Best of 2013!

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theater-words is a little late to the game here—hello, January 5—but no matter: Let’s do some “best of”-ing! In descending order, the shiniest theatrical jewels of the season were…

1. FUN HOME, Public Theater
Perfection. This Tesori/Kron/Gold masterpiece, an expert adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s glorious memoir, is the kind of musical I’d take to a desert island. Multiple viewings are a must to fully appreciate it. #broadwayismissingout #pulitzermaterial (MORE)

2. MATILDA, Broadway
It’s all been said. The best. (MORE)

3. THE APPLE PLAYS, Public Theater
Taking in these four plays over one cold weekend in December was one of the major highlights of my theatergoing life. Why can’t all shows be this sensitive, wrenching and incredibly acted? (MORE)

4. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, West End via Menier Chocolate Factory
Ok ok, I technically saw a video broadcast of this astonishing production, but who cares: The wonderful actors at the center of this Sondheim classic gave it the richest, most soulful core an audience could ask for. Many tears were shed. (MORE)

5. THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Broadway via American Repertory Theater
A classic play somehow became more itself thanks to an unconventional staging. Everyone involved needs to clear some room on their awards shelves… (MORE)

6. THE FLICK, Playwrights Horizons
The idiot audiences who stormed out of this epically intimate new play should stay out: Annie Baker’s melancholy, spare style is frikkin’ awesome.

7. BETRAYAL, Broadway
The vitriol aimed at this fantastically sexy production was entirely unwarranted. Great play, great actors, great gay subtext.

8. DOMESTICATED, Lincoln Center Theater
A fantastic, no holds barred night at the theater. Bruce Norris’s provocative message went down easy thanks to the sheer entertainment value of the proceedings.

9. HANDS ON A HARDBODY, Broadway via La Jolla Playhouse
The show with the porno title was actually a sweet, tear-jerker of a Broadway musical. Buy the CD—the score is wonderful. Oh, and can I lead up the Alison Case fan club? K thanks.

10. HERE LIES LOVE, Public Theater
David Byrne, Alex Timbers and Annie-B Parson had a kick-ass, disco love child in this killer, environmental show. A musical to convert those who say they hate musicals!

(N.B.: PIPPIN and VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE would’ve definitely made the cut—with Andria Martin and Kristin Nielsen how could they not?!—but I saw them out of town in 2012, and rules are rules!)

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A great crop, no? Totally absent, however, are more formally experimental plays. The “riskier” shows I caught this year largely left me cold, and not just because more adventurous companies can’t pay heating bills. Here’s hoping next year’s list has a few cracked-out, crazy entries!

LET’S GET GOING, 2014!

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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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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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Best of 2012!

Screen Shot 2012-12-27 at 2.05.29 PM

Listmakers rejoice! It’s time for the annual “BEST OF” catalogue! Buckets of theater got produced this year, and below are the Official Theater-Words Favorites. (Some publications distinguish between “best” and “favorite.” Not here. Calling something a “best” but not a “favorite”—or vice versa—is like pretending you’re not, y’know, a subjective human being.)

But first, some preemptive thoughts: This list is heavily skewed towards off-Broadway—only two Broadway shows appear—and only three musicals were thrilling enough to make the cut. Sad times for Broadway, sad times for musicals.

But not sad times for theater! The following shows were united by a moment-to-moment vitality and artistry; they were distinguished by the imaginative ways that vitality was expressed.

(BTW, on-the-road employment being what it is, this list is weighted towards the first half of the season. Apologies to the fall, but I just wasn’t around.)


And now, in roughly descending order…

 

1. THE BIG MEAL (Playwrights Horizons)
Without a doubt the best play of the year. Both theatrical and humane, Dan LeFrank’s family drama elevated the commonplace to the level of profound, rather like that most perfect of plays, Our Town.

 

2. PIPPIN (American Repertory Theater, in Boston)
Coss your fingers, New York—ART’s Pippin is spectacular, and you’d be lucky to have it. Equal parts ear-to-ear smiles and musical theater chills, this show was the most fun I’ve had at a tuner in years.

 

3. UNCLE VANYA (Soho Rep)
A super cool, immersive set invited the audience inside the living room of this beautifully acted play. As much a “happening” as a production.

 

4. FEBRUARY HOUSE (Public Theater)
Director Davis McCallum and company turned down the volume in this intimate off-Broadway musical about art and the world, to beautiful effect. Gabriel Kahane’s score made you eager for more.

 

5. CLYBOURNE PARK (Broadway via Playwrights Horizons)
It’s all been said before, but really, this intelligent time-travelling race relations play was a blast, and featured some of the dirtiest jokes ever.

 

6. THE GREAT GOD PAN (Playwrights Horizons)
This was an odd, disarming play with a killer premise: a man learns he may have been molested as a child, but he remembers nothing. Did it happen? Does it matter? A seemingly slight play that stuck to your bones.

 

7. THE LYONS (Broadway via the Vineyard Theater)
Linda Lavin got lots of praise in Nicky Silver’s fantastic black comedy, but Michael Esper (and most everyone) was just as good. A great entertainment.

 

8. LOOK BACK IN ANGER (Roundabout Theater Company)
The claustrophobia and, yes, anger in this production were thrilling and eerie. A creative, uber-narrow set hit things home. Not a date show, to its credit.

 

9. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (City Center Encores!)
The Encores orchestra playing this Sondheim score was pretty unbeatable. And really—is there a better finale than “Our Time”? Not that I’m aware of.

 

10. AS YOU LIKE IT (The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park)
Daniel Sullivan’s production hit home the redemptive parts of this otherwise overproduced Shakespeare, making the play seem vital and generous.

 

So here’s to you, 2012! Glad to have you, here’s your coat, get home safe. Say hi to 2013 on the way out.

In Rep with “Cloud Atlas”

The Repertory System isn’t dead!

Back in Ye Olde Days, troupes of actors would rehearse several shows at a time and perform them on alternate evenings. Audiences got the unique thrill of seeing the same set of actors perform, say, a Shakespeare on Tuesday, and a Durang on Wednesday. (Now that would be a fun bill!) For reasons of cost that system is mostly dead.

Or is it? Cloud Atlas, the wonderfully big-thinking movie based on David Mitchell‘s novel of the same name, puts the idea of the old Rep System back to use, and brilliantly so. Built out of six seemingly separate stories, Cloud Atlas flits from one narrative to another, a handful of actors changing garb and temper along the way. We get Halle Berry as a Space Agey adventurer in one tale and a hard-hitting journalist in another. Tom Hanks has equally heavy lifting, playing everything from a scientist to a strange tribesman to a murderous writer.

Thematically, this continuity seems to suggest that the characters are reincarnated versions of themselves. But on a less heady, more concrete level, it’s also just really damn cool seeing great actors in different digs.

Witness Madame Berry and Mr. Hanks…

and Hugo Weaving…

Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Bae Doo-na, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon and others round out the chameleonic cast.

So cool, right?!

That Other Disney Magic


On Broadway, the word “Disney” is synonymous with “big,” “spectacular,” “humungous”—pretty much any word large enough to encompass human-sized dancing cutlery or a plastic light-up underwater grotto. (Cough, Beauty and the Beast, cough, Little Mermaid.)

But after catching a performance of Mary Poppins tour in Pittsburgh, I realized “Disney” just might be synonymous with another word: intimate.

Ok, ok, physically, Poppins is anything but small. There is, after all, a 30-foot, light up umbrella, a house (with a staircase!), and denizens of dancing statues. But the story, about a family finding its way back to itself, is heartwarmingly simple and surprisingly emotional: Mary Poppins teaches two children generosity, gets a father to value his home life, and returns a mother her peace. Yes, there are enough super-sized tap numbers and expensive design shenanigans to make spectacle-hungry audiences happy, but the really important storytelling business is about nothing more (and nothing less) than humans connecting. 

The show’s final image proves as much. It features not a set piece or a stunt, but a simple family portrait: the Banks family, together, walking forward, united in step and heart.

I’ll take that over a flying nanny any day.

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Photo by Wayne Taylor at the age.com.au, featuring the Australian cast of 
Mary Poppins.

Favorite Moment: As You Like It

David Furr and Lily Rabe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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.

The Horcrux of the Issue

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!

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Potted Potter
at the Little Shubert

directed by Richard Hurst

One Man, Two Guvnors
at the Music Box

directed by Nicholas Hytner

photos by Joan Marcus

#broadwayproblems

All ye who never have and never will see Mamma Mia!Will we ever glimpse the interior of the legendary Winter Garden Theatre? Sigh. It sounds so pretty…

photo by philitalia, Flickr

The Grandma Plays

Call Grandma!

That’s the parting impulse you’re likely to feel after two new off-Broadway plays, The Big Meal (Playwrights Horizons) and 4000 Miles (Lincoln Center Theatre). Like that old chestnut Our Town, these plays key into the transcendent power of everyday and regular family love. They are about The Big Themes, and they’re sure to send you to your phone: I love you, Grandma!

The Big Meal, by Dan LeFranc, accesses this pathos through a parade of actors who alternate as various members of one family; characters “grow old” as progressively aged performers assume the parts. It’s a terrifically moving device that highlights both the impermanence of everything and the comforting continuity of reproduction. The “story” is nothing more than the inevitable drama in a potpourri of family dinners, but the collective impact of all that “ordinary” is, well, extraordinary.

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is more formally straightforward but no less emotionally potent. In it, college-aged Leo sets up camp in his grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village pad. A youthful shot of scruff in a menagerie of fogeyism, he is in mourning for newly-deceased friend. The “4000 miles” of the title refer to a bike trip Leo has made, but they might as well signify the distance between Leo and Vera, a distance narrowed by scene after scene of awkwardness, frustration, then leisure and love.

Family drama really is the driving force of so many great American plays, and these writers continue that tradition in new, exciting ways. As the reviewers say, they’ve written something for everyone: You, Grandma, and everyone in between.

photo of The Big Meal by Joan Marcus

Can’t Act, Can’t Sing, Can “Perform”

J’accuse!

All to often, avant-garde theater fetishizes performers of limited ability.

It’s a shrewd act: When actors self-consciously drone through lines, or affect melodrama or fall into stereotype, they evade notions of quality because bad acting is precisely the point of their work. Dramaturges pass performers’ limitations off as a formal choice that “draws attention to the text,” “reveals the falseness of society” or “unifies the play’s aesthetic,” but the fact remains: the performers just ain’t got skills.

Critics are complicit. When they praise experimental work, they do so “within the framework of the avant-garde’s goals and values” without questioning those goals or values.

Ineptitude might be fun/funny every now and then, but let’s not hang an art form on it!

A Clearer Day

1965's "Daisy" begets 2011's "Davey"

Many were the unsung virtues of this season’s criminally short-lived On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, but chief among them was the compelling characterization at the musical’s sweet center. Back in 1965, when Clear Day first appeared and first flopped on Broadway, that core was “Daisy,” a loopy woman with psychic powers, but in the recent revival, it became “Davey,” a gay man with an equally unconventional inner life. (This gender reassignment was director Michael Mayer’s stab at injecting drama into a notoriously flawed original script.)

This revision is an “unsung virtue” because, as a character, Davey represents a notable moment for Broadway storytelling. Clear Day’s creators have deemed his persona—weak-willed, insecure, gay—worthy of driving a musical, a pantheon usually reserved for more conventionally amenable or inoffensive types. This may seem a small distinction, but it actually means a great deal. Just as Death of a Salesman told us that the common man’s troubles were equal to the likes of Greek tragedians, so too does this Clear Day argue that Davey is every bit the viable Broadway hero as, say, Harold Hill.

[Read more...]

At Liberty to Eat Wings

The Liberty Theater, pre (2009) and post (2011) -op

It was 2003 when British director Deborah Warner first heard of the plans to “renovate” the decaying Liberty Theater on 42nd Street. That gloriously decrepit space––which had played crepuscular host to Warner’s 1996 presentation of TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land”––was to be converted (…wait for it…) into a Cipriani restaurant. Oh joy! At the time, Warner told the Grey Lady, “This is a potential scandal. You [New Yorkers] are very bad. Your lack of preservation is outrageous. You will kick yourself in 10 years. We need these theaters for our souls.”

Well, it’s almost been a decade, so let the kicking begin. While the 2003 deal with Cipriani didn’t work out (thank God––it would’ve castrated the theater of its balconies), that most illustrious of restaurant chains, BBQ, has just opened its doors in this former Broadway house. I recently paid a visit to this newly-opened architectural “improvement” and snapped a few pictures. Compare the new, chipper decor with the eerie beauty I was lucky enough to see (and photograph) in 2009.

 

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Posts for American Theatre Mag’s “The Circle”

Yes, theater-words has been depressingly barren for the past two months, but this dearth is not without good reason: I’ve been cutting my teeth in loads of fun, smaller pieces over at the wonderful American Theatre Magazine. Grab the print edition for those stories (it’s found “in fine bookstores everywhere”), or check out these links to pieces I’ve wrote for the Magazine’s blog, TCG Circle:


The Canadian Club
– dance-theatre is gettin’ out of town!

Somewhere That’s Green – art meets sustainability meets programming

A Real Turkey – Arena Stage invites the military to Thanksgiving

Why is the Sequel Never the Equal? – of plays and sequels

Sad Summer Shakespeare

We’ve all seen what I like to call Sad Summer Shakespeares, limp little salads of productions wilted by their naïve enthusiasm and self-important claims of universalism. Mix your fork around in one of these creations too intently, sniff a little too hard, and the dramaturgy, acting, and storytelling reveal themselves as pallid cauliflower, rubbery carrots, and decaying lettuce. Waiter, thanks but no thanks!

The scene of the Sad Summer Shakespeare crime is usually a public park, a civics center, or a geriatric watering hole. “Accessible Shakespeare!” or “Shakespeare for everyone!” is the rallying call of their half-baked director-chefs. Throw together one of those old Bardic standards for The People, they seem to believe, and you’re golden.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this idea – on paper it sounds pretty ideal. (Sometimes it is: the Public’s free Shakespeare in the Park is often a heart-quickening confluence of space, audience, and thought—a Wolfgang Puck of a summer salad, as it were.)

[Read more...]

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