- My first show to judge for WATCH this year will be The Lion in Winter, followed by Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure.
Anderson, Heart of a Dog
“When L died, our teacher said, Every time you think of her, give something away, or, do something kind. And I said, Then I’d be giving things away non-stop. And he said, So?”
Category Archives: Theater
Perhaps the most frightening element is the lampshade that catches fire every night: props and animal wrangling on the set of The Ferryman.
Kenneth Lonergan accomplishes a feat of mimesis with his text for Gladys (the masterful Elaine May), who manages a genteelly unsuccessful art gallery on New York’s Waverly Place and who is gradually succumbing to dementia. It’s a work that calls for virtuosic concentration on the part of May and her scene partners, with her false starts, repetitions, wanderings into her receding memories, and numberless offers to feed the family dog.
The narrative drive of the play, such as it is, is provided by Don (the effective Michael Cera), a young painter from the Boston suburbs, equally unsuccessful, whom Gladys befriends and offers to represent.
As Gladys slips deeper into her shadow world, her verbal improvisations become more transparent (even to her, perhaps): passing a platter of cheese at Don’s gallery opening, she offers, “Would you like some— —of this?” When Don must return to Boston for a few days, Gladys mercurially rejects him, calling him “sneaky.” This is good stuff, grounded in reality. (So much so that I began to suspect that Lonergan had been in attendance during a few choice interactions that I have personally been party to.)
Unfortunately, the play’s structure is marred by direct address narration by Gladys’s grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges), who fills in some of the events between scenes. While Hedges is perfectly fine in his scenes with Gladys and family, his flat line readings during the fourth wall-breaking passages leads us to the conclusion that the play would be better without them.
Joan Allen as Ellen, Daniel’s mother and Gladys’s daughter, has some good moments, starting the play at a 3 of rattled by Gladys and gradually building to an 8 of frantic as she becomes unmanageable.
The play calls for four playing spaces, three of them realized in quite realistic detail by David Zinn and his team. When the art gallery was hung with Don’s paintings, I was a bit puzzled: what we see on stage, albeit quite personal and figurative, is quite skillful. Wasn’t it the point that Don is a self-deluded bad painter? Similarly, the ground plan led to some less than smooth blocking choices.
This play is a thoughtful story of loss, with some good comic bits (the schtick with adjusting a hearing aid is well timed, and not overdone) and a standout performance by May. But too much tell without show says that it would work better in a different medium.
- The Waverly Gallery, by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Lila Neugebauer, Golden Theatre, New York
Timothy Semon, stage manager for the current production of Network, is onstage in a glass box.
- Goldman, The Lion in Winter
- Dietz, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure
- Levin, Deathtrap
- Ludwig, A Fox on the Fairway
- Jones, Hope, and Wooten, Southern Hospitality
- Andersson and Ulvaeus, Mamma Mia!
Woolly’s partnership with The Second City again disappoints. From the opening sketch, presenting white privilege as a board game, She the People is preachy (hey, the choir’s out here) and only intermittently funny. A talk show segment, spiced with a bit of improv; a business meeting led by an executive in an outlandish T. Rex suit; and Maggie Wilder’s “I’m quirky” girl-child bit (one of the few pieces that doesn’t directly rail against the patriarchy) are the high points.
- She the People, directed by Carly Heffernan, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the Second City, Washington
Eric Rosen directs an effective production of Paula Vogel’s confidently theatrical, ensemble-driven meta-play, telling us the story of Sholem Asch’s play The God of Vengeance, from its early productions in Yiddish-speaking Europe after the turn of the century to its suppressed Broadway production of 1923. Vogel’s script finds a way to feed us the key snippets of Asch’s play, while keeping the action skipping along. In the cast, Ethan Watermeier stands out, having drawn most of the cards for playing heavies: an Irish policeman assigned to close down the production, a rabbi speaking against the “indecent” material of the play. A scene of the play’s production in a 1943 Warsaw ghetto, using found space and all the actors wearing Jewish stars, is particularly powerful, a testament to the resilience of art in the face of repression.
- Indecent, by Paula Vogel, directed by Eric Rosen, Arena Stage Kreeger Theater, Washington
All theater-themed links today!
- Mike Nussbaum, “reportedly the oldest working stage actor in America,” talks to Scott Simon.
- Mark Liberman speculates about the origins of the signature phrase from Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, “I’m here to be told.”
- David Kortava watches fight choreographer B. H. Barry design a brawl for the Met’s Faniculla del West.
His principal concern, though, was that the scene’s most stirring moment, in which an actor leaps from a balcony, occurs too early in the sequence. “Rudolf Nureyev”—the late Soviet ballet dancer—“taught me never to open all your Christmas presents at once,” Barry said….
- Another map of the New Orleans streetcar network that would have helped Blanche Dubois get where she needed to go.
Debugging the set for the Met’s Ring production.
When the giant planks spun into new positions — moving swiftly, say, to transform from the forest where the young hero Siegmund is being hunted to the fateful house where he seeks shelter — a whooshing sound could sometimes be heard. Officials dubbed it the “rainstick effect.”
Bess Wohl’s rewarding, at times challenging play drops six seekers (four strangers and one couple) of varying degrees of attainment into a five-day meditation retreat somewhere in the mountains of the East Coast. What not all of them were aware of when they signed up for this exploration, but what is explained to them by the Teacher (Timothy Douglas) early on, is that the retreat is to be conducted in silence.
The “small mouth sounds” of the title no doubt refer to the productions of the Teacher (who does speak, at length, during the proceedings). Offstage and closely mic’d, we hear every lip smack, sniffle, and popped P. It’s enough to make a sound engineer weep, but it’s in the service of this gently satiric play. Douglas’s Teacher is enlightened, in his own way, but he is also digressive, bemused, and distracted. Wohl captures the paradox of this way of teaching, while stepping back from the edge of parody.
Because the onstage actors are mostly silent, it’s an interesting challenge for us to follow their intentions and perhaps fill in some of their backstories. Most interesting are the scenes where the six sleep more or less communally. We watch their parallel stories as they retire and arise, with an overload of finely built details: sun salutations and bad breath and noisy illicit crunchy snacks.
Michael Glenn, as Ned, gets an opportunity to shine in the one extended monologue given to the sextet, a rambling question for the Teacher that unravels into an autobiography of pain and disaster. Details again: notice how Andrea Harris Smith’s Judy finds the death of Ned’s parents on the L.I.E. hilarious, but she is devastated in the next breath to learn that Ned’s dog has died, too.
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh brings a great physicality to the role of Rodney, the more-Ashtangi-than-thou student. He even finds the hardest way possible to slip on his shoes.
The writing of the later scenes for the Teacher is forced, but the overall experience of the play is positive. Yes, we do live on a charnel ground that we call the World, or the Now; but some of us get a glimpse of something greater.
- Small Mouth Sounds, by Bess Wohl, directed by Ryan Rilette, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Md.
Is there another playwright who shows such skill at introducing characters as Sarah Ruhl? Consider the poetic exposition in which we meet supporting characters Frank and Frances: in a double monologue, each speaking virtually the same text, we learn that Frank began life as an accountant, while Frances gave up physics (“all those angles,” as Tilly says) to open a hair salon.
It is Tilly (ably played by Billie Krishawn) whose arc commands the play. As she transitions from quiet melancholy (captured in a scene which recreates the Vermeer pearl-earring portrait) to giddy, almost manic happiness, everyone else turns alienated and glum, as if some law of conservation of psychic energy were in force.
Ruhl revisits some classical themes—Orpheus and Eurydice, comic metamorphosis—while keeping a light, deft tone. Christian Montgomery is hilariously over the top as Tilly’s psychotherapist, who has some severe transference issues. The piece is enlivened by solo cello played by Kate Rears Burgman, music by Wytold, and two song breaks.
- Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce, by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Nick Martin, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington
A young woman carries a heavy portable crib up a flight of stairs, bumping it on every other step; her actions echo those of a teenager seventeen years before, banging a suitcase down a different flight of stairs (metaphorical baggage reified). Two young women have an uneasy reunion, a decade and half after a shattering trauma that destroyed a family has split the two of them apart; they interchange playing scenes with their younger counterparts.
In a program note, playwright Amy E. Witting says that we all are living in a “post-traumatic stress environment.” In this play, the most effective and challenging of this year’s festival, Alexandra (Joey Parsons) and Frankie (Jessica Savage) and their younger selves Alex (Sam Morales) and young Frankie (Ruby Rakos) hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves generally and the specific impact of this particular trauma.
It is clear from the early moments of the play that broody Alexandra has endured some sort of loss, to be revealed in the course of the narrative. What is more subtle is the impact of those past events on Frankie; she is, in a sense, the forgotten victim.
Does the unfolding of the play provide the healing to Frankie and Alexandra that they want, or the healing that they need?
A quibble: the play’s climax, the big reveal by Alexandra, a chthonic explosion by Parsons, is played on that staircase, halfway up from the main playing space to an unseen second story. So there’s a good reason for director Ed Herendeen to put her there. But as a result, sightlines for some of us during this sequence are less than optimal.
- Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
- The House on the Hill, by Amy E. Witting, directed by Ed Herendeen
Providing an origin story for a prison work song (Berta, Berta) is a wobbly foundation for a full-length play. The actors are skilled and committed (Jason Bowen as the haunted Leroy and Bianca Laverne Jones as Berta); the stakes are high (a murder); the dressing of Luciana Stecconi’s set is first rate; but there’s something missing. Perhaps the piece relies too much on Leroy’s tell-not-show accounts of why he’s on the run, and of the heavy injustice laid on him that was the driver of events. It’s a risky business to suggest recasting an artistic work into another medium, but opening up this play as a film would strengthen the story that it wants to tell.
Playwright C. A. Johnson says her program interview,
Maybe Thirst is about politics, maybe it’s about gender, maybe it’s about special preferences, maybe it’s all of these things… or maybe, it’s just a play about how hard it is to let go.
And it’s the play’s stubborn refusal to decide what it wants to be about that is a challenge. Once again, the stakes are high: in a post-apocalyptic landscape still bursting with violence, Samira (Monet) and Greta (Jessica Savage) care for their adopted son Kalil (newcomer Jalon Christian). The local warlord Terrance (Ryan Nathaniel George) has risen to power because he controls the water supply, and water in this community is a precious resource indeed. The rub: Terrance and Samira were once married, and his entrails are still consumed with rage that she is now with Greta. Is is because Greta is a woman? Because she is white? Or just because she is someone else? Terrance is incapable of telling us.
Terrance explodes with gunplay, against his better judgement and surely not in the best interests of his people or himself. (A leader with doubtful skills, thrust onto the public stage, behaving irrationally to a bizarre degree? Why, that would—oh, never mind.)
There is a loose end introduced towards the end of the play, that is never picked up or resolved, i.e., a suggestion that the water supply has been contaminated.
Jessica Savage has the juicy opportunity to show us how excruciating it is to suffer a close-range gunshot wound, and she makes the most of it.
- Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
- Berta, Berta, by Angelica Chéri, directed by Reginald L. Douglas
- Thirst, by C. A. Johnson, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt