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
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
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

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

Closes: June 18, 2017