Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Woman in Black - Where Innocence Meets The Unexplainable


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

(Originally scheduled to run through April 19th, The Woman in Black, as well as all other live performances at the McKittrick Hotel have been suspended until further notice due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Please check the McKittrick website - noted below - for updates.)

Any good writer knows the true power of a ghost story comes not from what is written down, spoken aloud, or even presented for all to see; but rather from the ominous silences and pregnant pauses that fall in-between. These suggestive moments used to further stimulate the already overactive imaginations of those immersed in the tale. Thus making any coming revelation all the more terrifying. So it is with Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, The Woman in Black. A stage version of which has been running in the U.K. for over 30 years. After making a brief off-Broadway appearance in 2001, the play has finally returned to these shores and can now be seen at the McKittrick Hotel.

Englishman Arthur Kipps (David Acton) is a bright young man with an even brighter future. He's an up-and-coming solicitor at a London law firm, and has a fiancée he loves dearly. One day he's called into his superior's office and given an assignment which will take him to the remote town of Crythin Gifford. Once there, he will begin dealing with the estate of the recently diseased Mrs. Drablow, and represent the firm at her funeral. 

Initially seeing this as just another responsibility handed off to a junior member of the firm, upon his arrival Kipps is surprised to find himself treated as something of a pariah. The townspeople giving him strange looks and quite unwilling to talk to him once his purpose becomes known. It's as if they're all hiding something, which they absolutely refuse to discuss. Such is the case with Mr. Jerome, the local estate agent. A seemingly innocent question from Kipps at the funeral being enough to send the man into a fit of terror.
      L-R) David Acton and Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

Determined to do the job to which he has been assigned, and with no patience for any apparent local superstitions, Kipps heads out to the Drablow home, an isolated place known as Eel Marsh House. Kipps describing his first sight of the structure as if it was "rising out of the water itself. A tall gaunt house of grey stone with a slate roof.” The entire area surrounded by marshland and accessible only by a long narrow causeway at low tide.

While sorting through the endless papers Mrs. Drablow left behind, Kipps soon begins to feel a strange, ominous presence. A sensation followed soon after by a series of unexplainable noises. Sounds which lead him to a mysterious locked room. Shaking Kipps even further are sudden screams of terror coming from the marshes. It's not long before this once firm believer in the logical and explainable begins to fear for his very sanity, as an oft-repeated horror which stretches back more than a generation begins to unfold about him.

The Woman in Black is told on two parallel tracks. The first reveals a now-aged Kipps trying to tell his story about that long ago experience. One which haunts him to this day. The second is Kipps' tale actually recreated, thanks to an Actor (Ben Porter) who is determined to inject some passion into what Kipps has put down on paper. During this process, The Actor assumes the role of younger Kipps, while Kipps himself takes on the various secondary roles his story calls for. The two men occasionally breaking character to converse with each other as these events play out.

                             Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

Adapter Stephen Mallatratt wisely mixes the earlier moments of the production with bits of humor, as we see Kipps, the lawyer by trade, having no idea of the difference between simply speaking a story aloud and actually presenting it to an audience. Something The Actor, due to his trade, is quite well-versed in. Mallatratt, director Robin Herford and the rest of the creative team also taking full advantage of the “show, don’t tell” adage when it comes to actually putting forth Kipps’ tale. They jettisoning much of his various descriptions and substituting sound-recordings, lighting effects and some nicely atmospheric props. The methods used to suggest a “pony-trap” (horse and carriage) being particularly amusing. 

The story, already foreboding in the beginning, turns much darker in act two as Kipps finds himself increasingly left to his own devices as he stumbles from one horror to the next. His own terror projected out into the audience as they wait for the next shoe to drop. Or the next door to open, or flash of light to illuminate what lurks in the shadows.

The material also offers a stark warning about the danger of obsession. Be it a determination to do one’s job, the love one has for another, or the fear of avoiding a scandal. Holding too tightly onto anything, as the show ultimately points out, has a tremendous potential for tragedy. The story also shows what happens when one is so deeply immersed in their own pain, they lose the ability to forgive. So much so that even those who had nothing to do with the original circumstances are now forced to pay the price.

                           Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

Acton does a wonderful job as Kipps. Purposefully awkward and ill at ease when trying to tell his story aloud, he later comes brilliantly alive when assuming the various different personas in the tale. Porter is excellent as The Actor. He perfectly portraying the younger Kipps with just the right amount of enthusiasm and naiveté during his ill-fated trip, and later breaking down completely when faced with the ultimate truth.

The program bills the show as “a ghost story in a pub”. The Club Car space at the McKittrick nicely set up to project that initially relaxed atmosphere. However, the way the show is staged is not always conducive to the work.

Just as the proper use of silence can be used to heighten tension, too often here it provokes laughter. As evident during a sequence where Kipps is seemingly roaming about the Drablow house in a desperate search. This process taking too long and would have worked far better had Porter been slowly approaching something on stage, rather than walking between the rows of tables where the audience is sitting.

The show would have also been better served without an intermission. Breaking the work into two sections only serves to halt the buildup of growing terror, and also somewhat dilutes the overall effect. The use of Herford’s direction clearly off at points, with a definite need for things to be played much more sharply. This is especially true in the initial going, where the early banter between The Actor and Kipps could easily have been pared down a bit. Designer Michael Holt’s sets are fine, especially the aforementioned locked room and what is eventually found there. Also completely essential to the show, each in their own way are the excellent lighting effects by Anshuman Bhatia, and the sound design efforts by Sebastian Frost.

                            Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

There’s no doubt The Woman In Black is a powerful story. Although there is certainly a lot to experience with the McKittrick production, its actual presentation falls a bit short of the mark.

Featuring: David Acton (Arthur Kipps), Ben Porter (The Actor), Guy Balotine (Standby for Arthur Kipps), James Evans (Standby for The Actor).

Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story in a Pub

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt
Director: Robin Herford
Production Stage Manager: Carolyn Boyd
Designer: Michael Holt
Stage Manager: Emily Roth
Lighting Designer: Anshuman Bhatia
Assistant Stage Manager: Deidre Works
Sound Designer: Sebastian Frost
Vision Productions: Imogen Finlayson
Original Sound Design: Rod Mead
General Managers: Tim Smith & Martin Platt
Associate Director: Magdalene Spanuello
Casting Director: Laura Stanczyk

Presented by The McKittrick Hotel
Address: 530 West 27th Street
Tickets: www.mckittrickhotel.com
Running Time: Two Hours, including one intermission


Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Dana H - Portrait of A Real-Life Nightmare


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Playwright Lucas Hnath unveils a very personal tale which examines one of humankind's deepest fears. Being held captive by another person while you pray for your very survival. A terror magnified one-hundred fold when freedom looks to be just a few steps away, but being able to cross that threshold seems impossible. Such events, which happened to Hnath's own mother, presented in the documentary theatre piece, Dana H.  Featuring Deidre O’Connell, this work is now at the Vineyard Theatre.

                                         Deidre O'Connell in 'Dana H."  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Dana is someone who cares about helping others. A chaplain who works in a Florida psychiatric ward, she listens to the patients while trying to help them deal with their various issues. Patients such as Jim. A tattooed ex-convict and member of the Aryan Brotherhood, he has a history of mental issues and drug abuse. Someone who can cry like a child one minute and lash out violently the next. Jim establishing a strong emotional connection to Dana during their time together. He eventually becoming so attached to her that, after a suicide attempt, he insisted that unless she came to talk to him, he would not obey the treatment center's protocols.

Jim's firm belief of how much he needs Dana finally spins out of control when, one day in 1997, he breaks into her home and kidnaps her. During the next five months, he physically abuses and psychologically terrorizes her while they travel from place to place, staying in various hotels in the Florida/North Carolina area. Her son, who was away at college during this period, didn’t learn the full story and its subsequent ramifications until years later. Hnath using the audio tapes from a series of interviews his mom gave to Steve Cosson in 2015 to recreate Dana’s experience for the audience. O’Connell telling this story to an unseen interviewer in a non-descript hotel room, while lip synching to Dana's own words. 

Told by someone still trying to fully come to terms with what happened, Dana’s tale is the stuff of nightmares. Especially terrifying is the fact that, due to Jim’s apparent standing in the criminal community and his relationship with the local authorities, almost no one is willing to help her. Any members of law enforcement they happen to come across either recognize Jim straight off and turn a blind eye, or can do little more than buy Dana some time so she can flee. Dana’s time with Jim not a consecutive five-month period, as she was able to escape at least twice. Only to have Jim track her down and force her to come with him again.

                                               Deidre O'Connell in 'Dana H."  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Particularly affecting is Dana’s description of Jim. A charismatic figure with a hair-trigger temper, he continually repeats to Dana how she must always stay with him as only he can protect her. Jim’s involving her in his criminal activities - at one point he sends her to buy guns for him - as well as his continued paranoia about people watching his movements, exacerbates Dana’s own fear about who can she trust to help her. At the same time, a sort of paralysis begins to settle around her where the prospect of escape battles with that of survival. Indeed, one gets the clear feeling Dana hasn’t quite gotten over the thought there might be those from Jim's world that are still watching her.

The work itself is broken down into three separate sections. The early minutes filled with a sense of foreboding as, thanks to information contained in the show program, what is about to happen is clearly explained. Watching those first recollections, one can't help but wonder what Dana might have done to make later events turn out differently. Or what we would have done, were we in that situation.

It’s initially a bit jarring to have all the dialogue presented via lip synch, but O’Connell is so able to immerse herself into the character, you quickly forget she is not the one doing the actual speaking. Steve Cuiffo, billed in the program as an Illusion & Lip Sync Consultant, doing a fantastic job in that aspect. He and director Les Waters working with O’Connell to make sure her every movement, gesture and facial expression perfectly fits with the dialogue. Thus allowing an extra dimension to Dana's words. In effect, both it is Dana and O'Connell who are telling this tale.

                                          Deidre O'Connell in 'Dana H."  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

There are a few technical problems present. Such as the continual beeps heard during the sound recordings. They either meant as cues for O’Connell or to indicate a different point in time during Dana's actual interviews. Necessary as they may be, they quickly start to become distracting. Also, there are two occasions when Dana describes certain objects, such as a photograph of a crime scene where there’s a huge amount of congealed blood, and a piece of silverware with Nazi markings. However the objects in question are so small that when O'Connell displays them, they are impossible to see unless one is seated almost directly in front of her. Either using a projection screen to make these items clearer, or simply not showing them at all, and just going with Dana’s descriptions, which are all quite detailed, would have worked far better.

Andrew Boyce's set of the hotel room, with its pink walls, drab bedspread, twin lamps and ceiling fan, perfectly calls to mind the thousands of such rooms across the country. Waters directs the entire piece with a sure hand. He not having to worry about ratcheting up the tension as it were, but simply allow Dana’s story to play out in her own words.

Dana H tells one woman’s harrowing tale of terror, survival and the beginnings of recovery. It’s a story both powerfully and painfully told.

Dana H.
by Lucas Hnath

Adapted from interviews from Dana Higginbotham conducted by Steve Cosson

Featuring: Deidre O’Connell

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce
Costume Design: Janice Pytel
Lighting & Supertitle Design: Paul Toben
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel
Illusion & Lip Sync Consultant: Steve Cuiffo
Production Stage Manager: Clarissa Marie Ligon
Production Supervisor: Adrian White
Production Manager: Conor McCarthy
Press Representative: The Press Room
General Manager: DR Theatrical Management

Directed by Les Waters

Presented by the Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
Tickets: 212-353-0303 or www.vineyardtheatre.org
Running Time: 80 Minutes, No Intermission
Closes: April 11, 2020

Monday, February 24, 2020

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice - Trying Too Hard To Be What One Is Not


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Such is the message of the new musical Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center, this earnest take on the 1969 film of the same name has much to say about four thirtysomethings who try to become part of something which they have no real understanding of. Sadly, the show ultimately fails in its execution.

Documentary filmmaker Bob (Joél Pérez), lawyer Ted (Michael Zegen) and their stay-at-home wives Carol (Jennifer Damiano) and Alice (Ana Nogueira) are the best of friends. Bob and Carol being the freer thinkers of this California foursome, while Ted and Alice are more conservative. Bob and Carol for example, would think nothing of suddenly singing at a crowded restaurant. Something which Ted and Alice would never do. 

One thing both couples have in common is their complete love for their respective spouses, and total commitment to them. Things change when Bob and Carol go on a spiritual retreat to “get in touch with their feelings” as it were. Bob also interested in seeing if there’s enough material there for a new project. However, by the end of their stay, the two find themselves completely immersed in the sessions they've participated in. Ones which allow them to give voice to inner emotions and personal regrets they never realized they had. Or at least ever admitted, even to themselves. This newfound awareness beginning to cause cracks in their marriage.

                           Jennifer Damiano and Joél Pérez . Photo Credit: Monique Carboni.

Soon after, Bob, who at the age of 35 finds himself in a midlife crisis, travels to Berkley in order to shoot some footage for his latest documentary, and winds up sleeping with a 24-year old (Suzanne Vega). His feelings in the wake of his indiscretion, as well as Carol’s reaction when she learns the truth, threaten not only their own relationship, but Ted’s and Alice’s as well. Bob and Carol having decided to freely share this information with them without any advance warning.

A work filled with contractions, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice takes a swipe at the sexual mores of the time as it shows four people all seemingly prepared to talk the talk when it comes to free love and lack of inhibition, but not quite ready to actually practice what they preach. Bob’s initial reaction when it comes to finding out Carol has had sex with someone else – she doesn’t call it an “affair” or “cheating” - is quite different from the understanding by him which Carol feels is called for. Understanding she previously showed him when the situation was reversed.

 (L-R) Jennifer Damiano. Joél Pérez,  Michael ZegenAna Nogueira. Photo Credit: Monique Carboni.

Book writer Jonathan Marc Sherman certainly has a lot to work with here. Unfortunately, the different characters come off as so vapid and one-dimensional, one is hard pressed find a reason to care about them. The only one of the four who really gets a chance to break out is Ted when he sings a solo number about his own marital issues. Ted seeing Bob and Carol’s relationship changing while feeling ever more suffocated in his own.

Ted’s solution in his regard, and the reactions by the others to it during a trip to Las Vegas, lead to an pivotal and quite effective moment of understanding between the four. Band Leader Vega hitting the proverbial nail squarely on the head when she sings "that maybe there is a limit to desire".

However the very strong final 20 minutes of the show cannot compensate for all the squandered efforts that have come before. Especially when the individual sequences often feel completely disconnected with one another - as if they don't quite belong in the same play. Such as a quick scene with Alice talking to her therapist (Vega) or Ted chatting with an attractive woman on an airplane. Director Scott Elliott not really able to being any of these moments together into a cohesive whole.

(L-R)  Michael ZegenJennifer Damiano, Joél Pérez, Ana Nogueira. Photo Credit: Monique Carboni. 

One must be also very careful when setting a show in a specific era. Especially one available to the audience either through their own memories or television shows and movies from the time depicted. A connection Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice is unable to establish. Neither the costumes, hairstyles, or the various commercials - the latter spoken either by the cast or members of the onstage orchestra – really evoke memories of the time in question, much less any strong feeling of nostalgia.

The score by Duncan Sheik (music, lyrics) and Amanda Green (lyrics) also doesn’t work as well as it should. The different numbers, at times more snippets of songs rather than full pieces, feel either awkward dialogue-wise, or repetitive when it comes to the music. The few exceptions to this being noted above. Though it must be said the onstage musicians all to a great job. Likewise, the actors all warble their respective tunes nicely, and even get to show off their own musical talents on the instruments. Good work by Kelly Devine in regards to the musical staging.

While Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice quite profoundly depicts the foibles that come with being human, the show ends up lacking the crucial spark to make the audience truly care about what unfolds on stage.

Featuring: Jennifer Damiano (Carol), Jamie Mohamdein (Ensemble), Ana Nogueira (Alice),  Joél Pérez (Bob), Suzanne Vega (Band Leader),  Michael Zegen (Ted).

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice

Book by Jonathan Marc Sherman
Music by Duncan Sheik
Lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green

Based on the Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Orchestrations: Duncan Sheik
Music Supervision, Vocal Arrangements and Additional Orchestrations: Jason Hart
Music Coordinator: Antoine Silverman
Consultant: Jill Mazursky
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Casting: Telsey + Company/Rachel Hoffman, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Teresa Gozzo
Marketing Director: Stephanie Warren
Production Manager: Lay Hoon Tan

Music Staging by Kelly Devine

Directed by Scott Elliott

Presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 917-935-4242 or www.TheNewGroup.org
Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 Minutes, No Intermission
Closes: March 22, 2020

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Mack & Mabel - The Perennial Bridesmaid


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Watching Douglas Sills sing “Movies Were Movies”, the opening number in the recent Encores! production of the 1974 Broadway musical Mack & Mabel, one can understand just how wonderful this work has the potential to be. Sadly, the show falters almost immediately as Jerry Herman's powerful score is undone by a number of issues. Including the problematic book by Michael Stewart. While's Stewart's efforts have since been revised by Francine Pascal, the end result is still too unfocused to allow this fictional look at the romance between director Mack Sennett (Sills) and actress Mabel Normand (Alexandra Socha) to really take off. Though thanks to the boundless energy of the cast, it's certainly not for lack of trying.

After setting things up via a sequence in 1938, the story jumps back 26 years to the title characters' first meeting at the Sennett film studios in Brooklyn, New York. Normand inadvertently ruining a climatic scene of the director's latest silent comedy short when she walks through a door at the wrong moment. Seeing something special in Normand, and her reactions to the chaos she causes with her entrance, Sennett offers her a part in his next film. Mabel, after some initial hesitation, soon finds herself bitten by the acting bug and accepts. She quickly becoming the latest and most important star in the Sennett comedy stable.

                                      The cast of "Mack & Mabel". Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Mabel's subsequent success enables the director to attract enough financing to transplant his entire base of operations to California. The state quickly becoming a Mecca for the burgeoning film industry. Mabel and Mack also beginning a personal relationship during this time. Even though, as the rather volatile Sennett is quick to point out, he is definitely not the romantic type.

What eventually causes a break between Normand and Sennett is Mack's desire to control Mabel creatively. He refusing to loan her out to other studios and directors, such as William Desmond Taylor (Michael Berresse) who sees a bigger future for Mabel than starring in an endless string of comedy shorts. Something Mabel only finds out about by accident. Sennett meanwhile remains completely resolute in his certainty that he always knows what's best when it comes to making movies.

Mack & Mabel is a musical one wants desperately to enjoy, but there is no getting around the inherent problems of its structure. A main one being that the character of Sennett is a complete bastard. He endlessly putting his actors and staff through their paces, concerned only about getting the next take completed and the next film in the can. It's hard to root for a character who's so unlikable, even when we are given a reason for his being the way he is. The relentless pressure of working for Sennett also taking a toll on Mabel, who begins using pills to help her get through the day. A dependency that only increases as time goes on. Sennett, who also serves as the show's narrator as he looks back on events from years later, finally admitting how he simply didn't want to know about Mabel's problem.

                   Alexandra Socha and Douglas Sills in "Mack & Mabel".  Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

While we do get the chance to understand Sennett, the show doesn't offer nearly the same incite on Mabel. Clearly funny, outgoing and initially star-struck, her ever-increasing booze and drug problem, as well as her involvement in a full-on scandal, all feel almost a tacked-on afterthought. None of this really explored until the final section of the show and by then, it's too late to effectively work it into the story.

While the show is also meant to be a homage to the silent film era, there are too many sequences filled with deliberate, over-the-top acting which all too quickly start to become annoying. In the same vein, a succession of big production numbers also starts to feel rather repetitious, though the songs themselves are certainly nice to hear.  The problem being not only the show's internal structure, but also the direction of Josh Rhodes, who continuously fails to sharpen the various scenes in order to make them more interesting. The result being that too much of the show is played at the same level. An issue that becomes increasingly more apparent whenever things start to veer into more dramatic territory.

Sills does a great job as Sennett. He playing the character as a driven, bull-headed sort who is unable to accept his own failings, or his share of the blame for anything. His one constant underlying drive, the desire to be able to make people laugh. A need he brings beautifully home in the haunting "I Wanna Make the World Laugh".

                           Major Attaway and the cast of "Mack & Mabel". Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Socha is perfect as Normand. A woman filled with the desire to succeed in whatever she sets out to do. Whether it's collecting 15 cents for the sandwich she delivered to Sennett's studio, becoming a top film star, or making Sennett fall in love with her. Her best numbers being the infectious "Look What Happened to Mabel" and the determined "Wherever He Ain't." The rest of the cast do a great job, but other than Sennett and Normand, none of the characters really break out from the pack. Though Lilli Cooper and Major Attaway come closest as respectively, Lottie Ames and Fatty Arbuckle.

The Jerry Herman score, as performed by the Encores! Orchestra, works beautifully. In addition to those songs mentioned above, highlights include the touching "I Won't Send Roses"; the wistful "Time Heals Everything", and the joyful "When Mabel Comes in the Room".

Scenic designer Allen Moyer does a wonderful job in recreating the world of silent pictures. The various costumes by Amy Clark and the sound design by Kai Harada - the latter's efforts quite pivotal here - also work very well.

Volumes have been written about the problems with Mack & Mabel. This latest effort by Encores! is admirable indeed, but ultimately, it can't hide the flaws in the basic makeup of the show.

Featuring: Kevin Ligon (Eddie), Douglas Sills (Mack Sennett), Lilli Cooper (Lottie Ames), Evan Kasprzak (Freddy), Raymond J. Lee (Andy), Ben Frankhauser (Frankie), Janet Noh (Ella), Major Attaway (Fatty Arbuckle), Alexandra Socha (Mabel Normand), Jordan Gelber (Mr. Kessel), Allen Lewis Rickman (Mr. Bauman), Michael Berresse (William Desmond Taylor).

Ensemble: Alex Julian Aquilino, Matt Bauman, Maria Briggs, Julian R. Decker, Sara Esty, Paige Faure, Haley Fish, Leslie Donna Flesner, Garett Hawe, Leah Horowitz, Matt Moisey, Madison Stratton, Diana Vaden, Jacob Keith Watson, Kristen Beth Williams, Joy Woods, Darius Wright, Richard Riaz Yoder.

Mack & Mabel

Book by Michael Stewart
Music and Lyrics by Jeremy Herman
Revised Version by Francine Pascal
Based on an idea by Leonard Spigelgass

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Amy Clark
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Kai Harada
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations by Philip J. Lang
Production Stage Manager: Peter Hanson
Casting by: Binder Casting
                    Jay Binder, CSA & Mark Brandon, CSA
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes

New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Tickets: 212-581-1212 or www.NYCityCenter.org
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 Minutes, with one intermission
Closes: February 23, 2020


Friday, February 14, 2020

Medea - Hell Still Hath No Fury...


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Director Simon Stone has staged his new adaptation of Euripides' classic revenge story Medea, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on a white background. Bob Cousins’ set being a literal blank canvass as it were. The idea apparently to strip the piece down to its bare essentials, thus providing a penetrating look at the tale itself. Stone previously putting forth a similar premise in his terrific production of Yerma, seen in New York in 2018 at the Park Avenue Armory. However here, despite some terrific performances from cast, and especially the two leads, this Medea ends up somewhat adrift; with what’s actually presented not always ringing true.

Anna (Rose Byrne), a once-respected research scientist in the pharmacological world, has just been released from a treatment center after being sent there for trying to kill her husband, Lucas (Bobby Cannavale). Confident in her certainty that she is now fully recovered, Anna is eager to pick up where she left off before being sent away. She all set to move back in with Lucas and their two children, Edgar (Jolly Swag) and Gus (Orson Hong). She's also extremely anxious to resume her career - despite being barred from doing any work whatsoever in the medical field. A fact she is well aware of and something which her former boss Christopher (Dylan Baker) reminds her.

The more Anna tries to return to her old life, the more devastated she is to realize things have moved on without her. Lucas having since begun a relationship with Christopher's daughter Clara (Madeline Weinstein). One that has developed to the point where she has moved in with him. Anna's reactions as she refuses to accept these new realities show quite clearly how far she is from anything that could be considered a full recovery. Caught in the middle are her two children, who have conflicting loyalties to their parents; as well as to Madeline, who is trying very hard to have her own life with the man she loves.


                    Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale in Medea. Photo Credit: Richard Termine.

The story of a woman scorned is one of the oldest tales in history. Stone commenting in the program notes how this tale didn’t originate with Euripides; rather he strongly embellished what already there. Stone now attempts to do the same by adding his own spin to the material. While Stone does succeed in moving the work into the modern era – via the use of cell phones, video cameras and the like - his efforts ultimately cause the core elements of the work to become diluted.

The Euripides tale had Medea left to her own devices by a husband who essentially tossed her aside to marry someone else because it was politically advantageous for him to do so. Medea then enacting a horrible vengeance in return. While the same premise is still in play here, Stone colors the tale by making Anna a woman with definite mental issues. Ones she is unable to deal with. Thus, while clearly nursing a huge amount of anger at her husband, who is certainly no angel, Anna is given something of an out by not being totally responsible for her actions.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Anna is obviously not ready to be released from the place she was confined. A situation which causes one to wonder how she was cleared to return home in the first place. Or why her social worker Elsbeth (Jordan Boatman) would not call her supervisor when she witnesses some of Anna’s subsequent actions. Especially when she admits to having mixed alcohol with her medications, and also not remembering exactly how many of her prescribed pills she has actually taken. This apparent failure of those responsible to see the ticking time bomb Anna has become could be plausible were Stone trying to present an indictment on the country’s healthcare system. But as that does not seem to be part of his equation, the entire premise of the story is severely weakened.

                             Dylan Baker and Rose Byrne in "Medea". Photo Credit: Richard Termine.

There are also points where the audience gets the opportunity to see video close-ups - via a camera, usually carried by Edgar - of the action unfolding on stage. Including one of Anna’s face when she says how she is now perfectly fine. Her expression clearly showing something different altogether and causing the entire moment to descend into camp as it provokes laughter from those in attendance.

The story does turn more serious as it progresses. Anna’s last message to Lucas particular quite chilling. Even as her final actions show her to be a mother with a deep – if very misguided – concern for her children. It also important to note that almost none of the characters are totally innocent. The entire play a warning about betrayal, loyalty and how one reaps what they have sown. Yet the show’s ending lacks an overall visceral punch, and winds up feeling almost lyrical in its execution. Instead of something that could have been much more emotionally gripping.

Byrne gives an absolutely brilliant performance as Anna. Someone continually on a razor’s edge of sanity as she fights to regain all that she lost in the wake of her mental collapse. Though her continual fixation on getting back to the way things were, instead of learning to accept what they have become, leads to her undoing. As well as that of everyone around her.

                               Rose Bryne and the cast of "Medea". Photo Credit: Richard Termine.

Cannavale does a wonderful job with the role of Lucas. At first, a seeming long-suffering husband, he quickly turns out to be something of schemer. He having ridden Anna’s professional coattails during their time together – the two first met while working at the same facility - and he also apparently taken credit for some of her discoveries. Lucas now has hitched his wagon to Madeline. Thus ensuring, he assumes, a rosy future both in a personal and professional sense. Lucas is also quite wishy-washy when it comes to making any sort of decision – such as explaining to Anna the facts of his new relationship - unless pushed into it by someone else.

Weinstein is fine as Madeline, a woman who only wants to begin a new life with Lucas and his kids. Baker is excellent as Christopher, a true materialistic bastard and someone not above using anything or anyone – including his own daughter - to consolidate his power base and increase his company's bottom line. Swag and Hong are fine as Lucas and Anna’s children.

Medea is a character who never needed a crutch to justify her actions. That Stone does so here with Anna, in perhaps an attempt to make the piece more well-rounded or more palatable to a modern audience, only serves to weaken the character, and the overall tale.

Also in the cast is Victor Almanzar. 

Featuring:
Bobby Cannavale (Lucas), Rose Byrne (Anna), Gabriel Amoroso/Jolly Swag (Edgar), Emeka Guindo/Orson Hong (Gus), Madeline Weinstein (Clara), Dylan Baker (Christopher), Victor Almanzar (Herbert), Jordan Boatman (Elsbeth).

Medea

Written by Simon Stone after Euripides
Directed by Simon Stone

Set Design: Bob Cousins
Costume Design: An D'Huys
Music & Sound Design: Stefan Gregory
Lighting Design: Sarah Johnson
Video Design: Julia Frey
Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA
Costume Associate: Fauve Ryckebusch
Production Stage Manager: David Lurie-Perret

Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton StreetBrooklyn
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.BAM.org
Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Closes: March 8, 2020

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake - Finding The Freedom To Be Yourself


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

One of the basic tenets of people everywhere is the need to express who they are inside. This is the underlying principle beautifully expressed in the absolutely breathtaking Mathew Bourne's Swan Lake; as performed to the stirring music of Tchaikovsky. The work first seen on Broadway in 1998 and now currently at New York City Center.

The Prince (James Lovell) of an unnamed country is tormented by dreams of a mysterious flying creature. Graceful and powerful, this being suggests something wild and free. Said freedom something totally lacking in the life of order and responsibility the Prince was born into. His every moment and decision planned out each day before he even rises from bed. From when he brushes his teeth, to when he puts on his clothes, to what he will eat. The Prince finding himself suffocating under the rules and expectations of his position and more and more adrift in a world in which he feels completely out of place.

The Prince’s uneasiness also happens to run completely opposite to that of his mother, the Queen (Nicole Kabera). A woman clearly comfortable with her royal position and the role she is required to play. However, while well-versed in the ways of protocol, the Queen is either unwilling or unable to give her son any emotional support. She continually rebuffing him whenever he reaches out to her.

                                                  Swan Lake - Photo Credit: Johan Persson

After a disastrous attempt at royal date with his new Girlfriend (Katrina Lyndon), the Prince decides to end it all. But he’s distracted by the appearance of a magnificent Swan (Matthew Ball) and the flock which he apparently leads. The Prince astonished by the Swan’s movement and dancing, and totally enraptured by what it represents.

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is set in two different worlds. The first an existence of structured reality, where any expression of individuality is frowned upon. The members of the court and the Kingdom’s citizenry in general - from crowds of royal watchers to the paparazzi - all moving about as if they were simply playing a time-worn part. Their various dances and expressions at times appearing robotic and formulaic. Such as when the Prince’s attendants help him dress. This is a sharp contrast to the actions of the Swans, whose movements and gestures are far more powerful and expressive – such as when a group of them start “preening” – than anything the Prince has ever seen. Their every motion full of grace and purpose. It’s as if they are trying to break free of their earthly bonds.

These worlds are brought together at the top of act two, when a mysterious Stranger (Ball) suddenly appears at the Palace during a royal ball. This figure, who oozes sexuality from every pore, proceeds to captivate every woman present, including the previously standoffish Queen. While at the same time basically emasculating all of the men, and reducing them to little more than background fixtures. At least until they unconsciously accept him as their de facto leader and start to follow his actions. In the wake of the Stranger's presence, most everyone soon becomes more expressive and powerful in their own dancing; and seemingly just as free as the Swans the Prince saw earlier. Yet as the Prince watches all of this, he finds his perception of reality becoming more and more skewed as he struggles to understand in which existence he truly belongs.

                                              Matthew Ball (the Swan). Photo Credit: Johan Persson

The beauty of a well-presented dance is its ability to convey a story without saying a word. The different expressions on the dancers' faces perfectly in synch with their various movements, all conveying emotions, ideas and information necessary to move the story forward. Particularly striking are the moments with the Swans and the aforementioned party sequence, where each succeeding section of dance becomes more and more powerful. Until you finally think there’s no way the scene can get any more intense, only it does. 

Bourne’s concept is nothing less than spectacular. He having a firm handle on the tale he wants to tell as he guides the work, via his direction and choreography, with a sure hand. The different elements in the story ultimately representing the choices one must make when deciding how they want their life to turn out. 

Ball is superb in the roles of the Swan and the Stranger. In each case he carries himself with a combination of intensity and passion that simply explodes off the stage. His characters’ attitude showing him to be someone who gets exactly what he wants. Though as also made clear, even he must fight for what he desires most; while risking losing everything in the process.

Lovell is good as the Prince. While his joy at breaking free, at least temporarily, is obvious, and his scenes with Ball are wonderful to behold, one quickly sees this character as someone without the courage or wherewithal to become truly independent on his own. His inner rebellion never anything more than a token attempt at being different. Until he finally understands what he truly has been seeking.

                                                   The Swans. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Lyndon does nice comic turn as the Prince's Girlfriend. Something of a potential gold digger/celebrity whore, she eventually starts to care for the Prince in her own way. Kabera is fine as the Queen. A person who more has than a few emotional issues of her own to deal with. Jack Jones cuts a nicely sinister figure as the Private Secretary, though he also could be considered the Prince’s shadow or the Queen’s “bagman” as it were. He responsible for making sure that any potential problems or scandals are handled as discreetly as possible.

The sets by Lez Brotherston are excellent. Such as the city park at the close of act one. A place bound by iron gates where only the sea stretches out to the horizon, free and unencumbered. Brotherston’s costumes also work quite well. As do the lighting effects by Paul Constable.

Told in a sweeping grandeur, yet at the same time surprisingly intimate, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake illustrates the need to be oneself in a world (or worlds) which might not approve of the choices you make. This is one show that totally earned the enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience at the performance’s end.

Featuring:  Matthew Ball (The Swan/Stranger), James Lovell (The Prince), Nicole Kabera (The Queen), Katrina Lyndon (The Girlfriend), Jack Jones (The Private Secretary), Mari Kamata (The French Princess), Nicole Alphonce (The Romanian Princess), Katie Webb (The Spanish Princess), Michaela Guibarra (The Italian Princess), Kayla Collymore (The Hungarian Princess), Freya Field (The German Princess), Zanna Cornelis (The Princess of Monaco), Alistair Beattie (The Nobleman), Andrew Ashton (Swan), Jonathan-Luke Baker (Swan), Isaac Bowry (Swan), Joao Castro (Swan), Cameron Everitt (Sawn), Keenan Fletcher (Swan), Ashley-Jordon Packer (Swan), Jack William Parry (Swan), Barnaby Quarendon (Swan), Sam Salter (Swan), Mark Samaras (Swan), Alex Sturman (Swan), Stan West (Swan).

Maids & Servants, Dignitaries, Cadets, Queens’ Escort, Performers in “The Moth Ballet”, Soho Club Goers, Bag Lady, Photographers, TV Presenter, Autograph Hunters, Royal Watchers, Spanish Dancers and Nurses all played by members of the company. 

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Set and Costume Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting Design: Paul Constable
Sound Design: Ken Hampton
Projection Design: Duncan McLean
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Bourne

New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Tickets: 212-581-1212 or www.NYCityCenter.org 
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 Minutes, with one intermission
Closes: February 9, 2020