Saturday, February 27, 2016

154. Review: PERICLES (seen February 26, 2016)

“When an A-List Director Tackles a D-List Play”
Stars range from 5-1.
If a team of critics were asked to separate Shakespeare’s plays into graded lists running from A-D (we’ll respect the Bard by avoiding Fs), there’d probably be consensus on the As (HAMLET, OTHELLO, KING LEAR, TWELFTH NIGHT, etc.). Picking the few Ds might be a bit stickier, but it’s likely PERICLES, one of Shakespeare’s early Romances and last plays, which Ben Jonson called “a mouldy tale,” would be one of them. So what happens if you take this rarely produced D-lister and match it with an A-list director, England’s Trevor Nunn, who’s directed not only nearly the complete bardic canon (this is his 35th!) but also the original productions of such commercial musicals as CATS and LES MISÉRABLES? 

Pigpen Theatre Co. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Mr. Nunn’s PERICLES, his first Shakespeare production for an American company, is now occupying the stage at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in downtown Brooklyn. He’s made the rambling play accessible by taking liberties with Shakespeare’s text; since the first nine scenes are most likely by another author, George Wilkins, purists needn’t get upset. Such freedoms are very welcome in this problematic work. Mr. Nunn also has introduced a substantial amount of tuneful music (composed by Shaun Davey and performed in character by the Pigpen Theatre Co.), but not so much as to make it that much different from many other musically rich Shakespeare productions you may have seen. Only at one point, when Pericles (Christian Camargo, of TV’s “Dexter”), Prince of Tyre, bursts into song after being shown his daughter’s alleged grave, does the music seem intrusive. Otherwise, the play is unreal enough to allow for all sorts of directorial innovation.
Earl Baker, Jr., Sam Morales, Lilly Englert, Christian Camargo. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
PERICLES is a shaggy-dog story stringing numerous incidents together without a subplot. A lot of what happens is fanciful and requires a firm suspension of disbelief. Trouble is you have to remain suspended for nearly three hours before the emotional payoff arrives. Narrating the events, mainly in song, is Gower (Raphael Nash Thompson), a storyteller inspired by John Gower, who wrote the story on which the play is based.
Nina Hellman, Will Swenson. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Essentially, there are two parts, separated by 16 years, In the first, we follow the Prince of Tyre (a Lebanese city) on his adventures after he attempts to answer a riddle posed by Antioch’s King Antiochus (Earl Baker, Jr.) that will allow him to marry the king’s daughter (Sam Morales); he infuriates Antiochus, however, by realizing that the riddle means he and his daughter are engaging in incest. What follows includes Pericles' flight from Antiochus’ vengeance, during which he rescues from famine the starving people of Tarsus, ruled by Cleon (Will Swenson) and Dionyza (Nina Hellman). He’s shipwrecked at Pentapolis, where he wins a competition for the hand of the exquisite Princess Thaisa (Gia Crovatin), daughter of the avuncular King Simonides (John Rothman). On his voyage home to the now leaderless Tyre, Thaisa presumably dies during childbirth and is buried at sea in a coffin. It washes up at Ephesus, where a doctor named Cerimon (Mr. Baker, Jr.) revives her. Then Pericles entrusts his baby daughter, Marina, to the leaders of Tarsus on his way home.
John Rothman, Gia Crovatin. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Fast forward 16 years and Dionyza seeks to have the beauteous Marina (Lily Englert) slain because she so outshines her own daughter. Before that happens, Marina’s shanghaied by pirates who sell her to brothel owners Bawd (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) and Pander (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) in Mytelene. Then follow the Bawd and Pander’s disappointment when Marina’s virtuousness turns customers chaste; Pericles’ depression (“melancholy”), including the donning of sackcloth when he’s told in Tarsus that Marina died, and his refusal thereafter to wash or cut his hair; the growing bond between Lysimachus (Ian Lassiter), the Governor of Mytelene, and Marina, after he too is converted by her virtue; and the ultimate end of suffering by Marina, Pericles, and—yes—the still living Thaisa, when they’re reunited (like Leontes with his wife and daughter in The Winter’s Tale). As you might expect, the entire company emerges for a festive dance number (choreography by Brian Brooks).
PERICLES company. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
There’s obviously plenty of action—too much, in fact—but Pericles, kind, wise, and brave as he may be, also grows flat, dull, and tiresome. Through much of the play’s latter part he’s silent, depressed, and unkempt, looking like a piece of flotsam from one of his several shipwrecks. Things happen to him more than him making them happen, and his Job-like suffering isn’t connected to any particular religious implications--it just is. Mr. Camargo is a fine, well-spoken actor but his performance, straining to give body to a hollow character, has a stagey, “Shakespearean” air, especially in the final moments when he rages about before reuniting with his loved ones.
Christian Camargo, Gia Corvatin. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

Nina Hellman, Lilly Englert. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
There are, however, some fine moments from the 22-member company (some of whom double), especially those belonging to Mr. Lassiter’s Governor of Mytelene, grounded and real; Ms. Englert’s Marina, graceful and pure; Mr. Thompson’s Gower, compellingly charismatic; John Keating’s three characters, each independently quirky; Mr. Rothman’s Simonides, benignly humorous; Ms. Crovatin’s Thaisa, every inch a princess; Nina Hellman’s Dionyzia, murderously jealous; and Ms. Chevanness’s Bawd, colorfully frustrated by Marina’s effect on her whorehouse trade.  
Lilly Englert, John Keating. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

Earl Baker, Jr., Lilly Englert, Christian Camargo, Gia Crovatin, Raphael Nash Thompson. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
PERICLES is performed on Robert Jones’s thrust stage--a black, wood floor at one end of which is a soaring wall reached by five steps fronting a huge orb-like opening that opens and closes to either side to show additional images, including large, undulating waves during the sea scenes. Mr. Nunn’s staging is filled with lovely features, among them the use of billowing sheets and ship’s rigging. If you’ve seen lots of Shakespeare, though, you’ve seen them all before.

Dramatically lit by Stephen Strawbridge, and with many striking costumes—some with a Japanese flavor, others more Middle Eastern—by Constance Hoffman, the production is conventionally attractive; the Middle Eastern feeling dominates what décor there is, with its scattered pillows, rugs, and hanging lamps (for the brothel scene). Much of the music conspires in this atmosphere, sounding like something from a belly dancer's repertoire.

So what happens when an A-list director meets a D-list Shakespeare play? I’d say the answer is a C+.


Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through March 27

153. Review: WOMEN WITHOUT MEN.(seen February 24, 2016)

"An Act of Beauty"
Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of WOMEN WITHOUT MEN, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.


City Center Stage II
151 West Fifty-Fifth Street, NYC
Through March 26


Friday, February 26, 2016

152. Review: A ROOM OF MY OWN (seen February 20, 2016)

"A Family That Cusses Together"
Stars range from 5-1.
For my review of A ROOM OF MY OWN, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.


Abingdon Theatre
312 West Thirty-Sixth Street, NYC
Through March 13

Ralph Macchio, Nico Bustamante. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
Joli Tribuzio, Mario Cantone, Johnny Tammaro. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
Nico Bustamante, Kendra Jain, Mario Cantone. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
Nico Bustamante, Kendra Jain. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
Mario Cantone, Nico Bustamante, Ralph Macchio, Joli Tribuzio, Johnny Tamarro, Kendra Jain. Photo: Ben Strothmann.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

151. Review: MABEL MADNESS (seen February 22, 2016)

"The Way She Sings Off-Key"
Stars range from 5-1.
For my review of MABEL MADNESS, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.


Urban Stages
259 West Thirtieth Street, NYC
Through March 20

Note: the program lists the star/playwright's name as Trezana in several places but various sources spell it Trazana, including her Wikipedia entry. My review uses her name as it appears in the program.

Trezana Beverley. 

Trezana Beverley.

Trezana Beverley.

Trezana Beverley.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

150. Review: THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN (seen February 18, 2016)

"When a Photo's Worth More than 1,000 Words"
Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.


Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street, NYC
Through March 20

Michael Crane, Michael Cumpsty. Photo: James Leynse.

Michael Cumpsty, Michael Crane. Photo: James Leynse.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

149. Review: DOT (seen February 17, 2016)

“A Mind O’erthrown”
Stars range from 5-1.

Colman Domingo’s DOT, a serious comedy that premiered last year at Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, is painful. Not in an artistic sense, although the work is certainly problematic, but in regard to the difficulty—for anyone who’s gone through it—of contemplating the onset in a friend or family member of dementia. Regardless of all the warm-blooded talent involved in putting over Mr. Domingo’s patchily entertaining comedy, watching its charismatic central character deteriorating before your eyes as her loved ones attempt to deal with a foregone conclusion is far from easy, even when the play—loudly directed by Broadway A-lister Susan Stroman—is smothered in the feel-good bathos of a family Christmas gathering. (Another play opening this week, A ROOM OF MY OWN, looks at a dysfunctional Italian-American family during the holiday season.)
Marjorie Johnson, Finnerty Steeves. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
No one can dispute the topicality of a play dealing with dementia/Alzheimer’s—especially as mirrored in stories of adult children faced with a failing parent and worried about how to deal with her; films aside, the past few theatre seasons have demonstrated clearly how deeply writers have been affected by the problem. Related plays I’ve reviewed include IN MY FATHER’S WORDS, MY MOTHER HAS 4 NOSES, IT HAS TO BE YOU, TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH, TOO MANY, THE LAST SEDER, and THE OUTGOING TIDE, not to mention works in which the subject is part of a subplot. Recent plays I haven't seen yet that treat dementia include THE HUMANS, HER REQUIEM, and SMOKEFALL. You could say a genre has been formed.
Sharon Washington, Stephen Conrad Moore. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The gathering in DOT is at the home of an African-American woman, Dotty Shealy (Marjorie Johnson), a doctor’s white-haired widow, who resides in the West Philadelphia home in which she raised her three children. She’s a feisty, intelligent woman, who cautions her kids against cussing but isn’t averse to the occasional profanity herself (including the “n” word) or even to asking someone if they have any “weed.” We meet her daughter, Shelly (Sharon Washington), a sharp-tongued attorney and the single mom of a nine-year-old boy, who has spent all her free time with her mother ever since her symptoms began accelerating; the blatant blast of blond (later changed to red) on her bob elicits a string of wisecracks, including Dotty’s calling it a “mean pineapple.”
Sharon Washington, Marjorie Johnson, Finnerty Steeves. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Then there’s Dotty’s son, Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore), a gay man married to a handsome, sweetly accommodating, white guy, Adam (Colin Hanlon), and struggling to survive as a freelance music writer in a field overtaken by online bloggers. Donnie and Adam squeeze a few big laughs from Adam's suspicion that Donnie is cheating on their juice cleanse regimen. Finally, we have Averie (Libya V. Pugh, greatly overdoing it), a would-be actress whose 15 seconds of fame was inspired by a YouTube video; loud and brassy, she wears a wavy, blond wig, dresses like a streetwalker, and seems more like the sistuh from another planet than a member of Dotty’s family. 
Sharon Washington, Libya V. Pugh, Colin Hanlon, Stephen Conrad Moore. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
DOT is basically a two-act, two-hour situation in search of a plot: Dotty’s symptoms worsen as her family considers her problem. As Christmas Eve morphs into the following morning, we observe her shift from what seems moderate short-term memory loss to seeing people who aren’t there or confusing those who are with others. Meanwhile, her children bicker, revealing their own frailties, as Shelly, fearing that Dotty may be contemplating suicide, works to bring them together with a plan to place their mom in an assisted living facility and to come up with a way to pay for it.

Additional color arrives in Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), a 40-year-old white neighbor and childhood friend of Shelly’s whose family refused to join the neighborhood’s white flight; she happens to have just returned to the vacant house she still owns after getting pregnant by a married man and quitting her New York job. Nostalgic humor arises from Jackie’s having been Donnie’s high school sweetheart before he came out, although she still has a thing for him. Least well-written (and least well-acted) is Fidel (Michael Rosen), a Kazakhstani refugee, with little English (or so we’re led to believe), paid to care for Dotty several days a week.
Stephen Conrad Moore, Colin Hanlon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The play’s two halves make uneasy stage fellows. For each act, designer Allen Moyer has created a substantial, realistic set—a 1950s-style kitchen for act one, a conventional living room for act two—both nicely lit by Ben Stanton. In act one, the exposition spills out amidst fast-paced, comic energy, with characters often speaking and shouting over each other and creating a heightened but often funny sitcom atmosphere. 

Act two, though, despite its occasional theatrics—including a romantically fantastical dance sequence with Dotty and Adam (Stroman specializes in musical theatre, after all)—is more straightforward, generally duller, and, increasingly, sentimental. Tom Morse’s sound design fills the air with pop standards by the likes of Streisand and Garland, played on the stereo (vinyl rules here), and Donnie “tinkles” the keys on the grand piano at length, playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with the cabaret-style touch of a Bobby Short, even though he claims he hasn’t played in years.

Marjorie Johnson’s strong yet subtle performance as Dot, who tries to resist submitting to the fog enveloping her, is the acting highlight; Ms. Johnson created the role at Louisville but was to be replaced in New York by Leslie Uggams until the latter was forced to leave by a TV commitment. The other memorable performance belongs to Ms. Washington, who plays the urgency of a daughter fighting to control the uncontrollable with comically fierce but spirited determination.

Even after it becomes clear that the play has nowhere new to go, Mr. Domingo pushes it along, including the introduction of a new subplot about Fidel within the final 20 minutes, which take place as five a.m. approaches. At that late/early hour the family appears as wide awake as if they’d had a good night’s sleep but I suspect the audience would have preferred the play to have ended at 4:40 a.m. stage time.


Vineyard Theatre
108 East Fifteenth Street, NYC
Through March 20