Category Archives: Theater

A mystery: 13

Our American Cousin, by Tom Taylor, Act II, Scene 2:

Enter, from R. 2 E., SIR E., MRS. M., … two servants in livery, carrying tray and glasses, a wine basket containing four bottles to represent champagne, knife to cut strings, some powerful acid in one bottle for ASA—pop sure. (p. 31, Samuel French ed.)

What in Fox’s name is meant by pop sure? And, unless I missed something, that bottle of acid is never used.

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Fifth member of the quartet

The role of sound design in professional live theater, a podcast episode produced by James Introcaso.

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Underground Railroad Game

This play is not the first to treat its audience like children, but it is perhaps the first to do so literally, when the house lights come up and the house is addressed as a fifth-grade class beginning a teaching unit on the American Civil War.

Shallow, lacking nuance, weakly manipulative, and not nearly as shocking as it wants to be, the piece is not without its good moments.

  • Underground Railroad Game, by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard with Lightning Rod Special, directed by Taibi Magar, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Broadsides

An NEH grant will enable the digitization of an archive of 19th-century playbills in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

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Angular

Cecil Taylor’s passing reminds me of my favorite passage from Craig Lucas, from scene 2 of Blue Window. It’s a good thing that I have a printed copy to refer to, because my recollection of the dialogue, from a production I saw 22 years ago, is faulty.

At a small gathering/party of friends, Tom has put a recording of Cecil Taylor on the sound system.

TOM. But I don’t know if you can hear it, but I mean, he’s literally rethinking what you can do with melody. He’s changing all the rules from the ground up.

* * *

TOM. Like a painter. He’s breaking it up, you know, and putting some parts of it in front of where they belong and he’s splitting up tonalities and colors, shapes —
ALICE. Splitting up did you say?
TOM. Splitting.
ALICE. No, I know, I was…
TOM. He’s literally challenging you to hear it, you know, rehear it. What is music?
GRIEVER. No, I know, but this isn’t like a famous melody? Or –?
TOM. Why not?
GRIEVER. I mean it isn’t like “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” backwards or something.
TOM. No…

For some reason I always want to remember that as “‘Mairzy Doats’ upside down and backwards.”

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The Pavilion

The Hub’s simple staging well serves Craig Wright’s wistful, spiritual three-hander, using a single movable set piece (a bench attached to pair of dock railings) to achieve some variety and levels. Helen R. Murray’s Kari shows some flintiness; but she takes her time with Kari’s tender, giddy closing monologue (“Do you remember that day in the spring of junior year…?”) and the result is masterful. Nora Achrati is called upon to embody a gaggle of different Pine City, Minnesota denizens, and she does a good job with the more naive characters like Pudge and Lisa, but she lacks the gravel and venom that Carla needs. Her second act opening monologue is quite thoughtful and fine.

Director Kelsey Mesa has chosen to present the show without the scripted intermission, blunting the force of Kari’s explosive first act closer.

  • The Pavilion, by Craig Wright, directed by Kelsey Mesa, the Hub Theatre, Fairfax, Va.

Deep shadows cast by the house lights make this black box performance space a bit too literal.

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Familiar

Danai Gurira’s engaging drama takes a new angle on the ever-intriguing clash of cultures. In this play, Donald (avuncular Kim Sullivan) and Marvelous (stick-straight Inga Ballard), émigrés from Zimbabwe and now naturalized American citizens living in Minnesota, are preparing for the marriage of their older daughter Tendi to Chris, an evangelical Christian. When Tendi and her sister Nyasha seek to introduce African cultural elements into a conventional Protestant ceremony, sparks fly. The sparks catch fire at the arrival of the young women’s aunt Anne (force of nature Cheryl Lynn Bruce). Everyone in this tangle is working from a base of good intentions, and yet feelings get smashed and promises broken.

The end of the first act is forced, depending as it does on unrealistic behavior on the part of Nyasha (flexible company member Shannon Dorsey) and some too-fast thinking by Chris’s best man and brother, dim bulb Brad (Andy Truschinski). However, it does set up a winning comic scene between the two at the top of the second act.

The characters’ speech rhythms are quite interesting, from Marvelous’ triple “Anyway, anyway, anyway” as a means to blow off frustration (repeated by her daughter later in the play) to Anne’s grunts and an expression of dismay, a bit of Shona that sounds like “my way.”

  • Familiar, by Danai Gurira, directed by Adam Immerwahr, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Bisha TV

Confronting a repressive regime, with satirical puppets.

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Deck

Washington’s National Theatre may have converted its rigging system from hemp ropes and sandbags to lines and counterweights, but there remain a few houses (and eight of them on Broadway) that use the nautical system, as Lisa Lacroce Patterson reports.

While hemp houses have deep stages, they cannot hang as many set pieces as theatres with modern counterweight systems because, since the bulky sandbags require a lot more space, those theatres have fewer “line sets” from which to hang. A counterweight system might have a line set every 6 to 8 inches, but a sandbag system requires more than double the amount of space between rope sets. At the State [Theatre New Brunswick, New Jersey], if a tour comes in with four or more 53-foot trucks, often less than half of the scenery can make it onto the stage because of the limited number of line sets.

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The Humans

The Humans is a routine family comedy/drama, built around the familiar tropes of a Thanksgiving dinner and a new, sketchy apartment in New York. An early telephone call, made by Aimee (Therese Plaehn), to provide some key exposition, is both well crafted and well executed.

  • The Humans, by Stephen Karam, directed by Joe Mantello, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Washington
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The Skin of Our Teeth

Constellation Theatre Company’s production of this quirky mid-century piece demonstrates that it’s still relevant, and that’s to the credit of the performances (like Tonya Beckman’s shape-shifting Sabina) as well as the writing. Consider the passage in the second act where Sabina’s actor breaks character (in a maneuver that prefigures Lanford Wilson’s Book of Days) and refuses to play a scene as “written,”

Because there are some lines in that scene that would hurt some people’s feelings and I don’t think the theatre is a place where people’s feelings ought to be hurt.

(Mr. President, your tickets will be available at will call.)

The production has tweaked a few of the lines (Sabina’s “understudy” been sent to Peet’s for a latte), but Beckman’s natural delivery of Wilder’s scripted lines makes them sound like 21st-century improvisations.

The despair in Beckman’s reading of “Oh, the world’s an awful place, and you know it is. I used to think something could be done about it; but I know better now.” is monumental.

Steven Carpenter’s hale and hearty George Antrobus has a radio-friendly baritone; Lolita Marie gives us an earthy Maggie Antrobus; and Ben Lauer’s honking mammoth is adorable.

The ambitious set design entailed a rather complicated changeover into Act 2 on this Saturday matinee.

  • The Skin of Our Teeth, by Thornton Wilder, directed by Mary Hall Surface, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington
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Upcoming: 49

The matrix of judging assignments for 2018 WATCH has been released. I’ll be visiting a member company that’s new to me. And doing a lot of driving.

  • Johnston, House
  • Sondheim, Assassins
  • Morgan, The Audience
  • Menken, Ashman, and Rice, Beauty and the Beast
  • Mamet, American Buffalo
  • Simon, California Suite
  • Morey/Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Lerner and Loewe, Brigadoon

Plus two ever-popular TBDs.

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Alone/Together

A meditation from ten years ago, in honor of our anniversary.

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Suddenly

Suddenly is a captivating dramatization of a suite of short stories (cryptic little tales, more precisely) by Edgar Keret, employing puppets, live video, and actors. Here, the puppets and scenery are scaled to the frame of a video lens: a ten-inch-long pair of legs, trudging through a streetscape of castoff, broken bits of frames and shutters, becomes the lonely man Miron walking down a shabby street. The moving video lens manipulates point of view. There is the the touching story of a dog named Tuvia, a puppet constructed from scraps of fabric. When Tuvia is abandoned on a street corner, we watch the dog recede from view as the camera walks away. The camera leverages perspective: a two-shot of the feet of a live actor and those of puppet Miron line up perfectly. In the piece’s most intriguing breakdown of narrative frames, the dog Tuvia chews on the cameraman’s cables and runs roughshod over the set for Miron’s meeting in a coffee shop. Narrator and listener exchange places multiple times over the course of the stories.

The philosophy of the piece is that it is more difficult, but more valuable, to make something out of something (not out of nothing). For indeed, in doing so, you learn that the something was there all along.

  • Suddenly, based on stories by Etgar Keret, adapted by Zvi Sahar and Oded Littman, The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, directed by Zvi Sahar, PuppetCinema, Clarice Center Kogod Theater, College Park, Md.
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Scalable

Lauren Gunderson on the most durable social media outlet: live storytelling.

Theater is not on demand. Rather it asks you to show up on time and focus in order to experience the intimate intensity of its medium.

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