Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Timon of Wall Street

In London for a week-long pre-Olympic sojourn, I caught the first preview of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at the National Theatre and thought the production, directed by the National's chief executive, Nicholas Hytner, was quite brilliant.

Simon Russell Beale
Simon Russell Beale plays the title character in this strange and modern tale, a collaboration between Shakespeare and playwright Thomas Middleton.

The scene, in the National's cavernous Olivier theatre, opens upon a scattered tent encampment and a few young people hanging about, reminiscent of the Occupy movements, especially the one that sprang up around St. Paul's Cathedral for a few months.

Designer Tim Hatley's wondrous set begins with a gray wall across center stage, two doorways, a huge painting of Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple and projected letters reading "The Timon Room."

Timon, a wealthy patron of the arts, is enjoying the adulation of the cocktail party crowd, who seem to turn like a shoal of fish whenever he comes into view. Everyone's jockeying for this tycoon's favor - a painter who wants to give him a painting, an author who has a new book, etc., and for good reason. Timon really is generous to a fault, lavishing money beyond reason on his friends.

At a subsequent dinner party at his house (the painting has disappeared and in its frame, dancers entertain the guests on Timon's invitation), he rejoices in his life. However, it seemed that through Hytner's blocking and Bruno Poet's lighting design, Timon often seemed alone. Beale, a roundish man, exudes geniality and good humor with a little desperation behind it. He seems to have his values straight as he toasts his guests: "I am wealthy in my friends." But the local philosopher, Apemantus (the forceful Hilton McRae) scorns the whole scene.

Timon's loyal steward, Flavia (Deborah Findley) tries to get him to rein in his spending, but to no avail. Her master seems addicted to the attention his money brings him. When it runs out (the giant set window now shows a view of London's financial center from the Lucullan Capital office), Timon's friends are terribly, terribly sorry, but it's just a bad time ... they have other priorities ... they just can't help, so sorry.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters march between a couple of scenes and in Act II, Timon is among them, homeless, shabby and pushing a shopping cart through cement pillars crowned by rebar, possibly a bridge construction site. He finds a mysterious cache of gold under an iron door in the street, but the Occupy protestors are no more noble than his friends, corrupted by the gold coins he flings among them.

"I am sick of this false world," cries Timon as Christopher Shutt's subtle sound design layers faint eerie metallic sounds under the scenes under the bridge. Timon rails against mankind and dies -- offstage. It's not an easy play but Hytner has made the most of it and the first preview certainly didn't seem like any kinks were being worked out and got rousing applause.

The last production of this play I saw was about six or seven years ago at the Stratford Festival in Canada with the late Peter Donaldson in the title role and he was just riveting. Beale, a highly experienced Shakespearean actor, for me was most convincing in the early scenes but both he and Findlay tended to declaim and my mind wandered sometimes. Bernard Hopkins, who played the steward in Stratford, made him a poignant loyal servant with a heart, but Findley seems like she's just nagging and exasperated. (It's written as a male role, but I like the significant use of middle-aged female actors in this production.)

Among Timon's friends, Nick Sampson as a egotistical poet, Penny Layden as a painter, Jo Dockery as a jeweller and Ciaran McMenamin as an actor, Paul Bentall as Lucullus and Tom Robertson as Ventidius (a drawling, amusing portrait) all stood out.

Besides the scenic design, Hatley and Hytner made the most use of the Olivier's turntable, with the two dinner party scenes gliding on and off to beautiful effect. Poet's lighting design made use of a fair bit of side lighting, throwing long shadows, which I didn't really care for, but his lighting of the gold hoard in the ground that Timon finds was extraordinary.

Although Timon ends on an ambiguous note, leading some to think the play was not finished, and its text doesn't reach the poetic heights of the great plays, it proves once again that Shakespeare wrote for all time.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Geniuses of rock and roll

As I left Mamaroneck's Emelin Theatre after Smokey Joe's Cafe, a revue of songs by rock and roll pioneers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, I had to check my right ankle to see if it was significantly more muscular than the left, as I had been vigorously tapping my foot for two hours.

The show, which ran for five years after premiering on Broadway in 1995, showcases the amazing depth and range of this songwriting and record producing team whose collaboration began in 1950 when they were both 17 and ended with Lieber's death in 2011.

The audience was mostly north of age forty, but that's to be expected when Lieber and Stoller's greatest hits mostly came in the 1950s and 60s. Any list has to start with such classics as "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy," "Charlie Brown," "Stand by Me," "Jailhouse Rock," "Love Potion No. 9," "On Broadway," "Spanish Harlem," "There Goes My Baby." Elvis alone recorded 20 of their songs.

An engaging nine-member cast put across about 40 of the duo's songs with class and sizzling choreography by director Kenney M. Green in a production by Westchester Sandbox Theatre, subject of this blog post from a couple of weeks ago. Kevin Rees' set in blue and beige featured two staircases flanking open-side boxes for the band and sliding panels to create different spaces.

It's the first time that the Sandbox, which operates out of a 100-seat storefront venue nearby, has partnered with the 285-seat Emelin, Mamaroneck's main live theater venue, which ironically hasn't produced much theater since its play season collapsed about four years ago with the departure of an artistic director. Since then, the Emelin has presented music and dance performances and rented its space for school performances. Later this month, however, it will present several performances by the Missoula Children's Theater.

For Smokey Joe, Green has assembled nine pros -- Steven Charles, Kate Cherichello, Paula Galloway, Brandon Lavon Hightower, Keva Moolenaar, Jennifer Pace, Steven C. Rich, Derrian Tolden and Randy Taylor -- but without cast photos in the program or a listing of songs and who was singing them, it was impossible to tell who was whom.

However, further Internet research, which I hope is accurate, turned up some clues. Green used the actor/singers in various combinations, but seemed most inspired in Motown-style choreography and staging with the quartet of African-American actors Steven Charles, Brandon Lavon Hightower, Steven C. Rich and Derrian Tolden. They do fine work, but it seemed to unbalance the show a little when other actors didn't get such interesting movements.

Of the women, I thought Keva Moolenaar and Paula Galloway had the strongest voices, with Galloway doing a Jennifer Hudson-like emotional belt on "Brand New Fool." However, Green overloads the emotion toward the end of the show with this number and Tolden going too far over the top with "I Who Have Nothing." Tolden provides a nice comic focus on a couple of songs, most effectively on "D.W. Washburn" and "Treat Me Nice."

For this viewer, it was a revelation to realize that Lieber and Stoller also wrote cabaret songs that were as good as anything Kurt Weill turned out. Jennifer Pace, whom I thought was best doing intimate songs rather than belting, got my attention with "Pearl's A Singer." Moolenaar vamped a feather boa and a chair doing a surprisingly modern "Don Juan," where the refrain goes "your money's gone," and the sexy "Some Cats Know," a ballad about taking it slow in intimate moments.

Randy Taylor energetically led "Jailhouse Rock," but that song and "Hound Dog" (sung with the original lyrics), indelibly linked with Elvis, weren't given enough of an original spin and wouldn't compete with anyone's memory of the King.

Steven C. Rich tossed a very amusing tantrum on "There Goes My Baby," with three-fourths of the quartet backing him. Steven Charles seemed smoothly to channel Nat King Cole (in my book, a huge compliment) on "Loving You." The ensemble finale fittingly brought the show to a satisfying close with a rousing "Stand by Me."

Adam Tilford was listed as musical director and conductor, so I assume that was him conducting from behind the keyboard and keeping an excellent five-piece band on track, but the musicians were not identified in the program. Green could have called upon the band to provide graceful musical segues for a couple of awkward silent scene changes.

Westchester Sandbox's artistic director, Dan Ferrante, in a conversation at intermission, mentioned some of the technical challenges the company was working through at the Emelin and from the viewpoint of an audience member, sound quality is a big one.

The sound system seemed to lend a coarse quality to the voices sometimes, basically failing at the essential function of a sound system - showcasing the voices on stage like a diamond setting. I would also think sound designer Howard Fredrics will be working further on balancing volume levels, as the instruments often overwhelmed the voices.

Carla Linton's lighting design was a tad too frenetic during "On Broadway" and it seemed that a couple of cues were missed, leaving performers momentarily in shadows, but overall, it successfully reflected the songs' various moods.

There is a huge amount of potential for Westchester Sandbox and the Emelin and I hope both continue to explore it. What a joy it would be to welcome back plays and musicals on a consistent basis to Mamaroneck's local theater. Westchester Sandbox, which produces theater by and for young people as well as adults, has a stream of productions, an energetic and sharp artistic director and a vision.

Smokey Joe's Cafe had the audience clapping and cheering - and if there had been a dance floor, they wouldn't have been sitting.