Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hitting some wrong notes

It's mystifying, sometimes, when one sees a show that's been running for a long time, is a popular favorite and one's reaction is "hmm, where's the beef?" I had that reaction at the Canadian show 2 Pianos 4 Hands, which recently played its umpteenth engagement in Toronto.

In this case, it's literally a two-hander, written and performed by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, this time at the Panasonic Theatre, about their piano careers -- or rather, the piano careers that never quite got going. Originally produced in 1996, it has, according to the program, played in 10 countries and 200 cities. Since I studied piano for ten years as a young person, then returned to it in 2005 as an adult and continue to play today, I was eager to catch up.

Growing up in the U.S., I had never encountered the Royal Conservatory exams, but as an adult living in Canada, I decided to go through them and am now aiming at level 6. In the 22 years I spent in Toronto, it seemed that 2 Pianos, 4 Hands was perennially playing somewhere. So I was primed for fun. 

There is a simple set -- two grand pianos, nose to nose, and a backdrop that consists of two video screens enclosed by huge picture frames. The first disappointment was that Dykstra and Greenblatt, who also are credited as directors for this production, made relatively little, unimaginative use of those video screens -- window panes to denote a house, etc, but the screens sat blank for much of the show.

They play all the characters, from themselves as kids going through the usual practice agony and lessons ("it sounded better at home" - who hasn't said that?) to teachers and examiners.  

As kids, the two do not seem to be especially talented piano students, which I found a wee bit puzzling as the adults onstage possessed serious piano chops. Their teachers -- especially Sister Loyola -- run the gamut from encouragement to exasperation. The boys persist and enter the Kiwanis Music Festival, a venerable Canadian institution that encompasses local, regional and national competitions. (Canadians love competitive festivals. They exist for music, choirs, community theater -- and auto repair, for all I know -- and more can be found about this national characteristic here.)

The funniest character, for me, was Ed, a long-suffering emcee at the Kiwanis festival who announces in a dead tone that "67 children will all be playing the same piece."

As they progress in their musical studies, they try to take the next step. Dykstra applies to the Royal Conservatory and Greenblatt to a jazz faculty -- but they slam against reality. Dykstra has gotten by on an easy facility at the keyboard, but the conservatory interviewer sees through his facade and bluntly tells him he'd have to work a lot harder to be top-notch. Greenblatt's version of jazz smacks too much of classical training, and his interviewer basically tells him he just doesn't have the soul for it.

Greenblatt gets work in a piano bar ... Dykstra does some teaching ... and the continuation of their story, as one can read from their program bios, is that both went on to busy, full lives as well-known theater artists -- acting (in some roles demanding musical talent), directing, writing, mentoring.

But the acting on display in 2 Pianos, 4 Hands is more of the hammy variety (see photo), with a little Victor Borge-style kidding around at the beginning. And one small question: how the heck could two musicians misspell the names of Richard Rodgers and Edvard Grieg in the music credits for the show?

Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra in 2 Pianos 4 Hands
The show consists of a series of vignettes, but there isn't much character development and there are such hoary jokes as the teacher with the foreign accent mispronouncing English words - the same word, several times.

One of the few negative reviews the show has gotten came from the New York Times in 1997, when it played the Promenade Theatre in New York. Acknowledging their skill, reviewer Peter Marks sharply noted that "they never make it clear what the music has meant to them," so it's hard to feel much when they lose their dreams of becoming concert artists. The full review is here

I kept waiting for the play to catch fire, to scale the heights of musical joy, to give me some insight into the despair of being found wanting at the very thing you desire so much (a feeling with which I am all too acquainted when it comes to music). But what I saw was two pleasant guys with a very enjoyable amount of piano talent reminiscing about their young years in music and ending the show with what I thought was a boring arrangement of Bach's lovely Sheep May Safely Graze. I was under-whelmed.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A "Signature" identity

I've seldom been as inspired by sheer artistic passion as I was on Dec. 1, having lunch on a bare plywood stage, looking out at an auditorium stacked high with cardboard boxes, at what in two months will be 20-year-old Signature Theatre Company's new home on West 42nd Street.

Lunch on the stage in the soon-to-be-finished End Stage Theatre at Signature Theatre
It was a press preview of a $66 million complex designed by Frank Gehry that will include - deep breath - three auditorium theaters, a studio theater, a rehearsal studio, administrative offices, a bookstore and a cafe. 

All this will be in service to those of us who make sense of the world through words spoken in a big dark room, who inhabit a neighborhood of voices and walk just one block from crazy, who approach the work half-crippled with fear and electrified by arrogance, in equal measure. "Theater begins with the written word," Signature's founding artistic director, Jim Houghton, told us.

The entire complex, he said, will support Signature's dedication to the playwright -- seasons that focus on the early and current work of a single writer who is in residence and engaged in the creative process and five-year residencies for several playwrights that focus on new work."Every square inch of this place is tied to mission," he said.

The opening is scheduled for February 2012, kicking off a season of work by Athol Fugard, Edward Albee, Katori Hall, Will Eno and Kenneth Lonergan.

Playwright John Guare talked about Signature's artistic legacy. "Signature revived the career of Horton Foote. It restored Edward Albee to his rightful place of prominence in the American theater," he said, adding that Tennessee Williams, in the last 20 years of his life "had no base, no home" to nurture his creativity. "Signature is so unfashionable" in producing a range of a playwright's work, he said. "Usually you are as good as your last play," he added.    

Architect Frank Gehry: "With all the insanity going on in the world, it's nice to be involved with sanity."
Gehry, whose design includes a dramatic canopy at street level and a lobby that will serve as a crossroads for the center, praised real estate developers the Related Companies, whose 63-story apartment/hotel tower houses the Signature Center. He also mentioned the City of New York, which contributed an astonishing $27.5 million to the project. Signature Executive Director Erika Mallin, who has shepherded the project since she arrived in 2007, has worked in the mayor's office.

A rendering of the Signature Theater lobby, next to the tools and materials that will make it happen.
Among the dramatic initiatives at Signature is its Access Ticket program, which will make tickets available at every performance for $25. This can't happen without the generosity of donors and among the major gifts announced were $5 million from John and Amy Griffin to name one of the theaters after John's mother, theater writer Alice Griffin; a $5 million gift from writer Margot Adams that will name the main theater after Signature founding playwright Romulus Linney and $3 million from Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg to name the lobby grand staircase.

In keeping with the spirit of the ticket initiative, which seeks to answer the question of actor and board member Edward Norton - " Is theatre for all of us, or is it just for the very few?" - I'd like to make a suggestion about the bookstore. 

I am as passionate about books as I am about theater, and about theater education. Signature said its bookstore will carry playscripts and books about the worlds portrayed onstage -- apartheid during the run of an Athol Fugard play, for instance. If tickets are $25, then why couldn't every book in the bookstore be available for $5? Why should a person who has spent $25 to see a play be stalled by the $25 price of a book or the $15 price of a playscript? But who would subsidize the Book Access initiative? Possibly individuals who feel as strongly about the written word as I do - or perhaps foundations that have literacy as part of their mandate.

Signature Theatre -- is it worth a thought?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chinglish: more than fortune cookie fun

Seeing David Henry Hwang's new play, Chinglish, now on Broadway and briskly directed by Leigh Silverman, is like going on the perfect date. You feel very comfortable with the other person, who is polite and eager to please but very witty. Things turn a little sexy and surprising halfway through and you end the evening feeling you've come to understand another human being and you are, well, satisfied.

The play, from the author of the extraordinary M. Butterfly, is told in flashback as American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh begins giving a corporate presentation on doing business in China. Seems he's the proprietor of a Cleveland-based, family-owned sign company. Three years ago, he was trying to convince the town officials of Guiyang that his firm should supply signs for a new cultural center - and avoid the garbled and laughable "Chinglish" on many signs in China. ("Fuck goods" in a grocery store is actually "dry goods," as the modern Chinese character for "dry" and "do" -- as in "to do" someone -- are the same, Cavanaugh explains.)

He picks up as a translator and all-around fixer Peter Timms, a local British teacher who has been living in the country many years and speaks fluent Mandarin. (A delightful bit of information from the Playbill is that actor Stephen Pucci holds a B.A. in Mandarin Chinese from Leeds University/Tianjin Normal University.)

Jennifer Lim as Xi Yan and Gary Wilmes as Daniel Cavanaugh in Chinglish
But of course, the local minister of culture, Cai Guoliang (the suave Larry Lei Zhang) has brought his own hapless translator who mangles such business overtures as "Here's why we're worth the money" into "He will explain why he spends money so recklessly."

While the apparently-affable Cai seems like a fellow one can "do business with" (to echo Margaret Thatcher's famous assessment of Mikhail Gorbachev), vice minister Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim) maintains a composure of steel.

Cavanaugh tries to read the signs communicated in non-written form when people from different cultures meet. Soon, those signals lead to an affair between Cavanaugh and Xi Yan, but each of them have very different motivations. Cavanaugh soon discovers that Timms and Cai also have agendas that won't necessarily align with what seems to be a pretty simple mission: sell some sturdy, correctly-written, American-made signs to the Chinese.

As a comedy, Chinglish is a tamer look at East-West relations than the dark M. Butterfly, but the American's guileless attempt to come to grips with a complex ancient world brings to mind Henry James' novels of Americans in Europe. David Korins' brilliant revolving set seems like a visual maze that complements the characters' dilemmas. Much of the dialogue is in Mandarin, with translations projected on the set and beautifully designed by Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan. I loved hearing lengthy conversations in this musical, dramatic language.  

Wilmes gives us an attractive, affecting portrait of a middle class Midwesterner (who has a surprise up his sleeve about his background), but one would have liked his character to show a little more deeply how the China experience changed him. Lim reveals a number of layers to Xi Yan, a woman who knows herself and what she wants. Pucci and Lei Zhang create well-rounded characters, but director Silverman possibly could have asked the supporting actors not to play "Oriental" stereotypes quite so broadly.

All told, though, this dramatic Chinese meal doesn't leave you hungry an hour later.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Taking the Godspell to the public square

My legs are sooo soooore. From 9:30 to 1:00 pm on Saturday, Oct. 15, I jumped and danced and shimmied and clapped and slapped my thighs, rehearsing with 84 other people for a "flash mob" appearance in Times Square in support of the Broadway revival of Godspell. As I am an investor in the show, I thought this was a wise move. [Pun intended.] Who am I kidding - the chance to rehearse in a Broadway studio and be part of an Event in the middle of the Great White Way - sign me up!

Perhaps in keeping with the inclusive message of the Gospel, uh, sorry, Godspell, we were a remarkably diverse bunch - young, not-so-young, tall, short, thin, not-so-thin, dancers, actors, at least one writer (moi), teachers, all sorts. One woman had flown in from San Diego, another was there with her daughter, a man I met named Patrick had come in from Phoenix.
Rehearsing for the Godspell flash mob event. 

Our choreographer, Nancy Renee Braun, put us through the four sections of the piece, along with some professional dancers starting things off and punctuating some transitions. What a motivated crowd we were, clapping after we successfully executed every succession of eight-counts. It occurred to me that working in theater is like being in perpetual high school, but with grownup requirements such as reliability, leadership, teamwork and persuasiveness.

There was much talk about how the event was in keeping with Godspell's message of love and joy and community, but one of our dance captains stepped in it a little when she said the musical "isn't religious." Well, I'm not particularly evangelical, but in the interest of accuracy, yes, it actually is. What's regrettable is that Jesus has been used as a bludgeon rather than an inspiration so many times. The Christian message - love God, love thy neighbor - needs no apology, and maybe Godspell is a vehicle that makes it simple and clear.

Just before the flash mob
We worked like crazy, lead producer Ken Davenport showed up to see the last few run-throughs, we got a very brief lunch break, then made our separate ways to Times Square, where speakers had been set up around a space on the pedestrian mall next to the TKTS half-price ticket booth.

Spectators were already waiting to see what might go on in the space when a lone girl walked into the center and blew a couple of long notes on a bugle. Our dancers started their joyful swoops around the space to "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," then we mobbers seemed to flow out of the crowd to "Day by Day." Then, whoosh, the beat started rocking and we started hopping. Halfway through, we took off our jackets and bloomed into a sea of red Godspell t-shirts. You can see it here

There are a couple of other videos on YouTube, taken by people on their phones. My favorite overheard line from a woman chatting to her companion as they film: "This looks rehearsed." I'll say! As we picked up our jackets and walked away, a woman asked me, "What's Godspell?" I answered, "The 70s rock musical, based on the Book of Matthew." 

Now, I'm off to get the Advil. I'd do it again - in a flash.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Godspell According to Us

This theater blog started in April with news that I had become a Broadway producer for the munificent sum of $1,000, courtesy of real Broadway producer Ken Davenport's decision to open up the process for his revival of Godspell. Six months later, I am about to become part of a flash mob in Times Square to support the show.

Solange and Jesus on Broadway
To tell the truth, the sweet earnestness of Godspell was never my cup of tea (sorry, Stephen Schwartz); I usually preferred a drier drink. But nobody else on Broadway was inviting me to this particular kind of dance, so I decided to sign up and, once invested, naturally had a stake in seeing this show succeed.

Couple of weeks ago, about 100 of us investors gathered at the Circle on the Square theater to hear Ken update us on the production just before previews began. (Opening night is Nov. 7.)

The show was just in the process of moving into the theater - note all the boxes onstage and the shop vac at left of the photo below. Ken, wearing his red Godspell hat, shared some of director Danny Goldstein's concept for the show. Ken asked us not to reveal the secrets of some production effects (Jesus will walk on water), but it doesn't seem too outrageous to say that Goldstein's idea is that the cast will be a group that happens to wander into an old Broadway theater.

Ken talked about the sound design challenges in a theater in the round and the location of the band, as well as what some audience members might be doing as part of the show. The production's budget is about $5 million, a number that's been publicly announced, and there are about 600 small investors. I asked if it was the small investors who put it over the top (a planned revival in 2009 never got off the ground due to lack of financing), but Ken responded that we were all "people of Godspell," which is his term for the investment group.    

Ken Davenport updates his fellow producers on the Broadway revival of Godspell

The poster I'm holding, above, was among the promotional items available at our meeting.

In the six months since April, Ken has kept a daily blog of the show's progress, detailing the many steps a producer takes to get a show to Broadway.

In a way, I've felt oddly detached from the experience, but also deeply part of it. Detached because for me, whether I'm directing a show or reviewing it, I'm directly involved. That's what I love about theater, it's in-person. But Ken has done something historic here. The world of Broadway producers can be pretty small and only open to those with serious money. He's invited us in and let us watch over his shoulder.

So, tomorrow (you thought I'd forgotten), there's going to be a flash mob event in Times Square. On a Saturday, I'm going to get up in time to be at a rehearsal studio by 9 am. And I'm going to make a fool of myself at the Crossroads of the World. Maybe a holy fool.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Heroes for all ages

On a day filled with human concerns both large and small - I learned of the deaths of two friends, got stung by a wasp and fell on the sidewalk, turning my ankle - I entered the realms of gods and heroes via a dramatic reading of the Greek epic The Iliad at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Broadway actor Anthony Newfield, who edited the selections for the evening using a new translation by Stephen Mitchell, is artistic director of Poetry for Peace, which presents readings of great works that deal with war and peace.

The cast of The Iliad, presented at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York. Anthony Newfield is at the far left.
The work was punctuated by percussion and incidental music from Marlon Cherry, whose vigorous bass drumming created an appropriately war-like milieu.

It's a daunting work - some 15,000 lines in all (edited into a two-hour performance), dozens of warriors, gods and goddesses, even rivers and horses and mountains figure in the awesome story of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans.  

The impressive cast, including Theatre Hall of Fame member Dana Ivey as Hera and Hecuba, admirably negotiated Homer's poetry. Bryce Pinkham, late of the cast of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, crafted a particularly intense Achilles. And what a story: the Greek leaders Achilles and Agamemnon arguing over going to war; the Trojan Paris stealing Helen, wife of the Greek Menelaus; the Trojan Hector slain by Achilles and dragged behind his chariot; Hector's father Priam sitting down to dinner with his son's killer to ask for the body. And the gods, above it all yet intervening in human affairs and pursuing their own amorous paths.

The cathedral's magnificent grey and beige stone was a dignified setting for such a tale, one that sent us out into the unusually warm fall night with swords ringing in our ears and the cries of titans. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Two magnificent Henrys

Laurence Olivier as Henry V - "Once more unto the breach, dear friends!"
Recently, I experienced two examples of inspiring, exciting theater - outside the bounds of a conventional theater.

The first was the 1944 film of Shakespeare's Henry V, which I own because I love the play and because Laurence Olivier was one of the most thrilling actors of any generation. I screened it for myself and daughter Florence because we had tickets to a New York Philharmonic concert that was to feature the second example -- Henry V: A Musical Scenario after Shakespeare, in which arranger Christopher Palmer interspersed William Walton's music for the film and some of the speeches from the play. Christopher Plummer was to appear with the orchestra and I snapped up tickets a couple of months ago. In the last 15 years, I've seen Plummer onstage as John Barrymore in Barrymore, Julius Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra and as King Lear, which ranks as one of the greats. I interviewed Plummer in Toronto around the time of Barrymore and it was a marvelous encounter.

What a joy is was to view Henry V again, to see how one man's vision and passion - Olivier is also credited as director and producer - could create such a satisfying achievement. From the brilliant opening at the Globe theater to the field at Agincourt, the film's visual style moved from realism to the style of the drawings in the Duc du Berry's Book of Hours. Olivier is first seen backstage at the Globe as the actor playing Henry, waiting to make his entrance. His face is all concentration, listening for his cue, but he gives just a little cough - slightly nervous? a little throat-clearing just to get the voice ready? - that makes the actor suddenly very human.

Before he appears, there are a bevy of highly competent British character actors playing the Chorus, the Archbishop of Canterbury, etc., with that ripe British rolling-r type of Shakespearean delivery. But God, Olivier's voice could cut glass. At the climaxes of the great speeches - "Saint Crispin's Daaay!" - there was a ring to his top notes like an operatic tenor's. I saw Olivier onstage twice in London, as Shylock and James Tyrone and from each of those performances, I can still hear his voice - as Shylock, a piercing cry of anguish at the end of The Merchant of Venice when he is forced to convert to Christianity and as James Tyrone, a world of regret as he recalls compromising his artistic ideals for monetary success and wonders, "What was it ... I wanted ... to buy?"

As we approached Lincoln Center, the program appeared to be sold out, since we saw people holding "need a ticket" signs. The Philharmonic and maestro Alan Gilbert opened its program with the Overture and Bacchanal from Tannhauser, then after intermission were joined by the American Boychoir and Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus and Chamber Choir for the choral parts of Walton's score. Plummer, wearing a dapper burgundy-colored dinner jacket, entered to applause. He is 81 and on the first line - "O for a muse of fire!" - his voice was slightly throaty and I thought, "Oh no, he's old."

Christopher Plummer appearing with the New York Philharmonic

Old? OLD? For the next hour, that man of four score years roamed the stage of Avery Fisher Hall, using a wireless head mic, reciting all the speeches from memory. (I had thought he would be at a lectern.) His voice scaled stunning Olivieresque heights in the great rousing-the-troops speeches and Walton's stirring music created a thoroughly satisfying piece of theater.

What great theater we saw this weekend - on a movie screen and in a concert hall.        

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Real people, not cardboard "heroes"

On this significant weekend, marking the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Armonk Players in Armonk, N.Y., north of New York City, is presenting the play "The Guys."

It was written by journalist Anne Nelson, a faculty member at my alma mater, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I'd read about the play and the feature film that starred Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, but never seen it and finally caught up with it this weekend, of all weekends.

Written just a couple of months after the attacks, it is a work of drama and of journalism. Through a mutual acquaintance, Nelson was approached by a fire captain who had been asked to deliver eulogies and was literally at a loss for words to describe the men he lost.

In the play, the writer, Joan (played by Jeanne McCabe) interviews Nick (Dick Nagle) about Bill, Jimmy, Patrick and Barney, drawing out their unique qualities in order to help Nick tell their stories. The script makes a quiet comment on the overused word and concept of heroes. "All this hero stuff? That wasn't Bill," says Nick, who describes a quiet, dependable kind of guy. The fire captain is clearly under great stress, as he tells the journalist several times, "I just don't know where they went," referring to confusion over where exactly his men were killed.

Joan, in awe of the firehouse world and a culture she comes to know through Nick's recollections, tells him, "This is all I can do - words," but he assures her that is exactly what he needs. For my part, I was very affected by the play's illustration of the writer's place in the world - finding the right words to make sense of things.

The two actors were highly skilled, but I thought McCabe was just a little too low key and it was a little difficult to hear all the lines. Nagle actually is a retired New York City Fire Department lieutenant and brought a wonderful gentlemanly presence to Nick. The scene where he enlightens Joan about the difference between "engine" and "ladder" companies was delightful.

After the performance, there was a talkback with the audience and we heard more remarkable stories. One woman brought her elderly father, also retired from the fire department and spoke about the loss of her cousin in the twin towers - a woman who had served as her floor's fire warden. Another man, a current firefighter, related how he and some off-duty colleagues commandeered a mail truck ("and that's a federal offense") to get down to the burning trade center.

Florence came with me to the performance. She was just four years old in 2001 and on the drive home we talked of her memories of the event. I still have the drawing she made of a plane heading toward two rectangles. Because she was a little child, she drew faces at the windows of the plane, and they are smiling.

Tomorrow, I'll be in the soprano section of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and we will sing part of Faure's Requiem and we'll remember.    

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Baby, It's Who?

Beth Leavel (center) and, from left, Crystal Starr, Christina Sajous, Erica Ash and Kyra Da Costa. 

A friend had a spare ticket to Baby It's You at the Broadhurst Theatre and invited me along. Heck, a Broadway show for free, and the music of the Shirelles, the girl-group hit machine of the late 1950s and early 1960s - how could I lose, I thought. The evening wasn't a total loss, by any means, despite the somewhat savage reviews the show earned when it opened in April (it closes Sept. 4).

Since I was a little kid when the events in the show took place, some of this was new to me, nevertheless the bare elements of the story (which is where one should always start) were pretty close to jaw-dropping. New Jersey housewife Florence Greenberg (white and Jewish) discovers four young black female singers. She thinks they're terrific and manages to muscle into the male-dominated Manhattan music business. She starts a record label, Scepter Records (in the end, she will found three), and propels the girls, now called The Shirelles, to enormous success. Back in the suburbs, her relationship with her husband, daughter and son (who is blind) grows shaky. In the city, she has a deeply-felt affair with the black songwriter and producer Luther Dixon. Wow!

With such great material, it's a shame the creators -- Floyd Mutrux, Colin Escott and Sheldon Epps, sharing various author and directing roles -- didn't trust the story but opted for a commercial decision to wedge it between the hit songs.

With 31 numbers (not including reprises), the show has more of a revue feel, and the jukebox nature of the proceedings are underlined with a projection of -- a jukebox on a scrim at the beginning. After the third song, I wrote in my notes, "When story start?"

The most enjoyable aspect of Baby It's You, for me, was the top-notch talent of the performers - Beth Leavel as Florence, four wonderful young women (see caption above) as The Shirelles, the smooth and elegant Allan Louis as Luther and a candidate for the hardest-working man in show business, Geno Henderson, who plays narrator Jocko and channels Ron Isley and Gene Chandler.

The songs - "Mama Said," "Dedicated to the One I Love," "Tonight's the Night," "He's So Fine," "Soldier Boy," "Baby It's You" (with the electrifying cry "don't want nobody, nobody") - can't help but bring a smile and for the target market crowd, memories of younger days. I'm not quite the target market. For me, the Beatles and all the 1960s music that followed blew away everything from Elvis to The Shirelles. How ironic, when one realized that the Beatles covered them. It was only later that I discovered all that wonderful 1950s and early 60s pop and rock 'n' roll. 

But as the show continued, it began to seem like an assembly line, with sets slid on and off, characters walking on, saying a few lines, doing a number, then leaving. The costumes were terrific, but the budget must have been awesome, there were so many - and eventually, one started to think, "another outfit, why?"

The performers were winning me over until a concert scene reeled off "Shout," "Mama Said," "Duke of Earl" and "Foolish Little Girl." Next, actress Kelli Barrett (another fine actress and singer) strolled out as Lesley Gore to sing "It's My Party" and I thought, "OK, enough. Is this about the Shirelles or just an excuse to trot out lots of hits for the 55+ demographic?"

The real loss in Baby It's You is the lack of story involving the women who were the four Shirelles. There are only a couple of brief scenes where we see real people behind the smiling, perfectly dressed and coiffed girl group, but otherwise they're little more than puppets. How did Shirley, Doris, Micki and Beverly really feel about Florence Greenberg and her "discovery" and management of their career? Did any of them object, rebel, want to do something different, have artistic disagreements? The story of The Shirelles isn't only their hits. Maybe the real story is yet to be written.   



Monday, August 8, 2011

Bring "Enemies" to New York!

I traveled to Pittsfield, Mass. this past weekend to catch one of the last performances of Mark St. Germain's The Best of Enemies at the Barrington Stage Company - an amazing tale of friendship overcoming entrenched racial barriers.

I interviewed Mark last fall for a Religion News Service feature on his play Freud's Last Session, which has been running for more than a year off-Broadway. At the same time, I attended a staged reading of The Best of Enemies in Pittsfield and thought "St Germain's done it again" - found a compelling story featuring real people and created a brilliant piece of theater.

This summer, Barrington presented Enemies in a fully staged production and it has lost none of its power.

Producers, bring this play to New York soon!

The book of the same name by Osha Gray Davidson told the story of 1970s Durham, N.C., where schools were still segregated 20 years after Brown vs. the Board of Education and where two unwilling citizens were brought together to address the issue.

"Community organizer" Bill Riddick came to town and convinced black activist Ann Atwater and local Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis to co-chair a process called a "charrette," where citizens gather and discuss a local problem and search for solutions. There was just one little catch to this plan: Atwater and Ellis virulently despised each other. According to Ellis, "whites and niggers will never get along because they shouldn't!" The play doesn't shy away from the viciously racist language used by some at the time, but always in context.

The play opens with Ellis, played by John Bedford Lloyd, telling his (unseen) Klan meeting that it's too bad that Martin "Lucifer" King got assassinated in Memphis because he would have liked to have done the job in Durham. Atwater, played by Aisha Hinds, for her part, is yelling at a town hall receptionist, asking what the city is going to do to commemorate Dr. King, and threatening to toss her out a window if she calls the police.

As Riddick, Clifton Duncan is smooth and persuasive, convincing the antagonists that they'd better take part in the process if only to keep an eye on what the other group is doing. St. Germain keeps the suspense up, as Atwater and Ellis begin to work together but still don't seem to recognize any kind of common humanity in the other. Gradually, though, they connect as parents (Ellis has three kids, one disabled, and Ann has two) and as members of Durham's working class, realizing that poor whites and poor blacks may occupy similar rungs of society.

In a very affecting scene, Ellis realizes he joined the Klan for a sense of belonging, to connect with the better-off guys in town. But as he works for the betterment of Durham's schools, a process that will inevitably lead to integration, his so-called friends snub him and his gas station business suffers. This shock, coupled with his wife's health crisis, brings him to the point of despair.

Atwater begins to see Ellis as a person who has paid a brutal price for his work with her and the hard knot of hatred and resentment in her heart begins to relax. Astonishingly, Ellis went on to work as an organizer for a labor union whose membership was 90 percent black - and Atwater, referring to him as "my brother," spoke at his funeral. The last line of the play - which I won't reveal - brought tears.

Hinds and Lloyd did marvelous work, but occasionally I felt they could have moderated the anger a bit, that the performances were becoming a little one-note, with most of the richness revealed at the end. (At last year's reading, Dan Butler and Starla Benford modulated the characters a bit better.) Duncan nicely shows us Riddick's discomfort when the charette process jumps his careful plan: Ellis wants to post an exhibit in the school about the KKK and Atwater agrees to it, telling her people that they need to know how people think in order to "fight with your brain." As Ellis' wife Mary, Susan Wands creates a portrait of a woman struggling to love her husband despite his sometimes-unfathomable behavior. In general, however, for all the actors, the North Carolina accent could have been on a firmer footing.

If my recall is accurate, a couple of elements have been added: sound snippets from Sen. Jesse Helms' campaigns that help give context to the events and a speech from Ellis to the black trade union that was originally a voiceover. I didn't mind the voiceover. When Ellis entered to give his speech, it looked as if we were entering a new aspect of the play, whereas the voiceover lowered the emotional temperature, preparing us for the final scene - Atwater's eulogy.

David Barber's scene designs smartly used projections (including historic photos of downtown Durham) and playing areas, although I could have used a pew onstage for the funeral scenes, rather than the table and folding chairs from previous scenes.

This is an important play for our times, as much for what it subtly says about economic status in America as for its illumination of an inspiring story. Beyond the always-emotional story of enemies who become friends, it's important, too, to shine a light on such groups as the KKK and on events and attitudes that aren't so far in the past - just 40 years, in the case of The Best of Enemies. Today, with a black President and a working class devastated by recession, we need to hear this play. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Vroom, vroom in Fredericton, New Brunswick

It's amazing sometimes how the universe majestically falls into alignment.

No sooner do I roll into Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, Canada, in a brand new milk-white General Motors Chevrolet Equinox SUV crossover, which I have owned less than 48 hours and which has super modern bells and whistles such as SM Sirius Satellite Radio and GM OnStar digital navigation ... than I find myself at the opening night of a musical about - a car!

The Fredericton Playhouse is across the street from my hotel, the historic Lord Beaverbrook, now the Crowne Plaza Lord Beaverbrook, so I wandered over to see what the show advertised outside, The Bricklin, An Automotive Fantasy was all about. During my two decades in Ontario, and 15 or 16 summer trips to PEI that took us through New Brunswick, I remember hearing vaguely of a 1970s gull-wing-door car that was built (shades of the later DeLorean car) in the province by an entrepreneur named Malcolm Bricklin.

The show poster

A 1975 Bricklin in front of the Fredericton Playhouse on opening night of The Bricklin, An Automotive Fantasy

My 2011 GM Chevy Equinox

The protagonists of the real story, and of the show, are Bricklin, a cowboy-hatted go-getter from Arizona, and Richard Hatfield, then the premier of the province. With such cyclical economic sectors as farming, fishing and tourism, Canada's Atlantic provinces perennially fall on hard times and the idea of building a unique product in his New Brunswick appealed to Hatfield.

Although the gull-wing door and plastic body were revolutionary, it was beset by engineering and manufacturing problems. Only about 2800 Bricklins were produced between 1974 and 1976 and the venture ended up $23 million in the red including millions in provincial taxpayers' money.

The show doesn't flinch from the project's failures, but characterizes it as an ambitious reach for a dream by two men who saw larger horizons than most. The musical itself represents a leap of faith, as it was commissioned by the Fredericton Playhouse in 2009 - ironically with financing from the city and from the federal government - and co-produced with Theatre New Brunswick, which is also in Fredericton.

With a four-piece band on stage and an orange-red patterned backdrop, the set resembles a 70s TV show, and the action plays out in front of the band. Allen Cole's vigorous score rhythmically refers to 70s songs, but doesn't really contain strong melodies, although my favorite song was "Driftin,'" in which Hatfield sings wistfully of the ordinary government tasks he does and his desire for a really big way to make his mark. The book was co-written by Cole and Paul Ledoux and the show's structure - desire, dream, failure and the importance of maintaining hope - is rock-solid. 

The characters are rounded out by a working-class couple, Gerrard and Michelle, who labor in different ways on the production of the Bricklin. The five-member cast are all very strong: Shawn Wright as the driven Hatfield, Jason Chesworth as glad-handing Bricklin, Tania Breen as Michelle, Cameron MacDuffee as Gerrard and Kevin Dennis. The last three also play various demonstrating workers, political party members, journalists, etc.

The real Malcolm Bricklin, a very handsome and dapper 72, was at the performance and was called up on stage. "It's exactly how I remember it," he said, to great applause. 

Well, tomorrow I will be getting on the road for a four-hour drive to Prince Edward Island. I'm glad it won't be in a Bricklin, no matter how much we may need dreamers. I believe I can depend on my Equinox to start, its doors to open, its body not to leak. But that Bricklin sure is one sexy beast.  

P.S. After writing this blog post, I attended a reception at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery - right next to my hotel - for the opening-night audience. I learned that Richard Hatfield was gay and used to travel regularly outside New Brunswick, obviously to lead a life he couldn't lead in the province. There's a brief, puzzling mention of Truman Capote in the show and I wish the writers could have referred to his double life a little more clearly because he obviously had a creative soul and it was that characteristic that caused him to link up with Malcolm Bricklin.

Loved the party and meeting Tim, Cameron, Dennis, etc. Thank you, forces of the universe.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

No Person Left Behind

There's a modest little show called No Child ... currently playing in Greenwich Village -- modest in its production values, which consist of a stage, a gloriously talented actress, three chairs and a mop. It's anything but modest in its eloquence, passion, insight and reach: this edition of the show has just been extended and it's toured all over the country since its premiere in 2007.

The actress (and writer) in question is Nilaja Sun and she has created a classic teacher tale from her own experience as a visiting teaching artist in New York City schools. There is the initial idealism and apprehension, the difficulty getting through to the kids at the tough high school, the despair, the perseverance and at the end, hard redemption won by the kids themselves and their teacher.

The story is framed by the school janitor, played by Sun, who also plays herself as the visiting teacher hired for six weeks to involve the students at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx in the theater arts on the principle, of course, that this will make them better students and better people. "Ms. Sun" has decided to cast the students in a production of Our Country's Good, a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker based on Thomas Keneally's novel about a group of 18th century convicts in Australia who stage a play.

Sun, a wiry, exuberant rocket of energy, also gives us the anxious Asian teacher who begins the school year, the stentorian Russian teacher who takes over halfway through and all the students - the girls with attitude, the Hispanic kid, the kid who says his lines as if he has marbles in his mouth, the African-American boy who gives Ms. Sun nothing but trouble until he turns up with his part memorized.

Sun's portrayal of the teaching artist's low point is very effective. She questions why she, an African-American teacher, chose a play about convicts and laments, "I can't even help my own people. We are getting these kids ready for jail." Opening night arrives, the show isn't perfect, but the janitor comments, "I never seen them kids shine like they did tonight."

The play's title refers to the No Child Left Behind education law, with its emphasis on testing and accountability, and gently makes the point that that arts produce results that are deep and lasting, but can't necessarily  be reduced to a score or a number. This is theater for life.  

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Beautiful song, not so beautiful play

The song is "Jerusalem" and it doesn't have much to do with the Middle East, nor does the play of the same name by Jez Butterworth  currently gracing Broadway's Music Box Theater. Perhaps "gracing" is the wrong word for the play's protagonist, a ne'er-do-well named Johnny "Rooster" Byron living in an Airstream trailer on the outskirts of Flintock, Wiltshire.

Johnny, played by the awe-inspiring Mark Rylance, walks with a ferocious limp, the result of an Evel Knievel-like daredevil career, regularly gets drunk, plays loud music, ingests various substances, tells tall tales and is of course a magnet for various town characters, including a dotty professor (bit of a cliche alert here), a marvelously comic Morris dancer and disaffected teenagers, to whom he deals some weed and occasionally boffs (the female ones).

He is, like his poet namesake, "mad, bad and dangerous to know," and a general nuisance to the citizens of Flintock, which is expanding its housing developments and sends the police to evict him. Johnny, hearkening back to the mythical England of King Arthur and Stonehenge, which isn't far from the real Flintock, vows to make a last stand.

Rylance, who won the Tony Award for best actor in a play, opens his giant steamer trunk of acting skills - there is a physical sequence at the beginning of the play that is nearly a Dance of One Who Is Hung Over - and almost made this viewer care about a man who is actually rather a creep. (To digress for a moment, I wasn't quite as hot under the collar as the Times' Brantley, who said we would respond with "glassy-eyed rapture" to Rylance's performance. I can get more wound up about theater than anybody, but at that point, felt like responding, "dude, it's just a play.")

I also have to muse at the conceit of male writers who seem to think attractive women are just dying to go to bed with dirty men. This phenomenon occurred also in the film "Crazy Heart," where lovely Maggie Gyllenhaal gets into it with Jeff Bridges' chain-smoking, drinking, sweaty, beer-bellied country singer. Sheesh, I'd at least ask him to take a shower and brush his teeth. But this is fantasy, isn't it!?

Back to Jerusalem, a two-hour play wandering around a three-hour evening. It's hard for an American to realize how potent the song by Charles Parry, set to a poem by William Blake, is for Britons. It evokes the England of St. George and the dragon - but is that England really now in the hands of Johnny Byron, who is hardly an attractive free spirit but who has abandoned a young son and has no problem screwing a 15-year-old girl. Her relatives come looking for satisfaction. As a parent of a 14-year-old girl, I can't condone what they do, but I can't see Byron as a hero, either.

And if he isn't a hero - if this is who now represents the "green and pleasant land" -  then Butterworth is making a very dark comment on contemporary England, indeed.   

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Devil Made Me Do It

Forget "The Book of Mormon." The funniest play about faith, hands down, on the contemporary stage, one that had the audience (including me) screaming with laughter, stamping feet, wiping eyes, crying out with incredulity, is Robert Askins' Hand to God, which tonight was presented at the Southampton Writers Conference in a staged reading by The Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Ensemble Studio Theatre actors, from left, Scott Sowers, Haskell King, Geneva Carr, Steve Boyer and Megan Hill (and one puppet) present Hand to God by Robert Askins at the Southampton Writers' Conference in Southampton, L.I., NY

There was no program and I didn't take notes - I was too busy holding my stomach with laughter - so I hope Mr. Askins and Billy Carden, artistic director of Ensemble Studio Theatre, will excuse any inaccuracies, which I'll clean up later anyway.

The action takes place in what seems to be an anonymous Southern town where an attractive 40ish widow named Margery copes with a son, Jason, who has a sock puppet seemingly permanently attached to his arm, plus an intense 16-year-old who has the hots for her, local girl Jessica who can't seem to get near to Jason, and Pastor Greg, who would also like a relationship with Margery.

Things are getting a little tense since Margery is in charge of staging a religious puppet show for Sunday and things aren't quite coming together as planned ...

The humor comes from the fast, feverish pitch of the action - and the masterful work of these actors - and the constant dark absurdity of the situations with which the hapless characters attempt to cope, even as they attempt to do the right, the good, the holy thing. Possibly the apex of the whole thing comes when Jessica decides if you can't fight 'em, join 'em, and shows up at the son's place with a female sock puppet on her arm.

The scene that practically had me on my knees with helpless laughter had the son's evil puppet, Tyrone, and the female puppet engage in a series of, shall we say, carnal acts, while the son and Jessica are carrying on a conversation on an entirely different level.

Playwright Askins, whose photo is at left, was at the performance and I wish I'd known then what he looked like so I could have stayed and congratulated him. I hope Hand to God gets a fully-staged performance so more people can discover this fresh, original voice.

I have subsequently discovered that his mother actually did start a Christian puppet ministry and that he was a star choir boy. It is a great truth that you have to know what you are talking about in order to make fun of it and he has done this with great love. Well done, Mr. Askins.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

In New York, the Royal Shakespeare Company creates space within a space

During the Lincoln Center Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company will perform from July 6 through August 14 in this custom-built theater space at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

Michael Boyd, RSC artistic director, led a tour of the Park Avenue Armory space, obviously keeping a weather eye on developments.

This year's Lincoln Center Festival in New York (July 5-August 14) contains a particularly exciting theater component - or perhaps it should be spelled theatre, in honor of the Royal Shakespeare Company's soaringly ambitious plans for a six-week residency. On June 30, news media were given a tour of the theater the RSC is building within the giant space of the Park Avenue Armory's main hall, where its five productions will be staged.

At a (donated) cost of $1 million, the RSC has recreated its playing space at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. The thrust stage is designed to create an intimate experience for the audience - an idea that aligns with what artistic director Michael Boyd has created in the past three years, keeping an ensemble of actors together to explore and grow through the Shakespearean canon. The New York performances will spell the end of their time together, he said.

"It is all about collaboration ... the ensemble is reflected in the auditorium. Theater is what happens in the space between me [an actor], the other actor and you the audience. Here, we hope to bring the delights of an audience aware of itself, which is something the cinema can never do," he said, adding that at Stratford, audience members often to wave during the breaks to folks on the other side of the theater and he hopes that will happen in New York, also.

As one who saw the RSC's King Lear with Greg Hicks last summer in Stratford, I can testify that the space has been reproduced quite faithfully, although head of construction Alan Bartlett told us that at 975 seats, there are 100 fewer than in Stratford, due to technical issues. Ingeniously, the stage has been built atop some of the 46 containers used to transport all the gear needed, with acoustic sails and drapes deployed to improve the sound in the 55,000-square-foot hall. For Lear, which I thought had a few too many directorial concepts, they'll need falling scenery, a rain shower on stage and flying light fixtures.

"It is ludicrously ambitious," said Boyd, when asked if the RSC had considered simply using an existing New York theater. The donation from the Wexner family - truly extraordinary in a time of economic constraint - made it possible. "Why did we do it? Because we could," said Boyd - and because "the audience will have a better time."

In addition to Lear, the RSC will also be staging As You Like It, The Winter's Tale (a play I have come to love after I saw it at Shakespeare's Globe theater in London), Julius Caesar (oddly, my favorite Shakespeare play when I was a teenager), and Romeo and Juliet.

The temporary theater will be called the Scarlet and Gray Theater, the colors of Ohio State University, which is supporting the RSC's residency and partnering with the Park Avenue Armory in education initiatives. (The 130-year-old armory has been transformed in recent years into a thrilling space for the arts.) They will bring young people from underserved communities in New York to experience Shakespeare and run workshops for teachers and teaching artists. Another program introduces Shakespeare to autistic students.

Having just graduated from New York University with a master's degree in educational theater, I can attest to the extraordinary effect of Shakespeare upon young people. It is truly life-changing. Just a taste:

-- In Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, elementary school children - as young as eight and nine - who are exposed to Shakespeare show incredible improvement in their writing over the course of a school year.

-- In my town of Mamaroneck, N.Y., just north of Manhattan, a beloved program at Mamaroneck High School is called The Semi-Royal Shakespeare Company (!) and stages two productions per school year. The director, Dee O'Brien, has been leading it for nearly three decades. From the viewpoint of an experienced theater critic, the shows are not just "good for high school;" they are good by any standard.

-- In an NYU course last year, our class worked with middle school and high school students on Shakespearean monologues. The passion and maturity of these students as they joyfully made discoveries in the text was inspiring.

Welcome, RSC. May New York treat you well and thanks for coming. 



Monday, June 13, 2011

Tony hits, Tony misses

Sunday evening, I played piano in a music school recital, but missed the second half to dash eagerly home for the opening of the Tony Awards broadcast ... only to be dismayed by an opening number that was swell and witty for the New York crowd but of questionable taste in an international broadcast meant to promote Broadway theater.

Declaring that theater is "not just for gays anymore" (hunh?) Neil Patrick Harris' number told us "there's no sodomy required" and had him parading through the auditorium pointing out the straight people. What did this opening number actually have to do with theater? Not much - and Brooke Shields should never be required to ad-lib anything, messing up her bits both in the auditorium and onstage.

Halfway through the show, what should have been the opening number arrived - a delightful "competitive" turn between Harris and Hugh Jackman about who was the better awards-show host, with witty musical references, a spot of dancing and overall sparkle from two men who are real stars.

Most of the awards went as predicted, with The Book of Mormon taking home prizes in the musical categories and War Horse in the play categories. What keeps award shows interesting, of course, are the upsets - John Larroquette from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Norbert Leo Butz in Catch Me If You Can beating out the Mormon contenders in their featured actor/lead actor categories.

Speaking of Catch Me (my favorite show this season by a long shot), it is a mystery to me why Aaron Tveit, who stars as con man Frank Abagnale, Jr., seems to be getting the shaft. They're saying the same thing about Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed, but Tveit has a stronger voice, excellent acting chops, compelling stage presence - and made a strong impression when he was in Next to Normal. What more does a guy need to do?

Winners thanked the usual grocery list of names, now including dressers. I so wish nominees would think of perhaps making a statement about their craft, what theater means to them, etc., with perhaps a blanket thank you or a few names. An intriguing exception to this was the protean Mark Rylance (best actor in a play for Jerusalem), who treated us to a stream-of-consciousness poetry ramble about walking through different kinds of walls (wood, steel, etc.), which I took to be a metaphor for how one perseveres in the difficult world of theater.

In the end, the question was asked, "What survives tonight?" And the answer: theater. Yes it does. 


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Godspell is for real

In my first flight as a producer -- $1,000 sunk into Ken Davenport's Broadway production of Godspell -- I could perhaps be forgiven for feeling a bit of skepticism. Yes, I'm as hopeful and starry-eyed as any actor who spots a casting director across a crowded room, but given my usual pessimism about investing (although I have had a few winners), I wondered if Godspell would actually appear.

The marquee!

Well, it ain't no burning bush (the tree seems to be unscathed), but something infinitely better, theater-wise -- the Broadway marquee at Circle in the Square on 50th Street.

 Godspell is a reality with actual dates attached. Previews are scheduled to begin on Thursday, Oct. 13th and opening night is Monday, November 7th. Tickets go on sale Monday, July 11th.

Ziegfeld, Merrick, Hammerstein -- let me in to that august company. I'm booking the table at Sardi's now.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The space that embraces Shakespeare

The new season has opened at Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London with Hamlet, As You Like It, All's Well that Ends Well and Much Ado About Nothing. This year, the Globe is also celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible - the work that, along with the plays of William Shakespeare - profoundly influenced English language and culture. And anything that affects language, of course, affects theater, as the Globe shows with the title of its season brochure: The Word Is God.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London

Last summer, I saw a spectacular production of the two parts of Henry IV, but my first encounter with the Globe was in 2005. Before curtain time (which really is a metaphorical phrase, as the proscenium stage was a later development), I walked around that miraculous building, a testament to one man's vision and mused as to how few could have predicted the meshing of man, vision and place. Sam Wanamaker worked steadily as an actor, director and producer in stage, films and television and once played Iago to Paul Robeson's Othello (no small change), but he wasn't Laurence Olivier or John Gielgud. Not only that, he was an American ... from Chicago ... son of a Jewish tailor with the family name of Watmacher. And he wanted to recreate Shakespeare's theater on the site where it once stood on the South Bank of London, now a bustling urban center. He began the project in 1970 and the theater was opened in 1997 - four years after his death. You go there now, it seems as if it's always been there.

On that first encounter, the play was The Winter's Tale. I hadn't read it in awhile, so I boned up on the plane and brought the text to the theater, since the performance was in daylight. A lifetime of theatergoing seemed to coalesce as the story of the jealous king Leontes and his wise wife Hermione began. The production was perfectly accessible, the acting engaging, the action clear, the words understandable.

I had the text open in my lap and at intermission, the man seated next to me asked me a question about the play's action. It was apparent he wasn't an experienced theatergoer and he said this was the first time he'd seen a Shakespeare play. "What do you think?" I asked. He looked around the theater a second - the thatched roof, the people in the balconies, the groundlings standing in front of the stage - then looked down at the stage. "It's very powerful, isn't it?" he answered.

Thank you, Sam. Thank you, unlikely dreamers, for letting two people sit in the air in their balcony seats 400 years later and be enthralled by the God-inspired words of William Shakespeare.         

Friday, May 20, 2011

When theater is an education

President Bill Clinton about to speak to New York University's commencement
Amidst New York University's 15,000 graduates yesterday at Yankee Stadium were several dozen candidates for bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in Educational Theater, a program of the university's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. I was one of them, now a newly-minted Master of Arts in Educational Theater.

A new master
The ceremony, held at a giant venue for the performance of baseball, featured as speaker a master of political theater - Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States. We wore special costumes: purple gowns of subtly varying styles, bearing different markings according to degree or honor; long Harry Potter-esque academic hoods with the color of our discipline (white for the arts), and the headgear: mortarboard and tassel.

This journalist, who has been writing about theater since the first college go-round at Barnard and Columbia, performed Shakespeare, directed actors, created wordless movement pieces and wrote scenes. But I also learned about theater as learning, both classic drama teaching (the kids put on a play) as well as something called process drama, an area completely new to me.

In process drama, the participants, through various exercises, create the story and move it along in dramatic terms. The teacher has a purpose in mind and guides the action. For instance, a class may become immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, each with a story to tell to the officials. At suggestions from the teacher, the characters may interact in various ways -- deciding whether to expose a poor stowaway, petitioning the ship captain for better treatment, choosing what few family treasures to take on the voyage to America. Living and breathing the story in this way gets it "into the bones," as I like to say, more emphatically than reading a text.

Educational theater transforms lives, as I wrote in an earlier blog post here about a theater project featuring seniors and children. In the course of my year and a-half at NYU, I witnessed one of many transformative experiences in a summer course in Ireland. A group of teenagers in Drogheda, north of Dublin, performed an original play about marauding British soldiers in the 18th century. They played it in and around a Martello tower, a stone fortification that was actually in use at the time the play's events took place. In a talkback afterward, the kids said that drama "was the best, innit?" because it "builds up your confidence." Ordinary kids, transformed.

I'm proud and excited to be working in this wonderful field.  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Where do you find a "normal heart?"

Larry Kramer's 1985 play, "The Normal Heart," now having its first Broadway production, has become both an elegy for the past and a kicking, screaming, yelling wake-up call for the future. It's an account of the beginning of the AIDS crisis from 1981 to 1984, when initially the new disease didn't even have a name. 

Kramer, a gay New York writer, railed at just about every institution - government, medical - that failed to take AIDS seriously because it "only" affected gay men, and at his own community for being fixated on promiscuous, sometimes dangerous, sex as a liberating lifestyle.

Co-directors George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey and designer David Rockwell have set the play within a white box set embossed with such key phrases as "Patient Zero" (the designation for one of the first known AIDS cases). Set elements such as desks and chairs are carried on and off, but the spare staging doesn't feel empty as the performances seem to fill up the room.

As Ned Weeks, Kramer's alter ego, Joe Mantello is a rumpled, wiry, intense presence, exasperated with the world's dysfunctions in general and afflicted with a bad case of only-I-can-see-the-truth. The kicker is, this is Kramer writing about himself, laying bare the lovely and not-so-lovely aspects of his own character. In the end, this is what prophets are like - impossible to deal with up close and essential for humanity's survival.

Looking back on that time, I remember nights in the incredibly decadent atmosphere of Studio 54, with its waiter boys in tight white satin shorts, socks and tennis shoes, and little else. Disco felt like sex on the dance floor, with the scent of poppers heating up the action. We were dancing on the rim of a cliff, in the innocent time before the plague.

This production won a Drama Desk award for ensemble acting and it was well-deserved. Ellen Barkin, playing another prophet, Dr. Emma Brookner (based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein), bites off her words as she desperately tries to figure out what is killing so many of her patients. Jim Parsons, of TV's "The Big Bang Theory" plays a character based on Rodger McFarlane, one of the founders of Gay Men's Health Crisis, the first organization to help people with AIDS. I knew Rodger - a fantastically tall (6' 7") sweet Southern man with a sharp sense of humor. He and I belonged to a choral group in the late 1970s. Then in 1981, I moved out of New York for a while, lost touch with him and noticed via a mailing that he'd become involved with GMHC.

One of the most affecting touches of this production is the use of video projection to list names of the dead on the walls of the set - just a few at first at the beginning of the epidemic. Then, at the end of the play, the names cover the set and walls of the theater. My seat mate, a man named Joseph Obermayer, who gave me permission to quote him, said there was a time during the epidemic that he just stopped having sex. "The Normal Heart" is still relevant, because "denial and fear" are still with us, he said.

After the play ended, with the names still on the walls, the audience filed out. Two men stood at their seats in the orchestra, contemplating the names. They were clearly together, but stood next to each other silently. There was only one word to describe their postures, their faces: reverent. They could have been in church. In a very real sense, they were.

Friday, May 6, 2011

"Bernard and Bosie"

I love it when a satisfying theatrical experience also tells me something fascinating that I didn't know.

That was the case last night at a reading of the play, Bernard and Bosie: A Most Unlikely Friendship, at the Episcopal Actors' Guild hall, which is part of New York's "theater church," The Little Church Around the Corner, more properly known as the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration.

The play, by Anthony Wynn, is a dramatization of a series of letters between George Bernard Shaw and "Bosie," and if that name means anything to you at all, you recall he was Lord Alfred Douglas, the young man who had a relationship with Oscar Wilde in the 1890s. Douglas' father, in writing, accused Wilde of being homosexual; Wilde sued for libel, lost the case and was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor.

Anthony Newfield and Paxton Whitehead in "Bernard and Bosie"

"Bosie" Douglas
Directed by Elowyn Castle, president of the Guild, the performance featured two masters of the craft, Anthony Newfield (recently seen on Broadway in The Royal Family) as Bosie and Paxton Whitehead (currently on Broadway as Canon Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest) as Shaw.

The letters begin in 1931, when Bosie is in his 60s and Shaw in his late 70s. The most famous photos of Shaw show him with white hair and a full beard, but Bosie, in the popular imagination, always seems to be the beautiful youth stuck in time. How revealing to hear him as an older man, a bit pouty and querulous, but deeply devoted to Roman Catholicism and to poetry.

Yes - poetry. Douglas was a remarkable poet - another revelation. Here are some of his extraordinary images: "Love that weaves the years on time's slow loom" ... "The hunter's cry wounds the deep darkness" ... "To clutch life's hair, and thrust one naked phrase/Like a lean knife through the ribs of time." After I read that last one, I almost had to walk about the room a little to calm down.

George Bernard Shaw
Shaw, in the letters, is the writer we know from his plays -- irascible, brilliantly witty, sharply observant -- but also kind and almost a father-figure to Bosie. He lends Bosie money, spars with him about religion, gives him advice about his writing -- but never tells him to get lost. Douglas clearly had a great deal of charm and Shaw regards him with much affection, although the two often spare no words when they get cross with each other. 

Wynn has edited the letters beautifully and in the hands of two wonderful actors, the play is enthralling. The time period spans 13 years and the most affecting aspect of the work is how the two men, in the comfort of their "unlikely friendship," face old age and impending death.

As a theatergoer and writer of many years, I feel as if I already knew Bernard Shaw; I was glad to make the acquaintance of Bosie Douglas.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Catch this one if you possibly can

The Tony noms are out and theater people are eagerly picking them apart to see who gets a chance to triumph in five weeks' time or who wuz robbed. The nominees can bask in their glory, but my "wuz robbed" candidate - and I mention it here to urge folks to go see it - is Catch Me If You Can, which should have had more nominations than four, although Best Musical is among them.

Aaron Tveit and the ensemble hoofin' it in Catch Me If You Can

I was much more delighted by this show than the frat-boy humor in Book of Mormon, which I abbreviate as BM since that's about the level it's at. But BM is a sensation, overshadowing other shows by comparison.   

Nevertheless, Catch Me show has it all - stylish concept beautifully executed, engaging choreography, gorgeous leggy chorus girls for the straight men, a shirtless young hunk for the women and gay men, super-hummable tunes, top-of-the-line Broadway creativity everywhere you turn, excellent acting and singing - and the most important thing, a well-told story. Every scene advances the story, which is, basically, a boy looking for a family he can trust. The story also has, surprise, surprise, a moral spine. The device of FBI agent Carl Hanratty every so often "stopping" the show - and the two protagonists debating as to whose show it actually is - is not only brilliant theater, but a reminder that Frank Abagnale Jr.'s clever "fun" involved ripping off other human beings.
The scene between Hanratty and Abagnale, Sr. is absolutely brilliant, subtly morphing from a cop questioning a suspect's father to two men acknowledging how they have been damaged by *their* fathers. And how lovely to have it all wrap up with Hanratty being the upstanding father figure the boy was really seeking.
Aaron Tveit - whom I saw in "Next to Normal" - is a terrific young Broadway star. PLEASE don't go to the movies, Aaron! Kerry Butler - brilliant - too bad she only has one song, but she gives it her all. Love her character's quirks too; she's a real person, not a simpy little ingenue. Tom Wopat and Rachel deBenedet play parents who con themselves and their son, blowing family life apart.
This show deserves more standing ovations.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Stroman on theater flying: "a pain in the ass"

Yesterday afternoon, an open conversation with five-time-Tony winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman turned to the problems Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was having with flying, the term for suspending and moving actors or dancers above the stage or audience. When she attended the show a few months ago, she said, the actor playing the Green Goblin was left hanging about five feet in front of her and unable to move due to a technical malfunction. "We looked at each other," she said and mimed an eloquent shrug - to which the actor also shrugged, as if to say, "Whaddya gonna do?"

  Stephen DiMenna interviews Susan Stroman

I'd seen a marvelous flying sequence in American Idiot and it occured to me that flying isn't much part of Stroman's esthetic (although I haven't seen all her shows, of course) so I asked about it during question period. She responded that there had been a flying sequence in one of her shows, a production of A Christmas Carol, and it was "a pain in the ass." In another show, The Frogs, at Lincoln Center, there was a moment of bungee jumping, she recalled. Then she made some very valid artistic points. For one thing, a bungee jump can only go up and down and that's pretty much it. For another, she feels, the bungee jumping or the flying is rather like the exclamation point on the movement - an end rather than a beginning.      

The conversation at the Snapple Theater Center in New York was one of the Theatre Development Fund"s Drama Dialogues. Delightfully steered by interviewer Stephen DiMenna, a director and teacher in his own right, an audience of about 200 enjoyed Stroman's stories of such hits as The Producers, The Scottsboro Boys, The Music Man, Oklahoma! and my personal favorite, Contact.  

Stroman is one of those people who exudes joy in being a theater creator (look at the photo!) and the audience of savvy New York theatergoers and participants expressed it with her. I particularly loved the little ah's and murmurs of recognition at the mention of a particular show or a story of working with Mel Brooks or John Kander.

Some news tidbits: The Scottsboro Boys, which had an all-too-short life on Broadway, will live regionally, with productions scheduled for the Old Globe in San Diego, ACT in San Francisco and one in Seattle. A cast album is also in the works. There is talk of Contact becoming a film, but Stroman noted that making a film takes one away from the theater for a year and a-half, so film projects are "not something I'm pursuing." (Applause almost broke out when she said that.) Stroman would love to direct a straight play (as opposed to a musical). Hello, producers?