Ken Barnett as Codename Lazar and Rachel Weisz as Susan Traherne, photo Joan Marcus.

But an unexpected “drop” is Codename Lazar (Ken Barnett), a British pilot who has bailed out. She weeps to him about how she is replacing an agent who was captured and taken to Buchenwald. Then the war ends.

Hare says that he wrote the play because he felt that “women’s experience was missing from accounts of the official history” of the post-World War II years. And he points out that the marriages of 75% of the female wartime special operations agents had ended in divorce – that it was “hard for them to settle back into civilian life.” He is known as a political playwright, so you might expect a political commentary on the status of women.

You might have expected he would say the courage required by the behind-the-lines exploit made them unable to accept routine sexism. Except that is not at all what Hare’s disappointing play shows.

In his revival of the work that David Leveaux directed in 1982 (first presented in London in 1978), the director does as well as he can with a muddled text. Events are presented naturalistically on Mike Britton’s effective black box stage.

The title “Plenty” refers to the idea that the post-war would lead to “Peace and Plenty.” Of course, it didn’t. It never has. But that was a political choice by the elites, something Hare barely touches on. (That’s why it never has.) Susan takes office jobs and at first seems to like them. Women working at low-level jobs will not change the system.

The diplomatic dinner, photo Joan Marcus.

The diplomatic dinner, Burmese couple on the left, Rachel Weisz as Susan in blue, Byron Jennings as ambassador, standing, Corey Stoll as her husband on the right, photo Joan Marcus.

Skipping ahead, the most interesting part of the play comes at the end of the first act, when our heroine Susan is a diplomat’s wife hosting his Foreign Office boss, Leonard Darwin (the always authentic Byron Jennings) and a Burmese envoy and his wife.

It’s 1956, and the British and French have just invaded Suez. The Foreign Office has issued a statement that the Brits, purportedly neutral, call on the Israelis to move away from a point which in fact they had not reached. But it was in the plan. They are caught in a lie, in their political corruption. She is drunk. She goads Darwin, telling him that the Brits are now an international laughing stock. She predicts the death rattle of the ruling class.

Surprisingly, Darwin, who had seemed the compleat foreign office bureaucrat, says “I was lied to. The government lied to me. I would have been defending it had it been honestly done.” Turns out that Darwin had been against such a move and resented not that it happened but that he had been lied to by the Foreign Office. It calls up one of Hare’s best plays, “Stuff Happens,” about the lies told by the G.W. Bush administration to entangle the U.S. in the still on-going Iraq War.

Susan’s husband Brock says PM Anthony Eden is weak. That “They taunted him…. [he thought] I must find something to be strong or …he finds Nasser. They were probably drafting telegrams. They do before they drop bombs. Bad conscience.” A smart if cynical analysis of how the “smart-dumb” foreign policy wonks get the rest of us into war. And some into body bags. But forget that, it’s not about them.

Susan offers the Burmese couple claret from the cellar, there is “plenty.” Plenty of stuff, but not peace. In her elegant blue gown, she cries over horrors of war. Swears. Predicts we will at last see some changes.

Rachel Weisz as Susan Traherene and LeRoy McCain as Mick, photo Joan Marcus.

Rachel Weisz as Susan Traherne and LeRoy McCain as Mick, photo Joan Marcus.

But the rest of the play before and after that high point is a series of erratic events as Susan sinks into neurotic acting out. The pills she gulps down don’t help. She is dissatisfied with a job advertising “cardboard” as shoes.

She wants to have a child but no husband, so she persuades Mick (LeRoy McClain) to impregnate her. He is a black Cockney – obviously setting his class against hers – but it unclear whether his part represents untraditional casting or she was planning to have a black child, something never mentioned in the dialogue.

She marries diplomat Raymond Brock (Corey Stoll), who we will see in the Suez event, a rather sad sack of a fellow who is in love with her and lets himself be ill-treated by her for the ensuing 15 years. Maybe he got used to that in the diplomatic corps. But he can’t hack it for promotion at the Foreign Office, not because he isn’t smart enough (an FO personnel officer explains, “It’s not enough to be clever, more important is attitude of mind”). Being gracious and sociable is valued more than being right or wrong. A profession in which nobody may speak their minds: “it’s called diplomacy.”

Corey Stoll as Raymond Brock and Rachel Weisz as Susan Traherne, photo Joan Marcus.

Corey Stoll as Raymond Brock and Rachel Weisz as Susan Traherne, photo Joan Marcus.

Along the way Susan makes a friend of Alice Park (Emily Bergl), who is on relatively solid ground as a high school teacher of girls who are either very rich or congenitally stupid. Her student Dorcas (Liesel Allen-Yeagar) 17, comes looking for cash because she stupidly got herself pregnant by using sex to pay for drugs. It’s the same age Susan was in occupied France.

And Louise (a very good Dani de Waal), is a self-described bohemian who we see painting a nude women brown and green – brown from feet to waist, then green, so she will go to a New Year’s Eve Arts Ball as an oak tree. All of this may represent a society that is cracking up as much as the often hysterical Susan is. Is she looking for the return of simple heroism? To a life in an occupied place fighting for liberation? Or distraught at the corrupt post-war society she inhabits? Not clear. And neither is the play.

Plenty.” Written by David Hare, directed by David Leveaux. The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., (south of 8th Street) NYC. 212-539-8500. Opened Oct 20, 2016, closes Dec 1, 2016. 10/30/16.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

“Underground Railroad Game” is a stunning, biting, compelling satire on what white Americans learn about slavery

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:05 pm

By Lucy Komisar

This is not a children’s game. It is a riveting, compelling, inventive dissection of slavery, the underground railroad, the civil war and racism. In fact, “riveting, compelling, inventive” is a good description of Ars Nova, which presents this play and also created “The Great Comet of 1812,” the Off-Broadway hit just opening on Broadway.

The Underground Railroad Game comes out of the experience of Scott Sheppard, one of the two creator/performers, who in the 5th grade participated in a unit about the civil war that divided students into Union and Confederate soldiers. But this is much more. And definitely not for 5th graders. If the underground railroad gives people the sense of, “at least there was a silver lining” to slavery, this production puts the real story out, with in-your-face realism. Taibi Magar’s powerful direction is bereft of illusions. And the actor/writers are superb in their roles.

Scott Shepard as Quaker and Jennifer Kidwell as slave, photo Ben Arons.

Scott Shepard as Quaker and Jennifer Kidwell as slave, photo Ben Arons.

It starts innocently enough. A black woman (Jennifer Kidwell) is terrified when a man with a lantern (Scott Sheppard) enters the barn where she is hiding. But it’s okay, he’s a Quaker and this is the underground railroad.

Then audience members are instructed to locate the packets stuck to seat bottoms in which there are miniature blue or gray toy soldiers. They’ll be asked to wave them at times. Stuart, the teacher, says, “Go blue! If you can successfully move one of these slaves to all of the classrooms in the 5th grade web, you will earn a bonus 100 points for your team and these slaves get to Canada.” Caroline cheers, “Union, union, union!”

It’s a fun game, no? With subtle satire. Suddenly, the music turns to the 50s tune, “Misty.” “Look at me, I’m as helpless as a kitten up the tree.” So, how tough is that?

Slaves are OK in a safe house; outside, they can be taken to prison. And teacher Caroline explains, “If at any time you start to feel unsafe, we do have a code word and that word is, “sojourner.” More pop music. How cool can that get?

Scott Sheppard as slave owner and Jennifer Kidwell as Miz Annabelle, photo Ben Arons.

Scott Sheppard as slave owner and Jennifer Kidwell as Miz Annabelle, photo Ben Arons.

But a shift to the spiritual, “Wade in the water children,” and we see the silhouette of slave with a high skirt. We are going to learn about plantations, cotton and tobacco, and about the slaves who work in the big house.

Caroline will become Miz Annabelle. She sings “Motherless Child” and pulls off her shawl. Stuart’s character sucks on her breast. Then he goes under her skirts. No, not for the 5th grade.

Classroom fantasy becomes reality. She tells him they are playing a dangerous game. “Those words don’t mean the same thing to me that they do to you. You’re not listening to yourself.”

Scott: Okay, fine. Well, what are we doing?
Jennifer: Reveling in the past.
Scott: Are we reveling in it, or learning from it?
Jennifer: I’m not sure.

Scott Sheppard as teacher taking Jennifer Kidwell as Caroline from a safe house, photo Ben Arons.

Scott Sheppard as teacher taking Jennifer Kidwell as Caroline from a safe house, photo Ben Arons.

Racism is ever present. A safe house sign has been defaced. The word “niggerlover” is scrawled in a student’s handwriting. Caroline says the words hurt. And then there is a fascinating playacting lesson.

Stuart says, “we the white people do not understand the horror that it is to be a minority.” Suddenly, he declares his love for her. Then violence erupts. Stuart/a man attacks Caroline with the American flag.

So role reversal, starting with embrace, kissing, sexual touching and then she hits him with a stick. “I haven’t begun to punish you yet.” He is in black underwear and socks. He is in sex detention.

He raises an arm. “What broad shoulders you have.” She moves the ruler across his body and down his arm. She smacks him, “Ah, ah, ah. And what big hands you have…. Legs. Spread them. Mm, they look fit.” It’s a slave auction!

“How well do you move…dance for me.” She pulls down his underwear. And more than I describe here. It is his utter slave humiliation.

The school bell rings. Caroline declares, “We lived firsthand what it was like to be a slave in the big house.”

No, they didn’t, not in that 5th grade class. Not really in a traditional American school.

At the end, the teachers urge the audience to sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The words stick in my throat. Little glory there. But a brilliant commentary by Scott Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell on what white Americans think they know and what black Americans do know about slavery.

“Underground Railroad Game.” Written by Scott Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell, directed by Taibi Magar. Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street, New York City. 866-811-4111. Opened Sept 13, 2016, closes Nov 11, 2016. 11/03/16.


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