Surreal, slapstick, funny, political, clever, and very feminist, Ariana Mnouchkine’s staging of “A Room in India,” created by Hélène Cixous and Mnouchkine’s world-famous Théâtre du Soleil (founded in Paris 1964), is a rich feast for audiences.
It is built around the travails of a French political theater troupe visiting India whose director abandons them because he can’t produce the Mahabarata, the ancient Indian epic. Never clear why.
The Fiasco Theater company has become known for iconic, clever, delightful productions of Shakespeare plays that are both complex, with live music performed by the actors, and minimal and intimate, with few characters and small settings. This production at the Classic Stage Company opens with terrific sea shantys in a country style. It will proceed to joyous drinking songs. And a charming and very accessible production of Shakespeare’s comic play about shipwrecked twins and mismatched lovers.
Albert Camus’ 1948 play, powerfully, surreally staged by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, director of the Paris Théȃtre de la Ville, seems so prescient, so of the moment, that you could swear it was written yesterday. Orwell’s “1984” was published a year later. But both warn against totalitarian governments that frighten and coopt ordinary citizens until a few brave souls fight back. They will be bloodied. Both are called allegories. I consider them warnings.
Before the First World War, things in England seemed quite solid, unmoving, as far as classes went. The upper class was frivolous, its members assumed everything about their lives would remain pretty much the same. Nice homes, nice parties. At the opening, a family and friends in Yorkshire are doing charades, underlining lives of fantasy.
But the interwar years seemed to change everything, to auger in a seismic shift in class relations. J.B. Priestley’s absorbing 1937 play about what happened to one family and the people whose lives they touched explains how by the time the Second World War occurred — why are we having so many world war? but that’s another story — to be followed by the victory of the Labor Party, the ascendancy of the upper class was not so assured. At least, money would matter more than class.
The Cabaret Convention put on by the Mabel Mercer Foundation has for almost three decades brought together some of the best cabaret performers in the country, each of four days presenting as many as 20 singers, some prominent, some new, some doing standards, others jazz, to keep the tradition alive. Dozens appeared over four evenings; these are just my highlights. I notice that most are women. Well, so be it! They had the most pizzazz, the most drama.
A modern trippy jazzy smart take on Shakespeare’s couples play (“As You Like It”) about males and females going after each other, circling each other in real life before internet dating sites. In modern dress with a jazzy Elizabethan piano. And with the rather austere stripped down set director that John Doyle is known for. Let’s just do the play!
From Hester in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, to Hester, La Negrita (the excellent Saycon Sengbloh) today, naïve trusting women with no economic independence are the victims of men, and then the victims of the social managers and critics, the moral cops of society, who blame them for being the victim.
Suzan-Lori Parks reimagines Hester of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “A Scarlet Letter” in a time when small children are imprisoned for stealing food and their sentences extended for decades. And when bounty hunters go after escaped prisoners, who they will torture and kill.
Mothers coping with seriously ill children who will never be healthy and normal is the theme of Amy Herzog’s new play. Sounds depressing, and it is, but it’s also curiously rather uplifting. Because it’s about the women’s trying to maintain normality, loving their children with a kind of forcefulness and desperation as if that could will a cure. And with Anne Kauffman’s naturalistic direction, the play never gets near soap opera.
Standup comedy, political rally, late night talk TV? It’s hard to know what to make of Michael Moore theater event billed as a play. Donald Trump’s black and white photo is the backdrop. A box on the upper right has red, white and blue bunting. It’s the presidential box and Trump and family have been invited. Moore is wearing his signature worker’s blue shirt and cap.
Harold Prince produced and directed some of Broadway’s brilliant musicals: “Cabaret,” “Candide,” “Evita,” “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” “Fiddler.” Those shows were about politics and ideas. I was glad to see a reprise of famous numbers, but I was sorry this production did not deal with Prince’s vision. It was more “and then I directed/produced” rather than this is why I put on this show. David Thompson’s book should have made the point that they were very political shows. That and their artistry is why they succeeded.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Tony nominee. She even got a MacArthur “genius” Award. She has done some fine work, especially the funny feminist “The Clean House” and the bizarre “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.” But this play doesn’t make the cut.
When British writer George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was published in 1949 it was viewed as a dystopian novel. Now, it seems taken from the news. Orwell’s novel, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, is stunning theater as well as trenchant political commentary. I’d say surreal, but it’s too close to the truth. Except it is surreal in the sense that it mixes realistic staging with what we used to call horror video.
Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwan” (Der gute Mensch von Sezuan) is often translated less literally as “The Good Woman of Setzuan.” Here a group of second-year students at London’s Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts gets the right translation, uses working class Scottish, Brit and Irish accents to establish class, and do a very good modern interpretation, realism tempered by abstraction.
Rebecca Johannsen’s “Women at War” cuts to the heart of the irony of American military women serving in Afghanistan to relate to women in one of the most benighted anti-female countries in the world. The women in the U.S. Army’s Female Engagement Team, deployed to Afghanistan in 2012-2013, were supposed to engage with local Afghan women to build relationships (hearts and minds) and also gather intelligence. But it turns out that the Americans suffered from sexism U.S. military style: no burqas but plenty of what underlies that.
This play is a satiric modest proposal that appears inspired by Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay of how one could benefit from catastrophe. If you recall, Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland, from Being a Burden on their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick.” To deal with the great poverty in Ireland, he suggested that the Irish eat their children. Playwright Rory Horen in a modern version suggests a clever way of benefiting from civilian deaths in Syria caused by America drones by using data analysis and the Internet.
George Mann’s performance in “Odyssey,” the Homer classic, is a tour de force. Directed by Nir Paldi, who co-authored the adaptation with Mann, it is stunning, overwhelming, brilliant. Mann’s voice takes on the sounds of a musical scale, like a many-stringed orchestra. His movements are striking physical theater. He creates time and space peopled by a cast of dozens. He gives a masterclass in acting.
Richard Marsh’s witty offbeat rhyming verse tells of a copy writer chosen by God to save the world. It is very smart and very funny. Todd (Marsh) is a mild-mannered fellow in his 20s, in jeans and black-rimmed glasses, a copywriter for alumni magazines. He is in a difficult relationship with Helen (the voice of Marsh), his superior wife, a pediatric surgeon. One day Todd is approached by God (Sara Hirsch), who explains, “God is a woman. I make life and I take it.”
It’s 1998. The 6-year-old Syrian Christian draws. Her father wants her to be an artist. There are secret police in her playground.
Sebastian, an idealistic photojournalist just out of university, accompanies a reporter who has gotten an interview with a man hiding in a cave. He takes photos of Osama bin Laden. Sebastian is 21 and wants to change the world. He has some minutes of celebrity through his photos of bin Laden, but he can’t make a go of serious photojournalism, can’t sell his pictures.
This is a moving paen to the bomb-throwing and window-smashing militant British suffragists. A powerful play written and directed by John Woudberg and vividly performed by Claire Moore, it will set every feminist’s blood boiling in anger and pride at what Edith Rigby, a heroic woman who forswore the advantages of being a doctor’s wife, suffered and achieved in the British struggle for the vote. Suffered means being beaten and force-fed in jail hunger strikes, which today one recognizes as torture.
You probably never heard of the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig disaster off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland. It was the world’s deadliest oil rig calamity. Occidental Petroleum, the American company which ran the North Sea oil platform with faulty maintenance and safety practices, is happy about that. It tried to bribe a painter who had been on the rig documenting the workers and their conditions.
In “Foreign Radical,” set in the age of surveillance aimed at catching terrorists, border controls become an immersive game show. The first dark space you enter has an Arab (Ayro Khakpour) naked, leaning over a table. There is Arabic writing on a wall; the emoji is a skull. In 2014, the US changed its requirements for putting individuals on a terrorism watch list. They no longer need “concrete facts” or “irrefutable evidence”, just suspicion. Get on the list, and you get enhanced surveillance and screenings at airports. In 2015 U.S. security added half a million people to the watch list.
Ramy Essam became an iconic figure of the 2011 Egyptian mass protest that toppled dictator Mubarak but lost to military power. This autobiographical show is his powerful and moving story. And it’s very good theater.
Annaleigh Ashford as Helena and Danny Burstein as Bottom shine in Lear deBessonet’s funny, inspired by teen movies, jazzy staging of Shakespeare’s comedy about dueling lovers. But the rest of the cast glitters almost as brightly.
We know this will be a cool production when we meet the Duke (Bhavesh Patel) and his fiancée Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (De’dre Aziza). He is in-your-face smart, and she is sensually on the mark.
Just before you enter the large open space where this immersive play takes place, you pick up a silver dog tag that says, “Seeing you – heaven, hell or Hoboken.” It’s the fate of some American soldiers who have just been drafted to fight in World War II. It’s also their fate to be subject to flag-waving jingoism by the local congressman (Ted Hannan). And to endemic racism: at a see-off-the-draftees party at a local music club, one of the friends (Eriko Jimbo) is thrown out because she is Japanese. Welcome to the fight for democracy: plus ça change…