Sunday, November 27, 2016

White Rabbit Red Rabbit - A Tour-De-Force From Both Sides of the Script

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

You come into the Westside Theatre on a Monday evening and see a set consisting of a table, on which have been placed with two glasses of what appears to be water, and a chaise lounge. Next, the actor comes on stage and is handed the script by the producers. It is a script he (or she) has not read until that point. Then, we begin.

Such is the premise for White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a one-person show written by Nassim Soleimanpour. A native of Iran, he was forbidden to travel at the time he wrote the play and so sent it out into the world in his stead. By the time he was allowed to leave his homeland and see a production of this work, it had already been performed - according to the program notes - over 200 times in 15 different languages. White Rabbit Red Rabbit was also the first play Mr. Soleimanpour had written in English - a task which, he explains, was quite hard indeed.

More than a play, White Rabbit Red Rabbit can best be described as a sort of improvisational exercise and "get to know you better" interplay between the actor, the playwright and the audiences members. There were 153 people in the audience the night I saw the show; I personally being number 55. Said actor reading the lines aloud and following tips and scenarios provided by the unseen yet ever-present playwright. It's through this process that the actor and the audience begin to understand what the writer is attempting to do as he works on bringing all those present into the unfolding story.

How the evening actually comes off depends on the person performing the play. Alex Brightman - who recently finished a run in the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical School of Rock - doing the honors the night I attended. Mr. Brightman's strong sense of comedic timing serving him quite well here as he became several different characters during the course of the evening, while speaking both the words of the writer as well as his own. Brightman thus being given the chance to put his own spin on the presentation. He also introduced the audience to his father and his voice teacher. Both of whom were attending the performance that night.

In his script, Mr. Soleimanpour brings up some rather interesting points. Including the relationship of time as it measured in writing a play. He explaining that he is working on the piece at one moment in time, though when his words are actually read aloud, he may not have any idea just who is reading them; or when and where they are being read. Or if he will even be alive when they are spoken. Though the playwright does refer to an email address where people can contact him and comment on the show they have just seen.

Mr. Brightman, who became a footnote in the play's history as first person ever to get the job of performing the show after tweeting that he wanted to do it, certainly got into the spirit of the piece. He throwing himself, quite literally at times, into the various roles he assumed. He also got more than a bit of help from the audience, many of whom were involved at different points and capacities to help bring the work to its desired conclusion.

At the heart of White Rabbit Red Rabbit is a kind of experiment in regards to learned behavior, cause and effect, fear and desire and simulation of the same. These principles coming into focus as the play deals with issues of death, trust, and a core belief system. More than this cannot be revealed without going too deeply into the structure and nature of the work. Though after seeing it performed by one specific person, you can't help but wonder how it would look when performed by another actor with a totally different style; and whether the overall effect of the play would thus change when given a different interpretation.

An involving and in many ways an immersive experience, I found White Rabbit Red Rabbit to be funny, thought-provoking and quite insightful. As for what exactly the title means, and its overall significance in the story, you'll have to see the play yourselves to find out. Something which I strongly recommend you do as soon as possible.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit
Written by Nassim Soleimanpour

Stage Managers: Alexander Crawford & Logan Reed
General Manger: Cheryl Davis
Production Associate: Sally Cade Holmes
Press Representatives: Vivacity Media Group/Leslie Papa & Whitney Holden Gore
Advertising/Marketing: AKA
Social Media: TKP Digital Marketing

White Rabbit Red Rabbit was originally produced by Volcano Theatre in association with Necessary Angel and Wolfgang Hoffmann
Dramaturgy by Daniel Brooks and Ross Manson

A portion of the play's profits will go to PEN International, the world's leading association of writers working to promote literature and defend freedom of expression around the world.

Westside Theatre
407 West 43rd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: 65 minutes, no intermission

Currently Running on Monday nights

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dead Poets Society - A Moving Experience


It's a tough job to transfer an acclaimed movie to the stage, but playwright Tom Schulman gets it right with the stage version of Dead Poets Society, based on his 1989 film of the same name. With its core themes on the dangers of conformity, the work, now at Classic Stage Company, feels both current and timeless.

The story takes place in 1959 at the Weldon Academy A New England all-male prep school where the core values are tradition, honor, discipline and excellence. Though some of the students may be rather irrepressible, as Headmaster Paul Nolan (David Garrison) notes at one point, there is no doubt the boys will graduate squarely in the mold of those who have come before them. However, John Keating (Jason Sudeikis), the new English teacher, may have something to say about that. Keating, a former Weldon student, sees his job as not only to teach the facts and rules of romantic poetry and fiction, but also to get the boys to understand the emotions and images brought forth by such writings.

Keating's ultimate purpose is to help the boys become "free thinkers". Not so that they can deliberately go about railing against the establishment, but rather to find their own path for the future. Not one laid out for them from almost the time they were born. To his students, who at 16 years of age, are chafing inwardly from the restrictions society has placed on them, Mr. Keating's method of teaching is like a cool blast of fresh air.

It's not long before the boys begin to adapt some of these ideas into their own lives. Neil Perry (Thomas Mann) wants to forgo the medical career his parents long ago set out for him and become and actor, something his has long dreamed of doing. Knox Overstreet (William Hochman) is inspired to go after the girl of his dreams (Francesca Carpanini), even though she's "practically engaged" to a high school quarterback. Todd Anderson (Zane Pais) goes from a shy, stuttering lad to one who quite literally finds his own voice. As for Charlie Dalton (Cody Kostro), he takes Keating's message so to heart, he becomes a walking symbol of non-conformity, Insisting his fellow students call him "Nuwanda" and also sneaking an editorial into the school newspaper demanding Weldon go co-educational. Not surprisingly, there are those who object to the changes wrought by Keating's teachings. Such as Nolan, who warns Keating about his methods; and Neil's father (Stephen Barker Turner) who's determined to stop his son's foolishness before it gets out of hand.

As the play makes clear, while's it's almost instinctive to "run with the herd", it's also important to be able to stand out as an individual. These concepts are powerfully demonstrated when Keating puts the boys through a series of marching exercises where we see who tries to keep in step and who does not - and which members of the audience clap in time to the marching.

Hand in hand with this is the idea of "seizing the day" before life passes you by. A point explored when Keating has his class look a picture of students from decades past, all whom have basically been forgotten due to the passage of time. How many of us when we were younger didn't pass similar pictures of students in their own schools without giving them a second thought?

There are also several moments of irony tucked into the show. Such as when Neil's dad makes quite clear how much he and his wife have sacrificed to make life easier for their son. Yet they don't trust him enough to make his own decisions concerning his future. His father instead wanting him to follow the rules he lays out. Quite probably like Neil's father himself was made to do.

Sudeikis brilliantly steps into the role Robin Williams played on screen. Like Williams, Sudeikis keeps the character of Keating nicely low-key, showing him to be knowledgeable, intuitive and carrying a wonderful secret which he'll only share if asked. The actors playing the boys are all very good. Bubba Weiler and Yaron Lotan in addition to those mentioned above making up the balance of Keating's class. It would have been nice however, if some of the roles were expanded more fully. Schulman having the chance to add more scenes and situations to his story should he have chosen. Carpanini, Garrison and Turner also acquit themselves quite well in their sometimes brief, but always pivotal roles.

John Doyle's direction is good for the most part, moving the story nicely and conjuring up the various images that go with the different scenes. The only problem arises during some of the transitional moments. There not being enough differences when the scenes switch, such as from inside the classroom to the school grounds outside. An issue which could have been solved with better use of lighting and movement.

A powerful coming of age tale, Dead Poets Society looks back a time when the status quo ruled and change of any kind was seen as something to be beaten into submission. It's also one of the best plays to be presented anywhere on stage this year.

Featuring Zane Pais (Todd Anderson), Thomas Mann (Neil Perry), Cody Kostro (Charlie Dalton), Bubba Weiler Steven Meeks), William Hochman (Knox Overstreet), Yaron Lotan (Richard Cameron), David Garrison (Paul Nolan), Stephen Barker Turner (Mr. Perry), Jason Sudeikis (John Keating), Francesca Carpanini (Chris).
Dead Poets Society
by Tom Schulman
Based on the Touchstone Pictures motion picture written by Tom Schulman

Scenic Design: Scott Pask
Costume Design: Ann-Hould-Ward
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Sound Design: Matt Stine
Music: Jason Michael Webb
Associate Scenic Design: Orit Jacoby Carroll
Associate Costume Design: Christopher Vergara
Hair Design: J. Jared Janas
Production Stage Manager: Sarah Hall
Assistant Stage Manager: Melanie J. Lisby
Production Manager: Bethany Taylor
General Manager: John C. Hume
Casting: Telsey + Company, William Cantler, CSA, Karyn Casl, CSA
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by John Doyle

Dead Poets Society is presented by Special Arrangement with Adam Zotovich

Classic Stage Company
36 East 13 Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Closes December 18, 2016

Sunday, November 6, 2016

"Letters to a Man" - A Penetrating Look at a Psyche in Torment

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

An ever-changing landscape of the mind and one who is powerless to correct what is happening. These are some of the images, thoughts and feeling that come from the fascinating Letter to a Man. Presented by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson, the show recently finished a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival.

Russian dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) was, in his time, the most celebrated male dancer in the Western world, before falling victim to schizophrenia. Said condition, coming on towards the end of the World War I, and which would eventually lead to a more than two decade period of self-imposed isolation. The play is based on Nijinsky's diary which he wrote in 1919, shortly before his mental collapse completely overtook him. Baryshnikov portraying Nijinsky as he starts to emerge from his lengthy period of isolation toward the close of World War II.

Both Baryshnikov and Wilson - the two collaborated on the direction, as well as several other technical elements of the work - clearly know the story they want to tell. However, they have no intention of making it easy for the audience by providing them a road map for what is to follow. Traveling though the jumbled landscape of Nijinsky's mind, there is no clear straight line of story here; no liner or logical progression. Instead there are bits and pieces of information - faded guideposts, if you will - consisting of non-sequiturs coupled with elements of clarity. The audience thus left to make the connections as they try to follow the journey the piece takes them on.

It's a journey which takes the Nijinsky character through places both dark and vast, many of which offer the possibility of alternate meanings. Such as one scene taking place in what appears to be a Spartan room with a high barred window on one wall. A place which could suggests either a church or a prison. Another example of this continual uncertainty occurs during a scene where water is projected on a wall, containing images that are just enough out of focus to render them indistinct, yet clearly having some significance in the overall picture.

If there is one constant running throughout, it's how the small the character Baryshnikov portrays consistently appears when compared to the rest of the staging. Whether clad in a tuxedo and prancing about to show music; wearing suspenders, his body altered to look fat and old; being completely in shadow while moving gracefully about an almost empty stage; sitting in a chair while in a straitjacket or appearing upside down, everything we see seems deliberately arranged to dwarf the character.

The separate sequences are often accompanied by various words and phrases, ones usually repeated more than once. One particular word that keeps coming up in this fashion is "suffocation". Referring, one assumes, to what Nijinsky himself was feeling during his periods of mental struggle. On the other side of the coin, the audience hears specific sentences that are indeed grounded in reality while also tinged with a sense of humor. Such as Nijinsky equating war to fights with his mother-in-law, or his love of lunatics as they are easier to understand. Nijinsky's own name is continually repeated - and often coupled with the terms "God" and "Christ", yet just as often standing on its own as if continually asserting his own sense of identity.

Just as the play's sights and sounds (the latter including a child's laughter and gunshots) deliberately jumble time and linear progression, so too it is with the music used. Tunes such as Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave," sounding like a scratchy 78 RPM recording; Stephen Foster's "De Camptown Races" and Napoleon XIV's "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaaa" all figuring into the story presented. Other music styles presented include jazz, blues and a few with some rather gothic overtones.

Another interesting point is that Baryshnikov and Wilson never allow the Nijinsky character to come across as fully human. Rather Baryshnikov portrays him to be somewhat garish, almost a caricature - some movements and vocal tones calling to mind Joel's Grey's portrayal of the MC in Cabaret - a man hiding behind a facade. Baryshnikov does a great job with the role, making him fascinating to watch throughout. This total comment to bringing this story to life is also present throughout the work of Wilson and the rest of the creative team. All of whom work together in perfect unison to ensure the work has maximum impact.

Offering a very interesting subject matter and told in a way that requires the audience to think about what they're seeing, Letter to a Man makes for quite a satisfying experience.

Letter to a Man
Direction, set design and lighting concept by Robert Wilson with Mikhail Baryshnikov
Based on the diary of Vaslav Nijinsky
Text by Christian Dumais-Lvowski
Dramaturgy by Darryl Pinckney
Music by Hal Willner
Costumes by Jacques Reynaud
Collaboration to movements and spoken text by Lucinda Childs
Lighting Design by A.J. Weissbard
Associate Set Design by Annick Lavillée-Benny
Set design by Nick Sagar and Ella Wahlstrõm
Video Design by Tomek Jeziorski

Presented at The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater as part of the BAM "Next Wave Festival"

Closed: October 30, 2016