Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever

Sarah Bernhardt remains the most famous stage actress of all time, the subject of the play Bernhardt/Hamlet on Broadway. But during her lifetime she had a rival, Eleanora Duse. The two didn’t just compete; they represented opposing views of what acting, and the theater, should be, according to “Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry that Changed Acting Forever” (Simon and Schuster, 277 pages) by Peter Rader.

The author makes much of the two divas’ contrasting acting styles, Bernhardt with her extravagant flourishes, Eleanora spare and still, willing to turn her back to the audience, and have moments of silence.  Or as Rader at one point succinctly describes the difference: Sarah posed. Eleanora paused.

Eleanora Duse as Cleopatra in 1887

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra 1890

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Stage Kisses: When a Kiss Is Not A Kiss

“Nice to meet you, Kevin. Do you want me to actually kiss Kevin, or Kevin, do you mind if we kiss? You look young, I don’t want to traumatize you.”
That’s what the actress says to her director and her co-star in the opening lines in Sarah Ruhl’s 2014 play, “Stage Kiss.” Much theater centers around a kiss, certainly in the title: Kiss Me Kate; Kiss of the Spider Woman
For Valentine’s Day ,here are stage kisses dating back to 1887. They are different enough from off-stage kisses as to require guidance, judging by How To Stage Kiss (Set ground rules, pay attention to hygiene, make sure you know your lines) and Tell and Kiss: A Manual for Actors (Boundaries—to tongue or not to tongueFor me, this is an easy one: open mouth, no tongue…. Make sure your makeup won’t rub off on your partner. ..Use good sense. Be respectful. Speak up for yourself.”)

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged and learn who is kissing whom and in what


J.K. Rowling on Harry Potter Play on Broadway

After seven books and eight movies, J.K. Rowling thought she was done with Harry Potter. “I genuinely, I didn’t want Harry to go onstage,” Rowling said in the video below. “I felt that I was done.”

Nevertheless Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is set to open at Broadway’s Lyric Theater on April 22, 2018.
Watch CBS Sunday Morning segment
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Cooling down: How Actors Unwind After Intense Performances

“Every night, I had to kill myself,” said Daniel Durant, who made his Broadway debut in the recent revival of Spring Awakening portraying Moritz, a character who commits suicide. “I had to go through those emotions every night. Most of my day was spent getting into the character.” And, after the performance, most of his night was spent trying to reverse the process. “I played video games to get out of it – my favorite was Call of Duty, a high-energy game that I’m addicted to.”

His castmate Austin P. McKenzie, who portrayed Melchior, had a more old-fashioned method. “The professional answer would be to do a warm down and that kind of stuff, but what I really like to do is have a drink, that’s what I like to do. Maybe a cigarette.”

The two actors, picking up their Theatre World Awards at Circle in the Square Theatre last year for impressive New York stage debuts, were among several current and past winners in attendance to whom I posed a straightforward question: How do you wind down after a performance, and after a role?

Phillip Boykin’s fierce portrayal of the menacing Crown in the Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess” earned him a 2012 Tony Award nomination, but building up to such an intense role presented challenges for climbing down from it. “A vodka with cranberry always helps,” Boykin offered cheerfully. “Even with that I wind up laying on the bed or sitting on the couch watching television and feel the energy subside, and I’m able to rest.”

And at the end of the run?

“You should ask my wife about this,” Boykin replied. “She will remind me quickly that I’m not that character anymore. It’s hard to let go. Eventually it wears off; I would say it takes anywhere from three weeks to a month”

Cynthia Erivo: “I just take a moment to sit, and stop. Sometimes it takes a while.”

Emily Skeggs: “Lots of jokes. I like to joke with friends, usually backstage.”

Bobby Steggert: “I wind down by going to a quiet place. New York City can be quite overwhelming so I make sure to get out of here once in a while.”

Like most trained actors, Ben Whishaw, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, was taught how to prepare for his roles in meticulous detail, helping him portray some intense characters, from Hamlet to a teenage Holocaust survivor to John Proctor in The Crucible. But he received no instructions on how to shed the intensity. “Sadly, they don’t teach you such things at drama school; I wish they did. It’s one of those things I’m still learning. I haven’t quite mastered it yet. I find that the shower I take after the show, is a moment when I let the whole thing go as the water rushes off my body.”

These answers don’t surprise Erin Mee, but few of them make her happy.

Mee is a theatre director, the co-artistic director of an avant-garde theatre company called This Is Not A Theatre Company and a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of The Arts. She has launched something of a campaign to convince actors, acting teachers, artistic directors, and entire theatres to see cooling down as an integral part of the artistic process. Her campaign is starting small: In the Spring, she will teach a workshop at Tisch on cooling down.

“It is something that is mostly ignored in actor training in the United States,” Mee says. “And I think that’s a problem for actors. It affects their health. It may also affect their acting; if you are afraid you may never be able to get out of character or let go of the character, you may resist getting fully into character. I think we do our actors a disservice if we don’t train them to cool down as much as we train them to warm up.”

Actually, those who study the psychology of acting are less than definitive about how or even whether the work required to give a good performance affects an actor’s well-being.

“There’s been very little scientific research about acting in the United States because none of the players that control funding (the NIH and major foundations) care enough about the well-being of actors to investigate it,” says Bruce McConachie, emeritus professor of theatre arts at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of several books investigating the intersection of theatre and cognitive science, most recently “Evolution, Cognition, and Performance” in 2015.

“Germany, on the other hand, which has a stronger tradition of public support for the arts, has poured some government funding into this kind of research,” McConachie says. It is just at its beginning stages, however. “The Germans are looking at what actors and dancers actually do, cognitively and physically, to transform themselves when they perform on stage.  The next step will be to do some longitudinal studies – stage acting, dancing, and singing over time – to discover how this work alters the brains of performers,” McConachie says. “There’s no doubt that actors’ brains differ in important ways from the brains of accountants, cab drivers, and neurosurgeons, but exactly how and why, no one knows yet.  Is this a good thing or psychologically harmful?  I suppose it depends on your point of view.  I think we can say that most actors do not become serial killers” (notwithstanding “the occasional John Wilkes Booth.”) At the same time, McConachie says, “it’s not hard to imagine that some characters could draw some actors into situations, thoughts, and emotions that could be temporarily dangerous and even harmful to them over the long term.”

Dutch psychologist Elly Konijn argues that the emotions of good actors on stage are not the same as the emotions of their characters, but that her studies indicate their emotions are heightened because of the stress of performing live before an audience, a stress comparable to that experienced by drivers involved in a minor car crash.

“Theories that acting can be harmful go back to the Romans and Cicero,” says Thalia Goldstein, a former professional actress and dancer who now studies the psychology of acting as a professor of psychology at Pace University, and writes a blog for Psychology Today called The Mind on Stage. “I think it’s implicit in a lot of discussion around the psychology of acting that you have to figure out a way to separate.”

Certainly, actors talk about the need to escape the stress of an intense performance. In a discussion moderated by the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg among last year’s Tony-nominated actresses, Lupita Nyong’o described her difficulty in portraying a nameless Liberian teenager who is turned into a war-time sex slave in Eclipsed, a play by Danai Gurira. “When we were at The Public, this play was very, very, very taxing on my soul, and I couldn’t face people afterwards. It took time to build the stamina, and just the stamina for my heart. And so after the show, I would head home and just keep to myself. And, upon moving to Broadway, I had that run as like a test drive, and now I’m able to come off of it sooner. But it’s the same thing — I’ll go through these rituals, and then God help all my friends and the people in my life, because I don’t know when it’s going to come out, what’s going to trigger (it).”

Lucas Steele put it succinctly in a recent Tweet: “I do my best to leave #Anatole onstage @GreatCometBway. He really takes it out of me.”

The sense that acting is an emotionally risky craft is arguably exacerbated by the modern Western approach to it. As Goldstein has pointed out, it was only in the 20th century that professional acting stopped being highly stylized, and actors worked at giving realistic performances. While well-respected performers like Laurence Olivier have insisted that one can achieve such realism without becoming emotionally involved, most American stage performers seem convinced of the need to master Method acting, first developed by Konstantin Stanislavsky, which emphasizes the importance of feeling real emotions.

“In Stanislavsky’s writing, there’s a great deal of attention to becoming the character; that’s the title of one of his books,” Erin Mee says. “But there’s no attention to becoming yourself again.”

Mee first began to believe there is another way in 1991 during her first trip to Kerala in the South of India, where she observed the Theyyattam, a Hindu dance-like possession ritual that lasts all night, and has two climactic moments. There is the moment, hours into the ceremony, when the shaman becomes possessed by the deity, and then there is the moment when the shaman visibly comes back to being him or herself. This equivalent of warmup and cooldown is performed in front of the spectators, Mee says, and both are given equal weight.

Over the years, she has developed exercises, many derived from yoga, to give actors and student-actors she directs “a way of re-becoming themselves that does not depend on alcohol and cigarettes.”

The exercises have names like the Sun Salutation, the Silent Disco (“free dancing to music of the actor’s choice”) and laughter yoga – a forced laugh in pairs that becomes a real one. They are based on the assumption that your physical posture and movement don’t just reflect your emotional state; they affect your emotional state. Actors slouch when they are portraying a character who is depressed; if they sit up straight, it helps them get out of the character’s mood…and out of the character.

Pete Simpson sees cooldowns as especially necessary after physically rigorous performances, such as the ones he’s been giving for two decades as a member of the Blue Man Group, which bought fitness equipment to encourage companies to warm up and cool down.   “I understand how it gets de-emphasized, particularly when it comes to the endorphins of performing; you sort of don’t want to come down from a show high to engage the drudgery of physical maintenance.  You just want to, well, go out for a drink and sleep.” Simpson is also a member of the avant-garde theater company, Elevator Repair Service. Although both companies were incubated in the Downtown experimental scene, and their productions may seem emotionally detached, Simpson says they actually require performances of intense and complex emotion, and require cooling down as well. But in his experience they are seldom post-show group activities. “My personal emotional cool downs are really private.  There are times when whatever release a cool down is supposed to facilitate doesn’t even really happen until some banal moment in the middle of the following day.  Emotional processing chooses its own timeline.

After a performance by the SITI company, “we cool down by stretching, by deep breathing, although it’s not mandatory,” says Ellen Lauren, SITI’s co-artistic director. “As we get older certainly you have to attempt to keep your skill set up, like a dancer would. “ However, she asks, “what are you cooling down from? Are you hepped up because your body is sweaty and exhausted, or because you are in an emotional state? The traditional idea that actors need to get into and out of character is just not something that concerns us as a company; that’s not how we work.” So the collective ritual after a SITI performance, Lauren says, is a mix between a celebration and a postmortem. “We share a bottle of Jameson in little Dixie cups, and talk about what happened during the performance, and tell jokes, and pull each other’s chains; there’s an underlying tensile strength to a company that’s been around as long as we have.” Lauren cites a tenet of Noh theater: jo ha kyu. “It means a beginning, a middle and then acceleration. We don’t cool down; we accelerate.”

Richard Schechner, professor of performance studies at Tisch, editor of TDR, and the founder of the avant-garde company The Performance Group, may have coined the phrase “cooldowns,” and in any case began using them 50 years ago. “I use cooldowns just as I use warmups,” he says. “It’s more difficult, however, because after performing, performers are eager to meet friends; there is always a rush to get out of the theatre — by everyone; people want to close up shop.” Although he knows of no research into its importance, “a cooldown makes sense — to move from an intense process in an orderly way — just as it makes sense to move into an intense process in an orderly way. That is, if warmups make sense, then cooldowns do too.”

This article appeared slightly altered in the March, 2017 edition of American Theatre Magazine.






Shock and Solace. Trump and the Arts. The Week in New York Theater.



Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton performs the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, who died at age 82 on the day before Election Day.

The terribly apt lyrics include the verse:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah


In the immediate aftermath of the presidential election, many who hadn’t supported the winner publicly expressed their shock through anger and despair, with even normally thoughtful editorial writers judging it the Apocalypse.

Many sought solace.

It is no secret the theater community – including, by and large, theatergoers – were among the many people who did not support Donald Trump for president (there was a star-studded Broadway for Hillary concert; no similar fundraiser for the other side), and some were now touting the theater as a place of refuge.

It is a place, Howard Sherman wrote, that embraces a multiplicity of stories, with characters on stage, and people in the audience, reflecting all ages, genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, disabilities. The shows currently on Broadway, Jennifer Tepper pointed out, embodies the inclusive, progressive values of America – Kinky celebrating the queer community, Fiddler on the Roof lamenting the history of violence against a minority,  On Your Feet standing up against anti-immigrant prejudice, with a monologue by immigrant Emilio Estefan ending “This is my home. And you should look very closely at my face, because whether you know it or not… this is what an American looks like.”

At a HowlRound Twitter chat, David Loehr suggest joining a newly formed Facebook group, Stronger Together, Linda Essig linked to an article on what cultural leaders can do , and several others pointed to a HowlRound article written back in April by Marshall Botvinick, Making Theater in the Season of Trump, with its admonition: “For the well-being of our country, we need a collective conversation about why Trump and why now, and if theatres remain absent from that conversation, then they are abdicating their civic responsibility and further consigning themselves to irrelevance.”


Donald Trump and the Arts

Donald Trump was a reality show host and a TV producer, with a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. Few realize he was also, briefly, a Broadway producer, backing a play by Richard Seff entitled “Paris is Out,” which ran a total of 96 performances in 1970. (Description: “An elderly Jewish couple’s plans for their first trip to Europe create mayhem within their family.”)

On the other hand, Trump destroyed a pair of Art Deco reliefs that were part of the facade of the Bonwit Teller Building, which Trump tore down to build Trump Tower. The Metropolitan Museum of Art wanted the reliefs for its collection.

Americans for the Arts developed a report on Trump’s positions on the arts, which are vaguely articulated.
Two questions and answers from the report:

Question: Does the federal government have a role to play in funding the creation and performance of art, or in making art accessible to all Americans? Federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts currently stands at $148 million. Do you think that funding level is appropriate? What would you request in your first budget as president?

Answer: The Congress, as representatives of the people, make the determination as to what the spending priorities ought to be. I had the great fortune to receive a comprehensive liberal arts education from an Ivy League institution. What is most important is that we examine how one-size-fits-all approaches imposed by the federal government have corrupted the availability and efficacy of liberal arts education. Critical thinking skills, the ability to read, write and do basic math are still the keys to economic success. A holistic education that includes literature and the arts is just as critical to creating good citizens.

Question: One of the president’s roles is to host events that involve arts and entertainment. Who would you ask to sing the National Anthem at your Inauguration? Who would you choose to give a reading? Are there particular artists the First Family would invite to the White House, or arts you would draw attention to as president?

Answer: First, there is no Constitutional obligation for the President to do what your question implies. That said, supporting and advocating for appreciation of the arts is important to an informed and aware society. As President, I would take on that role. As for identifying people to sing, read or invite to the White House, I will not identify them to save them from the media storm that would surely come. It would not be fair to them.

Week in New York Theater Reviews

Notes from the Field 5

Notes from the Field

One of the first things we learn in “Notes from the Field” — in a projection on the curtain — is that nearly six million voting-age people can’t vote in the 2016 presidential election because of state felon disenfranchisement laws.

Anna Deavere Smith  portrays 17  disparate characters with her usual dazzling virtuosity. It is her most diffuse and digressive work so far, less of a subject than an argument—that in the United States there is a school to prison “pipeline” for poor people and people of color.

Roberta Maxwell and Maryann Plunkett in Women of a Certain Age, Play Three of The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family

Roberta Maxwell and Maryann Plunkett in Women of a Certain Age, Play Three of The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family

Women of a Certain Age

he Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, a trilogy of plays by Richard Nelson presented in real time at the Public Theater, ends the way it began eight months ago – with the Gabriel family talking little about the election and nothing about Donald Trump. This time around, the omission is exasperating.

I left feeling that the promise and process in which the plays were put together wound up at best a gimmick. This is unfortunate, because, if it weren’t taking place (and being written) on Election Day, I could better appreciate this third play, Women of a Certain Age, as a well-acted, gentle and insightful look at a family facing many struggles, emotionally and financially.


Master Harold….and the Boys

Had I seen the Signature’s fine revival of Athol Fugard’s most popular play just a few days earlier, I might have appreciated it primarily as a well-wrought work of theater, relegating its depiction of the brutal effects of state-approved racism to a safely distant time and place. Now the play feels more like an urgent warning.

The 84-year-old playwright directs the Signature production himself, and he does it with a masterful attention to details.




There is much I enjoyed about it, especially the performances of its exceptional seven-member cast….For all its willingness to present ambivalent, bickering characters in complicated relationships, “Falsettos” feels dated in many ways. It has been overtaken not just by plays like “Angels in America” and musicals like “Fun Home,” but even by TV series like “Modern Family” and “The Fosters.”

Week in New York Theater News

Alisha Spielmann and Ryan McCurdy will lead the first public reading of Ellie Pyle’s timely new play Sources, which takes place the night after the 2016 election, at Manhattan Theatre Club Studios on Sunday, November 13,


Memorial for playwright Edward Albee, who died in September, will be held at the August Wilson Theater December 6 at 1 pm. Open to the public

Sweat 2

Terrific “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage  extends through December 18 the Public Theater


Comic and compassionate “Vietgone” extended to December 4.

The Gabriels Election Year trilogy to tour DC,Australia, Hong Kong starting in January.

The Bad Actor of Broadway: Jeremy Shamos in Birdman

“I’ve gotten a lot of nice e-mails and phone calls congratulating me for being a great bad actor,” Jeremy Shamos says. “It makes me feel good. That was my job in the film.”

BirdmanposterThe film is Birdman, which has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. Shamos has a small part in the film as the terrible stage performer who is replaced by Edward Norton’s character.

As I write in my article for Broadway Direct about Broadway and the Oscars, it’s ironic Shamos was cast in such a role. He is a Tony-nominated veteran of six Broadway plays, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris. He gets good reviews (including by me) in every show he’s in, from The Assembled Parties to the recent revival of Dinner with Friends (Jeremy Shamos “is rapidly becoming one of those actors who by his presence signals a quality production.”) He has more experience on Broadway than anybody else in the film had; when he was on set, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and others picked his brain about the way things are done on Broadway. They made changes based on his advice.

His own experience on Broadway differs somewhat from what Birdman depicts about life on the Great White Way. In the film, for example, there’s a lot of tension and conflict among the actors. “Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I have experienced much more camaraderie and collaboration,” he says. “There was also a lot of solitude backstage in the movie. In general, there are always people around. You don’t find yourself alone.”

But there is also one thing above all the movie gets right. “I think Birdman captures the actor’s experience of being on a stage more than any film I’ve seen — the way the lights hit you and the way the audience kind of appears shadowy and out of focus, but very present.”

Like many actors who make their living primarily on the stage, Shamos sounds ambivalent about the symbiotic relationship between Broadway and Hollywood. (“I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me but…”) On the one hand: “the Hollywood studios can throw a lot of money into developing a musical, while someone who comes out of a BMI workshop and has written a new musical, that’s going to be a lot harder to get off the ground.”
On the other hand: “Whenever I walk past the TKTS booth and I see the crowd looking at the titles of the show in red lights, I just understand from a producing point of view. If you see the name of a movie that you know, you say ‘that would be fun to see.’ Whereas if you see the name of a play that you have never heard of … I don’t even know why you would see it unless there was a star in it or unless you were actually interested enough in the theater that you did the research.”

Shamos believes the Hollywood-Broadway connection is changing in a way that makes it easier for people like him. “Right after we graduated there was a sort of a choice for people to move to LA or stay here and do theater,” says Shamos, who lives in Brooklyn. “Now I think people can choose living here and not completely eliminate their chances of working in other mediums.

“In London, it’s been easier to go between TV and movies and theater, because it’s all right there. In the past it has been a lot harder here because of the geographic distance between Hollywood and New York. But New York is becoming a center of television and film that it hasn’t been for a while. Now people can live in New York and not eliminate their chances
There’s still more work out there in California, but there’s great work here.”

JeremyShamos profile

Favorite New York Stage Performances of 2014

“As an actor, you’re often the most visible part of a project while having the least amount of say over its final form,” James Franco said recently.  Although at the time he was making both his Broadway acting debut and his Off-Broadway directorial debut, he was talking about movie actors.  Stage actors have it better, artistically that is — not in monetary compensation or recognition.

So here are some of the New York stage performances in 2014 that deserve more recognition.

The individual performers are listed alphabetically, but let’s begin with some noteworthy ensembles.

Jose Joaquin Perez, Jason Bowen, Brian Quijada and Reza Salazar as busboys in "My Manana Comes"

Jose Joaquin Perez, Jason Bowen, Brian Quijada and Reza Salazar as busboys in “My Manana Comes”

The four actors who portrayed busboys at an Upper East Side restaurant in Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes – Jason Bowen, Jose Joaquin Perez, Brian Quijada, Reza Salazar – achieved a level of synchronicity that was a pleasure to watch, while at the same time each performer communicated both his character’s particular struggles and the tensions among the group.

Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk and Lisa Ramirez working in the poultry plant

Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk and Lisa Ramirez working in the poultry plant

Similarly, the performers in Lisa Ramirez’s To The Bone, play characters who have attained a machine-line efficiency both in their jobs in an upstate chicken factory and in the house they share unhappily together, but they never let us lose sight of their individual humanity. As one character observes, there is an order “that is much like a heart- an artificial heart – borne out of necessity- but functioning nonetheless.” So kudos to Dan Domingues, Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk, Paola Lazaro-Munoz, Lisa Ramirez, Gerardo Rodriguez, Xochitl Romero, Haynes Thigpen

Zach Braff and Nick Cordero perform from Bullets Over Broadway in Bryant Park shortly before the show closes on Broadway

Zach Braff and Nick Cordero perform from Bullets Over Broadway in Bryant Park shortly before the show closes on Broadway

Nick Cordero, the best thing by far in Bullets Over Broadway, played Cheech, a 1920s thug who turns out to be a brilliant playwright. Cordero turned out to be a terrific song-and-dance man

Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow photo2 by Carol Rosegg

Appearing on a Broadway stage after an absence of 35 years, Mia Farrow felt ideally cast as Brian Dennehy’s half-century love interest in Love Letters. With her translucent beauty and educated diction, she seemed believably rooted in the upper crust enclave in which the character is raised, but which never serves her well. Farrow ranges from flighty to flirty to fragile, with a suggestion of great feeling – much of it all the more communicated, paradoxically, because it is not expressed on the surface.

James Iglehart in Aladdin

Whatever the billing, the star of “Aladdin” is its genie, James Monroe Iglehart, a worthy heir to a role originated on film by Robin Williams. A winner of a 2014 Tony Award for his performance, Iglehart morphs from showbiz master of ceremonies to carnival barker to infomercial huckster to game show host to Cab Calloway-like zoot-suiter to disco dj to hip-hopper in a Hawaiian shirt, to yes, a sparkling-suited magical genie who emerges amid smoke from a little lamp.

When he appeared in “Memphis,” he had a relatively small part as an oversized janitor who becomes a sexy singing sensation (nods to Chubby Checkers.) Shaking and rocking it to the roof in a song called “Big Love,” he delivered a showstopper. It is too much to say he is the show in “Aladdin,” but he certainly gives – and deserves – some big love.

Red Velvet4AdrianLesterbyTristram_KentonIn honoring Adrian Lester‘s mesmerizing turn in “Red Velvet,” a play written by his wife Lolita Chakrabarti, we also pay homage to the real-life character he is portraying, Ira Aldridge, a native New Yorker who left the United States as a teenager in order to pursue a career on stage, becoming a successful actor throughout Europe, specializing in Shakespearean roles. To put this in perspective: When Aldridge played Othello in London, they were still debating whether it was a good thing to end slavery in the British colonies.

Praising a stage performance by Audra McDonald – who won a record-breaking sixth competitive Tony Award for portraying Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill – is a bit like praising bread, or Meryl Streep. Still, she transformed what could have been another tiresome play about a self-destructive star into a precise study of character, and sang in a style totally unlike her own.Year of the Rooster 6  Delphi Harrington, Bobby Moreno, Thomas Lyons Credit Russ Kuhner

Bobby Moreno began the year 2014 portraying a touching love scene between poultry in The Year of the Rooster.  He was Odysseus Rex, a young rooster permanently crouched, an angry punk with a knife, who is charmed by genetically over-engineered top-heavy hen. At the end of the year, Moreno stood tall in Grand Concourse as Oscar, the maintenance man and security guard in a soup kitchen in the Bronx, who is an adorable lug. Streetwise, charming, good-hearted, well-meaning, he is also slightly awkward, especially in scenes with Emma, who teases, taunts and seduces him.

Over the past few years, Moreno has stood out in charismatic roles from the dog-like military veteran in Ethan Lipton’s “Luther” to an evil teenager in Robert Askins’s “Hand to God.” Will 2015 be the Year of the Bobby Moreno?

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre
As Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Alexander Sharp, a recent graduate of Juilliard, literally climbs a wall, and plays with a rat, and is thrown in the air and carried about by the other cast members.
His is a physically demanding role – all that getting lifted through the air. But it requires balancing of a different sort as well, offering a convincing portrait without condescension. Sharp nails the gestures, the lack of eye contact, the matter-of-fact tone.

It’s impossible to cap an appreciation of stage performances at only ten. So nods to Annaleigh Ashford in You Can’t Take It With You, Kieran Culkin in This Is Our Youth, Patricia Clark in The Elephant Man, the ensemble cast of Dinner With FriendsHeather Burns , Marin Hinkle, Darren Pettie and Jeremy Shamos; the ensemble cast of Casa ValentinaReed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, Mare Winningham. Ok, I’ll stop.

Glee’s Goodbye to Cory Monteith, Videos and Questions

TheQuarterbackSeasonsofLoveHas anything like this been done before on television? “The Quarterback” was an hour-long episode of Glee where the characters mourn the death of the character Finn Hudson (friend, former classmate, teacher.) At the same time, the actors are in mourning for the actual death of a fellow actor, Cory Monteith, who played Finn Hudson on the show.  Monteith died of a toxic combination of heroin and alcohol in a Vancouver hotel room in July. He was 31.

Was this cruel to the cast, or necessary for them? Were those tears from the characters or from the actors? Was there too much sobbing? Did the commercial interruptions feel indecent?

And what of our tears? Were they earned? Was this exploitation, or a touching and appropriate tribute?

Seasons of Love, from Rent by Jonathan Larson

Make You Feel My Love, by Bob Dylan

I’ll Stand By You by The Pretenders

No Surrender, by Bruce Springsteen

Fire and Rain, by James Taylor

If I Die Young, by the Band Perry

Theater Geniuses, TV Drones? Eric Bogosian, Cherry Jones, Anna Deavere Smith

TVdronestheatergeniusesericbogosianposterEric Bogosian is performing in a show entitled 100 at the Labyrinth Theater through October 25, selecting about a dozen different monologues each night from the 100 he wrote and performed in six solo shows between 1980 and 2000. The night I attended, he played characters as diverse as a guru from India who discovered that the key to happiness was having money, a self-anointed Lothario who believed his success with women was entirely due to his “endowment” and

A “recovering male” who hates his penis.

A doctor describing the many, many side effects of a medicine he’s prescribing.

A drug dealer talking to his customer, who is a banker.

A homeless man on the subway and his “molecules.”

A dad in therapy who is separated from his wife

A paranoid man who hates the world

and readings of “cheese” (a Dunkin Donuts ad) and an argument both for and against smoking cigarettes.

Show most people his photograph, and they’re likely to say “Oh, yeah, he’s that guy who played in Law and Order.” Bogosian played Captain Danny Ross for three seasons in the television series “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

Cherry Jones is currently playing Amanda Wingate in The Glass Menagerie on Broadway, just the latest in a quarter century of performances in the theater that have led to her being considered among the greatest stage actresses of her generation. She is surely best known for playing President Allison Taylor in the television series “24.”

GlassMenagerie8Anna Deavere Smith has created one extraordinary theater piece after another by studying a controversy or an issue, interviewing a massive number of people involved, and then portraying all the characters in a solo show. Using this technique, she created such landmark works as Fire in the Mirror, about the Crown Heights Riots, and Twilight: Los Angeles, about the L.A. riots, and Let Me Down Easy, about our nation’s health care system and our national attitude towards health and death. Her work is profound, her talent is extraordinary, her awards are numerous — the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, honorary degrees from some two dozen universities, the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, and a fellowship from MacArthur Foundation, commonly called the Genius Grant.

Like the other two remarkable theater artists, she has had gigs on television for which she is probably best known, including the National Security Adviser on The West Wing and the hospital administrator on Nurse Jackie.

SmithThere is nothing wrong with the performances on television of Eric Bogosian, Cherry Jones and Anna Deavere Smith, but there is nothing extraordinary about them either – no hint of how wide-ranging and special their talent, how much they move and amaze theater audiences. It’s as if their TV roles are their day job, something they do to earn a living, and their stage work is their art.

What accounts for this disparity?

Is there something about the nature of their talent that doesn’t translate to the screen? Or is it because television as a medium and an industry — literal-minded and focused on looks — doesn’t know what to do with people of such singular gifts, and won’t offer them roles commensurate with their abilities? On stage, Anna Deavere Smith can play Lance Armstrong and a Hasidic mother and the chief of the Los Angeles police department and the mezzo-soprano Jessye Norman and the Rev. Al Sharpton. But on TV, she is a tall black woman, and so can only play characters who fit that visual description – and that the TV audience can accept as appropriate for tall, black women.

I recall a long-ago interview with an actor – was it Kenneth McMillan? – who played a variety of roles on stage, but was cast primarily as villains on screen. In the theater, he said, they hire him for his acting ability; in TV and the movies, they hire him for his face.

Are Denzel Washington and Orlando Bloom too old on Broadway?

Denzel Washington is playing Walter Lee Younger in "Raisin in the Sun" at age 58; Sidney Poitier was 34. Orlando Bloom is playing Romeo at age 36. Leonard Whiting was 18.

Denzel Washington is playing Walter Lee Younger in “Raisin in the Sun” at age 58; Sidney Poitier was 34.
Orlando Bloom is playing Romeo at age 36. Leonard Whiting was 18.

Denzel Washington has confirmed that he will play the frustrated son Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun” next year on Broadway. “We start previews in March.” When Sidney Poitier played the character, that actor was in his early 30s (as was Sean Combs.)  Washington is 58.

Orlando Bloom, at 36, is making his Broadway debut next month in “Romeo and Juliet.” While Shakespeare never mentions Romeo’s age, Juliet is explicitly 13 years old in the play. In Franco Zeffirelli’s film of “Romeo and Juliet,” Leonard Whiting was 18.

Some greeted Denzel Washington’s announcement with jokes. (“They’ll have to change the character’s name to Walter Older.”)

Broadway is not alone.

MuchAdoaboutNothingJonesRedgraveVanessa Redgrave, 75, and James Earl Jones, 81, are slated to play the lovers Beatrice and Benedick in a production of  Much Ado about Nothing at the Old Vic directed Mark Rylance, (Derek Jacobi was considered old for the role when he won a Tony for playing Benedick on Broadway when he was 46.)

Does age matter?

As theater artist (and fellow Tweeter) Isaac Butler points out, “nearly every stage actor plays parts that they are either too old or too young for. This list is endless. Nearly every single play to feature a teenager has that part played by someone in their mid 20s, for example. Most every elderly characters are played by actors in their 60s.”

Specific examples:

Mary Martin as Peter Pan

Mary Martin as Peter Pan

Mary Martin played Peter Pan, an eternal boy, starting at age 42.

Celia Keenan-Bolger played a young girl in “Peter and the Starcatcher” at age 34.

Cathy Rigby is still playing Peter Pan at age 60.

Bernadette Peters (age 65) played the mother of a 12-year-old girl in A Little Night Music

Sarah Bernhardt played the role of Hamlet at age 56.

Ethel Merman reprised the young sharpshooter Annie Get Your Gun in her 50’s

Eileen Herlie was 11 years younger than Laurence Olivier when she played Gertrude to his Hamlet.

Nearly everybody in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is an adult playing a child; the same is true in “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” (although one of the actors plays a dog.)

Many found Phillip Seymour Hoffman too young for Willy Loman – although he was older than Lee J. Cobb was when he played the role.

Lucky Guy 1 Broadhurst Theater

Tom Hanks in Lucky Guy

Kerry Butler, who is 42,  has played a teenager in  Hairspray and Rock of Ages, and somebody in her 20s in “Catch Me If You Can.”

Angela Bassett, age 54, played a character in her 20s in “The Mountaintop,” where Samuel Jackson played Martin Luther King Jr., even though he is 25 years old than King was when he died.

Tom Hanks, 57, is 16 years older than Mike McAlary was when he died, and Hanks played him in “Lucky Guy” mostly in his 20’s and 30’s. “Didn’t hurt box office,” Howard Sherman observes.

Angela Bassett and Samuel Jackson in The Mountaintop

Angela Bassett and Samuel Jackson in The Mountaintop

Both Orlando Bloom and Denzel Washington have their defenders.

As Michael Kimmel points out “in the original source, Romeo is supposed to be around 20 and Juliet 18- Willy is generally considered to have lowered both. “

Besides, says Rebecca Bromels “no one wants to see a 13 year-old attempt the role of Juliet, do they?  Not an easy role to pull off.”

As for Denzel Washington as Walter Lee Younger: The character “is about the desperation and establishing manhood,” says Evita Castine  “or what people think it is – not how old he looks.”

In writing about Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones’ forthcoming romp in “Much Ado About Nothing” (which would be an apt title for this post), Lyn Gardner concluded: “What great actors do is make you suspend your disbelief so completely that age becomes irrelevant.”

Thanks to the contributors not already mentioned: Tyler J. Martins, Jeff L. Walker, Patrick J. Maley, Phil Iannitti ,‏ Billy Flood, Beau Cybulski, Darius Smith, Piarsaigh MacCuagh,  Shawna Tucker Monson, Lauri Levenberg, Erica McLaughlin, Whitney Fetterhoff