Friday, May 29, 2015

16 (2015-2016): Review of THE WAY WE GET BY (seen May 27, 2015)

"Just Manages to Get By"
Stars range from 5-1.
Add caption

For my review of THE WAY WE GET BY, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

15 (2015-2016): Review of PERMISSION (seen May 26, 2015)

"Taking the Lord's Name in Pain"
Stars range from 5-1.

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

Sunday, May 24, 2015

14 (2015-2016): Review of DON JUAN (seen May 21, 2015)

"The Original Sexy Beast"
Stars range from 5-1.

Justin Adams. Photo: Russ Rowland.
For my review of DON JUAN, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

13 (2015-2016): Review of THE SOUND AND THE FURY (seen May 17, 2015)

"A Tale Told by an Idiot"
Stars range from 5-1.
For my review of THE SOUND AND THE FURY, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

12 (2015-2016): Review of NEW COUNTRY (seen May 19, 2015)

 "Nasty in Nashville"

Stars range from 5-1.
For my review of NEW COUNTRY, see THEATER PIZZAZZ.

David Lind. Photo: Clay Anderson.
Malcolm Madera, David Lind. Photo: Clay Anderson.
 Wanda, Mark Roberts. Photo: Clay Anderson

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

11 (2015-2016): Review of TUESDAYS AT TESCO'S (seen on May 16, 2015)

"He Feels Pretty"
Stars range from 5-1.
Simon Callow* is one of those classically trained British actors whose little finger knows more about acting than most thespians do in their entire bodies. He’s now putting that knowledge to work in this slim but performance-challenging monodrama (supplemented by an onstage pianist, Conor Mitchell), in which he plays a transgendered woman called Pauline (formerly Paul). He wears a limp blonde wig, an unflattering beige outfit, turquoise high heels, turquoise earrings, a turquoise cinch belt, and a red-orange blouse offering a touch of décolletage; nonetheless, the decidedly thickening, masculine-featured 65-year-old star speaks in what is surely one of the theatre’s most posh and plummy baritones.

Meanwhile, Mr. Callow infuses his movements with essential but not overly campy femininity; the contrast between his indisputable maleness and his slightly awkward female behavior at first seems silly, in the manner of a Hasty Pudding drag performance, yet Pauline inspires not so much laughs but sympathy for the pathos of her dilemma. Since this is a drama in which Pauline tells her story more or less straightforwardly, Mr. Callow changes his voice to capture the other people she introduces. Most notably, we hear Pauline's irascible father, Andrew, speaking in a working class growl, spitting out his exclamations of “Pity’s sake” from Mr. Callow’s scrunched up mouth, shoved, like Popeye’s, nearly over to his ear.
Simon Callow, Colin Mitchell (right). Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The play, adapted and translated by Matthew Hurt and Sarah Vermande from a popular French original by Emmanuel Darley, LE MARDI À MONOPRIX, was originally seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2011, and is now visiting New York as part of the 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway festival. For most of its 75 intermissionless minutes, we watch Pauline talk about and demonstrate her concern for the recently widowed, aging, self-centered Andrew, who finds it impossible to overcome his discomfort with his child's transformation. So hard is it for Pauline to break through his formidable defenses that we might even wonder why she goes to so much trouble, giving him all her time every Tuesday to clean his flat and take him shopping at Tesco’s, a leading British supermarket chain. But Pauline, desperate for his acceptance, deeply cares for and worries about Andrew, just as she worries about all the perceived slights she sustains from others when out with him in public, while seeking in even the most casual expression of friendliness a token of approval.
Simon Callow. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Darley’s script, at least in translation, is written in nearly unpunctuated prose, and with constant “He says” and “I say” before whatever it is that “he” or “I” says. As Pauline moves freely around under Simon Stokes’s direction, she informs us of her weekly routine, talks about her unease at visiting the places in which she grew up, and mentions how shocked her folks were when she first appeared before them as “me as I am now.” She describes how her dad finds it difficult to call her Pauline; recalls when she first felt the little girl inside her; talks of how, when they go shopping, Andrew keeps a distance between them, as if to disassociate himself from his so obviously different offspring; conveys how painful it is for her father, who even remarks about Pauline's stubble, to see in her only his former son and not his present daughter; notes the way others relate to her, both those who see her as something of a freak and those who barely acknowledge her presence; and, among other things, insists on her need to claim herself as a woman.
Simon Callow. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Aside from a surprise ending that seems unearned and needlessly melodramatic, TUESDAYS AT TESCO’S has very little in the way of drama; it’s essentially an ordinary litany of Pauline’s poignant complaints about her dad’s failure to accept her and the boredom of her care-taking responsibilities, but it’s enough to inspire a performance that seems to find multiple nuances in every sentence. Mr. Callow’s acting is musical in the way he finds the rhythms and melodic patterns in the dialogue, which sometimes has a Beckettian feel to it; he even breaks into bits of dance (tango, flamenco, simulated tap, etc.) to highlight his sudden outbursts of feeling (Quinny Sacks is credited as the movement director). If he were a piano he’d be using 88 keys.

There is actually a piano present, an old upright with its innards revealed, played by the ever-present Mr. Mitchell, who stands or sits at it, with pages of music splayed across its top and a metronome that is even set to ticking; although the reason for his distracting presence escapes me, Mr. Mitchell's affect is of a composer writing the incidental music inserted in the action as it proceeds. He and Mr. Callow perform within a large, slender hoop suspended like a ring of Saturn from above to encircle the acting space, a pink dress hanging upstage from a leafless branch (neither of which is ever referred to), with the principal furniture being an upholstered arm chair. Robin Don is responsible for both the set and costumes, with Chahine Yavroyan providing the nicely varied lighting.

Simon Callow is a uniquely gifted actor, and he's enough of a reason to see this play. TUESDAYS AT TESCO'S is dark on Mondays, but you can catch it any other day of the week.

Full disclosure: I’ve had a sporadic correspondence with Simon Callow since the early 1990s, and interviewed him in his London home in 1993. See Margaret Sullivan, "For Reviewers, How Close is Too Close?" Sunday Review, New York Times, May 17, 2015.  

59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street, NYC
Through June 7

Monday, May 18, 2015

10 (2015-2016): Review of WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER (seen May 14, 2015)

"Good to be Alive in the Summer of '45"
For my review of A.R. Gurney's WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG

Sunday, May 17, 2015

9 (2014-2015): Review of NEW AND TRADITIONAL NOH (seen May 15, 2015)

"Noh News Is Good News"
Stars range from 5-1.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, in commemoration of which the Japan Society thoughtfully programmed three theatrical presentations on the theme of “Stories of War.” The third and final one, given three showings at the Japan Society this weekend, from May 14 to May 16, was of two noh plays, KIYOTSUNE, a traditional one dating from the 14th century, and a modern one, HOLY MOTHER IN NAGASAKI, first staged in 2005.  

Few world theatre forms are as capable as noh at embodying solemnity and spirituality. Noh is one of Japan’s four principal forms of traditional theatre, the others being kyōgen, kabuki, and bunraku. It took its essential form in the 14th and 15th centuries, and became the favored ceremonial theatre of the samurai class during the Edo period (1603-1868). It is a serious, highly formalized style of theatre, often dealing with Buddhist themes of life’s transience and the search for spiritual salvation. Kyōgen, which came into existence around the same time as noh, is a mostly comic form of theatre that, traditionally, was performed between noh plays on a multiplay program. Many noh plays include a kyōgen character who speaks in a more colloquial language than the highly formalized one of the leading personages. Kabuki and bunraku are popular types of theatre that arose at the turn of the 17th century and were attended mainly by urban commoners. Their plays often show the influence of noh and kyōgen.

Noh is performed on specially designed wooden stages (either indoors or out), with the audience seated on two sides; they employ specific features, such as four pillars that support a gabled roof, a long bridgeway leading from the upstage right corner to offstage, and a back wall on which is painted the image of a pine tree. When touring abroad, modifications must be made; thus the Japan Society performances are on a proscenium stage backed and bordered by black drapes; the pillars marking the borders of the acting area are abbreviated in size and serve mainly as markers, and a low wooden border upstage left suggests where a conventional bridgeway would be.

Noh plays are always accompanied by an onstage chorus seated in two rows at stage left; typically, the chorus has eight singers, but for this tour only six are used. Such adjustments are normal and barely affect the quality of the work.
KIYOTSUNE. Shimizu Kanji. Photo: Julie Lemberger.
KIYOTSUNE, which opened the program, is the work of the master actor-theorist-playwright Zeami Motokiyo (1363?-1443?) and belongs to the second of the five groups into which classical noh plays are divided. These plays are often called shura (or asura) noh because they deal with samurai who fell in battle and are suffering in the Buddhist hell called shura. The principal character is usually a ghost who appears in his living form to a priest at the scene of the battle in which he died. He then leaves and returns as his ghostly self to describe the torments he’s experiencing in hell and to seek salvation.

In KIYOTSUNE, however, which takes its name from its principal character, an actual historical figure, the ghost of Kiyotsune (Shimizu Kanji) appears in the dream of his widow (Tanimoto Kengo). KIYOTSUNE has several interesting anomalous features for a second group play; aside from noting that there is no priest involved and that the play is in a single act, not two, we can skip them here and simply observe that Kiyotsune, a general in the once all-powerful Heike clan  (rivals of the Minamoto clan), while engaged in the Battle of Tsukushi, chose to commit suicide by drowning rather than allow himself to be killed or captured by the lowly enemy. When his wife learns of how he died, from a retainer (Tonoda Kenkichi) who brings her a lock of his hair as a keepsake, she is both sad and angry, the latter because she would have preferred that he died in battle or from illness, not by suicide. She falls asleep and Kiyotsune appears in her dream, where they bicker, both over the manner of his death and her rejection of his keepsake; he had left it to console her but all it did was increase her anguish. He sings and dances the story of his death and why he acted as he did. Finally, after recounting the pains of hell, he finds salvation in the Western Paradise.
HOLY MOTHER IN NAGASAKI. Shimizu Kanji. Photo: Julie Lemberger.
The modern play, HOLY MOTHER IN NAGASAKI, by the late Dr. Tada Tomio (1934-2010), a respected immunologist, is one of two he wrote focused on the atomic bombing of Japan (the other was about Hiroshima). Although there are roughly 250 plays in the traditional repertory, many more were written that fell by the wayside. In the 20th century, a movement to write new noh (and kyōgen) plays took root, and even Westerners attempted to write such plays of their own, with subjects as diverse as Martin Luther King, Jr., Saint Francis of Assisi, and the Japanese naval dead of World War II. Many modern noh plays are based on the materials and methods of classical noh, and others use traditional materials but treat them with a modern touch, while others take their themes and materials from modern subjects and/or foreign sources. Among the best-known modern noh plays is 1991's controversial THE WELL OF LONELINESS (Mumyō no I), also by Dr. Tada, about brain death and a heart transplant, while others have adapted Shakespeare’s plays, like OTHELLO, MACBETH, and HAMLET to the noh style.

HOLY MOTHER IN NAGASAKI (Nagasaki no Seibo) was inspired by the August 9, 1945, atomic bombing of Nagasaki, among whose destroyed buildings was the Urakami Cathedral. Nagasaki has long been the center of Japanese Catholicism. The play’s 2005 premiere was at the rebuilt cathedral, where many parishioners were killed by the bomb while at mass. Shimizu Kanji played the Virgin Mary in that and subsequent productions, just as he did in this one at the Japan Society.

The play is, in part, a history lesson about the Urakami Christians, who had to go into hiding after Japan banned Christianity in the early 17th century but who were once more allowed to practice their religion in 1873. It is also a requiem for those killed in 1945 and a soulful, prayer for world peace and nuclear disarmament. It imagines a pilgrim (Tonoda Kenkichi) arriving at the cathedral, where he expresses regret for the sufferings of the Urakami Christians, whose souls he wishes to comfort, and learns from priest (Ogasawara Tadashi) the details of the bombing. The priest, much like “the man of the place,” a conventional character in many noh plays performed by a kyōgen actor, describes the horrors of that fateful day, recalling a mysterious woman (Mr. Shimizu) who appeared in the evening to care for the injured and dying. She, it was assumed, must have been the Virgin Mary.

HOLY MOTHER IN NAGASAKI has most of the trappings of a noh play: its language is in the archaic, premodern noh style (except for the priest’s kyōgen-like vernacular); it uses a chorus (although not as extensively as a standard noh play); and there’s a four-piece noh orchestra upstage (KIYOTSUNE uses only three musicians). The scenery is limited to a simple, fabric-covered platform, a large but simple crucifix hanging on the upstage wall, and two electrified standing lamps resembling candle holders. Costumes, apart from the priest, who wears a black cassock, are in the 14th-century mode, and the Virgin Mary--dressed in a striking red robe, embroidered in gold--wears both the noh mask of a young woman and a wig of flowing black hair. One might argue that there’s a disconnect between the modern and traditional elements of language and costuming, but the effect is insignificant.

Adding to the spiritual atmosphere at  this production was the deeply moving use of Gregorian chant, sung from the rear of the theatre at the beginning and end by the all-female Choir of the Church of St. Francis Xaviar, New York City, conducted by John Uehlein. 

Both plays were performed in Japanese with English subtitles flashed on projection screens at either side of the stage.

Japan Society
333 East 47th Street, NYC
May 14-16

Thursday, May 14, 2015

8 (2015-2016): BROADWAY BY THE YEAR 1966-1990 (seen May 11)

"A Birdseye View of Broadway Musical History"

For my report on BROADWAY BY THE YEAR 1966-1990, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

7 (2015-2016): Review of ONE HAND CLAPPING (seen on May 12, 2015)

"Two Hands Clapping"
Stars range from 5-1.
Before you can take your seat at the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters you have to pass the small stage on which, sitting on a red leather-covered trunk, is a pretty blonde, smartly dressed (costumes are by Meriel Pym) in late 50s style, mink coat and all. This is Janet Shirley (Eve Burley), the heroine of Anthony Burgess’s ONE HAND CLAPPING, a 1961 satirical British novel newly adapted and directed for the stage by Lucia Cox and now visiting New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. The production was originally given by the House of Orphans in Manchester, UK.

 Janet’s in a room whose floral wallpaper (the set is also by Ms. Pym) suggests provincial middle-class domesticity; there’s a period TV in the room, but a surreal touch is added by three additional small-screen sets placed on the set’s periphery. Each of the latter is practical and made much use of during the performance, especially for showing vintage commercials that underline the play’s anti-consumerist theme. 

As the house lights dim, Janet (who often speaks directly to us) introduces herself, rattling on in a rapidly paced, relentlessly perky, regional accent (which took me a few minutes to grasp). She says she’s going to tell us her story, noting, “Whether you believe it or not is your business and not mine.” We're told she was 23 and her husband, Howard (Oliver Devoti), 27, when the story, which seems to be a few years in the past, took place.
Eve Burley. Photo: Emma Phillipson.
In the story, Howard, a used-car salesman, has an all-encompassing dread about the possibilities of nuclear annihilation and a psychopathic cynicism about modernization, consumerism, and the Americanization of England. He therefore decides to take advantage of his “photographic brain,” which he’s actually ashamed of because he didn’t earn the knowledge it gives him the way a scholar might have. He wins 1,000 pounds on a TV quiz show and then trains himself to read the future about a horse race, raising his winnings to 79,000 pounds. Clearly bonkers by now, his plan is to spend the money on all the luxuries he and Janet can enjoy within a month and then “snuff” their lives out on her birthday as a protest against modern civilization. As he declares, “When all’s said and done, there’s not all that much to live for, is there?”
Oliver Devoti. Photo: Emma Phillipson. 
Janet, however, despite the jewels, furs, wine, fine food, and travel the money has been providing (including a trip across America), is content to live her simple life—stocking groceries at the supermarket, sitting by the fire, watching the telly, drinking tea, cooking meals of fish sticks and ketchup—and isn’t so ready to go gentle into that good night. As the play nears its humorously macabre conclusion (like an episode on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”), we understand why its storyteller was seated as she was when the play began, and what it is that’s inside the camphorwood trunk on which she’s sitting.
Oliver Devoti. Photo: Emma Phillipson.
Ms. Cox’s compact, 80-minute, one-act version of Burgess’s novel moves swiftly under her direction, with the actors performing with comically heightened behavior to highlight the play’s semi-absurdist style. The adorably attractive Ms. Burley is all bright-eyed and bushytailed in playing Janet’s directness and enthusiasm, while Mr. Devoti’s Howard makes a perfect foil, seeming to be almost robotically programmed and emotionally distant. As the host of the TV show on which Howard appears, Adam Urey is amusingly over-unctuous, while his portrayal of a preening poet whom Howard patronizes is appropriately energetic.
Adam Urey. Photo: Emma Phillipson. 

The play’s title, a phrase from a Zen koan (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”), is also the name of a play Janet and Howard attend in London because Howard read that it deals “with the decay and decadence in the world about us.” Howard observes that using one’s imagination when pondering “one hand clapping” is “supposed to be a way of getting to God.” I can’t vouch for that, but when ONE HAND CLAPPING ended last night, I responded with the sound of two hands clapping.
Eve Burley, Oliver Devoti. Photo: Emma Phillipson.
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59 Street, NYC
Through May 31

Monday, May 11, 2015

6 (2015-2016): Review of THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK (seen on May 7, 2015)

"The Eyes Have It"
Stars range from 5-1.

Athol Fugard, the world-renowned South African playwright-director-actor responsible for numerous plays depicting the travails of his native land, is back at the Signature Theatre, which has become his New York artistic home. After all, this is where, in 2012, he was the first to be honored with a season’s residency at the company’s new Pershing Square Theatre. Happily, Mr. Fugard, who’ll be 83 next month, remains a commanding writer, as demonstrated by his latest effort, THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK, a persuasive, touching two-act play commissioned by the Signature and now being given its world premiere. Although not, perhaps, on the level of his greatest works, like SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD, THE ISLAND, A LESSON FROM ALOES, or THE ROAD TO MECCA, it’s nevertheless compelling and thoughtful; it’s also getting a damned good performance.
The play is inspired by Nukain Mabusa, whom Mr. Fugard refers to as an Outside Artist, which he describes in an interview “as someone who has created something significant or beautiful with no formal training in any artistic discipline.” Mr. Mabusa was a farm laborer who, during the years between the mid-1960s and 1980, painted striking geometric images on the rocks and boulders near his hut. Mr. Fugard, who’s proud to consider himself part of the same brotherhood of Outsider Artists, isn’t writing an historical documentary, however, but a work of fiction in which the forgotten artist comes to stand for something greater than his own life and work.
The first act is set in 1981 and, at first, focuses on the old, black farmhand and artist Nukain (Leon Addison Brown), and Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin), a cheeky 11-year-old black boy who idolizes him, affectionately calling him Tata (a term of respect for an older man)* and helping him paint the rocks at Revolver Creek, Mpumalanga Province. Their easel is a hill of dry red dirt with outcroppings of many already painted rocks and boulders (marvelously designed by Christopher H. Barreca and lit by Stephen Strawbridge). Dominating the stage at center by a huge boulder whose broad face has not yet been adorned, and which it is Nukain’s goal to paint before he dies.
Tata, struggling for inspiration before he can paint, discourses on his art and offers words of wisdom to the adoring child, including the advice to save the soles on his shoes by tying them together and wearing them around his neck. When Tata is finally ready, he says, "Give him eyes," and the pair, using an assortment of paint cans and brushes, sing and dance a Zulu song Tata has taught the boy as they paint the rock. As we watch there comes into view a striking, mask-like image, with two large, square eyes, a crude human figure where the nose might be, and long vertical lines suggesting teeth. This is intended to represent, in its abstract way, the artist’s story, a concept the little boy venerates. 
Their exaltation ends when the 40ish Afrikaner landowner, a woman named Elmarie (Bianca Amato), enters, bearing leftovers for them to eat. Elmarie, a pious Bible thumper wearing her Sunday church clothes and straw hat (the well-chosen costumes are by Susan Hilferty), appreciates the rock garden of “flowers” the old man has so assiduously created over the years, but she’s displeased with the face on the rock and insists it be washed away and replaced by a floral design. Bokkie is outraged at this threat to Tata’s “story,” and Elmarie orders Tata to use his belt to teach the boy how to behave.

Act two occurs twenty-two years later, in 2003, about a decade after the ending of apartheid. A black man in his early 30s appears on the red earth, wearing a white shirt, tie, dark slacks, carrying a backpack, and with his shoes tied together and hanging from his neck. The painted rocks have faded in the wind, sun, and rain, and the big face retains only faint remnants of what Bokkie and Tata painted years ago. The man is soon interrupted by Elmarie, now an angry, frightened, middle-aged woman. She's dressed in khaki pants and jacket, has a revolver in her hand, and shows every intention of using it.

The man is Jonathan (Sahr Ngaujah), the grown up Bokkie, now a schoolteacher, who had escaped to Zimbabwe; he’s come back to repaint the rock out of respect for Nukain. Even when she realizes who he is, Elmarie is furious about the intrusion. The political situation in South Africa has emboldened some blacks to use their new freedom to perform acts of of violence against Afrikaner farmers. Under the new constitution, Afrikaner landowners are permitted to keep their land, unlike Zimbabwe, where confiscation led to serious problems. Jonathan and Elmarie are each preoccupied with who truly owns the land, those who were here originally or those who expropriated and cultivated it to its present state. Jonathan warns that without mutual understanding, “our future will be as big a mess as anything in our past.” All of which leads back to Jonathan’s overwhelming need to restore Nukain’s painting, the symbol of his dignity and existence at a time when men such as he were ignored.

Mr. Fugard’s dramatic gifts, residing in his lyrical language and ability to encapsulate seething ideas in dramatic dialogue, allow him to take what’s essentially a slender dramatic situation and both capture and maintain your attention. Still, the play, which clocks in at a reasonable hour and 40 minutes, does sometimes slow down amid the writer’s love of words, and the play slides a bit too much into didactic talk when Elmarie and Jonathan discuss their nation's issues.

Under Mr. Fugard’s careful direction, the acting combines truth and honesty with close attention to the rhythms and sounds of the language; there's a touch of theatricality in the staging that often requires the actors to speak while looking out over the audience, as if gazing at land stretching to the horizon. Mr. Brown is splendid as the wise, gentle, humbly subservient Tata, while Mr. McLaughlin nearly steals the show as the spirited, intelligent child. Mr. Ngaujah is every inch the politically aware, sensitive, yet angry Jonathan, while Ms. Amato brings a rare combination of sincerity, vulnerability, and strength to the Afrikaner who must come to terms with the threat to the entitlement that constitutes her heritage.

*The program includes a glossary insert of the many South African words used in the script.
The Pershing Square Signature Theatre
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through June 7