August 22, 2015

An Up and Down Day at The Fringe With "Schooled," "Little One" and "Loose Canon"

Quentin Maré and Lilli Stein in Schooled
The New York International Fringe Festival prides itself on being eclectic. Which means you never know what you’re going to get when you attend one of its 200 or so productions, ranging from one-person shows to mini-musicals and performed at all levels of skill from shows ready-for-a-professional run to those that will be appreciated only by family members and very close friends.

As we’ve done over the past few summers, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I sorted through the list of the offerings, which play in rotation at venues around the East Village, and whittled them down to three whose descriptions intrigued both of us—and that we could comfortably see in one day.

Our mini-marathon started off with a winner: Schooled, a smart play by Lisa Lewis, who graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, spent six years in the movie business and sets her drama at a New York film school. 

Her three-hander focuses on Andrew (Quentin Maré), a one-time hot screenwriter now in his 50s who teaches there, and two of his young students, Claire (Lilli Stein), a talented working class girl from Atlantic City who’s writing an intimate family drama; and Jake (Stephen Friedrich), her equally talented but far more affluent boyfriend who writes in a more commercial vein.

When Claire seeks Andrew out for extra help with her script their working sessions become increasingly flirtatious even though he is married and she's thinking about moving in with Jake. Things get even more complicated when both Claire and Jake seek Andrew's recommendation for the same prestigious grant.

Aided by the sure-handed direction of James Kautz, the artistic director of the Amoralists Theatre Company, Lewis has created an engaging 90-minute piece that wrestles with art and ambition, class consciousness and gender politics. In the opening scene, the men fail to take Claire seriously, by the play's end, they have to.

Schooled, which has been picking up a lot of good word of mouth, is scheduled for two more performances, tomorrow and Thursday (you can check out the specific details by clicking here) but it’s worthy of a longer run and a much wider audience.

The next show we saw, Little One, will probably have more narrow appeal. Developed by the Alley Theatre in Vancouver, it’s an unsettling psychological thriller with two story lines that eventually converge, although not in the way you expect them to.

One plot centers on the marriage between a geeky white guy and his beautiful mail-order bride from Vietnam. The other focuses on a sibling relationship between an orphaned boy and an abandoned girl who are adopted by a well-meaning couple.

The boy Aaron overcompensates and becomes a star athlete, straight-A student and obedient son. The girl Claire makes a less successful adjustment; she throws tantrums, kills the family pets and behaves, even as a child, in sexually inappropriate ways.

Much of both these tales is relayed by a now grown-up Aaron, who speaks directly to the audience, although some of his memories are illustrated with short, pungent scenes between him and Claire.

I’ll confess I’m not exactly sure what playwright Hannah Moscovitch wants us to take away from this 60-minute tone poem but director Amiel Gladstone has created a suitably creepy atmosphere and Marisa Emma Smith and Daniel Arnold do a fine job of portraying the perverse allure of a psychopath and the helplessness of those related to her.

I can’t say that I liked this show but I will that say that it continues to haunt me. You’ve got three more chances (on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday) to see—and judge—it for yourself.

Loose Canon, the last show we saw, also has three more performances but I can’t recommend it. The show attempts to combine a critique of consumerist society with a satirical look at the theatrical canon, stretching from Sophocles to Mamet.

But the humor here turns out to be the kind of sophomoric fare that goes down best after a couple of glasses of cheap beer. “Oh Roku, Roku. What’s Tivo  worth if not for you,” goes a line in the not-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is Shakespeare takeoff; meanwhile, the homage to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is set not on a debt-burdened Russian estate but in a sales-challenged Taco Bell.

The performances don’t help. The six-member cast, several of whom seem to be recent graduates of Tufts University, as is the show’s director, is game but too variously talented. Still, a lively crowd of supporters, including the proud grandmother of one of the actors, cheered them on loudly at the performance Bill and I saw. 

And, of course, that’s the thing about the Fringe; there’s something for everyone.

August 15, 2015

"Cymbeline" is a Mess, But Still Merry

Shakespeare scholars say that Cymbeline is one of the Bard's problem plays. That's in part because it’s perversely named after a secondary character and is classified as a tragedy even though, as in Shakespeare's comedies, all loose ends are happily tied up by the final curtain. So, Cymbeline is rarely performed compared to Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear. Which is why I was looking forward to the production that is playing at the Delacorte Theater through Aug. 23 as the final production in this year’s Shakespeare in the Park series. And I’m glad I got the chance to see it but you shouldn’t feel too badly if you don’t.

The production directed by Daniel Sullivan is entertaining but I’m not sure how true it is to the spirit of the play. Although, to be fair, Shakespeare himself didn’t seem to be sure of what that spirit was. For Cymbeline is the 34th of the 38 plays credited to the Bard and it unspools like one of those highlights reels that get put together for awards shows. The resulting story is a hodgepodge.

Here, in two chunky paragraphs, is the plot: Cymbeline, an English king in rebellion against the Romans, is angry that his daughter Imogen has secretly married a commoner named Posthumus Leonatus because the girl’s twin brothers were kidnapped as infants and she is now her father’s sole heir. So Cymbeline banishes Posthumus from the kingdom and, spurred on by his conniving second wife, tries to marry Imogen to her distasteful stepbrother Cloten, who hatches a plan to win her by raping her.

Meanwhile, Posthumus flees to Italy, where he is tricked into a wager with the unscrupulous nobleman Iachimo who boasts that he can get Imogen to bed him. When Iachimo fakes evidence of the seduction, Posthumus not only disowns his true love but puts a hit out on her. Disguised as a young man, Imogen escapes and finds refuge with a mysterious peasant and his two sons. Eventually, they all end up on the battlefield against the Romans. And in a barrage of last-minute revelations, true identities are disclosed, confusions untangled and comeuppances meted out.

There is some fun to be had in identifying the familiar bits from some of Shakespeare’s other plays: the-foolish-father-wise-daughter dynamic from Lear, the misdirected lovers from Romeo and Juliet, the dastardly villain from Othello, the cross-dressing heroine from Twelfth Night and the missing twins from just about every comedy he wrote. But stitching those motley pieces into a smooth narrative proves messy.

Like others before him (click here for my review of Mark Lamos' 2007 production at Lincoln Center) Sullivan tries to camouflage the rough thread by trimming some of the unwieldy plot (the character of the Roman god Jupiter is entirely cut out in this version) and gussying up what’s left with lots of comedic business, music and other assorted merriment, including participation from some audience members who are seated onstage (click here to read about how he came up with it all).

But there are moments when he tries too hard. When Posthumus and Iachimo make their bet about Imogen’s chastity, they do it over a too on-the-nose casino table. And the costumes are a real grab bag of styles that range from Rat Pack suits for Iachimo to Elizabethan gowns for the queen and contemporary hipster slip dresses for Imogen.

But I’ve no complaints about the wonderful cast. The plummy-voiced Patrick Page, always one of my faves, plays Cymbeline with regal authority. Raúl Esparza, making his first stage appearance in three years, is deliciously malicious as Iachimo and is, of course, terrific when performing a couple of songs. Meanwhile, Kate Burton has tons of fun as the nefarious queen.

But the evening belongs to the show's leads: Lily Rabe as the proud and virtuous Imogen and Hamish Linklater, who plays both Posthumus and, with great relish, Cloten. This is the third time the pair have appeared in one of these summer productions. Both grew up in theatrical families and apparently took in the ability to speak and act Shakespeare with their mothers' milk. They're excellent.

Linklater and Rabe are also a couple in real-life (click here to read more about that) and the connection between them is palpable. You don’t always see the chemistry onstage between real-life couples but you sure do see it here. It would be fun to see what they might do with The Taming of the Shrew.

August 8, 2015

"King Liz" Pays Tribute to Strong Women

Strong, successful women don’t fare well in most contemporary plays. As I've complained before, something always seems to come along to cut them down to size. And so at the risk of violating my usual no-spoilers policy, I have to say that it was refreshing to see the dynamic title character still standing at the end of King Liz, the new play by Fernanda Coppel that is playing at Second Stage Theatre’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre through Aug. 15.

Black, brainy and ballsy, the titular Liz Rico grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, got a scholarship to an Ivy League college and then over the next 20 years worked her way up from a secretary to the top agent in a testosterone-heavy sports agency that represents the biggest stars in the NBA and NFL.

As the play opens, the head of the firm is about to retire and the leading contenders to succeed him are the hard-charging Liz and a white guy with whom the board members enjoy playing golf. But Liz believes that she can win the top spot if she can sign Freddie Luna, a teenage basketball phenom (charismatically played by Jeremie Harris) who’s been blessed with Kobe Bryant-level talent but burdened with a questionable past and an uncontrollable temper.

Most critics have looked at King Liz primarily as a show about the sports world and there is plenty of jock talk. But Coppel clearly has other things on her mind as well. Perhaps too many.

Like many young playwrights afraid that they may not get another chance to have their say, she crams all of her concerns—the stereotyping of young black men, sexism in the corporate world, the celebrity culture and the price of success, among others—into her two-hour play. Luckily, Coppel’s writing is brisk and funny. And director Lisa Peterson has given her play a slick production.

But it’s the compelling character of Liz that makes this show. And Karen Pittman, power dressed by costume designer Jessica Pabst in form-fitting outfits that cling to her Pilates-toned frame, gives a fierce performance, strutting across the stage in stiletto heels, spitting out one-liners with the raw bravado of a gangsta rapper (click here to read a Q&A with her).

Although she is a little over-the-top in the opening scenes, Pittman is remarkable in the second act as, with a change in the inflection of her voice or just a look in her eye, she reveals the deeper emotions behind the ferocious mask that Liz shows to the world. This Liz is aware of the tough choices she’s made to succeed but unlike her peers in other plays, she refuses to make excuses for them or to let them get the best of her.

That makes King Liz not only an entertaining show but a substantive one.  And it could have been even more so if given a few more drafts. Even Coppel seems to think so. In a fascinating interview for the Maxamoo podcast (click here to listen to it), she says that Second Stage, eager to get in on the current conversations about race, skipped some of the usual development process and moved the production up on its schedule. 

It’s an understandable decision but also an unfortunate one because with a little more time this promising contender could have been a real winner.

August 6, 2015

BONUS: A Special Tribute to "Hamilton"

There'll be no regular post until Saturday since I'm on my summer schedule but I'm writing now to let you know that I've set up a special Flipboard magazine in honor of Hamilton's official arrival on Broadway tonight and you can check it out by clicking here.

August 1, 2015

Shifting Into Summer Vacation Mode

The dog days of summer are really here. Big show openings are slowing down and I am too. Which suggests it’s time for a break. So while I’ll still see a few things here and there, I’ll only be sharing my thoughts about them once a week instead of the usual twice until the season kicks back up to speed in September. However I will continue searching out great articles about theater and posting them in the B&Me Magazine on the Flipboard site, which you can check out by clicking here.

July 29, 2015

"Three Days to See" is Too Nearsighted

The title of the new play Three Days to See comes from a 1933 magazine article in which Helen Keller, blind and deaf since she was a toddler, wrote about what she’d do if given just 72 hours of sight (click here to read what she wrote).

Born to a landed southern family (her father fought for the Confederacy) Keller contracted a disease when she was 19 months-old that left her unable to see or hear. When she was six her desperate parents hired a young teacher named Anne Sullivan to help find a way for the child to communicate with her family.

Sullivan famously worked miracles and by the time Keller was 24, she had graduated from Radcliffe, become friends with people like Mark Twain and Alexander Graham Bell and written the first of what would turn out to be three autobiographies.

But the Transport Group’s look at her life, which opened at Theatre 79 on Sunday, is no traditional bio-play. Instead, Transport’s artistic director Jack Cummings III, who devised and directed the piece, has cast seven actors to play Keller.

Differing in gender, ethnicity, size and even acting ability, they take turns reciting dialog based on the writings she published over the years, plus a prologue of bad-taste Helen Keller jokes like “'How did Helen Keller meet her husband?' 'On a blind date.'"

I’m not sure why Cummings decided to do this piece. Although Keller, who died in 1968 at the age of 87, was once a prominent inspirational figure in popular culture, she is probably now best known as the subject of The Miracle Worker, William Gibson’s 1959 play, and its subsequent movie, in which Anne Bancroft and a young Patty Duke enacted the breakthrough moment when young Helen realizes that the signs her teacher is tracing in her hand are the word for the water that is running across her arm.

Three Days to See has no such cathartic moments. Instead, Cummings seems to feel it important that the audience know more about the grown-up Keller and he hits hard on the facts that she had a sex life and leftist political views that included feminism, socialism and workers’ rights (click here to read more about how he put the show together).

But Cummings, whose sympathetic reimagining of I Remember Mama was one of the best things I saw last year (click here for my review of it,) somehow seems to have forgotten that most theatergoers expect more than a recitation of lines on a bare stage, except for some folding chairs and tables, and delivered by actors wearing modern-day street clothes. 

He tries to make up for the lack of action with some busy stagecraft. Self-consciously choreographed movements are set to an eclectic underscore that includes snatches of Arlen, Ellington, Ravel, Satie and Rodgers and Hammerstein. 

A bit of tension is introduced in a food fight as Sullivan struggles to teach her young charge how to eat properly. And an attempt at humor comes in intermittent references to Keller’s fondness for the novel “Gone With the Wind.” 

All of it is repeated over and over, until the intended effect is pretty much muted. The play lists its running time as 100 minutes, ran two hours at Friday night’s performance and felt a whole lot longer. 

However the final moments, taken from the title essay, were moving. And in the days following, I have begun to look at the world slightly differently, grateful that I have the ability to see it.

July 25, 2015

"Amazing Grace" is Far Too Ordinary

Whatever happens to Amazing Grace, the first musical to open in this new Broadway season, Christopher Smith, the main creative force behind the show, should consider himself a winner. For against the odds, Smith a former cop who had never written anything professionally, not only co-wrote the show’s book and composed its music and lyrics (click here to read about how he did it) but got people to pony up a reported $16 million to get it on Broadway (a full-page ad in the Playbill is devoted to thanking his angels).

The resulting show, however, hasn’t been so blessed. The major critics have been almost unanimous in condemning it (click here to read some of what they had to say). Regular theatergoers have been equally unenthusiastic. Nearly a third of the seats at the Nederlander Theatre where Amazing Grace officially opened last week are going empty. And so many folks left during intermission at the performance my sister Joanne and I saw that we ended up with an unobstructed view of the stage when half the row in front of us failed to return.

There are several reasons for all of this—the show's earnest attitude at a time when swagger is more prized, a score that shows some promise, especially for a novice, but that also shows how it takes more than promise to write truly distinctive lyrics and music—but the biggest reason may be the mishandling of the show’s themes of race and redemption.

Amazing Grace tells the story of John Newton, the 18th century British slave trader who was temporarily enslaved himself, later became a preacher and abolitionist and then wrote the titular song, which over the years has become probably the best known and most beloved hymn of all time. Its redemptive power was invoked most recently when President Obama began singing it at the funeral of the black minister shot inside his church alongside eight of his parishioners by a white supremacist.

Smith and Arthur Giron, who co-wrote the musical's book, don't actually say much about how Newton came to write the song. Instead, they have turned his story into a quotidian coming-of-age tale about a callow young man’s quest to win the approval of his disapproving father and the love of the childhood sweetheart who persists in seeing the best in him.

History has been scrambled to suit their purpose. While the show’s young Newton becomes an ardent abolitionist in time to lead an audience sing-along of “Amazing Grace” at the curtain call, the real-life Newton continued to invest in the slave trade until he was in his 60s and only began speaking out against slavery—and writing his famous hymn—after he’d secured his fortune from it.

Like so many others before them, Smith and Giron have also chosen to tell a story about the indignities of racism from the perspective of a white person. They do take pains to include black characters and a few are given backstories as well as stirring anthems to sing but they’re still depicted primarily as loyal servants willing to sacrifice themselves for their masters or mistresses, campy villains or nameless slaves and natives.

To be fair, director Gabriel Barre does make a good-faith attempt to show the horrors of slavery. In a scene set at a slave auction, a small cage crammed with actors portraying slaves is rolled onstage and then, one by one, the actors are yanked out, displayed, bid on and then branded. I knew I was supposed to feel empathy for the characters but I felt more anxious about how playing that scene night after night might affect the actors.

Another scene set in Africa made me equally uncomfortable as black dancers performed stereotypically chest and butt jutting movements that were supposed to represent African dance. I expected more from Christopher Gattelli, the Tony-winning choreographer for Newsies, or I expected the producers to bring in someone who had a better feel for that style of dancing, which can be as nuanced and narrative-illuminating as any other.

The producers did manage to make some smart choices in other areas however and you can see where they spent their money. There are over 30 people in the cast and even though Smith’s music may be unmemorable, all the principal performers, lead by Josh Young as Newton, Erin Mackey as his lady love Mary, Laiona Michelle as Mary’s servant Nanna and Chuck Cooper as Newton’s manservant Thomas sing the hell out of their songs (click here to read an interview with Cooper).

This is also a gorgeous show to look at. Eugene Lee and Edward Piece have designed a set that is elegant and flexible, as is the lighting by Ken Billington and Paul Miller. One scene, set underwater, creates a moment of almost transcendent grace.

The whole show could have used more of that.