Poor Christine Ebersole

Winning two Tony Awards apparently isn’t enough to warrant above-the-title billing in movies these days. The wonderful Christine Ebersole is the only person on The Big Wedding poster not to be named… even someone named Ben Barnes (?!) gets himself up there. Look at her, sadly watching from the corner…

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Ever the underdog, Ye Old Theatre…

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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.

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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

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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YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
— SMASH: An Outsider’s Take
— #broadwayproblems

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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YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
NO MORE FOCACCIA? — Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine
DRAMATIC, END OF PLAY SET CHANGE

Design by Des

Think ye on this…

Taking in the rock concert that is Jesus Christ Superstar, I was struck how similar its design is to Jersey Boys. (Both musicals are directed by Des McAnuff.)

Exhibit A:

And Exhibit B:

Mr. McAnuff has shown a similar fondness for two-tiered design in The Farnsworth Invention

and for trusses in The Who’s Tommy:

Mr. McAnuff has scores of other shows with wholly different set designs, but do these four entries point to some kind of visual style?

first two photos by Joan Marcus

The Ghost of “Salesman”

This season, Mike Nichols has done a magical resuscitation of the 1949 Death of a Salesman, recreating the original pitch-perfect set and sound designs by Jo Mielziner and Alex North for his new revival. Nichols’ choice lends his production an intense melancholy—the play’s innate sense of loss is compounded by designs’ reminder that lost theater is lost theater: barring productions like this Salesman, most shows live on only in memory or photography.

Or, for that matter, drawing. In 1965 Salesman designer Mielziner published Designing for the Theatre: A Memoir and a Portfolio. This remarkable book—an absolute must-own for any theater-enthusiast—features an astonishing collection of Mielziner’s sketches and paintings for some of the 20th century’s most iconic shows, among them the original productions of The Glass Menagerie, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Gypsy.

Here’s Streetcar:

And Guys and Dolls:


But the crown jewel of the book is unquestionably Death of a Salesman. An extended essay details its entire design process, and several pages feature beautiful, full-color paintings (the image at the top of this post also serves as the book’s cover).

There’s plenty of great backstage dish, as well as some preliminary sketches Mielziner worked out with director Elia Kazan in Boston, September 1948.

Even if the waves of time do wash playgoing into a sea of forgetfulness, books like these stay that process, at least a little. So flip through the drawings, take a whiff, and ride back to the plays of old. It’s a melancholy ride, but a good one, too.

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