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: