Yes, I enjoy entering Times Square at the “Katharine McPhee Subway Entrance” on 43rd, and yes, I quietly moan “Let Me Be Your Star” each time I ascend those steps.
Not weird at all.
There’s plenty to love in the Public’s As You Like It in the Park: the killer cast, the relaxed style, and the lucid storytelling for starters. Director Dan Sullivan’s interpretation puts to focus squarely on the text, so left to pore over the wordy jewels Shakespeare weaves into his story, you’re sure to encounter your own thematic insights.
I, personally, was most struck by the wonderful kindnesses in the play. Over and over, to degrees large and small, people expecting hardship and aggression encounter unexpected generosity.
My favorite of these kindnesses—and my favorite moment of this production—came when banished Orlando storms into the Duke’s forest campsite, momentarily holding the thoughtful Jaques hostage. “I almost die for food,” shouts Orlando, “and let me have it.”
The response of the onlooking Duke? “Sit down and feed and welcome to our table.” This immediate assent disarms Orlando. “Speak you so softly?” he says. “Pardon me I pray you.” Orlando then joins their woodsy meal as a brother, not a threat.
In this and other moments, As You Like It posits charity as the ultimate act of diplomacy. Not only does it diffuse tense moments, it turns enemies into friends, rivals into comrades.
Soho Rep’s star-laden staging of Uncle Vanya is already sold out—sorry, guys—so this edition of “Favorite Moment” will have to take the place of actual theatergoing for you ticketless chumps out there.
Towards the end of the play’s second act, step-relations Yelena (Maria Dizzia) and Sonya (Merritt Weaver) reconnect after years of detachment and mistrust. They share a drink and gossip over the midnight oil, and once they’ve exposed their insecurities and desires, finally come to see each other as sisters in angst. By sharing their hearts, everything feels renewed and possible, and Yelena wants to celebrate with music, even though it’s been years since she’s tickled her piano’s ivories.
So Sonya rushes out in excitement to ask permission of her father (it’s the middle of the night and he isn’t well). Several expectant seconds pass.
But when Sonya reenters the room, all hope deflates: “He said no,” she exhales in sadness.
With that, not only does the possibility of music disappear, all hope of escape, beauty, and redemption evaporates, too. It’s a gorgeously awful moment of heartbreak, and in this Sam Gold production, it’s as devastating as ever.
by Anton Chekhov
at Soho Rep
directed by Sam Gold
Pictured: Maria Dizzia and Michael Shannon. Photo by Sara Krulwich
Enough about the Tonys, already—let’s go back Off-Broadway!
While lots of big, downtowny institutions sit dark over the summer, plenty of scrappier companies buckle down and brave the hot months. Case and point: Colt Coeur, a can-do ensemble founded in 2010 now on its third production, Eliza Clark’s Recall.
Colt Coeur’s first outings, Steven Levinson’s Seven Minutes from Heaven and Lucas Kavner’s Fish Eye, earned the company the kind of pull quotes many an uptown theater would kill for. The Times called Heaven “so real you almost believe it was written by one of its characters” and New York Magazine titled its review of Fish Eye, “Bringing Sexy Back to Off-Broadway.”
Behind this bringing back of sexy is artistic director and founder Adrienne Campbell-Holt, who directed all three productions. I chatted with her after catching a preview of Recall, a chilling, dystopian take on childhood psychosis (think We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Minority Report). Our phone conversation covered the play, the downtown scene, falling scenery, and everything in between. Enjoy excerpts, below.
Why did you want to produce Recall?
I’ve always been a bit of sci-fi nerd—I love Philip K. Dick—so when my agent sent me the script, I fell in love with it right away. I had also just read the book Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, which made me feel drawn to Recall’s alternate presence world and the menacing possibilities of it. I also really loved the book The Road, and I felt Eli’s writing had elements of that sci-fi alternate presence, while also being really firmly grounded in reality and truth. At its core it’s a mother/daughter story, a love story where all the characters are trying to protect someone.
The play’s pretty freaky—how do you go about making scary theater?
In theater there’s this opportunity to let things go unseen—it’s scarier what we don’t see, like in The Blair Witch Project. So, [in the play’s climactic final moments] not seeing the room fill with water is scarier and makes us think of more different things. Some people have said, “It made me think of the gas chambers,” or, “It made me think of burning people.” All these horrible things!
It’s so delicate. If we had a much a greater budget and unlimited resources, maybe we would’ve had to choose to be sort of expressionistic. Instead, our constraints forced us in that direction.
What’s the terrain like for young companies like Colt Coeur—is New York hospitable, or are things tough?
You probably got a sense on Saturday night of how tough things are. Everybody worked around the clock in the few days before previews started to build the set, but part of it fell on an actor’s head five minutes before 8 o’clock. That’s terrifying for me because, of course, safety first, and because it rattles the company. That night was also a really small house, and we had been full the night before—I feel like that’s representative of how hard and uneven it is.
When I was twenty two, I started a company in New York called Nest. It did well and it was fun, but I was naïve and had no idea how hard it was. When I started this company, I was in a different place maturity-wise and with connections, and it really helped to start it wish a group of artists that I trusted. I think that’s the most important thing when you’re starting a company, that you’re all working around the clock for zero dollars, and believe in it, and that you’re having a good time with each other.
Fortunately, the first two shows were received well. Some of the powers that be, like the Roundabout people, have been really positive, which helps. Also, a lot of the actors in the shows ended up signing with big agents and our costume designer just won a Tony for Peter and the Starcatcher. So, it’s cool that they still want to work on these shows.
Do you get the sense that the things for downtown companies are different now than they were 10 or even 20 years ago?
I used to work at the Wooster Group, and when they would talk about the 60s and 70s, I would get so jealous and nostalgic for that time—it must’ve been great for there not to be like 300 million different downtown theater companies! Now there are just so many.
Catherine don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ babies. She’s got the career thing down, but as for family life and reproductive bliss, well, that’s another story. She’s never wanted that stuff, but now that she’s facing her mother’s mortality, the otherwise protective warmth of her impressive CV is feeling a little inadequate.
Gwen, on the other hand, is all too intimately acquainted with the world of infant feces and babysitter drama. A grad school frenemy of Catherine’s, Gwen chose love over work… and hates most every minute of it.
Such is the “Trading Spaces” setup of Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, a comedy of envy animated by the tenets of feminism, now premiering at Playwrights Horizons. A thinking woman’s rom-com with detours into the classroom (thank you, Ms. Gionfriddo, for the concise and clarifying women’s movement summary!), Rapture, Blister, Burn humorously charts the failure of feminism to satisfy either the career woman or the homemaker. As Catherine and Gwen eye each other’s territory and greedily venture therein, the quest for good living feels ever more Sisyphean and futile. It seems that everyone—career woman, mom, and every variation in between—is, well, fucked.
It’s a quandary echoed in State of Wonder, the 2011 novel by Ann Patchett. Although that book’s forays into the thorny back country of feminism are far less explicitly spelled out than those in Ms. Gionfriddo’s play, State of Wonder asks with equal vigor, “how should we then live?” The novel centers around a female, American researcher working in bowels of the Amazon on a miracle drug that would extend fertility far into menopause. If successful, it would allow women into their ‘70s to conceive; one character calls it “the Lost Horizon of American ovaries.”
At first glance, the ethics of such a drug seem self-evident—it would be the height of female empowerment, right? Given the means to extend one’s biological clock almost indefinitely, a woman could be free to, say, forge a successful career uninterrupted by pregnancy, then pop out a few juniors easy as pie. She could plan complete work and home lives.
And yet—isn’t childbearing the historical centerpiece of female subjugation? In some (many?) hands, mightn’t the drug become a step back? In State of Wonder, the cynics joke that the fertility pill would create a horror show of unending reproduction, rendering women deferent, baby-making cows, from adolescence to grave. The treatment might spell nothing more than a trip back to the dark ages, a perverse romp into the medieval territory where being a woman means being pregnant.
It’s fun to consider what this miracle drug would mean to the characters of Rapture, Blister, Burn. Would Gwen have stayed the career course and delayed her marriage if a fertility pill were available? And would Catherine feel the same vocational angst and need for a man if there existed the assurance that her eggs were never going to deteriorate? With a pill around, the thinking might go, the two women wouldn’t need to choose between paths. They could have it all, whenever they wanted.
But my guess is that both women would behave similarly with or without a pill. As written, each woman’s troubles seem more about men than childbearing. Catherine probably does want children, but what she really, immediately wants is Gwen’s husband. And Gwen doesn’t seem as interested in postponing children as in getting out of the damn house. On reflection, it appears that what Gwen and Catherine could really use isn’t baby-on-demand, but man-on-demand.
Sorry girls, but there’s no pill—fictional or otherwise—for that.
Rapture, Blister, Burn
by Gina Gionfriddo, directed by Peter DuBois
Playwrights Horizons, through June 24
Pictured: Beth Dixon and Amy Brennaman. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Early Sunday morning, I experienced one of the cooler and more bizarre events in town: the Tonys dress rehearsal. On the one hand, it was mostly what you’d expect—a fun, backstage-ish peek at a major (?), live awards show.
But at the same time, it was also a hilariously and insanely awkward masquerade. During the rehearsal, the real nominees aren’t present, so stand-ins are hired to play their parts. In an effort to help make everything as real as possible, these “nominees” actually go onstage to accept a “Tony” when, at random, their names are drawn.
Simple enough, right? Wrong! Instead of making quick dummy speeches, almost all of these “winners” delivered heartfelt, emotional, and passionate monologues, never once winking at the audience or acknowledging they weren’t actually the winners. These “victors” gave shoutouts to castmates, thanked their playwrights, and sometimes spoke for so long they had to be drowned out by the (canned) orchestra. I cannot begin to communicate to you how uncomfortable and hilarious it is to watch people take such a silly job so seriously.
“Andrew Garfield,” for example, waxed poetic about how amazing it is to “get out and put all my baggage onstage every night.” The sound designer from End of the Rainbow mused, “I feel like this is the gold at the end of one rainbow, and the beginning of another!” “Judith Light” felt “such light and warmth from her Broadway community,” and “Elizabeth A. Davis” eloquently reminded us that “Everyone on Broadway is one of the most talented people.” One stand-in who played a multi-Tony-winner ended up onstage several times, so when he seriously pontificated that he’d “had the honor of being on this stage before, and it gets better every time,” the audience laughed uproariously—and not with him, but at him!
The word for all this self-seriousness, really, is “kitsch,” the great German term for “an inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style of art,” the real actors being the originals, the stand-ins the tasteless copies.
Bloody Hell! What is it with Brits and audience interaction?
Both the current Potted Potter and One Man, Two Guvnors—imports, the lot of ‘em—generously partake of this most dangerous of devices.
If you’re like me, you want your actors engaged onstage, thank you very much. Indeed, as the narrator of The Drowsy Chaperone once prayed, “I didn’t pay good money to have the fourth wall come crashing down on me.” Amen, brother!
But sometimes… sometimes!… a little crashing ain’t so bad, something to which these two new shows can attest. Potted Potter, a screwy summary of the tomes of JK Rowling, pauses the Cliffs Notes midway through Book 4 to bring up the lights on a fun, participatory game of Quidditch. While there aren’t any flying brooms (this is off Broadway, guys), there are two light-up, circular goals on either side of the theater, as well as some souped-up lighting. Houses right and left (“Gryffindor” and “Slytherin”) compete by battling over a beach ball hurled into the audience. (You know, like at your high school graduation.)
My fellow Potterheads and I never did score, leaving the tally at a disappointing nil-nil, but two audience member erased our dismay by joining the cast onstage for a follow-up episode of snitch-catching. The hyperactive little boy proved incredibly hilarious when he hurled himself fearfully off the stage, while the deceptively demure tween girl prompted the evening’s funniest ad-lib by tackling a performer dressed as a snitch to the ground: “She’s got 99 problems, but a snitch ain’t one,” deadpanned an actor.
Potted Potter got lucky the night I saw it: The audience members were good fun and endearingly odd. But what happens when they’re dull or even dangerous? One Man, Two Guvnors manages that contingency with “plants,” or actors pretending the be ticket holders. One “Christine” gets the craziest of the fun, getting knocked around and whited-out by a fire-extinguisher. (When I saw the show in London, I didn’t think the woman was a plant, so believable was her anxious performance. It was only when I looked at the published script that the truth came out.)
In both shows, the audience shenanigans was the highlight of the evening, enlivening scripted comedy with some spontaneity. Still, I hold to my principles: Please stay away, actors; the threat of getting pulled in front of the footlights is enough to send me slinking into the ground, terrified.
Agree? Disagree? Let’s (gulp) bring down the 4th wall of the blogosphere and (double gulp) interact!
at the Little Shubert
directed by Richard Hurst
One Man, Two Guvnors
at the Music Box
directed by Nicholas Hytner
photos by Joan Marcus