Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday, November 23, 2014

117. Review of ON A STOOL AT THE END OF THE BAR (November 21, 2014)

Regardless of its title, Robert Callelly’s ON A STOOL AT THE END OF THE BAR, a production of the Directors Company, isn’t a barroom play, but instead a domestic drama set largely in a Camden, NJ, suburban kitchen in the late 1980s. It attempts to come to grips with a sensitive issue, somewhat akin to the dilemmas faced by the Stephen Rea character in the 1992 movie THE CRYING GAME and by the French diplomat in the play and movie M. BUTTERFLY. Since the “mystery” underlined in the play’s press release is explained early on, and its disclosure isn’t really the play’s subject, revealing it in a review (as others already have done) shouldn’t really be a spoiler.

In brief, Tony DeMarco (Timothy John Smith), a macho lumberyard owner, is married to his second wife, Chris (Antoinette Thorne), with whom he enjoys a rich sex life. Chris is a caring stepmother to Tony’s three kids, and the kind of attractive woman who dresses in nicely tailored casual designer clothes, has her rich head of dyed strawberry blonde hair perfectly coiffed, and never goes around without her high-cheekboned face made up to the hilt.

On a Stool at the End of the Bar
From left: Zachary Brod, Antoinette Thorne, Sara Kapner. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

One day, when Tony comes home earlier than expected because of a work-related accident, he’s visited by Michael McCullough (John Stanisci), who expected to be meeting with Chris. You see, Chris has been separated for twenty years from her family because—here it comes!—she’s really a man who’s had gender-changing surgery. Her conservative Catholic family rejected her, but now her uptight dad has died, and Michael has come to give her a check for the $97,000 she’s inherited. Michael hasn’t seen his “brother” in all these years, and only his recent discovery that his own son is gay has tempered his raging homophobic bigotry enough to make this visit possible.
Photo Flash: First Look at ON A STOOL AT THE END OF THE BAR at 59E59 Theaters
Timothy John Smith, Sara Kapner. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

It takes some time for Michael to realize that Tony has absolutely no idea of what he’s talking about (Tony’s so ignorant he has no idea that a.k.a. means “also known as” when he sees that the check is for “Christopher Eugene McCullough a.k.a. Christine McCullough”). Tony also needs a lot of time to digest the fact that his wife is a transsexual (the play’s word). Oil often marries water, but, while one can understand Tony’s confusion and disgust, his attitudes are so retro that it’s hard to see the more refined and well-spoken Chris—albeit with a background as a hooker to pay for her operation—living with him in connubial bliss.
One might imagine that, had Michael and Tony not met by accident, the latter would have remained in ignorance until his dying day, but, whoops, the truth is out and Tony is so enraged that he’s been fooled into marrying a “faggot” that he even gives the wife he loves the back of his powerful hand. The rest of the play, which goes nowhere slowly, is concerned with Tony’s struggle to come to terms with Chris’s egregious failure to divulge her past (the play’s true subject) The only person from whom he seeks counsel is a clueless old priest (Robert Hogan), who even wants to break the confidentiality of the confessional by reporting the case to his bishop. During his confession, Tony divulges the fact that, when he was young, he experienced fellatio (another word he doesn’t know when he hears it) on several occasions, and denies vehemently the priest’s suggestion that he himself might be gay, although the playwright clearly wants us to think there may be some truth in it. The play wastes stage time with a scene between Chris and her female shrink (Liza Vann), but provides no one who can offer Tony (and the audience) any sort of reasonable explanation or counseling for his problem.
Anyway, the two-act, two-hour play stumbles along without any important developments, only its several scenes that try to explain the problem of transsexuality having any intrinsic interest. Tony’s younger kids, 16-year-old Angie (Sara Kapner) and 13-year-old Mario (Zachary Brod), seem able to deal with Chris’s revelations, but high school senior Joey (Luke Slattery) is as narrow-minded and conflicted as his dad, and runs away. The play ends by hinting, inconclusively, that things may be stabilizing.
So the lesson is, if you’ve undergone sex change surgery, make sure you tell your new spouse about it. Of course, this lesson can be extrapolated to refer to any important information you withhold inappropriately from someone who should have it, like the story my friend told me before the show began about his failure to let the people for whom he was acting in a commercial know he was a vegan, even though the job meant he’d have to eat ice cream. If you don’t want unnecessary tsuris in your life, tell the truth!
ON A STOOL AT THE END OF THE BAR deals with a situation ripe for dramatic treatment, but it fails to develop its situations effectively and lacks credible or sympathetic characters. Mr. Callely has placed the story in the late 80s, but the behavior of these pre-Internet people seems to belong in a time capsule of the 60s. The play might have gained more traction in a better production, but this one, with a paint-by-numbers set by Jessica Parks and lackluster direction by Michael Parva, with its deadly pacing and uninspired staging (including little things like having a kid take a can of soda from the fridge three times and never open it), doesn’t do the play or the actors much justice.

Most of the performers are solid professionals, but the soft-voiced, eye-rolling Ms. Thorne, despite being an actual transgender (the term an usher I spoke to used) performer who fronts a rock band (the Thornes), is not much of an actor, a major drawback that may make you wish you were on that titular barstool instead of at this play.
59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 Street
Through December 14

116. Review of PUNK ROCK (November 20, 2014)ann

The MCC Theater’s production of PUNK ROCK, British playwright Simon Stephens’s 2009 British drama about a group of boisterous students in an English public (i.e., private) school, delivers such a rock ‘em sock ‘em theatrical blow that it’s not till you’re riding home on the subway or rerunning it in your head as you fall asleep that some of its dramatic drawbacks begin to bleed. Bleeding is an operative word here, given the outcome of this often funny, but mainly tragic look at the uncomfortably entwined lives of these anxious kids as they revise (i.e., review) for their A level mock exams (something like PSATs) in a school located in Stockport, England, near Manchester, where Mr. Stephens (THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME) actually spent some time as a teacher.

PUNK ROCK is the second play inspired by the Columbine shootings I’ve seen in a week; it makes the other, THE ERLKINGS, look, in theatrical terms, like a BB gun next to an AK47. All the action takes place on Mark Wendland’s brilliantly photorealistic envisioning of a mostly disused school library, peeling ceiling paint and all, which makes the Lucille Lortel stage look twice as big as you might have thought it was.

Will Pullen gives Noah Robbins a piece of his mind in Simon Stephens' Punk Rock, a production of MCC Theater directed by Trip Cullman at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
From left: Pico Alexander, Will Pullen, Noah Robbins, Lilly Englert. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mr. Stephens’s four boys and three girls offer such a dynamically active picture of rampaging hormones, sexual confusion, romantic awkwardness, teenage depression, and damnable bullying that you’ll wonder how you ever got through those tormented years (if, indeed, these kids even remotely reflect your experiences) in one piece (assuming you did). Yes, these lads and lasses, each representing some teenage stereotype—already represented in an endless series of films and TV shows, not to mention plays (a recent, representative example being HISTORY BOYS)—are not particularly unique, but the playwright manages to invest them with piercing vividness, not a heartbeat of which the exceptional young cast misses. Although seemingly realistic, these characters are, in fact, hyper-realistic, their insistently physical, super-articulate, often profanity-smeared way of expressing themselves taking them to another level only viable on the stage. Their combined charisma, vitality, and emotionalism compresses this mélange of smart, privileged, middle-class prep uniform-wearing teens into an explosively potent stick of stageworthy TNT.

The action, played out during a consistently gripping intermissionless hour and 45-minutes, covers seven scenes, beginning in early October, climaxing in an act of violence in November, and concluding around Christmas with the culpable student in a medium security hospital. On view are William Carlisle (Douglas Smith), a motor-mouthed, savvy, but mendacious and jumpily neurotic beanpole who wants to go to Cambridge; Lilly Cahill (Colbie Minifie), the masochistic new girl, a college professor’s daughter, just arrived from Cambridge, and quickly involved—to William’s distress—in a relationship with the handsome lacrosse player, Nicholas Chatman (Pico Alexander), one of the quieter students; Tracy Gleason (Annie Funke), a goodhearted, overweight girl who becomes an unfortunate target of abuse by the restlessly driven bully, Bennett Francis (Will Pullen); Chadwick Meade (Noah Robbins) nerdy but brilliant, who strikes back at the threatening Bennett with a devastating diatribe about the ultimate downfall of the world; and Cissy Franklin (Lilly Englert), Bennett’s hottie girlfriend, a straight A student whose emotional neediness allows her to tolerate his sadism. There’s also a brief role for a character’s younger sister, Lucy (Sophie Shapiro).  

I’d rather praise the entire excellent ensemble than each member of it. Only one actor, Lilly Englert, is actually British, but the accents almost always sound authentic, even to the point of occasional incomprehensibility as the words come tumbling out. As is so often the case, all the actors playing high school students are way too old (22 to 29), but they all pass convincingly for adolescents when on stage.

To underline the nervous tension during the scene breaks, director Trip Cullman (abetted by sound designer Darron L. West) turns the music volume (Big Black, Sonic Youth, the Stooges, etc.) up to max and the lights (a superb job by Japhy Weideman) to an eerie min, as the cast enters in phantasmagoric masks moving bizarrely to the wild rhythms before rapidly vanishing as the music suddenly ends and the lights bounce instantly on again, the contrast creating an effect of deafening silence. The effect suggests a nightmare vision of the inner demons torturing each student. Mr. Cullman’s staging throughout is inventive and excitingly paced, with the actors’ bullet-train speech and high energy interchanges almost giving the impression they’re on speed. The climactic scene is done with such frightening realism you may consider running for the nearest exit.

Living in a world where every week seems to offer news of school violence, we yearn for answers to what can be done to stop the carnage. THE ERLKINGS offers the desperate suggestion that “reaching out” will help but PUNK ROCK doesn’t even go that far. Mr. Stephens includes an unnecessary coda involving a psychiatrist (David Greenspan), but stops short of attempting to offer an explanation for the unexplainable. As we continually learn, the modern world is such that there’s no way these events can be prevented.

If this were an American play, one could protest the country’s idiotic lack of gun control, but the play takes place in England, where guns are banned (although gun crimes are on the rise). Madness is madness, wherever it happens. As the perpetrator admits: “I did it because I could.” PUNK ROCK may not be great drama, but it’s sure as hell terrific theatre. It won't enlighten you about school violence, with or without guns, but it may very well scare the bejesus out of you.   

Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through December 14


Friday, November 21, 2014

115. Review of PITBULLS (November 19, 2014)

Need some gritty grunge in your playgoing diet?  If so, you can usually depend on the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre to provide it. Looking back on the past couple of seasons, I can recall feeling the need for a shower after sitting through several of THE HILLTOWN PLAYS, THE LONG SHRIFT, THROUGH THE YELLOW HOUR, A FABLE, and THE FEW, plays usually filled with shiftless, scruffy, swearing characters in rundown settings depicting a world of losers and miscreants. So it was no surprise on entering the theatre to encounter the shabby trailer trash environment Andrew Boyce has put together for PITBULLS, Keith Josef Adkins’s intermittently interesting examination of life in an African American Bible Belt community somewhere in the Appalachian backwoods, near where the Ohio River meets Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia.
Pit bull (two words, not one) fighting is not only acceptable around here, but even the town’s mayor and chief law enforcement officer advocate for it with a Fourth of July Pitbull Summit intended to help local breeders make a profit on dog sales, making the place America’s “pitbull capital.”
Although much of the play is about pit bull fighting’s significance to the town, nothing is said about its legality. According to Wikipedia:
In addition to [dog fighting] being a felony in all 50 U.S. states, the federal U.S. Animal Welfare Act makes it unlawful for any person to knowingly sell, buy, possess, train, transport, deliver, or receive any dog for purposes of having the dog participate in an animal fighting venture.
It’s hard not to be puzzled about this in a play where only one character opposes the fighting, and no one ever cites the laws against it; on the other hand, the play doesn’t shy away from iterations about other local infractions, including flag burning.
PITBULLS is a domestic drama portraying five black hillbillies (Hill Jacks, the play calls them), and focusing chiefly on a blowsy, feisty termagant, Mary (Yvette Ganier), whose ideals—she’s the one against pit bull fights and for flag burning—clash with those of everyone around her. Mary and Dipper live in a decrepit trailer, where she inexplicably keeps her washer outdoors and earns her living by making bootleg wine, which Dipper sells at the nearby highway off-ramp. Her libations are also used for various healing purposes, for which some consider her a witch.
Mary is fiercely protective of Dipper (Maurice Williams), her feckless 20ish son, whose name, we learn in one of the play’s brief—but not very credible—infusions of poetic atmosphere, was inspired by Mary’s fascination with the stars and constellations. Her overprotectiveness involves her keeping him away from people and pit bulls, but, bored and lonely, with barely any outlets for “funning,” Dipper’s inclinations aren’t easy to repress.
From left: Donna Duplantier, Nathan Hinton, Yvette Ganier. Photo: Monica Simoes.
The local sheriff, Virgil (Billy Eugene Jones), is a swaggering ex-Marine and torch-bearing former lover of Mary, who returned from service (where is unspecified) with a mean streak that makes him potentially dangerous to anyone with whom he disagrees. Virgil is intent on making Mary admit she tried to blow someone up in their truck some years past for having killed her pup (an incident about which she still obsesses), and we have to wait until late in the play to find out what actually happened. Mr. Adkins, whose play seems mainly interested in squeezing as much local color from these folks as he can, doesn’t create much suspense about this or other matters, including the killing of two dogs.

From left: Billy Eugene Jones, Maurice Williams, Yvette Ganier. Photo: Monica Simoes.
Possibly Dipper’s father, Virgil arrests Dipper, accusing him of blowing the head off a pit (the grisly remains appear in a bowling bag), forcing Mary to choose between Dipper’s going to prison or joining the Marines, which latter possibility Mary—seeing what military service did to Virgil—vehemently opposes. Without revealing the outcome, I can suggest that, from what we’ve seen of Dipper, even if he decided to serve, his chances of actually being accepted, regardless of Virgil’s inside line to recruiters, would be unlikely; the idea of him shooting missiles at the enemy stretches credulity to the breaking point.   
Then there’s Wayne (Nathan Hinton), a door-to-door salvationist seeking to become a full-fledged minister. Wayne, however, is an avowed porn-watching sinner, cussing freely and, despite being married to the bible-thumping but equally hypocritical Rhonda (Donna Duplantier), having casual sex with Mary, for whom he serves as a Mr. Fixit. “It’s better to speak your sins,” he declares, “than to hide them.” Mary, for her part, has little but ridicule for Wayne’s piety, or for any religious belief. Wayne’s immediate aim is to gain the mayor’s approval so he can offer the official benediction when the summit is held, thus enhancing his ministerial aspirations. This creates conflict when he hesitates about helping Mary in her attempt to shield Dipper from incarceration.  
Mr. Adkins requires that the actors speak in a local dialect that shouldn’t be confused with Southern black speech; it’s hard for me to tell the difference, although my companion, who once lived in Ohio, felt that Ms. Ganier sounded authentic. The language is colorfully ripe and vulgar (the local mountains are referred to as “tittified babies”), the characters are profanely earthy, and, one supposes, are intended to serve as human representatives of the tenacity with which pit bulls never let go.
With much of the action taking place on Independence Day, there’s clearly a link to the characters’ respective needs to establish their own independence from their living conditions. The townspeople, for their part, need the sort of independence they can get by separating themselves from poverty by making money from the summit. To Virgil, Mary’s rejection of pit bulls is a rejection of these needs, which is why he informs her that town can tolerate her flag burning but not a “disregard for pitbulls.”
Despite the play’s clunky storytelling, the actors offer vivid performances, most especially Ms. Ganier, who works hard to make her character’s negativity artistically positive. Leah C. Gardiner’s direction keeps things moving; Mr. Boyce’s set cleverly squeezes several naturalistic locales into the tiny space available; Dede Ayite’s rural costumes look authentic; and Eric Southern’s lighting offers acceptable indoor and outdoor effects.
Mr. Adkins’s play is both nominally and thematically about dogfighting, a subject into which not many may wish to sink their canines. It would, at the least, have to have more red meat than what’s been put on the platter here.  

Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre
224 Waverly Place
Through December 13

114. Review of ASYMMETRIC (November 19, 2014)

 Let’s assume you’re familiar with “Homeland,” the hit cable TV show about international espionage starring Clare Danes as superspy Carrie Mathison. Imagine that Carrie, disillusioned by years of counterterrorism work for the CIA, with all the killing she’s been forced either to condone or carry out herself, has turned traitor and sold state secrets to some bad actors. Let’s further imagine that she’s recently divorced after an eight-year marriage from her fellow superspy—a Brody-Quinn-Saul mash up—who was forced out of his job when boozing got in the way. Now, picture Carrie strapped to a chair in a sparely furnished, brick-walled interrogation room where she’s being asked to give up information to her ex-husband, a gray-haired specialist brought unwillingly out of retirement; only he, it’s believed, has the skills to extract the needed intel on who she sold the specs to for a DNA-sniffing drone that vaporizes itself (so it can’t be traced) once it’s carried out a non-combatant killing. Throw in a good cop-bad cop pair, the latter a sadist who’s itching to use his lethal shears, and you’ve got the setup for Mac Rogers’s thriller wannabe, ASYMMETRIC, now playing in the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters, under the aegis of Ground Up Productions i/a with Gideon Productions.

Kate Middleton, Sean Williams. Photo: Travis McHale.
The characters, of course, don’t have the names I’ve mentioned. The indomitable female agent is Sunny Black (Kate Middleton); her washed-up ex is Josh (Sean Williams); Josh’s former friend, who succeeded him as head of the “Fifth Floor,” a boutique CIA department Josh founded, is Zack (Seth Shelden); and the happy snipper-snapper is Ford (Rab Mattner). Zack’s last name, by the way, is Quinn. An homage to “Homeland”? Just askin’ . . .
Seth Shelden, Sean Williams. Photo: Travis McHale.

Mr. Rogers has mastered the spook chatter, with its hot-list houses, Venn-diagrams, asymmetric warfare, and exfiltrations, and his premise might be interesting to lovers of spy shows and novels, with its technobabble about the new drone’s scary capabilities (think neurotoxin projectiles, if you think I’m fooling). Critics of Pres. Obama’s drone strikes (the Commander in Chief looks on from a wall photograph) will appreciate the sniping about collateral damage, and the plot’s various power struggles as it twists one way and turns another may keep some guessing as to what’s coming next and who’s fooling who. But the frequent wisecracking and uneasy combination of espionage and marital discord—a lot of time is taken up with “why did you leave me” dickering—puts a heavy damper on a clock-ticking situation demanding a rapid response. As in many well-done film and TV spy dramas, dialogue flies by at mach speed, and you have to listen closely to catch the nuances, but ultimately, when the reason for Sunny’s becoming a turncoat emerges, you may wish to turn your own and flee to a safe house.
If a play like this is going to keep you glued (if not strapped) to your chair, it needs to have the kind of high-intensity acting and direction we associate with the best in the genre. The actors in ASYMMETRIC are capable professionals, but, as directed by Jordana Williams, none convey the essential sense of urgency and life and death commitment; as for romantic chemistry between Josh and Sunny . . .  All seem instead to be playacting at spies and spy-catchers and barely any of it rings true, including the apparent lack of suffering induced when a character gives instead of gets a finger.
Travis McHale’s set (he also did the lighting), surrounded on two sides by the audience, provides a space that serves efficiently as two offices, with areas above for when the climactic op goes down in Reykjavik. Limited by the theatre’s resources, this latter scene fails to work, just as the play’s manipulative resolution (think any episode of “24”) leaves much to be desired. Not to worry, the next episode of “Homeland” awaits on Sunday.

59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 Street
Through December 6


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

111. Review of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN (November 15, 2014)



The eye-catching title of Young Jean Lee’s new play, STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, is something of a red herring. Perhaps a more accurate title would be SOME STRAIGHT WHITE MEN or FOUR STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. Lee’s title—assuming it relates only to Americans of that description—suggests something universal about a human subset that the very well-performed play fails fully to either exemplify or clarify. A multi-award winning Korean-born playwright of considerable stature who’s best known for her nonlinear experimental plays, which often examine issues of identity politics, Lee turns in this play—now at the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall—for the first time to a linear, naturalistic form.
From left: Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson, James Stanley, Austin Pendleton. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The action unfolds over three acts, covering 90 intermissionless minutes, in the generic family room of a white, liberal Midwestern home (designed by David Evans Morris and brightly lit by Christopher Kuhl) belonging to a retired engineer and widower named Ed (Austin Pendleton). Ed’s brood of three sons, all in their forties, has gathered to celebrate the Christmas holidays. The oldest is Matt (James Stanley), highly educated and strongly committed to social justice (he once got a school theatre teacher fired for producing an all-white Oklahoma!), but adrift, unable to make use of his knowledge and abilities. He’s been living with his accommodating dad as a sort of substitute mom, handling various household chores. Matt holds down a temp position doing menial work (Xeroxing) with a socially responsible organization, but is burdened by a large student loan debt.
The visitors are the middle son, Jake (Gary Wilmes), a banker, recently divorced, with kids of his own, and the youngest, Drew (Pete Simpson), an unmarried college teacher (one four-hour class a week) who writes novels on political themes, and whose positive experience in therapy leads him to recommend it for Matt. Aside from brief scenes where the dialogue engages with personal and social issues of white privilege, you’d never guess from their incessant adolescent hijinks, profanity (they especially love to throw the word “dick” around), and crude horseplay that they were (apart from the rudderless Matt) accomplished professionals. Ed, for his part, is a quietly bemused spectator to their childish behavior, not always getting it, but never raising his voice. He serves as the essentially neutral moderator when the play’s central issue comes into focus.
This happens when, as the family is eating Chinese take-out, Matt begins weeping (if only briefly); the play now begins to deepen as Drew reaches out to uncover the source of Matt’s unhappiness, drawing the others into the conversation and, if only sporadically, igniting something of a discussion drama. Matt, for all his alleged brilliance (none of it ever demonstrated), can’t explain his sadness or his loser’s inability to use his gifts to move on in life. The causes of his unassertiveness are hard to grasp, and even he can’t articulate them, making his unanswered dilemma the play’s biggest question. To help give Matt the confidence he seems to lack, Ed stages a mock interview, as if hiring Matt for a job, but Matt handles it poorly, even after trying to emulate Jake’s performance when he demonstrates the proper way to do it. In the end, Ed’s forced to make a difficult, if belated decision, about his son.
The play has lots of vivid activity and offstage music (some by Chris Giarmo, with sound design by Jamie McElhinney) as the brothers roughhouse with each other; everyone dances wildly (movement is by Faye Driscoll) at one point to loudly thumping music (with Matt doing comically robotic movements), but this doesn’t make up for an essentially inert dramatic structure. STRAIGHT WHITE MEN wants to confront issues of white privilege (Drew and Jake even play a version of Monopoly their late mother cleverly adapted into a game called Privilege), but, a few moments aside (some of it related to that board game), little of it goes very deep nor does it demonstrate much that might not also be associated with nonwhite, non-straight, non-male behavior, although the male component is probably the most incisive. Generalizations are fun, but what do they really prove?
Ms. Lee also serves as her own director, which works well enough for the acted scenes. However, this is 2014 and it’s time for directors to recognize that if you’re going to stage a naturalistic play whose action must be interrupted for scene changes, you should either use a curtain, dim your lights to near darkness, or choreograph your actors to cover the shifts. Bringing a handful of black-garbed stagehands, headsets and battery packs in place, onto a barely dimmed stage won’t do if you wish to sustain any sense of illusion.
Austin Pendleton gives a convincingly paternal performance as the easygoing Ed; seeing him amidst the fairly strapping actors playing his sons reminds us that tiny acorns can produce mighty oaks. Each of the sons is believable, but the sum total of their performances still doesn’t enlighten this straight white man about his own condition. Perhaps, in Young Jean Lee’s eyes, that likely is itself part of the problem.    
Public Theatre
425 Lafayette Street
Through December 7

110. Review of TAMBURLAINE (November 13, 2014)



As those members of the audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center still remaining at the conclusion of TAMBURLAINE, now being revived by Theatre for a New Audience, rose to warmly applaud the production, my friend and I wondered: Were they truly appreciative of a masterful production? Were they acknowledging the fortitude of a company that had just completed an exhausting schlep through over three hours of rhetorical bombast? Or were they expressing their mutual joy in having survived the event intact without being hung, shot, trampled, mutilated, raped, stabbed, or otherwise brought to an untimely end?
John Douglas Thompson, Keith Randolph Smith. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

For make no mistake, this production is a blood and thunderfest in which a man slices open his arm to display his valor, a woman seeking death paints her throat with a potion she claims will make her invulnerable as a ruse to have herself slain, a father angry at his son’s lack of warlike fervor thinks nothing of killing him, someone else’s tongue is sliced off and tossed about, an emperor and empress commit suicide by bashing their brains out against their cage, a cohort of Muslim virgins is hung, men are forced to pull a conqueror’s carriage with bits in their mouths as he snaps a whip above them, and so on.

John Douglas Thompson. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
As directed by Michael Boyd, the extremity of much of the play’s onstage viciousness is symbolically indicated by having someone—often a sweet young lad (Ian Saint-Germain)—take a bucket of blood and pour it all over the victims, or use a brush to paint their white garments bright crimson. So much red stuff (144 gallons a week) is spilled, splashed, and splattered, in fact, that a half-hour break between the two parts of the production (stretching the evening out to three and a half hours) is required so that the stage crew can wash the stains away (Lady Macbeths need not apply). I can’t even imagine the laundry bill.
And, to be honest, TAMBURLAINE, which premiered in 1587, isn’t really a masterpiece, although it’s extremely important historically for how effectively it demonstrated the theatrical power of blank verse. Its author, Christopher Marlowe, murdered in a barroom at 29, was famous for his “mighty line,” and, to capitalize on the play’s enormous success, wrote a sequel, here conjoined to the original in a two-part event that, were it not “edited” by Mr. Boyd, would last well over five hours.
TAMBURLAINE was given its first New York production, in 1956, by Canada’s visiting Stratford Festival, in a reportedly rousing production staged by Sir Tyrone Guthrie, adapted from Parts I and II by Guthrie and English actor Donald Wolfit. It starred England’s Anthony Quayle (with an as yet unknown William Shatner as Usumcasane), and took a relatively fleeting two and a half hours to complete. For a modern audience, that should be enough, since the play is little more than the expression of the eponymous megalomaniacal conqueror’s insatiable desire for worldwide power, no matter how many millions must be slain in the process. (17 million people are believed to have died in his campaigns, five percent of the world’s population at the time.) Apart from his love for Zenocrate (Merritt Janson), the beautiful daughter of the Soldan of Egypt (Paul Lazar) he takes captive, Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson), “the scourge of God and terror of the world”—known to history as Timur or Tamurlane (1336-1405)—has no redeeming features, unless you consider military prowess and incomprehensible ruthlessness to be admirable qualities.
Merritt Janson, John Douglas Thompson. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
When he’s not busy extolling Zenocrates’s loveliness, Tamburlaine—who reputedly began life as a Scythian shepherd—is wreaking havoc all over Asia (from the Middle East to India), Europe, and Africa. Much of the action takes place in Persia (Iran) and Syria, and places we now hear of daily in the news are among the episodic play’s locales. TAMBURLAINE seems little more than an incessant series of confrontations with one local king after another; when such potentates refuse to surrender, he unleashes his humongous armies to turn the resistant kingdom or city into dust, ashes, and blood. Tamburlaine, swollen by hubris, ultimately places himself above the gods; he defies Mahomet (Mohammed), and even burns the Qur’an (the Alcoran in the play), but is soon struck down by illness—admittedly, too lenient a punishment—and dies. A recent London production at the Barbican created a controversy about censorship when the book burning and references to the prophet were both modified and cut. The material remains intact here.

Before Tamburlaine goes to hell, or wherever such creatures go, we first must endure his never-ending boasting and the various ways in which his ambitions bring out the cowardice and treachery, as well as the heroism, in others. With all of this presented in high-sounding rhetorical speeches, many of them quite lengthy, monotonous, and lacking in the human insight we get with Shakespeare, and with characters who are little more than verbal fountains, we look instead to see how well the director and his company can bring their artistic inspiration to Marlowe’s violent dramaturgy.

Mr. Boyd has opted for a minimalist approach, forgoing Guthrie’s colorful pageantry. The Polonsky uses an Elizabethan-like structure in which a large thrust stage is surrounded on three sides by galleries, with one audience section in the pit area facing the front of the stage. Tom Piper’s stage proper is bare, with a grated trap at center into which, when opened, bodies can tumble or characters emerge. At the rear of the stage is a multilevel wall, at whose uppermost position is a musicians’ room where composer-percussionist Arthur Solari can be seen accompanying the action with drums, gongs, and xylophone.  Below him is a curtain of heavy plastic strips, the kind you pass through to the refrigerated sections in large food stores. Thanks to Matthew Richards’s lighting, we view actions taking place there through the translucent strips, which, when their time comes, get a healthy dose of blood showered on them.  
Mr. Piper, who also designed the costumes, uses a dullish black and white palette, with touches of red, making this a rather unattractive presentation. The costumes are in the increasingly clichéd “timeless” mode, combining modern elements with pieces redolent of differing eras, with tunics, long coats, robes, and pajama-like costumes thrown together helter skelter, usually with a long scarf, in a quickly forgettable mix.

TAMBURLAINE. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Although many actors play multiple roles, little effort is made to distinguish their different parts with costuming; with so many characters, most of them branded with unfamiliar and exotic names—Mycetes, Cosroe, Usumcasane, Meander, Theridamus, Ortygius, Menaphon, Callapine, Techelles, yada yada—the audience needs a program to know who the players are. Barely changing their appearances is just another pretentious gimmick (among many in the production) serving no other purpose but confusion. One of several egregious examples is when, after Mycetes, King of Persia, played as a witless fool, is killed, the same actor (Mr. Lazar) appears as the King of Egypt in a similar costume and wearing the same royal crown, a choice made even more puzzling by having the latter also played with foolish mannerisms. Later, when Mr. Lazar plays Almeda, the jailer, his costume is slightly changed but his manner and the crown he eventually is given are much the same as in his earlier roles.
The choice of having Zenocrates, as soon as she is dead, don a ragged coat (soon discarded) to signal that she’s now playing the male role of Callapine is another head scratcher. It’s not so much the cross-gender casting, which is, of course, becoming an increasingly faddish option, but the lack of clarity engendered by having an actress suddenly become a man without any notable change in costume or attitude. Just because the actress is established as a male character through a brief staging transition doesn’t mean we have to believe or accept it. Seeing her play the role in white pajamas and with bare feet, with only a crown to denote her rank, and in no way adopting masculine vocal or physical attributes, doesn’t help us suspend our disbelief. In a more familiar play, like HAMLET, such business might be used to make a point about gender because we recognize the characters and can ponder the surprising manipulation from the expected. In a rarely produced play, like TAMBURLAINE, where the characters are all new to us, it’s just one more example of the intrusive artsy-fartsyism that often threatens to overtake classical theatre revivals.  
The company is vigorous and well-spoken but no one is exceptional. As Tamburlaine, a role in which even the highly regarded Anthony Quayle failed to bowl the critics over nearly 60 years ago (too much shouting, wrote Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times), John Douglas Thompson gives a hearty, lung-challenging performance, demonstrating physical agility and personal presence. If there were any substantial scenery present, it would have been lustily chewed. The part, however, remains an abstraction, and, for all his determined efforts, Mr. Thompson, a gifted actor who recently starred as Louis Armstrong in a one-man play, never quite makes this terrifying tyrant human.
Guthrie’s production used 19 actors, one less than Mr. Boyd’s. Judging from its cast list, there was no doubling, and some of the minor roles mentioned (a Prologue, Persian messenger, a Basso) don’t appear in the current revival. The scene in which a king uses several virgins to seek mercy from Tamburlaine was dropped, and it’s not difficult to imagine other scenes that were deemed unnecessary. I don’t know if Mr. Boyd looked at the Guthrie-Wolfit script, but it would be interesting to do so to see just how much more might have been trimmed from the current adaptation. Where, one wonders, was the sharp edge of Tamburlaine’s sword when it was most sorely needed?


Monday, November 17, 2014

109. Review of SIDE SHOW (November 14, 2014)



I must admit to not being familiar with the original production of SIDE SHOW, which ran for only 91 performances on Broadway in 1997 yet became a cult favorite waiting in the wings for someone to revisit, revise, and revive it. That moment has come, and Broadway audiences will surely welcome with open arms this fascinating, lyrical, and deeply touching show set during the Depression in the world of carny freaks and geeks. If you’ve ever seen Tod Browning’s 1932 movie FREAKS, you’ll recognize the world of SIDE SHOW, especially since the Siamese twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, who appear in the film, are the musical’s subject. The show’s punning title plays off both the medium in which they first drew attention and the anatomical anomaly that made them famous.
SIDE SHOW is loosely based on the twins’ lives, which also were musicalized in TWENTY FINGERS TWENTY TOES (1989), an Off Broadway show that ran for 35 performances. BOUND BY FLESH, a well-received documentary film by Leslie Zemeckis appeared in 2012, and, of course, there’s a biography, Jensen, Dean’s The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins (2006). But the ultimate memorial to the momentarily successful but tragically sad lives of these conjoined freak show and vaudeville entertainers—who were born in 1908 and died in poverty of the Hong Kong flu in 1969—is SIDE SHOW, greatly revised from Bill Russell’s original book by Russell and film director/screenwriter Bill Condon (DREAMGIRLS). Condon also directed this splendid revival, now at the St. James Theatre after premiering at the La Jolla Playhouse and then being further refined at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Reimagined Revival of SIDE SHOW Opens Tonight on Broadway
From left: Emily Padgett, Erin Davie. Photo: Joan Marcus.

SIDE SHOW’s songs, with lyrics by Russell and music by Henry Krieger (including many new numbers and the omission of several earlier ones), range from the tuneful to the infectiously rhythmic to the emotionally affecting to the vocally soaring. The two best, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You,” retained from the 1997 score, are guaranteed to turn your eye faucets on. The first of them ends Act 1; when the lights came up, not only were salty streams rolling down my cheeks, the same was true of many others who were digging in their pockets and purses for something to staunch the flow. The spigots are opened once again when the twins sing the second number, late in Act 2.
Company of SIDE SHOW. Center (striped jacket): Robert Joy. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The book, which covers the twins’ lives up through the Depression, when they become vaudeville stars, is in the manner of a musical biodrama, using flashbacks to fill in the story of how the English-born girls were handed over by their unfeeling Auntie (Blair Ross) to a side show operator who took control of their lives. Called Sir (Robert Joy, excellent), this Cockney manipulator opens the show with the sensational “Look at the Freaks,” which introduces his American sideshow, peopled with all sorts of odd specimens, including a 3-Legged Man (Brandon Bieber), a Fortune Teller (Charity Angel Dawson), a Venus di Milo (Lauren Elder), a Dog Boy (Javier Ignacio), a Half Man/Half Woman (Kelvin Moon Loh), a Human Pin Cushion (Barrett Martin), a Lizard Man (Don Richard), a Bearded Lady (Blair Ross), a Tattoo Girl (Hannah Shankman), the Female and Male Cossack dwarfs (Josh Walker and Jordanna James), and a Geek (Matthew Patrick Davis), the latter being a tall, spindly creature with huge knees, an oversized head, and protruding ears. The actors playing the freaks form an ensemble allowing most of them to play multiple roles. (The 1997 production, I’ve learned, eschewed the realistic presentation of the freaks, relying instead on postures and attitudes to suggest their deformities.)
The makeup and, especially, the freaks’ masks (the exceptional work of Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey), create an indelible impression. It’s only when the actors come out carrying their masks during the curtain calls that it becomes clear how their physiognomies were created. Their costumes, by Paul Tazewell, are also brilliant, but so are those worn by all the other characters, including the gorgeous dresses and gowns donned by the twins once their careers take off. Mr. Tazewell’s costumes are sure to be in the running for awards when the season ends.
David Rockwell’s imaginative sets, often using false prosceniums, create the perfect theatrical ambience for telling the story, while Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s innovative lighting couldn’t better complement the other visual elements. Anthony Van Laast’s sparkling choreography, much of it designed to allow the twins to dance in tandem, provides additional visual appeal, while conductor Sam Davis’s arrangements and Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations for the 15-member orchestra make listening a continual pleasure.
Violet and Daisy are portrayed, respectively, by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett with physical finesse, comedic charm, heartbreaking sincerity, infinite grace, and lovely soprano voices possessing just the right difference in timbres. Having to perform in costumes that, using hidden magnets, join them at the hip, can’t be easy, but they’ve brilliantly mastered both the movements they must do in planned synchronicity and those that require them to pull against one another when their individual wills struggle for supremacy. Makeup and wigs do their best to make them as identical as possible, even though photos of the actual Hiltons show them as looking rather different from one another. In fact, as their careers advanced they tried to look like individuals, with different clothing and hair coloring, but SIDE SHOW makes no effort to suggest anything other than their striking resemblance.
The sisters’ personality differences, of course, provide much of the dramatic interest, with Daisy being ambitious and sexually curious, for example, while Violet, who would prefer a typical home life, is more constrained. Whatever their friction, the sisters strive valiantly against all odds to overcome other people’s discomfort and curiosity, to be treated as normal, and to fully accept themselves as human beings. [Note: John F. Weiner, a careful reader, tells me that in the original version of this review I’d gotten the twins’ personalities mixed up. The error has now been corrected. Thanks, John]
The plot introduces love interests in the form of a handsome press agent named Terry (Ryan Silverman, very good), and a song-and-dance man named Buddy (Matthew Hydzik, fine). Terry, who falls for Daisy, wants to help the twins’ careers (and his own pocketbook) by freeing the girls from virtual bondage to Sir and signing them to a contract on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Buddy eventually agrees to marry Violet in a publicity-generating public ceremony. Self-interest on the part of one and sexual ambivalence on that of the other, however, lead these men to disappoint the twins. Complicating matters is Jake (David St. Louis, outstanding), the African-American former carny worker who serves the women as an assistant and who also loves Violet, but whose race creates potential problems. The show doesn’t shy away from speculation on the sexual possibilities marriage to a conjoined twin might entail, and a delightful number called “One plus One Equals Three” nicely satirizes the issue. Silverman and St. Louis have standout songs, the former with the exquisite “A Private Conversation” in a dream sequence, the latter demonstrating his powerful baritone in the potent “You Should Be Loved.”
Despite its title, SIDE SHOW definitely belongs on the Main Stem, and deserves a long run as a work that, as the song says, will never leave you.

St. James Theatre
246 W. 44th Street
Opens: November 17, 2014







108. Review of THE ERLKINGS (November 16, 2014)


For my review of THE ERLKINGS, please visit THEATER PIZZAZZ at: