“The Glass Menagerie” at ART

Glass Menagerie Photo: Michael J. Lutch“The play is memory,” announces our narrator toward the outset of The Glass Menagerie. A twinge of regret in the back of his throat, he continues. “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” Pretty clear instructions for a director, no?

But most productions of this Tennessee Williams classic (at least the ones I’ve seen) don’t take Tom’s statement—“it is not realistic”—at face value. While they may veer towards something more heightened in a few characterizations, and in the delivery of Williams’s poetic writing, they are generally grounded in the cold, hard truth of the kitchen sink.

Not so John Tiffany’s production, at the American Repertory Theater in Boston. If you’ve read any of the pre-show publicity, you know that Mr. Tiffany and his designers (Bob Crowley on sets, Natasha Katz on lighting) have opted for a more unconventional look. The stage is a pair of honeycombed platforms atop a sea of black water, and behind the deck is another equally eerie abyss of blackness. From first glace, it is clear: your average Menagerie this is not.

Movement director Steven Hoggett ups the anti-realism ante by supplying fantastical little interstitial dances that knit various scenes together. A stylized flourish here, a shocking entrance there—like the design, it’s more the stuff of contemporary movement theater or experimental work than classic American drama.

And that’s what’s so right about this production. Its melding of classic psychological realism (those well-known scenes) and the best of new theatrical techniques (the design, the movement, the direction) yields something that feels shockingly current. I was so taken by the modernity of everything, the self-awareness of so much of the narration, that I went and checked the original text, wondering if Tiffany had altered any of the language to make it feel more 2013. But this doesn’t appear to be the case. His direction merely gives the proceedings the feel of something new.

That freshness also pervades every performance. Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith all match Tiffany’s freshness with their own, and you never for a moment doubt that what they’re doing is happening right now.

Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that this alloyed evening works so well. Williams directed it to be so from the start—remember that first quote? Maybe that’s what’s always exciting about Glass Menagerie, that from the first, Williams insists we braid old technique and new, past and present. With feet in two eras, the result is doubly strong, doubly potent.

POSTSCRIPT
(The production also makes incredibly effective use of underscoring. I wish it was a tool more commonly deployed—it seems such a useful tool in drawing audiences in.)

Photo (above) by Michael J. Lutch, below, by theater-words

The window-walls of ART are covered in letters Williams wrote his mother.

The window-walls of ART are covered in letters Williams wrote his mother, the model of Menagerie‘s Amanda.

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A Broadway Detour in “Far From the Tree”

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon‘s brilliant, brick-heavy Far From the Tree is a book seemingly far removed from the world of theater. Subtitled “Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity,” it chronicles the pains and triumphs of people who create offspring profoundly different from themselves; Solomon’s categories of dissimilarity include deafness, criminality, transgenderism, and dwarfism, among others. His ultimate message in so much heartbreak is an uplifting one: most people, he says, can love any child, no matter how disabled; indeed, the pain in loving them is made all the greater for being so hard-won. “There is a psychic proximity in desolate times that happiness does not match,” Solomon writes, adding later, “The happy endings of tragedies have a dignity beyond the happy endings of comedies.” The book’s 700 pages demand a significant time investment, but I found it more than worth my while. It is the truest book I have read in quite some time.

But back to the stage—one of Solomon’s chapters is “Prodigies.” It intersects interestingly with the theater by profiling composer Scott Frankel, himself a former child prodigy. You probably know Frankel for his Grey Gardens score, but his work will be back on the boards this summer, when his Far From Heaven opens Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Frankel’s story of growing up different is fascinating, and I’ve included a few excerpts below. Here’s what Solomon writes:

Scott’s first piano teacher knew that Scott had a remarkable talent; Scott knew, too. “There’s something palpable when your abilities fill you with a divine sense of fate,” he said. “It instantly separates, even alienates you from your schoolmates.” Playing for his parents, “I began to think they liked me for what I could do, perhaps to the exclusion of who I was. The pressure made music an unsafe area. My partner and I had people over for lunch recently, and one asked me to play and I said, ‘No,’ and I sounded really rude, and I felt that rage again. I can’t shake it”…

When he told his parents he was gay, they were livid. “I resented the parochial affection,” he said. “You get the whole package. You can’t pick the shiny bits from the other bits.” In his twenties, Scott became so angry at his parents that he stopped writing music. “Their interest made me want to eat the baby,” he said, “to deprive them of something to pimp and market for their own purposes. Of course, it had the side effect of shooting myself, career-wise and ethos-wise, in the foot. I was completely unmoored, and nothing made sense anymore. All I had was drugs, sex, and therapy.” Scott went ten years without touching a piano. “Yet music kept encroaching. I would be near a piano and feel emotions I couldn’t shut out.” Finally, Scott began composing the musicals that propelled him to Broadway…

Read the whole book for the full story—it’s fascinating, tear-jerking stuff… and it just might offer enough material to bide the time to Far From Heaven‘s May premiere!

photo of Scott Frankel (below) by Zack DeZon

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Favorite Moment: All in the Timing

All in the TimingWhere was the last place you witnessed a gigantic baker birthing loaves of bread?

At All in the Timing, that’s where.

What you see above is the G-rated version of what actually goes on in one segment—an Einstein on the Beach satire—of this crazy, whakkadoodle show. Modesty standards prevent me from putting up a picture of the yeasty act of life-making… but suffice it to say that each bread-child comes about thanks to… well… a rolling pin.

Snaps all around for David Ives and Walter Bobbie, who’ve given me the resources to answer every child who asks, “when does bread come from?”

Not the stork, little one, not the stork…

photo by James Leynse

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Much Ado About Much Ado

Much Ado About Nothing Several days ago, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times took Off-Broadway’s Much Ado About Nothing to task for being “determined to underline this comedy’s more pessimistic, even gloomy aspects.” Ouch! But a recent visit to the Theatre for a New Audience production revealed more to the story: Isherwood is certainly not incorrect in his diagnosis, but to my eye, this “gloominess” is the production’s strength, not its weakness.

Much Ado is one of the stranger Shakespeare plays in the canon. The plot’s lighthearted tricks and easy engagements—nice but forgettable—are viciously shattered halfway through the evening when a jilting takes place. Believing his fiancé Hero to be inconstant, Claudio (the exquisite Matthew Amendt) rips into her, calling her (among many things) a “rotten orange” with nothing “but the sign and semblance of her honor.” As directed by Arin Arbus, the scene is unrelentingly cruel. Claudio’s heartlessness is chilling, and Hero’s sad, withering figure makes you look away. This new and unexpected tone takes up residence for most of the rest of the play. What once was breezy and jokey becomes strange and dark.

Of course, the story’s machinations reunite the couple by the play’s end, but one feels here that Hero and Claudio will need to have some serious talks before they can enjoy marital bliss. Michael Friedman‘s ominous score, baleful even at the wedding, communicates this message, too, and it carries the audience out of the theater on an uneasy note.

Much Ado should have exactly this uncomfortable effect. After all, any production of the play that ignores the cruelty of Claudio’s false accusations can’t be true to life. Would you cheerily reenter an engagement with nothing more than a quick apology, after having been reamed out by your beloved at the altar? Didn’t think so. By acknowledging the hatefulness inherent in the play, this production aligns its inner workings with those of the real world. For a 400-year old piece of writing to do that—no easy feat—warrants a thumbs up in my book.

photo by Nella Vera

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What Would Clifford Odets Say?!

There’s some major title plagiarism on network TV these days. Oh, CBS…

golden-boy1

Somewhere underground, Clifford Odets is pulling on his boxing gloves and shouting, “Strike! STRIKE!”

The theft is almost as galling as this one, committed by novelist Lauren Groff:

Arcadia Lauren Groff

We love you girl, but don’t go stepping on Tom Stoppard‘s toes.

It’s not as if these titles aren’t well known: Both plays have been recently revived to great acclaim on Broadway. Clearly, TV and books execs are counting on the ignorance of the general public. Such sadness!

Any other tales of stolen titles you can think of?

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Good Person, Bad Times

Good Person of Szechwan Foundry Theatre La MamaTaylor Mac pulls out a cross-dressing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act in Good Person of Szechwan, Foundry Theatre production now at La Mama. Most of the time in this sincere, Brecht fable, Mac is dolled up as “Shen Tei,” the beautifully bald prostitute with a heart of gold. (“God bless us, every one!,” you imagine her cooing while batting sparkly eyelashes.)

But when the going gets tough, Shen Tei trades her flowery daintiness for the pinstripes and pragmatism of “Shui Ta,” a brother she invents to do a little spy work. Where Shen Tei showed hospitality, Shui Ta shows practically; where Shen Tei was generous, Shui Ta is stingy.

Mac isn’t playing two characters here—Shui Ta is just Shen Tei in drag. (Or is it reverse drag?) And it is this fact that makes this dramedy so chilling: the play’s hero and villain are the same person. The conflict between good and evil is the conflict between a person and herself, between her better ideals and her more practical instincts.

Over and over, Good Person asks the question, “How can one be good in this evil world?” Brecht doesn’t blame authorities, or the wealthy, or any of the easy targets you might expect. Instead, he grabs our pointed fingers and aims them right back at ourselves, at mankind’s very nature. We may have some good, some Shen Tie in us, but we’ve also got plenty of evil. More than enough Shui Ta.

We are our own hope and our own destruction, or own saviors and our own nemeses.

Shen Tei/ Shui Ta never does quite parse that distinction. History tells us that few ever have.

Photos by Pavel Antonov

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Trending Off-Broadway

Water By the Spoonful - photo by Richard Termine

Anyone else notice a few striking similarities between Water by the Spoonful and The Great God PanI know I’m late to the game with these Second Stage and Playwrights Horizons productions, both recently closed, but if they left any impression (and they probably did), you might recall these shared traits:

1. MOSAIC STORYTELLING
Rather than lead their audiences on clear, linear journeys, playwrights Quiara Alegría Hudes (Water) and Amy Herzog (Pan) opted for patchwork approaches. Many of their characters don’t intersect, instead leading concurrent narratives that only reflect each other in not entirely obvious ways. In both plays, this approach added to the texture and scale of the worlds represented, even if it left some theatergoers a little miffed.

2. GREENERY!
Designer Neil Patel (Water) let plants grow rampant over his boxy set, as did Mark Wendland (Pan) for his. (Wendland used photos of plants rather than imitations of the real thing.) In both productions, this jungle/forest feel suggested both beauty and a hint of menace. And that wasn’t all: Both sets also had a segmented, collage-y thing going, a visual representation that “mosaic storytelling.”

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Water by the Spoonful, photo by Richard Termine

Great God Pan Playwrights Horizons

The Great God Pan

3. TONE
Water and Pan shared a style very much in vogue these days, that is, the quiet rhythm of everyday melancholia. And even when the volume turned up, the plays never strayed from this indie-film ethos, all quiet sadness and heartache.
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Of course, in terms of story and theme, these plays were quite different… Addiction and the internet were the stuff of Water, while memory and abuse was Pan’s focus. Still, when two of New York’s most acclaimed playwrights share at least this much, it might be time to pull out… oh yeah… the hashtag:

#trending, #offbroadway, #goodplays… you know what I’m talking about…

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Richard III and Dem Bones

Britain Richard IIINow is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this hump of torque: Scholars at the University of Leicester have confirmed the above skeleton as that of Shakespeare’s most twisted, twisting villain, Richard III. (Check out the deformed spine! Kevin Spacey and the rest got it right!)

The body’s been missing since its hasty burial, but has finally been located, 500 years after the fact, under a parking lot.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already planning a trip to the grave, where I’ll kneel and whisper sweet nothings like, “Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,” and “Foul devil, for God’s sake hence and trouble us not!”

P1-BJ998_Richar_G_20130118173846

photos courtesy of the University of Leicester

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Ye Olde “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

In honor of the new Scarlett Johansson/Benjamin Walker Cat on a Hot Tin Roof now on Broadway, here’s a blast from the Tennessee past: scans from the original, 1955 Cat Playbill.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

Already nostalgic for the now-demolished Morosco Theatre, where this Cat prowled? Don’t be—the Marriott Hotel now in its stead is a far more important architectural, artistic, and cultural space than any classic, Broadway house. Definitely.

But enough of that. Turn a few pages and you stumble onto a hilarious diatribe about “real” stars and “parochial” stars—click the image for a better (but not great—sorry!) view. (Mr. Burr thinks that narrow-minded Broadway is rife with the latter kind.)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

After that little treat comes a reminder of the usefulness of Google, the “What’s What” section.

Scan Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

The title page is similar to today’s equivalent…

Scan 13033Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill0006

… but cast bios were, without question, more arful and well-crafted. Can we PLEASE lose the laundry-list style now in vogue and return to these entertaining write-ups?

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

On the back cover, of course, is a cigarette ad. Wasn’t it nice back in the days when smoking was good for you?

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

Those were the days…

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