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Off Broadway Fall 2017 Guide

Off-Broadway in the Fall promises a homoerotic dystopia (“A Clockwork Orange”); a revival of Harvey Fierstein’s breakthrough play starring Michael Urie (“Torch Song”); bio-dramas about a transgender etiquette teacher (Charm) and Public Theater founder Joe Papp (“Illyria”), as well as a debate among Thomas Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy about religion (“Discord.”)  There are hip makeovers of Shakespeare, Sophocles and Jane Austen;  an immersive visit to a Korean pop music factory by the same theater that developed The Great Comet; and plays by Julia Cho, Caryl Churchill, Amy Herzog,Rajiv Joseph, Sarah Ruhl, Simon Stephens, John Patrick Stanley, Anna Ziegler (two!), and Stephen Adly Guirgis (three!)

 

 

Unlike Broadway (See my Broadway 2017-2018 Preview Guide),  Off-Broadway is full of theaters/theater companies that present whole seasons of original or originally interpreted work.  That’s why my Off-Broadway preview below largely groups shows according to the theaters that are producing them, most of which offer subscriptions and/or memberships. I list the theaters in order of my preference for them (determined by such factors as their recent track record, the promise of the new season, and by my overall experience interacting with them as theatergoer and as critic.)

I’ve put a red check mark —  — besides a handful of shows opening in the Fall about which I’m especially excited, or intrigued, or at least notably hopeful.

(The asterisk *, explained more fully at the bottom, indicates those theatrical empires that have both Broadway and Off Broadway venues.)

PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS

416 W. 42nd St. Twitter: @PHNYC

Annie Baker’s “The Flick” is one of six plays that originated at Playwrights Horizons that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The theater offers new plays and musicals that are consistently worthwhile, in an environment that feels dedicated both to the theater artists and the theatergoers.

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday

August 18, 2017 – October 01, 2017  Opens September 12.

A play by Sarah Ruhl: “Playing Peter Pan at her hometown children’s theater is one of Ann’s fondest, most formative memories. Now, 50 years later, Neverland calls again, casting her and her siblings back to this faraway dreamscape where the refusal to grow up confronts the inevitability of growing old.”

The Treasurer

September 06, 2017 – October 22, 2017

A play by Max Posner, directed by David Cromer: “Ida Armstrong is broke, lonely, and fading fast. And she’s spending all of her children’s money, forcing her son to assume the unwanted role of The Treasurer: an arrangement that becomes untenable the more he questions his devotion to her.”

 

THE PUBLIC THEATER

425 Lafayette Street and in Central Park. Twitter: @PublicTheaterNY

Having originated both Hamilton and Fun Home, the Public is on a roll, the latest of many in the successful downtown empire that Joe Papp created half a century ago. (One of the plays this season is about Papp!) The Public is so popular these days that members have been complaining that their membership doesn’t guarantee tickets to the Public shows they want to see.

Public Works’ As You Like It

September 2 – September 5.

It’s now a Labor Day weekend tradition, to stage a Shakespeare play as a spectacular employing some 200 professional and amateur actors at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Shaina Taub has composed the songs for this musical version of Shakespeare’s  tale “of faithful friends, feuding families and lovers in disguise.”

Measure for Measure

September 17 – November 5, 2017

The innovative avant-garde theater company Elevator Repair Service adapts Shakespeare’s play about “impossible moral choices in 17th century Vienna” using athletic theatricality and Marx-Brothers-inspired slapstick.

Tiny Beautiful Things

Strayed/Vardalos

Strayed/Vardalos

September 19 to November 12.

Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) plays Sugar, an anonymous online advice columnist in a Vardalos’ stage adaptation of the book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed. Directed by Thomas Kail (Hamilton.) This an encore presentation. My review of the play when it was presented last year.

Oedipus El Rey

October 3 to November 19. Opens October 24.

Playwright Luis Alfaro has set this Greek tragedy in South Central LA and recast the hero as “a troubled Latino whose dreams of controlling his own destiny soar above the barbed wire of the prison where he’s spent his life.”

Office Hour

October 17 – December 3, 2017

Julia Cho’s new play about a teacher who compels her 18-year-old student to attend her office hours to discuss his violently obscene work.”The isolated young student in her office has learned one thing above all else: that for the powerless, the ability to terrify others is powerful indeed.”

Illyria

October 22 – November 26

Richard Nelson (the Apple Family plays and the Gabriels) directs his play about the 1958 fight by Public Theater founder Joseph Papp  over free Shakespeare productions in Central Park.

 

The Winter’s Tale

November 26 – December 17

The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit production of Shakespeare’s play, directed by Lee Sunday Evans

 

 

NEW YORK THEATER WORKSHOP

79 East 4th Street. Twitter: @NYTW79

NYTW got much attention two years ago for presenting David Bowie’s musical “Lazarus,”   and last year for its “Othello” with movie stars Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo. Its fare has ranged from the innovative and tuneful — “Hadestown” — to the cutting edge and incomprehensible — “Fondly, Collette Richland”

Mary Jane

Amy Herzog, Anne Kauffman

September 6, 2017—October 15, 2017

Written by Amy Herzog and directed by Anne Kauffman. “During a rain-drenched summer in New York City, an indefatigable single mother navigates the mundane, shattering and sublime aspects of caring for a chronically sick child.” Stars Carrie Coon.

Hundred Days

November 15, 2017—December 31, 2017

A musical about having only 100 days to live.

Three exciting-sounding new plays for which NYTW has not provided the dates as of yet:

An Ordinary Muslim, by Hammaad Chaudry, directed by Jo Bonney

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Rachel Chavkin

The House That Will Not Stand by Marcus Gardley, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

SIGNATURE

480 West 42nd Street. Twitter: @signaturetheatr

As the first New York theater to win the Regional Tony Award, the Signature now has some solid proof of what has been clear to its patrons for years.  What has distinguished this theater is not only its track record, but its commitment to keep the price of all tickets for initial runs to $30.

With the recent expansion of both their facilities and their mission, some longtime subscribers have had to adjust to the introduction of work by more untested playwrights. This is the second season under new artistic director Paige Evans, who headed Lincoln Center’s LCT3. Signature’s founding artistic director James Houghton died in August, 2016. This season looks more exciting in the Spring.

The Red Letter Plays: Fucking A

August 22  – October 1, 2017 

Suzan Lori Park’s first of two plays based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Christine Lahti portrays an abortionist trying to free her son from prison

The Red Letter Plays: In The Blood

August 29 – October 8, 2017

Hester La Negrita is a penniless mother of five condemned by the men who love her.

Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train

October 3 – November 12

The first of this season’s plays at the Signature by Stephen Adly Guirgis: “Angel Cruz is a 30-year-old bicycle messenger awaiting trial for the death of the leader of a religious cult. Inside Rikers Island, a terrified Angel is befriended by a charismatic serial killer named Lucius Jenkins. Lucius has found God.” Directed by Mark Brokaw.

Spring:

Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story

Paradise Blue by Dominique Morisseau

Our Lady of 121st Street by Stephen Adly Guirgis

A new play by Stephen Adly Guirgis

 

AtlanticTheaterlogoATLANTIC THEATER

On The Shore of the Wide World

August 23 – October 8, 2017

A play by Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) about nine months that changed the lives of a family.

Describe The Night

Playwright Rajiv Joseph

November 10 – December 24

Set in Russia over the course of 90 years,  Rajiv Joseph’s new play traces the stories of seven men and women connected by history, myth and conspiracy theories.

 

 PRIMARY STAGES

The theater company takes up residence this season at the Cherry Lane in the West Village

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord

September 19 – October 22, 2017

Three historical figures who wrote their own version of the gospels debate religion, literature and marriage.

Pride and Prejudice

Kate Hamill and Mark Bedard in Pride and Prejudice at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, which is co-producing its transfer to Primary Stages.

November 7 – December 15, 2017

Kate Hamill (Bedlam’s Sense and Sensibility) adapts and stars in this playful adaptation of Jane Austen’s tale of outspoken Elizabeth Bennet and the aloof Mr. Darcy.

LINCOLN CENTER THEATER*

@LCTheater

LincolnCenterlogoThe shows at Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway venues are inexpensive (especially at the Claire Tow theater, where initial-run tickets cost $20) and often rewarding.

After The Blast

October 7 to November 19. Opens October 23.

A play by Zoe Kazan “set in the wake of total environmental disaster, when the human population has retreated underground”

The Wolves

November 1 to January 7, 2018. Opens November 20.

Sarah DeLappe’s play about a teenager girls soccer team is being encored in a new venue. My old review of The Wolves.

ROUNDABOUT* LAURA PELS

The empire that is now Roundabout includes three Broadway theaters, and that’s where most of the attention is focused, mostly on star-studded revivals, especially musicals.  But its fourth building houses two Off-Broadway theaters (one of them a tiny “Black Box” theater.) It is in its Off-Broadway facility that Stephen Karam’s The Humans originated, which went on to Broadway and Tony love. The Roundabout’s “Underground” series discovers new playwriting talent, with tickets priced at $25.

The Last Match

September 28 – December 24, 2017. Opens October 24.

A new play by Anna Ziegler  about two tennis greats who are facing off in the match of their lives

Too Heavy for Your Pocket

September 15 – November 19, 2017. Opens October 5.

Jiréh Breon Holder’s play takes place in Nashville in 1961, when 20-year-old Bowzie Brandon gives up a college scholarship to join the Freedom Riders.

MCC THEATER

Address: The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street. 

Twitter: @mcctheater

Charm

August 31 – October 8. Opens September 18 

A play by Philip Dawkin. “When Mama Darleena Andrews– a 67-year-old, black, transgender woman — takes it upon herself to teach an etiquette class at Chicago’s LGBTQ community center, the idealistic teachings of Emily Post clash with the very real life challenges of identity, poverty and prejudice faced by her students. Inspired by the true story of Miss Gloria Allen

 

School Girls, Or The African Mean Girls Play

November 2 – December 10
Rebecca Taichman (Tony winner for Indecent) directs Jocelyn Bioh comedy about a fight over the Miss Universe pageant in Ghana’s most exclusive boarding school.

CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY

136 East 13th Street Twitter: @ClassicStage

Its 50th anniversary season is heavy on Shakespeare in the Fall, but in the Spring branches out to Tennessee Williams as well as an original play by Terrence McNally about Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe,and the first major New York revival of Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein’s adaptation of the opera by Bizet with an all African-American cast.

As You Like It

September 13-October 22

Shakespeare’s comedy, with music by Stephen Schwartz, set in the Jazz Age.

The Stowaway

November 5 – 19

This play geared to children is “inspired by the plays and language of Shakespeare.” By Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, which uses puppetry and live music,

Fiasco Theater’s Twelfth Night

November 29-January 6

SECOND STAGE THEATER*

Second Stage will launch its first Broadway season at the Helen Hayes in Spring 2018, the fourth “non-profit” to produce theater both on and Off Broadway. I’m hoping this will encourage them to become literally more inviting to independent New York critics.

Torch Song

Michael Urie stars in the play that made its author and first star Harvey Fierstein famous, in a production directed by Moisés Kaufman.  “It’s 1979 in New York City and Arnold Beckoff is on a quest for love, purpose and family.”

MTC* At City Center

131 West 55th Street Twitter: @MTC_NYC

The theater has recovered from the public criticism of a couple of seasons ago that it lacks diversity in its offerings, but this “club” is still not especially welcoming to non-subscribers or independent professional critics.

 

The Portuguese Kid

September 19 – November 26. Opens October 24.

John Patrick Shanley directs his new romantic comedy about a habitually widowed woman (Sherie Rene Scott) who pays a visit to her second-rate lawyer (Jason Alexander), intending to settle her latest husband’s affairs.

 

Actually

October 31 – December 3

Anna Ziegler (Photograph 51) explores the issue of consent on  campus. “At a raucous party during their freshman year at Princeton, Tom and Amber connect in ways that seem innocent enough at first. But as things progress, they find themselves in murky territory.”

OTHER  HIGHLIGHTS

KPOP (Ars Nova)

September 5 – October 7, 2017

The world-conquering success of Korean pop music is the subject of this new immersive theatre piece in the theater that developed “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” The show, about a new record label on the eve of its launch, is put together by the theater companies Ma-Yi and  the Woodshed Collective, the latter of which did an amazing show called Empire Travel Agency, a kind of on-the-town spy-murder mystery.

A Clockwork Orange (New World Stages)

September 2 – January 6, 2018.  Opens September 25

A stage adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel, best-known for the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film, about a teenage hoodlum in the near future who is arrested, and brainwashed to be submissive by the authorities.

Downtown Race Riot (The New Group)

Chloe Sevigny stars in In Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s play as a strung-out, free-wheeling single mom whose son Pnut and his Haitian best friend Massive wrestle with their obligation to join rioters in Washington Square Park in 1976 attacking any people of color they can find.

 

Other companies worth checking out:

St Ann’s Warehouse

Vineyard Theatre

Rattlesticks Playwright Theater

Mint Theater

Mayi Theater Company

Playwrights Realm

There are also commercial shows put together by independent producers that appear in theaters for rent, such as:

Cherry Lane Theatre
Daryl Roth Theatre
Gym at Judson
Lucille Lortel Theatre
New World Stages
Orpheum Theater
The Players Theatre
Snapple Theater Center
Theatre Row – The Acorn
Union Square Theater
Westside Theatre

*THE ASTERISK: Off-Broadway AND Broadway

*Just to complicate matters, several of the resident theaters also present shows on Broadway –  Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theater Company (MTC), the Roundabout Theater Company., and starting this season, Second Stage Theatre, which has bought the Helen Hayes. Their Broadway offerings are listed in my Broadway 2017-2018 Preview Guide.

What Is Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway?

Off-Broadway theaters, by definition, have anywhere from 99 to 499 seats. If a theater has more seats than that, it’s a Broadway house. If it has fewer, it’s Off-Off Broadway.

There are some terrific Off-Off Broadway theaters, sometimes confused for Off-Broadway. These include (but are not limited to) The FleaLabyrinth Theater, and LaMaMa ETC.

Monthly Calendar of Openings

Because there are so many shows Off-Off Broadway, and their runs are so limited, I include them in my monthly theater preview calendar (along with Broadway and Off Broadway openings) posted near the beginning of each month.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information about Off-Broadway, go to  The League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers (aka The Off-Broadway League).  This should not be confused with the Off-Broadway Alliance, which is a separate organization (though they should probably merge, no?)

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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

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.