Monday, June 18, 2018

31 (2018-2019): Review: OTHELLO (seen June 17, 2018)

“The Green-Eyed Monster”

A beautiful, warm and balmy night watching a Shakespeare production at the Delacorte in Central Park can make even sitting for three hours on hard, stadium-type, wooden seats a pleasant enough experience, which is true even for the milk and water Othello now being offered under Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction. His mostly conventional, textbook staging stars Chukwudi Iwuji (so memorable in last season’s The Low Road) as the Moor, the ubiquitous Corey Stoll as Iago, the beauteous Heather Lind as Desdemona (The Public’s The Merchant of Venice), Babak Tafti (Small Mouth Sounds) as Cassio, and Alison Wright (Sweat) as Emilia. 
Chikwudi Iwuji. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This well-spoken, unobtrusively staged production, faithful to Shakespeare’s text, is played on Rachel Hauck’s neutral set of Venetian arches set in sand-colored walls whose positions can be slightly altered (despite looking more or less the same throughout). Toni Leslie-James’s abundant costumes conjure, without precisely replicating, the beauty of early 17th-century Venetian wear.
Chikwudki Iwuji, Corey Stoll. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Othello's action commences in the dark of night, which makes its opening scene problematic for an outdoor production that begins around 8:10, before the mid-June sun has set. Santiago-Hudson makes no attempt to at least hint at the hour by the use of torches or lanterns, as even Shakespeare’s daytime performances most likely did. But when it does darken, Jane Cox’s lighting helps evoke the proper tragic atmosphere, supplemented by Derek Wieland’s pretty, period-flavored music.
Chikwudi Iwuji, Corey Stoll. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Only a few relatively minor directorial flourishes stand out, like having Othello lift Desdemona to crush her in his arms instead of wrapping his hands around her neck. Considering that Iwuji is of average size, this feat of strength may not be objectively convincing but it does offer a variation one can point to when searching for something original to cite. In this context, it should be noted, Thomas Schall’s well-choreographed and executed fight scenes are worthy of commendation.
Heather Lind, Chikwuji Iwuji. Photo; Joan Marcus.
Unlike last summer’s controversial Julius Caesar, when the title character physically bore all the attributes of our current tyrant-in-chief, this production avoids exaggerating the play’s contemporary relevance. To me, that distinction lies mainly in Iago, a man who surely has lied his entire life to reach his current position as Othello’s “ancient.”

However, this crafty Machiavellian, disappointed at not having been promoted to the post of the Moor’s lieutenant, is so unhappy that he tells ever and ever bigger lies to get rid of  Cassio, the able soldier for whom he was bypassed. Naturally, this leads to the ultimate tragedy concerning Desdemona’s handkerchief, which Iago uses to malign Cassio as her lover, and thereby to incite the ragingly jealous Othello to kill her.
Corey Stoll, Alison Wright. Photo: Joan Marcus.
A case could be made to portray Iago as a ruthless Trumpian avatar ready to say anything and crush anyone in order to achieve his ambitions. Thankfully, it’s a connection we can, if we wish, make for ourselves without having it pushed in our face. The strapping Stoll, encased in black leather tights and top, brings his lightly New York-accented charisma to the role but his sardonically humorous take ("one may smile, and smile, and be a villain," as Hamlet says) remains too one-dimensional, failing to find the many nuances among the various sides of Iago’s personality.
Heather Lind, Chikwudi Iwuji. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In this regard, the retention of Iago’s long, scheming monologues, in which he so specifically lays out his evil plans, comes eventually to seem a playwriting foible in which Shakespeare chooses to tell more than to show what the character has in mind.
Babak Tafti, Flor de Liz Perez (as Bianca). Photo: Joan Marcus.
While the black leather encasing Iago (which must be stifling on hot nights under the lights) works for this ultra-villain (albeit perhaps too obviously signaling his nature), Othello’s garb is annoyingly distracting. James has dressed him in tight leather pants and boots, with a short black leather jacket and a blousy white shirt. It’s a sexy ensemble that makes the trim Iwuji look more like a biker bad boy than the Moorish general Venice hopes will conquer the threatening Turks.
Chikwudi Iwuji, Heather Lind. Photo: Joan Marcus.
When his jacket is off, he could easily be playing Hamlet or Romeo, but, aside from the color of his skin, certainly not Othello. Only in the bedroom scenes late in the play does he wear anything resembling the Moor’s cultural background—a sweeping, African-patterned, sleeveless robe—diminishing the play’s suggestion of not only a racial but cultural divide between the character and his Venetian friends and employers.

The same de-emphasis on racial tension is made further apparent by casting African-American actor Motell Foster as Roderigo. Even a white Roderigo defies credibility by thinking he has the ghost of a chance with Desdemona; having a black Roderigo in a world where blacks are openly disparaged for their racial features is impossible to accept. Oskar Eustis’s program note says that the play’s central concern for us today is Othello’s “otherness” in a racially biased society; a black Roderigo contradicts this since the play makes no reference to his color. Surely, this casting isn’t suggesting that Roderigo sees himself as a minor Othello, as in, “if he could do it, why can’t I?”

To some degree this could be mollified by playing the egregiously na├»ve Roderigo as something of a simpleton, but, under Santiago-Hudson’s direction, he comes off as an ordinary soldier, no smarter or dumber than most, with a misguided vision of his romantic possibilities. His deception by Iago is thus much harder to buy.

Of course, even the noble Othello is deceived by Iago’s wiles. In this production, however, Othello's reaction to his betrayal arrives too easily, and Iwuji’s reaction too often loses the man’s regality in favor of petulant breast-beating. I don’t recall ever feeling as strongly just how foolish Othello is.
Heather Lind, Alison Wright. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Iwuji makes a striking appearance and speaks beautifully, albeit his tenor more closely resembles a romantic lover than a seasoned warrior who has had adventures among “the cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.” The performance of this very difficult role is intelligent and emotional but falls short of being tragically powerful in the way, for example, James Earl Jones’s Othello was so many years ago.

Lind’s gracious Desdemona, decked out in gorgeous Renaissance-style gowns, hits all the right physical and emotional marks, and her spirited responses to Othello’s accusations are admirably defiant and poignant. Tafti is somewhat slight as Cassio but manages to capture the role’s pathos, while a sturdy ensemble provides adequate support to all the principals.

But if I were to choose which performance will remain in my memory when time has passed it would be Alison Wright’s unusually touching, exquisitely controlled, and bravely confessional Emilia. The role has its problems, including why she doesn’t pipe up sooner about what she knows, but Wright is so consistently honest and real, this often neglected secondary role shines more brightly than anything else in the production.

A final note: I have no idea why, but the night I went there were so many entrances and exits in the audience you’d think that’s where the play was being performed. It was not unlike being at a ballgame where people are always leaving to get refreshments or use the bathrooms. Some people returned, but most did not. It’s hard to accept that, given what most theatregoers must do to get seats to Shakespeare in the Park, these people would so easily give up on a production that, while not superlative, is sufficiently grounded in the Bard’s action and characters to sit it out for the duration. Whatever the reason for this behavior, it was both shameful and annoying. I hope it doesn’t happen again.


Delacorte Theater/Shakespeare in the Park (Public Theater)
Central Park West at W. 82nd St., NYC
Through June 24

Saturday, June 16, 2018

30 (2018-2019): Review: ALL I WANT IS ONE NIGHT (seen June 14, 2018)

"The Most Painted Woman"

For my review of All I Want Is One Night please click on THEATER LIFE.

29 (2018-2019): Review: DESPERATE MEASURES (seen June 15, 2018)

"Shakespeare Rides Again, Part II"

Last October, I strongly recommended Desperate Measures, the delightful musical farce loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which it sets in the Wild West, turning the Angelo character into a Trump-like, German-accented, comical tyrant. The show, which I reviewed on The Broadway Blog, went on to win a number of honors, including the Drama Desk Awards for best lyrics and music in a new musical, beating out Broadway musicals like Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Originally produced by the York Theatre in a limited run, Desperate Measures has now returned for a commercial run at New World Stages, with the only cast change being Sarah Parnicky in the role of the novice nun Sister Mary Jo, first played by Emma Degerstedt. Despite a drop in the intimacy afforded by the much smaller York Theatre, and a running time of two hours and 20 minutes that’s a little longer than it need be, Desperate Measures continues to ride high in the saddle. 

For my original Broadway Blog review, which continues to hold true, please click here. 


New World Stages
340 W. 50th St., NYC
Open run

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


“Martha’s Revenge”

Parody plays about TV shows are rather common, examples over Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf, Kate Scelsa’s helter-skelter deconstruction of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Abrons Arts Center.
the past few years having spoofed
such popular series as “Three’s a Crowd,” “Friends,” and “Golden Girls.” Less often seen are full-out takeoffs on important plays. That, however, is what the respected Off-Broadway experimental theatre company, Elevator Repair Service, is now providing with Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf, Kate Scelsa’s helter-skelter deconstruction of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Abrons Arts Center.
Vin Knight, Annie McNamara. Photo: Joan Marcus.
I have decidedly mixed feelings, generally unfavorable, about the effort, some of which is incomprehensible while some is quite funny, if not as thought-provoking as its creators might have intended.
Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Annie McNamara. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Written specifically for ERS by one of its longtime members, EFWVW takes a satirical, feminist look at Albee’s treatment of the character of Martha in terms of what Scelsa considers Albee’s unfair treatment of her. Scelsa's views are outlined in a chat (online and, edited, in the program) with the play’s director, John Collins.
Vin Knight, April Matthis, Mike Iveson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In the online version, Collins describes Scelsa's response to Albee’s original as “Celebrating it, blowing it up, surgically ripping it to shreds, and birthing a triumphant new way of seeing those people. . . . It’s an amazing act of critique, of parody, of destruction, and rebirth, exacted on this very famous play. And what’s amazing about it is that, in tearing it down and rebuilding it, it does what the original does even better, even more.” “Martha’s revenge,” Collins calls it.
April Matthis, Mike Iveson, Annie McNamara. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Like those TV parodies mentioned above, Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf  belongs to the genre of “fan fiction,” wherein someone writes new material, usually unauthorized, about well-known fictional characters. There’s really no way to appreciate Scelsa’s take on Virginia Woolf without close familiarity with its plot and characters.
Mike Iveson, Annie McNamara. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Conceived (like the original) in three acts but played as an intermissionless hour-and-a-half one-act, EFWVW is about the same famous quartet: George (Vin Knight) and Martha Washington (Annie McNamara), the bibulous professor and his raucous wife, and Nick (Mike Iveson) and Honey Sloane (April Matthis), the desperate-for-tenure new professor and his innocuous wife. (Note the characters’ new last names, Sloane being an allusion to characters in ERS’s famous 2012 production of Gatz).
April Matthis, Annie McNamara. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Gathered for an evening of drinks, these cartoon characters enact a fever dream version of Albee’s play, played as steroid-level farce in a cartoon living room (designed by Louisa Thompson). Pregnancy being a theme of Albee’s play (Honey's "hysterical pregnancy" and Martha and George’s baby story), it takes on new meanings here, since both men are depicted as gay (although Nick has had an affair with Martha), but with Nick talking about mpreg, hoping he can one day give birth.
Annie McNamara. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The talk also emphasizes not only fan fiction but slash fiction, which Scelsa describes as being “where mostly straight women writers live out a fantasy of male queerness.” Fan fiction, slash fiction, mpreg! Ain’t theatre educational?
Vin Knight, Mike Iveson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In her quest to “turn the tables” with her own version of Martha, Scelsa calls upon a constant stream of playwriting references, specifically to works whose gay authors depicted and destroyed damaged women who many see as hidden parts of the dramatists’ own personas. In this view, Martha is actually Albee’s avatar.
Annie McNamara, Vin Knight. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Substantial chunks of exaggeratedly acted dialogue lifted from Williams’s Blanche and Maggie mingle with allusions (usually comically distorted) not only to Albee’s play but to numerous other sources, including Annie Hall, “Will and Grace,” the Twilight series, Ibsen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Beckett, Stephen Sondheim, Alison Bechdel, and so on. Perhaps for legal reasons, the script even concludes with a list of just where every arcane and not so arcane reference comes from.
Vin Knight, Mike Iveson, Annie McNamara. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Whatever sociological points Scelsa wants to make are buried in tons of exaggerated behavior. And if you think the two acts set in George and Martha’s house are pretty wild, wait until the third when George (like Jerry Springer in the recent "opera" about that TV personality) gets sent to purgatory. There, a huge robot glides about and George’s escort is neurosis-sucking female vampire cum Ph.D. candidate who pontificates with lines like this: “I would go so far as to argue that when men write about the failures of women, they’re writing about the failure of the vulnerable individual. And when men write about the failures of men, they’re writing about the failure of society.” How very un-Albee of her!
Vin Knight, Lindsay Hockaday. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There are indeed some yocks (a Woody Allen bit, especially), and many visitors continued to chuckle long after my own laugh battery died. All the actors acquit themselves well at this sort of pseudo-academic literary silliness, and, if you’re of a particular bent, you might even agree that Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf even if you’re still afraid of Edward Albee.


Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand St., NYC
Through June 30

Sunday, June 10, 2018

26 (2018-2019): A note in lieu of a review: FRUIT TRILOGY (not seen June 9, 2018)


Alert! This is not a review. It’s just a note about one of those things that now and then happens to folks like me that often review five or more plays a week.

My wife, Marcia, who is very selective about what shows she wishes to see when I have a plus-one opportunity—which covers around 80% of the well-over 200 shows I review annually—decided she wanted to see Eve Ensler’s Fruit Trilogy, currently being presented by the Abingdon Theatre Company Off Broadway. My schedule is so crowded that finding a date when I could squeeze in the show while also accommodating Marcia’s availability wasn’t easy, but last night, Friday, June 9, worked perfectly.

We live out in Howard Beach, near JFK, so we subwayed in on the A train, giving ourselves enough time to stop, if necessary, for a cup of coffee on the way. However, the barista at the pastry shop on Bleecker St. was very slow and, as it was getting a bit late, we had to carry the hot cups with us as we rushed along the streets of Greenwich Village toward the Cherry Lane Theatre. But as we approached the venue, and I saw no one lingering outside, I got the chills, even with the coffee in my hand.

Something was wrong, and it wasn’t the curtain time. It was that I’d gotten the theatre wrong! Checking my phone, I realized that the show was at the Lucille Lortel, not the Cherry Lane. Luckily, the Lortel is only about two and a half blocks from the Cherry Lane, so we two coffee-carrying septuagenarians hustled as quickly as we could to the correct theatre only to notice that, once again, no one was huddling outside the place, as is always the case just before a show begins. Arriving at the theatre’s pearly gates I saw the reason: a note was posted saying the performance was canceled because one of the actors had injured herself at the matinee and was at the ER.

My immediate reaction was to get mad at the press rep for not having notified me in time. The box office guy could offer no explanation about it, nor could the Abingdon’s artistic director, Tony Speciale, who was very sweet. Still flustered, and wondering why, since no one else seemed to be showing up to be disappointed—the box office guy said some had been contacted and others had already been turned away—I checked the emails on my phone.

THERE IT WAS, a message from the press rep sent at 7:04, while Marcia and I were blissfully passing Nostrand Avenue, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, or Jay Street/Borough Hall, saying: TIME SENSITIVE (not sensitive enough, however), and apologizing for the cancellation because of actress Kiersey Clemons’s sprained ankle. So the rep was off the hook, the actor was in pain, and Marcia and I were homeward bound. Wiping the sweat from our brows, we trudged back to the subway and returned home for an evening of HBO’s “Barry” and a DVD episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” As for Fruit Trilogy, my calendar tells me that any hopes I have of seeing it will be fruitless.

The lesson: if you tell an actor to break a leg be careful what you ask for.

Weirdendum: This afternoon Marcia and I compensated for last night's cancellation by going out to see a movie. The first preview was of a new movie called Hearts Beat Loud, starring Nick Offerman and a rising young actress I never heard of--until last night--Kiersey Clemons. Now I know who I was missing!