Monday, December 18, 2006

Review of Athol Fugard's "My Children, My Africa!" at Philadelphia Theatre Review

An interesting (overheard) anecdote proved the persistent relevance of Athol Fugard’s My Children, My Africa! Two rows in front of me, expressing nothing less than pure dread at the prospect, an audience member explained to her friend how Democratic Senator Tim Johnson had a stroke that day, and that (oh no!) the Republicans might regain power in the Senate. She spoke of this as if no political future could bode worse for her, even after she just sat through the first act of a play taking place amidst the violence and subjugation of apartheid South Africa. I wanted to laugh out loud, but remembered the first lines spoken by the idealist teacher Mr. M in Fugard’s play.

“I know it’s necessary to remind each of you exactly what a debate is.”

But Fugard’s characters fail to heed his advice, and a clash of ideas slowly and menacingly escalates into a tense battle of wills on The Wilma Theater stage. Mr. M (Glynn Turman) seeks to enact gradual, peaceful political change by entering his best student Thami (Yaegel Welch) in a pairs-based literature challenge with Isabel (Meghan Heimbecker), a top student from a neighboring whites-only school.

However, while Isabel sees opportunity and friendship in this attempt to raise consciousness, Thami slowly comes to realize this type of social reform will only ensure that even his grandchildren “will not know what freedom is.”

While the play is heavy handed, Blanka Zizka’s direction takes a different tact all together. She composes the first act softly, keeping the level of emotion consistent with the (oft) esoteric discourse. In Act II, she allows the play to fill with the anger and emotion of the characters, creating a contrast between the two halves. But Act I is too light, too cerebral in approach to the violence and turbulence of Act II, tarnishing the production’s unity.

Save Heimbecker’s even keel, the actors mirror this approach in a long, almost dreamy fuse through act one that allows them to burst outward with emotion in act two.

Welch exhibits a truly dynamic range in his performance, equaling the ebb and flow of his character’s torn spirit. However, he continually slouches, and as a result, is never convincing in any of the different positions or emotions he espouses.

A contrast mars Turman’s performance as well. In the first act, he’s full of hope and enthusiasm that too easily spirals downward after his betrayal. Here he’s too restrained, and as a result, his defiance becomes a defeat and then a death wish.

This choice, whether Zizka’s or Turman’s squares against the play’s ending of hope, diminishing the flash of brilliance in Matt Saunders’ set that represents the result of Mr. M’s lifetime commitment to the peaceful achievement of freedom.

However, not much can detract from a realization that fully enables the awesome power of Fugard’s play. And in this, the Wilma succeeds grandly, bringing to life the conflict between enlightening debate and political demagoguery, between constructive solutions and senselessness, and between the hope that results from the former of these, and the persistent ignorance and hatred spawned by the latter.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Review of Walnut Street Theater's "42nd Street" at Broad Street Review

There’s a saying in politics that just throwing money at a problem won’t make it go away. After seeing the Walnut Street’s production of 42nd street, I’m starting to believe that the same holds true in theatre. In this production, however, it’s the sheer magnitude of the staging that can’t redeem all of the faults, particularly in Charles Abbott’s direction, and the frequently flat performances from almost all of the principal actors.

To read the full review, click here.

Review of Lantern Theatre's production of "QED" at Broad Street Review

As the Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, Peter DeLaurier captures the intensity and sheer zest for living that Feynman exhibited throughout his life. And director Kathryn Nocero modulates the impact of DeLaurier’s performance with impeccable timing. But actor and director are ill served by Peter Parnell’s one-dimensional script, which fails to capture the magnitude of this remarkable man’s life.

To read the full review, click here.

Review of Amaryllis Theatre's "A Terrible Beauty" at Broad Street Review

Amaryllis Theatre Company opened its seventh season with “A Terrible Beauty: Two Irish One-Acts of Violence and Hope,” staging Antoine O’Flatharta’s Blood Guilty, followed by Conor McPherson’s The Good Thief.

To read the full review, click here.

Links to my recent newspaper reviews for "The News of Delaware County"

Review of Nagle Jackson's Taking Leave at Barnstormer's in Ridley Park, 11-22-2006

"How do families cope with the decision to take a loved one, suffering from Alzheimer's, and put them in a home? Even before that, how do they face the realization that someone once looked to for guidance isn't simply having a "senior moment," but undergoing the slow and inexorable decay of a debilitating disease?

This is a situation faced by an unfortunate number of families in America today, and forms the subject of Nagle Jackson's "Taking Leave," in an enjoyable production at The Barnstormers Theater of Ridley Park."

Click to read the full review here.

Review of You're a Good Man Charlie Brown at the Media Theatre, 11-29-06:

He can't kick a football, win a baseball game, or talk to that little red-haired girl he pines after.
Yet at the Media Theatre, Charlie Brown (and his friends) can certainly sing and entertain, which is the best part of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," an effect easily achieved by director Michael White in this fast-paced, high-energy production.

Click to read the full review here.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Review of Irish Repertory Theatre's "The Playboy of the Western World"

I’m going to go out on a very short limb and argue that if Melissa Lynch gives one more performance this season equal to her Pegeen Mike in J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World (or her Agnes from six months ago), that she is the most promising young actress in Philadelphia today. Synge’s dark comedy, about a stranger who captures the attention of a rural Irish town, is currently playing at Plays and Players, in co-production with the Irish Repertory Theatre.

Much of the plot in Playboy is driven by disparities: between stories and truth, bravado and cowardice, admiration and eventual disdain. These evince themselves in the very language spoken—Christy Mahon, roundly admired for “destroying his dad” by a town that believes that “a daring fellow is the jewel of the world,” is eventually castigated by them for his duplicity when told “there’s a great gap between a gallant story and a dirty deed.”

Unfortunately, great gaps plague this production as well. The directing sounds its fault line between a roaringly funny act one and two and the completely mismanaged third that follows; the acting places an even ensemble and two amazing female performances against their relatively weak male counterparts; and the sets and costumes showcase a careful attention that find no balance in the underused lighting and sound design.

Director John Gallagher manufactures most of these imbalances. Each of the first two acts he crafts skillfully with their own color and tone, while still uniting them flawlessly. The first is a dark night tinged with fire and mystery, the second, a revealing ray of morning, illuminating some secrets, while concealing others in further intrigue. These both possess great humor and depth, as Gallagher seems capable of staging anything but tension and violent physical action, both of which the third act requires in equal measure. Because of this, in act three, the humor remains, but the precipice of action that should have captivated instead falls flat, and renders the play’s finale into an end both false and completely unsatisfying.

The only even and coherent element of Gallagher’s staging lies in the liveliness of the ensemble. Act three apart, he arranges them to effects both spirited—in the gaggle of women that flock about Christy—to poignant, in the two barflies placed leisurely off to the side, treating all the drama with hilarious commentary (and that well-wrought by McKeever and Scott Robertson).

Against this solid body, the imbalance between the two women in Lynch’s Pegeen and Kate Danaher’s completely safe yet faultless performance as the Widow Quinn, stand Matt Taylor’s uneven Christy and Doug Greene’s neurotically timid Shawn Keogh. Taylor plays the playboy of the title, but lacks charm, with no smoothness to his character, and no alluring rough edges either. By a strange contrast, he’s the only one (save Lynch) that manages to stoke the fires of tension and anger in act three, where he finally hits the right notes; but by this point the change is too unbelievable, as he never gave us enough early glimpses to justify his eventual rage.

Then there is Lynch, who “possessing the devil’s own temper,” nearly redeems all these defects in full. Her performance is full of fire and passion, and infused with true verve stands as the only reliable constant in this play. One moment a viper, the next the tenderest of souls, she effects all her transitions seamlessly, with no overplay, giving a completely natural performance, effected beautifully. Her eventual moment of anguish is both dark and shameful, and yet tenderly comic in its remorse.

Despite any imbalances, Synge’s play stands as the supreme reason to see this production. Full of rich humor and beautiful imagery, the sheer poetry of the language Playboy offers is nothing short of Shakespeare. From the humble first moments of a mysterious stranger on a wind-blown night to the devastating reversal of his fortunes, this play will always succeed in producing anguish and laughter touched with sympathy and regret. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Review of Villanova's production of "TheTempest" 11-08-06

An Imperfect Storm

Prospero, the sorcerer of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is consumed with vengeance, and uses his power to dictate events to this end. Many describe him as a megalomaniac, which makes it understandable that Villanova’s Shawn Kairschner chose to set this play within the confines of a Victorian era insane asylum.

However, Kairschner foregoes this understanding, instead casting Prospero as the chief doctor, who, in a play-within-the-play setting, directs the inmates and hospital staff in a production of Shakespeare’s play. The action then shifts back and forth, between the play overseen by Dr. Prospero, and the presence of Prospero himself in Shakespeare’s work. The play opens on a cluttered stage, filled with inmates milling about, trying on costumes, arranging the sets, and rehearsing their ‘lines.’ However, by the time The Tempest begins, confusion has already descended on this production.

The confusion only deepens, as Kairschner eviscerates the script, whittles away the characters, and substitutes, insanely enough, song, dance, and chanting, some of which breaks down into the gibberish and guttural whispers of the inmates. Some of this is very fitting, but beyond the scope of the play, which needed another hour, and that of Shakespeare. The Tempest is often absent, and only minimally evident. When Kairschner must return to the text, the intensity drops considerably in contrast, especially in the last act.

Brian McCann, as Prospero, is too fragile, too brittle to be believable as either the doctor running the inmates, or as Prospero dominating the players. Kristi Good, playing Ariel, speaks her lines beautifully, at times declaiming them like poetry. The remainder of the ensemble is similarly uneven, and a more experienced company could have achieved greater success. With all that Kairschner demands, this cast cannot overcome his ambitions.

However, brilliant touches flourish amidst this chaos. Kairschner’s interpretation depicts Caliban’s monstrosity as the behavior of a demented psychopath, superbly acted by Chris Braak. Trinculo hilariously speaks half his lines through a sock puppet, and Janus Stefanowicz dons everyone magnificently. All of the stagecraft is exemplary, particularly Mike Worth’s haunting original music, Jerold Forsyth’s lighting, and the dizzying and unending movement of the players in Kairschner’s staging. At the end of act one, all these elements combine to tremendous effect, as Caliban’s revolt descends into a prison riot that is both violent and electrifying. Moreover, the energy of the cast throughout magnifies every effect beyond merely entertaining.

Despite the problems, this is the kind of interpretation that a production should strive after. Most directors merely throw a coat of paint on Shakespeare, focusing upon some singular political theme, or historical period relevance. Kairschner’s attempt is bold and imaginative, completely transforming the work while still embodying its essence. The bars surrounding the stage, like the political intrigue that motivates the play, all form part of the “baseless fabric of a vision” that imprisons everyone. In this, Kairschner brilliantly remakes the world of The Tempest into the distorted reality of an asylum, where the surreal conduct of the inmates, coupled with the devolution of the text into song, define an existence in which the players truly become “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Review of "Something You Did" at People's Light 10-22-06

Once in a great while, a new play comes along that is not only worth seeing, but immediately deserves consideration as our era’s contribution to the history of the theater. Willy Holtzman’s Something You Did, in world premiere at People’s Light and Theatre Co., is one of those plays.

Brilliantly set in a prison library (the very emblem of prison reform programs), Something plots the events leading up to the parole hearing of Alison Moulton, a 60’s radical implicated for her complicity in the bombing death of a New York City cop. Holtzman’s play closely mirrors the real events of Kathy Boudin, and includes analogs of two other prominent figures from the time, with the characters of Gene Biddle and Arthur Ross representing David Horowitz and Boudin’s lawyer, Leonard Weinglass respectively. The question, “What did you do in the sixties?” has real import here; as the play unfolds, multiple layers of treachery, hypocrisy, and culpability are revealed as the characters maneuver to either prevent or secure Moulton’s release.

For a script centered almost entirely upon politics and morality, the dialogue and action depicted are completely fluid, natural, and engaging. Even a staged reading of this play would captivate an audience; but under Abigail Adams’ sharp direction not a moment passes on that is unnecessary. Adams allows the plot’s manifold twists and revelations to unfold as naturally as the dialogue, handling a piece of political theatre with the deftness and precision of a well-crafted thriller.

The only distance between the audience and this play is in the portrayal of the characters. Amy Van Nostrand moves effortlessly throughout the wide range of emotions the role of Moulton demands, but while she hits all the notes expertly, she fails to present a coherent whole. As a woman consumed by her own fire in a world of pragmatists, Moulton is difficult to understand or identify with, and although we occasionally see her human side (longing to not die in prison), Nostrand’s performance fails to bridge this emotional chasm between her and the audience.

As Ross and Biddle, Jordan Charney and Tony Campisi, never fully engage their roles; instead they seem too invested in a nuanced replication of their real-life counterparts. Their attempts to inhabit these roles seem flat and forced, and both only come alive when the play demands that they drop cynicism or commitment, and show their humanity. At these moments, both men deliver spectacular performances, as the lawyer trying to free his partner’s daughter, and the former idealist trying to come to terms with the past he rejected.

The ensemble’s dynamics appear effortlessly, especially the supporting roles of Melanye Finister’s prison guard, and Cathy Simpson’s amazing and all-too-brief portrayal of Lenora Renshaw, daughter to the murdered policeman.

For the heady subject matter, Something is full of humor, witty banter (with “lawyer” used as a verb!), and language that is exact and uncompromising. The only omission: enough exposition to account for all the 60’s radical name-dropping. Never once does this play indulge in nostalgia, freeing Holtzman to unravel the consequences and culpability of the era. And while Holtzman condemns, he refuses to redeem Moulton’s criminal excess. But in portraying her refusal to compromise her beliefs to secure her freedom, Holtzman recovers the set of ideals and commitment to freedom where the 60’s began. In presenting the aftermath, he recaptures the hope, the idealism, and the very nature of the struggle itself. While showing those who have profited by turning their backs, he shows us how those same ideals can find redemption in the unrepentant who still do good by them.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Review of New City Stage Production of "Angel: A Nightmare in Two Acts"

What forces could transform a sensitive young farm girl into a vicious and sadistic killer before she is even twenty years old? This is the question posed by New City Stage Company’s premier of Angel: A Nightmare in Two Acts, a play that examines the brief life of Irma Grese, a notorious Nazi war criminal hanged by the British for her part in sending thousands to their deaths. Through many flashbacks, changes in plot, and multiple themes, playwright Jo Davidsmeyer attempts to analyze the woman known unaffectionately as “the beautiful beast,” in order to understand how such a life as hers was possible.

Unfortunately, this play asked far more questions than it answered, and both the cast and audience suffered from the defects present in the script. Angel failed to offer a single real conversation, but instead presented a staged history lesson, with reams of exposition clumsily inserted into the dialogue. This cluttered the performance of all the players, making it difficult for them to inhabit their roles while giving each of them the additional chore of somehow convincing the audience that all of these historical figures were so didactic. To add to this confusion, Davidsmeyer’s play shifted back and forth from Auschwitz, to Irma’s childhood, to the Nazi war trials, with such poor transitions that not even Neill Hartley’s usually brilliant direction could execute them faithfully. But the dialogue is where Angel suffered the most: beyond the pedantry of the exposition, the play filled the mouths of Nazi criminals and British attorneys alike with hackneyed and contrived phrases such as “You want the truth?” and “Who told you to think,” most of which only reminded of their far less clichéd usage in other works.

The script then confronted the actors with an uneasy dilemma. They could either take each bad line, muddled transition, and unintegrated trait of their characters, and play them with a capacity that befits their talents, thereby exacerbating the problems in the script; or they could give an uneven performance so as not to inflict these problems so drastically upon the audience. Unfortunately, the actors and director chose to solve the problem in the first, subjecting everyone to endure a night of (mostly) bad theater.

As Irma Grese, Ginger Dayle certainly looked the part, with her beautiful appearance and militaristic manner. She acted certain elements far better than others, but her performance was uneven—she easily handled the viciousness, but never mastered whatever human side of Grese that remained. Her attempts at seduction, at a warm relationship with her sister, her defiance at the trial, all seemed forced, but only partly because of the confused series of lines the script gives her. Moreover, her inconsistent German accent never once helped, and caused her to sound like a valley girl every time she uttered the German word “Ja!”

Though he intended to appear charming and carefree, Rob Hargraves’ accent and mannerisms made his portrayal of Josef Mengele into a smarmy, somewhat ridiculous parody. He gave a few brief glimpses into the character though, genuinely terrifying at times, especially when threatening Irma after she aborted his child. But mostly, Hargraves failed to capture this very complex role, playing Mengele as if he were a pervert, rather than a coolly detached and hideously manipulative killer.

As Helene Grese and Olga Lenygel, Irma’s sister and victim, Alix Fenhagen and Jackie Ruggeiro Jacobson gave the finer performances of the production. Although they inhabited minor parts, these two achieved depth and thoughtfulness within their roles, even through the contrived dialogue spoken by both. Fenhagen in particular took command of the stage during the early moments of Act Two, as she vainly struggled to accept her sister’s evil behavior in the face of the idyllic childhood they once shared.

In stark contrast to the delicate subtlety of their performances, Scott Evans’ Prosecutor didn’t speak a single one of his lines without raising his voice an octave in mock exasperation. Granted, his character tried throughout to understand how someone as young and beautiful as Grese could commit acts of such brutality; but his choices collided with the script, as Dayle’s Irma at one point implored him to break from the “stodgy British demeanor” that he failed to ever bring to the role.

In spite of these faults, for twenty minutes in Act Two, this production truly delivered. A rather strained transition roused the sleeping Prosecutor into the Nightmare of the title, where the play put him on trial for the Allies’ failures during the war. The entire cast then fully embraced their roles, all of which suddenly became invigorating and exciting to watch as the dialogue had them battle over who ultimately bears fault for the atrocities that occurred. The nightmare spared no one, and forced the West, the Jews, the Nazis, and the victors of the first war to confront their shared blame and the guilt that haunts them. The only mystery that remained is why Davidsmeyer didn’t construct the entire play in this fashion, as here Hartley could finally exercise his ability and catapult this cast through a thoroughly riveting episode.

After this dream sequence, Davidsmeyer could have ended her play, leaving many themes unresolved, while at least finishing on the dramatic height that she finally achieved. But unfortunately, she still had more to say, and Angel transitioned again, and then again, slowly becoming a play that refused to end. Thirty minutes later, Angel still left many themes unresolved, and while only succeeding in making this play a nightmare to watch.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Review of Uncut Production's "Disaster the Musical"

“You’re going to have to prove that you are undoubtedly sane, and singing songs about disaster is not going to help.” So echoes the theme of Disaster:The Musical!, the brilliant theater and multimedia work-in-progress brought to the Fringe by Uncut Productions. In this biting satire, the story follows Brea Bee as Kelly Depooter, a starry-eyed and hopeful American who wanders about the globe from one disaster to the next, trailing the fictional DNR news crew in her quest to achieve fame as a news reporter, find true love, and stave off an insanity that threatens to ruin her. Staged in what felt like a U.N. disaster-relief tent, this piece takes a penetrating look at the news media’s sensationalism of tragedy, and devastating effects that such a desensitizing attitude can bring about.

The humor in this piece could not have been any more on target. Imagine the comedy of The Daily Show coupled with the political commentary of Orwell, and you get some idea of what Uncut presented at the Fringe. In between every staged episode, a simulated news cast flashes upon a large screen above the stage. Here the audience bears witness to an over-sexed and flagrantly insincere parody of Dan Rather in Mark Dahl’s “Mr. Stone;” a mocking portrayal of Ann Coulter in Brenda Logan’s “Julie Junck;” an “I-feel-your-pain” manic-depressive (and hilariously over-the-top) “Susie Whinfrey” by Crystal WhyBark; Newel Gatrell as the hysterically bitchy fashionista “Micheal Knight;” and Scott Yelity as “Scotty G,” who takes nothing seriously, using each disaster as an excuse to steal from victims, flirt wildly, and get drunk. This ensemble works together brilliantly and seamlessly, as they deliver one send-up of events after the next. The material is written so well that the only surprise comes from how much the audience laughs at this cast’s satirized portrayal of the tragic events that unfold.

This commentary on the media is where Disaster succeeds most, as this production captured the false hyper-reality of television’s persistent pretension of seriousness. Touching upon Chernobyl, the Ebola outbreaks in Africa, AIDS, Columbine, Waco Texas, and the Asian Tsunami disaster, the DNR crew shows up, takes pictures, and pokes fun at the victims before returning home to provide the “serious” commentary for their viewers. On the beaches after the Tsunami, they pick the pockets of their victims, take “wish-you-were-here” style photographs, and find the tragedy of thousands of deaths in the singular loss of model Petra Nemcova’s photographer boyfriend. Yet this is only one example of the contrast Disaster provides—showing brilliantly that all journalism does anymore is find the sensational in tragedy, just so long as the people affected are not us. They drive this point home towards the end of the first act, when they touch on but refuse to deal with the 9/11 events—giving a showstopper if there ever was one, with Bee mingling mourning and hope as she sings of the victims, promising not that we will never forget them (a patriot’s cry), but that we will always remember them with our love. One of the best moments of the piece, this contrast interjected into the satire completely devastates, as it mercilessly forces the audience to realize that half the joke of Disaster is on them.

As a musical, the production consisted only of Bee (and the ensemble) singing familiar hits, ranging from Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to “Buttons” by the Pussycat dolls. But this apparent lack of originality on Uncut’s part only enhances the musical’s theme. Bee plays a young woman on the verge of an insanity brought about by the culture in which she lives, so it makes sense that she could only understand her own feelings through the popular culture that defines, reinforces, and allows her to interpret them. The choices of some of the songs presents a slight problem in this regard (would she have known a song by the Bangles?), but the intent only further skewers and illuminates the degenerate impact that the media has on people’s lives. Bee shows a real dexterity in her wonderful voice, which completely obscures the fact that hers is the only character that sings in this piece.

The play only broke down at the point when it shifted from the satire in an attempt to focus on the subplots of Kelly’s relationship with Mr. Stone (still funny though), or with Knight’s very real concern over the tragedy of AIDS, or Junck’s nasty competitive feud with Kelly. Uncut managed some of these elements better than others, and the lapses here only reminded that they presented a work-in-progress for the Fringe. The unfinished aspect of this work detracted slightly throughout; leaving the news team as underdeveloped stereotypes, plot elements lacking integration, and an ensemble of dancers that does very little. But these flaws go mostly unnoticed in a production that succeeds so well as clever political satire.

Disaster The Musical! doesn’t so much make a point, as it illustrates an idea—fleshed out in the very self-defining understanding of events in one woman’s mind, dictated to her through the lens of arrogant media sensationalism. In the second act, she goes mad, and the question Disaster invokes is not why this happens, but how even the most cynical mind could escape her fate. I hope that Uncut Productions takes this piece and fleshes it out fully, restaging something more polished, focused, and finished than the flash of brilliance they presented at this years Fringe Festival. Disaster is one of those rare new productions that works.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Review of HATG's production of "Desdemona: a Play about a Handkerchief" 9-03-06

In the back room of Othello’s palace, Paula Vogel sets Desdemona: a Play about a Handkerchief, taking Shakespeare’s women and turning them on their heads. In this comedy, the pure and loyal Desdemona becomes a manipulative and sexually adventurous army wife, Emelia becomes a disgruntled washerwoman longing for advancement, and Bianca becomes a courtesan with her heart set on domestic respectability. The play touches upon elements of class, social position, marriage, the role of women, and religion, all served up with clever humor in Vogel’s modern take.

While I don’t think much of this play, I do think it deserved better treatment than Bridget Dougherty’s direction provided. Desdemona is a playful and vulgar comedy with serious themes. However, Dougherty’s production focused only on these serious elements and caused the audience to laugh less often than the actors on the stage. Without the humor, the social and political commentary only seemed dull, and detracted from the production.

As Desdemona, Sara Gruber rarely realized the complexity of the role. Vogel took Desdemona’s purity and added aggression, pride, insecurity, vanity, a hatred of the commonplace, duplicity, and a massive indifference to risk. Gruber only hit some of these notes, and all of them in a haughty inflection that never changed. Her part also demanded someone who could move quickly back and forth between many different faces with the dexterity of a seasoned manipulator. Yet Gruber never convinces that the rest of the characters would respond to her machinations.

In this production, Jen Wolfe’s Emelia consists of only the serious elements of her part. She gave a very capable performance in her pious righteousness, her condemnation of Desdemona’s adultery, and frustration over her miserable marriage. However, the script serves up a slew of one-liners for the role, all but one of which she delivers humorlessly. She reads the line, “I long for the day when he makes me a lieutenant’s widow,” with sincere self-pity, missing an obvious opportunity for humor. But this leaves out so much, as she’s only funny once. When trying to determine if Desdemona, while working for Bianca, might have slept with Iago, they run through a number of possibilities. Finally, Desdemona remarks, “there was one man, who didn’t last very long,” to which Wolfe lowers her head and delivers one of the funniest lines of the play, saying only, “Aye.” Here Wolfe clearly demonstrates a capacity for the comedic timing her part demands, which Dougherty never took to this production’s advantage.

Rebekah Bonney, playing the courtesan Bianca, gave the finest performance of the night. She fired her lines with admirable spunk, describing sex as “Adam-and-Eve-ing it,” discussing the downside of her job as having “the cushiest night for laying, but the stingiest for paying,” and finally indulging Desdemona in a mock dominatrix scene that ends in a vicious catfight between the two. Her acting is solid throughout; when she realizes that Desdemona is using her, even the hurt she displayed felt genuine.

This portrayal enlivened the entire second half of the production, as Dougherty finally let Bonney give the audience a reason to enjoy themselves. Dougherty only gets right the tragic element of this story, aptly staging a devastating moment near the end when Desdemona finally retrieves the sought-after handkerchief. However, beyond Wolfe’s capable foil, and Bonney’s quirky excitement, this production suffers the loss of comedy throughout, and ultimately offers little to recommend.

Review of "The Island" 9-02-06, part of Philadelphia Fringe Festival

Long before The Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke, African men suffered unjust sentences in Robben Island prison. This Apartheid-era institution that once housed Nelson Mandela is brought to life in The Island, a powerhouse of a play by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona. Their play bears witness to the suffering of two men, John and Winston; both sentenced for violations of the unjust racial policies of the state. In the midst of their struggle, they prepare to stage Antigone at a prison concert, and the play centers around the bond between them, their plight, and their ultimate understanding of that play in relation to their lives.

Any director attempting to stage The Island must answer one question for the audience: Why stage a production of Antigone, an ancient Greek myth, while imprisoned? In answering this question, director Daniel Rodriguez and actors Kenard Bunkley and Jeffrey Cousar both succeed and fail in what is ultimately an uneven production.

Most of this imbalance occurs because of a failure to answer that question in one respect. John and Winston stage Antigone as a political protest against the unjust Apartheid regime. But this production loses that element of the play. Some of this is because as John, Bunkley yells so many of his lines that it is difficult to determine what is rage, and what frustration. Then, when John tries to explain to Winston why they perform Antigone as their protest against the state, his words carry little force. As a result, the striking similarities between their cause and Antigone’s go unrealized. This is a shame and a fault, because both actors possess the skill to make this happen, and the audience misses much that the play offers as a result.

As Winston, Cousar gives a solid performance that suffers only when Bunkley overshadows him. His portrayal flows easily between rage at the guards, despair over his life-sentence, and envy at John’s commuted sentence. However, the deep friendship between these two is blurred by a dynamic that is one-sided; as Bunkley’s singular loudness eliminates Cousar’s tempered responses. When Winston curses John’s newfound freedom, the shock that should have occurred is lost with the sorrow of his advice when he tells John, “Forget me.”

When he wasn’t yelling, Bunkley did prove his abilities in the softer moments of the play. Many of these were exceedingly powerful in their execution: when he feigns a call home, when he portrays Creon during the concert, and mostly when he despairs over his realization that an appeal will soon set him free. Again an imbalance, as he fails to make this depth more evident throughout the play.

The productions best moments occur in their answer to the question, “Why Antigone?” Here the actors displayed the existential force of this piece, as two prisoners performing Antigone because they must hold true to the ideals that give their lives meaning. John receives his reprieve and stays awake counting down the days remaining. Winston tries to count down the balance of his life sentence, and without inflection merely counts out “one, one, one…” In this chilling moment, he refuses to indulge in self-pity, realizes why he must perform Antigone, and forces the audience to share in his plight.

The Island is one of the 20th Century’s best plays, and this production brings out many of the elements that make it such. There are many beautifully performed moments here, but unfortunately Rodriguez never integrates these into a coherent whole. However, this production is worth seeing for those moments that do realize the full force of the play’s theme: that we must live true to our ideals under any conditions, no matter how unjust the times in which we live.

Review of Green Light's production of Neil Labute's "Fat Pig," 9-1-06

Many people hide love affairs; that decision is a central plot element in plays ranging from Romeo and Juliet to Hedda Gabler to Tristan and Isolde. In most of these works, the secrecy is only a plot device. However, in Neil Labute’s Fat Pig, the entire play centers around a handsome and likeably vulnerable young businessman named Tom, who misleads his friends and himself, all because his new girlfriend Helen is excessively overweight.

While this sounds intriguing, the simple plot and underdeveloped theme only serves to waste some of Philadelphia’s significant talent. Charlotte Northeast, as the jaded ex-girlfriend Jeanne deserved a far better role than this play offered, and she delivered her few lines with a well-modulated nastiness. Her part is the smallest of the four, a role LaBute only uses to contrast the joy Tom now shares with Helen, against the suffering the audience must imagine he previously endured with her. Even without much text, Northeast made this abundantly clear. However, she failed to offer even a single moment of affection between the lines that would have justified her complaints. This is doubly strange: she complains that she and Tom “should have been engaged by now,” but since Northeast never gave a reason to accept that logic, her later outbursts are then only justifiable by an egotistic self-centeredness. This choice is understandable, but still diminished the production, as it missed an opportunity to add a depth that Northeast could have easily provided.

Damon Bonetti gave the most thorough performance of the night, as he successfully portrayed the evolution of Tom’s character. He begins the play both confident and boyish, a man who admits his faults, but is still someone who doesn’t even blanch when his friend comments on his level of courage. From here, Bonetti gives a slow and well-measured degeneration, as he cowers and lies, lashes out at those he once cared about, and finally, in the full light of self-awareness, despairs over what he sees. His concealment is well effected; he is completely believable when he lies to Jeanne, Helen, and his friend Carter, and only at the end of the play do both he and the audience fully realize cowardice has motivated all of his actions.

As Helen, Natalie Randazzo is fine, but only that. Many of her early lines involve so much self-deprecation that all Randazzo can realize is the insecurity, and everything else she tries seems false. Most of the humor in the play comes from Randazzo insulting herself, all of which director Dawn Cowle worked to maximum, if cruel effect. But Randazzo fails to convince us of the lies she tells Tom and herself through all of this, and gives no evidence to suggest that she is anything but needy. Most, but not all of this stems from LaBute’s script, which relies too heavily on the stereotype of a fat person who feels insecure in a beauty and image centered culture. Yet in the final scene, she demonstrated an under-utilized intensity when, despite her claim to contentedness, she reveals that she “eats when she’s upset.” Here Randazzo knelt prayer-like on the ground, huddled up like a cornered rat, and nibbled nervously on a hot dog. Both creepy and perverse in execution, this was one of the best moments of acting in the whole play.

When he didn’t try to look or sound clever, Allen Radway’s performance of Carter demonstrated an ability that he should have focused throughout the play. Though LaBute reserved most of his lines for humor, Radway twice captivated the audience with his effortless movement between telling fat jokes to a display of the intense anguish and hatred that motivated them. The rest of the time, Radway only made it obvious that he studied comedy with the great acting coach, Chandler Bing. This lack of comedic inventiveness on his part, especially in the mannerisms he displayed, grew old quickly.

The dynamic between Tom and Helen showed the only fault in Cowle’s direction. She made the pauses in their dialogue too awkward and drawn out, which only diffused what they felt onto the audience. This lessened any belief that Helen could charm Tom in a food court (of all places) during the first scene. Later, the length of these pauses created more problems, as their awkwardness hampers the clarity of Tom’s motivations in the relationship. Because of this, there is no certainty in what the director attempts—whether she wanted to make it clear that Tom did love Helen or whether he treats her as a water break, a mere respite from the pressures of his life.

The biggest disappointment of the night rests on the pages of the script. LaBute’s play provided no insight, no elucidation of the theme, merely an unfulfilled promise of issues unexplored. The summation of LaBute’s thematic development came when Carter remarked of fat people, “We hate them because we realize that we’re just a few steps away from them.” But this statement neither proved nor exemplified anything, as it only runs in a circle—we cannot hate someone because we could become them if we did not already possess reasons for our hatred. Here Labute’s avoidance coincided disastrously with the simplicity of the plot, leaving too many questions unanswered, squandering the ability of these actors, and detracting immensely from this production.

Two hours later, Tom can no longer hide in the island of his relationship. Every event is weaved into this one narrative—and as a result, there is very little for the actors to stage. To make it worse, LaBute fails to develop his theme with any fullness—the characters don’t even represent “sides” for or against what Tom is doing to Helen, and more so: not even Tom’s character grasps this struggle. Maybe LaBute wanted to write a play about Tom’s self-realization—at the end of the play, he breaks down, and you’re left wondering, unsympathetically, whether his tears flow because of his cowardice or because he’s losing someone he has truly loved. But neither LaBute nor the choices of the director make this obvious, and the play’s finish only makes the audience glad that this drama is over.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Review of "Das Rheingold" National Theater production, April, 2005

Das Rheingold is the first of the four operas that make up Wagner’s “The Ring of Nibelung.” For its part in the Ring Cycle, Rheingold tells the story of Alberich, a Nibelung troll, who comes to earth, renounces love, and steals the gold of the Rhine—from which he fashions a Ring that he can use to rule all the earth. (I know you raised your eyebrows there, but try to remember that the Nibelung myths that Wagner based his Ring Cycle upon predate Tolkein by several centuries.) Wotan, King of the Gods, takes Loge, the God of Mischief down to the underworld to retrieve the Ring and the gold, which they hope to use to pay two giants who have built a castle for them, in lieu of Friea, the sister to Wotan’s wife Fricka. Through cunning, the two Gods manage to reclaim the Ring, but at a price: Alberich places a curse upon the Ring and Wotan must foreswear it in the end, giving it to the giants as their payment for building Valhalla.

This is a story of a struggle for power and the lengths to which men and gods will go to get it: Wotan never intended to give Freia to the giants as their payment for building Valhalla, he had planned to trick them. He tries to set the gods Donner and Froh upon them, but only the intent to use Loge’s trickery in the end holds him back. Alberich, who first steals the Rhine gold, never wanted to woo the Rhine Maidens, he only wanted their gold to fashion the Ring. Loge wanted to use Wotan to recover the Ring for the Rhine Maidens, and laughs at the power of the curse in the end when the Ring falls into other hands. Even Fricka, Wotan’s wife, wanted the Ring for herself to rule her husband, but she falls silent at the end, seeing what the Ring has done to Wotan when he has it. In the end, one of the giants kills his brother to obtain power. A single, powerful theme dominates this first of four parts, and the intensity, heights, and depths of the music and the libretto match it every step of the way.

For such a resonant theme, this production did little to inspire or engage, and this happened for a number of reasons. First, whoever chose the costumes needs to find another line of work. In Das Rheingold, Gods, giants, trolls, and maidens make up the entire cast. Donner wields a giant hammer and Wotan carries a spear for the whole performance—he even uses it to stab Alberich in the hand when he wrests the Ring from his finger. Yet all of the characters, including the giants, sport clothes that men and women would have worn when Wagner wrote the opera. Wotan wore a tuxedo with long tails to compliment his spear; Donner donned a top hat and sport coat to go with his hammer. In the story, Alberich fashions a helmet that allows him to turn invisible; here the costumer makes the helmet a handkerchief that he uses to cover his head like a child on Halloween. Loge was the worst of all: the little hair he had left was dyed bright red to match a horribly ill-fitting three piece suit that could barely fit over his immense stomach. To top it off, he carried a cane because he was so immense that he needed one to get up and down the “mountain set.”

Speaking of the sets, for almost every minute of the performance, a screen hung in front of the stage, blurring the action. Most of the time, this happened for no reason. No lighting was used to create any effect with this in acts two, three, and four, yet the screen stayed down. This made the staging awful, because you could not see through the scrim. I sat in the eighth row and had difficulty enjoying the visual aspects of the opera. I can’t imagine how bad the screen ruined the staging for the people in the balcony or the galleries. Maybe this represented the director’s cheap (and only) theoretical attempt to separate and distance the audience from the “world of the Gods.” Maybe he should remember that we know we’ve come to the theatre, but that we also want to see what we paid for. The only inspiring, if not immaterial piece of set design was the underworld of the Nibelungs in Act Two, which for some reason contained a merry-go-round. During this scene, Alberich demonstrates his power by turning into a frog, which the prop master made a cheap puppet—and whose movement was controlled by an obvious stick attached to it. Even though the orchestra played through this, you could hear many members of the audience laugh embarrassingly. Here I thought this town did a nice job with marionette theatre.

I can’t criticize the entire production, because the singing redeemed much of it. The men playing Wotan and Alberich, whose numbers dominate, both sang remarkably well, and were very consistent in their presentations of the characters—both in acting and singing. Wotan, struggling with the Ring, deftly displayed his mental turbulence in song in Act Four; Alberich, equally conveyed his lust for power and dominance throughout the entirety of his performance. Fricka and Freia both had lovely voices, when you get to hear them, and Donner added a deep, rich baritone when called upon as well. Their parts are minor in Das Rheingold. The best, and unfortunately least singing came from the man playing Froh, who only sings one full song and snippets in others. His voice was rich, clear, and carried full weight; you wish that the director had cast him instead as Loge, who sang and acted abominably. Something is wrong with a production when you can’t hear the principal tenor’s voice over the orchestra in the eighth row. His voice was very thin and airy, and to coin a term, nearly a-melodius. I often thought he was speak-singing his part in order to make himself heard at all. However, for a man playing the God of Mischief, he looked like an aging queen, and acted that way. When the curtain comes down in Act Four, Loge laughs mischievously at the folly of the Gods and the curse of the Ring. But the laughter reminded more of Nathan Lane in “The Bird Cage.” Maybe I should note that Loge is also the God of Fire—and maybe that’s what the director was going for here.

The director did achieve some nice, albeit minor effects here and there. The giants played and looked their parts well—they wore something akin to (American) football shoulder pads under their costumes, giving them a hideous and grotesque presence. The Rhine Maidens not only sang well, but looked well, even in their Victorian costumes. However, the costume and make up people achieved a wicked appearance for them, a cross between sprites and witches. The maiden wearing a blue dress had blue streaks in her hair and blue lipstick and eye shadow, and likewise for the maidens in the purple and green dresses respectively. Although you couldn’t really see it with the screen in the way, it certainly looked aptly striking when they gave their curtain calls.

All told, the production did little to inspire. For a libretto and story that deals with the machinations of Gods and monsters, you think you could get a staging that at least attempts to equal it. This director didn’t even try. It’s not so much that the production was or seemed flat, but you never for a second felt drawn into it the story. This is understandable for say “Cosi fan tutti,” but seems unimaginable for an awe-inspiring high drama by Wagner. (Again, note to the director and set designer—maybe the scrim did that too). The action and pacing did not keep up with the music or the intensity of the singing required at all. Alberich is the only one that managed this throughout, but I credit him, rather than the director for this. Of course, the best part of the night was the music, and the singing of the principals, save Loge. You can’t beat Wagner for operatic intensity, and this aspect of the Ring does not fail to achieve majesty in the Romantic heights of the word.

Review of "Hamlet the Musical" seen in Prague, Sept. 2005

If you go to see the Kalich theatre’s production of the English version of Jan Ledecky’s Hamlet the Musical, don’t go with the expectation of seeing a version of the play well transposed into song. You’d have better luck finding an accurate retelling of the Gospels in Jesus Christ Superstar. However, what you will get is strong singing, memorable lyrics, and high drama in a well-staged production, all attained with a plot loosely based on Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the lack of correlation with the play does bring its share of downfalls. Because of what they left out, none of Hamlet’s madness could come through, and as a result, the plot is set as a straight revenge drama, once Hamlet finally learns of his father’s murder. Also, the changes force the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia to take center stage. While this adds nicely in the way of some very melodic romantic duets, it only serves to heighten her tragedy, at the expense of de-emphasizing his. In focusing more on the love story, the musical also loses out on the philosophy and wit of Shakespeare’s play. Of course, the musical Hair already used the “What a piece of work is man?” speech, but the only direct placement of text in Hamlet the Musical, is of all things, the mawkish advice Polonius gives to his son Laertes. Even the sword-fight becomes something different in Hamlet the Musical, even though everyone still dies in the end.

That said, there are many good reasons to see this play: Even though the music itself verges on simplistic, Ledecky uses it to great effect. One instinctively recalls such 70’s rock operas like JSC, Hair, and then later, Chess, as most of the music is heavy on keyboards and guitars with the belted roof-raising arias now popular in well…every musical. However, Ledecky has also infused chimes, Gregorian chant, vaudeville numbers, and big band sounds reminiscent of the 40’s and 50’s. He also achieves a remarkable effect in the variation of styles; thematically, the musical could belong to the category of musical revue rather than a coherent musical. While this might diminish other musicals, Ledecky has written this to dramatic advantage, as he uses the music to differentiate each of the minor characters, all of who sing in their own particular style.

Hamlet the Musical scores big on the characterization of minor characters. The play opens on the funeral of the murdered King, where Gertrude and Claudius now sing an eerie hymn, both revealing their complicity. In an interesting twist, Ledecky writes Gertrude as glad of her husband’s death, and portrays the relationship between she and Claudius as one of true-love. Polonius, an over-bearing bore in Shakespeare’s play, becomes here a cheesy nightclub lounge act from Vegas—an over-the-top hybrid of Tom Jones and Dean Martin at their best. He almost steals the show, hamming up this portrayal during the rousing number, “He’s Mad!” when trying to convince Claudius of the source of Hamlet’s depression. The show is stolen by the music and performance of Ulric, the gravedigger. After Ophelia’s death, he rises from the stage to a lone piano medley, his gravelly voice suggesting B.B. King, as he and Hamlet pantomime a vaudeville number with skulls and shovels as their hats and canes.

Sebastian Arcelus shines in the title role. Formerly of Broadway’s Rent, he is given ample opportunity from Ledecky’s music to showcase his talent, and he both acts and sings to full measure. Laertes and Ophelia perform equally well, Polonius, as mentioned, makes you laugh through your own embarrassment at how he handles his part. The worst singing came from Ledecky himself, who originated the title role in the Czech version of the same musical. His singing was garbled and incredibly difficult to understand. I originally thought this problem stemmed from a lack of fluency in English, but after the opening-night performance, he spoke quite easily to the audience about the show, translating his own Czech into English as he explained the genesis of his play. I find it unfortunate at best that he didn’t perform well in a role that he himself had written, to music that he himself composed.

The effects and staging blew me away. I’ve seen many productions on Broadway, and grown used to the revolving stage, but the space of Kalich theatre presented something entirely new. The stage itself is very small for a theatre that seats seven hundred, and the set itself is mammoth: a high castle tower that loomed over the stage and nearly into the first few rows of seats. The stage rotated through many of the songs and scenes, giving the impression of an unending labyrinth of rooms, as the actors chased or fought each other up and down twisting staircases, across moats and trenches, and finally on the ramparts of the castle itself, some twenty feet above the stage. The enormity of the set condensed the action in such a way that added another dimension to the production, as it condensed the space and the lives of all the performers in a way that lines from the text could not—forcing the audience to realize that a common fate bound all of these characters to their eventual doom. The best effect of the night I will leave as a surprise for whoever sees this musical; but I’ll mention that I’ve never seen a character plunge into the audience before.

The casting itself produced a few problems. At times, and not always due to the lighting, Hamlet looks older than both Gertrude (his mother), and his stepfather Claudius. While scholars might debate Hamlet’s age, placing him from 19 to even 30, Gertrude is stunningly beautiful, without a wrinkle and could pass for 25 in some of the revealing dresses she wears in the play. Even Polonius sports a thick head of hair and youthful appearance, and with the costumes, could pass for Ophelia’s older brother. I searched the program afterwards to see if Baz Luhrmann did the casting—one can expect photogenic actors, but these people were all young, and beautiful to watch. Did I mention that this was a bad thing in the production? But then again, this is both a musical and Shakespeare, and naturalism, even in appearance, is quickly shown to the door.

Despite a few minor flaws, Hamlet the Musical is sure to entertain. American producers have already picked up the musical, and plan to move it to New York sometime in 2006. A few changes in cast, and better overall singing will help ensure success, as the story and music succeed on their own merit. And despite the faults of this production, the spectacle of Hamlet the Musical is strongly sung to Ledecky’s inventive characterization, and I highly recommend for anyone to see it here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Review of Brooklyn Academy of Music's production of Hedda Gabler, 3-25-06 (starring Cate Blanchett!)

I consider Cate Blanchett one of the most talented and versatile actresses of our time. Similarly, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a play I regard as one of the best, most coherently structured plays ever written. So when I read that the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) planned to stage Hedda with Blanchett in the title role, I quickly bought tickets, eager to see an actress of her talents tackle one of the most difficult female roles in the dramatic repertoire. (And it didn’t hurt that they had also cast Hugo Weaving, of Agent Smith in The Matrix fame to play Judge Brack, one of the male leads.)

What I didn’t realize was that this production, by the Sydney Theater Company, was a new adaptation of Ibsen’s work, by Blanchett’s husband, the Australian playwright Andrew Upton.

Between Upton, and the director Robyn Nevin, I don’t know who to blame more for how badly they ruined Ibsen’s play and thereby eliminated any chance of a good production. It’s bad enough that Upton’s adaptation mangles the characters and butchers the play from beginning to end. But on top of that, Nevin’s directorial choices force Blanchett, Weaving, and Anthony Weigh (as Hedda’s husband Tesman) into portrayals of their characters that further cripple any revelation of the subtleties of Ibsen’s work.

First, but not foremost, in adapting Ibsen, one must realize that the man began his career as a poet—and that five of his first seven plays, plus his two early successes after those (Brand, and Peer Gynt) he composed in rhymed verse. Hedda Gabler, while written in prose that might sound stilted to 21st century ears, still demands that any updating embrace the complexity and fullness of the characters and text. Unequal to this task, Upton makes the decision to substitute common language in favor of Ibsen’s measured prose—which by itself isn’t bad. I could stand the modern dialogue if it was a mere transposition of Ibsen’s original lines and intent. But Upton avoids this, carving up the play to the extent that diluted the characters and made watching the entire first act no different from a weekly episode of Desperate Housewives.

More problematic though, is the fate to which Upton subjects the characters, especially the title role. Hedda’s character is mangled beyond recognition—and compounding this, Nevin has Blanchett play her without any of the motivations or intentions found in Ibsen’s text. In Hedda Gabler, her restlessness stems from a lifetime of cowardice and a failure to act. Consequently, her outbursts and petty games are scratches against the prison cell of her own choices—albeit one in which she stills strives to maintain freedom enough to entertain herself from boredom. In this way, Ibsen makes of Hedda a theme that he frequents often: a condemnation of those who fail to live according to their own stated principles. Hedda longs for a hero with “vine leaves in his hair,” fully aware that when she had her choice to do so, she backed down in cowardice. She affirms this in the play, stating unequivocally, “Ah yes, courage! If one only had that…Then life would perhaps be livable after all.” But it is courage that she lacks, and to compensate, she turns her own self-loathing outward, amusing herself in the manipulation of others.

No sense of this is found in the Hedda Gabler put on by Upton and Nevin. Throughout the first act, we get only a bored, restless housewife, struggling to come to terms with a marriage made beneath her station. Her treatment of the other characters is done by Blanchett with a childish malice; she throws flowers and cushions on the floor, she makes faces, she tries to peek into letters addressed to others. Meanwhile, though many motives are alleged for Hedda’s behavior—jilted lover, young girl afraid of the commitment of pregnancy, unwilling seductress when it goes too far—all of these are only airs put on by Blanchett, none of them capturing the essential quality of the role. Blanchett does act all of this with great skill, but her overt childishness throughout causes believability problems at the end of the play.

In this case, no one would believe that this Hedda would kill herself, especially not after seeing only a childish temper tantrum lashing out against the world in Act One. (Upton carved the play into two acts.) The early interpretation of Hedda only embodies a will to control or destroy others, but in no way did Blanchett develop the pathos that even in the face of blackmail, would have led her to suicide. Children may rail against the world, but children are easily subdued, and the Hedda seen on the BAM stage would have similarly capitulated. In contrast, the Hedda of Ibsen’s play displays this necessary pathos throughout—at the beginning of Act Two, Judge Brack comes in through the back way and Hedda, though seeing him, shoots at him with her pistol for fun. In Upton’s version though, she calls out to the judge, levels her pistol, then like a schoolgirl, cries “Bang!” and the two then share a little laugh. More important are the lines in the final act that Upton leaves out, when Hedda, learning of Lovborg’s suicide remarks, “At last, a deed worth doing!....I say there is beauty in this…Eilert Lovborg has made up his account with life, he has had the courage to do—the one right thing.” And then later, when pressed, she replies, “Oh what a sense of freedom it gives, this act of Eilert Lovborg’s…it gives a sense of freedom to know that a deed of deliberate courage is still possible in this world—a deed of spontaneous beauty.” Ibsen’s Hedda embodies a lifetime, not of being spoilt by always getting her way—as Upton writes her—but a lifetime of feeling not only that one has nothing to live for, but barring heroic deeds, that no one else has anything to live for either. Consequently, when cornered, by a blackmail, near-poverty, and an expecting pregnancy that all threaten her with both a loss of freedom and a scandal she dreads, Ibsen’s Hedda takes the only way out. Moreover, where Ibsen gives us a Hedda who shares beliefs that many hold at one or another point in their lives, Upton’s Hedda is completely unsympathetic in any regard, no more than one can understand or sympathize with a bratty child.

The direction and adaptation are equally disappointing for two of the other main characters, Tesman and Judge Brack. While Tesman is a pathetic character, I’ve never seen a production where the director so openly encourages the audience to spitefully laugh at him. Tesman is pathetic enough as written—not only does he spend a six month honeymoon making his beautiful bride wait in his hotel rooms while he scours libraries for research material, but he is overjoyed when his wife finally begins calling him by his first name! But this is obviously too subtle for Nevin, who not only makes him look and act like a taller Rick Moranis, but also makes him somewhat nasty in his negligence. By so doing, this production totally downplays his sincerity—not only of his love for Hedda (which is genuine), but of his devotion to his two aunts, and his untainted admiration for Lovborg as a man of greater ability. And this detracts from the production in two ways: it not only reinforces Hedda’s overt childishness when she mocks him (as he now deserves it), but it also makes him, at the end of the play, break out into what is by now an uncharacteristic sob when he learns of the death of his Aunt Rina.

Although this production gives glimpses of the kind of performance that Hugo Weaving could have given, his talent, like Blanchett’s, is wasted. In the original play, Brack competes equally for lines and stage time with the two other male parts. In this adaptation though, Upton has whittled his part away, emptying his character in the process. Most of his lines from (the original) acts one and two disappear, and you get no sense of him here, seeing him only as a threatening womanizer. This damages the production in the end, as Weaving has no other choice but to nearly yell his threats when he blackmails Hedda—and making this the very thin basis upon which she commits suicide. In Ibsen’s original, there is no need for such a clumsy approach, as Brack is more of a clever nuisance, only taking advantages where he can. Consequently, for Ibsen, Brack’s threats are necessarily muted ones, by themselves not insuperable, and only the final tipping point in Hedda’s decision to kill herself.

The production did contain some highlights, in addition to Blanchett’s performance. The director made one interesting and exciting choice, when she cleaved the play around the appearance of Lovborg. This served to further center the action around his character, making a nearly night and day performance between the two acts presented. Moreover, Aden Young’s performance as Lovborg added to this effect. He ignited the stage, and every character was completely warped by his presence. Indeed, Upton’s text-butchering left only his character unscathed—and Young gave it the full dimension that Lovborg’s character deserves.

Upton’s mutilation of Ibsen’s work ruined what could have been the theatrical production of the decade. He failed to do what a bare minimum requires: to capture the essence of the play one is trying to adapt. And this failure isn’t even to the audience’s advantage—because not only did they not get to see Hedda Gabler, but what they did see made no sense regardless. I did enjoy Blanchett’s performance—she did everything she could to inspire belief in this play. And in this, she left no doubt that she could play Hedda Gabler better than any other actress living—completely justifying why I went to see the play in the first place. But Upton’s unfortunate adaptation wastes her talent; and in the end, Blanchett gave a virtuoso performance, but of nothing.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Review of Luna Theater's production of Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" 2-18-06

I’ve always loved seeing plays at the Luna Theater. As a young company, they’ve tackled difficult works in their first 3 years, ranging from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, to Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?, and Mamet’s torturous Oleanna. Every time I see one of their productions, I leave the small studio thinking, this is how good theatre should look. Their recent production is no exception. The Luna Theater has brought Philadelphia an impressive revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, a dark comedy of an intense love affair between an artist on the brink of triumph, and a drug-addled burnout who almost destroys her. Luna’s deft handling of this type of story makes this a play worth seeing, giving in two hours, a rollercoaster of nerve-wracking insanity played out across the stage.

A bit of the story: the play opens on Anna, a choreographer/dancer, in her NYC loft moments after hearing of the tragic death of her roommate and dance partner. Her roommate Larry, and boyfriend Burton attempt to console her, to no avail. She attends Robb’s funeral, and returns to NY, to try and piece her life back together and prepare a piece for a major dance collaborative. Enter Pale, Robb’s fiery, disturbed older brother, similar in appearance, who barges in one night and seduces Anna through their shared grief. Or so we’re meant to believe, as this initial seduction brings about the end of Anna’s relationship, Pale’s marriage, and nearly consumes them both.

The best performances of the night came from the spectacular Pale and Anna, played by Chris Fluck and Aaryn Kopp respectively. As Pale, Fluck dominates the entire production—as expected, since his character is what ignites and motivates the tension of the play. Fluck played Pale as both irritating and gritty, he moved across the stage like a prizefighter, and his energy consumed all of your attention. At times I couldn’t wait for him to get what (should have been) coming to him, at others, I so deeply bought into his burnt out despair that I understood his perspective. I think the script alone would’ve made me simply despise Pale—a Soprano’s reject of a character if ever one existed. But in this production, Fluck brought him to life, giving Pale a sincere vulnerability that made him almost recognizably human. Without his presence on the stage, the production seemed off-key, without purpose or life.

For the most part, Kopp adequately handled the role of the emotionally fragile dancer. Although I partly blame the play for this, watching her, I never got any sense or understanding of her motivations—and interacting with Pale, she seemed unconvincing. Her main fault was too much intensity—whenever she spoke, she did so with the same pitch and nearly the same volume. While this definitely increased the tension when she finally rebuffed Pale in Act Three, it gave the general impression that she was acting out the lines well without a solid understanding of her character.

The performances by the other two actors suffer both by comparison and their own ineffectiveness. Patrick Doran as Anna’s boyfriend Burton appears flat, and never giving the audience a reason to care about his character, consequently never finds a place in the structure of the play. Eric Courtwright, plays Anna’s roommate Larry as the stereotyped gay character—overly dramatic and flamboyant, and utterly annoying at best. While no doubt these types exist, seeing an actor perform this way makes you question his competency in acting, and the director’s decision to allow this portrayal in his production.

Some of the problems with the two minor characters I blame on the text. Both Larry and Burton, as written, merely serve as expedients or problems in the developing relationship between Pale and Anna. Burton has little reason to exist in this play, as Burn This is not a love triangle plot, nor does Burton’s character provide anything but an aggravating thorn in the mind of every audience member who cannot fathom the behavior of Anna’s character. But most of the fault in these two resides in the actors performances. As I already pointed out, Courtwright’s gay roommate sounds one note throughout the entire play, whether he’s relating information, telling a story, or attempting to seduce the other male characters. And though the entire character of Burton is written as background only, Doran only ever plays him in that manner. There is a complete absence of emotion on his part throughout, except rage at the end—which, while having volume, gives no subtlety or hints of a fuller characterization.

However, if I could change anything, I would change the text—at times, it’s nearly unreadable, even for these talented actors. Certain phrases, intended to portray mania or desperation, are overly long, and run together, which hampers understanding (and slowing them down would ruin their effect). At other times, the characters (especially Larry) tell anecdotes of no import, and the play itself completely lacks both a plot and a recognizable theme. An attempt is made, when Larry, trying to explain Anna’s otherwise confusing behavior remarks, “so long as one’s working, personal relationships don’t matter.” But this theme never manifests itself throughout the play, and there is no single idea which comprehensively unites the action.

That said, there is action, and plenty of tension to hold your attention. The play moved well under Gregory Scott Campbell’s direction, and there were no points where a lapse in the action betrayed the tension playing out on stage. In this, Campbell’s apt direction helped the play—and while anyone (especially myself) may have disagreed with the intentions motivating the character’s behaviors, no one could mistake their urgency, the force given them by the intensity this production gave to Wilson’s script. In the best sense of the phrase, I could not wait for this play to end. For while I didn’t care for or identify with any of the characters, and was baffled by their choices, the portrayal by Pale and Anna gripped my interest so tightly that I simmered impatiently in my seat waiting to see what would happen next. I can’t think of higher praise for a production overall—I hated these characters as written, but the intense direction and two lead actors still captured my interest . And this is what made for another potent and exciting evening of theater, done once again in solid fashion by the Luna Theater Company.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Review of Player's Club of Swarthmore production of "Arcadia" 3-18-2006

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is perhaps the most original and brilliant play of our time. The action of the play shifts back and forth between the early 19th and late 20th centuries—the place, an English manor house named Sidley Park, remains the setting for both periods. Part of Stoppard’s play centers around the transformation of the Manor’s garden—one in transition from a state of classical perfection, “Nature as God intended,” and into a representation of the Gothic novel—one that is incomprehensible, horrific, and undelightedly picturesque. Observing the change, one of the characters remarks, “Here I am in Arcadia,” emphasizing her displeasure at the contrast between the beauty of her estate and the shape it is slowly undertaking. That line describes my attitude towards this production perfectly. On the one hand, Stoppard has given us one of the most beautifully inspired pieces of drama written during the second half of the 20th century. On the other hand, the cracked mirror of this production gives no good likeness to the eloquence of what he has written on the page.

The director, George Ainslie, could have easily sidestepped the main fault that plagues this production. He should not have asked this cast to take on heavy English accents while speaking their lines. So much of Stoppard’s dialogue is lost because of this. During the scenes that take place in the 19th century, two of the actors completely muffle their voices—James Hulme, as Captain Brice, while thankfully a minor character, did not read a single line that I could understand. Emily Kaplan, playing the central character Thomasina, for as well as she performed otherwise, became very difficult to hear every time she moved to the back of the stage, which was often. I should note that I sat in the third row of a theater filled to a third of its capacity.

Only two of the actors succeeded at all in mastering their accents: the young tutor Septimus, acted very admirably by Christopher Salazar; and the Mistress of the Estate, Lady Croom, played by Michelle Lynn Owens. Salazar’s accent is the lightest of all those present, one that he maintains along with a dour, amusing, and sly attitude throughout. Owens manages the accent because she only gives her character two settings—domineering, and loud. Moreover, in the play Lady Croom is Thomasina’s mother, so you would naturally assume that they had the same accent, but not in this production. In Ainslie’s Arcadia, the mother screams her lines with the arrogance of the landed nobility while the daughter intones a demure half breed of Cockney and Irish. The use of any accents at all nearly ruins this production.

What saves is twofold; the already mentioned brilliance of the text, and the solid acting by the remainder of the cast. Salazar gave the best performance of the night, easily switching personae between stern tutor, meddlesome lover, acerbic critic, and seductively aspiring master of the estate—moving his affections equally (and easily) between his young protégé, Thomasina, and her mother, Lady Croom. Donna McFadden, playing the sardonic, untrusting author Hannah Jarvis, also turns a solid performance. McFadden, in particular, gives a degree of depth to Hannah that does the play justice—starting off cold and cynical, and ending full of romance and excitement. Both of these actors equally well anchor the production during their respective time periods in the play.

Most of the rest of the cast also do a solid job, succeeding both in their timing and delivery of the lines. This is no mean feat either; Stoppard’s Arcadia contains a great deal of dialogue about mathematics, literary criticism, and the value of science and the arts. Incredibly, all of this is written to entertain—and even a well-done staged reading of this play will delight any audience. But to present the text as a play requires a bit of skill, as the actors could get tripped up, or becoming boring and pedantic while discussing any of these subjects. English accents aside, the concerned does make this play enjoyable, notably Seth Stocking as the mathematician Val Coverly, and Emily Kaplan playing the gifted young student, Thomasina. At every point, Stocking is believable, although his anger is a bit less than muted,; and Kaplan plays her role in earnest—although not to the extent that by the end of the play her acting let’s you know that she’s aged from thirteen to seventeen.

The only real casting problem came in the form of Bernard Nightingale, whom Stoppard writes as a rakish, somewhat pompous, and very charming English Don. As written, no one in the audience should feel surprise as he cultivates the affections of both another successful author in his field—even one whose book he had previously damned—and his seduction of an admiring young girl half his age. But the actor playing this part, listed only as “McKeever”, while credible in the first sense, is clearly not in the other. Except for garbling half of his lines, he plays the pomposity of the seasoned academic very well. But at the same time, he’s too old by ten to believe that an attractive and eager young girl would fall for him. More to the point, little of that attraction is made comprehensible by McKeever or Rose Fairley as the young love interest Chloe Coverly.

Overall, Ainslie has done more good than harm to this play. The various subject matter remains lively, the transitions between time periods run smoothly, and the cast contributes what seems an appreciative and earnest understanding of Stoppard’s play. Without the accents, and a few minor alterations, the director could have made this into a very solid production, one I would have recommended to anyone. That aside, I'm not telling you to avoid seeing this play. Stoppard’s text nearly makes seeing any production of Arcadia worthwhile. However, if you do go, call ahead, and ask them, "will the cast use English accents tonight?" Then tell them that you will come if the cast promises not to. It's the only way you'll get to understand and enjoy the dialogue into which Stoppard has poured so much of his brilliance.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Review of Arcadia University's production of "Keely and Du" 2-25-2006

This weekend I had the fantastic experience of seeing Arcadia University’s production of Jane Martin’s powerhouse of a play, Keely and Du. The curtain opens on a pair of orderlies, carrying in Keely, a young woman who they have abducted on her way to receive an abortion. After this initial event, the play transpires over a period of weeks, as Du, an elderly nurse, and Walter, a minister, engage Keely in a battle of wills and beliefs as they try and hold her hostage until the birth of her unborn child. The play is further complicated by the cause of Keely’s pregnancy—she is a victim of rape by her ex-husband—and rather than engendering greater sympathy for this from her captors, she is considered as a greater proof of the political rightness of their cause. By kidnapping Keely, they full intend to challenge the severest hypothetical justification for abortion.

Kat Schadt, playing Du, delivers the finest performance of the evening. The character is written to exhibit the Christian temperament of a saint, with all the attendant patience, humility, genuine concern, joyousness, and fidelity to God’s will that implies. As written, one could easily belittle the role as a cariacature, a Christian as a true-believer should be, without a touch of hypocrisy. But as Du, Schadt delivers all of these qualities, bringing the text to life with her mannerisms, bits of song, the melody of her voice and mild Southern drawl, and her movement across the stage. Her ever-present portrayal of piety and good-naturedness never gave me a moment to doubt the sincerity of all her actions, especially at the end of the play when Du must choose to sacrifice herself in obedience to God’s greater law, even though risking imprisonment in the process. This is a difficult role for any actress to perform convincingly, let alone for a college student—and only the youthful glow of Schadt’s face betrayed her performance of the character.

As Keely, the young abducted mother, Lydia Andrien all but matched the excellent performance given by Schadt. The role of Keely, while more suited for someone of college age, is as difficult to play, if not harder. For much of the first act, the play moves in short ellipses, rather than scenes, and Keely doesn’t even speak for the first handful of these. Then, much of her time is spent hysterically. Here Andrien breathes life into her character, never once devolving into histrionics. Her portrayal of Keely is solid in every respect—when commiserating with Du against the minister who holds her hostage, when breaking down our of anger, and most, when reacting in sheer genuine horror to the situation in which she has been placed. Moreover, as the play progressed, the relationship between Schadt and Andrien evolved in a manner that endeared the audience while justifying itself. This is both a credit to the actors and the play, as the relationship between the pro-life and pro-choice proponents results in a victory for neither side. Yes, Du does wind up in prison for kidnapping, but only because her humane devotion to Keely put her there.

As the minister Walter, Jason Grabowski fills out the role only in the manner in which the part is written. The lines he is forced to recite are cant and at times confusing, and Grabowski’s Walter comes off as mere filling—both in his portrayal and as a character. While he has opportunities to become more than a posterboard for the pro-life movement, Grabowski never embraces these, and as a consequence, he always appears either too flat, too staid, too adamant, or too quick to anger for too little reason. In short, he appears as a player on the stage, lacking nuance and subtlety, reading his lines, yet never matching the flesh and blood characterizations of the two leading women.

Beyond the two impressive leading women, there are memorable, almost devastating moments within the play. One occurs when Keely laments the deplorable excesses and lows of her young life, exclaiming finally her dream of withdraw to a world where she has to strain to hear anything. To this, the elder Du, unfazed by her own tragic experiences, replies in a haunting whisper, “but dear, that’s like dying,” and in a single expression, she underscores the life and death themes of the play. Later, in the final moments of the play, Keely visits Du, who, now in prison for kidnapping, refuses to speak with Keely—presumably because Du now serves a sentence in vain, as Keely terminated her pregnancy after all. In her final words, Schadt laments, “Why?” giving the simple question a much greater meaning, devastating the audience with a single word. Keely responds, her hands locking with Du’s, as she asks the same question in return. This single moment, written, and performed so well, qualifies the entire debate over abortion as a pair of opponents willing to do anything for their cause except avoid speaking past one another. The “why” goes unanswered, and becomes on the stage an angering, frustrating, and humiliating question.

I will give great credit to the direction displayed by Mark Wade in crafting this fine performance. From Keely’s first waking, the tension never disappears from the stage, and the quick pacing of the play kept me leaning forward in my chair the entire night. And while everything the actors did was believable to the point of expectation, (who didn’t know what she was going to do with that hanger?), Wade’s pacing never gave you enough time to prepare yourself for when it did. Everything unfolded neatly, making this one of the finer college productions I’ve seen in some time.

In the end, Keely and Du, makes you leave the theatre thinking about, if not rethinking, the very real moral issues surrounding the abortion question. The play gives one of the best premises in the theatre, a completely entrancing idea that could (philosophically) lead in a number of different directions. But I’m doubtful if the text by itself could prompt such re-examination in a way that this performance mandated from the audience. To that accomplishment, all the credit goes to these young performers at Arcadia.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Local Theatre I'm seeing

Feb. 4th: Production of "Die Fliedermaus" at Lehigh University's Zoellner Arts Center. Jan. 21st: Production of "Opus" at the Arden Theatre. See my review below. Jan. 28th: Production of "Evita" at the Wilmington Drama League. See my review below.