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Archive for the Category ‘Theater’

“Sunset Boulevard” is too campy story of has-been star and desperate screenwriter

“Sunset Boulevard” is too campy story of has-been star and desperate screenwriter

Glenn Close is masterful in Norma Desmond’s final mad scene. Suddenly camp becomes real drama, tragedy of the Shakespearean sort. Till then the has-been silent film star, the grande dame who flounces around in glittery gold and silver sweeping gowns and capes, is hard to take too seriously. The camp is exaggerated by butler/major-domo Max (Fred Johanson), whose dark mood and piercing eyes could have come out of a Mel Brooks Frankenstein spoof. “Goulish” is a word to describe them both, and the haunted house they live in.

“Life According to Saki” is dark, whimsical satire that aims at British upper class

“Life According to Saki” is dark, whimsical satire that aims at British upper class

Macabre and whimsical, dark and comic at the same time, a clever satiric pen pointed at self-absorbed aristocrats of the early 1900s, Katherine Rundell’s “Life According to Saki” is a delicious evening of theater.

“Jitney” follows working men struggling to survive

“Jitney” follows working men struggling to survive

You can feel the humanity pulsating and striving through the drab surroundings of the car service office in “Jitney” by the great American playwright August Wilson, who died in 2005. The protagonists, moving in an orbit around the solid Becker (a resolute, moving John Douglas Thompson), who set up the cooperative 18 years ago, are working class guys with jobs, if you want to include the numbers guy, Shealy (Harvy Blanks).

“A Bronx Tale” is musical coming of age with a twist: kid grows up among hoodlums

“A Bronx Tale” is musical coming of age with a twist: kid grows up among hoodlums

It’s a knock off of “West Side Story,” here Italians vs blacks, and very hokey, but “A Bronx Tale” has a certain charm and pizazz nonetheless. The place is Bedford Avenue, tenements with fire escapes and pushcarts. And kids singing doo-wop. They are working class Italians, circa 1960.

“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” flashes across Broadway

“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” flashes across Broadway

This immersive, hokey, utterly engaging production is one of the memorable plays to see this season. In fact, it almost feels as if you don’t just see it, you are in it. The audience is dispersed around a gorgeous set, seated at rows and tables, some on the stage, backed by red drapes and paintings, as actors move through the aisles and on risers. Sometimes lighted chandeliers descend or disco lights flash. Everything seems red, white and black.

“The Front Page” an engaging politically advanced 90-year-old noirish comedy

“The Front Page” an engaging politically advanced 90-year-old noirish comedy

Nathan Lane is superb as the over-the-top newspaper editor Walter Burns in this near 90-year-old noirish comedy that has some political nuggets hidden in its hokey scenario. It’s given a fine, only slightly tongue in cheek, reprise by director Jack O’Brien. Playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur had been Chicago reporters, and the action takes place in the press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building. The courts building shares the gallows courtyard with the county jail. Then anarchist Earl Williams (John Magaro), who is accused of killing a policeman and is going to be hanged, escapes.

“The Band’s Visit” is a charming gem about human connections across political divides

“The Band’s Visit” is a charming gem about human connections across political divides

An Egyptian police band, the grandly named Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, in 1996 is supposed to play at an Arab cultural center in Israel, but gets the town’s name wrong at the bus station and ends up in an Israeli backwater.

Haled (Ari’el Stachel), a trumpet player who loves Chet Baker, sings “My funny valentine” to female soldiers at the bus station. But the diversion plus imperfect English turns Petah Tikva, the city with the Arab cultural center, into Bet Hatikva. And so hangs the tale, and a charming, moving, slightly sentimental gem of a play.

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is a hokey Sex in the City in 18th century France

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is a hokey Sex in the City in 18th century France

I seem to be using the word a lot lately: hokey. Chandeliers with lit candles descend to sounds of operatic “ah ah” and pretentious violins. The story is based on a French epistolary novel written in 1782, and meant as a satire. But with the direction by Josie Rourke, you get the feeling that audiences are invited to enjoy the sex stuff. It’s basically about a guy putting notches on his bedpost. (“Sex in the 18th-century French City”?)

The anti-hero Valmont (Lev Schreiber) is conspicuously charming. His former lover the Marquise, played by a take-no-prisoners Janet McTeer, wants revenge against her former lover Jacour, who has announced that he is going to marry a rich young girl. And Valmont wants to seduce married women known for their high morals.

“Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is charming fluff highlighting great songs of the 40s

“Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is charming fluff highlighting great songs of the 40s

It’s light fluff, but if you love 40s music, as I do, just forget the silly plot. Besides, the production and the actors are charming. And there is 40s scat. Also jazzy music, dance kicks, swing and tap. The show is based on a 1942 movie, but a lot of the songs have been added.

“The Encounter” is a hokey gimmicky pretentious conceit

“The Encounter” is a hokey gimmicky pretentious conceit

Simon McBurney, founder and artistic director of the British theater company Complicite (a French word here pretentiously spelled without the acute accent on the e) has produced a hokey often loopy and generally pompous conceit under the pretext of an anthropological mission to the Amazon.

He pretends to be the photographer Loren McIntyre in 1969. But the visual, as it would appear to an audience viewing the stage, is not enough. You get earphones to enjoy surround sound and sense that you are partaking of McIntyre’s adventures and dangers. Something blows in your ear, a noise comes from behind and you want to turn. You hear the crashes and echoes of the jungle. Think radio show sound effects.

“Fiddler on the Roof” still brilliant political musical theater

“Fiddler on the Roof” still brilliant political musical theater

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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. 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.

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

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

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” 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.

“Sense & Sensibility” a funny hokey caricature of Jane Austin’s genteel 19th-century England

“Sense & Sensibility” a funny hokey caricature of Jane Austin’s genteel 19th-century England

The protagonists sometimes scowl, smirk, sneer, scream, run with branches to represent a forest, are pushed around on roller chairs, pass through moving doorways that reflect entrances and exits, and occasionally face inches away from first-row audiences to pull them into the plot. Not quite Bedlam but you get the very idea from this troupe that believes in “the immediacy of the relationship between the actor and the audience…collapsing aesthetic distance…[in] a kinetic experience of shared empathy.”

“Battlefield,” inspired by Brook’s Mahabarata, an elegant parable of justice and war

“Battlefield,” inspired by Brook’s Mahabarata, an elegant parable of justice and war

Peter Brook’s “Battlefield” is an elegant, moving and sad parable about justice and war, life and death, going back in our sophisticated times to the simple way earlier societies said these truths. It is inspired by the “The Mahabarata,” a stylized ritualistic vision of war from the epic Sanskrit poem dating from 400 B.C. which director Peter Brook staged in a 9-hour performance in 1987.

“Phaedra(s)” director turns Greek goddess’s love for stepson into tedious over-the-top modern sex-obsession

“Phaedra(s)” director turns Greek goddess’s love for stepson into tedious over-the-top modern sex-obsession

This is one of the most interesting bad plays I’ve ever seen. The production by the Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe is in French, with English surtitles. The best part was a riotously funny and clever satire of the pretentious French intellectuals who hold forth and preen on TV talk shows. Isabelle Huppert is perfect as a very self-involved novelist speaking in double-time to explain the sexual connections between gods and humans. That comes from the part of the production based on writing by South African novelist J.M. Coetzee. But most of the 3 ½-hour long (very long) evening is simply pretentious. Director Krzysztof Warlikowski, artistic director of the Nowy Teatr in Warsaw, starts with the Greek myth of Phaedra, daughter of the king and queen of Crete, who, after Athens’ King Theseus has defeated and slaughtered her people, agrees to a marriage to Theseus arranged by her brother.

Edinburgh Fringe: the struggle for justice

Edinburgh Fringe: the struggle for justice

Of the plays I saw during six days in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, these plays about justice stood out: “A Common Man: The Bridge that Tom Built,” “The Red Shed,” “Playing Maggie,” and “Undermined.”

The first play is about Thomas Paine, who fought for liberty in colonial America, was forced out for his politics, and spent time in London and also as a member of the Convention in revolutionary France, before having to flee. His story is not well enough known in America. The other three, addressing issues in the Paine tradition, deal a few centuries later with British politics and particularly the miners’ strike of 1984-5, which still reverberates in Brits’ psyches.

Edinburgh Fringe: the people the system chews up

Edinburgh Fringe: the people the system chews up

I spent six days in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Out of the hundreds of plays presented, I sought out those about politics. I’ve divided the best by their themes. Here are three about the people the system chews up: “Diary of a Madman,” “Trainspotting” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Edinburgh Fringe: plays on the system’s corruption

Edinburgh Fringe: plays on the system’s corruption

I spent six days in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Out of the hundreds of plays presented, I sought out those about politics. I’ve divided the best by their themes. Here are two about the system’s corruption: “The Trial” and “Enron.” It’s quite fascinating to see surreal plays about systemic corruption a century apart. Franz Kafka was ahead of his time in describing the nature of the evil of modern society. His 1915 story “The Trial,” adapted in Edinburgh as a play, shows the evil of a government bureaucracy that grinds up a banker for no particular reason. Then look at Lucy Prebble’s “Enron,” still surreal, where the bureaucrats are now corporate officials, but are still presented, like the Kafka play, as if this were a weird vaudeville.

Edinburgh Fringe: plays about war and its fallout

Edinburgh Fringe: plays about war and its fallout

I spent six days in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Out of the hundreds of plays presented, I sought out those about politics. I’ve divided the best by their themes. Here are several about war and its fallout: “Angel,” “Glasgow Girls” and “Hess.”

“Oslo” is riveting story of back-channel negotiations that led to 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accord

“Oslo” is riveting story of back-channel negotiations that led to 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accord

The Americans had to be kept in the dark, out of the loop, not told anything about the secret Oslo talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Because the Americans’ big-power arrogance would derail them.
That is a provocative note in “Oslo,” J.T. Rogers’ play about the back channel negotiations that led to a ground-breaking Israeli-PLO agreement signed at the Clinton White House in 1993. It would create the Palestinian Authority, with limited government over the West Bank and Gaza and agreement for both sides to continue negotiations.

“Hadestown” a powerful, political, jazzy retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice myth

“Hadestown” a powerful, political, jazzy retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice myth

Hades of course is hell. And singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s script and music, directed by Rachel Chavkin, is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, who journeys to Hades in order to find his love, the nymph Eurydice, who has been killed by a poisonous snake.

Here Orpheus is a minstrel. His wonderful music persuades the King of the Dead to let him take Eurydice home as long as he does not turn around to look at her until they reach the upper world. They have to trust each other. But….

“Shuffle Along” a charming, hokey, jazzy, hot dance show with sparkling Audra McDonald

“Shuffle Along” a charming, hokey, jazzy, hot dance show with sparkling Audra McDonald

It’s charming but also hokey: the story of black producers and performers struggling in the early twenties to put a show on Broadway. It’s 1920 and they are Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, a comedy duo who meet at Fisk, the black college in Nashville.

“The Crucible” a stunning parable of McCarthyism’s attack on America

“The Crucible” a stunning parable of McCarthyism’s attack on America

Arthur Miller’s brilliant parable of the Sen. Joseph McCarthy attack on American liberties, allowed by the U.S. Congress till it became too obscene for even cowardly politicians to stomach, is brilliantly staged by Ivo Van Hove, a Dutchman who understands and communicates Miller’s political message (see also his “A View From the Bridge”) in a theatrical manner that makes politics into art. Using a metaphor of real events some 260 years earlier, it tells of accusations without evidence that were used to damn the innocent. They occurred during the Salem witch trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1692-93.