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Theater Survives. Color Purple Grabs a Grammy. Christian Borle Joins The Staged Resistance. Week in NY Theater

Theater goes back thousands of years — driven home by newly available theater-related images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art — and overpriced Broadway ticket prices won’t finally kill it. That’s because, for every Broadway musical announcing $750 tickets, there is an entire Off-Off Broadway festival for just $9/ (See details below, under “Not Discount,” and “Performeteria.”)

More below: Christian Borle joins the staged resistance; Isherwood is out; The Color Purple’s Grammy is just one of the theater awards announced this week. Will La La Land become a stage musical? Its director replies.

Week in New York Theater Reviews

Annie Dow and Eddie Martinez

Annie Dow and Eddie Martinez

Fade

Fade” is a play about the bond that develops between a Mexican-born TV writer and a Mexican-American janitor at the studio. Its author, Tanya Saracho, is a Mexican-born TV writer/producer …”Fade” is well acted, and Saracho’s script touches on several worthwhile issues…But..it’s frankly hard to muster much outrage about the behind-the-scenes machinations of television.

The Object Lesson dinner 4

The Object Lesson

Geoff Sobelle, self-declared “maker of absurdist performance art,” is credited as the creator and performer of “The Object Lesson,” but it at least co-stars thousands of boxes. These are boxes that fill up the floor of the New York Theatre Workshop, and are stacked up to the ceiling….If Proust were a packrat, if Felix the Cat were a dramatist, they might have created something like “The Object Lesson.”

Kyle Scatliffe and Nicholas Barasch

Kyle Scatliffe and Nicholas Barasch

Big River

The Encores! production of “Big River” is a pleasant enough confection but with a bitter aftertaste.To understand why, it helps to know that, when he was 11 years old, Samuel Clemens discovered the mutilated corpse of a man named Noriam Todd – an escaped slave who had been hunted down and killed…This “Big River” [based on The Adventures of Huckleberr Finn] did not strike me as a weighty enough proaction, although there are plenty of lines…that use irony to point to the pervasive racial bigotry of the times.

Rolls Andre, Ben Langhorst, Damon Daunno

Rolls Andre, Ben Langhorst, Damon Daunno

Beardo

In “Beardo,” we are back in Russia with Dave Malloy, the composer of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” Instead of a Broadway theater, the Pipeline Theater Company’s new production of Malloy’s musical has opened at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And instead of dramatizing a novel by Tolstoy, “Beardo” tells a fictional version of an actual figure in Russian history, the enigmatic Grigori Rasputin.

The Week in New York Theater News

Awards

Color Purple album

The 2017 Grammy for best musical theater album was given to The Color Purple

Other albums nominated: Bright Star, Fiddler on the Roof, Kinky Boots London, Waitress

Rajiv-Joseph-Headshot

The Dramatists Guild’s second annual Horton Foote Playwriting Award and $25,000 has been awarded to Rajiv Joseph.

The American Wing’s Jonathan Larsen $10,000 grants go to
Ben Bonnema
Maggie-Kate Coleman & Erato A. Kremmyda
Ty Defoe & Tidtaya Sinutoke
and Michael R. Jackson

Finalists for Susan Smith Blackburn Award for women playwrights:

lin-manuel-miranda-2

Lin-Manuel Miranda will perform “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana at this year’s Oscars.

 

Production of Junk in L.A.

Production of Junk in L.A.

Playwright Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced) returns in September to Broadway with “Junk” (as in junk bonds) about greedy Wall Street traders

charles-isherwood

Yes, Charles Isherwood has left the New York Times as drama critic, and no, they are not eliminating the position.

Discounts

sally_field_joe_mantello_Glass Menagerie“The Glass Menagerie” starring Sally Field and Joe Mantello will have $30 front-row rush tickets until it opens March 9

Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal

Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal

“Sunday in the Park with George” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford will have $41 front row rush tickets until it opens February 22.

Not Discount

Bette Midler

Bette Midler

“Front Row Premium” seats for Hello, Dolly starring Bette Midler now on sale..,for $550 – $750.

mondaycompanies

Off-Off Broadway Festival – Performeteria

For two nights only (Monday, March 20 and Friday, March 24), TDF will present Performeteria – 10-minute snippers of site-specific works from 15 Off-Off Broadway theater companies. Tickets are just nine dollars.

 

mare-winningham

Mare Winningham has joined the cast of “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire” by David Byrne, running Feb 14- Ap 16, at the Public Theater.

NYSpectacular7

There will be no Radio City New York Spectacular in 2017, say producers, while they work to make it better

 

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The Williamstown Theater Festival this summer will include four world premieres

6-3545_Ana Villafañe as Gloria Estefan in ON YOUR FEET! (c) Matthew Murphy

On Your Feet begins a 31-city tour in October in (where else) Miami,

lalaland

Will La-La Land be a stage musical?
‘I know people have mentioned it. I’m not closed to the idea,” [Damien] Chazelle said. “I will say though that part of the intention of this movie was to try to make something that had to be on the screen, to make a true screen musical in the fullest sense of that term, not an adaptation, not something that was kind of cross-media, but something that was made and written and intended and composed and sung and danced for the screen. So it’s not to say it couldn’t work on the stage, but it would have to be completely re-conceived and I don’t know if I’m even the person for that job.’”
(quoted by Deadline’s Pete Hammond)

Staged Resistance

2017 Shakespeare in the Park: Julius Caesar (“never felt more contemporary”) 5/23-6/18 Midsummer Nights Dream (escape?) 7/11-8/13

ChristianBorleheadshot

Christian Borle to play lead in Woodshed Collective’s rstagedeading of Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Judson Church February 20 (Presidents Day) The Brecht play is the first in the company’s 20/20 Reading Series of “anti-fascist & political plays speaking to current political climate”

 

What do we do in the time of Trump? The theater community is trying to figure out the answer.

 

 

 

The N-Word on Stage

The wrangling over a production of Ragtime in a New Jersey high school demonstrates that the use of the word on stage remains, “complicated”—and confusing, and dizzying in the array of questions it provokes, among them: How far can a work go in order to be historically accurate, or (if a contemporary piece) authentic? How alienating are stage characters allowed to be? How much must playwrights and directors and producers keep audience sensitivities in mind (does it depend on the particular audience?) or is their only mandate to present the truth? Whose truth? Does it matter who the “truth teller” is?

RIP

lichtenstein
Harvey Lichtenstein, 87, who led the Brooklyn Academy of Music for 32 years, turning into a center of cutting edge arts. During his tenure, he presented such once-in-a-lifetime theatrical events as
Peter Brook’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha,” an opera about Mahatma Gandhi’s youth in South Africa
“The Gospel at Colonus,” a freewheeling adaptation by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson of a work by the Greek tragedian Sophocles
Philip Glass opera, “Einstein on the Beach”
Brook’s “The Mahabharata,” a nine-hour dramatic voyage through Hindu theology and mythology.

Arthur and Barbara Gelb

Arthur and Barbara Gelb

Barbara Gelb, O’Neill biographer, playwright, 91

corey

“Professor” Irwin Corey, seven-time Broadway veteran and a comic who styled himself the World’s Foremost Authority, 102

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Off Broadway Spring 2016 Guide

As Hamilton director Thomas Kail makes clear this season, Broadway may beckon, but Off-Broadway is the room where it happens.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail

Kail is directing two plays Off-Broadway – “Dry Powder” at the Public, starring The Office’s John Krasinski making his New York stage debut, and “Daphne’s Dive” at the Signature, written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, who shares Broadway credentials with both Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda. (She is the book writer for Miranda’s “In The Heights.”)

Danai Gurira, who until last year was best known for her role as Michonne on The Walking Dead TV series, will see her play “Eclipsed” transfer from Off-Broadway to Broadway this season. But one day after “Eclipsed” is scheduled to open, a second play of hers, ‘Familiar,” is opening at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons.

Even Harold Prince — as in the Prince of Broadway — is directing a new musical Off-Broadway this season, his first new work for a New York stage in nine years.

HaroldPrinceOther Broadway stalwarts with new shows Off-Broadway include Pasek and Paul (best-known for A Christmas Story), Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy, Parade), Stew and Heidi Rodewald (Passing Strange), Lydia Diamond (Stick Fly), John Patrick Shanley (Doubt), and Enda Walsh (Once)

If the line between Broadway and Off-Broadway seems increasingly porous, there are still significant differences, which require separate approaches.  Broadway is more or less a collection of random individual potential hits or misses. (See my Broadway Spring 2016 Preview Guide.)  Off-Broadway is not as easy to get your hands around — there are many more shows and most have limited runs; the theaters are more spread out geographically and far more numerous — some 200 theaters/theater companies, or five times the number of Broadway houses.  But it also features a solid number of producing theaters, who reliably present a rich, adventurous and diverse season of shows, at lower prices than Broadway.

Danai Gurira, author of a play on Broadway and Off Broadway

Danai Gurira, author of a play on Broadway and Off Broadway

It thus makes sense to organize an Off-Broadway preview by focusing on these individual seasons, presented in the order of my preference for the particular theaters   (determined by such factors as their recent track record, the promise of the new season, and by the overall experience I’ve had with the theater, both as theatergoer and as critic.)

I’ve put a red check mark —  — besides ten about which I’m especially excited, or intrigued, or at least notably hopeful. This can’t count as a recommendation, because I haven’t seen them yet. I plan to see almost everything below, and expect to be surprised.

PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS playwrights horizons logo

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. It offers new plays and musicals that are consistently satisfying, or at least intriguing.

PlaywrightsHorizonsSpring2016

Familiar by Danai Gurira

February 12 – March 27, 2016

“It’s winter in Minnesota, and a Zimbabwean family is preparing for the wedding of their eldest daughter, a first-generation American. But when the bride insists on observing a traditional African custom, it opens a deep rift in the household.”

Antlia Pneumatica by Anne Washburn

March 11 – April 24, 2016

Washburn (who forever has my attention, thanks to her Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play) writes about a once tight-knit group of friends who reunite to bury one of their own.

Indian Summer by Gregory S. Moss

May 13 – June 26, 2016

Spending an unpleasant summer with his grandfather, in an unfriendly Rhode Island beach town, Daniel soon meets Izzy, who is tough-acting, beguiling, and taken.

THE PUBLIC THEATER

publictheaterlogo425 Lafayette Street. Twitter: @PublicTheaterNY

The original home of the Broadway hits Hamilton and Fun Home, as well as Eclipsed, opening on Broadway this season.

The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street

The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street

Under the Radar Festival, 12th edition

January 6-17, 2016

Cutting-edge theater from around the U.S. and the world.

The first performance of each of the Public’s main shows below is offered for free by lottery. 

Southern Comfort

February 23 – March 27, 2016

A bluegrass-tinged musical based on a documentary that tells the true story of a group of transgender friends living life on their own terms in the back hills of rural Georgia

The Gabriels, Election Year in the Life of One Family

Play One: Hungry

February 27 – March 20

As a kind of follow-up to Richard Nelson’s impressive series, The Apple Family Plays, the playwright is writing a three-play cycle about a different family in the same upstate city of Rhinebeck, using the same approach — the discussion of krasinskipolitics happening on the same day as the play itself is unfolding.

Dry Powder

The wheeling-dealing of the executives (including John Krasinski) in a private equity firm.

March 1 – April 10

Head of Passesphylicia rashad in head of passes

March 15 – April 17

Inspired by the Book of Job, this play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (The Brother/Sister Plays) and directed by Tina Landau presents the story of Shelah (Phylicia Rashad) who must fight to survive during a reunion held on her birthday.

The Total Bent

May 10 – June 12

A British record producer courts a Southern black composer in this musical written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the team behind Passing Strange.

The Mobile Shakespeare Unit: Romeo & Juliet 

April 11 – May 1

Directed by Lear deBessonet

 

SIGNATURE

signature_01

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 $25.

This season is special for two reasons — it’s the 25th anniversary season, and it’s the last one under founding artistic director James Houghton.

Old Hats

January 26 – March 2016

A return of Bill Irwin and David Shiner signature clowning.

Angel Reapers

 Angel Reapers

February 2 to March 13. Opens February 22.

Playwright Alfred Uhry and choreographer/director Martha Clarke team up on this “theatrical collage” about the Shakers, the early American religious sect best-remembered now for their furniture, whose members were committed to celibacy. Actual traditional Shaker songs and movement are incorporated.

QuiaraAlegriaHudes

Daphne’s Dive

April 26 – June 5, 2016

Directed by Thomas Kail, this play is the first of several at the Signature to be written by Quiara Alegría Hudes. “Daphne’s Dive is a cheap corner bar in North Philly where Daphne and her vibrant, eclectic regulars drink to art, politics, and life.”

AlbeeFornesKennedy

SIGNATURE ONE ACTS

Edward Albee’s The Sandbox
María Irene Fornés’ Drowning 
Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro

May 3 – June 12, 2016

 This trio of famous one-act plays is directed by Lila Neugebauer

SecondStagelogoSECOND STAGE *

The cast of Smart People: Mahershala Ali, Joshua Jackson, Ann Son, Tessa Thompson

The cast of Smart People: Mahershala Ali, Joshua Jackson, Ann Son, Tessa Thompson

Smart People

January 26 – March 6. Opens February 11.

Written by Lydia Diamond and directed by Kenny Leon — the same team that brought us Stick Fly – the comedy focuses on four Harvard intellectuals who find themselves entangled in a complex web of social and sexual politics on the eve of Obama’s first election.

Dear Evan Hansen, from the Arena Stage production

Dear Evan Hansen, from the Arena Stage production

√ Dear Evan Hansen

March 26 – May 22. Opens May 1

A hit when it played at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, this original musical tells the story of a high school student who is mistakenly thought to be best friends with a classmate who had committed suicide.   Michael Greif (RentNext to Normal and Grey Gardens) directs, with music and lyrics by  Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story, Dogfight) and a book by Steven Levenson (Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”).

VINEYARD THEATER

vineyard_01

108 East 15th Street Twitter: @VineyardTheatre

Dot

February 4 – March 13, 2016

Written by Colman Domingo and directed by Susan Stroman, “Dot” examine’s Dotty’s struggles to navigate life with dementia, while her children fight to balance care for their mother and care for themselves.

features-large_FY16-INDECENT2

√ Indecent

“May – June 2016”

In the same season that the much-anticipated Shuffle Along presents the backstage story to a famous Broadway musical from the 1920’s, Paula Vogel’s new play looks at the events surrounding the 1923 Broadway debut of Yiddish-theater playwright Sholem Asch’s controversial drama God of Vengeance, which dealt with prostitution and lesbianism and whose cast was successfully prosecuted for obscenity.

new_york_01

NEW YORK THEATER WORKSHOP

79 East 4th Street. Twitter: @NYTW79

Red Speedo

February 17, 2016—March 27, 2016

Lucas Hnath (The Christians) writes about an Olympic swimmer who “confronts the lure of endorsements, the perils of mixing the personal and professional, and the unforgiving weight of success.”

 Hadestown

Inspired by Orpheus’ mythical quest to overcome Hades and regain the favor of his one true love, this musical developed and directed by Rachel Chavkin  (a name you’ll keep on hearing), with folk and jazz music by Anaïs Mitchell, takes place in an “industrialized world of mindless labor and full stomachs.”

LincolnCenterlogoLINCOLN CENTER THEATER*

@LCTheater

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

The RoyaleThe Royale

February 11 – May 1.  Opens March 7.

Written by Marco Ramirez and directed by Rachel Chavkin, the play is “loosely based on the real-life experiences of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion.”

Her Requiem

February 6 – March 20. Opens February 22.

Written by Greg Pierce and directed by Kate Whoriskey: “Caitlin takes her senior year off from high school to compose a full-scale requiem. Inspired by her dedication, her father, Dean, becomes obsessed with requiems and the people who love them, while her mother, Allison, becomes concerned about Caitlin’s isolation from everyone aside from her music teacher.”

War

May 21 –

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate, An Octoroon and Gloria.) “Tensions escalate between Tate and Joanne after their mother has a stroke. As they attack each other in their mother’s hospital room, they are ambushed by two strangers who make a shocking claim about their grandfather during WWII.”

MCCTheaterLogoMCC THEATER

Address: The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street. Twitter: @mcctheater

Smokefall

February 4 – March 13, 2016

“Magical realism collides with manic vaudeville in a family drama” written by Noah Haidle and directed by Anne Kauffman. The cast includes Zachary Quinto.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Of New York City

May 19-Jun 25, 2016

Written by Hailey Feiffer and directed by Trip Cullman:   “A foul-mouthed twenty-something comedienne and a middle-aged man embroiled in a nasty divorce are brought together unexpectedly when their cancer-stricken mothers become roommates in the hospital.

ROUNDABOUT* LAURA PELS

roundabout_01This is their 50th anniversary. Off-Broadway’s Roundabout show, The Humans, is transferring to Broadway this season.

Steven Pasquale

The Robber Bridegroom

February 18 – May 29

Steven Pasquale stars in this revival of the musical with book by Alfred Uhry about  “a Southern-fried Robin Hood” who falls in love

CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY

 

mothercourage_800x315

Mother Courage and her Children

December 9 – ?

Tonya Pinkins left this production citing creative differences, so it’s up int he air when it will open and when the run will end.  Bertolt Brecht’s most popular play about a Mother Courage who follows one luckless army after another across a war-torn world, has been transposed to the present-day Congo. Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) has written a new score for the play.

NathantheWise

√ Nathan the Wise

March 18 –

F. Murray Abraham stars an adaptation of this 18th century play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. “Jerusalem, 1192. Muslims, Christians and Jews live side by side thanks to a fragile truce that could collapse at any moment. As the tension mounts a question arises from the ruling Sultan: “which religion is the one most beloved by God?” Nathan, a pious Jewish merchant, is charged with answering this question to help secure the continued safety of his people.”

Peer Gynt

May 11 –

Director John Doyle (Passion, Allegro)adapted Ibsen’s tale of the misadventures of young Peer from childhood renegade to outcast, adventurer, industrialist…

AtlanticTheaterlogoATLANTIC

√ Skeleton Crew

January 6 — February 14, 2016. Opens January 19.

“In Dominique Morisseau’s third play in her Detroit trilogy, a makeshift family of workers at the last exporting auto plant in the city navigate the possibility of foreclosure”  Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Hold Onto Me Darling

February 24 – April 3

The new play by Kenneth Lonergan focuses on a world-famous country singer who questions his celebrity after his mother’s death, and moves back to his hometown; “it doesn’t go well.”

Feb 24 — April 3, 2016

The Band’s Visit 

May 19 – July 10

A musical by composer David Yazbek and playwright Itamar Moses, based on the funny 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian military police band who get the wrong directions and wind up in a small forgotten town in the Isareli desert.

This is the new musical directed by Harold Prince.

Update: Harold Prince dropped out, and The Band’s Visit will now be directed by David Cromer — in the Fall.

MTC logoMTC AT CITY CENTER*

131 West 55th Street Twitter: @MTC_NYC

This theater was publicly criticized for the lack of diversity in its season.

season-2015-16-headers-ProdigalSon

 Prodigal Son

January 19 – March 20. Opens February 9
John Patrick Shanley’s new play, which he directs, stars Robert Sean Leonard, and Timothée Chalamet as a brilliant, troubled young man from the Bronx at a New Hampshire private school.

The Ruins of Civilization

May 4 – . Opens May 18.

A couple open their home to a stranger in need sometime in the future, with unexpected results. Written by Penelope Skinner (The Village Bike)

Incognito

May 3 to June 26, 2016. Opens May 24.

Written by Nick Payne (Constellations) and directed by Doug Hughes (Doubt.) “A pathologist steals the brain of Albert Einstein; a neuropsychologist embarks on her first romance with another woman; a seizure patient forgets everything but how much he loves his girlfriend.”

OTHER (POTENTIAL) HIGHLIGHTS

 

GloryoftheWorld

The Glory of the World at Brooklyn Academy of Music – Jan 16 – Feb 6, by Charles Mee, about Catholic monk Thomas Merton.

sojourners

Sojourners at Playwrights Realm, January 21 – February 13 – written by Mfoniso Udofia, directed Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. A Nigerian immigrant wants to return home after she gets her degree; her arranged-marriage husband wants to stay.

Buried Child at The New Group,  February 2 – March 13. revival of Sam Shepard play with a stellar cast including Ed Harris and Amy Madigan.

 Pericles at Theater for a New Audience February 14 – March 27.The Shakespearean play will be directed by Trevor Nunn with music composed by Shaun Davey and performed by PigPen Theatre Co.

NiceFish

Nice Fish at St. Ann’s Warehouse February 14 – March 13. Mark Rylance stars in a play he co-wrote with his favorite poet, Louis Jenkins, about two men ice-fishing.

Other companies worth checking out:

59e59

Ars Nova

Irish Repertory Theater

Ma-Yi Theater Company

Mint Theater Company

Primary Stages

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

 

There are also commercial Off-Broadway 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
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 Spring 2016 Preview Guide

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

Off-Broadway theaters, by definition, have anywhere from 100 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 (along with Broadway and Off Broadway openings) posted near the beginning of each month.

My latest monthly calendar guide

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?)

Angels in America at BAM, in Dutch. Stressing the “Universal” (European) and the Intimacy

Louis (Fedja van Huet)  and Belize (Roeland Fernhout)

Louis (Fedja van Huet) and Belize (Roeland Fernhout)

The first time I saw “Angels in America,” the awe-inspiring 1993 play about intermingled lives during the AIDS crisis, I was thrilled by the confrontation between Louis, the Jewish word processor, and Belize, the black nurse and former drag queen. Theirs is not a central relationship in the play, but I admired how playwright Tony Kushner could create a scene with dialogue that distilled so much about the relationship between blacks and Jews in the New York of 1985, as well as political/intellectual conflicts throughout the country during the Reagan era, yet still made his characters fleshed-out individuals whom I could recognize from my own experience.

That scene had a similar effect on me when I saw the 2003 HBO adaptation and the 2010 revival at the Signature. It had no such effect for me this weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s Dutch-language production of the play cast two members of his theater company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, to portray Louis and Belize — Fedja Van Huet and Roeland Fernhout….a couple of Dutch guys, with little discernible trace of anything Jewish or black or New York.

This is one of the slightest changes, truly, in a production that radically revises this epic play – a production that, despite such disappointments, ultimately worked for me.

Originally with some 20 characters, this Angels in America has only 10 characters performed by eight actors. Originally with a running time of some seven hours, here it is cut to a little bit more than four hours (with a dinner break midway through.) Gone are any scenery (not even furniture), elaborate costumes, nor even makeup to speak of: When the actress Marieke Heebink comes on stage to begin the play, performing as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz to deliver the funeral eulogy for Louis’ grandmother, she is not wearing (as in past productions) a long white beard and a skullcap; she looks exactly the same way as she will to portray the Mormon mother Hannah Pitt, and the executed Ethel Rosenberg.

Most noticeably of all, there is no angel descending spectacularly from the skies. Now, the angel is a male E.R. nurse in surgical whites (no wings) and he stays on the stage, which is nearly bare, except for a desk with a turntable, some LPs and a couple of amplifiers. (In place of the normal sound effects, we mostly hear David Bowie tunes from the 80s. )

Van Hove’s troupe has been performing this version since 2008, reportedly to great reception in Europe. There is a little cultural adjustment required to see it in Brooklyn, which is perhaps ironic, since this is where the play is partially set. The spare approach seems especially dissonant at the moment of the arrival of the angel, with the meta/catty line: “Very Steven Spielberg” – a reliable laugh line when the winged angel crashed through the ceiling; now, with nothing at all happening, just odd.

Van Hove has said that the sparseness of the production is meant to leave room for the imagination. Others have praised it as making the piece “universal” – or bringing out its universality. Universal, of course, can be a loaded word: Theater makers (consciously or not) have often used it to reassure prospective audiences when characters are different from themselves – ethnic, gay, whatever. Reading the English supertitles above the spare stage at BAM’s Harvey Theater, I wondered: Does “universal” mean “European?”

By the end of “Angels in America,” however, I had put my intellectual qualms aside. By paring down Kushner’s work, van Hove, intentionally or not, wound up eliminating some of its excesses, its flights of fancy, especially in Part II, Perestroika, and thus leaving us a clearer view of the evolving intimacy between the characters. Intimacy is something that von Hove does well – witness his stage adaptation, just closed at the New York Theatre Workshop, of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage

When “Angels in America” had begun, Louis learned that his long-time lover Prior had contracted AIDS, and abandoned him; Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt could no longer repress his homosexuality and abandoned his troubled, hallucinating wife Harper; repulsive McCarthyite and finagling lawyer Roy Cohn learned that he had AIDS and hallucinated a visit by Ethel Rosenberg, the woman he executed. But by the end, the separate worlds these characters inhabited have all merged into one; and a series of deeply moving one-on-one scenes between the unlikeliest of pairs melded Kushner’s great insight and compassion with the company’s bravely vulnerable acting and with van Hove’s inspired, albeit European, vision.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

 

Angels in America

A Toneelgroep Amsterdam production, presented as part of the Next Wave Festival by Brooklyn Academy of Music,

By Tony Kushner; directed by Ivo van Hove; sets and lighting by Jan Versweyveld; costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic; video design by Tal Yarden; music by Wim Selles; translated by Carel Alphenaar; dramaturgy, Peter van Kraaij.  Running time: 5 hours 10 minutes, including a 45-minute dinner break. In Dutch with English subtitles.

Cast: Eelco Smits (Prior Walter), Fedja van Huet (Louis Ironson), Hans Kesting (Roy Cohn), Marieke Heebink (Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg), Marwan Kenzari (Joe Pitt), Hélène Devos (Harper Pitt), Roeland Fernhout (Belize/Mr. Lies) and Alwin Pulinckx (the Angel).

There were just three performances of this play at BAM, Thursday through Saturday.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 21 Chump Street: The Musical

Lin-Manuel narrates his new mini-musical at BAM, 21 Chump Street

Lin-Manuel narrates his new mini-musical at BAM, 21 Chump Street

This American Life’s “The Radio Drama Episode” a the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June, 2014 included a performance from “21 Chump Street: The Musical,” performed by Lindsay Mendez, Anthony Ramos, Alex Boniello, Gerard Canonico, and Antwaun Holley

The Iceman Cometh to Brooklyn

The Iceman Cometh to Brooklyn

Brian Dennehy, Nathan Lane and the entire 18-member cast of the Goodman Theatre of Chicago’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, directed by Robert Falls, are scheduled to perform the play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater from February 5 to March 15, 2015. Afterwards, producer Scott Rudin hopes to bring it to Broadway.

New York Loves Boston

New York Loves Boston

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” a quote by Martin Luther King Jr., was one of the many sayings projected onto the wall of the Brooklyn Academy of Music building after news yesterday that two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, killing three people, including an eight-year-old child, and injuring at nearly 200, according to the Boston Police Department.

The Laramie Project Cycle at BAM Review. Matthew Shepard’s Murder Turned Into Art and Insight

Andy Paris plays one of Matthew Shepard's murderers in "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Andy Paris plays one of Matthew Shepard’s murderers in “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Many people in Laramie, Wyoming don’t think that Matthew Shepard was murdered in their town in 1998 because he was gay — they think that he wasn’t the victim of a hate crime, according to the extraordinary two-part work of theater and journalism, “The Laramie Project Cycle,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through February 24th. They believe this even though a new federal hate crime law is named after Shepard, even though the police who investigated the crime say the proof is conclusive, even though his murderer admits it.

It was a drug deal gone bad, a current student at the University of Wyoming – who was a toddler when UW student Shepard was murdered – tells one of the members of Moises Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater company.  It was just a robbery, company members were told again and again – including by the editor of the local newspaper.

“I think it’s time to let go and let the young man get on with his life – or with his death,” a car rental agent in Laramie says.

Based on interviews with people in the town of Laramie, “The Laramie Project,” first staged in 2000, has become (according to the current BAM program) “one of the most produced plays in theaters around the country” — almost 200 productions last year alone. That play is just Part I at BAM, performed by most of the original cast members who interviewed the real-life characters and played them on stage.

Part II (with separate admission) is “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” based on interviews when the company returned to find out what had changed, and what hadn’t.It is an inspired idea whose resonance goes beyond the story of this one murder or this one town, beyond even homophobia and hate.  The entire cycle, but especially Part II, comes close to offering some fresh insight about human nature.

The years since Shepard’s death offer a mixed record, a nuanced one. The fence where Shepard was taken by his two assailants and beaten to death has been taken down; the townspeople were tired of the shrines. But his name is given to an annual symposium on social justice at the university and to a memorial bench there. The Wyoming State Legislature debated a bill to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman — but it was unexpectedly defeated, after legislators, including Republicans, invoked the name of Matthew Shepard. The university voted to give domestic partner benefits — but left it up to the university president to decide when to actually deliver on the policy, subject to the university (that had just laid off 45 staff) being able to afford it. health. Gay people don’t always feel comfortable, but the town now has an annual AIDS Walk, which includes a fundraising “drag queen bingo” at The Cowboy Bar. The policewoman who first discovered Shepard has retired, burned out. But another police officer has confronted his own prejudices, and helped The Laramie Project Cycle- Part 2Matt’s mother Judy Shepard lobby Congress to pass the hate crime prevention law.

The work pieces together the intertwining stories masterfully, with deceptively simple, understated staging: The eight actors mostly sit on chairs facing the audience. Yet there is subtle and effective stagecraft here — lighting, sound effects — and the actors assume the many different roles each plays persuasively enough to make their performances alone reason to see this show.

One of the work’s strong points is its manifest respect for its characters, even the haters and ignoramuses, and including the two convicted of Shepard’s murder, who give riveting interviews in prison. The people of Laramie are not dismissed as delusional hicks. They themselves are allowed sharp insights, touching revelations, and sometimes witty observations: A Laramie resident wryly recalls seeing a sign saying: “Wyoming Is Like No Place on Earth” – “rather than ‘…Like No Place ELSE on Earth.”

Barbara Pitts as Judy Shepard

Barbara Pitts as Judy Shepard

Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew, happened to be sitting a few rows behind me as Barbara Pitts played her on stage as she talks about her sorrows and her frustrations and her transformation from shy mother to national activist. “It was how I coped with losing Matt…I was talking to someone and they said ‘Well don’t you think maybe it’s time to let go, don’t you think you’re keeping Matt alive by doing that?’ And I said ‘Of course I’m keeping him alive by doing this! That’s the point!”

If there is any villain in The Laramie Project Cycle, it is the press. The press hounds the good townspeople. The media sensationalizes the story. ABC’s “20/20” in particular ran a segment about the case rife with errors in 2004 that some believe helped launch the town’s collect denial.  But, whether they admit it or not, what Tectonic Theater is doing is journalism – very fine journalism – on the stage of the Harvey Theater.

FromLaramieProjectCycle

The Laramie Project Cycle

At the Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene

“Part 1: The Laramie Project” by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project; “Part 2: The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” by Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris and Stephen Belber; directed by Mr. Kaufman and Fondakowski; sets by Robert Brill; costumes by Moe Schell; lighting by Betsy Adams; projections by John Narun; sound by Leon Rothenberg; music by Peter Golub

Cast: Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, Libby King, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts and Michael Winther.

Running time Part 1: three hours including two intermissions; Part 2: 2 hours including one intermission

Ticket prices: $20 (cheapest for one part) to $200 (most expensive for both parts)

Through Feb. 24.