“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

Drifting Awake: The TEAM’s Mission Drift
Theater Terroir


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?

Scan 130330007

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…

— The Ghost of Salesman — classic designs by Jo Mielziner
Arcadia and the Grid

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?!

Drifting Awake

Stone Street, hiding between towers

Just when your daily commute seems so predictable—when internal GPS takes over and nary a blaring traffic snarl can lift your gaze; when New York becomes nothing more than work and subways and sleep—that’s when the city throws a curveball and bends unexpectedly, when, POW!, a shocking, wonderful incongruity sprouts from the pavement and startles you into smelling the organic, fair-trade artisan coffee.

Take one false step in the roaring canyons of the Financial District and you’ll find yourself on one such jarring sprout. “Stone Street,” as it’s called, is a tiny 19th century holdout amidst the soaring corporate jungle on Manhattan’s lower tip, a bizarre slice of human-scale antiquity that sticks out like a small, cobblestoned thumb. No more than a few blocks of old-world, three- to six-story brick buildings, Stone Street is less remarkable for its quaint charm than for the way it contrasts with its infinitely taller and more severe neighbors. How did this place survive? you think on your way to, say, Goldman Sachs. What kept the skyscrapers out?

It was, predictably, a combination of public and private efforts that kept Stone Street from total decay on the one hand, and expensive construction crews on the other—read more about that story here. What remains, then, is a remnant of the haunts from Dutch settlers and the generations of builders that followed them.

But somewhere along the way, as other streets kept changing, Stone Street froze, and what’s left behind is a kind of screwy anachronism, a visual lesson in mankind’s endless sprint from past to future. Inviting stoops here, 100-story pillars there—a clear reality gives way to an odd optic scramble.

Such is the stuff as plays are made on. Mission Drift, the latest work from The TEAM, is a mixed-drink of a show with a similarly bi-cultural, split-focus sensibility, one part 17th century New Amsterdam, one part 2008 Las Vegas. In this rock musical, the story of a Dutch couple (“Catalina” and “Joris”) gets intercut with the more modern blues of an unemployed waitress (“Joan”); the resulting patchwork is a stab at determining the roots and nature of American capitalism.

[Read more…]

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