Sunday, December 29, 2013

197. Review of CIRQUE ELOIZE CIRKOPOLIS (December 28, 2013)


The star on top of the Christmas tree of 2013’s holiday theatre offerings proves to be yet another circus-oriented show, with beautiful young men and women performing remarkable feats of acrobatic and gymnastic derring-do, climbing poles, juggling, flying through the air, balancing in unbelievable ways, rolling around in large wheels, hanging from straps, cavorting on a trapeze, and otherwise using their muscular and flexible bodies to do what most of us can only dream of. The show is CIRQUE ELOIZE CIRKOPOLIS and it edges out in overall unity of design and conceptual artistry its recent rivals, including LA SOIRÉE, MOTHER AFRICA, and those parts of NUTCRACKER ROUGE that put it in a similar category.

            CIRKOPOLIS, the ninth show produced by a Quebec-based company called Cirque Éloize, is at NYU’s attractive Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. It is the creation of Jeannot Painchaud, artistic director and co-director, and Dave St. Pierre, co-director and choreographer, who fill the large stage with projected still and moving, computer-generated images of the oppressive, fast-paced, dehumanizing world of the modern urban jungle..

A picture of a city skyline shows it being supported by a giant mass of gears, making it a mechanical monster that seems to make the people living and working in it into robot-like cogs whose lives are devoted to going and coming in an endless stream of work-related tasks devoted to keeping the entire thing moving. The black and white graphics of huge, impersonal environments, often dominated by giant filing cabinets, create a combined retro and futuristic world, reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent movie, METROPOLIS (which probably inspired its title), including scenes that show the workers trudging mechanically to and fro like downtrodden robots. There’s also a touch of Sophie Treadwell’s 1929 play, MACHINAL (soon to open at the Roundabout). Robert Massicotte is credited with having designed the striking sets and for co-designing the memorable video projections with Alexis Laurence. The excellent lighting is by Nicolas Descôteaux.


Designer Liz Vandal’s costumes, mainly drab suits, coats, and fedoras, are predominantly in shades of gray, but as the show progresses a number of primary colors are introduced, especially in the women’s silken shifts, to contrast brilliantly with the grays; they also show up in the men’s ties and, in some cases, their cuffs. The scenic scheme remains black, white, and gray, but the final moments introduce a wonderful bit where the stacks of white paper that dominate so many scenes are replaced by multicolored ones that are sent flying into the air to create a shower of brilliant hues.

Despite the dullness of their existence, the workers find ways to brighten their environment by the pride they take in their physical abilities; the various skills on display are put to work both to represent the impersonal mechanization of the workers’ lives (huge gears keep turning in the background of most projected scenes) and to suggest their inner delight in overcoming such depersonalization by the pleasure they take in their respective talents. Most, in fact, are multitalented, able to perform in several circus specialties.

The individual acts are all familiar ones, many being the classics on view in each of the recent circus shows, although they take on a fresh appeal because of the creatively new ways in which they’ve been choreographed. Having seen a female performer do her Cyr wheel act in NUTCRACKER ROUGE made seeing a similar act in CIRKOPOLIS that much more interesting because it allowed me to see how each artist took the same basic

concept of a large, rolling, metal hoop and used it to create something unique. CIRKOPOLIS goes a step further when it includes the woman (Angelica Bongiovonni) and her male lover in the act, showing how two artists could make something so simple as maneuvering a metal hoop into a demonstration of dexterity and grace. The show also includes a German wheel act, in which five men do astonishing feats in what is essentially the cyr wheel doubled, that is, two metal hoops joined together by a small number of bars.


In other routines, a man (Ashley Carr) falls in love with a woman’s filmy dress hanging on a clothes rack and dances acrobatically with it; three women in red shifts show what can be done when hanging from the same trapeze; practically the entire company engages in a mass juggling act, throwing juggling clubs across the stage while one fellow stands unfazed amidst the blizzard of flying objects; a couple runs through various mating rituals while clambering up and down a pole and doing hair-raising feats of gymnastic adroitness; a Diabolo specialist does amazing things that overshadow even the Diabolo tricks in MOTHER AFRICA, and then is joined by two other DIABOLO performers; a teeterboard act sends acrobats soaring, and so on.

Although there is occasionally some chatter in French, there is no dialogue per se during the show, but Stéfan Boucher’s impressively atmospheric, and sometimes throbbingly rhythmic score combining sound and music adds immeasurably to the production’s auditory pleasures.

CIRKOPOLIS closes out the theatre year with flair, but circus performances are still no substitute for solid drama and heart-lifting musicals, too few of which—apart from several terrific revivals—have raised the dramatic bar this season. Here’s to better things from our dramatists, composers, lyricists, and librettists in 2014. Circuses, burlesques, revues, and jukebox musicals are necessary, but let us not forget that, when it comes to the theatre that opens our minds, sears our souls, and changes our lives, “the play’s the thing.”












If the first things that come to mind when you think of THE NUTCRACKER are tits and ass, g-strings and pasties, boy, do I have show for you.

THE NUTCRACKER, with its familiar score by Tchaikovsky, is undoubtedly one of the most popular pieces in the American ballet repertory, if not the most popular. Based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, itself adapted from a work by Alexandre Dumas père, it premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892. Although originally not successful, over time it became internationally famous and received many stagings; in the U.S.A. its enormous popularity began in the 1960s when it started to appear as a regular feature of Christmas programming. Although there are several mainstream versions by famous choreographers, there are also revisionist, eccentric, offbeat, satiric, and parodistic renderings, both those by important choreographers such as Matthew Bourne and Mark Morris and those by others who see opportunities in the material of which Tchaikovsky couldn’t even have dreamed. Last season, for example, New York saw CHRIS MARCH’S THE BUTT-CRACKER SUITE: A TRAILER PARK BALLET, with its dancing beer cans and Wonderbread ballet, while this year we have NUTCRACKER ROUGE, in which boobs and butts vie for your discerning attention.

NUTCRACKER ROUGE. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand. 

As shows like Off-Broadway’s recent, well-received EAGER TO LOSE, can attest, burlesque continues to appeal to audiences when done with the right mixture of naughty and nice, while shows like LA SOIREE, MOTHER AFRICA, and CIRKOPOLIS reveal an ongoing taste for intimate circus acts requiring beautiful bodies combined with outstanding physical skills. In NUTCRACKER ROUGE, a baroque-burlesque-circus adaptation of THE NUTCRACKER is pretty much what has been conceived, choreographed, and directed by the inventive Austin McCormick, working under the aegis of Company IV and The Saint at Large, at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.

When you enter the theatre you're struck by the hazy, red-lit ambience, with small crystal chandeliers lining the lip of the stage like elaborate footlights. A false metal proscenium is a bit upstage, its frame filled in with a silver festoon curtain that rises and falls with each new scene. Mr. Drosselmeyer (Jeff Takacs) and Mrs. Drosselmeyer (Shelly Watson) are the evening’s hosts, he wearing a bushy gray wig, and a black period costume with gold trim,  and she being a campy soprano of very ample proportions—sort of a combination of Divine and Mae West—dressed in an assortment of extravagant gowns, hairdos, and other furbelows as the evening proceeds. Only the Drosselmeyers speak actual lines, while everyone else confines themselves to looking hot and dancing, singing, or doing some specialty act. The wordless heroine is here called Marie-Claire (Laura Careless), seen as a figure from the time of Marie Antoinette (the French Revolution is referenced), who appears throughout wearing a low-cut gown with wide panniers. By the time of the final pas de deux, danced with Alexander Hille as the Nutcracker Prince, she evolves from innocence to sexual pleasure, as marked by the radical elimination of her clothing.  
NUTCRACKER ROUGE. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand

Only vestiges of THE NUTCRACKER story remain, but fans will recognize those that do. Essentially, though, the famous ballet is used to provide a context for a series of musical numbers combining song, dance, and acrobatics, with a company of buff young men and women who generally walk around in skimpy costumes, the men in a variety of g-strings with ornate codpieces and exposed tushes, the women with varicolored bra and panty outfits, also with lots of derriere flesh exposed and, in some cases, exposed breasts covered with sequined pasties. Some often spectacular and colorful costumes reach the stratosphere of high camp, and there is a definite throughline of homoeroticism in the haze, especially with all the routines using men wearing tutus and partial bustiers. Some material delves into themes of domination and submission, and some into farcical sex acts, including a man wearing a giant phallus half his size. Despite the attitude of “anything goes” sexuality, too much is overdone and the emphasis on tastefulness makes the eroticism more subtle, perhaps too subtle. I can say that the men’s well-toned bodies are mostly what you’d expect from professional dancers and acrobats, but feminist friends will call me a sexist pig if I describe my reactions to the women’s bodies, so I’ll hold my peace (that’s p-e-a-c-e, if you don’t mind!) about them. Also, while there’s a valiant attempt to make NUTCRACKER ROUGE a comic romp, much of the would-be bawdy humor falls flat.

What the show has going for it are its energetic and talented performers, Zane Pihlstrom’s vivid costumes and settings (much of the latter evoking the backstage world of a theatre troupe), Jeanette Yew’s creative, if sometimes too dark, lighting, Sarah Cimino’s stylized makeup designs, and Mr. McCormick’s eye-catching choreography. The music is both from Tchaikovsky’s well-known score and from modernized arrangements of it, as well as from a repertory of familiar standards. Thus, when the theme of a Candyland world is invoked, Ms. Watson, hand-held mike at the ready, launches into a rendition of “Candy,” the one that goes, “Candy, I call my sugar Candy, Because I'm sweet on Candy and Candy's sweet on me.” Ms. Watson's other songs include an operatic selection and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." Bouncy prerecorded songs include Charles Trenet’s once-popular French ditty, “Boum.” In keeping with the theme of a Kingdom of Sweets, choreographed routines with sexual underpinnings involve cherries, candy canes, Turkish delight, and licorice boys.

Some numbers are straight from the circus-act world, including the cyr wheel, with which one or two performers do an acrobatic dance routine using a large single hoop that rolls about the stage in different patterns. Courtney Giannone’s performance differs from a similar act in CIRKOPOLIS, covered in my next review, in that she does it with her breasts exposed. There’s also contortionist Cassady Rose Bonjo; hoop aerialist Nico Maffey; voluptuous singer Katrina Cunningham; a hand-to-hand male balancing act; a flamenco strip-tease; a pole dancer; a silly bit in which a flamboyant male dancer emerges from a cake and camps it up as the music blares, “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake” (which I sang in a hotel show when I was 10); an all-male, Matthew Bourne-type ballet; a topless pas de seul Sugar Plum Fairy dance, and so on. The cast is made up of highly trained pros who provide polished dance and acrobatic performances.

My companion, who saw Alexey Ratmansky's NUTCRACKER at BAM only last week, called this one “THE NUTCRACKER on steroids,” which is about as fair a description as it deserves. I would have liked its wide variety of numbers to have been better integrated, for them to have made more sense in THE NUTCRACKER context, and for the show to have been funnier and sexier than it is. The audience, however, seemed to be having a good enough time so there’s no need for me to keep cracking its nuts before I move along to CIRKOPOLIS, the last show I’ll be seeing in 2013.

Saturday, December 28, 2013




Peter and Will Anderson, the exceptionally talented, identical twin musicians who have been appearing at 59E59 for the past five years and who last season created a show about Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, are at it again. This time it's LE JAZZ HOT, a concert-like revue featuring the music of Django Reinhardt, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and Bud Powell, with a jazz version of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and a highlight segment on Josephine Baker.

LE JAZZ HOT. Photo:Eileen O'Donnell.
            The musicians are crammed onto a tiny stage in one corner of Theatre C, the smallest venue at 59E59, and the room itself is arranged like a cabaret, with many tiny tables, each covered in a red over a white tablecloth; each also comes with a single candle and a flower. Around the space, the walls are adorned with musical instruments and photos of the great jazz stars honored by the show.
Peter Anderson and Will Anderson. Photo: Eileen O'Donnell.

            Although the Andersons—clarinet and saxophone players (Will also plays the flute)—are featured at each performance, alternate musicians are listed for the rest of the band. When I saw the show, Clovis Nicholas was on bass and Luc Decker was on drums, but neither of the guitarists in the program was present; instead, Vinnie Raniolo was sitting in, and doing a terrific job. All the musicians dress soberly in conventional suits and ties (the Andersons are in gray pin-stripes), and all have serious demeanors, although I did detect just the vaguest of smiles from Mr. Raniolo. There is no showboating here, just business, the business of playing great jazz greatly. One of the Anderson twins, Will, I believe (telling them apart’s not easy), does most of the narrating, with his brother occasionally jumping in. Mr. Raniolo got to tell an anecdote, but that was about it on the speaking side. The Andersons are pleasantly bland (or blandly pleasant) personalities; charisma, at least when speaking, is not their strong suit.   

            During the interstices between musical numbers in the 105-minute, intermissionless show, projected videos and stills showing Reinhardt, Bechet, et al., are shown, with a recorded voiceover by Will Anderson (my guess) that sounds much like a high school student reading a report in front of his class. He earlier apologized for his poor French pronunciation (“dieu” sounds like “do”), which is excusable, but there’s no excuse for pronouncing “Ziegfeld” as “Ziegfield.” The point of all this is to teach us how important France was to the maintenance of the jazz tradition, since it was there that the art survived when it seemed on the verge of extinction in America, especially after World War II, when a number of major African-American musicians found a warm welcome from French audiences and aficionados. Many will find the overview and anecdotes fascinating; jazz fans are likely to find much of it old hat.

            It's not long before the show takes on the format of a lecture interrupted by musical selections, but those selections are superbly played, so there’s an artistic payoff for having to sit through clips and stills that may already be familiar to you. Glum as they may seem individually, the band members render the 17 songs on the bill with superb musicianship. There are no vocals at all. Most of the songs have a French theme or even title, and include “Nuages,” “Rhythm Futur,” “Petite Fleur,” “La Vie en Rose,” “C’est Si Bon,” “Paris Blues,” “Afro Paris,” “Rue Chaptal,” and “Parisian Thoroughfare.” Among the video clips is one from the Paul Newman-Sidney Poitier film, PARIS BLUES, about American musicians in Paris. Closing out the program is an extended sequence from the great French film, THE RED BALLOON, accompanied by a jazzed-up arrangement of “Clair de Lune.”
            Conceptually, LE JAZZ HOT is not so hot, but musically, as Cole Porter said of Paris in the summer, it sizzles.

Monday, December 23, 2013



As the theatre year winds down, I notice that most of the shows I’ve been seeing or am scheduled to see before 2014 begins don’t fall into the basket of conventional theatre. On Thursday last, I saw THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON CONSPIRACY, an odd play that cuts across time and space, while on Friday (as reported in review 190) I visited Martha Clarke’s CHÉRI, which is more dance than theatre. On Saturday afternoon I saw MAJESTY AND MAYHEM, which is essentially an experimental rock concert, while in the evening I attended Daniel Kitson’s avant-garde solo play, ANALOG.UE, in which all the words are prerecorded. On Sunday, I was at WAITING FOR GODOT, a classic famous for its eccentricity. I take a much needed holiday break from today (Monday) through Thursday, and then close out 2013 with LE JAZZ HOT, a jazz revue, NUTCRACKER SUITE, a sexed up version of THE NUTCRACKER, and CIRKOPOLIS, an international circus show. Not a traditional show or musical among them.

As a holiday present to myself (and, perhaps, to you as well) my comments on the year's final offerings will be shorter than usual. Fuller coverage will resume with the new year. Meanwhile, if you manage to get to the end of these reviews, or just skip there without reading any of them at all, there's a little gift for being such faithful readers.

From left: David Costabal and John Ellison Conlee. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Madeleine George’s THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON) INTELLIGENCE, at PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS, is an ambitiously complex, dramatically flabby romantic dramedy that attempts to tie together three otherwise unrelated men named Watson in the interest of making points about man’s need for connectedness with others, especially in a world ruled by technology. The play flies freely through time and space, beginning in 2011, the year in which a supercomputer named Watson beat two “Jeopardy” contestants, to 1931, 1889, and 1876. The only historical Watson is Thomas A. Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant, who, in 1876, was the first man to hear a voice transmission from Bell on his newly invented telephone. The other Watsons are Josh, a contemporary IT technician working for the “Dweeb Squad,” and the fictional Dr. John H. Watson who aided Sherlock Holmes in his investigations. There is also a human-like computer based on the Watson supercomputer. The Watsons each exist as a means to assist some other person. Each is involved with a woman named Eliza, one a computer engineer, one a radio interviewer, and one a worried Victorian wife.  Two of the Elizas have husbands (in one case, an ex-husband) named Merrick, one a Tea Party-like politician and the other a Victorian scientist. 

Amanda Quaid and David Costable. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Each Watson is played by John Ellison Conlee, each Eliza by Amanda Quaid, and each Merrick by David Costable. The actors, especially Mr. Conlee and Ms. Quaid, are the chief reason to see this play, despite its patches of intelligent and funny writing. Both are highly skilled at bringing both their modern and Victorian characters to life, changing from one to the other in seconds, and with very convincing British accents. There’s something mechanical about the play’s structure, however, which seems almost as if it were written by a computer, and, for all its talk about connection, that phenomenon happens too rarely between it and the audience. In the end, it all boils down to a banal plot with a potentially intriguing but unfulfilled conceit that proves too clever for its own good.
Amanda Quad and John Ellison Conlee. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Louisa Thompson’s sets and Anita Yavich’s costumes do their best to allow for the multiple scene and period changes, but these and the other design and technical elements make no breakthroughs. And Leigh Silverman’s direction, effective as it is in certain scenes, has not been able to overcome the built-in obstacles to making the play as a whole resonate human being to human being. By the time the final scene came I was ready to hit “delete.” 


Theatre A, the main stage at 59E59, is an odd venue for a rock concert show called MAYHEM AND MAJESTY, created by Squonk, a six-member company of spirited, offbeat musicians who play their own unusual music and often perform it in site-specific locales. Theatre A, however, is a standard Off-Broadway theatre, and the show, unlike others in Squonk’s repertory, is simply a succession of songs presented with lots of video projections and lighting effects. Much of it is so loud that audience members can ask for ear plugs. The ones provided, though, are soft and mushy, so if you can, bring your own. The rather sparse audience (sparser after the intermission of the hour and 35-minute show) when I attended included a number of elderly folk who were unprepared for the high-volume rambunctiousness of Squonk’s aural assault, and more fingers than I could count were eventually nestling in people’s ears. 

From left: Jackie Dempsey, David Wallace, Anna Elder, Steve O'Hearn, Kevin Kornicki. Photo: John Altdorfer.
The program notes claim: “we create post-industrial performances with original music, design, and staging from our home in Pittsburgh, where beer-fed bands, big machines, sports and byzantine ritual drive our aesthetic.” Be that as it may, I wasn’t aware of any of those elements in what I saw, although perhaps the byzantine ritual aspect peeped through from time to time. A theatre staff member warns the audience before the show not to expect any story or to try to make sense of what they will be seeing and hearing. Advice well taken, since the lyrics, even when clearly articulated, are nearly impossible to make out against the background of throbbing music played by Jackie Dempsey on accordion, piano, and keys; Kevin Kornicki on drums, zen drum, and djembe; Steve O’Hearn  on flute, wind synth, sax, and manybell trumpet; and David Wallace on electric guitar.
Jackie Dempsey. Photo: John Altdorfer.

The company’s chief creators are Ms. Dempsey and Mr. O’Hearn, who also is responsible for the production design. Most of the musicians seem middle-aged, but the sole singer, Anna Elder, is younger. She sings each number in a style my companion said reminded him of Enya, the Irish singer. A pretty woman with her sleek black hair in a modified Louise Brooks helmet style, she wears a variety of 1950s-looking crinoline dresses, with the crinoline layers outlined in white piping; at one point she appears in a partially see-through crinoline undergarment. Her main dress, like that of the platinum-haired Ms. Dempsey, which consists of a black sequined top and a floor-length, bright red, ruffled skirt over a black one, were designed by Paula Ries, and help generate visual interest.

Scenically, we’re confronted by a simple black stage and various screens used for projections. One oft-noted number fills the rear wall with differently sized and colored umbrellas that open and close like flowers; another uses a metal ladder-like device running horizontally across the stage and onto which is fitted an upside down keyboard that Ms. Dempsey plays by leaning over it as it shifts positions. The video images are diverse and not always recognizable, often seeming to be images of living organisms seen under a microscope.

Squonk’s lyrics are imagistic but mostly meaningless, using words more for sound than communication.  A song called “tiny silent world” begins:
a tiny silence
growing less
less like the luster

so infinite
a generation’s degenerate
elect the best
            As the small, talented ensemble pounds, blows, and strums away, you can be lulled to sleep even if your eardrums are being destroyed; the insistent rhythms and indistinguishable words have a mesmerizing effect. This is a show for special tastes, although several numbers are quite impressive. I’d love sometime to see Ms. Elder sing more conventional songs, even if unconventionally, but I suspect she enjoys being in this niche, even though it’s not one in which I have trouble locating either creative mayhem or artistic majesty.

ANALOG.UE is a one-man show by highly respected British storyteller Daniel Kitson. I was at the closing performance, on Saturday night, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn’s Dumbo. I’d heard that other performances had witnessed walkouts but none were apparent when I was there, although I could see how this intermissionless, 70-minute show could provoke both antagonism and ennui. Mr. Kitson, who wrote, directed, and designed the piece, which provided no programs, used the vast performance space by having the audience in bleachers at one end and keeping the remaining space wide open to the brick back wall.
Daniel Kitson. Photo: Pavel Antonov.

There’s a small table downstage with a mixing board to which multiple cables are attached, and way, way back at the rear wall, we see a spotlit arc, in which sits a table on which are neatly piled 23 tape recorders of various vintages and types, all, as the title of the show suggests, from the analog age. There’s not a single word spoken live during the entire show, which begins with a recording telling us the premise of the performance. Mr. Kitson, a glasses-wearing, balding, ordinary-looking guy with a slight speech impediment intends to tell his story by playing parts of it on each of the many recorders, some of them reel to reel, which he brings forward one at a time, and turns on, before walking all the way back to retrieve the next. This is all done in a carefully rehearsed sequence so that by the time he delivers the next machine downstage and flips its switch, it smoothly transitions from the machine just turned off. Mistakes are clearly possible, and I’m aware of their occurrence at other performances, although Saturday’s show went off without any hitches.

As the event trudged on, I found it hard not to be distracted by Mr. Kitson’s walking back and forth to get and turn on the recorders, adjust the mixing board, and take whatever pauses he needed, occasionally offering a gesture in response to the audio, while the pile at the rear grew smaller. I, like some others I’ve spoken to, became so bored that I focused on how many recorders there still were upstage; when the final one was gathered up in Mr. Kitson’s arms and brought forward I was relieved to know the hoped for conclusion was nigh.

There are actually two stories told. One is about an 80-year-old man, Thomas Martin Taplow, whose wife, Gertie, fearful of his fading memory, in 1975 asked him to record his life story, in his garage and over the course of a single day. This story, told by Kitson himself on the recordings in the third person and not by the old man himself, is mixed with that of Trudy Amelia Livingston, a young woman, thirty years later, telling of her deep response to Taplow’s recorded life, which she found where it had been hidden, and from which her her dull life derives sustenance. The intermingling of the stories requires considerable attention; some, like me, lost interest, or didn’t get the facts straight, like the reviewers who mistakenly wrote that Trudy was Taplow’s daughter.

I’d never seen Mr. Kitson before; he has a large following and many of his fans, while appreciating his material, were disappointed that the piece ignores his live vocal presence, and propensity for improvisational comments. ANALOG.UE clearly isn’t the best introduction to his work and I hope this is Kitson’s last tape.


Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Photo: Joan Marcus. 

The pun in "Kitson's last tape" will remind some readers of the world of the great Sam Beckett, well represented by three productions this fall. Having been terribly impressed several weeks ago by the master class in acting given by Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND, I’d been anxiously waiting to see them in WAITING FOR GODOT, Beckett’s existential masterpiece, now being revived at the Cort Theatre. The wait was justified by performances that capture the humor and pathos of the dramatist’s bleak wasteland with laserlike precision, each line’s meaning perfectly gauged, each pause superbly timed, each vaudevillian gesture and shtick—including a memorable Laurel and Hardy exchange of bowler hats—masterfully executed. Sir Ian’s Estragon (or Gogo) is a disheveled, filthy, bearded, beggarlike scarecrow of a man, almost like a vision of what his Spooner in NO MAN’S LAND might one day become after a lifetime of continued hardship, while Sir Patrick’s Vladimir (or Didi) retains beneath his shabby rags the essence of once-dapper, elegant refinement, reminiscent of his smartly dressed Hirst in the Pinter play. If Gogo is Jerry Lewis, Didi is Dean Martin. When things become too much for Gogo to bear and he wants to go, it’s always Didi who reminds him, “We cannot.” “Why not?” “We’re waiting for Godot” (that last word pronounced here as GODot--rhymes with "lotto").

           Sean Mathias’s distinctive production underlines the possibility that Didi and Gogo are onetime music hall entertainers, or that to tell Beckett’s story the leading characters must carry themselves as raggedy vaudevillians who can only get through the day, and face the next one, by playing at life as if it were a performance, with conversation formed in the framework of comic repartee, and reactions to their dilemma portrayed as bits of entertaining business.
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Photo: Joan Marcus.        
            Further underlining the world’s a stage conceit is Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set design, excellently lit by Peter Kaczorowski, which frames the action within a ruined theatre’s crumbling proscenium, with box seating overhead and arched doorways to either side; the stage is not some desolate wasteland. All Beckett says in his stage directions is “A country road. A tree.”  This set is not only not a country road, but the tree, a dead one, is sprouting through the floorboards of what was once a stage. There's a rectangular, grave-size opening that might have been a trapdoor at one time, perhaps even used for the graveyard scene in HAMLET, a perfect image to set beside the gallows humor snaking through the play. It's the kind of thing directors and designers do all the time, but Beckett himself, however, having dictatorial opinions on the staging of his plays, would probably have disapproved.  
From left: Shuler Hensley, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, Ian McKellen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
            Sirs Ian and Patrick mine the text for comic insights, but the same isn’t as true of Shuler Hensley’s Pozzo and Billy Crudup’s Lucky. The brutish Pozzo, often cast with a very large actor (John Goodman played him in the 2009 Broadway revival), although Beckett offers no description, is now in the hands of the physically imposing Shuler Hensley, who plays him with a broad Southern accent and shouts his lines with little inflection. Given Mr. Hensley’s abilities as one of New York’s finest character actors, I thought his work here disappointingly overwrought. Billy Crudup’s Lucky, Pozzo’s slave, literally at the end of his rope, is physically spastic and speaks only once, when he delivers a long and impossibly difficult, nearly indecipherable speech, while being besieged by the three other actors. Mr. Crudup is acceptable in a role that must be an actor’s nightmare. Nevertheless, the Pozzo and Lucky scenes eventually drag the play down. I know that some reviewers favor, even if only slightly, this production over the same team’s NO MAN’S LAND, but my vote would be for the Pinter, which never lags.

Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            WAITING FOR GODOT, even in as accessible a production as this, will not be everyone’s cup of tea. For all the brilliance of its lead performances, it remains thematically opaque and open to multiple interpretations. It moves from everyday language, and even mild profanity, to poetic heights, but also into complete obscurity. Its opacity, of course, is part of its charm, and to have as much of it made clear in performance as does this production, and to have even its shrugs and facial expressions made laughworthy is an achievement of which this revival can be proud.

            In NO MAN’S LAND, Sirs Patrick and Ian play the roles originally inhabited by Sirs Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. Those two theatre giants never played WAITING FOR GODOT, but, based on what McKellen and Stewart are making of it, it’s not that difficult to imagine what they might have done with it had they and a gifted director tried.

And here's a little Christmas treat for all you Beckettians and anti-Beckettians:

Saturday, December 21, 2013

190. Review of CHÉRI (December 20, 2013)

190. CHÉRI

If the souvenir shop at the Signature Theatre were selling a DVD of CHÉRI, the mostly ballet-oriented theatre production conceived, choreographed, and directed there by Martha Clarke, I’d buy it just to play before going to sleep. I can think of no better soporific to lull a restless brain into slumberland than this relentlessly boring, dull, undramatic, arty, resolutely humorless, and unimaginative presentation inspired by Chéri (1920) and Fin de Chéri (1926), two novels by popular French writer Colette, about the doomed relationship of  24-year year old Chéri (Herman Cornejo) and the 49-year-old Lea (Alessandra Ferri), best friend of Chéri’s mother, Charlotte (Amy Irving).

Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri. Photo: Joan Marcus.
            Set in 1910 post-Bell Epoque Paris in an expansive, pale blue bedroom—with large double doors up center, a pair of mirrors, and two sets of French doors at stage right, on a hardwood floor that rises slightly from right to left—the piece is almost entirely danced by the two lovers in repetitive and unoriginal pas de seul and pas de deux sequences performed mainly with Chéri and Lea in sleepwear. There are four brief intervals in which Charlotte—dressed in the same pretty period gown throughout, but with a hat on for the fourth—narrates the background to the lovers’ sad story (I refuse to call such romantic nonsense tragic); throughout, gifted concert pianist Sarah Rothenberg, also in period clothing, sits at a grand piano playing a monotonous litany of selections from Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Federico Mompou, Francis Poulenc, Richard Wagner, and Morton Feldman; the piece is as much a concert as it is a ballet, but, despite a text by Tina Howe, it can only technically be called drama.
Amy Irving and Herman Cornejo. Photo: Joan Marcus.
            Even at a little more than an hour the piece feels endless; whatever drama there is in the story is thin enough without being further deprived of protein by setting it entirely to music with only brief narrative snippets to explain its progress. This, despite Colette’s own advice to writers, “No narration, for heaven’s sake!” quoted in the program. Chéri, a beautiful young man, is having a hot affair with Lea, a woman old enough to be his mother, but is induced by Charlotte to marry a more age-appropriate and wealthy woman. When the heartbroken Lea writes to Charlotte that she is now happy with a new man, an obvious ruse intended to hurt the young man, he returns, sleeps with her, and then coldly turns his back on her. We then learn from Charlotte that he went off to war, where his best friend was killed, dying on top of him. Still haunted by his love for Lea, he returns to the bedroom where they had their trysts years before. Charlotte tells us that Lea is now gray and stout, but Chéri, who apparently never looks for himself, can remember only the middle-aged beauty of the past. Distraught and alone, he puts a pistol in his mouth and blows his head off.
            Put like this, the situation perhaps sounds much more fraught with dramatic tension than it is in the performance. Mr. Cornejo, of the American Ballet Theatre, and Ms. Ferri, who retired as prima ballerina assoluta six years ago and remains amazingly slim and agile at 50, are both exquisite dancers, but there is nothing they can do to overcome the ennui exuded by the dreary story, Ms. Clarke’s charmless staging, Christopher Akerlind’s meager lighting, and David Zinn’s bland set. The attractive and talented Ms. Irving is completely wasted, her delivery no more than ordinary. One wonders what she’s doing here.
CHÉRI might at least have been a series of arousing erotic encounters blended with romantic angst. Instead, it generates about as much heat as any recent New York day.   


Friday, December 20, 2013

189. Review of JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (December 18, 2013)



“Paycock” (peacock) is only one of the many thickly Irish-accented words spoken in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s solid revival of JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK, Sean O’Casey’s 1924 tragicomedy set in Dublin’s slums in 1922 during Ireland’s bloody Civil War, the so-called Troubles. Director Charlotte Moore has brought energy and life to this naturalistically dire, unsentimentally satiric picture of a troubled family held together by its long-suffering but resilient matriarch; it’s not a perfect production, but it’s about as good a one as any American company can be expected to offer, especially one ensconced in an intimate, physically limited Off-Broadway venue.
From left: Mary Mallen, James Russell, J. Smith-Cameron, Ciaran O'Reilly, Maisie Madigan, John Keating. Photo: James Higgins.

            As expected of any production at this invaluable institution, the accents, atmosphere, and emotional atmosphere of 1922 Dublin are captured with loving authenticity. The oddly situated stage demands creative readjustments to accommodate O’Casey’s requirements. Nevertheless, we get—through James Noone’s set design, Brian Nason’s lighting, David Toser’s costumes, and M. Florian Staab’s sound design—a true enough sense of the peeling-wallpaper, tattered-clothing shabbiness in which “Captain” Jack Boyle (Ciarán O’Reilly); his wife, Juno (J. Cameron-Smith); his daughter, Mary (Mary Mallen); and his son, Johnny (Ed Malone) are forced to live.

This is a world of drunks and liars, “prognosticators and procrastinators,” as Jack Boyle, the eponymous “paycock,” calls them, ignoring how closely he himself fits the bill; a world of financial hardship, laziness, guilt, loyalty and betrayal, love and dishonor, debt, inhumanity, and a religious faith drilled so deeply into human souls as to allow questioning but never abandonment of belief in God’s existence. It is also a place of dreams of a better life, for these people and for Ireland, and, even in characters as lowly as Jack and his shifty drinking “butty” Joxer (John Keating), O’Casey manages to plant the seeds of poetry, which blossom in his language like flowers from the manure of despair. Ms. Moore’s production, to a satisfying degree, captures this complex world, in which booze, dancing, and singing mingle with pain, anguish, and suffering, belief does battle with skepticism, and human decency, ever in short supply, gleams like the full moon when it emerges..

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK is rich in character and incident, and, despite its closeness to a particular time and place, hasn’t lost its universality and power. In The Irish Dramatic Movement, Una Ellis-Fermor, writing of it and O’Casey’s other early plays, notes that “he reveals, almost as though unconscious of the novelty of his picture, the easy, vigorous, expressive speech and action of people in continual and inescapable contact with their fellows; the mixture of good-fellowship and protective, selfish indifference. His people reveal now the distracted, unstable habits of mind that spring from continual stimulus and a procession of minor excitements, now the seemingly callous detachment, the bleak and lonely obstinacy that is a stronger personality’s resistance to this bombardment directed upon its attention and emotion.”

J. Smith-Cameron. :Photo: James Higgins.
           These words suggest the difficulty actors face in successfully realizing such a world. In this revival, even the best of the company tend to push a bit too hard in act one, threatening the veracity of O’Casey’s naturalistic world. But most of them overcome this weakness and the production proceeds to benefit from many carefully molded performances, even in several small roles. Ciarán O’Reilly excels as Jack Boyle, the blustery, shiftless, blarney-spouting head of the household, regaling the world with his fantasies about once being a world traveling sailor, and complaining of leg pains whenever the possibility of work arises. J. Cameron-Smith is superb as Juno, the pious, decent, stalwart wife and mother, who has no truck with Jack’s foolishness yet is herself foolish enough to entrust him with handling affairs after the family learns of a fortune it presumably has inherited. Each actor brings true conviction to their demanding roles, he as the drink-sodden loudmouth, she as the maternal force constantly fighting an uphill battle against his eternal malingering and ignorance, while also facing the problems created by Mary’s romantic affairs and Johnny's physical and psychological issues. Ms. Cameron’s bleached, blonde hair, though, strikes a false note for a woman in such straits.

The supporting players include David O’Hara, who turns in a commendable job as Jerry Devine, the union man who loves Mary but turns her down when he learns of her pregnancy. As Charlie Bentham, the schoolteacher who gets Mary pregnant only to abandon her, James Russell is suitably supercilious, while Mary Mallen’s Mary is honest and sincere in one of the less flamboyant roles. More colorful is Terry Donnelly as Maisie Madigan, who creates a strong impression, both comic and serious, in her several scenes. And Fiona Toibin as Mrs. Tancred, stoically mourning the death of her son, makes the most of her brief appearance.

            Not as successful are John Keating's Joxer and Ed Malone’s Johnny. As Joxer, constantly spouting aphorisms and calling everything “daarlin,” the usually dependable Mr. Keating overdoes the part, playing too broadly, and missing the subtle lyricism and humor given by O’Casey even to this creepy character. Mr. Malone’s Johnny, who lost an arm and was shot in the hip during the conflict, has a guilt-racked whininess that endangers any sympathy he might otherwise acquire.    

            O’Casey often fills Jack Boyle’s mouth with mangled eloquence, as when he asks, “I ofen looked up at the sky an’ assed meself the question—what is the moon, what is the stars?” Whatever they are, they’re shining on this revival, belying Jack’s favorite mantra, “The whole world’s in a terrible state of chassis.”