Archive for the ‘theatre’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

June 8, 2015

Theatre, Film, Film, Film

apollo and lyre

 

Two Gentlemen/Brooklyn til June 20…
Open Roads/FSLC til June 11…
Dior and I still playing (as it should!)…

two gentelemen 2One of the best songs in Pierre, Natasha, etc. begins, “In 19th-century Russia, we write letters, we write letters….” Apparently Derek McLane (the brilliant scenic designer of The Two Gentlemen of Verona) believes fervently that the power of the written word transcends countries (Italy) and centuries (somewhere in the late 16th), two gentlemen 1and has magicked the stage of TFANA’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center into a monument to the epistolary life. Letters flutter from the ceiling and the walls like so many ardent butterflies, and come and go with the cast like rubber bands connecting friends, enemies, and lovers. And that’s only for starters.

Let’s talk about the cast: it’s serving up another irresistible meal from Fiasco Theater, with actors changing parts and props in front of your eyes, speeding on and off the boards at every opportunity, playing instruments and singing the occasional song, andyeswriting letters for very special deliveries by their cast-mates at every opportunity. Chalk this two gentlemen 3concept up to the co-direction of Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, and to the antics of Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Zachary Fine, Emily Young, and the irrepressible Andy Grotelueschen. (Special kudos to Zachary Fine whose multiple personalities include the dog, Crab, who steals your heart while making you howl with laughter.)

two gentelemen 5Speed and deep smarts reign over this happy band. If you notice that they seem almost to read one another’s minds and their performances appear seamless; it’s because they met and bonded at Brown University/Trinity Rep’s MFA acting program and (fortunately for us) just kept on going. There is nothing about mistaken identities, hilarity and pathos they don’t know how to mine for theatrical gold. Two Gentlemen, as probably Shakespeare’s earliest play, is both deepened and burnished by cast and crew until is shines. It’s superb playing from its first letter to its last (Think of the letters as the match.com of their day) and ends, like so many of Shakespeare’s works, in marriage.

To be honest, Fiasco’s projects are never to be missed. I was lucky enough to see their Cymbeline https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/apollos-girl-16/, and promise you that Two Gentlemen is in the very same league. You have until June 20th to see what Fiasco can do and reap the fruits of their labor! http://www.tfana.org/season-2015/two-gentlemen/overview  http://www.fiascotheater.com/about-us/

Open Roads

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There are always surprises in Italian cinema, and this year’s Open Roads had a few that were unusually compelling. One was a series of shorts, 9×10 Novanta, whose novel premise was two-fold: to make use of Istituto Luce’s 90 https://vimeo.com/110562775  years of archival footage and to bestow unlimited access to its forgotten treasures on ten young Italian filmmakers. Not surprisingly, World War Two figured prominently in the chosen frames. Perhaps it was an idea born in committee, but its results were entirely personal and fascinating, gleaming with the politics and humor that are hallmarks of Italian cinema. As the shorts sped by, their individual ingenuity gathered strength, turning into a collective vision that assured the future of film (at least in Italy). Give thanks for the committee, for the filmmakers, and for Istituto Luce for understanding that one should never throw anything away. Especially archival footage! (I fully admit to having had a very soft spot for Istituto Luce ever since their Pasolini Restrospective at P.S. 1:
(
see https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/apollos-girl-38/ and scroll down to Italy Rules.)

The Dinner

This was an exceptionally intelligent story, whose the dinnertwisty plot about two brothers turning into enemies after a long friendship and a tradition of monthly dinners had one of the best scripts ever (credit de matteowriter Valentina Ferlen, director Ivano De Matteo, and novelist Herman Koch, on whose book the film is based.) Tensions build when the parents learn that their teenage children have not only misbehaved, but may have committed a serious crime. But the facts are not presented in linear fashion; they are revealed piecemeal, revisited with new information, and hinted at to keep you guessing as you assemble and reassemble what you have seen, and what you intuit. The real pleasure is in seeing the revelations of character (they are deep) as much as of story, and the balance between action and morality. De Matteo won three awards at the Venice Festival, and they are not likely to be his last.

Chlorine

Remember the blind girl in Salvo, and how she granted Mafia hit man Saleh Bakri salvation when his job would have made it impossible? Well, she’s back (Sara Serraicocco), this time in a very different role that she inhabits just as perfectly. Chlorine is, cinematically speaking, strong stuff, in which the storytelling is lean and the camera is allowed to do its work.

Serraicocco’s dream is to compete in synchronized swimming. chlorineBut she works in the mountains in solitude, cleaning a motel that includes a pool in which she has to train on the sly, and a brother and father who are her responsibilities. This is a character study with two surprises that develop slowly and explode fast. A debut feature from director/writer Lamberto Sanfelice Sanfelice, Chlorine was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and a Cyrstal Bear at Berlin, and make clear there will be more to come from actress and filmmaker. For Open Roads schedule/tickets:
http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/open-roads-new-italian-cinema-2015

Dior and I

tchengFrėdéric Tcheng has learned his art and craft the hard way: by wielding camera and Avid for and/or with others: as editor and co-director of Diana Vreeland: the Eye Has to Travel, and as cameraman, co-editor and co-producer of Valentino. (I really loved that film!)(https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2009/09/11/apollosgirl-2/;

Based on Dior and I, I’d say he has nothing left to learn and can fly, spectacularly, on his own. Under what must have been terrifying pressure for even a gifted filmmaker, he undertook to follow the story of how Raf Simons prepared and triumphed with his first collection for the House of Dior with only eight weeks to pull it off.

Where the filmmaker’s own triumph (and gifts lie) dior and iare in cinematography and editing; multiple cameras capture every moment of the eight-week marathon in closeup and long shot; editing is a marvel of reduction, like a great sauce. More: Tcheng is a master of character; Simons is on camera a lot, but never for long, yet you know everything about him by the time he climbs the grand staircase to join his models for the show’s finale. Even more: Dior’s enormous behind-the-scenes crew who cut, stitch, sew (by hand) and cheer on each garment, have only (supremely well-chosen) moments to reveal themselves. And Tcheng is there to capture and place them so that, somehow, you know everything about them, too. Of course the film is a joy to watch and listen to, but it’s not only about fashion. It’s all about that universal subjecthuman nature. Tcheng has done couture, and I’m willing to bet he’s ready to do anything at all….

This Just In…

A press release from the Museum of Art and Design, mirror1revealing that they will have an all-35mm retrospective of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films (all seven features) plus a documentary about him (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky) by Michal Leszczylowski. For those of you mad for film and mad for art, these will be mighty nights at MAD. http://madmuseum.org/series/andrei-tarkovsky-sculpting-time

Cooper’s London

May 26, 2015

Theatre

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Old Tunes/Best Tunes (Again)…

With too many stages awash in irrelevant updates that gypsyforgo context and intentions, it’s a pleasure to welcome back two old friends who simply refuse to go out of style. First, you must definitely see the Gypsy that recently opened at the Savoy Theatre. Jonathan Kent’s meticulous production recreates the original approach but also glosses the characters with real subtlety so that both the “play” (or book), the songs and show numbers are balanced perfectly against each other. The imaginative new orchestrations by Nicholas Skilbeck and Tom Kelly are brilliantly and brightly played by a superb pit band under Skilbeck that certainly has the right pulse and sound—they remind you what a brilliant composer Jule Styne was.

This is, I would say, is Styne’s most consistently theatrical score, and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents are as trenchant and gripping as anything they ever did.


pulver+suttonThere are many good reasons to revive this show (originally Ethel Merman’s calling card); one of the most compelling is having Imelda Staunton in Merman’s part as Mama Rose. She has most of the stentorian tones that are needed for the role as originally written and her interpretation of the brassy Madame Rose has an underpinning of pathos and pain that are superbly touching at unexpected moments.

But the entire cast is superb. Lara Pulver manages
the transition from the shy, wallflower Louise to stripper Gypsy Rose Lee very convincingly—and also has a lovely voice; Peter Davison is charming and appealing as Herbie; and Gemma Sutton is excellent as the appalling, frustrated and hardened older Dainty June. Special mention should also be made of Dan Burton’s Tulsa and his standout dance routine. As for that gimickevergreen icon “You Gotta Get a Gimmick:” Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand are delightful as Tessie Tura and Electra, while the uber-talented Louise Gold is a superb trumpet-blowing Miss Mazeppa. She not only bumps and grinds but has managed to inject the perfect rasp into her voice for the part. The three strippers are a highlight of a show that is inventive and generous in its stagecraft. The material never flags; it also makes one want to read Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, upon which this musical is based.

I could quibble that the production is traditional and not Gypsy-A-Memoir-by-Gypsy-Rose-Leeparticularly revelatory of anything new about the show, but with such an energetic and exceptionally strong cast and such attention to detail both musically and dramatically, it would be invidious.

If you are pining for a reliable night of music theatre that also tells a terrific story via some memorable performances and with a central star turn that is as good as it gets, this is the show for you.

Of course, people who only know Staunton as Vera Drake or from the Harry Potter films will probably be surprised that she is a subtle and classy musical comedy star; but those of us who saw her as a virtually definitive Miss Adelaide in thesavoy National Theatre’s Guys and Dolls years ago will be delighted to rediscover aspects of her talent that don’t get enough attention or exercise. Another bonus is the theatre itself, the Savoy being one of the most interesting venues in the West End with its silver-coated art deco design.

This Gypsy is a fine example of the current trend in the UK for revivals of 20th century theatre pieces that evoke the original production. Now here’s an idea: if only there were talents (and funds) out there for new material for people like Staunton or Pulver and for building original, contemporary shows on them the way they used to for Mary Martin or Ethel Merman… http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/gypsy/savoy-theatre/

Suffering Salesman:

Willy Loman still has what it takes

death of a salesmanSecond, opt for Greg Doran’s excellent and moving production of Arthur Miller’s iconic play, Death of a Salesman, now finishing a run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford and is moving to the West End in London on May 9. It’s already selling out, so get your tickets before it opens (on May 9). Like Gypsy, it’s another perfect example of if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t fix it.

As always, Doran reads and interprets the text without imposing any extraneous thoughts from the outside, but mines its meanings and moods with great subtlety and sensitivity. He has forged a superb ensemble of actors working seamlessly together, and produced results that I think would please Arthur Miller himself. It looks very good on the large thrust stage of Stratford’s main theatre. The design by Stephen Brimson Lewis is superbly faithful to the stage directions and concept of the original text and makes full use of the facilities of the house; the lighting by Tim Mitchell helps distinguish between the action that is in the real present and that which is inside Willy Loman’s head. With a poignant jazz score by Paul Englishby to accompany and underscore the action, the characters of Miller’s modern day American tragedy are set in a suitable context.

Anthony Sher powerfully portrays the ageing salesman betrayed by his dreams of glory

Death of a Salesman performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company Sam Marks as Happy, Antony Sher as Willy Loman,  Alex Hassell as Biff ©Alastair Muir 01.04.15

Death of a Salesman performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company
Sam Marks as Happy, Antony Sher as Willy Loman, Alex Hassell as Biff
©Alastair Muir 01.04.15

and his belief in the System. Alex Hassell and Sam Marks achieve faultless transitions from being his damaged grown-up sons in the “now” to being their hopeful and energetic adolescent selves in his memories and dreams with a superb grasp of the body language and vocal nuances required to portray their different ages on the stage. And for me, Harriet Walter’s is simply the best Linda I’ve ever seen. Her dignity, her fierce loyalty to her husband, her questionable collusion in his dreams that are as much a source of the unconscious damage done to her sons as are Willy Loman’s expectations, are superbly conveyed. All the smaller parts are also well-taken and deeply understood; but above all Sher’s Loman is breathtakingly sympathetic while also being brutal, insensitive, bullying and angry, a man who cannot face or understand the sources of his personal disaster. From the moment he walks on stage we can see the weight of defeat and disappointment he bears; and the contrasts to his earlier self-belief and inability to question the received opinions of his time are all the more unsettling as his memories unfold. As in Einstein’s theory, time is folded in upon itself and the pressures of the past are very much pushing on the present.

This production does not, like the superb A View frommiller2the Bridge that was recently in London, try to rethink the standard approach to Arthur Miller. Instead it is a perfect embodiment of the classic approach that was first inspired by Miller and Elia Kazan and it is truly, painfully and superbly evocative of the well-made Broadway Play of its era. Minutely detailed and truly engaged with the text and its requirements, this is, indeed, a strong playing out of one of the most important American plays of the twentieth century.

Death of a Salesman finishes at Stratford on 2 May and transfers to the Noel Coward Theatre in London, currently booked to run from 9 May until 18 July. For tickets:

http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/death-of-a-salesman/

Apollo’s Girl

March 25, 2015

THEATRE
apollo and lyre

 

Life Upon the Wicked Stage:
Extensions and Openings

An Octoroon (Soho Rep; at Theatre for a New Audience, Brooklyn). Extended twice, An Octoroon (Best New American Play Obie, 2014) must close on March 29. So you must–repeat must –see it this week!

To say that An Octoroon is based on 330px-DION_BOUCICAULT_PHOTO_1Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon, or Life in Louisiana isn’t fair (neither was life in Louisiana in 1859). Boucicault was a wildly successful actor-playwright-manager called “…the most conspicuous English dramatist of the 19th century” by the NY Times when he died in 1890. Although buried in Westchester, he actually lived here only for six years. Whatever he knew, or imagined, about the antebellum South has been gleefully (and brilliantly) turned inside out, upside down, and into a brandon jacobs-jenkinsfunhouse mirror that reflects Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ very contemporary take on the same material. Multiple identities are switched, costumes and wigs are changed, songs are sung, and let’s just say that a lot of makeup is applied as required.

What makes this production a standout (apart from a sensational cast and direction) is Jacob-Jenkins’ mastery of the art of entertainment, using it to cushion the impact of the ideas and the facts octoroon2that underlie the fun. The games begin as Austin Smith (standing in for the author) appears in his underwear, faces the audience, and says “I’m a black playwright, and I’m here to tell you a story…” His improbable story, wacky and wonderful, unspools. Yet, as it’s coming to a close and fire has destroyed a slave cabin, the lyrics of a song suddenly pose a question “When you burn it down it leaves no trace. What do you put there in its place?” The answer may be elusive, but Jacobs-Jenkins is definitely working on it. Go online for the revelations tickets. And find out more about them in the NPR interview: listen up

Five Times in One Night
(Ensemble Studio Theatre, extended to April 19)

There’s no question that EST has ways to make you laugh. Of course there’s always gravitas behind the laughter, but recalling some highlights (Hand to God; Isaac’s Eye) will prepare you for a new foray into a wicked exploration of relationships: now (this week and last week); then (celebrity couples Adam and Eve; Heloise and Abelard); and in the future (if there is one) in 2119.

chiara atikPlaywright Chiara Atik, a member of EST’s Youngblood Program for under-30 emerging professionals, definitely has smarts up her sleeve anda huge bonusa passion for both history and the eternal fallibility of lovers. You will somehow not be surprised that she has authored Modern Dating: A Field Guide for Harlequin, but you will be deeply delighted by the way she tweaks one of the Middle Ages’ great legends, Five Times in One Night (photo by Gerry Goodstein)as Heloise and Abelard conduct their epistolary romance in breezy Twitter-ese. And there’s a bonus to the evening: Five Times is not on EST’s Main Stage, but accessible by an historic freight elevator the size of a dining room, replete with white wine and snacks. It takes you to an intimate performance space full of couches and rugs; you’ll get the idea and the jokes. Director RJ Tolan knows just what to do with Dylan Dawson and Darcy Fowler, the couple for every age. They seem to enjoy their work. To take the elevator and enjoy the extension: up you go

Opening…
Irreversible (Red Fern Theatre Company)

irreversibleEveryone seems to love anniversaries, but there’s one coming up that’s a painful exception: it’s been almost 70 years since the atomic bomb was set off in the New Mexico desert, and (a month later) dropped on the unsuspecting people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While many scientists and technicians oppenheimer 2were involved in developing and deploying the weapons, the focal point of most narratives is physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Irreversible focuses on the brief period in which Oppenheimer, along with his brother Frank and a growing army of colleagues developed the bomb at Los Alamos. It succeeds in revealing the genius and the complexities that characterized Oppenheimer’s life: his sometimes erratic behavior, the conflict between his drive to control the titanic forces he would unleash and his own emotional needs, and his seesaw relationships with his gifted younger brother Frank, his wife Kitty, and his one-time lover Jean Tatlock.
irreversible4

It’s a virtuoso balancing act which playwright Jack Karp, director Melanie Moyer Williams, and a small, tightly meshed and very talented cast pull off with conviction. The left-wing politics that shaped the drama’s key players are also given their due, along with the repercussions they would cause after the war irreversible3had been won.

Karp has assigned double duty to lines of dialogue so they work both to carry the story forward, and as transitions between parallel scenes. It’s an imaginative trope, and tightens the play’s shifts from one location and one time to another. The play’s conclusion, a glimpse of the siren song of ambition that Oppenheimer, despite his struggles with the morality of his work cannot resist, chills to the bone. And its coda, a mimed reflection of its consequences, is shattering.

See Irreversible and learn about what Red Fern has coming up: tickets and events

Cooper’s London

March 2, 2015

MUSIC

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The Indian Queen by Purcell (revised and completed by Peter Sellars; sung and performed well by everyone else).

indian queen 3To start with, it has to be said that the singing in particular is exceptionally fine in this ENO production. The sets by the inestimable Gronk and costumes by Dunya Ramicova and Danielle Domingue are visually striking and eye-pleasingly attractive. Of course the story sellarshas been updated by director Peter Sellars visually, so that even though they’re talking about the 16th century rape of South America you’re encouraged to see the 21st and 20th century rapes of other parts of the world. I got it! And I’m so used to it now as a trope that I didn’t even get annoyed.

Unfortunately, the musical and dramatic reconstruction of this unfinished work is dire. I came out thinking of a phrase for this approach and this kind of production; I call it Highbrow Pretentious. So let me just say how lugubrious and tedious sitting through this evening was. First, Sellars has pieced together a score based on Purcell’s unfinished original, adding some hymns, some songs, and also his most solemn and dour funeral and religious music; it’s all pretty much lentissimo. It becomes very wearing.

By way of contrast, when the team that created Crazy for You (book by Ken Ludwig, direction by Mike Ockrent) got together they found some snappy Gershwin melodies to add to their rewrite of Girl Crazy and were careful to vary the rhythms and tempos of the songs. On the evidence of this particular Indian Queen, Peter Sellars needs to learn something from the approach of such Broadway compilationsespecially their concept of engaging the audience instead of bludgeoning them into submission.

At the start I thought we were in for a kind of masque; by the middle of the first half I felt I was attending a solemn and unstoppable dirge. There is virtually no dramatic pulse. It was like a particularly depressing funeral staged by the Puritans that insists you are attending a worthy event and, if you giggle, you will be lynched. And Laurence Cummings (who has elsewhere been admirable) conducted as if he were competing for the slowest tempi ever to emanate from a podium. This show needs some pace and maybe even a few laughs, even a tragedy carerroneeds some peaks and valleys.


The story is mainly conveyed by a narrator, well-played  by the actress
Maitxell Carrero,  reading passages from The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by Rosario Aguilar. This gives the evening politically correct feminist credentials as well. Bits of it seemed very interesting so perhaps someone will be encouraged to republish the book. However, the message of the whole opera is that the Spanish were not very nice to the Mayan people. I think we have known this for some time, so I didn’t find anything too revelatory here. (Please note: Don Pedro de Alvarado, the Conquistador, really was horrible to his Indian Queen wife and did a lot of slaughtering and butchering whenever he got the chance.) The production was staged to look like something we would see on tonight’s news from the Middle East or Eastern Europe. Yes, I think I got all the show’s messages, despite its lethargy. On the other hand, I also came to feel Sam Goldwyn was rightif you want to send a message, use Western Union.

The second half of the show is somewhat more interesting than the first since there are actually some moments when Julia Bullock is finally given a chance to convey her character and suffering (although, alas, she actually gets to sing very little). indian queen1She has the same capacity as Janet Baker to inhabit a role and make an audience believe in her, even with minimal exposure. Her acting is very fine and her singing is superb. She has a wonderful voice; she’s the central protagonist and, by the end, the star of the show, and her mime and silent reactions during the long, tiring periods when she has to be on stage and yet hasn’t a note to sing are always convincing. Her duet with Lucy Crowe indian queen 2(who plays a sensitive Spanish woman, the wife of the governor) is a total knockout. I would love to see both women paired in something like The Marriage of Figaro or Cosi fan Tutte, or Semiramide. or some Handel or just about anything where they are given true drama to convey through gorgeous and varied music and some wonderful duos; where they have a director who knows how to show off their talents and not drown them in a Concept; and a conductor who can actually get some drama and movement into the music.

Vince Yi, Thomas Walker, Noah Stuart and Anthony Roth costanzaCostanzo (another rising American star) were all very fine. The ENO certainly knows how to find strong and memorable singers. I also found myself thinking that if you excerpted any five minutes of this production on YouTube it would look gorgeous and even sound good; but that finally, if you sit through the whole evening, it simply doesn’t hang together or add up to anything very much. It was an exceptionally squirm-making three hours of largely forgettable Purcell.

The night that I attended about 20% of the audience didn’t come back for more after the interval. I have to say, Dear Readers, were it not for my commitment to bringing the news from Ghent to Aix for you, I probably would have given up, too. That would have been a shame, because the best of the material and the best chances for the performers to show their talents is mostly later on. There was even one springy, pacey number very near the end that proved that Laurence Cummings, can, in a pinch, ramp up the speed. But it was a long time coming.

The English National Opera has been in the news a lot lately for its collapsing budgets and Arts Council-cut subsidies. It’s a shame. The company actually is sincerely committed to innovation and to ensemble work and when it succeeds it is often brilliant, provocative and even revelatoryas with recent productions such as their Benvenuto Cellini (Terry Gilliam), Girl of the Golden West, Elixir of Love or Traviata. Even something as straightforward as their Mastersingers is admirable mastersingersand serves the work itself well. ENO appeals to a theatrically curious but also democratic audience (their ticket prices are often a third of those at Covent Garden, where we have the big and brilliant international circus of singing and star power).

If the ENO is going down the drain, then this evening felt a bit as if it could be its funeral song, and reminded me of what happened to the New York City Opera, no longer with us. That said, I hope that the company stays alive. We need their approach; we need their cheaper ticket prices; we need their less élitist audiences and a place for younger people to discover opera as an art form. Sometimes, as in this production, their experiments can go wrong. But it’s a failure filled with integrity and some mighty fine singing and acting, despite everything Peter Sellars did to keep them under wraps. And any mike leighcompany that has a Pirates of Penzance coming up (to be directed by Mike Leighremember Topsy-Turvy!), and has taken on Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson is definitely worthy of attention and support.

And you know, Peter Sellars does really try! I don’t question his sincerity. I just wish his approach to The Indian Queen had conveyed more of what I think Purcell’s intentions might have been, given the excellence of its current cast and designers. ENO tickets March 4 – 14, 2015

Cooper’s London

February 10, 2015

BOOKS
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Three Lives: Alan, Lenny and Tennessee;
They Entertained You

 

 

Alan CummingNot My Father’s Son: A Memoir, Day Street Books (USA),
Canongate Books (UK)

cumming 1This haunting and, at times, surprisingly funny autobiography of Alan Cumming, Not My Father’s Son is a story of how Alan overcame years of abusive and outrageously insensitive treatment by his father to finally break free and become his own man. His tale is written with real control and intelligence and is utterly engaging throughout, formated to skip back and forth between his present of success and some eminence to the childhood that scarred and terrified him. Cumming was the subject of a programme about his family and past, Who Do You Think You Are, by the BBC and this is his catalyst for revisiting his difficult childhood and his family. A series of ever-more-surprising revelations, the book is at times almost a mystery story, so I don’t want to go into too much detail. Not surprisingly, the dysfunctional father ill-treated Alan’s brother and mother too, and it’s the bonding and mutual support system of these three people that is one of the most touching aspects of the tale. Not only is the story well written and told with exemplary insight, it unfolds more or less in the sequence in which Alec Cumming figured things out, so when revelations come they are genuinely surprising and pack a real wallop. The format makes it more possible to read the parallels of past and present. The tale is told very personally and, I think, bravely. Friends of mine, male and female, who read the book at my suggestion, came back to thank me for introducing them to it; all of them said they had cried at some points. A moving, touching and very truthful story, Not My Father’s Son is a well-told tale, powerful in its honesty.

Allen Shawn, Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician (Jewish Lives),
Yale University Press

lenny 1Allen Shawn’s new book about Leonard Bernstein probably doesn’t replace the magisterial Humphrey Burton tome about the polymath’s extraordinary life, but it certainly is a superb pendant to it and also a very fine shorter introduction. Its emphasis on considering each of his compositions in turn as well as his TV programmes, lectures, and didactic concerts for children, is also especially interesting. I’ve always preferred Bernstein to, say, his rival and near-contemporary Herbert von Karajan, whose post-World War II career so definitively overlapped with Bernstein’s; I would bet a fair amount that it is Bernstein’s reputation as a conductor and composer that will grow over the next decades, while von Karajan will be found to be, in some ways, a more limited artist. I also expect people to become more aware of Bernstein’s persona, his reputation as a mensch, a real human being. He was flawed; he was complex; he was madly in love with his wife for a time (and with her formed one of the early power couples), but he was also essentially gay and ultimately tormented by his love for men. He could be selfish and thoughtless and he caused problems for many people who knew him or who knew him or got close to him, as this book suggests; but he also was a generous teacher, a superlative mentor for other composers and conductors; and a brilliant entertainer as a conductor, as a teacher and as a composer. He was also a very, very good friend to have. How can you not want to know the story of the man who wrote West Side Story and Candide as well as one of the worst atonal operas in existence? He was a man who had a huge influence teaching about music on at least two generations of children in North America.

Two things come through strongly in this book: his ability to form lasting, loving, loyal relationships both personally and professionally; and his complete dedication to conducting, teaching and composing. He was also a brilliant pianist and a great performer whether on the podium, the piano bench, or in front of a crowd and/or camera delivering lectures. So add to all his other gifts that he was a fine writer. Indeed, Shawn shows clearly that he was, in everything he did, a generous, tireless, and enthusiastic communicator. There was much about his life that, in retrospect, seems messy and sad, but what stands out is how much he was loved and how much joy he brought to everything he did professionally as well as personally.

As well as telling the story of the life and placing it carefully in the social and political context of the times, the book carefully analyses and assesses each of his works individually, cumulatively building up a picture of how important the man was to twentieth century culture both in America and throughout the world; and dealing so fully with this major aspect of Bernstein’s life and mentality, with his artistic intensity and the development of his creativity, made me want to go back to listen to things like his symphonies or even his opera A Quiet Place. Because Bernstein was so gifted and energetic in so many different areas, some people considered him to be facile. Shawn clearly admires the results and argues against that belief. I myself had a brief but delightful acquaintance with Bernstein towards the end of his life that was enriching and enjoyable out of all proportion to the time I spent with him. He even had a joke for me that was delivered a year after his death by Michael Barrett. I came away from reading this book remembering the power and charm of his personality, his astonishing polymorphic brilliance, and that, above all, he was a genuinely generous and endlessly creative man.

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, W W Norton (USA); Bloomsbury Circus (UK)

williams 1John Lahr is a respected critic and biographer and in his latest book, a definitive life of Tennessee Williams, he has outdone himself in creating a completely readable and somewhat provocative re-telling of a story that is almost as bizarre and compelling as any of the Williams plays. Again, like Allen Shawn, Lahr takes the line that the work is an important and central aspect of and also reflection of the life. There are plenty of backstage stories that can amuse or shock, but this biography gave me much pleasure mainly because of its concentration on telling how each work was written and produced; it places each work in the context not only of the life of Williams but also of its culture. The anecdotes about the putting on of plays like The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, let alone The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More (Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter created the parts played by Taylor and Burton later in the film Boom!) are worth the price of admission alone. That said, the glory of this book is that it is a fine, extremely sensitive and utterly sympathetic view of a man who was troubled but a remarkable magnet for affection and friendship; as well as in the portraits of his friends and colleagues, including Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando. It’s good to find out where many of Williams’ characters grew from in his life; but it’s even better to come away from a book caring so much for the protagonist and having such understanding for this turbulent and immensely gifted personality and how it fed into the creation of one of the most important bodies of theatrical work of the last century. Through letters, diaries and interviews, Lahr has recreated the life of a fascinating playwright and also thrown a spotlight on some of the ways things worked on Broadway and in Hollywood not so long ago. The book is extremely well-written, thoroughly researched and a damned good read.

What links these three books for me is not only the williams 2sense of learning more about the background of three very interesting creative people involved in the worlds of theatre, classical music and film–but above all a sense of getting to know more about them in ways that explain why they and their work lenny 2are to be respected and admired. In addition, all three were gay, and Williams and Bernstein gay at a time when there was a need to be discreet about one’s sexuality. Cumming, on the other hand, has the advantage of being two generations younger, when fluid sexuality is much more acceptable–even fashionable.
cumming 2Times change and attitudes change with them; that, in itself, is part of what makes all three books recommended reading.

Cooper’s London

February 4, 2015

Theatre
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What a Blast!: Optimizing Oppenheimer
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(Stratford: It’s not just about Shakespeare…)

The newly commissioned play, Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith is a total triumph for the Royal Shakespeare Company in every way. It introduces an exceptionally talented new playwright, who has risen to the demands of his commission and the requirement to use a large ensemble company brilliantly; a strong new director and his team; and much acting talent that one will want to follow. Every element meshes beautifully to make a truly gripping, dramatic, thought-provoking and thrilling event.

morton-smithTo begin with, Morton-Smith has given the production the strongest possible foundation in a script that’s compellingly intelligent, beautifully constructed, dramatically articulate and deeply theatrical. He’s made vivid and real the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the whole team of extraordinary geniuses (and their wives, lovers and military keepers) involved in the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. Without simplifying, the script manages to make clear and comprehensible the politics, the philosophical implications, the military and political context in which the project developed and the enormous moral issues it raised—all the while also explicating the physics so that a lay audience can actually get the drift.

Britain OppenheimerThe director, Angus Jackson has forged an ensemble of actors into a deluxe team working in synch throughout the play’s three-hour journey. His staging engages the audience not only with the words of the text but with movement. One of the compelling metaphors for how hard and constantly the scientists grappled with their problems is having the oppenheimer.jpg1actors fall to the floor from time to time—a floor that is also a blackboard— to scribble their formulae as they invent them. The set, choreography and costume design work as an almost Brechtian conceptualization, placing the story clearly in its historical period, strongly evoking the era of World War II in America—its music, its outfits, its politics.

The play is remarkable in evoking the inhabitants of Los Alamos and the sense of the isolated and intense hothouse world they were living in. it also interweaves the personal lives and Oppenheimer-2complicated relationships so naturally with the politics and the physics of that strange, dreadful, complex, terrifying, and confused-yet-heroic time that one is enveloped in the pressures, the psychological stresses and the sheer manic fun that everyone must have been having. The musicians not only deserves praise for their idiomatic playing of era’s contemporary music but the actors in the show as well, who play the piano and the bongos, and sing. When the interval comes, get back to your seat in good time because there is a vibrant and evocative cabaret act that introduces Act II before it starts.

The show is simply superb. And above all, oppenheimer-rsc-swan-theatre-theatre-review-atomic4John Heffernan suggests the spirit, the soul, the intelligence and the difficulties of being J. Robert Oppenheimer, responding to the needs of the military, the political and the personal exigencies of his life. His genius, his detachment, his confusions are all portrayed; his body language seems extraordinarily right; and one also understand his stature as a man capable of leading the team to build the bomb faster in a grizzly race with the Germans–a bomb that he hopes will be so frightening that it will put an end to war.

The play has many wonderful, memorable moments, not least the two appearances of a bomb in Part Two and the use of everything from bebop dancing to Native American movement and rhythms. Many of the actors stand out, steadmanespecially Catherine Steadman as Jean Tatlock Dylanand Hedydd Dylan as Jackie Oppenheimer. In fairness, every performance is memorable. But above all Heffernan’s performance is so staggeringly good that I came away thinking he’s going to be an actor very much like Alec Guinness – a man who can disappear into and become every role he takes on. His awkward body language, his speaking rhythms and tone of voice, his completely non-slip American accent never for a moment allow you to think that you are watching an actor – he simply is J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer is a fine example of what theatre can achieve when it is at its best – telling its story entertainingly, grippingly; provocative; and engaging both the emotions and the intellect throughout. I have nothing but praise for this production, this script and this company. Finally, Oppenheimer deals impressively and lucidly not only with the topic of the building of the A-bomb and its aftermath, but with the inevitable march to manhattan projectMcCarthyism and the Cold War. This play manages to make its bigger-than-life characters achingly human, evoking both our sorrow and our pity for a turning point in global history. There are rumors of a transfer to the West End and, perhaps, to New York—a fitting tribute to the birthplace of the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer is in repertory in the Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK until 7 March 2015. It will open in London for an eight-week run on March 27. A must-see! tickets

Much Ado about Love, Lost and Won

LovesLaboursLost-Review-ImageThe RSC has paired new productions of Love’s Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing to promote the idea that the latter is the mysterious lost play Love’s Labours Won. Certainly, for centuries, everyone has noted various connections of theme between the plays; and it has always been said that Rosaline and Berowne are a sketch for Beatrice and Benedick.

For those reasons alone it’s interesting to see Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry take on both roles. I attended a matinee of the first and an evening bennet terryperformance of the second on the same day. I was impressed by the committed ensemble work of the actors, the evocative sets and costumes of Simon Higlett, the terrific music by Nigel Hess. Because of the anniversary year of the outbreak of World War One, the first play was set in July 1914, and the second just after the war, so that the men of Messina were returning from its carnage.

It’s a clever ploy, and it enhances enjoyment of both plays in some ways; but it doesn’t really convince me of the premise. Nor do the two plays being done together entirely work. They don’t really illuminate each other except peripherally. In fact, I am pretty convinced after the abrupt ending to Love’s Labours Lost that the play referred to as Love’s Labours Won is not an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing, but actually a lost play. Love’s Labours Lost felt to me as if it hit a surprise climax, rather like the scene in Much Ado in the church that spins the play into an other, darker sphere. I propose therefore that the final scene of Love’s Labours Lost is the climax of a ten-act structure, the climax of a play and its sequel, and that Love’s Labours Won has to be a real sequel continuing the same story with the same characters a year laternot just another, later and better play that happens to share some of the concerns, themes and even character types of the first.

That said, I enjoyed the experience of the two plays enormously. They are good to see together because of the way chris smallChristopher Luscombe has conceived the interpretations and cross references; they are certainly worth a trip to Stratford. There are many felicities in Luscombe’s approach, not the least in some of the cross castings, among them Nick Haverson as Costard in the first and Constable Dogberry in the second. Sam Alexander, who plays the King of Navarre charmingly in the first play, turns into the wicked Don John in the second. Everyone on the stage is deserving of praise.

The RSC is continuing with its policy of intelligent and integrated repertoire that tends to cross-fertilise ideas and also displays an exemplary eye for casting. Christopher Luscombe’s pacing tends to be a bit on the fast side, which is not a bad thing with these comedies, and he has a great sense of invention for business that fleshes out the characterizations and the action. This is a thoroughly intelligent and enjoyable presentation of both plays and well worth seeing for oneself.

Love’s Labours Lost and Love’s Labours Won (Much Ado About Nothing) continue in repertoire at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 14 March 2015.

Cooper’s London

January 27, 2015

Theatre

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If the Shoe Fits… See It!

I remember Clifford Leech, a great scholar of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, insisting that one of the more under-rated and under-known of Shakespeare’s contemporaries was Thomas Dekker and that this was a damned shame. (No, not the current Thomas Dekker, a film actor and musician born in 1987, but the playwrightThomas_Dekker(writer) born around 1572 and thus only eight years younger than Our Will.)

The Elizabethan/Jacobean Dekker collaborated on most of his extant works, on such successful and admired dramas as The Witch of Edmonton (with Ford and Rowley, 1621), Westward Ho! (with Webster, c 1607)) The Roaring Girl (with Middleton, about 1609?). He worked mainly with theatre companies that were rivals to Shakespeare’s. He worked with, made enemies with, made friends again and collaborated with Ben Johnson. He wrote political and other pamphlets of some notoriety that give us amazing and fascinating glimpses into the life of his times; and he lived in Debtor’s Prison for seven years from 1612. His work spans and spins around the various fashions of the Elizabethan Golden Age of theatre and then shifts to the Jacobean style and fashion under James I. He dealt with plagues, coney-catchers (criminals), the War of the Theatres and London life; His one undisputed solo masterpiece is the 130px-The-shoemaker-holiday-a)now-rarely-performed The Shoemaker’s Holiday; and the Royal Shakespeare Company has just mounted a sparkling and endearing new production that explains why Clifford Leech rated Dekker highly.

This new production of The Shoemaker’s Holiday is consistently energetic, brilliantly designed to interest the eye and to convey the era in which the play is set, and so full of apt activity throughout that it invigorates the audience, yet is paced to allow the characters to have moments of stillness and contemplation. Phillip Breen’s direction breenof the play cleverly and sensitively convinces us easily of the masterpiece that it is. I came away wanting to read the text to get more of a grip on the action and the language and certainly hoping that this production will inspire even more directors to attempt new interpretations (though this one is more than satisfying). Having never seen the play before, I was relieved that it lived up to its high reputation.

Like all masterpieces, The Shoemaker’s Holiday is very much of its erayet timeless; a dramatic comedy not about aristocrats, but firmly centred on the artisan classes living in a recognizably urban and teeming London. Set clearly in the time of its writing, it constantly provokes topical comparisons: we cannot help thinking about Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Middle East today, or of ruthless bankers and corrupt politicians, as the play unfolds. Perhaps this is because Dekker himself was doing the same slippage of references. Instead of the contemporary wars in Ireland, he seems to be setting his tale in the time of the French The-Shoemakers-Holiday-15-2014-261x541 (1)wars a century of so before. Breen’s meticulous staging, with Elizabethan costume, and the visual allusions, convey layers of meaning to the audience at high speed. The cast is well-drilled in movement, meaning and a sure conviction of the poignancy of the tale underlying the madcap japes and jollities for which it is famous.

While Henry V was celebrating heroic victories like Agincourt down the street at the Globe theatre in 1599 , at the Rose theatre Dekker was shwoing the impact of war on the Home Front (akin in its meaning in some ways to the 1944 Selznick film Since You Went Away!) The subject of the play is part comic Romeo and Juliet: an aristocratic young man, Rowland Lacy (appealingly portrayed by Josh O’Connor), is in love with the bourgeoise Rose Oatley (charming Thomasin Rand), and neither family is very happy about what they perceive as an unfortunate misalliance that must be stopped at all costs. Forced to go off to wars in shoesFrance, Rowland secretly returns to hide in London as a Dutch shoemaker (much comic cod Dutch is spoken by him as a running joke). How he learned to speak Dutch and also make shoes is one of the delightful back stories to this play. And from then on we follow his fortunes among, and sympathies with, the artisans.

Meanwhile, Ralph Damport (a very touching Daniel Boyd) is forced to leave his new wife for the fighting. And who makes him do that? The very Rowland Lacy who is our hero. Ralph returns maimed and desperate to find his lovely Jane (Hedydd Dylan) who has disappeared. She is, in fact, about to be tricked into a marriage by the salacious and wicked aristocrat Hammon (Jamie Wilkes) who has shown her Ralph’s name among the war dead.

With David Troughton dominating the action at times as the Falstaffian shoemaker boss Simon Eyre, who rises to be Lord Mayor of London by the end of the play (a nice bit of social hopefulness for 1599?), the busy skein of plots is convincingly and clearly conveyed and the deeper pains and issues of the characters are amply implied or shown among all the rough-and-tumble.

Music and movement enhance the experience of this often-neglected play. The king who appears quasi-ex machina at the end might be Edward VI or Henry V (even though the show was written in the reign of Elizabeth I and played before her by royal command. Why a King in the era of a Queen? It doesn’t matter. He’s an ideal and idealized monarch, a mixture of royal metaphors.

shoemakers marriageAnd though the play ends as a comedy, and with dancing and marriages, and is quite a romance in its way, and even though there is much gentle sweetness in the writing (along with the satire), the dark shadow of looming battles in France is invoked in the final sequence. Rowland will have to go to war after all, and Ralph, though reunited with his Jane with the help of his artisan peers, will still have to live with his injuries and disfigurement for the rest of his life.

The Shoemaker’s Holiday is playing in repertory at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 7 March 2015

Apollo’s Girl

November 22, 2014

apollo and lyre

 

 

Word Count: R.I.P.

A few years back I had to write an article no longer than 1,000 words about Mike Nichols. There would be lots to absorb.  At the Lincoln Center library I asked for the Nichols’ clippings files and received three boxes bursting with newsprint and magazine pages. Most harked back to the time when 5,000-10,000-word profiles were assigned routinely, especially for celebrity subjects. And besides-–he was a beguiling interview.

So I set to work, poring over the folders, xeroxing what was relevant. There was so much more than I needed, but it was fascinating stuff. I read on. All of it. When the library closed, I knew everything about Mike Nichols, from his birth in Berlin through his refugee’s voyage with a name tag pinned to his coat and only two nichols and maysentences of the language he would one day master: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.” Then, how he first made them laugh in Chicago with Elaine May. How he later had four hits running simultaneously on Broadway. How, after his Hollywood debut with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he moved on to The Graduate and just kept going until there were over two dozen films with A-list royalty before he was done.

He could act, too: he was offered the part of Iago (to Richard Burton’s Othello), and Hamlet (for Tyrone Guthrie), but turned them down. Later his brief appearance in The Designated Mourner in London moved Newsweek to declare it “…a revelation in its unnerving mix of anger, despair, perverse wit and emotional force.” How he won a lot of awards and also made a lot of money. And how he met Diane Sawyer in an airport and married her (“…she had her own constituency and her own checkbook.”) It was a brilliant life, lived to the hilt by a man of huge and protean talents.nichols 2

But here’s the most amazing thing about it: in all of those hundreds of interviews and their thousands of words, except for the two sentences/eight words he spoke on his way to America (they alone appeared everywhere), Nichols never repeated himself; not a line, not a quote, not an anecdote. It was a stunning achievement and the first and last time I’ve researched anyone of whom it was true.

In the end, struggling with impossible choices to maintain the assigned wordage, I cut the sentences, figuring they’d already appeared everywhere, and too tired to realize that they’d appeared everywhere because they’d remained etched in Nichols’ heart since the day he stepped off the boat.

Promised approval of the final version, he wrote “It’s a lovely bio,” but requested firmly (and beguilingly) a single change: to include “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me” in the first paragraph. Afterwards, I was told, he’d added, “Otherwise it seems to be fine. Very nice in fact.”

May his judgment be my epitaph.

Cooper’s London

November 16, 2014

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Mourning Becomes Kristin

Back in July, in a rare moment of prescience, I urgently recommended that readers book in advance for Sophocles’ Electra, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, coming to the Old Vic in September. Specifically, I said I would go see Kristin Scott Thomas reading the proverbial phone book! No need to be careful what I wished for; I got my wish last month, and I’m a very lucky guy!

Using Frank McGuinness’ brilliant 1990 adaptation (originally played by Zoe Wannamaker), I suspect the Old Vic’s new production of Electra will become legendary. It has been called a electra“kill-for-a-ticket triumph,” and I’ve heard has a good chance of making an appearance in New York as well, so remain alert.

My younger daughter spotted its potential last June when tickets first went on sale and took me as a belated Father’s Day Present; she had also managed to get us seats about three feet from where the action was taking place in a superbly reconfigured auditorium that presents the show in the round. I was doubly lucky because there was something quite touching and somehow even symbolic about seeing the quintessential play about a daughter who really loves her father with my daughter,

There’s much to say about the play itself, staged here with grave control in a superb production by Ian Rickson. I know the opera by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmansthal; it’s fascinating to see how different some aspects of the interpretation of this myth are or, rather, how differently Strauss and Hoffmansthal approached it.

But the main focus of amazement and excitement for everyone has been the riveting, intense performance by Kristin Scott Thomashaggard, riddled with neurosis, monomaniacal, intensely calm at times, blackly humorous, given to flaring bursts of fury that could sear your skin. She and Rickson have become quite a teamthey did Chekhov’s The Seagull, and both Betrayal and Old Times by Harold Pinter together to much acclaim and many awards; Their Electra is the perfect setting for Thomas’s performance. She is a diamond that truly burns.

Along with the sound and fury you would expect of a Greek tragedy, she and Rickson understand the need for peaks and valleys; there is actually quite a bit of self-deprecating humour in the readings of several lines that enhances the more harrowing moments. This is not a non-stop gloomfest, as some very bad productions of Sophocles have been in the past. And it is also a thoughtful. It gets very compelling when Diana Quick’s plausible Clytemnestra debates with her daughter Electra the question of why Agamemnon had to be killed in the first place, and the whole context of the curse on the family. Kristin Scott Thomas listens, argues, defies; but her eyes also show a moment of hesitation, a flash of self-doubt before she dismisses this and launches into her verbal attacks on her mother.

Three fine actresses make a good chorus, commenting and interacting as required, and the production promotes a sense of the old hieratic and ceremonial function of theatre in Greek classic times. Mark Thomson’s simple set and the reconfiguring of the theatre itself intensify the experience.

ELECTRA by SophoclesWhen all is said and done, though, the night is Electra’s, as it should be. The scene where she realizes that the callow young man played by Jack Lowden is actually her brother Orestes returned to fulfil the vengeance required of himnot only by her and but by the godsis forever haunting. Everything that Kristin Scott Thomas does in her performance rings true; Electra is being eaten alive by her passion for revenge. but she also wants something more, something abstract real justice. The truth to Electra’s character is Kristin Scott Thomas’s great triumph in this production, along with her astonishing physical and vocal technique. But there’s more: her ability to make an audience utterly sympathetic to her while also terrifying them with the intensity of her obsession. It’s a superb and unforgettable experience and I will continue to be grateful to my own daughter for taking me to it.

The play continues at the Old Vic until 20 December (I guess they didn’t think it would make a great Christmas Show.) And beware: there is no interval, so if you are late you cannot get in to see it live, but will have to watch it on a closed-circuit television in the lobby. http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2014/electra/

Apollo’s Girl

November 14, 2014

Theatre

apollo and artemis

 

 

Theatre for a New Audience.

By the time you’re thirty-five, you should be ready for a place of your own. So, in a reverse commute that brought them over the river tfanainto the Fort Greene Cultural District in Brooklyn late last year, after decades of yearning for it, TFANA’s sparkling new house became the dream home worth waiting for.

In a first season that included Julie Taymor’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (November 19, 2013), and the recent perfect jewel of Peter Brook and Marie-Hėlène Estiennes’ The Valley of Astonishment review, TFANA is now pushing a king-sized envelope with a lavish mounting (19 actors playing 60 parts) of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.tamburlaine John Douglas Thompson stars as the Emperor, a natural role for a multiple award-winner who has specialized in portraying leaders of men (Othello, Macbeth, Richard III, the Emperor Jones) and a king of jazz (Louis Armstrong).

Director Michael Boyd – four-time Olivier Award-winner, a Knight of the Realm, Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for ten years, of seven Shakespeare plays for the Lincoln Center Festival, and the RSC’s commissioner and developer of Matilda the Musical – has created the first major production of Tamburlaine in New York since 1956, and, like TFANA’s theatre itself, worth waiting for. It’s not often we can visit Marlowe’s 16th century in such good company.

marlowe-corpuschristiChristopher Marlowe was something of a bad boy; a scholarship student at Cambridge who spied for Queen Elizabeth’s secret service, and a double agent later arrested for murder, street-fighting and counterfeiting. This son of a shoemaker also rose to become a brilliant and prolific playwright and poet, whose gifts influenced others – including Shakespeare –long after his death (from an assassin’s knife in a tavern brawl) when he was only 29.

Tamburlaine will run at TFANA’s Polonsky Center through January 4. After that, the season will include two presentations with congenial partners: An Octoroon from Soho Rep, a new adaptation (2014 OBIE, Best New American Play) of Dion Bouccicault’s antebellum melodrama, directed by Sara Benson (February 14 – March 8, 2015 ONLY!). And, from the Fiasco Theatre, Two Gentlemen of Verona perhaps Shakespeare’s first play – directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld. Both were deeply involved in the still-missed wonder-production of Cymbeline https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/apollos-girl-16/ (shameless indulgence: I saw it two nights in a row)  It’s great to have them back at TFANA! (From April 24 – May 24, 2015 ONLY!) Truth is, the only smart move is to ensure you’ve got tickets to the entire season: info and tickets


Ensemble Studio Theatre

Over the years (36 since it was founded), Ensemble Studio Theatre has created a body of new plays known for their fearlessness and variety andrecentlyfor traveling well to other venues with works that have first been developed in situ on far West 52nd Street. An ebullient example is Robert Askin’s Hand to God, starring Steve Boyer, who deserved a medal for perfecting the skills of hand puppetry that put a brilliant play right over the top, and led (via another recent production of it) directly to Broadway. review It’s due to open on April 8, 2015, at the Booth Theatre.

Most recently (in another congenial partnership, with the Women’s Project Theater), Cori Thomas’ very New York-now play, When January Feels Like Summer, put its distinctive take on intersecting plots and characters on stage for the month of October. Thomas’ intuition about sanyalthe complexities of the human heart was unassailable, and the tight-knit cast of five was adept at every twist of the plot and turn of character. But Debargo Sanyal’s dual roles (as a transsexual-in-process) was forged in another realm—the one where you’ll never forget a performance―and made you want to see whatever he does next. Director Daniella Topol’s sure hand matched writer and actors every step of the way. (I remember being impressed by her work on Row After Row at the Women’s Project.)

In 2013, Joe Gilford’s Finks (a reality-based drama about the McCarthy era and what happened to Gilford’s parents, Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee Gilford, when it nearly destroyed them) was sometimes achingly funny, but its message was dark, with its darkest messenger a stand-in for Elia Kazan. It took place at the legendary Cafė Society, and at the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The playwright says “I always thought that my parents’ refusal to name names was heroic. But they always explained that they had no choice. They could never hurt their friends.” Finks was a potent reminder of events that should never be forgotten, from a man who remembered them first-hand.

Isaac’s Eye (by Lucas Hnath), an interpretation of the life of Isaac Newton and his duels with the Royal Society, was another landmark production from EST, this one (like Finks) also a reality-based drama but, as its narrator archly warns us, “The play is true and not true. There are lies, but they help us understand the things that are true.” Hnath, director Linsay Firman, and the entire cast delivered a gorgeous dose of historical snark—firmly anchored by real science (which Hnath must have spend eons absorbing)via their version of Story Theatre. Just as I finally caught my breath at the final scene, thinking it doesn’t get any better than this, I learned I was wrong. The play was followed by what was arguably the best Q Lucas 2Matts Gabe EST 022013_0& A in history: the playwright, two history of science professors (working like the proverbial Fric and Frac), moderated by a physicist from Yeshvia University chat. The questions were good (EST’s audience is eager, loyal, and learned), and the answers direct from the cosmos. Only funnier.

The Alfred P. Sloane Foundation and EST have forged one of the theater’s most productive partnerships for sixteen years. Their joint venture has supported many plays, from conception to production (including Isaac’s Eye, and Joe Gilford’s upcoming Danny’s Brain). From now until December 11, you can see what’s in the pipeline and get in on the ground floor with the Sloane/EST First Light Festival. First Light info and tickets


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