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The Government Inspector Review: Michael Urie Triumphs Once Again, as Venal Bureaucrat

 

The vain, reckless son of a rich man is suddenly thrust into power by a venal group of citizens marked by their “ugliness, stupidity, greed, cowardice, corruption and sheer unpleasantness.” That’s the premise, more or less, of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 play “The Government Inspector,” as interpreted by Red Bull Theater’s broad, bawdy production.

What saves this play from a depressing relevance is the phenomenal physical clowning by Michael Urie.

Michael Urie entered into pop culture consciousness as the catty fashion editor’s assistant Marc St. James in the TV series Ugly Betty a decade ago, but the Juilliard graduate has proven with each successive New York stage role that he was born for theater — The Temperamentals, How to Succeed in Business, Homos or Everyone in America, Show for Days, and especially Buyer and Cellar, the play by Jonathan Tolin in which he plays every part, including that of Barbra Streisand.

Urie is certainly not by himself in “The Government Inspector.” Every one of the 14-member is positively vaudevillian in their portrayals, a testament not only to their own talents but to that of director Jesse Berger. But I was struck by Urie’s singular gift for physical comedy, which I don’t remember seeing from him before — gracefully and athletically bumbling around the stage drunk or suicidal, or full of lust or greed.

Urie portrays Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov, a drunken, whoring wastrel who was fired from his job as a low-level bureaucrat and travels through two-bit towns in 19th century Russia spending his father’s money. The officials and administrators of the particular town in which he is at present visiting get the false intelligence that he is a Government Inspector rooting out corruption and incompetence. They do all they can to win his favor – they wine him, dine him and incessantly bribe him.

The school principal uses as bribe money what he was going to use to buy new books for the school board meeting, but he becomes philosophical: “They can burn old books just as easy.”

The townspeople are even dumber than they are corrupt – it’s a town, as the mayor’s wife points out, “where people eat soup with their hands.” The wife (portrayed by the extravagantly bedecked and hilarious Mary Testa) thinks herself above the rubes with whom she is forced to associate: “Mine was a very cultured upbringing. We had a book, and my mother whistled.”

Her husband the mayor (Michael McGrath at the performance I saw, since replaced) is certainly dumb – given the ceremonial hat to wear, he puts on the hatbox instead – but he may be the only one even more cruel and corrupt. Before he curries favor with the false inspector, his calendar for the day (as read by a minion) consisted of: “Evicted the corporal’s widow. Had the corporal’s widow jailed for vagrancy. Flogged the corporal’s widow.”

Their daughter Marya, as Hlestakov puts it, “talks like she wears a chastity belt, but she acts like she knows a lot of locksmiths.” Her mother chastises her for her blunt language. “Men don’t like a woman with a tongue like yours” she says.

“Oh, really? Ask around.”

Such banter is courtesy of the 2008 adaptation by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, which is so consistently funny that he’s excused for adding a twist at the end that doesn’t make very much sense. After all, so little in the world makes much sense these days that The Government Inspector feels almost as much documentary as farce.

The Government Inspector is on stage until August 20, 2017.

Tickets and details

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Really Rosie: Maurice Sendak + Carole King Musical

A musical written by Maurice Sendak, with a score by Carole King?! Why isn’t it better known?

That question would seem to make “Really Rosie,” which is on stage at New York City Center through Sunday, a good choice for Encores Off-Center, whose aim is to allow audiences to give old musicals another look.

“Really Rosie” began life in 1975 as a half-hour animated special on television, but an expanded stage version ran Off-Broadway five years later. So the show qualifies for Encores Off-Center. But that doesn’t make it a great choice.

“Really Rosie” is strictly for kids, and, while sitting through its 70 minutes, I have never felt less “young at heart” in my entire life.

But that’s not the main problem. It’s that Sendak was beloved as a children’s book illustrator, who was best known for the hauntingly beautiful drawings in “Where The Wild Things Are” – and there’s nothing to look at in this concert-version of “Really Rosie” except kids, wearing pink feather boas and big professional smiles, showing off their impressive skills at dancing and singing like a juvenile America’s Got Talent.

Sendak cobbled together “Really Rosie”  from several of his books, most notably “Nutshell Library,” a collection of four related stories.

One of the stories from the collection is Pierre, and he gets his own song in “Really Rosie”:

 There once was a boy named Pierre
Who only would say “I don’t care”

Pierre keeps on saying “I don’t care” even to a lion who asks him whether he would mind being eaten. So the lion eats Pierre, his parents bring the lion to town, and the doctor shakes Pierre out of the lion’s digestive tract. The trauma apparently did some good, because Pierre’s alienation has been cured and he just wants to go home.

“If you would care to climb on me, I’ll take you there,” the lion says.

“Yes indeed I care!” — and the lion takes Pierre home on his back.

What makes this Maurice Sendak story so  charming on the page are the illustrations. Remember this?

Here’s what it looked like in the musical:

Pierre Rosies

Lost on stage is Sendak’s complex tone, dark and full of dread, defiantly subversive, but at the same time beautiful and somehow gentle.

Instead, we get cuteness and ….razzle dazzle.

It’s accomplished razzle dazzle, helped along by King’s snappy melodies and Ayodele Casel’s choreography, sung and danced  by a cast of first-rate diminutive performers many of whom are already Broadway veterans —  of School of Rock, On Your Feet, Fun Home.

It doesn’t help that the various stories are tied together in a loose plot that involves Rosie (Taylor Caldwell) returning to the old neighborhood from stardom in Hollywood, and enlisting the other children from the neighborhood –Alligator, Chicken Soup (Rosie’s little brother), Johnny — to put together a Hollywood movie.

We know that Rosie and the other characters are just playing at being stars. The neighborhood stoop where they play is on Avenue P, which resembles Sesame Street. Indeed, several of King’s songs even count numbers or list the alphabet. Unlike Sesame Street, Avenue P  actually exists in Brooklyn, running through Bensonhurst and Midwood, close to where Sendak grew up. But if the characters live in Brooklyn, there’s barely a moment in “Really Rosie” when you’re unaware that the performers portraying them work on Broadway.

 

Really Rosie

New York City Center

Book and Lyrics by Maurice Sendak

Music by Carole King

Choreography by Ayodele Casel

Music Supervisor Chris Fenwick

Music Directors Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Carmel Dean

Directed by Leigh Silverman

Cast: Swayam Bhatia, Kenneth Cabral, Taylor Caldwell, Ayodele Casel, Jaiya Chetram, Eduardo Hernandez, Nanyellin Liriano, Chris Lopes, Zell Steele Morrow, Charlie Pollock, Ruth Righi, Anthony Rosenthal, and Nicole Wildy

Bubbly Black Girl, Oak vs. Mandy, and the Continuing Relevance of Race on Broadway (and the World)

 

On the day I saw Nikki James give a star turn in “Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” the Off Center Encores two-day revival of the musical by Kirsten Childs that is in part about the challenges facing a black performer, the producers of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet” announced that Mandy Patinkin would take over the role of Pierre for three weeks starting August 14, replacing Okierete “Oak” Onaodowan. Oak Smash, as he’s nicknamed, an actor who was in the original cast of “Hamilton,” had assumed the role just on July 11th (taking over, after an unexpected delay, from Josh Groban) and was scheduled to perform through September 4. But, in an effort to boost ticket sales, which had declined after Josh Groban’s departure, the producers were ending Oak’s already brief run three weeks early.
Most publications hurrahed Patinkin’s return to Broadway after 17 years. But Broadway Black observed: “…the abrupt replacement of [Oak’s} role to boost ticket sales raises questions about how Black actors are valued and supported within Broadway.”
Prominent voices agreed on social media

(Tony nominee for Shuffle Along)

In response to the outcry, Mandy Patinkin announced, in an e-mail to the Times and a series of four Tweets, that he was withdrawing from the role:
“My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor. I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show.”

But Oak has announced he’s still leaving August 13.

oak1

oak2

The controversy gave added resonance to Kirsten Child’s semi-autobiographical musical, making ‘Bubbly Black Girl’ if anything even more relevant now than it was when it debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 2000 starring LaChanze.

Nikki James portrays Viveca Stanton, nicknamed

Bubbly, a sunny middle class black child living in L.A. withdreams of being a dancer – and also of being white, like her favorite doll, blonde, blue-eyed Chitty Chatty. Nearly everything in her world as we see her growing up encourages her in her second dream, if not her first. She learns about the bombing death of four little girls in Birmingham from Gregory (Korey Jackson), the little boy next door, who taunts her that she looks just as ugly as one of the victims. A teacher tells a black classmate, “act your age and not your color.” A police officer accosts her and Gregory for no reason on the street outside her home, singing a chilling refrain:

You have the right to remain silent
Remain silent remain silent
Remain silent remain silent
Hands up against the wall
You’re about to take a fall

Even her mother, who talks about black pride, insists she straighten her hair.
In dance class, Bubbly gets an early lesson in the racial politics of casting. The teacher, deliciously named Miss Pain, picks the light-skinned Yolanda to dance the princess. Bubbly is cast as the dancing Bramble Bush. Her classmate Emily had warned her in song:

You’re pathetic if you’re figurin’ that darker skin
will ever help you win
Now you can be the court jester,
the scullery maid, or the monster

When she moves to New York to become a dancer – “a place where f—ked-up folks can make their dreams come true” — director Bob (Josh Davis) tells her during an audition “Don’t go white on me, Bubbly.”
Bubbly then shares with us her inner monologue: “Okay – don’t panic – black, black, black, black, black, black…lot’s of black people in the South …okay…Southern accent, but not like a slave…’cause If I do get this job, I don’t want to offend the few black people that are gonna be in the audience any more than I have to…”

Her blackened second try brings down the house.

By the end of “Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” Bubbly sheds her ever-smiling persona, and her nickname. After another audition in which she is no longer trying so hard to please other people, Director Bob tells her: “For this show, I need you to give me something a little less…dark.”

She replies: “You know, for the longest time, I’ve been trying to do exactly that— be a little less dark. But I can’t run away from who I am anymore. And I don’t want to.”

Viveca winds up opening her own dance studio. Kirsten Childs, who danced for Bob Fosse on Broadway and on tour (Director Bob is an obvious, satirical stand-in for Fosse), has become a composer and playwright, whose latest musical “Bella An American Tall Tale” was at Playwrights Horizon this season,)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Childs’ debut musical is that the racism that Bubbly witnesses and experiences is woven into a show that is full of satire, given hilarious expression in this production by the director, Robert O’Hara, who knows a thing or two about satire (as a playwright of such edgy comedies about race as Bootycandy and Barbecue.) But the satire is folded into an all-around entertainment. Childs melodic songs range from jazz to funk to gospel to Broadway ballads. And though Off-Center Encores is supposed to be a concert version of old Off-Broadway shows, another highlight of this production was Byron Easley’s choreography.

The show at City Center, in another words, was a triumph and a delight in every way. And, like Oak in The Great Comet, it’s a shame it had such a brief run.

 

Spoon River Review: The Dead, Singin’ and Regrettin’

In “Spoon River,” we meet a town full of drunks, hypocrites, home-grown philosophers, resentful husbands, frustrated wives, an arsonist, a killer, and dozens more – all of them dead…and all of them singing and fiddling and stomping with glee.

As part of their month-long residence at Signature Center, Canada’s Soulpepper theater company has created a lively, joyful musical adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, the celebrated 1915 book of poems by more than 200 residents of the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois – or more precisely, residents of the graveyard in the town; the poems are expanded tombstone epitaphs

Theatergoers are led through that graveyard before we are shown to our seats, past black-suited funeral directors, and an open casket with a dead woman named Bertie.

Bertie is portrayed by Hailey Gillis, and we won’t see her again for some 90 minutes, when she crawls out of a wooden casket on stage to sing a beauteous hymn to life and beauty and the kisses of vanished lips – the last of the characters, portrayed by 19 cast members, to tell her story.

Composer Mike Ross and director Albert Schultz have done a masterful job of selecting the poems, some of which are spoken, some set to an original score. Much of what Ross has composed is what used to be called hillbilly music, but that doesn’t do justice to the range of genres and the depth of talent that put them over, from Miranda Mulholland’s exquisite violin playing and operatic soprano to Alana Bridgewater’s bring-down-the-house gospel. (see the video below.)

At least one of the poems is both spoken and sung:

Didymus Hupp (Daniel Williston), the first of a quartet of drunks, says

“Like If God is all and in all, as I opine

Then God is also in quinine.

Also in whisky, and also in wine….”

Then one by one, the other drunks join him to sing the stanza, accompanied by bass and mandolin.

There are other clever groupings: A toothless Don Juan, followed by several of the women he deflowered in his prime; a series of married couples, side by side in their coffins (as if we are viewing them from above), vituperative and resentful even in death, or still loving and grateful.

There is humor lurking in the grim tales and sad regrets voiced by individual characters: The town’s telephone operator Edith Bell (Sarah Wilson), after recounting some scandals, observes that “the commandment not to judge was made impossible by the telephone.” Margaret Fuller Slack (Alana Bridgewater), wanted to be a novelist, and married a rich druggist because he promised her a life of leisure, and instead gave her six children. The lesson she has learned in the grave:

Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!

If the pile-on of graveyard observers starts to feel too rich, and the songs too repetitive, what will surely remain a fond memory after theatergoers depart (the theater!) are the rompin’, stompin’ hootenannies, when the entire cast of 19 gather,  reassuring us that the dead can have fun.

Soulpepper in Bryant Park

Spoon River

Soulpepper on stage at Signature

Adapted from Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz; Composed by Mike Ross; Directed by Albert Schultz

Cast: Alana Bridgewater, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Hailey Gillis, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Richard Lam, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Jeff Lillico, Diego Matamoros, Michelle Monteith, Miranda Mulholland, Gregory Prest, Jackie Richardson, Mike Ross, Paolo Santalucia, Brendan Wall, Daniel Williston and Sarah Wilson

Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets: $20 to $55

Spoon River is set to run through July 27, 2017

Pipeline Review: A Mother and Teacher Worries About Her Son

As “Pipeline” begins, we learn that a black teenager has gotten into a physical scuffle with his teacher and is in danger of being expelled, and arrested. But playwright Dominique Morisseau masterfully upends the tired assumptions that might attach to such a drama, in a play that is not just smart and engaging; it is also the most literate of any I’ve seen this year.

The teenager, Omari (Namir Smallwood), attends a mostly white private boarding school. The encounter occurred, as Omari later explains to his mother, after a discussion of Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son,” when the teacher kept on asking him questions about the African-American protagonist of that novel, the killer Bigger Thomas. “’What made Bigger Thomas kill that woman? What were his social limitations? What made the animal in him explode?’ And who he lookin’ at when he askin’ all these questions, Ma. Who he lookin’ at?”

“Omari,” his mother replies.

“Like I’m the spokesperson. Like I’m Bigger Thomas. Like I’m pre-disposed or some shit to knowing what it’s like to be an animal.”

“Pipeline”is no polemic. The play focuses less on Omari than it does on his mother, Nya, portrayed by the wonderful actress Karen Pittman (Disgraced, King Liz) – and, truth be told, she too has questions and concerns about her own son…and other mothers’ sons. She is a teacher herself, in what is euphemistically called (but not in this play!) an “inner city school.”

Nya is also a single mother – but, again, that doesn’t mean what some people would assume. Omari’s father Xavier (Morocco Omari) is a successful businessman, who is paying for Omari’s schooling. We even piece together, in passing, that it was Nya’s actions that destroyed the marriage.

Again and again, in other words, the playwright insists on the specificity of her characters. This long has impressed me about Dominique Morisseau, who in addition to her playwriting is a writer for the Showtime series “Shameless,” about a struggling family in Chicago, and whose previous plays include “Skeleton Crew,” about a financially-threatened group of Detroit auto workers, which was given a terrific production last year.

Off stage, Morisseau is passionate and outspoken about a range of social and political issues, but her beliefs never seem to interfere with her integrity as a playwright . She doesn’t use her characters to score points; she allows them their lives – which are as full and complicated as any of the characters we are more used to seeing on stage. It is refreshing, for example, that “Pipeline” features a character, Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), who is intelligent and caring and flirtatious and adulterous…and works as a minimum wage school security guard.

All six characters in “Pipeline” are given their due, aided immeasurably by some outstanding performances under the fine direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz.

The title of Morisseau’s play is an oft-used term among educators, employed as a metaphor for the fate awaiting school children. The students labeled “gifted” go into one pipeline. The term is commonly used these days to describe what happens way too often to poor children of color — “the school to prison pipeline,” which was the subject of Anna Deavere Smith’s documentary drama, “Notes from the Field.”

There is no mention of this term in the play itself (although there’s an explanation of it in the accompanying issue of the Lincoln Center Theatre Review.) The problems in education are presented obliquely but effectively, and not downplayed: In between scenes, Hannah Wasileski’s huge video projections of what look to be real-life chaos and violence inside an actual school cover the institutional wall of a set that looks like an especially forbidding high school gymnasium.  Nya’s colleague Laurie (the gloriously in-your-face Tasha Lawrence), has just returned to school after facial reconstruction surgery to repair the damage from an attack by the parents of a failing student. “I’ll outlast ‘em all,” she barks. (By the end of the play, we’re not so sure.)

Nya most eloquently expresses her worries about her son when she is teaching the 1959 poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool: The Pool Players Seven at the Golden Shovel”:

We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

Nya teaches the poem to her class, and to the audience too. It’s a testament to the skills of Pipeline’s playwright, director and performers how much this poem winds up meaning to us, and moving us.

There may not be a traditional story arc in “Pipeline” — as the play progresses, we dig deeper into the characters — and no clear-cut resolution at its end, but that to me speaks to Morisseau’s integrity. She’s telling us like it is; a pat ending would ring false, given the circumstances. Any hopefulness is unlikely to exterminate the frustration and resentment and uncertainty.

Along the way, we are treated to Morisseau’s gifts, which include not just her compassionate portrayals and an easygoing grasp of literary poetry, but her exquisite ear for the delightful everyday poetry in the way people talk, such as in the dialogue between Omari and his boarding school girlfriend Jasmine (Heather Velazquez.) Her parents (like his) thrust her into this alien environment to get her out of the neighborhood and its bad influences. In a scene in her dorm room, Omari has just announced to her that he’s going to run away from school.

“Yo, this could be our last time,” he says, making a move.
“You kiddin’ me right now?” she says, darting up out of the bed.
“I’m just seeking intimacy.”
“You seeking to get socked in the eye. I don’t turn on and off like no stove.”
“You mean a faucet.”
“I mean a stove. One minute you got me hot. Next minute fire’s out…”

Later, using a lesson he learned in “Mr. Peterson’s Science Class,” Omari compares Jasmine to “Metamorphic rocks. They change in form. Made from heat and pressure. That’s what makes ‘em so rare and interesting. “

That sounds like a good description of all the characters in “Pipeline” – and of the play itself.

Pipeline

Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

Written by Dominique Morisseau; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set design by Matt Saunders, costume design by Montana Blanco, lighting design by Yi Zhao, sound design by Justin Ellington.
Cast: Tasha Lawrence, Morocco Omari, Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood, Jaime Lincoln Smith and Heather Velazquez
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $87
Pipeline is scheduled to run through August 27, 2017

Review: Hamlet Starring Oscar Isaac at the Public Theater. Directed by Sam Gold

As you might have heard, Oscar Isaac walks around in his underpants in the Public Theater production of “Hamlet.” But the most startling visual occurs much later. There’s a sudden, striking and initially mystifying shift more than three hours into the show, when Sam Gold, its aggressively inventive director,  seems to have turned Shakespeare’s tragedy into performance art.

Polonius (Peter Friedman, in modern business suit) is lying dead on the orange-red carpet, when his daughter Ophelia (Gayle Rankin) leaves the theater up the right aisle to fetch the kind of huge metal planter that’s a common sight in office lobbies, pulls out the leafy plant from it, and dumps all the dirt from it on Dad. Then she leave the theater up the left aisle to fetch an identical planter, and dumps that on him as well. Afterwards, she goes backstage and brings out a garden hose, sprays her father with it, and lies down next to him, in the mud, the hose dribbling water. In this way, we see Ophelia “drown” onstage.

But they’re not done. Both of them soon rise up from the dead, and play with skulls.

It takes a moment to realize that Polonius and Ophelia (or rather, the performers who were portraying them) have turned into the gravediggers – a scene (which many directors cut or sharply reduce) that eventually leads to the familiar “Alas, Poor Yorick” speech by Hamlet while he holds up a skull.

One can argue that Gold is being practical here. There are only nine cast members in this production of a play that calls for more than two dozen characters. Polonius and Ophelia are now dead, after all, which frees up the two actors to take on secondary roles. And if they are going to take on new roles, they might as well do so ….memorably.

Yes, this will confuse many in the audience, but maybe confusion is part of Gold’s concept; isn’t Hamlet the character confused?

The unusual staging with Polonius and Ophelia is just the most vivid example of what’s evident from the get-go: Sam Gold aims to stir things up with this “Hamlet,” and he’s using his playbook from past productions to do so. Like his recent Broadway production of “The Glass Menagerie,” the set and costumes of this “Hamlet” are modern and minimal. Like “The Flick,” “Hamlet” takes his time; it’s nearly four hours long, although that includes two intermissions. Reminiscent of Gold’s recent “Othello” at New York Theatre Workshop, the first scene of “Hamlet,” between the sentinels, Horatio and King Hamlet’s ghost, is performed entirely in the dark; and then later the house lights come full up on the audience.

There are more syringes than swords in Gold’s “Hamlet.” The death of the King in the play-within-a-play is stretched out and played for laughs. Jazz cellist Ernst Reijseger is a constant presence on stage, underscoring the play, his presence sometimes acknowledged by the characters. This is a production that values cleverness over emotional engagement.

Yet, for all this fiddling around, and despite too many moments of director-engendered incoherence, Gold’s “Hamlet” ultimately worked for me. This is largely for the same reason that I was glad I saw the Gold-directed “A Doll’s House Part 2” – the acting.

Or, more precisely, one actor: the Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac, better known as a screen actor (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Show Me a Hero” mini-series on HBO), and as a recently-minted blockbuster star (“X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”) But Isaac is also a graduate of Juilliard, and his classical training shows.

Now, Isaac doesn’t entirely escape Gold’s zealous directorial touches. He not only walks around in underpants and a t-shirt for a substantial amount of time — when Hamlet is feigning madness; he also comes out wearing a paper toilet seat cover around his neck. He delivers the “To be or not to be” speech lying down – which mirrors the very first image of the production (before the dialogue begins), of his father King Hamlet lying down on a folding table, dead.

But Gold’s radical interpretation of the play did not for me undermine the power and clarity of Isaac’s Hamlet (the way I felt Gold’s radical direction of The Glass Menagerie did to Sally Field’s Amanda.) Given how many extraordinary actors have taken on Hamlet, it would be foolish and maybe even arrogant of me to attach a superlative to Isaac’s performance. But he avoids many of the traps of the role; for example, he doesn’t love the sound of his own voice too much when delivering the most famous soliloquies in the English language. Isaac is adept at plumbing the lines for their meaning; his delivery is nearly conversational, and remarkably accessible. If he doesn’t emphasize the poetry of Shakespeare’s language as much as other artists have, neither does he disrespect it.

Isaac is backed by a few standout performances, in particular Ritchie Coster, who portrays Claudius, Hamlet’s murderous stepfather with a hint of thug about him (aided by some muscular tattoos); this seemed just right. Peter Friedman, always reliable, offers a solid Polonius, and Keegan-Michael Key, of the Key and Peale comedy duo, makes a vibrant Horatio, Hamlet’s friend. But Key is also the hammy player in the confusing play-within-the-play who milked his death like a vaudevillian, and Coster also portrays King Hamlet, the ghost, which occasionally added to the confusion (Is this King Claudius now, or King Hamlet’s ghost?) Gayle Rankin feels miscast as Ophelia — as fragile and distraught as an Olympic wrestler who’s gone punk. Or maybe that’s exactly the type Sam Gold wanted to cast; after all, Rankin plays Sheila the She-Wolf in the current Netflix wrestling series, GLOW. She certainly knew how to pin down that garden hose.

Read Hamlet

click on any image by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged

 

Hamlet
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Gold
Scenic Design by David Zinn
Costume Design by Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design by Mark Barton
Sound Design by Bray Poor
Musical Direction, Composition and Performance by Ernst Reijseger
Cast: Roberta Colindrez (Rosencrantz); Ritchie Coster (Claudius);Peter Friedman (Polonius); Oscar Isaac (Hamlet); Keegan-Michael Key (Horatio); Gayle Rankin (Ophelia); Matthew Saldívar (Guildenstern); Charlayne Woodard (Gertrude) and Anatol Yusef (Laertes).

Running time: 3 hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions.

Tickets: $115. $20 day of show lottery tickets,

Hamlet is scheduled to run through September 3,2017.

Opening Skinner’s Box Review: Psych Experiments 101 at Lincoln Center Festival

There are two kinds of questions posed by the Improbable Theater Company’s production of “Opening Skinner’s Box,” a stage adaptation of the 2004 book by Lauren Slater that describes ten famous and often flabbergasting psychology experiments. The show opens the 2017 Lincoln Center Festival.

There are the intriguing questions about human behavior that the experiments themselves attempted to address:

How do people learn?

How do people remember?

How much of who we are is our memory and how much of our memory can be altered through suggestion?

How willing are people to obey authority even when asked to harm innocent people? (The notorious Milgram experiment)

Why did no one help when Kitty Genovese was murdered, even though 38 neighbors witnessed it?

Then there are the questions about the show itself:

Why are all six members of the cast, both men and women, wearing nerdy bowties and jackets, when they don’t slip into white lab coats?

Why are the performances so mannered?

Why does the show stick so faithfully to the actual text of Slater’s book rather than dramatizing more?

What does one get out of this stage piece that one cannot get out of Slater’s book?

Why is the set just a box?

That last question is easily answered. The box is made of bungee cord and is surely meant to represent the “Skinner Box” that B.F. Skinner, the father of behavioral psychology, devised to shape the behavior of lab animals through the use of reward and punishment. They sometimes alter the box, so that it tilts a little, or bounces. It felt like an experiment in set design deprivation.

Theatergoers with an interest in psychology, but little background in it, would probably get the most out of Improbable’s show. I learned about most of these experiments in my college freshman psychology course. But we weren’t taught about Harry Harlow’s torturing of Rhesus macaque monkeys to study love. Nor did I know that Antonio Egas Moniz, the inventor of lobotomies, won the Nobel Prize!

Most eye-opening to me was the story told about Bruce Alexander’s Rat Park experiments, which demonstrated that rats only get “addicted” to drugs when they’re isolated and unhappy. “Addiction is not a biochemical fact,” (a cast member portraying) Bruce Alexander concludes. “It does not lie in the substance or the personality of the abuser. Addiction is a narrative; a story we’re told and we tell ourselves. And it s wrong.” So why hasn’t this discovery, which undermines the premise of the War on Drugs, led to major policy shifts? “Is it because according to Rat Park the war on drugs can only be won with better housing, better relationships, better lives?” asks Kate Maravan, who portrays the author Lauren Slater throughout the show.

Food for thought, for sure, but not exactly the sort of riveting experimental theater for which the 21-year-old Improbable is known. Think of “Opening Skinner’s Box” as more of a lecture, eccentrically illustrated.

 

Opening Skinner’s Box

Lincoln Center Festival

Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College

Adapted from the book by Lauren Slater; Directed by Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson

Cast: Alan Cox, Stephen Harper, Tyrone Huggins, Morven Macbeth, Kate Maravan and Paschale Straiton

Running time: Two hours, including an intermission.

Performances from July 10 to July 12.

Amerike The Golden Land Review: 50 Years of Yiddish Songs about Jewish Immigration

Near the end of this musical revue surveying 50 years in song of Jewish immigration to New York, one of the talented performers, Daniel Kahn, delivers an astounding rendition of “Roumania, Roumania,” a popular song written and recorded in 1941 by Aaron Lebedeff, a huge star of New York’s Yiddish Theater. In Kahn’s hands, the song is not just a lively, tuneful exercise in nostalgia for the old country; it’s somehow deeply powerful. Could that be in part because, just before the song, one of the characters announces that there was a pogrom in Yas, Roumania, in which hundreds of Jews had been shot?
Kahn is in a cast of some dozen golden-voiced performers in “Amerike: The Golden Land.” They sing more than 40 beautiful Yiddish songs, backed by a klezmer-inflected eight-piece band,wonderfully orchestrated. The songs, and brief scenes between them, are grouped in 11 segments organized more or less chronologically, from “Arrival” (in the 1890s) to “Rebirth” (after the Holocaust, in the 1940s.)
With its revival of “Amerike,” the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in its 103rd season is clearly trying for the Triple Crown — after its first  ever Broadway producing credit for the groundbreaking “Indecent,” and its hit revival/restoration of the charming 1923 Yiddish-language operetta, “The Golden Bride.” There are indeed other stirring moments like Daniel Kahn’s “Roumania, Roumania” in “Amerike.” But one longs for more of them. The show doesn’t quite reach the heights of Folksbiene’s recent productions, which would admittedly be a tall order.

Click on any photograph by Victor Neshay to see it enlarged.

A stumbling block is the surface familiarity of some of the subject matter, or what one can more bluntly call the schmaltz factor. How can a New York audience view as totally fresh any staging that involves huddled masses arriving at Ellis Island carrying broken down suitcases and exclaiming “Gold in the streets!” – even if it is in Yiddish? (With English and Russian sur-titles.) It doesn’t help that we don’t really get to know any specific characters, since, although there are a few recurring figures, “Amerike” is less a work of traditional musical theater than the stage equivalent of a concept album.
It is important to point out that the creative team, who first put the show together in 1982, works hard to unearth period songs intelligently and present them authentically. There is also much loveliness in the production, including the vivid costumes, lighting and set design, and Merete Muenter’s buoyant choreography, all of which makes the most of the small stage at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. For the multilinguists in the audience, or those who are especially attentive, there are some clever moments even within the most clichéd scenarios. An official on Ellis Island asks Izzie in English what his name is. Izzie has been repeating his new English name in order to remember it, but says to the next person in line “I forgot already” – but he says it in Yiddish: “Shoyn Fargesn.”
“Sean Ferguson,” the official repeats. “Sign here, Mr. Ferguson.”
There are more accessible highlights. In the spirited and sardonic number, “Vatch Your Step,” the cast sings the 1912 melody (“Vatch your step…Amerike, a land of hurry up”) alternating with shtick re-enacting the various ways that the “greenhorns” were cheated and exploited. One of the few spoken scenes features a hilarious routine by the weatherman at WEVD, New York’s Yiddish language radio station in the 1930’s and 40’s (Another radio routine is literally about schmaltz, but it’s in a recipe that uses the word in its original meaning, chicken fat.) There is a Yiddish Theater version of the witches brew scene in Macbeth that I considered way too short. A vaudeville-like 1930 ditty, Steam Steam Steam presents a song-and-dance routine by two men initially complaining about the landlord, but naughtily segueing into an exercise in mild double-entendre.
“Amerike” ends with the whole cast singing Emma Lazarus’s famous 1883 poem “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor’ that Irving Berlin set to music in 1958. They sing in English, with the Yiddish this time projected on the curtain and backdrop – as well as Spanish, Chinese, French, Russian and several languages I didn’t recognize. Was this familiar; was it schmaltz? It would be hard to say no, but it was also easy to be moved by it.
Folksbiene and the Museum of Jewish Heritage are doing more than just this finale to connect the experience of Jewish immigration with the immigrants of today. Next Monday and Tuesday, they are holding an Immigrant Arts Summit, which includes a free concert in nearby Robert F. Wagner Park.

Amerike: The Golden Land
Edmund J Safra Hall at The Museum of Jewish Heritage
Conceived and written by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld,
Directed by Bryna Wasserman
Set design by Jason Courson, lighting design by Yael Lubetzky, costume design by Izzy Fields, sound design by Patrick Calhoun, choreography by Merete Muenter
Cast: Glenn Seven Allen, Alexandra Frohlinger, Jessica Rose Futran, Daniel Kahn, Dani Marcus, Stephanie Lynne Mason, David Perlman, Christopher Tefft with Maya Jacobson, Alexander Kosmowksi, Isabel Nesti, Raquel Nobile, Grant Richards, Bobby Underwood
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets $35 – $60
Amerike: The Golden Land is scheduled to run through August 6, 2017.

Update: Amerike has been extended to August 20, 2017.

Cost of Living Review: A tart take on people who need people

 

In “Cost of Living,” an eye-opening play featuring a quartet of extraordinary performances, playwright Martyna Majok offers a tart retort to that sappy Barbra Streisand song about the luck of people who need people, and smashes more than one stereotype along the way. In an early scene, Jess (Jolly Abraham) has applied for a job as a caretaker for John (Gregg Mozgala ), a young man with cerebral palsy:

“I never worked with the…differently abled,” Jess says politely.

“Don’t call it that.” John replies. “It’s f…ing retarded.”

“So what do I… how do I…refer to you?” Jess stammers.

“Are you planning on talking about me?”

“No.”

“Why not? I’m very interesting. “

John is interesting, actually – a handsome, wealthy graduate student in political science at Princeton University — but clearly a bit of a jerk. Jess is in desperate need of a job, the daughter of an impoverished immigrant. But she is also a recent graduate of Princeton herself.

“Cost of Living” engages us in the story between John and Jess, and a parallel one between Eddie and his estranged wife Ani, who recently became a quadriplegic as a result of a car accident. Ani (Katy Sullivan) doesn’t want Eddie (Victor Williams) to help, angry and resentful that (before the accident) he left her for another woman. He makes it his mission to convince her to let him care for her. Much of their banter is surprisingly hilarious, but always rooted in their characters. (It’s a further subtle strike against stereotyping that Williams is an African-American, and Sullivan white, yet absolutely nothing is made of their relationship being interracial.)

With these stories, Majok explores the startling similarities between emotional and physical dependence, and examines the needs of the caretaker as well as the cared for – making us see that the lines between the two are often blurred, the roles reversed.

But what’s most wonderful about the MTC production, superbly directed by Jo Bonney, are a series of unforgettable scenes between the couples that thrust us into an intimacy that is rare in the theater. Eddie (Victor Williams) is giving Ani a bath when he decides to serenade her with a piano concerto. There is no piano in the bathroom, and Eddie never learned to play anyway, much as he wanted to. But he takes her paralyzed arm from the water, drapes it on the bathtub’s edge and plays her like a piano, synchronized with the radio broadcast.

A parallel scene between Jess and John, more prosaic but more practically instructive, shows what it takes for Jess to give a shower to John.

These and other evocative scenes would not work as well as they do without the exceptional performances – Katy Sullivan as a foul-mouthed and sarcastic girl from Jersey, who somehow lets us know that in her own way she is touched; Victor Williams as a regular guy from Bayonne, a former trucker, who has messed up more than once, but wins us over because he seems genuinely to care.

It’s an added gift that the two disabled characters are portrayed by actors who are themselves disabled – Katy Sullivan a Paralympic track and field champion, and Gregg Mozgala, a well-known disability rights advocate and the founding artistic director of The Apothetae, a company whose goal is to create plays that make the disabled visible.

A final scene in “Cost of Living” attempts to merge the two parallel stories, or at least find a connection between the characters in the two plots; Majok is apparently not content with the strong thematic connections. The scene doesn’t quite work, in part because it’s not clear at first when it’s occurring in the timeline of their lives. (A few lines seem deliberately designed to throw us off course.) Other scenes in the play are told out of chronological order and add at least momentary confusion.

I prefer to think of “Cost of Living” as a work in progress. Majok wrote a one-act play about John and Jess that was presented in 2015 at Ensemble Studio Theater, before she expanded it to this full-length play. She was smart enough to realize it was worth doing more with the characters and the premise; perhaps that’s still true.

“Cost of Living” is a “work in progress” in another way. As Majok did for new immigrants in her terrific “Ironbound,” by creating a complicated, not always likeable but always believable female character, so in “Cost of Living” she progresses our empathy and understanding for people who don’t normally get to break out of their demographic group label to become such vivid and compelling individuals.

 

Cost of Living

MTC at City Center

Written by Martyna Majok; Directed by Jo Bonney

Set design by Wilson Chin, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Jeff Croiter,sound designer and composer Rob Kaplowitz

Cast: Jolly Abraham, Gregg Mozgala, Katy Sullivan and Victor Williams

Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission.

Tickets: $79

Cost of Living is scheduled to run through July 16, 2017

July 2017 New York Theater Openings

This is an unusual month for New York theater: While there are no shows opening on Broadway, and few Off-Broadway, there is plenty to see – the annual summer theater festivals, such as the New York Musical Festival, NYMF 2017, which starts on July 10; FREE theatrical concerts like the weekly Broadway in Bryant Park, countless Shakespeares in the parks; and some one-off theater festivals, such as the month-long Soulpepper on 42nd Street — the 20-year-old Canadian theater company’s presentation of ten of its popular plays.

Color key: Broadway: RedOff Broadway: Purple, blue or black. Off Off Broadway: Green. Theater festival: Orange

July 5

Kim’s Convenience (Soulpepper at Signature)

Kim’s Convenience, “the most successful new Canadian play of the last decade, is set in a family-run Korean variety store. This is one of the 10 shows presented by Soulpepper on 42nd Street.

 

July 6

Of Human Bondage (Soulpepper at Signature)

“W. Somerset Maugham’s epic tale of lustful obsession and the pursuit of art is adapted for the stage for the first time anywhere. “

July 7

To To or not to T

To T or Not To T (Hot Festival)

Queer/transgender Tamil-Sri LankanAmerican artist D’Lo contemplates  passing as a cisgender, straight, male, person of color. This is one production in a festival at Dixon Place that bills itself as “the longest-running LGBTQ festival in the world”

July 10

Pipeline (Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse)  

A mother’s hopes for her son clash with an educational system rigged against him in a new play by Dominique Morisseau (Skeleton Crew).

Amerike The Golden Land (National Yiddish Theatre)

The story of an immigrant people, using  popular songs of the day, with stories “based on the lived experience of real immigrants “ In Yiddish with Russian and English supertitles.

Matthew McConaughey vs. The Devil (NYMF)

“A Faustian musical comedy that dares to ask the question, “How did Matthew McConaughey win an Academy Award?’ This is one of 20 full productions in New York Musical Festival (NYMF 2017) which runs through August 6

Opening Skinner’s Box (Lincoln Center Festival)

Britain’s Improbable theater company takes us on a tour of “great psychological experiments of the 20th century.” This is the first of five works from the Lincoln Center Festival that are identified as theater.

July 12

Assassins (Encores Off Center! NY City Center) 

A concert series production of the musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman about Presidential assassins and would-be assassins.

SAMSUNG CSC

True Right (Ice Factory Festival)

“A reimagining of Sam Shepard’s True West–featuring George and Jeb Bush, as played by two ethnic ladies.” One of the seven plays of this festival.

July 13

Hamlet (Public Theater)

Oscar Isaac as Hamlet, Charlayne Woodard as Gertrude and Keegan-Michael Key as Horatio. Directed by Sam Gold.

 

July 19

While I Was Waiting (Lincoln Center Festival)

Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar offers a portrait of Syria through one middle-class Damascus family who gather around the hospital bed of their son, who was beaten into a coma at a checkpoint. It is based on a true story.

This is one of three plays “opening” on this day (and running just a few performances) as part of Lincoln Center Festival,

Pete The Cat (TheatreworksUSA at Lucille Lortel)

This summer’s FREE summer offering of children’s theater is based on the book series of the same name by James and Kimberly Dean, and recommended for pre-K through third grade.

 

July 23

Money Talks (Davenport Theater

In this 95-minute musical comedy, Ben Franklin, the face on the $100 bill, is passed from a hedge fund manager, to a stripper, to a judge etc, trying to convince each of them to change their priorities before it’s too late.

Endangered (Davenport Theatre)

A musical about a social media savvy kid reporter and a group of endangered animals from around the globe who must survive an unexpected superstorm.

 

July 26

The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (Encores Off Center! NY City Center)

Concert version of Kirsten Childs’ 2000 musical is about “a young African-American dancer who finds her way from West Coast suburbia to Broadway, all while navigating the politics of race and gender in an attempt to uncover her own identity.”

 

July 31

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare in the Park) 

Directed by Lear de Bessonet and choreographed by Chase Brock, Shakespeare’s comedy will feature a starry cast including Annaleigh Ashford, Kyle Beltran, Danny Burstein, and Phylicia Rashad. FREE.