Archive for the ‘theatre’ Category

Cogito: John Branch

March 11, 2014


 JB photo-painting by RC 2


 Open Door to
Open House.

o'neillWhat to do about the American family? Depending on where you stand, the poor thing needs to be either preserved in its traditional form or extensively modernized. And what about the American family drama? Admittedly a less pressing concern, it too is defended from one side and decried from another. At least one critic I could name millerfeels the family drama was okay for Eugene O’Neill, began to wear out its welcome with Arthur Miller, and was completed, perfected, and finished off in Sam Shepard’s Buried shepardChild (1978), only to return as a theatrical version of the undead.

The solution, for both family and family drama, may be to get rid of them. That’s essentially what Will Eno does in an anarchic and deliciously clever play called The Open House, currently at the Signature Theatre. As it begins, we see what looks like a family, embroiled in will enowhat seems to be a drama, but those impressions change. The show can be read as a comic reversal of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which the pod people come first and are gradually replaced. The five family members we meet at the outset are creatures of habit and genetics, stuck in their ways. The father either dominates by sniping at everyone else or withdraws into silence; his wife tries to be supportive and conciliatory, etc. Dad is literally stuck—he’s confined to a wheelchair—and the other four remain nearly as frozen in place as he is.

In a way, they’re soulless or dehumanized. None of them refers to one another by name; even the pooch who runs off at the beginning is mentioned only as “the dog.” Nor is the location identified. Although you might, by the end, see a resemblance to the estate in The Cherry Orchard, it’s basically an Everytown USA, as universally American as Grover’s Corners in Our Town.

The original quintet also lacks shoes; Dad’s in slippers, the kids are in their socks, etc. This may be a nod by Eno oliver_butleror by the show’s director, Oliver Butler, to a recent fad in Brooklyn (where Eno lives) but is probably just one of the few signs that these people actually feel at home and at ease.

It’s hard to decide how much to say about The Open House. When there’s pleasure to be had in any work of art or entertainment, part of it usually comes from discovering how the experience unfolds. That’s especially true for this play, which is why I’ve avoided being very specific. If you think I’m being cryptic, you should see what Signature says about it in the overview on its website.

Here’s an example of the show’s humor. When Dad’s brother declares, “They said I was a fool to study Latin, but where are they now?,” he’s promptly quashed by Dad’s answer—“Probably at work.” That’s a snappy comeback, but it carries a little jolt of pain.

Eno is working with the comedy of discomfort, which at any given moment—and probably from one performance to the next—can be awful, hilarious, or an open houseuneasy mix of the two. Maintaining a flexible tone and pace that allow for all these responses is the challenge that faces the five players, Hannah Bos, Michael Countryman, Peter Friedman, Danny McCarthy, and Carolyn McCormick. Under Butler’s guidance, they bring it off masterfully. If the typical family were so smoothly functional, or the typical family drama were this imaginativebut that’s like saying, “If pigs had wings…”

(Signature Theatre, through March 30)

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Page 3: Bart Teush

November 27, 2013

Theatre, Film


Mike Nichols’ Betrayal:
You Can’t Argue with Success
(Well, maybe just this once…)

Twenty-five years ago I eagerly anticipated a production of Waiting for Godot at The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater directed by Mike Nichols and featuring an all-star godot playbillcast, including Steve Martin, Bill Irwin, F. Murray Abraham and Robin Williams.

I saw it.

For me, the two most vivid images of the evening were Al Goldstein (then publisher of Screw magazine) and Lauren Bacall, both asleep in the audience.

Waiting For Godot was, like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a must-see event based on the names attached. The obvious question arises now, as it did in 1988, how could so much talent be assembled without anything resembling a significant result—aside from the guaranteed gate for such a star-studded package and the opportunity to see real-life husband and wife, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, betrayed?

Like Waiting for Godot,Betrayal is a challenging play. betrayal 2013Its intricate narrative flows backward in time, telling the story of Robert (a publisher), Emma (a gallery owner and Robert’s wife), and Jerry (a literary agent, Robert’s best friend since university and Emma’s long-time secret lover).

Like Waiting for Godot, it is a deep and accommodating text if the actors and director begin by making only three monumentally simple assumptions:

1) the characters all mean exactly what they say;

2) each time a character speaks he or she accomplishes something quite specific, not merely a broad intention or simple attitude; and

3) the characters do not keep saying and therefore doing the same thing over and over again, anymore than we do, for lack of a better phrase, “in real life”.

For instance, Jerry remembers a moment in Emma’s and Robert’s kitchen with their daughter. “I threw her up”, he recalls. By “I” he means himself, by “her” he means Emma and Robert’s little girl, and by “threw her up” he must mean he lifted her and tossed her up in the air, presumably catching her on the way down. No matter who’s acting Jerry, no matter what he’s been directed to do or think, if he doesn’t mean exactly this when he tells Emma (and us) “I threw her up” then he’s no more acting the character of Jerry than a bus driver is driving a bus with his hands off the wheel.

Let me beat this to death a moment longer.

Before the actor does anything else,” means anything else. He must make a statement of absolute fact based on a clear memory or vision. To ask if he really does these very specific acts of mind because he’s acting in a play would be like asking an NFL linebacker if he really tackles a runner because he’s playing a game. We don’t go to a football game to see the game interpreted; we go to see it, duh, played.

If the actor fails to commit these obvious but crucial acts, let’s call them “acts of mind” then absolutely nothing will happen, at that moment or in the very next moment—when, in the case of this wonderful play, Emma reminds Jerry that it was not her kitchen, but his kitchen, where this playfulness took place. His memory has betrayed him, not an unimportant event in the development of his character, nor in a play titled Betrayal

Sounds simple, but in just such fundamentals a production nichols3of Betrayal evolves, and this production remained clueless. The evening at the Barrymore was mechanical, predigested, synthetic; attitudes, mannerisms, rhythms and gestures were hauled from one scene to the next by actors who seemed otherwise unengaged and undirectedbeyond engaging in some extraneous behavior grafted on despite its irrelevance—perhaps intended to pinterkeep our attention, but also to assert the director’s control in lieu of more important work avoided elsewhere, and definitely in lieu of doing what Pinter handed Nichols to do, time after time.

Ben Brantley, in the New York Times, astutely describes a few of these garnishes and gives a feel for three separate moments in what he rightly called a “crude and clunky” evening:

Once Jerry leaves, Emma starts to cower and tremble as if she expects Robert to hit her. Instead he kisses her — hard and bruisingly — and then forces her onto the sofa where he starts to undress her. Between you and me, I’m not really sure how much Emma wants what’s coming, even if Robert is Daniel Craig. But it’s an unsettling, uncomfortable moment, fraught with blurred layers of love, hate and power.

Let me pause here to give you Pinter’s original stage directions for that moment: ‘Robert returns. He kisses her. She responds. She breaks away, puts her head on his shoulder, cries quietly. He holds her.’ That suggests rather a different tone, no?

There are no stage directions, either, for the simulated copulation (she’s on top) that takes place . . . between Jerry and Emma in the love nest where they meet for erotic matinees. Nor is there any indication in the script regarding the scene in which the affair between them begins, that he is as drunk as any jerk in a Hangover movie, and she is smoking pot.”

Three interpolations, presumably by Nichols, three pointless intrusions, three evasions of what is given to be done. I’m not suggesting, I hope you realize by now, that we should sit in the audience with a copy of the play and follow along to make sure the director and actors are doing the play as it was written.

But what is the effect of all this aimless sidestepping if they don’t?

Frank Rich, in his original review of Waiting for Godot, answers the question in brief. Commenting on Robin Williams’ rendition of Estragon, Rich observes, “it seems a waste that Mr. Williams rarely stands still long enough to permit his partner to engage him in an intimate exchange;” the key word, “intimate”, the key act, “engage”, the key event, an “exchange.”

The arbitrary agitation at the Mitzi E. Newhouse in 1988 barred intimacy, just like the lathered-up dry humping and pot smoking at the Barrymore in 2013. Each of the three accomplished actors in Betrayal was a creature of the director’s intentions, not the writer’sdependency on one side, control on the othera theatrical welfare state.

Truthfully, looking back, I don’t remember one intimate exchange in a text whose only reason to exist is the intimacy of the exchanges it provokes. After all these decades Nichols was again hanging actors out to dry.

So if we want to hand out blame at the Barrymore, I don’t believe it was at all the fault of the actors. Although Daniel Craig might not like to hear it, any 60 seconds of his work as James Bond has more dimension, authority and wit (and engagement with his counterparts) than any moment he was allowed to achieve as Robert. Neither Rachel Weisz nor Rafe Spall had a moment together that would account for their attraction to one another; Jerry, despite his centrality in the play (standing in for Pinter himself in the drame à clef), was an afterthought to Robert, and Robert’s indifference was iterated and reiterated until he became a green thought betrayal-posterin a green shade. (We only have to compare David Jones’ casting of Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley in the far more conscientious 1983 film to see how far from Pinter’s shore Nichols marooned these actors.)

Enough said; enough done.

I don’t want to take anything away from anyone’s achievements elsewhere, but there was something so wrong-headed about this mash-up of intentions, something so perverse about the avoidance of the play and falsely promising about the packaging, that I hope another 25 years will pass before a writer, cast, or audience is lured by the promise of past successes, which, as on Wall Street, bull is clearly no guarantee of future results.

Cogito: John Branch

November 20, 2013


 JB photo-painting by RC 2



New Tricks for an Old Dog

One evening in early November, the BAM Harvey Theater resounded to an electric guitar, a few American pop-rock songs including Bowie’s “Changes,” the splat of paint-filled balloons hurled against the walls of the set, and the words of an incendiary political text published recently in France. For a while, voices from the audience were heard as well, challenging one of the characters on stage or supporting another. There was even a trained dog, though she wasn’t the one with the new tricks. It may sound like a crazy anarchist circus or even a rally for the Occupy movement—and in a way it works as either or both. But the occasion was a performance by Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz of a 131-year-old play by Henrik Ibsen: An Enemy of the People.

ibsenIbsen’s original tells of a doctor in a spa town, Thomas Stockmann, who discovers a pollution problem with the water supply feeding the baths. Determined to announce this as a prelude to getting it cleaned up, Stockmann finds and then loses backing in one quarter after another—from the mayor to the opposition press—and he ends as a radical idealist, refusing to compromise with anyone, dismissing virtually the entire town as corrupt enemies of truth. Apart from an ironic shadow in the final moment, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People shows the playwright at his most intemperate. (He wrote it as a heated response to the hostile reception of Ghosts.)

Having been thoroughly renovated by company dramaturg Florian Borchmeyer (credited with preparing this new version) and the Schaubuhne’s artistic director ostermeierThomas Ostermeier, the play is now performed in modern dress, is garlanded with comic bits, and feels quite contemporary. The doctor, his wife, and one of their newspaper friends launch into a band rehearsal at one point, which the wife soon interrupts for a spat with Stockmann; a couple of laptops appear in another scene. The play now hits a different target, too. Instead of attacking conventional morality, it decries the ills of modern democratic capitalism.

Florian_Borchmeyer_u_ber_Jodorowsky_101675966_thumbnailBorchmeyer hasn’t merely modernized Ibsen’s text; he has rewritten much of it, eliminating minor characters and a lot of secondary discussion, and even rejiggered the plot. Anyone who knows the original—which is indeed something of a dog—will be repeatedly surprised by the Schaubühne’s version, and yet in retrospect it’s much the same, simply displaying some new and pretty stunning tricks. (The company is no longer in in the U.S., but for anyone yet to see it in another country, the rest of my text contains spoilers. It will be performed in five more cities on the company’s current international tour.)

Ibsen’s Stockmann convenes a public meeting to reveal his discovery but is pretty quickly voted off his own stage; after some further maneuvering, the play ends with his ringing declaration that “The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone.” He’s surrounded by his family at the time, thus hardly alone—the ironic shadow I mentioned. The new Stockmann never says anything of the kind, and at his meeting he speaks at length, moving from a bit of Ibsen’s text to a series of sometimes abstract, sometimes trenchant remarks that Borchmeyer has borrowed from The Coming Insurrection, published in France in 2007. The line that most struck home when I attended was “The economy is not in crisis; the economy is the crisis.” Soon after we hear that, suddenly and very smoothly, another surprise develops: the meeting is thrown open to comments and questions from the audience, with prompts and replies, even provocations, from the characters—all in English, whereas the play itself is presented in German with English supertitles.

The speech and the discussion are potent moments, wvolksfeind02hile they last, though they raised a suspicion for me: this isn’t the same as being given a greater voice in the affairs of the land. But the evening isn’t over yet. The scripted play resumes its course and shows us two things. One, in the current order of things, we, along with the new Stockmann, will face endless temptation, like Jesus in the desert.  Two, our resistance may call for consultative, group action. Interpretations will vary, but the latter is how I read the final moments. There, we see Stockmann weighing the next move with his wife, whereas he had always made decisions on his own before.

Stefan Stern plays Stockmann with the air of a man who keeps getting knocked down and keeps getting back up. He’s not the kind of guy who does well in a fight—he’s reckless, not very observant, and even trips over himself at one point—but he refuses to stay down and is somehow invigorated by opposition. The rest of the seven-person cast is equally excellent. There are no star turns here, not even in that long speech. Everything is focused; nothing is overstated. This is vital and purposeful theater;  the Schaubühne’s Enemy of the People is a perfect example of its kind.

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Cooper’s London

November 5, 2013





Illuminating Richard

greg doran 2Greg Doran has turned to illuminated manuscripts and mediaeval images to dress his new production of Richard II within a modern, clean design so that the visual imagery of the evening matches text and creates context. He has, as always, richard II posterturned his group of actors into an ensemble working with and off each other within a beautifully poised and controlled production. And, as always with Doran, the language is delivered impeccablyanyone can understand what is being said even if they are usually terrified of listening to Shakespeare. Last (but definitely not least) he has devised marvellous stage business to point up and clarify the text at every step.

The opening scene, for instance, is played literally over the dead body of the Duke of Gloucester. The old Duchess enters even before the play starts, led by a page, and she kneels over the bier to mourn and pray while an angelic choir of three maidens sings mediaeval-inspired hymns. When the tale of the Duke’s recent murder and the allegations and counter-allegations about who was responsible are told, this whole strand about the fight between Bolingbroke and Mowbray that implicates Richard himself, and is the catalyst of Richard’s ultimate downfall, is urgent and lucid, conveyed to the audience with complete transparency. This is merely one detail in a production where the layers of visual and verbal presentation continuously act together to integrate and propel the story.

At the centre of this production is the tennant4startlingly edgy portrayal of Richard II in his last year by David Tennant. Starting as an effeminate, self-centered, and waspish man (who turns up for a funeral in white robes), concerned to be stylish, somewhat foppish, a bit of a show-off fascinated by his own ability to play-act for his favorites, Richard is surrounded by courtiers, with whom he’s constantly conferring in whispers and giggles, from whom he seems to tennant5need to take his decisions. The audience wathes as he mistakenly and almost casually over-reaches his authority, betrays his family and his people, and then turns, step-by-step into a genuine Christian martyr. Efectively, Doran is emphasizing the intrpretation of Richard II as a Passion Play. The flowing hair of the fop in the firts scene turns into the long hair of the Christ-figure that we see in many mediaeval portraits of Jesus.

The production provokes a complexity of feelings for Richard: horror at his silliness early on, great pathos and strong sympathy as he learns what he has done and cannot undo, who he is, and how much he was loved for his position and not his real self. The imagery of royalty and the imagery of the martyrdom adhere to him throughout.

And as his power declines and finally falls away from him, this Richard grows constantly in stature and becomes a frail, brave and heroically open-eyed figure. But this is not the whole story or point of the evening. Even when Richard is not onstage, we are completely riveted by what is happening to the other characters, while we wait for him to reappear. (This production presents the play complete.)

lapotaireThe play is strongly cast throughout, with Jane Lapotaire memorable as the touching and troubling Duchess of Gloucester in the first scene; Michael Pennington as a compelling John of Gaunt. The Queen, played by Emma Hamilton, and her ladies, are present, as they would have been, even in scenes where they are relegated to silence. It makes the meeting between Richard and his wife at the end all the more touching. And in the last moments for Richard, Elliot Barnes-Worrell is striking as the groom.

Nigel Lindsay as a threatening, self-aware 468px-Shakespeare-390x500and powerful Bolingbroke conveys a shrewd sense of knowing how far he can push his followers and  which of them he can actually trust. Oliver Ford Davies is the conflicted and suffering Duke of York, Marty Cruickshank is York’s son-protecting wife, and Oliver Rix stands out as a vividly impressive Aumerle, who’s interpreted, in this production, as turning into a Judas figure under the pressures of events. He even is given the Judas kiss by Richard, though if you are seeing this production for the first time, you won’t understand the point of this kiss, perhaps, until the final curtain.

There are some fascinating readings richard IIof the text; all the set pieces and poetry are delivered with insight and as if newly devised, everything comes across as fresh.  The readings are consistent with the characterizations yet as brilliantly theatrical as they would be in a court where image and self-presentation are so important. But there is a surprise at the end for those who know the text: Sir Piers Exton’s part, that of the actual historic murderer of Richard, is replaced by Aumerle. This is a debatable but fascinating gloss highlighting an important aspect of the story.

Ultimately, during the curtain calls, while richard II musicthe actors are enthusiastically cheered by the audience along with the musicians (who, throughout, provide wonderful support to the action with the score by Paul Englishby), this is another triumph for Gregory Doran. The lyricism, the poetry, and the tragedy are all conveyed with great precision; the play is paced perfectly; and the production brings out the wit and humour of some parts of the text that are often forgotten, especially in Richard’s early posturings and self-satisfaction and in the scene between the York family and Bolingbroke about Aumerle’s potential treason. Doran manages to elicit from his company the balance between sheer theatricality of a high order and a truly intellectual response to the text.

This is the RSC at its finest, giving a compelling and totally fascinating reading to a text by Shakespeare that, as you watch it, is always completely convincing and thought-provoking.

Doran is following Richard II next spring with his new productions of Henry IV, Parts I and II. He plans to build and present the entire cycle of the Shakespeare history plays of the Hundred Years War over the next few years. Like Wagner’s mighty and eternal Ring, definitely worth waiting for.

Richard II plays in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon- Avon in the UK until 16 November. It then transfers to the Barbican Theatre in London from 9 December to 25 January, returning the RSC to their old London home for the first time in years,. The play will be broadcast worldwide in cinemas (in HD) on 13 November.

Cooper’s London

October 3, 2013

Theatre, Travel





The Young Vic is, I would bet, about to hit a roll. For those of you in New York, the wonderful production of A Doll’s House directed by Carrie cracknellCracknell that they produced last year

and which is now having a very successful season as a transfer in the West End, will be heading for New York to BAM with the West End cast. That’s hattie morahanthe one where the set is actually a blown-up doll’s house, and Hattie Morahan’s portrayal of Nora Helmer has already won her the Critic’s Circle Best Actress award, among others.  I don’t know that she will win a Tony; but I would sure bet heavily that she’ll be nominated.  Be alert and buy the tickets while there are still some left.

Highlights of the upcoming season in London at the Young Vic will now include:

  • A production of the Kander and Ebb musical The Scotsboro Boys directed by Susan Stroman from 18 October 2013
  • A pre-Christmas production of Beauty and the Beast that sounds funky and fascinating and will be in the tiny Maria Theatre, an experimental space
  • Gillian Anderson undertaking the role of Blanche DuBois in a new production of A Streetcar Named Desire to be directed by Benedict Andrews
  • Juliet Stevenson as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s intense and surreal masterpiece Happy Days
  • peter brookPeter Brook bringing a newly conceived show (The Valley of Astonishment) that, says the preview note, “mixes neurological research and Persian verse”. Well, it is Peter Brook …

If you’re looking for a Christmas present for someone who lives in London and loves the theatre, you might want to get them a season ticket or a subscription.  For the foreseeable future the Young Vic is one of the most consistently exciting, reliable and stimulating places to get your bit of a theatre-night-out.  And the restaurant still does the best hamburgers in London.

To give a gift, or to “friend” the theatre, (includes the perk of priority booking for any or all the above):

On the Road, Part Two: O, Canada!

Who says you can’t go home again? I’ve just spent over a month in my home and native land and I have to tell you that after a couple of weeks exploring banffthe Rockies in Alberta, Jasper, Banff, Edmonton, and Calgary and its stampede, my wife was asking why hadn’t we brought up our kids there instead of England? All that space; all that clean air; so few crowds. Then, after three days in Toronto with my family, she said: Now I know why we stayed in the UK. It takes an ocean between us to dilute some of the intensity!

Still, we enjoyed the whole experience, including my somewhat time-consuming but very loving family. Canadians are, by and large, rather keen on local culture – from totem poles and local food festivals to work for local actors, directors and scenic designers. There were lots of arts events to choose from: fringe plays in Edmonton that were stimulating and in really interesting small spaces; brilliantly performed Fiddler on the Roof and  Shakespeare in Stratford, Ontario; a terrific production of Tom Stoppard’s Utopia in Niagara-on-the-Lake that sold out in about three seconds flat. I’d have recommended them all, but alas, they are all gone with the summer festival season . But the most surprisingly Anything Goes Tourenjoyable show I saw was Anything Goes in Toronto, with the irrepressible and totally compelling Rachel York as Reno Sweeney, worth the pricey tickets even though it was the same production I had seen in London a few years ago. 

So next year, if you’re going to Canada to enjoy the scenic splendour, do also google the festivals in places like Stratford, and Niagara-on-the-Lake and book early, because both are popular and reliably first-rate. I think that I’d actually want to live in Niagara-on-the-Lake, it’s so lovely; or somewhere in Eastern Ontario like Port Hope.

All this, however,  was overshadowed by encounters with bears, chipmunks and elk in the Rockies and family visits and reunions in Toronto. The farmers marketcity was lively and the weather was lovely; the cafés were full and the farmer’s markets dazzling. And I found some wonderful book stores too! I simply basked! In Toronto you want to visit Bloor Street near Brunswick Avenue/Bathurst Street and look, on the south side, for BMV and Book City. Just make sure you have a large, really strong cloth bag with you and lots of time for exploring. You will then be able to enjoy your finds over some of the best coffee in town.  One of the weddings I went over for was a Fiddler on the Roof meets Las Vegas floor show—great entertainment, and too much food as well. My sore legs the next day told me in no uncertain terms that my dancing days were over.

I came away feeling there’s a lot to do in Canada; I’m more eager than ever to get back to revisit the places I’ve been and also, once more, Quebec City, Montreal, ottawaOttawa (the most underrated city beautiful in North America, ed.) and, finally, Vancouver. Next time I may even take the cross-country train. It takes about five days and offers spectacular vistas 24/7.

Cogito: John Branch

September 15, 2013

JB photo-painting by RC 2



Fearless Predictions

Fetch Clay, Make Man (through Oct. 13, New York Theatre Workshop), It’s 1965 in the United States. Vietnam, Civil Rights, Black Power, the Nation of Islam—all that was in the air as Muhammad Ali, whom some sportswriters still insisted on calling Cassius Clay, prepared to fight Sonny Liston in a heavyweight-championship rematch. As playwright Will Power tells the story, Stepin Fetchit (real fetch13f-2-webname Lincoln Perry) known for his black-caricature film roles, was one of Ali’s guests. The tale is improbable but in some sense true. I haven’t checked the details, but Ali did in fact get to know Fetchit. Based-on-fact stories are common these days in fiction, film, and theater; they’re often problematic. I’ll leave that to be addressed by others. Having seen a preview, I can say the design, direction, and performances add up to a work of power and precision.
NYTW: Web site

Mr. Bengt’s Wife (Sept. 13–29, August Strindberg Repertory Theatre. The only strindbergknown quantity here, for me, is Strindberg. This company launched itself in May 2012, but I learned of it only recently. And I’ve read or seen only a few of Strindberg’s works, of which Mr. Bengt’s Wife is not one. He was the most restless of playwrights, “perpetually dissatisfied,” as Robert Brustein wrote, experimenting with Naturalism, Expressionism, and a good deal more—including comedy, as Strindberg Rep showed in its debut production, Playing With Fire. Yet he may be also the most neglected of the Modernist masters. This company intends to produce his lesser-known plays (which is almost all of them) as well as the familiar. Bravo for that.
Strindberg Rep: Web site

emmysPrimetime Emmy Awards (Sept. 22 at 8 pm ET, CBS): One big question, which for me is the big question, is whether a company that never produced TV before the 2012–13 season—namely Netflix—will be among the winners. Indulge me in a quirk for a minute. All seven of the nominees for lead actress in a drama series—to use that category as an example—clearly did excellent work; will it make sense to discard six of them and recognize only one as “outstanding” (that’s the official Emmy language, not “best”)? Not for me. But most people like seeing awards as a game that can have only one winner, and when they disagree with the outcome they like disputing it. The industry cares who wins, and the viewers care, so I too am going to care how well Netflix does. It has a total of 13 chances.
Nominations: list

PinkMartini_StormLarge_photocredit-James_Chiang_1Storm Large and Pink Martini (Sept. 22, Beacon Theatre. Many people who become pop celebrities don’t find it difficult to try out new lines of work. Heiresses land on TV, comics take up film acting, actors tackle singing. You might suspect that Storm Large, with her made-up-sounding name and a reality-TV show in her background, lacks credibility. You’d be wrong. She began by singing rock music, she has sung with the genre-crossing group Pink Martini since 2011, and last spring her native talent took her to Carnegie Hall, where she sang Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Writer Elissa Schappell, who worked with her once, told me she’s a “force of nature.” By the way, her name is real.

You can stream part of the spring concert, or buy tickets for the upcoming evening: stream

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Cooper’s London

July 10, 2013





A Mad World, My Masters,
by Thomas Middleton
(a.k.a. Guys and Dolls in Soho)

If there is a chance to get to only one show this middletonsummer at Stratford, make it this one. Middleton is not as well known as he should be, and this is his ultimate masterpiecea wickedly satirical and utterly hilarious farce. It is also a production that makes it clear that you could consider Middleton to have been the Damon Runyon of 1605 in his approach to satire. The director, Sean Foley, has come sean foleyup with the idea of updating the action from Soho (the London lowlife areas of 1605) to Soho in 1955, and the parallels not only work, but give the show the feeling of a Jacobean Guys and Dolls. As in that show, the louche underworld characters are treated with a kind of indulgence and we see everything from their viewpoint.

mad worldWith some wonderfully evocative and edgy jazz music from the era being played and sung throughout, the evening feels like an intelligent and provocative musical; and there really are an awful lot of laughs.



The performance I attended was rollicking fun and the audience was captivated from the moment the excellent Linda John-Pierre sang her bewitching opening number. With a little modernization of some of the more difficult Jacobean language and of some of the characters’ names, the points are made that much  sharper. I especially like the protagonist being named Mr Littledick (not to mention the hypocrite, Mr Penitent Brothel), excellently played by Steffan Rhodri and John Hopkins, respectively.  The text is remarkably clear and accessible in this production. I came out wondering why the play is performed so rarely.

I think they should transfer A Mad World, My Masters to the West End and then Broadway and that it could have the same success as the National Theatre’s update of A Servant of Two Masters (now known as One Man, Two Guvnors). I resist picking anyone out for special praise because everyone in the cast was giving a peak performance; the staging amounts to a brilliant piece of ensemble work.

This is Sean Foley’s debut at the RSC, and I expect to be returning to see his work as often as I can. Mad World: in repertory, Stratford’s Swan Theatre til 25 October 2013

A Kick-Ass Chorus Line

chorus line 2When it opened in February of this year, a facsimile edition of A Chorus Line hit the Palladium road running, as it were, and got sensationally positive notices everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s not doing sensational business, even though it’s very good.

So if you’re in London and fancy seeing as-near-as-damn-it to the original production, then you should be able to get in at half price or less! They are keeping the show running through the tourist season and then sending it on tour all over Europe in September.

I saw A Chorus Line all those years ago when it opened off-Broadway in a small house at the Public Theatre, but I don’t remember its specifics well enough to be able to say point by point how this production differs or is fitted to the new cast. All I can say is that it doesn’t have the dazzle or, indeed, the surprise value that it did in 1975; and much of the stuff that was original with this showlike dealing with homosexuality openly in a musicalis now common enough not to shock or distress as it could when the show ran originally.  The things that made people gasp with surprise and recognition and with the excitement of breaking taboos just can’t do that any more.  Nor can sitting in the Palladium give you the sense of proximity to the stage or intimacy that the original production did before it transferred to Broadway for its .

That said, it is still a very appealing show, best seen live because of the energy and impact of the dancing. The cast is uniformly excellent zimmerman 2and Leigh Zimmerman deservedly won an Olivier award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in March. That means she beat out the boys too, because in the Oliviers there is only one supporting role award, not one for each sex.

Zimmerman’s movingly acted, nuanced and dazzlingly sung-and-danced performance as Sheila is memorable. She conveys the tough carapace that Sheila has grown through years of disappointment as well as the vulnerability that still exists underneath. Scarlett scarlett strallenStrallen is a poignant Cassie. In both cases you wish the parts were longer, the back stories more fleshed out. And Cassie’s solo routine, a long and demanding piece of choreography, is a true show stopper.

The entire cast keeps on giving: I liked Victoria Hamilton-Barrit, Rebecca Giacopazzi, and the Zach of John Partridge, for example. A Chorus Line has been faithfully restaged for this London run by two members of the original cast, Baayork Lavian and leeee and Bob Avian, who were also members of the whole, fascinating lengthy workshop process that developed A Chorus Line in the first place. And though the Palladium is somewhat too large for what was originally done as an intimate show off Broadway in a small theatre, this theatre is a legendary venue in itself and some of the fun is simply being enveloped in a place which has hosted so many wonderful vaudeville stars and Royal Variety performances.

A Chorus Line stands up to repeated scrutiny despite my quibbles. The score by Marvin Hamlisch is a fine one, with superb lyrics by Edward Kleban, the whole show building inexorably to that famous climax when everyone you have gotten to know as individuals over two hours suddenly returns glitteringly attired and melts into the anonymity of the chorus line with the unforgettable number One.

chorus line 3A Chorus Line runs at the Palladium Theatre in London until 31 August 2013 and then starts its European tour.  Catch it while you can! One of the tempting offers for the show is at: Best price tickets

Cogito: John Branch

June 4, 2013


JB photo-painting by RC 2


If You Build It, They Will Come

Yes, The Master Builder is one of Henrik Ibsen’s great plays, but why? The simplest answer may be this: If you see it, you’ll know. A fine production is running at BAM’s harvey theatreHarvey Theater through June 9. Here’s your chance; as this blog always hopes to be able to say, “Don’t miss it.”

No doubt it helps to have a sensibility that’s attuned to the kind of music an artist’s late style can produce. Beethoven’s final quartets aren’t for everybody, nor are Henry James’s last novels. It also helps to be prepared.

ibsen1Ibsen’s work can be divided into three phases; the Ibsen that’s most often produced is the middle-period author of realistic prose dramas, running roughly from A Doll’s House (1879) through Hedda Gabler (1890). He had been writing for almost 30 years before Nora slammed the door and continued for nearly 10 after Hedda last took up her father’s pistol. Allowing for Ibsen’s long apprenticeship, one can still wish to see some of the wild poetic dramas of the first period, in which God himself can be heard to thunder (in Brand, 1866). He again unleashed his imagination in his third period, in which harps sing in the air, a folktale-like character lures a child into the sea, and the dead speak. These final plays are attempted now and then, but—maybe because of their skipping relations with objective, external reality—not very often, and even less often with success, it seems. Thus I’ve never seen The Master Builder (1892) before.

master builder setOrdinarily, it’s in this play that the harps sing. That’s what Hilde Wangel heard 10 years ago when she watched Halvard Solness climb daringly high up a ladder to hang a wreath atop a church steeple. Because of that, and because of a careless promise he made to her—she’s a mere child (he thought) and won’t remember—she has sought him out now. She puts herself squarely in the middle of Solness’s unhappy home life, which has suffered from his relentless dedication to work, and the unsettled circumstances at his office, where he fears being supplanted by someone younger.

The past hangs heavy over the present (as had been the case in Ibsen’s plays at least since Ghosts); what has already happened is as much a question, while we watch the play unfold, as what is going to happen. Ibsen had already mastered the drama of triangular conflicts and here uses nearly every possible triangle among the seven characters: among others, Solness and Aline (his wife) and Hilde, as well as Solness and Ragnar (his young assistant) and Knut Brovik (Ragnar’s father, whom Solness had forcibly replaced years ago). The word “conflicts” may be too strong where Hilde is concerned, however. With her girlish enthusiasm and her mix of dreams and physical appeal, she’s like the warm light of the Mediterranean magically let into a dour Scandinavian church; she tantalizes and revitalizes Solness, and she seems to open up everyone else in the play, although for the most part she shows them up as well.

I could discuss the characters and the uncanny elements of the drama at more length than I ought to take here. It may suffice to recall that critic Robert Brustein called The Master Builder “a great cathedral of a play, with dark, mystical strains which boom like the chords of an organ.”

At BAM, the first thing you’ll notice, before the play even begins, is Santo Loquasto’s set design masater builder 3doing its part to foreshadow events by placing some elements at an uneasy tilt. In David Edgar’s translation of the text, Hilde’s reference to harps in the air is gone, and the other “mystical strains” are played down, though the play still rises above ordinary notions of reality. And as always it belongs mainly to Solness and Hilde.

The main accomplishment of Andrei Belgrader’s direction is that it allows the apparent simplicity of their drama to stand clear, in the persons of John Turturro and Wrenn Schmidt. The title character is far less at the mercy of events than some of Turturro’s screen roles have been; in a way, Solness is at the mercy of his own desires instead, and as Turturro plays him you’re both afraid of the character and afraid for him. schmidt turturroAs Hilde, Schmidt seems at first almost impossibly girlish but also too obvious in her come-ons, yet she soon won me over and left me absolutely fascinated. (As I confessed on Twitter, the character intruded on my dreams that night, which says something for Schmidt but even more for Ibsen’s potent creation.)

There’s never any better reason for going to the theater than simply to see what’s there. As I said before, such works as The Master Builder aren’t for everybody, but if you go to BAM it’s quite possible that you’ll feel you’ve witnessed something titanic, even mythic.

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Cooper’s London

March 17, 2013







The Importance of Being Wilde:
Judas Kiss

I saw the original production of The Judas Kiss in 1998, was fascinated by the performances of Liam Neeson as Oscar Wilde and Tom Hollander as Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), and couldn’t quite understand why the play was not more highly regarded. With this current revivaljudas kiss1 in London (originally at the innovative Hampstead Theatre and now in the West End for a limited time), the David Hare play seems, at last, to be reaping the appreciation it deserves both as a well-made text and as a strong evening of theatre. It’s completely convincing in its presentation of Wilde, Robbie Robb, and the ineffable Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas.

The great success of the production must be attributed to the directing by Neil Armfeld who gets from his performers completely committed performances all of which deserve notice. But there is no doubt that for most people the triumph judas kiss everettof the evening is the performance of Rupert Everett as the older Oscar Wilde. In Act One he is about to be arrested but cannot leave the love of his life, Bosie, to escape to the Continent, though everyone is urging him to do so and even leaving him enough time for an escape. In Act Two, he is living with Bosie after his years in jail and receives, definitively from his lover, what everyone has been predicting, that Judas kiss. That he recognizes its probability himself and yet keeps hoping it will not be so is one of the strengths of this nuanced performance.

Displaying sardonic wit at every turn (with quips mostly made up by Hare but completely in character with what we know about Wilde’s repartee), yet heartbreaking in his pathos and degradation, Everett makes us understand the character as well as the argument of the play. His passivity, his searing intelligence, his self-destructive hubris, and his fatigue are all very strongly conveyed; but mostly we come to know of his commitment to an unconditional love of Bosie, even as he recognizes the young man’s mendacity, hypocrisy, self-delusion, and betrayal. Everett ‘s is simply one of the best performances in the West End at the moment, and for that alone you should try to see this production. Cal MacAninch is moving as the faithful Robbie; and the young judas kiss 2Robert Fox, a petulant yet oddly appealing Bosie (convincing himself constantly of his own sincerity that everyone can see through), is impressive and a worthy stage partner for the other two. The play is haunting, sad, touching, and as England finally passes its laws in favour of gay marriage, remarkably topical and thought-provoking.

At the Duke of York’s Theatre
104 St Martin’s Lane, London WC2
until 6 April 2013.

Cooper’s London

December 15, 2012


An Orphan in Stratford

The one play not to miss at Stratford this season is The Orphan of Zhao in a new adaptation by James Fenton. The play is probably the Hamlet of China and is quite an extraordinary story. Greg Doran (Stratford’s new artistic director) has given it a wonderfully conceived treatment, clearly influenced by Brecht’s Theatre of Alienation concepts at their most successful.

orphan of zhaoBeginning with a balladeer who sets the scene (a lovely and ultimately affection-inducing turn from Jeremy Avis) and who returns regularly, magical aspects of the tale are dealt with in various ways including puppetry influenced by Eastern traditions that is highly dramatic. Characters address the audience, engage them, arrive announcing their biographies – never do you not realize you are in a theatre being entertained and yet never do you not suspend disbelief and accept the actors for the characters they are supposed to be. Feeling also a bit like one of Shakespeare’s really strong, plot-driven istory plays, the story is said to be based on real incidents in the history of China deriving from the 5th Century before the Christian era.

swan-theatreThe play exists in several versions, but as part of a season in the Swan Theatre that sets Shakespeare in the context of his times, the version adapted here is the popular one from the 17th century. Given that there is a ballad/fairy tale element to the characters, they are remarkably complex and recognizable not only as archetypes but as human beings as well. And the acting, as always in a Greg Doran production, is at the highest level. Everyone does his or her part exquisitely well, but I was particularly struck by the Princess of Lucy Briggs-Own, by Jake Fairbrother as the Orphan of Zhao and by Chris Lew Kum Hoi as the ghost of the son of the doctor, Cheng Ying, who is played with immense sympathy and pain by Graham Turner. But the star of the show ulitmately, aside from the Orphan himself in Part Two, is the superb Joe Dixon who plays the villain and pivot of the plot, Tu’an Gu.

The play is a commentary on autocratic government versus enlightened authority, full of paradigms about Totalitarianism that make it politically relevant to all eras, and drawing parallels to the history of China and Europe in the 20th century and even right now. But ultimately it works because you care about the characters from the very first moments of the play. And because its is brilliantly lit, costumed and designed, you also retain a strong visual memory of each character from their first entrance. The Orphan of Zhao is definitely worth the trip.

In repertory at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 28 March 2013.

Wiving it Merrily in Stratford     wives poster

The new production of The Merry Wives of Windsor introduce a new director to Stratford, Phillip Breen–and on the evidence of this production, we should begin anticipating his next as soon as the curtain falls. Breen has imagined the play in the Windsor of today, yet somehow also evoked the period of its composition– perhaps because of the wonderful set that evokes the old town, new suburbs and a scary Herne’s Oak. Not a line reading goes awry; and the cast is strong and hilarious because they are playing the characters not as comic caricatures but as real people.

'Desmond Barrit is a curmudgeonly con-man of immense charm as Falstaff; and the merry wives themselves are brilliantly differentiated: Sylvestra le Touzel is a solid, stolid and somewhat smug Meg Page; Alexandra Gilbreath is a fun-loving and slightly louche yet respectable Alice Ford; and Anita Dobson as Mistress Quickly steals the scene every time she appears , and is a wonderful Queen of the Fairies in the last scene in the bargain. One empathises with Frank Ford’s insane jealousy (both the pain and the insanity) as well as George Page’s blocky, bourgeois belief in his wife and in his right to dictate the marriage of his daughter, Anne. All the townsfolk and hangers on are delineated with great care and precision, down to the children being taught by Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson (based, it is thought, on Shakespeare’s own teacher). Shallow, Slender, Simple, Fenton and even the host of the Garter Inn are memorable cameos and make real sense of the story. Laughs abound and are never arbitrary.

Playing in repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 23 January 2013.

Meantime, in London: Delectable and Kissable Kate

kate2Here it is again – another Kiss Me, Kate, this time at the Old Vic. Trevor Nunn, who has directed about 30 Shakespeare plays in his time as well as several blockbuster musicals, does it again, and it is a splendid production! I have seen it done more revealingly; I have seen it done more spectacularly; I have heard it sung more evenly. But this is a very substantial evening in the theatre and enormous fun in the bargain. And if you’re in the mood for entering  a time warp into 1948 and seeing how they did it on Broadway in those days; and if you feel like seeing Kiss Me, Kate, this version will not disappoint.

Transferring from the Chichester Theatre Festival of last summer where it was a big hit, Kate adapts well to the ambience of the Old Vic in London. Hannah Waddington, who is simply magnificent, plays the spoiled, grumpy but ultimately loveable Lili Vannessi who plays Kate in kate4The Taming of the Shrew. Alex Bourne is Fred/Petruchio – he has the looks and presence to have been in the original production. These leads have, as they used to say, chemistry. The choreography by Stephen Mears is energetic, exhilarating and inventive; and the number “Too Darn Hot” is dazzling in his hands. David Burt and Clive Rowe pretty much stopped the show when they brushed up their Shakespeare. Instead of a pantomime this year, the Old Vic now has a Christmas show of sophistication, glamour and wit for grown-ups.

Playing at the Old Vic Theatre, London, until 2 March 2013.

 What Will Would?

The famous all-male 12thnight6Twelfth Night first performed at the Globe Theatre ten years ago has been revived, directed by Tim Carroll, and then transferred to the West End’s Apollo Theatre. A well-conceived permanent set does double duty for it, as well as for a very good Richard III, with which it plays in repertory, with Mark Rylance in the title role.

Get there early and watch the men making up and getting ready in a pretend dressing room area onstage before the play starts; a lovely conceit because, when you see them reappear in their parts (some dressed as the women they play), the mixture of recognition and surprise is a singular experience. Mark Rylance is a standout as Olivia, performed as if played by a male actor in Kabuki who suddenly discovers uncontrollable sexual desire when he/she first sees “Cesario” – performed in a finely judged characterization of Viola and Viola-in-drag by Johnny Flynn. Malvolio is warmly played by Stephen Fry – the perfect, gentlemanly Puritan who is overthrown by sexual desire and ambition when gulled by people he has offended.

One of the most striking performers is mariaPaul Chahidi as a plump, middle-aged, extremely intelligent and wry Maria. The production is pitch-perfect and the line readings are vibrant with primary meanings and subtexts.  Having men play women’s roles, though not exactly as in Shakespeare’s theatre (they were teenage boys then, not fully mature men) still illuminates many things about how the original audiences perceived the productions and about the sexual ambiguities of the tale. However, the real success here is simply that the text is brilliantly served, impeccably acted and at times allows the darkness of the self-delusion, frustration and anger in the characters to come through clearly. If you can get to only one thing in London this season, I would say this should be it.

Playing at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London until 10 February 2013 in repertory with Richard III.


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