Friday, October 19, 2018

THEATER: "Love's Labour's Lost"...But A Good Meal Is Never Wasted

SHAKE AND BAKE: LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST *** (but knock off half a star if you skip the alcohol)
SHAKE AND BAKE THEATER

What hath Tolstoy wrought? Ever since a musical version of War and Peace tossed some so-so appetizers and a shot of vodka at theater-goers and called it a meal, it seems like any offbeat show trying to stand out thinks, "What about food?" And while the food at the immersive Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 was the least of it, certainly the alcohol can't hear. Most any show is improved by a drink during the interval. (Though who can afford the typical prices of a Broadway bar?) Still, while the idea of dinner theater done with panache isn't precisely a bad one, it's not terribly good either when the food feels like subpar catering.

Happily, that is not the case with the meat-packing district presentation of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. The title Shake and Bake is amusing, the food was more substantial than one usually gets (akin to a full meal rather than the hyped-up canapé or two usually proferred) and the choice of play was wryly amusing.

Shakespeare's early comedy involves a king and his friends pledging to AVOID good food and drink and merrymaking in general so they can devote three years to sober study. Good for them! They will eat just one meal a day. They'll even fast one day a week. They'll sleep only three hours a night. And they won't even lay eyes on a woman, much less woo them. Good luck with that. Their pledge lasts about as long as it takes for the Princess of France and her attendants to come to court

So a play that abhors food is presented while the audience indulges in nonstop food and drink. And a play that -- oddly for a Shakespeare romance -- has a slot for music only at the very end, here features music and dance from beginning to end. Shakespeare would approve, or at least the Groundlings would.



Matthew Goodrich and Darren Ritchie 
PHOTO by Chad Batka

If you're a wine snob, you might want to splurge on the top ticket since that gets you an upgrade on the wines served (a glass of white and red). However, I must say that even the standard wine was palatable, which is saying something since I have no nose for rosé and the like but -- if this makes any sense -- it means I'm even less accepting of a so-so wine than someone who knows what they're tasing. The shot of Jägermeister of course can hardly go wrong. The play began with pickled seasonal vegetables -- in our case, carrots and green beans. I quite liked the tart flavor of the carrots, while the green beans were snappy too. In every case, I'd suggest diving in and consuming away; the sooner you're done, the sooner you can give your full attention to the action. (Unless of course, an actor is right next to you. I held off on chomping away while the clown cavorted on my couch or an actor soliloquied nearby. I mean, just because food is on tap is no reason to be a barbarian.

One more reason to eat away? The food keeps coming. A modest taste of salmon and cream cheese on a cracker, a fine side salad of mixed greens (of course), a Cheeto-dusted mac n cheese that was the only tricky item to consume (and really, being a mac n cheese fiend the only one I really felt was too small), a brisket taco served during the interval, a pink lemonade soda palate cleanser, a roasted beet gazpacho that should also be just a smidge bigger in portion and a dessert left for us to serve ourselves as the cast slipped away -- namely a buttermilk panna cotta that was a highlight to this sweet toothed critic.

I wouldn't want to oversell the food. But heck, I just saw Oklahoma at St. Ann's Warehouse and the down-home vibe of a barn social was sealed by the fact that they prepared chili and cornbread and then served it to the audience during the interval. Well, I love actress Mary Testa and she opened up a box of Jiffy corn muffin mix with zest and dumped it in a bowl, but she did NOT make corn break muffins. And the crock pots lining the set, sitting tantalizingly in front of the audience? Just for show! The muffins and chili were actually prepared elsewhere and offered up in a teeny tiny styrofoam cup with a sliver (yes, a sliver!) of cornbread laid on top that made the tasting menu of Shake and Bake look like a banquet worthy of Henry VIII in comparison.

Yes, many many shows have tossed in food and/or drink but rarely with skill. Executive chef David Goldman and the onstage chef Jeff Ventricelli delivered under the far from ideal surroundings of live theater.



Mary Glen Fredrick, Rami Margron, and Victoria Rae Sook 
PHOTO by Chad Batka


Hmm, now what am I forgetting? Ah yes, the play. The creative team assuredly did not. They chose wisely and they trimmed off the fat (which includes the longest word in the English language and the longest speech in all of Shakespeare) to deliver the meat of the play in under two hours, including a break. (I was, frankly, astonished when I looked at my watch after it was over.) They also kept the sense of the play, by and large, though the clownish subplot of the romantic feud between the Spanish lord (Charles Osbourne) and Costard (who surely should be spelled Custard here and was played engagingly by Rami Margron) was set up and then mostly dropped. That aside, the wooing and wordplay between the King's men and the Princess's women (none of whom were interested in sticking to their various vows) came across easily.

The adaptation by David Goldman, Victoria Rae Sook (who also gave herself the plumb role of the Princess and had an easy regal air) and Dan Swern (who also directed) inserted all sorts of nonsense, including wall-to-wall music (from an acoustic guitar slow jam on Walk The Moon's "Shut Up and Dance" to recordings of George Michael) and a food-themed dance that included tongs as castanets. With couches and chairs lining the walls, the main stage is an open rectangular space. So Swern's lighting in particular does heavy lifting to create scene-setting and change of moods in concert with modest props and costumes.

This version of Love's Labour's Lost, to be true, offers no great shakes in terms of insight -- just the usual hijinks a Shakespeare comedy can make an excuse for. Yet time and again the momentum is rescued by the flow of alcohol, a tasty bite and most of all a cast that rose above the dashed-off proceedings with a commitment to their parts and that difficult balance of not taking things too seriously but not clowning for its own sake.

Darren Ritchie made a strong king and had the best chemistry of the night w Sook. Mary Glen Fredrick and Alex Spieth made good impressions, even though the play as edited left them far fewer opportunities to shine than the men. Not so Osbourne who was the real clown of the night, popping in from various unexpected angles to assay the silly Spaniard or a very fey courtier for the women (a trope that proved tiresome to me until his good nature won me over). Like the women, Oge Agulué made the most of a small part, bringing charm and wit to his turn as Longaville, the King's man who is wary of the entire "let's have no fun and just study" oath. But Matthew Goodrich was the find for me, goofing and cavorting and yet taking very seriously the romantic stakes. He convinced me this really was a play about his character Berowne. (And he really needs a new headshot since the one in the program doesn't do justice.) An understudy in various Broadway shows, Goodrich will get his shot.

With another shot of Jäger I would have sworn that everyone in the show will do the same! And that Shake and Bake will run for years! They'll get that break and leave the actor's lot of catering and waitering far behind. The amusing (cruel?) irony is that here they have a good showcase and STILL don't leave waitering behind. Here they are delivering their lines while preparing food, serving it out, making a joke to the audience while offering wine, declaring their love to another character and then clearing a course away without breaking stride. The fact that they maintained their dignity and made all this stage business flow easily -- juggling lines and remembering which person at table 7 had the vegan option -- was a credit to the lot of actors everywhere and a show that caters to their many talents.


THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2
My Fair Lady ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1956 and 1975 ** 1/2
Bernhard/Hamlet * 1/2
On Beckett ***
What The Constitution Means To Me **
The Winning Side *
Oklahoma **
Mother Of The Maid *
Love's Labour's Lost ** 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. Trying to decide what to read next?Head to BookFilter! Need a smart and easy gift? Head to BookFilter! Wondering what new titles came out this week in your favorite categories, like cookbooks and mystery and more? Head to BookFilter! It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. It’s like a fall book preview or holiday gift guide — but every week in every category. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

THEATER: "Mother Of The Maid" Lacks Fire

MOTHER OF THE MAID * out of ****
THE PUBLIC THEATER


My Aunt Peggy was pretty much a saint. I never saw a halo or found her spotlit by a heavenly glow. But Peggy Ann Walpole devoted her life to helping others. She worked as a nurse in Toronto in the 1950s, but found it just...unacceptable that women were sometimes discharged with nowhere to go. Prostitutes, homeless, out of jail, fleeing an abusive husband -- these women left the hospital to wander the streets. So Peggy simply rented a hotel room and told a woman, "You can stay there for the night." And then she did it again and again until she eventually founded Street Haven, providing shelter for women, services to help them mainstream back into society and so much more. Aunt Peggy received every honor you can think of, from the Order of Canada to the highest honor a layperson can be given in the Catholic Church. She met Popes and Mother Teresa but mostly just helped women...that is, when she wasn't in and out of hospitals her entire life with one debilitating illness after another. I know women prayed for her. And since she died in 2006, it wouldn't really surprise me in the least if women prayed to her.

But a saint? Well, that seems strange to say the least when you actually know someone. Aunt Peggy never mentioned a mission from God or visitations from on high. If she had, I would have probably rolled my eyes. Just as a prophet is never honored in their own hometown, a saint is surely never treated as holy in their own family.

That, perhaps, was the starting point for Emmy winner Jane Anderson's new play Mother of The Maid. It stars Glenn Close as Isabelle Arc, whose child Joan would indeed claim a mission from God to cleanse France of the English rabble. What would it be like to raise a girl who would be raised up by the Church and the French court to lead men into battle, only to be captured and burned at the stake as a heretic? One can imagine all sorts of approaches, with Joan's family offering caustic commentary or perhaps revealing the deep wellspring of faith that Joan drew upon. It might be funny, with these modest people contrasting amusingly with the French courtiers aghast or delighted by their frankness.


Glenn Close and Grace Van Patten. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sadly, while Mother of the Maid hints very modestly at all of these possibilities, it succeeds at none of them or more accurately barely strives for any of them at all. The tomboyish, blunt Joan (Grace Van Patten) is clearly bothered by something and her mother -- no stranger to the facts of life as a farmer's wife -- thinks Joan might be feeling sexual urges. When she sees her daughter in what we know to be religious ecstasy, Isabelle's assumption is far more prosaic.

But no, that's not it at all. Joan reveals the truth -- that she has been visited by Saint Catherine and is called by God to lead the French army into battle and defeat the British. Nonsense! And Joan's father (Dermot Crowley) beats her backside and ties the child up before she can disgrace the family any further with her mad talk. Too late, for Joan has already garnered attention. Before you know it, she and her brother (Andrew Hovelson) are off to court, with Joan's mother not far behind, just for a look around and to make sure her daughter is ok.

It's a curiously flat play. Even at the break, indeed even three-quarters of the way through I was still trying to puzzle out exactly what Anderson had in mind. Scenes with Kate Jennings Grant as a Lady of the Court felt especially beside the point. Those scenes aren't funny or insightful or dramatic or much of anything. They feel like the sort of scenes that may get written but are soon cut out for the simple reason that nothing -- dramatically speaking -- happens in them. And on it goes, from triumphs in battle to capture to Joan's execution. Sometimes we are with Joan and sometimes her family but never are we remotely engaged.

Isabelle's husband accuses her of too much faith. Her daughter Joan accuses her of not enough. It hardly seems to matter. Isabelle appears to have an unquestioning simple faith and if she encourages her daughter to deny the visions that came to Joan, well who can blame her? She just wants her child to live. If it's meant as a moment of crisis, the struggle hardly registers. The entire play we stand on the sidelines of historic events. But our perspective doesn't undercut the grandiosity on display or bring great people down to size or offer insight or insert humor or do anything one might hope for.

Among the tech elements, John Lee Beatty does wonders in the tiny three-sided space of the upstairs theater this piece is staged. With the vivid assist of the lighting by Lap Chi Chu, Beatty offers up multiple convincing scenes from a farmhouse to court to a dungeon. The cast can do little with the material on hand, but star Glenn Close is nonetheless admirable in setting the right tone for everyone. She's too much of a pro to not realize the play isn't working. But Close never rides roughshod over the work; she never tries to underline the humor or pathos on tap. She stays resolutely in key with the story when a lesser talent might have tried desperately to cover up the flaws by going bigger.

At the end, the mother of the Maid describes the heartache of Joan's death and how Isabelle's husband died shortly after. She refused to fade away. Instead, Isaballe got a cart, taught herself to read, traveled widely and then headed to Rome where she stared down the Pope, stood before tribunals and insisted her daughter was no heretic. Ultimately she prevailed. Well, heck, that sounds interesting and one is tempted to say Anderson should have told that story instead. But there's no reason to believe that play would have been any stronger than this one. I fear I lack faith.



THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2
My Fair Lady ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1956 and 1975 ** 1/2
Bernhard/Hamlet * 1/2
On Beckett ***
What The Constitution Means To Me **
The Winning Side *
Oklahoma **
Mother Of The Maid *

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. Trying to decide what to read next?Head to BookFilter! Need a smart and easy gift? Head to BookFilter! Wondering what new titles came out this week in your favorite categories, like cookbooks and mystery and more? Head to BookFilter! It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. It’s like a fall book preview or holiday gift guide — but every week in every category. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Friday, October 12, 2018

THEATER: "Oklahoma" Is (Just) OK

OKLAHOMA ** out of ****
ST. ANN'S WAREHOUSE

At the end of this particular Oklahoma, our hero and heroine are spattered in blood, the cast is spitting out the lyrics of the title song and it climaxes with their faces contorted in rage, frustration and despair as they growl a defiant "HAAA!!" and we are plunged into darkness. Clearly, director Daniel Fish wants to expose the violent underbelly of our nation's history. But the final scenes of this classic musical are so muddled -- and so little of what comes before leads logically to this ending -- that we're left exhausted and annoyed.

It begins nicely. The cowboy Curly (Damon Daunno) wanders onstage, guitar in hand and turns "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'" from an ode to wide open spaces into a flirtatious charmer. (Ditto for "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top.") A bluegrass band at one end of the wide open rectangular stage provides down home accompaniment, chili is cooking in crockpots on pinewood tables that stretch from one end to the other and Aunt Eller starts whipping up some cornbread. (She's played with wit and vinegar by the marvelous Mary Testa).  Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) does her best to resist Curly's appeal and take him down a notch, something his amiable ego can easily handle and probably needs. The singing cowboy is a familiar trope but Laurey still gets a laugh by muttering, "Oh no, please don't play your guitar" when he launches into another song.

Right away, Fish sets an appealing, intimate tone. No full orchestra to overwhelm the simple story, the audience as family sharing a meal and dialogue that weaves in and out of song (just as in the original production). Fish also plays with microphones, allowing characters who want to shout out their sentiments to grab a mike and hear their voices amplified. It works a treat. The show can breathe, the marvelous songs sound fresh and natural and the story simply unfolds. No meta conceit needed here -- they're just holding a classic up to the light.

Curly and Laurey are clearly meant for each other, but she's not going to make it that easy for him. Fair enough, but she goes a little too far by accepting a ride to the dance that Saturday from her hired hand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill, dressed like a Seattle grunge musician). Jud may be the best hand Aunt Eller ever had, but he's also creepy. Laurey is so scared of him she takes care never to be alone with the man, if possible. Jud keeps to himself, puts nudies up in his room out back and is in general a malignant presence, more disturbed than disdainful.

Laurey goes too far but Ado Annie can't go far enough. Played with charm by Ali Stroker of the marvelous Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening, Ado loves whichever man is in front of her, be it the dimwitted but lovable cowboy Will Parker (a winning James Davis) or the traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Mallory Portnoy, demolishing the stereotypical take on the role and making this part his own). Unlike the main romance, this triangle is pure fun and the three actors make the most of it from start to finish. Davis avoids making Parker too dumb -- he's just determined to get the girl he loves...and maybe not so good at math. The peddler can sometimes be done too broadly; Portnoy makes Ali so specific and fun (he just loves a good time) that a problematic part becomes a showstopper. This Hakim is more traveling-salesman-with-the-farmer's-daughter than a wheedling, ethnic stereotype. And the fringe on top of this particular Surrey is Stroker. She is an actress with a disability and spends most of the show in a wheelchair. It's notable how easily that fact is incorporated into the movement and song and dance, helped immeasurably by Stroker's yodeling vocals, sexy presence and the witty dip in her wheelchair she's given when kissed by Hakim towards the end.

Despite the refreshing presentation, this really is your mother's Oklahoma: the subplot is silly hijinks and the main story is a little serious. As in most productions I've seen, Jud isn't just a loner or outcast, he's a genuine threat to this civilizing territory soon to be a state. It's not that he doesn't fit in: someone as unhinged as Jud doesn't really belong anywhere.

That's driven home by the scene where Curly visits Jud in his lodgings and gives this snake of a man a good rattle. Fish pulls out all the stops here: the theater is plunged into darkness and a camera swoops in to deliver a close-up of Jud's face which we see displayed on a back wall. Curly paints a picture of Jud dying and the whole town coming out to mourn him, suddenly realizing what a swell guy Jud really was. Like some sour Tom Sawyer, Jud eats up this idea for a while until he turns on Curly and the rest of them, vowing to have his revenge once and for all. For all the flashy staging (movie cameras! total darkness!), nothing in this scene changes our understanding of Jud (or Curly) so it's hard to see the point. Perhaps we're meant to be glimpsing into Jud's dark soul, but the moment shows Curly in equally unpleasant terms.




All bets are off in the beginning of Act Two. After some chili and cornbread doled out to the audience (thanks Mary Testa!) during the interval, we're given a whole new slant on the show. While the cast is hardly costumed in period clothing, the suggestion of prairies and country folk and the heartland has been strong (except for Jud's annoyingly anachronistic clothes and facial hair worthy of Kurt Cobain). But following on the high-tech flash of those movie cameras in Act One, we get fog rolling on stage and then dancer Gabrielle Hamilton appears in a dream ballet choreographed by John Heginbotham.

You can hardly pretend they're not making a statement when the five foot nothing and bald-headed woman of color Hamilton comes striding out of the fog. She's wearing an exceptionally ugly top emblazoned with the slogan "DREAM BABY DREAM" and disco shorts, both glossy and modern and looking more appropriate for a Donna Summer musical than Oklahoma. It's a statement writ large, but a rather juvenile one.

Hamilton's diminutive height and strong stage presence creates an interesting dynamic when she stares at multiple cast members, somehow looking down on them even as she looks up. Yet other than some modern technology, nothing in the first act has brought a modern sensibility or revisionist commentary on Oklahoma, so the clothing and the slogan and the vibe of this number just feels like a desperate attempt to carry some import and get in our face.

Whereas the color and disability blind casting for the rest of the show is natural and unforced, here it feels unearned. The show is asking Hamilton to symbolize something they haven't given her the context to deliver. The house band suddenly breaks out an electric guitar and rocks the score, as if Jimi Hendrix tackled songs from Oklahoma at Woodstock rather than the national anthem. Hamilton dances with poise and determination, but to what effect? The sudden appearance of a dozen of so more dancers (all wearing the same garish costume) for a very brief flourish feels similarly wasteful and pointless. I look forward to seeing Hamilton in something worthier of her talent.

It gets worse. Laurey's scene alone with Jud is done in total darkness, just like Curly's scene with him. But since Jud's actions here can be portrayed as anything from awkward to assault and Laurey's reaction is key,  having it take place in the dark is unhelpful dramatically. We're left a little in the dark too, even though before this Laurey has been wise to keep him far, far away. She angrily fires Jud as he buckles up his pants and vows revenge, yet again.

Of course, Laurey and Curly get married but, after weeks away, Jud returns to spoil the moment. Yet now he's modest and shy and nicely dressed? He bashfully asks to kiss the bride, but it's no peck on the cheek. To add to our confusion, Laurey responds positively to his kisses, looking at him wonderingly or with confusion when they're done, rather than the fear or disgust one might expect. In the final absurdity, Jud's death is staged as essentially "suicide by Curly," with Jud handing him a pistol, cocking it and then waiting politely to be shot down. No fight instigated by Jud, no attempt to murder Curly, no self-inflicted mortal wound -- just Jud standing there, knowing what must be will be. Laurey and Curly are splattered with blood and what in God's name any of this could mean escapes me. That leads right into the would-be blistering reprise of the title song.

What began as a rare chance to see talented pros tackle this work in an intimate setting turns into a frustrating shambles by the end. I found Jones rather stiff in her dialogue scenes. Vaill has the unenviable task of tackling Jud in a show that has no clue what to do with him, but Vaill certainly doesn't help matters. My guest preferred Daunno in the musical Hadestown while I liked him more here. But there's no doubt he has charm and presence. Most everyone else is delightful whenever this production gets out of the way and let's them deliver those songs. But that gets rarer and rarer as the show goes on. Whatever Fish wanted to do, he failed to consistently fulfill that vision from start to finish.



I would hardly say Oklahoma is a problem musical. But I've never seen a production that quite makes sense of Jud, not even the brilliant 1998 revival in London that made Hugh Jackman a star and featured Shuler Hensley as Jud. Why is Curly so hostile to Jud? Any fool would realize Jud is hardly a threat to woo away Laurey and Curly is no fool. If Jud is genuinely dangerous then Curly is unnecessarily antagonizing him. If Jud is just a confused, inept loner with poor social skills then the handsome and winning Curly is just being cruel.

Jud makes me think of the John Wayne character in John Ford's classic The Searchers. Wayne's violent, racist Ethan Edwards is a relic of the past, the murderous sort needed to clear the land of "hostiles" (that is, the Native Americans who lived there first). Now that pioneers are settling down in West Texas, Ethan is an unwelcome reminder of how that land was made available in the first place. He was a necessary evil but he's not necessary any more. At the end of that film, the door is firmly shut on Ethan, leaving him on the outside of hearth and home.

Jud on the other hand is hardly necessary at all. Laurey says she is scared of him and -- in the original production -- Jud spoils the wedding, harasses her and tries to kill Curly twice, eventually dying by stumbling and accidentally stabbing himself with his own knife. Jud is his own worst enemy. Making him both hateful, frightening and a sacrificial lamb as in this production simply makes no sense.

But what if Jud were black? (And Laurey and Curly white?) Presumably this has been done somewhere before. Fish's desire to cast a new light on this story might have paid dividends with some color specific casting. (Indeed, it crossed my mind at the beginning of the show that actor Will Mann might be playing Jud; more's the pity he wasn't.) With that change, many of the questions are answered and new possibilities open up.

Aunt Eller insists Jud is the best hired hand she ever had and yet he's given poor lodgings and clearly isolated from the rest of the town folk. If Jud is black, that treatment takes on a whole new meaning. Laurey insists she is scared of him and refuses to be alone with the man. Take your pick: that could be played as simple prejudice or a case of her protesting too much, with Laurey loudly proclaiming one attitude but her genuine desire being quite another.

Curly's immediate antagonism -- especially if he suspects Laurey might actually fancy Jud -- makes more sense here, too. Curly's suggestion Jud simply hang himself takes on an even uglier tone. Some dialogue and action would be better if cut (like Jud's lame attempt to kill Curly with a novelty toy that's booby trapped), but much more that remains would take on new resonance.

When Laurey and Judd are alone, it might be her initiating romance, only to have them be discovered. At that point she could push him away, angrily implying an attempted rape and unfairly firing the man because they're seen by others. His brutal murder by Curly and the joke of a trial at the end? That would be far more potent too. If a production wanted to underline the violence and darkness in American history, a casting choice like this would be consistent with that goal, letting scene after scene build to a shattering conclusion, rather than simply having it come out of nowhere. Certainly it would be in keeping with the bold and provocative work Rodgers and Hammerstein delivered throughout their partnership.

It would certainly be in keeping with the history of Oklahoma. That territory once featured such a vibrant free black population that President Teddy Roosevelt toyed with the idea of turning the area into a black-majority state. Needless to say, such success wasn't allowed to last. The prosperous black people of Tulsa were targeted by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, the city government, the police and the white community. Their campaign of intimidation climaxed with the shameful 1921 Tulsa Race Riot in which black-owned businesses were decimated and an untold number of black people numbering in the thousands were beaten, hospitalized or killed.

Heck, Jud could be a Native American. The Oklahoma Territory was the location where countless indigenous Americans were forced to relocate by the US government. Eventually, dozens of tribes were displaced to the area and -- again -- just as government officials considered creating a black-majority state, an all-Indian state was almost formed there as well.

No such luck, but their presence remain. The name Oklahoma itself is a combination of two words in the Choctaw language, literally meaning "red people" or more colloquially "Native Americans." So the title song in this all-American musical, the one almost anyone can sing a snatch of (or at least spell), the state name they proclaim as "OK!" with exuberance and joy? That's a Choctaw word. They're shouting out "Native Americans!" The chorus is loudly and proudly (and cluelessly) reminding us of the people that were here first and then brutally removed. If you want to rethink the musical Oklahoma, you could start right there.

THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2
My Fair Lady ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1956 and 1975 ** 1/2
Bernhard/Hamlet * 1/2
On Beckett ***
What The Constitution Means To Me **
The Winning Side *
Oklahoma **

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. Trying to decide what to read next?Head to BookFilter! Need a smart and easy gift? Head to BookFilter! Wondering what new titles came out this week in your favorite categories, like cookbooks and mystery and more? Head to BookFilter! It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. It’s like a fall book preview or holiday gift guide — but every week in every category. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Monday, October 08, 2018

THEATER: Bill Irwin Clowns (A Little), The Constitution Oppresses (A Lot) And "The Winning Side" Doesn't

ON BECKETT *** out of ****
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME ** out of ****
THE WINNING SIDE * out of ****

ON BECKETT *** out of ****
IRISH REPERTORY THEATRE


Let's make one thing clear: this is not a play. Actor and clown Bill Irwin is giving a lecture, a talk or if it sounds less threatening a discussion of playwright Samuel Beckett. It's true Irwin delivers excerpts of pieces by Beckett and even clowns around a bit, but this is very much not an evening of theater. It's subtitled "exploring the works of Samuel Beckett" and that's just about right. I emphasize this because I spent about half of this event recalibrating what I was seeing. I'm sure audiences who are wise enough to attend will enjoy it a whole lot more if they know precisely what to expect.

When did lectures go out of fashion? At the turn of the 20th century, going to a lecture or talk or public speech was quite the thing. Obviously radio and TV and even the wide availability of books made that less necessary. And yes you can still go see lectures and talks but usually you'll be in a college setting or catch someone plugging a book. Outside of David Sedaris tours, the idea of going to see a public figure weigh in on a topic has faded from view.



What a pity since hearing Bill Irwin share his thoughts on Beckett is fascinating and enlightening. He charmingly introduces the event and performs selections from eight different works, all the while sharing his thoughts on Beckett's voice, the experience of acting in his plays (often, Irwin says, actors will finish a run and insist they were terrible and immediately wonder when they can do it again), the debate on how to pronounce "Godot," the mind-twisting fact that this most Irish of writers wrote his work in French (!), the art of clowning, the pleasure of baggy pants, Beckett's early and powerful exposure to vaudeville and again and again the delightful puzzle of why and how this work speaks so forcefully to Irwin. One answer he gives? No, he doesn't love despair; he loves characters who face up to despair and soldier on as best they can.

Then I thought I spotted the sly, savvy actor in Irwin, despite his charming, self-effacing aura. Young actor Finn O'Sullivan joins Irwin very briefly when doing a scene from "Godot" that features a messenger boy. After it ended, Irwin brought O'Sullivan back out for a quick bow and joshes with him before sending the lad on his way. Ahh, I thought. Smart! O'Sullivan rightly gets his moment in the spotlight, doesn't have to wait around for the final bow...and at the end of the show Irwin will have the applause all to himself. But, no. At the end of the evening O'Sullivan comes back out and they take their bows together. That makes Irwin's earlier gesture all the more generous. Maybe that self-effacement wasn't an act after all.

Irwin's performances are sharp and entertaining here, such as when he demonstrates various ways one can tackle a certain bit or admits trying to set Beckett's dialogue to some new internal rhythm like rap or a waltz. (It just doesn't work.) His insights are many and the sharing of an actor's process (or at least this particular actor's process) is a treat. With just a spare stage, a few props and spot-on lighting (courtesy Michael Gottlieb), this master class in acting and Beckett is a treat. It's the best lecture in town!


WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME ** out of ****
NEW YORK THEATRE WORKSHOP


What a frustrating and unsatisfying bit of theater this proved for me, in an interesting way. It's a pity since the conceit and the politics and the painfully timely nature of a show looking at our Constitution and our government -- well, it's all catnip to me. Writer and star Heidi Schreck spent her childhood going from VFW hall to VFW hall debating other kids and winning scholarship money for college. Indeed, she paid her way through school on the winnings. But what would her present-day self think of the Constitution compared to her admittedly smart but still much younger and perhaps less cynical 15 year old version?

And so we get What The Constitution Means To Me, with Schreck in the heightened VFW hall of her dreams (the sets are by Rachel Hauck), delivering the debate speech she gave so many years ago but with the interruptions and asides she couldn't say at the time, along with the hard-won wisdom and a more nuanced sense of history Schreck has gathered since then.

It's all very meta. Schreck is playing her younger self, though as she explains she won't be "playing" a 15 year old as such. (Though she does amusingly speed up her delivery as time runs out or feel sweetly earnest at times, all of which reads "teen debater.") But then Schreck veers off and isn't delivering that long-ago speech. She's talking about her private life, the violence her mother witnessed as a child, the violence her grandmother endured, the abortion Schreck couldn't bring herself to tell her mom about at the time, the statistics on violence against women in this country and much more. Sometimes she's just a more informed debater; sometimes she's left the debate far behind and tears up at the memory of the degradation women in her family's history have faced or even how she had sex with a guy she really didn't want to because -- as she jokes -- it seemed the polite thing to do. Then she returns to that moment and clarifies that some inner voice told her not to die, to be scared for her life and do what she must to survive.



It's all emotional and sincere and briefly harrowing and often funny. It's also completely artificial. I might blame Schreck's performance but I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with it. I didn't buy it, but I didn't mind it. It's the very structure and conceit of What The Constitution Means To Me that just doesn't work. We know Schreck is "recreating" a moment from her younger self's life. So when she "impulsively" changes tack and starts sharing info from her current point of view, we know this is scripted. And while it feels unfair of me to say this, even her emotional moments feel scripted. Does she really wipe away tears thinking about her grandmother? Or is that simply a beat in the script? Frankly, I didn't even know if everything she said about her family was actually true.

And that's what proves so frustrating about this work of theater. I didn't want to doubt or wonder the truth of any of it. On one level, it shouldn't matter. On another level, if it worked I wouldn't care. But it didn't work and I was annoyed that I found myself wondering precisely what was true. At the end of the evening, a young female debater comes on stage and they tackle an issue and an audience member chooses a winner...and even THAT felt scripted and unconvincing. I assume every word of this confessional night is accurate. I certainly agree with the essential ideas she presented -- one of the most essential being that perhaps the Constitution was not created to slowly spread equal rights to all but simply to create a functioning society in which only the men who created it would enjoy the most power.

If Schreck had just come out and said, "Here's the speech I would give today at the VFW" and told her story, it might have been less dramatic but it would have been more effective. What The Constitution Means To Me is heartfelt and sincere and I agreed with most everything it espouses. But as theater? I didn't believe it for a minute.


THE WINNING SIDE * out of ****
EPIC THEATRE ENSEMBLE AT THEATRE ROW


The life of German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun is filled with moral complexity. He helped design the V-2 rockets that terrorized London during WW II. But then he also helped the US launch a rocket to the moon, inspiring not just Americans but truly the entire world. The bizarre reality of his journey is almost hard to grasp. Did he really go from a Nazi to a celebrated figure on Walt Disney's TV show in the 1950s, just one decade after the end of the war? A black satire, a penetrating drama -- the possibilities of how to tell his story are endless.

The Winning Side captures none of this in a flat, un-involving play that skims over the surface of von Braun's questionable life, saving any attempt to hold his feet to the fire for a confusing, haphazard final few minutes. Indeed, this play by James Wallert jumps back and forth in time in a confusing fashion, as if Wallert himself isn't sure where to start. Mostly it toggles back and forth from post-war America to Nazi-occupied Paris, where von Braun (Sullivan Jones) is wooing and perhaps falling in love with French actress Margot Moreau (played by Melissa Friedman). Also in the mix are Godfrey L. Simmons Jr. as von Braun's military contact and Devin E. Haqq as a about a dozen other characters.

In any case, von Braun woos Moreau and she resists. After all, he's a Nazi! If anything, the play very modestly does a better job of showing her moral dilemma than his. But even here it falls short since we are left to imagine she might be asking von Braun pointed questions and peeking into his briefcase for the Resistance. It seems she wasn't, but the possibility is so strong they should have cleared up that potential path to redemption early on. Even worse, we never quite learn the fate of Moreau when just a little bit of stage business would have cleared it up. Late in the play von Braun is in the US after being forced to leave her behind. (Forced? One never knows with von Braun.) She sends a note pleading for help and he...carefully puts the letter away. Does he do something later? Apparently not but having von Braun tear it up would have made that point clear. It would have also painted him as a villain and the show doesn't want to point fingers too easily.
  



But are they worried we might not like him or that we might? Wernher is put through the wringer only at the end. It's done so hurriedly I'm not sure most theater-goers will follow it. But for some reason I was already aware that von Braun oversaw a factory in which thousands suffered as slave labor, many of them tortured or killed. It was probably impossible for von Braun to not be aware of these atrocities. Yet that barely comes across here.

Long ago I realized how wrong it is to judge actors trapped in a bad play. Nonetheless, the cast sport some outrageous accents, including French and German and British. By the end, I wasn't even sure about their American voices. Sullivan Jones is certainly an appealing presence but the material doesn't even begin to allow him a chance to present a complex character. Most technical elements are ok though I did especially appreciate scenic designer Chika Shimizu's choice of placing a giant fan embedded in the top of the set so it could blow out air at the audience during key moments, like a rocket launch. (It reminded me of a ride at Disney World, ironically enough.)

A brief final stab at moral finger-wagging takes place -- but at the audience. Don't be so quick to judge von Braun, says the play. Instead of listing the many positives that came out of the space program, for example, it say, Hey, the pyramids were made with enforced labor and many people died. No one is calling for them to be torn down, are they? Well, no, but this is a rather weak tangent of an argument to make.

In contrast, act two opens with a short ditty by songwriter and satirist Tom Lehrer. It lasts maybe two minutes but in that brief time Lehrer does more to illuminate and skewer the pliable ethics of von Braun than the rest of the play combined. If they were afraid the show might have us tut-tutting at von Braun, they needn't have worried. The Winning Side barely lays a glove on him.  Werner von Braun wins. Again.

THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2
My Fair Lady ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1956 and 1975 ** 1/2
Bernhard/Hamlet * 1/2
On Beckett ***
What The Constitution Means To Me **
The Winning Side *

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. Trying to decide what to read next?Head to BookFilter! Need a smart and easy gift? Head to BookFilter! Wondering what new titles came out this week in your favorite categories, like cookbooks and mystery and more? Head to BookFilter! It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. It’s like a fall book preview or holiday gift guide — but every week in every category. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.
Note: Michael Giltz is provided with free tickets to shows with the understanding that he will be writing a review. All productions are in New York City unless otherwise indicated.

Friday, September 28, 2018

THEATER: BERNHARDT! HAMLET! MCTEER! AND TEARS!

BERNHARDT/HAMLET * 1/2 out of ****
AMERICAN AIRLINES THEATRE AT ROUNDABOUT THEATRE COMPANY

The danger of quoting a masterpiece in your play is of course that the audience will find the rest of the work wanting in comparison. Theresa Rebeck's new play doesn't face that problem for the uncomfortable reason that you spend the entire night trying to figure out exactly what story she's trying to tell. At first, it seems like a bracing reminder of how women have struggled against artificial restraints for far too long. At the turn of the 20th century, men playing women on stage was perfectly natural.  But when the Divine Sarah Bernhardt,  the greatest actress of her age -- played here by Janet McTeer, who is certainly one of the greatest in ours -- wants to play a man, why it's a travesty!

Then Bernhardt/Hamlet lingers on the romance between this legend and the playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner); maybe this light drama is about the tug of war between artistic impulse and personal happiness? (Personal responsibility has nothing to do with it, not when we're talking about artists.) Or perhaps it's a valentine to acting? And yet, the few scenes with a little warmth and spark are the too-brief moments between Bernhardt and her son Maurice (a sweet Nick Westrate), who is home from college to chide her behavior...and perhaps borrow a little money.

In other words, Bernhardt/Hamlet does a lot of things poorly and none of the technical elements overseen by director Moritz von Stuelpnagel or the probably fine cast lorded over (in the nicest way) by McTeer can do anything about it. I say probably fine, because with weak material, who can tell?



It's 1897 and the world famous and famously scandalous actress Sarah Bernhardt is flat broke right after launching her own company and buying a cavernous new theater. A commercial flop has Bernhardt flailing but instead of wheeling out her cash cow of a vehicle "Camille," she makes the bold, unheard-of decision to star in Hamlet. Her lover Edmond is worried. Critics snipe even before seeing it. Rehearsals are strained. My gosh, even the dependable genius Alphonse -- who usually turns out one iconic Art Nouveau masterpiece after another for Bernhardt -- is uninspired when asked to cook up a poster to promote the show. What's it about, he wonders? What is its essence? One might ask the same here.

None of the show's many threads are satisfyingly tied together. The second act perks up a bit -- at least Bernhardt and Rostand fight a little. But it becomes bewildering when we suddenly watch a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac. Wait, what show's genesis are we following here? It doesn't help that a miscast Dylan Baker is not the grand sort of actor who would seize the showy role of Cyrano and run with it. Even more confusing is a final flourish in the show that bows to cinema, which captured Bernhardt in some silent footage late in her life. That leaves this ode to live theater thoroughly discombobulated at the end.

Far better to remember a scene in Act One. Bernhardt and fellow actor Constant Coquelin (Baker) are rehearsing a scene from Hamlet, trying to make it speak to the actress so she can bring the Dane to life. They're tackling a moment between Hamlet and the ghost of his father. Why, she wonders, is Hamlet's father wearing armor when talking to his son? Constant offhandedly says he's done the lead role four times and never asked himself that question. They speak the lines and find a pulse, a quiet moving pulse that brings it alive for them and allows Bernhardt to link Hamlet's missing connection with his father to her own complicated familial history. (She's the daughter of a courtesan and has no idea who her real father might be.)

The audience doesn't need to know this detail of her life; the scene just works. After all, we're watching two actors tackle a scene by Shakespeare. But full credit to Rebeck; here she's made like Stoppard and used the Bard to bring alive two characters and the enchanting world of rehearsal. It doesn't happen often enough but for a moment at least it surely does.

NOTE: For a far more satisfying look at the life of Bernhardt, check out the new dual biography "Playing To The Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonara Duse and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever" by Peter Rader. You can find my full review for Broadway Direct here.


THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2
My Fair Lady ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1956 and 1975 ** 1/2
Bernhard/Hamlet * 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. Trying to decide what to read next?Head to BookFilter! Need a smart and easy gift? Head to BookFilter! Wondering what new titles came out this week in your favorite categories, like cookbooks and mystery and more? Head to BookFilter! It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. It’s like a fall book preview or holiday gift guide — but every week in every category. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.
Note: Michael Giltz is provided with free tickets to shows with the understanding that he will be writing a review. All productions are in New York City unless otherwise indicated.