Ten days into the much ballyhooed reopening, April has been as busy a month for theater as it usually is — I’ve seen a play every day this week (see my reviews)– but the April overload is due to streaming theater, not the handful of in-person shows, all of “limited capacity,” most one-offs, some by invitation only. (Latest: Amber Iman on Broadway.) Putting aside immediate issues of whether the reopening is starting too soon (discussed last week), the focus of attention and excitement on the stage (here and here and here) raises unexpected and alarming questions about the ultimate direction for theater and the arts in general: “With some venues prepared to start welcoming back audiences,” music critic Hannah Edgar asks, “where does that leave concert streams?” Playwright Larissa FastHorse spells out the issue as accessibility versus elitism:
To some, digital theater has been synonymous with accessibility, using the word the way it is most commonly used, in reference to people with disabilities,
The double edge of unintended elitist consequences seemed illustrated to me by the Reverb virtual festival, in which Roundabout Theater Company is co-presenting original works by theater artists with disabilities. As well-meaning as the festival is, I wonder in my review whether such a festival creates a dynamic of segregation (separate and not quite equal): “Why are these greatly disparate pieces shoved together in one event, 150 minutes at one sitting? Is the Roundabout committing to including work by disabled artists in the course of their regular season – and will they be providing closed caption, sign interpretation and audio description in all their offerings, online and onstage, from this point forward?”
Will theater, in other words, continue to innovate in the digital space and commit to greater inclusion over all ? Kamillah Forbes, artistic director of the Apollo Theater, observes in HowlRound: “The American theatre is a very slow-moving ship, especially when I think about how quickly culture moves, and particularly now that we are in what’s called the digital age.”
The Week in Theater Reviews
Cock: Randy Harrison as an indecisive lover in a bisexual triangle
There are many moments in this production when our attention is diverted from the dialogue to the video technique.
Seven poets recite their poems in “Identity,” the second installment of the Irish Rep’s “Poetic Reflections: Words Upon the Window Pane.” The films are being presented both online and in a continuous loop in the theater’s windows. It is an odd stab at reopening, and, although the entire program is only 17 minutes long, I feel a bit awkward standing here, with only an occasional passerby ignoring both me and the poets. But it’s a reopening I can wholeheartedly appreciate, in a way that I cannot with the more publicized recent in-person events
This thrillingly-sung new version of Jason Robert Brown’s beloved (and problematic) musical about love lost (and gained) almost feels like a laboratory experiment in pandemic theater. Will theatergoers pay $32.50 to $47.50 for a limited online showing of an 80-minute video, when the 2014 film adaptation, starring Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick, is currently available to subscribers of BroadwayHD and to anybody (for free) on YouTube?
The answer apparently is yes. After a two-week run in March, the Out of the Box Theatrics’ production of “The Last 5 Years” was nominated for a 2021 Drama League Award, and will now get an encore run online from April 13-25.
John Cullum An Accidental Star
At 91, John Cullum has had a long and remarkably varied Broadway career, spanning six decades and some 30 shows — musicals ranging from “Camelot” to “Urinetown,” straight plays from “Hamlet” to “August Osage County” to “Waitress.” Over the course of the 80 minutes of this solo theatrical memoir, he sings songs from seven of them (see songlist below), and tells anecdotes about a total of nine. “John Cullum: Accidental Star,” presented jointly by Irish Rep (where it was filmed), Vineyard Theater, and Goodspeed Musicals, is genial and folksy; if there’s little dish and less spice, it goes down easy and there’s lots to like. Yet, there are several moments that offer a glimpse into something steely about John Cullum’s character and extraordinary about the life he has led.
Reverb Theater Arts Festival: Theater makers With Disabilities Connect
It was only after I had finished watching Reverb, a virtual festival presenting 24 theater pieces, all created by artists with disabilities, that I realized how best to appreciate this 150-minute video, alternately exasperating and fascinating; baffling and beguiling. Reverb is most constructively viewed not as a finished product but as part of a process. I found almost half of these scenes and monologues and mini-musicals promising enough that I hope the process with them continues.
Babette in Retreat: Justin Sayre reaches toward campy farce
Babette, like Garbo, just wants to be alone. The legendary French courtesan has retired to her country estate, designed for “trading the sins of lust for a more relaxed sin of sloth,” but she instead is “invaded…like Poland” by a stream of visitors. These include her two adult children, whom she despises, as well as an aging fop and his companion, a 100 year old whore who is deaf, blind, and toothless, and her constantly defecating dog.
That’s more or less the set-up of “Babette in Retreat,” the latest play by Justin Sayre, streaming on Play-PerView on demand through April 14, featuring a seven-member cast of beloved queer and downtown theater icons.
After that, though, I can’t tell you what to make of it.
The Week in Theater News
Scott Rudin, 62, award-winning producer (23 Oscars, 17 Tonys) and “an absolute monster,” ex-staffers told The Hollywood Reporter. “For some four decades, Rudin’s abusive behavior has been chronicled, even celebrated, by the press.” No longer
The Hollywood Reporter’s take-down of producer Scott Rudin’s abuse toward his young staff is “yet another reminder for Hollywood that great art, even from revered creators, is not a justification for cruelty,” writes Shirley Li in The Atlantic
Cultural Venues’ Quest for Billions in Federal Aid Is Halted by Glitch
On the first day nightclubs, movie theaters and other arts organizations hurt by the pandemic could apply for $16 billion in federal aid (April 8th), the system malfunctioned. No applications got through.
New York Community Trust is giving $9.9 million in grants to 53 nonprofits, including $1 million to NYC’s arts sector, such as the City Parks Foundation: $250,000 to help arts and cultural groups get permits and technical support to produce socially distanced events in city parks and plazas.
Erika Dickerson-Despenza wins 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Award
Rachel Lynett has won the 2021 Yale Drama Series Prize, $10,000 and publication by Yale University Press for “ Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You Too August Wilson),” a play imagining the US after a second Civil War. Paula Vogel chose the winner.
The fellowship that Harold Prince founded in 2005 in collaboration with the Columbia University School of the Arts to mentor emerging theater artists has been renamed in his honor, the Prince Fellowship
American Theater’s Anti-Asian Problem
Mary Kathryn Nagle Changes the Story, in Court and Onstage
Nagle is one of the leading lawyers advocating for tribal sovereignty—and one of the country’s most-produced Native playwrights.