Monday, June 29, 2015

31 (2015-2016): Review of HAPPY DAYS (seen June 25, 2015)

"Not Such Happy Days"
Stars range from 5-1.
Ever since its world premiere at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 1961, starring Ruth White, HAPPY DAYS, Samuel Beckett’s brilliant metaphoric depiction of man’s existential plight, has received countless productions. New York’s many revivals have starred a wide array of topflight character actresses as Winnie—the aging woman who lives out her days partly buried in a dirt mound—among them Jessica Tandy (1972), Irene Worth (1979), Ruth Malaczech (1998), Joyce Aarons (2002), and Fiona Shaw (2014). Some of these performances have been hailed as triumphs, others considered respectable, and yet others dismissed as failures.
Brooke Adams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The play’s current Winnie, at the Flea Theatre, is Brooke Adams, with her real-life husband, Tony Shalhoub (TV’s “Monk,” Lincoln Center’s Act One), as Willie, Winnie’s longtime husband, 60. For all his star power, it should be noted, Mr. Shalhoub’s mostly pantomimic role is largely performed with his presence partly concealed and his back to the audience. His entire role consists of only 47 words, while Winnie speaks almost nonstop for two hours in an exceedingly tough role that has been likened to a Hamlet for women.
Tony Shalhoub, Brooke Adams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The production, directed by Andrei Belgrader—whose DOCTOR FAUSTUS is currently at the Classic Stage Company—originated at Pasadena’s The Theatre@Boston Court and was seen also in Los Angeles and Boston. Its publicity materials suggest that the play is “newly relevant to a generation burdened by climate change and environmental doom,” which may be true, but there’s nothing on stage that specifically calls attention to this or that draws attention away from Beckett’s original intentions. Beckett, so fastidious about how his plays were presented that he provided scrupulous stage directions for every movement and even took to directing them himself (his 1979 staging of HAPPY DAYS with Billie Whitelaw can be viewed on YouTube), might have argued with some of Mr. Belgrader’s choices.  Essentially, though (unlike Mr. Belgrader’s problematic DOCTOR FAUSTUS), this is a straightforward, respectful mounting that follows most of Beckett’s requirements.
Brooke Adams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
I suspect, of course, that Beckett would not have been happy with having the scene where the partly visible Willie, facing upstage, not only examines an erotic picture (as in the script) but vigorously masturbates while looking at it; where Winnie, having asked Willie for an encore after he sings a bit, breaks the fourth wall and encourages the audience to call for an encore as well; and an extended nose-blowing bit by Willie that goes on ad infinitum. But such moments are thankfully few and, in general, there’s an air of Beckettian authenticity to the proceedings.  

HAPPY DAYS, a landmark of Beckettian minimalism, is set in a desolate, uneven wasteland (designed by Takeshi Kata) dominated by a large mound of scorched grass in which Winnie, a woman of 50, is embedded up to her waist. The landscape is surrounded by a cyclorama on which blue skies, clouds, and distant mountains are painted. The lighting, by Tom Ontiveros, is, as per Beckett’s dictum, “blazing.” This barren world may be intended to evoke a world of environmental ruination, but it’s exactly what Beckett asks for; however he may have sympathized with them, issues of climate change don’t seem to have been one of his main concerns. Other productions have attempted to suggest environmental issues by incorporating reminders of modern man’s despoliation of the earth’s resources in the setting, but nothing like that is apparent here.

To Winnie’s left is a large leather bag in which all her daily necessities are kept, including a pistol, a worn toothbrush, a magnifying glass, eyeglasses, a bottle of patent medicine, a hand mirror, lipstick, a music box, and the like, each of which she makes deliberate use of as she rambles on. To her right is a parasol. At the rear, we can often see the back of Willie’s head and shoulders, or his raised hand, a ratty straw boater on his head worn rakishly directly over a carefully draped handkerchief. He lives in a cave, reached by a tunnel, behind the mound. Beckett makes no attempt to explain Winnie and Willie’s circumstances; they just are, and it’s the audience’s task to comprehend the meaning behind the play’s rather accessible concerns as Winnie natters away to the unlistening Willie. She carries out her daily rituals, cheerfully insisting—when inspired by a hint of positivity from Willie—that this will be a happy day, as human functions become increasingly circumscribed and life creeps stealthily to its conclusion.

Her hair bright yellow, her décolletage bulging (the playwright falls for “shoulders bare, low bodice, big bosom”), Ms. Adams, best known for her film work (Days of Heaven), gives a fine rendition of Winnie; she brings her girlish, still pretty charm (she’s eligible for Social Security) to bear, finding multiple ways to take advantage of the limiting circumstances of performing while seen only from the waist up in act one, and for act two with only her head visible. In Beckett’s own production, Ms. Whitelaw had her neck exposed in the second act, but Ms. Adams’s mobility is even further constricted by having her neck covered and only her head seen, thus further increasing our focus on her face.

She handles all this quite well, is expressive enough to capture Winnie’s many subtextual transitions, has a lovely smile, and convincingly conveys the air of a personality whose eternal optimism and fondness for “the old style” refuses to let her deteriorating condition defeat her; on the other hand, she emits a rather low-beam intensity, partly because of her voice quality and partly because of the air of lassitude caused by occasionally draggy pacing. Of course, she can be harsh, joyous, ironic, scared, angry, hopeful, and despairing, and even hums “The Merry Widow Waltz,” but too often she comes off as someone who chats mindlessly because there’s nothing better to do than as someone who’s determined to get something off her chest. Beckett offers Winnie many funny lines, some rather earthy, but, while Ms. Adams's performance rolls on by more or less amusingly, there’s a dearth of laughs in it. There’s also not much of the pathos needed to move us.

While it’s important to convey the tedium of Winnie’s endless days in a world where the sun never sinks and sleep is incessantly interrupted by the raucous ringing of a bell, the audience itself shouldn’t feel the dullness; this, however, especially in act one, is what happens. Ms. Adam’s portrayal of this now iconic role, while far from a failure, misses being a triumph and falls into the category of  “respectable.”

Mr. Shalhoub is totally unrecognizable as Willie; he's scruffily bearded, wears a comical hairpiece suggesting baldness and stringy, unkempt, gray hair, and looks like a homeless man, unlike the more elegant look of shaved head and well-groomed handlebar mustache affected by Leonard Fenton in the Beckett-directed version. He grunts his few lines, spoken mainly while facing upstage and reading the newspaper, rather than sharply enunciating them, like Fenton. 

In the final scene, where Willie emerges in top hat and tails and crawls toward Winnie, seeking either the gun placed by her side or Winnie herself (Beckett is deliberately ambiguous), Mr. Shalhoub’s Willie goes through all sorts of physical exertions as he seeks to get traction on the mound, none of which Beckett calls for in his script, although others (like George Voskovic in the Irene Worth production) have done something similar. We can perhaps excuse this on the grounds that, after all, an actor of Mr. Shalhoub’s stature needed something notable to do in a play during which his character is largely invisible.

Other Viewpoints:
New York Times
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HAPPY DAYS
Flea Theatre
White Street, NYC
Through July 18

32 (2015-2016): Review of THE QUALMS (seen June 27, 2015)

"Swinging the Polyamory Blues Away"
Stars range from 5-1.
The program cover for Bruce Norris’s* 90-minute one-act, THE QUALMS, at Playwrights Horizons, shows a cartoonish image of a pair of simians doing the nasty, although the animal sex mentioned at length in the script is mainly about creatures of the bovine persuasion. Not that Mr. Norris’s (whose CLYBOURNE PARK snared the Tony and the Pulitzer) entertaining if dramatically skimpy play—originally produced by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater—is preoccupied with animal copulation or bestiality, however; cows and bulls are only one of many subjects about which his eight chief characters spend their time talking instead of taking care of the business at hand (or elsewhere). Sex, mainly of the human variety—or, better yet, varieties—is the chief subject on their minds, but they fill their time wrapping their tongues around topics like the meaning of freedom, the difference between a republic and a democracy, the necessity of monogamous marriage, American materialism, pornography, same-sex experimentation, war, etc. Sort of like an expanded episode of Bill Maher’s HBO series.

From left: Chinasa Ogbuagu, Sarah Goldberg, Jeremy Shamos, Donna Lynne Champlin. Photo: Joan Marcus.
What brings the play’s four couples together—they're members of a dues-paying group of swingers (to use the old nomenclature)—is a bed and barbecue party (pork loins are the pièce de résistance) at a generically attractive East Coast seaside condo apartment (nicely designed by Todd Rosenthal and lit by Russell H. Champs); at the rear, we can see through sliding glass doors a fancy patio grill and hanging party lights. Among the accessories is a bowl of colorfully packaged condoms; another bowl is reserved for the guests’ smartphones. An offstage “party room” has an air mattress on a white carpet, but no red wine in there, please. Even a sex party has its rules (including separate time limits in the party room for couples and threesomes). The place belongs to Gary (John Procaccino), a bloviating, superannuated hipster, and Teri (Kate Arrington), his pretty, dodo-ish partner with AC/DC tastes, who considers sex the panacea for all the world’s problems: “Like if all the Israelis and the Pakistanis had to have sex with each other?”
From left: Kate Arrington, Jeremy Shamos, Sarah Goldberg. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The regular guests—there’d be two more but they’re stuck in a storm in Toledo—include Deb (Donna Lynne Champlin), an energetic, sexually adventurous redhead in the body of Melissa McCarthy, and her good-looking, notably swishy, but sexually ambivalent black companion, Ken (Andy Lucien), formerly the reflexologist for Deb’s recently deceased husband; and Roger (Noah Emmerich), a former military guy with a brassy toilet mouth and Libertarian ideals, who bickers with Regine (Chinasa Obguagu), his dishy, French-accented, black girlfriend from Martinique, decked out in sexy, black silk stockings. The first to arrive, though, are newlyweds Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and the sleek blonde Kristy (Sarah Goldberg), newcomers to “the lifestyle,” who met their hosts during a Mexican vacation; they're here because Chris, having lost his cool, wants to test his jealousy limits after learning about a clandestine luncheon Kristy had with her former boyfriend. (Note: Chris and Kristy don't seem to have any connection to the governor of New Jersey.)  Chris’s eventual qualms (which Mr. Norris admits reflect his own) fuel the play’s only significant conflict. 
From left: Noah Emmerich, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Sarah Goldberg, Jeremy Shamos, Donna Lynne Champlin, Andy Lucien, Kate Arrington. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mr. Norris has a gift for strikingly vivid chitchat spiced with language ranging from the merely bawdy to the outright vulgar, but this language is used in service to what’s essentially a conventional drawing room comedy about a bunch of articulate middle-class people who sit around a living room chattering eagerly about this or that (abetted by mojitos and a weed nebulizer). At long last, someone gets upset about something, sparking a confrontation and thereby leading to the denouement. In this case, Chris, desperate to see if the lifestyle can work for him and Kristy, gradually finds that for all his professed liberalism he’s really rather uneasy about it all, while Kristy, although initially jumpy, is ready to go with the flow, even if it means seeing what playing for the other side is like. Chris, already edgy from Deb's attentions, goes nuts when Regine tries to arouse him with a bout of (rather tame) rough stuff; he expounds in a climactic diatribe that takes every opportunity to trash the purpose of the gathering, unable to prevent the prejudices lurking beneath his liberal exterior from leaping out full blown. The always enjoyable Mr. Shamos makes histrionic hay out of his big scene, but it tends to be forced and stretched beyond the bounds of plausibility.
From left: Chinasa Ogbuagu, John Procaccino, Sarah Goldberg, Jeremy Shamos, Donna Lynne Champlin. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Under Pam McKinnon’s brightly paced direction, the ensemble's performances are terrific, although if anyone were to be singled out it would be Mr. Shamos for his uptight Chris and Ms. Champlin for her buoyant Deb, a buoyancy Chris manages to painfully deflate. Shortly before this mostly sexless sex comedy ends, Gary notes that when a number of strangers are gathered together, like the audience in a theatre, there’s a strong likelihood that they’ll somehow be sexually connected to others in the same place. At this point, Mr. Norris calls for a surprising bit of fourth-wall smashing of which the actors take full advantage. 

While its foreplay is strictly verbal, and the only climax comes when Chris blows his top, there’s still enough amusing titillation to make a visit to THE QUALMS a suitable way to get your theatergoing rocks off.  

*My playgoing companion, who thought THE QUALMS “bright, entertaining, funny, and provocative,” later e-mailed me that on her subway trip home she was reading a handout about the play she’d picked up at the theatre. “The young man standing opposite me asked whether I had been to see The Qualms. He must have recognized the handout, because it was folded in such a way that the title was not visible. Then he asked whether it was good. I said yes, and he responded 'I’ll have to get down there.' I googled Bruce Norris just now, and, based on the many photos of him that pop up, I believe the young man on the subway was Bruce himself. Hah!” Only Bruce Norris knows for sure.
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Other Viewpoints:
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THE QUALMS
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through July 12


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

30 (2015-2016): Review of 10 OUT OF 12 (seen June 23, 2015)

"4 Out of 5 (Stars)"
Stars range from 5-1.

With THE FLICK, Annie Baker demonstrated that watching three low-end employees of a tiny movie theatre fill three hours sweeping rows and scraping gum from seat bottoms could be mesmerizingly interesting. In 10 OUT OF 12, which runs close to two hours and 40 minutes at the Soho Rep, Anne Washburn has done much the same in exposing audiences to the crushing sense of stasis, interrupted by momentary crises, often experienced by theatre people during that period called technical rehearsals, when lighting, sound, and scenic elements are first brought into the process of preparing a production. Ms. Baker studied in Mac Wellman’s unusually successful MFA program in playwriting at Brooklyn College, and Ms. Washburn teaches in that program. One wonders if someone in Flatbush is presently conceiving a groundbreaking play about gardeners watching grass grow.
Bruce McKenzie. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
I say this facetiously, of course, but the truth is that these new plays have added something noteworthy, though not revolutionary, to our understanding of theatre’s ability to grip an audience through close attention to how the moment by moment minutiae of people managing specific jobs gives us insight into human behavior. In its depiction of how the many specialized theatre workers—actors, directors, lighting and sound technicians, stage managers, costumers, etc.—conduct themselves during what can be grindingly boring procedures, 10 OUT OF 12 harks back to certain plays by David Storey, which, in seemingly plotless terms, slowly expose the individuals involved in playing (offstage) a game of English football or building a tent for a wedding ceremony.
Conrad Schott, Bruce McKenzie, Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Although what we’re witnessing is a greatly conflated, episodic compression of the many hours spent during tech, mingling almost surrealistic interludes with straightforward ones, it doesn’t flinch—prospective audiences, take notice—from creating a sense of the same crushingly slow sense of progress experienced at the real thing. Ms. Washburn based her play on the notes she took during various tech rehearsals she attended over a five-year period, so the air of authenticity is thick. Having directed a couple of dozen plays myself, I know whereof I yawn. The miracle here is the extraordinary cohesiveness of the perfectly cast and technically impressive production, which Les Waters (artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville) has directed with an awesome precision that nevertheless inspires believability in every performance.
Bruce McKenzie. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
On the one hand, 10 OUT OF 12 (which means that, according to Equity rules, 10 out of a given 12 hours will be devoted to the rehearsal) is the kind of play and production that will strike chords of recognition and appreciation in the hearts of any theatre person who’s been there and done that; on the other, it may all seem like much ado about nothing to civilians who couldn’t care less about how a play is put on stage, and want to see a story and characters they can relate to. While some of the characters do get to express themselves in personal terms, all we really know about them is how they deal with their professional obligations, or what silly things they do to prevent the ennui from driving them up the wall, not about their lives outside the theatre’s womblike embrace. Apart from those playing the actors, who get both an actor’s and a character’s name(s), most are identified merely by their functions, i.e., Stage Manager (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Technician 3 (Jeff Biehl), Costumes (Rebecca Hart), Director (Bruce McKenzie), Sound (Bray Poor), Technician 2 (Garrett Neergaard), Assistant Director (Conrad Schott), Lights (Wendy Rich Stetson), and Assistant Stage Manager (Leigh Wade).
Nina Hellman Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The audience sits in bleachers facing a low stage on which David Zinn has designed what seems an only partly completed set comprised of, at stage right, a long wall, with a door set in it, built of unfinished plywood. When necessary, the entire wall, sitting on casters, can be rolled across the stage to expose a forest glade depicted on its back. Action occurs behind the audience, in the aisles, on stage, and behind the set. While the non-actor characters are dressed in normal everyday wear, the actor characters, once they’ve put on their costumes (designed by Asta Bennie Hostetter), first appear in 19th-century clothes, the women (Nina Hellman, Sue Jean Kim) in large hoop skirts; later, when scenes set in contemporary times are performed, the costumes change accordingly. There are, by the way, substantial play-within-a-play chunks, which offer tantalizing glimpses of the spookily odd postmodern drama—which includes lots of ghostly, Nosferatu-inspired hands—the actors are working on.
Conrad Schott (shadow), Sue Jean Kim. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Since much of what transpires during a tech is heard only by those wearing headsets, each member of the audience gets a listening device to loop over one ear so they can eavesdrop on the substantial amount of back and forth shared among the techies. Ms. Washburn’s notes have been extremely useful in capturing both the tech-speak used in cueing and setting levels, as well as in expressing the inanities spoken during moments when not much else is going on. When thus isolated for our listening pleasure some of these overheard sallies—consistently delivered in a dry, off-the-cuff, naturalistic tone—can be hilarious. One, for example, features a hungry techie, offered half of his colleague’s sandwich, seeking information on each component, and finally deciding that maybe he’s not really hungry enough to indulge in his friend’s generous offer.
Conrad Schott (shadow), Bruce McKenzie (shadow), Sue Jean Kim, Nina Hellman, Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The play is divided into two acts by the fifteen-minute break announced by the stage manager for the company’s benefit. The second half turns out to be more conventionally dramatic than the first, largely because a sizable, uninterrupted scene comes screeching to a halt when the actor Paul (Thomas Jay Ryan) decides to interrogate the director about his dissatisfaction with how his character is written, while also subtly critiquing his fellow performer (Gibson Frazier). The scene is exceptionally well played by Mr. Ryan, whose Paul is tiresomely argumentative and rhetorically gifted, but completely impractical. Mr. McKenzie’s frazzled but generally low-key director, unwilling or, given his general air of quiet desperation, unable to engage in a long-winded discussion, somehow manages to fend him off, helped by the reaction of Mr. Frazier. Another dilemma ensues when someone has a bloody accident, but, as theatre tradition would have it, the show—or at least the rehearsal—manages to go on. Until it doesn’t, that is, and the next day’s call is announced.   
Leigh Wade, Sue Jean Kim, Bruce McKenzie (back to camera), Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
10 OUT OF 12 actually concludes by shifting to another mode in a charmingly sung and danced coda, choreographed by Barney O’Hanlan, exquisitely signifying a love letter to the theatre and the hardworking, mostly unsung artists and technicians who devote themselves to it regardless of the sacrifices (such as having to take temp work to survive) they must make. In a sense, it refutes a letter I happened to read on my subway trip home, written in 1884 by America’s leading star of the day, Edwin Booth, to someone seeking to become an actor and hoping for Booth’s encouragement. Hoping to deter the man’s aspirations, Booth says, in part: “It is a life of wearisome drudgery; and requires years of toil, and bitter disappointment, to achieve a position worth having. . . . Were I able to employ my thoughts and labor in any other field I would gladly turn my back on the theatre forever.” A far cry indeed from Ms. Washburn's uplifting message.
Sue Jean Kim, Leigh Wade, Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
10 OUT OF 12 being about a tech rehearsal, the technical components are extensively showcased, both when they’re working properly and when they’re not, but a loud shout-out has to go to Justin Townsend for his exceptional lighting effects and to Bray Poor for his memorable sounds. The excellence of their work helps demonstrate once again why the Soho Rep, for its play choices, direction, acting, design, and technical contributions, continues to be about the best and smartest small nonprofit theatre in the Off Broadway arena. 
Nina Hellman. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Thomas Jay Ryan, Gibson Frazier, Sue Jean Kim, Nina Hellman.

From left: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Bruce McKenzie, Gibson Frazier, Nina Hellman, Conrad Schott, David Ross, Sue Jean Kim, Garrett Neergaard, Leigh Wade. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

From left: Sue Jean Kim, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Garrett Neergaard (with headset), Nina Hellman, Bruce McKenzie, David Ross, Conrad Schott, Leigh Wade, Gibson Frazier. Photo: Julieta Cervantes. 
Other Viewpoints:

Soho Rep
46 Walker Street, NYC
Through July 18



Friday, June 19, 2015

29 (2015-2016): Review of DOCTOR FAUSTUS (seen June 13, 2015)

"Devilishly Dull"

T

 For my review of DOCTOR FAUSTUS, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.















Other Viewpoints:
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Chris Noth. Phone: Joan Marcus.

Chris Noth, Zach Grenier. Photo: Joan Marcus.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

28 (2015-2016): Review of MY PERFECT MIND (seen June 17, 2015)

"The Windmills of His Mind"


 With his long, weathered, but still noble face, sad eyes, gentleness, lanky frame, wispy white hair, mustache, and goatee, Edward Petherbridge, the distinguished British actor, would make a perfect Don Quixote. One can easily see him tilting at windmills, but in the brilliantly conceived and executed MY PERFECT MIND, part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters, it’s King Lear he’s portraying; that is, when he’s not also playing other persons in Shakespeare’s play, not to mention himself. And, as in the Jacques Brel song, the windmills that he’s tilting at are the ones within his mind.

“I fear I am not in my perfect mind,” says the king in act four of LEAR. The theatre piece that takes its title from that phrase says much the same thing about Mr. Petherbridge’s condition following a stroke he suffered in 2007 shortly after beginning rehearsals to play Lear in Wellington, New Zealand, forcing him to abandon the show. His mind seems perfect now, however, at age 78, coming up soon, as he reminds us, on 79. He beautifully, and with great charm and humor, navigates the extremely tricky shoals of this nonlinear, narratively fractured, self-deprecating, metatheatrical reflection on his life, career, Lear, and, of course, the theatre. 
Edward Petherbridge, Paul Hunter. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Originally produced for the Told by an Idiot theatrical company, the Young Vic Theatre, and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, MY PERFECT MIND was written (leaving room for improvisation) by Mr. Petherbridge in collaboration with the exceptional comic actor Paul Hunter, who hilariously supports the star in multiple comic roles, and the marvelous actress Kathryn Hunter, who directed. It takes place on an assemblage inventively designed by Michael Vale to signify and satirize theatrical conventions. A sharply raked white platform, a trap door at its heart, set sideways to the audience; at its top a thundersheet. A plain white panel for a backdrop. Traditional wind and rain machines. A couple of bentwood chairs, a table, and random props. Not much to look at, but as used during the performance, a cornucopia of theatrical, and often terrifically funny, theatrical possibilities.
Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Mr. Hunter serves both as Lear’s Fool in scenes from KING LEAR, but also makes everyone else he plays part of a rogue’s gallery of people (not necessarily fools) in Mr. Petherbridge’s life.  A few odd costume pieces, a wig, hair net, or cap infuse a farcical energy into all the people he portrays, including Dr. Witznagel, a lab-coated, bushy-wigged neurologist with a comically phony German accent, whose scenes serve as a sort of frame to the action. He begins the play as if speaking to a class of future “doctors of the brain,” introducing a case study of a man suffering from a brain trauma that has given him EPS (Edward Petherbridge Syndrome), a condition wherein Mr. Petherbridge believes he’s King Lear. Later, this morphs into its opposite, KLS (figure it out). Each time he mimes writing notes on the thundersheet, it produces its expected sound effect, causing him to look up as if the skies were about to open. Mr. Hunter’s comic timing and sensibility make you chuckle no matter how old-hat his shtick is.
Edward Petherbridge, Paul Hunter. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Over the course of the play he embodies characters in LEAR; himself when he costarred with Mr. Petherbridge in a flop 2010 West End revival of THE FANTASTICKS; Mr. Petherbridge’s pregnant mother, who had a stroke two days before her son was born; David Lawrence, director of Wellington’s Bacchanal Theatre Company; a cab driver imagined to have driven the star all the way from Wellington to Bradford, Yorkshire, where he was raised; a Japanese director casting Mr. Petherbridge in THE FANTASTICKS; Veronica, a Romanian housecleaner who rehearses LEAR with him; Sir Laurence Olivier, who at one point performs Othello by combining it with Richard III; Miss MacPride, his Bradford movement teacher who taught him the importance of “economy and selection”; the New Zealand doctor who treated his stroke, and others.

As the piece progresses it keeps shifting places and situations, going back and forth in time, satirizing actors’ affectations, taking us into rehearsals of Lear, informing us of major highlights in Mr. Petherbridge’s career (including his famous roles in NICHOLAS NICKLEBY and ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN, and his less famous one as an Incan priest in THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN*), showing Mr. Petherbridge reliving the acting exercises he performed for Miss MacPride (such as “A Day in the Life of a Gnat”), presenting Mr. Petherbridge as a child performing “Chickery Chick” in a talent contest at the Bridlington Pavilion, informing us of Mr. Petherbridge’s family background, and so on. Famous English theatre names drop frequently along the way, although not everyone will pick up every anecdotal reference to Coward, Wolfit, Finney, Branagh, and Holm. Ironically, we learn that, despite Mr. Petherbridge’s leaving LEAR, Wellington audiences soon after were privileged to see the world touring production of it starring Mr. Petherbridge’s friend, Ian McKellen.
Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Mr. Petherbridge, wearing jeans and a blousy white shirt with various vests, jackets, and coats, shifts in manner from the convincingly off the cuff, seemingly improvisational, to the classically polished and powerful. He may sometimes give the illusion of searching for a word, but he never misses a beat, and even his most throwaway moments are clearly set and perfected. 
Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Having gained fame mainly as a stage actor, especially during his tenure with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he’s not become a household name like those peers who’ve had important film careers. His best-known non-theatre work was as the debonair sleuth, Sir Peter Wimsey, in the 1987 BBC TV series based on the Dorothy Sayers novels. But it’s in the theatre that you want to see him, and now you’ve got your chance. Seize it.

[*Here’s a little anecdote of my own, stirred up when Mr. Petherbridge mentioned THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN. In 1963 I was a graduate student in Tokyo studying kabuki theatre. That November an international theatre conference brought many distinguished world theatre figures to Japan, including the director John Dexter. I got to know him a bit at the conference and, when the visitors were taken to see a kabuki production I sat next to him and explained the various conventions. In 1965 Dexter’s production of THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN, which had starred Robert Stephens as the Inca king Atahualpa in England, came to New York with David Carradine in the role. I was excited to see that Dexter had infused a number of kabuki conventions into this highly theatrical work, and now to realize that, in my own tiny way, I'd had something to do with influencing a play in which the young Edward Petherbridge appeared.]

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59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-ninth Street, NYC
Through June 28



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

27 (2015-2016): Review of IN MY FATHER'S WORDS (seen June 16, 2015)

"It's a Wise Child that Knows His Own Father"
Stars range from 5-1.

Despite its being part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters, playwright Justin Young’s two-act drama, IN MY FATHER’S WORDS, takes place not in the UK but in a shabby, rundown old house on the edge of Canada’s Lake Ontario, near Toronto; the time is 1992 and 1993. A production of Scotland’s Dundee Rep Ensemble, it deals with an increasingly common dramatic subject, the decline of an aging person into some form of senility, be it dementia or Alzheimer’s, and the difficulties this presents for loved ones. Recent examples include MY MOTHER HAS 4 NOSES, POCATELLO, HEY JUDE, and TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY. Mr. Young’s sensitive, evocative play, effectively directed by Philip Howard, has a few strong dramatic moments but is generally literary and thoughtful in tone; it also requires some willing suspension of disbelief to allow for its contrivances. 
From left: Miureann Kelly, Angus Peter Campbell, Garry Collins. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
IN MY FATHER’S WORDS involves three characters: Louis Bennett (Garry Collins), a mid-50s classics professor who’s been painstakingly translating Homer’s Odyssey for a decade; his octogenarian father, Don Bennett (Angus Peter Campbell), suffering from dementia; and Flora (Muireann Kelly), a mid-40s caregiver hired by Louis to look after his dad.
Miureann Kelly, Angus Peter Campbell. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Louis hasn’t seen or spoken to Don in 15 years, which is when the woman who was Louis’s mom and Don’s wife died, but he’s shown up at his father’s house because Don was found wandering around, soaked, in a bathrobe, at four a.m. Louis really wants nothing to do with the cantankerous Don, and doesn’t realize at first that his father’s brusque dismissal of him is the result of his mental deterioration, symbolized by the house's disarray. Unable to find a nursing home with an opening, Louis seeks a home care professional, but the only one available is Flora, a single mother, whose resume lacks some of the narrow qualifications the uptight Don thinks he should be seeking. Unable to be present 24/7, and unwilling to leave the old man alone at night, Flora turns the job down, but, as she’s leaving, Don says something in Scottish Gaelic, a tongue in which it just so happens that Flora happens to be fluent.

It takes some time for the preoccupied Louis to grasp that his “uneducated” father is actually speaking this “dead” language and that Flora can understand him, but when he does he hires her and grudgingly agrees to stay there in the evenings until a nursing home placement is possible. While there, he pounds away on his old typewriter at his Odyssey translation (of which he’s managed only 703 of its 12,000 lines in nine years) while listening to a cassette of Glenn Gould on a 1970s tape recorder through humongous headphones. Supertitles are projected upstage to note the lines he’s translating, as well as the English versions of the Gaelic conversations (the latter translated by Iain Finlay MacLeod).
Angus Peter Campbell. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Intercut with these domestic scenes are those of Louis lecturing to his bored college students about the Odyssey (with the audience sitting in as the class), offering commentary emphasizing both the journey of Odysseus and that of his son, Telemachus, whose own odyssey to find his father is an important element of Homer’s epic. In fact, the passage Louis’s translation is stuck on concerns Telemachus’ setting out in search of his long-lost father. The symbolic connections between the alienation of Homer’s father and son and those in the play proper keep recurring (a tobacco tin and a pair of combat boots play important roles), and eventually entail even further revelations concerning not only Don and Louis’s estranged relationship but those between the divorced Louis and his own teenage son, and Don’s with his late father. Flora, who’s determined to root out Don’s history (she likens herself to Nancy Drew), is the catalyzing agent in helping tie all the loose ends together, while also teaching Louis Gaelic and serving as the muse for his translation.
Garry Collins, Miureann Kelly. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
Mr. Young finds so many ways to thread the play with reflections on the difficulty of communication (including the language issues between Louis and his Quebecois wife), and the complexities of translation (the attempt “to get inside someone’s mind”) that, like the plotting, it verges on the schematic; the big reveal toward the end about Don’s origins is touching, even if not totally believable. The characters, especially the anally retentive Louis and the humorous, humane Flora, are drawn with sufficient depth so that, despite the contrivances, you begin to care for them. There’s even a hint of romance between Louis and Flora, but the play wisely lets the audience imagine the potential of such a pairing for itself.
Angus Peter Campbell, Garry Collins. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Staged on a spare, abstract set suggesting a rough-hewn cabin, designed by Fiona Watt, dramatically lit by Grant Anderson (with the occasional aid of smoke effects), supplemented by Iso and Emlyn Firth's (not always sharp enough) projections of surtitles and various (often weather-related) images, and enhanced by the imaginative music of Jon Beales, IN MY FATHER’S WORDS is also blessed with fine performances all around.  Mr. Collins is totally convincing as the oblivious, self-involved Louis; his lecture scenes make you feel like taking notes. Ms. Kelly, plump, redheaded, and pretty, makes the dryly ironic Flora a perfect complement to the rigid Louis. And it’s not hard to sympathize with the angry but confused Don of Mr. Campbell.

Sons: with Father's Day looming, you might want to take your dad to this one.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-ninth Street, NYC
Through June 28






Tuesday, June 16, 2015

26 (2015-2016): Review of THE TEMPEST (seen June 11, 2015)

"More Squall thanTempest"
Stars range from 5-1.

 The weather often plays a vital role in one’s appreciation of the plays produced at the Delacorte Theatre each summer by Shakespeare in the Park. Thus, in a sense, seeing THE TEMPEST, set as it is on a tropical island, on the steamiest night of the year couldn’t have been more appropriate. The gnats thronging in the spotlight beams and the fireflies flashing against the blue-black night sky vied for attention with the human activity on the stage. There, a cast led by Sam Waterston as Prospero unfolded the tale of an angry, aging sorcerer taking his revenge, albeit one tempered by forgiveness, on those who dared to deprive him of his title as Duke of Milan, forcing him to live out his days, with his 15-year-old daughter, Miranda (Francesca Carpanini), as master of the spirits and creatures in a fruitful island paradise.   
Sam Waterston, Francesca Carpanini. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It’s been some time since Shakespeare in the Park tackled THE TEMPEST. Lear deBessonet’s colorful musical adaptation of September 2013, given only three performances with a large company made up of largely of amateur volunteers, was at the Delacorte but wasn’t produced by Shakespeare in the Park, which hasn’t seen a TEMPEST since Patrick Stewart starred as Prospero in 1995. The current production, staged by Michael Greif, is more a squall than a tempest; it tells the story smoothly and efficiently, but only sporadically captures the magical atmosphere this wondrous play requires. 
From left: Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Danny Mastrogiorgio. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Unlike most of Shakespeare’s plays, which incorporate multiple locales, all of THE TEMPEST, except for the titular storm at sea that begins the action, is set in a single place, the island. But, apart from a bunch of black rocks down right, Riccardo Hernandez’s functional set has little about it suggesting an island atmosphere. Instead of earth or sand we get dark wood planking (with traps and a small elevator platform), and the only hints of an island are the images on upstage panels showing a raging sea, even after the opening tempest has ended but perhaps implying the tempest in Prospero's soul. Running across the stage is one of those increasingly common metal gridwork bridges, like the ones used for rock shows to hang lights on, allowing actors to climb them and to traverse the space overhead. At extreme stage right is a hut-like enclosure where percussionist Arthur Solari remains visible as he accompanies the action with an assortment of excellent musical effects. As usual for Shakespeare in the Park, the lighting (by David Lander) is exceptional.

Mr. Greif's staging is generally uninspired. A significant problem is his failure to come up with ways to gets his actors, especially the ensemble members, off the stage efficiently. Too many scenes end with the actors stranded and having to simply walk off, no longer in character, to one side or into the vomitorium at center while the next scene is beginning.

In essence, this is a straightforward, almost always clear exposition of the play, and those (like my guest, who’d never seen or read the play) being exposed to it for the first time should have no trouble following the story or understanding most of what the actors are saying. Although THE TEMPEST invites imaginative conceptualization, there’s nothing here especially radical.
Sam Waterston, Chris Perfetti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The costuming, by Emily Rebholz, is in that middle ground combining contemporary modes with Ruritanian touches. The shipwrecked nobles are in late 19th-century military dress; when Mr. Waterston’s whitehaired, white-bearded Prospero dons his gray uniform as the Duke of Milan toward the end he becomes the spitting image of Robert E. Lee in all his Confederate glory. Usually, though, he’s dressed in slacks, sandals, and a white blouse, worn outside. His magic robe is a fringed, silken shawl with a Kabbalah-like symbol outlined on its back; it so closely resembles a Jewish prayer shawl that Mr. Waterston could be playing Rebbe Prospero.
Francesca Carpanini, Rodney Richardson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Ariel, given a first-rate, if not especially unique, portrayal by Chris Perfetti as a slender, sylphlike youth with shaved head, keeps his torso bare except for a leather harness that suggests he’s got a master-slave domination thing going on. More problematic is Caliban’s look; despite all the play’s suggestions of his deformities, his fishlike or reptilian aspects, Louis Cancelmi plays him as merely a bare-chested (except for his own leather harness), dirty, muscular man with a bad haircut, poor posture, and odd accent. Both Mr. Perfetti and Mr. Cancelmi offer crisply enunciated portrayals, making it a shame their appearances couldn’t have been more inventively conceived.
Foreground: (from left) Charles Parnell, Bernard White. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The production is in two acts running nearly two and three-quarter hours; the first act, apart from its nicely staged tempest, is fairly boilerplate, but Mr. Greif introduces a number of pretty effects in act two, as in the masque scene with its use of music and dance. The young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand (Rodney Richardson), are spirited, appealing, and vibrant, and those who play the various courtiers from Milan and Naples are sufficient unto the need. As the scheming clowns, Stephano and Trinculo, Danny Mastrogiorgio (dressed like a character from WAITING FOR GODOT) and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (wearing a jester’s cap), work hard to draw laughs, but they succeed mainly in showing just how hard their tasks are; even their scene with Caliban and the “gabardine,” which can be hilarious, isn't as funny as it deserves.
From left: Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Louis Cancelmi, Danny Mastrogiorgio. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Sam Waterston, perhaps more closely associated with the Public Theatre and its Shakespeare in the Park productions than any other living actor, has the stature and experience to embody Prospero, but he nonetheless succeeds only in demonstrating how close the role is to that of Charlie Skinner, the gruff but kindly, avuncular news executive he plays on HBO’s “The Newsroom.” Still trim and spry at 74, he falls short when it comes to evoking Prospero’s commanding power. And, while there’s no problem following his words in general, including his fine rendering of the more famous speeches (like “Our revels now are ended”), his long expository speech to Miranda early in the play is muffled and muddled by his growly delivery.
Foreground: Sam Waterston, Charles Parnell. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Michael Greif’s revival of THE TEMPEST, while only occasionally satisfying, is nonetheless a suitable introduction to the play. And there’s still nothing like sitting in Central Park under the New York sky on a summer’s eve, watching the world’s greatest playwright show his stuff. 
Company of THE TEMPEST. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Other Viewpoints:
BROADWAY WORLD (review roundup)

THE TEMPEST
Delacorte Theatre/Shakespeare in the Park
Central Park at 81st Street, NYC
Through July 5