A Scott Rudin, Patrick Healy Kerfluffle

Whoa! Producer Scott Rudin has some fightin’ words for New York Times journalist Patrick Healy in today’s ABCs.

Scott Rudin Patrick Healy Testament of MaryPresumably the tiff has something to do with this interview Healy conducted with Testament of Mary playwright Colm Tobin. Perhaps Rudin chafted at Healy’s contention that The Book of Mormon, another Rudin show, was somehow financing MaryWhat do you think?

 

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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…

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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— 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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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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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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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.

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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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– 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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Boston, Part I: ART’s Pippin
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A Clearer Day: 
Broadway’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

“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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Pippin at ART
Ye Olde Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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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Wendy Wasserstein and Susan Sontag, on the page and onstage
— Billy Elliot, Trojan Horse?

 

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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Tony Awards Dress Rehearsal
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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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— Sad Summer Shakespeare
As You Like It, in the Park

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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— SMASH: An Outsider’s Take
— #broadwayproblems

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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— Aracadia and the Grid
Charles Busch in The Divine Sister

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