Category Archives: Theater

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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Respect for acting

Hilary Howard reports on the precarious state of independent acting conservatories in New York. To stay afloat, many have partnered with universities (at the cost of higher fees for their students). The Knickerbocker’s showcase is now online (which makes sense, because aspiring actors are gravitating to classes in auditioning and on-camera work and skipping classes in craft). Rents for Chelsea venues are climbing. At Stanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse,

“We are all afraid of the roof caving in,” said Ms. [Pamela] Moller Kareman, who had to pay $20,000 to fix the building’s out-of-commission elevator when she was first hired. “The elevator guys said we don’t even have parts for this anymore,” she recalled.

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Top Girls

Keegan Theatre delivers a solid production of this story of the accomplished businesswoman Marlene (Karina Hilleard), recently promoted to managing director of her employment agency, who may be having second thoughts about the sacrifices she has made to ensure her success. The trippy opening scene, a dinner party to which Marlene has invited five women from history and legend, crackles with energy, a mashup of the real and the imagined.

The core drama, set in early Thatcherite Britain, hasn’t lost any of its bite in today’s world of grabby reality show hosts, underserved people in need, and open secrets. Caroline Dubberly is a standout as Angie, a special needs young girl who’ll likely never finish high school, but who understands things that none of the adults in her life ever will.

  • Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Amber Paige McGinnis, Keegan Theatre, Washington
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The Pajama Game

The standouts in this frothy entertainment are old school Eddie Korbich as Hines, the officious time and motion man, and Prez, played with gawky grace by Blakely Slaybaugh. Korbich gets his taps on for “Think of the Time I Save” and takes a turn with Broadway éminence Donna McKechnie in “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again”—two dance breaks that aren’t frequently seen. Slaybaugh gives us a comically acrobatic “Her Is.”

Which is to say that the choreography by Parker Esse and its execution are top notch: we loved the tape measures as streamers and hula hoops for “Once a Year Day.”

  • The Pajama Game, music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, directed by Alan Paul, Arena Stage Fichandler Stage, Washington
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Our Town

Aaron Posner’s production of Our Town relaxes some of the strictures of its traditional presentation, without losing the spirit of Wilder’s play. Instead of a pair of ladders, there are set pieces for the Gibbs and Webb houses, facing one another in a galley configuration. There is the same direct address, perhaps all the more effective because we are watching the other half of the audience, as well as the play.

The town of Grover’s Corners has grown more ethnically diverse than it was in Wilder’s time. Lest we miss the point, the Stage Manager (archly played by Jon Hudson Odom) takes a knee for the passage that honors New Hampshire’s Civil War dead.

Perhaps the most effective departure is the use of half-size bunraku-influenced puppets (designed by Aaron Cromie) to portray the dozen of so minor characters. At the top of Act 3, the cast brings each puppet on, cradled in their arms—a most moving stage picture.

Todd Scofield gives us an appropriately bemused Mr. Webb. Megan Anderson’s Mrs. Gibbs is a tidy package of charm and practicality; Anderson’s plummy Prof. Willard is delightful.

  • Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, directed by Aaron Posner, Olney Theatre Center, Olney, Md.
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Some links: 78

A short roundup of theater links, as I clean out my Instapaper queue:

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Love and Information

enigmatic
70 possible short scenes, merely text, no characters, no given situations
love
memory palace
missing information
the impossibility of describing the sensation of fear, of plain, of longing
shotgun DNA sequencing
love and remembrance
cocktails and [illegible]
interrogation and torture
opening scene: Alice shares a secret with Bob, but we never get to hear it
house configured galley style, watching other audience members
Palestine
half a line, fishermen in slickers, a phone call to a Las Vegas showgirl
specimens
information exchange
ensemble of fourteen
strong work

  • Love and Information, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Michael Dove, Forum Theatre, Silver Spring, Md.
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In the Heights

In the Heights is a richly-textured soundscape and dancescape of immigrant life in New York’s Washington Heights in the early years of this century. From the broad strokes of redevelopment pressures to the fine details of transit (“There’s no 9 train now”), the rendering is vivid and precise. Miranda and Hudes skillfully advance character and plot within a big set piece like “The Club”/”Blackout” in short, economical phrases.

The text is brought to marvelous life by director/choreographer Marcos Santana. For the most part, the downstage thrust area is kept open; Milagros Ponce de León’s set pieces can be pulled on wagons to bring us into the interior of Usnavi’s bodega, or Daniela’s hair salon, or Kevin and Camila’s car service office.

Although the young people’s hopes and dreams drive most of the story, I was particularly smitten by Danny Bolero’s “Inútil,” a song of mature longing in which he sings of the frustrations of being his father’s son and of not being able to do well enough for his family. And the Piragua Guy’s (Tobias A. Young) interludes are a pleasant mood-relaxer.

The offstage band sounded somewhat disembodied, and at Sunday’s show, some of the mic cues could have been executed later rather than sooner.

  • In the Heights, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, directed by Marcos Santana, Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre, Olney, Md.
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The Arsonists

Woolly Mammoth takes a bold step… into the past, with its mounting of a play from the mid-20th century. The Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s fable, first presented in 1958 (as Biedermann und die Brandstifter) and in a new translation by Alistair Beaton, is a cry against middle-class complacency when confronted with looming evil. It’s not a particularly subtle work, with a narrative arc that angles straight down. There are Brechtian touches of distancing. Bits of dialogue are repeated, and the language can be rather stilted–cut across with fourth wall-breaking direct addresses to the audience.

Businessman George Betterman (Howard Shalwitz, dusting off his nebbishy) is visited (or invaded?) in his living room by Joe Smith, a down-and-outer, played by Tim Getman. Getman (skinheaded and bushy-bearded) does some strong work here, riding a line of simmering threat and emotional blackmail. Betterman (a bit of a sketchy dealer himself, truth be told) invites Joe under his roof, probably against his better judgement. There is a suspicion, at first just a soupçon, that Joe has something to do with the rash of arson fires that have plagued Betterman’s city. Betterman wants to show compassion, to engage with Joe. But Joe just ramps up the stakes, first bringing his friend Billie Irons (Kimberly Gilbert, all sweetness and sand) into the house without asking, and then rolling in some very ominous looking storage drums. There’s no guile to Joe and Billie: every time they’re asked, they tell you what they’re doing at that particular moment.

The question that Frisch poses to us (nay, flings at us) is simply: at what point do you say no to Joe and Billie? When Joe first walks in the door? When they are asked what’s in the drums, and they flatly reply, “Gasoline”? When, at the play’s culmination, they ask Betterman for a mundane favor that is the key to the final conflagration?

The play’s strength is its weakness. We can read so many different conflicts into it, from freedom fighters vs. fascists of all stripes, to narcissist national leaders who escalate pissing contests into nuclear exchanges.

  • The Arsonists, by Max Frisch, in a new translation by Alistair Beaton, directed by Michael John Garcés, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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My name is…

Wolf Trap Opera company offers some guidance to Studio Artist applicants about preparing a one-minute spoken monologue.

… when we briefly remove the vocal [i.e., musical] component, we sometimes have a chance to learn a bit more about the actor in front of us.

One quibble: what’s missing from this list of playwrights?

If you go with a play, you can’t go wrong with the modern master playwrights: Mamet, O’Neill, Labute, Miller, Williams, Shepard, Albee, Wilson, Kushner…

… Wasserstein, Parks, Nottage, Ruhl, Vogel, Hellman, …

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99

Alex Vadukul visits the 13th Street Repertory Company, an Off Off Broadway venue in Greenwich Village from way back: equal parts Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the old barn and You Can’t Take It with You:

… a man who was homeless before Ms. [Edith] O’Hara offered him a crawl space above the lighting booth. That man, Tom Harlan, 60, sat barefoot in the theater’s dimly lit office recently. “She took me in,” he said….

After Mr. Harlan moved in, Ms. O’Hara discovered he was artistically gifted, and she made him her resident costume and set designer.

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Cabinet

Studio 360 listens while soprano Lily Arbisser calls cues for the Met Opera’s titles operator.

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Marvin’s Room

This wistful drama with comedy from 1990 gets its first Broadway run, powered by a name-brand cast. The technical means afforded by the American Airlines Theatre make for smooth scene changes (and there are a lot of them); the revolve makes sense here. The cast is gently amplified. Nevertheless, this is a play that wants to be in a smaller house.

Celia Weston is a good sport in playing Ruth, a character who largely serves to provide comedy in the form of euphemisms for constipation and an improbable remote control device.

It soon becomes clear that the important, interesting story arc is the relationship between Bessie (never flashy, always on task Lili Taylor) and Hank (Jack DiFalco). Their quiet one-on-one scenes, well directed by Anne Kauffman, take the time that they need. (But at times, we wish that Hank’s volume to be pumped up a bit.)

  • Marvin’s Room, by Scott McPherson, directed by Anne Kauffman, produced by Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre, New York
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