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Seeing You Review: Immersive Theater About World War II and the Bomb

 

Near the end of “Seeing You,” a dance and theater piece about World War II written and co-directed by Randy Weiner (a producer of both Sleep No More  and Queen of the Night ), I learned first-hand the difference between this kind of immersive theater and a Broadway musical. Three star-spangled gals had just finished their rendition of the Andrew Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” as part of a USO show for the GIs, when one of the entertainers shot off a confetti cannon. In a Broadway musical, the confetti would have been shot above the orchestra seats, thus showering down on the theatergoers who had paid the most for their tickets. In “Seeing You,” it was shot straight at me, from just a few feet away. (It took hours to get rid of all the tiny gold and silver strips.)

This assault by confetti, I guess, counts as a uniquely personal experience, and thus fulfills Element 4 of the six essential elements in any good immersive theater. I should point out that I’m the only one who says good immersive theater requires six elements, a theory I developed after attending many such shows, and which I expressed in a couple of essays (Immersive Theater, Defined, and Rethinking Immersive Theater.) There are some indications that my theory still needs some work, but let’s apply the six elements to “Seeing You,” a show that may not be the top of the line in the genre, but that fans of immersive theater would surely find worthwhile.

  1. Immersive theater creates a physical environment that differs from a traditional theater. 

“Seeing You” takes over a huge warehouse-like space in a building that hugs the 14th Street entrance to the High Line, in the once-rough, now-chic Meatmarket District.

There is no seating. After we were given dog tags (mine was stamped with:”Heaven, Hell or Hoboken”), we were instructed to stay silent unless one of the 14 cast members speaks to us. Then we were let loose to move around for 90 minutes, at first individually on our own, visiting a choice of vignettes involving one or two characters, but as the show progressed, we were shepherded around as a group.

The closest to traditional theatrical experience during were the brief, intermittent stage shows for the troops, and even then the troops had to stand.

  1. Immersive theater tends to stimulate all five senses—sight and sound, as with conventional theatre pieces, but also touch, and frequently taste, and even smell.

No food in this show, but definitely touch, and even, to a certain extent, smell – the smell of the smoke accompanying the atom bomb at the finale.

It’s worth noting that the underscoring for “Seeing You” was mostly gentle and tuneful, not the pounding rock and Cage-like repetition that accompanies many immersive theater. The title, after all, comes from the song of the period, “I’ll Be Seeing You (in all the old familiar places),” and there is a retro quality to the music and some of the dancing. The choreographer is co-director Ryan Heffington, who choreographed Sia’s “Chandelier” video, which has been viewed on Vimeo more than 1.6 billion times.

 

  1. The best of these immersive shows double as an art installation and hands-on museum.

 

This is not the case with “Seeing You.” There are no crowded desks to riffle through or cluttered bulletin boards, and only a few war-time posters on the wall. Set designer Desi Santiago’s approach is more minimal, focusing on mood, with the inestimable help of lighting designer Jamie Roderick. The vignettes are acted out in lit playing spaces surrounded by darkness and appointed with a table or a chair if anything at all. There are, however, a few vivid sets that pop up during climactic moments – including two in the photographs above: the red cross with the tubes descended from it represents a blood bank or nursing station. The backdrop of the barely clad young men is a blackboard that presumably is filled with plans for making the atom bomb.

 

  1. Immersive shows make individual audience members feel as if they have had a uniquely personal experience, that they are not just part of the crowd.

 

Long before the scene with the confetti blast, a nurse (Heather Lang) made me stick out my tongue, and then push down on her arms with my own, so that she could feel my “resistance.” (Resistance to being singled out was exactly what I was feeling.) Then, apparently satisfied that I was sufficiently healthy, she recruited me to stand in the middle of the entire group and catch all the large packets of blood being tossed my way, and flip them into a box held by another nurse.

 

  1. At the same time, there is always an aspect of an immersive show that emphasizes the social, through playful interaction or inexplicable tasks, often in small groups.

 

My interaction with the nurse was part of a group activity that engaged half of the theatergoers. While we were involved in the blood drive, the other half of the theatergoers had been drafted into basic training.

 

  1. For immersive theatre to work, in my view, a show has to have a story to tell—and it has to have respect for that story.

 

I had second thoughts about this element when I reviewed Inside the Wild Heart, an immersive piece about the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, which used her texts but didn’t really tell a story. This fit in with her writing, which is concerned with sensations, epiphanies, rather than conventional plots. I had thought that the success of Sleep No More and Then She Fell were in part because we knew the stories (Macbeth and Alice in Wonderland respectively) in advance, and so could follow what was happening no matter how mystical or mute the performers.

The broad outline of the story in “Seeing You” is clear enough: We are introduced to the anxious people of Hoboken, New Jersey, at the outset of World War II and then we follow them through the duration of the war until the decision to drop the atom bomb.   Some of the characters are recognizable throughout the piece, such as Grace (Eriko Jimbo), a Japanese-American artist who we learn is in a long-distance relationship with a GI (Aaron Dalla Villa) and who eventually experiences racial discrimination. Much of “Seeing You” though is a mosaic over time of isolated moments, most of them expressed primarily in dance, some memorably. There is a silent erotic dance, for example, between two soldiers (Jesse Kovarsky and Nicholas Ranauro.) A woman comes upon the scene, and one of the men sobs into her arms. Later, there is a shadow play showing men in combat, with some of these silhouettes turned into giants pinching off the heads of their adversaries, surreal and haunting.

There may be stretches of time during “Seeing You” that seem nothing more than a muddle, even for the most experienced theatergoer (my face-saving way of saying I got confused.)

But the beauty of immersive theater — from the point of view of its creators anyway — is that theatergoers have only themselves to blame for such lapses in clarity or momentum. If only I had followed a different character, or gotten into the other group, or had a greater understanding of modern dance

At one point, a Congressman (Ted Hannan) asks the assembled to write on a small slip of paper how many Japanese civilians would each of us be willing to sacrifice to save a million American lives? (That was reportedly the calculation that President Truman faced when he decided to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) It is the sort of moment not as easily accomplished in any other genre of theater. If there was no follow-through (we weren’t called on to state and defend our choices; there was no tally, etc.), it was still the kind of “audience participation” – involving not just our bodies but our minds – that holds great promise for the evolution of immersive theater.

Seeing You

450 West 14th Street

Created and directed by Randy Weiner and Ryan Heffington

Choreography by Ryan Heffington, production and costume design by Desi Santiago, lighting design by Jamie Roderick, sound design by Shannon Staton

Cast: Jesse Kovarsky, Heather Lang, Jodi McFadden, Zach McNally, Lauren Cox, Aaron Dalla Villa, Christopher Grant, Ted Hannan, Alison Ingelstrom, Eriko Jimbo, Maija Knapp, Nicholas Ranauro, Jay Stuart and Lauren Yalango-Grant

Running time: 90 minutes

Tickets: $55 to $100 General Admission

“Seeing You” is scheduled to run through August 31, 2017.

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1984 Review: Orwellian Horror Show on Broadway

It would seem just the right timing for the first adaptation on a Broadway stage of “1984,” George Orwell’s chilling 1949 novel of a future totalitarian society. The book long has been so thoroughly lodged in popular consciousness that it gave rise to the word Orwellian, but it shot to the top of bestseller lists this year with the inauguration of Donald Trump and the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts” as real-world synonyms for Orwell’s fictional vocabulary of “Doublethink,” “Newspeak,” and “Thoughtcrime.”

The stage version as written and directed by British theater stars Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan is certainly an intense and disorienting experience, with a fine cast featuring a spot-on Reed Birney, a stirring Tom Sturridge and Olivia Wilde in a memorable Broadway debut; as well as some attention-grabbing stagecraft executed with technically impressive precision. But Icke and Macmillan avoid the kind of explicitly anti-Trump commentary that we’re getting used to on the stage (i.e. Building the Wall; Julius Caesar at the Public.) And for all the ample reminders in “1984” the play of why “1984” the novel is so unsettling, fans of the horror movie genre might find more to appreciate here than those theatergoers who have come to the Hudson Theater expecting some special intellectual, emotional or contemporary political illumination of George Orwell’s dystopian novel.

The basic plot is more or less intact. We are introduced to Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), bureaucrat at the Ministry of Truth, which means he makes up lies all day, rewriting history and erasing from all records any once-honored heroes who have fallen out of favor with “Big Brother,” the leader who may or may not actually exist. Secretly, however, Winston rebels. He does this first by starting a diary, and then by falling in love with a waitress named Julia (Olivia Wilde.)

The scenes between Winston and Julia in their hideaway in an antique shop are the most engaging in the production – in part, ironically, because we see them in close-up on a large screen. (The actors are somewhere off-stage performing in front of a camera.) The creative team’s use of this livestreaming turns out to be one of the cleverest of the sly ways they make the audience realize how unreliable the reality in the play is, and how complicit we are in the constant stream of betrayals.

Yet the disorientation that is threaded throughout the production is too often indistinguishable from confusion. Icke and Macmillan have added a framing device of a group of characters talking about Winston’s diary (which may be the same as the book “1984”) in what is apparently the year 2050 (which, it might be worth pointing out, is 33 years in the future, just as the year 1984 is 33 years in the past.) These future characters pop in and out of the play in the beginning and the end and apparently in the middle, portrayed by the same actors who are Winston’s betrayers and torturers in 1984 or the present-day (it’s never quite clear what era we’re in.)

Sure, along the way, we get exposed to some of the alarming details of the society in which they live. We overhear a co-worker of Winston’s praising Newspeak as the only language “whose vocabulary gets smaller every year… In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

We learn the definition of Doublethink – “to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality one denies.”

We even unavoidably see parallels with current reality, thanks to such lines of dialogue as: “The people are not going to revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s really happening.”

But such lines are drowned out and undermined by the startling bursts of noise, blinding lights, and rapid-fire video projections that dominate this theatrical experience.

The final third of “1984” takes the sensory assault a step further, combining the startling effects with scenes of Winston’s torture in Room 101 at the Ministry of Love. The torturers, cloaked anonymously in white hazmat suits, crowd around Winston…blackout…lightning flash…rapid-fire video projections….and Winston is once again visible, in agony, spurting blood. A pitch-perfect Reed Birney looks as avuncular and sounds as reasonable and reassuring as Vice President Mike Pence, while overseeing Winston’s torture.

These are surely the scenes that reportedly caused as many as four theatergoers in a single night to faint, and that led to the recent announcement that nobody under 13 years of age (“born after 2004″) would be admitted to the show. These scenes take up about 30 minutes in a show that’s listed as having a running time of 101 minutes – a sly allusion to Room 101, and thus (intentionally or not) an indication of the priority placed on the theatrics of horror at the expense of the drama of political repression. It’s almost as if “1984’ the play is reflecting the values of the society it depicts – sensation over clarity, screens over thought.

 

 

1984

Based on the novel by George Orwell, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan

Sets and costumes, Chloe Lamford; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, Tom Gibbons; videos, Tim Reid;

Cast Reed Birney, Olivia Wilde,Tom Sturridge, Wayne Duvall, Carl Hendrick Louis, Nick Mills, Michael Potts and Cara Seymour

Running time: 101 minutes, with no intermission.

Tickets:  $35-$149.

1984 is scheduled to run through October 8, 2017

 

The Traveling Lady Review: Back with Horton Foote in Harrison, Tx

With the new production of Horton Foote’s “The Traveling Lady,” we are back on familiar Foote territory. The play, about a woman hoping to reunite with a husband recently released from prison, takes place entirely on a back porch in Harrison, Texas, the small town Foote created as a stand-in for his actual hometown of Wharton, Texas. That’s where the playwright was born in 1916, a year after Arthur Miller and five years after Tennessee Williams. Foote’s centennial passed far more quietly than those of his contemporaries. Eight years after his death, he is still primarily known for his film adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and for his original screenplay for “Tender Mercies,” both of which won him Academy Awards. But his reputation as a dramatist has been increasing, thanks to such champions as Michael Wilson, who directed both the ambitious epic “The Orphans Home Cycle” in 2010 — a marathon of nine of Foote’s Harrison plays – and the much acclaimed revival of “The Trip to Bountiful” on Broadway in 2013, with a cast that featured Cicely Tyson.

Like those plays – and much of the rest of the body of Foote’s work, which numbers some 60 dramas — “The Traveling Lady” is poignant, gently amusing, and peopled with believable small-town characters who struggle and strive to be decent, not always successfully.

It is 1950, and the traveling lady of the title, Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty) has traveled to Harrison, the hometown of her husband Henry Thomas (PJ Sosko), in hopes of establishing a home for their seven-year-old daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow), whom Henry has never met, and for Henry himself, who is soon to be released from prison. Georgette and Henry were married for a mere six months when his drunkenness led to a violent scuffle and incarceration. Georgette worked hard for his pardon. What she doesn’t know – what the townsfolk reveal to her – is that Henry was released a month earlier and has been working for Mrs. Tillman, a widow and temperance crusader ( Jill Tanner) who sees herself as saving him from drink. That Henry lied to his wife is not a good sign, and sure enough, after a tepid reunion, Henry…relapses.

This quick synopsis is somewhat misleading, since it doesn’t take account of all ten characters, nor the complex interplay among them. To portray this collection of deceptively low-key personalities in the production at the Cherry Lane, director Austin Pendleton has assembled a cast that includes some starry New York performers such as Karen Ziemba, most known for her roles in Broadway musicals. The audience gives a knowing laugh when, as the home-spun Sitter, she says: “If I had my life to live over again I’d learn to dance. I swear my whole life would have been different if I’d just learned to dance.” As Sitter’s mischievous mother Mrs. Mavis, Lynn Cohen gives a memorable performance, reprising a role she undertook in a 2006 revival of the play.

I have to admit that “The Traveling Lady” didn’t really kick in for me until the last third of the play, when it becomes clear that Slim, widower and deputy sheriff (Larry Bull), has taken a hankering towards Georgette but is too shy to declare himself.

“The Traveling Lady” debuted on Broadway in 1954, where it ran little more than three weeks. Like much of Foote’s work, it’s been given a second look – deservedly so. If this production may have required more attentiveness than I was willing to give it, if it didn’t move me or amuse me as much I might have hoped, that may only be because Horton Foote is responsible for some of the best theater I’ve ever seen.

 

 

The Traveling Lady

Written by Horton Foote

Directed by Austin Pendleton

Harry Feiner, Scenic and Lighting Design; Theresa Squire, Costume Design; Ryan Rumery, Sound Design and Original Compositions; Paul Huntley, Wig Design; Amy Stoller, Dialect Design and Dramaturg.

Cast: Larry Bull as Slim, Lynn Cohen as Mrs. Mavis, Angelina Fiordellisi, Jean Lichty, George Morfogen, Ron Piretti, PJ Sosko, Jill Tanner, Korinne Tetlow, and Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba

Running time: One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets: $65

The Traveling Lady is sc

In A Word Review: A Missing Child, An Unsolved Puzzle

Lauren Yee’s “in a word” is, on one level, about a married couple whose seven-year-old son has been missing for two years, the mother’s grief and guilt causing a breakdown in her relationship with her husband, and also in her relationship with reality. But what most distinguishes this intriguing puzzle of a play is the playwright’s concerns with the concomitant breakdown in language.

Yee comes close to explaining this aim explicitly near the end of the 70-minute piece, when the mother, Fiona, exclaims:

 

“….in times like this
Words fail me.
Like they just stop trying
Like whatever they were doing before

They don’t now.”

 

It’s Yee’s sharp perception that loss is often accompanied by uncertainty and confusion; and that at such times words can change their meaning and lose their power. Such feelings cannot be summed up in a word, though people try. (When has “I’m so sorry for your loss” ever done anything for anybody?) Both the playwright and director Tyne Rafaeli seem more interested in driving home those feelings in us than solving the puzzle of the story for us. Time is fluid — there are many flashbacks. One of the three actors in the cast (stand-out Justin Mark) portrays eight different characters, sometimes in rapid succession, from Tristan to the detective working the case to the kidnapper. There is much fantasy and absurdist word play. At one point, Fiona sternly instructs both her son Tristan and her husband Guy to take their naughty words out of their pockets and put them in a glass jar she’s holding. In another scene, the principal at the school where Fiona teaches orders her to take a leave of absence – which becomes a leaf of absence, and then a tree of absence, and the principal gives her a gift of a little tree. (It doesn’t stop there; a “tree of absence” is reiterated in so many different ways it counts as a theme.)

Still, the basic story unfolds sufficiently for us to stay engaged. We piece together that Tristan was adopted, that he was “difficult” – he had tantrums; his father Guy considered him “retarded.” We learn from the start that the parents think Tristan was kidnapped, though we’re given reason for doubt: Fiona meets her child’s kidnapper in the neighborhood grocery store; he gives her a cantaloupe; she brings the cantaloupe to the detective handling the case. He cuts it up and eats it.

A metaphor? Fiona’s hallucination?

For all such absurdist swerving, “in a word” does conclude with something close to a revelation/resolution, which if it doesn’t solve the puzzle, at least aligns some of the pieces, offering us a solid glimpse into Fiona’s complicated, contradictory, not always admirable emotions. I suspect that what I’ll most remember from “in a word” is not the hint of a cogent story, nor even the semblance of psychological insight, but Lauren Yee’s use of language.

 

 

In A Word

Lesser America at Cherry Lane

Written by Lauren Yee

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli

Set and Lighting Design – Oona Curley
Sound Design – Stowe Nelson
Costume Design – Andrea Hood
Props – Brittany Coyne

Cast: Laura Ramadei as Fiona, Jose Joaquin Perez as Guy, Justin Mark as eight characters including Tristan, the detective, and the kidnapper.

Running time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Tickets: $26

In a word is scheduled to run through July 8th, 2017

 

 

 

Monsoon Wedding Musical: Broadway Bound at Berkeley Rep

Mira Nair, the filmmaker of such celebrated movies as Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala, is directing a musical adaptation of her 2001 film Monsoon Wedding that is currently on stage at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, with plans to move to Broadway.

Let’s hope it does.

The story of the many family members who converge on Delhi for an arranged marriage is lively, colorful, and tuneful. It also has something to say – about the bridging of cultures, about the effects on individual families of globalization, but mostly about love in its many forms. It would also be the first musical on Broadway since Bombay Dreams (which ran for about nine months in 2004) to feature a South Asian cast, characters, and story.

Many stories, really. If some of the subplots from the movie have been shorn from the musical, Monsoon Wedding is still an extravagantly woven tapestry whose central thread is the wedding of Hemant (the golden voiced baritone Michael Maliakel), who is from New Jersey, and Aditi (a lovely Kuhoo Verma), the only daughter of a privileged Indian family that has seen better days. Hemant and Aditi have never met – and, we learn soon enough, Aditi already is involved with a husband…which is to say, she is having an affair with a married man. There are plenty of other complications.

If the story may need some further streamlining and some of the lyrics rethinking before a New York run, the work of the creative team — especially the exciting choreography by Lorin Latarro (“Waitress,” “American Idiot”) the bright, enchanting costumes by Arjun Bhasin, and the pulsating, eclectic score by Vishal Bhardwaj — meld Broadway-level entertainment with what feels like an authentic glimpse into present-day Indian culture. The musical is full of delightful little moments – such as when the father of the bride, Jaaved Jaaferi (Lalit Verma) sings “You will learn to love each other just as I learned to love your mother” – with the music is full-out swing-era jazz, and Jaaferi… letting loose.

Monsoon Wedding
Book by Sabrina Dhawan
Music by Vishal Bhardwaj
Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead
Directed by Mira Nair
Scenic design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, costume design by Arjun Bhasin, lighting design by Donald Holder, sound design by Scott Lehrer, projection design by Peter Nigrini, music supervision by Carmel Dean, music direction by Greg Kenna, and choreography by Lorin Latarro

Cast: Bissell (Shashi Chawla), Meetu Chilana (Grandmother), Emielyn D. Das (Aliya Chawla), Namit Das (PK Dubey), Sharvari Deshpande (Ria Verma), Palomi Ghosh (Vijaya/Naani), Rohan Gupta (Varun Verma), Jaaved Jaaferi (Lalit Verma), Dani Jazzar (Swing), Mahira Kakkar (Pimmi Verma), Namita Kapoor (Swing), Krystal Kiran (Saroj Rai), Michael Maliakel (Hemant Rai), Ali Momen (Vikram/Congress), Anisha Nagarajan (Alice), Andrew Prashad (Mohan Rai/Tameesuddin), Alok Tewari (Tej), Levin Valayil (Lottery), Kuhoo Verma (Aditi Verma), and Sorab Wadia (Cl Chawla)

Monsoon Wedding is on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theater through July 16, 2017.

Photographs by Kevin Berne

Roman Holiday: Broadway Try-out in San Francisco

“Roman Holiday,” a musical running briefly at San Francisco’s Golden Theater in a traditional pre-Broadway tryout, grafts more than a dozen songs by Cole Porter onto the 1953 movie that turned Audrey Hepburn into a star. It is the story of a young princess of an unnamed country who plays hooky in Rome for 24 hours with a man who she doesn’t know is a newspaperman (Gregory Peck in the movie.) He recognizes her, and with the aid of his photographer, is planning to turn her foray into a scoop.

The musical has added two characters to the movie. Francesca (portrayed with old-fashioned seductive verve by Sara Chase) is the Italian girlfriend of the photographer, Irving (Jarrod Spector, best-known for his Tony-nominated performance in Beautiful.) Francesca is a chanteuse, which is how the show shoehorns Porter hits “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine” and “You Do Something For Me.” The other character, the Countess, is Princess Anne’s dotty aunt, and she may well exist simply so that the hilarious Georgia Engel could be added to the cast.

Co-producer Paul Blake and director Marc Bruni are the same team behind “Beautiful: The Carol King Musical,” which also had a Broadway try-out in San Francisco.

In my review of Beautiful when it opened on Broadway in 2014, I wrote that “the story serves as an efficient delivery system for Carole King’s surprisingly diverse hits – not much more, nothing less,” but that the cast was its secret weapon.

It’s tempting to call “Roman Holiday” an inefficient delivery system for Cole Porter’s hits. There’s less rationale for its existence. Broadway is not exactly unexplored territory for the witty and elegant composer, and Porter’s lyrics don’t quite fit the plot. But in the spirit of try-out, I’ll root for the show, which is designed by top Broadway talent, including costume designer Catherine Zuber (who delights in War Paint — especially those hats!) and set designer Todd Rosenthal (whose sets for August Osage County and The M-f with the Hat were so impressive) – although he might want to rethink the animated projection of a little cartoon scooter traveling the map of Rome, a poor substitute for the travelogue that was the movie.

I wish I could say something like: The musical’s leads are so good they nearly erase the memory of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in the movie. But all I can say is that Drew Gehling (who played the hot doctor in Waitress) as Joe the newspaperman and Stephanie Styles as Princess Anne are attractive performers with lovely voices.

“Roman Holiday” is on stage at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater through June 18, 2017. 

Photographs by Joan Marcus

Julius Caesar at the Public – Pics, Controversy,Reviews

The depiction of Julius Caesar as a Trump-like figure in the Public Theater production of “Julius Caesar” has sparked outrage, the removal of sponsorship (funds) by Delta and Bank of America, and a vigorous defense. Below are the photographs from the production by Joan Marcus, and links to some articles about the controversy.

 

Public Theater’s response:

 

BRUTAL IRONIES IN THE FLAP OVER TRUMP AND ‘JULIUS CAESAR’

“Shakespeare used to be considered a defense against totalitarianism. How we flattered ourselves.”

Julius Caesar: Suddenly Controversial by Melissa Hillman

“Has no one read Julius Caesar? ..The play does not condone the murder of Caesar. While Caesar’s desire to be king, his arrogance, and his deafness to criticism all threaten democracy, murdering Caesar results in disaster…Here’s the paradox: Trump’s arrogance, desire to rule like a king, deafness to criticism, and complete lack of tolerance for anything other than adulation mirror Shakespeare’s Caesar, yet to say so openly is dangerous exactly because it is true– Trump will act like a king and use the power of his office and fame to retaliate. ”

Other Shakespeare theater companies are being attacked by people apparently mistaking them for the Public Theater.

Knives are out for theaters that bear the name ‘Shakespeare’

And what did the critics think?

Jesse Green of the New York Times liked it, making it a critic’s pick.

The first half…is great, nasty fun, even if it’s preaching to the choir. To the extent there is a problem with the Trumpification of ‘Julius Caesar’…it arises in the second half…It is then that we are faced with the ways that Trump and Caesar never properly scanned, and an aftermath in which that confusion breeds more confusion…To be fair, this is a problem built into the play

So did Adam Feldman in Time Out New York

Elizabeth Vincentelli in Newsday did not.

Turning Caesar, an efficient leader, into a comic caricature makes little sense. It may be fun to watch but it also undermines the show’s powerful ambiguity

Neither did Frank Schreck in The Hollywood Reporter.

Jeremy Gerard in Deadline was mixed.

A very good production whose singular drawback is that it makes no sense

The End of Longing Review: Matthew Perry’s debut play about an alcoholic

“I would rather drink alcohol than do just about anything there is to do on the face of the planet,” Matthew Perry as Jack says to a woman he’s just met in “The End of Longing,” Perry’s debut play. “I drink for every occasion, both bad or good. I like it more than sports, more than family, and — present company excluded — I like it more than women. “
That line is the most intriguing in Perry’s play, preparing us for what in retrospect seems inevitable — Jack’s struggle to overcome his alcoholism, culminating in his emotionally naked confession at an AA meeting. Writing this play, and performing in it, seems an act of courage, since Perry, who rose to fame as one of the stars of TV’s “Friends,”  has not kept secret his own struggles with addiction. But Perry’s bravery and his star appeal, along with Lindsay Posner’s swift direction and the competence of the three other cast members, help make MCC’s production of “The End of Longing” come off as better than the script deserves.
“The End of Longing” reflects the flaws of a first-time playwright, and then some.
His characters are all one-note – a drunk, a dope, a neurotic and a hooker with a heart of gold. The woman he picks up in the bar, Stephanie (Jennifer Morrison) turns out to be a “high-end escort,” a job she’s held for ten years. Her best friend Stevie (Sue Jean Kim) is a neurotic 37-year-old, who desperately wants a baby. In a convenient coincidence, Jack’s best friend Jeffrey (Quincy Dunn-Baker) has just slept with Stevie, and she gets pregnant. Jeffrey is a construction worker who is so dumb, Stevie complains, “he thought Jurassic Park was a documentary.” The bulk of the ninety-minute play is the two newly formed couples working out their problems and their relationships. Very little of it feels plausible.
This is largely because much of the dialogue is stilted and strained, especially the attempts at humor.
“I want a baby,” Stevie says in the first scene, in the bar where the four first meet. “I want a baby right now.”
“Right now?” Jack says. “Cause I haven’t sterilized my hands.”

The End of Longing
MCC at Lucille Lortel
Written by Matthew Perry
Directed by Lindsay Posner
Set Design by Derek McLane
Lighting Design by Ben Stanton
Costume Design by Sarah Laux
Sound Design by Ryan Rumery
Cast: Matthew Perry as Jack, Quincy Dunn-Baker as Jeffrey, Sue Jean Kim as Stevie, Jennifer Morrison as Stephanie.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $49 to $125
“The End of Longing” is set to run through July 1, 2017.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me Review: An Antarctic Explorer in a Brooklyn Refrigerator

“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” may not be the only musical ever set in Antarctica or the only one that tells the story of a real-life polar explorer; it’s surely not the only musical about a struggling musician and single mother in Brooklyn. But it has to be the only musical that combines the two, when the early 20th century Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton enters the studio of early 21st century composer Kat through her refrigerator. This charming, kooky, playful, tuneful, toe-tapping, original musical probably shouldn’t work as well as it does.

Much of the credit goes to the two performers, Wade McCollum and Valerie Vigoda, who is also the lyricist and plays a mean electric violin.

Vigoda is Kat, who is a recording artist – but not like Beyonce. She literally sits at her low-budget recording studio at home and records her music, which she would enjoy more if anybody would actually pay her for any of it. It does not help that her baby’s father has left her, traveling on tour with a Journey tribute band. In her 40s feeling helpless and alone, she creates a video for a dating site, Cupid’s Leftovers.

That’s how Ernest Shackleton learns about her. Although dead for a century, he travels through space and time to meet her, sing her praises, and bring her along for his perilous journey aboard his ship Endurance. In imitation of the historical record, the ship is crushed by ice as it nears Antarctica, forcing Shackleton and his men (and Kate) to float on sheets of ice for many months, subsisting only on seal blubber – which he offers to several audience members to taste.

The obvious point here is, if Kat (or you?) feels trapped in her (your) existence, think of Shackleton, who was literally trapped, but managed to survive against impossible odds, bringing home his entire crew without a single casualty. In other words, as Ernest puts it to Kat, “blind, relentless hope is what brings about miracles.”

But the sentimental, self-help aspects of “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” don’t get in the way of what is so enjoyable about the show.

The most delightful aspect of “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” are the lively musical numbers, with Vigoda’s electric violin play supplemented by McCollum’s banjo playing – both also have terrific voices — and off-stage keyboard accompaniment by Ryan O’Connell.

The show is also funny, thanks in large measure to McCollum, who is spot-on in portraying several men in addition to the explorer – all of them (including Shackleton) full of surface charm but hilariously unreliable. McCollum sets the sardonic tone from the start when he comes out as a techie sprinkling the fake snow on the set (“Man, this snow looks soooo fake, I hope Frozen looks better.”) and cracks knowing jokes: “The show is 90 minutes long with no intermission — oh, yay!” His laid-back louses offer amusing counterpoint to Vigoda’s downbeat intensity as Kat, who can’t seem to catch a break.

Ernest and Kat humorously compare their situations, finding in one song much that musicians and explorers have in common – they both need sponsors, for example, and can be depended on to lose their investors’ money.

Alexander V. Nichols’s set includes extensive video projections, incorporating actual footage from Shackleton’s expedition, while at the same time presenting as telling contrast a typical cramped Brooklyn apartment full of Kat’s tools in trade, mostly a computer station. There seems a comment here as well in how much people like Kat live our lives in a sort of virtual reality. Maybe “Ernest Shackleton” is itself a new kind of musical, a virtual musical. It’s certainly not a traditional musical –there is no choreography to speak of; the funny, silly book by Joe DiPietro (The Toxic Avenger, Memphis) serves primarily as a bridge to the songs; there’s as much happening on the screen as on the stage.

This is why it makes sense to me that BroadwayHD is livestreaming “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” this Wednesday, June 5.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater

Book by Joe DiPietro; Music by Brendan Milburn; Lyrics by Valerie Vigoda; Directed by Lisa Peterson. Set design by Alexander V. Nichols, costume design by Chelsea Cook, sound design by Rob Kaplowitz. Music director, Ryan O’Connell 
Cast: Valerie Vigoda and Wade McCollum
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $89 to $109
“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” is scheduled to run through June 11, 2017.

The Boy Who Danced on Air Review: Afghan Slaves in Homoerotic Musical

In 2010, an Afghan journalist produced an hour-long documentary for PBS’ Frontline entitled The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan , about the illegal revival of an ancient tradition called Bacha Bazi (literally “boy play“), which involves wealthy men buying boys as young as 11 from their poor families, and training them in traditional dance, which they perform at all-male parties wearing women’s attire. The boys are often expected to gratify their masters sexually, and sometimes their masters’ friends as well.

That documentary “set us on  a half-decade journey of researching and writing,” composer Tim Rosser and wordsmith Charlie Sohne write in a program note for “The Boy Who Danced on Air,” their musical that uses the complex and unsettling context of the Bacha Bazi to tell a love story between two 16-year-old boys.

The Abingdon Theatre Company’s production of  this musical features some terrific solo dancing and stirring song duets by the two talented performers, making their Off-Broadway debuts, who portray the lovers. The design for the small stage of the Tony Kiser Theater offers much stunning visual appeal. Having seen the Frontline documentary, however, I was left with many questions, crucial among them:  How accurate or illuminating is this show about the culture, and subculture, it professes to depict? And how much of the real story is sacrificed to hew to the conventions of American musical theater?

Sohne and Rosser do not omit the ugliness, although the musical presents it discreetly. We see Paiman (Troy Iwata) sold as a young boy to the middle aged Jahandar (Jonathan Raviv), the sale cleverly presented as a shadow play, with Paiman’s silhouette many times smaller than Jahander’s, to emphasize his extreme youth.  In the first song of the show, “A Song He Never Chose,” a character named the Unknown Man (Deven Kolluri), who will serve periodically as troubador-narrator, lyrically narrates the story of Paiman’s adjustment to his sale and years of training, until Jahandar informs Paiman of his other duties: “Men have needs. That’s why we have dancing boys – boys who we train to dance but also to bring into our homes and tend to our desires. It’s what allows us to maintain moral relationships with women. It is a sacred role…”

The heart of “The Boy Who Danced on Air,” though, is the romance that is sparked between Paiman and Feda (Nikhil Saboo), a fellow dancer whom Paiman meets at one of the all-male dancing parties. Feda is owned by Jahandar’s cousin, Zemar (Osh Ghanimah).

Yes, we are meant to understand that the two young men find each other as a refuge from their miserable lives as exploited slaves. No permanent happiness awaits them; it ends in tragedy (albeit with an absurdly uplifting coda.)  Yet Troy Iwata and Nikhil Saboo, graceful and attractive young performers who are frequently shirtless, engage in soaring duets and intimate embraces; the effect is to make “The Boy Who Danced on Air” feel more like a homoerotic romantic musical than the sort of sober drama represented by, say,  Kander and Pierce’s recent “Kid Victory,” in which a pedophile abducts a teenager in Kansas.  And that musical didn’t have the extra burden of trying to translate a distant foreign culture for an American audience. I wonder, for example, just how much actual research went into the creative team’s interpretation of Jahandar’s villainy; the musical suggests he is struggling with his genuine feelings for Paiman that his homophobic culture makes him unable to express.

Rosser and Sohne also include a subplot in which Jahander and Zemar work at an American power plant that deliberately doesn’t function; the Americans built it as a show pony for the press. Jahander schemes to expose the Americans’ ruse, and get the plant operational, providing energy for the people of the region.  The scheme doesn’t succeed, and neither does the subplot, in part because it’s full of holes. Let’s put aside the unlikelihood of such civic-minded patriotism and deep compassion residing in a slave master and pedophile. I suppose it’s possible; people are complicated.  But the Frontline documentary profiles the slave masters  as wealthy businessmen, many of them former military commanders or warlords. So why does Jahander work in a meaningless job at an American power plant? Why would a wealthy businessman have such a job?

My guess is that Rosser and Sohne inserted that subplot as one of the ways they are trying to compensate for their Western perspective and the show’s focus on the fictional romance. But their efforts at filling in the background don’t strike me as sufficient. The Frontline documentary leads us to understand that Bacha Bazi has not been firmly entrenched in Afghanistan since ancient times. It is a criminal enterprise that has been reinstated only recently, one of the many consequences of a country ravaged by war and the breakdown of its civilization.

The Boy Who Danced On Air
Abingdon Theatre Company at June Havoc Theatre
Music by Tim Rosser; Book and lyrics by Charlie Sohne; Music direction by David Gardos; Choreography by Nejla Yatkin; Directed by Tony Speciale.
Scenic design by Christopher Swader & Justin Swader, costume design by, Andrea Lauer, lighting design by Wen-Ling Liao, sound design by Justin Graziani, prop design by Jerry Marsini, fight direction by Dan Renkin
Cast: Osh Ghanimah, Troy Iwata, Deven Kolluri, Jonathan Raviv and Nikhil Saboo
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $67 to $87
“The Boy Who Danced on Air” is scheduled to run through June 11, 2017.