Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Parallelogram - A Bit Off The Mark


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

What if you knew exactly how your life was going to turn out, and there was absolutely nothing you could do to change it? One woman finds herself in exactly that situation in Bruce Norris' rather intriguing, but ultimately unfulfilling A Parallelogram at Second Stage Theater.

Bee (Celia Keenan-Bolger) is a person with a self-destructive streak. Currently living with Jay (Stephen Kunken), she's continually trying to find proof that their relationship is not working out. Thus providing her a reason to end things between them before Jay ends them first. That Jay left his wife and family to be with her only adds to Bee's feeling of insecurity. Adding to her pile of possibly imagined woes is the continual presence of an older woman - referred to in the program as "Bee 2" - (Anita Gillette), that only Bee can see. This cynical and world-weary soul claiming to be a future version of Bee; and who has very few words of comfort to offer about Bee's current situation, or any of her situations still to come.

Bee's relationship with her doppelganger is further complicated by the fact that although no one else can see her, her presence can be felt in other ways. Such as with traces of the elder woman's cigarette smoke. Visible due to what B2 describes as a "glitch" in the system which allows her to be there in the first place. Jay reacting angrily to Bee's denials of smoking, while Bee 2, who is clearly enjoying her younger self's discomfort, watches the entire exchange with a self-satisfied grin.

As quickly becomes evident, what one is seeing is the virtual train wreck Bee's life is fast becoming. To that end, it's not long before Bee finds herself starting to fulfill some of her elder's prophecies. Such as taking up smoking, or putting on weight. Bee's inability to accept anything but the worst possible outcome, also causing her to sabotage various chances she may have of finding happiness. Though that doesn't stop her from continually going back in time to try to make things better. This accomplished with the help of B2, who is able to generate a sort of "Groundhog Day" effect, with different scenes playing out over and over again as Bee tries to alter what has gone before.

Underlying all the "doom and gloom" Bee is facing, both now and in times to come, is Norris' idea that while one cannot change the future in any overall sense, one can subtly alter certain circumstances to make the end result more hopeful. Coupled with this is the unspoken question: do we really want to know our own personal future?

An intriguing idea to be sure, especially when the play starts to explore the relative fluidity of time, and how the future may have actually already happened. Sadly, any possible appeal of this premise collapses almost immediately due to the way the show's narrative is structured. Bee vehemently declaring in one scene that she will not allow certain aspects of her future to occur, and then accepting them in the very next, with no explanation of what has caused this change in attitude.

A far more serious problem is that the play never shows Bee's initial meeting with her future self. Bee 2 already present, with Bee having accepted who she is and what she represents, by the time the show begins. As such, the audience never learns why the elder Bee decided to visit the younger version of herself in the first place. Other than that she seems to enjoy tormenting her. In truth, when it comes to either character, there is no real depth present. This then makes it extremely hard to care about them, or be concerned when it comes to their final fate. This is particularly true when it comes to Gillette's character, who ends up being more annoying than anything else.

Most problematic of all is when Bee finally does understand the ultimate truth of what Morris has been trying to say, the realization comes far too late to be effective. The work having basically meandered for more than two hours without any firm direction. Matters aren't helped by the lackluster work of director Michael Greif, who takes the few interesting elements the show has to offer and does nothing with them. A good case in point being the various repeating scenes, all of which come to feel tiresome and repetitive very quickly.

Despite all the obstacles, Keenan-Bolger is able to project an appealing quality as Bee. The actress doing the best she can with a part that goes nowhere. Kunken comes off well as Jay, his character the only one that is ever anything more than one-dimensional. He giving a very good performance as a man trying desperately to understand Bee's increasingly odd behavior; and finally finding refuge in medical science rather than other, more intangible possibilities. Juan Castano is okay as JJ, a fellow who comes over to Bee and Jay's apartment complex to cut the grass and never quite leaves. However, it's a role that's strictly superficial, and as such, not all that interesting.

Lighting design by Kenneth Posner and sound design by Matt Tierney work nicely together, particularly when they're used to herald the resetting of the various scenes for Bee to try to change the past. Set design by Rachel Hauck is okay.

A Parallelogram is not so much a particularly bad play, but rather one that feels somewhat unfinished, and with an ending that just doesn't work.

Featuring: Stephen Kunken (Jay), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Bee), Anita Gillette (Bee 2, Bee 3, Bee 4), Juan Castano (JJ).

A Parallelogram

by Bruce Norris

Scenic Design: Rachel Hauck

Costume Design: Jeff Mahshie

Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner

Sound Design: Matt Tierney

Animal Trainer: William Berloni

Production Stage Manager: Jane Grey

Stage Manager: Shae Candelaria

Press: Polk & Co.

Casting: Telsey & Company/Will Cantler CSA/Karyn Casl CSA/Adam Caldwell CSA

Associate Artistic Director: Christopher Burney

Production Manager: Bethany Weinstein

General Manager: Seth Shepsle

Directed by Michael Greif

Presented by Second Stage Theater

305 West 43rd Street

Tickets: 212-246-4422 or https://2st.com

Running Time: 2 Hours, 15 Minutes, one intermission

Closes: August 20, 2017


Monday, August 7, 2017

A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Fun and Frolic, But Too Little Heart

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The Public Theater pulls out all the stops with its eye-catching presentation of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. One of the most beloved and original works in the Shakespearian canon, and last presented at the Delacorte a decade ago, the show features star-crossed lovers, spurned suitors who don’t take “no” for an answer, a host of magical beings, and a group of strolling would-be thespians. While there is certainly much to enjoy, what's missing in this production is the subtle charm and magical essence the play has to offer.

In the city of Athens, Egeus (David Manis) has pledged his daughter Hermia (Shalita Grant) in marriage to Demetrius (Alex Hernandez). Hermia however, is in love with Lysander (Kyle Beltran) and will marry none but him. Lysander loving Hermia just as dearly. Enraged at his daughter's defiance, Egeus brings her before Theseus, Duke of Athens (Bhavesh Patel). While the Duke is in a charitable mood, as he is about to enter into matrimony with Hippoltya (De'adre Aziza), Queen of the Amazons, he is also bound by Athenian law, and orders Hermia to either marry Demetrius or be banished from the city. In response, Hermia and Lysander decide to travel to the home of Lysander's aunt, some distance away, where they can be married. Their route taking them through a nearby wooded area where they will spend the night. Upon learning of the couple's plans, Hermia's friend Helena (Annaleigh Ashford), quickly informs Demetrius, who sets off in pursuit. Helena following him soon after. Helena was once Demetrius' fiancée and still carries a torch for her former intended. She hoping that by giving Demetrius this information, it will cause him to see how unworthy Hermia is, and that he will then turn his love back to her.

Meanwhile deep in the woods, Oberon (Richard Poe), King of the Fairies is traveling to Athens with his magical entourage to bless the upcoming union of Theseus and Hippolyta. Oberon is also is angered at his Queen, Titania (Phylicia Rashad) over a young changeling boy (Benjamin Ye) whom she is determined to raise as her adopted son. Filled with anger and jealousy, and wanting to teach Titania a lesson, Oberon calls on Puck (Kristine Nielsen), a mischievous sort of sprite, to drop the juice from a very special flower into Titana's eyes as she sleeps. This affect of which will cause her to fall in love with the first thing she sees.

Shortly thereafter, Oberon sees Demetrius arguing with Helena and orders Puck to place the same potion in Demetrius' eyes in order that he fall in love with Helena once more. Unfortunately, things don't go as planned, as Puck unknowingly infects the wrong person. The result being that both Demetrius and Lysander are now in love with Helena, much to her consternation and Hermia's despair. It falling to Oberon to try to put things right with the four young people, while also trying to repair his own relationship with Titania. She having become totally enamored with one Nick Bottom (Danny Burstein), a local weaver and would-be actor who, thanks to Puck's sense of humor, has been given the head and partial body of an ass. Bottom being in the woods with several of his fellow craftsman rehearsing a play to be performed at the wedding celebration for the Duke.

One of the reasons for the popularity of A Midsummer Night's Dream is that it has something for everyone. Including great opportunities for comedic slapstick - which this production milks for all its worth. At the same time, the text offers moments of quiet reflection. Where matters of love and magic become intertwined, and one can truly feel a part of the essence of the story.

In this particular presentation, director Lear deBessonet has chosen to put the emphasis on the comedic. So much so in fact, that almost all the subtlety and nuance in the play is gone. Case in point being the verbal exchanges between Hermia, Lysander, Helene and Demetrius. Their scenes in the forest played so broadly, that while one laughs continually at their antics, any deeper connection to the characters is lost and thus, the chance to really identify with them. Since the strength of these scenes depend on the comedy smoothly blending with elements of underlying pain and pathos; particularly regarding Helena's fury when she feels mocked by Lysander and Demetrius; as well as Hermia's anger at what she sees as Helena's betrayal; the removal of such emotional underpinnings leaves one left with some rather enjoyable, but quickly forgettable moments.

It doesn't help that Ashford is able to act her three co-stars right off the stage; and the imbalance clearly shows. Her hilarious portrayal of a woman scorned giving a new definition to the word "clingy". Beltran and Hernandez do okay when they have the chance to display some nice acrobatic moves, but Grant's character ends up feeling like almost an afterthought in their various scenes together. One actually feels more chemistry between Theseus and Hippolyta, two characters usually treated as little more than throwaways, than with anything going on between the four young lovers.

Another problem occurs with the character of Puck. Nielsen treating the role more as a standup comic routine, with none of the overt playfulness usually associated with the character. The actress gets more than her share of laughs, but is never able to imbue her part with any real sense of fun. The usually reliable Nielson is also unable to bring any depth to the final moments of the play, as she recites the epilogue in a completely matter-of-fact manner, without any emphasis on what those words really mean.

Where the show does take off in terms of characterization is when all that's required is comedy. Such as with Peter Quince (Robert Joy), a carpenter by day turned hapless director, who miscasts everyone in his company when assigning roles for the play to be presented before the Duke. He also has to deal with one interruption after another from the egomaniacal Bottom, Burstein bringing a truly scenery chewing performance to the part. Both when the character is a mortal man, and when he has been transformed into an ass. In the latter scenes, Burstein and Rashad show a wonderful and winning chemistry. Rashad playing her absurdist scenes of love with complete believability; the resulting sequence being one which is absolutely hilarious.

David Rockwell's set of the show is fantastic, giving the entire production a New Orleans-style feel, with moss-covered trees trunks and weeping willow trees. Hand in hand with this is a musical score with a prominent jazz beat and some lovely zydeco music. The various songs belted out with gusto by Marcelle Davis-Lashley; billed in the program as the "Fairy Singer".

Also quite good are Clint Ramos' costumes, particularly the outfits worn by Aziza and Rashad. Also deserving of mention is the work of hair, makeup and wig designer Cookie Jordan.

This presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream offers a grand time for all, and one will certainly leave the theater with a smile on their face. Though despite all the frivolity it has to offer, the production is continually unable to bring forth the show's more substantial elements lurking beneath the surface.

Featuring: Bhavesh Patel (Theseus, Duke of Athens), De'adre Aziza (Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons), David Manis (Egeus/Cobweb), Shalita Grand (Hermia), Kyle Beltran (Lysander), Alex Hernandez (Demetrius), Annaleigh Ashford (Helena), Justin Cunningham (Philostrate), Robert Joy (Peter Quince), Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom), Jeff Hiller (Francis Flute), Patrena Murray (Snoot), Austin Durant (Snug), Joe Tapper (Robin Starveling), Richard Poe (Oberon, King of the Fairies), Phylicia Rashad (Titania (Queen of the Fairies), Kristine Nielsen (Robin Goodfellow, a puck), Pamela McPherson-Cornelius (Second Fairy), Keith Hart (Third Fairy), Patricia Lewis (Fourth Fairy), Min Borack (Fifth Fairy), Judith Wagner (Note), Warren Wyss (Mustardseed), Benjamin Ye (Changeling Boy), Marcelle Davies-Lashley (Fairy Singer).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare

Choreography by Chase Brock
Sound Design: David Rockwell
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Original Music & Music Supervisor: Justine Levine
Orchestrations: Justine Levine
Additional Orchestrations: Charlie Rosen
Music Coordinator: Dean Sharenow
Music Director: Jon Spurney
Productions Stage Manager: Rick Steiger
Stage Manager: Stephen Milosevich
Fight Captain: Austin Durant
Dance Captain: Robert Joy

Directed by Lear DeBessonet

Presented by the Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park

Address: Enter at 81st Street and Central Park West
Admission: Free
Information: 212-539-8500 or www.publictheater.org
Running time: Two Hours, Fifty Minutes, with one intermission

Closes: August 13, 2017

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Opening Skinner’s Box - An Interesting Intellectual Voyage


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The theatrical group Improbable takes a look at the struggle to understand the human condition, as well as its strengths, weaknesses and limits in Opening Skinner's Box. Based on Lauren Slater's book of the same name, the show looks at a number of significant psychological experiments undertaken over the years, as well how those experiments, and the guiding forces behind them, have been regarded by the passage of time.

The stage work also uses the character of Slater (Kate Maravan) as a sort of guide through the different studies in question. The show recently having had its North American premiere at the Gerald Lynch Theater as part of the 2017 Lincoln Center Festival.

Of the various experiments discussed, the one which feels most topical today is Leon Festinger's exploration of what he called " cognitive dissonance". A process where a person refuses to change their beliefs on a subject, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They instead codifying those facts to reinforce their own convictions. Put in terms of today's political landscape, with so-called "fake news" abounding, it's where one would prefer to place blame on a conspiracy orchestrated by their opponents, rather than acknowledging that at least some of the problems originate with their own actions and perceptions.

Other issues examined include "diffusion of responsibility". Where the bigger the crowd witnessing a particular incident, the more likely it is those watching will wait for someone else to make the first move in response. Also explored is the almost pathological need people have to feel important, which is why many people continually check their twitter and email accounts, looking for that one message to validate their self-worth. A process B.F. Skinner called "intermittent reinforcement". Also shown is the continual blind trust most folks have for authority figures, particularly when it comes to making decisions. This ceding of power thus removing those following along, at least in their own minds, from any personal responsibility. A point Stanley Milgram proved in his experiments requiring testers to give what they thought were painful electric shocks to their subjects.

Where Opening Skinner's Box really takes off is when it gets away from the nuts and bolts of the different experiments and shows Slater's own attempts to explore the ramifications of these endeavors. Slater, a psychologist and author, providing a fresh perspective on the groundwork that came before. Such as speaking with some of the participants in the Milgram experiment and discovering the emotional scars they still carry. Probably the most riveting section of the entire show is a conversation with Elizabeth Loftus regarding her studies on recovered memory therapy, and how fallible such recollections can actually be. An issue that's still hotly debated today.

At times, Slater also recreates a specific experimental process herself, albeit with her own particular spin. Such as showing how simple it was for her to get prescription medicine, simply by claiming she was hearing voices. This being a variation on an experiment by David Rosenhan, who showed how easy it was to get committed to a mental institute. Ironically, when Slater speaks to one of Rosenhan's critics regarding her findings, he's quick to offer a bit of cognitive dissonance of his own. He dismissing her efforts as unscientific, rather than admit to flaws in the diagnosis process both she and Rosenhan uncovered.

Closely linked with these different studies are questions of moral and ethical boundaries, and what happens when these boundaries are crossed. It's interesting to note that none of those profiled saw their actions as having the potential to cause harm. Yet while many of their methods remain standard practice today, some of these people are now considered pariahs by their peers due to the way they carried out their examinations.

Yet despite all the possibilities Opening Skinner's Box has to offer, the show often feels very dry in its delivery. Interesting to be sure, but one could get just as much information from perusing Slater's book. A choice which might actually be better in this case. For when reading, one is able to absorb information at their own pace. Instead of being shown one experiment after another machine gun style on stage, with no time for the audience to get to know the different characters. Including Slater. Another problem is that each of the experiments depicted here could easily be a play on its own. With at least one of them - The Milgram experiment - having been.

Something else that really doesn't work is when the different actors portray various animals; i.e. monkeys in a cage, or laboratory rats. Their attempts to do so look rather phony on the surface and end up being more of a distraction than anything else. In the same vein, the various pops, bells, whistles, etc. used as sound effects come across more as an annoyance rather than something integral to the story.

The piece is adequately directed by Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson. Unfortunately they're hamstrung by the basic framework of the show, which has them going from point "a" to point "b" and so on, ad infinitum, for each of the experiments shown. It's a process which becomes repetitive all too quickly.

Maravan is good as Slater, a person seeking answers and insights on the various experiments, for reasons both professional and personal. The rest of the characters do well in the various roles, several coming off as almost righteous in defense of their work, while others demonstrating a clear desire to understand a specific aspect of the human psyche. No matter where their findings lead or how people may be affected by them.

Opening Skinner's Box contains a wealth of material concerning the practice of scientific analysis, but winds up more intellectual curiosity than engaging theatrical experience. Give this one an "A" for effort, but the entire piece could do with some serious reworking should the show's creators want to take it to the next level.

Featuring: Alan Cox, Stephen Harper, Tyrone Huggins, Morven Macbeth, Kate Maravan, Paschale Straiton.

Opening Skinner's Box

Presented by Improbable
Adapted from the book by Lauren Slater
Directors: Phelim McDermott and Lee Thompson
Set Design: Laura Hopkins
Lighting Design: Nigel Edwards
Sound Design: Adrienne Quartly

Gerard W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice
524 West 59th Street

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission


Presented on July 10-July 12, 2017 as part of Lincoln Center Festival

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Assassins - A musical bulls-eye


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The world has long had a morbid fascination with those who try to kill public figures, while at the same time trying to understand what makes them tick. These elements form the building blocks of the 1990 musical Assassins. The show having recently been given a sterling revival as part of the Encores! Off-Center series at New York City Center.

The story begins in carnival shooting gallery. The Proprietor (Ethan Lipton) of the establishment intoning the truism that "everybody's got the right to their dreams", as well as "to be happy." In this case however, said dreams include the taking the life of a U.S. President. Among those trying their luck in this endeavor are John Wilkes Booth (Steven Pasquale), Charles Guiteau (John Ellison Conlee) and Leon Czolgosz (Shuler Hensley). The respective assassins of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley. Also present are such would-be killers as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Erin Markey), Sara Jane Moore (Victoria Clark), Giuseppe Zangara (Alex Brightman) and Samuel Byck (Danny Wolohan). Rounding out the group are John Hinckley, Jr. (Steven Boyer) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Cory Michael Smith).

As the story unfolds, the audience gets to see these people reliving the planning, execution (no pun intended) and aftermath of their various endeavors. Some of the more interesting moments occurring, not in the actual act of assassination itself, but in conversations which take place among the group in a sort of otherworldly waiting area. Where they talk about their lives, why they did what they did, or what they plan to do given the chance.

A common sentiment among the different shooters is how they feel wronged by an uncaring society. They having become fixated on the President, whomever it happens to be at the time, as the embodiment of their situation. Therefore, they see killing the Commander-in-Chief as first, a symbolic action to avenge that wrong; and second, as a way to focus the entire country's attention on their plight.

Yet as the show makes clear, all of the assassins portrayed are complete individuals. Each with their own specific reason for their actions. This feeling of individuality - or aloneness as it were - is helped tremendously by the fact that the folks at Encores! were able to assemble a first-rate cast.

Pasquale makes a stirring and magnetic John Wilkes Booth. A fanatical true believer when it comes to the Confederate cause, Booth also serving as the unofficial spokesman for those present. He being the elder statesman of the group.

Elsewhere, Markey and Clark bring the term "flakey" to a whole new level as Fromme and Moore. Two women who attempted to kill President Gerald Ford (Damien Baldet) in 1975. The ladies' actions are so humorous, Moore in particular having continual problems when handling a gun, that their entire endeavor would be completely comical if the underlying intent wasn't so serious. Also combining elements of humor, drama and denial is Conlee, doing an enjoyable turn as the disgruntled office seeker Guiteau. The character turning into an apparent song and dance man as he heads for the gallows.

Particularly effective is Hensley as Leon Czolgosz, a disillusioned member of the lower class who feels, like so many others, that he has been betrayed by the system. The character striking a poignant note of humanity when he chastises Hinckley for accidentally breaking a bottle. Czolgosz pointing out that he is the one of the people who make such bottles. All while working under very dangers conditions, and for the sum of six cents an hour.

As sobering as Czolgosz's plight happens to be, it becomes all the more striking when one realizes how little things have progressed for those who find themselves outside society's mainstream. Czolgosz's anger and loneliness can also be found in the words of Samuel Byck who, in 1974, planned to fly a plane into the White House in order to kill President Nixon. As Byck sets out on his mission, we hear him rage about people being reduced to living in packing crates, and how both Republicans and Democrats keep pledging to fix problems the other side has caused. Yet, when they do get into positions of power, aren't able to make things any better. Situations that, for many, haven't really changed in the more than fifty years since Byck's actions and which now seem more topical than ever.

Also quite good is a sequence featuring Lee Harvey Oswald, and which reveals perhaps the ultimate goal of all those who pull the trigger. The desire, no matter how frustrating or unremarkable their lives have been thus far, to least be remembered for their final act. Though as some find out, they are not always remembered as how they would have liked.

Wisely, other than a few tweaks here and there to allow for the Encores! staging, there were no major changes made to John Weidman's text. One which makes no mention of the current U.S. administration. Though lines about the country going in the wrong direction and about a madman coming along did provoke a large amount of laughter from the audience. The score by Stephen Sondheim is both enjoyable and probing. The opening song, “Everybody’s Got the Right” being one of the more ominously ironic numbers in the Sondheim canon. Also quite memorable is the haunting “Something Just Broke”, which shows how most of us remember exactly where we were, and what we were doing, when we heard the news of a president being shot.

Anne Kauffman's direction is very strong, allowing each of the actors to hold their own when their characters take their turn in the spotlight. They all eloquently pleading their cases to the audience, no matter how misguided or deluded they may actually be. The show also avoids the problem of becoming too repetitive in the different sequences, by continually altering the tone of the various assassination attempts. These ranging from fanatical to comic, and from acts of retribution to ones of hopeless desperation. The changes in mood are also helped by Clifton Duncan's efforts as the Balladeer. This character helping to inject some of the lighter elements of the Sondheim score into the tale while the more serious issues are played out around him.

As timely and topical now as when it first appeared, Assassins takes a thoughtful look at those disenfranchised souls who try to make a real difference by upsetting the status quo. A difference at least, in their own minds. Hands-down, this one was a winner. Broadway revival anyone?

Featuring: Ethan Lipton (Proprietor), Shuler Hensley (Leon Czolgosz), Steven Boyer (John Hinckley), John Ellison Conlee (Charles Guiteau), Alex Brightman (Giuseppe Zangara), Danny Wolohan (Samuel Byck), Erin Markey (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), Victoria Clark (Sara Jane Moore), Steven Pasquale (John Wilkes Booth), Clinton Duncan (Balladeer), Andrew Durand (David Herold/Ensemble), Pearl Sun (Emma Goldman/Ensemble), Eddie Cooper (James Blaine/Ensemble), Hudson Loverro (Billy/Ensemble), Damian Baldet (President Gerald Ford/Ensemble), Cory Michael Smith (Lee Harvey Oswald), Eryn LeCory (Ensemble).

Assassins
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman

Assassins is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.

Orchestrations by Michael Starobin

Scenic Designer: Donyale Werle
Costume Designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting Designer: Mark Barton
Sound Designer: Leon Rothenberg
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Encores! Off-Center Artistic Associate: Sam Pinkleton
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Casting by Carrie Gardner, C.S.A./Stephen Kopel, C.S.A.

Choreography by Lorin Latarro
Music Director and Conductor: Chris Fenwick

Associate Music Director: Greg Jarrett
Assistant Music Director: Josh Clayton

Directed by Anne Kaufman

Presented by New York Center Encores! Off-Center
131 West 55th Street

Closed: July 15, 2017

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Measure for Measure - A Probing Look at Hypocrisy


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

What you sew, so shall you eventually reap. A warning that could easily apply to William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, currently being given an enjoyable revival by Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

In Vienna, the practice of morality has, for a good portion of the populace, long since gone by the wayside. Much of the area having become a place where prostitution, fornication, drinking, thievery and other such vices hold sway. In an attempt to stem this tide of sin, the Duke (Jonathan Cake), who has been unable to make any such changes himself, decides to temporarily cede his power to the one man he trusts implicitly, the pious nobleman Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan). The Duke announcing that he must leave on some private business, but in reality plans to remain in the city in the robes of a humble friar so he can walk unnoticed among his subjects and observe first-hand Angelo's actions and their effects.

Taking his new position to heart, Angelo quickly begins a puritanical crackdown. He ordering the destruction of houses of ill-repute in the surrounding countryside, while sending violators of these now vigorously enforced decrees to prison. Among those jailed is Claudio (Leland Fowler), condemned to death for fathering a child out of wedlock. Although Claudio and Juliet (Sam Morales), the woman in question, are deeply in love and have plans to marry, this does not sway Angelo's decision. He seeing Claudio's death as a necessary example to discourage others from this practice.

In desperation, Claudio beseeches his friend Lucio (Haynes Thigpen), to seek out his sister, the beautiful and virtuous Isabella (Cara Ricketts) and have her plead his case. Struck by the young woman's exquisite beauty, Angelo finds himself weakening to the needs of the flesh. As shown via a well-delivered inner monologue where he debates the pros and cons of the situation. Angelo eventually surrendering to his desires and telling Isabella that if she spends the night in his bed, he will spare her brother. Visiting her Claudio in prison, the distraught Isabella relates Angelo’s demands. Her tale overheard by the disguised Duke, who hatches his own scheme to resolve the matter.

A nicely pointed morality tale, and long regarded as one of the Bard's so-called "problem plays", party due to the difficultly of melding the piece’s comedic and dramatic tones, there is much to like in this production. The show having as its ultimate message that only those who are totally without sin should cast the first stone. Isabella being the only person in the play who actually fits that description. For not only is Angelo trying to retain his position of power following his temporary moral slippage, there is also another incident in his past involving a woman. One which he would very much like to forget.

The Duke is no saint either, though to the character's credit, he never aspires to be. Having been unable to stop the vice and corruption that has run rampant in his city for 14 years, he basically tosses his entire failed legacy to Angelo, and to a lesser degree Lord Escala (January Lavoy), who acts as Angelo’s second-in-command. There's an interesting political element present here with the Duke, who is apparently much loved by the people, being able to swoop down and change things to his liking, and then appear to look all the better for it, at least in the eyes of his subjects.

Others with questionable moral attitudes include the condemned Claudio, who is at first quite willing for his sister to sacrifice her honor and virginity to Angelo so he might be saved from the gallows. There’s also Thigpen’s wonderfully winning performance as Lucio, a reprobate and rogue who follows the axiom of never telling the truth when a lie will do. He continually trying to turn every situation to his own advantage. Especially enjoyable in this regard are the Duke’s slow burns when he catches Lucio spouting one untruth after another. However due to his attempts to conceal his identity, he is unable to do anything about it, at least for the moment.

The play also takes pot-shots at the ineffectuality of the criminal justice system, as seen via Barnardine (Zachary Fine), a long-time prisoner who simply refuses be executed when the time calls for it. There's also a legal examination that turns into a hilarious comic free-for-all, thanks to the continual mangling of words by Constable Elbow (Fine) during Angelo and Escala’s questioning of several accused violators of the law.

Cake does a good job as the well-meaning but somewhat ineffectual Duke, who finally comes up with a way to address the problems that afflict his city. Ryan is excellent as the outwardly stern, inwardly all-too-human Angelo. Zachary does a nice comic turn as Elbow and Thigpen is a genuine hoot as Lucio. Director Simon Godwin nicely guides the story and performers through the different elements of the tale, and the sets and costumes by Paul Wills – the play done in modern dress - all work well.

The only sequence that really doesn’t work is a somewhat extraneous bit which takes place in a nightclub – complete with songs. While it does serve to introduce a key character, leaving in the dialogue while cutting out the musical numbers, and the resulting audience interaction, would cut out approximately fifteen unneeded minutes from the show.

Well presented, while taking pains not to hit the audience over the head with its message, this production of Measure for Measure is quite the satisfying treat.

Featuring: Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Provost), Jonathan Cake (Vincentio, the Duke), Kenneth De Abrew (Froth/Abhorson/Friar Peter), Zachary Fine (Friar Thomas/Elbow/Barnardine/Gentle), Leland Fowler (Claudio), Merritt Janson (Marina), January Lavoy (Mistress Overdone/Escala/Francisca), Christopher Michael McFarland (Pompey), Sam Morales (Juliet), Cara Ricketts (Isabella), Thomas Jay Ryan (Angelo), Haynes Thigpen (Lucio)

Musicians: Drew Bastian, Robert Cowie, Osei Essed

Scenic & Costume Design: Paul Wills
Lighting Designer: Matthew Richards
Composer & Sound Designer: Jane Shaw
Voice & Text Coach: Alison Bomber
Properties Supervision: Eric Reynolds
Hair & Makeup Design: Cooke Jordan
Dramaturg: Jonathan Kalb
Casting: Deborah Brown
Production Stage Manager: Megan Schwarz Dickert
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachel Gross
General Manager: Michael Page
Press Representative: Blank Zidell & Associates
Choreographer: Brian Brooks
Directed by Simon Godwin

Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or www.tfana.org
Running Time: 2 Hours, 55 Minutes, one intermission

Closes: July 16, 2017

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Julius Caesar - Where Absolute Certainty Can Be Your Undoing


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Few plays are as consistently topical as William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Offering a forceful lesson on the perils of blind ambition, the show is being presented free in Central Park by The Public Theater. Unfortunately the show’s director, Oskar Eustis, at times falls victim to this same failing of not seeing the big picture in terms of what he has envisioned.

Julius Caesar (Gregg Henry) has, through his various military campaigns, become much beloved by the citizens of Rome. However, there are those in the Roman Senate, such as Cassius (John Douglas Thompson) and Brutus (Corey Stall) who fear Caesar has become too powerful of late. Especially when his increasing influence comes at the expense of the people and their legally elected representatives. Brutus in particular bemoaning the loss of the legitimacy of the Roman Republic to Caesar’s populist appeal.

Yet even as Brutus and others plot to stop Caesar's further rise, they fail to take into account the will of the very people they have pledged to save. For as the play makes quite clear, the masses are often less concerned with who is in power than what those in control can actually do for them. In an interesting bit of irony, it becomes clear that just as Caesar is so self-absorbed with his own status, so is Brutus unable to fathom how his actions against Caesar could be seen as anything less than honorable.

In keeping with the idea of making the show as timely as possible, Eustis has chosen to fashion Caesar in the image of President Donald Trump. Complete with red tie, yellow hair, a thin skin and a huge ego. Henry doing a more than passable job in the role while never becoming a full-on caricature. Although by using Trump, the production puts its main focus on the character of Julius Caesar, when it should instead be on Brutus. Brutus’ actions being the catalyst around which the play turns. He is also the most complex person in the play, and the one who undergoes the biggest internal transformation by show’s end.

The decision to portray Caesar's wife Calpurnia (Tina Benko) as First Lady Melania Trump works well enough in terms of hair, makeup and clothes - the show being done in modern dress - but falters when it has the actress try to emulate a Slovenian accent. The idea feels like a tired gimmick, with her speeches resulting in a distracting laughter from the audience. The practice also destroys the emotional effect of Calpurnia's speech warning her husband not to go to the Senate on the Ides of March.

The play also has a habit of relying too much on symbolism and not on the text itself. In a conformation sequence, the two sides take the form of riot police (the Roman security force) and a group of agitators (the Roman people) seemingly wanting to destroy the city. A scene where Roman security beats a poet (Yusef Bulos) senseless, feels eerily reminiscent of Rodney King. We also are treated to the sight of the agitators destroying the set, which has been festooned with images suggesting the United States government. It's as if Eustis is saying that in a corrupt society, the only option is to tear it down and start again. Certainly a point for discussion, but taken too far here to be truly effective.

The real star of this production is Elizabeth Marvel in the role of Marc Antony. She taking the character from a seemingly drunken fool to a welder of power in her own right. Her speech before the Roman people literally pulsates with venom and passion. The result being that she soon has the crowd in the palm of her hand. Brutus, who allows Antony to speak in the hope she would help cement his own cause, soon learns he has made a serious mistake. The public's continual shift of allegiance proving how people are all too often taken in by flowery speeches, rather than trying to understand the motive behind said words. This is also evident earlier on when Caesar and Antony stage a scene where she offers him a crown and he refuses it three times. Each refusal and subsequent offering bringing larger and larger cheers from the multitude.

Stoll is excellent as the conflicted Brutus. Someone who finds there is a steep price to pay for following the dictates of his conscience. He also taking to task those who do not follow his standards of right and wrong, be their friend or foe. Thompson presents a powerful Cassius. A realist and career politician, he is not about to see his personal power base usurped. Yet he is also wise enough to know he cannot succeed in his plans alone; doing all he can to entice others to join him.

The text has been heavily edited, and while it makes the evening move quickly, at bit more explanation would have added some additional depth. Though a line tossed in about Fifth Avenue provokes a bit of knowing laughter. David Rockwell's sets and Paul Tazewell's costumes also work very well here.

If there’s one thing Julius Caesar makes evident, it's how the more things change, the more human nature remains constant. There is certainly a lot to admire in this production, though the best of the show can be found in its individual parts, rather than the entire whole.

Featuring: Chris Myers (Flavius/Ligarius/Messala, Alexander Shaw (Carpenter/Artemidorus/Octavius' Servant), Natalie Woolams-Torres (Marullus), Michael Thatcher (Cobbler), Gregg Henry (Julius Caesar), Teagle F. Bougere (Casca), Tina Benko (Calpurnia), Elizabeth Marvel (Marc Anthony), Mayaa Boateng (Soothsayer), Corey Stoll (Brutus), John Douglas Thompson (Cassius), Edward James Hyland (Cicero/Popilius/Lena/Lepidus), Christopher Livingston (Cinna Titinius), Nick Selting (Lucius), Majran Neshat (Metellus Cimber), Eisa Davis (Decius), Motell Foster (Trebonius), Nikki M. James (Portia), Isabel Arraiza (Publius/Clitus), Yusef Bulos (Cinna the Poet), Robert Gilbert (Octavius) Tyler La Marr (Lucilius), Justin Walker White (Pindarus), Gideon McCarty (Company), Dash King (Company), Erick Betancourt (Company)

Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare
Scenic Design: David Rockwell
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Original Music and Soundscapes: Bray Poor
Hair, Wig & Makeup Design: Leah J. Lukas
Co-Fight Directors: Rick Sordelet & Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Production Stage Manager: Buzz Cohen
Stage Manager: Paul Vella
Fight Captain: Edward James Hyland
Directed by Oskar Eustis

The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
81st Street in Central Park
Admission: Free
Information: www.publictheater.org
Running Time: Two Hours, Five Minutes, no intermission

Closes: June 18, 2017

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Government Inspector - Looking Out For Number One Was Never This Much Fun


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Red Bull Theater forgoes any kind of subtlety and nuance in presenting The Government Inspector. Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Nikolai Gogol's 1836 work Revizor, the piece is a no-holds-barred satire of greed and corruption as told with the decorum of a Marx Brothers movie and a slight dash of Blazing Saddles.

For local officials in a provincial Russian town in 1836, padding one's pocket has long since become a matter of routine. There's the Judge (Tom Alan Robbins) who takes great pride in never taking money to decide a case - he takes bribes in the form of farm animals and game; the Hospital Director (Stephen DeRosa), who, after siphoning away much of the money earmarked for construction of a hospital, promotes the tiny structure actually built as a place for sick children; and the Postmaster (Arnie Burton) who makes it a habit of reading every bit of mail he receives before sending it on. Riding herd over this group of reprobates is Anton Antonovich (Michael McGrath), the town's oh-so-full-of-himself mayor.

However the gravy train these people have so long enjoyed is now threatened. There being news that a government inspector has arrived in the district. One tasked with ferreting out local corruption and reporting it to the central office. Hearing of newly-arrived stranger, one Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Michael Urie), Anton and the others conclude he is the inspector, and set about trying to win him over to their side. First with veiled speeches and later with outright bribery. All in an attempt to convince him to write a favorable report to his superiors.

As quickly made clear, Ivan is not a government inspector at all. Rather, he is a wastrel in his own right. A man with a rich pedigree, his love for the gaming tables serves to keep him in the poor house. This despite his many efforts to changes his ways. Ivan's protestations of his ill-fated luck, and his regular attempts to kill himself, looked upon with genial bemusement by his trusted servant Osip (Burton).

At first not sure of what to make of the sudden attention he is receiving, Ivan quickly determines to milk as much as he can from those vying for his favor - and to do it for as long as possible.

Subtle political satire this is not. Hatcher doing a great job in pulling the various messages from the Gogol text and presenting them in a situation quite connective to present day reality. In a particularly wise choice, any mention of the current political administration is avoided. The work instead offering a scathing overlook at the entire bureaucratic process in general. Including jabs at political, legal, educational and numerous other such institutions.

Also quite refreshingly, there is not a single redeeming character to be had in the entire play. Those inhabiting this realm either trying to better their fortunes at the expense of others, or letting themselves simply be carried along for the ride. Osip and Grusha (Mary Lou Rosato), a maid who works for the Mayor's family, falling into the latter category. 

If there’s any in The Government Inspector who are actually deserving of sympathy, it would have to be the shopkeepers and merchants of the village. Denizens of the lower working class and abused by the system for so long, they, like everybody else, buy into the theory of money spread around in the rights places as being the only answer. Especially when it comes to Urie’s government inspector. A person whom they hope will finally set things right.

Kudos to director Jesse Berger for helping to bring out a brilliant sense of comic timing from the company. From a bit of door slamming nonsense to the asides the different characters make as they try to puzzle out the situations in which they find themselves. Scenic designer Alexis Distler’s split-level set works nicely here, as do the enjoyable period costumes by Tilly Grimes.

Urie is great fun as Ivan. A hapless sad sack suddenly treated like royalty, he acts like a kid in a candy store with an unlimited amount of money to spend. All the while showing himself to be just as unethical as those around him. In a particularly hilarious scene, Ivan deliveries a speech filled with code words for the mayor's love-starved wife Anna, (Mary Testa), and her somewhat shrewish daughter Marya (Talene Monahon). Each of the ladies having their own particular plans for Ivan. Or so they believe.

McGrath is wonderful as the Mayor. He trying desperately to keep his personal fiefdom afloat, only to watch it become more and more a house of cards. Of his partners in crime, Burton steals the show as the preening Postmaster. Someone who thinks nothing of reading everybody’s mail, but god forbid he be ordered to speed up the postal delivery process. Burton also provides a generous helping of wry with his comments as Osip, Ivan’s seen-it-all servant. Monahon is nicely appealing as Marya. She being the closest thing to a sympathetic character the play has to offer. It also helps that she has an excellent rapport with Urie in their scenes together. Testa adds some nice comic touches as Anna.

A rollicking farce showing how the more things change, the more they stay the same - The Government Inspector also puts forth the reality of how one’s downfall is quite often by one’s own hand. Especially when one gets too big for their own britches.

Featuring: Michael Urie (Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov), Arnie Burton (Osip, The Postmaster), Michael McGrath (Anton Antonovich), Mary Testa (Anna Andreyevna), Talene Monahon (Marya Antonovna), Mary Lou Rosato (Grusha, The Locksmith’s Wife, The Waitress, Constable), Tom Alan Robbins (The Judge, Abdullin), David Manis (The School Principal, Pentelaeyev), Stephen DeRosa (The Hospital Director, Chernaeyev), Luis Moreno (Svetsunov, An Imperial Messenger), Ryan Garbayo (Bobchinsky), Ben Mehl (Dobchinsky), Kelly Hutchinson (The Corporal’s Widow, The Innkeeper’s Wife, Constable).

The Government Inspector
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher
From Revizor by Nikolai Gogol

Set Design: Alexis Distler
Costume Design: Tilly Grimes
Lighting Design: Megan Lang, Peter West
Sound Design & Original Musical: Greg Pliska
Hair & Wig Design: David Bova
Production Stage Manager: Hannah Woodward
Properties Master: Andrew Diaz
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Production Manager: Gary Levinson
Press: David Gersten & Associates
Casting: Stuart Howard
General Manager: Sherri Kotimsky
Managing Director: Jim Bredeson
Directed by Jesse Berger

Presented by Red Bull Theater at The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 646-223-3010 or www.dukeon42.org
Information: www.redbulltheater.com
Running Time: Two Hours, with one intermission

Closes: June 24, 2017

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Whirligig - Too many coincidences


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

A subtitle for The Whirligig, the new drama by Hamish Linklater, could very well be "Six Degrees of Separation Lite". Presented by The New Group and currently having its world premiere at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the work offers some fine acting and a rather intriguing narrative, but ultimately fails to deliver the necessary impact.

In a hospital in the Berkshires, a 23-year old woman named Julie (Grace Van Patten) is dying. Her body ravaged by years of drug use coupled with an untreated medical condition. Having reached the acceptance stage of her situation, Julie is far more able to face her impending death than are her parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells). One of the most poignant moments in the play occurs when Julie explains to her mom what it will be like for her when she's gone.

Julie’s suffering has caused Kristina to return to the home and family she left seven years earlier. Her marriage to Michael having broken up due to his excessive drinking and her own battle with chronic depression. It having taken Kristina several years to find the right medical “cocktail” to allow her to maintain a reasonable equilibrium.

Julie’s condition has also caused a bit of a stir in this relatively closed-knit community. Particularly among Derrick (Jonny Orsini), an ex-com and the brother of Patrick (Noah Bean), Julie’s doctor at the hospital. Derrick taking an unexpectedly deep and perhaps not-quite healthy interest in this woman. When Julie is sent home to die, Derrick takes to hiding in a nearby tree in order to peer into her room. Derrick soon joined there by Trish (Zosia Mamet), Julie's former best friend. Kristina having long since deemed Trish persona non grata, due to a major falling out.

There are numerous ways for this tale to unfold, particularly since Orsini adds some delightful comic touches to his performance. Thus making his character a sort of voyeuristic sad sack. Someone trying to get a glimpse into world where he does not belong. It also helps that he has good chemistry with Van Patten in their scenes together.

While Linklater has nicely set the stage by the end of the first act, including a powerful rant by Kristina about never getting to be a grandmother, things start to go off the rails shortly thereafter. With a good chunk of act two told in flashback, we see the circumstances which set Julie on the path to destruction. As well as being treated to glimpses of Michael and Kristina before they got their demons under relative control. However, knowing how the characters will turn out in advance takes away some of the emotional impact of the backstory. Even worse, there are times when the interconnections among the characters, for example Derrick and Patrick, stretch the credibility of the piece to its limits.

Linklater also commits the sin of telling, not showing what is going on with the characters in several key situations. Such as when it comes to Kristina and why she has previously been absent from her daughter's life.

Presenting a world where second chances are almost non-existent, The Whirligig offers a harsh lesson on reaping what you have sewn. Where the only chance to make things better is to put the past aside and move on. Something not always easy to do. A point brought devastatingly home via some alcoholic-induced wisdom by Mr. Cormeny (Jon Devries), an aging social studies teacher at the local high school. He replying to Kristina's question of whether it would have actually made a difference if she had been there for her daughter in the past.

Butz offers a strong blend of comedy and self-loathing as an actor turned teacher with a drinking problem. Wells is very good as someone trying to get her life back together, while still on tether hooks over how it will turn out. Alex Hurt is interesting as Trish’s husband, Greg. An unforgiving sort who sees things a certain way, he fails to understand why others don't have the same uncompromising moral viewpoint he does. He often being the straight man for the other characters' more outlandish behavior. Bean’s character is sadly underwritten throughout and only exists for plot purposes. Mamet resonates well as Julie, with some cute and deliberately awkward scenes with Orsini. Devries gets in some good lines as Cormeny.

Derek McLane’s sets, including a hospital room, local bar and the tree outside Julie’s home, are all strongly brought forth. Scott Elliott’s is good, but it’s hampered by too many explanations in the final scenes, which slow down the forward motion of the show.

Perhaps one day Mr. Linklater will go back and revisit this work. If so, it will certainly be interesting to see what he does. Indeed, Greg and Trish’s story could be a play unto itself. But for now, what’s on stage doesn’t come together when it counts the most.

Featuring: Noah Bean (Patrick), Norbert Leo Butz (Michael), Jon Devries (Mr. Cormeny), Alex Hurt (Greg), Zosia Mamet (Trish), Jonny Orsini (Derrick), Grace Van Patten (Julie), Dolly Wells (Kristina).

The Whirligig
by Hamish Linklater

Scene Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Original Music: Duncan Sheik
Special Effects Design: Jeremy Chernick
Fight Direction: UnkleDave's Fight-House
Production Stage Manager: Valeria A. Peterson
Casting: Judy Henderson: CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Kevin Condardo
Marketing Director: Cathy Popowytsch
Directed by Scott Elliott

Presented by The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd Street

Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.thenewgroup.com

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission

Closes: June 18, 2017



Friday, May 26, 2017

Arlington and Rooms - Studies of Isolation

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Playwright Enda Walsh examines those caught up in situations of oppression and loneliness with his works Arlington and Rooms. Vastly different in their presentation and execution, the two pieces nonetheless share many common elements.

In Rooms, a performance piece presented by the Irish Arts Center, the audience is led into a space containing three separate yet distinct areas. The cluttered bedroom of a six-year old child; the faded and musty-smelling hotel "Room 303"; and a long, narrow galley style kitchen. Said kitchen almost antiseptic in nature until one starts to look inside the cupboards and appliances. The audience getting the chance to ingest the particulars of each location while listening to the disembodied voices of those who were once the occupants.

In Arlington, set in a future time and done in a more traditional theatrical manner, a young woman named Isla (Charlie Murphy), has been alone in a locked room for over 20 years, and continually monitored for all that time. She spending her days in a never-altering routine, all the while hoping the number she was assigned will finally be called, thus signaling the end of her confinement. Or at least offering her the chance to go somewhere else.

On this particular day however, things are suddenly different. Starting with an unexpected burst of sound, followed by a strange voice coming over the loudspeaker. The voice belonging to a Young Man (Hugh O'Conor) who is Isla’s new observer. His task being to monitor her actions to the smallest detail via the microphones and surveillance cameras strategically placed about the room. Most importantly, his task is to keep Isla occupied so she won't have too much time to think about what's happening outside her area of confinement.

The irony here is that for the first time since Isla can remember, she's the one who’s in charge. She having been there so long, she knows exactly the path the conversation with her monitor is supposed to take. Her new keeper, for want of a better word, being too busily trying to acclimate to his position to take control. As a result, the two begin to connect on a level far more personal than Isla ever did with her previous observer. It also becomes quickly apparent that while the Young Man is monitoring Isla, someone else is monitoring him. As made clear by an ominous beeping. One which sounds whenever he strays too far from his pre-assigned duties.

Where the different spaces of Rooms are filled with minute details - from a model of the solar system on the ceiling of the child's bedroom; to a Gideon Bible in the hotel room; to broken dishes in the kitchen - Isla's space in Arlington has a completely antiseptic feel to it. Her room containing a plastic plant and chair, an empty fish tank - with water but no fish - and harsh white lighting. The attempt here being to empty the room of any personality whatsoever.

Tautly presented and fascinating to experience, the two plays focus on individual freedom, as seen through different points and circumstances in people's lives. Isla wants nothing more than to leave her prison, and the constant everyday repetition her life has become. Meanwhile, the now-grown woman who lived in the little girl's room once upon a time, would do anything to return there after being in the outside world for so long. In the kitchen, a housewife threatens to have a meltdown over how her life has turned out, but finds herself unable, or unwilling to change her circumstances. In "Room 303", after a long and checkered life, an aging man is dying alone. Yet he is not yet ready to close his eyes forever and give up the fight. Be his enemy time or a very persistent fly that keeps coming around.

In Rooms the choices one has made in life is up to each individual. In Arlington, that choice has been taken away entirely. Something Isla learns when she is unexpectedly afforded a glimpse of what is happening, and what has happened, beyond her enclosure. She seeing the effects of a society determined to protect people from themselves. The full explanation of this, when it comes, is devastating.

In the end, the only thing worth holding onto for any of the people presented is the belief that they matter. To themselves, if no one else. It is their continual attempts to reassure themselves of this fact which forms the crux of both pieces. Walsh also showing that perhaps the only true escape is through own dreams. It being the one place the harshness of reality cannot reach. At least not yet.

Murphy is excellent as Isla, a woman long since resigned to her situation, until circumstances beyond her control present her with a new outlook. O'Conor is very good as a man used to doing what he's told and not making waves, until the chance to observe Isla first-hand offers him new insights on what just what he's involved in.

The most compelling fact of all is that each of the characters presented - be they seen in the flesh or only heard - feel totally real. Walsh, who also handles the directing chores in Arlington, strongly combining the oppressiveness of the various situations with glimmers of hope. A hope which flickers brightly at some moments only to be harshly extinguished in others.
                                                                                                                        
Presenting varying viewpoints of an individual standing alone against the harshness that life and circumstances can bring, Arlington and Rooms show quite clearly that what ultimately matters is the spirit within.  Both shows will leave you thinking hard about what you’ve seen, which is just about the best thing a work of theatre can do.

Rooms
by Edna Walsh
"Room 303" (featuring the voice of Niall Buggy)
"A Girl's Bedroom" (featuring the voice of Charlie Murphy)
"Kitchen" (featuring the voice of Eileen Walsh)

Presented by the Irish Arts Center at Cybert Tire, site of the future home of the Irish Arts Center
726 11th Avenue (near 51st Street)

Originally presented at Galway International Arts Festival

Running Time: 50 Minutes
Closes, June 4, 2017

Arlington
Written and directed by Edna Walsh

Featuring: Charlie Murphy (Isla), Hugh O'Conor (Young Man), Oona Doherty (Young Woman), Eanna Breathnach, Olwen Fouéré. Helen Norton, Stephen Rae (Voices)

Choreographer: Emma Martin
Composer: Teho Teardo
Designer: Jamie Vartan
Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman
Sound Designer: Helen Atkinson
Video Designer: Jack Phelan
Associated Sound Designer: Joel Price

Presented at St. Ann's Warehouse
45 Water Street
Dumbo, Brooklyn
Tickets: 718-354-8779 or www.stannswarehouse.org
Running time, 90 minutes, no intermission
Closes May 28, 2017

Monday, May 15, 2017

Happy Days - Not Always Happy, But a Riveting Tale


Reviewed by Judd Hollander
 
Denial becomes a powerful weapon of survival in the Yale Repertory Theatre's production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. The show running through May 28 at Theatre for a New Audience.

The play opens with a woman named Winnie (Diane Wiest) buried up to her waist on the side of a mountain, apparently unable to get free. Nor does she seem to want to do so. This evident in how she has clearly prepared for her situation. Beside her is a large handbag containing such objects as a hair brush, comb, toothbrush, and a gun. This last object clearly having a special meaning for her.

Winnie's only companion is her husband Willie (Jarlath Conroy). A somewhat older man also buried on the mountainside, though he is able to emerge from his own confinement whenever he desires. Winnie's attitude towards her husband giving the audience an idea of the couple's relationship. One that may have been quite loving at one time, but, at least for Winnie, has since turned sour. She seldom passing up a chance to get in a verbal dig at her spouse. From her chiding to take care he doesn't get sunburn, to lecturing Willie on the proper way for him to get in and out of his own resting place, Winnie is often unrelenting in her stream of condescending comments. The irony of course, is that because of her own condition Winnie is now quite dependant on Willie for anything that requires movement farther away than what her arms can reach.

Yet despite Winnie's circumstances, she seems to be quite secure. She continually saying aloud what a happy day it is. A day where nothing has gone wrong and where there are absolutely no problems present. Though one must wonder if she actually means this or rather is trying to convince herself it is true. There's also the question of why she is buried on the hill, and what she waiting for there. These issues taking on a more urgent air when the curtain opens on act two with Winnie now buried up to her neck.

Beckett is famous for not providing easy answers in his plays, as well as forcing his characters to make decisions on their own; rather than having circumstances make it for them. Both premises are clearly in evidence here. Has Winnie given up on life and simply waiting for the elements to overwhelm her, or is there something more at work? At one point Winnie asks "is everybody dead?", begging the question if Winnie is one of the last, if not the last, survivor of some global catastrophe. Or is her isolation actually a metaphor for a terrible loneliness she feels? A loneliness arising from being trapped in the suffocating sameness of a life not fully lived, and where she has finally reached a point where she simply said, "enough".

Another interesting ritual Winnie undertakes is her daily practice of praying. With the underlying question being just what she is praying for.

Wiest is at the top of her game as Winnie, bringing the character fully to life in a tour-de-force performance. Despite the challenges of performing in an increasingly constrained position, she projects more than enough power and presence to pull it all. Her tones changing from matter-of-fact to despair to resignation throughout, yet always delivered with a strong impact. Conroy does well as the often unseen Willie. His role mostly a sounding board for Winnie's remarks and actions, but always offering another piece to the scenario that's being presented. Including a significant sequence which, like all the others, offers far more than just one possibility.

Scenic designer Izmir Ickbal's set of the mountain is wonderfully done. The overall effect, thanks also to the work of lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge and sound designer Kate Marvin feeling totally realistic. James Bundy's direction strongly guides the story, allowing the work of the various creative participants to seamlessly blend together to show a situation where nothing may be what it seems.
 
Masterfully done, this production of Happy Days presents a powerful a view of a woman in the middle of a very personal journey. Though where she's going and where she's been is a matter left up to every member of the audience.


Happy Days

by Samuel Beckett

Featuring: Diane Wiest (Winnie), Jarlath Conroy (Willie)

Scenic Designer: Izmir Ickbal
Costume Designer: Alexae Visel
Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound Designer: Kate Marvin
Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson
Movement Coach: Jessica Wolf
Dramaturgs: Catherine Sheehy, Nahuel Telleria
Casting: Tara Rubin Casting/Laura Schutzel, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Kelly Montgomery
Assistant Stage Manager: Helen Muller
Press Representative: Blake Zidell & Associates
General Manager: Michael Page

Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place

Tickets: 866-811-4111 or www.tfana.org
Running Time: 90 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: May 28, 2017