Really? REALLY?!

Really Really playReally Reallythe hot new show at MCC, was written by Paul Downs Colaizzo while he was on tour with a TheatreWorksUSA children’s production. “As we traveled with the show,” he recently told Playbill.com, “I sat in the back of the van and wrote the first half of this play.”

Whaaaaaat? As someone who recently did a TheatreWorks show, I am in awe of Mr. Colaizzo’s ability to get work done in what (for me) was always a cramped and noisy environment. My cast of seven jammed constantly in our van and our Prius, where nary a spare inch once presented itself as we wheeled through the northeast, midwest in Canada.

But also–oh!, the outrage! NOT FAIR! How did you do manage to pull that off, Mr. Colaizzo?! It took me all the energy and concentration I had just to listen to a Rachel Maddow podcast or eat a McDonalds apple pie. Creating a work of art in such a space? Too herculean task if I ever heard of one.

What’s the secret, Mr. Colaizzo? We really really wanna know…

Really Really play

photo by Janna Giacoppo

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CH CH CHECK IT OUT…
— MCC’s The Submission
— Alas, It’s True: We’re Gonna Die

Beep Beep, Honky Honky

Honky Urban StagesThere’s plenty of time left in the spring season, but we may have an early winner for the Most Enticing Premise Award. That venerable statuette goes to… oh the drama!… Honky, at Urban Stages. The show’s press material should explain its win: “When a black sneaker company hires a white CEO, their commercials begin glorifying the ghetto and sales triple among white teens. But when violence erupts in a black community, the shoe designer blames the ads and promises revenge.” Add an anti-racism pill to the mix (its street name is “bleach”) and you’ve got quite the setup.

The play’s themes echo those of other recent race plays like Clybourne Park and Luck of the Irish, but where those pieces trafficked in real estate, Honky goes after the world of advertising. Playwright Greg Kalleres’s perspective is authentic: Kalleres spent years working as a copywriter and witnessed firsthand the bizarre and hilarious depth of “white guilt,” as well as the awkward act of getting the “right” proportion of minorities represented. As he writes in the play, for advertisers it isn’t a question of race, it’s about demographics. (A friend of mine who works in advertising nodded along at that line, whispering, “it’s true!”)

Of course, theater is just as enmeshed as any other industry in the realm of sell sell sell. It takes advertising to put butts in seats. And what puts those butts in those seats? A good premise. A Most Enticing Premise.

photo by Ben Hider

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LIKE THIS? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
Don’t Fire, the Guns are Loaded!”
Peace, Love, and Belarus

Telsey + Companies

SPOTTED! If you didn’t catch him on Smash, don’t fear: mega casting director Bernie Telsey is featured in this bank ad…

Bernard Telsey bank ad
Let him be your star!

From the Chekhov Files

Neva Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeIn a supremely strange synchronicity, two plays that riff on Chekhov opened this past week. One would be occasion enough, but two? Such, apparently, is the power of that old, Russian dramatist. He is a seagull, indeed!

The plays couldn’t be more different. Broadway’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang, is a belly laugh a minute, while Guillermo Calderon’s Neva, at the Public, is more serious and political. Both, of course, bring up the classic, Chekhovian themes of disaffection, angst, and boredom, but their methods for doing so couldn’t be more different.

Set in the present day, Vanya… follows three middle-aged siblings, each unhappy in his/her own way. Named after Chekhov characters by their professor parents, the siblings (played brilliantly by David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen, and Sigourney Weaver) spin a hilarious roller coaster of a tale, one where coffee cups are smashed, house cleaners predict the apocalypse, and Snow White costumes are pulled from the closet. All the madcap hilarity kicks into something profound and moving by the end, but the journey there is a smile from ear to ear.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Broadway Kristine Nielsen Shalita Grant

As for the other corner, you may laugh occasionally at Neva, but that’s not the focus of the evening. What is the focus is Olga Knipper, the widow of Mr. Chekhov. Appearing at a dimly-lit rehearsal room on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Olga spends the play talking with two other actors about her late husband, how he died, what it means to make art, and how she both needs and despises her public. Calderon’s theatrical dish is full of ingredients similar to Durang’s, but his proportions are wholly dissimilar.

Neva Public Theater

Were Messers Durang and Calderon in correspondence as they wrote their plays, making sure they focused on distinct turf? Assuredly not, but seen together, their productions show the singularity of an artistic voice: Two writers can start on similar turf, but they almost certainly will end up somewhere different.

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PS– I wrote about Vanya… last fall when it played the McCarter Theater… Check out that post HERE.

CONTEST! Watch British Theater at Home!

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 4.25.42 PMDoes a poster of Judi Dench hang above your bed? Does the “re” spelling of “theatre” send you into a tizzy? Do the words “Royal Court,” “National,” and “Donmar” cause you to break out in Union Jack-shaped hives? Sounds as if you (like me) have a severe case of theatrical Anglophilia. Egads!

But aid is on the way! Like NT Live, the National Theatre’s show-beaming service, the website Digital Theatre has found a way for we far-flung Enland-lovers to get our fix.

Unlike NT Live plays, which are broadcast in movie theaters around the world, Digitial Theatre’s catalog can be seen at home (translation: in bed). You rent or purchase a title, warm up some PG Tips, press play, and by George! There’s David Tennant spouting Shakespeare!

Digital Theatre’s titles come from some of a diverse set of UK theaters such as the Almeida, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakepeare’s Globe, and The Royal Court. I recently caught two of theses productions, Jez Butterworth‘s predecessor to Jerusalem, called Parlour Songand Frantic Assembly’s dance-theater play, Lovesong. Watching these British productions on a laptop in New York was very cool, and although they demanded a level of concentration not typically associated with the computer (thanks very much, Facebook), the payoff is substantial. Sure, the experience isn’t the same as watching a live show, but the camerawork is elegant and the price tag is bearable.

WHICH BRINGS US TO THE CONTEST…

Digital Theatre is offering theater-words readers the chance to win a code to see one of their shows… FOR FREE. Enter to win by emailing THEATERWORDS@GMAIL.COM a blank message with ENTRY in the subject line. You’ll be contacted a week from today if you’re a winner.

In the meantime, check out what they’ve got HERE.

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LIKE THIS? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
London Theater Report
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- Weird British Posters

“Hit the Wall” at the Barrow Street

Hit the Wall Barrow Street TheaterPutting history onstage comes with perks and pitfalls. If the person or event depicted is beloved, he/she/it comes with a built-in sense of affection; audiences already know they like what they’re about to see. But such storytelling isn’t without hazards. Representing true tales situates everything under a harsher magnifying glass, and storytelling choices can irk viewers in ways they otherwise wouldn’t had the subject not been so dear.

Hit the Wall at the Barrow Street Theatre is a case study in just how hard it is to navigate that tightrope. Its concern is the Stonewall riot of 1969, that Greenwich village uprising that sparked the gay rights movement. Playwright Ike Holter and director Eric Hoff try to untether their diorama from the historical play pitfalls I’ve mentioned by lifting it from strict realism (we get Def Poetry Jam-style monologues and archetypical characters) but the play still has to face the expectations of its audience, a neighborhood audience personally invested in seeing a story that is narratively and emotionally accurate. The fact that the real Stonewall is but feet away from the theater only heightens the stakes of the initial affection and subsequent scrutiny.

Hit the Wall doesn’t quite survive that intense look. In attempting to tell so many stories—the narrative ping pongs from one set of characters to another—and by shifting styles and locations, the play becomes cacophonous and unfocused, and the riots feel almost random. Certainly, living up the actual event is an exceeding tough challenge for any play, but that is just the challenge Hit the Wall has taken on. History bears gifts, but they come with a steep price tag.

Hit the Wall Barrow Street Theaterphotos by Matthew Murphy

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LIKE THIS? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
Drifting Awake: The TEAM’s Mission Drift
Theater Terroir

Animal Drama

Members of the animal kingdom may pop up occasionally in shows (here’s looking at you, Annie) but these appearances are usually simple and little more than “awwww”-inducing.

And yet! Trevor (by Nick Jones at Lesser America/TFNC) takes a different tack, placing a chimpanzee dead center of its wild story. How exactly is this managed? By casting a human in the part. (Diversity advocates Animal Equity are surely up in arms about the decision.)

Picture 11Actor Steven Boyer inhabits the primate with little more than a waddle and gimp arms. Costume designer Elizabeth Barrett Groth continues with the minimalist approach, clothing Boyer not in fur but a polo and overalls. The suggestion of animal-ness rather a declaration of it avoids prosthetics and leaves much of the imaginative work to the audience.

Picture 10

Picture 12

The recent Bengal Tiger at the Bagdhad Zoo functioned similarly: As the titular tiger of this Broadway show, Robin Williams looked basically human at first glance; it was only through the text, Williams’s performance, and a scraggly beard that the tiger-ness shone through. (Oh yeah—and the title.)

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

But the 2005 Broadway revival of Seascape took the opposite approach, outfitting its lizards in costumes that aimed for intense verisimilitude.

Seascape Broadway revival

Which do you think is the more effective approach? And what do you make of other tactics for depicting animals onstage, like the puppetry used in War Horse or The Lion King? Inscribe below!

Trevor photos by Hunter Canning

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LIKE THIS? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
– Fleet Week on Broadway
– The Horcrux of the Issue

First Blush at “Cinderella”

Laura Osnes Cinderella Broadway

For me, the coolest part of Broadway’s Cinderella is its unfamiliarity—after all, how often does one encounter a golden age score for the first time in a full-blown, Main Stem production?

My early memories of other Rogers and Hammerstein classics like The Sound of Music and South Pacific are shrouded by the mists of childhood; I can no more remember the first time I heard “Edelweiss” or “Cockeyed Optimist” than I can remember my first steps.

That kind of familiarity can be comforting, but it also robs you of the exciting moment of first blush, when your ears perk up and you think, “Wait a second—what was that?” (I’m reminded of the quote—was it Roger Ebert who said it?—that the greatest filmgoing experience would be to encounter one’s favorite movie for the first time.)

Cinderella, first produced for live TV in 1957, has never played Broadway. This debut, directed by Mark Brokaw with a new book by Douglas Carter Bean, spices up the well-known story a little bit, but mostly it’s a classic-feeling enterprise.

The centerpiece of that classicism is the R&H score, which, though not as thrilling as R&H’s more well-known works, still yields pleasures. And to hear it fully produced, fully sung, and fully orchestrated—on first listen—counts as a real blessing.

True R&H fanatics surely already know every song, but for the rest of us, Cinderella might as well be a time machine back to an earlier era.

Photo, above, by Carol Rosegg

Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein

R&H

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LIKE THIS? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
Boston, Part I: ART’s Pippin
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A Clearer Day: 
Broadway’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

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