Thursday, August 17, 2017

Back in the Pre-USSR, Natasha Pierre and plenty more

In May, I entered a Russian samovar or the interior of the Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street.  Onstage and everywhere, the Broadway production of Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 has transformed the theatre into Napoleonic era RussiaWhile I have nothing against Josh Groban, I chose to see Dave Malloy (who returns to the role next week) as Pierre while Mr. Groban took a well-deserved vacation.  It was a fabulous and exhilaratingly different evening.


Scenic Designer Mimi Lien redesigned the entire interior of the theatre to create the Russia of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”  Paloma Young’s costumes fit each character like a bespoke glove, accompanied by fitting hair and wig design by Leah J. Loukas. With the complementary arts of lighting (Bradley King) and sound design (Nicholas Pope), this production and the fabulous characters and atmosphere and social politics actually inspired me to once against attempt to read that hefty Tome.  Sam Pinkleton’s choreography took flight all around us and director Rachel Chavkin brought it all together in a wondrous whole.
a highly unusual seating chart

Dave Malloy, the composer, lyricist, book writer and orchestrator of the piece and originator of the role Pierre Off Broadway, has a gruff, bearlike demeanor and voice, and his Pierre was a grounding force in that extraordinary cast.  They are an athletic bunch, from leads to chorus and ensemble, moving among and around the audience at all levels.  This production has no second or third wall let alone a fourth.

After Malloy as Pierre (no, he hasn’t got Groban’s pipes, but his solid presence lends Pierre the gravitas he deserves) my favorite performer and his inseparable character was Lucas Steele as the roué and cad, Anatole, in a flamboyant performance as that despicable creature we adored.  Denée Benton's Natasha was a delightfully lusty and foolish ingenue with the voice of an angel, whose best friend Sonya was well played by Brittain AshfordAmber Gray is marvelous as Pierre’s wicked wife Hélène.  There is no weak link in this astounding cast.

Denee Benton as Natasha
And the music.  It soars it sings it dances it bounces it pines it weeps.  Mr. Malloy is sensitive to every nuance, multi-talented, capturing the flavor and rhythms of Russia in a very American musical.

I don’t generally care for environmental theatre after a day of working —I do not want to work as audience as well.  But the ensemble of Natasha Pierre…. are psychic — they knew instinctively which audience members just want to sit and enjoy the experience and which want to take part.  They left me alone but sat on the step next to me.


I cannot say too much about this production of this wonderful musical play.  I absolutely loved it and recommend it to all and sundry.  Go.  Bring your in-laws.  Soon.  It closes September 3, 2017!


~ Molly Matera, signing off to listen to the score in peace….not war





Sunday, August 13, 2017

What I Did Those Missing Months of 2017...

It has been brought to my attention that I’ve not posted anything — about cats or gardens or theatre, nada — in months.  Apologies.  I’m here, my cats are here, my garden is growing, and I’ve seen a number of plays and dance programs and such in New York City in the past six months. 

To catch you up, in January I saw….

Beauty Queen of Leenane at BAM
This was Martin McDonagh’s first produced play, which played in Europe and Broadway twenty years ago, directed then and now by Garry Hynes.  I did not see it then.  The first McDonagh play I saw was The Lieutenant of Inishmore, one of the funniest, most macabre and bloody plays I’ve ever seen.  And, I believe, the play that taught me the word “fecking.”

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is hard to describe: it’s dour and depressing and dismal.  People are mean, and yet a lot of it comes out funny.  That’s what McDonagh does, he makes you laugh and feel guilty for laughing.  As a McDonagh play, I expected some violence, and pretty crazy people, which he provided.

The second act was directed to run so slowly that all the echoes of Act I that may have been fabulous from a literary point of view were totally predictable theatrically, which is annoying and made the act very long.  Mind you, when we got to the big reveal, it was astonishing, and Aisling O'Sullivan, who played Maureen, was just marvelous.  As was the woman who played Maureen twenty years ago, who plays the mother this time around, Marie Mullen

While I enjoyed most of it, I did get bored during the second half and overall was rather disappointed. 



In February, I went to Carnegie Hall and enjoyed
Bamberg Symphony.  It was just wonderful, I so enjoy being at Carnegie Hall.  In the first half, the solo violinist did a little “Caprice” as a sort of encore (after he snapped his bowstring and had to borrow a bow from the First Violin), and at the end of the second half the orchestra did a brief encore as well. The sound is awe-inspiring in this magnificent place.  The program was Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and finally Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.  A lovely evening.


Then came Man of Good Hope at the BAM Opera House (from South Africa’s Isango Ensemble and Young Vic, based on a book by Jonny Steinberg and directed by Mark Dornford-May).  The evening began with a bang as the full cast played half a dozen marimbas joyously, then ran around the steeply raked stage trading places. The audience, wide awake, left their dull days behind.

The conductor stepped on to the playing space with a tall man in traditional Somali garments and white skull cap.  This was Assad Abdullahi, whose story we followed for two hours, from the age of 8 in Somalia when his mother was murdered in front of him, traveling across borders throughout Africa with different groups until he ended up in Capetown, South Africa, in his adult life.

Performances were marvelous across the board.  While the singing and dancing were uplifting, the play needs cutting so as not to bludgeon the audience.  We saw refugees treated like refuse, beaten, killed, driven away.  Terrifying.  The pounding of the repeated indignities visited on the main character and his family and friends, while the audience was shocked and appalled, that same pattern, over and over, does beat the audience into shutting down. The unvarying story of misery: attack, move on, find clan, family, even a wife, lose them:  In a life, this is all devastating.  An audience (at least an American audience) will turn off with the repetition.  All in all, an exciting and memorable piece of work.



The last February theatre outing was to BAM for
Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill, from London’s Royal Court Theatre, well directed by James McDonald.  Odd, interesting, often funny, almost Pinteresque.  Beckettesque?  Excellent performances by Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, June Watson.  It appears to be, perhaps, the end of the world, and four women sit in a back garden talking about ordinary things, ordinary life, and some unusual bits as well. This idyllic scene is interrupted by Ms. Basset’s character, Mrs. Jarrett, stepping to one side as the curtain falls to show garish screens of horror. She tells stories about the first days, the third weeks, how humanity survives whatever it is we’ve done to ourselves.  Then she’s back in the garden. Which is the real world?

This pattern repeats -- garden, chat, the horrors of the after....apocalypse?  WWIII?   garden chat, horrors, garden chat....Four women on a nice summer afternoon.  Maybe.

Escaped Alone is hilarious, frightening, and more than worth your time if it shows up at a theatre near you.



March was busy, starting with
Joan of Arc: Into the Fire at the Public Theater.  This was, at best, disappointing.  Its 95 minutes felt like more than 2 hours.  The absurdity of a teenage girl with religious mania singing about “freedom” in the 15th century started the evening off badly.  The good news is that the woman who played Joan was fabulous:  Jo Lampert.  See her, hear her do anything.  David Byrne’s music was uninspired and his lyrics were simplistic and puerile.  Effects were great.  They burned her at the stake.  Onstage.  Unfortunately, this extraordinary visual was destroyed because the play wasn’t over.  There was one more tedious scene, which took place 24 years after Joan’s death when her mother (played by Mare Winningham) goes to the cardinals and bishops to plead for Joan to be retried and found innocent so she can go to heaven where she belongs.  Dull final scene with a remarkably dull song with eight guys looking at her dumbly.  Dreadful.

Just remember the name Jo Lampert.



Latin History for Morons at the Public was pointless. Even its 90 minutes were too long.


A gift of a production of The Skin of Our Teeth, written by Thornton Wilder in 1942, at Theatre for a New Audience was delightful and imaginative.  Director Arin Arbus captured the madness in the wild crazy funny evening at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, imaginatively enlivened by excellent music.  Mary Wiseman was a marvelous Sabina. A great time was had by all.

One flaw by TFANA of which I must disapprove – something my friend experienced recently at the Guthrie – the program listed performers NOT in order of appearance but in alphabetical order by their last names.  Not helpful to a curious audience member and not respectful to the performers and musicians.



The Play That Goes Wrong played at the Lyceum.  It is hilarious, ridiculous, tight, well-staged (though marred by some visibility problems due to the transfer of venue from its original London home). The Play That Goes Wrong written so well by Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, and Jonathan Sayer that I could not believe it was written at all, was directed by Mark Bells and is about set pieces breaking, actors doing or not doing things at the wrong times in the wrong places, and tech crew interacting with the audience.  Every actor’s nightmare (except being nude) came alive in wakefulness.  I laughed hard for the whole play. Some people thought it was a poor man’s version of Noises Off, but they must have been grumpy at the time.  Just laugh.



Linda by Penelope Skinner at the Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, directed by Lynne Meadow.  Set in the beauty industry, it follows the disappointment of a woman who fought for female equality in her career, sacrificing family relationships without even noticing, only to find after two decades that nothing changed.  Interesting and depressing. Wonderful performance by Janie Dee as Linda, and the entire cast.  A thought-provoking evening.



Sweat by Lynn Nottage moved from the Public Theatre to Studio 54 where I saw it after it had won the Pulitzer Prize.  The play was exciting, poignant, topical.  Sweat has a chuckle or two because human beings are funny, but it is depressing as all hell.  Brilliantly acted, it is Theatre that Holds a Mirror Up to Society and is consequently infuriating, sad, and damn good. 

The play’s action starts in 2008 and goes back to 2000 so we know how everyone got here. It’s a slow build.  The actual, single “incident” that changed everybody’s lives happens more than halfway through Act 2.  An incident of some sort has been expected since the beginning of the first act.  It raises far more questions than it answers because life is not simple with heroes and villains, black and white, or linear action.  The play is riveting, important, stimulating, and so well acted that I was really angry and almost shouted back on occasion.  Very tight cast and excellent direction by Kate Whoriskey.



Pacific Overtures @ Classic Stage Company was wonderful. Never having seen the original, I was not bothered by the differences — the traditional all-male cast was augmented by one woman, and the play was edited to run 90 minutes with no intermission.  Soaring voices told a fascinating, little known story.  The narrator sounded just like George Takei, and then there he was, onstage!  That was oddly thrilling.  Very glad to have experienced this play live, and now I understand and love the songs much better than I had just listening to a Sondheim album.




Well, that’s quite enough after months of nothing.  Next week:  May, June and July.  Promise.

Signing off to write the next batch….


Molly Matera, 13 August 2017

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Elements of "Orange Julius"

Last Wednesday night, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater & Page 73 presented the New York Premiere of “Orange Julius” by Basil Kreimendahl as directed by Dustin Wills.

At the end of 90 minutes of fine acting by the small cast on the compact stage, I asked myself, “What was that play about?” 

Orange Julius” has many elements.

The five-person cast was fabulous, particularly Stephen Payne as Julius and Mary Testa as his long-suffering wife France — I do not recall ever hearing her name, but that was her name according to the program.  Of course, it was his name that was important:  Naming a Vietnam vet “Julius” allowed him to make a joke about Orange Julius while linking his name with Agent Orange.

Mr. Payne and Ms. Testa played with utter naturalness, creating organically grown and shaped and developed characters in beautifully textured performances.

Their children were called “Nut” (played by Jess Barbagallo) and “Crimp” ( played by Irene Sofia Lucio).  The first time we see her she’s crimping her hair and threatening to crimp that of her little sister.  These two have a lovely sibling rivalry, taunting, teasing, helping one another.  A real relationship on paper, although a real connection between Mr. Barbagallo and Ms Lucio seemed lacking. 
 
In rehearsal:  Stephen Payne and Jess Barbagallo (Photo Credit:  Bruce Cohen)
The play takes place in the family garage, which sometimes seems to play a living room, sometimes a car, and, when the garage door is open, Vietnam.  Kate Noll’s set design was simple and clear, evoking a time, an economic class, a trap.

Montana Levi Blanco’s costume design was excellent — every person was wearing clothes befitting the character. That’s good costume design, to be essentially unnoticed.  The small space was well lit by Barbara Samuels and the sound by Palmer Hefferan was effective.  Director Dustin Wills’ staging used the tight quarters to excellent advantage.

The play begins in the 1980s, told in flashbacks by an ever-present onstage narrator — Nut — who talks way too much and is not quite reliable.  She — or he — is earnest, but memory is not fact, as noted when Nut says he was 7, 9, or 8.  Later she was 12, or 10 or 13. 

Nut is of small stature.  While referred to throughout as a girl, a daughter, a sister, Nut is played by a male.  Nut speaks of wanting to go through a past life regression, to the audience, and to his mother when still pre-pubescent.  Is this play Nut’s past life regression?  The confusion is not clearly settled (perhaps not for Nut either), even when Nut’s older sister offers him/her a training bra.  Nut at some point was a girl, but enters the Vietnam scene clearly as a male. 

Nut is simultaneously engaging and annoying.  Sister “Crimp” is sometimes mean or angry, always the epitome of a big sister bestowing wisdom and love on her younger sister, Nut.  At least one character is missing, a brother referenced in several scenes but never seen.  Is he dead?  Is he in a hippie commune feuding with his Vietnam vet father?  There’s a story left untold.  Not every story need be told, yet the missing brother nagged at me and held my interest longer than Nut did.  Because Nut is telling the story, it’s an awful lot about him/her when it is Julius and Mary who are the most interesting characters.

Back to my original question:  What is this play about?  What point is playwright Kreimendahl trying to make?

ەThe effect of war on the next generation?

ەThe aftermath of science used for evil (i.e., Agent Orange)?

Possible fact:  Julius went to war, was attacked by American military industrial complex and fatally poisoned with Agent Orange.  It was vile from the very beginning and it took decades to kill, but kill it did, via multiple cancers.

Not quite possible fact:  Nut says that in Vietnam, a girl was born the same day he was and her father too had been poisoned with Agent Orange.  The Vietnamese father was dead and the girl was born with bulging eyes that could never close. 

Is that true?  How could Nut know that?  We only know what Nut tells us, shows us, but we readily believe that Julius was poisoned with Agent Orange and died a slow death psychologically and physically.  Therefore, should it not follow that we believe that a girl was born in Vietnam the same day Nut was, with a birth defect, possibly connected to the poisoning of her father with Agent Orange.

ەIs the play about the nature of Self?  Of Truth?
 
In rehearsal:  Director Dustin Wills and Ruy Iskandar (Photo Credit: Bruce Cohen)
There are many flashbacks to Vietnam played beyond the open garage door with Julius and the angry foulmouthed soldier “Ol’ Boy” (only named in the program), well played by Ruy Iskandar. Julius and “Ol Boy” are there, but so is “Nut.”  Or at least the actor is.  Was his “past life” self there, is he playing someone else, is he playing his father?  But Julius was in the same scenes.  It’s not that they weren’t good compact little scenes.  It’s that they didn’t make much sense as a part of the whole.  Is this Nut in his memories of another life?  Has this character in Vietnam anything to do with Nut?  Are any of Nut’s memories reliable? 

An old television is on a worktable in the garage.  It is often on through the play, showing old films and television programs and a lot of “Platoon.”  I do not have clear memories of that film, just the scenes repeatedly shown in movies about war movies.  An audience cannot be expected to remember the film, and yet I think much of it was re-enacted in the Vietnam flashbacks, so what was the story of Julius and why was Nut re-enacting “Platoon?”
 
In rehearsal:  Irene Sofia Lucio and Mary Testa (Photo Credit: Bruce Cohen)
Meanwhile, Nut’s sister grows up to be a nurse who is defecated on by a patient she was turning to prevent bedsores.  While this was clearly not on purpose, still, this is what she thinks her life is, being “dumped” on. She is bitter.  Her choices seem to be based on what she knows she can do (take care of sick people) but which do not please her.  She tried to help her mother care for her father, but France wouldn’t always allow it.  France needs help and cries out for it, but does not accept it from her children.  Ms. Testa’s pain is heartbreaking. 

It’s difficult to know over what time period the episodic play takes place:  mostly in the 1980s, although once Nut says it’s 2004.  There are some touching moments, some funny ones, some sad ones. Late in the play, and presumably in time, France tries to feed her husband baby food, which may be all that he can stomach.  He pushes the spoon away, makes a mess as a child would, and pushes France’s hand away.  He then gently clasps her wrist.  He is still Julius, her husband.  The moment is brief, but memorable.  Julius is broken, supported by his family.  He is angry, he is in pain, he has terrible memories.  France is cracking under the strain but holds the family together no matter what.  Sister “Crimp” traveled in and out, seemingly always there until we’re told she lived in another part of the country.  At some time or another.  Time matters.

Nut appears to have been transgender in a time that would not be forgiving or understanding.  That issue, however, comes off as a sidebar, a distraction from the real story of Julius & France.  If the play is supposed to be about Nut discovering herself as male, why isn’t that the story?  Why not tell Julius’ story with a son?  We don’t know why Nut is telling us all this, and since she or he isn’t a reliable narrator, we may never know.

All in all, I liked everything about the production except the play, because the playwright could not make up his mind as to what it was about.  Many interesting elements, interesting moments, interesting characters. But too many elements.  It was a surprisingly long 90 minutes.


~ Molly Matera

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Goldoni's "The Servant of Two Masters" at TFANA

The Samuel H. Scripps mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center is a wonderfully designed performance space:  it is multiple theatres in one, so flexible one may not recognize it from one season to another.  This production’s proscenium staging worked perfectly.

The Servant of Two Masters is silly, absurd, crass, ridiculous, pointless, and very, very funny.  Downright hysterical in fact, based on commedia dell’arte, a theatrical structure that set standard character types into scenarios, the characters performing functions in standard plots that usually involved lovers, tricksters, and hungry servants.  Characters were typically masked (and therefore recognizable in every town the troupe wandered into) except for the young lovers.  There are always young lovers.  The actors/characters often improvise the actual scenes, filled with slapstick, physical humor, and often violence.  Midway through the 18th century, Carlo Goldoni put this scenario on paper. 

Something like 270 years later, Christopher Bayes (director) and Steven Epps (lead actor, the hungry servant Truffaldino) have taken Carlo Goldoni’s play (as adapted by Constance Congdon) and discarded whatever words interfered with the laughs they were looking for, which probably change nightly.  This is a living theatrical form, dependent on current events and the audience’s knowledge thereof.  Like improv, but with a storyline providing more overall structure. 

Considering the political humor running riot through the performance, I wish I could be transported back in time to hear what they all said before the election.

The evening started with Italian music your grandparents (maybe great grandparents) played and listened and danced to.  No, not Dean Martin or Al Martino, earlier than that, back in the old country, the kind with mandolins and guitars and small accordions — like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FlNBuS7YgM.  With music in our ears, magic appeared around the wonderful mainstage with a Roman arch creating the proscenium and strings of patio lights illuminating the theatre like starlight.  It was delicioso.

Briefly, the servant of two masters has two masters because he has no money and he’s very hungry and his first master didn’t give so much as a centime for a hunk of bread.  “Federigo” (spoiler alert:  actually the late Federigo’s sister Beatrice in disguise for most of the play) won’t have money until “he” goes over the books of deals with Pantalone, father of the young woman to whom Federigo was affianced.  And therein lies a tale.  The second master turns out to be Florindo, for whom Federigo/Beatrice is searching, the man who killed Beatrice’s brother Federigo in a duel over her and who is her lover.  No one recognizes anybody, of course.  Poor Truffaldino, the incompetent servant, is still hungry halfway through the play!

Meanwhile another young couple’s wedding plans start out blessed but upon the return from the dead of Federigo, well, the first arrangement must take precedence, which infuriates the Dottore, father of Silvio, the beloved of Clarice. Love is frustrated, Beatrice reveals herself as a woman to Clarice so of course they’re now like sisters, while the true lover, Silvio, is jealous and behaves very foolishly.  Oh, what will become of them all?

And Truffaldino is still hungry.  When he finally has a chance to eat, it’s catch as catch can:  food flies over the curtain to be caught and tossed by Truffaldino juggling with the two highly energetic waiters (Aidan Eastwood and Sam Urdang) while he’s also juggling the service of a meal to each of his masters.
 
The juggling waiters (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)
The play is filled with music (all played by Christopher Curtis and Aaron Halva), including television advertising jingles from 30 years ago, snippets of show tunes, some pretty ditties for the ladies to sing (by Aaron Halva), pratfalls and slaps, a little swordplay, and an evening of ridiculous fun. 

This company of players knows how to milk a laugh, go off and around the bend and then, like good jazz musicians, bring the story back on track and move along briskly.  And they all sing wonderfully. 

The star of the show is Truffaldino portrayed with high energy by the remarkable Steven Epps.  He runs from one master to another, he leaps, he weeps, he receives beatings, he is a hoot and a half.

I didn’t even recognize one of my favorite actors from the Fiasco Theater Co., Andy Goteleuschen playing the Dottore, father of the whiny lover Silvio (Eugene Ma).
 
Steven Epps as Truffaldino and Allen Gilmore as Pantalone.  (Rehearsal photo by Gerry Goodstein)
Pantalone, father of Clarice, sometimes friend and sometimes enemy of the Dottore, was well played by Allen Gilmore.

Orlando Pabotoy’s Florindo brought down the house when he came out brushing, or perhaps caressing, his wig.

Liam Craig’s Brighella the Chef is creepy but not as nasty as the Brighella character often is in Commedia.

Liz Wisan never fooled me, I knew she was a woman dressed as a man!  But the audience always knows, it’s the characters onstage who aren’t playing with a full deck.  As Beatrice in disguise as her dead brother Federico, Ms. Wisan did a fine job as alternately winsome and tough.

Adina Verson is very charming, sings beautifully and is hilarious as Clarice.

Finally, Emily Young is sweet, funny and poignant as Smeraldina, the typical lady's maid conspiring with her mistress only to fall for the not in the slightest bit wily Truffaldino.  She also had a fine time speaking as a modern feminist standing up for women’s rights against the vulgarians coming into power.
 
Cast unrecognizable without their masks, except for the Dottore (L) and Pantalone (4).   Rehearsal photo by Gerry Goodstein..
My feeling about nine out of ten of the shows I see is that they run a little longer than they need to — and this very, very funny show was not an exception.  It could lose 10, 15 minutes.  Just not the intermission, which is needed for the audience to catch their breaths after over an hour of laughing as well as for the bathroom break implied by Truffaldino. I suspect which 10 minutes is arguable — something I felt lasted too long, such as Pantalone’s leg business, probably did not appear so to others.

There’s no down time in The Servant of Two Masters, it’s just chock a block non-stop, full of laughter and song.  If you’re sensitive to raunchy innuendoes, verbal or physical, you might be offended once or twice, but really, in today’s world, aren’t we offended by someone or something multiple times a day?  Grin and bear it for the sake of the rest of the life-giving oxygen provided by all the laughter.


~  Molly Matera, signing off to read TFANA’s always entertaining program with quotes about the playwrights, the play, the times.  Or perhaps watch the 1952 film, Scaramouche!

Goldoni's "The Servant of Two Masters" at TFANA

The Samuel H. Scripps mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center is a wonderfully designed performance space:  it is multiple theatres in one, so flexible one may not recognize it from one season to another.  This production’s proscenium staging worked perfectly.

The Servant of Two Masters is silly, absurd, crass, ridiculous, pointless, and very, very funny.  Downright hysterical in fact, based on commedia dell’arte, a theatrical structure that set standard character types into scenarios, the characters performing functions in standard plots that usually involved lovers, tricksters, and hungry servants.  Characters were typically masked (and therefore recognizable in every town the troupe wandered into) except for the young lovers.  There are always young lovers.  The actors/characters often improvise the actual scenes, filled with slapstick, physical humor, and often violence.  Midway through the 18th century, Carlo Goldoni put this scenario on paper. 

Something like 270 years later, Christopher Bayes (director) and Steven Epps (lead actor, the hungry servant Truffaldino) have taken Carlo Goldoni’s play (as adapted by Constance Congdon) and discarded whatever words interfered with the laughs they were looking for, which probably change nightly.  This is a living theatrical form, dependent on current events and the audience’s knowledge thereof.  Like improv, but with a storyline providing more overall structure. 

Considering the political humor running riot through the performance, I wish I could be transported back in time to hear what they all said before the election.

The evening started with Italian music your grandparents (maybe great grandparents) played and listened and danced to.  No, not Dean Martin or Al Martino, earlier than that, back in the old country, the kind with mandolins and guitars and small accordions — like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FlNBuS7YgM.  With music in our ears, magic appeared around the wonderful mainstage with a Roman arch creating the proscenium and strings of patio lights illuminating the theatre like starlight.  It was delicioso.

Briefly, the servant of two masters has two masters because he has no money and he’s very hungry and his first master didn’t give so much as a centime for a hunk of bread.  “Federigo” (spoiler alert:  actually the late Federigo’s sister Beatrice in disguise for most of the play) won’t have money until “he” goes over the books of deals with Pantalone, father of the young woman to whom Federigo was affianced.  And therein lies a tale.  The second master turns out to be Florindo, for whom Federigo/Beatrice is searching, the man who killed Beatrice’s brother Federigo in a duel over her and who is her lover.  No one recognizes anybody, of course.  Poor Truffaldino, the incompetent servant, is still hungry halfway through the play!

Meanwhile another young couple’s wedding plans start out blessed but upon the return from the dead of Federigo, well, the first arrangement must take precedence, which infuriates the Dottore, father of Silvio, the beloved of Clarice. Love is frustrated, Beatrice reveals herself as a woman to Clarice so of course they’re now like sisters, while the true lover, Silvio, is jealous and behaves very foolishly.  Oh, what will become of them all?

And Truffaldino is still hungry.  When he finally has a chance to eat, it’s catch as catch can:  food flies over the curtain to be caught and tossed by Truffaldino juggling with the two highly energetic waiters (Aidan Eastwood and Sam Urdang) while he’s also juggling the service of a meal to each of his masters.
 
The juggling waiters (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)
The play is filled with music (all played by Christopher Curtis and Aaron Halva), including television advertising jingles from 30 years ago, snippets of show tunes, some pretty ditties for the ladies to sing (by Aaron Halva), pratfalls and slaps, a little swordplay, and an evening of ridiculous fun. 

This company of players knows how to milk a laugh, go off and around the bend and then, like good jazz musicians, bring the story back on track and move along briskly.  And they all sing wonderfully. 

The star of the show is Truffaldino portrayed with high energy by the remarkable Steven Epps.  He runs from one master to another, he leaps, he weeps, he receives beatings, he is a hoot and a half.

I didn’t even recognize one of my favorite actors from the Fiasco Theater Co., Andy Goteleuschen playing the Dottore, father of the whiny lover Silvio (Eugene Ma).
 
Steven Epps as Truffaldino and Allen Gilmore as Pantalone.  (Rehearsal photo by Gerry Goodstein)
Pantalone, father of Clarice, sometimes friend and sometimes enemy of the Dottore, was well played by Allen Gilmore.

Orlando Pabotoy’s Florindo brought down the house when he came out brushing, or perhaps caressing, his wig.

Liam Craig’s Brighella the Chef is creepy but not as nasty as the Brighella character often is in Commedia.

Liz Wisan never fooled me, I knew she was a woman dressed as a man!  But the audience always knows, it’s the characters onstage who aren’t playing with a full deck.  As Beatrice in disguise as her dead brother Federico, Ms. Wisan did a fine job as alternately winsome and tough.

Adina Verson is very charming, sings beautifully and is hilarious as Clarice.

Finally, Emily Young is sweet, funny and poignant as Smeraldina, the typical lady's maid conspiring with her mistress only to fall for the not in the slightest bit wily Truffaldino.  She also had a fine time speaking as a modern feminist standing up for women’s rights against the vulgarians coming into power.
 
Cast unrecognizable without their masks, except for the Dottore (L) and Pantalone (4).   Rehearsal photo by Gerry Goodstein..
My feeling about nine out of ten of the shows I see is that they run a little longer than they need to — and this very, very funny show was not an exception.  It could lose 10, 15 minutes.  Just not the intermission, which is needed for the audience to catch their breaths after over an hour of laughing as well as for the bathroom break implied by Truffaldino. I suspect which 10 minutes is arguable — something I felt lasted too long, such as Pantalone’s leg business, probably did not appear so to others.

There’s no down time in The Servant of Two Masters, it’s just chock a block non-stop, full of laughter and song.  If you’re sensitive to raunchy innuendoes, verbal or physical, you might be offended once or twice, but really, in today’s world, aren’t we offended by someone or something multiple times a day?  Grin and bear it for the sake of the rest of the life-giving oxygen provided by all the laughter.


~  Molly Matera, signing off to read TFANA’s always entertaining program with quotes about the playwrights, the play, the times.  Or perhaps watch the 1952 film, Scaramouche!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Theatre as Warning: Red Bull Theater’s Coriolanus at the Barrow Street Theatre

The Red Bull Theater’s production of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus at the Barrow Street Theatre is ensemble playing at its best, directed by Michael Sexton.  The small and tight-knit ensemble played early Romans and Volscians of all classes. 

About five centuries before Julius Caesar was stabbed in the Curia, the Roman patricians and warriors and plebeians had defeated their previous king, Tarquin the Proud, and established the Roman Republic.  This was not a republic in which all citizens were equal, but it was a start.  The play’s plebeians of the early republic become a character as a group with a common view.  When the play begins, the plebeians (lower class, working class, what you will) have “tribunes” to represent their interests in the patrician Senate.  Essentially the tribunes can be seen as go-betweens (like your local councilman, congressman, etc.), and can misinterpret or misrepresent (willfully or not) the plebeians to the patricians and vice versa. The plebeians want their fair share of grain (of which the patricians have more than they need).  The patricians don't want to give anything away.  This society is blatantly stratified. 

Caius Marcius is a fine soldier but a socially inept patrician.  Too soon after the Roman army has gotten rid of “Tarquin the Proud,” Caius Marcius behaves with much too much pride, setting himself up for a fall after rising as a military hero and gaining the surname Coriolanus after conquering the Volscian city of Corioli.  His politically ambitious friends and family want him to accept the Consulship of Rome (the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic).  I doubt it will surprise anyone that this does not turn out well 

The splendid cast elucidating the story and the people are:

Dion Johnstone is a powerful and articulate Coriolanus.  Strength and fury emanate from him except when he’s speaking to his mother, wife or son.  He is powerful, passionate, a bit dense, and very arrogant.

Virgilia, Coriolanus, and Volumnia in front, Cominius and Titus Lartius behind.  (Photo By Carol Rosegg)
Lisa Harrow was ruthless as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia.  Her love for him displaced by her own ambition, Volumnia is not an easy character to like, but Harrow makes her three-dimensional.

Patrick Page was engaging but sleazy.  He is just a politician, but his heartbreak at Coriolanus’ rejection of him in the second half of the play is real.  His Menenius Agrippa was a Southern styled good-old boy.  While amusing, this choice seemed rather tired, even trite since everyone else in the play has city or homogeneous accents. Like the production, Mr. Page has political points to make.


Patrick Page as Menenius Agrippa (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Matthew Amendt as Tullus Aufidius did not look like a tough warrior so he had to act it, and he did.  He spent a great deal of time off center, and I enjoyed watching him out of the corner of my eye as he responded — or didn’t — to Coriolanus.  His building fury is only broken by the death of the man he ordered killed, a man as like him as a brother.
 
The banished Coriolanus and Tullus Aufidius (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Aaron Krohn played a strong Cominius, Coriolanus’ long-time friend and general. Krohn comes into his own as the sensible and sensitive friend to Coriolanus back in Rome.  Zachary Fine was Coriolanus’ fellow soldier and friend Titus Lartius. Both are also transformed to be part of the plebeians of Rome, slipping easily into other speech patterns and beliefs. Fine also plays a sodden member of the Volscian Aufidius’ staff and was charming and funny opening the production’s second half with great hilarity — this should be no surprise from the man who played Crab and Valentine in the Fiasco Theater Company production of Two Gentlemen of Verona at TFANA in 2015 [https://mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2015/05/2-shakespeares-and-upstart-crow.html]. 
 
Titus Lartius, Coriolanus, and Cominius (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
The plebeians are easily manipulated by the two tribunes who are supposed to represent the plebeians but who have agendas of their own.  These two are well played by Stephen Spinella (Sicinius Velutus) and Merritt Janson (Junius Brutus). Sicinius makes me very angry, but Spinella is so good and was honestly physically afraid of Johnstone’s Coriolanus that my anger with him faded, if just for the moment.

Rebecca S’Manga Frank played multiple roles, from Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia who she completely differentiated from angry Roman plebeians calling for Coriolanus’ banishment.

Olivia Reis played Coriolanus’ small son.  Her face was a child’s face until she reappeared as a courtesan in the Volscian camp or a Roman plebeian, when she became an entirely different physical person. 

Edward O’Blenis did excellent work as First Citizen in Rome, an angry man, powerful and skilled at goading his fellow plebeians to revolt.  In the Volscian city of Corioli, he is the lieutenant to Tullus Aufidius. 

Christina Pumariega played a broad range of roles, each better than the last, from the Roman patrician Valeria to an acrimonious plebeian to a bawdy wench in the town of Corioli.

Coriolanus is the story of a man who was not temperamentally suited for public office.  He was a fine solider and general. He knew himself inappropriate to be Consul but allowed those with more ambition than he had push him to accept the honor.  What he may not have seen, since understanding people was not his strong point, was that each friend and relative who urged him on wanted to live in the reflection of a Consul’s power.  That was for themselves, not for him, not for Rome.  Inevitably his unfitness surfaced, his unfiltered mouth insulted every person he did not consider his peer, that is, most of mankind and particularly the plebeian class whose votes (“voice”) he needs to be named Consul.  The incensed plebeians accuse him of treason and want him either executed (by being thrown from the Tarpeian Rock) or banished.  Being banished from the country whose wars he’d fought is a bitter pill.  He goes over to the other side, to fight by the side of his arch enemy Tullus Aufidius, goes to war against Rome and denies his friends and family. 

The final act of murder/execution was harrowing to see and highly effective, played center stage as it was.  And, not surprisingly, the fool who ordered the death of Coriolanus regrets it and is heartbroken but it is too late to mend. 

Does any of this sound familiar?

I am not a purist in Shakespeare: I’m all for cutting, editing, even moving scenes around if it clarifies and moves the story along.  Shakespeare’s storytelling is strong enough to withstand a great deal of messing about.  This streamlined script, though, seemed a tightly strung bow, aimed predictably to show the power that can lie with two manipulative politicians directing the uneducated masses as a weapon against an enemy, not necessarily of the people, but of those two politicians.

I’ve seen the play before, and found it dreadfully appropriate that I saw this production on election night.  


~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, the novel, as opposed to the wonderful play version produced by Bedlam that I swooned over last week.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Kings of War_Shakespeare in Dutch at the BAM Opera House

Kings of War is my second Shakespearean mash-up by Ivo van Hove (who directed Toneelgroep Amsterdam in performance of the adaptation by Bart van den Eynde and Peter van Kraaij).  The first (Roman Tragedies in 2012:   http://mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2012/11/friends-romans-dutch.html ) was longer, truer, better.  This outing is more particularly edited, not unsuitable for the U.S. election season.  In this production, van Hove and his cohorts for this translation by Rob Klinkenberg “adapted” Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 (not so much) and 3, and Richard III into one evening about kings and family feuds and wars and just plain murder.  Or was it?

The first two hours and twenty minutes of the evening were engaging, imaginative, clever, even funny.  The main events (political) of Henry V (“H5”) were covered, then on to Henry VI (“H6”) part 1, sliding over part 2, then clarifying the raison d’être for Richard III (“R3”) in part 3 of H6.  We fell from some highflying places to a very poor R3 for the second half of the production, so bad I catnapped during the last 20 minutes or so and didn’t miss a thing.  What happened? Why were van Hove, van den Eynde and van Kraaij able to, according to their own themes, comprehensibly condense four plays into less than 2 ½ hours, and make a hash-up in under two hours of the last one. 

For the first half, the setting was modern, easy to rearrange, and augmented with continuous video and supertitles showing us what was happening offstage. In Shakespeare, offstage usually means violence, and sometimes it does in Kings of War.  We’d watch backstage action on video until those participants entered the playing area.  At one point, what we saw were lots of sheep.  (They were not really backstage.)  The music of the first half was brass (by “Blindman”: Konstantin Koev, Charlotte van Passen, Daniel Quiles Cascant, and Daniel Ruibal Ortigueira), very exciting and fitting, especially with the inclusion of the marvelous contratenor Steve Dugardin

Each king was introduced on a red patterned carpet rolled onto the stage.  We have already seen the procession, of course, on the video.  The new king, Cardinals, right-hand men, queens, mothers and the like, all those people who have or wish to have the power behind the throne, would walk in step behind him (each him) as he walks to his coronation.  It’s a nifty set up, making it perfectly clear whose reign it is, with the King’s name flashed on the supertitle just to make sure we all knew what’s what.

The Coronation of Henry V (Photo by Jan Versweyveld)




















Shakespeare generally puts the real violence offstage, therefore it appeared on video (by Tal Yardin) in this production.  Some of it was rather harrowing, and York’s examination of Uncle Gloucester’s offstage corpse in H6 was ghastly and effective.  Van Hove and his colleagues seemed most interested in the political machinations of the kings’ courts, courtiers, advisers, wives, so it was confusing but delightful that he retained the wooing scene between King Henry and Katharina toward the end of H5. 

There were some interesting and well-articulated performances in multiple roles by
·         Eelco Smits as Grey in H5 and the king himself in Henry VI
·         Leon Voorberg as Charles VI of France in H5, Warwick and later Stanley
·         Aus Greidanus Jr. as Gloucester, the regent for Henry VI, and later as Buckingham in R3, doing nice creepy work in the latter
·         Bart Slegers as the Chief of Staff in H5, York in H6 and later Edward IV (however briefly) in R3
·         Hélène Devos was adorable as Katharina in H5, with interesting choices (hers, van Hove’s?) as Lady Anne in R3
·         Robert de Hoog was excellent as a whiny Dauphin in H5, as the manipulative snake oil salesman Suffolk in H6, and charmingly broken as Clarence in R3.

But the best, the star of the evening, was Chris Nietvelt.  I’d seen her as Cleopatra (among others) in the Roman Tragedies, and here she played three roles:  Montjoy, the French courier in H5, then Leonora, foolish and self-destructive wife to Gloucester in H6, and finally Elizabeth, wife then widow to Edward IV, mother to the two princes murdered in the Tower and to young Elizabeth, wanted by Richard for his third wife (lest you worry, eventually to marry Richmond, Henry VII).  Ms. Nietvelt continues her fine characterizations and truthful performances that I learned to expect from her the last time I sat through many hours of Shakespeare in Dutch.

King Henry VI and Queen Margareta
There were some rather dull performances in single roles:  Marieke Heebink as the Duchess of York in R3, when she was as shallow as her theatrical son: Hans Kesting as Richard III.  Also far from stellar and merely scary was Janni Gosling as Margareta, queen then widow of Henry VI, lover of Suffolk, and theatrically Johnny-one-note from the moment we met her.

While I’m naming names, design and lighting by Jan Versweyveld, music by Eric Sleichim (yay first half, boo second half); costumes by An D’Huys.

In the second half, the set looked like the lobby of a middle class hotel. We saw that what had been the musicians’ gallery in the first half was populated with a “disc jockey” with no discs, just a machine to control the electronic sound, which produced irritating noise.  But then, most of the second half was annoying. 

Hans Kesting enters as Richard with a birthmark on his face and a limp.  His clothes are ill-tailored so he seems to be more physically inhibited than he is.  Richard was drawn to a full length mirror onstage, and kept returning to it.  Between that and the video filming him looking at himself, I had double vision with nausea.  Halfway through, to top it off, for no reason at all, Richard takes off his clothes center stage to change into his not much different costume for his coronation.  It took much longer than it deserved.  There could have been ten minutes cut off the playing time.  Surely there were other places to edit as well.

From a firm start with the Henry plays, the evening devolved to an uninspired R3. Kings of War, while shorter than the excellent Roman Tragedies that led us to this adventure, did not live up to that 2012 production 


This company uses the same designers and videographers and some of the same actors.  Interestingly, one of the flaws of this modern styling and the microphones and the television and the video is the same problem the Roman Tragedies had in the same BAM Opera House back in 2012: that I often could not tell who on the stage was speaking (particularly when two of the younger male actors looked rather similar to one another).  The miking of actors must be compensated for in the staging so we don’t wonder who’s speaking, what with all those sounds coming from the same place.  I also noted that the first two plays of the Roman Tragedies (Coriolanus and Julius Caesar) were well edited and “mashed” but that the last play, Antony & Cleopatra, like the last play in Kings of War, Richard III, lasted too long, as if the editors got tired and just said, this will have to do. 

In any case, I’m glad I experienced this production, flaws and all, and will give the next Shakespearean mash-up from Toneelgroep Amsterdam a try.


~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read Coriolanus to figure out how much the Red Bull Theater production cut.