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